The Wall: Part 2
‘Faster!’ The trolls voice boomed.
Go to hell! Olav thought. Ogg, Gagg or Skagg or whatever your damn name is. The trolls were all about short and effective names. They were all about short and effective everything. Even though they had their own language and culture, Olav hadn’t heard or seen much of it. They mostly communicated in short grunts, which were easy enough to understand no matter your native tongue.
‘This is not a break!’ Another rocky monstrosity bellowed. ‘Find minerals!’
‘We just lost one of our own,’ Olav said. ‘Because you lot killed him!’ He thrust his pickaxe at the closest troll. ‘You should mine your own bloody minerals!’
The troll stomped closer to Olav. ‘He had an accident! Keep working!’
‘No!’ Olav swallowed hard, dropping his pickaxe. ‘I think I’ll take a break!’ He sat down, resting on the pile of rock he’d just dug out of the mountain. He’d never stood up to the trolls before, but enough was enough. Besides, it’s time to set things in motion. That didn’t mean he wasn’t nervous about it, though. The sheer size of the things was enough to give him pause. But someone has to do it. Someone has to get the ball rolling. Bertrand started this . . . I’ll do the rest.
‘Work!’ The troll stood over him, eclipsing every source of light in the room. ‘Or else!’
‘Or else what, troll?! I’m going to have an accident, too?’
‘Come on, Olav. Stop this nonsense.’ Hans, the dwarf next to him, whispered. ‘It ain’t gonna do no good.’
‘Those ugly piles of rock killed Bertrand in cold blood, and don’t even have the guts to come clean about it. They desecrated our wall, Hans! The only sacred thing we have left in this world.’
Hans scratched his beard. It wasn’t long enough to be braided yet, but it was starting to grow thick and bushy. He had been standing too close when they set off a couple of powder kegs down mine eighty-six, and his eyebrows and beard had been singed right off. His hair had mostly survived, though, and he hadn’t been burned badly. His brows had come back since then, and the mine had been closed. ‘So what are you going to do? Take them all on by yourself?’ Hans’ sapphire eyes gleamed in the shadow cast by the troll. So much wisdom in those eyes. The dwarves in Pith didn’t have a foreman, but Hans was as close to one as they got. ‘Ain’t nothing good gonna come out of this, Olav. I implore you; leave it be.’
The troll bent down, placing its dark and empty face close to Olav’s. ‘Your friend makes a good point. You should listen to him.’
Getting close like that was a common tactic among them, Olav had found. Though, maybe it wasn’t so much to frighten, as it was just making sure the dwarves actually heard them. There was, after all, quite the vertical difference.
Olav closed his eyes. Come on, Olav . . . this is the way it has to be. They’re not going to kill you . . . probably. ‘Go to hell . . .’ He mumbled. ‘I’m not mining any more minerals for you, murdering scum.’
The troll’s huge fists grabbed Olav’s arms and hoisted him up. ‘Wrong answer!’
‘Please!’ Hans begged. ‘He’s just upset because of Bertrand. We all are!’
‘Shut up, Hans!’ Olav yelled. ‘Let these assholes show their true colors!’
‘He fell!’ The troll bellowed. ‘Like you!’
Like me?! Olav felt a surge of panic. ‘Going to throw me down the same shaft, huh?’ His voice trembled, the words barely escaping his lips.
And the troll released him again.
Pain shot up Olav’s left leg like water through a bursting dam. He collapsed onto his knees, then keeled over against the pile he’d been sitting on moments earlier. His knees felt like they were made of string, barely holding his legs and thighs together. His mind made a desperate attempt to process the damage, trying to figure out what a fall like that could do. These trolls are roughly five times our height. He must’ve lifted me close to the ceiling, meaning I fell between twenty-five and thirty feet. He was breathing fast and uncontrolled. Sprained ankles maybe. A few broken bones at worst. He grit his teeth and tried to roll into a more comfortable position.
He was unsuccessful.
Broken bones, then.
‘You!’ The troll bellowed, pushing Hans against the stony wall, his head giving away a soft thud. ‘Take him to bed. Then come back!’
‘I-I-I’ll have to treat his injuries . . . or h-h-he’ll die from an infection.’ A trickle of blood rolled down his forehead.
The troll leaned closer, predictable as always. ‘Manners, dwarf!’
‘P-p-please, master. May I look at his injuries?’
The troll gave a short chuckle, then spat. ‘Do whatever you want with him.’
