That night the trio camped out in a little cleft in the rocks. They lit no fire, and waited in the dark for the sun to rise. They took turns watching for ogres and other monsters, but–even when not on watch–they didn’t sleep much.
The sun shone on Roger’s face, waking him from restless sleep. His eyes felt like they were full of dirt, and he was legitimately surprised when he was able to stand considering how much his hips and thighs objected. Hannah blinked slowly awake next to him, eyes fully bloodshot. She stretched out, and then cringed back into a ball before rolling over with a moan.
“Nope,” she said, “I’m not getting up today.”
Ari hopped down from the boulder where she had been keeping a lookout. “You two are awake. We should get moving soon.” She looked just as tired as the rest, with well defined bags under her eyes, and she still had mud around one of her ears despite her best efforts to clean up.
“I believe I said quite clearly that I was not awake,” Hannah said.
“I guess we’ll just leave her then,” Roger said flatly to Ari.
Hannah rolled over with a groan and pushed herself unsteadily up onto her feet. She glared at the two of them wordlessly, as though her exhaustion was their fault. She wasn’t completely wrong.
They set out down the mountain’s slope, heading in a direction that would intersect with the trail a ways down lower. They pushed through the grass and bushes of the undergrowth, slipping down as they went. At first Roger enjoyed going downhill, as it took the pressure off from the muscles he had used climbing uphill, but eventually he just developed new aches. He resigned himself to the fact that mountain climbing was a horrible and painful experience.
Soon their route intersected with the trail, and they staggered out onto it. Every few steps one of them would lose their footing and slip slightly before catching themselves. They kept on in this manner until Ari leaned up against a tree and stopped.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m just very dizzy all of a sudden.” She then fell to her knees, and looked up at them with surprise. Evidently, she hadn’t meant to do that.
A large dark mass came around the corner, just a few feet away from them. Roger’s hand found his dagger’s hilt and tugged. It was stuck and wouldn’t come free of the scabbard.
A square figured man, very well muscled, stood before them. He had black flowing hair with a closely cropped beard of the same color. He carried a tall, thick bow–unstrung–with a quiver full of arrows at his belt, and was dressed in a brown tunic, green hose and a hood the color of raw linen. His deep brown eyes thoughtfully regarded each of them in turn.
“Hold on there, little man,” he said to Roger, “You don’t need to be scared of me.”
Roger stopped trying to remove the dagger from its scabbard, but he didn’t lower his guard.
“Do you three need help of some kind, perhaps?” he asked. He had a deep voice that seemed to rumble out of him like the sound of a waterfall falling into a cave. A moment of silence stretched between them. Roger was having a hard time forcing his brain to come up with a proper response.
“Help, yes,” Ari said, pulling herself to her feet by leaning against a tree, “We probably do need help.” Hannah nodded vigorously in agreement.
The big man relaxed with a genuine smile, a welcoming gesture that seemed strange on his broad dark features. “Alright then, come with me. I’ll let you stay the afternoon at my home. If you like.”
“Thank you,” Ari said, “Although, if you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand. I can’t seem to stand.” The big man stepped over to her, and she reached out to lean on him. Instead, he swept her up and carried her in his trunk-like arms.
Roger felt a pang of jealousy. It’s not like he really wanted to be with Ari, but, after all, she was pretty attractive. It didn’t seem fair that he had run over a mountain to save her, and she hadn’t even considered letting him be her crutch.
“Alright everyone, this way.” The man led them away down the trail in the same direction they had been going. “Where are you folks coming from?” he asked politely.
“We reached the top of the pass around sunset last night,” Roger said.
The large man made a troubled sound in response, “That’s not exactly the safest plan.”
“You don’t have to tell us twice. We ran into three ogres, and only just escaped.”
The man gave Roger a quick surprised look before returning to watching the path, “I’m surprised you escaped at all. You three against three ogres, that’s not good odds.”
“Well, it wasn’t just us…” Roger stopped before going further. To be honest, he didn’t really know how to explain the group of thugs that had kidnapped Ari, and she, for her part, had fallen asleep in the large man’s arms. Roger felt the jealousy again. This time it was mostly because his arms weren’t that thick.
