"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"
From here on, downloads will only be listed at the Downloads page!
"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER THREE <=== / ===> CHAPTER FIVE
“We drove them off!” Rymondas exclaimed, pumping his thin fist into the air. He was a rather nondescript fellow, more likely to bear the nickname Slim than anybody else in the group. (Which reminds me – I will never understand how the actual Slim Tim got his sobriquet. Neither was he particularly slim – nor fat, by the way -, nor was his real name anywhere close to Tim. On the other hand, Glaurniveras is pretty tough on the tongue, an abyss a lot worse than Slim Tim.)
We were walking through a cavern that looked no different from any of the dozens we had passed before. I didn’t have much of an idea how deep we had descended into Deersrun Hill – at best I could say that it was pretty darn deep. My feet were tiring, and my body was one single spot of pain. Strange, though, that I didn’t mind it a lot. The first hour or so had been awful. On the one hand, the other laborers – with one or two exceptions – kept glaring at me as if I had killed Longstick myself. On the other hand, I had been completely focused on my various aches, and how they seemed to be flowing into one continuous stinging heat.
Then something changed, so gradually that I only realized a while later. The hurt was still there, but it didn’t intrude upon my consciousness anymore.
Occasionally I have heard athletes talk about that – the ones who take part in the occasional festivals honoring one deity or another. You simply forget about your hurts, and you keep pushing on. The next day, once this effort is over, you will suffer all the worse. Yet you will have conquered your pain and your weakness for one day, and the confident memory will carry you into similar exertions at other times.
There was nothing akin to pride in my mind, of course. I was simply determined to somehow get through this, find my way back up to Guardpeak and a nice, comfortable bed where I could spend the next couple of years.
I was fantasizing about that bed (yes, the one I had borrowed from Torrindas) when Rymondas decided it was time for a victory shout. The words broke through my shell, made me think for a moment that I was getting close to that bed.
Grapes commented quickly, “Val drove them off!” He shot a sideways glance at the wizardess walking close to him, hoping she would acknowledge him. No luck there. Valanda kept on walking and left it to somebody else to douse the cheers.
That person was Red who grunted, “The dwarves’re still in here. Stop shouting, or we’ll have the whole band on our heads again.”
“That would be good,” Cardsleeve replied with a bright grin. “Then we could clean up and get back to bed. Y’know, I was having a real good dream when you yelled me out of it.”
“Go on nursing that dream,” Red slapped him hard on the back, “and I’ll yell you out of it again.”
Cardsleeve made a face, turned his head and walked a step faster. The others did their best not to comment again, including Rymondas. The latter man’s face showed proof, though, that he was convinced they were only walking for walking’s sake.
That would have been nice, wouldn’t it? And I would have preferred just being out on a stroll, no matter that I was aching. The problem was that this discussion set me to thinking about the past events. I had an outsider’s view on things, I suppose, which made me process them differently.
Whatever the truth, after a while more of silence I closed up to Valanda and Carter. They noticed me – probably more my huffing and puffing under the strain. Carter seemed willing to ignore me, but the wizardess graced me with a terse smile. She wasn’t doing that well, either. I’m pretty sure that the glamor on the wrinkles in her face was weaker than before.
“Is something wrong, pilgrim?” she asked me when my breathing got a bit less noisy.
“Well,” I drew the word out long, uncertain of my own thinking – and especially whether I should mention it at all -, “how did the dwarves know there would be an earthquake? As I take it they attacked right after the ceiling fell down, didn’t they?”
Carter shrugged. “Coincidence, that’s all. They must’ve set their ambush earlier, then they decided it was time to pick us off.”
“I don’t like it.”
Bluff – a step ahead of us – didn’t turn when he muttered, all too audible for me, “Longstick sure didn’t like it, either.”
The vintner stabbed his fist into the small of Bluff’s back. “Get to the front and spell Scraps from scouting ahead. Weathervane, take over from Red.” I wondered whether he was rescuing me, or did he simply want the grumbling to stop? Then Carter looked at me, as dire as I had seen him before. It gave me an idea of how Bluff had felt a bit earlier. “Why don’t you like it, pilgrim?”
