In the end, the remaining Wolfbrood refused to surrender; to the last man, they died with curses on their lips and blood on their muzzles. Runners were dispatched from the city within an hour, seeking supplies to prevent the hold of lycantheropy on the wounded.
The Rabble’s attempts to identify and speak to Levie were complicated by her successful escape. When asked who she was, the half-elf had yelled, “Behold!” before vanishing in a cloud of inky mist which would, on later examination, prove to be some manner of pressurized paint.
“I thought war was supposed to be more…I don’t know, destructive?” Anastasia commented, as she made the rounds of the city with Aisling.
“It is,” the Scarlet Princess agreed. “This wasn’t war. This was a gang conflict. Jasmine never stopped being a Mourner. I suppose I didn’t either.” Aisling frowned. “…We’re gonna need better than these parlor tricks for a real war. I wonder where I can get some decent advice on that.”
“Sir Tromar would know. And Duke, I think,” the paladin added. “You think a real war is likely?”
“I think I’d rather be prepped for one and not have to fight it than wake up one morning surrounded by orcs and realize we left our defenses in our other coat pocket.”
“You’re not wrong,” Anastasia agreed. “So…what happens now?”
“What do you – oh, right, the paladins. Gods. You know, I’d forgotten?”
“I believe it.”
* * * *
Kestrel was found, eventually, stripped of all but her pride and chained to a tree branch. The Wolfbrood hadn’t taken her equipment with them, but they had stopped to scatter it all through the forest, and curing her nudity took far longer than the Ragged Angel would have liked. She made her way back into the city and found her sister sweeping up shattered cobblestones in the town square with Anastasia.
“Heard you had a party last night,” Aisling said by way of greeting. Kestrel rolled her eyes.
“You gonna be okay?” she asked. The Scarlet Princess shrugged.
“As okay as I can be. I’m…it’s good they didn’t kill you while you were down.”
An awkward silence descended between the pair, broken up by the rustle of stiff bristles and the clattering of stone-on-stone.
“I should probably leave you to it,” Kestrel said at last, her voice soft. “I have projects in Asheholm that won’t wait forever, and…I mean. I know you’d rather I wasn’t here.”
“Good. Get the fuck out of my city.” Kestrel sighed and spread her wings, only to stop when she heard Aisling’s voice continue. “And Kes?” The Ragged Angel gave her sister a curious look. “You’ve got a dinner reservation at the Racket in a year and a day. If you’re late I’ll stab you so hard our ancestors will feel it.”
Kestrel’s eyes lit up, and she smiled shyly. “Sure thing. If you can catch me.”
The Ragged Angel took off with a mighty beat of her wings. On the ground below, Anastasia whapped Aisling on the head with her broom handle.
“You’re allowed to just like people, ass,” the paladin chided.
“I dunno what you’re talking about,” Aisling answered innocently. “Aren’t we supposed to be sweeping?”
* * * *
Bishop, I’m gonna need you to join me up on the wall. Double time.
Anastasia ran, hell-bent for election, to the gates of Shatterdown in response to Aisling’s summons. When she got to the top of the wall she found the Scarlet Princess lounging against the stone, looking peeved.
“You wanna tell me,” Aisling said slowly, “why it is that your mentor is here with a giant caravan of fucking dwarves?”
Anastasia looked past the wall and blanched. A dozen wagons, escorted by pony-mounted dwarves in heavy armor, were approaching the city. A glance through the spyglass mounted at the wall revealed Tromar at its head, riding next to the half-elf from the battle, as well as an older dwarf, whose tabard was emblazoned with a crystal clear hammer.
Anastasia lifted her eye from the glass slowly. “We should. Ah. We should gather the Scum and go meet them.”
“This is the part where you tell me why,” Aisling said patiently.
“Because that’s Alviss the Glass Hammer, the King Below and patriarch of the Glasshammer clan,” Anastasia answered.
Get dressed you fuckers, we need to go entertain a king, Aisling snapped, standing up straight. Front gate, ten minutes. Up and at ’em, Scum!
And so it was that Aisling and her Scum strode forth from the gates to meet the caravan of dwarves in the shadow of Shatterdown’s walls, with solemn expressions and hands straying to their weapons. Duke squinted against the bright light of the morning, though his wincing and soft growls of irritation were almost unnoticable compared to Contessa’s fidgeting; nearly a month had passed since the battle, but the teen could not stop touching her soot-stained hair, gone gray before its time except at the tips, where it glowed white-hot. Tromar and his compatriots dismounted; behind them, a pair of dwarven soldiers opened up a caravan wagon and began stacking large cushions in a careful pattern.
“Your Highness,” the older dwarf – Alviss – greeted, striding forward and offering his hand out. “I have heard so much about you. It is an honor to finally meet.”
Aisling took the king’s hand in a firm grip. “And I’ve heard almost nothing about you, your Majesty,” she admitted, giving Tromar a glare. “I have to confess, I wasn’t prepared to entertain a small army today. You wanna tell me why you’re here?”
