When we last left our heroes…NUTMEG, GELMAHTA, SISTER D, and ENEBOR departed for the distant lands of the HESTOR VALE on the trail of the RED HAND. After discovering that Enebor’s memory had been tampered with by government handler MISTER E, the trio agreed to prioritize getting ENEBOR home above all else…
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1 – In Which Nutmeg Meets Some Dwarves
- Chapter 2 – In Which a Wanted Poster Catches Their Eyes
- Chapter 3 – In Which Thunder Rolls
Chapter 1 – In Which Nutmeg Meets Some Dwarves
Nutmeg had his feet up on the table. He’d gone to the first street vendor he’d seen and ordered “one of everything,” and now he felt amazing. Spectacular. He was content to just doze in the sun today, their first day in civilization since they’d left Dwarroway. Over a month on the road, an interminable month of sudden rains and blazing-hot afternoons. Last night, they’d seen the lights of the city in the distance, and Nutmeg would’ve sworn he saw a tear in Gel’s eye.
They’d reached the city of Humber, gateway to the western world. The Serpent Mountains to the north and the Wyvernspine range to the south came together here, looming high on either side of the city. Banners of many colors waved on poles from the city’s battlements. Humber itself was a mess of temples, wayshrines, altars, sacred stones, chapels, and holy grottoes: a thousand gods were worshipped here, it seemed. At least, gods enough for both Sister D and Enebor to stay busy the rest of the day. The Palladian dome gleamed at the center of town – Palladius was a pretty popular guy – but Enebor found signs pointing to some shrine to some kind of owl god or something, who knows. Even Gel had a place to go: the temple of Rahaxus, deity of slow death. Gel had asked the friendly guide at the gates in a tone that suggested he was doing a bit or something, but lo and behold the guide told him just how to reach the temple of this dark god.
Whatever, good for Gel. Nutmeg had his god: food.
They’d gotten set up at an inn, the Yawning Turnip, and their horses were watered and fed. Filled with pastries, he dozed for a little at the patio table. In the late afternoon, he awoke, and wandered.
Humber was strange. There were plenty of Hegemony banners here – merchants from Dwarroway, from Lone Tower, even from as far as the capital itself. But there were many strange flags, too, sigils Nutmeg did not recognize. Most common was a red lion on a silver field; just as frequent was the mark of a smiling moon on a field of midnight blue. There were folk from somewhere called Thull, dressed in furs and sweating like hogs in heat. There were even gnomes from Folkor, showing proudly their tinkerings and fantastical junk.
He stopped, captivated, at a stall staffed entirely by dwarves. They had an array of lovely bits and bobs, necklaces and bracelets and rings set with precious stones. Hanging on racks were long knives with inscriptions on their blades, presumably ancient runes of some sort. They were packing up for the day, it seemed. Nutmeg picked up a beaten copper earring in the shape of a swooping eagle. Embossed and engraved. Beautiful.
“Only five silver pieces,” said a dwarf. She was older than Nutmeg, but not by much, and wore a blacksmith’s apron. “Good-luck charm, too.”
“Keep you safe from eagles?” asked Nutmeg.
“Sure,” said the she-dwarf. “If you need.” She squinted. “I don’t think I know you. You’re not from the Holds, are you?”
“Guess not.” She held out a hand. “Name’s Hulla. Me and my boys are from the Hammerhand Holds, out west. You don’t have the look of a Hold dwarf.”
“Yeah, well, I’m new in town.”
“Most people here are,” said Hulla. “Humber’s not a city you live in. Oh, I mean, some folk do, but most of us are seasonals or traders or other, you know, temporary lodgers. Even the long-term folks just rent, if you catch what I’m saying.”
“I do. Can we come back to the Holds thing? Is it a place where, like, it’s all dwarves?”
“Oh, hell yeah,” said Hulla. “Used to be one of the big cities, back in the Empire days. Maybe the glory days have come and gone, but there’s still us dwarves out there. Proud and free. Free-ish.”
“It’s complicated. Probably more complicated than a tourist would care to hear.”
Nutmeg looked to the other dwarves. Hairy and friendly, all, each just as happy to see him as he was to see them. Dwarves. Not just one or two, but many. Dwarves.
“Maybe you can tell me about it over a pint,” he said.
