Still stunned by his pleasant demeanor I started my questions immediately before he turned around to leave.
“Who was that woman? I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful! So radiant! I’d give anything to meet her .”
“You’ll never meet her, I’m afraid. You shouldn’t even have seen her. That was one of our queens, and we never allow humans to meet them – it only causes trouble.”
“Trouble? For the queen, or for the humans?” The dwarf began to laugh one of those hardy laughs that trick one into laughing also. I became uneasy.
“For the humans, and for the rest of us! A queen can look after herself! She looks as soft and tasty as butter, but inside she’s flint and fire. Especially that one. It’s because of her that we’re all rushing about closing this cavern down.”
“What is this place?” I glanced into the cave.
“This is one of our gardens. We live underground, but of course vegetables need to poke out into the sunlight to grow. So we have chambers near the surface, with vegetables growing through the roof. But come with me – we’re closing this whole section down, and soon it will be walled off.”
“But why are you closing it down?”
“Humans have found us!” I wondered to myself if this dwarf noticed I was a human. I became more uneasy. “Dwarves in the town have signalled to us that a raiding party is on its way, looking for magic. Our queens make magical items, you see – swords, rings, powders and so forth. Normally we just keep them and use them ourselves – mind your head here, it’s a bit low for you – but Queen Hilde (her that you saw) comes from the silver mines far to the east, and needed to show off her talent with Argent Catalysts to the other queens. So what did she make? Invisibility rings!”
“That would be useful …”
“Underground? If you want to be invisible underground, just extinguish your light! Visibility rings might be more useful, or insmellibility rings perhaps, but invisibility is a complete waste of precious resources. So then his majesty our king had the brilliant idea of selling them to folk in town, where they might have more use for them. You can guess what happened.”
” er ..” Confusion crossed my face, but this serious dwarf continued like a school professor.
“The first human to buy one put it on his finger and followed our dwarf home to find out where it had come from! All humans are thieves and rapists, it’s well known.” The dwarf began moving into the cave and down the tunnels. I followed as best I could trying not to be in the way of his stumble run. “Now the whole town is on its way looking for buried treasure and soft bodies. You’ll really need to bend over here – we make our tunnels tall enough for us, not for you.”
“It is very awkward to walk, bent over like this.”
“And even more awkward to run, or swing a weapon – for you. For me it’s fine. Dwarves don’t need to bend over in here, and we don’t use swinging weapons anyway, just poking ones. Now be careful as we go up these stairs .. see? While you were busy looking where your feet are, you walked headfirst into that spike mounted from the roof. Don’t feel bad. Nine out of ten humans will do it – well, only the first one actually, the others just bump into him and push him further onto it. But you know what I mean.
“A cruel trap for the tall! Do you have a bandage?”
“Here, use my pants.” The dwarf took off his pants and handed them to me without so much as a look of shame. What is with their hatred of pants? “Head wounds do bleed, don’t they?” With no other recourse I placed the dusty pants to my head. If we had not been moving so fast in the dark I might have seen this coming, but I guess that was the point. I was becoming confused, but I liked this little guy and he certainly seemed helpful. “We have all sorts of traps like that. The simple ones are the best. Have a look in this chamber, though.”
“Ooh! That light is bright!”
“Human, this is Rendel.” I could not see Rendel or anything for that matter. “Don’t shoot the human, Rendel, I’m showing it around. Rendel just sits behind that wall, shooting people through the arrow slit while they stagger about rubbing their eyes. It’s quite simple, really. When their eyes have adjusted, he extinguishes the light and pours in .. what is it you’ve got in there, Rendel?”
“Scorpions, mostly. And poison gas to finish.” Rendel spoke. His voice was a similar tone to my new dwarf friend in no pants.
“Poison gas! But how do you avoid being poisoned yourself?”
“Rendel is walled in. He has no intention of surviving. But hopefully he can kill most of the invaders first. Crawl in here ..”
“That’s a drainpipe! I won’t fit!”
“Yes you will – the general rule is that if your head fits, the rest of you can follow. Just slide in on your belly, and push yourself along with your knees and elbows. I’ll be right behind you. See, it’s actually quite comfortable. It’s not a drainpipe, it’s our access tunnel from this part of the kingdom through to the central chambers, where the king and queens live.”
“Really? Everyone crawls along this tiny pipe?”
“Yes. Another defensive measure – simple is best. Invaders crawling in single file along a drainpipe are quite easy to defend against, you see. Say “hello, Rondel” just here.”
“Hello!” Another voice spoke.
“Ahh! He’s in the ground right underneath me! Ahhh! Ahhhh!”
“Don’t panic, it only makes it worse. Or so I imagine – I’ve never been claustrophobic, myself. Rondel has been buried in the floor of this tunnel – his plan is to pop out behind the invaders and stab them from behind after they’ve passed. In a crawl-tunnel like this, they can’t turn around and get at him, so he can pretty much just stab away at the last one in line at his leisure. The body will make a pretty effective blockade, trapping the rest of them in here. They can’t get any purchase to push it back out again, you see. Don’t pop out now, Rondel – this is just a tourist.”
“It wasn’t so bad when the tunnel was going up hill, but now it’s going steeply downhill which is quite unpleasant, sliding headfirst like this. I feel a bit giddy.”
“Yes, not for much longer though.”
“Ow! My head!”
“Good, they’ve finished the wall. The family have walled this tunnel shut down here, as you’ve found. Sometimes we leave arrow slits in it, but in this case it’s just a solid wall, and they’ll just carry on making it thicker and thicker. So now there’s no way into the main chambers of our kingdom from here. Is it granite or basalt? Could you tell when your head hit it?”
“But we’re trapped!” I was no longer uneasy. I was scared and angry. I do not like my tour guide anymore.
“You are, certainly. I could wriggle out backwards if I chose, but if I stay here then you certainly won’t go anywhere.”
“I’ll kick your head! I’ll .. I’ll ..”
“Killing me here will trap you all the more surely, unfortunately. As I mentioned, a body makes a very effective blockade in a crawl-tunnel. But don’t let’s talk of death just yet. My plan is to draw the invaders down here, using the sound of your voice as bait. When they’re well in, Rondel will kill the last in line and trap them. Then we’ll just flood this whole tunnel and drown the whole lot of us. It should work, don’t you think? Here, have a little mead while we wait. We farm our own honey, you know.”