(A Collaborative With DOlarnick)
By: Craven Justice
Craven Justice could tell a tale,
Kings and dragons he would regale.
Short of stature but oh so loquacious,
Prone to embellish, he was mendacious.
The Bard's Journey
Huffing and puffing, his silver skin sheened with sweat, Craven Justice continued toward the light. Although he had been walking steadily upward for the better part of a ken, the light seemed much nearer when he entered the Vent of Gloom than it did now. The Vent of Gloom, looked like a tunnel carved into the earth but was indeed a natural geologic formation that afforded just enough room for the small stature of a dwarf to travel it comfortably. Its existence was a matter of dwarven mapology but it was otherwise an unknown passageway through the Fyrestorm Mountains.
He had chosen the Vent route to ensure safety from his antagonist, Malef, the giant of a dwarf who had sworn a blood oath to track down and kill Craven Justice. Because of his great size, the Bard thought the Vent was not a viable route for Malef and it would give him time enough to, again, evade his resolute pursuer. If nothing else, the huge dwarf was tenacious.
By: Craven Justice
Of his life, very little was known;
Just that he came from a dwarven zone.
His heritage, cloaked in mystery
Few knew the truth of his history.
Malef and Craven had been dwarvling comrades. In fact, it was Malef's family that had wholeheartedly and warmly welcomed Craven Justice into their denop when he had been abandoned by his own family.
Craven had been apprenticed to Almén, Malef's father, by the priests of the Order of Gayeré. The priests, a brotherhood who grew Lingonberries and made from them the best wine in the Realm, had afforded Craven refuge when he had been deposited, by no one knew whom, on their doorstep several years earlier. With Craven fast approaching the age for the Rite of Alteration and because he had begun to display too great a curiosity for the brothers' fine wines, it became necessary to send him out of their cloistered walls to live among the townspeople. It soon became obvious to Almén that Craven was not cut out for metal work. He simply did not have the delicate hand it took to form the precious metal into works of beauty.
"Watch where yer pourin' that silver, Boyo!" Warned the craftsman.
"I -- I'm'I'm sorry sir." Stammered the young dwarf as he clumsily spilled molten silver onto the floor.
"That be a gilder's worth of silver ye just threw down." Grumped the old dwarf.
Rising from his bench, he stretched his tired back and rubbed his weary eyes. "Malef!" He called to his son. "Take young Craven 'ere to the 'ouse and ask yer mother to give 'im bread and a bed. Tell 'er I'll be 'ome shortly to explain me wishes."
Almén, large for a dwarf, with unusually wide shoulders but not outsized by dwarf standards, would become as much a father to Craven as he was to his own son.
"Ah...What a little darlin' ye be." Said Lunaire all the while patting Craven lovingly on the head. Thinking of the way he had looked when her son first brought him in, made her heart hurt all over again and the tears glistened at the remembrance. He had looked so lost and forlorn. How could anyone have abandoned such a handsome little dwarvling? She was a large round woman who obviously had human bloodlines, which went a long way in accounting for her great size.
That Malef favored his mother's side of the family was already apparent even at the tender age of thirteen dwarven years. He was already more than twelve hands tall and still growing. Why, his father, Almén, was only eleven hands tall and he was considered large for a man of the dwarf race. In spite of his great size Malef was plagued by two sisters, Milláe the older and Allene, the younger, so he was ecstatic to have a boy his own age in the house.
"We'll 'ave great times together. You'll see Craven." Malef excitedly promised. "We can 'ave adventures and 'unts. I can 'elp you over the tall brambles and you can skulk under the short uns. It'll be great fun!"
And so, it came to pass the boys so unlike, became not only denopmates but also, coconspirators. Having grown up under the same roof and given the same moral standards by which to live, it hurt Craven to think about the bitter enemies they had become in their adulthood. His mind wandered into the past as he resolutely pushed forward through the Vent of Gloom.
The Early Years
Craven Justice trudged down the dusty road leading away from the dwarven village of Gayeré. His silver skin and raven black hair a stark contrast to the green forest bordering either side of the track. He walked with heavy steps. His head hanging down and his back bowed with the weight of his troubled thoughts, he was a picture of dejection as he neared the Fyrestorm Mountains and the ingress to the Vent of Gloom for the first time in his life.
It was difficult to understand how Malef, his blood brother, believed he could have committed an act so heinous; but Malef, maddened by grief, refused to listen to Craven’s side of the story. The situation had become so intense he removed himself from the home of the loving family who had been so generous with him for the last thirteen years. Half his life had been spent in Malef’s home. They had shared mother and father, sleeping quarters, food, secrets of the heart and together managed to thwart many of their sisters’ pranks. They had played, quarreled, made up and pledged to remain forever friends. For their friendship, forged by a blood oath, to end so dismally made his heart sore.
