By the time I found my way to the armory to meet Captain Burns, I wanted to throw up from nerves. I knew I was going to make a fool of myself, and I was afraid everyone in Tiernan would finally realize that they were putting their faith in the wrong person.
Captain Burns spotted me and nodded. "Ready to get to work?"
"Probably not, but let’s get this over with anyway."
I bit down hard on my lip as he pushed open the heavy iron door of the squat stone building, knowing that I was about to be mortified in every possible sense of the word. I could practically smell my impending humiliation on the cool, dry, musky air drifting out of the armory.
I heard the now-familiar noise of a dagger striking flint and light flared within. Captain Burns stuck his head out of the doorway and waved me in with his free hand. As I stepped inside, he moved further into the solid stone antechamber, lighting torches in their brackets as he went. I followed, studying the way the light reflected off the gleaming bronze and steel of the weapons. Some were inlaid with precious metals and gemstones.
I studied them with my hands behind my back, afraid I’d knock something over if I relaxed. I nodded toward a rapier with a golden hilt and hand guard, both inset with pearls. "Fancy."
Burns chuckled and nodded. "Indeed. Dwarves were quite fond of shiny things. Now, what do you know about weapons?"
"Probably not as much as I should, but more than you’d think. I once dated a guy who was really into collecting weapons. I also did a history project on siege weapons once. I know the differences between a rapier, saber, short sword, long sword, bastard sword, and a claymore. I know the differences between crossbows, short bows, long bows, recurved composite bows, and compound bows. I know the differences between clubs, maces, and morningstars. I know about ballistae, catapults, and trebuchets. I know about using oil and flame against one’s enemies. I know a little bit about explosives. I understand them all from a purely academic point of view, though. I’ve never put any of them to practical use. My ex tried to teach me sword techniques via sparring with bamboo swords. That didn’t really work out all that well. Every time he started coming toward me, I just ended up throwing the sword at him and running like hell. He stopped trying to teach me anything about sword fighting after about the third time I threw it and hit him in his...uh...manhood."
Burns threw his head back and laughed. There was nothing malicious about it. It was genuine mirth, and it changed his entire demeanor. He ended up bent over double, gasping for breath. "That is, perhaps, the most delightful thing I’ve ever heard. It certainly gives us a starting point to work from. Perhaps we can harness that instinct to throw things at your enemies. I’ll see about throwing knives, and perhaps a pair of throwing axes. However, before we see to your weapons, we’ll have to you into some armor."
"Okay. Let’s do it." I swallowed convulsively and tried to hide my nervousness.
"Follow me." Burns strode ahead, lighting torches as we went, and I realized that the floor had a slight slope to it.
"Another cave," I asked, feeling just a little claustrophobic.
"Indeed. The dwarves were fond of those, too." He continued down the carved-out hall and I followed
The deeper we went, the taller and wider the armory became, until I realized the cut stone had joined with a natural cavern. Every stalagmite had been carved so that it held glittering weapons that captured the eye with their overwhelming beauty.
“Man, you were right about the dwarves liking shiny things. These weapons are exquisite. If they are as functional as they are beautiful, Sigrid’s forces could have a big problem on their hands.”
Captain Burns turned and smiled at me. “I like the way you think, girl.”
He dipped his torch into a trough that instantly flared up. Flames rushed across its surface, shedding light throughout the cavern. I grinned. “I knew the dwarves were brilliant. They, of course, recognized the value of oil. For these troughs of fire to really work on a long-term basis, they must have drilled down and hit a natural well of oil that feeds this fountain of flames.”
Burns nodded and smiled a broad, genuine smile. “You know, when you first arrived here, I had very little respect for you. That was a mistake..”
I returned his smile and studied the room carefully. “It must have taken an event of immense magnitude to make the dwarves leave a cache of weapons like this behind.”
“ Most people just accept that the dwarves simply disappeared, sailed off the edge of the world and all died in one fell swoop. I’m inclined to disagree. I think they left. I don’t think the world even has an edge.”
