When Heppa and Tric arrived at the dwarvish fortress the previous night, it was well past the standard dinner hour and they ate in the tavern. Tonight though, they experience the full dwarvish dining experience. Daven and Port take them to the hall of Lord Knutan, a grand space with long tables and benches. Many are already occupied by dwarves. The hall is hung with square green banners. Upon reflection, the elves realize they have seen these same flags in many of the buildings they visited throughout the day.
Their minders find seats for the elves and then fade into the background, considering their duty discharged. “It was wonderful spending the day with you!” Heppa tells them, ever polite. Then she settles down on a bench, surrounded by dwarves of all types. She notes the hair color and teeth quality of those around her. Various types of meat come out on platters, served over a spread of tubers and fungi with bread on the side. Knutan, sporting a long blond mustache, sits at the head table. He is clad in chainmail with his axe and shield within easy reach and wears a helmet with curled ram’s horns. They look more impressive and less creepy on his helmet than they did on the tusked skull of the staff from the bog.
As the food is distributed, the music starts. It is a combination of pan flute and drum, both being played by the same performer. The welcoming tune is not overly boisterous but sets the mood for a cheerful meal. Once all mugs are filled and drained at least once, Knutan smashes his tankard down on the table to call attention. The music stops, and the dwarvish lord stands. Heppa recalls the lectures she hears from her mother every night at dinner and hopes this one will be better.
Knutan’s speech focuses on how great everything is going. “Oor birthright, Untdunben, is secure and continues tae provide fer us! Oor fortress remains as defensible as ever. The new money rollin’ in from all oor current customers will go toward many more fine meals like this one.” The dwarves cheer and bang their mugs. “Is nae it grand when instead of the humans leadin’ undead here, that they lead profit here instead? But this would nae be possible without everyone contributin’.” He proceeds to propose toasts to group after group after group. “Let’s raise oor tankards tae the refiners!” Refiners, forgers, miners, accountants, mining engineers, logistics, troll wranglers… every group gets praise. “We are dwarves. We can dae this. We have been here hundreds of years, and we will be here hundreds more. It does nae matter what they send at us. Look at Kabak! He used tae be a problem, and now his trolls are runnin’ oor powder kegs!”
Tric and Heppa get caught up in the excitement of it all, raising their mugs and cheering alongside their dining companions. They wonder, though, whether such a speech is delivered every night, or if this one contains a veiled message intended for elvish ears. These dwarves would not be an easy target, an important idea to communicate to potential spies.
His speech done, Knutan calls out to the musician in the corner, “Glammur, put those pipes away. Come join us at the table here.” The performer puts their instruments down and sits at the lord’s side.
Tric soon hears raucous laughter coming from that end of the table. He takes it as a personal challenge to be even more entertaining to his own dining companions and sets out to tell a ridiculous elvish story that dwarves can relate to. The trouble is, there are not many stories he knows in which elves appear silly or foolish. He decides to make one up on the spot and ends up stumbling his way through a tale of an elf who thought he was an exceptionally tall dwarf. “He tried his hand at mining, but he did not have the strength for it. He tried refining, but his delicate skin could not handle the processes. He tried forging, but the heat was too intense. None of these things worked.” Tric does not really know where the story is going, and neither does his audience, leading to many confused looks. “Finally, though, he earned his place among the dwarves. On the field of battle, he stood tall, able to see over the enemy battlements.” The conclusion is not met by guffaws or even chuckles, just puzzlement. “That ending might need some work,” Tric mutters.
For her part, Heppa tries to engage her neighbors in polite conversation. She picks food as a neutral topic, one that she is curious about. “Do you farm the tubers? Is that done underground? In which case, how would you get sunlight to it? Or do you have fields up above? Where does the food come from?”
“It comes from the kitchen!” is the only response she gets, and she is content to leave it at that, focusing on experiencing the food rather than conducting interviews about it. Lord Knutan spreads a good table. The dishes are hearty, lacking the delicate flavors of elvish food, but they are certainly enough to power the kind of manual labor she witnessed during the day. We need to get Kachen here to eat, she reflects.
