The Wall: Part 3
Olav felt the warmth beating against him as the explosives went off, the sound deafening in the tiny cavern. He hoped and prayed to the five they’d used the proper amount of powder, or everyone inside would be obliterated. Through the ringing in his ears, he could hear heavy rocks falling from the ceiling, tumbling down into the abyss.
After what seemed like an eternity, the calamity stopped, and the mines were quiet again. Quieter than they’d ever been.
Olav slowly opened his eyes. ‘Please, gods above, have mercy . . .’ He stepped out of the crevice, and for the first time in many, many years, he felt the sun beating against his face.
He stood frozen as the rays warmed his face; tears falling steady to the charred and dusty ground. ‘It actually worked . . .’ He croaked.
‘Of course it did!’ Halvor said, clasping Olav’s shoulder. ‘Did you have doubts?’
Olav let out a sigh of relief. ‘Are you bloody kidding me? I had a thousand!’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘Are you telling me you didn’t?’
‘Couldn’t afford to.’ Halvor turned around, looking at the huddled mass of dwarves strewn across the ground. ‘Everyone alright? Any injuries?’
‘Aye!’ A voice came. ‘I caught a fair bit of shrapnel.’ A dwarf stood, brushing the soot from his hair. ‘Agnar over there got a pretty good blow to his arm, I think, and poor Gard got flattened. Eirik and Thomas seems to have vanished as well.’ He nodded toward the entrance. ‘We got it better than those assholes, though.’
Three trolls were standing just inside the entrance, their skin a pale shade of gray. All life was gone from their now darkened eyes, and their skin looked porous and worn. They looked like old statues, unkempt and fragile.
Olav chanced a smile. ‘Thank you, Alexander. Not a bad deal, I would say.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s a shame about Gard, though. He was the only dwarf in here with a shred of musical talent.’ He grabbed Agnar’s good arm and helped him to his feet. ‘Are you all good to walk, at least?’
Everyone nodded and slowly got up.
‘This is a big win for us!’ Halvor said. ‘And a major first step in getting the hell out of this place for good.’
A few muted cheers rose from the crowd. A few dwarves had gathered rocks and started pounding on the frozen trolls.
‘But we don’t have long before sundown if my calculations are correct. And we don’t know how vulnerable these things are. Could very well be that a cloud is enough to let them in here.’
‘So what’s next?’ Alexander asked. He was bleeding heavy from his left leg and abdomen, but didn’t seem all that bothered by it. ‘We can’t fight our way past all of them, and we can’t lure them all in here.’
‘No . . . but we can trap the whole damn lot inside by bringing down the exits. Mineshaft by mineshaft.’ Olav nodded toward the giant hole in the ceiling. ‘First we need to get the hell out of here. There’ll be more coming soon.’
‘The entrance is ready to blow, Olav.’ Hans said, rocking from foot to foot with a lit match between his fingers.
Olav nodded. ‘Do it.’
This explosion was both softer and more controlled than the one before, but it did the job well. A huge chunk of rock broke free from above the doorway, splitting in two as it hit the ground. The trolls could probably move it without much of a problem, but it would buy the dwarves some time, at least.
‘Good job!’ Halvor said. ‘Hans, Alexander and Gard . . .’ He sighed. ‘Hans and Alexander will show you the way out. No more than three dwarves on the ropes at once, do you understand?’
Most of the crowd nodded.
‘Any sign of Eirik?’ Halvor turned toward Olav.
I hope he caught that torch right in the face. ‘If you’re asking me, I’m asking you.’
Halvor shrugged. ‘He’s not here, at least.’
‘Which means he’s either in a million pieces . . .’ Olav leered over the edge, the gap just a little bit wider than before. ‘Or he’s down there.’
‘Dead either way.’ Halvor said.
‘It’s a shame . . . we could’ve used him.’
‘The man protected the trolls until the very end, Halvor. Hell, even now, seconds before we started this thing, he was accusing me of murdering Bertrand.’
Halvor raised his eyebrows. ‘Really?’
‘Well, maybe not me specifically, but he claimed the trolls couldn’t have done it. Said he saw signs of mushroom paste in his mouth.’
Halvor sighed. ‘What did you tell him?’
‘I told him it didn’t make a lick of difference. That the trolls killed Bertrand by bringing him here. And that they would pay soon enough.’
‘Alright. The truth is pretty damn secondary now, anyway.’ He smiled and clasped Olav’s shoulder again. ‘We did it, old friend. We started the rebellion. We’re getting out of here!’