“Oh, thank God, finally another person that has some sense. They must have found some other land mass and chosen to live there. Otherwise, they would have come back here. They would have come back to these glorious weapons. They wouldn’t have left a treasure like this behind if they hadn’t found something more suited to their needs elsewhere. Now, let’s see. There must be enough weapons in this cache to arm every single man, woman, and child in this fortress. What about armor?”
Burns clapped me on the shoulder and gave it a proud squeeze. “You’re a very smart girl, indeed. Unfortunately, the cache of armor is much more depleted than the stores of weapons. There’s another problem with it, too. All the armor we’ve found seems to have been crafted especially for dwarven women.”
“Well, then, we’ll need to see that all the women in this fortress receive armor. They’ll need it if Sigrid’s forces somehow manage to breach the walls.”
“Agreed, but what about armor for the men? The mines are full of precious metal, but we only have two blacksmiths. There’s no way the two of them can produce enough armor for all the men and children in that amount of time.”
“Lucky for you, I know a special trick courtesy of Alexander the Great. Production time on Linothorax is much faster than on metal armor. I can teach the women of this fortress how to produce it, and with a force that big, we can easily produce enough armor for the men and children in time. The smiths would need only to make metal helmets for everyone, and even those would be lined with Linothorax.”
Burns crossed his arms and studied me with a whole new level of respect. “What, exactly, is this Linothorax?”
“To make linothorax for this many people, you’ll need a LOT of linen and a LOT of glue. You lay out the linen to make a breastplate, although I have ideas on how to tailor the Linothorax to each person to make it easier for them to move, and you cover that layer in glue. Then, you lay another layer of linen on top of that one and press it together. You repeat this process until the linothorax is thick enough to protect your troops from any serious arrow wounds.”
“Linothorax can stop arrows?” Burns stared at me in disbelief.
“Well enough that any arrow that strikes it will only cause minor damage to your troops. A few sticks here and there, but the arrows won’t be able to embed themselves in the men’s bodies as they might if you didn’t have it.”
Burns nodded. "Okay, good. Now, what was the idea you had for how to better tailor the linothorax to each person so they can move better?”
“You take plaster casts of all the vital areas, probably just the torso and back to create a mold. Then, you lay the linen out in the mold, cover it with the glue and add another layer of linen and glue. When they’re fully dried, you pry them out of the molds. Then, you build up the linothorax to the thickness you need, but working outward so the armor still fits well. Things like greaves and bracers wouldn’t have to be tailored. They can be produced from a simple pattern and made adjustable with leather straps. We need to distribute the weapons wisely, too. Each person comes in and takes the ONE weapon they’re best with. Those who won’t be fighting on the front lines only get one weapon to defend themselves with, should Sigrid’s forces manage to reach the caverns where those who cannot fight will be. Then, if there are any weapons left over, those who will be fighting on the front lines get to choose a secondary weapon to work with.”
Burns pulled me into a startlingly fierce hug. “You may actually be the most brilliant person I’ve ever met. We’ll have to get started immediately to have any hope of getting this done in time. I’ll take this plan to Rolf as soon as we’ve found you some armor. I’ll have Kieran come in and do weapons training with you until we figure out what weapons you’ll need.”
I nodded, a grim smile pulling at my lips. “Sounds good. Once I’m done with that for the day, I’ll need to talk to you, Rolf, and the blacksmiths about some defensive strategies that will slow Sigrid’s forces down, at the very least.”
Burns hugged me again, and an awkward blush bloomed on my cheeks. I hadn’t believed he was capable of such positive emotions when we’d first met. “I knew you couldn’t be as inept as you seemed. You’re going to save us. I’m sure of it,” he whispered. “Now, let’s see about that armor.”
“You do realize I’ve never worn armor before? I don’t know how to move in it, and I’m not in the best physical condition I could be in, either. I’m bound to move slowly if I’m encumbered.”
Burns patted me on the arm as he led me to the stockpile of armor. “No worries, dearie. You were correct when you said that the dwarves were brilliant. They were, by far, the most advanced race of people in Daraglathia before they left.”