Craven’s life was forever changed by events that occurred just a fortnight ago, the night of the Bonding Feast. The feast, which lasted for twenty-five elden, occurred once a dwarven year and was the time that young dwarves publicly declared their Marital Intention. The marriage would take place one dwarven year and three kens from the announcement of Marital Intention.
It was that night, Malef proudly announced Marital Intention with the comeliest maiden in the village, Gáene, daughter of the dwarven town chancellor. Together they had smilingly presented themselves to the attendants of the feast and joining hands announced their intent. The match was looked upon with favor by all the involved families and by the townspeople, as well. Both Malef and his chosen mate were popular and it was generally thought they were suited to one another. Something of which they, at this momentous occasion, were blissfully unaware. It was obvious to all, Malef and Gáene had eyes and thoughts only for the other.
Intentions made known, the feast began. The women spent days before the feast preparing all the wonderful foods. The smallness of their size belied the dwarves’ ability to eat good food.
There were haunch of boar, hare and venison roasting over the fire on spits, the rich fat dripping and sizzling on the red coals below. The women had placed bulbs of allium under the skin along with fresh herbs of rosemary and wild sage. There were large pots of Capón stew bubbling away in its rich juices. There were mounds of tubers rolled in broadleaf with boar fat and herbs that were roasting on the fire in clay amperes. The aromas permeated the whole of the village and made mouths water. There were baskets spilling over with bread still warm from the hearth ovens in which they were baked. There was sweetpané, a small round of bread sweetened with honey and sprinkled with dried seeds or nuts. There were great trays of vegetables delicately flavored by the cooks of the village. Some were sautéed, some were roasted, some were boiled, some were fresh from the garden but all were dressed with herbs, wild onion and spices. Skins of wine and buckets of ale sat in the nearby stream to cool. It was a feast fit for the table of a king and a great celebration ensued.
Toast after toast was offered to good health, long life, many children and good luck. At this feast Craven Justice made his decision to become a minstrel, a teller of tales, a singer of song, a poet. His ambition had been to find a means of employment within this village where he had so happily lived, but, with each year, it became more apparent, he had no manual skill. His toast to the intended partners displayed his affinity for words.
Marital Intention Toast
By: Craven Justice
To my friends I offer this toast
May you always have meat to roast
May your hearth always burn hot
And may your love dwindle naught
May your children be strong and healthy
May all your lives be long and wealthy
All this I wish for you and then
I also vow to be there when
You call on me to help with life
To help you dispel any strife.
Amidst the laughter, cheers, jeers, whistling and stomping that broke out upon the completion of the toast, Craven Justice was thrown into the waiting arms of Malef and Gáene. Malef, who towered over the others by some two to three head, pounded him on the back and Gáene, looking small and dainty next to her giant dwarf, much to Craven’s embarrassment, bestowed a kiss upon his silver brow.
"That was thoughtful of ye, brother." Smiled Malef, all the while shaking Craven’s hand energetically.
"So nice." Added Gáene.
"I wanted you to know how happy I am for you both." rejoined Craven Justice, looking down and nervously scraping his shoe on the hard-packed earth.
"I thought ye would be." said Malef smiling. "’Tis a fact I counted on," he continued. "Ye will serve as me witness in the ceremony, will ye not?" he asked earnestly.
"That goes without saying. I shall be happy to serve you so," replied Craven Justice with pride shining in his spring green eyes.
Finding himself amidst a crowd of revelers anxious to congratulate Malef and Gáene, Craven Justice took the opportunity to slip away. He needed time to think on this. It was a turn of events that had caught him unaware. Malef certainly pulled this over on him, he thought. He had no hint of this before tonight which left him feeling a stranger to Malef for the first time since they met thirteen years ago. He needed quiet to sort it out in his mind. This would impact the plans they made to travel after their Rite of Alteration; of that, he was certain. As he made his way from the festival, he was approached by many of the villagers who roundly applauded his toast and complimented his poetic bent. He received their congratulations with as much poise as he could muster but in short time, made his way into the nearby forest.
There he sat on the ground with his back braced against a large yew tree where he could watch the Gayeré stream meander by on its way to the coast. He could hear the water’s soft gurgle as it wound its way over rocks and under roots overhanging the bank. Raising his wineskin to his lips, he drank deeply of the Lignonberry wine letting it trickle over his tongue and down his throat; the sweet tang of the precious wine refreshing his pallet. An occasional trill of feminine laughter floated from the festival and the music could be faintly heard. The creatures of the forest and stream, alert to the presence of one other than they, were still. The unusual quiet was peaceful and Craven found his thoughts centering on his dilemma.
Travel with Malef would undoubtedly be set aside in light of his impending marriage. What young dwarf would leave a beautiful mate to travel with the likes of me thought Craven Justice? He and Malef had made plans to travel to the Talos Valley upon completion of their Rite of Alteration. It was customary for young male dwarves to travel the land in order to gain knowledge of their world before settling down to a life of marriage and employment. True, some chose instead to stay within their village and practice the trade of their fathers, but Malef had voiced discontent for the life of a metal worker. That was not surprising when one considered Malef’s great size. His large hands were not suited to the intricacies of fine metal work as were his fathers. Craven had looked forward to the travels he hoped would reveal his true heritage and was sorely disappointed they would now be set aside.
