by Anta Baku

Chapter 5 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison (read chapter 1)


Joliet was an identical twin, or at least he had been at one time. Button wasn’t quite sure how to think of them in that sense. Joliet and his brother still looked alike, diverging physically only a little bit as they made their way to middle age. And their faces were still the same shape. But Joliet’s face was dominated by a huge dark spot on his left cheek, covering most of his face and nearly into his eye. His beard partially covered it, but that section of his beard was bright white, while the rest of it was just beginning its road to salt-and-pepper. Button didn’t know what had happened–he wasn’t sure anyone but the twins knew what had happened–only that it was a relatively recent acquisition, and nobody wanted to talk about it.

Well, for Button this was turning into an adventure in getting people to talk about things they didn’t want to. He didn’t see why Joliet’s face should be an exception. The two of them were sitting in the corners of Joliet’s cell in the botanical garden, waiting for night to fall and dwarves to safely transit the elven tunnels again. The other dwarves had gone away to sort themselves among the other cells; Button was glad of the opportunity to be somewhere new, with someone new to talk to. 

But Joliet didn’t want to talk about what had happened to his face. Joliet, in fact, wanted to talk about anything other than that. So Button asked him about his life before and after the loss of the dam.

“My brother and I were prodigies,” said Joliet. “Identical twins, sons of the highest society, bosom companions of the Young Prince. We were sent to the best schools, surrounded by the best companions. We were trained only for success. Then the Muskellunge came, and took it all away. We were outside when it happened. I’m sure Chino has told you about that.” 

“Yes,” said Button. “So you were one of his students?”

“I suppose you could say that,” said Joliet. “It was Chino who convinced us to continue our education in the west, even though no one there expected us to be great. He told us that hard work and dedication would pay off in jobs just as good as the ones we expected to get at home, even though nobody was reserving them for us.” 

“You say that like it was a bad thing,” said Button.

“Well, look at us now,” said Joliet. “Subordinate to a subordinate. A boss who’s all theory, and a big boss who’s so politics he calls himself the Patriarch, and both of them younger than us. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this isn’t exactly the Durin Club. No high-powered networking here. We’re all a bunch of failures, and my brother and I are the worst of them.”

“And you think continuing your education led to that?” said Button.

“Not exactly,” said Joliet. “When we started, we thought we were still on the same path, only a little rougher. We would learn engineering, and when the King and the Prince raised an army to retake the dam, we would slide right into the jobs we were supposed to be preparing for all along. School in the west was different, but it wasn’t that different. Life in the west was very different, but we could tolerate that for a while.”

“But they weren’t able to raise an army to return,” said Button.

“No, they weren’t. And there wasn’t a lot of reason to keep to them, without it. When we were young, before the Muskellunge, being friends with the Young Prince had a lot of benefits. He had more fine things, and opportunities, and courtesans than he knew what to do with, and some of them would overflow onto us. In the west it wasn’t like that. He had far less, and what he managed to get he held onto for himself.” 

“That doesn’t sound like it was a good situation for you.” 

“It wasn’t. Chino told us to build ourselves up and it would all be all right. We believed that for a while. But there’s only so much rejection you can take before you start wondering if the guy who’s building you up knows what he’s talking about.” 

“What kind of rejection?”

“Every kind,” said Joliet. “Coming out of school, we looked for jobs, but nobody wanted to give us good ones. They were just using us for a few months at a time, and giving nothing back. If my brother and I could ever have worked together, maybe we could have boosted each other and made something of it. Or if either of us had gotten a good job, he could have helped the other one. But nobody wanted us to do serious engineering work. They wanted us to come in and cover a gap until they could hire someone they liked better. Someone who was born in the west.

“And if you don’t have prospects, you don’t have anything, socially, romantically. We tried to talk ourselves up, thinking that a father-in-law with influence could be a path to better prospects. But it turned out we didn’t have good enough prospects to get a father-in-law like that. We were always just outside of society, trying desperately to get in. But nothing worked, and the older we got, the more pathetically desperate we looked for trying. It’s easier to convince someone you have potential when you’re in school, or just out of school. When you’ve had years of disappointment, people stop thinking you just haven’t found your place yet, and start thinking you’re a grifter.”

