Primal music pounded through the slopes and caverns of Seven Star Mountain. The young Dwarven Sentinel Dalarin stood at his lookout post on the mountain range’s north western peak. He walked along his watch’s ledge until he saw the concert raging in Seven Star Mountain’s music valley below. Night fell deep and dark as Dalarin stood on watch. This cluster of stone peaks housed the Dwarven population of Ilthain. Torch lamps inside the valley threw flickers of golden light up its rocky sides. On the six other peaks Dalarin saw the lighting of similar lanterns on balconies, in chambers and over fellow sentinel post ledges. Dalarin looked upon these evening lights sleepily. Various torches reflected off his bronze toned armour. Beyond the Dwarven mountain range’s borders, familiar smoke rose from the Dwarven mines.
Dalarin looked down upon the music valley again. On the granite stage Dwarven musicians performed savagely. They beat on massive drums, snarled through amplifying cones and over blew silver trumpets. Their storm of tribal beats, hoarse shouts, and shrill, distorted, shrieking horns pulsated up from below. Before the stage, dense crowds of Dwarves swirled in a chaotic yet ritualized dance. The brief, fast and furious songs came in waves, fuelling the frenzied crowd. Kegs of Iron Inn Ale stood around the party. They constantly refilled metal mugs floating freely through the pit. From his assigned guard post high above, Dalarin heard selective phrases from the music’s din:
Burn the trees rising up! They’re not where I formed my bones!
The stones, the gems, the charcoal smoke
Build the dreams of my old home!
Dalarin removed his helmet fully adorned with a metal plume. He scratched his short beard. Only fifty years old, his beard had yet to reach hanging length. It wouldn’t until his adult eightieth year.
Dalarin suddenly heard a commotion. A mess of angry voices poured up a nearby stairwell. Dalarin couldn’t identify these voices, but mocking laughter punctuated their shouts. After several moments of confusion where he laid his hands on the handle of his axe and checked the hammer of his musket, clarity stuck Dalarin. His friend Ordan soon appeared in the doorway. Ordan walked in slowly with his eyes closed. He rubbed his eyes with both hands clearly unaware of Dalarin’s presence. Ordan’s shoulders sagged beneath his usual garb of white and purple robes intermeshed with light chainmail. His clothing differed from the bronze coloured plate armour more common among Dwarves because of his status as a Dwarven Cleric trained in magic. Instantly Dalarin understood the chaos in the stairway as the usual anti-cleric discrimination.
“Don’t let the knaves get you down,” Dalarin said with friendly cheer. Immediately Ordan looked up, visibly shocked at the revelation that someone had watched his entrance. He sighed and unsuccessfully tried to shrug off his aggravation.
“Those ignorant bastards,” Ordan breathed. “Don’t they realize that there are some things which can’t be accomplished with stone, steel and any other material as hard as their damn heads?” He walked out onto Dalarin’s guard ledge and rested his soft un-calloused hands on the railing. His knuckles strained white. Ordan closed his eyes again and breathed heavily.
“Don’t tell them that,” Dalarin said in response to Ordan’s rhetorical question. “As far as most Dwarves are concerned, we’re supposed to eat bread made from rocks and shit solid gold pillars.” Ordan laughed, remembering and recognizing the dark humour prevalent among his peers when he attended the University of Mages.
“You really should have come to the University,” he said dreamily to Dalarin. Dalarin gave Ordan a stone cold stare of death.
“You know it wasn’t an option,” Dalarin spat. Ordan opened his eyes, looked at his friend and realized the seriousness of the nerve he hit.
Ordan pulled a Dwarven cigar from his robes and lit it.
“Why’d you come up here?” Dalarin asked. “I’m sure it’s more fun down at the concert.”
“Oh, come on old friend, you know that as distracted as they all are by noise and ale down there, I’d still hardly be welcome.”
“True,” Dalarin replied. “I guess things aren’t changing any time soon.”
“No, I guess not,” Ordan said in a tone as dry as his cigar. After another puff he asked, “How’s your father doing?”
Dalarin rested his axe against the railing and gripped the muzzle of his musket tight with both his gloved hands. “He’s around. To be honest I can’t say too accurately how he is. He doesn’t say much when I leave our rooms to come on duty as a sentinel.”