As he sat quietly ruminating, the forest creatures resumed their important business. Cicadas began to sing their love songs; frogs announced, in a myriad of voices, their locations while small creatures dashed about in the undergrowth gobbling up fallen berries, seeds and nuts He soon heard a loud rustling and snapping of branches, accompanied by labored breathing, and loud tramping footsteps. Alarmed that a large bristle bear was near, he stood, waving his arms and loudly called out, "Who goes there? Make your name known!" he roared as he released his bolo from his waistband. "I will send Bolo to sing your death song." He warned beginning to twirl his weapon above his head while his eyes cast about frantically to see what was there. The disturbance continued but the sounds now receded from his tree near the stream. Bristle bears were much feared by the dwarf population. Large, black furred with long sharp claws and longer teeth, the bears were occasionally found near the Gayeré stream feeding on fish.
Feeling relieved he had thwarted his would be ursine attacker he quickly decided the forest, during the dark, was no place for a silver dwarf who had too much festival under his waistband. Securing his bolo, retrieving his wineskin and thinking a good sleep would make his troubles seem lighter in the morn, he set off for home. He wandered around a bit until he finally recognized the path that would take him directly to the denop he shared with Malef’s family. He and Malef had kept this path worn smooth for many years as it was their favorite place for dwarvling adventure but as they got older, the path had begun to return to the forest from disuse. Branches and vines that had overgrown the path occasionally caught and pulled at his tunic as he made his way to his home. While fighting the brambles the faint feminine cry that wafted up from the vicinity of the stream failed to register in his mind.
Upon reaching the comfort of the denop, in the dim illumination of the tallow stick, Craven noticed berry stains upon his tunic and thought Lunaire would give him the sharp side of her tongue when she saw them. Too weary to fret about it further, he pulled his tunic over his head, threw it into the corner and extinguishing the tallow stick flame, lay on his straw filled mattress where he slept as soon as his head was down.
Craven Justice, disturbed by rough shaking, awoke with a start. "What? Malef, what are you doing?" Seeing the pain on his brother’s face further alarmed Craven. "What is wrong?"
"It, it, it is Gáene! Believin’ the lateness of the feast and the storm forced ‘er to shelter ‘ere, the chancellor called to claim ‘is daughter and accompany ‘er to ‘er rightful abode." Malef’s face twisted with worry, as he slumped on a nearby stool holding his blonde head in his large hands. "I did, as a fact, ask ‘er to take shelter ‘ere but she would ‘ave none of it. ‘It would be unseemly.’ she said and asked to be escorted to ‘er father’s denop. We made shelter, as best we could, from broadleaf, and I accompanied ‘er to ‘er father’s door! Twas there we said our good byes."
"Do not fret so, Malef. There is, I am certain, a perfectly good explanation. She has probably gone out for fresh berries or wild onion." soothed Craven rising from his sleeping pallet to place a reassuring hand on his brother’s slumped shoulder.
"Do ye not realize the time Craven?" Malef hotly retorted. "It is well past mid-day and any foragin’ will be long done by this time! I ‘ave a bad feeling for this. I fear for me beauty, me love!" he added forlornly. "We must ‘asten to search for ‘er! Hie yourself, now!"
Malef’s urgent tone motivated Craven and he began to don his discarded tunic. Noticing the berry stains, he hastily threw it into the corner again and pulled a fresh one from the cupboard. Pulling the tunic over his head, he raced to follow his large, worried brother out into the bright day.
Outside the denop, they found a group who had responded to the ringing of the village triangle, which was used as a signal for assembly in times of emergency. They stood in small groups speaking softly.
"What is the trouble?" asked one.
"I ’ave not been told, ‘ave you?" asked another.
"I ‘eard there is a bristle bear in the area," was another comment.
"The chancellor was seen comin’ ‘ere," contributed a small dwarf puffing on his pipe.
The murmuring died away as the chancellor, Almén, Malef and Craven Justice stepped out of the denop. Holding his hands up for silence, Malef began to speak.
"Townsmen, the chancellor’s daughter, me intended, Gáene, is missin’ this day. She is nary in ‘er father’s denop nor is she in the woods surroundin’ it. ‘Er father and mother ‘ave searched for two eldens and can find no trace but a small piece of ‘er gown caught upon a berry bramble near the path leadin’ to the stream. We must search the village and surroundin’ area."
The chancellor stood forward, "Villagers, I implore ye. Make all ‘aste to find me girl. She’s but a little thing and not strong a’tall. The man what finds ‘er will ‘ave ten gilders to pocket!"