“I’m Roger, by the way,” Roger said to divert the conversation away.
“Hr-o-dz-ar? That’s a strange name!”
Oh right, Roger thought to himself, they can’t pronounce my name in their language. “Yeah, I’m a foreigner. It’s basically the same as the name Hrothgar that you have around here.”
“Ah, Hrothgar. A good name. I’ve known several good people named Hrothgar,” the large man said, “My name is Hil.”
“Nice to meet you Hil,” Hannah said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, “I’m Hannah and that’s Ari.”
“I am glad to make your acquaintance!” he said heartily.
Hannah grinned, “The pleasure is all mine.” The two of them smiled, basking in the small moment of mutual goodwill.
Roger couldn’t help but be slightly annoyed. Literally nobody had ever reacted like that to him ever, especially not a woman.
They walked in silence a little ways before Hil spoke again, “I’m surprised that you would run into ogres anywhere near here. Usually, wolves and bears are the most dangerous things you can encounter up at the pass. The dwarves usually keep this area…” He trailed off into his own musings. Roger nodded along politely, waiting for Hil to continue, but went back to walking when he didn’t.
It was approaching midday when Hil unexpectedly turned off the path. “My home’s this way. Keep close,” he said.
At first Roger thought that they were just winding aimlessly through the woods, but he soon came to realize that there was actually a fairly well defined, grassy track that was intentionally created to twist around rock and trees. He started to feel a bit apprehensive that he wouldn’t be able to find his way back if something went sour.
“Why is this path so twisted,” Roger asked, “We could have come from over there much more quickly if we’d just gone straight.”
“Just another way to deter callers,” Hil responded.
After several more twists Roger started to feel dizzy, but, luckily for him, they arrived at Hil’s home not long after. Its foundation was formed by enormous stones so large that Roger had a hard time imagining how they had been arranged. That is, he had a hard time until he caught a glimpse of Hil’s biceps flexing beneath his shirt. On top of the stones a simple timber and daub home had been constructed. It had a roof of sod, but other than that it looked very similar to the peasant houses they had stayed in earlier.
“Nice house,” Ari said, peeling her face away from his shirt. She left a small muddy puddle of drool and dirt where she had been lying.
“Thanks. I’d like to say I built it myself, but I did have a little help,” Hil said, a hint of pride showing on his face.
As though on cue, a couple of people, just as thick as Hil while being about a foot shorter than Roger, stepped out of the house. They had long beards and clever eyes, and each wore a blue hood. Their clothes were plain, but they were fastened with bright metal buckles and buttons that shone in the sunlight. Each wore gold rings inset with a single glittering gem, and the knives, suspended at their waists, had glistening brass hilts.
“You’re a bit late!” one of the short people said. He had high widows peaks in his strawberry blond hair. His astoundingly thick beard matched in color and went down nearly to his knees.
“I’m sorry,” Hil said, “I passed by these people, and I couldn’t just leave them half dead on the road.”
“Phaw, kindness is good and all, but punctuality is better,” said the other short person, this one with a salt and pepper beard that was nearly all salt, “Come, we have things to discuss.”
“Can we do it here? I think my new friends need to eat. They don’t have any food with them.”
Now that Hil mentioned it, Roger did feel horribly hungry. The pursuit through the mountains, the escape from the ogres, and the exhaustion that followed had chased thoughts of hunger from his mind.
“Just bring it. Bring them. It doesn’t matter. People are waiting for us, so hurry it up!” the crotchety one said.
Hil set Ari down, and ducked inside the house. He emerged a couple minutes later carrying a satchel, from which he produced handfuls of dark bread and hard cheese. Ari, Roger, and Hannah all gratefully snatched the food up and horked it down as quickly as they could.
“I’ve got more if you need it,” Hil said.
“Oh would you just come on already!”
They gathered up and followed the crotchety, grey-haired fellow. Roger walked beside Hil, and Hil held out chunks of food that Roger absentmindedly stuffed into his face as they walked.
“Would you mind letting me see your knife?” Hil asked, “I noticed earlier that it was stuck.”
“Oh, sure.” Roger released the clasps and handed the knife in its scabbard to Hil.
