They travelled for six hours as fast as they could. Because Yolanthe was faster she ran ahead and took trips into the woods on the side of the road, reappearing beside Voltag every half hour or so. They were travelling downhill from the bridge and made good time.
They camped several miles downhill from the bridge in a small clearing that Yolanthe had found just out of sight of the road. They made a small fire and brewed a tea out of berries and wild herbs that Yolanthe found in the area. They sat sipping it as night began to fall. Then Voltag took the owl that Yolanthe had killed out of his pack. He began to clean it for cooking.
“You don’t like the forests,” she said.
Voltag stopped working for a moment. “No,” he said.
“Why not?” she asked.
“They’re too crowded,” he said after a minute, continuing to gut the bird. “Too confused. There is no order. Inside a mountain, surrounded by the living rock carved by ancestors, that is where anyone sane would choose to be. There even the sounds make sense. Every echo calls your name. You know what comes around every corner because every corner has been there for 600 years. You can feel the weight, the history of your people. You can touch it.”
He paused to search for a word. “The solidity of your clan is in the very walls and ceilings of your city. And everything is planned. You cannot rush a city carved from a mountain. Every hall and vault has a history, had its master carver and diggers. My great great great grandfather on my father’s mother’s father’s side was the master digger of the hall of war in which I trained as a boy.”
He found himself warming to the topic. “Do you know what it is to carve a chamber out of the living rock? The responsibility? The skill needed? Every swing of the hammer, every stroke of the chisel must be just right for if you break off the wrong piece, the room is ruined. And so we study, we apprentice. We take years practicing the craft of carving. No one knows the importance of patience and workmanship like the dwarves. We build for eternity.”
He paused and looked around. “It is not like here,” he said, gesturing at the countryside. “Under a fickle sun and a landscape that keeps shifting.”
“And yet you wander far from your clan and caves,” she said.
“Not my choice,” he grunted.
“Don’t you have family?” she asked.
“I do,” he said. “They understand I must be away.”
“It takes a hundred years to make a true friend. I have not been travelling so long,” he said, and began to pluck the feathers from the bird.
Yolanthe began to talk quietly. “I love the forest,” she said. “I cannot imagine living anywhere else. Baltrog’s castle, the cities he took me to, were prisons for me. In a city you cannot hear the trees or smell the mountains. The animals are caged or beaten and the plants rot in small jars on windowsills. Those windows that are supposed to give people a view are just holes in their cages, giving glimpses of other cages. Nowhere can you see far, and everything you see crowds the mind with useless detail. The air is filled with smoke and the stench of too many bodies.
“In the forest, you are part of life. Every breath you take, every step on the ground, every movement, is part of that life. The trees, plants, the animals, all fit into a pattern that you join, an infinitely complex dance of life. You can only here the music for that dance out here.
“The forest. That is where anyone sane would choose to be.”
The dwarf gave her a grudging smile and said, “Let’s cook the owl.”
The next morning the Voltag was quiet over breakfast. When they finished eating he looked up from his meat and said, “I’ll go on alone.”
“What?” Yolanthe asked.
“We’re almost dead because Bowl-frog saw you through an owl. How many other animal spies does he have between here and his castle? I can’t watch every critter we pass. How could I? ‘Oh no! The squirrel is looking at you. Better get ready for a swarm of killer slugs.’ And the next time he sees you he may take over your mind. That would be a bad fight.”
“If he takes me, I will warn you,” she said.
“And if he conjures up an army of undead stone giants? What if he rains fire on us? Splits the earth beneath our feet? Even your arrows and my axe will not save us.”
“If you travel without me, I will track you,” she said. “You cannot cover your tracks so well that I cannot find them.”
Voltag considered. It was true. He was no woodsman.
“Stubborn woman,” he said. “Come if you must. Watch for squirrels.”
They packed, climbed out of the woods back to the road, and began walking. After three hours the slope of the road leveled out. An hour after that the forest gave way to farmland.
Yolanthe smelled it first: the scent of burning. She stopped walking to and focused her sense of smell. It was a complex odor: burned wood, but also burned grass, leather, and meat. She could also make out the tang of heated metal, a smell universally associated with a forge.
Voltag noticed her concentration.
“What is it?” he asked.
“A fire,” she said. “Straight ahead. Maybe two miles.” She tried to remember the geography of her travels with Baltrog. “There’s a town there. Small.”
They did not speak for the next hour as they made their way along the road. At the one-mile mark Voltag could smell the fire too. A few minutes later they could see the smoke rising over a copse of trees.