After a while, a second musical interlude starts. This performance is primarily drumming, and based on the dwarves banging their tankards along in time, the audience has heard it many times before. One of the dwarves near the elves comments, “I’ll be a wee bit disappointed when Glammur moves on, but it’s been good havin’ them here.” Tric asks about Glammur’s next destination, and the dwarf replies, “I dae nae know, but they get aroond a bit.”
“And this is… a career? In dwarvish culture?” Tric marvels at the thought.
“Ye’ve got tae send messages back and forth, find oot hoo the other dwarves aroond the continent are doing.”
Is that what elvish scouts do? Tric wonders. They have always seemed so perfunctory to him, delivering information and taking the task so seriously. Are they really just riding around on horses telling ridiculous stories? Maybe I need to get a horse….
When the last echoes of the percussion number have faded from the hall, Knutan stands and announces, “Floor’s open!” Partway down the long table, a dwarf hops up on a bench, causing his neighbors to wobble a bit. He voices a concern about an obscure topic, and Knutan delivers an immediate judgment. The complainant drops back down, satisfied.
Tric leans over to Heppa. “We should give it a try! Clearly we know what’s happening, even if we don’t know how….”
“Just tell him what we know,” Hepalonia encourages him.
Another dwarf jumps up to address the lord and shouts, “Ach! What are elves daein’ here anyway? It’s one thing tae have carters showin’ up fer transport. The humans have tae move the goods that they’re purchasin’. But did nae we learn last month that we can nae just be letting any traveler come through? It daes nae turn oot well fer dwarves!”
Hepalonia frowns to herself. The dwarf does have a point. She and her cousin were not careful to make sure that they were not followed here. She feels the weight of the crystal upon her. Who knows what it might be drawing?
Lord Knutan delivers his response. “Dwarvish hospitality needs tae be better than what it confronts. We’re above anything that anybody can throw at us. Aye, there are some elves here. Look at them. They’re tall and skinny. Those twae are nae threat tae us. We dwarves can handle anything. And if we were travelin’ the land, we would want tae be welcomed intae villages. Ye can nae let one incident—or twae, or ten—of dunderheided humans affect hoo we welcome travelers tae oor halls.” Knutan’s subject nods in acceptance and sits back down.
“This fellow is good,” Tric murmurs to his cousin. “I hate to ruin his whole day with our news.” Nonetheless, he stands up and raises his mug. Given his height, he elects not to leap upon the bench. His cousin comes to her feet as well. “Hail, Lord Knutan,” Tric begins, “lord of Untdunben, strongest fortress in these hills.” Tric looks around the room, speaking to everyone. “And indeed, he is absolutely correct. No force could pose any threat to you dwarves here. So mighty are your forges that we have seen. Truly you have mastered the very caves themselves. We, mere emissaries of Estbryn Forest, have seen some amazing works here. The only thing that could possibly hurt you is your own limitless capability.” Tric very intentionally avoids the word arrogance. “The humans could not harm you. The undead could not harm you. Certainly the elves could not lay a pointy ear upon you.” Tric frowns a bit. That line could have been smoother.
His cousin nods in encouragement, and he focuses his attention back on their host. “But your own mining may pose a risk to you.” There is a grumbling murmur from the greater audience. “You’ve mastered the rock, the earth. But above you there lies a swamp. And every phase of the moon, a great quaking from your impressive mining operation causes great cracks to form in this swamp through which air from your fortress comes up. And I fear soon, water from that swamp will come down.”
When Tric Manu puts it all together like that, Hepalonia suddenly finds herself feeling a bit claustrophobic. We’re trapped in these tunnels, and they’re just blowing it all up!
“Indeed, only a dwarf could break this fortress. You would hate to lose such a treasure,” Tric concludes.