Almén spoke, "Fellowmen, we’ll break into groups. We’ll circle outward from the chancellor’s denop in widenin’ rings to be certain we miss nothin’. When ye find ‘er, sing out in relay. We’ll come a runnin’!"
Malef led the group to the chancellor’s denop where the search would begin. The chancellor stepped into the denop calling out, "Wife! ‘As she returned?" he asked.
"Noooooo." was the sobbed reply. Eyes red with crying Gáene’s mother appeared at the door, "She was not with the silversmith then?" she shakily asked.
"We’ve gathered the men of the village and we’ll begin the search." the chancellor kindly reassured his wife.
With that, the men paced off four cubits between them and began circling the denop. Each time they returned to the door of the building, they paced off four more cubits between them and circled again. Very soon, the men could be heard in the brush of the forest but few could be seen from the denop and then, none could be seen at all. They still could be heard marking trees with their axes so they could mark the beginning and end of each circle.
Almén kept Malef at his side. His son was too distraught to be left alone and as much as he hated to acknowledge it, Almén, himself, felt a cold stone deep in the pit of his belly.
Craven Justice chose to partner with the chancellor who was past middle age and in need of help with his footing every now and again. The brambles were thickly tangled in some places but it was important to peek and prod at each of them for clues to the girl’s whereabouts. Using a broken branch as a staff, Craven poked and prodded the brambles looking in and under them before moving on to the next clump. The Chancellor followed him closely and sometimes clung to the younger dwarf for support.
The search was in its fourth elden when a series of echoing cries began reverberating through the forest. With each cry, more of the searchers converged on the old man with the pipe who had begun the call some minutes earlier.
Malef, hearing the cry, began to run in its direction. He ran full tilt; he jumped fallen logs, plowed through brambles, fought the branches that conspired to hold him back. He frantically clawed his way forward through the dense underbrush.
His father, Almén, called for him to wait while trying valiantly to match the pace of his larger son. His heart pounding with fear for Malef, Almén was soon winded and forced to slow. Using his last energy, he called again, "Malef! Wait! Do not go wi’out me!" But Malef heard naught but the cries calling him into the forest.
Craven’s progress toward the crying of the men was hindered by the necessity of keeping the chancellor upright and traversing in the proper direction. The older man, winded but determined to continue, hung heavily on Craven’s arm. The path, where one existed, was too narrow for them to travel side by side and the added weight of the chancellor’s slow progress sorely taxed Craven’s physical strength. Craven, who spent most of his hours, composing song and verse while strumming his lute rather than hiking and hunting, was less fit than most dwarves his age. Eventually, they saw the searchers standing in a group just ahead. They seemed not to be moving at all and no sound of their conversation could be heard.
Hearing their approaching footsteps, one of the villagers turned and seeing the chancellor approaching he walked forward to greet him.
"Sir, I beg of ye, do not go further," implored the villager as he met the chancellor.
The chancellor, his face paling from robust pink to paltry white, moved toward the group. "I must know what ‘as ‘appened," he said between stiff lips and went resolutely forward.
The villagers turned as one at the sound of their chancellor's voice and avoiding his eyes, they parted to allow him to pass through their midst.
There before him was Malef lying prostrate upon the ground. Pounding the ground with tightly clenched fists, great wrenching sobs poured forth from his distraught form. By Malef’s side, under the overhanging brambles, lay the lifeless form of his beloved Gáene, daughter of his heart. Her poor broken and bloodied body looked so small; looked so innocent and her beautiful face, unmarked, looked so young. The chancellor’s heart broke at the pitiful sight. He fell to the ground and died.
It was the saddest day anyone could remember in the Village of Gayeré. Never before had a funeral pyre been built for two of the same family on the same day. The Priests of the Order of Gayeré came from the monastery to officiate the services; a thing they were rarely called upon to do because this was a village of dwarves and dwarves are extremely long lived.
The dwarven day was beginning to ebb in its green phosphorescent twilight and all the villagers were assembled to see the departed on their way when the fires were lit. The priests intoned prayer and incantations to help ensure that the afterlife of Gáene and her father would be filled with comfort and pleasantries. The chanting and prayer went on until the fires had dwindled to little more than ash.
It was quiet throughout the village even as the villagers made their way tiredly to their own denops to reflect upon the goodness of the two who were now gone. It was customary the villagers not go abroad for twenty-five eldens as a show of respect to the families of the deceased.
In the denop of Almén, all was quiet. Malef had taken a drought prepared for him by one of the priests, which kept him sleeping. The shock to his system upon discovering his love slaughtered was so severe that it affected Malef’s mind. He could or would not talk; he could or would not move; he simply stared at the walls, never blinking, never swallowing, completely silent. It was eerie but more than that, it worried Almén and Lunaire so that they called for the magic drought the priests made at the monastery. Something, under ordinary circumstance, they would not have done. Because the priest’s potions were so strong, they were used only when all other effort had failed.