‘Shit, shit, shit!’ Thomas yelled, running as fast as his dwarven feet could carry him. ‘Why the hell did I do this? Olav and Halvor might be assholes, but at least they’re on the right side of this fight.’ He kept running, turning left, turning right, turning left again. Five more, then it’s always right.
Thomas, Eirik and Bertrand had explored a lot of the mines in Pith at night when everyone was fast asleep. Sure, the trolls seemed to have a reverse cycle, but they were still pretty docile during the night. Either that, or they were out hunting gods know what. During their spelunking, they’d found a tunnel directly underneath mine eighty-six. Thomas had no idea how they connected, or even if they did, somewhere, but if Eirik had jumped into that abyss, he might be somewhere down there.
Not that he’s gonna be alive, in any case. Thomas thought. Five above, how stupid can one dwarf be?
The very second he saw Eirik jump off that ledge, he’d started running. The sun had taken care of the trolls, and the dwarves had been busy shielding themselves from the explosions. It would still be some time before anyone started missing him. Before they notice I’m gone, at least. Ain’t no one gonna miss me, probably . . .
He was yanked away from his thoughts by the sounds of two trolls coming down a side shaft.
He ran, looking for places to hide, of which there were overwhelmingly few. He could feel the panic rising as the footsteps drew closer. Can they even see me? It’s pretty dark down here. They never used any light sources, though – Thomas wasn’t even sure they could light torches – so they probably saw pretty well in the dark. He suddenly realized he knew next to nothing about his captors, and he very much suspected it would be the end of him. He turned on his heels and ran the other way, stumbling and falling as his feet caught on a rail. Shit!
Pebbles and sand stuck to his bloody palms as he rose, his knees sore and aching. He’d fallen pretty hard, but his hands and knees took the worst of the beating. He stood still, listening for the trolls, but only heard his own beating heart and the blood roaring in his ears.
I need to find somewhere to hide! A rail usually meant there were mine carts around, maybe he could find one of those. They’d probably hear me climbing into it . . . but what choice do I have? He ran along the rail for a few yards, but found nothing. Not surprising, given that this mine had been decommissioned a long time ago.
The trolls came out of the side shaft, grunted a few words and then separated, one coming straight for Thomas.
He once again cursed his own stupidity. Every troll in these mines probably knew about the revolt by now. The only remotely safe space was with the others, not out here stumbling about on his own. He closed his eyes, trying to remember the specifics of the troll he and Eirik had encountered earlier. They’re big . . . so they can squash you like you were nothing. He shook his head. Focus!
The troll was close now, the ground shaking slightly with each step.
Thomas thought about the troll’s eyes, their nose, their ears. Did they even have those? How did their senses work?
He could feel the vibrations growing stronger as the troll came stomping around the last bend.
They always bend down when they’re talking to us . . . maybe they can’t see what’s directly underneath them? He took a chance, and dropped to the stony ground, closing his eyes and praying to the five he wouldn’t be spotted. Or get stepped on, for that matter.
The footsteps came stomping towards him, louder and louder, until they were almost unbearable. The ground shook and his ears rang as the troll’s feet crashed down next to him.
He held his breath.
The troll stopped.
Olav closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun yet again. He couldn’t believe anyone would ever take something like this for granted, and he vowed to never do so as long as he lived.
‘What do you make of it?’ Halvor’s voice came.
Olav slowly raised his eyelids, the bright light almost painful. The sun was a pale dot in the blue sky, close to vanishing behind some mountains to the west. Olav had no idea what those mountains were called, or even the lands surrounding them. In fact, he barely knew anything about the world at large. He’d been eight when the clan was taken, and could barely conjure up images of the land where he used to live. ‘An hour, at the most.’ After that, darkness would descend on Agartha, and the trolls would no doubt come pouring out of the mines. Olav wasn’t sure whether they’d try to recapture the dwarves, or if they’d just settle for killing everyone.
Probably the latter.
Halvor nodded and spat in a tuft of grass sticking out between two rocks. ‘We need to haul ass, then. We can’t be here when they come, or this will all have been for nothing.’
‘I hear that.’ He looked over his shoulder, at the uneasy crowd of dwarves gathered on the mountainside. All of them were used to steep descents and sudden castoffs, but they all looked terrified of the huge, open space surrounding them. It’s strange how much smaller and safer everything seems with a roof above your head. ‘They’re all present and accounted for, minus Thomas. And Eirik, of course.’
