"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"
CHAPTER TWO <=== / ===> CHAPTER FOUR
“Grapes!” Carter yelled when the debris piled up on top of Valanda, the boy, and myself. The vintner had just pushed one of his workers – a small, wiry, tough-as-nails man called Scraps – against the metal strut in the doorway when he saw the ceiling cave in. Now he turned around, ready to run straight through the continuing rain of stone and rock.
Red lashed out with his arm, smashed it right against his brother’s chest. “Idiot, not now!”
The vintner responded by shoving his fist into Red’s side. The latter brother winced, wanted to give back in kind – when Carter tried to hit his face. He didn’t make it for several of his laborers were now hanging onto his arms, dragging them down. “Sir, the quake’ll be over soon,” Scraps yelled, the sentiment echoed by the other fellows.
Torrindas – the man whose bed I had been given a little earlier – started out into the quaking cave, yelling, “I’ll take care of that,” in the strangely detached manner the head laborer of the eastern flank had. He was a middling man in most respects, except for his nose jutting out like a gallows from his face, and the quiet determination that made few doubt him about anything. The same held true in this case; where men had tried to stop Carter, their employer, none made any motion to hold Torrindas.
None of the laborers, anyway. The stones that hit him didn’t come from the ceiling, either – rather they were hurled sideways, straight over the pile of rocks under which the three of us were buried for the moment. Three whizzed by Torrindas before the man noted what was happening. The fourth impacted his chest, with enough force to make him stop, look down quizzically at one of the strips of magical light that had been scratched out. The fifth rang loudly against his helmet, rattling for a tiny instant in the fastenings of the visor, falling right before his eyes.
Torrindas dropped forward and shouted, “Attack!”
The others had noted, since the three first stones had invariably hit one of them. And more were coming from the passage we had taken minutes earlier. None of us could see who was throwing the stones at us – all we could detect were faint movements in the cones of light cast by the glowing chestplates -, but some of the stones managed to find exposed sections of flesh. And here they proved that they not only smarted but truly hurt. One laborer’s helmet had slipped, and the man had just taken it off to check the straps. A stone tore open his temple, another hit his eyes. Blood spewed from the wounds. The man’s name was Longstick. I can’t tell you any more about him, not even why he was given that name, since I never spoke to him.
While Torrindas hurried to get his bow and arrows from his back, only Red among the laborers in the doorway did the same. The others tried to shield themselves and Longstick from the onslaught. They succeeded for a moment, and one – Bluff, I think – worked to staunch the blood flowing from the man’s wounds. He had to stop quickly when more stones came from the other way.
Red turned around, shot an arrow blindly in that direction and was rewarded by a hail of stones that came directed at the glowing swirls on his chest. He staggered under the impacts, but he fired another arrow – and now he obtained a far better reward, a scream from the twilight beyond.
“Damn you, get moving!” Carter woke from his own shock, pulled his bow to the ready with one hand, and used the other to cuff whoever of his men was slow to respond.
Bluff did his best to secure Longstick on the ground, shielded his head with the man’s own shield, then he joined the fight to send arrows into the darkness – and trying to send the cones of light into the caves beyond, to discover who was throwing the stones.
None of us was an accomplished warrior. Red had spent some time in Cayaboré, done a tour of duty in their army – but he’d deserted during the first war he’d been sent to, admittedly after several months of fighting. Another of the laborers, Weathervane – who claimed he could sense the change of the weather in his bones -, had spent some time training in the militia of a nearby nobleman before coming to work for Carter. They were the fastest at drawing their arrows, followed at a considerable distance by Torrindas, and then by the others who were prone to fumbling the arrows rather than nocking and launching them instantly.
Our men also had the problem that there was such a hailstorm of stones. Very few got through the armor, but they hit the chainmail on the arms often enough, and that hurt enough that the men invariably would twitch, shake whichever part of their bodies was hit.
Carter gave orders, that half of the men should shoot towards the cave behind us, the others to take care of those ahead of us. His laborers did their best to follow suit, but they got confused every now and then, no matter that Carter yelled their names and the proper directions.