Without exchanging a word, the dwarf and half-elf pulled out their weapons. Yolanthe cocked an arrow in her bow, but kept it pointed down. Voltag carried his axe one-handed, casually at his side.
Just before they emerged from the woods they passed a stone marker that read “Daleshire.”
They passed through the stand of trees to find what looked like the remains of a huge bonfire. Certainly it did not look like a town. There were no buildings standing. Everything had been consumed by flame. The only signs that it had ever been a town were a few stone retaining walls that still stood and the odd blackened timber that still thrust into the air. Everything smoldered.
The pair walked slowly through the ashes of the town. In the charred remains of the villages they could see the fragments of inhabitants’ possessions: pieces of plate, glass bottles that had melted in the heat, even the occasional gold coin.
Voltag stopped before the smoldering remains of a small hut. In the ashes and burned timber he could see not only gold and silver coins, but the blackened hand of child whose body was buried under the rubble.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“A bandit raid?” replied Yolanthe.
“Bandits would have taken the gold,” said the dwarf. “This was something else. This was a slaughter.”
He kicked a piece of wood that still flamed.
“Tell me about this place,” he said.
“There isn’t much to tell. It was a small town, really a village. Baltrog had taken it over some years ago. As far as I know, the villagers paid their taxes. There was never any problem. A lot of trade passed through here.”
“What kind of trade?”
“Everything. This is the first town below the mountains. The two roads through the mountains converge here, so all trade destined for the rest of the peninsula passes through here. Unless it’s coming by sea.”
“There are only two ports on the peninsula. One is small, on the south side. That is Tzanasport, where Baltrog lives. The other is large, the city of Seatorn. It is at the very end of the Finger.”
“The Finger of Torn is the name given to the entire peninsula. Seatorn is the capital and the most important trade city on the north-west coast. We’re in the narrowest part here. It gets much larger further west.”
The dwarf chewed at his lower lip. He knew something about the importance of trade routes from his father. Tolman Grimm had always told him, “He who controls the roads, controls the money.” Ships and the sea had meant nothing to the land-locked Grimm clan, so the few roads into and through the Grimm Mountains had been of dire concern for the old man. An elaborate and oft-strained treaty with the Needle Valley clan had to be continually renegotiated to allow the transfer of ore, jewels, food, and luxury goods in and out of the Grimm’s underground city. Baltrog controlled the Oakborder road, and, he guessed, the other mountain pass. If he also controlled the two ports, he would effectively govern all the trade on the peninsula.
But why would he burn down this town, which was a major trade junction? It didn’t make sense. But then, maybe Baltrog was not to blame for this crime.
In the center of the town they came across an open space of soot-stained cobblestones. This had clearly been the town square. In the middle was a stone well. There were dozens of charred bodies in the square, most burned beyond recognition.
“No ordinary fire,” said Voltag.
Yolanthe agreed. The devastation was too complete. In a normal fire citizens would man bucket brigades and try to save certain buildings. And when a fire ran out of control, there was usually time for some people, perhaps most people, to escape the flames. But here, everything was burned, everyone was dead.
They crossed the square, stepping around the charred corpses. Voltag paused to look into the well.
“By Moradin’s teeth,” he cursed.
Yolanthe peered into the well too, and then stepped back in horror.
The well was full, almost to the top, with burned bodies.
“Why are they in there?” asked Voltag.
Yolanthe forced herself to look at the nearest body. It was burned to the bone, but it was physically intact. If anyone tried to move a body in such a state, it would crumble and collapse. That meant that it had to have been burned in the well.
She looked at the cobblestones around the well. In the ash she could make out a confusion of footprints, all of them running towards the well.
“They jumped in the well to save themselves,” she said. “To stop from being burned.”
“But they are burned,” said Voltag.
“I know. They were burned while they were hiding in the well. The fire came to them. It followed them.”
Voltag tightened the grip on his axe. “I think we should go,” he said.
They continued west on the road out of town. Almost all the buildings on this side of town were still flaming. Through the smoke they could see the edge of what was left of the town. Beyond it the road led to a bridge.
They were in the last block of the town when Yolanthe heard something. She had been listening to the sounds of the flames -- the sizzle of sap boiling out of timbers, the crack of porcelain breaking in the heat – and the utter silence behind it, a silence only possible when nothing was alive. But now she heard something within the crackle of fire, a regularity that should not exist. It was a faint rasping sound, almost a chuckle, almost a song.
She was just about to tell Voltag that she heard something when the dwarf pulled up short.