Malef’s grief was palpable. It permeated the denop and affected them all. Even the girls were subdued today, a rare occurrence, indeed.
In the phosphorescent glow that heralded the official end of the mourning period, Craven found himself drawn to the outdoors. The closeness of the grief in the denop was sapping his strength and he was in need of conversation. As he stepped abroad, he noted several of the villagers standing or sitting outside in the twilight. Apparently, others had the same desire for company as he.
Walking down the lane to the festival arena that served as a gathering place for the village, he thought to seek information from the men there. Being last on the grisly scene in the forest then having the Chancellor fall dead at his feet had kept him so occupied that he was not sure just what had been found or by whom.
As he approached the little dwarf with the perpetual pipe, he called out, "A good eve to you sir."
"And to ye," he replied with a wreath of smoke curling about his bald head. "’Ow faireth the young Malef?" he inquired.
"He is heartsore and ailing, that is for certain. It will be some time I fear, before he is again himself," answered Craven Justice. "Were any clues found at the path to give some idea of the crime and who may have done so malicious a deed?" asked Craven.
"Aye, there was some broken bush; some scuff marks on the path." Scratching the side of his nose with the bit of his pipe, the bald man went on, "‘Er clothes was torn and slashed as if the killer was crazed with ‘ate, not much more. It be ‘ard to think a mad killer lives among us. I will easier believe a forest ogre or, maybe, a gypsy gnome did the deed. Surely, none in this village could commit a murder so foul," he said with finality.
"Do you think it could have been a bristle bear?" asked Craven remembering the crashing sounds of the night before.
"Aye, it could be that." The man agreed nodding his little, bald head thoughtfully. "Strange though, ‘e did not mark ‘er face," he added.
Craven wandered to another small group of men and engaged in the same conversation. They too were mystified and saddened by the murder and death of two of their finest citizens. There was some talk of electing a new Chancellor and eventually they engaged in hearty debate as to whom would best fill the office. It was a sign that village life would quickly return to normal and though Craven was still burdened by sadness, his heart felt a bit lighter because of the outing.
The moment Craven entered his denop, he knew something was terribly wrong. All of Almén’s family sat in the great room and all eyes were upon him as he entered. No one spoke and no one smiled.
"What is it?" he asked. "What has happened now?" Fear began to fill him with dread. "Speak, I implore you. Tell me what it is."
Malef leapt out of his seat and in a single bound was upon him. Taking Craven’s tunic front in his large hand, Malef twisted it and lifted the smaller brother from the floor. Putting his face into Craven’s he loudly demanded, "Why did ye kill ‘er? Were ye so jealous of me love for ‘er?" continued Malef shaking Craven violently. "Why?"
"Brother, you know not what you say. I could never harm Gáene. I did not harm her. I know nothing of what happened to her. Why do you accuse me so?" implored Craven.
His eyes bulging and mad with hate, Malef, threw Craven to the floor, fell on top of him and began to throttle his smaller silver brother with his large, strong hands.
Craven stood no chance against Malef in hand to hand combat. This had been proven to him many times over the years they were together. He could no longer outrun the larger man and Malef’s strength was too great for Craven to pry the big fingers from his throat.
Almén though shorter than his son, Malef, was a mature dwarf with work hardened muscle that made it a simple task to force his son away from Craven Justice. "Sit Malef!" he commanded. "Sit so we can sort this out. Now!" He roared. "Lunaire, show Craven the reason for our concern," he ordered his wife.
Lunaire stood and held out the stained tunic Craven had discarded on the floor in his sleeping room. The stains showed plainly and there were many more than he had noticed in the dim light of the tallow stick. Here, in the brighter firelight, they were brown and coagulated looking. He slowly reached out to touch one of the spots and found it still slightly wet. The sticky stain smeared his finger, which he quickly pulled back.
"It is berry stain. I got it from the overgrown path we played on as dwarvlings. I went to the yew tree on the night of the festival to think on my future and took the path home. It is berry stain," Craven hurriedly explained.
"Nay, Craven, ‘tis not berry stain," said Almén sadly shaking his head.
"But it is!" protested Craven looking at each one of the family in turn. His heart beat rapidly and his mouth was bitter with the taste of fear.
With a howl of grief, Malef was once more upon him and again Almén pulled his son away and pushed him down onto the stool. Holding Malef with a hand on his shoulder, Almén looked at Craven sadly and said, "Ye must leave me ‘ome this night Craven Justice. Never more will ye be welcome under me denop roof."
Lunaire, her eyes streaming walked to Malef and put her ample arms around her grief-stricken son. "I would never ‘ave believed it of ye Craven," she said looking accusingly at him, "but me sees it wi’ me very own eyes. ‘Tis blood on yer tunic young Craven and me ‘eart breaks fer yer evil," she finished, her accusing eyes never leaving his face.