Halvor nodded absentmindedly. ‘What about Alexander?’
Olav shook his head. ‘I can’t really say if he’ll make it or not. We stopped the bleeding, but the shrapnel must’ve punctured something. Hans has given him some mushrooms and booze, but . . .’
‘Bait . . .’ Halvor mumbled.
‘If someone stays behind, it will slow the trolls down a little. Maybe they’ll even question him before they kill him.’ Halvor threw a glance at the shuffling crowd, looking at the stocky dwarf clutching his side. ‘If he lasts that long to begin with.’
‘Halvor . . .’
‘We knew this would require some sacrifices, Olav. Bertrand won’t be the only one, and Alexander is dead either way.’
‘We can’t just expect him to lay down his life for this.’
‘So don’t ask him to.’
‘What would you have me-’
‘It doesn’t matter!’ Halvor raised his hand. ‘Just get it done.’
Olav sighed. ‘Alright . . .’ He placed a hand on the stony surface as he hobbled over to the others. His foot felt better already, but it would probably take months to heal fully.
The mountain felt different on the outside, somehow. Less dirty and constricted. As if the sun had smoothed it out over centuries. Maybe it had, for all Olav knew. He gazed upon the horizon once more, this time turning north, toward the icy promontory stretching out into the sea like the arm of some ancient sea creature. The world looked darker, all of a sudden, Halvor’s command leaving a foul taste in his mouth. I knew there would be sacrifices . . . but I didn’t think we’d just throw our own people to the trolls like this.
‘What’s going to happen now?’ A nervous voice came.
Olav didn’t know whose it was, and couldn’t quite recognize the face it belonged to.
‘What happens if the trolls find us?’
What the hell do you think? Olav ran a hand through his hair and gave his most convincing smile. ‘They’re not going to.’ He pointed a finger at the sky. ‘Before the sun sets, we’ll have blocked their other exits. By the time they’re able to get out, we’ll be long gone.’
‘Are you sure?’
How the hell can I be sure of anything? Olav nodded. ‘Absolutely. Now be ready to move, alright?’ He raised his voice. ‘That goes for all of you: We move in five minutes!’ He hobbled through the crowd and placed an uncertain hand on Alexander’s shoulder.
‘Olav!’ The redheaded dwarf smiled. ‘Never thought I’d feel the sun on my face again. Not like this, anyway.’ His voice was barely a whisper, and his face was whiter than snow. Still the smile persisted.
Olav smiled back. ‘To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure I ever would, myself.’
‘Careful now! Self-doubt ain’t very becoming in a leader.’
Olav leaned closer. ‘Second in command, actually.’
‘Oh, that’s bollocks! Everyone knows who’s doing the heavy lifting around here. And it sure as hell ain’t that skinny sack of potatoes.’ He jabbed a thumb in Halvor’s direction.
Olav felt his heart sink. This is wrong, and you know it. He smiled nonetheless, squeezing the dwarf’s shoulder hard. ‘Thank you, Alexander.’
‘Ah, just calling things as I see them. So . . . how can I help you?’ He coughed.
‘I need you to stay behind as a sentry.’ He pointed toward the hole they’d climbed out through, swallowing hard. ‘They shouldn’t be able to follow us through that exit, but if they do, we need someone to let us know.’ He shrugged. ‘I figured you could benefit from a sit-down.’
Alexander was quiet for a while. ‘And what happens if they do?’
‘Well . . .’ Olav shrugged. Damn you for making me do this, Halvor. He produced a small whistle from his pocket. ‘Blow this, and we’ll all hear you.’
It was something his brother had carved for him before he died. He’d slipped in one of the deep parts of the mine and banged his head. Before anyone could help him, one of the trolls had stepped in and caved the rest of it in. Olav had charged the troll straight away, pickaxe raised high, but his clansmen had held him back. At first, he’d cursed them all for making him live another miserable day in these mines. Then, the thoughts of rebellion had kept him going. A single spark turned into a flame, and the flame grew into a roaring fire. The rebellion can’t end here . . . if sacrifices have to made, then so be it.
‘And then what?’
‘Then you run like hell.’
‘But you just said I should stay behind because I’m no good on my feet!’
‘Then hide, alright?’ Olav clasped both of Alexander’s shoulders. ‘Like I said, the trolls probably aren’t coming through here. But if you see them, it would be nice to have a heads up, right? We don’t want them taking us in the rear . . . not more than they have already, at least.’