No, we weren’t a pretty sight. And chances were we would look a lot worse in short order.
Later on, Valanda would tell me that she had considered bringing her knee up between Grapes’ legs. To get him off her, so she could complete the spell.
I didn’t believe her when she told me, and I don’t now. Somehow I think she actually enjoyed how the boy had wanted to protect her. Oh, sure, she had fought against him, but she hadn’t taken that ultimate step. Perhaps, I’ll grant that much, because there hadn’t been any time left when both the ceiling and I collapsed on top of them.
Those thoughts were surely crushed out of her at that point. Grapes was holding on tightly to her, and she heard him whisper. Valanda spared me the tale of what exactly he whispered, but from the look on her face, I suspect that he was utterly frightened, calling for his mother, instead of being the valiant man he’d thought himself to be.
Truth be told, had I been able to, I would have gladly cried for my mommy, with so much stone banging down on me.
Still, Valanda kept her wits about her. She is that kind of woman. An earthquake – so, what’s there to worry about? She had clawed her fingers into her bag when the rocks fell down, taken a deep breath, and then itemized in her mind the spells which might be helpful. It took her perhaps a few heartbeats, then she spent her held breath on a few magical words that would save our lives.
Mine, for sure. I’m not the strongest of men, and I doubt that even a creature of hard muscle like Bluff would have survived the stones raining down on us. Her spell created a buffer around us, only a few inches thick, enough for a few moments of air. The buffer wasn’t very strong, and it gave way under the stones so I was still getting pummeled. But, thanks to Valanda, I had a decent chance of coming out no worse than after a serious bar brawl.
The wizardess was waiting for the ground under her to stop shaking. She felt the quivers in her back, more clearly than Grapes’ sobbing on top of her (and, she had enjoyed adding, my own frantic muttering about arydogs a bit higher). When the quake subsided, she concentrated. There wasn’t much air left, and the two male fools on her kept on wasting it with their mumbling.
She had to act quickly and hope that the spell she selected was right.
Weathervane was grazed by a stone that sliced his right cheek open. He flinched, his arrow went wide, hitting the wall only three yards away. The stone itself cascaded along two helmets further, taking those two men out of the arrow-shooting business for some more heartbeats.
For a moment, Torrindas was the only one launching arrows at the passage behind us. And our attackers realized this was the perfect opportunity to show themselves.
They were wild dwarves, of course. Lots of them. As many as my nightmares would conjure up, they came pouring through the passage, shouting, yelling, jabbing wooden spears with sharp stone tips at invisible foes ahead of them. What light there was created plenty of shadows, dancing around with every turn that one of the laborers made, directing the magic’s brightness elsewhere. It made the dwarves look more dangerous – if the sheer amount and their wild screams hadn’t been enough.
Torrindas kept shooting, as fast as he could, as best as he could aim. The latter wasn’t really that necessary, any arrow he launched would find a dwarven target. All did, and those hit were swept away by the flood coming after them.
The dwarves had crossed half the cave when Weathervane resumed shooting as well. The two with him, Theralas and Cardsleeve (your guess how he picked up that name), just stared at the deluge of dwarves. Carter noticed, turned around and shouted at them, while loading his bow with another arrow.
Red told the man closest to him – Scraps – to keep shooting at the front end of the cave, the others should fire at the attackers behind them. I think he knew it wouldn’t do much good, but there was the training he had received in Cayaboré. No matter how he had repaid his drill sergeants, he knew what to do. Including shouting at Weathervane, Theralas and Cardsleeve to kneel, so the rest could shoot over their heads.
Red himself turned back, joined Scraps in peppering the dwarves out there with arrows. In the cacophony he couldn’t possibly tell whether he hit anyone – no telltale scream could be heard.
He also missed how the pile over me flew apart as if a tornado had suddenly manifested itself around Valanda, Grapes, and me.
The entire pile shot away, at least a ton of rock, accompanied by sparks of light flashing here and there like fireflies. The stones found much more interesting targets, as far as I’m concerned, in the dwarves that were swept off their feet and driven to the walls by the barrage. Their bodies were slashed open, sliced, pummeled, flattened – much like I would have been, hadn’t it been for Valanda’s buffering spell.
