[I was going to write something about Australia Day but this came out of my head instead which has nothing to do with Australia (it’s on the same planet). It started silly then got weird and dark. The ending isn’t intended to be aspirational just where the story ended up. It goes on a bit and there is some bad language. As always – first draft and uncorrected]
It was green everywhere but the sky. Donnie had always been dismissive of that colour, it made him think of sickness, he preferred his signature triad of colours: red for his virility, blue for his strength and, of course, gold for his wealth.
A piece at Mad Genius Club made me think ‘style over substance’ was a good writing prompt. http://madgeniusclub.com/2015/10/01/finding-the-there/
Simon knew that nobody had a hat in his size but he still sat still while the butler looked around the millinery building. The butler was three-metres tall and covered head to foot in chrome and bustled about like a sanctimonious funhouse mirror, reflecting grossly distorted images of everything around him. Eventually Simon would get bored of watching the butler busy itself on a bootless errand but in the meantime it pleased him to set the machine on this incompletable task.
What is important to understand here is that Simon was an arse. Not literally of course, although he did have his own fully functional arse, but figuratively if all the different parts of the human anatomy could be ranked in terms of metaphorical similarity to Simon’s personality then ‘arse’ would come first.
Unfeasible Tales of Social Justice Fantasy Science!
Showdown at Polk’s Tavern! The Collected Edition.
Dawn at Bridge Town.
Unconscious at my feet was one of Mayor Hardy’s men. I was back on top of the same roof overlooking the centre of town. I had my spear, my shield and now a rifle. Durston and the dwarfs had worked on the rifle during the night and it was now substantially more accurate. The unconscious guard had kindly provided me with more ammunition.
Stuck to the back of the wooden facade was a tiny machine that Durston had found in a compartment in his chest. The meeting with the god Orfon had done much for his memory. The machine was showing me a picture of the town much as a bird would see it.
I looked up into the brightening sky and could just make out the black speck in the sky and I could just hear the sound it made. It was another machine that Durston had found inside himself. He called it a drone – I presume because it made the sound of a giant bee when in flight.
I had stolen some of the clothes of the guard I had stunned. His waistcoat, gun-belt and wide-brimmed hat. It was not a great disguise but until the sun had fully risen it would give me a brief advantage if somebody came to check on this guard.
I touched the machine in the way Durston had shown me and the image shifted colour. His drone could see heat as well as light and despite the poor light I could now see each of the guards scatter around the roof tops and hidden in the alleys of the two. Each one was shown as a bright yellow-orange glow like they were burning embers.
It had taken me little more than half of an hour to master the rifle. It was a weapon for an idiot. As Durston had predicted my sharp vision meant that I had could shoot with great skill. I had few qualms about shooting Hardy’s men – I had grown up surrounded by seasoned warriors and I was ready for war if it was needed. Duration had been more concerned but had said that he could see no outcome that did not involve bloodshed.
I steadied my nerves and waited for the signal.
“:HARDY!” – It was Durston. I could see the glowing figures move suddenly in reaction to his appearance. The guards would have been watching the approaches to the town but in truth Durston had snuck in much earlier and had been hiding under a cart. He stood now bow-legged in the centre of town. He also wore a wide-brimmed hat and also a blanket into which he had cut a hole for his head. Under that he wore two gun-belts. He held his mechanical hands just above the two small guns on either side of the belts. He looked ridiculous but he claimed this was an essential ritualistic aspect of his plan.
“:HARDY!” Durston called again. “I KNOW YOU ARE HIDING YOU LILLY-LIVERED COWARD. ~ COME OUT AND FACE ME!”
I could see on the machine that Hardy’s men were readying their rifles just waiting for a signal.
Hardy appeared on a balcony above the entrance to Polk’s Tavern.
“Kill him” he said.
Hardy’s men revealed themselves on the rooftops and from behind buildings. Some had rifles and some had hand guns. They each took aim at Durston and began to fire. As each bullet him, Durston staggered and black liquid would spurt out from under his poncho.
This was my moment. I stood so that I could aim my rifle and began shooting specific targets I had identified. Ten shots and ten of Hardy’s men dead or injured. Despite this Hardy’s men did not notice their comrades being shot around them. They were too intent on shooting Durston and the sound of gunfire masked all other sounds.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Hardy called to his men. Durston was still standing but his head was bowed and his hat was gone. His blanket dripped with a dark liquid that pooled around his feet.