Ordan understood. “Not an appropriate calling for someone with royal blood?” he observed.
Dalarin let his head roll back. Ordan saw his eyes close in exasperation. “Oh Gods, don’t let me hear the word royal one more time. It’s bad enough that father spends his time in our half emptied rooms conspicuously examining old treasures and relics. He holds them up in the air against our lamps and talks to himself too loudly about the sacred place he’ll give to each item when our rooms are once again adorned with royal furnishings. I blame the Bloodwater Treaty for setting him this way.” Ordan noticed that Dalarin spat the word “royal.”
“So he’s vocalizing his wishes to make them truer,” Ordan observed.
“You’ve got an elegant and simple way with words, Ordan,” Dalarin replied. “You must have received good training at the University of Mages.”
“I did,” Ordan said quietly, “in magic as well as words and whisperspeak. It was all part of the program.”
“Like the Elves use? That manipulative art can’t be popular with all the dented shields, war hammers, gunpowder and pickaxes around here.”
“It’s about as popular with them as your decision not to go into jewel mining must have been with your father,” Ordan teased. Dalarin exhaled in further agitation.
“Yeah, it would have been wonderful to craft beautiful treasures while leaving my mind as flat and dull as a slab of stone,” Dalarin said with sarcastic poison in his voice. “At least as a sentinel I can observe, do good things, and keep my wits sharp.”
“May the Gods agree with that,” Ordan said before taking another pull on his cigar. After a moment of thoughtful reflection, Ordan exhaled smoke angrily and leaned hard on the watch ledge’s railing. Ordan said “You know you’re so damned lucky Dalarin. No one shouts insults as you pass or gazes at you fearfully behind thick pillars because you have a skill they don’t understand, or work in a trade that can’t be held in one’s hand. I’d kill a young unicorn to not have a handicap stopping me from enjoying ale in the West Peak Pub.” Ordan’s voice rose like a bolero as he went on. “Ignorant bastards aren’t harassing you and treating you like a different race most of the time while begging your wisdom and ‘dark’ arts when they get sick or some other absurd decision of Aeor befalls them. Even rare attention from Dwarf maidens only comes due to their view of us Clerics as some exotic curious delicacy. You’re accepted.”
Dalarin inhaled sharply before replying.
“It’s not what you think it is.”
“Being accepted as you say. It’s true, I’m part of the general army, I wear standard armour, and I’m versed in the common Dwarf skills.” He paused. “But you also know I wanted to go to the University of Mages with you, more than anything. I would have too, if not for my father’s stubborn royal aspirations, and his quest for a conformity that he thinks will distinguish us, in some strange twist. Half the time on sentinel duties I stare at the horizon. It’s the closest I get to a feeling of expansion, a feeling I wished I could have gotten at the University. You’ve told me what it was like there, about the openness of the Mages in training, how the mind gains fantastic new powers and knowledge, and how the craziest and strangest types all feel at home there. There are non-material treasures in the world you know. In all the hard headedness here, a place like the University of Mages…it’s like a ruby wristlet…and you got the gift of it! I know you feel alone, but you haven’t compromised your thoughts. You are still YOU, and despite the isolation, I’d rather stand above the dirt than rub my face in it and be its brethren. Maybe when a few more ages pass…but who knows?”
“Then it seems we both admire each other’s positions,” Ordan noted dryly.
“Is that another gem of linguistic and communicative simplicity from the University?”
Ordan nodded. “One you’ve matched with your deft and effective metaphor.”
They both smiled.
A peculiar scent entered both Dalarin and Ordan’s nostrils. It smelled sweet and musty. They both recognized it immediately. On the slope just below the watch’s ledge two young adult Elves lay next to each other in the semi-darkness. Their skin glowed gently with the light blue pallor characteristic of their race. They cut an ethereal presence into the hard mountainside. Focusing, Dalarin and Ordan made out one as male and the other as female. They passed a whitewood pipe between them, each taking small puffs before blowing out translucent rainbows of smoke. They wore solid goldleaf headbands and natural blue tunics. Occasionally they touched each other’s faces and released small giggles into the air as it grew colder.
“They must be with the delegations visiting from Cloudwood Forest,” Ordan surmised.
