Chapter 7 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison (read Chapter 1)
by Anta Baku
Once the pond filled back up, the group had one more dwarf than they had cells to put him in. Against Button’s better judgment, they decided he should lead Angola back to the bridge in the fire caves while the other dwarves spent the day demurely in their cells. The structural engineer could study the bridge, Button could fill him in on what was going on, and the elves wouldn’t know any different.
He had to admit it made a certain amount of sense, apart from his personal desire to never go into the fire caves again. And the fact that he wasn’t sure he could even find the bridge. He hadn’t been paying attention to directions when he had dwarves to do that for him.
Robben dismissed that concern by drawing him a map. And in the end it turned out Button didn’t need it; his anxiety about being in the fire caves had driven his mind to store every detail even when he wasn’t conscious of it. So he and Angola ended up at the bridge by themselves. Fortunately the fire caves were still empty of anyone else who might have been a threat.
Angola made drawings of the bridge, but didn’t talk much. Button was surprised at his underreaction to the story of everything that had happened to the dwarves so far. Even the death of Vendiku didn’t get much of a response out of him. Button didn’t like being in the fire caves at all, but he liked them even less being stuck there with someone who wouldn’t talk. So he tried to draw the dwarf out with questions about himself and his past.
Angola’s answers were curt at best. He had been born in the west. His schooling had been unremarkable. He didn’t have a family. And he wasn’t giving Button an angle to develop a conversation. Asking about the bridge wasn’t any more helpful. It was frustrating for Button, and it felt like it was getting frustrating for Angola as well.
“Why do you want me to tell you about my life so much?” said the dwarf.
“You may not want to talk,” said Button. “But I have nothing else to do.”
“Can’t you just be here?” said Angola. “Quietly?”
“In the fire caves?” said Button. “If it’s quiet I can’t stop thinking about how much I don’t want to be here.”
“And if I tell you a story that will stop?”
“Yes,” said Button. “Or, well, it will distract me from it anyway.”
“It’s not a very interesting story,” said Angola.
“I’m sure it will be to me,” said Button. “I’ve been learning how much I don’t know about dwarves.”
Angola’s parents had been prosperous, of the kind of prosperous you can be if you never stop worrying about how prosperous you are for even an instant. They placed their children in the best schools, and generously supplied them with the highest expectations. When their son developed an interest in building things, they made sure he had a path to the most-prestigious career in building things, whether he wanted it or not. When their daughter… well, that wasn’t important anymore.
Angola’s life was supposed to run on rails: a good career, a good marriage, a standard number of children of his own. A right, and a responsibility, to maintain his family’s status through the dance of generations. He would make his parents proud, and his children would make him proud, and theirs, and so on through the years. That was how it worked. The life paths that could justify that pride were narrow, and would always stay narrow. But if he stuck to them, everything would work out just fine.
Somehow, it hadn’t worked out. He went to school, he did his work, he did his best to satisfy his family’s needs. He stayed on the path. But the path didn’t take him where his parents had promised. He looked up from it at thirty-five to find that, while the career was fine, the wife and children who were supposed to have appeared by now were completely absent. The dance of generations required a partner, and Angola’s had failed to show up.
There wasn’t any fixing it at that point. He was supposed to get a wife in his early twenties, children in his late twenties, and be well on his way to setting them onto their own versions of the path by now. His parents died without ever meeting their grandchildren, and while they never expressed their disappointment directly, Angola knew he had failed them as completely as anyone could.
“That’s a sad story,” said Button.
“I told you it wasn’t very interesting,” said Angola.
“But there has to be more to it than that,” said Button.
“Not really,” said the dwarf. “But I have something else to occupy you now.” He showed Button the drawing he had been working on, an overhead view of the bridge with parts of it highlighted. “I think you could take this path over the bridge.”
“You’re kidding,” said Button.
“No, I really want you to try it.”
“Why don’t you try it?”
