“A Gleam in the Dark”
Copyright Jack Sutter 2018-2020
It should never be said that Gouri Flintsplitter was a petty sort of dwarf. He bore his grudges faithfully and dutifully, and he extracted retribution only in the thoughtful, considered and very thorough manner of his people’s ancient tradition. But he had his pride, and he had his dignity. And yesterday, Frogar Orbeard had trampled on both.
It all happened late in the afternoon on the previous day. Gouri had stopped by the Cloven Troll for a pint and perhaps a chat with Gretta Langlocks, a human woman who was the proprietress of that noble establishment. Gretta was tall for a woman of her race, with golden hair and large eyes and a smile like the light of dawn beaming down a mineshaft. As usual she had been holding court in the common room, towering above the admiring dwarven patrons like a gentle queen, a goddess of grace warmly receiving the worship of her personal cult as she flitted about the room with trays full of strong ale.
In one magical moment, Gouri staggered from his stool full to the brim with potent brew, and as the world swam before him he promptly collided with Gretta Langlocks, smooshing face first into her glorious person as a shower of spilled ale poured over him like warm spring rain splashing about his shoulders and running down the back of his collar. For a moment he stood close to the woman, craning his neck back as he gazed up at her awkwardly smiling face framed so pleasurably between the twin crests of her ample bosom, and in that moment Gouri felt he was as close to heaven as he was ever likely to get in the next four hundred years.
Then, like the ravenous cry of a thousand carrion crows there rose a tide of gleeful laughter from the chorus of patrons filling the common room, and on its crest there rode the craven voice of Frogar Orbeard.
“Flintsplitter, you clod! Get your face out of that poor woman and go sit in the corner and sleep it off. If you can’t be a respectable Oathminer, at least be a respectable drunk!”
The words cut like the head of a water jet slicing through a mountainside. Gouri had been a sworn Oathminer for almost fifty years now, and although in all that time he had never yet struck truly grand or profitable lode, his seniority alone demanded respect…or ought to, anyway. In ten months it would be his Seven-Times-Seventh anniversary as an Oathminer, making him eligible for induction into the Fourth Circle of The Mindful Order of Loyal Dwarves (Diamond Salamanders), which among other things granted him the right to braid his beard in a thirteen ply three-quarter weave bound with silver thread. Frogar Orbeard, on the other hand, was simply a lout who deserved none of the accolades bestowed on him. Seventy-nine years old, five years younger than Gouri himself, and already he was a third degree spade bearer of the Topaz Salamanders. But everyone knew that the Topaz Salamanders were a scurrilous bunch of layabouts with low standards of excellence and even lower standards of recruitment. An oaf of a Topaz Salamander like Frogar Orbeard had no notion of honor or respect, no notion of what it really meant to be a wise dwarf and a noble delver of the earth.
But he would learn soon enough.
So thought Gouri as he lay stretched out on the bed in his chamber at the lodge of the Diamond Salamanders, a headache splitting his skull like a granite drill. Frogar Orbeard was going to pay for Gouri’s humiliation yesterday. Somehow.
The precise manner in which justice should be delivered was another matter. Technically an Oathminer wasn’t supposed to engage his fellows in single combat (unless it was the sort of spontaneous affair which is fueled by alcohol and executed with fists and broken stools). Duelling was officially reserved for only the most extraordinary grievances, for dwarves are long lived creatures with far too much to do by way of mining, building, crafting and hoarding, and thus the dwarven elders saw little value in cutting it all short by splitting one another’s skulls with casual abandon. No, to sort out Frogar in a proper, dwarvish fashion worthy of a Diamond Salamander it would take some careful planning and thought. It could even take Gouri the whole afternoon, in fact. True, in dwarven lore the noblest and most legendary of grudges were often decades or even centuries in their consummation, but at the moment Gouri was in a hurry. And a worthless mole like Frogar was hardly worth the effort anyway.
