Weary and footsore, he had been traveling for more than a fortnight away from the dwarven village of Gayeré he had until now called home. As he surveyed the area, he spotted a likely looking rock upon which he could sit to rest for a while. He lowered his rucksack, took up his lute and began strumming a mindless little ditty he made up on the spot.
Here I am walking alone
Ever further from my home
I wonder if I’ll ever see
Another dwarf the likes of me?
Although Craven Justice had lived among the dwarves in the village of Gayeré, he stood out from the rest because of his silver skin. None in the village had ever seen another dwarf with silver skin and if he were ever to find who had left him on the steps of the monastery for the priests of Gayeré to raise he would need to travel the realm. And after the trouble he managed to get himself into in Gayeré, now was as good a time as any to began his quest for information.
Surely there would be someone, somewhere who could tell him of his genus unless, of course, he was a freak of nature and, considering all that had thus far befallen him in his twenty-six years, he would not be a bit surprised if that turned out to be the case.
How Malef's family could believe he, Craven Justice, who had lived under their roof for the past thirteen years, had killed his brother's betrothed was beyond his ken. That Malef, the giant dwarf of Gayeré, brother by blood oath, would pursue him to the ends of the realm, Craven knew to be the truth. Now thoroughly dispirited by these dismal thoughts he sang another verse.
Can it be I’ll never find
Another who will know my mind?
A dwarf like me with silver skin
Someone I can call my kin?
His feet still smarted from all the walking but he knew he had to continue until he found water. His wineskin was limp in its emptiness and his thirst was growing so water was an imperative. He continued on the path and noted after a short while that the forest was thinning ever so slightly and the sun was peeking through the canopy. As he walked, he noticed a familiar odor in the air, which he did not place at once, but soon recognized as wood-smoke. Encouraged, he picked up his pace and was soon rewarded with the sight of a small group of huts in a clearing just ahead. His spirits regenerated by the thought of talking with another person after all these days of solitary travel lent wings to his feet and he was soon in the midst of the hamlet. Craven, greeted by small children who were singing and clapping their hands as they danced around and around him, found himself smiling at their antics and extremely curious about the wristlet each wore. Each child wore a small bright orange crystal ensconced in a silver wire basket that was attached to its silver wristlet.
The little boys and girls made such a ruckus with their singing that soon the women of the hamlet joined them. That this was a village of gnomes became immediately apparent as he gazed upon their small, compact size.
"Hello, dwarf. What can we do for you?" asked the small lady with white hair, her wattle wobbling rapidly as she spoke.
"Hello. I am traveling to the Fyrestorm Mountains and am in need of water if you wouldn’t mind." Craven slowly and loudly enunciated each word as he held his limp wineskin aloft for her to behold its state of emptiness.
"Yes, we can give you water. Or we can refill your wineskin. Whichever you prefer; we will be glad to accommodate you," answered the white haired lady more kindly. "Have you eaten this day?" she inquired.
"Yes, thank you. I had a bit of jerky and the last of my wine a few eldens ago," he answered, again speaking loudly and slowly, enunciating clearly, while eyeing the handsome orange crystal pendant that sparkled so brilliantly as it hung from her neck.
"Well then, our men folk will be home in a short while and you are invited to share our repast. We would not want to put you upon the trail without a full stomach," she insisted her merry blue eyes now sparkling. "And sir?" she added with a smile, "We are only small we are not deaf or slow. You need not shout for us to understand you." Turning she pointed to one of the children and instructed, "Fetch a ladle of spring water for our guest. "Run along now."
Craven ducked his head and swallowed a smile of embarrassment at her comment as the small boy disappeared behind one of the huts. He soon returned with what Craven thought was the best water he had ever drunk.
"Thank you young sir. That surely is the elixir of life for never before have I tasted water so sweet." The youngster, obviously unused to so much attention, backed shyly away to stand behind one of the younger women who also was adorned by an orange crystal pendant that was only slightly smaller than the older woman’s. Sticking his thumb into his mouth, the boy peeked timidly from behind her skirts at the silver dwarf. The white-haired woman addressed Craven, "What is your moniker and what is your trade? I am Elineen, wife to the village elder. This hamlet is called Mordock, in case you're wondering," she offered as the sunlight glinted off her pendant.