“You’re much lighter than I am,” said Angola. “If you make it across, then we can reinforce it for the dwarves.”
“And what if I don’t make it across?”
“You will,” said Angola. “I’m almost certain.”
“I don’t have any intention of dying in the fire caves,” said Button. “I’d rather give myself up to the elves.”
“That’s completely backwards,” said an alto voice behind them. Button and Angola both spun around to discover an elf, and one Button recognized. It was Amarac, the revolutionary servant who had escaped arrest for Vendiku’s murder.
Amarac wasn’t threatening, and didn’t appear to be armed. “I can’t hide in the fire caves forever,” they said. “And I can’t go back to the elves. The risk of trying the bridge seems worth taking.”
“You’re not as light as a carroll,” said Angola.
“I’m lighter than a dwarf,” said Amarac. “And it will be a better test.”
Button stopped Angola from giving Amarac the sketch. “Just look at that bridge,” he said. “It’s about to collapse. You’ll die in the ravine.”
“If I go back I’ll die at the hands of my kin,” said Amarac. “If I stay here I’ll starve to death. You don’t know anything about the elves. They have no patience for murderers.”
“You’re not a murderer,” said Button.
“Can you read the kindness in my eyes?” said Amarac. “You can’t know anything about it, a dwarf and a carroll, in a place like this. But you’re right. I’m not a murderer. I also know that won’t make any difference.”
“Why not?” said Angola.
“Someone thought to frame me for the murder,” said Amarac. “And no one will disbelieve it. To the elves, I’m worse than a murderer: I’m a revolutionary. But they can’t punish me for that. So they came up with a way to punish me for something else.”
Button opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Could he tell this elf the truth? If they weren’t a murderer now, might they become one if they learned it was Button who was responsible for the frame? Might they go back into the elf-kingdom and tell their accusers the truth to get their life back? He felt immensely guilty about putting them into this situation, but what could he do about it now?
While Button was grappling with moral and practical implications, Angola handed Amarac the sketch of the bridge. They compared it to the actual thing, mapping out the path with a finger. “Yes, I think I can do this,” they said. And while Button was still trying to get words out, they handed the sketch back to Angola and started across.
The bridge groaned under the strain, but it held, and Amarac didn’t spend any more time on it than they had to. The elf gave them a friendly wave from the other side, and vanished into the further depths of the fire caves. Button still hadn’t found the ability to speak.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Angola. “That elf just saved you from having to test the bridge.”
“I’m the one that framed them,” said Button. “It’s not a political plot. I just thought it was a convenient way to keep the elves from knowing we killed Vendiku.”
“So all that was my fault,” said Button. “And I couldn’t even admit it.”
“The elves are keeping us prisoner,” said Angola. “You did it to help us escape. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I ruined that elf’s life,” said Button.
“Then be glad they still have it,” said Angola. “They’ll find their way out of the caves and start over somewhere else.”
“I don’t think there’s a way out of these caves,” said Button.
“Of course there is,” said Angola. “Somebody built this bridge. It must lead somewhere.”
“I don’t think you understand,” said Button.
“You feel responsible,” said Angola. “But you have to be careful who you feel responsible for.”
“How would you know that?” said Button. “It doesn’t sound like you’ve ever been responsible for anyone.”
“I didn’t tell you the rest of my story,” said Angola. After a few seconds he spoke again. “And I suppose it’s the only way to get you to calm down.”
Although his job was making drawings and doing math and working in an office, Angola in early middle age still liked building things, and still liked spending time with other people who liked building things. He made friends hanging around in the places where builders liked to hang around, even though those friends weren’t anyone his parents would ever approve of. One of them was an old carpenter from the east. Chino noticed the gaps in things Angola would share with the group, and the places where Angola had to repress the class-consciousness his upbringing had made into a reflex. He wasn’t the first to notice those things, but he was the first to understand the loneliness that came from them. Maybe because Chino was a refugee himself. Angola didn’t need shelter against a monster of the ancient world. He needed shelter against the standards of his own society. But the two were not that different, in the end. They could recognize one another.
