The Miner's Town
“What the… what by the bloody mistress of the Beyond are you doing here?!”
Hagen Baines had positively leapt at her, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the light. His brown eyes were so piercing and bright now, she was almost a little frightened by him. He looked her up and down. “Well?!”
“I… um… I…”
Emilia’s confidence was waning, thinning to a fine line between snarling at him and breaking down in tears. What was she supposed to tell them?! She was a horrible liar, she knew that – she stuttered and stumbled, everyone would be able to tell, she would not be able to keep this from them. It had always forced her to be stone cold honest, even at the cost of insulting her friends. There was no point. Perhaps if she tricked her own mind, telling half the truth, leaving the other half out? It was better than the alternative: “I saw the creature crash and I was curious. I… might have tried to find it... on my own. I didn’t though! I got lost, was wandering about the forest for hours and only just found the road again. I’m sorry. I know it was dumb. I…”
Her father stared at her perplexed. She was unsure what to expect. A slap in the face? Should she turn on the waterworks? Would he talk her down in front of half the town, or would he drag her back to town (presumably by her hair) to include her mother in the whole issue?
After some contemplation, a loud, long sigh came from him.
“Unbelievable. Un… what am I supposed to do with you?!”
She lowered her gaze and whispered a half-hearted apology. He was fuming, his face turning red with anger and his hands in trembling fists. Peddar Freeman reached a hand out for her father’s arm and whispered ‘Hagen, she said she’s sorry...’
Hagen Baines sighed. He said no more, but grabbed her arm and dragged her with him. They marched ahead of the remaining militia and townspeople who had volunteered to find the beast. She saw Peddar Freeman’s worried gaze, Greigor Stump and Will Harper’s wide grins. Well, at least someone was having fun with this mess.
They reached the familiar streets of Par’bain. The town in the shadow of Harbour Hill was not big. Just one main street and a few alleys, small houses with not a single right angle. The main road led south towards the coast, but then described an eastbound bend up the hill, where the library and watchtower lay overlooking the peninsula. There was a market square with a well in the centre and the town hall to the north. Market stalls were just being set up as they passed here, stands with vegetables and imported fruits and some metalwork or curiosities the dwarven engineers and tinkerers had produced.
People were out and about. That was not unusual, given they were a town of early risers, but there was something… off. Shops were closed, stalls empty of wares and unoccupied, and everyone was on their way to town hall.
“Where are we going?” Emilia asked.
“Town hall. There’s a gathering, to discuss what happened,” her father grumbled.
Without another word exchanged between them, they entered the hall. A thundering level of noise hung in the air, deafening almost, as they walked in. Her father led her to a wall. “Stay here, don’t go anywhere, we’re not done with this yet,” he warned. Emilia pressed her lips together, arms crossed over her chest, holding her torso still and stiff as she leaned against the wall. She watched the militiamen head towards the stage where the Mayor and militia Captain waited. Her father and the other civilians made their way to their respective families. She saw her mother and little sister standing together. Their mother had an arm over her youngest daughter’s shoulders, holding her close. Both wore simple linen dresses they usually wore when working in the inn the Baines family owned. Clearly they had been up already, cleaning out before the first patrons arrived, and had then come right here.
Emilia looked around to find her friends in the crowd. They were easy enough to spot. Her childhood friend Lotte Timbatou stood together with her fathers – all three of them recognisable by their fashionable dress-sense, and Lotte in particular by the large bonnet decorated with handmade fabric flowers to match her dress. Her other two friends, Fran and Andrew, were with the rest of the apprentices in a group of red robed librarians. Fran stood out, because she was taller than most girls in town and her long, dark hair spilled in messy curls down her back. It was how she looked when she just woke up in the morning, Emilia knew that, having been sharing a room with her for the past year. Next to Fran was their shared friend Andrew, a tall, slender boy with black shaggy hair and freckles on his pale face. He looked tired, let out a big yawn as they gathered near the exit. She was tempted to make her way over there with small steps, but abandoned the idea when the Mayor raised his arms in an attempt to silence the crowd.
"Everyone, please try to stay calm!" Mayor Erkinnen called. But his efforts were fruitless. Every conversation had to be louder than the one next to it, spiralling out of control into a whirlwind of sounds and shouts and frightened worries.
Captain Hernesson of the militia kept pacing up and down the stage, arms waving, trying to conduct the crowd to pay him attention, to calm down. The Mayor stood next to a short pedestal, just high enough for him, and repeatedly shook his head.
Par'bain had been rudely awakened tonight.