Alviss laughed heartily; behind him, Levie snorted and grinned. “How direct. My nephew here says you have a paladin problem, Princess Aisling. There seems to be some manner of doubt as to the, shall we say, legalities of your rule. I wanted to come and see for myself, and what I see here already intrigues me. Sir Tromar, correct me if I am wrong, but are those not Settite marks on your apprentice’s cheeks?”
“No,” Duke spoke up, raising his chin. “Those are Settite marks on a knight, raised to glory by my hand for her valor and cunning. Do you contest it?”
Sir Tromar peered carefully at his student; Ana’s face reddened beneath the scrutiny, but she held his gaze with calm eyes. “You realize,” the knight said at last, “that if I accept this, the legalities would be unprecedented? She would, technically, be a drow paladin. My Order would have that on its records. So would your House.”
“I am aware of the irony, yes,” Duke agreed. “But I say again that she has gained this for herself, by her own valor.”
“…Then it is a pleasure to see my student grown.” Tromar offered Anastasia his hand, which she took with a warm grin. “Nice to meet you again, Lady Luxan.”
“They call me Bishop these days,” Anastasia admitted. “…I think I like it.”
Aisling spared a glance for the now-immense pile of cushions. “Someone want to tell me what the hell that’s about?”
“Dwarves are a very pious people, Princess,” Alviss answered, “but we serve very practical gods. Sir Tromar has shared Lady Anastasia’s reports with me. He feels, and I agree, that the influence of von Thorholm and his confederates will ultimately skew the judgement against Shatterdown and bring a force down upon you to oust you from power. My nephew has asked if I will help you.”
“How kind,” the Scarlet Princess said pointedly, glaring at the dwarf. “I’d wondered who was rummaging through my fucking business. But if you’re right…I just blew my load, your Majesty. My Rabble are passionate but they’re not soldiers. What’s the cost of this help?”
“Before I make my offer, I need to give you some context,” the King Below explained. A dwarven soldier brought him a long, somewhat flat wooden box, branded with the seal of the cracked hammer. Alviss knelt and set the box on the ground; the old dwarf opened it with reverence and removed a glass warhammer, ancient and cracked, yet still whole.
“I am called the Glass Hammer because I lead my clan,” Alviss explained, “but this is the weapon from which we derive our name. Nine hundred years ago we were part of the Ironblood clan, and the dwarf destined to become our founder – Jared Ironblood – served as an advisor and general beneath his king. Jared studied other races extensively, and incorporated aspects of their culture into his crafts and work. Dwarves, your Highness, are a traditional people; Jared was not well-loved for his undwarflike notions, but his advice was sound and his honor beyond question, and thus he served.”
Alviss rested the glass hammer on his shoulder. “There came a time of great and bloody war. As straits grew ever more dire, Jared began to experiment with tactics borrowed from other races. His successes were scoffed at and belittled, and when he proposed a final plan to lure the bulk of the enemy’s army into an ambush, a plan that relied on elven principles and technology, it was said that a glass hammer had more worth than his ideas. That night, Jared and his men prepared two things in secret – the ambush, and this hammer. Acting against their king’s wishes, they sprung their trap and decimated the invaders. Jared brought this hammer into battle with him, and he came back to his people covered in wounds and blood, and laid it at the feet of his king. And Jared said to his liege, “What is its worth?” And though the weapon was cracked and chipped, though Jared had disobeyed orders, the Ironblood asked his forgiveness and made him chief of his own clan, the highest honor any dwarf can claim beyond the blessings of the gods themselves.”
“You know,” Aisling said softly, “I’d wondered. Thank you, for sharing this with me. But – and I mean no disrespect – what does that have to do with me?”
“This hammer has tested every king of the clan since it was forged,” Alviss explained. “It tastes their worth, you see. The hammer will not strike anything with greater worth than itself, and it has great worth indeed – every foe it has felled, every judgement it has seen, every oath it has sanctified, has given it worth. It is the heart and symbol of our clan. To be spared by the Glasshammer is to be known as one who is friend to the clan and worthy of leadership. Four times has it tested those who would be rulers of other races and cultures. Three of these were found worthy; one was slain. My offer is simple, Scarlet Princess. Submit to the test. Pass, and you will find fast allies in Clan Glasshammer, and your paladins will not dare to raise our ire or tempt our retribution. The legitimacy of your reign would be assured.”
“…And if I fail, I die,” Aisling mused. “Give me a moment. I need to make some arrangements.”
“Of course,” Alviss agreed, inclining his head.
Aisling turned to the assembled Scum, a serious expression on her face. Almost without thinking about it, she took her gold coin from her coat pocket, walking it slowly across her knuckles. She was silent, for a long moment.
“Sybil, you’re in charge if I go down, until you find someone better. Keep the paladins out. Shatterdown deserves the chance to choose its own fate for once. Duke, can I trust you to back her up?”
The drow met Aisling’s eyes. “…Yes. You have my sworn word that I will not return to my people, nor scourge the city, until a new ruler is chosen.”
“Good. Contessa.” The gray-haired teen looked up at Aisling, worry in her eyes. “I need you to stay the course, okay? We can’t do this without you. Shatterdown’s defenseless, and only you know how to maintain the guns. Promise me.”