They were more than happy to accept the offer. Rather than return to the Yawning Turnip – which Hulla informed him was “kind of a tourist trap” – they made their way to Radgad’s Round, a seedy little basement bar on the west side of the city. Nutmeg offered to buy them all a few drinks, and that, apparently, was enough to earn the lifelong companionship of the Hammerhand Hold dwarves. They were more than happy to tell him how things were, out here in the Hestor Vale.
“It’s like this,” said Hulla, two drinks in. “Used to be a kingdom out here. Yeah? Kingdom of Ra-Hest. But a few hundred years back, the capital got flooded or destroyed or something, kingdom broke down into just a bunch of cities. Humber and Barrendell are the biggest, but there’s a ton of little towns and shitty villages and whatever. The thing is, we dwarves never answered to no human kings. But we did make a pact with them – no more kingdoms in the Vale. Sure, fine. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But I can tell you now, our Hammermaster ain’t too happy about the deal we made. The Hammerhand Holds should be the Kingdom of Thundrogar, properly.”
“Careful, Hul,” cautioned another dwarf.
“What about armies?” asked Nutmeg. “Militias? Do you have one? Do the cities?”
Hulla raised her eyebrow. “Well. Odd question, but – well, yeah, to some extent. We’ve got a few mercenary companies in the Holds. And there’s the Lions of Barrendell. All the towns have some guards. But if you’re talking about army armies – nah, not really. Haven’t had any major wars since the last time some human tried to be king, a few hundred years ago.”
Nutmeg was really trying hard to care. He was. This seemed like important stuff to ask, given the likelihood that a big ol horde was, apparently, bearing down on the Vale from the west. But he was only half-listening. Part of him was imagining life in the Holds, where things must just be peachy for dwarves, where they lived in the ancient halls of the empire and did cool stuff and sold dope jewelry. He left the topic of armies and politics and asked instead about the underground farms, the smithies, the mercenary companies, the worship services, all of it. O, to be a dwarf! He yearned.
When finally he took his leave of the dwarves of the Holds, the long walk back to the Yawning Turnip felt interminable and dreary. Humber was not a beautiful city. It was, he had come to realize, hardly a city. More just a place where people kept accidentally falling asleep on their way from Point A to Point B. No wonder there were so many shrines and temples here: it was a city that catered to your immediate needs and nothing else. Nutmeg had found worshipful matter here. He had found the last whispers of the great Empire. If only he were truly a tourist: he could visit the Holds. Maybe stay.
Chapter 2 – In Which a Wanted Poster Catches Their Eyes
Gel ran his finger along the new buckle for Bloodhoof’s bridle. He’d picked it up at the temple in Humber, the shrine to the god of slow death; it was a green jade vine inlaid with red winking gemstones – not rubies or garnets, something cheaper. Probably wizard-made and artificial. But still, it looked cool as hell on Bloodhoof’s tack.
They’d left Humber in a hurry, and set out west for Barrendell. Now that they were in the Vale proper, there were more inns and taverns along the road – even a little town, about halfway between the cities, on the edge of an old-growth forest. A week’s ride had brought them to the gates of Barrendell, on a hot summer day on the red dwarven road. Banners bearing red lions fluttered in the breeze, and the haze of heat around the farmland outside the walls made the city look as though it were floating above the world. It was a great walled city, this Barrendell, comparable to Dwarroway in a way that Humber simply wasn’t. The red road ran right through it; on high hills within the walls, Gel could see stately manses, a golden-crowned temple, and a vast stone keep with many towers.
“State your business.”
“Gel, say the thing,” hissed Nutmeg. Gel blinked. They’d been waiting in line to enter the city, and apparently had reached the gates while he was staring up at the towers.
“Ah. Yes, we’re here escorting this dignitary back to his people.”
Nutmeg bowed in the saddle. “Yes!” he declared. “I am Torvald of the Hammerhand Holds, and I am returning to my people!”
“Alright then,” said the guard, who plainly could not care less. “Four of ya, huh? That’s eight pennies toll.”
“Eight pennies?” Enebor, seated in the cart, was aghast. “But – we are simply passing through!”
“Enebor, it’s chill,” said Gel. Why did they have to do the stupid ruse anyway? “We can afford that.” He tossed a silver at the guard.
