Chapter 20: Little Kings

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The armour was new and stiff. Halvard squirmed uncomfortably inside it and tried to resist the urge to pull the trousers down at the crotch. They were far too small for him.

The line of soldiers stretched all the way from the Royal Palace to the entrance of the catacombs. Halvard was stationed a few metres from the great stone door. He held a spear in one hand and a lit torch in the other. He could feel the crowds pressing up behind him and hissed under his breath at the dwarf closest to him to step back. Although he could hear the funeral procession approaching, he did not turn his head. Every soldier in the line was still. Only their eyes moved. They were just as curious as the crowds, but with orders to stand to attention they did not dare to twitch.

As the raised litter that carried the king passed the first soldier, he reached up and extinguished the torch he held in his hand. His leather glove hissed as the flame was smothered, and as the funeral procession moved on, all the soldiers’ torches were quenched, one after another. Every light along the route of the procession through the city had been dimmed. The crowds were silent. The only noise was the heavy clink of boots on stone and the tinkle of gold and glass beads from the litter bed.

From the corner of his eye, Halvard could see the servants leading the procession toss dried, scented flowers onto the ground in front of them. The flowers crunched under their feet as they walked. After the first row of servants came the nobles dressed in their best robes, their faces covered by masks, followed by two burial masters. Each of them carried a large silver burner filled with incense, and an overwhelming scent of musk, pine and sage wafted through the air. Their faces were also covered by funeral masks, except theirs were much more adorned. Halvard hated the smell of sage, as did half the city. It evoked memories of the Red Plague and the loved ones it had taken.

The litter was in front of him now. He could see the body of Hábrók laid out on it. The robes the dead king wore were pure white, which only made the stones embroidered into the hem more vivid. The king’s face was covered by a thick gold mask that appeared to be a cast of his face when he was younger, its expression calm for the first time in years. King Hábrók’s jaw was so large that it protruded out from beneath it.

Suddenly, one of the soldiers who held up one corner of the litter tripped. He was off balance for a second at most, but it was enough for the litter to tip to its side for a moment and for the gold mask to slide from Hábrók’s face and clatter onto the ground. With the litter directly in front of him, Halvard could see the king’s face clearly. The crowd behind him gasped and recoiled in disgust at the sight of his pale purple skin with a tinge of blue around his lips. Both his eyes were wide open and glazed; even in death they stared up at the ceiling in a panic. His mouth was open in a grimace.

“King’s Disease!” someone muttered behind Halvard.

“Not a nice way to go,” another voice chirped. “Not nice at all.”

Halvard looked at the king’s hands and saw they were clenched tightly and that no rings were on them as there should have been. His fingers had been too stiff to move. Instead, the rings had been placed around his hand and held there by gold threads sewn into his sleeves.

“Faðir!” a young boy’s voice called out, and he rushed over to the mask from behind the litter. Halvard could not resist the temptation and turned his head a little to see who the voice belonged to. He was surprised when he saw the young prince Hálfr kneel down to pick up the mask. His older brother, Haddr, still behind the litter, was being carried on a raised gold chair. His legs hidden under a dark red blanket, the hem heavy with gold tassels.

With tears in his eyes, Hálfr picked up the mask and pushed away the servants who tried to stop him. He scrambled onto the litter bed and gently placed the mask back over the face of his father before he climbed back down, walked back towards his king brother and took his seat on the litter.

Halvard looked at the boy curiously. His features and proportions were quite unusual for a royal. There was a trace of the distinctive jaw of King Hábrók, but it was nowhere near as prominent as it was in his older, much shorter brother. Yrsa Gull was alongside them and leant towards them to whisper something. Haddr immediately let go of his brother’s hand but Hálfr snatched it back and muttered something back to her under his breath. Yrsa stood up quickly, an annoyed twitch at the corner of her mouth and her face more than a little red.

The litter began to move forward again towards the catacombs. Halvard did his best not to cough loudly as they passed, the thick heavy smoke stuck in his throat. He kept his eyes on the two boys. Yrsa Gull was right behind them and her own son, Vard, behind her. His appearance was just as ghastly as Halvard had remembered it to be.

When the stone doors of the catacombs closed behind them, every soldier visibly relaxed. It would be a while until they would emerge. The two burial masters stood outside the door, the incense burners still in their hands. Plumes of thick smoke rose up into the air.

“Faðir? Where did they go?” a boy in the crowd behind Halvard asked his father.

“To bury him. All the kings and queens are buried in the catacombs.”

“Was the old king buried there?”

“Hastein? Yes, he was buried there too.”

“Was Hastein a good king?”

“Yes, I think so,” the boy’s father replied.

Halvard was glad nobody could see the revolted expression on his face at that moment.

“When will they come out?” the boy asked.

“It’ll be a while.”

The boy tapped his foot impatiently on the floor, the sound quite irritating.

“Can you stop that?” the soldier next to Halvard hissed.

The boy pointed his tongue at the soldier and continued to tap.

*  *  *

It was over an hour before the catacomb doors opened again. The young King Haddr walked out first. His pale blue eyes were frightened and each of his steps uncertain. He already wore the royal crown on his head. The thing was far too big and heavy for the small boy. He waddled slightly as he walked and Halvard noticed that the boy’s feet had grown slightly twisted and curled inward. He was followed closely by his brother, Hálfr. Ignoring protocol, Hálfr walked beside his older brother and took his hand to help him walk. Haddr smiled at him gratefully, relieved to have his brother next to him.

“The King!” the two funeral masters bellowed.

Haddr whimpered as the entire crowed bowed before him like a wave. Even kneeling, almost every single dwarf in the crowd was taller than him. He clutched his brother’s hand for support and tried to stand a little taller. For several seconds he opened and closed his mouth, terrified, and his brother leant down towards him and whispered something. Haddr took a deep breath and tried to speak as loudly and clearly as he could, an obvious shake in his voice.

“My first act as king…” he paused for a moment to take another deep breath, “…is to renate—”

“Reinstate!” Hálfr whispered quickly to correct him.

“Reinstate! Reinstate…” he took another deep breath, “reinstate…the Hætta!”

Everyone gasped, even the soldiers. Halvard couldn’t help but feel sorry for the little boy king. Frightened by the crowd’s reaction, he gripped his brother’s hand even tighter. His mouth gaped open as if ready to say more, but nerves overtook him and he walked, almost ran, away from the catacombs and back along the line of soldiers. The rest of the funeral party rushed after him. Yrsa Gull, clearly flustered, reached the boy king and whispered in his ear that he should not run and should let go of his brother’s hand. He obeyed her first suggestion but completely ignored the second.

Halvard shook his head and followed the soldiers on their way down into the catacombs in a slow, respectful line. Even though the soldiers were meant to remain silent, a great many of them whispered to each other as they walked down the seemingly endless steps that wound down into the roots of the mountain. The word ‘Hætta’ was tossed around with a great deal of excitement and a good measure of fear.

“It’s about time!” he overheard someone say. “We should have had a spring Hætta a long time ago!”

“I think he’s mad!” someone ventured to mention, their opinion only met with jeers.

“Afraid of a few goblins are you? Coward.”

“If your family had all died in the red plague, you would be a coward, too!” the soldier retorted. “The king better pray it goes well or everyone will think his reign is cursed.”

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