“Is that why you tried to retake the other dam? What was its name? Khatchi-Dami?”

“That might be why they tried to retake it,” said Joliet. “I never thought of it that way. But we didn’t go to Khatchi-Dami, my brother and me. We wanted our old lives back, not the glory of bygone eras. And we had been drifting away from the rest of the eastern dwarves for a while by that point, anyway. The western dwarves wouldn’t accept us, and the King and the Prince thought badly of us for seeking their approval at all. Chino kept telling us to work hard and things would work out. After a while that advice gets tiring.”

“So why are you here with them after all?”

“We came back. And then we left again, and then we came back again. I guess we’re always doomed to end up together, even if we’d rather not. That’s what happens when the lives you expected were ruined, and your only hope is to somehow get them back.” 

At that point the other three dwarves showed up. Button wasn’t used to being on the far end of the release schedule, and not having time to adjust to each dwarf’s presence one at a time. They were just all there in front of him, and Chino and Robben were arguing again. Chino wanted to continue exploring the botanical garden, which made sense to Button. There was a tantalizing potential in the unknown reaches of its landscaping, and who knew how many dwarves might have been stashed away in otherwise-unused spaces? 

But Robben was more focused on the “public” part of things. After nearly getting caught the night before, he wanted to stay as far away as possible from places where there might be elves. And Button had to admit he had a point. 

They ended up deferring to the strategy specialist, though Chino grumbled about it and wasn’t interested in Button’s theory that they could always search the gardens later. But he put his full effort into looking for secret doors in the utilitarian, and deserted, section of tunnels Robben had found for them. They made Button the lookout, and Robben quietly told him to make sure Quentin didn’t wander off again. But without interesting water features for him to chase, there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about on that front. The dwarves just methodically covered ground until they found something. 

While they were searching, Joliet explained the first time he and his twin had returned to the society of the western dwarves. “After the disaster at Khatchi-Dami, well, the opinions of the King and the Prince didn’t matter anymore. The Young Prince was King Under the Watershed now, for whatever that meant. And we had always been friends in the old days. His patronage might be much-reduced, but by then so were our ambitions. And he had new friends with new plans that suited us better than a doomed mission to a mythical lost utopia.” 

“Khatchi-Dami isn’t mythical,” said Chino. “I’ve been there.” 

“It’s not the place that’s the myth, it’s the expectations,” said Joliet.

“You’ve had your share of false expectations,” said Chino.

“That’s why I know so much about them,” said Joliet. “Now will you let me tell Button my story?” Chino waved a hand at him and moved farther down the wall. Not out of earshot, but far enough to demonstrate his withdrawal. 

Joliet went on. “That’s when the Patriarch showed up, though he hadn’t yet decided he wanted to be called that. He had plans to make us important again, to bring back the old values of the west and reform society around his followers. To throw out the dwarves in power who had allowed the east to become decadent, and put us into their places. We would have wealth, and influence, and women to serve our every need. It sounded like a good idea at the time. It still sounds like a good idea. It just didn’t end up happening.” 

“He wanted to give you back everything you had lost?” said Button.

“And more,” said Joliet. “I suppose we should have been more suspicious of that. But he told us what we wanted to hear, and we believed him. We agreed to follow his plans, to become his lieutenants. But like everything else, after a while, we learned better. He had a lot to say about the privileges of the future, but as the future kept coming, it never seemed to get any closer to reality.” 

“He was taking advantage of you,” said Button.

“Oh, I think he really wanted the revolution he talked about,” said Joliet. “He still does, if you can get him started. But wanting it won’t make it happen. He talked a lot of other people into wanting it, and that still didn’t make it happen. He wasn’t good enough, or we weren’t good enough. I don’t know which. Maybe both.”

“So you left again?” said Button.

“My brother and I had had too much failure in the west,” said Joliet. “We had to move, to change things somehow. At that point we had done everything together, and none of it worked, so we agreed that we should strike out independently. Each of us would leave, alone, and travel the world looking for opportunity. The first one to find something worthwhile would let the other one in on it.” 

