In Dwarf Mine, on the way to find out about the Bat. Session 3.12
The route from Boldhome to Jonstown to Alda Chur was enlivened a little by picking up the warrior, Koraki, who was in no way at all the King of Alda Chur; his ritual polite passes at Maalira aside, he was a goofy joker, an apparent louche drunkard, and a decent rider. He was also obviously relieved to be out of his city. So, the group turned underground and he at least has been keeping to himself.
The Dwarf Mine where they have found themselves is an odd place. The rooms have inset granite baths with hot and cold water that can be turned on with big levers. The food is about as plain as it is possible to make food without just calling it ‘stuff’. However, it comes colour coded. Berra cannot eat the green ones. Maalira cannot eat the red ones. Berra seems to like it.
A day or so into the stay, Berra’s hair is soft and floppy, and she comes to see Maalira. The fuzz is growing in at the sides, and she has a razor in her hand. A Humakti calling with a weapon of death is probably not a problem. “Hi. Can you do the bits behind my ears for me?”
Maalira blinks. “Hello to you too.” She eyes the razor. “I can try…”
“Oh. Yeah, I forgot the hello bit. How’re you doing here?” Here, underground, where the light comes from oil lamps that smell not of fish nor of olives, but of nothing very much. Here, where niches with suits of armour worth as much as a King’s ransom are apparent decoration – unless they are guards who never move. Here, where the people seem to need nothing, and yet go unsmiling through their tasks.
Maalira shudders a little bit. “Our hosts are very… hospitable,” she says carefully. “And I am not in the least going stir crazy for a sight of the sky.”
“Oh. You need the painted room. Come with me?” Berra has the leather wrap for the razor, and she puts it away and steps back. “At least you can get a really good image of it.”
“The painted room?” Maalira’s tone is quizzical but she slides straight off her bed to follow Berra.
“Yeah. Where we eat, but there’s a bigger, brighter one as well. Just don’t talk to any dwarfs.” She grins. “I think they get a bit confused by having to talk.” The stone tunnel outside, perfectly squared up to the barrel vault ceiling, has lamps at regular intervals, and dwarfs in iron armour – or just iron armour – at many intersections. Steel, or enchanted iron, in some cases. Despite it being the mythical metal for which warriors quest, Berra pays it no mind.
“I get confused by having to talk half the time,” Maalira points out.
Berra laughs, blurting out amusement. She seems to know the way, and leads them past the small room where they normally eat to a hall that redefines it. They normally eat in a tiny room. This place is big. It’s also painted, and the bright light overhead is the colour of Yelm. There are maybe two dozen dwarfs lining the tables, eating. No silence falls when they come in. There was silence here already.
The paintings are four views of the same place, before, during, and after a battle, and then a close-up of part of it. The sky in here is bright. It’s a work of art that only Wilmskirk or Boldhome or Nochet could manage, and it’s not the centre of a palace or a Temple – it’s a food hall and the other people here are ignoring it.
Maalira turns around on the spot, eyes huge, taking in the sight. Her mouth opens and shuts a few times but no words come out.
The before image shows bright lines of warriors forming up, and among them, the cannon being hauled into place by half-naked humans. The rest of the people around it are dwarfs. An entire wall shows in great detail the people who have arrived to fight with and against a King who is under a banner with a Runic device. Beyond are hills, and the texture on the walls changes so that they are rough, and then above that is the sky dome, in paint that reflects Yelm and sparkles.
The image during the battle is confused, showing the fight, the sunspear of Yelm – a mirror so perfect it looks like silver has been married to the wall – and the terrible damage done by the cannon. Berra, who briefly disappeared by politely walking around behind Maalira while she turned, points to the huge device. “We’ve seen that shoot,” she says. “The Dwarf called it firing.”
“Was it… loud?” Maalira shakes herself. “Of course, it must have been. Which battle was this?”
“That was at Alda Chur,” Berra says. “When we fought in with the Regiment, and you took the prisoner I thought I had? I guess you were busy then, but after the really loud sound that made people fall over, there were some quieter ones, then it took the big gate down on the King’s hall there, and they surrendered.” Another thing notable for the sound was Berra’s happy squeeing when she got to see the thing up close.
“Oh, so that’s what that noise was,” Maalira says. “But what I meant was, what was the battle in the pictures? This one?” She gestures at the walls, redundantly.
“Oh. Right. Sorry, I was confused. This is from before Grizzly Peak. A long time ago. I don’t know which one, though. Just that those were maybe before the Lunars were the Lunars?” So at least a hundred years ago. Berra is guessing it is more than three centuries. “There’s the Dwarf.” Who is apparently very old.
“What do you mean, ‘there’s the Dwarf’?” Maalira looks perplexed.
Berra moves over to point to a silver-steel clad figure. “He’s as old as Time,” she says casually. “And probably older but I don’t really know how that works.”
“He’s still alive?!” Maalira’s eyes go wide. “How?”
“I think I just said I didn’t know.” Berra grins. “But that’s what’s here. His place. I think this is basically all about him.”
Maalira looks around again, then begins walking along the length of the wall, peering at each detail. Several times she reaches out a finger, but pulls it back without touching the surface.
As she does, more dwarfs come into the room in silence, help themselves to food, and sit down to eat. And then, as she looks at a painted death agony, the lights begin to dim. Yelm above gives less light, and the glow from the sky almost ceases. “Oh. Evening!” Berra squeaks, pleased.