"My name is Craven Justice and I am a poet or minstrel if you prefer," he answered.
"Wonderful, you shall tell us of your journey at supper," she enthused, rubbing her hands together. "In the meanwhile, make good use of your time and fetch some firewood so that we may prepare our repast," she instructed motioning with a wide swing of her arm toward the forest. "Mind, you dasn’t wander beyond sight of the village or I will have to send a recovery party for you. There’s plenty of wood nearby."
Craven leaned his belongings against the thatch wall of the closest hut and set off to gather firewood. Noticing the youngster still peeking from behind his mother’s skirt, he motioned to the boy and said in a normal voice and cadence, "Will you help me? You must know where the best wood lies."
The boy, anxious to please, moved from behind his mother and looking over his shoulder to see if the dwarf was following, he dashed pell mell on his little, short legs into the forest. "Over here, sir," he piped as he ran. Sore feet forgotten Craven hurried to catch up with the boy before he lost sight of him.
As soon as they were out of hearing of the women in the village, Craven questioned the boy. "What is that around your wrist?" he asked trying not to sound overly inquisitive.
"This is my evanesce stone. When I rub the stone I turn to vapor and disappear then, when I rub it again, I reappear. Everyone in our village has to have a stone," answered the boy while bending to gather firewood.
Craven said nothing more but began to plan a way to own one of the beautiful orange crystals and at the same time, wondered why each person of the village had to have one.
Elineen and some of the other village women had arranged a brace of pheasant on a spit, which were roasting nicely over the fire. There were also clay pots of vegetable and some wonderful sauces bubbling over the fire. The smells were delicious and as the men returned a few at a time, they smiled widely in anticipation of the meal.
Elineen made certain Craven was introduced each time someone new returned home and took extra pride in introducing her husband, Inod, the village elder. Inod too, had a white shock of hair and the two together made a handsome pair. Craven Justice noticed all the men had one of the orange evanesce stones in his belt buckle.
With all the gnomes returned from their labors, Craven found himself seated at the middle of the table. It was not long before Elineen announced to all that their guest was a poet and minstrel which was naturally followed by several requests for a song.
"Alas, I would dearly like to render a tune but to tell the truth, it is Odellis, my lute, that holds the lore. There is a story in every grain of the beautiful woods from which she is wrought but she must be persuaded to reveal them." Craven adopted what he hoped was a convincingly innocent look on his face.
"And just what would it take to persuade your lute to sing?" asked Inod looking suspiciously at Craven.
"Sometimes, it is just a cake of salt that entices her and other times it is gilders of gold or pieces of silver. One can never be certain of her needs," he sighed in resignation of her demanding ways.
"We cannot spare our salt for it is a long time before the merchant’s carts will be here again and we have no gold or silver," said Inod, his face marked by disappointment.
"Can you think of any other that we might offer?" he added.
"It could be that Odellis would perform for the crystals you use to purchase other goods" was the nonchalant reply.
Inod reached into his pouch and retrieved six small green beryl crystals, which he handed to a disappointed Craven who had hoped the trade crystals would be the orange ones he saw on every person.
After placing the sparkling gems inside the lute, Craven strummed the strings. No sound came forth. "Perhaps one of those gaudy rocks you all wear would do the trick, but I doubt it." Replied the obviously, he hoped, disappointed Craven shaking his head in the negative. Extending his hand with palm up Craven carefully requested, "Hand one to me and we will see if it works."
Inod went into his hut and returned holding an orange crystal the size of his hand, which he, somewhat reluctantly, gave to Craven. Craven placed the crystal inside the lute then strummed the strings. The melodious sounds drifted out to the crowd, which had formed a circle around him. A ripple of appreciative ohs and ahs came from the circled group.
"Oh sir, tell us of a dragon, please?" requested the boy who had accompanied him into the woods that morn.
"I’d rather hear of a knight," stated another young man.