Eirik opened his eyes, the world dim and blurry around him. There were sconces on the wall, but only one torch burned. The dwarves were mostly forbidden to go outside during the day, meaning they hadn’t seen much sunlight in their lives. The trolls were bigger and stronger, but they had one glaring weakness; they couldn’t go out in the sunlight. Doing so would result in them turning to stone, just like in the old legends.
Halvor and Olav, always the proponents for escape, meant this weakness could be exploited. ‘Hell, we could basically just stroll out in the middle of a sunny day,’ Olav had said. ‘And those bumbling idiots wouldn’t be able to follow us.’
Olav, Halvor, Eirik and Bertrand had tried once, though. After years of digging, they’d created an alternate exit, through mine seventy-two. They made it out alright, but found themselves trapped in a maze of razor sharp rock. It turned out the mines of Pith only had one viable exit; which was both collapsed and guarded by the trolls all day.
Eirik blinked the blurriness away, placing his feet on the cold stone floor. A rebellion, he thought to himself. I must admit, that sounds like a pissing good plan right now. Not only had the trolls killed his oldest friend, but they’d desecrated the wall in the process. It had to be the trolls . . . one of ours wouldn’t do that. Eirik felt slightly sick that he had even considered it. The whole thing just felt so . . . off, in a way.
What the hell do you expect it to feel like? They killed Bertrand . . . he’s gone.
He stood, numb and empty, sauntering over to his clothes before shrugging them on. He was late, and would probably be punished for it, but he just couldn’t muster the strength to care. What’s the point of all this, anyway? For the longest time, he and Bertrand had stifled every penchant for rebellion. And for what?
The trolls were bigger, stronger and far more dangerous than every single dwarf in that mine, armed or not. And their one weakness didn’t shine through these barren walls. But it was more than that with Eirik and Bertrand, Bertrand in particular. This seemed to be the beginning of a fragile peace between the two races. After decades – centuries, even – of war; trolls and dwarves could finally coexist. Eirik had a dream that in another ten or twenty years, the dwarves would be free to come and go, but could stay and work under the protection of the trolls if they wanted. With such a formidable force on their side, the dwarves could move freely all across Agartha.
Then we could finally start searching for DwarfHeim in earnest. I know it’s out there somewhere.
Hans pressed the cloth against his bleeding head. ‘I can’t believe this bloody shit!’ He dunked the cloth in a bucket and wiped the wound clean. ‘Ain’t even been a day since Bertrand was found.’ He tossed the bloody rag away and sighed deeply, leaning over Olav. ‘You started it, though, Olav. Practically begged them to do it.’
Olav smiled to himself, then shook his head. ‘They can’t keep getting away with this, Hans.’
‘Get away with what?’ Hans placed his hands on Olav’s knees, pressing carefully. ‘We’re bloody prisoners. They can do whatever they want. They always have!’
Olav winced at the pain. ‘You’re still young, Hans. Sixty or seventy years ago, the fire was still in our eyes. The clan hadn’t given up!’ He waved his hand toward the narrow entrance. ‘They can’t even go out in the damn sunlight, Hans! They’re big and clumsy and slow. How bloody hard can it be to get away from them?’
They were in the infirmary, as much as one could call it that. Using various scraps form discarded clothing, as well as some dried grass collected from the upper levels of the mines, the dwarves had managed to make three soft beds in a secluded nook by their living quarters. Softer than the rock they normally slept on, in any case. Mushrooms and strong spirits – the best kept secret in all of Pith – worked as a remedy for everything, and crude strips of leather bound both flesh and bone when necessary.
‘And where would we go, once we escaped?’ Hans asked, pressing against Olav’s left knee as he pulled on his ankle. ‘Even if someone would take us in, we don’t know these lands at all.’
Olav let out a soft cry as his shin gave away a sickening pop. ‘There are elders among us who remember being taken here . . .’ He groaned and squirmed. Besides, anything is better than this.’
‘Elders?’ Hans scoffed. ‘And how good is their memory after all these years?’ He looked at the rough ceiling. ‘At least we have rock above our heads and underneath our feet! Better than being cooped up in some leaky, rotting woodpile. Or even worse, sleeping under the stars.’
‘See? It’s that attitude that keeps us from escaping! You, Eirik and all the rest of them. Hell, even Bertrand. You keep preaching about how good we have it here! Do you think Bertrand would still agree, huh? Would Eirik? He’s probably next in line . . . didn’t even bother to show up today. How do you think the trolls will react to that, huh?’
‘I’m tempted to break your leg the other way, Olav.’ Hans gave a wry smile, and started binding the leg. ‘But I suppose you have a point.’