Alexander laughed. ‘So I blow the whistle, drawing the attention of the trolls, then hide?’ He shook his head, wincing at a sudden burst of pain from his side. ‘I understand, Olav, I do . . .’ He looked down, slowly removing his hand from the wound. It had started bleeding again. ‘I’m not making it down from this bloody mountain anyway. Might as well make my final hours count for something.’
Olav didn’t know what to say. Saw right through me . . .
‘Oh, don’t look so glum, old friend. I’ll see you all on the eternal battlefields later, right? With a keg of mead in one hand and beautiful woman in the other.’
Olav gave an insincere smile. Damn you, Halvor . . . He gave Alexander a firm hug, then left without looking back. ‘Alright dwarves! Let’s get the hell away from here and teach those damn trolls a lesson!’
A few muttered cheers rose, but mostly, the dwarves just shuffled quietly behind Olav. They all knew the real hardships lay ahead, and not behind.
Thomas could hear something that sounded like sniffing, the troll turning its head back and forth a few times before taking another step. The loud crash was almost enough to make Thomas scream, but he kept his eyes and mouth firmly shut.
Then came a sound that sounded like a sigh, and the troll stomped on down the shaft.
Thomas waited for at least two whole minutes before slowly standing again. He walked a few more steps before crashing into a mine cart, making all the noise in the world.
Gods bloody damn it!
The mines quietened again, and he kept walking, regretting his decision more and more with every step. He was nearing the deep mines now, a place both dwarves and trolls seldom visited. Apart from being underneath the water, and sometimes filled with it – or, if one was extra fortunate, magma – the deep mines also housed a host of different critters, both large and small. Thomas was especially frightened of the faid; a large, bat-like creature with razor sharp wings. It was attracted to sound, especially vibrations, and could easily turn its victim into strips of meat before it even knew what was happening. He wouldn’t have believed such an absurd tale if he hadn’t seen it for himself. Many, many years ago, before these parts were abandoned, the dwarf walking in front of Thomas had been whisked away in mere seconds. The only thing that was ever found was his boots, with his feet still inside.
That was deeper, though. Past the water and beyond. Thomas tried to calm his hammering heart. Just being in the deep mines was terrifying. You could smell the water and feel the pressure above your head. If one could get past all that, however, the bounty was almost endless. Unless the shafts collapsed, like they had in DwarfHeim, according to the stories. You’re going into another shaft before you get that far, so relax! He picked up the pace a little, wincing at every sound he made. Every now and then, he could hear critters scurrying this way or that. Rats, mostly, but he also thought he heard whispers. No point in worrying about ghosts and demons when there are so many living things out to kill me. He started thinking about the futility of his quest. The abyss was named so because it seemed endless. Even if this passage led to the bottom of the thing, all he would find was his friend’s corpse – and several other departed dwarves – floating in the murky waters.
Doesn’t matter anyway; the others are long gone by now. I keep moving, or I’m dead. After a while, he found the correct junction and turned right, into a much smaller shaft. As he rounded the corner, he could suddenly hear heavy footfalls again.
What the hell is a troll doing down here anyway? They don’t seem like they’re intelligent enough to have secret agendas. He followed the footsteps for a long time, but by the time he broke off into the hidden passage, they had stopped.
Thomas squeezed through the tight space, his body scraping against the slimy stone. As he emerged on the other side, he was greeted by a bright light. ‘I’ll be damned!’ He gasped, looking at the torch Olav had used to light Bertrand’s corpse.
Thomas picked it up just as the last sputtering flame died out. I can’t believe it. The bottom of the abyss, right here in front of us the whole time! Halvor and Olav had tried to pass the abyss off as some mystical fall going all the way to the heart of the mountain. But I suppose that was all just a ruse to stage Bertrand’s funeral. He swallowed hard, suddenly realizing Eirik would be down here as well, dead or alive.
‘Come on, you piece of shit!’ Olav mumbled through grit teeth. ‘Just light!’ He was scraping the match against his boot again and again, without much luck. ‘Bloody thing!’
He was suspended from an old rope, holding an even older boomstick filled with black powder. He was trying to light the thing with a match that was even older, still. Must be great being a troll, getting by without any tools at all. Just chewing on their damn minerals all day, not worrying about decay.
