Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 13
The furry, sleek head poked itself up out of the water. “What do you want, Fionn Troublemaker?” asked the otter. He sounded, Meb thought, both suspicious and resigned.
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” said Finn, grinning.
“Means you’re in trouble again,” said the creature wrinkling its whiskers. “The human with you? Breshy will have to bring a boat.”
The otter submerged again, this time a fraction more slowly, with barely a ripple.
“What . . . ?” Meb stared.
“They’re water-dvergar,” explained Finn. “Black water dvergar. Shape shifters. They have chancy tempers so you want to be cautious with them. But they’re all right if they take to you.”
Meb knew of shape-shifters. There were wolves that could take the form of men, and other terrifying things whispered about in fire-side stories. “W . . . won’t they kill us?”
Finn laughed. “Their food might. They like to eat frogs.”
“Frogs,” said a gruff voice, “are good for you.”
Meb looked up. The speaker was paddling a coracle made of skin and withy along the pool. Fierce dark eyes peered back at her out of a mane of black hair. There was almost more hair than person . . . but the person was small and stocky, half her height if about the same weight. “I can only take one of you. You’ll have to swim, Fionn.”
“You can come back for my new apprentice,” said the Jester, walking through the shallows to the small boat, and getting in to it. “You stay put, Scrap. Exactly where you are, and don’t touch the shore.”
So Meb stood. Her feet were numb now, anyway.
The black dverg turned the little boat and stirred it back up the pool to an overhanging wall of one of the huge boulders. Then . . . he vanished. Meb shivered superstitiously, and not just from the cold. Next thing he was back, without Finn. Cautiously . . . nervous, but not knowing where to run to, Meb got into the small round boat. The dverg never actually took his paddle out of the water, he just flicked and turned the handle, sending them wriggling upstream. Meb wondered if it — and the disappearance were magic — maybe there was a huge fish on the end of the paddle-shaft. Maybe it wasn’t a shaft, but its fin-spine. Now, in the overhang shadow Meb saw a low lip, maybe three hand-spans above the water level — a dark opening below it.
“Get your head down,” said the gravel-voiced Breshy.
So Meb ducked. Breshy tossed the paddle into the boat, grabbed the lip and pushed the coracle down into the water so a little slopped over the edge — and the boat went under the edge. Next the dverg dropped down into the bottom of the boat, gave a quick shove on the roof . . . and they popped back up again. In darkness. All Meb could see was the tiny slit of light where they’d come under the rock, which they moved swiftly and silently away from. The coracle bumped against something. A strong hand hauled her out of the craft, up onto cold rock.
“Give us some light, will you,” said Finn.
“Ach. In a moment. I seem to have a fish on my paddle blade,” said the dverg.
So the jester made a flame himself. He must have had flint and a steel, because there was a spark and a flare of a fire. He lit a wick — one of a bunch in a clay bowl. The black-haired dverg was wrestling with a fish.
“A nice salmon,” said Finn. “A change from frogs.”
“Give us a hand,” said Breshy, beaming, square teeth showing in the bearded face. “Pull the boat close to the quay. The current will suck it away to the mill otherwise. What a bit of luck! I must have hit it with the paddle.”
So Finn and Meb pulled the coracle up — the dverg was not letting go of the fish. “Otr will be green with envy,” said the dwarf, cheerfully. “Follow me.”
So they did, along the rock-cut passage next to the water, past the slow turning waterwheel and down another passage. More of the simple lanterns lit the way down. “Where are we going?” whispered Meb.
“Under the stream. They mine and work gravels from it. Living directly under the water keeps them safe from dragons.”
Meb could — right now — see the value of that. But . . . this was Lord Zuamar’s land. He protected it . . . or was supposed to. “Er . . . why?”
The gleeman chuckled. “They mine gold. Dragons are uncanny about finding it. The black dvergar don’t like parting with it. Not without payment.”
A few days ago that would have seemed very wrong. Then Lord Zuamar was their overlord, entitled to take whatever he saw fit to take. Now Meb saw their point. The passage curved yet again, and now the sounds of hammering metal — almost lost in the splashing of the waterwheel earlier, came echoing loudly. The passage opened into a cave, in which a forge-fire burned and several more of the small hairy dvergar were working. They looked up as Breshy bounded in with his fish.
