The clanking of the chains was barely audible as the figure lifted his hands, tugging at one side of the too-large hood and then the other, until it fell back.
The face— beneath a layer of soot and grime and a few bruises— was of a young man, not a child. His eyes shone a brilliant amethyst, amidst the dirt and bruising on his cheek and forehead. His hair hung nearly to the iron collar about his neck, probably a lighter brown beneath the soot and dirt and cobwebs tangled in it. His lips were chapped, split amidst another bruise on his chin, but his smile showed all of his teeth intact.
Demarra had already set our helmet cook pot over the fire, and I nudged the flames along to speed the water within it to a boil.
Ana glared over the halfling’s shoulder, at Aurora.
“No, mistress, these… the other mistress is not to blame for these.” He brushed a finger over the bruises. “The Tarsfotar, they do this when one disobeys.”
“At least let me—“
“No, mistress.” The halfling flinched away as Ana made to place her hands on his wounds. “One hardly even feels them, now.”
“They are certainly recent, but not fresh,” Gilliam said. “Tell us, friend, what is your name?”
Wide, purple eyes blinked, and the halfling cocked his head to the side. “Name?” The word came out sounding as if he’d never heard it before.
“How are you called?”
The halfling pursed his lips, as if the notion never occurred to him. “‘Hara’khen?’ But all of this one’s kind are called such.”
That was certainly no name for a person. It sounded very similar to the dwarven word for ‘prisoner.’ They drew from the same base runics, of that I was sure. It would have been nice indeed to have Durin here, as the dwarven tongue is so remarkably precise in its depth of nuance, that only a native speaker can tease apart the many layers of detail and meaning.
“Surely, there is something else we can call you,” I suggested.
“‘Hara’khen will not do?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“One is not allowed to have one of these… names… in the presence of the Tarsfotar. One is simply Hara’khen, as the others. But now…” He sat up a bit straighter. “But the Tarsfotar are gone, swallowed by the hurghon. That is how this one escaped. To seek help, for others who yet live beneath the hurgonkres.”
“What do the others call you?” Ana asked. “When the.. Tarsfotar are not around?”
“Sythian,” he began, then glanced around, as if on reflex, even as he blushed. “At times she calls this one ‘Pyrklist.’” He winced, as if waiting for a lash to fall, or a blow to land. One pale purple eye opened, and then the other as he looked around at each of us. “You would… give that to this one?”
“Sounds rather dwarvish for a halfling name, but I think it sort of fits,” Gilliam said, with a shrug.
Demarra offered the halfling half a loaf of bread and some of the cheese, and he only ate at her insistence, though his stomach growled several times during the exchange.
“What do you think?” Varis asked, as we stood around the vardo, off to the side while Ana tried to treat the halfling’s wounds.
“Ana says she felt no deception from him,” Demarra said. “All I can feel from him is a feeble trembling of hope.” She clucked her tongue. “Such a sad life it seems he’s had.”
“He approached me nearly unnoticed,” Aurora said. “If he can do that, he can hide his nature from our truth-seeker. I do not trust him.”
“He asks our help,” Silva said. “We must—“
“His first action in our camp was to try to take my knife!” Aurora snapped. “He reeks of forgesmoke and iron. That means dwarves.” She spat the last word, like it left a bad taste in her mouth.
“Do I detect some dislike of the stone born?” Gilliam asked.
“Kuric and Durin were both quite likeable,” Varis said. “I haven’t had anything but honest dealings with any other dwarf, either.”
“They are covetous, dark-hearted, scheming little—“
Gilliam snorted. “Best measure yourself against the door post before you call anyone ‘little,’ my little friend.”
She glowered up at the warrior. “Just because I tolerate you doesn’t mean I like you.”
“You love me,” he said with a grin.
“You confuse me with the demon-addled copy of my twin.”
Varis cleared his throat.
“My knowledge of the roads and trails only goes so far,” Demarra said. “If it is not a path Zirchev or another Darine has not already tread, I can not find it. We do not travel many mountain passes.”
Aurora’s eyes narrowed a bit. “You said you would find me the fastest route in pursuit of the man and his demon.”
