"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
XX. The Cat's Pawn <=== / ===> XXII. The New Villagers
Maidoyú had taken the shape of a flitter. Now she was hovering over a blossom in a tree, casually flicking out her tongue now and then to drink some of the nectar, but the better part of her attention was turned to the ground. The dwarves had spent the night in the small clearing, then they had resumed their trek to a new home.
She had listened intently to them. There were so many flitters in the air, beating their tiny, multi-colored wings endlessly, darting through the foliage. Neither of the dwarves had paid her any attention. Should she have revealed herself to them?
Perhaps that would have been wiser. Yet Maidoyú was intrigued by the self-sufficience that the dwarves were showing, in an environment alien to them. And hostile, she had to add. They didn’t like the sunlight, as little as filtered through the thick layers of leaves above them. The moisture troubled them. The tallest – the one called Cai – kept pausing every hour, breathing hard and wiping sweat from his brow. His woman, Fenice, always held his hand. The other dwarves kept hewing off the nearest branches with their stone axes.
Then there were the beasts of the forest. An arydog had attacked the dwarves early in the morning. Cuchúan – compactly built – had met the fierce predator with his axe. Maidoyú had nearly interfered when the arydog’s fangs closed around the dwarf’s right shoulder, ready to tear the arm from the socket. But Cuchúan had kept beating his axe against the dog’s long head, tearing a gash into the brown skull. The creature had screamed, let go of the arm, then the other dwarves had rushed to drive the beast off.
The arydog had been as tall as the dwarves and twice as long, yet it had fled after the brief battle. Bladdneit had taken care of her man Cuchúan, winding a bandage of cloth around his bleeding shoulder. The dwarf didn’t wince or show any sign of discomfort. Once his arm had been set, he picked up his axe with his left hand and continued trekking along his fellows.
Each of them was strong, in his or her own way. Maidoyú was proud of them, as if she had taken part in creating them. They faced the challenges, they didn’t complain but journeyed on to a destination that they didn’t know yet. They spoke of a cool cave, one that they would hew into a mountain, yet there were none worth mentioning in the vicinity. The fact didn’t concern them much; the dwarves were bound to keep on walking in one direction until they would find a mountain.
The women had trouble walking, their bellies as swollen as they were. They wore axes slung around their backs, and whenever the path ahead proved too troublesome for their mates, they joined in the hacking away of branches.
So brave these dwarves were, every one of them! Maidoyú had kept watch over them for only a day, and she was already convinced that these would raise strong young ones. They would protect their brood from the dangers of the world around them.
On the other hand, as proud as she was, she could lend them a hand, couldn’t she? What else were gods good for?
For a brief moment she wished that she could smile in her flitter shape. Instead, she had to settle for a quick dip of her tongue into the blossom’s nectar.
Below her, the dwarves reached the spot she had prepared for them. Cai was first, having rested a few minutes earlier, and now he cried, “Halt! This is new!”
Oh, yes, it is! Maidoyú cheered. She flapped her wings eagerly for a better position to view the events.
Cai was pointing ahead, his gray face astonished. “What is this? Myrddin, do ye know?”
Myrddin, Maidoyú recalled, was the wisest of the dwarves. At least, that was what they had decided. Though Uttar, the eldest, made the decisions, he always relied on Myrddin’s advice. It had been that way in the cave in the midrealm as well, that much she had learned from the terse words spoken in their gruff voices.
The wise dwarf was a hand’s width taller than Cuchúan, his face a tad less furrowed than those of his brethren. He stepped forward, raised his eyebrows and said, “No, Cai, this is beyond my ken. Walls of rock ought to be in a cave, they should not be in a tree-gathering.”
Before him, a tunnel opened through the jungle, its walls made of solid, dark stone. Lichen grew in a few places, as far as ordinary sight could tell. After a few yards, the tunnel was dark, allowing none of the bright light from above to penetrate. A soft, cold breeze blew from within, carrying the promise of long, pleasant darkness.
The tunnel was only a little higher than the tallest dwarf. On its thin ceiling, the jungle continued much as if there were no rocks cutting through it, the forest ground along with the roots of the trees transplanted five feet higher.
“These are the rocks you told us about?” Bladdneit said, her eyes wide. “They look so…”
“Home,” Marrigan, Uttar’s companion, decided with a broad smile. Slowly she walked past Cai and Myrddin, reached out her hands to let her fingers touch the rock. She hesitated for a moment, then firmly pressed her hand against the cold stone. “Home,” she repeated.
Uttar stepped brashly forward and pulled her hand from the rock. “There is no home,” he said. “That tunnel is a deceit which will lead us back to the trap.”
“It’s better than this tree-gathering!” Marrigan retorted as she snatched her hand from Uttar’s grasp and returned it to the stone. The other women quickly gathered around her, their hands reaching fondly for the cold comfort of the rock.
Anger suffused Uttar’s face, and he raised his stone axe. “Take your hands from that thing!” he bellowed.
“Or what?” Marrigan said. She turned around, molded her back to the tunnel’s outer wall, her belly jutting outward. “This is yer child within me, Uttar. It should not be born in a tree-gathering, but in a dark and good place! Ye’ve been tellin’ us women about yer cave, about all its beauty. But ye can only offer us a ceiling of leaves and a bounty of berries! This is rock, this is where yer child should live!”