The hall breaks out into an uproar. Benches fall over as dwarves leap to their feet. Some shout about elves coming in and telling them what to do. Others yell back that they knew the experiment was a mistake and that the old ways are the best. Still others insist that such great quantities of ore were doomed to come with a great cost as well. Mixed in with all the topical arguments are petty squabbles of spilled ale. The elves feel the weight of dwarvish eyes upon them. No one has yet raised weapons against them, but the mood of the room is no longer peacefully festive. People are being jostled, and some fists are flying. Heppa looks to the exit, wondering if they could try to slip away to safety, but her cousin says, “I think it’s time for some music. Let’s try to get over to that Glammur person. Maybe we can get them to drum out this problem.”
Heppa grabs Tric Manu’s hand. “If you have an idea, I will follow you.”
Together, they weave their way through the crowd of dwarves. Even though they have to push through some people, they have the advantage of being able to see their destination. Just like in my story, Tric reflects. Thus distracted, he trips over something—perhaps an extended dwarvish leg—and falls to the ground, sprawling at Glammur’s booted feet.
Hepalonia hears Knutan shouting, but she cannot make out specific words over the rowdy crowd, some of whom are now shoving each other or throwing punches. She sees that dwarves near the lord are settling down, and then she feels her cousin’s hand get yanked from her own. She loses her balance and falls to the floor beside him. When she looks up, she realizes that they have reached their destination. Glammur is thinner than most of the dwarves Heppa has seen so far. They have brown hair streaked with gray and styled with elaborate braids in the front. They are not bearded but have a smattering of little bits of hair here and there around the face. When they speak, Heppa notes that all teeth appear to be present.
The dwarf looks down at the pile of elf at their feet. “That was nae as good a tale as ye told yesterday.”
“I don’t know,” Tric retorts, “it got a lot of people riled up.”
“Was that yer goal, then?”
Tric cannot bring himself to admit to failure. He falls back on an old standby. “It could have been.”
The corner of Glammur’s mouth quirks up into a smile. “Noo that’s a sharp answer,” they say and then extend a hand down to each of the elves.
Heppa takes one with polite thanks, but Tric’s performance drive has not quite been satisfied yet. He tries to kip up off the floor, and it goes about as well as his public speaking did. “Nope, okay, no,” he groans, after he slams back into the rock. “The stone’s pretty hard. That’s not soft earth.” He accepts the proffered hand and pulls himself up. “We thought your drums might be a good thing to calm these people down,” he suggests.
“Dae ye play yerself?” Glammur asks.
“No, I’m a very serious person,” Tric replies. The dwarf laughs, and Tric clarifies, “Elvish music is based on the lyre and the harp…”
“Oh, it’s based on the liar, is it noo?” Glammur leaves a beat, in which Tric nods in appreciation of the play on words, and then they agree, “Aye, I think the drums should work here.”
The dwarf leads the elves over to the corner where the instruments are. They give Heppa a small handheld drum with little jingly metal circles worked into the sides, explaining that it is called a tambourine. Heppa gives it a tentative try after a brief demonstration from Glammur and then more confidently embraces her role as accompaniment. The musician then hands Tric two small open-bottomed drums with a harness for holding them against the torso. Tric gives them a few raps with his fingers and palms to test them out.
With the elves situated, Glammur pulls out their own instrument, a large bag with a set of pipes coming out of it at different angles. Hepalonia has never seen anything like this before and is immediately curious. Glammur positions the bag under an arm and puts one of the pipes in their mouth, then takes hold of a tube with holes drilled in it. The warm-up note they sound is piercing.
“Is that made of a troll’s stomach?” Tric asks. “I hope he didn’t have indigestion.”
“It’s from a sheep’s stomach,” Glammur corrects. Then they start stamping their foot to establish the beat for the elves to follow. They clamp their lips around the blowpipe again and soon music unlike anything the elves have heard before resonates throughout the chamber. The sound cuts through all the commotion, and dwarves begin to settle down. Knutan’s guards start ushering people out of the hall, and then they secure the doors. By the time the song is over, only Knutan, Trigadur, and some guards remain.
All thanks to Glammur and the Mixed Species Band, Tric thinks. Aloud, he says, “I’ve told some bad stories before, but none that have cleared the room like your tune. That was magical!”