Counselor Agnar Emberheart stood on the speaker’s platform, looking on as the Blazing Brew Clan filled the Great Hall. Behind him, flowing down the wall, was one of the rivers of magma that gave their city of Firefalls its name. Before him, within easy reach, stood Lord Slithrig, rightful ruler of the Blazing Brew Clan. Agnar Emberheart struggled for composure - fighting the insistent surge of fire in his veins which threatened to set his head ablaze.
Most dwarves take their family’s name, but the name ‘Emberheart’ is different. It is an earned name, given to only a few in every generation of dwarves because they carry the ancient fire in their blood. Agnar earned the name ‘Emberheart’ when, as a child, he’d heard a young dwarf of another Clan disparage the Blazing Brews as fallen - a rabble of useless misfits and drunkards. Furious, Agnar sought to correct the opinion of this sneering fellow. Though Agnar began with words, the fight would have come quickly to blows - despite the fact that the other dwarf was twice his age and size - except that Agnar’s rage made his head burst into flames. The fire did not burn Agnar. It was a sign of the purity of his heart and ever after he was called ‘Emberheart’. He’d learned to control this power somewhat, but in fits of purest rage he could not help but burst into flames.
Which would not be good, at this moment, standing on the speaker’s platform with Lord Slithrig, his fellow counselors, the Brewmeister and the captain of the guard. Agnar could not lose his temper. No matter what Lord Slithrig said.
“Look at them,” muttered the Lord of the Blazing Brew Clan. “Their superstitions are holding us back! They don’t want to dig deeper! They fear the beasts in the depths and imagine terrors of the abyss. As though it would matter if such things existed. As though they mattered. As though anything mattered but increasing the hoard. They’ll dig deeper. They’ll spend their lives and their children’s lives if they have to.” He chuckled, as though that were a clever joke. “One way or another, I will have my gold.”
Appalled, Agnar kept his eyes forward. Slithrig had not always been so callous, but lately...
The last of the Clan arrived. Around the crowd stood Slithrig’s personal guards, hemming in their own Clan as though they were enemies and not kinsmen. It made Agnar sick. Lord Slithrig took a few steps forward raising his arms for silence and attention. As he did, the Brewmeister spoke so that only Agnar could hear: “It’s not right. This isn’t what a gathering of the Blazing Brew Clan looks like. Where’s the joy? Where’s the ferocity?”
Agnar did not answer, but cast an eye over the huddled miners and smiths, the wary children and the tense warriors and guards.
“It’s not right,” said the Brewmeister again. Agnar wished he wouldn’t. Lord Slithrig was the leader of the Clan. It was his right, as it had been his father’s and grandfather’s, to rule as he saw fit. It was Agnar’s duty to assist his Lord to the best of his abilities. It was Agnar’s duty to serve him - and through him, the Clan.
Even if he’s gone mad? Whispered a contrary part of Agnar’s mind.
“Welcome all,” cried Lord Slithrig, voice carrying across the hushed and fearful crowd. “I have been thinking, dear Blazing Brews, about our children. I have been thinking about their character - and the character of their parents.” He made a disappointed noise and shook his head. “Some of you,” he continued. “Some of you have raised concerns about where we delve and how deeply. You fear monsters out of fairy tales. Now… is this timidity something we can afford to pass on to our children? This fretful superstition? No!”
A few mutters rose in the crowd as some of the Clan guessed where this was going. Agnar kept his face studiously blank, fighting the surging fire, and determined not to look away from what was happening.
“So! I have decided that a child of every family shall come to live with me. To be educated in the palace, to learn to be fearless and loyal members of the Blazing Brew Clan. What an honor, to live in the palace. To learn from me! To serve me directly!”
“To be close at hand, should he need a hammer to hold over unwilling relatives,” muttered the Brewmeister to Agnar.
Agnar clenched and unclenched his fists around the haft of his axe.
“They will be my wards,” decreed Slithrig. “While the rest of you will show me that the Blazing Brew Clan are not cowards, that you are not afraid of imaginary monsters in the deep. Now, say your goodbyes. The children have been chosen already and my guards will escort them to my palace immediately.”
Consternation and fear ran through the crowd. The shouts of parents and wails of children rose up to the stone arches. Around the edges of the crowd, the guards hesitated.
“I said ‘immediately’,” roared Lord Slithrig. “Forward, now! Now! Now!” The guards, urged on by the mad voice of their lord began to wade into the crowd - they searched for the children they’d been told to collect, knowing that their own lives and family would be in danger if they should fail.
Axes came out - but the clansmen had not come prepared for a fight. Struggles broke out all over the Great Hall. Agnar fought to keep his emotions from his face. He must always act in the best interests of the Clan. What was that, now? What must he do?
“Look at them,” muttered Lord Slithrig, contemptuous. “They remind me of nothing so much as cattle. Which is not nearly so useful as gold.”
The lord glanced back to Agnar, a cruel spark in his eye, looking for his counselor to share in his amusement. Instead, Lord Slithrig saw the ancient fire erupt around Agnar’s head, crowning him in flames. The bright blaze burning atop his shoulders shone like a beacon from the speaker’s platform, clear for all to see and an undeniable sign of Agnar’s fury.
Lord Slithrig’s eyes widened.
“Seize the Counselor!” he shrieked. “Seize the Counselor!”
Again, the guards hesitated. This time it was only for a moment. But that was all that Agnar needed. Indecision was gone from Agnar Emberheart and with one smooth movement he swung his ready axe and beheaded Slithrig with a single strike. The head of the former Lord of the Blazing Brew Clan bounced down off the speaker’s platform to fall on the stone floor below - its eyes wide and surprised.
Still wreathed in flames, Agnar bowed his head. Blood dripped from his axe. Beyond the platform, the guards and clansmen stood still and silent, frozen with shock. Agnar dropped his weapon, the axe clanging on the stone platform, and turned to surrender to the guards. He’d murdered a member of the Clan, his own Lord, and he would take the punishment that he deserved for such a crime. It was the price for what had to be done.
The captain of the guard - tall for a dwarf - looked questioningly at Agnar.
“Do your duty,” said Agnar when the captain did not move.
The captain nodded, solemn, and then knelt before Agnar. Surprised, mortified, Agnar turned to the rest of the platform and saw the Brewmeister sink to one knee as well. The other counselors and guards followed suit. The Brewmeister shouted from where he knelt, his voice booming through the Great Hall, “Lord Slithrig is dead! Hail Agnar Emberheart, son of Gildrin! Lord of the Blazing Brew Clan! Hail Emberlord Agnar!”
Agnar, his hands empty and his head and heart ablaze, looked out at the Clan, his Clan, as they took up the chant:
“Agnar! Agnar! Emberlord!”
Overwhelmed by this display, by the faith his Clan put in him, Agnar’s eyes blurred with steam from his tears. He turned to the Brewmeister, who smiled up at him. “This isn’t--,” said Agnar. “I did what had to be done - for the Clan, it had to be done - but it was not well done. I accept the consequences.”
The jubilant tumult of the crowd drowned out his words. Only those on the platform could hear him - or the Brewmeister’s response.
“And these,” said the Brewmeister, gesturing to the vast crowd, to where guards and smiths and children alike all jumped and cheered and danced in relief and joy, “These are the consequences.”
Agnar, Emberlord of the Blazing Brew Clan, bowed his head, grateful for his clansmen’s choice. Silently, in the midst of all that wild celebration, he vowed to make it the right one.