Chapter 8 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison (read Chapter 1)

by Anta Baku


They got some water into Newgate as his body relaxed a little bit. The young dwarf’s well-developed muscles were still spasming, but they weren’t completely locked up, and he could do more than whimper in pain. Still it was a while, and a lot of stretching and massage on Robben’s part, before they could get anything coherent out of him.

They were both appalled and relieved to learn that the elves had stuffed Newgate into his tiny cell on the first day and had never come back to check on him. On the one hand, he hadn’t had any food, or any water but what had dripped on him from the cave. On the other hand, none of the other dwarves wanted to volunteer to stuff themselves into the tiny space so the elves wouldn’t notice he was gone. They were smaller than Newgate, but not that much smaller. 

They had seven dwarves now and only five cells to keep full during the day, but the choice was obvious. Even once Newgate could move he still needed a lot of help, and his boss was clearly the one to provide it for him. So Button found himself back at the entrance to the fire caves with Newgate and Robben while the rest of them maintained the appearance of being helpless prisoners. 

Newgate wasn’t interested in the non-fighting parts of Button’s story, which were most of them. He reassured Robben about the death of Vendiku, understanding that without any younger, more powerful dwarves, the death of the elf had been unfortunate but understandable. “If I had been there,” he said, “we could have recaptured him. But without me there you did what you had to do.” Button wasn’t sure Robben agreed with him, but the master-at-arms didn’t argue, he just kept stretching Newgate’s hamstrings. 

The young dwarf was more interested in the fight between Pendleton and the mysterious evil being, especially after Robben told him that one of the high elves fighting alongside the wizard had been a woman. 

“Was she hot?” said Newgate. 

“You would ask that,” said Robben.

“Come on,” said Newgate. He turned to Button. “How about you? Did you think she was attractive?”

“I didn’t even know there was a woman until just now,” said Button. “I was too busy looking at the dark thing.”

“You’re as bad as the old men,” said Newgate. “A high elf! I wish I had seen a high elf.” 

“You would have been disappointed,” said Robben. “She had all her clothes on.” 

“Even so,” said Newgate.

“We were watching four luminous magicians fight the most evil thing we’ve ever seen,” said Robben. “We weren’t paying attention to how attractive the gleaming, formidable elf-woman was.” 

“I would have been paying attention,” said Newgate.

“I also had to stop the twins from charging in to try to punch the thing,” said Robben. “I was occupied.” 

“OK, fair enough,” said Newgate. “They’re worse than my friends sometimes.” 

“That’s debatable,” said Robben. 

“And what about you?” said Newgate to Button. “You didn’t even notice there was a woman?”

“I didn’t even notice there were elves. You don’t understand about the dark thing.” 

“I think I understand about you,” said Newgate. “I met that carroll woman outside your house the day we met you. She was OK, maybe a seven, if you’re OK with a seven. But then you’re not much more than a seven yourself, are you?”

Button didn’t remember which group Newgate had come in with on that day, and so had no idea which of the carroll women hanging around him the young dwarf had come into contact with. And he didn’t even want to guess which one Newgate might think was a seven. He had once had friends who thought like that, but not since he was a tween. Though he supposed Newgate wasn’t that much older than a tween himself.

“You shouldn’t be thinking about carroll girls that way,” said Robben. “You’re the biggest dwarf around. They’re much too small for you.” Button wasn’t sure that would have been his reason for thinking Newgate shouldn’t think about carroll women that way, but the young dwarf accepted the argument, sort of.

“That’s why I want to land an elf-girl,” he said. 

Robben turned the conversation then to physicality. The other kind of physicality. Newgate’s joints and muscles needed rest, and the master-at-arms wanted to ensure that they got that rest as quickly and effectively as possible. Button wasn’t excited about sleeping in the fire caves, but even they were a substantial improvement on Newgate’s cell. Robben awoke periodically to massage and stretch Newgate’s limbs, which woke Button but somehow not Newgate himself. He was so exhausted that once he got to sleep, nothing could wake him. 

Over the course of the day Button got better at not waking up whenever Robben moved, so when he finally came to for the last time the two dwarves were already up and moving about. Robben’s efforts had improved Newgate’s condition enough that they could do their regular calisthenic routine together, though the sparring afterward was extremely light. They sent Button to the elf-kitchens for food, with a much longer list now that Newgate’s metabolism was one of the subjects. By the time he got back the other dwarves had joined them. 

After breakfast Newgate wanted to check out the site of the battle. He called it “reconnoiter,” but Button couldn’t see what information he might have been looking for. He was pretty sure the young dwarf just wanted to gawk. And maybe hoped to catch sight of the elf-woman, even if it was a day later. Joliet and Dannemora agreed to lead him there, and Robben reluctantly went along to make sure they didn’t get into any more trouble. 

That left Button with Angola, who was his usual sad self, and Quentin and Chino, who weren’t any happier with each other than they had been the day before. “Why don’t you go with them?” said Quentin to Chino.

“I’m not a fighter,” said Chino.

“You fought at Khatchi-Dami,” said Quentin. “I think you just want to stay here and watch me some more.” 

“You don’t know anything about Khatchi-Dami,” said Chino. 