Enebor was fuming as they rode up into the city. He’d gotten out of the cart and walked alongside Bloodhoof. The streets were a little too crowded to enjoy a cart-ride. They asked for an inn, and were recommended a place on the north side of town, by the bridge over the Hestor River. Clearly the cheap seats.
“Paying a toll simply to walk from one place to another.” Enebor shook his head. “If we were flying, we would be past this place in no time.”
“Yes, well, we’re not, are we?”
“He’s got a point, though,” said Nutmeg. “Good way to evade some tolls.”
“Did you see that?” asked Sister D. She stopped her horse and cart and pointed to a notice board outside a post office. There were all sorts of postings there – “Help Wanted! – Wizard’s Apprentice! NOT AS DANGEROUS AS YOU’D THINK!” and “Come to HUGO’S HUGE HUGGERS, where every night is Party Night!” stood out in particular to Gel. But Sister D was indicating something completely different. It read, in neat, printed letters:
“TO ALL AND SUNDRY – Lord Marth is offering a reward of FIVE GOLD COINS for every PAIR OF HOBGOBLIN HANDS brought before him! For more information, visit the HIGH KEEP during VISITING HOURS!”
“Cha-ching,” said Nutmeg, making the universal sound for money hitting money. “Five’s a little cheap, but I feel like maybe he’ll give us a bulk reward.”
“Do you think we should try and visit with this Lord Marth?” asked Sister D. “If he’s offering reward money for hobgoblin hands, he must have a good reason. Right? Maybe there’s rumors of the horde already.”
“We’re supposed to lay low,” argued Gel. “Not give away the fact that we’re, you know, foreign intelligence agents surveilling the city. Just kidding!” he said, loudly, as a passing newsboy gave him a curious look. “Ha ha! Just making one of my classic Gel goofs!”
“I have no need to meet with this Lord Marth,” said Enebor, flatly.
“I don’t know, I’m with D here,” said Nutmeg. “Might be worth sussing out. Let’s at least take a ride up there, see if it’s cool.”
Gel sighed. If Sister D had suggested it, Nutmeg was bound to agree. Horny-ass dwarf. “Fine. Enebor, you coming?”
“I suppose I shall. But I will say nothing. The Yoi Kal have no dealings with the Lord of Barrendell, and I do not intend to alter this.”
The “High Keep” mentioned on the flyer was, quite evidently, the big castle thing with the towers. They found, rounding the road that led up to the keep’s gate, that the keep abutted the yard of the Cathedral of Palladius. In truth, the Cathedral was a more regal-looking structure than the High Keep. Gel marked it as a mix of elven and human architecture, sweeping marble scooping down from the high columns, which supported the trademark golden dome of the Palladian order. In front of the Cathedral was a great green lawn, some sort of square ringed by low hedges and crisscrossed with picturesque stone paths. Gel thought Sister D was practically salivating at the splendor of the temple.
But they weren’t bound for the temple! Instead, they kept on up the road, right up a steep incline to the gates of the keep. The gates stood open, although they were flanked by a pair of guards in glittering, polished armor. Their helms bore red plumage, and the figure of a prancing lion was embossed upon their shining shields.
“Halt!” said one, in a clear, strong voice. “What brings you, travelers, to the High Keep of Barrendell?”
“Is it visiting hours?” asked Sister D. “We’re here to ask Lord Marth about the hand bounty.”
“Oh!” The guard sounded surprised. “Wow! Well, uh, yeah, it’s visiting hours. We haven’t gotten many takers. You can park your steeds at the hitching posts there and head on in – Lord Marth’s in the main hall.”
“Easy enough,” said Sister D. “This shouldn’t be bad. See, Gel?”
“Whatever.” Gel eyed the keep. The walls were very climbable. Old stone. Lots of footholds. Always good to know these things.
Sure enough, they found the doors to the main hall wide open, after passing through the outer gate. There were little round tables all about the hall, and people dressed in nice, rich clothing sat chatting at the tables. They all looked a little soft to Gel. These were not people to be feared.
“Hello!” called a voice from the end of the hall. “Can I help you?”
