They rode until the sky started turning red, the sun setting somewhere beyond the trees that surrounded them. Tallia slowed her mount and motioned for the others to follow her as she turned off the forest road and between tall trunks. It took just a matter of minutes to arrive in a good-sized clearing. Bobby looked around, noting a ring of charred stones and carefully arranged treetrunks and boulders. It was obviously a common place for travellers to spend the night. They stepped to the ground, taking the saddles and bags from the horses and finding them a small stream from which they could drink at their leisure. Much to Bobby’s surprise they didn’t tie the horses up for the night, Tallia assuring him that Elven mounts do not stray far from their riders.
Robin had lit a fire and was cooking a generous meal by the time Bobby had found a suitable place for his bags. He stared up at the darkening sky, spotting a star winking through the dusky pink. Tallia sat opposite him, on the other side of the warm fire. She took a stick from the flames and lit her pipe with it. Elredor and Irknar were to his right arguing over something pretty trivial. Bobby was sure he heard the dwarf say something loudly about socks. Bren settled himself to his immediate left, chuckling at the pair. Bobby noted that even though he had shaved that morning he already seemed slightly stubbly, though he never seemed to manage to grow a full beard.
“They’re crazy.” Bren stated simply. Bobby nodded in agreement. Rose looked up from the cooking with a giggle.
“Sometimes I think they’re worse than an old married couple.” She laughed.
“They may as well be, as well as they know each other.” Tallia said quietly through a puff of smoke.
“You can talk, Mage!” Irknar grinned, argument forgotten.
“How did you all meet anyway, you seem to know each other pretty well.” Robin asked, dishing out plates of some form of stew that looked a little suspect but tasted delicious.
“Ah! Now there’s history for you! Fantastic meal by the way.” Tallia spoke through a mouthfull. She looked faintly nostalgic. “And it’s also a great opportunity for good old round the camp-fire stories.”
“I like stories. Especially when they’re about me.” Elredor stated.
“It started when they were no more than screaming brats. Not that they’re much better now, but at least they’re taller.” Tallia began. “I had been visiting the Irknar’s home, the Mirrinclar mines, on a spot of business. Something to do with trading for my own people I think. Anyway, the king’s brother introduced me to his wife and son who were both quite new to me as I hadn’t been there for a very long time indeed. He must have been ten at the very most. A shock of red hair even then, though quite beardless. He seemed to grow fond of me oddly, following me around the mines for the week or so I was visiting and asking thousands of questions.”
“I was a very curious child.” Irknar commented almost proudly.
“Quite.” The Mage continued. “But of course it came time for me to leave. The old king had asked me where I was headed and I told him that I was bound for the Elf Palace. At this I remember young Irknar becoming quite excited. He asked, no he begged and pleaded and whined and cried at me actually, to come along and visit the Elves. Apparently he’d heard quite a lot about them from some of the older lads.”
“Oh the Elf Palace did sound very exciting to me then, I had never been further than the orchards just outside after all.” The Dwarf piped in. “I really wanted to go.”
“And go you did. Neither your parents or I could suffer the begging any longer. After all it was a quiet time and they seemed to believe I was trustworthy enough. Or they stopped caring about your wellbeing, I wouldn’t have blamed them at that point. I was contemplating dumping you in the closest river and saying you had been eaten by wolves.”
Irknar replied to this with a disgruntled Harrumph.
“The journey was uneventful, after the initial uncontrollable excitement that is. I had to tie him to the bloody horse at one point because he’d somehow managed to get hold of a pint of cider while we were passing through a town and he was quite… ahem… merry. Eventually after a few days travel we made it to the palace and he was quite awed and I was quite knackered so it was was with great delight that I discovered one of Thorellin’s personal guards had a son the same age. So I shooed him off to play while we were busy.”
“I don’t think I shall ever forget being faced with a short-arsed, bright red wanker.” Elredor wrinkled up his nose in mock-disgust. Irknar punched him. Elredor pushed the Dwarf off the log. Tallia regarded the short legs waving helplessly in the air for a moment before picking up on the story.
