Authors: Craig Halloran
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Coming of Age, #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy
“Will you put that away, Dwarf? What is it, anyway?”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Brenwar said as he put the potion to his lips.
Selene snatched it away and resealed it. “You’re being hasty. I thought your kind were better planners than that. I think it will help if you at least tell me what this is going to do.”
“Gimme my potion!” Brenwar leapt up for it.
Selene, much taller, dangled it over his head.
Ha ha! Dwarves are horrible jumpers.
“I’ll bring you down to my level if I have to!”
“Potions don’t last so long. We might be in there for days. Maybe longer.” She shook the liquid in the vial. It swirled with a twinkle. “What are you hoping to accomplish?”
“It’s a changer. I’ve taken it before. I’ll blend in down there.”
Fat chance, the way you stink! Ugh!
“Oh, and what were you going to change into?”
“Human, I suppose. And how exactly were you going to blend in with that tail and those scales?”
“I can control that.” She held out her arms and concentrated, turning her scales to skin and making her tail vanish under her robes. “See?”
“And how long can you keep that up?”
“Long enough. Listen, you need to trust me, and I need to go it alone.”
But the little dwarf just glowered at her. “No.”
Such a little child! Even if I do leave without him, he’ll just follow me on his own later. And get caught. And Nath won’t leave here without him…
She dropped the potion.
Brenwar snatched it in his skeleton hand.
“Have it your way,” she said, “but I’ll be curious to see if it conceals that.”
“Don’t you worry about that. I have plenty of tricks up my sleeve.”
She lifted a brow. “Really, so you have more magic at your disposal? That’s odd for a dwarf.”
“Well, I’m no lover of magic, but on occasion it’s served me well.”
“Oh, you like it, do you? How exhilarating.”
He does like magic! He’s trying to conceal it, but there’s a glimmer in his eye! Ha! He needs magic to keep up.
She filed that information away for future use.
As Brenwar put the vial to his lips, she held up her hand to halt him.
He started to draw back his fist, but she rushed to explain.
“Why don’t you hold off until we hit bottom and enter the city? We’ll need every second of time that potion can last. I’m certain.”
Sitting in the back of the cell, Nath watched a steady drip of murky water splatter on the floor. He’d counted five hundred and sixty two drops. Each just as annoying as the last. He focused on that water.
Splat. Splat. Splat. Splat.
Water. That was what Pepper had said he was going after hours ago. There hadn’t been any sign of life in the dungeons since he left. There was only the drip of water. It wasn’t just in Nath’s cell either. It was all over the place. A steady, unrelenting, tormenting harmony.
Everything in his life was out of order. Everything he knew had been twisted upside down. Giant-sized orcs, lizard men, and halflings.
“Ugh, how can this be?”
Nath wanted to sleep. To wake up in a better time and place. Even Dragon Home perhaps.
The mountain home of the dragons wasn’t really that bad. He just didn’t fit in. The dragons didn’t like him. That was supposed to have changed, which, to some degree it had, but other than Selene, he still hadn’t really bonded with any of the dragons. He rubbed his nose and yawned.
Why is that?
He studied his scaly hands and long fingernails. Not so long ago he could have torn this entire dungeon apart. Not that he’d ever have been caught to begin with. In dragon form, he would have ripped those stone giants to pieces.
I have to have more power than just these clawed hands.
His stomach growled.
If only being hungry was a power! I could destroy anything!
He clutched his head.
Come on, Nath. Get it together and think. I have to have more powers. I have magic, because Selene has magic. I need to explore it. Let’s see.
Twirling his finger in his hair, Nath made a mental list of things he could do.
I can grow gorgeous hair. Hah!
Oh, am I not the envy of all dragons. Let’s see, what else? I can yell really loud. And I can blow smoke. Yes, blow smoke. Such a terror I can become. Beware of the terrifying smoke-blowing dragon. I can complain. Be hungry. Oh, I’m useless without Fang!
He snapped his fingers.
Maybe I can summon the blade.
