"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
From here on, downloads will only be listed at the Downloads page!
"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
INDEX <=== / ===> CHAPTER TWO
The city of Guardpeak is like the chicken and the egg. Which one came first?
Were the caverns dug first, and then people started building their homes on top? Or did the city come first, and the inhabitants started expanding their basements bit by bit into an interconnected maze of caverns and tunnels? You keep wondering about these things when you figure out that the entire Deersrun Hill is webbed through with cavities and wooden pillars supporting ceilings that are commonly the floors of another tunnel or cavern. A work of art that would do a pack of dwarves proud – yet it’s clearly human. (After all, you don’t ever bump your head on the ceiling.)
It isn’t difficult to find out, you know? People talk about Guardpeak for miles around, and the locals are very proud of their subterranean expanse. They keep their wine barrels there, in the upper strata where the temperature stays pretty much the same all year round, no matter whether the sun is baking the ground or snow is piling up. Of course there’s more than wine down there. You don’t have a place like that without tales of fabulous treasures hidden in the maze – some talk of a dwarven empire within Deersrun Hill. That’s silly, of course. A fabrication by imbeciles who can’t get it into their skulls that humans are able to dig stable tunnels, too.
If you come to Guardpeak without knowing its history, you’d surely wonder why – and who! – would ever have deposited a treasure in this godsforsaken place. Oh, well, that’s an exaggeration, I guess. It’s a beautiful place, hilly country full of the wineyards, with a number of small creeks crisscrossing the landscape. Some farms are scattered around, the quaint places where an honest pilgrim like myself can always find a meal and a place to sleep. Sometimes the stables, sometimes a bed, and sometimes a pile of straw under an awning of the house. Well, most of the time.
You really wouldn’t think that this was once the site of great battles where thousands of thousands of people gave their lives! Oh, yes, it’s true! These days you only see the remains of the majestic fortress that once ruled Deersrun Hill, the original bearer of the name Guardpeak. What’s left was converted to a big stable to hold the draught horses of the large wineries. But there are still trenches in the landscape, spreading out from the hill in straight lines that bend and weave here and there. The trenches are mostly overgrown, but you can still see the white earth underneath. Don’t ask me why it’s white. I’ve heard a myriad of stories trying to explain it, but the only thing these tales agree on is that it was part of Guardpeak’s defenses back in the days.
So, what was there first? The caverns or the city? Or should the question be whether the fortress was there before any of the other two?
To be perfectly honest, the question wasn’t exactly burning on my mind. I was far too busy fending off the attacks of a pack of arydogs chasing me through the lower western caverns of Deersrun Hill.
You will ask: “Why did Ahnfredas Bluekeg, son of Hernaldas the shoemaker, honest pilgrim to Faithold, ever decide to enter Deersrun Hill? He knew, after all, that this was a maze of tunnels!”
The answer is that I am a fool. It was getting cold outside in the night, the month of Tabrokun was passing into Brophyun, and I had been late getting to Guardpeak. The first snowflakes were falling, a promise of a chilly night under the stars that might see me turn into an icicle if I didn’t find shelter.
Well, I could have gone all the way up to Guardpeak and asked around for an inn. I didn’t have money, of course. The last I had spent in Grapplers’ Crossing, eighteen miles to the southwest. Which shouldn’t have stopped me, really. A pilgrim should be given shelter by the faithful, blessed be Nash’Geo and Decirius! Shelter and food and drink.
But I had been tired, and by chance I had come across that opening in the hill. A round door was set in the ground, unbarred for a strange reason. Doors like that dotted Deersrun Hill, of course, spread through the wineyards here. The vintners and vine-dressers liked fast access to their properties, especially when it came to carrying their harvest inside. They never kept their doors open so that any thief in the night could get inside. Or a poor pilgrim like me.
I had decided that the gods were smiling on me and slipped inside. There should be a nice spot somewhere, and the steady temperature of the tunnels would surely keep me from freezing.