I nodded. “I hate to get sidetracked while we’ve got important things to do, but I’d really like to know what made the dwarves leave? I mean...it had to be something huge.”
Burns nodded. “I don’t suppose it would hurt anything for you to know, especially since you seem to have a greater respect for them than the uneducated masses. I believe that the dwarves left for two reasons. First, they were the most exploited and underrated race in Daraglathia. Their workmanship was beyond compare, as was their collective intelligence. They invented many great things but were still treated as inferior because they did not possess magic, as elves did.”
“What about humans,” I interrupted. “Can’t they do magic, too?”
Burns held up a hand to still my questions. “I’ll get to that, child. All the great cities of Daraglathia were built by the dwarves, and they were rarely well compensated for it. They had solid enough alliances with the elven lords throughout Daraglathia, but others came from the outlying islands, elves that every lord in Daraglathia feared.
“The Litlilinmax elves, although highly intelligent, reveled in violence, often making blood sacrifices to appease one patron god or another. They were also greedy people and did not hesitate to take what they wanted by force. They were tall, bronze-skinned warriors, all with hair the color of pitch. Ritual scarring and tattoos covered them from head to foot, as if they didn’t already look fierce enough.
“As many had, they heard rumors of the great treasures the Dwarves hoarded in their strongholds, and their leader decided that they should take it from the ‘small ones,’ as he called them. Many Daraglathian lords refused to honor their allegiance with the dwarves for fear that the Litlilinmax would slaughter their own people if they dared interfere.
“The dwarves were left unprotected, and the only lord who sent troops to help them was King Belen, Sigrid’s father. This place, MacTiernan’s hold, was the seat of the dwarven empire. The Litlilinmax marched up from the south, leaving crimson rivers in their wake. They were prone to pillaging and raping and had no concern for common decency.
“When the invading horde finally made it here, they were expecting to find seas of jewels and precious metals inside the mountain. While the majority of the force attacked from the front, a smaller party had been dispatched to the other side of the mountain days earlier to see if they could, by some miracle, find a back way in through the dwarves’ clever defenses. They did.
“Until that day, the inhabitants of Daraglathia had generally assumed two things about dwarven women. The first was that they didn’t exist, and dwarves simply sprang from the rocks of the mountains. The second theory was that dwarven women looked exactly like dwarven men and that one wouldn’t be able to distinguish the sexes upon seeing a dwarf. Both theories were wrong.
“The treasure that the dwarves hoarded and guarded so jealously, and with such dogged ferocity, was their women. The infiltrators were enraged, at first, not to have found any physical spoils that they could take back to their warlord chief. Then, they came upon the dwarven women. They were so dazzlingly beautiful, as beautiful as any elven woman could ever claim to be, that the Litlilinmax chose to take them, instead.
“They kidnapped every last dwarven woman in MacTiernan’s hold and defiled them repeatedly. The women took it for a while, just long enough to fool their captors into relaxing. Three of the imprisoned women; Lady Seònaid the Wise, Lady Aifric the Bold, and Lady Morven the Fell, seduced the guards that had been holding them. They stole the guards’ weapons, slaughtered them, and freed the other women. Thirty stayed behind and followed Seònaid, Aifric, and Morven to a hard-fought, bloody victory against their captors.
“They murdered every last Litlilinmax man in the detachment that had taken them, scalped them, and returned to MacTiernan’s hold. They were bestowed with highest honors by King MacTiernan, especially Seònaid, Aifric, and Morven. MacTiernan made Morven his queen, and after taking a small amount of time to regroup, the dwarves set out on a mission of vengeance against the Litlilinmax. By the time they were through, not a single one of the black-haired elves remained alive. They returned here after their victory, and MacTiernan declared that any being with black hair that dared set foot on dwarven lands was to be slaughtered on sight.
“Every single dwarven woman who’d been taken by the Litlilinmax found herself with child. MacTiernan wanted every hybrid child slaughtered, but Morven herself begged him to let the innocent babies live, and he agreed with one condition. Any offspring born with black hair would be slaughtered. Very few inherited their fathers’ black hair, and that is how the race of men came to exist. They are a hybrid species created by the interbreeding of elves and dwarves.