“:I’ll give you all one warning.” Durston spoke in a quiet tone and yet his seemed to project around the whole town. “~Look around. Several of you were shot already. I’m going to count to three and if you haven’t put down your weapons I will shoot several more of you. One.” None of Hardy’s men lowered their weapons but they looked around and could now see the bodies of the comrades. “Two.” I sensed the men getting ready to open fire again. “Three.”
Durston’s hand swiftly pulled the handguns from the belts, even as Hardy’s men opened fire again. Durston’s hands moved in a blur as he fired the hand guns repeatedly. I stood again and began to pick off my next set of targets.
The shooting at Durston was less accurate this time and many shots went wild. Hardy’s men were now ducking behind what cover they could find, unaware still that I was shooting from the rooftop.
Durston now strode purposefully to an ally way. The men Hardy had stationed there fled as he walked towards them. Ducking into the shadows, Durston was now hidden from view.
Many of Hardy’s men had now been shot and either killed or wounded. There was a kind of horror in using this rifle. At each death I did not feel a soul depart but instead the act of firing the gun felt both distant and immediate. It was too easy for me to point this rifle and simply choose for one of these men to die.
A man on a horse game galloping into the centre of town apparently oblivious to the gun fight. He called out as he came close to the tavern that the dwarf mine was in revolt and that reinforcements were needed. This was my signal for the next stage in our assault on Hardy’s troops. I dropped the rifle and picked up my spear and shield. I then took Durston’s device from the wall and found the button he had shown me to use.
Before setting off for town, Durston had strapped wine skins too his chest, back and sides. Each one was filled with a flammable oil that the dwarfs provided. The wine skins were then hidden under the blanket that Durston was wearing. Their first purpose was to fool Hary’s men into thinking that their shots were having some effect. Each shot had caused the oil to spray out from under the blanket that Durston wore. In truth the bullets were neither fast enough nor heavy enough to even dent Durston’s body and he feared that if Hardy’s men had simply seen the bullets bounce off him, that they would have not stayed to fight him. Although they would be more demoralised now having failed to kill Durston there was still a danger that they would abandon the town and fight the more easily killed dwarfs.
I made my way silently off the roof and down into an alley. I could track the movements of Hardy’s mean around the town as they hunted for Durston and I couldn’t stay still for very long. Luckily we had a diversion planned. In the center of the roads where Durston had first called out to Hardy, was a black pool of oil and on the oil was a tiny explosive that Durston had fashioned – and explosive that could be trigged by the button the device.
I pressed the button just after the man on the horse passed the pool of oil. It burst into flame with a ‘whumpf’ and a thick black smoke began pouring out from the flames. I counted for a minute until the smoke was thick enough and then ran as fast as I could to the other side of the street and then down an alley by the side of the tavern.
I climbed a drain pipe and found a part open upstairs window that looked out onto the alley. It took a little time for me to swing myself onto the windowsill and then into the room beyond.
I landed with a bit more noise than I wanted. I was in a small bedroom which luckily for me was empty. I walked to the door and listened carefully for any sounds. Hearing nothing close by, I opened it slowly an looked out into a corridor. Hardy did not have men patrolling the corridors so I made my way towards the front of the building. A pair of double doors led to what I suspected would be the room with balcony from which Hardy had spoken earlier. I could hear loud voices talking in side presumably debating the events outside.
I counted for a few seconds and then pressed the button on the device again. This was a signal to Durston who was still at large somewhere in the town. A sudden appealing wailing noise erupted. It was loud and persistent and un-ignorable. Durston had explained that he was equipped with such ‘sirens’ to help warn people of encroaching fires. I hoped that Hardy and his guards had rushed to the balcony to see what the noise was and then I opened the door and stepped into the room.
As we had expected Hardy was outside on the balcony. He had three guards with him and the room itself was empty. I quickly found a hiding place and waited.
Durston’s siren cut off as quickly as it had started and outside I could hear the mad rush of Hardy’s men combing through the town looking for their quarry. I could hear the sound of the balcony doors being shut to keep out the acrid smoke and then hardy barking orders to his guards. I listened carefully to their footfalls as all three of the men left the room – two to stand guard at the door and one to fetch the messenger from the mine. I counted to twelve and then stepped from my hiding place.