“Aising, we don’t need them,” Contessa pleaded. “We can fight off the paladins. We can fight off anybody. Don’t…don’t do this, I couldn’t…if you left…”
“Promise me,” the Scarlet Princess repeated softly. Contessa sniffed, trying not to cry; Margrave put an arm around her shoulders.
“…Alright. I’ll stay. At least until…until it’s found its feet.”
“You’re very brave,” Aisling whispered. Her eyes went to Anastasia, but the paladin just smiled at her. “Fuck is your problem?”
“You,” Ana said wryly. “Turn around and get on with it, you dolt.”
“I could die here, you know,” Aisling sounded offended. “That’s what you’ve got for me?”
“Aisling, if that hammer actually kills you I will drop dead of shock on the spot,” Anastasia answered, and the confidence in her tone made Aisling blush. “Now turn around and prove me right.”
Aisling turned around to the wry expressions on Alviss and Levie’s faces. The Scarlet Princess scowled. “Get on with it you fuckers.”
“Kneel,” Alviss commanded, and Aisling sunk to her knees. “Do you, Aisling of Shatterdown, submit to the test of the Glass Hammer freely, of your own will?”
“Aye,” Aisling answered, formally. “…Promise me that you’ll help my city however this goes. These people don’t need to be struck down with me. They deserve better. They’ve always deserved better.”
“You have my word,” Alviss vowed. The King Below hefted the glass hammer and looked behind him to make sure the cushions were poised to catch him. He touched Aisling’s forehead with his weapon, lifted it high, and swung downwards.
There was a timeless moment, and in it, Aisling heard a voice.
“Scary, isn’t it? The weight of all those lives on your shoulders.” The voice was old, rough, the voice of a man who had seen and done and said too much. “They don’t have to be your problem. Haven’t you done enough? Suffered enough, for them? Killed enough?”
“Not nearly enough,” Aisling snarled, surprised at her own anger. “That is my place, those are my people, my responsibility. They’re counting on me. I won’t just leave them.”
“What happens when they ask you to go?”
Aisling was silent. “…Then I go. I go knowing I did everything I could do.”
“I believe you, Aisling Moonheart,” the rough voice said; Aisling could almost hear it smile. “I hope I can see you in Valhalla.”
And then the moment passed; Alviss gave out a yell as he was blasted back into the pile of cushions, the glass hammer clattering to the ground with a new crack that worked its way from head to handle. Aisling let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and rose to her feet. The Scarlet Princess walked over and offered the dwarven king a hand up.
“You see what I meant?” Alviss asked.
“Yeah, I see what you meant,” Aisling agreed, with a broad smile. “Only one thing left that’s bothering me. The fuck is the caravan for?”
“We brought building materials,” Alviss answered primly. “I had hoped to build a forge-temple within your city, both to serve as a home for our diplomats and because I believe your Bishop will eventually find herself with students and need a space in which to train and house them.”
Aisling took one look at Ana’s futile attempts to restrain her eagerness at the idea and then looked back to Alviss. “Y’know what, fuck it, sounds great. Let’s get your people into the gates and see what we can’t do about food and wine. Just…whatever you do, don’t drink coffee in the city limits.”
“You really think I’ll have students?” Anastasia asked.
“Since I brought you some to train, I dare say,” Tromar answered.
* * * *
Marcus von Thornholm did not trust the crowd that threw roses at his feet, nor their ecstatic cries that a paladin had come to fight Aisling. He and the soldiers loyal to him were herded to the town square and the Protection Racket, where he found Anastasia waiting for him with a wry look on her face.
“Ana! Girl, I will have satisfaction. Your hand was promised to me, and you have fallen to consorting with villains of the foulest sort.”
“Didn’t the Order drop its suit?” Ana challenged. “You are not welcome here, Marcus.”
“Bah! I will not be chided by an apprentice,” von Thornholm spat onto the cobbles.
“I am no one’s apprentice any more, Marcus,” Anastasia said firmly. “I am Bishop Anastasia Luxan, Knight of the Tainted Cup, and you are trespassing in the city I protect. Leave.”
“Not until you bring forth Aisling. She cheated my duel, and I will have satisfaction.”
Anastasia sighed. “She’s gone and won’t be back for months. And one more thing, Marcus.”
“What?” von Thornholm demanded.
“At them, you Rabble!“
* * * *
Aisling returned to Shatterdown on a foggy autumn morning; her hair had started to grow over her ears again, and she still wore the mithral chain that had protected her during the battle for Shatterdown. She found Anastasia waiting at the gate for her; the paladin smiled at her and flicked a small object at the Scarlet Princess. Aisling caught it, reflexively, and looked down to see a finely wrought silver ring, set with small rubies.
“I. Is this -?”
“If you’ll have me,” Anastasia confirmed.
“…But…I was gonna propose to you. I had something big and romantic all planned out and everything, thought you’d like it better that way.”
The paladin blinked slowly. “…Here I thought you’d like it better this way.” A mischevious look stole across Ana’s face. “You know, we could do both.”
“Can you even get engaged twice before you’re married?” Aisling asked.
“This is Shatterdown,” Anastasia answered. “We can do whatever we damn well please.”