“After the hybrids were born, most of the dwarven men felt that there was no reason to stay in Daraglathia. They forced their wives to leave the babes with elven families, and Belen saw to it that every child was placed. Once the women knew that their babies would be safe and fed, they agreed to go with their husbands to find a place to start over.
“So, they sailed away, never to be seen again. Belen spread the rumor that they sailed off the edge of the world, and no one’s ever bothered to follow them.”
I had been staring open-mouthed at him for the majority of his explanation, and my head was spinning. “Wait. Hold on just a minute. You’re telling me that humans only exist because they are a hybrid of dwarves and elves? I swear I could feel Tolkien rolling over in his grave while you were telling me that.”
“Never mind. It would take far too long to explain such a wonderful, brilliant man.” I smiled, then, and Burns studied me carefully.
“I see that you hold him in high esteem, whoever he is.”
“Let’s just say that he made a very lonely childhood into a bearable one.”
Burns clasped my shoulder and shook his head. “I just realized that I know very little about you, child.”
I gave the rough hand on my shoulder a tender squeeze. “I’m not all that important right now, Captain. What’s important is trying to find a way to defend the people of Tiernan and make it through whatever Sigrid is bringing down on us with minimal casualties.”
“Right, then. Let’s get you into some armor and call Kieran down so he can train you while I take what we’ve discussed and put it before Rolf.”
He led me into a smaller cavern and, once again, lit a trough of oil with his torch. There were only about a hundred suits of armor, and each obviously made for a woman’s form. “Have someone start bringing the women down to choose their armor after you talk to Rolf. I hope we can find a suit for each of them.”
Burns nodded. “I’m sure we can. There are only about sixty women in the fortress, not counting you.” He paced around the room, sizing up each beautifully crafted suit of armor, and I shuffled along in his wake, marveling at them as we went. We had circled the cavern twice before he stopped in front of a smallish suit of armor.
I couldn’t help staring at it. It looked like someone had managed to solidify quicksilver and inlaid it with gold and emeralds that created a very attractive image of a tree on the breastplate. “It’s beautiful,” I breathed.
“It was Lady Seònaid’s armor. I think it will do quite well for you. Let’s get you into it, then.” He assessed my clothing and smiled. “Although I find it strange, I’m glad you’re wearing britches. It’ll make the armor a bit more comfortable, and make you less clumsy than you would be in a dress.”
I laughed aloud. “Is it that obvious that I can barely walk without tripping over my own feet?”
His face reddened, and he shook his head. “That’s not what I meant, at all.”
“I knew what you meant,” I grinned. “I was only teasing you.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “You have an astonishing capacity for mischief.”
“That’s what my family always told me.” I couldn’t hide the pained look that flashed across my face, and he sighed.
“Do you miss them very much?”
“Yes, I do.” I hugged myself momentarily, trying not to cave to the tsunami of sadness rushing through me. Captain Burns startled me yet again when he pulled me into a hug and stroked my hair, just like Grandpa Alex used to. Tears leaked down my face against my will and I bit my lip to keep myself from sobbing aloud.
“Shh. Hush, dearie. It’s all right. I’m sure your family is missing you, too, and we’ll find a way to get you back to them when this mess with Sigrid is over.”
I nodded against his chest. “Thank you, Captain.”
“I had a daughter, once,” he mused, almost to himself, still stroking my hair in that soothing manner that only men who know what it really means to be a father can manage. “You don’t look at all similar, but you remind me of her.”
“Is she,” I choked on my question, unable to get it out.
“Dead? Yes. She died in childbirth, and the baby was stillborn. They were the only family I had left.” He trailed off, and I squeezed him in a tight hug, trying to hold back the pain I’d heard in his voice.
“You know,” he murmured, “If you ever decide that you want to talk to someone about your family, I’d be honored to be at your disposal.”
Still choked up, I could do nothing but nod, and he hugged me back. “Are you ready to try on the armor, dearie?”
I grimaced and stepped back. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”