So Chino introduced his friend to a different kind of society, one that promised him a wife, and a family, in a very different way. For himself, Angola found it less than believable. The Patriarch had big dreams about transforming dwarven society in ways that would bring them untold riches in women and other things. But Angola had difficulty translating those dreams into a realistic future for himself, especially because the Patriarch’s few followers at that point were just some of Chino’s other refugee friends from the west.
He would have bowed out of his carpenter friend’s idea of a social opportunity, except that some of those followers were children. In the teenaged boys, he saw an opportunity to do what he would never get a chance to do for his own sons: stop them from ending up like him. They may not have been bright. They may not have been interesting. But he wanted them to have something more to their adult lives than he had in his.
So he stuck around, through the expansion of the group and its contraction again. It wasn’t like he had very many opportunities to do anything else. When the King and the Patriarch started making plans to retake the dam, Angola’s structural engineering skills were a sizable portion of what made them think it might be possible to form an effective team to restart the society they wanted in the west. He wasn’t used to being needed, even essential if he flattered himself. And it was a chance to do something meaningful, even if he wasn’t as convinced of that meaning as some of the others.
Button was saved from having to respond to that by the realization that it was time to release the rest of the dwarves. Angola stayed with the bridge, sending Button away with a list of materials to bring back with him. But as Button traveled back he couldn’t stop thinking about Angola’s story. It was more than sad, it was harrowingly empty. The other dwarves’ motivations for this journey might not be well-aligned with one another. He thought some of them were downright antisocial. But at least they had motivations. The most interesting thing in Angola’s story was the complete lack of interesting things in Angola’s life.
And that bothered Button, perhaps because the dwarf’s life, on the surface, was not that different from his own. What distinguished Angola’s heavy disappointment from Button’s happy bachelorhood, beyond the difference in their attitudes towards them? And was the dwarf’s attitude, maybe, more correct? Perhaps Pendleton had seen that this was where Button was inevitably heading, and shocking him out of his comfortable life in Carrollton was more of a service than Button had imagined.
He wanted to talk to Chino about it, so he went along when Quentin suggested that Button and Chino should forage for Angola’s list of supplies while Quentin released the remaining dwarves. Even though he also worried about Quentin’s need to get away from Chino, which was clearly driving the idea. But Button knew how to steal from the elves better than anyone, and having Chino to interpret the list and evaluate the materials was almost as good as having Angola there himself.
The old carpenter wasn’t any more excited about Angola being a part of the group than Angola was himself. “I thought it would do him some good,” said Chino. “And I was being pressured to recruit people. Angola was as unhappy about the way society was treating him as anyone else. I didn’t realize until later that it was just because Angola was unhappy about everything.”
“It’s like he’s distanced himself from his life,” said Button.
“I thought that was temporary. Maybe the movement would help, or maybe the movement would find him a wife and that would help. But he just seems to be like this. I’m not sure introducing him to the movement helped either it or him. Although it’s good to have a structural engineer.”
“His life isn’t that different from mine,” said Button.
“Some people are just more disposed to being unhappy,” said Chino.
“That’s not what I mean,” said Button. “It makes me wonder. When he told me his story, it wasn’t hard to see it as an empty life.”
“Because that’s the way he sees it,” said Chino.
“Right. But what if he’s right?” said Button. “What if he sees it accurately, and I’m the one who’s fooling himself?”
“Then you still have enough energy to do something about it,” said Chino. “Pendleton thought bringing you along would do you some good. Maybe he’s as wrong about that as I was about recruiting Angola. But maybe he’s not. Nobody would argue with the idea that the wizard is smarter than me.”
“Just because it didn’t work out doesn’t mean it was a dumb idea,” said Button.
“At this point I should make myself a sign saying that and hang it on my wall,” said Chino. “If I ever have a wall again. How many times in a row does it have to not work out before you decide your decisions must not have been good to begin with?”