The beasts fighting above the library just a short ways from their town were significant enough an event to bring every routine of their town to a sharp halt. No bread was being baked this morning, all shops were closed and none of the miners had made their way to their regular work before the sun began to rise above the horizon. Everyone had gathered in the town hall.
The chill still clung to her bones, and every now and then, the wound at her head thrummed in a wave of pressure and pain, making her eyes twitch nervously. She did not feel like talking, stayed away from anyone who could have something to say to her and simply watched the crowd instead.
The crowd in the town hall consisted mostly of shortears. Seeing as most of the dwarven population of Par'bain lived at the harbour and along the cliffs, therefore having been entirely unaffected by the events of the past night, most of them had stayed at home. The Mayor did not enjoy that luxury and was now one of the few dwarves in the hall. Those few however were easily spotted thanks to the noise they made, even if they barely reached up to the hips of most shortears present. Dwarves were a loud people.
Her father was in stern conversation with Peddar Freeman now and at some point, she saw Peddar nod towards her. Her father turned and she saw him shake his head with a disappointed look. Emilia shrugged, knew he could see it, then she looked away. Oh, their discussion was far from over, she knew that.
The Head Librarian squeezed her way through the crowd towards the stage - her interest in solving the events greater than anyone's, considering it was her library that had been directly affected, the safety of her students in question. When she approached, the Mayor came closer to the edge of the stage and crouched a little to shake her hand. Emilia saw them talk, but could not make out what they were saying. Had the head librarian see the dragon? Did she know what was out there?
Madame Anaise Ludivine, Head Librarian of Par'bain, was a woman in her late fifties, hair pulled in an uncomfortable bun - once a black mane, now mostly white. The flowing gown she wore was hemmed with fine lace and hugged her body comfortably, the red velvet cloak lay loose over her shoulders, closed in the front with an elegant brooch showing a hand holding an ink quill. The universally recognised crest of the Head Librarians all across the world. Her slender fingers were wrapped in black velvet gloves that now fiddled with the small reading glasses she wore around her neck on a fine, jewel encrusted necklace.
When finally the storm of conversation ebbed away, the Mayor stepped behind his little pedestal. Mayor Ragnar Erkinnen was of a much more tame nature than most of his kinsmen and women. His hair was short, the golden curls well-groomed and his beard neatly trimmed. He wore a fine jacket with an elegant line of buttons down his chest and glimmering jewel cufflinks. Coming from a family of blacksmiths, the walking cane he used to move around was shaped like a hammer, made from ornate silver and adorned with small sparkling rubies as the eyes of carved serpentine beasts known as cavenadders - a famous enemy of the dwarves of old in their home in mountains and caves before their cities had prospered.
"I know you all have questions. But I will assure you all right now, there is no immediate danger to Par'bain and her people. The beast that attacked the library tower was likely confused, possibly ill, and has crashed in the woods. Captain Hernesson assures me all actions are being taken to secure the town, they will find the creature and put it out of its misery. There is no reason for concern."
Emilia looked up confused. The crowd nodded, whispers of relief spoken, a low murmur of voices and shifting of clothes. The Mayor nodded. "If there are any questions, I will try to answer them to the best of my ability."
Again, murmurs, and reluctance. Emilia pushed herself away from the wall and raised a hand.
"Mayor Erkinnen!" she called, as she realised the man would not be able to see her so far to the back. She repeated twice, tried to push her way past the crowd further to the front until finally, the Mayor pointed at her.
"Yes. Miss... Baines, is it?"
"Yes. What about the other creature?" she asked.
"What are you talking about?" the Mayor asked confused, glancing from her to the Head Librarian, to the militia at the bottom of the stage. And there were murmurs again, more agitated this time. Emilia cleared her throat.
"I... um... I saw the attack. There were two beasts. They were fighting. One of them crashed through the roof of the library main building and I never saw it come out. For all I know, it could still be hiding there."
The Mayor turned towards the Head Librarian alarmed.
"Is this true?"
The woman pulled her red painted lips together sourly, creating a ring of wrinkles around them before she looked over at Emilia.
"I trust Miss Baines’ judgment. She has no reason to make this up."
"Then the library is no longer safe. Militia will be positioned there around the clock to insure the safety of the staff and apprentices," Hernesson declared with a nod.
"I will take my staff back to the building right away and inspect the damage done. Perhaps we can find evidence of the nature of the creatures, perhaps we find a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing one. Excellent observation, Miss Baines," Head Librarian Ludivine said with a nod.
"Take some of my men with you, for protection. We still don't know what that... thing was," the captain repeated. Ludivine nodded but crossed her arms over her chest.
