The mines were filled with the clang of the Dwarves’ tools against rock and peeking through the walls were covered with what looked like gems. They weren’t, however, shining nearly as much as the ones had set into the statues and homes, and they didn’t hold the same beautiful shapes. As we walked through the mines, the ceilings began getting lower and lower, matching the smaller creatures’ heights instead of ours. We were stooped over by the time we stopped. Every eye was on us, most of them focusing on Elthinor; I was guessing that they had never seen an Elf before.
Firbrawn cleared his throat and every eye was on him immediately. He looked around the crowd and his eyes narrowed.
“Where is he?” he demanded, his voice holding anger.
There was dead silence around us, and the Dwarves refused to look up at their angry superior. I looked around at them and noticed they were shifting nervously. Firbrawn repeated the question with more force. A Dwarf finally stepped forward, looking up at the intimidating Dwarf with a slightly fearful expression.
“He slipped away while we were not looking,” he replied.
“No I did not!” a voice suddenly called out and a Dwarf suddenly pushed through the crowd.
His skin was a reddish brown and his hair and short beard were black. His face and build resembled Firbrawn’s, so I assumed the latter was related to him. He was obviously younger by far than most of the other Dwarves present, and even I could tell he was lying.
“Oh really? Then show me the fruits of your labor today,” Firbrawn commanded. “What have you dug up?”
The Dwarf crossed his arms and grumbled a response. Firbrawn sighed. “Valtrak, I am doing this for your own good! Can you not see that?”
“I am trapped in this blasted mine all day and you say it is good for me?” Valtrak demanded, his violet eyes glaring at who I could only assume was his father.
Firbrawn narrowed his eyes. “We shall talk about this later, Valtrak,” he said sternly, ending the conversation with his tone alone. “Now,” he said, changing his demeanor. “These…people will be helping down here with your crew, Kirrak.”
“Yes, sir,” a yellowish brown Dwarf with a grey beard said.
“But one of them is a female!” the Dwarf who had stepped forward to talk to Firbrawn argued.
Elthinor snickered, making the Dwarves all look at us, or more specifically him. I remembered the first time I saw him and smiled at him. He seemed uncomfortable at being stared at by so many people of a race that he had never seen before. At my smile, he relaxed a little and smiled back at me. Firbrawn commanded our attention again.
“Kirrak, you will teach these three to mine.”
“The female, too?” Kirrak asked incredulously.
“Yes. By the king’s orders,” Firbrawn said, none too happily.
“Oh, fine,” Kirrak said. “But if she starts to complain-”
“You will all just have to live with it. Now, back to work.”
“Yes sir,” all the Dwarves chorused.
The Dwarves all eyed me with distaste as Firbrawn left, but it was nothing I had not suffered through before so I ignored them. Judging by the way the Dwarves flocked towards Elthinor and Nolan, none of them wanted to work with me. Kirrak watched me with his strange white eyes to see what I would do. I simply stared back at them, not even bothering to hide my displeasure. Kirrak smirked and called over the young Dwarf.
“Valtrak, you are to show Filynora how to mine.”
“What? Why me?” Valtrak demanded harshly.
“Because your constant avoidance of working with us continues to get us in trouble. Now teach her.”
Valtrak downright glared at me, but instead of glaring back, I gave him my sweetest smile. He was immediately confused and grumblingly led me down to what I assumed was his workspace. There were no crystals showing through the walls down here, attesting, I guessed, to how little work he did.
He showed me how to hold and swing the tool, which he called a pickax. It was heavier than I expected, but I believe the farm work and heavy lifting I used to do helped me to hold it. I took a few practice swings before he corrected my grip and I tried again, finding it was much easier that way. I got into a rhythm for a while before I noticed that Valtrak was sitting on the ground carving something. I stopped and stared at him questioningly.
“The vein is dry,” Valtrak said bitterly when he noticed my look.
“Nobody likes me down here either. They think I am nothing but a spoiled, rich noble’s son.”
“You…are a noble? But why are you down here then?”
Valtrak sniffed. “Because my uncle thinks it is good for me.”
“What about your father?”
“My father’s dead.”
“Oh…so is Firbrawn your uncle?”
“Yes. He took me in after my father died in a tunnel collapse down in the east tunnels.”
“And your…mother?” Even the mention of that word still hurt me.
“She died giving birth to me.”
“I…I am so sorry,” I replied solemnly.
“I do not remember her so it does not matter,” Valtrak said offhandedly.
“Oh…” I muttered.