“It sounds like neither of us are very confident in our lives,” said Button.
“This isn’t a place that inspires confidence,” said Chino. “Running around trying not to get caught by elves, and half our friends are still imprisoned, and I don’t even know what’s going on with Pendleton and the fire caves. Not to mention the terrible lighting. Everything we do here feels like it’s about to lead to disaster.”
“I think we’re doing all right,” said Button. “Except for Vendiku. That still bothers me.”
“We couldn’t let him get away,” said Chino.
“No,” said Button. “I know that. It just bothers me, is all.”
“Don’t let this place get to you,” said Chino. “There will be time for questioning everything we did here. But not until we’re far away. Somewhere with beer and starlight and a roaring fire. Right now what’s important is remembering those places still exist in the world, and doing whatever is necessary to see them again.”
What was necessary at that moment was finishing off Angola’s list of materials and hauling them into the fire caves. By the time they got to the bridge Quentin and the other dwarves were already there, and Angola set about directing the reinforcement of the decrepit span. With six dwarves working, they made short work of his plans. Angola still wanted Button, as the lightest of the group, to cross the bridge first. But Button wasn’t that venturesome, even though he had seen Amarac cross safely. In the end Joliet volunteered just to end the argument. He had no trouble crossing, and the bridge didn’t even creak. The dwarves still went over one at a time, but Angola’s work was clearly successful, and Button managed to hold his breath and walk across the span almost as confidently as the others.
On the other side there were more fire caves. Button was almost getting used to them by now, and he observed that the heat and the flames on the walls and the flickering shadows were increasing without being particularly scared by them. Whatever this place was, they were getting deeper into it, and he was reminded of Pendleton’s warning to stay away.
When they heard the sound of people moving about echoing ahead of them, Button thought they must have caught up with Amarac, and he dreaded his guilt at seeing the fugitive elf again. But when the dwarves made their way into sight of the people, the only one Button recognized was Pendleton. The wizard was as Button had never seen him before, a shining form both magnificent and terrible, and yet still somehow himself within it. And Pendleton was fighting with all the powers Button had known him to have, but never actually seen.
He had three allies as well, similarly bedecked in power, similarly fighting for their lives. But Button couldn’t take time to figure out who they were, because his attention was forcefully drawn to their enemy. He was a dark blot in the world, a form somewhat reminiscent of a wizard himself, but never quite visible in detail. He fought somehow with sword and staff, wand and mace, axe and spear and hammer. Button could never see more than two arms at once, but one appeared out of the darkness to counter every attack by Pendleton and his friends, wielding the most appropriate weapon for that moment, then vanished back into shadow again.
Button couldn’t think of anything less appealing than charging in to join the fray, but apparently Joliet and Dannemora felt otherwise. By luck or design Robben was in a position to grab the twins and hold them back. “We can’t fight them,” he said.
“Dwarves aren’t afraid to fight anything,” said Dannemora.
“I’m not afraid, I’m just prudent,” said Robben.
“That is his job,” said Angola.
“We don’t have any weapons,” said Robben. “And not one of us is under forty-seven years old, except Quentin. No offense, Quentin.”
“None taken,” said Quentin. “I sure don’t want to go out there.”
“If you had a regiment of young, fit dwarves with armor and axes, I’d let you go out there and face your destiny, even if I don’t know what you could do against that thing. But right here, right now, we’re going to be smart and retreat before it starts to pay attention to us.”
The twins submitted to the authority of the master-at-arms in combat decisions, and the other dwarves were extremely happy not to get involved. Button worried that Pendleton looked very much in need of help, but he didn’t know what they could offer, and the wizard had warned them to stay out of things. They had to trust him on that.