Olav was quiet for a long time, the pain slowly fading as he drank the concoction Hans had prepared for him; reduced from burning hot pokers to a steady throb. ‘Some of them had children, you know. The elders. When the trolls came bumbling through the village, they took all the men captive. The women were all slaughtered, unless they could hide in time. The children were left screaming for their parents, or just outright killed. Squashed like insects.’ Olav blinked a few tears form his eyes, his head spinning from the booze and the mushrooms. ‘That’s what we are to them, Hans. Insects.’
Hans nodded solemnly. ‘I remember Eivind telling me some of this before he died. He said they had an escape plan, but that the trolls came earlier than anticipated, through a hidden oar. He said only a few made it to safety.’
‘It was his biggest dream to go back to that village. To see if his daughter had survived. To see if anyone was still living there.’ He grit his teeth as Hans finished the binding. ‘He died before he could . . . but it’s not too late for us, Hans. We can get away from this dank hellhole and find the rest of our clan.’
‘How?’ Hans asked. ‘You talk big, Olav, of that there ain’t no doubt. But how in the name of Alban’s Ale are we going to manage something like that?’
Olav smiled wide. ‘Most of the job’s already done, Hans. I just need you and the others to go along with it.’
‘You’re late!’ The troll said, bumbling around just outside the living quarters.
The living quarters were pretty roomy for the dwarves, but trolls couldn’t enter without crawling on all fours. And the bigger ones, Eirik imagined, couldn’t enter then, either. I’ve never seen a troll crawl . . . He thought to himself. It would make for a rather good sight, I think. This was the first time Eirik had stayed in his quarters after roll call, and he had no idea how the trolls would react. Nor did he care.
‘Come now! Or we’ll have to punish you!’
‘Like you did with Bertrand?’
Eirik had never heard a troll sigh before, but it was the only way to describe the noise he heard.
‘Always about Bertrand. He must have been a good man.’
Eirik was taken aback. ‘Yes . . . he was.’ He paused. ‘One of our best.’
Silence for a long time. ‘I’m . . . sorry for your loss.’
What the hell? Eirik frowned. ‘Why are you sorry? It was you lot that killed him!’
‘He fell. Accident.’
There was that noise again. The sigh that wasn’t quite a sigh. Eirik stood and looked at the entrance. He could see a large, rocky foot and part of a thigh. The troll stood eerily quiet, almost as if it had been turned to stone. More stone.
‘We kill as punishment. Bertrand never broke the rules.’ There was a long pause. ‘Accident.’
‘He was our best climber.’
‘Even the best ones fall.’
‘That’s nice. Has a real inspirational ring to it. You should write that above the central mine shaft to keep the workers motivated.’ He laughed a joyless laugh. They don’t accidentally smack their head all the way over by the wall as they drop, though.
‘Maybe I will . . .’ Another pause. ‘Can’t use tools, though. Maybe you could do it.’
What the pissing hell? Is he making a joke? Eirik stepped closer to the door. ‘Are you here to punish me?’
Eirik felt a sting in his chest. He’d never been the rebellious type, and he’d certainly never stood up to the trolls before. He thought he was past caring; that he could take whatever punishment they decided to dole out.
He was wrong.
‘But I don’t think I will.’
‘Why not?’ Not the brightest question to ask, but Eirik’s curiosity got the better of him.
‘You seem sad.’
This is not what I was trying to accomplish . . . Eirik shook his head. ‘I am sad . . . you killed my best friend, remember?’
‘Only because you made him. How the hell could he have an accident after his head was crushed all over the wall? Our wall! Our pissing sacred wall which you saw fit to desecrate with my best friend’s head!’
‘I don’t understand all of your words, dwarf. But we didn’t bash anyone’s head over anyone’s wall.’
Eirik shook his head. ‘This is hopeless . . .’
Another sound that sounded like a sigh. ‘Maybe . . . but you need to come with me either way.’
‘And if I don’t?’
‘You know the answer.’
Eirik stood up slowly. ‘What’s your name, anyway?’
The troll stood, unmoving. ‘Kragg . . .’
I’ll be damned. Apparently, the trolls had some secrets between them as well. ‘I . . . someone told me you couldn’t speak.’
‘I can . . .’
‘Yeah . . . I kind of got that.’
‘Been quiet after the fight.’ Another sound that sounded like a sigh. ‘Words are . . . complicated.’
Eirik couldn’t help but let out another joyless laugh. ‘Ain’t that the truth.’ He didn’t know what fight Kragg was referring to, but it was probably best to leave it be.
‘Come on.’ Kragg mumbled after a while. ‘Just a few hours, then you can say goodbye to your friend.’