I should have known better. Two years of travels and no more than a hundred and fifty miles away from my father’s family. (Of course I had covered a lot more ground in that time, but rarely had I actually headed towards Faithold. There was usually a nicer inn nearby. Or a chapel where I could worship the gods.) No, they weren’t too likely to grant me this boon.
At least there were sources of light in the tunnels. Atawn be thanked! Her shine was spread by rectangular bowls fastened under the ceiling – containing a liquid that was ever bright. A treasure, if you ask me. And the people of Guardpeak. They had to dig deep into their hill to find the stream of glowater, so they cherished each drop they brought up to the higher tunnels. I suppose they might have made a nice profit from selling it, if they could get enough. My father might only be a shoemaker, but he’d surely lick his lips if he only saw the slightest chance of cutting into this action.
Anyway, I had stuck close to the outside – just far enough that I could be safe from the chill. I had placed my cloak – nicely tattered and patched as a pilgrim’s ought to be, but certainly warm – on the ground, ready to wrap myself inside, when I had heard a scratching noise a cave or two further inside the hill. Now I don’t mind sharing my bed with a few of the small creatures you inevitably find in straw or a farmer’s home. I prefer having none of the kind around, but that’s luxury.
Rats, though, are another matter. They take actual bites, and when there’s a horde of them, you might not wake up. So I took my staff – good oak wood, a little over six feet long – to investigate.
Sweet Sira, Mistress of the Plants and Animals, I should have said a prayer to you instead!
The scratching came from a cave considerably darker than the others. The reason I have already mentioned above: arydogs. Have you ever seen one? Its shoulders as high as a small horse, its matted, black fur rising to an angry mane on the back of a head that – in my memory – consists of little more than a slavering maw with lots of teeth and vicious, burning eyes.
There were three in that cave. One had managed to wrest the bowl of glowater from the ceiling; that one and a second were busy inspecting the bright puddles on the ground, lapping carefully at it. The third was busy closing its massive jaws around the iron lock of a crate. When I stepped around the bend into the cave, the iron just gave way, and the arydog shook its head to get the flakes of metal out of its maw.
That’s when it saw me. Its eyes lit up. I was certainly more tasty than metal or whatever the crate might contain. The others had the same idea.
As far as ideas go, I had only one, which I implemented rapidly.
The instant my eyes had locked with the third arydog’s, my legs were already busy turning me around and propelling me the other way, as fast as I could. The arydogs growled, loud enough that I heard them over my panting as I rushed back towards my cloak and the exit. The door must be small enough, I reasoned, that only I would fit through.
Alas, I took the wrong turn right away and only noticed when I found myself in a long corridor, angled upwards, lined with glowater bowls. That hadn’t been where I had come in! Yet behind me was the scratching noise that I now knew to mean claws on rocky ground. Very close behind me.
The tunnel went up, I decided, and that would take me towards Guardpeak and salvation. “Sira, protect me!” I cried, as I started running again.
My muscles ached, after a full day of walking and only that short break at noon when I had eaten the last piece of mutton from Grapplers’ Crossing. It lay hard and solid in my stomach now. Oh, the arydogs would enjoy that, wouldn’t they? Stuffing inside their dinner?
I’m not sure that I actually thought that. I’m not sure of a lot about these moments, only fleeting images of cave after cave that I rushed through, turns that I took, the barrels I slammed into. Oh, yes, those barrels I remember. That was when the first arydog came close enough to snap at me.
I managed to climb on top of the barrel, jumped to another, hoping to have a moment to catch my breath. The arydog growled, watching me closely. It made no attempt to follow, only moved around slowly, as if it had all the time in the world to wait for me to come down again. Occasionally it would raise a paw and hit the barrel under me. The wood shook, and I had a sudden image of both the barrel and me rolling off the stand, down the slightly sloped floor. That image included either my being smashed by a barrel nearly twice as tall as me, or jumping off, straight into the arydog’s jaws. Or that of its companions that had now caught up with their leader, pacing around him and my barrel.
One was starting to get impatient after a while, and it decided to ram the barrel.