Hardy had his back to me. I could have killed him with my spear there and then but we would still have had the rest of his men to deal with. I walked up to him in silence and then with a sharp blow with my shield knocked him unconscious. I had to catch his heavy body as he fell so the sound would not alert his guards outside.
I secured the door and then pulled furniture to the door to make a more solid barricade. Naturally the guards heard this but found that they could not open the door. I had enough time to move what I needed to before they began trying to kick down the door in earnest.
I went back to Hardy. I tied his hands and removed his gun belt. He was beginning to stir, so I stood back and waited for him to come to. His guards outside the door were really throwing their shoulders into their attempt to open the door but with a heavy desk behind it there wasn’t much movement.
Hardy’s eyes flickered open. I levelled my spear at his face.
——— :: ———
Our hope was that Birchall would be free to move around town after speaking to Hardy the night before. She knew enough of the townsfolk to be able to judge who might listen to reason or even turn against Hardy if the conditions were right. Durston had explained to he about his siren and so now, wherever she was she should have been waiting for me to appear with Hardy.
With Hardy awake and under threat of being skewered, it was easy to get him to order his guards to stand down and stop hammering on the door. I didn’t doubt that they realised that he was speaking under duress but I just need a little time for the plan to work.
I dragged hardy out onto the balcony and kept the point of my spear pushing against his ribs as a reminder of who held the weapon.
“Call all your men.” I growled at him.
The smoke from the small oil fire was now dying down but the air still stank. The rising sun was now illuminating the town more fully and as Hardy called out to his mean, figures emerged from the shadowy lanes where they had been hunting for Durston.
Hardy’s men held tightly to their guns but with another poke in his ribs Hardy called for them all to drop their weapons. As the rifles and handguns dropped to the ground, Durston reappeared. He casually walked among the med picking up guns one by one and bending their barrels. The horror on the men’s faces as Durston demonstrated his strength only grew as we walked among apparently completely unharmed despite all their efforts.
Birchall too had been busy and from the buildings and houses other citizens of the town were emerging into the smoke-tinged air.
I spoke quietly into Hardy’s ear “Tell them the truth.”. Hardy just snarled so I increased the pressure on the spear, “Do it – I’d rather you were alive than dead but dead still works for me.”
“What do you want me to say?” He growled back.
“The truth – the truth about the children who went missing.”
“It wasn’t me. It was some of the men. They got out of hand.”
I jabbed his ribs again. “Not excuses.. Tell them the truth. In your own words and trust me I will know when you are lying.”
Hardy sighed and then looked out at the gathering crowd.
“I had the children murdered.” he said but too quietly for the crowd to hear. I just snarled in responses.
“I HAD THE CHILDREN MURDERED.” Hardy spoke now with the voice he used that could carry his words out to a mob.
There were cries of horror and astonishment and not just from the ordinary townsfolk. Clearly many of Hardy’s men were also unaware of how he had manipulated them all with fear.
Birchall and three men pushed their way through the crowd and made their way into the tavern. I ushered Hardy back into the room and made him, at spearpoint, pull the barricade from the door. As he did so his two guards burst through the door with their guns ready. They hesitated when they saw that I held my spear at Hardy’s neck. Whatever move the guards were planning was cut short by the arrival of Birchall with three of the townsfolk with her. The guards surrendered and were disarmed. I led Hardy down the stairs and out of the tavern.
The crowd on the street looked murderous but the hate was all directed at Hardy. Without his small army he was now a pathetic figure. Robbed of his power over the town, he seemed physically diminished. Several of the townsfolk were armed and had their weapons pointed at Hardy. I stepped away from him and lowered my spear. I turned to look for Durston when a gun shot rang out behind me and something struck my shoulder with a burning punch. More shots rang out almost in the same instant as I turned to see what had occurred.
Hardy had a small gun concealed in his jacket and he had taken one last shot at me. Barely had I begun to turn than Hardy himself had been shot down by the townsfolk. Birchall rushed over to me and within moments Durston was there two but a rushing sound in my ears like an approaching tide obscured their words and I lost control over my consciousness and fainted.