The rest of the clan were hidden away in some secluded caves on the north side of the mountain. The northern winds blew straight in, and there wasn’t much shelter there, but the trolls couldn’t reach it. It had been a few hours since the escape now, and roughly thirty minutes since sundown. The trolls would be crawling all over the mountainside soon. At least if he didn’t collapse this entrance within the next few minutes. ‘They’re bound to come through here, eventually,’ he told the match in his hand. ‘I’d rather not be here when they do, so could you please just light the hell up?’
He almost dropped both the boomstick and the match as the rope dropped an inch.
‘Sorry!’ A voice came from far above. ‘Are you about done down there?’
‘I will be when the bloody match lights! And it would greatly help if you held me steady!’
No reply, but Olav assumed the damn fool was nodding. Five yards above. In the darkness. He gave the match two more tries without success. It’s the damn mountain! The snowmelt has made my boots moist and slippery . . . I need a better surface. He looked up, surprised to see an orb of light just beyond the lip of the mountain. ‘What the bloody hell are you doing up there?’
‘Thought I’d give you a hand!’
‘You’re going to throw a damn torch at me?’
He’s probably shrugging now . . . or nodding again. Even if Olav by some miracle caught the torch, he’d be liable to burn himself and set the boomstick right off in his hands. Or even better, singe this damn rope and fall to my death.
‘So . . . what’s it gonna be?’ The voice boomed from up there.
Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad . . . He opened his mouth to reply, but then he heard a sound coming from further away. It was unmistakable, and made his heart sink in his chest. It was the sound of the flute he’d given Alexander.
They’re coming . . . Now he was nodding. ‘Damn it! Yes! Throw me the damn thing! Sooner rather than later.’
‘Alright, I’m going to drop it carefully with the flame pointing up!’
‘That’s the heaviest part, you dimwit. It’ll just flip in the air!’ He mumbled. ‘Uh-huh!’ He yelled. ‘Just hurry!’ He could hear voices coming from the entrance below. Please, gods. Just do me this one favor, and then you’re free to ignore all my future requests. He looked up, seeing the orb of light coming towards him at an alarming pace. Five above, hear my prayer. Five above, answer my call. Five above, grant me this-
He caught it.
‘Yes!’ He screamed, laughing! ‘Did you see that?!’ He flipped the torch, holding the flame away from his face, lighting the boomstick. He looked down as he was getting ready to throw it, staring right at four trolls.
They didn’t seem to quite grasp the concept of a dwarf suspended in the air with a torch in one hand and boomstick in the other.
‘Hello, idiots!’ He yelled. ‘Did you miss us?’ He threw the boomstick right at them, hitting the closest one on the head. ‘Suck on this, you piece of shit!’
The troll knelt down next to the boomstick, but couldn’t quite grasp it with its huge fingers. Instead, it chose a large rock lying right next to the entrance. He took it in both hands and raised it above his head.
‘Oh shit! Pull me up! Pull me up now!’ Olav screamed, throwing his torch at the trolls, hoping it would blind them.
The troll threw the rock just as the boomstick went up; the shower of sparks and flame rendering Olav’s eyes useless. He could feel something brush against his feet just as the rope was yanked upwards. Fresh pain spread from his bad leg as he was pulled back over the edge, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. Blind luck . . . or the five actually had my back.
Olav smiled wide. ‘Perfect!’
The sound of the whistle sounded once again, before abruptly stopping.
Olav’s smile faded. ‘Alright! The trolls are coming through our escape route. We need to haul ass back to the caves.’ He hobbled after the others as best as he could, shedding a few silent tears. Goodbye, Alexander. May we meet again.
Thomas smelled the dark torch in his hands. It reeked of strong spirits and eld sap, an oil harvested from roots growing in the deep. It would burn just as well in the water as elsewhere. Which means it could’ve been floating for a while. He gazed at the underground lake stretching out in front of him, wondering how deep it was, and what lurked in its murky depths. How many of our dead have we actually condemned to this place? The thought made him a little sick. Casting them into the so-called abyss was as good as anything, he supposed, but now that he could actually see the place they all ended up, his heart sank. Rotting corpses, floating around as food for whatever creatures reside here.
He looked up, but couldn’t see anything but darkness. He couldn’t hear anything either, the distance was too great. ‘Eirik!’ He shouted, praying to the five for a sign of life. Yet he had to wonder if that would actually be a good thing. I’d have to jump into the water to get him out. The mere thought sent shivers down his spine. ‘Eirik?! It’s Thomas! Come on, old friend, it’s time to go!’
