The tunnel was broad and sandy. Pastor Birchall moved with confidence despite the poor light, which surprised me given how poor the eyesight of men is. It also strongly suggested that Birchall was very familiar with these passages, which was unlikely unless the pastor had reason to regularly sneak into the mine.
We reached a small cave with no clear exit other than a hole in the centre of the floor. Birchall motioned me over and spoke very quietly.
“We can’t talk too loudly as there might be guards in nearby passages. This where I contact the dwarf priest – he can help us find your friend.”
Birchall stepped towards the hole and dropped a small rune-stone into the hole – presumable a token given by the dwarf priest. “Now we wait”
I was nervous waiting in that cave with only one exit other than a vertical drop. I felt trapped but I also reasoned that it would be an overly elaborate trap given that Mayor Hardy had access to many men armed with guns. If Birchall was bent on betrayal it was a scheme I could make no sense of and for the time being, trust seemed to be the wiser option.
We waited in silence. The Pastor seemed to be meditating. I simply sat and concentrated on what I could sense. I could feel the pastor’s soul but elves cannot see the inner-workings of a soul, despite what the rumours claim. At best I could tell that Birchall was not some demon or supernatural being, which was not particularly reassuring.
Tap, tap, tap. Three little taps on the wall of the cave. Birchall motioned silence again and stood carefully and then tapped in a more complex rhythm on the wall. Those taps were answered by a different rhythm and Birchall responded again with yet another rhythm. Then silence.
With a sudden creak, a section of the cave wall began to move and a dwarf poked his head through the space. He looked me up and down distrustingly and then at Birchall for reassurance. Birchall nodded and the dwarf pushed the open section of the wall further ajar.
I stepped through, with Birchall in front and the dwarf now behind me. There is little love between dwarfs and elves and I can almost taste the dwarf’s mistrust as we hurried in near silence through some dimly lit tunnels. On two occasions the ritual with the tapping was repeated and on each occasion a hidden passage was revealed and we were passed onto the care of a different dwarf. Finally we reached a cave that was about the size of a dinning hall. It was furnished with roughly hewn stone seats and the most recent dwarf to chaperone us told us to sit and wait.
An elderly dwarf dressed in the robes of a priest entered and sat down on a stone chair near us.
“Welcome Pastor Birchall. We have missed you these past few months. I gather things did not go well with Boss Hardy.”
“If anything I made matters worse.” Birchall answered. “The Mayor took my words as a threat and kept me confined. I was horrified that they might hurt me.”
“Your bravery will be remembered by the dwarfs, Pastor. Would that all human women were had such strength of soul.”
I looked at Birchall and cursed my observational skills. For a scout who thought themselves well versed in lore about humans I had singularly failed to notice that the pastor was actually a woman. I realised that I had been misled by the humans around her – which, as my understanding blossomed, meant that she was in disguise and had hidden her gender from her fellow humans.
“Pastor,” I said. “I beg your forgiveness. I had not understood that you were a woman.”
Birchall looked towards me now “The fault is mine. God sent me a vocation to go to the frontier of the plains and to preach the way of the right path that takes a soul to the bosom of god. I soon found that people would not listen to a women preacher. I prayed and god showed me that it would not be sinful to walk among them in a way that would not build a wall in the hearts to god’s love.”
I found her rationale to be odd but I had little understanding of the ways of her people or her god and so I did not quiz her further about her actions.
The priest introduced himself to me as Gromley, a priest of Embran and I shook his hand and explained that I was Green-bark of the Ledrg Glade of the sylvan elves. He nodded and said that he had read of the glade and knew that it could be reached by following the road. I then unwrapped the rifles and gun-belts from my cloak and laid them out on the floor. Gromley was astonished to see the weapons and then looked fearful.
“I am afraid that when Boss Hardy learns of this attack on his men that we will all be punished.” He shook his head gravely. “No, I don’t blame you. His evil is his to own and it is we who set these events in motion. I should have known that it need end in a full revolt. Now as we are intent on defying the will of that monster Hardy, then let us see to your friend.”
Gromley led us out of the cave and into another set of tunnels. He talked quietly as we walked.
“Hardy came some years ago to Bridge Town. We had always had good relations with the various tribes of humans that had settled there. Dwarfs had always been welcome at Polk’s Tavern even from they very start when Polk himself had started it.
“Now this man Hardy came along at a time when things were bad for us all. The war and the chaos of time that followed had made trade very bad for the dwarf mines. The land between the mines and the dwarf settlements further on, had become a foul desert. Everything on the plains was in flux and it seemed that every year the humans advanced in ways we didn’t understand. They increasingly had little use for what we could manufacture but now they craved the metal we dug from the ground even more.
“Foolishly we entered a bargain with Hardy for food and supplies but as time went on we found ourselves even more in debt to him. Then dwarf children went missing and to our horror one was found out in the plains half eaten by wolves. Our lamentations were great and it seemed that Hardy was sympathetic towards us – human children had been killed as well it seemed. He claimed that savage humans were seeking out children of both humans and dwarfs for evil rituals. We should have doubted such an absurdity but we were so struck by grief that we did not think on his words or see what he hoped to gain.
“Thus it was that Hardy moved his armed men into the mines. They had guns and an obedience to Hardy that was alarming. Of course, we were not so foolish as to not realise how we had been tricked and many began to openly discuss whether it was actually Hardy who had kidnapped the children. Our anger grew as we were forced to work harder and were given less. That anger then turned to open revolt but alas! We had become too weakened by hunger, grief and overwork to fight Hardy’s men who were armed with guns. So many of the younger dwarfs died – shot by Hardy’s troops!”
Gromley’s tale explained much of what I had seen. Hardy had a strong grip on the town built on fear and armed bullies. I was about to ask about what Birchall and he had been doing since, when we came to a dead-end.
“We subtly damaged the locks on the other cells so that the guards would put your friend in this one.” Gromley whispered. He repeated a tapping pattern which was answered shortly after.
“All clear.” whispered Birchall as Gromley opened yet another secret door.
I stepped through into the cell and waved my hands at Durston and mimed that he should be silent.
Durston waved his hands back excitedly and then as quietly as he could manage followed me out of the cell.
Gromley closed the secret door behind us and we set off back down the tunnel.
“:Oh Green-bark! I am so glad you are safe. ~ I have been worried sick for hours!” said Durston as we walked through the passages.
“How on earth did you get captured?” I tried to sound cross but I was too happy to see him safe.
“:Well I was in the culvert when I saw an armadillo ~ and I had never seen an armadillo before and they are fascinating creatures. ~ I think they are the only creatures other than humans that can contract leprosy ~ which is remarkable when you think about it. Anyway I was trying to coax it towards me by singing ‘Is This the Way to Amarillo’ when I remembered that I was getting that song confused with ‘Do You Know the Way to San José’ ~ which is an insult to both Neil Sedaka and Burt Bacharach which ever way you think about it ~ and I think at that point I may have been singing a bit too loud. So some men with lanterns and guns appeared and I thought the safest thing for them was to go with them.”
“I see.” I said, which I thought was the safest response.
Gromley then brought us all to a stop.
“Months ago I set us on a path that I hoped would bring my people salvation. That is still my hope but I would not have unwilling allies in this conflict. Elf Green-bark, Mechanical Man Durston, I would formally ask you for your aid but before I do so, there is somebody you must speak with.
Green-bark? Durston? I need you to talk to god.”
——— :: ———