“Why must I talk to her?” Haigen blurted. His father had just given him the news that he was to judge the appeal of Kathra Ironshard, the dwarf who had beaten him nearly to death six months previous.
“Haigen, what is the job of the high king?” Farthen asked softly, leveling an expectant gaze at his son.
Haigen stopped. The first time he’d been asked this question, he’d been barely twenty-five. At the time, his answer had been, “To rule.” That answer had resulted in a year’s work in one of Thunderhall’s many mineshafts, “ruling” a donkey-drawn mine cart. By now, he was more than well aware of the correct answer. “The job of the high king,” he replied, meeting his father’s eyes, “is to uphold the law.”
“Good,” the king replied. “Whose law?”
Haigen considered his answer, glancing at the city’s high priest, Thoir Blackrock, who was standing nearby watching. “The high king is responsible to uphold the law of Riknor, better known among our kind as ‘the Laws of Liberation,” given to us when Riknor freed us from slavery at the hands of the fire giants.”
“Very good,” King Farthen smiled. “Now, the humans’ law makes the eldest son of any king his heir to the throne. Under Riknor’s law, however, I have the right to choose whichever of my eligible heirs is worthy. Knowing this, why, then are you crowned prince and not your brother, Jarin, who is older than you are by five years?”
“Perhaps, it’s because,” Thoir whispered tightly, “ if Jarin was in your shoes, Haigen, he’d have Kathra brought to trial before the entire court, beaten nearly to death and sent back to Deepstone broken and barely able to move.”
“Well, maybe that’s what she needs!” Haigen growled.
“That’s your pain talking, son,” King Farthen murmured, setting a calming hand on his son’s shoulder, “not you. If you were asked to try this dwarf for beating any other dwarf in the Dwarven Kingdoms, you would demand to know her story as well as that of her victim.”
“Remember that the Law of Liberation isn’t the only law we follow,” Thoir added. “The Law of Gracia states that every defendant deserves a second chance to prove his worth.”
“What about the Law of Daedin?” Haigen shouted shrugging his father off. “Mercy cannot rob justice!”
“Are you sure it’s justice you’re after,” Farthen asked, “and not revenge?”
Haigen gazed into his father’s earnest gaze and let out a slow sigh. He’d been there when his father and Jarin had this very same discussion “Jarin,” his father had almost begged, “all dwarves have strong personalities, but if we always claimed revenge for every slight our fellows caused us, we’d be much fewer in numbers.” Jarin had a nasty temper and frequently the fights that resulted meant a new scar somewhere on his person. Haigen had often wondered why his elder brother wasn’t dead, yet.
“All right,” he said, taking another calming breath, “if you really want this dwarf to have a decent trial, it can’t be before the royal court, where every dwarf there has seen my injuries.”
“Use my conference chamber,” the king suggested softly. “It’ll help you as well.”
“And she shouldn’t be in chains,” Haigen added, thoughtfully. “We want Kathra to know we’re going to give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“No guards?” Farthen asked.
“Just one,” Haigen replied, “but make sure he’s a veteran of many wars. I want someone who knows what a real fight sounds like.”
“Done,” the king grinned, proudly slapping his son on the back.
As Haigen entered the room, half an hour later, he was surprised to find the female, Kathra, standing quietly beneath the room’s most recent addition, the Copperminer Clan banner, fingering the cloth reverently with her back to him.
“Like it?” he asked softly, causing the female before him to jump about a foot into the air. She whipped around and her eyes went wide as she quickly prepared to bend in his presence. “Don’t bow,” Haigen added, putting a hand out to stop her. “This was my mother’s room. She never let anyone bow to her in this room. After she died, Father ordered the room preserved exactly as it was before she died. Her room, her rules. He sometimes holds council meetings here. Says he finds it easier to be patient with his councilors when he thinks she might be watching.”
Kathra immediately straightened, looking decidedly self-conscious, glancing again at the banner hanging near her.
“I don’t know why Father decided to keep that here,” Haigen added, gesturing to the banner as he seated himself in his favorite chair. “Usually, the clan banner is burned after a clan dies.”
“The clan isn’t dead,” Kathra murmured, still fingering the Copperminer banner. “Not yet, anyway.”
“That’s not possible,” Haigen replied softly, “Barl Silverbeard said…”
“There’s a survivor,” Kathra interrupted.
“A survivor?” the prince gasped. “How?”
The female smiled. “She wasn’t in the mine at the time.”
“Why haven’t I heard of this survivor?” Haigen asked, leaning forward, interested in spite of himself.
“She didn’t believe she was worthy to raise the clan banner by herself,” Kathra replied, seating herself in a chair across from it. “She forgot who she was, because she thought she should have been with them. She thought, if she’d been there, she might have, somehow, been able to save them.”
“Didn’t she realize she’d have been killed with them?” Haigen asked, shocked.
“It never occurred to her for a second,” Kathra sighed, her eyes never leaving the silently hanging clan banner hanging on the wall across from her. “Her father died as a result of the accident. Afterward, her mother starved herself to death. She was all alone and grieving with no one to talk to. Until the nightmares started.”
“Nightmares?” Haigen asked. He was no stranger to these. He often dreamed that he was high king and that his father and ancestors watched critically as he tried another dwarf for incompetence and dereliction of duty; himself.
“A hundred faceless dwarves and her father all stand around her,” she said thoughtfully. “They all claim that she has forgotten who she is. The survivor believed that the dreams meant she had failed them.”
“So, what happened to this survivor?” Haigen asked at last, “Why haven’t we heard from her.”
“She went to prison, charged with attempted murder,” Kathra responded, seeming suddenly very interested in her boots.
“Who is she supposed to have tried to kill,” Haigen asked, a sudden chill crawling up his spine.
“Prince Haigen Flamewarrior,” she replied softly, her eyes coming up suddenly to meet his.
Haigen blinked. “You’re…”
“Kathra, daughter of Ururt Ironshard, the late clan chief of Copperminer Clan, sire,” Kathra finished.
“Then, tell me one thing,” Haigen asked, “Why me?”
“Sire,” Kathra groaned, leaning forward in her seat to clasp her head in her hands, “please believe me when I say that I didn’t know it was you until they pulled me off. I was so drunk by then, I would have passed out if you hadn’t bumped me first. I honestly thought you were a goblin, like those that slew my family.”
“Thoir Blackrock tells me you seem to have found the gods,” Haigen continued.
“You might say that,” Kathra replied. “Yes.”
“Then I think I know just what to do with you,” decided the prince, coming to his feet. “Kathra Ironshard, of Copperminer Clan, you have been convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in Deepstone Prison. As your judge, I hereby suspend this sentence indefinitely. Instead, you will represent the Dwarven Kingdoms in the outside world as a Knight of the Axe until such time as you have proven your worth to the state and recovered the honor of your clan’s name.” Haigen walked to the door, then turned back to add. “Prepare yourself. Tomorrow morning, you leave for Hightop Fortress.”