"Hush now," ordered Elineen with her dewlap wobbling, "he’ll sing us a song of his lute’s own choosing!" Inod nodded his agreement and the children fell silent, as did their parents.
With all the little gnomes settled and waiting, Craven Justice strode to the middle of the circle and began strumming his lute. The tones were sweet and true and he began to sing in his clear tenor voice.
I am come to this, your village
To tell you of rape and pillage.
Tales of woe in the yesteryear,
The likes of which will make you tear.
Craven’s voice, so true in tone, captured his audience and held them as one. He strode confidently from one side of the circle to the other making eye contact with the rapt villagers as he continued to strum and sing. This new feeling of extreme height felt good to Craven, who had never before been taller than those around him and he unconsciously adopted a strut in his walk.
Dragon rulers in the days of yore
Were much more than ancient lore
They, in fact, ruled the lands through fear
Destroyed the people, laid all land sere.
Here he played a bridge and improvised the tune with flourishes on the lute. The gnomes had never before heard music so beautifully and expertly rendered.
So sayeth the writings of an ancient scribe
Who had been adopted by the dwarven tribe.
The man who saved the crystals of life
And was beheaded by Moultrance’s knife.
Breaking, once again for the musical solo, Craven's fingers flew deftly over the strings and frets with never a discernibly sour note although the occasional frown on his face would indicate he was not happy with some of the sounds as they burst forth.
Of his final fate, not much is known
Except, perhaps, by Alofu the Crone.
With all that sung, my song is done
And I bid good eve to everyone.
The villagers clapped their hands with delight at the unaccustomed entertainment and thanked Craven profusely. The woman bustled about clearing the food and utensils while the men smoked their pipes and discussed their day’s activities.
Most of the men worked in a nearby mine where the green beryl crystal was the ore of choice but they happened upon the orange once in awhile. The orange was of a much softer consistency and was scarcer than their trade crystals. Its only redeeming feature was their powers of evanesce and it was for that reason only the gnomes ever bothered to dig it out. The mine was a community project and the green crystals were used as currency to trade for furs, cooking utensils, salt and seed for the village gardens.
Realizing he had little with which to purchase items he would need for his travels, Craven asked if he could work at the mine for a wage.
Inod puffed his pipe and squinted his right eye against the rising smoke before asking, "What do you know about mining sir?"
Looking Inod straight on he answered, "I know nothing of mining. However, I am willing to work hard and I am willing to learn. I will not make myself a burden to your efforts."
"Aye, lad, I can see you’re willing but you look a might weak for the kind of labor it takes in a mine. Why, you haven’t a callus on your hand!" Inod added.
"But I’m not afraid to try!" Craven earnestly replied.
Seeing that the young poet was desperate, Inod reluctantly responded, "We’ll give you a try. But mind, if we see you cannot keep up, that’ll be the end of it. You’d earn a share of the green crystal as your wage. Agreed?"
"Yes sir. Thank you sir. Thank you for your trust in me." Craven gratefully replied. "What time do we start in the morn?"
"Before sunlight. I’ll rouse you. And be sure to wear loose fitting clothes or you’ll sweat to death before the day is half gone," cautioned Inod. "You best turn in now. You can sleep in that hut over where you set your rucksack. That family is gone now and you’re welcome to set up housekeeping there. You’ll find a sleeping pallet already in it, which is all you’ll need for tonight." And so saying, Inod strode off to join his wife in her own hut.
"Craven...Craven Justice!" called Inod.
Craven half sat up from his pallet, rubbing his eyes. It could not be morn already. He had just lain down for the night.
"Come if you plan to earn your keep." Inod said a bit more gruffly than his first call.
"I am coming," said Craven hopping on one leg while pulling on his pants. He bolted out the door while he was still half-asleep and pulling his tunic over his head, he walked over to Inod.
Inod handed him a pickaxe and motioned by pointing with his chin for Craven to follow.
In the mine, Craven lifted the pickaxe above his shoulder and with all his might, swung it down and into the rock wall. Upon contact, the reverberation ran straight up the handle into his hands causing him to loosen his grip and drop the tool. His arms felt as if someone had loosened them from the sockets.