So they backed away quietly, all the way back over the bridge to the entrance to the elven settlement. The farther they got from the evil presence Pendleton was fighting, the more shaken-up the dwarves became over it. They didn’t know what he was any more than Button did, but once they were past their initial fight-or-flight response something about him got into their brains and started eating away at them. Even Robben, who had been cool and responsible in the moment, started feeling queasy once the moment was over. By the time they were back in the elven tunnels Button had the novel experience of being the most-together member of the group.
He led them to the dwarven section of the botanical garden, hoping that an environment more culturally familiar would help to calm them down. And once they were seated amongst the mushrooms and the mosses they breathed somewhat more easily. They weren’t ready to do anything else, but at least they weren’t getting worse.
Quentin’s age may not have made him an effective fighter, but it did give him a chance to recover first and become annoyed at the slow improvement of his companions. He asked Button to walk with him in the carroll garden, and Button decided the rest of them were doing well enough to be left on their own.
“What was that thing?” asked the young dwarf once they were out of earshot of the others.
“I don’t know,” said Button. “But I’m pretty sure it’s why Pendleton warned me to stay out of the fire caves.”
“Anything that can fight off two high elves and two wizards can ignore me all it wants,” said Quentin. “Even if I had a regiment.”
“Well, we don’t have to go back there,” said Button. “We should be looking for more dwarves anyway.”
“Do you think there’s one hidden around here?” Quentin asked. They had reached the carroll garden, and he took in the hills, the paths, and the waterfall. “There’s not a lot of space here to hide a dwarf.”
“I’m surprised they have a section of the garden for my people at all,” said Button. “I don’t think we’ve ever had an elf like these visit us. People would have talked about the sniffing.”
“They’ve got one for the dwarves, and they hate dwarves,” said Quentin. “These dwarves in particular if they knew who they were. The old King under the Watershed, York, once refused to upgrade the wood elves’ dam and made them wire to the big one instead. So when the disaster came, they lost almost all of their electricity. Even with the quality of the lights here, decades of hoping they stay on and not knowing how to fix them if they don’t has to be pretty annoying.”
“So whoever manages the garden must be a completist,” said Button. “They’ve done a good enough job of imitating what things are like in Merryland, for never having visited it.”
“I didn’t get a chance to see much of your home when we visited you,” said Quentin. “Maybe you could show me around here, and explain things.”
He obviously just wanted something calm to talk about, and Button was glad to oblige. They sat on the turf under the oak tree at the top of the hill, and he explained the meaning of the patterns in the stone paths and told Quentin the rules of lawn bowling. The dwarf didn’t want to try it, but eventually he wanted to walk again, and the paths led them out of the center of the carroll garden into small fields of traditional crops.
Quentin was familiar with barley, cabbages, and potatoes. The herb garden interested him for a few minutes, but what really caught his attention was a field of pipe-weed. Dwarves didn’t have anything like it, and when Button explained what it was, Quentin wanted to try smoking some immediately.
“It doesn’t work like that,” explained Button. “The leaves have to be dried first. It takes weeks.”
“We’ve had weeks already,” said Quentin. “And we don’t even have half the dwarves yet. We’ll probably have weeks more still. And I want to try it.”
“I don’t see a drying house around here,” said Button. “Maybe the elves just grow it for the look of things.”
“We could dry it in the fire caves,” said Quentin. “It would probably go faster there anyway.”
“You want to go back into the fire caves?”
“I’m sure if we stay on this side of the bridge it will be fine.”
Button wasn’t sure about that, but he was willing to go along. Pipe-weed was traditionally harvested when the leaves were taller than a carroll, and these were just about as tall as Button now. So he showed Quentin how to pick them carefully from the stem of the plant, and the two of them started down a row gathering leaves to themselves.
That’s how Chino caught them, and he wasn’t happy. “What are you two doing now?” demanded the old carpenter.
“Pipe-weed,” said Button. “It’s a traditional—”
“I know what pipe-weed is,” Chino growled. “And it’s disgusting. More importantly, it’s evidence.”