“And that didn’t work either?” said Button.

“Or it worked too well,” said Joliet. He put his hand to the dark spot on his face. He paused, and Button thought he was about to go on, but at that point Robben found something.

This secret door wasn’t made like the other ones. It wasn’t small, or elegant, or controlled by water. When they started pulling panels off the wall the mechanism just went on and on, with gears and chains and pulleys and other mechanical things Button couldn’t identify. He wasn’t even sure it was a secret door, but it was clearly a secret something. He just hoped Chino would be able to figure it out. Or at least make a good guess at what it did before they started trying to make it work. 

The old builder ended up sending Button away for writing materials to make a diagram. The night was getting old by the time the carroll returned, and while Chino started drawing, Robben was getting more and more nervous. 

“Should we wait to open this until tomorrow?” he said. 

“We’ve got plenty of time,” said Chino.

“I don’t know how you know that.”

“I’ve been out here longer than you,” said Chino.

“By two days.” 

“We can’t be afraid of the elves all the time,” said Quentin. 

“My brother might be in there,” said Joliet. “We have to open it.” 

Button just stayed quiet. The other three won out over Robben this time, and when Chino showed them which chain to pull, all four of them lined up to tug on it together. They needed a lot of force, and the results were appropriately dramatic. The ceiling rumbled above them, and the whole wall opposite the mechanism split apart and rolled away, leaving a large opening into an area that was unlike anything Button had imagined being part of the elven settlement.

For one thing, it was well-lit. But not with the greenish weak electrical light of the elves; this was red, and alive, and while Button couldn’t make out anything burning it certainly felt like the kind of light that came from fire. It was simultaneously enticing and frightening. Button couldn’t quite identify what specifically he was afraid of about the warm light, but there was something subconscious telling him not to go in there. It fought against his reflexive desire for something more welcoming than the dimness of the elf-tunnels. 

The dwarves were even more taken aback by it than Button. At least Chino and Quentin were; they were already discussing how to get the door closed again. 

“I don’t think my brother’s in there,” said Joliet, quaveringly. “I hope my brother’s not in there.” 

Robben wasn’t feeling the same, or at least wasn’t interested in admitting it. “What’s wrong with you?” he said. “A minute ago you insisted on opening this door, now you don’t want to go in?”

“Look at it,” said Quentin. “The light, the way the walls are built, the shape of the room. Whatever that is, it wasn’t made by the elves.” 

“All the better,” said Robben. “It might be a way out.” 

“So save it until we find the others,” said Chino. 

“You still think we’re going to find all the others?” said Robben. “If this is an escape, we might have to take it while we can.” 

“I’m not leaving without my brother,” said Joliet. 

“Look, this is the next thing,” said Robben. “We searched for this, we found it.” 

“This isn’t what we were searching for,” said Chino. “Elves wouldn’t lock up dwarves in there. Elves wouldn’t even go in there. Smell it.” Button sniffed, and a strong sulfur smell had begun to invade the room they were in. He thought Chino was right about it being unappealing to the elves. 

“Close the thing before they find us,” said Quentin.

“You’re too late,” said a voice behind them. 

From the confident voice, Button expected to turn around and find a heavily-armed squad of elves behind them, ready to take them prisoner again and put them in some black hole they wouldn’t be able to escape. Instead it was just Vendiku. “What are you dwarves doing here?” he said.

“What are you doing here?” said Joliet.

“Following you, obviously,” said the elf. “I saw you sneaking around last night. And if somebody’s sneaking around I want to know why.” 

“You didn’t tell the Queen?” said Robben. 

“I try to tell the Queen as little as possible,” said Vendiku. “When I see her, we don’t talk much. She appreciates that. Everyone’s always talking to her.” 

“He didn’t tell the Queen,” said Robben to the other dwarves.

