Roger got up before the sun rose above the mountain peaks to the east, but he could see their long shadows receding in the valley behind him. Cold dew covered everything, and small puffs appeared in front of Roger’s face with each breath.
The group mounted the horses and rode up into the mountains that lay before them. Hil chose their route, which quickly led them away from the main road onto a track covered by arching tree branches. It was narrow, and only allowed for riding in single file. They rode deep into a cleft between two high ridges before stopping abruptly before a stark cliff face.
Hil dismounted, walked up to the rock wall, and placed his fingers gingerly on it.
“Here we go,” Ari said sarcastically, rolling her eyes.
“Dwarf doors cannot be seen when shut, as everyone knows,” he said. He slid his hands along the surface, searching for something, until making a satisfied grunt.
Ari sighed, “They think it’s so clever.”
Hil shoved against the rock face with all his might. The stones shook, dust rained down, and there was a grating sound of stone scraping against stone. A dark, straight crevice appeared in the cliff face, and soon thereafter two great stone doors swung back. Across the threshold was a dark hallway–large by dwarf standards–that plunged down into the mountain.
“One dwarf road, as promised,” Hil said with satisfaction. The party dismounted and urged their horses into the darkness. To one side a candlestick holder had been left dangling from a hook, and Hil grabbed a candle from his saddle bag to mount onto it. Lighting it, he held it up next to his head. The flame flickered and danced inconsistently, the cheap tallow providing meager fuel. Hannah was the last to clear the doors, and she turned to shove against them. The stone slabs slid easily closed on well crafted hinges.
The candle illuminated a tunnel with cobbled floors. The ceiling and walls had been cut well, but were left rough and unpolished. Their shadows danced as the candle flickered.
“Ah, nothing like a good dwarf tunnel to fill the mind with mystery and adventure,” Hil said.
“Honestly, I hate it,” Ari grunted,, “Let’s get going as quickly as possible.”
For about the first half mile, Roger was fascinated. He imagined branching paths and hidden worlds beneath the mountain. Perhaps down here was a place where he could be someone, a place where he could make his mark. As the tunnel continued onward, straight and slightly down, step after step, he soon grew bored and he fell into the sullen walking trance.
Eventually they did come to a fork in the road. A small set of stairs, only wide enough for one, wound its way up and around a corner to the left.
“Where does that path go?” Roger asked.
“Oh, probably a latrine?” Hil replied, “Travelers need places to relieve themselves, and there are no trees to pop behind down here. Anything you drop will be left for a while, and nobody wants to come across your excrement.”
“I see.” Roger was disappointed.
They continued walking for several more hours before coming to a large cavern. Water flowed in a dark chasm beside the road, and the walls spread out to either side, disappearing into the darkness.
“Hey Hil,” Roger said, “Do you have any more of those candles? Not being able to see the walls is creeping me out.”
“Sure sure,” Hil said, lighting another candle and handing it to Roger, “But I don’t think one more little candle is going to help.”
It didn’t, but the little light bobbing next to his head still made Roger feel better somehow. The road wound its way over to one side of the cavern and began to climb upward. High above them the entrance to a tunnel was marked by a dark hole, and switchbacks had been cut into the cavern wall to allow access to it. Once they reached the top of the climb, Roger stood near the edge, candle extended at arm’s length. Its meager light created a small bubble of light directly around him, but could not penetrate the sea of empty darkness that filled the cavern. It made Roger shiver.
The silence was broken by the sounds of goblin voices echoing up from below. Many different individuals could be heard, and their feet were splashing around in the water that flowed beneath them.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Hil said, dashing over to stand next to Roger.
“Shurre-Na’s doing?” Ari suggested.
“Possibly, but not necessarily,” Hil replied, “Goblins and dwarves fill similar niches, so goblins frequently try to drive out dwarven settlers and take their tunnels as their own.” He paused before adding, “I’d be lying if I said that it hasn’t happened the other way around as well.”
“How close is the mountain home?”
“Still another day and half, maybe two days of walking.”
“So no backup if we run into those guys.”
“Probably not,” Hil said, “Hrothgar, back away from the edge. We should get away from here before our candles are noticed.”
Roger nodded and turned back into the tunnel. The horses, never thrilled to find themselves deep underground, snorted and stamped nervously. Moving on, they strained their ears against the darkness, trying to detect any sound of pursuing goblins, but all they heard was their own breathing and the sound of the horses’ hooves on the stone.
For his part, Gallant didn’t seem to be having much trouble. Of all the horses, he was the least unnerved by the situation as he plodded along sullenly behind Roger. He swished his tail from side to side, occasionally raising it to relieve himself.
“At least someone isn’t worried,” Roger said, rolling his eyes as Gallant dropped yet another pile of steaming defecation.
One side of the road fell away and Roger found himself standing high above a large cavern. The path wound around the top of the chasm before plunging into another tunnel beyond. Far below, light glowed in tiny pinpricks that filled every visible nook of the cavern floor.
“What’s all that?” Ari asked.
“That’s a dwarf town,” Hil responded, “I think it’s called Hf-” He said something that Roger wasn’t capable of comprehending.
“What was that?” Roger asked.
“Hf-” Once again, the majority of the word was beyond Roger’s ability to parse.
“Right, sure.” He decided to just ignore that for now.
“It’s pretty,” Hannah said.
“I agree!” Hil enthused, “There is nothing more beautiful than a dwarven town. The interplay of light and darkness; the drama of the deep shadows and flickering candlelight; the mystique of what may lie beneath, beside or above you at any moment; these all serve to shape the dwarven imagination and drive them to create the best of all cultures.”
Hil, realizing he was rambling, came back to himself and continued with composure, “At least, that’s one way of seeing things.”