“Look!” he said, triumphantly.
It was plain that it was a welcome sight. “How did you get that!” demanded one of the bellows-men.
“I think it was one of his tricks,” said Breshy, jerking his head at Finn. “But a good one this time.”
“Better than frogs,” said Finn, with a sly grin.
The dverg was not used to being teased, and the comment simply went over his head. “Frogs are good eating, but it’s a change,” he said, seriously. “Otr has caught everything that isn’t a small trout by now. It’s not the biggest of streams.”
Up to then Meb had not been too sure if the frogs had been a complicated joke that she wasn’t party to. Now she realized it hadn’t been. Maybe . . . eating frogs was normal, away from a fishing village? She didn’t think that she wanted to find out, even though, right now, she felt as if she might just fall over.
Someone must have noticed because they did catch her before she actually hit the flagged floor, or landed in the gutters that took water back to the pumps.
They all gathered in a large rock-chamber with ornate metal lamps, a cheerful fire and rather a low stone table with equally low benches around it. Dvergar carried in steaming platters and dumped them on the table. “They’re not long on manners, said Finn, “come and sit or you’ll get none.”
Meb, driven by the smells of cooked food, had her feet under the table and herself in front of a trencher so fast she even beat Finn and some of the little black haired folk.
The dvergar made a meal look like a battle-zone, with knives stabbing this and hacking that, and spearing the other, and little strong hands grabbing to pile on the trenchers. As there was no blood spurting and she was very hungry, Meb took a deep breath and joined in the carnage. She thought that what she’d snatched were the drumsticks off very small birds at first.
They tasted like slightly fishy chicken. The salmon was much nicer. The dark mead that was circulating in jugs was even nicer. “Don’t drink too much of it,” said Finn, “or you’ll start believing you are a poet. That’s small-beer in the tall jug.”
So she stuck to that. It was at least familiar, unlike some of the food.
Now that the initial rush was over, the dvergar slowed to a more reasonable pace of eating and drinking, laughing and talking.
Meb drank that in as much as the small beer. She was warm, dry, full of food and surrounded by good cheer. And she’d got to meet real mining dvergar!
Much later, next to the banked furnace, Fionn sat with Motsognir. The others had long gone to join his little human in dreamland. But there was gold here, enough to stimulate Fionn. And the old dvergar lord claimed he was past the age of needing much rest. “If I sleep . . . I may not wake again, dragon. So what really brings you here?”
“Oh the usual. Trying to destroy the world. Stealing a bit of gold. Indulging in good food and practical jokes. Occasionally setting things to rights. Causing fires.”
The dvergar gave a wintery smile. “You don’t like us to take you too seriously do you?”
“No. It would weaken me,” said Fionn.
Motsognir’s shoulders shook slightly. He was old but still carried the heavy muscle of a lifetime — a long lifetime — of metal-work. Finn was not too sure how old he actually was. But it was possible that he was old enough to remember too much. The Dverg had changed his name over the years, several times. As far as Fionn knew he was the only creature who called the old king by his true name. But it was one of the skills given to the planomancer. Fionn had to know true names.
“Possibly,” said Motsognir, his tone dry, “But only in that your foes might realize what they faced.”
Fionn nodded. “Exactly. Better to have them just a little surprised.”
Motsognir laughed again. “Dragonish cunning. But I have dvergar cunning, which is reputedly also deep and dark. So, spare asking me to believe in a chance passing. Save that for the younger ones. Why are you here?”
“I needed to hide the little human. She’s a worker of wild magics.”
The old dwarf-lord raised his eyebrows. “A human. I thought her kind were extinct.”
“She will be if they find her. Or after they have finished using her she will be. She’s a damned nuisance to me in my line of work, but she thwarts some of the designs of others.”
Motsognir shook his head slowly. “Much as I do enjoy thwarting the designs of your fellows, sooner or later they’d find her here. We’re cunning artificers, not great magicians or warriors. This is a place of hiding, not an impregnable fortress.”