Lord Marth – it had to be Lord Marth – sat before them. He was resting on a throne atop a low dais at the end of the hall. Gel found to his surprise that the Lord was a fit-looking guy, gone to seed a bit, maybe, but with a firmer jaw than the mewling little elites scattered about the hall. He wore a plain tunic – well-made, custom-made, but lacking in ornamentation – and had a prominent scar across his right cheek. It looked to Gel like an arrow-scar, where it had torn the flesh in its passing.
“Lord Marth?” asked Nutmeg, bowing a little. The man smiled.
“Yes, sure. Lord Carlan Marth, at your service. And you are?”
Nutmeg turned to his companions. He caught Gel’s eye. Gel was pretty sure he knew what Nutmeg was asking. He nodded and gave him a go ahead look. Nutmeg returned the nod.
“My name is Nutmeg, Lord Marth, Nutmeg Sanchez. This is Gelmahta, Sister Dondalla, and Enebor. We saw your ad – the one about the hobgoblin hands?”
“Well met indeed!” Marth seemed quite pleased by this news. “Oh, finally! I’ve been telling Captain Zuri this would work, but oh no, she kept saying, just let my Lion Guards do their job, and so on. You are travelers seeking adventure, then?”
“Yup,” said Gel. He agreed with Nutmeg’s apparent estimation of Carlan Marth: the guy seemed on the up-and-up, in a way that most noble people did not.
“Good. That’s what I was hoping for.” Marth gestured to his scar. “Used to do a bit of traveling myself. That’s why I knew folk like you would be the solution to my problem.”
“And what is that problem?” asked Sister D.
“Hobgoblins.” Lord Marth’s cheery demeanor turned dark as a summer storm. “We’ve always had some measure of raiding out on the western edge of the Vale, but this spring it grew worse than it’s ever been before. Whole farms decimated. Particularly out by Tanner’s Crossing.”
“You have soldiers,” said Enebor, to Gel’s surprise. “Can they not hunt hobgoblins?”
Lord Marth gave a weary smile. “A conversation I’ve had many times with many people. Tanner’s Crossing and the other little frontier towns to the west – they are not my subjects. They are free, and not under my thumb. I am the Lord of Barrendell, not the bloody king of the Vale. Should I send my Lions to other towns, we might invite war on our own heads by virtue of rising above our station.”
“I follow,” said Nutmeg. “You don’t want a jurisdiction problem, so you’re outsourcing the muscle-work.”
“You aren’t wrong.”
“How much will you pay for hobgoblin toes?” asked Gel.
“Look, what my friend here is trying to say,” said Nutmeg, “is that we’re happy to help with the hobgoblin problem. Is there any further reward for, say, a whole bunch of hands? Or, like, valuable military intelligence?”
“Well, I’m sure I could be persuaded, under the right circumstances. But I don’t pay up front.” There was steel in Lord Marth’s gaze, then. Gel admired that. “I enjoy conversation, particularly with guests such as yourselves. But talk is talk, and deeds are deeds. Until you bring me hobgoblin hands, we are simply talking.”
“Fair,” said Enebor, who had said he would remain silent. “You are fair in your dealings, Lord Marth.”
“Thanks, I try.” The Lord of Barrendell looked up and grimaced. “Ah, hells. I have an appointment coming in. It’s been a pleasure – say, do you have a name for yourselves? A company banner you travel under?” He pulled from beneath his tunic a golden pendant engraved with a dancing dragon. “I used to travel with the Company of the Dancing Drake.”
“Yeah, we totally have a name,” said Gel, frantically trying to think of a name.
“The Hob Gob Killin’ Mob,” said Nutmeg, with such confidence that Gel had to assume Nutmeg had been planning that for some time.
On the way out, they passed Lord Marth’s apparent appointment: a severe-looking noblewoman who gave them the same look she might give a rain-beached worm. Gel winked at her. She averted her gaze, and he chuckled. Rich people were very easy to unsettle.
That night, at a tavern down by the north bridge out of town, they enjoyed an opulent meal of roast tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese, herbs, and some sort of duck sausage, all accompanied by several tankards of a sweet apple cider that tasted of green and lovely afternoons. “This is like to be our last good meal for some time,” explained Enebor. “Between here and my home, there are only small towns, poor towns. My comrades and I refer to that space as ‘flyover country,’ because we fly over it.”