“Hil,” Ari asked, “Why don’t you just live underground with dwarves all the time?”
Pain showed on Hil’s face, and he slumped down into his chest. “I would… But…” He hesitated, “I’m too big. I’ve tried to live with the dwarves before, but none of the things that they make work with my ridiculous proportions. Even regular humans have an easier time living in dwarf towns than I do.”
Hil sighed deeply.
“Forget I asked,” Ari said.
The road wound its way around the top of the cavern. The dwarf town twinkled down below, and now, as Roger looked, he could pick out tiny little people moving about, going about their business. The main roads were lit by lanterns on stone pillars, but further out, around the edges of the town, Roger saw individuals carrying candles as they went about their business. Some of these dwarves followed paths that led them up high above the town on the cavern’s floor. Spots of light hung, suspended in the darkness, shone out from the cavern walls, and Roger could almost imagine that he was looking at a starlit sky.
The path eventually led them into another tunnel, and the dwarven town went out of sight. Once again they were left walking through the narrow hall of stone, the only sounds their breathing and the horse’s footfalls. The tunnel continued onwards for hours, occasionally branching or widening into a broader cave. Each had dark corners that their candles could do nothing to illuminate.
After a while Roger felt himself getting tired. The path had been generally descending, but there had been several hard climbs. Mostly he was just tired of the long trek, however, and his eyes began to droop and his knees to shake.
“Are we ever going to stop?” he complained loudly. Ari gave him an annoyed look, but from her stooped shoulders he could tell she was just as tired as he was.
“We’re almost to a major crossroad,” Hil replied, “There’s a hostel there where we can rest.”
Hil was right, and soon they entered into a larger cavern with several roads leading out of it. Their candle light fell on to each of the dark gaping openings. A couple parties of dwarves scurried furtively from one to the other. Roger stared at them blankly before he realized why they looked so odd.
“Why aren’t these dwarves carrying candles?” he asked.
“Because major dwarf roads are lit by dwarf-light,” Hil explained, “They don’t need them.”
“What’s that?” Ari asked, for once looking just as confused as Roger.
“Hmm, how to explain,” Hil said, “There are these special rocks that contain a certain kind of crystals, and these crystals glow. Only, they glow in a color that humans can’t see, if that makes any sense…”
Roger’s high school physics class vaguely danced through his memory. Something about a visible spectrum and wavelengths of light above and below that band.
“Sounds like nonsense to me,” Ari snorted.
Any intelligent thought Roger may have been trying to form was discarded as he nodded along with Ari, finding her comment almost funny in his tired state.
“Regardless, it works. That’s how the dwarves can move around without candles.”
“That’s really neat and all,” Hannah interjected, “But where is this hostel? I really want to lie down, if you don’t mind.”
“Right this way, my dear,” Hil said, trying to sound cheerful, but even his unflappable manhood was beginning to show some drowsiness.
The hostel would have been quite easy to miss, as it was marked by only a low doorway, carved into the side of one of the tunnels. It was perfect for a dwarf, large enough for a human, but quite constricting for Hil. Beside the hostel was a small stable that had an adjoining room with straw thrown about on the floor that served as a corral. They put their horses up in the stalls, and entered the hostel.
It was dim inside, lit only by a few candles hanging in select places. The walls were made of carved stone that had been ground smooth. A band of etched carvings ran at about chest height around the perimeter of the room, and there were stone seats with worn cushions placed on them. Next to the door slept a particularly short dwarf, his white beard stretching nearly past his knees. Above his head, a dwarf sized poleaxe hung from the wall, but from the state it was in, and the size of the dwarf’s belly, it was hard to believe that it had been used in many many years.
Hil coughed loudly. “Excuse me, sir.”
The small dwarf snorted himself awake and looked up at them, his large dark eyes hooded by his sleepy eyelids.
The little dwarf sleepily glanced over them, his eyes becoming large with surprise when he realized they were all humans. “Human-erd here urs-sleep, khas?” the dwarf asked.
“That was horrible human speech, old timer,” Hil said, chuckling to himself. The small dwarf shook his head while rising to his feet.
“Hwot smanok, hwot smanok,” the dwarf muttered, shaking his head and blinking owlishly. “I sorry,” he managed to get out, his dwarven accent thick as Hil’s biceps. “You. Want. Room. Sleep. Right?”
“Damad khubil nif na, ursits,” Hil said. The little dwarf smiled and nodded, before wordlessly showing them down the hall. He gestured to two small wooden doors set into the stone wall, before turning to Hil, his hand extended. Hil dropped a small amount of money into his hand. The small dwarf spun around, his beard twirling around him, and stomped eagerly back to his napping spot.
These rooms were much like the common room, stone walls, a couple candles, and stone furniture. Even the beds were just a couple of stone shelves cut into the rock wall.
“Is there a mattress or pad we can use?” Roger asked, looking suspiciously at the bed.
“Traditionally, dwarves just sleep on the stone,” Hil replied, “They claim that they are born from a womb of stone, and so stone beds are comforting. If you really need something, you can pile up a bunch of blankets from the shelf.”
Roger did just that, and laid himself down. With the blankets between him and the rock, it wasn’t the worst feeling he’d ever had, but he wasn’t exactly comfortable either. He looked over at Hil, however, and his desire to complain disappeared. The large man had wedged himself into his dwarven shelf bed, his shoulders bent together, and his knees drawn up to his chest.
“Are you going to be alright like that?” Roger asked.
Hil gave him a blank look. “Yes. I am a dwarf. This is fine.”
“Suit yourself,” Roger said, but he was pretty sure that Hil was deceiving himself. He lay for a time, breathing in the moist stony air, and staring at the darkness above his head before drifting off to sleep.