——— :: ———
By what means Durston left us, I never knew. When I awoke some hours later he was gone. Perhaps Orfon had returned him to his proper time or perhaps he had simply walked away. Birchall negotiated with what remained of Hardy’s men at the mine and prevented a bloody last stand that would have left many dwarfs and men dead. The human town and the dwarf mine were not at peace exactly but the violence of Hardy’s cruel occupation of the mine had ended and both parties needed each for trade.
I never returned to my glade. Time was flowing differently on the plains and despite several attempts, I found that I could not successfully navigate back along the old elf road. Our world was begin to drift in many directions and each direction was becoming a world unto itself. I hope that the elves of Ledrg Glade still exist in some world sundered from this one.
I stayed for awhile in Bridge Town. The people were not evil or malicious but I think they resented the guilt they felt at Hardy’s actions. Some of Hardy’s men settled down and others drifted away and several died in fights or in gaol.
The dwarfs rewarded me with some light armour and enough silver to buy a decent horse and saddle. I decided to head west, to see if I could find a navigable route through the desert beyond the canyon. With decent supplies and my elvish scout skills I was confident that I would have more luck than the dwarfs who had tried to escape that way during Hardy’s regime. I had my sigil shield and my spear to protect me. I had as well the rifle that Durston had altered. Gromley had blessed it but I was still wary of it – yet it was also the only physical reminder I had of my good friend the robot man.
As I rode off past the mine both Birchall and Gromley said their goodbyes. I had waited until near the end of the day, confident that with elvish sight I could make better speed in the cool of the night. I waved back to them both as I crested a small hill and then I rode off – into the sunset.
Gromley led us through to a chamber that had clearly once been a temple. The wall paintings had ben obscured with black paint and the altar had been smashed. I looked around at the desecration and felt anger for the dwarfs. I called to Gromley: “Are we not in danger from the guards?”
Gromley paused. “The guards at the cell won’t bother checking on the prisoner and the other guards rarely come to this level.
“There seems to be very few guards for such a large mine.” I observed.
“A single guard with a gun can dominate a whole tunnel.” replied Gromley as we walked across the vandalised temple. “And even if we did re-take the mine we would be essentially trapped with no food. If we somehow broke out of the mine we would still need to take the bridge and even if we did that Hardy was many more armed men in the town. We are dwarfs, we regard war as favoured solution to complex problems and yet we find ourselves dying by degrees with no way to fight our enemy. Ah! This way.” Gromley motioned to yet another secret door that had opened from the inside. A younger dwarfish acolyte signalled for us all to follow after him.
“I am sorry your temple was ruined.” I said to Gromley as we walked down another passage.
“The priest of Embran died there trying to protect the relics.” He replied mournfully. “With the temple desecrated we could not call upon Embran to help us.”
“So you are not a priest of Embran?” I asked, puzzled.
“Of Embran? No, no. I only survived this long because my cult prefers secrecy to open worship.” We turned a corner and before us was a proper stone door, clearly marked with a rune chiselled into the rock. I gasped in recognition.
“Durston, look! That is the rune I saw made of blossom just before you appeared! But I was told it was the rune of Embran.”
Gromley turned towards us. “Oh an easy mistake to make. This is the rune of Ofron, the consort of Embran. The two runes are similar except for the additional stroke near the foot of the main stem.”
“:Ofron? What is he the god of?” Asked Durston.
The door seemed to dissolve before use, revealing a tall woman standing in the centre of a painted chamber. He hair was long and an orange read and spilled in great locks over her naked skin that was the colour of ochre.
“What am I the god of?” the woman asked. “I am the god of passion, of wildfire and of chaos.”
She fixed us with a star that seemed to peer into all our eyes at once and her own eyes seemed to flicker with yellow sparks. Rather than sensing her soul I felt her soul envelope the whole room as if she was nothing but soul and nothing but some abstract essence of herself, as if the solidity of the rock about was nothing but a mist and the weight of our lives nothing but the passing shapes of clouds.
“:Oh, hello.” said Durston.
——— :: ———
I don’t recall walking into the temple of Orfon but I must have done. I don’t recall speaking but I knew that we conversed for some time before I could pull my own wits back together.
I gasped for breath as if I had been overcome with smoke and grasped hard onto my spear for support.
“Stop.” I begged. “Stop, you are overwhelming me. You need our help. I understand but you must let us talk with clear minds.”