Of course they didn’t all die. There was too little rock, and way too many dwarves.
But those who were only wounded, and those pouring in after them, were treated to a frightening sight. First, there were their comrades, and then there was Grapes who pushed me angrily off his back, much like a sack of wheat. He leaped up into the air, the dust painting his face and the armor white. He whooped loudly – completely unaware of the dwarves -, and there were tears running from his eyes, washing off the dust in small rivulets. That effect must have been strange to the dwarves, I’m sure.
And then Valanda rose. She had heard the dwarves scream, and understood that those hadn’t been the voices of our friends. (In truth, looking at the affair later, she would realize that she had chosen the wrong spell. If Carter and the others had been trying to dig us out, without any dwarves attacking, they would have been seriously hurt or perhaps killed.) Now her hands were already clawed to the telltale grip of fireballs. Liquid magic pooled in a heartbeat within the bowlshape of her fingers, and the next heartbeat the flaming globes shot towards the dwarves.
Two of the small creatures turned into instant torches, flailing their arms, rocking back, straight into the arms of their comrades – in the process setting some of them aflame as well. These wild dwarves wore furs. Now they found out that those were rather flammable, probably because of the grease they smeared on it (for added warmth, I suppose).
Valanda helped them understand that discovery with some more pairs of fireballs.
I must say the wild dwarves were quick to grasp what was happening. As fast as they had come in, as fast did they depart. Yells were exchanged with their friends on the other end of the cave. The stones stopped flying. For a while we had some peace and quiet.
Longstick would have peace and quiet for a longer time than the rest of us.
A lot longer.
After Valanda had beaten the dwarves back, Bluff smashed his right hand happily into his left, yelled victoriously, then knelt down by Longstick’s side. “Did you see that, buddy? The buggers burned like bonfires! Hey, Longstick!” He raised the shield over Longstick’s head – and then stopped when he saw the blood covering his comrade’s face. He hadn’t noticed the pool of red liquid under him until now, but it didn’t make that much of a difference. I never asked too closely what exactly had killed Longstick. Had the wounds to his head been simply too bad? Or had there been too much blood in his mouth and nose to keep breathing? Bluff couldn’t remember Longstick moving around a lot, as you would expect when somebody is drowning in his own blood. But he couldn’t remember much aside from shooting arrows, anyway.
And it didn’t bring Longstick back to us, either.
Carter was cradling his left arm when he walked over to his son. Grapes was cheering wildly, ran up to his father and embraced him in a bear hug – that ended suddenly when Carter winced. Grapes took a step back, watched his father confusedly. Only then did it start to dawn on him that the others had been in a battle, that more than a mere earthquake had happened.
Did I just write a “mere” earthquake? Maybe I am at liberty to do so – after all, I hadn’t experienced it. I was on the ground at that time, twitching helplessly as my mind ran through a variety of memories that were counterpointed by the aches all through me.
Well, Valanda took pity on me. Not at once, of course. First she exchanged some terse words with Carter – and then Red who joined them after a bit more of watching the tunnels for new assaults. Grapes was pushed aside, told to go over to the laborers and help them. The boy hated it. Wasn’t he family? Wasn’t he supposed to take part in this war council?
He finally obeyed when Carter shot him an angry glance, but I don’t think he did much helping. I never asked too closely about this, but from what I know about Grapes he probably stood around somewhere, doing his best to make his pretty face look angry. If the laborers were up to it, one or two probably smiled or laughed at that – which only enhanced the angry look and the mirth on the observers’ part.
There was no sign of further attack. Red complained to Carter that they should go back now and gather a bigger force. He didn’t say that Longstick wouldn’t be dead now if Carter had followed his advice earlier. I think Carter would have knocked his brother out if Red had done so.
Valanda let them dispute the matter further – only reminding them to keep their voices down -, then she knelt down next to me. From her bag she picked a towel, moistened it with a clear liquid and wiped the remains of the memory-inducing stuff from my lips and nose. That didn’t change much for me. I was starting to rise from the nightmares, I suppose, but it was only a marginal realization that there might be a present I could return to.