It didn’t roll over. No, that image of horror didn’t come true. Instead the wood splintered under the arydog’s assault and drenched the beast in red wine, the flood washing over the ground, sending two of the creatures against the nearest wall. They whined, much like the puppy I had had as a child, flailed about to get back on their feet.
I didn’t spare them much pity. My own perch had grown all too precarious. Nor would any of the other barrels offer me any safety. Not for long, anyway. I jumped again, to the next, then another afterwards, clambered down the ladder I found there – and had only instants to escape the lead arydog’s jaws. It had been spared the flood of wine, only specks of red on its fur. (And brown, strangely enough. That color I do remember clearly, streaks running across the beast’s back and side, but I was away too fast to realize what that was.)
And after that my memory grows hazy again. How long did I run? When did I remember my staff? I had been carrying it all the time, my trusty pilgrim’s staff that I had nearly cracked on a robber’s head three months earlier. (If you’re wondering, the robber hadn’t been alone. I had lost all my money, my cloak, and most of my other clothes. Including my boots. The succession of footwear I had worn afterwards had never matched that first set, made by my father. Damn that robber! My father had made those boots!)
Anyway, the staff did crack. In the jaws of one of the wet arydogs, somewhere along my run. I kept pummeling the beast with the two pieces I had left over, and I must have hit a soft spot on its snout. For a moment it let go of me, whimpered, and gave me the opening to run again.
Another mad dash up the caves and corridors. I’ll spare you the details and rejoin my tale when finally my breath was knocked out from me. Literally, that is. I had only a moment to realize there was a fist heading for my face, then unconsciousness swept over me.
Well, not quite. I did have time to realize that it had been a good, human hand. Very hairy, yes, and the hot pain shooting through my nose was telling enough that it was broken.
But it was a human hand.
“Healing a thief? Are you mad, Carter?”
“How do I know he’s a thief, Red? He hasn’t taken anything from us.”
“Oh, right. That’s why you broke his nose in the first place.”
“He was running. Now shut up and let me tend to the fellow.”
The fellow in question was me. And I was ready to scream because my nose was hurting, and the rest of my face was starting to explode in pain when something was smeared over my skin. Something that burned like abyssal fire. “Taurkémad!” I yelled. A bad habit, you know, invoking the goddess of torture when you are in pain.
“You be quiet, too!” the man I would know as Carter roared and smeared some of the vile stuff on my lips.
It shut me up, in a way. The liquid flames were dancing on my lips, and I breathed as fast as I could, hoping that the cool air would still the fire.
Carter muttered to me, “A minute or two, boy, then you’ll feel fine.” He sounded kind for a moment, as much as his hard voice was suited to that sound. Then he turned back to Red, named so for the color of his hair, and said, “Without the boy we wouldn’t know that there are arydogs down here. Damn pests. So we’ll –“
Another voice cut through, much younger, clearly just past adolescence. “Pa?” the boy named Grapes called through the cavern. I’m sure he had a proper name, the boy did, but all that time I only heard that nickname. He balked at that, but he never bothered to correct anybody. Not even when I called him Grapes.
“What is it?” Carter said, patted me on my shoulder and rose. The pain in my face was subsiding. Miraculously, so did the ache in my nose. A healing salve, from a Decalleigh temple in Guardpeak. Yes, if you’re wondering, my nose was still broken. These salves are good to keep the pain down, but they don’t do too much else.
“Pa,” Grapes said – I opened my eyes at that point and studied my saviors -, kneeling in the side of the cave. It was a large one, with several exits leading out into other caverns or corridors. A sign post was in the center, with pointers for each of the exits and letters scrawled on the wood. Grapes was by the body of one of the arydogs. Dead, fortunately, peppered with arrows along its flank, and a puddle of blood under it. “This one is wearing something made of leather. It looks kinda like a saddle.”
“A saddle?!” That was me crying out. Why would there be a saddle on an arydog?! A murderous canine beast that was only good for maiming and killing? (Later I would also realize that I had seen it – the brown streaks in the fur. What Grapes called a saddle was actually a strange contraption of leather straps tied around the shoulders, head and chest – serving as reins for one thing, and allowing a very small person to slip its legs and arms in.)