My instincts told me to look for the nearest hole to climb in and hope that Carter would ignore me again. Unfortunately my wits told me that I was already in the deepest hole there was in the vicinity, and it was filled with wild dwarves. So I answered, “They knew where we were. Abysses, the dwarves knew about us in the first place! And then the quake… They aren’t common, are they?”
It was Valanda who answered, cutting Carter off from speaking, “No, they are not. The last I heard about happened fifteen years ago. Also,” she waved her hand about, “it didn’t damage any of the other caves. The glowater bowls around here have been destroyed by the dwarves or the dogs, not the quake.”
Carter’s eyes tightened, as well as his fists. “Go on.”
The wizardess shrugged. “Had it been a natural quake, there would have to be collapses in other areas. There aren’t any.”
Grapes shouted excitedly, “Magic? Are you saying that magic caused the quake? But –“ His excitement suddenly waned, replaced by confusion. “You didn’t cause it,” he said after a brief moment. Oh, yes, the boy had a hard time associating magic with anybody but the wizardess.
“Dwarves can’t do magic,” Cardsleeve muttered – casting a quick glance around whether Red would cuff him again for speaking out of line. The vintner’s brother didn’t pay him any attention, though; his brow was furrowed in unpleasant thoughts.
Valanda shook her head. “I have never heard about wild dwarves using magic. The other races do, especially the songdwarves. Their bards are somewhat like our clerics and wizards. Maybe the cúchulain –“
“Can they cause quakes?” Carter interrupted roughly.
“I don’t know,” Valanda shrugged. “Things being as they are, it seems likely though. It’s also likely that they can track us magically.”
“Do something about it,” the vintner growled, turned half-about with a jerk and stomped to the head of our group.
The wizardess sighed. A small sigh, almost unnoticeable. I was close enough to notice, and I also saw the look of frustration in her eyes. Later on she would confirm my suspicions. She had already been trying to find out about any dwarven magic, without any luck. And now she didn’t want to admit her failure. Because we might think less of her? Because we might get panicky? She would claim the latter, and I will leave it at that.
We didn’t exchange any more words about the topic for a while, because that was when the noise from down below started.
It was a dull grinding at first, reminding us of the earthquake – large slabs of rock shifting, grating on each other. Some of us headed for the nearest support struts, the others were frozen in their paces, listening to the noise. It wasn’t a quake, I realized right away. Not for my grand experience in the matter, obviously, but for another reason.
“There’s a rhythm!” I marveled. “Do you hear that?”
Scraps grunted, “Boom-ba-boom-boom!-boom.”
Slim Tim looked at him as if he had gone mad. So did Red and Theralas, but Torrindas nodded slowly. “That’s the one. The pilgrim’s right, Scraps, there is a rhythm.”
“Boom-boom!-boom-boom-ba-boom,” Scraps went on grunting along with the grinding noise drifting up toward us. He started nodding, clapping his hands softly on his thighs.
“Stop it!” Carter ordered, a tinge of nervousness in his voice before he turned to Valanda. “What is that? The dwarves?”
The wizardess shrugged. “I know as much as you do. They might just be digging.”
“Wild dwarves?!” Slim Tim shouted – silenced at once by angry and frightened glances by the rest of us. Glances that kept travelling towards the ceiling, as Slim Tim’s did as well. Then he shook his head ferociously and said, in a much lower tone, “I mean that I’ve never heard of wild dwarves doing any digging. They just rob things from everybody else, especially the other dwarven races. They don’t dig mines, they don’t build villages or anything like that.”
I really ought to mention here the surprised expressions on my comrades’ faces. Including a rather suspicious one on Grapes’. “How do you know that?” he asked while stepping ahead in front of Slim Tim. They were about the same size, but Grapes’ slender and graceful build made him look much smaller. “Know any dwarves personally?”
Slim Tim scowled at him, “If I did, I wouldn’t be here. Get out of my –“ Again he caught himself short, swiveled his head towards Carter. Uh-oh. He’d just brushed off the boss’s son, hadn’t he?
The vintner raised an eyebrow, then turned around to stare down the tunnel ahead of us.
Grapes hadn’t noticed any of this. He was too busy stabbing a finger before Slim Tim’s eyes and questioning him. Finally Slim Tim had enough – all right, it didn’t take him much longer than a few heartbeats after Carter turned away -, and he caught Grapes’ finger, gave it a good squeeze that made the boy groan. “No, I do not know any wild dwarves, dungworm. If you paid any attention to your own home, you might find that there’s a fornicating library in there, got that?”
