OverMountain to TopHouse
The Do’s Series: Segment 6
© Grandpa Jim
Above the distant foothills, beneath the blue sky, a brown line cuts the horizon.
“SchirmerSchutzen HirschTruss, you stare off. Help. Help with the wagons.”
“What is that line, HauptMercer BaiTail?” The swordguard squints and points.
“I pay for your attention to my wares, Schutzen, not your wandering eye.” The headmerchant walks to the ledge and stands beside his swordsman. “I forget that you are young and this is your first trip to OverMountain.” The merchant pulls his long robes close. “It is cool here on the heights. Nevermind. Yes, yes. What you see, my young defender of goods, are the hot sands of the BlindDesert. I could use some right now for my feet.”
“But where is the fair. Where is the gathering for Glue Days and New Bread? I see sky, sand and mountain only.”
“We are too high. The fair is below the far ridges, hidden from our sight by the smaller cousins of this great hill we stand upon.”
“Remember your geography, lad. Glue Days and New Bread is held each year on that narrow strip of greenlands at the base of OverMountain and before the emptiness of the BlindDesert. That strip of passable land is the major northsouth tradeway of The New & Free Peoples. And for the brave or foolhardy like ourselves, there is what we traverse, the tradeway from the east through OverMountain.”
“Do none come from the west, from the desert?”
The headmerchant frowns. “I have seen FreeOnes. Not often. But, at times, they do come to trade. SandRunners of the BlindDesert.”
“FreeOnes? SandRunners? What are these?”
“If you meet them, my curious attendant, you will know them.”
“Enough of your questions, swordguard. Back to the trail. I need your help to get these wagons over the pass. We must reach TopHouse before nightfall.”
* * *
“Enter, mastermerchant, enter. I, DeepDelve HuffSpot, for the dwarves of TopHouse, extend greetmeet and make offersafe.” The dwarflord bows low as other dwarves push open the massive door into the mountain. DeepDelve straightens and waves inside. “There is room here for your traders and their animals. The enterhalls of dwarfkind are large and warm. But hurry. Hurry. The nightwinds of OverMountain blow cold outside.”
The merchant extends his right hand in formal greeting, palm forward, fingers spread wide. “I, HauptMercer BaiTail of the Hohenschwangau traders, accept your gracious offer of hospitality.” Bowing deeply, the merchant signals the young man forward. “Good dwarf, my I present my swornsword, SchirmerSchutzen HirschTruss, one who makes his first visit to OverMountain and TopHouse.”
HirschTruss slaps a hand to his swordhilt and nods crisply, his eyes fixed on the dwarf.
“Good. Good.” DeepDelve HuffSpot considers the swordguard. “A new ear for the tales at mealtake and, I think, a quick mind for questionsolve.” The dwarflord turns to BaiTail. “May this one join us for dinner, mastertrader?”
“Of course. Of course. The table of TopHouse is oftspoke and longmembered.” BaiTail turns to his swornsword. “What say you, Truss?”
“I would be honored.” Truss stands to attention.
“There, it is settled.” The merchant pauses. “Forgive my use of nameshort, HirschTruss, but here we are among friends.”
The dwarf smiles. “As I echo and confirm, master Truss. Now, I know you both must check your fellow travelers and secure your inventory. At seven drums, my dwarves will arrive to escort you to mealtake.”
* * *
“Truss here asked about the FreeOnes.” The merchant accepts another pour of grapepress from DeepDelve. “At the pass, he saw the line of sand in the distance.”
“We do some trade with them.” The dwarf raises the bottle to the young man, who hand signals “No.” DeepDelve fills his own glass. “They bargain hard, these SandRunners do.”
“Why are they called ‘SandRunners,’ MasterDwarf?” Truss asks.
“They can pass over the surface of the sand in a manner that is not noticed. In the BlindDesert, there is not just the sunhot that burns or the sinksand that grabs and swallows. We dwarves can mange those, when we must. There are other things. The BlindDesert is home to creatures that crawl in the night, intelligent seekers who hear and follow the steps of the unwary. SandRunners possess the abilities to cross the sands without the attention of such creatures. They have these skills, and they share them with few.”
“But they can be learned?” Truss asks.
“Yes, my young friend, they can. But first you must find a SandRunner and then you must convince the FreeOne to teach you.”
“With what would I convince? What would I trade?”
“What do they prize?” Merchant BaiTail sets his cup down.
“A good question, HauptMercer. They seem to need little and want less. By themselves, in the empty waste of the great desert, they grow and thrive.”
“How many SandRunners are there?” Truss rubs his chin and meets the dwarf’s eyes.
“Yours is another good question, SchirmerShutzen, and one I have pondered long. The FreeOnes who run the sands are fierce fighters. At the fair, I saw two SandRunners best ten strong traders who thought to make sport with them. The FreeOnes did not pull their blades or suffer a scratch. When it was finished, the traders were down and groaning from their bruises. That was long ago. If there were many SandRunners then, there would be more today.”
“Why do they go to the fair, if they prize so little?” The merchant leans back, his chin sinking to his chest.
“They visit the ruins,” the dwarf answers.
