For the first time since the elves had come to Caves of Steel, Elara felt content. She had stripped down to a light tunic, leaving arms and legs bare. A heavy leather apron protected her body from sparks. Scars on her arms bore mute testimony to many burns from previous forgings.
She reheated the steel in the forge then drew it and began hammering. Folding, reshaping, she watched as its form shifted. The anguish of the steel’s voice softened, replaced with echoes of relief. A ladle. The steel wanted very much to be a ladle.
Elara did not know how much time passed before a hand touched her shoulder.
“Highness? It is time to dress.” Oridan stood at her side.
“But…” Elara blinked sweat away from her eyes. She found a rag and wiped it over her face.
“It is time and past time.” Oridan held a hand out toward the door of the smithy. “You must dress for the reception.”
Oridan scowled and shook his head. “And before that, you must bathe. You cannot greet our guests covered in soot and the smell of ash.”
“Fire and ash is a clean smell,” Elara said, “an honest smell.”
Oridan shrugged. “As you wish, Highness. It is, nevertheless, an inappropriate smell for nobles and dignitaries of those with whom we hope to ally.”
Elara sighed and picked the half-formed ladle up with tongs. She dunked it into the quenching trough. Steam rose from the water. After the water stopped bubbling she continued to hold the ladle in the water to cool it enough to touch. Once she was satisfied that it had cooled enough she withdrew it and took it into her hand. She hung the tongs on their hook by the forge.
Oridan glanced down at the partially-finished ladle in Elara’s hand. “You don’t need to…”
“It is mine,” Elara said. “I will not have the steel-deaf smith trying to turn it into something for which the steel is unsuited. If I cannot be happy myself, I can at least make the steel happy.”
Oridan sighed. “As you wish, Highness.” He held out a hand. “This way.”
“I know the way to my rooms, Oridan.”
Elara shook her head and pushed past him. Oridan fell in at her side. As she left the smithy the two guards, who had at least had the courtesy to wait outside while she worked, joined them.
Guards, Elara thought, to protect her. They served as well to keep her imprisoned in this place.
“Prince Farian of Lariendel will be first at the reception tonight. He is the second son of King Torien.”
Elara started. She had not noted Oridan talking.
“Prince Farian,” Elara said. “Lariendel. And they are?”
“They are seafarers. Their ships are the swiftest on the Easterern Sea. They deal in fish and fish oils. They also make pearl jewelry of surpassing loveliness.”
“After Prince Farian, you will greet Lord Emborian, of the Dragon Isles. He is the third son of Reigning Duke Valles.”
“Another seafaring nation?” Elara tried to keep the sneer from her voice.
“Of necessity. They are an island nation. Mostly, they mine gems on the flanks of their islands. They are not skilled jewelers, so they sell the gems to others for crafting.”
“Colored stones.” Elara rolled her eyes. “Third son. Second son. This is who they send to the Greenwood’s court?”
Oridan shrugged. “They are unlikely to inherit their father’s lands, but marriage with one will cement an alliance which can strengthen us in our wars with the orcs.”
Elara pressed her lips together to forestall the words that sprang to her lips. After a moment, she felt safe to speak. “Continue.”
Oridan droned on, naming the various guests to the reception.
“Finally, there is Corden.” Oridan stopped at the door to Elara’s suite of rooms. “First son of Boredan, Lord of Thorgrim’s Reach. It is a small land south of here.”
The disgust in Oridan’s tone caused Elara to pause and look up at him.
“You do not like this Corden?”
“Thorgrim’s Reach has refused our offers of protection against the orcs. They prefer to remain, as they call it, neutral.”
“They don’t want to be involved in our wars? Perhaps that is wise of them.”
“You cannot trust orcs,” Oridan said. “They will pretend to honor any treaties or any professions of neutrality, and then strike when it suits them. Thorgrim’s Reach may be a small land but it’s rich, with fertile fields and productive mines of ore. Once the orcs take it they will be that much stronger.”
“I see, Regent. Thank you. I must now prepare. You will send an escort to the reception at the appropriate time?”
Oridan bowed. “As my queen commands.”
Elara nodded, then backed through the door. Once the door closed on Oridan and the two guards she sighed.
“Your queen? Your prisoner, you mean.”
Elara turned to see elf maid, Tanya, who posed as her chief servant standing, wringing her hands. Elara forced a smile.
“Forgive me my…frustrations.”
Tanya curtsied. “There is nothing to forgive, Highness. How may I serve you?”
Elara sighed again. “I must prepare for this reception so…”
“A bath has been drawn. If Your Highness will come this way?”
Elara smiled. “Of course, Tanya.”
Elara followed Tanya deeper into the suite. As they passed through the bedroom Elara paused a moment to caress the hilt of the orc sword racked across the headboard of her bed. She had forged that sword, her first, and gifted it to Buck Tooth in token of her devotion.
Elara fought back the tears. Buck Tooth was dead, as were all the other orcs of Caves of Steel Clan. This sword was all she could carry away, all the elves had let her carry away.
Tanya stood watching Elara. When her eyes met Elara’s she bowed her head.
“Highness? Are you well?”
“It is nothing, Tanya. Please, lead on.”