“I know. And I would not ask that of you,” said Fionn.
The old dvergar king looked at him intently for a few heartbeats, and then asked: “So what do you want . . . besides temporary respite? You’re up to something, Fionn. But so far you have always dealt fairly with us. Come to our aid a time or two. Usually passed it off as a nasty joke. But you didn’t come here by accident. There are plenty of other dvergar. There are other hiding places. And you are good at finding them.”
“And you are entirely too clever,” said Fionn allowing a whisp of steam to escape his nostrils.
The Dverg’s dark eyes twinkled. “Yes. I have that reputation. Which I also try to avoid having talked about. So . . . stop evading the subject and answer me. You want us to make something, don’t you?”
Fionn nodded. “For her. Dvergar are better at binding power into objects than most of the other species. She needs a way of hiding herself. Or at least of hiding her magic. She has the power to do it, just not the skill.”
“And we have the skill but not the power. So you want something that will harness her own powers?”
“Yes. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly wonderful. I wouldn’t ask for one of the masters like yourself. Just get one of the younglings to hammer out something. An amulet she can believe in or something.”
The dvergar king put his hand to his beard, hiding his mouth. “I see. You wouldn’t have any particular artificer in mind would you?”
“What about young Breshy? He needs the practice. He could get his brothers to give him a hand.”
The dvergar gave a little snort of laughter. “Oh yes. Fionn, you know all of the true names. Why do you call him that, instead of Dvalinn? Yes. Very well, I will ask. He was pleased with the fish.”
“She did that. It left me with a mess to put right.”
“There is a price of course,” said Motsognir looking at Fionn from under half-lidded eyes.
Fionn shrugged. “There always is. Tell me, so we can get on with the bargaining. And it’s not the Brisinghamen I am asking for. So don’t even suggest that for a price.”
The black dvergar laughed. “And she’s not exactly Freya either. Why is she pretending to be a boy?”
“I am not too sure yet. Of course, for a girl on her own, that’s sometimes a good idea. If that is what she wants, so be it. I’ll find out why, eventually,” said Fionn, waiting. Sooner or later the other side would offer.
Motsognir waited too, silent. He could play this game just as well as the dragon. Then suddenly . . . he changed his mind. “Ach. We’ll do it for nothing, Fionn.”
“Now why do I feel I would be better off paying a price for it?” asked Fionn sardonically. “You want me in your debt, Motsognir?”
“You’re honorable enough about paying debts, for one of dragonkind,” said Motsognir. “But no. Actually, I think we want her in our debt.”
It was Fionn’s turn to look thoughtful. “Honesty compels me to tell you that there are many dragons who will be less than pleased with you for doing this. They’ll want to know where she got a dvergar artifact.”
Motsognir waved his thick hand dismissively. “A mere bauble made by one of my children. Why should they fuss?”
Both of them knew he was lying. But perhaps it was best that way.
* * *
Meb awoke, somehow aware that she was being watched.
It was the fish-catcher, Breshy. He was just sitting there, looking at her.
A quick glance showed that Finn was nowhere about.
“What do you want?” she asked, nervously.
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “The occasional fish would be good. Do you want to come and choose the stone?”
Now Meb was thoroughly confused. “Stone?”
He nodded. “The old one told me to make you something. Well, me and my brothers. But I am the shaper. He said you need something to help you with hiding. A seeming-charm. Nothing of great power,” he said apologetically. “Just something to cloud a watcher’s eyes a little. Motsognir says you wish to be taken for a man, not a woman. This will help.”
Meb gaped at the dvergar. “How did you know?”
He shrugged. “How does one know what metals are in an ore? You are. Dvergar do not see things as you humans do. We work metals. You work with living things. A fish now and again would be welcome. And it would not upset the balance of things too much,” he said, humbly.
Meb had no idea what he was talking about. Well, besides about the fish. “I hope you get lots of fish!”
“Oh no, not lots. Just one once in a while would be good. Come. We need to work while the mist is on the water.”
“Why?” It sounded magical.
“It hides the smoke from the forges better. There are charcoal burners in the forest anyway. That accounts for the smell of smoke to most passers-by.”