Orfon seemed to retreat as if she had stepped back and yet she remained in place at the centre of the small temple. “Speak then little elf. I will assent to your questions.”
“You brought Durston to my woodlands. Why?” I asked.
“To bring confusion to my enemies. Those who would hurt my children will feel my wrath.”
“:I really don’t know how this god business works ~ but can’t you just smite your enemies with lightning or something?” Durston asked.
“To be a god is to be the essence of a thing. I do not plan or scheme or plot. I do not cogitate on my actions. I just am and to act is to be. I answered the prayers of my servant and interceded on behalf of his clan. You were my act of will.” Orfon replied.
“But you must have thought there would be some consequence to summoning Durston?” I asked.
“I hoped my enemies would encounter strife.” The god seemed to shimmer as he spoke. “The lightning that strikes the forest in summer does not consider where its fire will spread to. All that it knows is that there will be fire and that it will consume what it encounters.”
“:I’m not sure that is actually how it works.”
I made a shushing noise at Durston and continued. “So your idea was to just throw Durston from his own time and see what happened when you stirred the pot?”
“Your people needed to learn, the humans here needed to learn.” Orfon replied.
“My people? What had my people done to you?”
“Did you mother not die under their care? Had she not become one of my children in her madness?”
I went to leap at this god creature with my spear and cut a hole into Orfon’s gut but Birchall and Gromley grabbed my arms before I could skewer her.
Birchall took her turn to speak to the god. “I trust that Green-bark’s people passed the test you set them. They let the stranger go free and granted him a companion. But what of the metal man himself. He is an innocent in all this.”
“Look to his base. Elf girl, you have a gift with reading foreign symbols. Read how he angered me.”
I had to stoop low to see the base of Durston’s shell and the task was made harder as Durston himself was trying to turn and tilt his head to try and see what was written on his bottom.
I used my sigil shield and concentrated on the tiny characters. “Bushfire Advanced Response Reconnaissance Unit” I read.
“:Oh! Yes! I remember! They drop me into burning forests and I help direct the rescue effort! ~ That is why I have all this telemetry and targeting equipment!” Durston seemed please to recall that much about himself. “:So the god is angry because she is a god of fire and I fight fires. ~ I don’t know, but it all seems a bit partisan and arbitrary.”
Orfon ignored him. “I will offer you a deal then. Destroy this enemy of the dwarfs and I will return your metal friend to his right place.”
I looked back at her. “There is no point in offering a deal. Even if you meant what you say, by your very nature you cannot be trusted. We will fight Boss Hardy regardless because it is the right thing to do.”
“Then, for what it is worth, you have my blessing.” and with those words the god departed.
“:Well the good news is that I have a plan.” said Durston, apparently unfazed by having met a divine essence. “:The problem is this. The dwarfs can take the mine ~ but if they do then Hardy sends more men from town. ~ Hardy can besiege the mine and starve the dwarfs out.
“:Now Birchall, am I right in thinking not all the townsfolk support Hardy unequivocally?”
Birchall agreed and explained that most went along with Hardy out of fear.
“:So we need to break Hardy’s authority. ~ If Hardy is challenged in town ~ and he loses then the town can be turned against him.”
I nodded as I thought through Durston’s plan. “So we need to fight him and his men in town and show that he isn’t unbeatable?” I asked.
“:Yes, and I think you and I can do that Green-bark. Birchall, I need you to get back to town. First warn Hardy that you have heard I have escaped and that I intend to challenge him to a duel at dawn outside Polk’s Tavern.”
“A shoot out?” said Birchall.
“:I have good reason to believe I may be at least the second fastest gun in the west.” said Durston “…and Green-bark may well be the actual fastest.”
“I’ve never shot one of these guns before.” I said, surprised.
“:Then we don’t have long to learn! Birchall, once you’ve spoken to Hardy see if you can get away and speak to sensible heads in town. ~ We don’t want a full fledged war between the dwarfs and the town else the dwarfs will end up starving. Bromley? Can you prepare your people to take-over the mine?”
“Aye, we can try but the guards will hold up behind their fortifications.”
“But these rifles need bullets!” I said “And if reinforcements don’t come from town they will soon run of out ammunition!”