“But none of your… baboons will touch any of my books,” she warned nodding to the men at the end of the stage. The captain sighed exhausted, but nodded without another word.
Emilia stayed quiet, lips pressed together. She had said too much already. She had not meant to blurt out what she had seen. She had just been so confused because no one seemed to have seen the second creature. She was not even entirely sure yet if it had not just been a trick of the light. Maybe the other creature had come out again and she had just missed it, maybe everything was fine. And if she let it slip in front of the entire town that she had seen a dragon, they would either call her completely mad, laugh at her, or break out into blind panic.
Of course the militia would eventually find the dragon. The magic spell had fooled them once, but it had not worked on her, maybe sooner or later they would see through it too and walk right into his hideout. They did not stand a chance if that happened. He would kill them in seconds. She hoped they would be careful, hoped they would not wander into this unprepared. They may call themselves the town militia but really, they were just miners. That was what Par'bain was after all, a mining town, source of coal distributed across all of southern Selman, to every settlement between here and Par'fost beyond the wastelands.
The men that were unfit to work in the mines, because of respiratory problems or other physical impairments, were recruited into the militia, received weapon training, a uniform, a badge, and made to feel part of something greater.
Peddar Freeman, who Emilia had known since she was a child, had been in a mining accident when she had been 8 years old. He lost nearly all function of his legs after being trapped under a cave-in for several hours before the men managed to dig him out. Now he needed leg braces to move, hidden under his uniform trousers, and he used his superior aim to handle the long rifle he used. He had become a high ranking lieutenant in the militia. And he was not the only victim of a mining accident who turned to the militia afterwards. A better calling than being excluded from a community so entirely fixated on mining. They were proud of their role, but they were not strong enough for this. They were not prepared to fight a dragon.
In Par'bain, everything evolved around the mines. Literally. The very name of the town itself translated to 'Miner's Town' from archaic palaans - the language that had been spoken here centuries ago when the Palaaren Empire still stretched this far. They were a well-oiled machine, that had worked flawlessly for as long as Emilia could remember. Miners left their homes early in the morning to work the tunnels - of which there were a great many under the peninsula. By the time noon came around, the first carts of coal would roll into the processing factories at the edge of their town, and black smoke would indicate work there had begun. The factory was staffed by men from town, engineers mostly, who kept the machinery running and made sure everything went smoothly. The women worked in town - baking, crafting, keeping the town running while the men were away. There were only very few exceptions to that, and most of them were the dwarves working in the harbour, independent of the coal industry that fuelled shortear economy these days. Although it might not be that way for much longer, if rumours from Par'fost were to be believed that oil was the new coal. That would change everything, and they all knew it. It would ruin their town. Even before the dragon hiding in the forest right now could ruin it.
Emilia watched as the gathered townspeople began to disperse, leaving the town hall with quiet conversations until only the Head Librarian, militia and the Mayor were left. Madame Ludivine pulled her to the side for a moment, stood with squared shoulders in front of her.
“Did you really see the two creatures?” she asked. Emilia nodded a little.
“I did, Ma’am.”
“From your room?”
Lies. Emilia was quite sure she had that written all over her face.
“Hm…” the head librarian hummed. “Where were you during the evacuation tonight?”
“I was in my room, was just very slow. I ran to catch up, but I hit my head and went to the clinic. I ran into Peddar Freeman and my father and ended up here with them,” Emilia said. It was not per se a lie, was it? It was almost all true except for a few minor details and lies of omission. That was not so bad, was it? Surely it would all be fine. The dragon would recover and leave and no one would get hurt and in a week or two no one would talk about it anymore.
“I see…” Madame Ludivine said absently. She looked over her shoulder. “Miss Bellefonte, a word?”
Emilia felt panic clench around her throat, stared wide-eyed at Fran as the other apprentice came closer. And Fran had to see that look on her face.
“Can you confirm that Miss Baines was in your room all night?”
Emilia glanced over at Fran, who caught her gaze immediately and looked back at the head librarian just as quick. Emilia was sick to her stomach.
“She was, Ma’am,” Fran confirmed.
“And before the evacuation?”
“Yes Ma’am. I mean… I was in the bathroom shortly before the evacuation, splashing some water in my face, then the alarm went off and I went right outside. But yes, I don’t think Emilia could have left in that short time.”
There was a long moment of silence. Emilia was looking at the floor, Fran was looking at the head librarian, the head librarian was looking at Emilia. Then she nodded. And Emilia thanked the Goods that Fran was clearly far better at hiding the truth than she was.