He gave the finger a slight spin, enough to make Grapes’ entire – rather stupefied – body turn.
Torrindas placed his hand on Slim Tim’s shoulder. “’s all right, man. Nobody’s accusing you of anything.”
“A fine thing that would be,” Slim Tim growled, then rolled his eyes. “I won’t hurt the brat, all right?”
At that point something else changed. We didn’t notice right away – the men around Slim Tim were voicing their agreement with the affair, some whispering that Grapes deserved a bit of putting down. (If you’re wondering, I was close to saying something along those lines as well. Smart that I am, I didn’t. But I was certainly elated that the laborers didn’t have any more affection for Grapes than I had.)
But I was mentioning the change. The grinding noise continued, so far away that it sounded like dozens of tons of rock moving. Now something was added to the noise, similar to the original sound in many ways. Only after some close listening could one note that it was a voice. Gravelly, deep, echoes distorting it, making it more and more inhuman. The source was probably inhuman as well.
A wild dwarf.
A bard, practitioner of magic that combined both the wizardly and clerical our kind is accustomed to.
Scraps noted it first, with those ears of his attuned to music. He mentioned it, but it took him a while to break through the conversation. Then we all fell silent and listened to the voice singing. That made all our discussion of natural phenomena moot – it was a kind of music coming from the caves below us. Alien music that might have a touch of magic about it. Hostile magic.
“Let’s get going,” Red said, pointing over his shoulder. “We’ve got a long way ahead of us.”
“Going?!” Wharfrat exclaimed in shock. “Don’t ye hear that? They’re waitin’ f’r us down there!”
Oh. Right. I haven’t mentioned Wharfrat yet, have I? I guess I should have listed all the names in the beginning, but frankly I don’t quite feel like changing any of what I wrote before. Not too much, mind you. There is still so much to tell, and I only have a few days left of writing before… Ah, no, I won’t mention that. You will learn about what happened to me in due order. Grant me this bit of waxing eloquently, please. It is one of the few joys left to me these days.
Wharfrat. Right. Well, it’s an oddity to find a man of his ilk among Carter’s laborers. He’s on the small side, short of five and a half feet, I’d say. (He’s smaller than I am, and that means something!) His skin is a strange kind of paled olive color – like you get when olive oil gets cold and flaky. By what I’ve found out about him, he’s from the Thousand Islands, the marine nation in Shane’s Sea to the north. Nobody knows exactly why he left – perhaps he killed somebody, perhaps he took the wrong side in one of the many disputes of his home nation, it doesn’t matter. He wandered into the region about five years before my tale, asked for a job and has been with Carter’s operation ever since. His real name is tough to pronounce, I take it – as foreign names often are -, and so he was dubbed Wharfrat. A good name insofar as he surely knew more wharfs than any of the rest of us, as far away from the sea as we are.
Torrindas turned on Wharfrat immediately, focusing his calm eyes on the island man. “We have known that before.”
“Hey,” Cardsleeve shot a step forward, “they hadn’t been chanting some heathen songs then!”
(“Heathens” he called the dwarves. How right he was, and how wrong. The bloody little things don’t believe in any gods. Have you ever tried to get some money out of a dwarf for your pilgrimage? Of course, you haven’t. Let’s just say it’s one more reason not to like them. Of course, that journey gave me a much better one.)
“The dwarves’re killers,” Wharfrat nodded, heartened by Cardsleeve’s support.
It didn’t matter much to Torrindas – nor to Carter who punched both the dissenters in their backs. “You heard my brother. Get going.”
The vintner needed a bit more than those words to make those two obey. Oh, not a lot. He just graced each of them with one of those cold stares of his, the ones that make your marrow turn to ice.
We started our journey again, accompanied by the grinding rock noise and the singing voice.
A cave or two later, Grapes sidled up to Slim Tim, a mix of mischievousness and impetuousness on his face, and he asked whether Slim Tim could understand the words. The laborer tensed his shoulders, sped up his steps, and muttered something to himself. He was close enough to me that I could clearly hear the words, “Damn dungworm!”