“You did look quite shocked I shall admit. Anyway I come back from talking to find Irknar a few hours later to see if he had eaten and I find these two…” She waved her thumb in the direction of the tall Elf and the short Dwarf, who was scrambling back up onto his seat. “…beating the shit out of each other. It took quite a bit to separate them. For the next month I was staying at the palace it continued. I go round a corner, there they’d be fighting. I’d go to lunch, there they’d be fighting. I went to the sodding toilet and there they were fighting! It was the only time in my life I have looked forward to leaving the forest there. It was time I had Irknar back home anyway.”
She was interrupted by the sound of a Dwarf being pushed back off a log, and an Elven giggle. She rolled her eyes.
“I dragged Irknar out to the horse but he was screaming that he didn’t want to go. Within moments I had a small, snotty Elf brat wrapped around one leg and a smaller but equally as snotty Dwarf brat wrapped around the other begging me not to split them up. By which point my robes were all damp from the crying.”
“We were not that bad!” Argued Elredor, one hand pressing a struggling, swearing Dwarf to the ground gently so that he couldn’t stand up. A pair of angry, wriggling legs shouted something about him removing his hand of having it bitten off.
“Oh you were, trust me you were. Thorellin and your parents can back me up on that one. Anyway after managing to remove them from my person we decided to send a letter to Irknar’s home informing them of this development. It took a while but eventually both sides agreed that you’d both stay in the Palace in Summer and in the Mine in Winter. I believe someone actually used the phrase ‘culturally advantageous’ at one point too. So that is how it was.”
“Wow!” Robin piped up. “And you’ve been living like that since?”
“Almost, that went fine for a few years until the Dwarf Wars started. Ow! You bastard! You didn’t have to actually bite me!” Elredor told her.
“Dwarf Wars? What happened then?” Bobby asked, finding this all quite entertaining for some reason.
“Ahh yes the infamous wars. It was actually just before the War started that the arrangements changed if I recall correctly.” Tallia filled in. Irknar nodded.
“There had been rumours going around the many mines that a band of rogue Dwarves were attacking some of the smaller mines and taking everything, settling in and moving on to attack another. We had no idea at the time how true any of this was but all us young Dwarves who were almost at adulthood were required then to join a training course, just in case we did need to defend our home. It was to be a gruelling couple of years of training, training and more training. All our studies and work had to stop.” The Dwarf sighed, now back in his seat.
“I didn’t want to leave and for the first year I stayed and trained too.” Elredor explained. “Irknar was to come and train with the Elves after the course had finished, and then we would have the best of both kinds of defense. But then things turned bad.” He went quiet for a moment. Tallia once again continued for them.
“It was the start of their second year of training when Elredor got the word that his parents had been killed in a freak thunderstorm. They had been out in the forest gathering fruit when the tree they were in was struck by lightning. As it was he went home immediately to take care of everything, but Irknar had to stay to continue the training. It was in those few months of absence that the Dwarf Wars really started.”
“Our mine was one of the first to be taken siege. The rogue fighters never managed to get any further than the outer halls before we managed to fight them off and barricade them out. We lost a lot of good men in the fight though, and we weren’t strong enough to launch a counter-attack. We simplly hadn’t expected the number of Dwarfs.” He shook his head sadly. “It was like every mine they passed through joined them.”
“Perhaps many of them did. We think perhaps this was one of the earliest signs of Orarillian’s awakening. He would need the mines and their resources so he attacked there first, using their own occupants.” Tallia informed them. “At the time we simply never managed to connect the events to him, it wasn’t until the other things started happening that we began to realise what was going on.”
“What happened then?” Rose asked, her eyes wide with curiosity. Bobby looked up at the sky. Stars twinkled in the dark.