“A saddle.” Now that was Carter. He didn’t sound as frightened and stupefied as I had, of course. Nor was it a question as he strode to his son’s side to inspect the corpse for himself. Carter was a tall, broadshouldered man in his late thirties. His dark brown beard covered half his face, the wide, crooked nose showing signs of having been broken repeatedly over the years. That fit what could be seen of his rough features, but not so much the clear blue eyes shining under the bushy eyebrows and the long hair that should send every hairdresser into retirement.
“Yes, Pa, here.” If Grapes hadn’t called Carter his father, I would never have guessed. The boy’s hair was a very light brown, tending towards the red – like his uncle -, and his face was gently cut, a tad feminine perhaps. I hated him right away, and even more when I saw that his eyes were ocean-colored as well. He wasn’t a handsome boy, he was beautiful. You know, the kind that women swoon over? Me, I’m a shoemaker’s son, and you can tell that on every inch of my face. As common as you can get, and my brown eyes never made a pretty girl blush when I just looked at her. Grapes must get that every time he stepped out of his home. “That means there are wild dwarves here, doesn’t it?” the boy asked.
Carter stood over his son and the dead arydog as he nodded gravely. “For sure it does.”
I froze. A moment before I had been about to ask these people for guidance to the surface – and the meal that a good pilgrim would deserve, after his plightful encounter with arydogs. And now… By the abysses, I despise dwarves! For good reason, mind you. It’s not that I don’t like all non-human creatures that the gods have placed in our world. If you stay away from elves, they don’t hurt you. If you keep alreus away from your property, they are a minor annoyance. But dwarves!
And wild dwarves at that – they were even more murderous than their arydogs. I really needed to get up to Guardpeak, a decent bed, and then away from this place.
“Unless the dogs killed their masters and ran free,” Red muttered. He was still close to me, fingering the bow in his hands. Carter had one as well, and the quiver on his back was almost empty. The arrows surely were the ones in the arydog. “Some fool may have left a door open, you know? The beasts slipped in, attacked the thief here, we shot them, and that is that.”
Carter turned his head and looked hard at his brother. There weren’t too many similarities between the siblings, either. In fact, I’d rather have thought Red to be Grapes’ father – if Red weren’t at best ten years older than the boy. “Red,” Carter said slowly, “arydogs aren’t native around here, and they don’t enter underground tunnels on their own. If they killed their masters, those masters were already inside Deersrun Hill.”
His brother sighed, nodded. “That means we’ve got to get them out. Valanda?”
Carter shrugged. “If I can convince her. I wouldn’t mind having a wizardess around. Go up and wake our workers, Red. We’ll meet back here in two hours.”
Red sketched a salute – the Cayaborean style, finger tips at the temple, palm turned forward -, then he turned around and headed out one exit. That must be the one that led upward. Was I ready to leave?
Let me put it this way. There were wild dwarves and arydogs below this cave. A bed and a meal were above. If I had to crawl, I would be leaving. So I got up, readied myself for a little bit of a begging routine – I’m rather good at that, you know? -, but found myself stopped by Carter’s harsh glance. “What is it?”
“Uhm, I –“ Yes, I am good at my routines. Those blue eyes of his, though, drilled right through me. “I – thank you for coming to my aid, I’m a simple pilgrim, and I –“
Grapes interrupted me with a sudden grin – you know the kind that lights up a man’s face, and makes a woman drool no matter what he says. Gods, I hated the boy. “Pa, he wants to weasel food from us. A pilgrim! Where’s your cloak?”
Right where I found the arydogs, I was ready to answer but Carter held up his hand. His eyes were still focused on me, rather unpleasantly. “Where are you travelling to, pilgrim?”
Ahhh! A faithful man! That thought didn’t quite suit the looks he gave me, but the words sounded fine, and I suddenly found myself slipping back into my routine. “To Faithold I travel, my friend,” I began, spreading my arms, “to see the Divine Speaker in all his glory, the conduit to pure divinity and the holy. I wish to attend his holy mass, be part of the congregation, and –“
“Any holy places you’ve visited thus far?”
