THE DWARVES’ GRAVE TIDINGS
Willow woke in a sour temper. She patted her hair before letting go a heavy sigh of relief. All seemed to be in order as far as she could tell. She glanced about their secluded campsite. Devon was sleeping soundly a few feet away. Rohan was propped up against a tree trunk facing the river, his head lolling with sleep. Another surge of irritation flowed through her. In the boys’ stubborn attempt to exclude her from guard duty, their safety was being put at risk.
She walked deliberately over to Rohan and jostled him.
“Wh-? Huh?” he mumbled rubbing his eyes vigorously.
“If you can’t stay awake, there is no point in trying to keep watch at all.” .
“Sorry, Willow. Devon woke me up in the middle of the night to change shifts. I really was awake and alert, I know I was. The Pixies were long gone, and I was watching the moonlight dance on the river. The next thing I remember is you waking me just now. I don’t even remember feeling tired,” he said, clearly disoriented.
“I’m taking watch next time,” Willow said unsympathetically.
“Willow, are you alright?”
me if I’m wrong, but you don’t seem fine.”
Perceptive as always, she thought.
“I’m sorry, Rohan. It’s just that those Pixies got under my skin. The things they said about me really hurt, and Devon just seemed to drink them up,” Willow said, embarrassed by her confession.
“Willow, listen to me. Those Pixies have nothing on you. You clearly threatened them. Anyone could see that. And as for Devon, if he can’t see how beautiful and incredible you are, he’s not worth a second thought.”
Willow flushed deeply, “You really mean that?”
“With every fiber of my being. Hey, Willow?”
Rohan was trying desperately to communicate something to her, but words continued to fail him. Maybe he just needed more time.
“I’m going to check on Bellefire and Apollo,” Willow said.
“Okay, sounds good. I’ll go and wake Devon.”
Willow walked over to the horses, her spirits uplifted. Rohan always seemed to know exactly what to say, exactly when she needed to hear it. She reached Bellefire grazing a little way down the bank of the river, and found that her mane was a mess of tangled ringlets. She walked over to Apollo, intrigued, and the same held true for his.
“How odd,” she said to herself.
Bellefire nudged Willow playfully with her muzzle.
“Hey there, Bellefire. What in the world happened to you two last night?” Willow wondered aloud, patting the horses fondly on their snouts.
Walking back into camp to get a brush so she could work through their tangles, she called, “Rohan? Devon?”
“What is it?” They asked in unison.
“It’s the strangest thing. Bellefire and Apollo’s manes are all knotted.”
“Ah,” Devon sighed nodding with comprehension. “I wondered if they might, but with us keeping watch so close by... I didn’t think,” he said mumbling to himself.
“What are you talking about, Devon?” Rohan asked.
“The Pixies, of course. Though you should know that, you had the final watch. Didn’t you hear them?”
“Well...I...about that...” Rohan said, too embarrassed to admit that he had fallen asleep while on duty.
“Oh, I see. Well, that does make sense,” Devon said.
“I didn’t mean to. I wasn’t even tired,” Rohan said in defense.
“Of course,” Devon said walking over to Rohan and brushing off his shoulders.
Willow watched in confusion before understanding dawned on her. A small cloud of Pixie dust rose into the air with the force of Devon’s hand.
“Pixie dust,” Willow and Rohan said together.
Rohan looked relieved. “It’s not my fault, then?”
“Of course not. You never stood a chance,” Devon assured him.
Rohan wiped at his brow, breathing more freely. Willow was embarrassed and would not meet his eye, guilt swelling in her chest.
“What’s wrong, Willow?” Rohan asked.
“I feel like a real jerk for giving you a hard time.”
“Oh please, Willow. I’m not that easy to offend. My skin’s tougher than that,” he said, encasing her in a one armed bear hug.
“I’m still sorry,” she whispered.
“No harm done. You have a lot on your plate right now,” he said sincerely. Then in a lighter tone he added, “I don’t mind being your punching bag. Oh, the burden of a Guardian is very great at times,” he said, dramatically sweeping his arm across his forehead.
“Hey, don’t forget. You volunteered for this.”
“That’s not quite how I remember it. I believe there was some begging and pleading. A few tears shed. ‘Oh, Rohan you must come with me. I’d be lost without you. I need you. Please.’”