“They probably need of some of their own norm and tranquillity,” Dalarin added.
“Should they be down there..?” Ordan started to ask.
“Whatever, let them be,” Dalarin said in response to Ordan’s question.
More chanting rose from Seven Star Mountain’s music valley. Soon a detachment of it came closer. It came through the blackness of the rocky slope below Dalarin and Ordan. The two light blue Elves ceased their caressing and sat up. They looked around with their pointed ears perking up. One gruff voice distinguished itself from the mass of voices climbing the shadowed side of the mountain.
“Damn it,” Ordan groaned.
“What?” Dalarin asked.
“That’s Ugel, and his usual gang of idiots,” Ordan whispered back.
Ugel came out of the darkness first. He stopped in front of the two Elves. His form loomed in front of them. Only a bit taller than the usual five foot height of the Dwarves, Ugel cut an imposing figure due to his slightly older age and muscular build. He resembled a small section of wall walking on its own. He didn’t stumble, but his glaring wild eyes suggested a frenzied pent up state of drunkenness. Soon his friends appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. A similarly crazed state possessed them as well. Ugel spoke, slurring his words.
“Elves sitting on rocks? Well, well, I never thought I’d live to see the day. What’s that smell? Ohhh I see, so this reality isn’t good enough for your brilliant little minds!” The two Elves stared hard at Ugel and his friends without breaking their gaze. They shivered slightly. Ugel continued:
“Oh, two of you? Under the stars? Well that’s typically romantic of an Elf!” Ugel shoved his face close to the Elves. At that proximity to the two Elves, Ugel noticed several small items lying on the rocky ground. Dalarin and Ordan then noticed them too. Three white Cloudwood leaves lay on their side, twisted and folded into origami sculptures of larks. Ugel picked one up. “You call this art? HOW. CUTE.” Ugel turned to his friends. “They’re creating something together!” he sneered mockingly. Ugel’s friends laughed menacingly as he continued. “Leaves? Larks? STONE! GEMS! That’s what makes the earth!” He rumbled with unnatural laughter. His comrades laughed with him. Then Ugel crushed the origami lark made by the Elven lovers.
“Damn it. I wish they would just lose interest and leave,” Dalarin said while hidden behind his watch ledge. Ordan said nothing.
Ugel sniffed sadly then slouched a bit. Dalarin hoped this signalled his fury subsiding, but suddenly Ugel began to bellow. His ceremonial armour and wiry crimson beard shook while he yelled.
“Why can’t we have a nice earthy celebration without damn Elves looming over us and peering down on us for once?!” Ugel’s friends cheered. “Why can’t we have what’s our own?!” Ugel seemed to half speak to himself. During this momentary distraction both blue tinted Elves started to communicate quietly and quickly in the windy patterns of whisperspeak.
“ENOUGH TRICKS!” Ugel roared drunkenly. “Why don’t you stop deceiving us all and act like heroes? That’s what you all think you are right? Heroes?” Ugel moved towards the Elves threateningly.
Dalarin closed his eyes and breathed heavily. His heart thudded against his chest. “We have to stop this,” he said. No one answered him. Dalarin turned to see Ordan sulking to the doorway leading off the watch ledge. “Where do you think you’re going?” Dalarin asked in whispered panic.
“It’s not our fight Dalarin,” Ordan said.
“What? I can’t believe you, a Mage would say that.”
“There’s too many…” Ordan trailed off sadly.
“Are you forgetting you’re a Mage? You and I can stop this.” Dalarin’s voice grew steadily higher.
“We can try, but if one of my spells miscasts, or fails…you know what Ugel is capable of…he’s high up…”
Dalarin said nothing for a moment. Then he shook his head and slowly said “I hate this too, but I took an oath…”
“To defend the Dwarves of Seven Star Mountain, not random Elves,” said Ordan.
“I don’t believe you, after everything you just said,” Dalarin replied.
“I still believe that Dalarin, but I’m not risking death right now for it.” Dalarin looked at Ordan then looked down. Ordan left silently.
Ugel and his friends began shoving the Elves around. Ugel pulled them up by their blue tunics and threw them down again, grabbing one Elf in each of his heavy hands. The Elves remained still. They knew better than to inflame Ugel’s already fiery temper. Dalarin stealthily slid his axe into his belt. He checked the powder in the pan of his musket and pulled its hammer fully back. Dalarin whispered the words he would say before he said them.
