Faolan, the blacksmith, pulled his two-horse buckboard off the road and into the clearing by the stream. When the cart stopped at the water’s edge, the large badger sitting next to him jumped
down and ran into the woods. Faolan climbed down, braced the tongue of the cart, and unharnessed his horses.
Sunset would be in two hours and he wanted everything ready when the dwarves arrived to trade in the morning. He had brought firewood just in case, but there was a goodly stack near the fire
pit. After adding his supply to the rest, then took the oldest wood and started a campfire. When the fire was going, he began setting up his tent. Unlike a warrior, a smith would
be expected to seek comfort in the field.
He scratched his beard absently as he worked. Even after all this time it still felt strange, but it was a small price to pay. It made him less recognizable and let him blend in with
his new people. Most of the Freemen wore beards. Of course, his name was foreign, which marked him again, but he knew his accent would have betrayed him if he had chosen a Freeman
name. Besides, he had decided, those looking for him would never think to look for a blacksmith, or that he would use his own name.
By the time the tent was up Badger was sitting by the campfire waiting for his dinner. Faolan broke out the dried meat and barley, which he put in a small pot, added water, salt, and
leeks. Then he set the pot on the fire to cook. There were no men or dangerous creatures anywhere around the camp, Badger would have told him.
When it grew near sunset Faolan lit the torches he had placed in iron holders around the wagon. Any dwarves who saw them would know he was here to trade. Hopefully, that would bring a
trade delegation there early tomorrow. The Blacksmiths in Bar Krouth had told him it was standard procedure.
He still found it hard to believe they prized the local concoction the Freeman called malted drink. As far as he was concerned, it burned all the way down the throat, set the stomach on fire,
and clouded the mind. The four barrels sitting on the cart should bring a fair quantity of silver and iron nuggets.
Sunset arrived, but there had been no indication the dwarves had seen his trade fire. He could not go to the entrance to their tunnels unless invited. Dwarves were not a sociable
people. He was wondering how much longer he should wait before turning in when Badger came to his feet and growled softly. Someone was coming.
Faolan stood. Badger had alerted away from the direction of the dwarf’s caves and toward the woods on one side. This was not the dwarfs coming. Then the sounds of brushes rustling
arrived on the evening breeze. Badger’s snarl tied Faolan’s eyes to the trees. The big badger did not like the smell of whatever was coming.
The brush burst aside and a small, stocky, unbearded man in tattered clothing stumbled out of the woods into the torch-lit clearing. He looked directly at Faolan and said, “Help me,” in a
guttural voice, then pitched forward. An arrow protruded from his back.
Three arrows arched out of the darkness at Faolan. He sidestepped quickly and batted all three arrows away with the flat of his sword, which he had no memory of drawing. He yelled,
“Badger,” and dashed into the woods directly at the archers.
The creatures’ eyes were large and their ears were pointed. Black manes protruded from long skulls with gaunt facial features that looked inhuman. He immediately understood why people
mistook his hobgoblin friend, Crek, for a goblin. However, Crek’s teeth had been normal. These creatures’ teeth were sharp, like a wolf’s, in their snarling faces. Just then, one
of them went down under Badger’s attack from the side. The other two turned and ran.
“Let him go, Badger.” Faolan sheathed his sword and knife. Badger looked at Faolan like he was crazy, but let the goblin go, and the creature scurried off into the woods after his pack
mates. “You need to learn mercy for your enemies.” He struggled for a reason why for several seconds, then added, “or they’ll never learn to be your friends.” He would have
sworn the badger rolled his eyes before turning and jogging toward their camp.
Faolan checked the dwarf. He was alive but semi-conscious. Retrieving his medical kit from under the seat of his cart, he returned and knelt down by the dwarf.
The young man’s eyes opened and he asked, “The rest of my party?”
“I don’t know,” Faolan replied. “You’re the only one who got this far.”
“They were caught in nets that pulled them up into the trees,” the dwarf replied. “I ran and the creatures chased me.”
“I only saw three goblins. How many did you see?”
“More, a lot more, maybe a score.”
Faolan stood. “Stay here, I’ll see what I can do for your friends.” He grabbed his bow and quiver and ran for the woods. The path to the dwarves’ caves was well traveled and easy
to follow in the dying light. The ambush had to have been on it. The question was, had the goblins gotten the prisoners down and tied? It was unlikely they had killed the
dwarves. If they did, the goblins would have to carry the bodies. That would be hard to do with the other dwarves in pursuit.