“Funny. But I don’t seem to recall that, at all.”
“The stress of the quest must be getting to your head. Your memory’s not quite as sharp.”
“Cute. Real, cute.”
“Why thank you. I tend to think so,” he said with a smile.
Devon remained silent, observing their banter with a curious eye.
“What I still don’t understand is why the Pixies would mess with the horses’ manes,” Willow said, turning her attention back to Devon.
“Pixies are fond of horses. One of their favorite pastimes is ‘borrowing’ travelers’ horses for a moonlit ride, spurring the horses on by making tangles in their manes. They always return the horses well before sunup, no worse for wear, except for the tangles they leave behind. Out here, I’d assume that encountering travelers is a rare occurrence. The temptation must have been too great for them to resist.”
“Interesting,” Willow said, not at all impressed with these wingless creatures’ antics.
After Willow tended to the horses’ knotted manes, Devon said, “Well, we best be going.”
About mid-morning the snarled wood transitioned slowly into downward slopes of soft grass. The traveling was easy, but another sighting of a Fire Snake caused chills to rise on the back of Willow’s neck.
The change in terrain was welcomed; easier to traverse in the bright warm light of the sun. Nothing but a sloping sea of tranquil grass lay before them.
The horses were tired after their midnight frolic with the Pixies, so the trio set a slow steady pace, pausing at several creeks and pools that crisscrossed over the downs. Willow noticed that Rohan was coddling his arm and worried about how much longer he would be able to keep up the pace. He needed to be treated, but since that was impossible she kept her concerns to herself.
Darting insects, soaring birds, curious rabbits, and scurrying field mice were their only company. As the day wore on; moist divots started to appear in the grassy slopes, and then patches of richer, thicker grass that eventually turned into bogs.
They were forced to make camp at an early hour, much to Devon’s frustration, for fear of the marsh ahead. Yet it was a good spot with plenty of fresh water and a plentiful supply of rich grass for the horses.
Willow and Rohan stretched out in the cottony grass by a creek, while Devon cast his line in hope of a strong bite.
“On days like this, I feel like I could get use to this life. The freedom of it -- you know? Except with more food. Eating once a day is hardly enough,” Rohan said.
Willow laughed. “I was thinking the same thing. So many times at Credo, I whiled away my time, daydreaming of being out in the open air, riding to my heart’s content, sleeping under a starlit sky to a lullaby of crickets. I imagined days just like this one. Its funny how things never turn out the way you dream that they will. Here I am, doing exactly what I wished about for so long, but I'm not happy. I never took the time to calculate the cost – what I would have to give up. And now, I’ll never truly be free.”
“Sure you will,” Rohan said. “This quest can’t last forever.”
“I know and yet, I suspect that things are only just beginning. Like this quest is just a small piece of a much greater picture. I feel like great and terrible things are being set into motion, and at the heart of it all lies this quest. If we do find the armor, what then?”
“When we find the armor, all will be right again. The power will shift in the proper direction, and those who doubted will doubt no more. A new era, a better era, will begin. and those who have aligned themselves properly will reap their reward,” Devon said in a hollow, even voice as if delivering a well rehearsed line for the thousandth time. His brown eyes glossed over and focused on nothing in particular.
Willow was slightly startled, not having realized that Devon had been paying any mind to Rohan and her conversation. The coldness of his voice was unsettling, though she could not refute a single word. His last line particularly struck the wrong cord, but she could not figure out why.
She exchanged an awkward look with Rohan, and they sat in silence for a moment. Devon realized that his speech was still hanging uncomfortably in the air. He shook his head and pulled deliberately on the line.
“Oh, look. Another bite. This should be plenty. Who’s hungry?” he said in a casual, carefree manner, in stark contrast to his earlier tone.
Rohan followed his lead. “You know I am!” he said with a smile and wink directed at Willow.
They bantered lightheartedly, straying far from any topic of actual depth. Willow started the fire, and they ate the steaming fish – a well deserved reward after a long day’s travel. Fresh caught fish was by far the best meal to have on a journey like this.
