“Bloody gnomes,” Aziz grumbled to himself. He was holding up the axle of the wagon using a lever, waiting for the gnomish driver to fix the wheel. He was ankle-deep in mud, for though there had been no rain today the stretch of road where the wagon broke had no ditches or other places for the water to go. Instead, all the water from the surrounding hills seemed to have pooled on the road, making it muddy even on a sunny day like this. Re-purposed riverbed, the gnome had called it the first time they got stuck in mud.
Off to the side, Ky was trying to get information about the capital from their fellow travelers. When they had visited the provincial capital they had learned of troubles brewing in the west, on the border to the Empire of the Sun. Soldiers were being recruited, militias armed, and armies mobilized. And here they were, traveling with a merchant named Gethak, headed for the capital of Malqish as though the troubles of their little frontier village would be worth the attention of the prince regent himself.
“There we go,” Gethak said, checking to make sure the wheel didn’t fall off again. “Once I get my business approved by the prince regent, things like this will no longer be a problem. Because I am going to unify this kingdom in an era of new and improved travel! Only thing better would be magic, but who has the resources to build a network of portals? Do you know how expensive, time-consuming, and draining it is to build a portal? Let alone a dozen? A friend of mine-“ The gnome fell silent, gazing at the scowling features of Aziz with a bit of surprise. “Oh right, the trip. All aboard!”
The next few days passed in relative calm, with the exception of Gethak’s fondness for ceaselessly talking about things neither Aziz nor Ky understood anything about. Until one day the wagon climbed onto a large hill and there, sprawled out in the valley before them, lay a vast city.
A large river wound its way in from the south, dotted with ferries carrying cargo from the amphibians of the marshes and swamps in the south and their western neighbours among the Trollcrags. At the center of the large valley the river emptied in a lake, Seren. On a small island by the western shore of that lake stood the ruins of Raven’s Nest, a castle once home to the kingdom’s founder Diarmid Ravenwing. Another river flowed north from the lake, wider and much more trafficked than its southern counterpart as it snaked its way to the coast and the kingdom’s only major seaport at Highwater.
The city itself had grown from a small fishing village around the bridgehead, now the estates and private docks of the aristocracy, to a vast metropolis that was home to both the most desolate and wealthy of the land. The city was separated into several districts, although the lack of actual barriers made them hard to see. Except, Aziz noted, for the old city wall; a thick and high wall that now surrounded the nobles’ estates.
“These hills always intrigue me,” the gnome began, though Aziz paid him no heed. “Most of the area here is pretty flat, and nothing as high as these hills. And if you look at a map, they are suspiciously like a ring around the lake. My theory, therefore, is that Malqish valley is a crater formed by an unusually large shardfall.”
“I’ve never heard of any shardfall causing so big a crater as this.” Ky sounded sceptical.
“It must be a rare event, I agree, or we would see lots of these craters everywhere. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine any other phenomena that would cause such a formation.”
“Magic?” Aziz didn’t really care about the discussion, but the gnome seemed to ignore the obvious answer. Ky nodded in agreement.
“You mean someone would intentionally reshape the land thus?” Gethak almost chuckled at the notion. “Really, that is quite preposterous. In such an event, they would have made the hills much more even in height. And the river would have been taken into account, instead of leaving it alone to eat its way through the hills as it saw fit. Did you know that a few decades ago, there was a small isle over where the river…”
Aziz tuned out the gnome’s continued droning and noted that the city was utterly defenseless if an army attacked. It was too big a valley to effectively defend the hills, even if they were to try and hold only one side of the river. So unlike the fortified cities of his homeland, where conquest through war had been the way of things for centuries, and even now settlements would get raided by those descended from guerilla rebels of subjugated tribes.
Unlike the Sollim, though, Malqish had always been a peaceful nation with fertile lands and decent forests. Supplied with ore and stone from the western mountains the kingdom had built its wealth and power through trade. Yet despite its bounty it had not once been forced to enter war, and aside from the garrison at Brighthill it had no need for a standing army.
Surrounded on most sides by lands with no clear power ruling them, it was hardly surprising that in the scant century Malqish had existed no one had bothered to invade. Only the Empire of the Sun to the west had reason for war but they had always seen more benefits to using the kingdom for trade, and the occasional raid by independent slavers coming over the Sandwall mountains.
“What’re they doing?” Ky asked suddenly, taking Aziz back to the present. The young farmhand was looking at a caravan of wagons going to and from a tall hill northwest of the city, a hill upon which something was apparently being built.
“I dunno,” the magistrate mumbled as he rose slightly from his seat to get a better look. “Building something, that’s for sure.”
“They are constructing the first out of eight outposts that will keep the capital safe. Once done, they will build a wall between them, thereby sealing this entire valley in. Master Daergo himself has drawn the plans, so I am guessing the wall will not survive the first thunderstorm,” Gethak said, shaking his head as if disappointed. “Well, let’s go.” With that, he set the two oxen in motion again and the wagon slowly began its descent to the great city below.
“You don’t think the lord of the gnomes is a capable architect?” Ky asked, looking at the gnome incredulously. “I mean, he’s a greatly respected man.”
“He is a fool, just like his father before him, and I hear his father before that, as well. But as I do not have any evidence of that one, I shall not say more. Master Daergo is a respectable man, and a capable enough diplomat and ruler, but he would not be able to tell the head of a hammer from that of a pickaxe!” Gethak huffed, starting to get agitated over the man.
“Bloody gnome,” Aziz muttered under his breath, while Ky just sat there, pleasantly smiling and listening politely.
“Yes! A foolish and infuriating man, really!” Gethak replied, apparently oblivious that Aziz was referring to him. “Once he tried to build a self-propelling wagon and he ended up destroying the workshop of House Ironlock. Another time he wanted to build this fancy wall to hold off crag trolls, and though the design was fine, he forgot to take into account the natural surroundings. Next rainstorm and the entire thing just collapsed, made it easier than ever for the trolls to get in and eat us.” The gnome continued his tirade, talking faster and faster until even Ky seemed unable to keep up.
“Uhh… Sure. This is our stop, thanks for the ride!” Aziz said, hopping off the wagon on a road in the middle of the city.
“You sure you are not going all the way to the Royal Halls? Because I am sure you paid for all the way to the Royal Halls. Let me just find my notebook and I can check-” Gethak said, starting to rummage about in his pack.
“No, no. Do not worry about it, we need to talk to a few people first, make some arrangements. You know, business stuff. Good luck when meeting the prince regent!” Ky said as he smiled pleasantly while climbing off the wagon.
“He’s gonna need it,” Aziz mumbled, watching the gnome look at them for a moment, then shrug before he set off again. Gethak was waving happily to them as he disappeared into the throng of carriages and wagons crowding the busy street.
“You know, he reminds me of Gem.” Ky hoisted his pack onto his shoulders and turned toward the inn. “Well, if Gem hadn’t been much older, anwyay.”
Aziz let out an amused grunt before disappearing through the doorway.