“That makes sense.” Gel plucked a bit of sausage from Sister D’s tomato when she wasn’t looking. “By the by, Enebor – you had some stuff to say after all, huh? To Lord Marth?”
“I suppose I did.” The elf looked grave, but that was pretty normal. “I hope that I did not speak out of turn.”
“Not at all, man,” said Nutmeg. “I think you sussed out something important. It came up in Humber, too. This place – well, Enebor, I know you’re from here, but to us, it’s different. We’re used to the Hegemony, where every city answers to its neighbors. Here – well, it’s politics, baby.” He popped an entire roast tomato in his mouth, and spoke while chewing. “Has me a little concerned, to be frank. A whole-ass horde coming out of the west, and what few armed forces exist here are divided up between factions and cities and whatever.”
“Guess it’s up to us,” said Gel.
“It always is,” said Nutmeg.
Chapter 3 – In Which Thunder Rolls
At last, they turned north.
They rode with the morning across the river – the first of two rivers they would cross, according to Enebor. This was the Hestor itself, which flowed out of the northeastern mountains. Here at Barrendell it was wide and shallow; skiffs drifted here and there, and the docks below the bridge bustled as all docks do.
North they went. The land stretched out in great open fields here, seldom interrupted by civilization. Scrubgrass and wheatgrass rippled in waves with the westerly wind. To the east, they could make out the foothills of the Serpent Mountains, which came to their end here at the Vale. Nutmeg shivered. The far eastern end of the Serpent Mountains was where Lone Tower sat, where he’d grown up, where he and Lucy lived. They’d met Sister D in Torold’s Pass, where the Hegemony roads cut through the Serpents north-to-south. Khaddakar sat in the Serpents. Dwarroway rested in their shadow. And here at last was their uttermost end, in the west, in this strange and open country.
It was a full day of riding to the next town. The last town, or so Enebor said. They came down a great sward along the dusty road in the late afternoon, golden light filtering down through the cottony clouds. They paused to appreciate the vista. This town, Witchford, was nestled against the Witchstream, their second river of the day. It was the perfect place for a town. The Serpent Mountains swept down here to a great crag overlooking the village; the Witchstream poured forth from the high places of the rocks in a dizzying fall. Not a mile from the village’s western border, a great expanse of dark forest stretched away as far as the eye could see.
“It’s beautiful,” said Sister D.
“We will rest here for the eve,” said Enebor. “Then north a few days more. This road used to run to the old capital of the Vale, when it was a kingdom for humans. We built our home within a day’s flight of the old capital, in fact. Now, though, few riders pass this way. Beyond the ruined capital, it is many long miles of travel before one comes to the next town.”
“Looks quaint,” said Gel. “Like the kind of place that would be nice to retire to.”
“Quaint, aye,” said Enebor. “Yet the old tales speak of stranger things. That crag which hangs over the town – my people know it as the Ionnachath Ailinel, the Witch’s Leap.”
“Lot of witch shit.” Nutmeg studied the Witch’s Leap. Old, jagged rock – but it had been carved, once upon a time. Carved by subtle, skilled hands. Not carved to any familiar or representational shape, but rather carved to pull some form from the raw stone. The sun passed behind a cloud. A chill fell upon the land. “Come on. Let’s find a place to lay our heads.”
That place turned out to be the Copper Cauldron, under the eaves of the Witch’s Leap. True to Enebor’s prediction, the food here was not nearly as tasty as those tomatoes at Barrendell. Nutmeg had a feeling he’d be thinking of those tomatoes until his dying day. The proprietor served them fish and potatoes with something he called “pea mash,” which turned out to be a green paste that was more of a seasoning than a side. Nutmeg dipped an experimental fried potato in the pea mash and munched cautiously. At first, he thought he’d be sick. The texture was vomit-adjacent, and the flavor was powerfully green. But then new tastes swept over him. The deep taste of earth, grown up from the roots of the plant. Then the sweet brush of mountain water. A salty taste, too, and something like copper at the heart of it all.
“Eurgh,” said Sister D, as politely as she could. “I – I don’t think I’ll be wanting my pea mash.”
“Tis but a pale imitation of the food of my people,” insisted Enebor. He seemed to be enjoying it just fine, having slathered his fried fish in the stuff. “Our methods and recipes cannot be so easily duplicated, but this is as close as outsiders have come. Holy food, this, when made by careful hands.”