I was not really sure what to think of that for a moment then thought of my father. I guess I could empathize with him, I thought. I had never known my father, so I could not really miss him. I could miss the idea of having a father in my life, but not the Elf himself.
“Okay,” I finally said then looked back at the wall. “What did you mean when you said the vein is dry?”
“There are no more crystals in this area. That is why they gave it to me,” Valtrak replied, twirling his knife.
“How do you know? You have not dug at all since I came in,” I said, sounding a bit irritated even to my own ears.
“When I first came down here, I mined with all my heart, hoping to make my uncle proud, but that was nearly a year ago. Every day, I moved deeper into the tunnel and still found nothing. Then our group moved into another tunnel. Again, there was nothing in the area they gave me. Each place we move, a couple of the Dwarves listen to the stone to see where the crystals lie, and I am sure they give me the dry veins now. It could have been chance on the first two or three, but we have moved through more than ten and still nothing. My uncle thinks I am a slacker and a disappointment so why should I do anything to try and change his mind anymore? I know it will not help.”
“What do you mean by listen to the stone?” I asked, confused.
“Some Dwarves can, in a way, hear the breaks in earth and stone where the crystals are hidden. I don’t really know how that works as I do not possess that ability.”
I let that soak in and began to mine again. That seemed to confuse Valtrak, as he was suddenly beside me and grabbed my arm before I drew back for another swing.
“I just told you that it is no use,” he said, “so why do you continue to mine?”
“It gives me something to do. Besides, Korvict told me we are basically slaves, and slaves listen to their masters. He told me to mine, so I will mine even if I find nothing.”
Valtrak looked up at me strangely for a moment then shrugged his broad shoulders. “If that is how you feel, then go ahead.”
I smiled at him and his emerald eyes narrowed, as if he did not trust my motives. He finally shook his head and moved to sit back against the wall and began carving again. I quickly got back into the rhythm of chipping away at the walls. I worked until a low horn blasted through the cave and made me jump and drop the tool. Valtrak snickered.
“What was that?” I asked, my eyes wide.
“That was the signal that it is time for the interchanging of the miners. Our shift is over,” Valtrak said, obvious amusement in his voice as he stood.
“Oh. Where am I to go from here?” I asked.
“My uncle will come and lead you to your quarters. If he remembers you,” Valtrak said, a note of bitterness in his voice.
We walked back to where the others were filing out and I made a beeline for Elthinor and Nolan, who both looked exhausted. As soon as I noticed that, I became aware that my arms were heavy from the work that I had done, my knees, which I had been kneeling on the whole time, were raw, and my body suddenly stopped as my head became fuzzy. I shook my head to clear it and when I opened my eyes—which I hadn’t known I had closed—Elthinor was right beside me, holding me up.
“Are you alright?” he asked worriedly.
“I am fine. Just realized how sore I shall be tomorrow,” I said with a gentle smile.
“You should not be working down here,” Elthinor said. “Why must you always insist on doing a man’s work?”
“Because it keeps me close to you two. I do not want to be away from you. Not in this strange underground world,” I said sternly.
“So,” a familiar voice said, “how was your first day, Filynora?”
I turned. “Korvict! You said it would be a few days before you visited,” I said surprised.
“I could not help it,” Korvict said with a smile; the four Dwarves behind him stood there looking shocked that I addressed their king in such a way. “You intrigue me, girl. I shall be keeping an eye on you. So, how was your first day?”
“Tiring. And interesting,” I added with a tired smile.
“That is good, I suppose,” Korvict replied, stroking his beard. “Find any crystals?”
“No,” I said simply.
“That is too bad. Well, there is always tomorrow,” he said cheerily. “These tunnels are filled with crystals, and most of them can be turned into beautiful cut gemstones.”
“Is that why the gems in the city look different than the crystals peeking through the stone? They are…cut?” I asked curiously.
“Yes. They must be cut and polished for their truest beauty to shine through.”
“In that way they are like people,” Valtrak muttered behind me.
Korvict’s sapphire eyes darted to the young Dwarf. “What do you mean, Valtrak?”
“I simply meant that life cuts and polishes a person into being who they turn into, your majesty,” Valtrak said, lowering his eyes.
The Dwarf king tilted his head to the side, scrutinizing his subject. He finally smiled.
“You know, you sometimes show amazing wisdom for one so young.”
“Thank you, sire,” Valtrak intoned listlessly.