Hil gave it a couple of test tugs. “I don’t think we can save the scabbard,” he said. Without waiting for Roger to reply, he gave the thing a good strong pull and it started inching slowly out. As it did the old decrepit scabbard started to tear, and with a final tug the leather gave way and the knife blade came free in Hil’s hand.
He inspected it for a moment. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Did you stab anybody with this recently?”
“Well, I did save Ari from being grabbed by an ogre,” Roger said, feeling more than a little bit proud of himself.
“Really? I’ll want to hear more about that later,” Hil said enthusiastically, “The problem though, is that you forgot to clean your blade, and the blood dried inside the scabbard. Blood is kind of like glue in that situation so your knife got stuck.” He handed the weapon back to Roger. Dark stains were on its tip and little bits of leather clung to it.
“Well what am I supposed to do with this?” Roger asked.
“Tuck it in your belt for now. I’ll help you with it when we get back.”
“Umm, Hil?” Hannah piped up from his other side, “How much cheese is left?”
“More than enough for you.” He held out a fist sized knob for Hannah. She deftly grabbed it with her fingertips, broke it in half, and stuffed one of the halves in her mouth.
“Fank you,” she said, chewing.
“So, in case you’re wondering,” Hil said to the three adventurers, “The younger person here with the prodigious blond beard is Genrik. Nice guy, really into gemstones. The older one’s name is Lluit. I don’t know exactly what he does, other than give me a hard time. They’re dwarves.”
Hearing the sound of his name, Genrik turned toward them. “At your service,” he said with as polite of a bow he could manage while walking.
Lluit grunted and spat.
They came to a grassy meadow, and at one end of it was a little knoll, covered in long green grass. Set into its side was a wooden door, framed with rocks. Lluit went up to the door and opened it.
“Get inside already,” he said, waving them through.
The door was designed for use by dwarves, so Hil had to perform a bit of a contortionist’s act in order to get inside. Luckily the space became wider once through the door, but Hil still had to duck his head and droop his shoulders. Roger could just barely stand inside, and because the ceiling was rough cut from stone, he had to occasionally dodge a ridge that wasn’t cut quite as high as the rest. Ari and Hannah didn’t have any problems at all.
Genrik led them down, carrying a brass plate with two thick candles set on it. Lluit shut the door behind them and followed in the rear. The tunnel forked and branched in many places and Genrik picked the way without explanation. They were surrounded by dark grey granite that glistened from countless quartz crystals. After a turn the air became cool and humid, and a small subterranean creek babbled happily along beside them.
“Alrighty, here we are,” Genrik said, pulling open another one of the dwarf sized doors. This time it was made entirely of a single slab of stone, and had intricate geometric carvings all across its surface.
Hil performed another one of his contortionist acts, and they all stepped through the door into a wide, round chamber with a vaulted ceiling. Hil stood up straight and rolled his shoulders, obviously relieved.
The room was well lit by candles in tall stands and mounted around the walls. The room was filled with dwarves, most of them standing. They were looking toward a slightly raised space with a table around which sat four other dwarves in richly embroidered apparel. Roger and the others entered, and dwarves scooted to make room for them with slightly surprised expressions.
Roger saw one of the dwarves looking him up and down, and stopped with his eyes resting on Roger’s knife. He made a kind of “tch” sound, plucked the knife from Roger’s belt, and scurried off with it.
“Hey-” Roger started to cry out, but Hil placed a large hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, he’ll bring it back,” he said.
Suddenly one of the dwarves at the table began talking. It was some kind of proposal or another, and he was soon interrupted by another dwarf. One of the others butted in and before long the whole lot of them were arguing about various policies and decisions to be made regarding their community. Members of the crowd would cheer out when they agreed and grumbled with discontent when they didn’t.
It didn’t take Roger long to realize that he’d been dragged into a town hall meeting. He’d been to a couple in his hometown as part of a high school civics class, but he never really felt like it was worth it. Nobody ever wanted to hear his opinion, and he didn’t have any reason for why they should listen to him. He leaned back against the wall and put himself into a daydream where he was large, muscular, and adored by women.