"You’ll be dead afore the day is done, I swear it," grumbled the grizzled gnome working next to him. "Looka here, you wanna chip it away, a little at a time." He demonstrated with the ease of practice gained from his many years of mine work.
Craven picked up his tool and replicated the movement and was rewarded with a nice slab of rock falling to the floor. He smiled at his victory and returned to his part of the wall with renewed enthusiasm.
With every stroke of the pickaxe, Craven felt weaker. He had been methodically, if slowly, raising the tool and arcing it down to chip the wall away for at least an elden.
His hands were bloody from blisters that had broken with the first forty or fifty blows. His wrists were aching from the repeated shock waves as the ax met the rock, his shoulder burned from the unaccustomed repetitive motion and the strain of lifting the heavy implement. But his back was screaming with pain. From his head to his waist, his back felt as if it would break with the very next move. By the time Inod called for a break, Craven could no longer stand up straight. He was sure he would never be able to stand straight again. For as long as he lived.
Thinking a bit of water would refresh, he tried to raise his water bola to his mouth only to find, there was no strength left in his arms to do so. Still thirsty, he aimed the nozzle of the bola in the general direction of his mouth and squeezed with his hands sending a stream of water up his nose and into his eyes. He licked the dripping water with his tongue and felt his thirst somewhat relieved if not quenched.
Strolling to where Craven sat, Inod squatted down and handed the young dwarf a piece of jerky that Craven gratefully accepted. As he raised it to his mouth, his arm shook so with fatigue he had to chase the jerky with his head to finally capture a bite.
Inod smiled and suggested to Craven, "You've put in quite a day for a new man. Why'nt you sit under the shade of yon tree until we've finished for the day?" "Then," he said, we will go back to the hamlet."
Craven, too weak and tired to reply, simply nodded his head in assent.
He sat under the tree for some time after the men had returned to work but he had promised to work hard and not be a burden so he returned to the cavern, picked up his pickaxe and began chipping at the wall again. He continued the monotonous motion repeatedly until, at last, the workday was done.
Upon reaching the hamlet, Craven made directly for his comfortable hut where he collapsed upon the pallet and fell exhaustedly into a dreamless sleep. Inod watched him enter the hut with a thoughtful look. The boy had fulfilled his promise to work hard but Inod doubted he would be able to pull his weight. This day had nearly killed him.
The days passed, with each one becoming easier for Craven. His work hardened hands no longer blistered and bled, his arms and shoulders were becoming nicely muscled and his waist was a few inches smaller than when he had come to the hamlet, in spite of the large quantities of food he consumed at evening repast each night. Inod watched the change in the young dwarf with interest and grudgingly had to admit, to himself if no one else, the fellow had surprised him.
An overall feeling of wellbeing descended on Craven who had all but forgotten the reasons for his journey. He soon became familiar to the townspeople who accepted him as one of their own and he was again comfortable in his own silver skin. He had though, begun to feel an urgent need to move on which was so new to him he did not recognize it for what it was. A sixth sense warning him of approaching danger.
The revelation came one evening after all had returned to the hamlet for evening repast as the gnomes called it. The village folks were sitting around the tables, talking among themselves when a loud hissing noise was heard. Craven noticed the instant pallor of the people sitting near him, as their eyes grew round with fear.
Quickly they all made for their huts. Inod, taking Craven by the arm, guided him to his own hut where Elineen had already darted inside.
"We must use our stones," said Inod while he searched under his sleeping pallet. "The dragon hoard is coming. If they see us, they will kill us." Inod spoke rapidly to Craven as he handed the poet a large orange crystal. "This is infused with the power of evanesce and you must rub it to disappear. You will be able to see and hear the dragon hoard as long as they remain in our area but they will not be able to see you." Inod continued, "Whatever you do, do not rub the stone a second time as long as they remain here! To do so would render us all susceptible to their evil, devilish ways."
"Where will I be while I’m invisible to them?" asked Craven with not a little trepidation.
