By: The Birch Twins
Into the hold.
Regular readers of the chronicles of my accounts with the barbarian will recall that Skarr and I, having traveled to her homeland in the Jerraldor mountains to see the wailing wall and the sea of souls, were currently descending from those ice-capped peaks and back to the relative civilization of the town of Monsk. Not that our destination was anything like the towns or cities in the empire in which I had been accustomed. Far from it, Monsk was not much more than a collection of small farm homesteads and a tavern, built on a small plateau and open on all sides to the howling winds that came down from the surrounding Jerraldor mountains that guarded the northlands. A scattering of bony feeble cattle completed the picture.
Readers will recall that, as well as being a mere apprentice apothecary, I had spent my childhood in the desert, as was my birthplace, and as such, howling winds, snow and frost were not the most comfortable of surroundings for me. As I stumbled along over the icy boulders that formed our path, my fur clad companion, off in the distance as usual, paused and turned.
“Must you lag behind,” she said in her broken accent, “a Norther child could have been back in Monsk by now.”
“It’s a little… “ I said pausing for breath in the icy air, “…hard going. I’m not used to this.”
“Pah,” replied Skarr with a derisive snort, “we have travelled together for a long time, Dushka, and still you are as unfit as when I found you in that slave camp.”
“I’m beginning to think,” I replied as I pulled my cloak further around me, “that if I had declined your rescue, I’d be safe and warm in the lap of some wealthy merchant on the east by now.”
“With a collar around your neck,” she said turning on her heel and walking off in the biting cold, “That is not the Norther way. Better to die of the cold that to live in a collar.”
I hurried along after her. The boulders and stones that formed our path were hard going, and the snow off the path was too deep and cold to walk on it for long. I shivered under the watchful gaze of the Jerraldor mountains at our side.
As I stumbled over another large stone, I noticed a small hole in the hillside, a tiny cave or some such thing. I pointed it out to my companion.
“Boggart holes,” she said, continuing on her way in the howling wind.
I stopped and stared.
“So that,” I said, “that is tunnel leads under the mountains to…to”
“No,” said Skarr going towards the hole, “no. The pathways under the mountains were closed when Varnarok the god collapsed the mountain. We can never get there, and the things that crawl in that world can never get here. Varnarok made certain his people were safe.”
I peered into the hole as if I could see something, to witness a small part of the Norther peoples ancient history and mythology lurking there in the dark.
But the boggarts were all gone. I knew that from my schooling. The dwarves had once had this land, back in the ancient days of the first era. Massive underground cities had housed them, the only evidence of their existence being holes in the mountains that acted as chimneys and ventilation shafts. They existed as harsh masters of the land, and the indigenous peoples of this area feared them. Until the day that, according to legend, that twelve warriors came through the boggart hole, the sole survivors of a mighty verdant empire beyond the mountains. Closing the paths behind them so that what had destroyed their empire might not follow, the twelve warriors, under the direction of Varnarok the god defeated and destroyed the dwarves.
I knew, as we walked that path, that some many imperial scholars would have given their right eye to witness such history first hand. As it was, the somewhat fractious Northers, constantly at war with the empire, were disinclined to allow many empire dwellers onto their shores. It may have been that I had been the first non-Norther to tread this path in several generations.
The wind whistled as we walked, skirting the lower reaches of the Jerraldor peaks. Eventually we came upon a huge boulder that had, at one time, been sheared away from the mountain high above us, and we decided to rest under its shelter.
“Is it not magnificent?” she said, a faraway look in her eyes.
“It’s cold and wet,” I began, “but I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.”
I smiled at her, and she regarded me with a curious look.”
“Pah,” she said, “You would be better off in some warm study surrounded by books and magic and potions.”
“Well I did suggest we stay in Yarn Valdus a while longer.”
As usual, she was silent, content to be back in her homeland maybe, or simply to be quiet in my company. Our relationship had developed in the time we had been together, that much I was sure, but to what extent I did not know. Much of the Northers language translates badly. They do not, for example, have a word for love. The word they use translates as something like ‘I tolerate you the most’. It’s still a somewhat clumsy translation. So upon occasion, the Imperial translations that she used were clumsy, and did not give the true meaning of the words she intended. I knew it frustrated her, and the silence often spoke more volumes than words could ever do.