Tanya bowed and opened the door to the bathing room. Two other maids emerged from the room and approached Elara.
Standing compliant, her face schooled to expressionlessness, Elara allowed Tanya and the two other maids to undress her. She frowned as one of the maids, a new one she had not seen before, tut tutted over Elara’s waist. Although Elara did not have the stoutness of a hard working, and therefore well-fed orc, these elves seemed to prefer reed thinness. The other maid, Berani by name, wore her habitual scowl as she considered the thick cords of muscle that roped Elara’s arms and shoulders, the result of long hours over the forge in addition to drilling with orc weapons.
Only Tanya seemed unmoved by Elara’s failure to meet elf standards of beauty.
Steaming hot water filled the bathing pool. Elara entered and sat on the carved marble bench. Her maids once more converged on her. They washed body her with perfumed soap that stung in the fresh burns that sparks from the forge had left on her arms. More perfumed soaps and fragrant oils anointed her hair.
As last, Elara emerged from the bath and the maids dried her with soft towels.
Not content with simply bathing her, Elara’s maids began the process of dressing her for the reception. She gasped as Berani placed a wide strip of heavy cloth around Elara’s waist and began cinching up the laces.
“I can’t breathe,” Elara ground out through clenched teeth.
“If you can speak, you can breathe,” Berani said. “Many people of import will be present. You must be presentable.”
“I…can’t…breathe.” Elara reached for the laces but Berani smacked her hand away.
“Now, now, Highness. Propriety must be observed.” Berani gave the laces one final tug, then deftly tied them off.
With the tugging finished, Elara found that she could indeed breathe, albeit only shallowly from the very top of her chest.
Tanya held a long, split skirt for her of rich green fabric. At least Elara would be able to walk in that and the elves did not appear to mind how much of her leg and thigh showed when she walked thus.
The new maid held a tunic of slightly lighter green, one with puffed sleeves, perhaps designed to disguise the shape of Elara’s arms and shoulders. Elaborate embroidery of gold thread, highlighted with tiny multi-colored gemstones decorated both skirt and tunic. So attired, no one would doubt that she was a person of wealth and importance.
Elara allowed first Tanya, then the new maid to help her into her clothes.
As the new maid adjusted the hem of Elara’s tunic, Elara looked down at her.
“Shirabeth, if you please, Your Highness.”
“I suppose that is your name whether I please or not.” Elara gritted her teeth then nodded once. “Thank you.”
As Berani started to approach with the next part of Elara’s attire, Elara held up a hand to forestall her. She looked Shirabeth up and down.
“Shirabeth? That is not an elvish name. And there is something different about you.”
“My mother was human.” Shirabeth ducked her head, as though in shame. “As a half, I was able to choose which heritage to follow. I chose elf but my father’s kin would have naught to do with me. So…”
“A lady in waiting to the queen is a position of high honor,” Tanya said by way of explanation. “Even without the support of family, she should be able to make a good marriage in time.”
“I see.” Elara shook her head. The ways of elves were so strange. It was like they were all wrapped about in chains, chains they could not see, chains they did not even know bound them. She let the thought slide from her mind as Tanya made final adjustments to the fall of Elara’s tunic.
Once the skirt and tunic settled over Elara’s frame to suit her three maids, Berani produced a long silk scarf of brilliant scarlet and began to wind it around Elara’s waist. This, at least, Berani did not pull tightly, not like the torture device Elara wore under the tunic. Berani knotted the scarf over Elara’s left hip allowing the two ends to hang down over the slit in the skirt.
While Berani worked on the scarf, Shirabeth took a brush to Elara’s hair. Elara had kept her hair short in the caves. Long hair could be a hazard working with steel. She had not been among the elves long enough for her hair to grow much. Shirabeth sighed in frustration as Elara’s hair refused to conform to her dictates, forming instead a halo around Elara’s head.
“Let it be, Shirabeth.” Tanya approached holding something in her hands that Elara could not see.
“But–” Shirabeth gave the brush one more tug in Elara’s hair. “–the fashion is…”
Tanya laughed. “She is the queen. If she wears her hair in a cloud about her head, then that will be the fashion. Do not doubt it.”
Elara gritted her teeth. Fashion? Strong arms and a spirit willing to work, that was what mattered, not this colored drapery.
Tanya knelt at Elara’s feet and slipped the object in her hand into the silk sash about Elara’s waist.
“This, too, is not fashion,” Tanya said. “But it suits you in its way.”
Elara looked down at what Tanya had given her. A dagger, a little one scarce more than a toy. Silver sheath, hilts and grip encrusted with tiny gems that sparkled in all the colors of the rainbow. Elara took the grip in hand and slowly drew forth the blade.
Steel. Good steel. More, steel that was happy to be a blade. Elara did not know if mere chance produced that result or if someone among the elves could hear the voice of the steel. She did not think so. The Shaman had told her, many times, that steel was the gift of orcs and of dwarfs. Magic was given to elves. And to humans were given numbers; they were so very many.
“Thank you,” Elara said, then caught herself before more words could tumble unbidden from her lips. These three were the enemy. They were elves, the people who had destroyed her home and family. They would die, along with all the others…
…when the time was right.