"You’ll simply be a vapor they cannot see, smell or hear. Nevertheless, you must be still so you do not accidentally rub the evanesce crystal and reappear. They are not stupid and would instantly know how we have hidden from them these many years," warned Elineen. "We are trusting you with the lives of all the village Craven Justice. Do not disappoint or betray us."
As the hissing grew louder, there could also be heard the flapping of powerful wings. The three beings in the hut rubbed the smooth orange crystals and, turning to a wispy vapor, disappeared.
The dragon hoard descended and helped themselves to the forgotten repast still sitting on the community table. The dragons numbered seven and they stalked around the table eating the meats while pawing the vegetables, breads and sauces to the ground. After decimating all that was edible and breaking most of the cooking vessels, they began investigating the grounds and huts of the village.
Craven noted the putrid smell of the animals when one stuck its ugly bulge-eyed, flared nostril, scaly head into Inod’s hut. It was the fetid stench of decayed and rotting meat that emanated from the open razor toothed mouth of the beast. It was so close to Craven, he could feel the heat of its putrid breath. He was close enough to run his hand over its scaly neck but thankfully, the animal pulled out of the hut before the poet could satisfy his curiosity.
Craven was frozen in fear at the sight of the beasts slithering from one hut to another. He had not expected such revulsion to the animal. Their ugly, red eyes inspected every corner for something more to eat or destroy. The sound of their scales rubbing against anything they touched, like fingernails on slate, made his teeth feel like they would break and sent chills down his spine. Their large back legs with ungainly long clawed feet shook the ground with each footfall. Their tails whipped from one side to the other as they duck-walked all over the village. The dragon hoard was truly fearsome to behold.
Having laid ruin to the villagers' repast and growing bored with their hunt, they soon took wing to look for other fruitful grounds. As they noisily rose above the hamlet, their flapping wings caused the dust to fly and obscure the village below them. Hissing and flapping, they were soon out of sight and sound.
One by one, the gnomes began reappearing. Craven, however, still unnerved by the awful dragons, forgot to rub the stone.
Inod finally said, "It's alright to reappear poet." Craven immediately rubbed the orange crystal and reappeared. "I have never seen anything so frightening," he said. "And, I hope I never see it again!" He was still shaking with fright and was experiencing an urge to flee.
"They make so much noise, we always hear them before they see us," said Inod. "As long as we can hear, we can vanish before they descend upon us. That makes it a little less frightening but I understand your fear if this is the first time for you."
"How many times have they come here?" asked Craven.
"Oh, too many times to keep track of," replied Elineen.
"Actually, it is because of the hoard that you have a hut," nodding to the truth of her statement which set her dewlap bobbling wildly.
"Why is that?"
"The last time the hoard descended on us, it was the middle of the night. Andrack, the old man that lived in your hut, could no longer hear well and he was caught fast asleep by one of the dragons that made short work of his poor old bones!"
Inod shook his head regretfully at the telling of this event. "Poor Andrack. He was a good worker."
"When will they come again?" asked a concerned Craven.
"We're never certain on that but it's rare they come back the same day."
"Small comfort," mumbled Craven as he took himself off toward his hut that no longer seemed inviting and thought he had earned enough to finance his flight to the Vent of Gloom.
"By the way, Craven, I need that evanesce crystal back that I gave you. You already have the one inside the lute," requested Inod with a knowing look on his face.
"Oh, certainly," he replied handing the stone over to Inod somewhat reluctantly. "I think I shall make a belt for the lute stone. I shouldn't want to be caught without one in this part of the realm!"
"And you may very well find another one in the mine. If you do, the first one is yours to keep. After that you will turn any evanesce stones over to me. We never know when another will be needed. They do break sometimes." Inod looked straight at Craven to be certain his message was clear.
Craven nodded his head as if in agreement but he was thinking of the three beautiful orange stones he had secreted in his hut. He knew instinctively he would have need of those stones in the future but was unsure as to how he was so certain.
The night was still and dark when the poet crept out of the hut with his rucksack, wineskin, three carefully packed evanesce stones and Odellis. He was careful not to pluck or bump one of the strings as he stealthily made his way to the road leading to the Vent and away from Mordock.