Ahead of them a flame jumped from a burning building onto the road. It burned there, flickering but not going out, even though there was no fuel for it on the cobblestones.
“That’s not right,” said Voltag.
The flame shifted and turned, revealing its true shape. It was a creature made entirely of fire. It was some two feet tall, and within the fire could be distinguished the white-hot slits that served it for eyes and a jagged slit of a mouth. It had no neck, but long spindly arms and legs of flame. It smiled terribly at them and began to caper with glee on the spot.
“What is it?” asked Voltag.
“Something magical,” said Yolanthe.
The dwarf gave her a baleful glance. “That I could have guessed,” he growled.
“A golem,” she said. “Or a homunculus. Some sort of magic construct.”
“This killed the people in the well?” he asked.
“It must have,” she said.
“Then I’m going to put the blasted thing out,” said Voltag.
He began to swing his axe from hand to hand. In a second it was whistling through the air.
“That might not work,” said Yolanthe.
“Aye, but it might,” said the dwarf as he advanced towards the fire creature.
The sweep of Voltag’s axe was a foot from the flickering monster when the fire creature leapt into the air, flitted over his head, and landed behind him. Before the dwarf could spin around the fire creature swiped at his legs with one of its arms of flame.
The dwarf came around cursing. The back of his pants smoldered but did not flame. He swung the axe through the fire creature and allowed himself a grunt of satisfaction as it split in two.
But then the two flaming bits came together again. The creature capered and made the crackling noise that served it as a laugh. It pranced out of reach of the axe and flicked a spark at Voltag’s beard. The wind of the dwarf’s axe swept it aside before it could set his hair on fire.
Yolanthe pulled an arrow from her quiver. She ran a hand down its length and whispered an incarnation. She notched the bow and aimed at the creature.
“Duck!” she shouted.
Voltag threw himself on the ground as Yolanthe released the arrow. He could feel it pierce the air above his head.
The arrow passed through the homunculus, travelled another twenty feet, then hit a charred log. It exploded.
The homunculus wheeled to look at the explosion, then turned back towards Yolanthe and Voltag and made the crackling laugh.
Voltag rose to his feet. “That’s not going to work,” he grunted. He began to swing his axe again.
The homunculus darted a flame at Voltag’s beard, singing it. The dwarf roared in anger and swung the axe through the creature’s insubstantial body. It split and reformed instantly.
“Turn the axe sideways,” said Yolanthe.
Voltag grunted and turned the handle of the axe so that it was moving with the blade right angles to the direction of the swing. The axe slowed down but the wind it made blew the homunculus back a few feet. The little being capered in anger as the dwarf advanced, blowing it away from him with the wind of the axe blade.
“Keep it there,” said Yolanthe as she ran her hands over another arrow and whispered the incarnation again.
“I’m doing my best,” said Voltag. “Any ideas?”
Yolanthe notched the arrow and aimed at the homunculus. “Yes,” she said, then raised her bow straight up and fired. The arrow flew up some 200 yards, ran out of impetus, and began to arc back down to the ground.
“Get ready,” said Yolanthe.
“For what?” said Voltag, still swinging his axe.
The arrow slammed down into the top of the homunculus, passed through its short body, and exploded as it hit the ground. The explosion blew the creature into hundreds of small points of fire. The concussion blew Voltag backwards off his feet. As he fell on his back, little bits of animate fire landed on him. He swatted them out.
Yolanthe ran forward and began stepping on the small flames that were scattered in a twenty-foot circle around the point of impact. Even as she stamped, some of the flames began to move back together, attempting to reform into the homunculus.
“Help me,” she said as Voltag, shaking his head, rose to his feet. Some of the small bits of flame were now coalesced into slightly bigger fires, and these moved towards others. Seeing what was happening, Voltag began stomping on the flames. He used the side of his axe to mash out larger ones
After a few minutes of frantic stomping there was only one small fire left. It formed in to a miniature version of the homunculus and hopped up and down angrily.
Voltag looked down on it and said, “Out of the frying pan,” then stamped on the flame and ground it out with his heel.
The bridge out of the town was burned down. The water of the river ran fast and muddy. Only some twenty feet across, it was too wide to jump and too deep to ford.
Voltag walked back and forth along the bank, studying it carefully and glancing up and down the river’s length. He chewed at his lower lip and furrowed his brows.
“There might be a bridge further down stream,” he said.
“No,” Yolanthe replied. “I’ve boated down this river. This is the only bridge. Otherwise it’s boats or swimming. But I’ve got an idea.”