“Leave them alone Ugel!” Dalarin shouted while aiming down the sights of his musket. A silence descended on the mountainside. The Elves, Ugel, and his friends all looked at Dalarin in surprise. Ugel made no indication of backing away from the Elves. He laughed.
“Dalarin! You’re late for the party!”
Dalarin walked off his watch ledge and approached the scene of conflict. He kept his head cocked, aiming down the muskets sights. Dalarin spoke again:
“Come on Ugel, just back off.” Ugel raised his hands and turned from side to side with great exaggeration.
“What? I’m not doing anything.” He burped. His friends nodded and muttered in agreement.
“Ugel, I’ve seen everything. Just go back to the concert.”
“Awww come on Dalarin, don’t be such a stone ass! We’re just having fun.” Ugel grabbed both Elves into headlocks. He held one head under each of his arms. “We’re just having a grand old time here, right?” Ugel spoke these last words with frightening clarity, speaking to each of the Elves he held.
“Ugel, this isn’t funny.”
“Who said it supposed to be?” Ugel retorted. Dalarin stared at him down the musket barrel. Dalarin felt thankful no one could see his palms sweating beneath their leather gloves. Finally Ugel released his headlock of the two Elven lovers and they stood up. Ugel’s friends still surrounded them all. “Alright alright Dalarin, you win…we won’t have our own little party here.”
“Oh for the love of Aeor Ugel, just back off. You know I’m on watch, I can’t have the elders know I let all this go down in front of me.” Ugel no longer seemed drunk. He assumed a terrible lucidity. He spoke with the slow, deliberate and clear conviction of a merchant.
“Dalarin, Dalarin, Dalarin…I respect that, your commitment to duty, which is why I said we won’t have out little party here. It’ll be totally out of your responsibility.” He jabbed the male Elf. Ugel’s friends moved claustrophobically closer. Dalarin looked at them, saying nothing. “Oh you don’t have to be such a touchy feely melodramatic cleric about all this Dalarin.”
“Hey! I’m no cleric.” Dalarin said defensively. Ugel smiled.
“Of course you’re not…but you wanted to be, right?” Again Dalarin said nothing. For the first time he broke his gaze with Ugel. Dalarin gazed sideways at the ground for a few moments before looking back at the gang in front of him. Seeing Dalarin’s hesitation, the gang started to hold the Elves hands and remove their ceremonial daggers. Dalarin stepped forewords.
“Ok, that’s enough, this has to stop.”
“Dalarin, why do you insist that what is natural must stop? Who forced these two fine Elves to indulge in their limp and lily activities here, in the center of everything stone and solid and ash?” Ugel hit his linguistic stride and kept going. “Did they think they would fit in? I’m not much for Elves, but I know they aren’t that out of touch. No, these two Elves wanted the attention.” Ugel turned to the female Elf. “Didn’t you?” He reached up and patted her across the cheek with a soft condescending venomous touch. Ugel turned back to Dalarin. “You love them and their faerie arts so much, why should you stop them from getting the attention they seek?”
“For the love of Aeor,” Dalarin breathed under his breathed to both Elves. “Why are you putting me in this position?”
“They could have waited till they returned home tomorrow to indulge in their mind warping herbs and little leafy sculptures,” Ugel said as he shrugged and picked up one of the crushed origami leaf larks, holding it at arm’s length as if it radiated poison. “They thought no one would ever dare touch a hair on their majestic delicate heads.” Ugel stood on his toes to tussle the Elves blonde hair. “So Dalarin, you should just let them get what they’ve been asking for.”
Dalarin took several steps forewords. He looked up at the Elves. They kept their heads raised high and their chins stuck out, staying silent. They looked down the bridges of their noses at Dalarin. Seeing him not give any sign of putting aside his musket, Ugel shouted impatiently:
“OH COME ON DALARIN, have you ever been to Cloudwood Forest? You ever tried having a conversation with any of these fine MAJESTIC creatures? They’re too proud to even show fear. They need some humility, a little bit of good old fear goes a long way.” Ugel and his friends laughed. “I can guarantee you both these Elves don’t like me, and that’s fine, I don’t like them. But allow me to let you in on a little secret,” Ugel came right up to Dalarin’s side and whispered into his ear “they don’t like you either.”