He listened carefully for sounds of hissing or flapping as he trudged toward his goal but heard none of the dragon hoard sounds. Yet, he still felt that eyes were upon him and the thought occurred that perhaps Malef was following him but he discarded that immediately. He knew that Malef's nature was to attack and brawl not to stalk and plan so that could not be the reason for the unease he felt.
In the deep, dark cover of the center of the forest, the dragon hoard gathered to discuss their adventures. Their red eyes glowed green in the ambient light of the moon and their scales chittered as they talked animatedly.
"Did you sssenssse the presssenccce of the orphan today?" asked the largest of the group who stood in the center of the circle.
"I sssensssed only the meatsss and sssweetsss," offered one whose tail had a crook in the end as if it had been broken in infancy.
"That'sss all you ever sssensse," said the leader. "What about you?" he addressed the next dragon whose one eye was lower than the other.
"My sssensssesss are sssharper than yoursss becaussse I don't sssee ssso well and I thought I sssmelled sssomething at Mordock," he replied. "How isss it thosse gnomesss get away before we can pounccce upon them?" he added.
"They have a sssecret. We will sssurprisse them one day!" answered the leader confidently. "I think we sshould go to Digenessess, the dragon demi-god, and tell him that the orphan isss near."
"When sshall we leave?" asked crook-tail. "The dragon demi-god isss in great fear of the orphan. The sssooner the orphan is found and killed the sssooner Digenessess will be sssafe from losssing hisss immortality," he added sidling closer to the leader. "And I do not like the chill of thiss foressst anyway!" Blowing flame on his front claws to warm them he nodded his ugly head as if to punctuate his statement.
To the animals of the forest that looked upon the group with a mixture of fear and curiosity, the conversation sounded like nothing more than hissing and shushing but their senses told them it was much more.
The steep incline of the road told Craven he was nearing the entrance to the Vent of Gloom. Or at least he hoped that was true. He had never traveled further than the Gayére forest boundary before so it was only through mapology and stories that he knew of the Vent's existence at all.
His mind returned to Gayére and the horrible accusation of murder Malef had charged him with and he wondered once again how far behind him Malef could be.
Having lived with Malef and his family for thirteen years, he knew Malef would not rest until he had exacted revenge for the heinous crime. Even if he took it out on the wrong person.
Malef was rendered blind and senseless with grief at the loss of his beloved Gaene; and it happened on the night of their announcement of Marital Intent. From the happiest event of his life to the most grievous in less than twenty-five elden was more than enough to bring lasting madness to the strongest, largest dwarf of the village.
Craven also knew, that in his right mind, Malef would know that Craven could and would never have done harm to his brother by blood oath nor to anyone he, Malef, held in esteem. It was a matter of trying to find evidence of who had actually killed Gaene and staying away from the giant dwarf until he returned to rational thinking.
Malef and Craven had become fast friends over the years. Probably more from the fact that until Malef reached his junior years the village children had taunted and teased him for his slowness and clumsiness while Craven had verbally and physically protected Malef from the hurtful jibes at every opportunity. Over the years, as Malef obtained his true size, the jibes had stopped. With an overly large head for his body, broad muscular shoulders, broad neck and long dangling arms ending in huge strong hands, Malef was fierce looking. Only Craven and Malef's family knew the true kindness of the giant's heart until Gaene discovered the truth for herself.
But Craven knew that Malef was capable of hating as ardently as he was of loving and that Malef would not rest until he had exacted justice on the one who had slain his betrothed. That was Craven's danger.
Still deep in thought, Craven stopped in his tracks as a sound carried to him of hissing and flapping. The same sound that preceded the arrival of the dragon hoard at Mordock. Standing stock still, he listened with every cell and pore but the sound got fainter and fainter until, he thought he had imagined it all. It was then he noticed the partially brush obscured entry into the Vent of Gloom; the shortcut through the Fyrestorm Mountains to Talos Valley.
All these remembrances brought on by the simple statement, "by the mystic opals of evanesce" accidentally overheard in the Pit at the Red Gryphon Inn.
Could it be he would soon see Elineen and Inod again?