Tompi leisurely twisted around as she walked. She paused at the beginning of a little slope of rocks and pebbles. Below it the herd of oxen grazed on the lush green field, which stretched for ages until a line of trees enveloped it. It was the perfect place where the animals remained well within the safety of the bowl. There were a few other fields, but they were closer to the rocky cliff edges of the island.
She smiled as one of the babies briefly trotted away from the group to munch on some wildflowers.
After another minute she glanced around, returning to her task. “Grandpa? Grandpa Ahto!”
She cupped her hands and called out, “Aaahtoooo!”
A heavy thump landed nearby.
Ahto completed a summersault and smoothly rose to his feet. He chuckled, brushing off the bright pink cherry blossoms that he had dislodged from one of the trees framing the path.
“Since when do you call your grandpa by his name?”
Heart still beating fast, Tompi scowled playfully. Hand on her hips, she said, “Since you don’t always answer to “grandpa”. I do it to my parents too. Especially in crowds.”
He shrugged. “Ah well, I’ve been called grandpa by so many people.”
“And you end up blocking us out?”
His rich pink eyes twinkled like hers. “Yes.”
She laughed and gave him a hug. Like all dwarves he was a little chubby, but Ahto was the strongest person she knew. Even compared to her father.
They pulled away, with Ahto keeping a hand on her shoulder. “So, is it that time then?”
Tompi scanned the sky and marked the position of the sun with years of practise. She nodded. “Just about. That’s why I was calling you. We can’t get back after dark like we did last month.”
His tattoo across his mouth made his smile appear even larger. “Of course, dear. We wouldn’t want your uncle to get worried.”
She smiled. “I still can’t believe the fit he had. Someone told me that his yells were heard all the way to the Chief’s house.”
She grinned. “No. He’s not that bad.”
“True.” Ahto smiled, gazing out over the oxen to the horizon. “But he always did worry too much. When he was younger neither me nor your grandma could calm him down when we took him above ground.”
“Well, grandma did tell those scary stories about the elves.”
“Right as always.” He smiled awkwardly. “I may be a little at fault too.” He leaned over and whispered, “There was one time I dressed up as an elf. He couldn’t sleep for weeks without one of us being in the same room.”
Her brows rose. “Grandpa!” she laughed, pushing him in the chest. He only chuckled and backed away.
“Does Aunt Paskuma know?”
He shook his head. “No. Before I even met her he made me and Grandma Pirka promise not to tell her.” He glanced at her knowingly.
She grinned. “Right, cause she would totally tease him about it.”
He nodded. “Was always fun bringing new people into the household.”
His eyes flickered to one of the younger oxen. Then he gazed up into the wide open sky. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh spring air.
When she didn’t continue right away Ahto opened his eyes and turned. His smile fell a little — his grandbaby’s bright eyes were dimmed. Her hands were loose by her sides and her shoulders had ever so slightly curved in.
Softly, he asked, “What’s the matter, dear?”
He silently watched as she fought an internal struggle. Then she sighed. “I’m pretty sure I won’t be staying in the house with everyone for much longer.”
He tried to rein in his excitement but failed. “Have you found someone?”
Tompi laughed bitterly. “No. The other day I saw Nupek with someone. They looked real happy.”
Always ready to chase her anxieties away, Ahto stepped toward her and enveloped her with his great arms. She laid her head against his chest.
“Oh, Tompi. I know we’ve joked that you two are racing to see who gets to stay in the house, but you know we’d never actually kick you out until you’re ready.”
She nodded, having heard similar reassuring words before. “I know, I just… it’s hard. Especially when I see other people leave their households.”
He hummed, unimpressed. “I always thought five families was too small a number.”
She gave a small laugh. “We’d need a bigger house.”
“I’m okay with that.”
After a moment they pulled back and Ahto gently held her chin. Pink eyes met pink, and he smiled. “I promise you’ll find yourself someone someday. A nice girl that will treat my grandbaby well.”
Her laugh cracked a little and she pulled him back in for another hug. “Thank you. It always feels better when you talk to me.”
He rubbed her back. “I know. But you know I’m always serious about that.”