She opened my mouth, held the jaw firm with one hand, then poured a few drops of the clear liquid on my tongue. I must have been squirming under her touch – I seem to recall the horrible eyes of the arydogs most strongly at that point -, and then I was suddenly free of the memories, looking once more at Valanda’s face above mine.
“How do you feel, pilgrim?” she asked.
“Like the arydogs ate me, and I was just cut from their stomachs.” (All right, I am not certain I said that. It’s what Valanda claims I did, but she’s been kidding about a lot of things now and then. Oh, yes, she can be quite a kidder. Whenever she isn’t too busy being a professional hardass.)
Red noticed I was free from the spell and growled our way, “What did you do that for, Valanda? Wasn’t he supposed to guide us to the place where he found the dogs?”
“I believe,” Valanda replied, “we have already found our trail of the cúchulain.”
“The what?!” Carter, Red and I asked in unison.
The wizardess sighed. “The wild dwarves. They call themselves cúchulain, after the dweorgh who is said to be their race’s father. Do you really want a lesson in history?”
“I can die happily if all I know is that they’re dead,” Red replied, then glanced at Carter. “Provided we’re still alive.”
Carter was unperturbed. “That’s what we’re here for, Red, and that’s what we’ll do. Now.”
They were off on their little dispute again, paying me as little heed as they did their laborers. Well, less, as a matter of fact. They often exchanged looks and occasionally calls with their men, making sure that the wild dwarves weren’t coming back. For now, they weren’t.
Valanda helped me sit up, gave me a drink. Water, I believe. Nothing particular happened, like me sprouting wings or anything else you fancy that wizard’s drinks could do to you. “Was there an earthquake?” I asked after a moment, checking my body and discovering that I had a lot of new aches.
“You remember?!” she exclaimed – and I found myself at least as surprised as she was. It took a while but some of the events of the past hours started seeping into my consciousness. As I said there had always been a tiny part of me aware of our trek into the caverns. Valanda questioned me quickly – firing a question at me, waiting for only a few words from me before following up with another. I was more confused afterwards than before.
And very much afraid. By that time I had noticed the changes to the cavern, the dead dwarves, the dead human that Bluff and Weathervane were burying under debris. (Nobody had told them to. They knew their employer well enough that he wouldn’t return to Guardpeak, and that they couldn’t carry Longstick’s corpse around with them.) The men were quite a sight. Many of the glowing enamel strips on their chests were scratched, some of the flaked off pieces had merged with blood and dust into a dimly lit mélange that looked like a volcano’s lava. (I had seen the real thing the year before, in the south. A good area where my pilgrim routine had netted me a lot of money – until that bloody volcano decided to erupt and ruin everything. Except for the good boots I still had back then.)
“Can I go back now?” I asked Valanda. I must have sounded like a little boy who was begging his mother to be allowed back home after a long and tiring trip to the market two villages on.
The wizardess shook her head slowly. She handed me the canteen with water again, told me to drink. I did, wondering how exactly I had displeased the gods so much. All right, so I wasn’t actually heading for Sirap and the Divine Speaker. Not intentionally, anyway. Yes, I spent most of the coins I got from the faithful in the next tavern (or some other interesting places), but then again I was getting closer to Sirap. After all, I couldn’t turn around and head back the way I’d come, you see? What would people think if the pilgrim on his way to Sirap came by a couple of weeks or months later, still claiming to be on his pilgrimage? Pretty easy to see through that ruse. So I had been drifting in the vague direction of Sirap – albeit that I was mostly traveling north and south rather than the straight eastern course. If one didn’t count how much benefit I was reaping from faking the pilgrimage, why, you might mistake me for one! (Which is the point, but at that moment I was convinced the gods must have had it in for me, and I was looking for a good enough excuse.)
“But I’m no good to you anymore,” I said. Or whined, more likely. “Why can’t I just get back to Guardpeak, and –“
“Because I won’t spare anybody to guide you,” Carter interrupted gruffly. I was surprised to find that he had finished his discussion with Red, striding over to us now. (Red’s face was unreadable. He watched his brother and Valanda for a brief moment, then turned jerkily around and walked to the others.) “If you want to risk running into the dwarves or their dogs on your own, you’re welcome. Otherwise you’d be smart to stay close to us.”