Nothing but the sound of dripping water and the slow, steady breath of the mountain.
Thomas tried again, waiting patiently for a response.
Apart from his own slightly warped echo, there was nothing.
He hung his head, mumbling a prayer for his fallen friend. ‘I’ll see you on the eternal battlefields, my friend. We’ll share a drink, then go beat the shit out of Olav. Again and again . . .’
He squeezed back through the hidden passage, starting on the long walk back toward . . . where the hell am I going, anyway? It was a safe bet that he was the last remaining dwarf in Pith. Maybe the trolls would have a use for him, and not kill him? Screw that . . . I need to find my way out of this place. I have to try, at least. He decided he would go to the wall first, to honor his friend one last time. It was the only way he could mourn Eirik’s passing properly, and he doubted there were many trolls around after the rebellion started.
He picked up his pace, passing though the various shafts in a light jog. His body ached, and his head was pounding from dehydration and starvation. He’d missed what tiny meals they usually ate, and he could feel the effects. He wondered if Olav and Halvor had planned for this. Keeping close to one hundred and fifty dwarves fed was no small task. At least they ain’t gotta worry about me.
He had no idea how much time passed, but eventually he made his way back to that all too familiar stony pathway leading to the wall. He was able to find some destroying angel on his way there – they grew almost everywhere in the mines – and tried crushing it as best as he could with his hands. The goo was more a greenish gray than yellow, but it would have to do. ‘It’s not like anyone else will ever see this.’
As he stood before the wall for the last time, he yet again pondered the futility of his actions. A habit of mine, lately. Coloring Eirik’s name made no real difference, and every second Thomas spent here was a second he could use trying to get out.
Yet, it felt right, somehow. The trolls had desecrated the wall by blotting out Bertrand’s name; Thomas could at least begin to make things right by honoring their tradition. And who knows? Maybe the five are watching. This way, Bertrand and Eirik will be ensured passage to the eternal battlefields. He started on Eirik’s name, but then noticed something peculiar:
Olav’s name was crossed out, just like Bertrand’s.
Did the trolls do this as well? Because he and Halvor started the rebellion? How did they even know? He traced the rough scars with his fingers. ‘Why not cross out all of us?’
‘Because not all need to die.’ A booming voice came.
Thomas felt his heart stop. The large rock standing next to the wall suddenly came alive, yellow eyes staring right at him. Five above! For a split second, he wished he’d colored in his own name, too.
* * *
The sun rose on the dwarves’ first day of freedom. Olav’s face was numb from the cold, his beard speckled with frost. He ran a hand through his hair, brushing the drifts of snow away. ‘Any casualties?’ He asked, his voice raw.
A low murmur rose from the cave as the other dwarves rose one by one, checking if their clansmates were still alive. Some seemed to check themselves as well.
One can never be too certain . . . Olav mused.
‘Two dead . . .’ An elderly dwarf mumbled.
Olav opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Halvor.
‘Grab whatever we can use and leave them. We need to hurry!’ He left again as quickly as he had appeared.
Olav sighed. ‘Cover them up as best as you can.’ He peered down the mountainside, seeing Halvor’s back vanishing between two crags. ‘Leave whatever they have. I’ll say a few words before I go.’
The crowd slowly filed out of the cave, heading after Halvor down the steep descent. No one said a word. No one celebrated their victory or rejoiced in their newfound freedom. Everyone was scared, hungry and cold.
And skeptical . . . Olav thought. But who wouldn’t be? No matter how bad life in the mines were, it was predictable.
He waited until everyone had left, then knelt by his fallen brothers. This should be your job, Halvor. He whispered a prayer, and gently covered their blue and frozen faces, realizing that one of them was the dwarf who had asked him about the trolls earlier. I’m sorry, brother. They had anticipated the cold, but there wasn’t much they could do. Their resources were scarce, and many of their people were old and frail.
They would’ve died in the mines either way, Olav tried to convince himself as he followed the others.
Even though the days in the mines had been hard and extremely physical, Olav thought the trek down from the mountain would kill him. They spent well over half the day descending from the mountain, the sun on its way down as they stood on the frozen plains of Pith.
The plains weren’t much to look at. A frozen lake stretched out in front of them, a couple of derelict buildings halfway swallowed by the murky waters. A rickety dock vanished into the ice, speckled by tiny boats and rotting wood. Scattered around the lake were various pine trees, tall and imposing. A congress of ravens were perched in the closest one, making a grand spectacle.