“I heard that,” said Chino, putting a little distance between himself and Robben, hands open, but with a more aggressive stance. Vendiku began to look alarmed, but while he was paying attention to Chino and Robben, Joliet and Quentin had gotten behind him. Joliet hit him low, and Quentin hit him high, and the older two dwarves stepped in to make sure he wasn’t going anywhere once he was down. They didn’t have any rope to secure him with, but Chino figured out some ways to make do. 

“He wasn’t even armed,” said Robben. “What was he expecting to do?” 

“Maybe we could ask him,” said Quentin.

“Never trust an elf,” said Robben. “Especially one you’ve just assaulted and tied up. You think he wants to tell us the truth?” 

“We have to figure out what to do with him,” said Chino. 

“Kill him,” said Joliet. “Toss him in there.” He indicated the newly-opened room. “We all think the elves don’t go there. They’ll never find him.” 

“We don’t kill prisoners,” said Robben. “And we don’t kill non-combatants.”

“We don’t kill women,” said Chino. “He’s not a woman.”

“He might as well be,” said Robben. “No weapons, no fighting spirit. Nonviolent. These elves are all backwards. I don’t care what equipment he has, he’s basically a woman.”

“We can’t keep him prisoner,” said Joliet. “Where are you going to put him? In your cell?” 

“I don’t know, but I’m not going to murder him,” said Robben. “We have to think of something else.” 

“And quickly,” said Chino. “Before someone comes looking for him, or just wakes up and finds us standing here.” 

“It’s the only way,” said Joliet.

“I’m sure we can figure something else out,” said Quentin. 

But they didn’t have time. Vendiku might have been less nonviolent than they expected, or maybe Chino’s improvised bonds were overly fragile. He kicked out at the arguing dwarves and knocked Quentin over, then was on his feet and headed back toward the center of the elven settlement. He might not have told the Queen about them before, but he would hardly keep quiet now.

Chino and Robben were running after him, and Quentin got up quickly and began to gain ground on the older dwarves. Button was no use chasing Vendiku, so he was the one who saw Joliet curled up in a ball on the floor, sobbing, not even thinking about the chase. Had Vendiku done something to him? Button didn’t think he had connected with anyone but Quentin. But the carroll rushed to Joliet’s side, hoping he could treat whatever wound was so terrible.

Joliet was clutching his face, but the black spot didn’t look any worse than it ever had. Button tried to get him to uncurl. Near the exit of the room Quentin had knocked Vendiku to the floor in a flying tackle, and the elf was fighting furiously to get up before the older dwarves arrived. Joliet was breathing, at least, though raggedly. Button tried to soothe him into more regular breaths. 

Vendiku pushed Quentin off again, and right into Chino. The two went down in a tangle of limbs, and the elf ran again with only Robben chasing him. He exited the room with Robben right behind him, and they turned out of sight into the next tunnel, but not out of hearing. There was a scream and a thump. Quentin and Chino finally got themselves disentangled and went to see what happened. They came back with Robben, the three of them dragging the motionless body of the elf.

“Can we tie him up better this time?” said Button.

“We don’t have to,” said Quentin in a tired voice. “He’s dead.” 

Robben had killed him, and Robben was furious about it. He was particularly furious at Joliet, and gave no thought to accommodating whatever trouble Joliet was having. “You’re the one who wanted him dead,” he almost shouted. “Now he’s dead! And we had to catch him without you!”

“He wanted to lay eggs in my face,” said Joliet.

“What?” Even Robben’s fury was distracted by the completely unexpected reply. 

“My brother said come, and I came, and he was right about the sisters, and the caves, but he didn’t know about the wanting to lay eggs in my face.” 

“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Robben asked Chino. The builder just shook his head. Robben took a few deep breaths. “It’s like a combat flashback.” 

“From Joliet?” said Chino. “He doesn’t fight. He wouldn’t even come with us to Khatchi-Dami.” 

“He’s kept up well enough in training,” said Robben. 

“I don’t think this was a fight he chose,” said Button. “Do you know how he got the mark on his face?”

“He never talked about it,” said Chino. “It was new, when the twins came back to us two years ago. When we asked, sometimes it seemed like he wanted to talk about it. But his brother wouldn’t let him.” 

“It doesn’t sound nice,” said Quentin. 