Maalira squints at the image for a moment longer, then looks up and around. “So we are underground, on purpose, where there is a fake outdoors. On purpose.” She tilts her head at Berra. “And this isn’t even the strangest place we’ve been.”
“Yeah. For me it was the time we fought that Chaotic rock. Before you met us.” She looks at the battle from a bit more distance. “At night all the light is the cold sun, and the stars.” That is the white thing that gives light but no heat, although nobody would call it a moon. “The first time we visited, there were not as many people around, and we got shown in to this room to eat. After that, I think he knew we were impressed.”
“I can see why. It’s beautiful, and you’re right, I do feel better now.” She looks at the various dwarfs. “You’re sure they don’t mind us being in here?”
Berra looks at the people, all short and squat, each group visually homogenous. The sameness of the faces might be disturbing even her. “We’d be told not to if it was a problem,” she says. “And I think the Dwarf wants us to be happy here.”
“Thank you for bringing me here,” Maalira says. “We can go sort out your hair now if you like?”
Berra shrugs. “Sure. I can do most of it, but I always miss bits if I don’t get help.” Fuzzy. She is fuzzy. “But we can wait for night if you want to see the stars. Or come back.”
Maalira’s eyes light up. “Can we wait for the stars? Is that ok?”
“If we’re not in the way, then yes. We’ll just stay where people don’t want to sit.” Berra drifts over to the wall with the aftermath of battle, and makes the sign of Death, to help the painted warriors pass on easily. “Over here, I think it’s showing mostly what the cannon can do, but there are some really interesting weapons, too. That one there, you might know. It’s a crossbow. But what it’s resting on is something that can throw a rock over a city wall. I saw those in Nochet. The Lunars had one on a ship, and a couple on land.”
“I hope there were a lot of healers,” Maalira says solemnly. “It sounds like a terrible battle.”
“Siege. Yeah. It was a long time ago. Um, I mean the Nochet one. But not as long ago as this one.” Berra takes a moment to look like a tired, old veteran, despite being Maalira’s age. “We’re about to be as lost as each other, if we have to go deeper into the Lunar lands,” she says.
Maalira gives Berra a sidelong look. “Do you think we’re going to be in danger? More than usual, I mean.”
“Not physical danger. Not like in a battle. Political danger.” Berra shrugs. “If we’re really lucky, the Dwarf will be able to tell what’s likely to happen, and he’ll be able to tell us enough to convince our Lords. Our Prince. But it’s not likely, to be honest. We need to know what’s going to happen, not what’s happening.”
“So we keep going until we have a clear picture of what is likely to happen?”
“Pretty much. And when we get to some point we’ll probably meet the guy who’s making us go there and he’ll have some reason we have to go actually… ugh. I don’t want to think about it yet. I just want to punch him. First of all, we probably see Varanis’ in-laws.”
“That’s the trouble with politics, you can’t just punch it. Not that I can anyway.” Maalira half-smiles. “What are Varanis’ in-laws like?”
“Um, one of them used to be the Governer General of Dragon Pass, and he ordered the killing of the ducks.” Berra pauses a bit before saying the famous name. “Fazzur Wide-read.” Infamously successful, now apparently in retirement.
Maalira grimaces. “He doesn’t sound very nice.”
“He calls himself honourable. I’m planning to keep my mouth shut a lot.” Berra scowls, briefly thunderous. “I may need help with that.”
“I’ll keep a cup of water handy and throw some on your face if it looks like you’re about to say something,” Maalira offers.
“Maybe something that isn’t going to make me want to throw things myself,” Berra says musingly. “We could eat while we’re waiting for the stars?”
Maalira’s stomach obligingly rumbles, and she places a hand over it, blushing. “That’s a great idea. Will the dwarfs mind if we eat in here, or do we need to go to our own dining room?”
“I think we’ll be fine.” Berra looks at where they are. “There’s plenty of food in that pile, right? Those piles? And we know the colours?”
Maalira nods. “I had never thought of simply mashing food into one thing and giving it a colour to say what’s in it, but I suppose it is efficient,” she says.
Berra slinks over towards the food, which of course is designed so it needs no plates. She piles up some red and orange and beige for herself, checking if Maalira has followed.
Maalira chooses just beige and green, stacking them in to one hand with the other hand. She takes her time choosing each one, as if they might differ at all.
Berra gets back to her seat, already eating. A set of dwarfs comes in while Maalira is choosing, and some who are there leave. They seem to do so in clusters. The food sits there, blandly identical, waiting for its destiny.
Maalira joins Berra at the table and eats slowly, tearing bits off and popping them in her mouth rather than biting straight in. “This doesn’t leave you hungry,” she observes, “but I am going looking for berries or something the moment we’re back above ground.”
Berra makes a sandwich by tearing a beige slab into two, and putting a red slab between them. “I change how I like food,” she says. “Right now, I really like these. Berries are too knobbly.”
Maalira snorts. “Said the priestess to the Praxian,” she mutters under her breath.
Berra pauses, freezes. “Great. Well, it’s not like I ever wanted to eat fig again.” If it’s not a euphemism, then it’s terrible grammar. From her, it could be either.
Maalira chokes on her mouthful and coughs and laughs at the same time.
Berra stares ahead of her, trying to come to terms with the moment.
“I’m sorry,” Maalira says, not sounding sorry in the slightest. “That was terrible of me.”
“I think we just hit the limits of my trade talk,” Berra replies. “It’s not a tongue I’m good at.” She looks innocent.