Willow, still embarrassed from her morning rant, left the issue of who would keep watch in the boys’ hands. Rohan was assigned first duty, taking post by the creek with his back to the fire, and Willow and Devon settled in. Willow scooted close to the flames. Before laying down in the grass beside her, Devon spread his cloak over top of her.
“Thank you,” Willow said, moved by his courteousness.
“You looked cold.”
Willow found herself tongue tied.
“I just want you to know, that the comments the Pixies made are the farthest thing from the truth, and you shouldn’t pay any mind to them. And if my interaction with them, led you to believe in any way that I agreed with their appraisal, I offer my sincerest apologies. That was not my intention, in the least,” Devon said.
Willow's breath caught. Was she so transparent that he felt led to offer an apology, or had he somehow overheard her conversation with Rohan? Or had Rohan confided in him for her sake? That theory seemed far from plausible. She had been perfectly polite all day since her spat with Rohan. Maybe a little quieter than usual, and perhaps not so enamored with Devon’s tales of adventure. Could he really be so sensitive as to pick up on subtle changes in her demeanor?
“Willow? Did you hear me?”
She was brought back to the here and now.
“Oh, thank you so much for your apology, though it is quite unnecessary.”
“Quite the contrary. If I hurt you in even the slightest way, it is absolutely necessary.”
Willow flushed deeply, thankful for the shadow of darkness the crescent moon provided.
“Thank you,” she said again.
They were quiet for a brief spell, and Willow wondered if he had fallen asleep.
“Are you warm enough?” he asked breaking the silence.
“Here,” he said scooting closer to her and wrapping a strong arm around her. “The body heat should help.”
Willow couldn't speak, lost in his intoxicating touch. That certainly made up for the Pixie incident. With the woodsy scent of the cloak, and Devon’s warm embrace, sleep found Willow an unresisting opponent.
“Willow!” Rohan’s urgent whisper broke through her dreams.
“What’s wrong?” she asked alarmed but still rather groggy. Had the man from the Pit of Despair finally closed in on them? Or worse, was it the Grim? Willow’s eyes scanned the bleak night. Devon’s brawny figure stood at attention in front of the fire. Rohan was beside him, his wand secure in his left hand.
Towards the west, hundreds of glowing lanterns were swinging in a perfect line. There was no mistaking these for fireflies or Fairies. The lanterns were held only a foot or so from the ground, and Willow could just make out the shadowy shapes of their bearers.
She scrambled to her feet, stoking the dying fire with her mind, and positioning herself between Rohan and Devon. As the lanterns drew near, the distant, rhythmic thump of marching feet grew louder with each step, accompanied by a chant of “Hum-ho, ho-hum, hum-hum-ho. Ho-hum, hum-ho, ho-ho-hum.”
Willow prepared herself for battle.
“I don’t believe it. Not here,” Devon said in confusion.
Rohan's wand twitched in his shaky grip. “What?”
Devon ignored him. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“What doesn’t make sense,” Rohan said with a hint of hysteria in his voice.
“What would Dwarves be doing in marshland?” Rohan asked.
“Exactly. Odd, very odd.”
Willow exhaled in a gust of relief. She could handle odd. Odd was better than dangerous. And Dwarves were certainly not dangerous.
Dwarves were typically amiable and benevolent. They were proficient craftsmen -- manufacturing valuable armaments and mail and fashioning enchanted trinkets -- renowned miners and smiths and had an appreciation for seniority, affluence, and aptitude. They were acute counselors, endowed with enlightened discernment and mystic cognition, often choosing to integrate themselves into the human world, setting up shops in towns and villages.
They were sluggish runners and inferior horsemen, but were superior combatants and guardians of their underground garrisons -- sub-terrestrial corridors concealing caches of great fortune, gold, silver, and priceless gems -- protecting their secret hordes from Goblins and Orcs. Three stray travelers would hardly have been considered a threat in their eyes.
“A day’s hike to a forest...no mountains...no caves...not a town or village to prompt commerce...” Devon continued to process his thoughts out loud.
“I’ll admit it certainly is odd, but hardly anything to trifle over,” Rohan said. “An encounter with Dwarves is the least of our worries.”
“True. But all the same, it goes against nature. Something’s amiss,” Devon said, worry lines creasing his forehead.