Demarra nodded. “And this, I am doing. But once they enter the Cruth, I can help you no longer.” She shrugged. “But perhaps that one can.” She pointed past us, to where Ana sat by our visitor.
“No,” Aurora said. “Absolutely not.”
The cleric of the flame waved us over. “You need to hear this,” she said. To Pyrklist, she said “Go on, tell them what you just told me. After you finish chewing.”
The halfling’s cheeks bulged, and the rest of us settled by the fireside as he chewed. Aurora descended the steps, but kept a sword’s length between herself and our guest. Silva stayed just behind her sister’s shoulder.
“Docrae? Atra?” she asked, but Aurora shook her head.
“This one— Pyrklist,” the halfling caught himself, and his voice wavered slightly as he pronounced his name — “fled, down the mountains, across the wide, cold water. Orc, goblins, the Gorsfotar, they are cruel, they do not help the hara’khen, but exchange us to the Tarsfotar for the very klistdens we mine.”
“Tell them what caused the cave-in in your mine,” Ana prodded.
“There were two, a man and his dottir. He claimed she was ill, and the Tarsfotar had stones that could soothe her fever. The Tarsfotar laughed. The man made jest. Pyrklist knows the stones are not of a magic that heals. They must remain within the mines. They are tribute to the Karrnath, and cannot be tainted by the touch of Man, and certainly not by such a sickly dottir. The Tarsfotar would sooner expose the khurdenklist to the skies and the hated Syharwehrf.”
Aurora folded her arms. “Is there some point to this tale?” she asked.
“The dottir, she had the buhrwyr, the burning sickness. We did not think any but the denwarf caught it. Khurdenklist are not the cure for it. Even this one knows that much. Such only makes the fevers much worse.”
“They can all burn to ash, for as much as I care,” Aurora said.
Ana frowned. “Tell her the symptoms of this sickness,” the cleric prompted.
“Great pains,” Pyrklist said. “It does not make Pyrklist happy to hear the cries of the Tarsfotar. This one might dislike them, but does not wish them such agonies.”
Aurora smiled, baring her teeth.
“The fevers, they burn, very hot. The Tarsfotar, for as much as they drink, cannot make their thirst leave them. Their voices, they are raw. They sound of cracking stone and smoke.”
Aurora’s smile wavered.
“And their eyes… They weep tears of fire. We can see it, burning within them, through their eyes.”
“These… fires, they are red?” Aurora asked, leaning forward.
Pyrklist nodded. “Yes, mistress. Red. Like the forge-coals.”
The twins shared a brief glance, and Ana crossed her arms. She drew a breath, but Silva spoke first
“Nieah!” Aurora hissed. “It is not our problem. We’ll just give this one some bread and send him on his way.”
“Pyrklist does not ask for charity,” the halfling said, quickly. “This one knows of commerce. Of the ‘trade’ the Tarsfotar speak of. An exchange, yes? Pyrklist gives you something you desire, and you will perform a service for him, yes?”
Aurora wrinkled nose and brow smoothed as she barked a golden laugh. She kept laughing until she clutched at her stomach and wiped at her eyes.
“What could you possibly—“
The chains clanked, just a bit as the halfling rummaged about under his tunic. He held a soot-stained cloth out to the shrike.
She plucked at the corners, and Pyrklist shifted his hands, so that he cupped the revealed bundle. There was a sound, like the whisper of cloth, and the muted clatter of many stones or pebbles rubbing together.
Aurora frowned, then squinted, cocking her head this way and that.
“Hold it closer to the fire, I cannot see,” she ordered.
Pyrklist stretched his hands towards the fire which flickered, danced away from his fingers, though there was no breeze from that direction. The flames themselves seemed to… ebb, and dim.
The hafling blushed, bobbing his head. “Your pardon,” he said. “This one forgets that the Tarsfotar have us wrap them in shadows whenever we are close to the surface.”
His brow creased, and his eyes took an odd gleam, as if from moonlight, or starlight, though he did not lift his eyes towards the heavens. The bundle in his hands wavered, and then the campfire flickered back to full light.
The twins gasped.
Nestled amidst emeralds and sapphires the size of acorns were several oddly-cut glossy black gems, shot through with deep purple veins.