“We had to wait until someone came for help. The only problem was none of the other peoples of Gardlin noticed anything was up. The Rogue Dwarves did a good job of making sure their encampments didn’t look like a siege. And having some of the mine halls under their control I understand they even managed to entertain guests on our behalf. In the meantime Elredor himself couldn’t return as he had his family’s entire estate to take care of, as well as being old enough that he was drafted into the Royal Guard to make up for the loss of his father. He did write to tell me that he was going to be detained for a year or so, but naturally I never got the letter.”
“I had suspected something was up when I never got replies, except when I sent letters asking why I never got replies. The ones I did get were short and messy. For months I thought you must have gotten injured during training.” The Elf added. “It was two summers since I had left the Mine when I finally managed to return. I knew something was up immediately as I didn’t recognise any of the Dwarves, and when I demanded to know where you were the gits imprisoned me. Noone at home suspected a thing, as I had requested a year away to finish my training with the Dwarf Army. I tried to escape several times, but each time I was caught. They were quite powerful.”
“I remember when I passed by the Palace and enquired about your wellbeing they mentioned you had been gone a little longer than expected.” Tallia put her pipe away as she spoke. “I suggested they send a messenger to see where you had gotten to and coincidentally they had one ready to do so. The poor fellow never came back. So after a month of no word Thorellin realised the problem must be bigger than a missing Elf. He sent out a scout team. When they returned with news of the siege he gathered together a Meeting and eventually after much arguing an envoy was sent out to try and find out what the Rogue Elves wanted. They never returned either. It was then that Thorellin decided that they didn’t need another meeting and sent messages out to the Men and Mages, we knew the Halflings wouldn’t be able to fight as they didn’t have any sort of army, telling them he was sending in a direct attack and would they kindly so the same. Naturally the Men who love fighting sent an army straight away. The Council of Mages however weren’t so sure this was something they should meddle in, but they were going to find out what exactly had happened to cause the War. So while the most of us were employed in research a small number of us were sent out to assist the fight. Myself included as I had a personal interest in the outcome. I had, after all, promised a number of people I would keep an eye on Elredor and Irknar.” She sighed then, going quiet for a moment before continuing. “It was a month or so into the fighting that a group of us managed to sneak into the Dwarf camp and find the many Elven prisoners, young Elredor included.”
“Was I ever grateful to see you!” He grinned.
“You were indeed, in fact I recall it being remarkaby similar to the leg-grabbing and weeping scene.” She chuckled. “It was incredibly hard to get into the camp and even harder to get out, even for us Mages. But we managed it with as little fuss as possible.”
“From what I heard you burned down several tents and stampeded their horses.” Bren chimed in.
“Well, yes, but given the circumstances that was actually remarkably stealthy. But we managed to get the prisoners to safety. Of course with the hostages freed we were able to go about the fighting with much less caution. That was until the Rogues got sneaky.” Tallia looked angry for a moment, deep in her eyes. It didn’t help that the flames from the fire reflected in her deep eyes almost like a mirror. “They began slipping through the siege lines somehow and taking Dwarf prisoners, hiding them among themselves so we wouldn’t know who we were fighting. We lost many innocent Mirrinclar Dwarves that way. The fighting had to slow right down and every move had to be planned and replanned before it could go ahead. The War lasted a lot longer than we wanted it to.”
“I was stuck in the Mines for over five years.” Irknar said sadly.
“But we did eventually triumph and free you all. Of course by then both lads were men. They barely recognised each other.” Tallia’s face softened and she smiled. “That didn’t stop them from greeting as though they hadn’t been apart more than a week of course. Since then they finished their training in both the Mines and the Palace and they’ve been accompanying me on my business.”
“Wow. That’s some story.” Rose looked as though her eyes would pop out of her head. “What about Bren and Bobby? How did they end up in the group?”