“Oh,” He’d led her down a passage, to a series of ridged sorting boards, with water and a mixture of gravel playing over them. The place was full of the rhythmic thump-thump of a pump of some sort. The fishing boats had all had pumps to clear the bilges, but this one seemed to work by itself. Several of the dvergar were stooped over the ridged boards, picking at them. Breshy walked her over to a tub, sitting in a corner. It was full of pebbles. Some were translucent, and a few as clear as city-glass. They came in a variety of colors. “Pick a stone.”
Meb looked at the barrel. “Uh. What kind of stone?”
“The old one thought it best that I make you a necklace of some sort. So I wouldn’t make it too heavy.”
Meb felt her heart beat like a trip hammer. The practical Meb in her head said: It’s a trick. The other part said nothing. Just yearned. But she knew it was just so wrong. “You mean . . . jewelry. Like rich people wear. I . . . am too ordinary.” She’d seen some necklaces and a few of the women in the village had had copper and even brass bracelets. Most wore amulets of shells strung on pieces of gut. Like most of the fisherbrats she’d collected shells and tried to make them too. But real jewelry . . . with silver or gold? That was too expensive to even have dreamed of, let alone something made by the dvergar. Their work was legendary for its beauty and craftsmanship.
“Ach. It’ll be something to bind the spell to,” said Dverg, easily. “Go on. Pick a stone.”
So Meb picked through the half-barrel. They were a number of lovely colors. Deep red, azure, amber, clear. Very pretty, really. But . . . she was Meb. A girl from a poor fishing village. So she picked the smallest and dullest little stone. It felt . . . like her. Oh, she had wanted something beautiful, maybe even precious. But this little black knobbly rock was so small and dull in this barrel. Just an ordinary river pebble.
She handed it to Breshy, suddenly aware that all the others had stopped working and were watching. “Can I have this one?”
The dverg’s eyes twinkled. “I did say you could have any one.” The tone was somehow satisfied. Good! That meant that she’d been right to take something small and uninteresting.
“It will become what you need it to be,” he said, turning it in his hands.
It looked like a golden dragon biting its own tail. It was perfection . . . yet it was the eyes that fascinated her. They moved and changed color . . . Meb stared at them fascinated but fearful.
Breshy saw how she stared. “The eyes are your stone. I didn’t cut it in two, just polished it and put it into the head. You can see a little of it through the eyes. Opals are fragile and the head will protect it. There is thin film of our crystal on it to protect it too. It is mostly hidden,” he said, apologetically. “But the virtue is all there. Hidden or not. And that too is a symbol.”
Meb wasn’t actually sure what an opal was. So she asked.
“A wondrous stone,” said Finn. “An opal has the virtues of all the other gems in its colors. And this one is more. It is a wood-opal, where the stone has replaced the wood of some long buried tree. They have powers of wood, water — because they are part water and part stone. And changing with the light and angle. Powerful symbols for powerful magics.”
“And a dragon to watch over it all. Dragons are sky symbols. And gold binds them.” The dverg seemed to find that terribly funny.
Meb could not help touching it. The tiny links moved like a serpent, golden and sinuous against her skin. The eyes seemed to look at her, into her. She wanted it, as she had never wanted anything else. “It is too valuable for me,” she said resolutely.
“You can’t refuse a dvergar gift,” said Finn, smiling at her. “Even if they will often turn and bite you. Say thank you, and put it on.”
Meb looked at it. Bit her lip. Shook her head. “It’s . . . it’s too precious. I might lose it or break it or . . .”
Breshy laughed. “It’ll not come off, once it is on, unless you take it off. And please, our treasures do not break. And it will focus your will. Help you to . . . hide what you do not want seen.”
“You mean it is magical?” That was even more frightening, more precious.
Breshy nodded. “We’ve put what virtue we can into it. It will help you become what you wish to be. To do what you wish to do.”
“But someone will steal it . . . I . . . I can’t.” She wanted it, desperately.
“Many’s the dragon would eat you for it,” said Fionn.
“If they saw it,” agreed Breshy. “But it’s not easily seen. Put it on.”