“It’s beautiful,” I said quietly.
“Pah,” she snorted, “you are miserable and complaining of the cold.”
“And yet I shall remember my time at the wailing wall and the sea of souls for always,” I said staring at the floor, “it’s the highest compliment you could ever have paid me.”
I looked up and she was watching me closely, her face scrutinizing me as she often did.
“Come,” she said, “I do not want to be here after dark, stumbling around the mountains with you. We must get to Monsk.”
We walked for a short time in silence, the majesty of our remote location captivating us, the mountains close.
“What is that,” I shouted above the wind as we went around a snowy hill, “some kind of statue?”
What we saw was a pole, stretching high into the cold mountain air. It was metal, and covered in rust.
“Dwarves,” she said, spitting on the ground, “when the snow and ground shifts, it exposes their remains.”
“What do you suppose it is?”
“Look there,” she pointed into the distance, “more of them.”
She was right. A line of metal stanchions stretching into the distance, some with cables attached that swung in the wind, all covered in ice and rust.
She strode off towards them.
“I thought we were going to Monsk,” I shouted after her, “you did say we were going to Monsk?”
“These things are a …pah I do not know the word in your tongue. Valla richova. Transportation of means. I do not know your words.”
“You mean a railway,” I said trying to remember my schooling again, “a cable car system for the transportation of dwarves, slaves and materials from the high fells into the mines and holds deep underground.”
“The transportation through the air,” she said, “from the mountains. When the Northers came, they cut the cables and the Dwarves access to the mines. Then the snow came from the mountains and buried them.”
“So these might lead to…”
She looked at me and nodded. The cable car remains might well lead to a Dwarven hold. The nightmare that every Norther parent told to an errant child. To be taken in chains to work as a slave in a hold was deep horror in the Norther psyche even today. The stories that the Norther people told each other were embellished to the point of horror. Tales of slaves built into the steam machines, their limbs removed, tortured unto the point where death was begged for. The phrase word ‘dwarven hold’ might be a phrase of minor fascination for an empire dweller, but to a Northern, it means abject terror to the very pit of their stomachs.
Skarr stared at the stanchions for a moment, stretching off into the distance. She seemed to be weighing something up in her mind
“Come,” she said, “we shall follow them. No doubt a cable was anchored to the mountain high above at one time. That means that in this direction…”
“An entrance to a dwarven hold?”
She was silent, but set off in the direction of the twisted rusty poles.
“And what do you hope to find? The dwarfs are all gone.”
“Maybe so,” said Skarr in the distance, “but if they are merely hiding like the vermin they are, then they are discovered. The mountains have exposed them.”
“Skarr, I said, hurrying after her, “the dwarves have all been dead for centuries. The Northers won the war.”
We came upon the second stanchion, set into the rock. Sure enough, cables were attached to this one, tying it to the other stanchions. High in the distance, a small metal carriage bobbed in the wind, icicles hanging from its rusty flanks. I touched it, not without reverence. Dwarven artifacts were highly sought after, and here was an entire hitherto undiscovered cable car system complete with a gondola for traveling in. Just like it had been drawn in my school book.
They go over that rise there,” she said, “most likely underground and to an entrance to the hold.”
“And we’re just going to roll up and knock on the door?”
“My mother and father tried to frighten me with the stories when I was a child,” she said looking at the stanchion and putting her hand on it, “and yet all I could feel was a burning hatred for the damned dwarves. I wanted them to be alive so that I could test myself against them, to prove that I wasn’t just some pathetic puta to run scared to her mother’s skirts, to know that I could stand and fight. I know the dwarves are all dead. But if I can stand at the door of a hold and stand there as a warrior, then Varnarok will consider me worthy for the hall of heroes. I will know that, when I faced my childhood enemies I stood there unafraid.”
I touched her cheek.
“I’ve never known you afraid of anything, “ I said taking her hand, “come on. Let’s go tell the dwarves what we think of them.”