Almén, holding up long strands of black hair looked hard at Craven and said, "’Tis yer black ‘air me found on the yew tree near ‘er poor beaten body. Ow could ye ‘ave done such a deed on the family what loved ye as their own?" he solemnly asked.
Opening his mouth to reply Craven saw the resolved look on their faces and knew he could not, this night, change their thinking. It hurt him to his very core to know these loving people could think him a murderer. Head bowed in shame and humiliation and with his heart breaking, Craven turned to leave the denop he had called home for thirteen years.
Milláe, his older sister, her face streaked with tears, held out to him his rucksack, wineskin and lute, which he took from her hand as he passed through the door.
Willing his mind back to the present, Craven pushed the troubling thoughts from his mind and concentrated on trudging forward through the Vent.
A Time to Dream
The air seemed thinner or the climb steeper or he was simply exhausted but it certainly was getting warmer. Wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm he thought, the greater the effort the bigger the reward. His adoptive parents taught him this, a tenet of dwarven life. Hard work and effort would pay off, eventually.
Almén, a carver of fine metals, worked hard at his father's knee and practiced his craft diligently. The many hours he spent hunched over his bench, carving and teasing the fine metals into beautiful filigree and fleur de lis permanently bent his back while modestly filling his coffers with gold. Oh, they were not wealthy but they were well enough off.
And Lunaire, never one to let time waste, worked from dawn until nightfall to see their clothes were mended and clean, the house was neat as a pin, the garden tended and that there was plenty of wonderful food on the table. Her flat beans sauté with fresh herbs and goat cheese was renowned for the delectable flavor. She often served them with Capón stew in which she used two whole roots of allium. It made Craven's mouth water to remember the deliciousness of that stew with its pieces of meat, dried fruits and vegetables.
Yes, hard work would always pay. How else could the often maligned dwarven tribes have continued?
Lost in his remembrances, the Bard failed to notice the soft murmur until his thoughts returned to the present. Tired and eye weary, he lay his lute and rucksack down then sank exhaustedly to the ground. He thought of chewing on a bit of jerky but was too tired to rummage in his pouch so he took a drink of Lignonberry wine from his sheepskin bola then lay his head down and closed his eyes. It was commonly thought the Lignonberry wine had restorative and revitalizing power. When regularly taken with food it strengthened the mind and spirit. The finest wine in the Realm combined with the susurous murmur and moist warmth of the air surrounded him like a cocoon and soon lulled him into a deep, dream filled sleep.
Tossing and turning the troublesome dream filled his head. An old woman pointing a bony, gnarled finger at him was saying something he could not hear. Or, perhaps, it was that he could not understand. The dream became a kaleidoscope of alternating visions. The gnarled bony finger in his face, changed to a vision of the old crone's face, replaced by a roaring waterfall, which became a shiny crystal skull, followed by a giant white dog-like beast then a vision of the toothless mouth, lips moving in speech. The hulking shadow of Malef appeared and was replaced by yet another vision. On and on it went, ever changing, faster and faster the visions receded and were replaced by another. The sound of the waterfall never left his head. That was it! He could not hear because the waterfall drowned out all other sound. A vision of Malef, the crone, the skull, the dog, the waterfall, the gnarled, bony finger over and over and over.
With a start, he awoke. Opening his eyes, he looked around sure he would see the crone or Malef but no one was there. But something was different. What was it? Shaking his head to clear the images from his mind Craven sat up and leaned against the side of the Vent. His ears hurt. Putting his hands over his ears, he recognized what was changed. The sound of the waterfall was gone and the quiet was so intense he thought his ears would fall off his head. For a short while, Craven Justice sat quietly contemplating the meaning of the dream. Was the dream a result of his exhaustion or did it have hidden meaning? After some moments passed and his stomach growled twice, reminding him of his hunger, he put his hand into the rucksack, his fingers prodded the corners and recesses finding the packet of jerky. This was the first time he had the dream so it was probably a result of exhaustion. He thoughtfully chewed the jerky and washed the salty taste away with sips of his precious wine, all the while trying to discern the meaning of his disturbing dream which was now rapidly fading into his subconscious.
Upon finishing his meager breakfast, he dismissed the dream (which he could no longer clearly recall), gathered his belongings into a bundle and prepared to continue his journey.
Taking up his rucksack and lute, he began walking again. The path was relatively straight but had become much steeper in the uphill incline making his already sore muscles ache with protest at this unaccustomed work. A sedentary lifestyle was his by choice. Craven wished he could have ridden his donkey, Chorea, through the Vent but their combined size was too much for the confines of the passageway.
After another fifty yards, he noticed a glow to the right of the passageway. What this could be he could not imagine. He had traveled this route on two or three other occasions but could remember no other source of light than at the end of the Vent.
The route was so straight as to allow the light at the end to glow even over the extreme length of the passageway. He also noticed the air was extremely warm and damp. Damper than he remembered. Thinking it was the exertion of the climb, he moved steadily forward.