I guess he thought he’d gotten all the leeway he would ever receive from Carter in dealing with the vintner’s son. But I was sure that he wouldn’t let the boy annoy him much longer. A man whose parents had stiffed him with the name Glaurniveras had already had so much trouble in his life, he wasn’t about to take much of anything from a cocky little boy.
Nothing much happened for the next couple of caves. We found a tunnel that corkscrewed further down, a much faster way than the slanting caverns we had relied on until then.
Well, “nothing much” doesn’t mean that nothing at all happened.
At the mouth of the corkscrew tunnel, Carter called for a stop and rounded up his brother. “I can’t recall this one, Red. Is it on the map?”
Yes, we did have a map of the caverns with us. Or rather, Red did. I’ve already mentioned that he can be a resourceful chap now and then, haven’t I? Certainly one who likes to think his way through things before he does them. (Later on he confided in me that he had to force himself to change after deserting the Cayaborean army. He’d joined their forces on a whim, because of a spat with his father. Obviously he regretted his rash decision quickly, and decided he’d better learn that lesson. Especially since his father had died in the meantime, and Carter had already taken over the winery.)
Now Red shook his head, stuck his hand inside his armor – I discovered at that point there was a leather bag in a hollowed out space behind the breastplate, which Longstick had used to carry a canteen of a very harsh liquor, some strips of dried meat and an apple; all of which came in very handy for me during the following time – and withdrew a leather tube. Red unstoppered it, upended it for the map to slide out.
Instead of parchment, flakes of ash tumbled out, painting his fingers white.
“What the dark –“ Red exclaimed, staring at the flakes on his hand. He shook the tube vigorously, loosening some more flakes, but not the map.
We all gathered around him, taking turns to peek into the tube – it was completely empty, save for some remaining white ash. Red muttered something about having been sure to place the map inside, that he had consulted it several levels above this one, and that it had been fine, and –
“The dwarven bard,” Valanda said quietly. Her words cut through the drone of our discussion (in which I took part without fully being aware), and we looked at her. “Now we know,” she continued, “what the song is about. At least one part of it. The bard’s magic destroyed the map.”
“How can he do that?!” Grapes said furiously. “Uncle Red didn’t notice anything, and the map burned up like –“
“Grapes! Quiet!” Carter cut in, waved for Valanda to continue.
The wizardess sighed, smiled briefly at Grapes – the boy’s face lit up, and mine surely darkened -, before she said, “I doubt there was any fire. Perhaps a cold flash. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the bard’s spell, it was aimed at all descriptions of the cave system in fixed form. Maybe it also destroyed the carvings in the third level.”
“Don’t be absurd, Mistress Valanda!” Theralas complained. “My great-grandfather carved those maps. I will not believe that a dirty wild dwarf could destroy them!”
She shrugged. At that point, it was a rather common gesture of hers. “We would have to go back up to see for ourselves. Carter,” her eyes had stayed on the vintner all the time, “the bard is powerful. He created an earthquake. He destroyed the map. I am not sure I am a match for his power. Or hers.”
“Hers?!” a voice from the crowd cried. I’m not sure who it was – maybe Cardsleeve, maybe Rymondas. The voice surely sounded insulted – a mere girl might be causing us all this trouble? Oh, my, dear reader, you should have seen the look on Valanda’s face. Little as the complainant understood, she was female herself. (Though I wonder how anybody could miss that. Abysses, even without the glamor on her face, no male could possibly ignore the full body of our wizardess.)
“Yes, hers,” Valanda said harshly. “Dwarves don’t consider their females inferior.”
Slim Tim brightened, whispered – a bit too loud for his own comfort, since Grapes instantly seized upon his words -, “True! The women were born of the dweorgh’s axes of gadnú, they are the continued existence of the sacred metal in our world.” After that, as I intimated, Grapes and Slim Tim were embroiled in another discussion of theirs. This time, Slim Tim didn’t back down – not all the way, since he wanted to keep Carter relatively unaware. But he promised Grapes some rather unpleasant events in the near future.
Their discussion didn’t go all unnoticed, nor – obviously – did Valanda’s comment. For a moment she paused, while Carter and Red gave a round of their best angry stares to silence the rest. It took them a while, and I heard plenty of comments along the lines of “Bearded girls! Dwarves’re sick if they want stubbles while they’re kissing.” (I surely would agree with that. I’m so happy that I have not a drop of dwarven blood in my veins. Oh, all right, I am a chronicler of these events, and I should hasten that – for all I know – female dwarves do not have beards. Then again, I surely never looked very closely at them.)