‘Really?’ Eirik asked, surprised. ‘You’re letting us bury him?’
‘Yes. Dropped into the depths of mine eighty-six.’
Mine eighty-six . . . the one place the trolls never go. Mine eighty-six was a veritable treasure trove of ghost stories and tall tales. Condemned after a collapse killed three miners and a troll, the mine ended in a sickening plummet into the dark abyss. It was, of course, the very same mine Halvor and Olav had used when they tricked Eirik, making him believe it held clues pointing to DwarfHeim.
What they didn’t know. What they couldn’t. Was that Eirik very much believed that DwarfHeim existed. Many dwarves regarded the whole thing as myth, but Eirik was certain it was out there, just waiting to be reclaimed by the dwarves. He’d talked for hours with every elder in the camp, absorbing every rumor and legend he could find.
The story of DwarfHeim had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Supposedly nestled within the grandest mountain in all of Agartha, DwarfHeim was a place where all the dwarven clans lived in peace. Safe from the trolls because of their joint defenses, and rich beyond all measure because of the limitless resources the mountain offered. But as with all tales of wealth and prosperity, the story ended in death and destruction. Some of the elders blamed greed, while others claimed the trolls finally found a way into the city.
Regardless, DwarfHeim had fallen, and the golden age in dwarven history had ended. Ever since then, the clans had lived on their own, surviving however they could. No one knew much about the others, but most agreed that they fled in opposite directions after escaping the mountain. Eirik found that part a little too convenient, but he supposed it gave the story a certain kind of mythological flair.
‘Alright then,’ he finally agreed. ‘Let’s go.’ He walked through the narrow entrance, looking up at the troll. ‘Thank you, Kragg.’
The troll nodded silently, and they trudged through the complex mine system, eventually finding mine ninety-one and the rest of the dwarves. ‘Hey . . . Kragg?’ Eirik whispered.
The troll nodded again.
‘I think something bad is going to happen . . . and I need to ask you a massive favor.’
‘It is hard to describe Bertrand using mere words.’ Halvor said. ‘For he wasn’t a man of them himself. He was a man of deeds!’
A few nods, and some mumbled ‘hear-hears’.
‘And what better way to honor such a man, than do some deeds of our own?’
Just what the hell are you up to? Eirik thought. He was standing right next to Halvor, inches from the abyss. On his left side was his old friend’s body, resting atop a stone slab bordered by golden runes. Or, more destroying angel . . .
The rest of the day had gone by without incident. Apparently, the trolls believed Kragg had doled out some form of punishment, and left it at that. Olav and Hans had been suspiciously absent, however, and Halvor had been skulking around where he wasn’t supposed to. Eirik looked up, once again scanning the small space.
Everyone appeared to be there, perched by the edge of the abyss, watching the body on the stone slab solemnly. Olav was leaning against the wall at the very back of the cave, supported by Hans and a wooden crutch. What the hell happened to him? Just beyond, Eirik could see several pairs of troll eyes, glowing dimly in the darkness. Keeping us from escaping? Or ready to shove the entire lot into the abyss? Eirik had heard mumblings concerning mine eighty-six for months, some from the trolls, most from the dwarves. He figured it was just more superstition, but ever since Halvor had brokered a deal to let the dwarves bury their dead in the abyss, he’d suspected something else was going on. If the trolls suspected the same, they might just shut the whole thing down by murdering the whole clan. Two or three trolls would have no problem trudging into the room and forcing the whole dwarven lot over the edge.
He swallowed hard.
‘Some say the trolls have taken our home!’ He paused for effect. ‘Well, I say that isn’t true! This is home now. Our home!’
Calling what is basically a dungeon your home will do that . . . Eirik frowned, placing a hand on his dead friend’s chest. He could feel something rough under his tunic, like heavy stitches. Did they open him up or something? In some clans, it was common to remove the heart of legendary warriors who perished, but Bertrand was neither legendary, nor a warrior. He was just Bertrand . . . Eirik could feel the tears welling behind his eyes. What does it matter, anyway? He’s gone. He blinked a few times, the torchlight next to the slab flickering and blurring. When the ceremony was over, Bertrand would be cast off into the heart of the mountain, joining his fallen brothers in the afterlife.
‘And yesterday, we lost one of our own.’ He pointed at the stone slab, almost knocking Eirik over the edge in the process. ‘He was taken from his home. Slaughtered in the most sacred space we have.’
Eirik looked at the door nervously, but the trolls standing guard didn’t seem to be paying attention. Careful, Halvor.
‘If this is to keep being our home, such a thing can never be allowed to happen again. Bertrand knew that better than anyone!’