“Honestly, I can dig it,” said Nutmeg. “I’ll have yours, D.”
The proprietor came often to their table, refilling their tankards and commenting on their progress in the pea mash. Besides them, there was only one other guest in the place – a woman with worn, muddy boots and a old, stained traveling cloak. She seemed to know the proprietor well; once Nutmeg had reassured the man that they were fine, really, and did not need any more second helpings of pea mash, the woman and the man sat at the bar and talked.
“Ain’t seen you in a while, Sarra.”
“Been a while, Thom. Had to winter in Thull, wait out the blizzards.”
“Still good fishing up thereabouts?”
“Lots of work, aye. But you know, Thom – well, there’s trouble on the north road. Had to hoof it off-road for a bit.”
“Hobgoblins,” said Sarra, in a low voice. Nutmeg leaned back in his chair, hoping to listen in. “Blockaded the road not fifteen miles north of here. And patrolling around, too, looking for trouble. I hid out in a ditch half a day just to stay out their sight.”
“Dark times, dark times,” said Thom. “You know my cousin, works in the tannery down out at Tanner’s Crossing?”
“No, Lou. The one who married that half-dwarf? He’s got the limp?”
“Oh, yeah, Lou.”
“Well, Lou told me they’ve had some hob-gobs raising hell down near the crossing. Making it so ain’t no one gets out the dwarf road. Why, you know he likes that ale from Sardoth, out west? They ain’t had a shipment in six months. Said he’s got half a mind to ride out to Sardoth on his lonesome just to have a bottle.”
“Well, with that wife of his, he’s gonna need a drink.”
“Hey, that’s my cousin-in-law, Sarra.”
Nutmeg could’ve listened all night. But a heaviness was coming over him, limbs and head and eyelids all drooping, and he excused himself to his room. The pillows were stuffed with fresh straw, and the beds were at least not obviously lice-ridden. Thank the gods for small comforts. He stripped out of his armor and, within moments, was asleep.
He awoke to the sound of thunder.
The room was all dark. Not a candle in sight, even out the window. It came again: the peal of thunder. Had a storm crept up on them in the night? He hadn’t seen thunderheads yesterday. The very air around him crackled as if with ready lightning. He thought of Pierre, his little lizard. “Pierre?” he called. There was no answer, save the thunder.
He climbed from his bed and threw open the window. A black feeling grew in the pit of his stomach. The town was dead silent and dark, the houses just formless shapes in the night. He peered out into the night. There was no rain, not yet. Just the sound of thunder, and that feeling. That feeling like at any moment there might come a –
– bolt of lightning.
The whole world, for one moment, was bright as brightest day. It came from everywhere, the lightning. Not one bolt, unless it was a bolt the size of the sky. The empty windows and doors of the town yawned skeletal. His window looked out towards the mountains, and in the single moment of light he looked up to the Witch’s Leap and – what was that? A person? Someone crawling along the surface of the crag. Who was that?
He was out the window and running through the street then. The rain still had not started, but another burst of lightning was coming. He could feel it in the air. His eyes were good in the dark, and he could see well enough the shape crawling along the crag’s face. There came a sound of tink tink tink and he saw sparks, and knew there was a hammer and chisel at work up there. Someone was shaping the crag.
Before he knew it, he was atop the crag, looking down at the town. The wind lifted his beard and hair, which all stood at end in the charged air. His feet were unsteady as he stepped toward the lip of the crag. He peered over as the tink tink tink continued. The hammering. Who was it? Who was that?
He looked down, and –
– again the lightning came and shivered through him, and he felt himself scream in two voices, because the figure hanging perilously from the crag, hammer in hand, was himself. But not himself. Black eyes. Mouth unhinged, his bottom jaw crazily low, gaping, and the scream was not correct.
Nutmeg staggered back from the edge. Tink tink tink came again. Then the hazy shape of fingers on the ledge. The other Nutmeg was ascending. Its head came up. The eyes, empty. The mouth, too long.
“Who are you?” said Nutmeg. He found his voice calm. Although the words came out funny. In another language, maybe. A language he didn’t know.
“Wrong question,” groaned the thing. “Wrong question.” It leapt up, faster than he expected – but he should have expected, shouldn’t he? He knew he was faster than he thought – and it reached for his throat.