She nodded and they broke apart again.
“Just be sure to pick one who likes coming up here.”
She smiled. “Of course.”
“Good, because you and your second cousin are my only hope for continuing the line.”
“Well, if you hadn’t scared Uncle Omap then you’d have one more.”
He sighed with a smile. “Don’t remind me.”
Tompi laughed. With a glance up to the sky, she said, “Come on, we should head back.”
He frowned, “So soon?”
She nodded. She started down the rock and pebble slope, gesturing for him to follow. “C’mon, old dwarf.”
She grinned and broke into a run before he could catch her.
The tunnel was black. Even with the ability to see in extremely dim light, Ahto and Tompi were blind. However they led the animals with practised ease, ignoring the decoy tunnels that veered off and led to empty chambers filled with deadly traps.
After a few hours a warm glow finally appeared at the end. The tunnel opened into a great chamber, lit by hundreds of torches. They climbed the smooth, plain slope with the animals between them. At the top they waved to two dwarves and a group of children belonging to the families that lived in the houses on either side of the entrance to the city. The two sat, chatting while keeping an eye out for intruders.
At the top of the hill, a great arch dedicated to a god rose over the road, signifying where the city began. Houses carved from the stone around them filled the huge chamber. Torches lined the weaving streets along with some trees. A few communal garden centres peeked between the buildings with larger ones placed farther into city of Noski, named so after the island above.
Ahto and Tompi waved to people as led the herd like a parade down the wide main street, which stretched until it stopped at a another, smaller hill with a large building on top. A few blocks before it they turned and Tompi opened a large gate.
“Hey!” a dwarf greeted Tompi as Ahto led the oxen into their enclosure. “How did it go this month?” she asked.
Tompi smiled. “Pretty good. They got lots of sunshine and fresh air. There were wild flowers too.”
“Oh, yummy,” she grinned. Sususa then held out her hand and blew across it toward the torch attached to one side of the gates. It quietly flared to life. Then she did the same with the one on the other side just as the rest of the herd walked in.
“Wish I could do that,” Tompi said.
Sususa smiled, her hands clasped together. “Sorry.”
Ahto pouted as he locked the gates. “What about common magic?”
Tompi grinned. “Oh that too. Any magic really. Why didn’t you give me any magic?” she teased.
“I wish I could have, but it’s the luck of the draw. Sometimes you inherit it, sometime you don’t.”
“And sometimes it’s completely random,” Sususa pitched in, being the only one in her family with magic.
Ahto hummed. Then he pointed to one of the baby ox. “Now just watch out for that one over there. She likes to wander.”
She giggled. “Oh her. Yes, I noticed that before. Was she any trouble?”
He smiled and shook his head. “No, stayed close enough, and when she didn’t the others retrieved her.”
“That’s good. Oh, why don’t you and your family come by tonight. We’re making a big pot. Anyone who stops by is welcome.”
He nodded. “Of course. We’ll be there.”
Tompi rubbed her belly. “Can’t wait. Thank you.”
Sususa beamed. “Great! See you later.” She waved, returning to her house.
They waved back and then traversed around the enclosure, leaving behind the main street. They turned down another street, waving to a few people who were outside playing their instruments. One of the musicians pointedly looked away upon seeing their pink eyes. Tompi stuck out her tongue and Ahto chuckled.
After a few turns they began circumventing the bottom of the hill. City hall was poised on top with its back to the guest entrance to Noski. It was decorated with flames and waves carved into the stone. Cherry blossom trees and evergreens beautified the grounds of the hill near the building.
As they followed the curve they found the Chief was standing underneath one of the trees, speaking with one of his councillors.
“What do you think they’re talking about?”
Ahto glanced at them. “A few streets back I heard one of the towns had a cave in.”
He nodded. “If it’s dangerous, they’ll probably bring everyone here until their chamber can be fixed.”
She gazed up to the two dwarves again. “Hopefully they’re alright.”
He smiled. “I’m sure they will be.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Let’s get home. I’m sure everyone is waiting for us.”
She laughed as they left the hill behind and began walking beside a large pool. “Oh, I’m sure they are.”