Something about the emphasis on never made the pit in Eirik’s stomach grow deeper, still. You knew no such thing, my old friend. He looked at Bertrand, tears blurring his old friend’s face. I’m sorry your death is being used for political gain . . . He leaned closer to kiss Bertrand’s forehead, then noticed something odd around his mouth.
‘Bertrand knew there was a way to make these mines hospitable and peaceful to everyone!’ He frowned at Eirik, who was studying Bertrand’s face. ‘But once again, this can only be done with deeds, and not with words!’
The trolls seemed to be perking up on the other side of the entrance now; yellow eyes peering into the dimly lit room.
Eirik didn’t notice any of this. The mines had vanished around him. It was only him and his old friend, displayed on that awful slab. ‘Come, death. For I am with my brothers, and you cannot fight us all.’ The runes spelled, defiantly. Eirik ignored those, too, focusing instead on the yellow paste between his friend’s lips. Destroying angel. Some dwarves would take some to sleep at night. Others to numb their pain. Others yet to numb every sense they had. Bertrand was none of those dwarves. He would never be that stupid.Especially not before a tricky climb.
‘What are you doing there, Eirik?’ Olav whispered.
Eirik’s blood froze. He hadn’t heard him approach, even with the limp and the makeshift crutch in his hand. ‘Olav . . .’ He mumbled nervously. ‘What happened to you?’
‘I say we follow Bertrand’s example!’ Halvor’s voice boomed, masking Eirik and Olav’s. ‘I say we finish what he started!’
The trolls were slowly starting to move into the room now, eyes more curious than aggressive.
‘I asked you a question.’ Olav whispered.
Eirik swallowed hard, his hand quivering as he pointed at Bertrand’s mouth. ‘The trolls didn’t kill him, did they?’
Olav shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’
‘What the hell are you talking about?!’ Eirik hissed. ‘Of course it matters! Whoever killed him needs to be brought to justice!’
‘Lower your damn voice, Eirik!’ Olav whispered through gritted teeth. ‘They will be. Soon.’
What the hell is going on? Eirik felt the mine shift and move around him. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘The trolls did it, no matter how you look at it, Eirik. They took our clan captive and slaughtered our families and friends. They killed Bertrand.’
‘They didn’t give him those pissing mushrooms!’ Eirik could feel the abyss behind him; the great blackness just pulling him towards it. Only a simple push, then he too would join his brothers in the afterlife. ‘Hell, they couldn’t even use the tools needed to make that paste.’
Olav looked at Eirik, running a hand through his hair. His icy blue eyes burned with something Eirik couldn’t quite decipher.
Hate? Anger? Resentment? Pity? Time seemed to grind to a halt as the two of them stood gazing at one another. You just had to open your big, fat mouth, Eirik.
Olav took one step forward and one to the side, the flame from the torch dancing in his eyes, ice and fire melting together. Then, he turned toward Halvor and nodded decisively.
‘I say we take back what’s ours!’ Halvor screamed, nodding back. ‘It’s time to put an end to their reign of terror!’ He pointed furiously at the trolls making their way into the room.
Then, everything happened at once.
Eirik stood frozen in terror as Olav grabbed the torch and set fire to Bertrand’s corpse. What the hell is happening?
Olav half-heartedly chucked the torch in Eirik’s direction, then dove into a crevice in the wall.
Eirik ducked, watching the flames vanish into the depths below. The path to DwarfHeim, according to Halvor and Olav’s poor joke all those years ago. This wasn’t a joke, though. This was real. Eirik could see Halvor crawling behind a rock, barely illuminated by Bertrand’s burning corpse. With sudden horror, Eirik realized why there were stitches going down Bertrand’s chest.
He’s rigged to blow!
Eirik could hear the crackling flames start to sizzle as they cooked Bertrand’s flesh and reached the inside of his chest. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
So he jumped.
Day 279 - Fall
(The Erd Sound)
My worst fears all came true that day.
Bertrand wasn’t murdered by the trolls; he was murdered by his own brothers. They killed him to spark the great rebellion, blaming the trolls so everyone would see what monsters they were.
In a way, it worked.
It’s hard to believe it’s been close to a year. The grass underneath my feet has become commonplace, and I no longer lose my lunch every five minutes on this damn boat. Indeed, time has a way of erasing the bad.
But I will not forget Bertrand, and what was done to us.
Nor will I forget who did it.
Just a few more days, and I will bring the five’s vengeance down on his head. I will make that cowardly piece of shit rue the day he started killing his own.
- The Familiar