“And yers, too,” Fenice added, fixing her glance on Cai.
The tall dwarf lowered his jaw, nervously fingering his beard. “Uttar…”
Above, Maidoyú nearly forgot to flap her wings. What was happening here? Why didn’t the male dwarves cheer at the tunnel she had made for them? It was just like their cave in the midrealm, the place where they had lived before! It was safe, she had taken care of that, and at the end of the tunnel, they would find a mountain just like they had wanted!
But Uttar slammed his axe into the ground, embedding the stone tip several inches into the soft ground. “Ye keep yer mouths shut, women!” he yelled. “Ye don’t know what ye’re talkin’ about! The cave was perfect – but that isn’t what a dwarf must have. Marrigan,” he forced his voice more even, as he gently reached out his hand and put it on her belly, “do ye want our child to grow up without hope? For that is what the god’s cave gave to us. No hope to better ourselves. There was all ye can wish for, and we four have done it. There was nothing left. Nothing, Marrigan.”
“The cave,” she said slowly, not about to concede any point, “is the best place for a child to be.”
The other women nodded, squaring their jaws as they faced off the fathers of their babes.
Uttar frowned. His face grew darker still, he was about to yell again, but stopped himself and cast a quick glance to Myrddin.
The wise dwarf sighed and shook his head, uncomfortably weathering the stare of Talisana, his own companion. “Ye have the right of one thing, Marrigan,” he said after a moment. “There is no place more perfect than the cave of the gods. Yet Uttar has the right, as well, for there is more to life than perfection. Ye need a goal to strive for. At one time in the past, it was enough for us to carve the walls of our home, to decorate it as perfectly as only we could. If this tunnel were to lead us back to the cave, then our children would continue that work. We would break open new caverns, and we would fill them with statues and friezes. That is what ye want?”
“What more is there to want?” Marrigan asked.
More gently, Talisana added, “Why should a child have a worse existence than its parents? Ye speak about hope, yet what hope does this tree-gathering give? The cave was made for dwarves, this place was made for dogs and other creatures.”
“We will make it our place,” Cuchúan interjected drily and walked to the branch nearest the tunnel, raising the axe in his left hand to hew it off. Only then did he notice that the conversation had stopped. The other dwarves stared at him curiously, and Cuchúan frowned. “That’s what I wanted, Uttar,” he muttered to the elder dwarf. “A good challenge. I thought we’d agreed on that.”
“Yes,” Uttar nodded, his glance shifting back to the women. “That is what I want our children to have. A challenge every day. Take the alien world and make it a dwarven world. Marrigan, Talisana, Bladdneit, Fenice, that is the better inheritance. Don’t take what the gods give ye. Take what the gods don’t give ye! Challenge them!” His voice raised to a pitch, while above Maidoyú found it ever more difficult to keep her wings beating. “We are dwarves!” Uttar said. “We rely on ourselves, not on gifts from the gods. As we do, our children will. Now decide on that, ye four, whether ye will join us in a world to make our own, or to be pampered and spoiled by the gods.”
Marrigan leaned forward. “What of ye three,” she asked the other males. “Do ye also see it like he does?”
Slowly Myrddin nodded. “Bequeathe hope to our children.”
“Bequeathe hope,” Cai echoed.
Cuchúan snorted angrily and hacked off the branch before him. “Ye’re wastin’ words,” he growled. “There’s got to be a mountain outside of this tree-gathering, and I’ll find it for ye.”
The three other males kept their glances locked with the women for a while, then they took their axes and joined Cuchúan in his work. By the tunnel the women looked at each other. Her face uncertain, Bladdneit pushed herself away from the comforting rock. “My child needs a father,” she whispered, sharing a glance with each of the other women as if asking forgiveness before she joined her companion.
Fenice balled a fist and slammed it into the rock. “The gods be damned,” she muttered. “I’d rather take a good dwarf than an empty promise.”
“So do I,” Talisana agreed. She reached out to touch Marrigan’s arm. The latter’s face was still angry. “What do ye say?”
Marrigan was watching the male dwarves clearing the path, helped by the first two of the women who carried the hacked-off branches out of the way. “I see hardship ahead for our children. Little comfort and much work.”
Marrigan stroked her belly. “Ye shall have yer challenge, little one,” she told her belly, then took Talisana’s hand and headed towards the beginning of the path. “Let’s see what we can do in this alien place.”
They joined the other dwarves. Together they cleaved their path through the jungle, leading away from the tunnel of rock.
Maidoyú waited until they were out of sight, then she turned back to her ordinary form, landing hard on the jungle ground. The fall wasn’t as hard as the words of the dwarves had hit her. They were rejecting the gods? They were rejecting Maidoyú’s gift?
“Why?” she wondered emptily. A swarm of flitters rushed over her head, descending on the blossoms of which she had drunk a few moments earlier. Maidoyú shook her head. “I should be angry,” she said. That didn’t feel right, though.
For some reason she was still proud of the dwarves.
That thought frightened her more than their rejection.
Read on in Part XXII "The New Villagers"!