The small men were stubby, squat, and burly with immense hands and feet. Their general shape was slightly deformed, some of their number had severely hunched backs. Their pale skin was stained with splotches of soot and grime; evidence of a life lived underground. Their faces were quite beastly and grim, resembling elderly men loosing the battle of time. They had long gray beards that were caked black with dirt. Tucked into a loop in each one’s trousers was a mighty ax.
“Hail, Men of Earth. What draws you from the western mountains?” Devon asked, while they were still several paces away, placing his arrow back in its quiver.
Their chant faded and the oldest and ugliest -- clearly the Chieftain -- stepped out of the perfect line. His peppery voice pierced the quiet night, “Grave and solemn tidings, ominous news.”
“For us?” Rohan asked nervously.
“Yea and nay. For all citizens of Tutis, young and old, man and beast.”
“And to whom do you deliver these tidings?” Devon asked.
“No other than Professor Edgar and the Germanitas Council. It is Credo School of Little Saints that we seek.”
“And what of this news? Is it sound?”
“Aye. We hear whispers.”
“Whispers,” repeated the mass.
“Aye. Murmurs,” came the forlorn echo.
“To what end?” Devon asked.
The Chief Dwarf’s wise eyes drilled into each of the travelers’ in turn. Willow shivered and dread rose as a lump in her throat. What now?
“Treason!” he said with surprising fierceness.
“Treason!” the mass of Dwarves reiterated.
“Calamity befalls us all!”
“Calamity befalls us! Calamity befalls us! Calamity befalls us!”
Devon lifted his hand to calm the excited Dwarves before they got too out of hand.
“Of what nature be this calamity?” Devon asked.
“A betrayer of the oracle.”
“The oracle?” Willow spit out, stunned.
What did Mountain Dwarves know of the oracle? Did they know about the quest? And a betrayer, who could it be?
“Aye. The oracle,” the Chieftain confirmed.
“This betrayer you speak of -- it is the Black Angel, no?” Devon demanded.
“Rightly, you should think so.”
“Rightly so. Rightly so,” the Dwarves repeated.
“And wrong you would be,” the Chieftain continued gravely.
“Wrong?” Rohan mouthed, dumbstruck.
“Well not wrong per say. But there is another in which we speak of. His conspirator.”
“You mean the Grim?” Rohan asked as he found his voice. .
“Not precisely, no.”
“Not precisely,” they chanted.
“Then who?” Devon asked with force, clearly frustrated by their veiled tidbits.
“A betrayer,” the Chieftain said.
“Aye. A betrayer.”
“You’ve said that already! Who is this said betrayer?” Devon asked on the verge of anger.
“If only I knew.”
“If only we knew.”
“How come you, to hear of this news?” Devon asked, taking a deep breath to remain calm.
“Yeah, yeah. Murmurs and rumblings. I got it the first time. Do you know nothing further?” Devon asked desperately.
“Only this, the quest is close to the betrayer’s heart.”
“You mean an insider? Someone from the Council?” Rohan asked flabbergasted.
“Could be,” the Chieftain answered.
“Things are not what they seem,” he continued.
“Aye. Not at all. Not at all.”
“Now fare thee well. We must be off. Grave tidings to deliver.”
Devon waved them off with his hand, at the end of his patience.
“Oh, wait!” Willow called after them.
“Yes?” The Chieftain asked.
“Tell Professor Edgar, two down and four to go. He’ll know how to interpret the news.”
“Very well. Will do.”
The three stood in silence as the Dwarves and their lanterns continued their march towards Credo. Their chant of “Hum-ho, ho-hum, hum-hum-ho. Ho-hum, hum-ho, ho-ho-hum,” carried over the grassy slopes.
“What was that all about?” Rohan asked baffled.
“Who knows!” Devon said, throwing his hands in the air. “They said a whole lot of nothing, if you ask me. I’ll take the next watch. I’m way too irritated to sleep anyhow.”The Dwarves certainly enjoyed talking in circles, but their urgency and terror felt real to Willow. Questions ran rampantly through her mind. Could someone on the Council really be trying to sabotage their quest? Was the man at the Pit of Despair the betrayer? Why would a Council member want to put the world at risk? Their life’s work was to protect Tutis at all costs. What could a betrayer possibly stand to gain?