“But you want to go towards the dwarves!” I said, intending to jump up. I had to stop a quarter of the way when my body complained loudly, and I collapsed back to the ground.
Carter snorted. That was as far as he was willing to comment. Not a lot of comfort to me, as he walked off to get the party back on the move.
“I’m sorry,” Valanda said. She took the canteen, paused to take a sip herself, then she called after Carter, “Let him wear the dead man’s armor.”
Carter stopped in mid-stride. He turned around slowly, opened his mouth to speak – but Grapes was faster. “No way, Val! That’s a no-good thief, and he will not wear a good man’s armor. Longstick died for us, and that –“
“He saved our lives.” Valanda’s voice was quiet but firm. Enough to cut through the voices of the other laborers who had started shouting along the same lines as Grapes had. All their eyes were firing angry glances my way, as if it had been me who had come up with the idea. Don’t get me wrong – I would surely appreciate having more than my thin clothes to protect me. But the armor of a dead man?! It hadn’t done Longstick much good, right? Not to mention that the Messenger of Death had visited him in that armor. His fingers had touched the armor and the man within. Gods, I had no desire at all to even touch it as well!
“No, he saved his own!” Grapes shot back. “Look, Val, it was me who got you, and the idiot just fell on top of us!”
“How many rocks hit you, Grapes?” She pointed at me. “Look at the pilgrim. He’s been battered by the rocks meant for us. Without my spell he’d be dead, but you and I would still be alive. If that –“
“Enough!” That was Carter. His shout echoed through the cavern, and more than one pair of eyes shot to the ceiling, wondering if the rest of the rock would come down. The vintner raised his hands, waited until everybody was quiet. “She’s right. Weathervane, Bluff, Cardsleeve, dig Longstick out from those rocks. Pilgrim, you put it on. Can you shoot a bow?”
“Can I –“ I was stuttering, adding some more nonsensical sounds. Abysses, I could barely stand! What did it matter whether I knew my way around a bow? Obviously, it did to Carter. He came over to me, repeated his question in a tone that cut through my bones. “Uhm, I used to hunt a little when I was younger. Rabbits, and –“
“Good enough,” Carter nodded. The laborers hadn’t moved, and now they received the vintner’s rage when he yelled at them to get moving. This time a few rocks fell from the ceiling – not many, thank the gods, but enough to make Weathervane and Cardsleeve jump into action.
Bluff, though, strode forward and shook his head. “I’m not going to do this. Boss, that’s Longstick here! Let him be buried in his armor, and don’t sully –“
“Shut up,” Torrindas cut him off. He was in the next cave, keeping a lookout, his bow at the ready. He didn’t come back in, just spoke over the heads of his fellow laborers. “We’re taking the pilgrim along, and without the armor he’ll be dead in the next bout with the dwarves. You want that on your soul?”
Bluff looked ready to shout something ferocious back – then he caught himself, threw a deadly glance my way, and shook his head. “Do what’s needed,” he muttered, folding his arms before his chest.
“How kind,” Carter said as he walked past him. Bluff blanched when the vintner looked at him. I can only imagine what Carter had looked like at that point, and honestly, I don’t want to imagine that. As I found out in later events, there was little that could really unsettle Bluff like that.
So it happened that I was wearing Longstick’s armor when we took up our spelunking again. It was heavy, and I could barely move in it at first. After a while it would get easier – perhaps my muscles simply gave up complaining, or I stopped noticing.
There was blood on the armor. Longstick’s. I wanted to get it off, but there was no water we could spare for that. Nor was Carter willing to spare the time.
And no, neither of the laborers would have helped me. They didn’t speak to me at all. Their expressions were all too easy to read. I wasn’t one of them, and I had the gall to wear one of their comrade’s armor.
To my great fortune I didn’t care much about that. I was rather too worried that I would exchange their company for that of the Messenger of Death all too soon.