It is difficult to think when you brain feels like it is being smashed away from the inside by a host of tiny fairies with pointed hammers. Yet Gouri was a dwarf of character: Determined, tenacious and hopelessly stubborn. So Gouri thought hard as he lay painfully in his bed, even though the fairies now seemed to be singing in off key harmonies as they hammered away at Gouri’s grey tissues.
For thirty years now the dwarves of the Diamond, Topaz and Emerald Salamanders had been working the southern face of the Brackburn Hills. In that time they had brought forth a respectable flow of silver from mouth of their mine, which was located a few hundred feet up the hillside above the bed of the River Brack and a good half mile from where the dwarven lodges were located just outside the human village of Brackburn Motte. Below the mine a small dock had been built on the bank of the river, on which a rotating brace of mules spent their days turning a mill which pumped the river water through a series of lead pipes all the way up the mountainside and into the mine, where the cold water was used to shatter sections of rock which had previously been heated with great fires, or else funneled into narrow shafts drilled by hand and then filled with water until the pressure was so great that it burst apart the surrounding rock to release large quantities of precious ore.
Deeper inside the mine, the dwarves were assigned individual sections to probe in search of new veins to exploit. Between rotations working the larger portions of the mine the dwarves would burrow into their personal patches, each hoping to find a bounteous lode which would secure his reputation as well as his fortune. At about the age of thirty a young dwarven man would set out from his clan’s homeland with a large band of his brothers in an order of miners, soldiers, craftsman, or one of sundry other professions, traveling the world to accrue wisdom and wealth through hard work and valour, so that by the time a dwarf reached his two hundred and fiftieth birthday and returned to his clan homeland he would be able to bring a large treasure to the Hall of Mothers and begin his life as a father-soldier of his house in both wealth and prestige. For his part, Gouri felt that he had already achieved much of both for such a relatively young dwarf, though perhaps a bit more in the way of wisdom and honor than in wealth. For lately his material prospects had been somewhat disappointing. After thirty years the Brackburn mines were slowly petering out, and Gouri’s own patch had yielded scant gains in recent months and nothing at all to warrant expansion into a large scale operation. Four months ago a pipe on one of the upper levels had broken and partially flooded several patches further down, including Gouri’s own. It had taken over a fortnight to bail it all out, and even now there were still a few dank puddles here and there. Soon enough Gouri would have to rise from his bed and make the long walk to the mine through the cold winter air, and perhaps bail out a few more puddles before starting another long day of work.
Suddenly, Gouri had an idea.
Gouri bolted to his feet, the fairies in his head suddenly vanishing as a ray of sunshine pierced his soul and warmed the depths of his stony dwarven heart. He sang as he pulled his clothes over his stout, hairy limbs, and shuffled a jig as he shouldered his pack and tools and sauntered out the door to greet the world.
Outside, there was a light dusting of snow on the ground, like powdered sugar on top of a cake of sweetbread. Here and there bright red snowbirds flitted from one bare branch to another, and Gouri whistled cheerfully as he trotted along the plank-covered path to the mine. It was a bit late, and Gouri was alone as he made his way to work, but that was fine as it gave him an opportunity drink in the beauty around him while he refined his plan. Soon he reached the mine, and darting into the depths of the earth Gouri sped surreptitiously to his destination.
Frogar’s patch was deserted, as Gouri had expected. For the last week Frogar had been helping old Snog Limebone work his patch, for Snog was still recovering from a broken leg after having made some stupid mistake or other and taken a bad fall. Frogar was probably in Snog’s patch now, which was some distance away, and Gouri had all the privacy he needed.
Gouri briefly took stock of his surroundings. Frogar was unfairly lucky for a dwarf of his quality (or lack thereof). His excavation was well built and cleanly dug, which was no doubt due to some unusual pliability of the surrounding rock. Like Gouri, Frogar’s patch had also been flooded during the same breakage months ago, but his was sufficiently well laid out that most of the water had simply flowed out on its own. Again, Frogar was lucky.