“:Quite so. That will be our job and I have a few tricks that will help us.”
——— :: ———
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.”
——— :: ———
As the crowd dispersed and the Mayor departed, I clambered down from my vantage point and headed to the edge of town nearest the canyon. Hardy’s men had put Durston on the cart and were heading towards the bridge. Outside of town the darkness was now almost complete as there was no moon and only starlight. I knew that the men would have difficulty seeing anything beyond what their oil lamps illuminated and so it was easy for me to follow them unobserved simply by walking in utter silence. I considered using my spear to kill one man at a time but if they fired their guns wildly into the dark I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t be hit accidentally.
Fifteen minutes out of town it became clear that I had a new problem if I wanted to follow the cart further. The bridge over the canyon was lit with oil lamps and had two guards posted at its start armed with rifles. I moved quicker but ran at an angle to the road so that I reached the canyon outside of the ring of light cast by the lamps. I watched as the guards spoke to the men with the cart. They talked for a shot while and then the guards motioned the cart onto the bridge. The bridge itself was elf built and crossed the canyon in a graceful arc. I peered out across the canyon in an attempt to see if there were guards at the other end but if there were I couldn’t see them.
I decided to wait a few minutes so that the cart would be well onto the bridge. The I rushed the guards from the side. As they were looking out onto the road they did not see me running up from the side and they couldn’t hear my soft tread over the night noises. The first guard I hit square in the face with my sigil shield and he dropped like a branch. The second had enough warning to try and get his rifle pointed at me but within a moment I was within his guard and I hit him twice with the blunt end of my spear – once to the stomach and then a sharp blow to his head as he bent double.
Both men lay unconscious before me. I pulled their rifles off them and then, with more caution undid their gun belts so that I had their smaller guns also. The second man began groaning as if he was regaining consciousness, so I levelled the point of my spear one handed at his neck, ready to slice his throat if I needed to.
“Don’t kill him, please!”
Damn – I should have been more alert and paid more attention to the sounds around me. Some man had caught me unawares. I turned my head slowly to see Pastor Birchall standing a few metres away from me.
“The Mayor’s tame priest, is it?” I said.
The pastor looked at me pleadingly and said in a high voice “Please, I beg you not to kill these men. Truly they are not wicked souls but rather men who have been led astray by Mayor Hardy.”
“You and him seemed like good friends back in town. He said that you had warned him my friend was on his way.” I said and then with a twist of my wrist I presented the sigil shield towards the stirring guard and whispered a sigil of sleep upon him.
I could now turn safely to face the pastor properly with my spear and shield ready.
“Please do not judge me by what you have seen. I aim only to serve god. I had hoped to make Mayor Hardy see sense and end his mistreatment of the dwarfs. His actions are not godly towards them and it is my duty to minister to all gods creatures whatever their size. The dwarf priest summoned something – I do not know what as they would not speak of it to me – and I hoped that fear would make the Mayor see his way back to righteousness.” The Pastor’s pleading seemed self -serving but I was struck by how Birchall’s concern had been first for the guards rather than personal safety.
I looked back to the bridge. “I’ll trust you and let these men live if you help me.” The Pastor nodded. “Then first you need to tie the hands of the men and their feet and help me move them. Then you will show me where they have taken my friend. The Pastor agreed and soon we were both walking across the bridge.
Birchall explained that the mine on the other side had several armed guards but that he knew of a secret entrance to the mine. There was a gatehouse and guards at the other end of the bridge but it looked over the gate to the mine rather than directly at the bridge and so, unless we were very unfortunate, it should be possible to sneak into the mine. The guards, it seemed were more concerned about dwarfs sneaking out then others sneaking in. Still I decided to be prudent and let Birchall walk ahead of me, while I held my spear and shield at the ready.
We moved swiftly across the bridge without any event and reached the other side within a few minutes. I could see the guard house and as Birchall had said it was positioned to watch visitors the main gate of the mine. Birchall pointed in a direction that took us close to the cliff edge. I followed and we reach a path that led along and slightly down the cliff face.
Eventually we reached a broad boulder that appeared to be obstructing the cliff path. Birchall pressed his hands onto the rock and it shifted to reveal a small entrance. The pastor ducked into this hole and with little choice open to me, I ducked in after him. I was in the dwarf mines.
——— :: ———