“You expected it to be nice?” said Robben. Quentin just looked abashed. 

“Well, we’ve got to get him to breathe,” said Button. “And we’ve got to figure out what to do with a dead elf.” 

“Who knows where the medic might be,” said Robben. But they all surrounded Joliet, trying to breathe calmly despite the situation and set a good example. Button suggested they talk about Quentin’s turtles, and after a brief burst of embarrassment from the young hydrologist, the subject was agreed upon. He wasn’t sure if the older dwarves were really interested, or just playing along for the sake of a neutral topic. Joliet gradually relaxed, but didn’t join in. He eventually stood up and went to the side of the room where there was still an intact wall to be by himself for a while.

The other four turned their attention back to Vendiku, but none of them had any great ideas for how to dispose of a corpse. After a few minutes of whispered discussion, Quentin suggested that they just follow Joliet’s original plan of stuffing the body into the fiery cave and sealing it back up again.

“That wasn’t a good plan,” said Joliet, who had come back up to them. “The elves will smell him.” 

“The elves will smell him anywhere,” said Chino. 

“So they need to know that he’s dead,” said Robben. “And we need to have nothing to do with it because we’ve all been safely in our cells.” 

“Which means we’re going to have to be in our cells for a few days at least,” said Chino.

“Except Button,” said Quentin. “They don’t know about Button.” 

“That’s true,” said Chino. “Button can come back and explore these new caves while we’re being good dwarves who didn’t kill anybody.”

Button didn’t want anything to do with the new caves. “I can’t even open them,” he said. “It took all four of you to pull the chain.”  

“I can make something to help you,” said Chino. “Don’t worry about it.” 

Button’s other spluttered objections weren’t even as strong as that one, and the dwarves rode right over them. He almost didn’t tell them when he had an idea what to do about Vendiku. But getting rid of the corpse was more important than being annoyed at his companions, so he outlined his plan for them while they closed the door to the fire caves. 

He put them back in their cells, then went off to the kitchens to steal some mint and some garlic. If they kept rancid fat around for the punishments, it must have been somewhere else, but he thought the two aromatic ingredients would be enough to implicate an out-of-favor servant. He just had time to grind them together and rub them all over Vendiku’s rapidly-cooling body before the elves started moving about for the morning. Then he found a hiding place where he could spend several hours forcing himself to get to sleep. 

He eventually had to give up on that. Too much had happened, and too much unknown was yet to happen, and Button couldn’t stop thinking about any of it. He had to know what was happening with Vendiku. Had the elves found him yet? Had Button’s ruse with the mint and garlic worked to cast suspicion on the punished servants, and not the safely-imprisoned dwarves?

He kept popping out of hiding for a few minutes and walking around in an insomniac daze, which definitely wasn’t a good idea. A lot of avoiding elves was pure habit by now, but without a reason to be out among them, Button really shouldn’t be risking discovery. And yet every time he tried to settle down in one of his nooks, he was restless again within minutes. 

Nothing he overheard from the elves while he was out indicated they had found Vendiku yet, so he finally made his way back to the chamber where the body was, and looked for a hiding place where he could at least observe. The corpse was beginning to smell, even to Button’s senses; it would surely penetrate into other parts of the settlement before too long. 

There was a place above one of the removable wall panels that hid the secret door mechanism. It looked just large enough for a scrunched-up carroll. It was almost in the ceiling, and just a shadow in the sight lines of anyone in the room, but anyone secreted within it would have a good vantage point on whatever investigation eventually happened. Button managed to scramble up and in. It was easier to relax when he had something specific to watch out for, and wasn’t just wondering what was happening far away from him where he couldn’t do anything about it.

It wasn’t too long before the smell attracted elves, and then more elves, and eventually a female elf who took charge of the situation and kept the others from milling about too much. Apparently murders weren’t a very usual thing in elven society, and they didn’t quite know how to handle them. But the elf-woman picked up on the scent of mint and garlic quickly enough, and drew the logical conclusion from it. Nobody mentioned dwarves. Button was relieved right up until someone grabbed his boots and pulled him backwards out of his hiding place. Not into the elf-tunnels, but into the fire caves. 