“Ahh Bren was a drummer boy for the Man Army during the Dwarf Wars. His father thought it would build character or some nonsense. Mostly it terrified him. He’d somehow decided I was a safe person to hang around, and naturally met Elredor who he seemed to respect in the way that young boys tend to look up to older boys. Especially older boys who were prisoners of war. After the War, during which he accidentally discovered he was quite handy with a sword, he just stayed attached. Though more to me than to them, they’re pretty much a group unto themselves.” Tallia laughed, indicated Elredor and Irknar. “And Bobby… well… he’s almost as new to the group as you are Rose. We met him just the night before we met you.”
“At a pub.” Elredor added helpfully.
They talked of everything and nothing for a while before Tallia shooed them off to sleep. Bobby stayed awake for a while, trying to take everything in. The stars flickered silently in the dark sky above him. He wondered why this was happening to him and not someone else, and what plans did the Mage have for him? Somewhere in the distance he heard the howl of a pack of wolves. There was a a faint rustling somewhere near his leg as Bren shifted nervously at the noise, inching his way closer to someone. Irknar’s snores were subdued, but comforting somehow. He was half aware of the movements and noises around him even as he drifted into sleep.
He was somewhere dark, underground perhaps. Light was coming from somewhere but he couldn’t work out where. He supposed it wasn’t important. What was important was the drum he was holding. He had to take it somewhere, but all the corridors looked the same and he could hear footsteps behind him. He began running but the footsteps matched pace. As he ran the stone walls turned into metal bars, through which he could see faces jeering and laughing at him. He reached a solid stone wall at the end. He looked up and could see a woman in purple standing on the cliff high above him. Tallia. She would help him. He began to climb.
“Not like that!” Said Elredor.
“Like this!” Said Irknar. Both began climbing the wall effortlessly, pushing and lifting each other over rocks and overhangs. Bobby could hear the thing behind him growing closer. Tallia blew smoke from her pipe down past him, giving him some cover while Rose appeared from behind her legs and shouted encouragement. He began the difficult climb upwards. There was an overhang over him he couldn’t quite reach but as he strained to reach it he felt shoulders beneath him pushing him upwards. He looked down into the messy face of Bren, noting his nose was bleeding and he had a black eye.
“Thanks for the drum, but I don’t need it anymore. I have a pointy stick.” He said while helping Bobby climb. They were close to the top when he felt his hands slip and he fell, down into the smoke towards the thing chasing him…
He woke suddenly, his heart racing. He always hated those dreams where you fall and fall but then suddenly catch yourself before you hit the bottom. The funny thing was he always enjoyed them too. Sun trickled into the clearing gradually and he looked around as he collected his wits. The horses were asleep nearby, breathing quietly. Elredor was asleep face-down on a pile of soft moss, one arm thrown over a log as though it were a stuffed animal. Irknar was nearby, having stolen the Elf’s cloak to sleep under at some point. Tallia was curled up a little further away, her cloak pulled around herself tightly. He looked for Rose, confused as he was unable to see her anywhere. His attention turned to his leg which had apparently gone numb. Lifting his head slightly he could see why. Bren was using his thigh as a pillow and appeared quite comfortable. He was even drooling a little. A soft noise made him look up at Tallia, who was slowly opening her eyes. He gentle movements loosened her cloak a little, revealling where Rose had been hiding. Tallia was wrapped around the Halfling girl protectively. She as still fast asleep. The Mage somehow managed to wriggle away from her, leaving her cloak tucker around her tiny frame, and started breakfast. Bobby wondered if he’d be able to do the same. He didn’t have to think about it long, as the noise and smell of breakfast cooking was enough to rouse everyone slowly. Bren apologised sleepily for the wet patch on Bobby’s trousers as Tallia thrust food into their hands.
“Eat up everyone, we have a long journey ahead of us still!” She grinned.
Sorry, this installment is a little long to make up for lost time. Huzzah for breaking my block!
I've added a temporary webpage for the story here, it's a bit of a mess but it's there if anyone wants to catch up. I'm planning to redo the entire site soon, and hopefully I'll be able to give it a dedicated area instead of a single page so I can break it down into easy to manage chapters.
Feedback always appreciated.