My routine was broken. Darn, and I had just warmed up! Oh, well, I could answer that. “Oh, yes, friend, I have been to the Springs of Carvey, blessed by Mannannan, whose waters have caressed my skin. I have seen the Great Statue of Splendor, at Mercurham, and I can attest that such beauty can only have been wrought by the great god Deswellyn himself.”
“That’s it? Two places?”
Isn’t that enough? Abysses, do you have any idea how far apart they are? It would have taken me seven months! (As a matter of fact, I had visited the Statue of Splendor. Several times, to be sure. Of course it was only three miles from home, and that’s where I had seen the other pilgrims who were always treated to a meal and shelter. The Springs of Carvey… Well, they are in Cayaboré, and I never liked the soldier state very much. Rumors say they impress visitors in their service sometimes. Even if they don’t, the place sounds very boring.)
“So?” Carter leaned forward. “Only those two? And you collected the proper sigils from each?”
“Yes, of course,” I muttered, growing impatient. What did he want from me? If he wanted to assure that I was a proper pilgrim, what good was this? “They were on my cloak. Back in the cave where I wanted to sleep. Then I noted the arydogs, and…”
“Take us there,” Grapes interjected. “I want to see if they’re the real thing. Friend.”
I shot him a dirty glance – recovered my senses an instant later and hurried to bow. “Yes, friend, that would be a fine thing. The problem is, I have lost my sense of direction when… I fled the dogs.”
“Oh, sure,” Grapes grinned and winked at his father.
Carter raised his eyebrows. “Boy, go take this man upstairs. Give him a loaf of bread, let him sleep at Torrindas’ place.”
I should have immediately bowed my head again, said a prayer to the lords that they should bless Carter for his graceful gift to a poor pilgrim. That would have been the proper thing to do. Instead I couldn’t help but watch Grapes closely for his reply. The boy’s face fell instantly, and for a moment he looked as if he was about to stomp out of the cave to mope somewhere. He looked very childish at that point – and I had to suppress a grin. Now that wouldn’t have worked with any woman I know! None younger than fifty, anyway.
Unfortunately Grapes recovered quickly. “Father, Uncle was right. This man is a thief who wanted to steal from our wine. Why should a pilgrim go here? It isn’t right we should reward him!”
“I sought shelter,” I told Carter right away, while Grapes was still speaking. Oh, pretty boy did notice that, and he didn’t like it one bit. Good! “Night was falling, and there was an open hatch. It doesn’t freeze in here, so I took that as a sign of the gods.”
Carter snorted. “A sign of the fools, more likely.” He nodded to me. “I don’t care a bit what you were doing here. You can’t carry a barrel out of here, and if you were to poison my wares, you’d have lost the vinegar on your flight. So I can’t prove anything. Grapes, get him upstairs.”
Poison his wares? I repeated in my mind. With vinegar? It seemed ludicrous, and I would only realize a bit later what he meant. Pour vinegar into a barrel, and the whole wine will sour long before its time. As far as the vintner was concerned, vinegar was poison. Still, I didn’t like the idea – neither that of me being accused of doing that, nor of actual poison in any of the wines from Guardpeak. Why, Carter sounded so sure of it as if it had happened before. I decided that I should ask for water rather than wine tonight.
Grapes started to complain again, but his father cut him off quickly, and with a sour mien the boy waved me towards the exit that Red had taken. Finally! I was going to get out of this tomb!
Don’t think me enough of a fool that I didn’t thank Carter before leaving. No matter that I didn’t intend to stay longer than dawn, and he would be hunting wild dwarves, I might have to rely on him again. (That is, if he survived the hunt. But I only realized that on my way up to the top of Deersrun Hill.) Fortunately, Carter cut me off, and I could rush after Grapes.
The adventure was over. I would spend the next day thinking how I could use this story to elicit sympathy – the poor pilgrim assaulted by arydogs, and how the gods brought him salvation. That was my plan. But you know what they say about plans, don’t you?
No less than two hours later, I should be back in the caverns under Guardpeak.