“Ruins?” Truss sits up, alert.
“Few of the buildings of the Old Days survive. Where the fair is held, there are stones from the Long Ago. The rocks are holy to the FreeOnes. Some say the fair is there because of the ruins, and it has always been so.” DeepDelve shrugs. “Only The Do’s know.”
HauptMercer BaiTail snorts, lowers his head and falls fast asleep.
“Your wine is good, DeepDelve HuffSpot.” SchirmerShutzen HirschTruss smiles the compliment to their host.
“And strong.” DeepDelve laughs and signals to the waiters. “They will help the HauptMercer to his sleepcave.” The dwarf touches the swordsman’s arm. “Your master is safe here. I told him I would need your time. Come. I have something to show you.”
* * *
“Behold The Deep.”
The two stand on a stone balcony.
Truss leans over and stares down. The space is huge, falling away beyond his site. The rock sidewalls are smooth. At irregular intervals, he can see wide openings, light streaming out to trace intricate entrance stonework. Dwarves, some carrying loads, some rushing, cross walkways that hang across the great space as if the bridges were suspended in air. Other dwarves climb steps and traverse paths cut into the walls themselves. The paths and walkways interconnect in a crowded maze of traffic. The whole scene has the order of a still drawing and the activity of a moving picture. In the background, there is the constant sound of drums. The beat is regular, at times broken, louder, softer, faraway, closer; and, as Truss listens, the beat becomes hurried, expectant. With the shake of a distant muffled explosion, the drumming stops. The dwarves stand frozen in place and a pure silence settles in the vast space. Then, the drums begin, the workers move, and the scene comes back to life.
“The Mines of DwarfSeek.” The dwarf’s tone is soft, reverent. “Drums in The Deep. The beat of our hearts. The lifeblood of my people.”
The Sword of Schwangau lifts his head and pauses before he speaks. “How long have there been the Mines of DwarfSeek and The Deep?”
“Since before the New Days. Through the Old Days. Much from the Long Ago. Some even to the Age Before.”
“I did not know.”
“Few do or appreciate.”
“Why do you show me this?”
“Minnesinger HitBolt is an old friend, swordsworn of Schwangau.”
“You know who I am?”
“I do not say what I know. And you would be careful, young traveler, not to say what you know. There are ears at the fair. Things can happen.” DeepDelve takes Truss’s hand and places a small thing in the palm. “You may have need of this.”
Truss touches a clear object the shape of a tiny bloom. The feel is spongy. “What is this made of?”
“Plastic. It is a polymer of fire ash. The knowledge is from the Old Days. The knowing and the making are now actions of dwarf craftsman.”
Truss compresses the bloom to a smaller shape.
“Good. Squeeze it like that and put it in your ear. Push with a finger.” DeepDelve motions with his finger. “Now listen.”
“The drums.” Truss touches his ear. “I hear the drums.”
“In OverMountain above The Deep, you do not need the plug to hear the drums. But, away from here, you will need the plastic. If there is a door to the tunnels nearby, listen for the drums. Follow and find. The sound is sharpest when the need is greatest. Knock and enter.”
“How do I ‘knock and enter’?”
“When the drums are loudest, you will be blocked by stone. There is the door even though you cannot see its markings. You will only hear the drums. On the surface of the rock, strike three times. The gate will appear and open. It is that simple. Although, in the age before the Long Ago, the simple was not so easily discovered, but that is another story. For you, just knock.”
“When I do this and the door opens, will I find a safe passage?”
“You will find a passage made by my people. Be wary, we dwarves of the present age no longer know all the passages. Some of the older ways may be held by others.”
“And his made servants.”
“You know much, dwarf HuffSpot.”
“I am not alone.” DeepDelve looks directly at Truss. “As you are not.”
“Thank you, DeepDelve HuffSpot. I hope I have no need of this ‘plastic.’’ Truss removes the plug and places it in his shirt pocket. “I thank you, nonetheless.”
“You are welcome, young seeker HirschTruss. Now, I will walk with you back to the enterhalls and the traders you protect.”
“Your guide is appreciated, but you need not trouble. It is late. I can find the way.”
“Through the dwarf tunnels?” DeepDelve studies the young swordguard. “I believe you could. Allow me. I would talk more before you seek sleep.”
“I am not tired.”
“Again, I believe you. But you will need the rest. Tomorrow is SteepSlide, the dangerous downpath. Then, the foothills. Beyond the hills, you will find your goal, Glue Days and New Bread.” DeepDelve lifts a finger. “Keep the plastic safe. In need, listen and knock. Three times. Like this.” DeepDelve raises his fist and quickly cracks the stone balustrade with three sharp knocks. “Three times and three only.”
“I will not forget, dwarfmaster.”
Together, the swordsman and dwarf turn and enter the tunnels.
With each echoing step, the drums grow fainter until they can barely be heard.
Behind them, the door to the Mines of DwarfSeek closes and becomes an empty wall of smooth stone without a visible marking.
In the enterhalls of TopHouse and in the sleepcaves of the traders, The Drums in The Deep are not heard again that night — except by one.