To Olav, it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
‘No time to be admiring the view, old friend.’ Halvor slapped him on the back. ‘Get the final boomsticks in place, and let’s get out of here.’ Halvor walked past the docks, carefully stepping onto the ice. After taking a few more steps, he gave Olav a thumbs up.
Perfect. Even if the ice holds for us, it might break underneath the trolls if they follow. He pointed at the ice and yelled, ‘Alright! Follow Halvor across. Single file and walk carefully! Six paces between each dwarf.’ He turned and hobbled back toward the mountain. It stood huge and menacing in front of him, like some wall it was impossible to pass. Still it seemed a lot smaller on the outside. Like it couldn’t possibly house all those dwarves and trolls . . . and all that bloody time.
He walked up to the entrance the humans had made gods know how many years ago, looking at the rails vanishing into the darkness. He had no idea which shaft it corresponded with on the inside, but he knew it was blocked somewhere down the line, to keep the dwarves from just strolling out on a sunny afternoon. Still, they might open it in order to follow us.
He noticed a rusted out minecart resting partway down the rail. He pushed on it, and it gave away a tired groan. It hadn’t moved in years, but the wheels worked well enough. This’ll do the trick, he thought, placing the rest of the boomsticks inside. He pushed it further into the mine, until that all too familiar darkness engulfed him. Five above . . . don’t let me run into a troll down here, please. He kept going, leaning on the cart for support.
The explosives would be more than enough to cause a collapse if he set them off here, but he wanted to do as much damage as possible. The narrower the mine got, the harder it would be to clear again afterward.
He hobbled forward until his nerves gave in, then produced a match from his boot. This will do . . .
‘Hello, Olav . . .’ A voice came.
Olav gazed into the darkness in horror. ‘E-E-Eirik?’
Thought that would catch you off guard. Eirik smiled. ‘In the slightly burnt flesh.’
Eirik shrugged. ‘Made some new friends before Bertrand’s burial.’ He turned around as Kragg and Thomas emerged from the darkness.
‘Dwarf!’ Kragg said, nodding. ‘I believe you have been spreading some rumors about me.’
Olav looked like he was going to faint. ‘You made . . . f-f-friends?’
Eirik shrugged again. ‘I tried telling you; there’s no reason we can’t all be allies. There are far more dangerous things in this world than trolls, after all.’
The fear in Olav’s eyes was replaced with outrage and anger. ‘Are you bloody kidding me?’ He ran a shivering hand through his hair. ‘They captured us! Killed our families!’ He held his match in front of his face as if it would ward them off, somehow.
Eirik stepped closer. ‘And Bertrand? Who pissing killed him, huh? Was it the trolls?’ He raised his voice. ‘Was it the trolls who desecrated our wall? Who shit on all of our traditions?!’ Eirik grabbed Olav by his tunic, his hands shaking from the adrenaline. ‘Our heritage?’
Oh, Eirik!’ Olav shrugged free, doubling over in laughter, his roars echoing down the entrance. ‘You always loved the trolls, didn’t you? Both of you!’ He looked at Thomas. ‘And you? Do you want to lick their giant feet as well, or can you actually decide for yourself, like a true dwarf?’
‘Did you kill Bertrand, Olav?’ Thomas asked, his expression flat.
Olav’s face suddenly grew serious. Serious and a little frightened. He realized it was three against one now. ‘The captivity has twisted your senses, Eirik! Just like it had Bertrand’s! The trolls and the dwarves will never be allied. We’re sworn enemies, you bloody idiot!’ He pointed back toward the lake. ‘This clan has lost too much to those monsters, and now it knows how to kill them! You can’t possibly hope to change their minds!’
‘I’m not trying to.’
‘So what the hell is it you want to accomplish with this?’
‘Justice for my friend, first and foremost.’ He smiled. ‘Then I’m going to make sure the clan focus on something else.’
‘Finding DwarfHeim, and reclaiming what’s ours.’
‘You must be joking?!’ Olav laughed again. ‘You do realize we were just pissing in your helmet, right? There is no DwarfHeim, you idiot! It was all a-’
‘Shut up!’ Eirik smacked him across the face, hard.
Olav raised a fist, but thought better of it when Kragg stepped forward.