They swayed and grappled in the electric air, high above the plummeting darkness. “What were you digging?” asked Nutmeg, in a gasp. “What were you carving?”
“Answers you know. Hammer and tongs. Harmony. Vibrations in your blood, dwarrow. Hammer and hammer. Harmony.” The thing’s fingers squeezed tight, and Nutmeg could no longer draw breath to speak. He did the only thing he could. He pretended to fall back and then, when the other-Nutmeg lost its footing, he twisted. They plummeted off the crag together, and the last thing he saw was the shape beyond understanding, the work of the dark Nutmeg, the harmony it sought.
“AUGH!” He awoke. Thrashing. The sheets were tangled around his neck, and he tore them off. There was no sound of thunder now, and the candlelight from down the hall glowed under his door. He was dripping with sweat.
A nightmare. That was all it was. A nightmare. He went to the window and threw it open. Little lights glowed all through the town, candles in every window and fires in every hearth. The sweeping shape of the crag over the town, Witch’s Leap, blotted out the many stars. He averted his gaze from it. Not ready to look at that sucker yet.
“Nutmeg?” Sister D’s voice came from the door. He turned, and she was standing there in her smallclothes, a candle in her hand.
“Hey, D. Did I wake you up? Sorry.”
“Are you alright?”
“I -” he flushed. “I had a bad dream. Weird nightmare.”
“I was sleeping uneasily,” she admitted. “I kept seeing shadows out of the corner of my eye as I dozed off. Had to do some meditations; I was doing that when I heard you shout.”
“Something about this town,” said Nutmeg. “The crag.”
“Ionnachath Ailinel,” agreed Sister D. “I don’t like the look of it.”
“Might be something from the old Empire,” said Nutmeg, although he wasn’t sure where he was getting that from. “Dwarf-work, definitely. But for what – I don’t know.”
“I can sit with you, if you’d like,” said Sister D. She closed the door and sat on his bed. In the candlelight, her face looked flushed and fresh. Or maybe she was flushed.
“I wouldn’t mind that,” said Nutmeg. He closed the window and went to sit on the bed beside her.
“You know what’s strange?” she said, after a moment. “It was exactly six months ago today that I met you. Exactly. I did the math.”
“At the other end of the world,” said Nutmeg. “That is strange. I feel like I’ve known you far longer than that, D. We’ve been through a lot.”
“We have,” she said. She was sitting really close to him, he realized. He combed his mustache hairs with his fingers and flexed his muscles a little. “You have changed my life, Nutmeg.”
“For the better, I hope?”
“I think so.” She wasn’t looking at him, and he took that opportunity to study her face. She was young. Hard as steel, though, under her fresh and fair features. And since shaving her head, she’d taken on a new grimness. Like a blade, straight from the fire, red and ready. Then she turned and looked at him. Right in the eyes. He almost turned away.
“Nutmeg,” she said, and her voice was low.
“Dondalla,” he said. He leaned closer.
“AUGHHHHH! NOOO!” They leapt from the bed as Gel’s scream rent the night. D led the way to the elf’s room, and Nutmeg kicked down the door, using the weird energy he had.
Gel was fully nude, standing in the middle of his room, brandishing both swords at the window. “Get back!” he cried, to the air. “Get back or I will Fuck You Up!”
“Gel!” shouted Sister D. “Gel, wake up! It’s us!”
The elf shook his head, pale hair flopping. Nutmeg evaluated everything else that appeared to be flopping. Nice. Not bad. “S – Sister D? Nutmeg?”
“Yeah, buddy, it’s us.”
“Take it easy, champ. You had a nightmare.”
Gel looked at the swords in his hands, then down at his nudeness. “Uh. No. Normal dream. Totally normal.”
“Alright, well, we’ve been having weird dreams. Really weird.”
“Is that why you guys came running from the same room?”
“No, that was part of your bad dream,” said Sister D. “Go back to sleep and put some pants on. Goodnight, Gelmahta. Goodnight, Nutmeg.” She gave an awkward little bow and then hurried out of the room.
“So uh, were you guys, you know…?”
“No.” Nutmeg turned for the door. “And at least put a sock over it or something.”
“See you in the morning, Nutmeg.”
“See you in the morning, Gel.”