He closed his eyes and envisioned the magnificent blade. His stomach moaned. He slammed his fists on the ground.
Oh, this is useless! I can’t even concentrate!
He stood up and eyed the metal bars that caged him in.
I can bend those. I know I can. I just have to believe that I can.
Stomach rumbling, he walked over to the bars and wrapped his fingers around the hard steel.
Somewhere, a door opened. Nath pressed his face against the bars.
Coming down the hall from the direction opposite where Pepper left, something rolled on squeaky wheels. It was coming straight for Nath. The loud, annoying sound would have woken up anything that slept. Wheels rattled and clanked over the cobblestone floor.
Nath’s nostrils widened. His mouth watered.
Pepper the giant halfling came into full view. He was pushing a cart filled with huge amounts of food. Roast turkey. Baked hams. Hot rolls and steaming potatoes.
“Chow time,” the halfling said to Nath. “You are lucky. There are no other prisoners to be fed. You can eat all of this.”
Nath stretched his hand out through the bars.
Pepper slapped it. “A moment, please. Eh, put this on.” He handed Nath a checkered bib that was the size of a small blanket. “Now, scoot back. Scoot. Scoot.”
Staring at the food and licking his lips, Nath did as he was told. In the back of his mind he felt maybe it was a trick.
I don’t care. I’m so hungry I could eat a giant’s leg!
With a rattle of keys, Pepper unlocked the door and swung it open.
Nath fought the urge to make a dash for it. He was so hungry though.
Just see how this plays out.
The halfling shoved the cart inside and blocked the entrance. “Hold on. I have to bless the meal.” He closed his eyes and spoke some pleasant words in Halfling and reopened them. He closed the door back into place with a loud clank. “Enjoy.”
Casting all the etiquette he’d ever known aside, Nath dove in.
Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
The meal was a far cry from elven cuisine. There wasn’t much flavor, but it was sustenance. Greasy, claw-licking, stomach-filling food. He tore off a turkey leg and gnawed it down to the bone. Huge chunks of ham were stuffed in his gullet. The bread was hard as a log, but Nath didn’t care. He tore it in half and devoured it.
“Eh, Flame Hair, wash that down with that jug down there. And don’t choke on the bones. You eat like a giant.”
Nath grabbed the clay pitcher and gave it a sniff.
He guzzled it down, wiped his elbow across his mouth, and said, “Ah!”
There was enough food to feed a dozen hungry dwarves. He must have eaten half of it before he was finished. He let out a long, loud belch. “Buuuurp!”
Fanning his huge button nose, Pepper said, “Oh, my. You might not be a giant, but you act like one. Sheesh. And I thought I was going to sit down and have a nice dinner with somebody for a change. How rude.”
Nath wiped his mouth and fingers on his bib, walked over to the bars, looked up at Pepper, and said, “Thank you.”
Pepper cupped his ear. “What?”
“You are welcome. So, is your belly full?”
Nath patted his bulged-out stomach. “I think I have some room left, but I’m not going to push it.”
“You aren’t feeling sleepy, are you?”
“Oh, I always like a nap after a big meal. It settles the tummy, and the dreams are pleasant as a trickling stream.” Pepper reached into his big pocket and retrieved his snuff pouch. “This here is what you need. It’ll open up those heavy lids of yours.”
“You don’t say? No, I think I’ll pass.” Nath glanced at the door. “So, what now? Are you fattening me up for the giants?”
The halfling took a deep snort of the tobacco and shook like a wet dog. “Woo! I like that! Er, you said something?”
“What now?” Nath yelled at him.
“Oh, I think I need to get that cart out of there.” He unlocked the door, reached inside, and dragged the wooden cart out. He eyeballed the wide-open door. “Well, aren’t you going to run for it?”
Nath sidestepped over to the right, preventing the door from closing. “Are you helping me escape?”
“Oh no, I’d never do that. Ho ho, never. I mean, those giants would put me on a spit and eat me alive. No, never, never say such a thing.” He got behind the cart and started pushing it down the hall toward where he came from. He stopped and looked back at Nath. “Are you coming?”