“Button Gwinnett!” said an astonished voice. “What in the world are you doing here?” The voice had an age and a familiarity to it, but Button was hanging upside-down staring at grey-robed knees. He tried to twist to look up just as his captor tried to let him down, and ended up in a heap on the floor of the cave. He finally got a good look at the owner of the voice and was himself as startled as it had sounded. It was Pendleton the wizard, who had left them weeks ago on an important mission of his own. 

“Pendleton!” Button said. “You’ve come to rescue us, then?”

“Rescue you?” said the Wizard. “I don’t even know what you might need to be rescued from.” 

“We were captured by wood-elves,” said Button. “We’ve been trying to escape.” 

“Wood-elves, here?” said Pendleton. 

“Right on the other side of that hole,” said Button. “There’s a whole city of them.” 

“These caves must be larger than I thought,” said the wizard. “And the tunnels of the elves as well, for them to be so close together.”

“So you didn’t come here to rescue us from the elves,” said Button.

“No,” said Pendleton. “No, not at all. You’ll have to rescue yourselves from the elves, young Button. I have more important things to attend to.” 

“And if we fail?” 

“Oh, I will come for you in time,” said Pendleton. “When my battle here is finished, and the peace of the world restored, or at least propped up a bit. Some months from now, at the very least.” 

“Months?” said Button.

“Or you can get yourselves out sooner,” said Pendleton. “I have confidence in you. Some confidence even in your companions.”

“There’s nothing you can do to help us?” said Button.

“Only to tell you not to come back into these caves,” said the wizard. “There are enemies here far too dangerous for you to face.” He turned away, dismissing Button from his thoughts, but the carroll couldn’t let him go just yet.

“Pendleton?” he said, almost in a whine. 

The wizard turned, annoyed. “What is it?” 

“Can you at least boost me back into the tunnel?”

The elven investigators cleared out eventually, and a little later even the gawkers, after Vendiku’s body was removed. Nobody ever mentioned dwarves, and Button allowed himself to hope they had gotten away clean. After a few days of always finding the dwarves in their cells where they belonged, none of the elves would think to connect them to Vendiku’s death, even if they were discovered later. 

Of course, if they found a mysterious stranger from a little-known race who had been hiding undetected in their tunnels for weeks, they might very well decide he was to blame. Button needed to improve the quality of his hiding places.

The obvious place to start was the botanical garden. There was more light there, especially during the day, but that might not be much of an advantage for the weak-eyed wood-elves. And there were many, many more hiding places among the trees and plants and landscaping elements. The little building that had contained Joliet, and perhaps did again by now, had cousins scattered all over the gardens. 

Button explored somewhat deeper into the gardens than previously, and the oak, beech, and fir of the local forest gave way to larger trees that Button had never seen before, with golden leaves and straight, smooth trunks and branches. The design style here changed as well; the paths in places climbed up staircases built around the trunks of trees, crossed rope bridges between them, and visited sitting areas nestled at the tops of the main trunks. There were elves there, sitting, meditating, conversing, merely passing through. But none of them saw Button, because this was one of the easiest places in the world for a carroll to move about while remaining concealed. He wondered if it mirrored a real forest somewhere, and if he would ever get a chance to visit it.

One of the largest treetops supported an enclosed building, though it would not have made a good hiding place at all, for the walls were transparent. More interesting, though, was what Button could see it contained even from far away: another dwarf. He made his way closer to it, bit by bit, avoiding elves when necessary, and before long could see that it was Joliet’s twin. Dannemora looked almost exactly like his brother, though without the black blemish on his face. 

Button eventually found his way to the platform, and they made hand signals at each other, but Button couldn’t figure out how to free Dannemora from his cell, and if the dwarf was trying to communicate how it opened, Button wasn’t able to interpret his gestures correctly. He hoped understanding was better on the other side of the wall, and that his own gestures had been able to communicate that he would eventually be back with the other dwarves.

For now he found a less-exposed place to finally get some sleep. 

Chapter 6 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison is Dannemora.

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