“We’re going to dry it in the fire caves,” said Quentin. “The elves will never notice.”
“You’re going to harvest a half-acre of pipe-weed and you think nobody’s going to notice?” said Chino.
Button could see his point, but Quentin wasn’t happy about it. “You don’t need to follow me around everywhere,” he said.
“You could have fooled me,” said Chino. “But I wasn’t following you. The others sent me to bring you back. They found another prison cell and need your help to figure out how to open it.”
They left the pipe-weed behind, more regretfully on Quentin’s part than Button’s. He missed his regular smoke, but Chino was right that harvesting the leaves would be noticed, and Button was embarrassed for getting caught up in the idea and not thinking of that himself.
Back in the dwarf garden, an unexceptional hole in the will had turned out to be the trigger for a secret passage when water was poured into it. “It’s the same as the one that opens Quentin’s cell,” said Chino. “But it doesn’t lead to a dwarf, it leads to another puzzle.”
The dwarves had sent for Quentin and Button because they were the only ones flexible enough to crawl inside the new area. It wasn’t very big, but Quentin noticed the slope and knew what it was right away.
“It’s another reservoir,” he said. “Fill it with water, and something will happen.”
“There’s too much space for all our waterskins,” said Robben.
“The last time we saw one of these, there was a valve,” said Quentin. “There ought to be a valve here, too.” But not on the inside; if middle-aged dwarves couldn’t crawl in there, doubtless the elves couldn’t either. The valve would have to be somewhere accessible to them. Button and Quentin crawled back out and helped in the search.
The walls in the dwarven garden were more dwarf-scale than elf-height. They were tall enough for an elf to stand up in, but just barely. For once the dwarves could reach the tops of the walls without standing on anyone’s shoulders. But they couldn’t find a water valve.
“It ought to be somewhere near the top of that chamber,” said Quentin.
“We’ve looked all around it,” said Dannemora.
“Have we?” said Quentin. He looked at it carefully, measuring the depth in his mind, then surveyed the area outside of it. “We’ve only covered it on three sides. What’s on the fourth?”
“Rock,” said Joliet.
“If it’s supposed to be filled with water, the water has to come in from somewhere,” said Quentin.
“Unless it’s just an elf with a bucket,” said Joliet.
“That would have to be a company of elves with buckets,” said Quentin. “I think there’s a pipe. We just have to find it.”
It was Button who found it, and not on purpose. While the dwarves were looking for a valve, he had been studying the mushrooms which grew in all directions from the floors, walls, and ceilings of the dwarven garden. Carrolls have a special affinity for mushrooms, but they also knew they shouldn’t eat any they couldn’t identify, and all of these were strange to him. Still, he was curious to learn about them, and maybe one of the dwarves could tell him whether any were edible once they were done with their current task.
But as he poked them with his finger he discovered one along a wall near the reservoir that definitely wasn’t edible, or even organic. It was a mushroom that was made of metal. He tried lifting it and pressing it and turning it; it turned, but nothing happened. Then he tried turning it the other way, because even valves disguised as mushrooms would turn the wrong way at first for Button.
Water started pouring into the reservoir, and it quickly filled as the dwarves gathered around. When it had filled sufficiently to activate whatever device lay beneath, the whole bottom dropped and the water drained out again. Angola closed the mushroom valve, and they started looking around for something newly revealed.
They heard moans coming from near the entrance to the dwarven garden, and when they followed the sound, they found a small compartment with a very large dwarf inside. Even before seeing his face they knew it must be Newgate, a young and burly dwarf brought along purely for his combat power. He was Robben’s star pupil, and expected to lead the way in any fight the dwarves got themselves into. That had been useful more than once on their road to the east. But now he was cramped and miserable from being jammed into a chamber much too small for him. They pulled him out onto the floor, where Robben started trying to get his muscles to relax. Newgate would give them more of a fighting chance, if they could convince his body to recover.
Chapter 8 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison is Newgate.
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