“Yes, Dushka. One Norther warrior and an inept apprentice apothecary will prove quite the foe, I am certain.”
“Well, I shot back as we followed the stanchions, “in the wake of such a vote of confidence, I sincerely hope they’re all dead.”
We came to the rise, and the cable disappeared into the snow covered rocks. Nearby, set between two snowy rises, was another boggart hole.
She came to my side, and we rested for a moment. I pulled my cloak against the biting wind. It had started to snow again, and eventually, this relic of the past would again be covered.
“The boggart hole likely leads to the dwarven hold,” she said, motionless, “we will likely discoverer the entrance inside there.”
“Either that or a family of cold, rather cross Boggarts.”
My humor escaped her. She seemed to be again weighing something up in her mind. I knew enough about her to leave her to this decision, to not interfere.
“Whatever you decide to do, I’m right at your side, “ I said feigning bravery I did not feel, “whatever is in there, we’ll deal with it like we always do.”
“Pah,” she said, “ you mean you’ll cringe and hide and I whack at it with Doomsayer until it realizes that it faces a Norther warrior.”
“That’s the usual plan,” I said, “unless you want to change it now?”
“If you can master those fireballs,” she said looking at me, “without setting fire to yourself or me, then for once I shall allow magic to be used.”
I sighed, and, her mind made up, she made towards the hole. In truth, I was about as meager a mage as it was possible to be. The first time I had tried to cast a fireball, I had set fire to my own hair, and managed to void my bowels at the same time, much to Skarr’s amusement. The bladder and bowel voiding had lessened somewhat, though my fire spells were still somewhat weak and unpredictable.
The boggart hole was wet, and icicles dripped from its mouth. Skarr crouched, drew a small blade and crawled inside. I followed at a distance. The hole descended downwards sharply.
“Stop kicking mud into my face, “ I said as we crawled, “that went in my mouth. Ugh. Boggart poo.”
“The passageway is full height soon,” she said, “I can see it. Follow closely, Dushka.”
I did so, and eventually the dark passageway opened out into a labyrinth of stinking fetid damp tunnels, obviously abandoned for generations.
“Use a thread,“ she said, “ keep a track of where we are. Come.”
Fastening a small thread from my pouch around a root, she drew Doomsayer, the mighty greatsword that she carried, and we continued down a dark tunnel.
She stopped and turned to me.
“Feel the draught?”
I nodded. I felt the draught of wind rushing through a huge cavern. Old wind, wind that had been trapped down here for generations.
“That’s more than just a Bogart hole,” she said, “that’s the entrance to a Dwarven hold.”
“Could it be…a …you know…a passageway under the mountains?”
“Varnarok closed the pathways under the mountains. This is a dwarvem hold. The fetid smell is dwarven.”
She was right about the smell. The whole dark tunnel smelled of more than a damp abandoned hole under the ground. But I wasn’t sure if it was Dwarven or not. It smelled of some kind of dark, dirty menacing creature to my nostrils. A dark dirty menacing creature, lurking here in the dark, hibernating against the cold.
Evidently Skarr felt it too, for as we navigated the tunnels, and I unwound my thread, I watched her grip shift on Doomsayer, as if she anticipated trouble, though I doubted she could truly wield the huge blade in such close quarters. The tunnel turned sharply and, just as I ran out of thread, we came upon another stanchion, buried deep when the land had shifted. Skarr walked past it, and stopped to look at something. I hurried to catch her up to see what we were looking at. And then I saw it.
The tunnel opened out into a huge cavern. The walls had been lined with the red bricks that the dwarves had made from clay back in those days. In the center of the room was the end stanchion, it’s gondola in a little station dock. The far end of the cavern, and what had been its entrance, was collapsed in a mass of bricks and cables. I was transfixed by the little gondola and how good a condition it was in. Green mould and rust was creeping everywhere, but everything looked so new. And by the silence, all abandoned. I looked around for Skarr. She was at a metal doorway, looking inside.
“It’s a shame,” I shouted to her, “that we can’t get this gondola out of here. There’s a museum in Ashburg that would pay plenty gold for a dwarven artifact like this.”