“Very well. Make your way outside, you two. We will all go back to the library together.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” both girls mumbled under their breath then nodded at each other to leave. They walked close, shoulders brushing, and with large steps.
“Thanks,” Emilia mumbled.
“No problem,” Fran replied under her breath. Bow, she supposed, they were even. Emilia kept quiet about Fran’s book, and Fran kept quiet about Emilia’s disappearance.
Emilia looked up again and in a brief second saw Lotte Timbatou in her periwinkle blue dress and floral bonnet, golden curls dangling above her shoulders, motioning to them. Her face was alarmed, brown eyes wide with a warning and her hand motioned a cut throat in lightning speed. It took Emilia too long to fully recognise the warning when the large form of her father blocked out the view of Lotte altogether.
Emilia took a step back from him and saw Fran hesitate a moment. But she shook her head slowly, and the other apprentice understood, then left ahead of her.
Hagen Baines had his arms crossed over his broad chest, looking down at his significantly smaller daughter.
"Emilia," he said, his tone rumbling and stern.
"Father," she whispered, avoiding his gaze. So she met her mother’s worried blue eyes. Linda Baines still had an arm around her younger daughter's shoulders. She was a delicate woman, small and well-shaped and with golden waves that spilled over her shoulders. Just like Emilia's younger sister Ermengarde. Emilia on the other hand clearly took more after their father with her sharper built and dark hair.
"Peddar told me you were there tonight, during the attack?"
"I... um... I was, yes."
"Why is it whenever something bad happens, you are right in the middle of it?"
Emilia looked up at him in disbelief.
"Father, it was the library. I live there. Where else was I supposed to be?" she asked.
"Yes, you, and 16 more apprentices, and 17 trained librarians, and the staff... but somehow, you were the only one out there," Hagen grumbled. Emilia crossed her arms defensively, mirroring her father’s body language in every way.
"Are you saying I am somehow responsible for this mess? That I deliberately led these things here?"
“This is absurd!” Emilia snapped, throwing her hands over her head.
“Not in that tone, young lady! You could have died tonight! You were injured! You should have gone to the clinic!” Hagen yelled, his voice startling the last few people in the town hall now. Emilia glance past him where she caught Peddar on his way out and he nodded apologetically. She sighed.
“I… I did go to the clinic. Danzas wasn’t there, so I patched myself up. See?” Emilia declared, pointing at her makeshift bandage. “Listen, I am sorry. I know what I did was foolish, I will not do it again. Now please, can I go back to the library?”
“Emilia, you never do what you are told, you are disobedient, reckless, foolish. That library is giving you all kinds of ideas. I am not letting you go back there, especially now!”
“What?! That’s nonsense, father. I’m a librarian, I-”
“You’re an apprentice. And you know I don’t approve of that to begin with. This isn’t for you, Emilia. You’re coming back home,” Hagen declared.
“No! This is madness! Just because you disapprove, I am not allowed to live my life? You disapprove of everything I do, does that mean I should just stop existing?”
“That’s not what I am saying-”
“Well but it is what it feels like for me!”
“Stop it, Emilia!!”
"Hagen, please..." Linda Baines whispered, moving from Ermengarde's side to put a hand on her husband's arm. He glanced to his wife, then back to their daughter, and sighed.
"I... I'm… sorry. We're all... a little on edge this morning. Go… go to your library. But no more wandering around in the woods, or you will have to come back home," he said, then turned back to his wife. "I have to talk to Christian."
Linda nodded softly and Hagen leaned down to kiss her forehead, before he strut past Emilia, a large hand on her shoulder for a hesitant moment before he was gone. Emilia turned to watch him speak to the militia captain. Well, so much for avoiding family drama this morning.
She was exhausted. She just wanted to go back to her room, curl up in her bed and pretend this night never happened. Everything was wrong, everything was terrible, and the only thing that had felt… right tonight was talking to that dragon in the woods. How bizarre a night it had been.
Emilia turned to her mother and sister.
“I have to get back to the library,” Emilia said quietly. Her mother turned to her.
“Are you sure? Is it safe?” Linda Baines asked. Emilia smiled.
“Of course! It’s broad daylight, no monster will come out. And if it does, the militia is there to take it out. I’ll be perfectly safe.”
Her mother smiled wistfully, put a hand on her cheek.
“You’re probably right. Just… take care of yourself, darling,” she said with a trembling voice.
“Of course I will. Don’t worry.”Emilia leaned over to place a light kiss on her mother’s cheek, then her twelve year old sister (who rolled her eyes and promptly wiped her cheek with her palm, like little siblings did when their older sibling was being especially affectionate just to annoy them), and then made her way out.