The half-elf took lifted the edge of her shirt to reveal a belt made of thin coiled rope. She unwrapped it from her body and carefully coiled on the ground. She tied one end of the rope to an arrow. She stood up and aimed her bow at a tree on the opposite shore.
“Even if you hit,” said the dwarf, “The arrow will pull out of the tree.”
Yolanthe said nothing. She aimed and let the arrow fly. The rope at her feet uncoiled as the arrow streaked towards the tree on the shore. To the dwarf’s surprise, the arrow missed the trunk, shooting between a heavy branch on the right side of the tree. Just as it was flying past the tree Yolanthe placed her foot on the rope. The arrow stopped in mid flight, caught short by the rope, and jerked back. When it came back it came on the other side of the tree trunk and in its momentum it wrapped around the trunk of the tree several times before coming to a stop. Yolanthe picked up the rope and gave it a gentle tug. The rope was solid. It had wrapped over itself several times.
“Hold this tight,” she said, picking up the rope at her feet. Voltag took it and gave it a good tug. It held fast.
“I don’t want to cut this rope,” said Yolanthe. “It’s made of one strand of spider silk twined back on itself.”
With Voltag holding the part of the rope that ran across the river, Yolanthe picked up the rest of the coil that lay at her feet and tied the other end of the rope to the middle of a heavy arrow. She aimed at the far bank and fired. The arrow, impeded in its flight by the rope tied at its mid-point, began to lose height and direction as it passed over the river. It turned perpendicular to the direction of flight and began to fall. Again Voltag thought he archer has missed her shot, but as the arrow fell the dwarf noted that it landed just on the far side of a rock with a vertical cleft in it. The rope fell smack into the cleft with the arrow on the far side.
Yolanthe gave that half of the rope a tug. It held fast, the arrow acting as an anchor.
The rope now formed a long narrow “V” across the river, with the end of the rope tied to the tree being somewhat higher than the end of the rope held by the rock.
“Pull the rope over this stump,” said Yolanthe.
Voltag stepped back until he felt some tension in the rope. He put his weight into it and was able to hook the bend in the rope over a low stump on the riverbank. The rope now stretched tightly from the tree on the far bank to their side of the river, around the stump and back across the river to the rock. Yolanthe plucked the top rope. It was so tight it sounded a low musical note. She allowed herself a smile.
“Now what?” asked Voltag.
“We use the rope as a bridge. Walk on the lower one, hang on to the higher one,” said Yolanthe.
“A bridge,” said Voltag.
“Yes, a bridge.”
The dwarf beetled his brows and turned to look at the river. He looked at the rope bridge and gave it an appraising tug. He walked closer to the river and stared at the rushing water. He came back to Yolanthe, chewing at his lower lip.
“Across the river?” he asked.
“Yes. On the rope,” replied Yolanthe, surprised at the question.
“On the rope,” repeated Voltag. “Over the water.”
“This river here,” said Voltag.
Yolanthe looked closely at the dwarf. Behind his bristling facial hair he seemed pale. A line of perspiration had broken out on his forehead.
“Is there a problem?” asked Yolanthe.
“Problem? No. No problem,” said Voltag a bit too loudly. “Just making sure. This is the bridge. And that’s the river. We take the rope over the river.”
“That’s the idea.”
“Good. Good,” said Voltag. “Right across the rushing water on the rope.”
“Would you like me to go first?” asked Yolanthe.
“No, no,” replied Voltag. “Well, if you’d like. No difference to me.”
A thought struck Yolanthe. “Can you swim?” she asked.
“Swim? In water?” asked Voltag. “Most like. Never tried. Not a lot of call for swimming under the mountain.”
The dwarf was rubbing his mouth with his hand and pacing.
“It’s okay if you’re afraid of the water,” she said.
Voltag wheeled to face her. His face turned bright red. He began to speak but instead sputtered in rage. When he could finally talk his speech was an explosion of angry barks. “Afraid?!” he shouted. “Afraid?! Voltag Grimm, son of Tolman Grimm, thane of Grimm Mountain, afraid? I’ve never been afraid in my life! I’ve killed more monsters than you’ve had meals! I’ve been hung, surrounded by zombies! Magicified! But never afraid.”
And with that he grabbed the top rope, put his feet on the bottom one, and began to sidestep along its length in a furious burst of action. Near the far shore he had to reach high for the top rope, but he was on the other side in less than a minute. He turned back to Yolanthe and shouted, “Who’s afraid?”
“Not you!” she called back, trying to hide her smile. “My mistake!”