The dwarf that had taken Roger’s knife trotted back to him, and, with a little grunt to get his attention, handed him his knife enclosed in a new, plain leather scabbard.
“Oh. Thanks,” Roger said, surprised.
“Don’t mistreat your steel like that again boy,” the dwarf warned, his eyebrows pointing out accusingly, “Always clean and oil your blades after handling.” With that the dwarf joined his compatriots in listening and reacting to the counseldwarves.
Roger drew his dagger out of its scabbard. He was amazed to see that the steel had been polished and now reflected the candlelight around him. Moving it from side to side, he felt that it had a different heft to it, and it had a presence to it that hadn’t been there before, a subtle feeling that this was a true weapon rather than just a convenient belt hanger. I guess this is why dwarves are known for their craftdwarveship, Roger thought.
Roger returned the dagger to his belt, and once again dozed into a daydream more fantastical than the dwarven cavern in which he was currently standing, until he heard Hil’s voice next to him.
“I’d rather not be the one to go,” Hil was saying.
“You’re our best ambassador to the humans, young dwarf, it will be easier for you than for us,” one of the counseldwarves said.
“Indeed,” another counseldwarf said, “The recent change in goblin and ogre behavior concerns them too, and they should be told at once.”
“I understand that, but…” Hil trailed off. He looked troubled by something, but Roger had no idea what it could be. “I’ll do it,” he finished resolutely.
“Good, that’s settled then, next let’s turn our attention to the recent reports of local troglodyte warrens being found empty...” Roger stopped listening as matters returned to things distinctly dwarven.
A couple hours later, the meeting was over, they had left the dwarven abode, bidding farewell to Genrik at the door, and they were now at Hil’s house. He was busying himself, bustling around, packing this and that into a leather shoulder bag not unlike the one Hannah had found. Roger leaned against the doorframe while Ari relaxed in a chair, massaging her knees.
“I’m sorry folks, but I’m going to have to lock up the house,” he told everyone, “I have to go down to the shrine to talk to the abbot there about some things.”
“The Shrine of Oir’s Chosen?” Hannah asked, “What a coincidence, we’re pilgrimaging there ourselves!”
“Alright,” Hil said, “You three should probably travel with me anyway, you don’t have anything to eat, right?”
“Well, we did. Did we ever get Ari’s bag back?” Hannah asked. Roger and Hannah both turned and looked at Ari, questioning. “By the way, Ari, what was the deal with all those people chasing you?”
Ari stood, drawing in air to stick out her chest and raised her chin defiantly, but then she snuffed her pride, deflated and flopped back down in the chair again. “I guess I owe you guys an explanation of some kind. Also…” she grit her teeth and looked at the floor, “Thank you for coming to rescue me!” She finished in a rush, and when she looked up there were tears standing in her eyes.
“Anyway,” Ari continued, “Those people were sent by my father to take me back to his house. You see, I was supposed to marry the son of a wealthy family. The problem was that he was in love with some other girl, and I didn’t like him that much anyway.” She glared to the side before carrying on, “Our solution was to have me sneak over to the local abbey of Oir and take a five year vow of chastity. The plan worked out well. I took the vow, became a priestess, and the wedding was called off. The young man now spends his evenings cavorting with the woman he loves, and I’m not bound to anyone.”
“The only problem is that my father’s a bastard. He said some horrible things to me, made some threats, and tried to lock me away in my room, so I left. I’m done with him and his family. I’m just Ari the Chaste now, a vagabond priestess trying to put as much distance between myself and my old life as possible.”
Roger and Hannah stared at her, not realizing that the story was over. She crossed her arms and slunked further into her chair.
“What?” Ari asked.
Roger shook his head slightly. “That’s harsh,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.
“You’re so brave!” Hannah exclaimed, now with tears in her own eyes, “I can’t imagine being so decisive. You’re amazing!” She ran over to Ari and threw herself into an embrace with her.
“Oh bother, get off,” Ari said, detangling herself from Hannah’s arms, “Anyway, now you know my story.”
Hil nodded somberly in response before throwing his heavily loaded pack over his shoulder. “Are we ready then?” he asked.
“Not quite,” Hannah said, “Do you mind if we fill my bag up with food too?”