I was exchanging some mutters of that sort with Weathervane when we noticed our leaders’ angry stares and fell silent along with the rest. It fell to Carter to break the silence he had created himself. “Valanda,” he said gruffly, “you are a powerful wizardess. The dean of the Mercurham college wanted you as a teacher. He wouldn’t do that if you were a three-coppers weakling.”
“Of course not,” she replied, a tinge of haughtiness in her voice. (I was relieved to hear that. For a moment she sounded as if she would go on by saying that no dumb dwarf could ever rival her in magic. Alas, by that time, I was rather infatuated by her sweet lips as well as with the idea of staying alive.) “Yet there is a problem. Carter, I am dealing with a dwarven bard. She uses not only wizardly magic but also the clerical kind. I cannot alter any object in existence, unless my spell creates an outside force. Priests can only alter objects. The dwarf, she can do both.”
She paused for a moment, letting the thought sink into our stubborn (male, she would probably stress) minds – but before we could draw any conclusion that Valanda was inferior to the dwarf, she went on easily, as if she were holding a lecture in a classroom, “Dwarven bards are hampered by this, of course. They have to affect two different kinds of magic, unify them in their songs. Thus they cannot do all the things that a priest or a wizard could do with our special brands. On the other hand, by combining these brands, they are able to create effects that neither cleric nor wizard could do. It is a matter of alien forces, Carter, not a matter of power.
“What we need right now is clerical power, no matter how weak. If it were combined with my wizardly strength, we would gain an advantage.”
Red laughed – clearly despite his best efforts -, “I’m sorry, Val, but there isn’t a priest among us. Abyssal demons, what I wouldn’t give for an Alyssian priestess right now!”
Some chuckles ran through the crowd – mine included. I wouldn’t have minded having a priestess of the goddess of love along with us. At the very least she could have offered that clerical power, and as for the fact that she was a servant of love personified – oh, well, you know!
Valanda wasn’t perturbed by any of our comments. She glanced at Red, said with a light smile, “You are a crude man, Garland.”
Ouch! That hurt Red a lot, reminded of his true name like that. I didn’t understand, of course. I learned about his name quite a while later. Some of the laborers shared my confusion, but they – and I – eagerly shared in the soft laughter that followed, started by Carter and Torrindas who were very much aware.
“Whatever,” the wizardess said then, cutting our mirth short. “We may not need a full priest. All we need is somebody who has access to the gods, whose faith has been proved by his exertions and his suffering in the name of the divine. This somebody may be granted, in times of utter need, access to magic as well.”
We were quite confused by that – all of us, this time, since none of us understood the implications of her words.
Well, kind reader, do you understand? I suppose you do, since you are not stuck in a cavern, buried under hundreds of feet of rock, in stuffy air, with the prospect of murderous wild dwarves assaulting you any heartbeat.
I also suppose that you think of me as a dumb clod who cannot conclude that rain is coming from the sight of dark clouds in the skies. Perhaps you are right. Valanda certainly would agree with you.
She turned towards me – and I still did not understand. Not until she spoke anew, “We have you, pilgrim. You have suffered for the gods. Apply to them now, to help you in your time of need.”
Valanda smiled, rather cheerfully. I would have loved to lose myself in the sight of her beautiful face, aided by a glamor or not, the lips that I would much later find to be in truth as rich and rewarding as they looked. She wanted to aid me as much as herself, by the way. The wizardess had realized how the others had reacted to my putting on Longstick’s armor, and for some reason she had taken a liking to me. The gods alone know why!
None of that mattered to me at the time. All that I could think about was that I never had suffered in the name of the gods – at best, I had suffered through talking to dumb people for some more coins to buy my next ale or wine in the nearest tavern.
Oh, by all the dark abysses where demons dwell! What were the gods going to say if I – the fake pilgrim – raised my voice to them, asking for their help?
“Go on,” Valanda smiled gently. “It will not hurt to try, pilgrim.”
I wasn’t sure of that. Maybe Decirius would decide to hurry up his Messenger of Death, especially for me. I closed my eyes, knowing that there was no way out of trying.
But what would happen after I tried?
Read on in Chapter Five!