Nath trotted up to the big halfling, who led the way down the halls. He glanced in every cell that he passed by. There were bones. Tusks. Bodies mummified and petrified in armor. Chains hung from walls with hands and wrists still in them. The bodies were piled-up bones. There were no signs of life in any of them.
I sure am glad I’m getting out of here.
The food cart came to a squeaky halt. Pepper stood in front of a twenty-foot-high door. The wood was ancient and grey and the iron hinges tarnished. He grabbed the handle designed for a man even taller than him and pulled it open. To Nath’s surprise, the hinges were silent.
Pepper put a finger to his lips, turned toward Nath, and said, “Wait here.” He slipped inside the crack in the door.
I’m not waiting.
Like a shadow, Nath fell in step behind Pepper.
The halfling turned, saw him, and jumped back. “I told you to wait!” He pointed at something behind him. “Ssssh!”
Nath froze. Three giants were in the room. Each was more than ten feet tall, and they all had swords on their belts. They sat at a huge table fit for them, but small by their standards. Food was piled as high as their chins. One was leaned back, head dropped over his shoulder, snoring. It was a three-eyed cyclops. The other two’s heads were resting on their arms.
“They ate too much,” Pepper said with a little grin. “Come on now.”
Nath scanned the room. It was a crude office, dining room, storage room, and barn. It smelled like sweat and stale ale. There were barrels and a pen filled with livestock. A huge goat bleated. Some oversized chickens clucked. With his dragon eyes, Nath searched the walls and the tall slime-coated ceiling above him.
Pepper came back and nudged him. “What are you waiting for?”
Nath held up his moorite chains. “I can’t be hindered by these.”
Nath raised his voice. “I can’t—” He shook his head.
Pepper scratched his eyebrow. “You’ll make too much noise in those. Hmmm, moorite. My, you must be important.” His slender fingers searched the soft curly locks of his grey hair and plucked out a sliver of steel as thin as one hair. “Stand still.”
Nath didn’t move.
The halfling’s hands were as big as Nath’s own head, but the fingers moved with the ease of a fairy in flight. The lock on his collar popped off. Seconds later his arms and legs were free.
Nath cocked his head from side to side and smiled.
Pepper patted him on the shoulder. “Feel better now, I figure.”
“You have no idea.”
“So, do you feel like running?”
Nath shrugged. “Not really, why?”
Gazing over Nath’s head at the table full of guards, Pepper said, “‘Cause I don’t think I put enough sleeping lard in that cyclops’s muffins.”
Nath twisted around. The cyclops, the brute sitting in the middle, was wide awake. Soft footfalls caught his ear. He turned back. Pepper was off and running.
Selene and Brenwar had managed a slow trek down the canyon into the city undetected. Now, they stood in a quadrant filled with huge cattle and other oversized livestock. The animals stirred little, and not many people were around that she could see.
“Seems you found a good spot to drop into.” Her nose crinkled. “I imagine it’s just like your home in Morgdon.”
“Hah hah.” Surrounded by goats and lambs, Brenwar scooped up a handful of the dirt and rubbed it over his clothes and armor.
“This is no time for a bath, Dwarf.”
“I’m covering my scent.” He slapped some mud under his armpits. “And you aren’t exactly looking inconspicuous either.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m going to mimic you.”
“It would do you some good.”
They were hemmed in by sheer canyon walls hundreds of feet tall. Animals were everywhere, but the people scarce. Not too far away were some barns and storehouses. They were bigger than what one would see in Nalzambor, but not exactly fit for the giants. Just big.
Selene wasn’t surprised by any of it. The giants often kept throngs of people as willing servants. Those people handled the chores. Tended the herds and gardens. But the men and women had to be careful. If the giants got too hungry, they would eat them.
“Follow me,” she said, making a beeline for the outer fence.
Pushing through the livestock, Brenwar followed.
“I’ll be right back.”
“No—” Brenwar objected, but it was too late.
Selene hopped the fence and scurried to the nearest barn and slipped inside.