‘So this is how it’s going to be, huh?’ Olav ran a hand through his hair and spat a glob of blood at Eirik’s feet. ‘Does this seem like a fair fight, you bloody coward?’
‘Was it fair when you killed Bertrand?’
Olav took a step back, swallowing hard.
Olav shook his head, tears welling in his eyes. ‘It had to be done . . .’ He mumbled.
‘What was that?’
‘It had to be done!’ Olav screamed. ‘I’m not sorry for what I started, Eirik . . . but I am sorry about Bertrand. He deserved better!’
‘How did you do it?’
‘It was all a part of Halvor’s scheme. I protested, but . . .’
‘How did you do it?!’
‘Listen to me, Eirik! He only cares about himself! He’s not doing this for his clansmen, he’s doing it for himself! He-’
‘Answer!’ Kragg said, kicking the cart so hard it flew off the rails.
‘We placed the mushrooms in his food, and sat with him while he ate.’ A tear fell. ‘Halvor told him that we needed someone to go down the shaft and retrieve something we’d lost down there . . . he was our best climber, so he didn’t find it suspicious.’
‘Then what happened.’
A few more tears fell. ‘Eirik, please. You know the rest.’ His voice was cracking.
‘Tell me anyway. I want to hear you say it.’ Eirik said. I want you to admit what you did, and stand for it, you piece of shit! He was trembling on the inside, but kept his jaw clenched and his expression flat and uncaring.
‘He didn’t go straight away, like we intended . . . he came to the wall first.’
‘Where one of you were busy crossing his name off?’
Olav nodded, more tears shaking free. ‘Halvor was . . . I said it was too much, but . . .’
‘But somehow you still decided to smear the wall with his blood?’
‘The plan was in motion . . . we couldn’t stop it.’ Olav took a deep breath, wiping his tears away. He seemed to slowly come to terms with his fate, and realize there was no getting away from it. ‘Halvor bashed him over the head with his pick,’ he said coldly. ‘Said the trolls don’t use many tools, so he had me throw him into the pit.’
Eirik said nothing. Why Bertrand? And why go through all that trouble? He closed his eyes. It didn’t matter in the end. Bertrand was still gone, and there was no bringing him back.
‘I’m sorry Bertrand had to give his life, Eirik, but his death started the rebellion. It set us free!’ Olav shook his head. ‘What’s one life against the whole clan?’
‘You’re right.’ Eirik mumbled.
Olav appeared to regain some of his confidence. ‘It’s not too late, Eirik. Halvor isn’t capable of leading us through these new times, but you-’
Olav was cut off as Kragg smashed his good knee.
‘You’re absolutely right, Olav. What’s one life?’
Olav screamed in pain as he collapsed on the rails. ‘Shit!’ He howled and wailed. ‘Eat shit you damn coward!’ He started crawling away from Eirik. ‘You could’ve lead us into the new world.’
‘That’s what I’m doing.’ Eirik grabbed a rock from the ground and smashed Olav’s other knee for good measure. ‘That was for Bertrand,’ he whispered as he pried the match from Olav’s trembling hands.
Olav was shaking uncontrollably, spittle flying as he cursed Eirik again and again. His voice faded in and out as the pain took hold, his teeth gnashing as he tried to speak. ‘G-g-g-go t-t-t-to . . . h-h-h-hell!’ He finally groaned.
Eirik lit the fuse on the boomsticks and started walking away from the entrance. ‘You first, old friend.’
Day 288 – Fall
(The Erd Sound)
It is done.
Halvor died just the way he lived. Like a pissing coward!
The face he made when he first saw me was almost payment enough.
Oh, how I wish I could paint.
He ran for the trees, pissing his pants as he stumbled across the roots and fallen leaves. I let him run . . . I had spent almost a year getting here, what was a few hours more?
In the end, Kragg tracked him down. Found him sleeping in a cave, too frightened to even light a fire to keep himself warm. I took his fear as an admission of guilt. He would have sailed every single one of our brothers down the river before implicating himself anyway.
I find it hard to convince myself it’s all over. As expected, vengeance hasn’t removed the foul taste from my mouth. But we have another goal now . . .
In the morning, Thomas and I will visit Erdan, where the rest of our clan is holed up. Apparently, a large portion of the builder clan has built (heh heh) a life for themselves there as well, and they aren’t too happy with the new arrivals. Hopefully, giving them a common cause to fight for will lay old enmities to rest.
The search for DwarfHeim begins now!
- Eirik ‘The Familiar’ Trymsson