However, everything seemed to be exactly as Gouri needed. It would only take a few minutes to fetch a few sandbags, which if properly placed would perform exactly as Gouri needed them to. Soon enough, Gouri had arranged quite a few sandbags in just the right way so that they appeared to have been carelessly abandoned, yet still functioning perfectly for Gouri’s purposes. Within two hours of his arrival Gouri was tired and sweaty, but his preparations were complete. There was only one last thing to be done.
Gouri stood now in a passageway in the next level up. He glanced furtively about him, but for the moment no one was around. At his feet was a long block of grey metal. Each section had been cast out of lead in two halves, which were then bound together and seated on a bed of clay, with the seams and joints poured over with molten lead to seal them. A well directed blow with Gouri’s pick at one of these joints would break the pipe and release a jet of water which would whip its way through the passages wherever gravity and a few cunningly placed obstacles would take it. Gouri smiled grimly to himself as he selected just the right place. He then took up a position where he would be out of the way of the water which would soon be rushing through the passages, and then taking a firm grasp on his pick his raised the tool and struck the pipe.
There was a nasty, dull noise as metal collided against metal. But nothing happened. Cursing silently to himself, Gouri swung again.
Suddenly there was a crack in the pipe, and a thin jet of water shot out and sprayed all over the passage walls and soaked Gouri himself with freezing water. But it was still not enough, and Gouri swung again and again at the break. Then with a roar the pipe was finally rent apart, and the water began pouring out of the breach and whisking its way down the passage into the darkness below. With a self-satisfied chuckle, Grouri darted through the passage in the opposite direction and headed for his own patch, where he would work quietly and wait for news of the disaster which had struck poor Frogar Orbeard.
Then, from somewhere down below, there was the sound of a great, earth shattering crack.
The fact was, Frogar actually was a lucky dwarf. His own efforts notwithstanding, he had gradually become convinced that his patch was in a prime location, and had painstakingly hollowed out a number of wells in preparation for flooding and fracturing. But thus far his requests to flood his own patch had been denied by the mine chiefs, who were wary of another accident similar to the one from four months ago which had flooded so many passages. Disappointed and frustrated, Frogar had put off starting over again and had instead lent a hand to Snog Limebone, who was recovering from a worse misfortune than his own.
Frogar had been working with Snog all that day, and was still there when one of the mine chiefs came running into the patch demanding to talk to him. It seemed that a pipe had broken in one of the upper levels and had flooded Frogar’s patch and blasted open a substantial portion of the hill outside. And the results had been extraordinary. Never before had such a quantity of silver been released at one time from the bowels of the Brackburn Hills, and having surveyed what was left the chiefs were of the opinion that Frogar’s patch would continue to produce substantive quantities of silver for a long time to come. The chiefs were both delighted and furious, for they were inclined to believe that Frogar had broken the pipes himself in defiance of their strict orders. As it was Frogar had been with Snog all day, and it was clear from the word of Snog and others that Frogar had not even been near his own patch for a week, and the whole thing had to be chalked up to a rather suspicious looking accident which had proved fortunate to one and all. And most particularly fortunate was Frogar Orbeard, who could now be counted quite wealthy for a dwarf so young.
It was later that evening, and snow was falling lightly over the village of Brackburn Motte. A merry band of dwarves were carousing at the Cloven Troll, where Gretta Langlocks was hosting a celebration for Frogar Orbeard. Frogar himself was paying for all the drinks, and was luxuriously enthroned on Gretta Langlocks’s lap. There was a game in progress where the dwarves rolled a pair of dice and took a drink each time an even number was rolled while with each double Frogar was obliged to down an entire cup. Gretta Langlocks laughed gaily throughout it all as she cheerfully tallied up each round and added the result to the final bill.
Meanwhile, deep inside the cold recesses of Brackburn mine, Gouri Flintsplitter was working sullenly, all alone in his private little hole, bailing out another puddle.