As he approached the glow, it became more evident there really was a new source of light. In the glow, he could see a gray fog wafting into the center of the Vent as if being carried on butterfly wings. It curled and writhed then dissipated in the air. Surely, this was the cause of the high humidity. The sweat poured off his brow, as much from fear as the unaccustomed exertion. He came ever nearer to the glowing light. Suddenly, he came upon a spur leading to the right off the main passage.
This was not here before, he thought. The Vent is as old as the Fyrestorm Mountains therefore, it must be, I have never before noticed this route. Was that possible? He did not think so. The passageway was so narrow it would be hard to miss this spur in passing. He took a tentative step onto the new path. There was that susurous sound again. Cautiously he moved forward, all his nerves singing with anticipation of...what?
The humidity became denser and the sound gradually became a tempest. A roar that somehow sounded familiar to him but he did not understand how that could be. He was certain he had never been this way before. He would have remembered it. Was this fear he was feeling or apprehension or excitement? Every nerve, taut as a drawn bowstring, sang with tension. Rounding the corner, there before him was a great bubbling pool. It was boiling, roiling with steam rising from the surface to drift away on the air current through the passage he had just traversed. And, there beside the pool stood a man. He was naked except for a crystal loincloth. He was tall and well muscled, a handsome man who looked at The Bard expectantly with piercing blue eyes. Ahh...thought Craven, that loincloth is worth several gilders and he began to develop a plan to possess it.
It was difficult to see beyond the man because of the fine mist that hung over the pool but there was a flash of movement there. Or was it just the mists swaying and re-forming? The bard could not be sure. Also, a keening sound was beginning to penetrate his consciousness. A sound different from the turbulent water sounds. It was almost a howl.
"Who are you?" queried the man.
"I am Craven Justice, poet, minstrel, teller of tales singer of song. And you sir, who might you be?"
"I am the Scribe." He answered looking unsure. "Do you know of me?"
"I know not a human called Scribe. What, if you please, have you inscribed to bestow upon yourself that exalted title?"
"I am not certain. It seems I have hurt my head and do not remember." Replied the Scribe absently scratching his head. "How do you come to be here?" he asked.
"I journey to the Red Gryphon Inn in the Talos Valley. I have business there to which I must attend. And you sir, where are you bound?"
Watching the confusion flicker over the man’s face Craven Justice suddenly recalled a story of old. It was a song sung by the elders of a human whom they adopted as their own. The man’s quests were shrouded in mystery but they spoke of him as Odan the Scribe.
Why had this occurred to him now he wondered? Lost in thought and with the sound of the bubbling pool filling his ears, Craven failed to hear the sound of footsteps behind him.
The man’s eyes widening in alarm cried out, "Poet! Behind you! Be warn..."
At that moment strong arms wrapped around Craven Justice, pinning his arms to his sides. He was unable to extricate himself and the more he tried the more the pressure of the hold around him increased. With the increased pressure, breathing became difficult and Craven struggled harder.
"At last, ye bounding bastard! I ‘ave ye in my grasp and ye’ll not get away from me again!"
Immediately recognizing the long familiar voice, Craven tried to reply.
"Malef! Wait! You do not understand! Release me man so that we may..." he pled only to be cut off by Malef’s hot retort.
"Release ye? Never!" Malef loudly replied, anger throbbing in his voice.
In the scuffle, neither of the dwarves noticed the quick action of the man by the pool. In a single leap, he was upon Malef prying at his locked hands.
"Release the poet immediately," ordered the man who continued to pry at Malef’s grip on the smaller dwarf.
With a blinding flash of light, Malef lost consciousness.
Attaining The Inn
Finding himself free of the giant dwarf’s embrace, Craven Justice ran to a nearby boulder. Crouching behind it, he peeked around the edge to surreptitiously observe the combatants. Malef, Craven knew, was an expert in hand to hand combat. How many times had they played as dwarvlings until the difference in size had become so great as to preclude any chance Craven, the quicker thinker, might once have had?
As he watched the battle before him, it seemed the scribe was larger and more muscled than he had at first appeared but perhaps that was the result of Craven’s lack of oxygen caused by Malef’s strangle hold.
He noted the lithe movements of the man whose quickness and agility made him the better combatant. The advantage of Malef’s great strength could not be brought to bear upon the man who struck like lightening then moved out of range again. The peppered blows and continuous attacks were wearing the giant down. His movements slower and panting for air Malef was losing the battle.
As Craven watched astounded, the scribe applied a wrestler’s sleeper hold to Malef who fell into a deep sleep. Mouth agape, his eyes closed in unconsciousness, he snored loudly.
Craven’s greed beginning to surface he asked the man, "Have you an interest in earning some coin? I believe we could do well in The Pit at the Inn if you have an interest."
"Aye, I shall have need of coin to complete my quest.” the man countered somewhat hesitantly. “But what would you require of me?" he asked with more assertiveness than he had previously exhibited.