As he ran, Faolan pulled four arrows from his quiver and notched one. The other three went between the fingers of his left hand at the top of the feathers. He was just starting to
breathe hard when he saw a score of goblins, dressed in rags and surrounding a group of four dwarves, who they were driving forward with pokes from wooden spears. His first four arrows were
in the air before the goblins knew he was there. He had loosed another three arrows and drawn his sword before the creatures broke and ran.
The four dwarves stopped when the goblin’s prodding ceased, but they didn’t otherwise respond to the fight. It wasn’t until the creatures were gone that the prisoners seemed to realize help
had arrived and let out a deep raspy cheer.
Faolan came to a stop when he reached the dwarves, but the big badger continued into the woods after the fleeing creatures.
One of the dwarves asked, “Who are you, man, that you came to our aid?”
“Faolan the blacksmith.” He pulled his knife and motioned the dwarf to turn around. “I’ve come to trade.” Faolan sawed through the rope tying the man’s hands together, then waved
back up the trail. “Your friend stumbled into my camp looking for aid.” He handed the dwarf his knife. “I have to get back. He took an arrow.” Then he jogged back to
The wounded dwarf was where he left him, but unconscious now. Faolan opened his medical kit and put the cauterizing iron in the fire, along with more wood. He added a pot of water and
laid out his bandage rolls. He took out the knife with a small sharp blade from the kit and set it with the bandages. Just then the other four dwarves arrived, and he looked up.
“Have any of you taken out an arrow before?”
All of them shook their heads. The one with his knife handed it back. “We’re miners, not warriors. We’ve had no reason to before this.”
Faolan nodded toward the wounded dwarf. “The arrow’s gone in deep, but it’s high up on the shoulder. It’ll cause less damage if I push it through rather than pull it out. And the
sooner it’s out, the sooner I can cauterize the wound.”
The dwarf looked at the wounded man. “What can we do to help?”
“Hold him while I drive the arrow tip through. The pain will make him thrash around.”
Two of the dwarves lifted their wounded friend into a sitting position and Faolan notched the arrow a hand from the unconscious dwarf’s chest before he sheathed his knife. Then, he snapped it
off at the notch. The two dwarves removed their friend’s jerkin and shirt and held him while Faolan pushed a rock down on the butt of the arrow, driving it through. The unconscious
dwarf screamed and jerked, arching his back.
Faolan moved behind the man and pulled the arrowhead the rest of the way through. “Now I need to cauterize the wounds.” He strode to the fire, grabbed the heated iron and pressed it
tightly against the skin of the wounded man’s chest while the dwarf thrashed about again. He put the iron back in the fire and then repeated the process on his back after a minute.
He smeared healing salve from the kit on the wounds and bandaged the dwarf’s chest. “He shouldn’t be moved, or he’ll tear the wounds open. We can put him in my tent for now.
You’ll be able to move him on a stretcher tomorrow morning.”
The four dwarves carefully lifted their unconscious friend and carried him into Faolan’s tent. Faolan followed them. “Put him on the bedroll.”
After they put their wounded comrade down, the oldest dwarf turned to Faolan. “We owe you our lives, Faolan Blacksmith.” He motioned the others out of the tent. “We will return
tomorrow to settle this debt and take Gutter home.”
Faolan shook his head. “I only did what anyone would’ve done. You’ve incurred no debt to me for that.”
“There’s debt here.” The old man straightened up. “And we Accetani do not like being in debt to anyone outside our clan. We will return tomorrow.”
The four dwarves crossed the clearing and disappeared into the darkness beyond. Faolan built up the fire and went back into the tent to make up another bedroll. Badger came in and
turned in a few circles before he lay down in front of the tent door. Faolan was sure he was still unhappy at the idea of letting the goblins go.
In the morning, Faolan built up the fire from the embers and heated stew and a pot of herbal tea for Gutter. When he re-entered the tent, the youth was awake and looking at him. “Your
friends are safe.” He handed him the bowl of stew and set the tea on the floor next to the bed role. “Don’t try to move about, you’ll tear open your wounds.” He helped the dwarf
sit up carefully. “The stew’s good, if I do say so myself, and the tea will help you heal.”
Gutter looked at him from the corner of his eye. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because you need to eat and rest before your clan gets here to take you home.” Faolan smiled, then he went back to the fire to fetch bowls of stew for himself and Badger.
When he sat down with his bowl, the dwarf looked from Badger, happily lapping up his stew, to him and back again. “Most men kill badgers on sight, yet this one is your friend. Why is
Faolan glanced at Badger and then over to the dwarf. “I think because most men do whatever their fathers did without wondering whether it was right or wrong.”