A pair of long-faced country boys stood there in heavy cloaks, warming their hands over a crude stove.
She approached on soft feet.
One of them turned and faced her. “Who are you?” His eyes were filled with wonder.
“I’m new, and I was hoping I could borrow some cloaks for my family.” She hugged her shoulders and shivered. “I’m not used to this mountain air.”
The man stripped off his cloak. “Here, you can have mine.”
“No,” the other man said, removing his cloak. “Please, take mine. Much warmer than his. It’s oxen wool. The best.”
The first man shoved the second. “Don’t listen to this pig farmer. Please, take mine.”
Selene offered an enticing smile. “Oh, you men are so kind. It’s such good fortune I have run into you.” She grabbed both of the warm woolen cloaks. “May I bring my family in to warm by your fire?”
The second man smoothed back his hair, licked his lips, and said, “Are you spoken for, milady?”
“No, I am a lone widow traveling with my uncomely child. He’s most comfortable among the animals. It puts him at ease. That’s why we’ve ventured so far from the main city.”
The first man stepped in front of the second, and with a toothy smile he said, “You’ll find just as much hospitality here as you will in there. What duties will you be assigned?”
“I’ll be a seamstress for the giants.”
Both men scratched their heads. Finally, one spoke up and offered, “Please, bring the child in, and don’t be ashamed.” The man was poorly featured and built. “The child will be welcome here. I’ve got a daughter a bit long in the tooth as well.” He winked. “She gets it from her mother. Yep, can’t say what it is, but the men in my family don’t marry well.”
The second man shoved him. “Say, you’re talking about my sister!” He drew back a fist and punched the first man in the face.
Selene spun on a heel and started walking away. “I’ll be back, and when I return I’ll grant a kiss to the winner.”
The raw-boned country men let loose on one another.
As soon as Selene cleared the barn, she heard a gruff voice speaking from the shadows. “Uncomely child, huh?”
She tossed one of the cloaks to Brenwar and put the other one on. “I’m sorry, was that too much of an understatement?”
He covered up in the cloak and covered his head. The hem and sleeves were way too long. He grunted. “Worst disguise ever.”
“Come on.” Selene led the way.
As they walked, Brenwar said, “This is a big place. How do you suppose we track Nath down?”
“There’s a chance that I’ll catch his scent. And we can always ask. Well, I’ll ask, anyway. I don’t think too many people will be interested in talking to you. So for the time being, just be my uncomely mute boy and pray the giants don’t get a good whiff of you.”
Now dressed to blend in, the odd couple ventured forward toward the heart of the city.
Aside from the influx of people, not much had changed in Urslay. The alcove stone homes made the place look like an inverted honeycomb. People of all races and sizes worked along the streets and traversed the roadways above.
Brenwar brushed against her when an ugly giant walked by and leered at them and passed, and then the stupid little dwarf bustled in front of her with his long sleeves flapping.
She caught him by the sleeve.
He jerked away.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
“I’m trying not to explode,” he said. “In case you didn’t notice, there are giants everywhere.”
“I count three,” she said, gazing up.
The towering men, ten to thirty feet tall, pranced throughout the city like overlords. Some carried whips, others swords and lance-sized spears.
She noticed a few more posted on the alcove terraces above. “We’d better look busy. Grab that wheelbarrow.”
“You grab it.” Brenwar scurried over to a stack of grain sacks and hefted one up on his shoulder. He grabbed another by the neck and tossed one after another into the wheelbarrow. He eyed the cart. “Well, put those hands to work. Push.”
With a huff, Selene grabbed the handles, and with her head down she followed Brenwar. Shuffling through the streets, she said, “Where exactly do you think you’re leading us? I was of the impression you’d never been here before.”
“Just because I haven’t been here don’t mean that I don’t know where I’m going.” He cocked his head. “Hear that?”
Somewhere in the distance was a very loud hammering of metal striking metal. The banging was quite unique.
She nodded her head. “Yes. Iron strikes iron. So what?”
“That ain’t iron, lady. That’s someone trying to destroy Fang.”