"I will promote you as a wrestler of men! You are of medium build and mild of nature, which will disguise your true ability at hand to hand fighting. We will wager on the outcome and upon winning, you shall have a share of the purse. Are you game for it?" asked Craven. The man nodded his assent.
Rocking back on his heels, Craven began explaining as the opportunity to exploit this fellow quickly formed in his mind. "It will be a seventy-thirty split. I shall keep the larger share because I shall be paying our board and lodging and it will take coin to draw interest to you as a contestant. Furthermore, as I shall be spending my hours promoting on your behalf, I will not be able to spend as much time telling tales and singing songs which is my usual employment. Actually, that will be a ninety-ten split now that I think of the costs involved," he finished, rubbing his hands together.
"In spite of the attack on your being, I believe you can be trusted and would make a likely companion." The fellow thoughtfully replied. "Let us travel to this Inn together and have a go at earning a few coins. Come with me." He invited the Scribe walking toward the pool.
Craven took a step forward then stopped. "Why would you have me near the pool?" He asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
The man turned to speak again, "We can go... Where have you gone?" the man asked looking to his right and to his left.
Craven Justice held himself into as small an object as he could manage behind a large boulder. He heard the keening again and it seemed to be getting closer. He was not certain what the man had in mind but he did know he wanted no part of the eerie pool. He could hear the man casting about in the cavern calling out to him so he stayed very still. The boiling, roiling pool began calling to him.
Come hither with ye.
Come hither to see
The magic of my mist.
Come now, I must insist.
With an earsplitting roar, the great white beast was upon him. Gnashing its yellowed fangs and spewing white spittle, it charged with inhuman speed; catapulting its great, heavy body into the poet. Losing his balance, Craven sprawled forward and into the path. He quickly regained his senses and urged by fear, he jumped up and began to run. He ran straight into the man who had just appeared from the other side of the boulder. The man stretched out his hand taking Craven’s arm just as the ferocious beast hit him again with enough force to knock the dwarf into the bubbling pool. The man dove in beside him still holding Craven’s arm, with strong kicks and his single free arm, he began dragging Craven Justice deeper and deeper into the pool.
The silver dwarf began fighting valiantly to loosen the man’s grip as he began to feel the urgent need for air. The efforts were futile, for the man was stronger than even Malef. Just as Craven felt the centrifugal force of the vortex in which they were now caught, bright white lights flashed through the blackness of his mind.
There was that sound again. The sound of rushing water. Craven Justice opened his eyes and to his horror found himself being tossed between the rocks and boulders of the river. His beloved lute, Odellis, whose shape made her a perfect floatation instrument, was keeping him afloat. He was confused. How did he come to be in this predicament? He avoided water whenever possible. He would never have willingly jumped into a rushing body of water like this. His mind raced as he tightly clutched Odellis.
The sounds were getting louder and louder as he flew, faster and faster down the river. Looking ahead there was a wall of fog...no not fog. There was a wall of steam...no not steam. It was a wall of mist. Like the mist he had seen form around... Oh no! It was the mist from a waterfall!
He tried to kick his legs to take him sidewise of the flow but he was stuck fast in the current. His heart beat so rapidly he thought it would explode. The violent current tumbled and tossed him to the brink and with the thunderous roar of the falls echoing in his ears, he screamed as he plummeted to the rocky pool below.
"Well poet, I see you finally found your way," said the crystal loincloth adorned man smiling at the disheveled state of the little dwarf.
Craven looked up to see the man standing at the edge of the pool arms crossed as if he had been waiting forever for his arrival. The sight of the man brought flashes of fragmented memory and the dwarf shook his head as if to clear it. Spitting and spewing water, he made his way to the edge of the pool. "How did you get here? Why did you not have the decency to help me? I could have been killed in that river!" Craven’s anger spilled out in this indignant tirade as he climbed wetly out of the water.
The man, laughing loudly, clapped him on the back. "You didn’t want my help poet. Look where you bit my hand." He said holding out his hand that showed a slight redness in the form of teeth marks.
"Harumph! I’m sure you deserved it!" was Craven’s somewhat mollified retort. He was secretly glad he had caused this upstart discomfort but he was not certain why that was.
It was just then Craven noticed that Chorea, his donkey, waited patiently just behind the man. His delight at the sight of her was unparalleled because after the fright of the river and the falls, he was finding it difficult to keep to his feet. His knees kept buckling like rain weighted blades of grass. Calling her softly, she came to him and he gratefully climbed aboard with as much grace as he could muster. He did not want the upstart who called himself a scribe to notice his weakness.
"Scribe?" thought Craven, a puzzled look coming over his face and he once again shook his head as if to clear it.
"Follow me." He directed the man. "We will get to the Red Gryphon Inn where we can get you properly clothed and advertised as a wrestler of men." With another shake of his head, Craven set off for the Inn wondering how he knew the scribe was a wrestler. The man followed.