Dalarin felt a sudden jolt inside him. It felt like someone twisted his brain stem hard. He closed his eyes and tilted his head, trying to deal with the sensation. Ugel didn’t know that Dalarin went to Cloudwood Forest with his father ten years ago, when his father served the Lord of Star Mountain three. A scalding blast of emotions and memories surged agonizingly through Dalarin’s mind:
Untold thousands of trees topped by clouds of white clustered leaves stretched into a blue sky. Dalarin’s father went to meetings in secret Elven chambers. Dalarin wandered off alone. He walked through playgrounds of large vegetation. He passed manors cut into the massive hazel trunks of the Cloudwood trees. In a vast clearing rested a garden of silver vines twisted up like bent lamp posts. Light shimmered off them. Dalarin felt drawn to their shine. His barely had his beard. In the light between those silver vines nothing felt certain. As he walked into their midst he felt his youthful confusions melt away. After a few minutes happily lost in that silver garden, Dalarin noticed tall Elves, male and female all around him. Their slender blue tinted figures rippled in the refracting light. They stared at him in silence. Dalarin remembered smiling and approaching various Elves, his hand outstretched. They looked so beautiful and elegant. The Elves started speaking to each other in a strange way that sounded like whispers. When Dalarin got close to any of the Elves, they withdrew further into the light shining between the silver vines. They started to laugh. One male Elf pulled out his bow and placed an arrow with a strange tip in it. He fired well over Dalarin’s head. Dalarin ducked in a panic. The arrow made a horrible, whining, scream as it passed. Elven laughter rang louder in the silver garden. Dalarin ran back to wait near the main chambers of his father’s meeting. He heard more arrows being notched and readied. A dozen more shrieking arrows filled the air. Dalarin screamed, stumbling and running between the arrows as they bounced off trees and fell around him. Elven laughter rang harder between thousands of trees topped by clouds of white clustered leaves stretching into a blue sky.
Dalarin snapped back to the present. He opened his eyes and found himself again on the dark slopes of Seven Star Mountain, underneath his sentinel watch ledge, gripping his musket hard. In front of him stood both tall blue tinged Elves, Ugel smiling expectantly and Ugel’s friends surrounding them all. Dalarin’s memories of that day in the Cloudwood Forest ten years ago tightened into a pit of agony in his mind. It felt like his brain stem twisted hard again with rage. Shaking, Dalarin suddenly and viciously smashed the butt of his musket into the abdomen of the male Elf in front of him, then quickly jabbed the musket’s muzzle into the female Elf’s stomach. Ugel’s friends held them as they crumpled briefly then tried to stand up straight again against the pain. Ugel laughed so hard he began to wheeze.
“OHH! That looked like it hurt. Dalarin, I really didn’t think you had it in you! Don’t worry, I won’t call you a cleric again, you’re really one of us, a true Dwarf after all!
Dalarin turned sharply. He walked back up onto his guard post ledge in a rush. His face expressed nothing. Ugel’s friends began ushering the two Elves into a nearby crevice alley in the mountainside. Ugel called after Dalarin:
“Don’t worry, I know they’re official, so we won’t leave any marks, physical ones at least!” Ugel slapped his leg and wheezed again with demented hilarity. Dalarin went inside to his private room above the watch ledge. Lights and voices extinguished across Seven Star Mountain as true night fell on its inhabitants.
Dalarin entered his private guard room. He used his ledge’s torch to light the six lamps of his chamber. He removed his helmet and bronze coloured plate armour with methodical practise. He stood naked in his room with his head hung low. His beard scratched the upper part of his torso. Dalarin went to his bed in the center of the room. He opened up the chest at the foot of the bed. He pulled out an item of his own design and several garments of clothing. Again with methodical practise, Dalarin put on a white and purple Dwarven Cleric’s uniform he kept privately for himself. Crying, he picked up the item he had made and lay flat on his back over the bed sheets. On his chest Dalarin gripped a leaf he’d once sculpted into an elegant origami lark with its eyes made from gems and the gears of Dwarven machines.