“Typical of the Empire to display an artifact of slavery,” she said, remaining at the metal door, “check the inside of the gondola.”
“Whatever do you mean,” I began as I stepped onto the dock, and peered inside the gondola car.
On the floor of the car were four sets of what looked to be metal shackles designed to anchor a victims feet inside the car.
“When the victims place their feet onto the steel plate,” she shouted, “the mechanism snaps shut and traps their ankles. It can only be opened from the lever outside the gondola.”
She was right. Here was a steel plate on the floor. I pressed it with my finger gingerly. Instantly, the mechanism sprung into life and snapped itself closed, slamming the shackles into place and locking. If my feet were in there, I would have been trapped. Skarr had come running to see what I’d done.
“Do not play with the mechanisms,” she said sharply, “they don’t not work in favor of their victims.”
She pulled the lever on the outside, but age held it and it stayed locked firm.
“I wanted to see what it did, “ I admitted, “and it’s not as thought I’d be stupid enough to slide my feet in there and trap myself. Quite an ingenious design though. The slave, once secured inside the gondola, could not reach the opening lever.”
“And thus were taken helpless to their doom in a dwarven hold.”
We were both silent for a moment, staring at the red brick walls, trying to imagine the suffering that must have happened in this small station, as the victims were taken to their certain doom, wives torn away from husbands, children snatched away from their mother’s breasts. Skarr was right, the engines of suffering in these walls did not belong in a museum, they belonged buried under the earth. A the same time, we were always on the lookout for funds with which to pay for our adventures. A small item for the museum would be useful. Nearby on a table were a variety of small tools, and what looked like a mechanical slave collar. I slipped the items into my bag.
“Is there a way in,” I said apprehensively, “I saw you with that door?”
“The door is an entrance hall.”
I watched her face. Suddenly I saw her as she must have been at about seven or eight. A brave little girl wanting only to be a strong mighty warrior. She would brag to her friends that she would face the biggest fear of the Northers, a Dwarven hold, and storm inside. But Skarr’s biggest fear was never the door, or the dwarves. It was the thought that her confidence and her bravery would desert her if the opportunity ever arose to prove herself. I saw it in her face.
“The warrior that is never afraid is a fool,” I said quietly.
“I was taught that as a small child, Dushka,” she said, “you state the obvious.”
She walked to the door, and I stood beside her.
“My fear as a child,” I said turning to her, “was that I would be discovered. That I would be found out to be an inept spell caster among a race of spell casters, and that my family would know I was being punished for transgressing and laying with women instead of…”
“Surely everyone that meets you knows that you are an inept spell caster, Dushka,” she said scrutinizing my face in that way she had, “People are people. Lay with whomever makes you happy. Life is short and cruel. I pause not because I am afraid. I am afraid, this is true, but my fear will not stop me or slow me down. I pause because I have lived with my fear for so long it has become almost like a companion. Without my childhood fear of being a coward to drive me, who shall I be? What have I left to prove, and to whom?”
“You’ve proven many times to anyone that knows you that you aren’t a coward. That you live and love more fiercely than anyone I know. Just think of it as another door to kick down. That about sums up what we do, doesn’t it? We kick down the doors other people are afraid to.”
“Or rather I do, and you cringe in my wake,” she said, “I should be grateful you have not run for the hills smeared in your own filth I suppose.”
“There’s worse in the hills,” I replied, “I learned long ago that the safest place is usually by your side.”
Nodding to me, and giving me that look she had, we opened the door, and went stealthily inside.
“When the dwarves took High King Tolygg and his Rahassa companion into slavery,” she said as we walked down the dark narrow corridor, “they skinned the Rahassa alive as they found her dark skin distasteful. The story relates how Tolygg was bolted into a machine and was forced to watch her being torn apart by Dwarven pit wolves”
“How nice of you to mention this right as we enter a Dwarven hold.”
“The warrior that is not afraid is a fool. Or so you said, Dushka. Now you are afraid.”
“I was afraid before,” I said taking a torch to light our path as we walked, “but it was a kind of skin tingling far. Now it’s a bowel emptying ‘covered in excrement’ fear.”