So she did. It was delicately made, but she could feel the weight of it.
“Clever,” said Fionn. “Look in the mirror.”
She had to reach up and touch it, when she did. She could feel it, the links were there! Solid and sinuous. Definitely there! But she couldn’t see it.
“Explain it to her,” said Finn.
Breshy shrugged. “While it lies against your breast it cannot be seen. It will lend you its virtue, to hide what you do not wish seen, to show what you wish shown, to do what you wish to do . . . but you must lend it yours.”
Meb was not sure she had any virtue, unless it was what Hallgerd said she should be careful about men for. But now that she had the dragon pendant on, she knew that she would not part with it willingly. She thought that she now understood, just a little, suddenly, why dragons loved their gold so fiercely.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “I . . . I hope you catch a fish . . . just as often as you need to.”
“That’s clever,” said the dverg. “It makes it mine to use, but not to abuse.”
“And mine to fix,” said Finn. “Ah well. My work is never done. Come. We need to start practicing our routines, Scrap. And you want to be seen doing them. Remember that!”
So they went back to tossing balls. Meb tried as hard as she could, but she just could not see how he kept them all in the air, let alone caught them behind his back. As for how he made them disappear . . . it had to be a trick. But it looked like magic.
Finn was a hard taskmaster, she’d learned. She had to throw those balls perfectly and exactly in time with his tapping toes. He made it look very, very easy, but Meb was quick-witted enough to realize that in part, it was just the result of endless practice. He had quite a repertoire — juggling, tumbling, even balancing things on a stick on his chin — and she felt fairly useless. She couldn’t even do cartwheels, let alone acrobatic somersaults. Still, she applied herself to the juggling with a will. She wanted to be good enough to go on being his ‘prentice, for as long as possible. She dropped the balls a lot, while trying. She was aware that the dvergar were watching, surreptitiously. She was also aware that they betrayed themselves with helpless laughter when she failed. They seemed to almost like watching that more. Practical-Meb the inner voice said that the important thing was that they watched, not why they watched. So . . . even as she got better, Meb would fumble a ball every now and again. The practical voice in her head was right, as usual. The watchers loved it.
Meb was not too sure how long they stayed. It was always lamplight not night or day. And the meals were . . . irregular. Frogs’ legs were quite nice, provided she pretended they came off something else — like a very small chicken. Finn spent some time teaching her, and some time . . . just not anywhere around. About his mysterious business. Well, she’d always thought gleemen just traveled around doing tricks, telling stories and moving on. But it would seem that there was more to it. She’d come in and found him muttering over a complicated looking set of charts, once. The part of Meb that was practical and down-to earth said that it was none of her business. The other part wished that staring at writing long enough could make her able to read. Sometimes the squiggles almost seemed to be trying to reform themselves into words for her.
When he disappeared she worked on her juggling. She’d been awake for an hour or two, she guessed, doing so when he came in to the cavern, suddenly, moving as silently as only he could. He startled her into dropping all six balls. She was very proud to be up to six. She hoped that he had noticed.
If he did, he didn’t say so. Instead he said: “It’s time we were off. The road is calling. There’s mischief to be done, trouble to be made.”
She nodded. But . . . this was safe. Warm in the teeth of autumn. And . . . and the dvergar had been nice to her! Her face must have showed her feelings. Finn smiled wryly. “Chin up, Scrap. The trick is not to wear out your welcome. It’s time we were on the road again. The hue and cry will have died down a bit. Zuamar will be hunting further afield. We need to get out there and stir him up again.”
Meb had almost forgotten that she’d sworn terrible vengeance from between the fish racks. Life — her life, had moved on. Grown immeasurably more complicated and odder than even her daydreams had ever made it out to be. She touched the dragon-pendant. It was comforting. “Yes. I suppose we must.”
He seemed to understand that too. “There’ll be more folk to meet, offend and befriend, Scrap.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that her name was not “Scrap.” It was Meb and she afraid of all of that. But the inner voice said : shut up so she didn’t tell him that she was girl, and really couldn’t be his apprentice. Instead she gathered up all the balls.