“And you wondered?”
“Not really. I knew a young girl who did. She wondered about everything. She taught me to wonder too. So, when Badger came along, we became friends.”
“You broke with your father’s ways to follow the ways of your mate?”
“No, she’s not my mate,” came out quickly, along with the pain her image always brought. “She’s just my friend.” Faolan paused, spoon in hand, to look off into the distance,
remembering. “She changed the way our people thought about badgers—and a lot of other things.”
“My people would never listen to the words of a woman.” Gutter returned to eating his stew. “They are for mates and for raising younglings.”
Faolan shook his head. “I think the Accetani are ignoring a lot of wisdom.” He glanced over at Badger. “Life is hard, and it makes men hard, but not women. When men don’t
listen to their women, hardness becomes cruelty and they turn to stone.”
“Will you tell me your name?”
“I’m known as Faolan, the blacksmith.” He smiled and took another bite of stew. The phrasing of Gutter’s question reminded Faolan of the fear of giving names the Mercian peasants he had
rescued last year had shown. Despite already knowing the boy’s, he asked. “And your name?”
“They call me Gutter. A blacksmith who’s a warrior?”
Faolan waved at the dwarf’s bowl with his spoon. “Eat, Gutter, you’re going to need your strength.” He tilted his head back and forth. “A man should know how to use the tools he
“It takes more than familiarity with weapons to face a score of monsters and win.”
Faolan looked at him, and Gutter started eating again. “I’ve fought before. Besides, goblins are cowardly things.”
“Goblins? Is that what those things were?” Again, the dwarf’s spoon came down to rest by his bowl.
“You’ve never seen goblins around here before?”
“Never.” Gutter shook his head. “We’ve heard of them, of course, but their kind has never been seen in these mountains.”
Badger’s head came up and he left the tent. A moment later, he returned and nodded toward Gutter before returning to his meal.
“Your people are coming.” Faolan stood up. “Keep eating and stay still. I’ll go out and meet them.” As he walked out of the tent, he noticed the dwarf slowly spooning stew
into his mouth while staring at Badger with wide eyes, like he was some kind of magical creature.
Faolan barely had time to warm his hands on the fire before the four dwarves came down the trail to the camp. They were carrying spears and shields this time, and there were axes hanging from
their belts. Behind them were two more dwarves carrying a litter.
“Welcome to my camp.” Faolan bowed and waved of his hand. “Gutter is eating in the tent.”
The dwarf walking at the head of the party said, “We will take him home when he’s done. Will you come with us? Our chieftain would talk to you.”
“My friend and I,” he waved at Badger, who had come out of the tent and now sat beside him, “are honored that you have invited us into your home. But we must do something about my horses and
“We will bring them with us.”
The entrance to the dwarves’ tunnels stood open when the group approached an hour later. However, Faolan was sure the huge stone slab, now pivoted sideways so the party could pass into the
mountain, would be near impossible to detect when closed.
They followed the tunnel straight in for several rods before it opened onto a large ledge at the edge of a huge natural cavern. Faolan was surprised by the natural light cast in bright
pockets, like sunlight through a forest canopy. He looked up at nine huge rectangular vents cut into the ceiling in three rows of three.
The older dwarf chuckled. “Did you think we lived in darkness?”
Faolan looked up into one of the cone-shaped vents several rods in depth. “How did you get up there to cut them?”
“From the top, of course.” The dwarf laughed and shook his head. “Our engineers marked the path of the sun to give us the most light. Then our miners cut shafts down.
They’re small at the top and large at the bottom so that the sun shines directly into each as long as possible during the day. There are three rows of them to account for the sun’s movements
between summer and winter.”
A small town was laid out on the cavern floor with flat-roofed stone buildings. Most of the smaller houses had plants in pots around them and on the roofs. Some of the larger houses had
small flower beds as well. Near the edge of the town was a large, two-story building with fruit trees in huge stone planters as well as two gardens of forest plants.
A wide path was cut in the wall of the cavern leading down to the floor in a gentle slope, and the party went down and through the town to the palace on the far side. Faolan suspected that
few strangers had ever been here by the reaction of the dwarves who came out of their homes to gawk at him and Badger as they went by.
The stockiness of the men was not reflected in the women he saw, and the dwarves generally reminded him of the people of Anglia, although the noise of the city was absent. When they
approached the palace, an old man with a long flowing gray beard and hair, and dressed in a robe of rich material, came out the entrance. He stood on the steps with his hands on his hips,
glowering in their direction.
© Copyright 2020 R. M. Keegan. All rights reserved.