“You paint a vivid picture, duhka,” she said, “Hsst. Be silent, what is…”
She saw it almost too late. Or she sensed it behind us in the passageway. It must have been asleep in the main chamber and followed us. Skarr thrust me in front of her and drew a small blade as a giant clawed hand came from behind us and narrowly missed removing her leg. She thrust with the small blade but missed. It screamed a scream from the very pits of hell, its stench the stench of the very worst kind of demon. We backed away from its claws.
“Dead end,” I said bumping into a rock that had fallen over the passage, “we’re trapped.”
It thrust again with the claw and connected with Skarr’s skin, tearing a wound. She screamed in pain and fell.
“No, wait,” I shouted and tried again to summon my fireball. But it wouldn’t come. I watched through half closed eyes as the things’ maw expanded, incisors read to slice off the prone barbarian’s head with a single bite. It came forward, and as it did I saw her hand shift grip on the small blade. Not as injured as the beast, or indeed I had thought. It leapt for her, and she thrust the small blade into its mouth. The small blade did only a little damage but enabled the warrior to roll deftly under its feet and back into the corridor. Now it was between us. Growling, it stared at me. I was trapped.
I pleaded with her in my mind not to leave me to my fate, but I knew that she would not.
“Hey,” she yelled, “Islay belakov. Come play with a warrior!”
It turned away from me and growled, leaping after her as she ran for the main chamber. I followed, feeling my fireball grow within me. Skarr leapt back through the doorway and into the relative space of the brick chamber, whirling to face the beast. As it leapt for her, now she had the space to draw Doomsayer, the mighty greatword that crackled with energy, she did so, plunging it deep into the things belly as it leapt. It thrust with its razor claw again, and she narrowly missed her legs being removed. She spun on the spot, the blade high above her head, and then it could only watch the dance. The one that they called Cock of the North. The warrior that could hold back an army a thousand strong just by the force of her will alone. I watched as she danced a ballet, the heavy greatsword as light as a feather in her hand. In that one instant, in that dreaded damp place of death, I loved her. Suddenly I felt my fireball erupt from within me and shower across the room. A look of alarm suddenly on her face, Skarr ducked behind a pillar as my fireball exploded into the gondola and sent it flying across the room, hitting the razorclaw square in the face. The rom shook with the force of the blast, but all fell silent.
“You will warn me next time,” she said rising, and brushing debris from her armor, “if you intend to do that.”
“It was as much of a surprise to me, “I admitted accepting her hand, “did I kill it, or did you?”
“It is dead,” she said, “what does it matter? Finally you have cast your infernal spell without either setting fire to yourself or voiding your bowels”
“What on earth was it?”
“A Razorclaw. And only a young one. The parents are much taller. Probably hibernating in the tunnels in the warm here, and feeding off the oxide and rust. It smelled red meat and awoke.”
We gathered our wits, and checking the creature’s demise was true, made our way back to the door, and back down the passage, to the dead end.
“I’m sorry,” I said as we surveyed the rocks that blocked the doorway into the dwarven hold, “I know that it’s disappointing.”
She regarded me closely, and shook her head.
“No Dushka,” she said turning around, “today was a good day. We had a good fight to keep us warm, and we proved that dwarves are cowards.”
I scurried after her.
“What do you…”
“Well, think of it, Dushka,” she said, “if the dwarves are living still, then they hide like cowards behind rock for fear of a puny little razorclaw. They are to only be derided. And if they are dead, then all is good. Let us hope that there is much ale in Monsk and not that foul piss swill that you empire-dwellers drink, and the day will be complete.”
We continued our walk, and were indeed in Monsk just after nightfall. There were many listening in the tavern as I related the story of the Razorclaw, and Skarr played drinking games with a group of Norther traders. After I had told the story, we relaxed and Skarr drunk. I suddenly remembered the Dwarven artifacts in my bag. Sure enough they were still there. Indeed, they were to lead to one of the most dangerous adventures we were ever going to have and for the first time, the life of my companion would be truly threatened. At the time of course, I knew none of this, merely that the collar and tools would provide us with some much needed gold.