I was struck with just how true Valtrak’s statement was, and the king’s for that matter. I turned and smiled at the red-brown Dwarf. He just stared at me with those violet eyes of his and frowned. I finally turned away, a little disturbed, and noticed Korvict staring at me expectantly. I smiled at him and he actually smiled back at me before calling Firbrawn, who was standing back away from the king, to him.
“Yes sire?” he asked respectfully.
“I would like Filynora and her friends to stay in your home instead of the slave quarters. They may walk to work with Valtrak next shift.”
“But…They are…Yes, sire,” Firbrawn finally conceded, bowing again. “Will that be all?”
“For now,” Korvict replied then turned and walked away, his guard following.
“Well, follow me,” Firbrawn said irritably. “I do not understand why the king demands such special treatment for you slaves. What is so special about you? The only difference I can see is that Filynora is with you.”
I was, quite frankly, confused. Firbrawn had seemed so cheery and, well, friendly to us, me in particular, earlier. Now he was, to put it kindly, disagreeable. As we made our way back through the city, I wondered what had changed his attitude. From what he had said and the way he had said it, I finally assumed it was the attitude of the king towards me. Mayhap he was jealous?
We were hurried through the streets and into a grand looking house, not nearly as grand as Korvict’s, but still bigger than most of the houses in the city. I did notice, however, that the closer to the king’s home, the bigger and more amazing the houses became, and the farther away, the smaller and more plain.
We were guided through several hallways decorated with glowing crystals and gemstones set into more beaten gold. In one room we passed, I noticed a fountain leaping from the floor itself! I could not believe that I could feel so much amazement in one day. This underground city seemed to hold constant wonder for me. I was so lost in my thoughts that I ran into Elthinor when he suddenly stopped walking. He grabbed me to steady me; my legs were weak from kneeling the whole time I had worked.
“Are you sure you are alright?” he asked.
“I am fine, Elthinor,” I replied with a smile. “Or I will be once I rest a little.”
“Well, here is your room. You three can share,” Firbrawn said, sounding too sweet. “There is a bathing room connected by the door on the right side of the main room, and on the other side is a place where you can relieve yourselves. Enjoy.”
He left us standing there and we just stared after him for a moment before Elthinor hesitantly opened the door. The room was furnished with a good sized, plush looking bed, a few chairs carved out of wood, and a small table off to one side carved out of stone. I imagined they had snuck the wood down here when the Centaurs were not looking. All three of us walked into the room and just gazed around. When the door suddenly shut, I jumped and spun around, clutching at my knife, or where it should have been, before I realized it had only been Nolan.
Elthinor walked over and flopped on the bed, sighing tiredly. Nolan chose a chair and I just stood where I was. I noticed a door to the right of me and opened it to see a large depression in the middle of the room and what looked like a lever off to the side that led into a stone basin set over a stove. I pushed the lever down and gasped as water gushed from a spout and into the stone basin.
“Elthinor! Nolan!” I exclaimed. “You must come see this!”
“What?” Elthinor asked, in the doorway in an instant.
I pushed the lever down again, and they both exclaimed as more water rushed into the basin. We took turns experimenting with the lever until the basin was full.
“Now what?” Nolan asked, swirling a finger through the water.
I stared at the curved stone slab that connected the basin with the depression and an idea popped in my head.
“It is like the baths I took when I lived in Paxtonvale except you do not have to carry the water. See? We light the stove and the water heats up. We pull that string and that wooden slat lifts and the hot water will go down into the depression of the floor.”
“You mean it is like swimming? We do not just scrub ourselves clean?” Elthinor asked confusedly.
“It seems like it, does it not? And look at the bottom of the depression,” I said, jumping down into it. “There is a stopper. Pull it up and I assume the water will drain out.”
“What a strange invention!” Elthinor exclaimed.
“Who will try it out first?” I asked and both of the males looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“We, well I, thought you would want to,” Nolan said slowly.
I shrugged. “I do not really care,” I replied and got a strange look from Nolan and a soft chuckle from Elthinor.
“You really are not a typical female. You go first, Filynora, then I shall look at your knees.”
“Alright then,” I said as I grabbed the sparkstones on top of the stove.
I stared at the strange black rocks inside the stove for a moment before humming and experimentally striking the stones together. Sparks flew and the black rocks flared up. I laughed and turned to look at Elthinor and Nolan, who were both just as tickled as I was by the unusual rocks.
“These Dwarves are strange, but interesting,” I said as I stood and placed the sparkstones back where they had been. “Now tell me of your adventures while the water heats up.”
We walked back into the main room and settled down as my Elven friend began to relate his time with the Dwarves.