“And you don’t know anything about minding your own business,” said Quentin. “Going around trying to be a father to everyone. You’re not my father.” 

“Your father is dead,” said Chino.

“And he’s still better at it than you are,” said Quentin. 

Button winced at that. Angola actually perked up a little, next to him. “About time we had some drama,” he said for Button’s ears alone.

“Look at you,” said Quentin. “You keep trying to help everyone but nothing you do is any good. If it had been, the people you thought you were helping wouldn’t have ended up here. And when whatever dumb plan you come up with for one person doesn’t work out, you give up and move on to the next one. I’m the youngest, so I’m the new target. You need to learn to leave me alone, because I’m not going to be your next victim.” 

Chino looked like he had been punched. Repeatedly. And maybe stuffed into the cell that previously held Newgate, for a year or so. “All right,” he said softly. “I’ll leave you alone.” And he turned his back on Quentin and walked away into the fire caves. 

Button stood up to follow the old carpenter, but Angola held him back. “He won’t go far,” he said. “Better to leave them both alone until they cool down.”

Button tried to do that with equanimity, but he was restless. Quentin and Chino were the closest thing he had to friends here. Of course he couldn’t say that to Angola. He just hoped the dwarf was right, and their tempers would cool down eventually. They still had six more dwarves to find, and keeping these seven together was proving to be more difficult than he had expected.

Chino came back when he heard the party of fighters returning. They had scouted the place where the wizards’ battle had been, though there were no wizards any more, and no mysterious evil either. No sign of whether one side or the other had won the fight. They had explored further into the caves, but found no further evidence of magical battle. But they had found something else.

“We saw a dwarf,” said Dannemora.

“A very dead dwarf,” said Joliet. “We tried to get to him, but we couldn’t.” 

“Was it one of ours?” asked Chino. 

“Not unless he ran into something that turned him into a skeleton overnight,” said Newgate.

“It’s hard to know how long he’s been there without getting closer,” said Robben. “But months at least. Maybe years.” 

“What would a dwarf be doing here by himself?” asked Angola. 

“I don’t know,” said Robben. “You can go and have a look if you want. Maybe you two builders can get to him even though we can’t.” 

So Chino and Angola went to see what they could do, with the twins as guides. Robben must not have felt the need to go along to restrain them with Chino there, and besides, he wanted to work over Newgate’s muscles again. They required a lot of maintenance. 

Quentin was sulking in the corner, and Newgate noticed. “What bit him in the butt?” he asked Button. 

“Chino,” said Button. “Although Quentin was doing most of the biting. He feels like Chino is following him around trying to protect him.”

“Chino does that,” said Newgate. 

“Well, Quentin has been getting crankier about it lately,” said Button. “And I guess today was the day it was too much for him. He said some pretty nasty things.”

“I’m sorry I missed it,” said Newgate. “Hey, Quentin,” he called out. “Come talk to us. The old man is gone for a while.” 

Quentin reluctantly joined them. “Doesn’t his paternalistic act bother you?” he asked Newgate.

“Naw,” said Newgate. “He’s been doing it since I was a toddler.”

“Has it ever been good for anything?” said Quentin. 

“It probably was when I was little,” said Newgate. “Kids are like that.” 

“But you’re not a kid anymore,” said Quentin. “And I don’t think his advice has done adults any good.”

“What do I need with advice?” said Newgate. “I’ve got this body. I just fight whoever Robben tells me to and it comes out OK.” 

“There’s got to be more to life than that,” said Quentin.

“Sure,” said Newgate. “There’s girls.” 

“Have you had a lot of girlfriends, then?” ansked Button.

“Naw. Those girls in the west, there are hardly any of them better than an eight. And look at me, I’m clearly a ten. I’m out of their league. There will be hotter girls after we take back the dam.” 

“Where would they come from?” said Quentin. “You think they’re hiding in the surrounding countryside?” 

“They will hear about my outstanding buffness,” said Newgate, “and come to us from all over the world. Don’t worry, there will be plenty enough for you to have some after I’m done with them.” 

Quentin clearly was unconvinced by this theory, but too physically intimidated by Newgate to snark at him any further. “And so you put up with Chino?” he said. 

“I don’t think of it as putting up with him,” said Newgate. “It’s just a thing. He’s always around, he’s always been around, it’s no big deal. Just relax and do whatever you were going to do anyway. If you think he’s too paternalistic, you should meet my mother. You wouldn’t mind Chino anymore.” 

“What’s your mother like?” asked Button.

“Let’s just say there’s a reason nobody in the west wanted to marry her, and she ended up with an eastern refugee. And it’s really obvious. She won’t stay out of anybody’s business, especially mine. Chino might watch over me too much but at least he lets me drink and chase girls.” 

“And your mother doesn’t like you doing that?” 

“She doesn’t want anyone to drink,” said Newgate. “That’s why none of the people she grew up with will talk to her anymore, except for the other temperance ladies. They all had to take refugee husbands because nobody else would have them. By then I think my dad was willing to give up drinking to get laid, though he still sneaks some booze from time to time.” 

“There are temperance dwarves?” said Button. “My image was all of you quaffing ales all the time.” That was certainly how the beginning of the journey had gone. Before the ale had run out.

“And your image is correct,” said Newgate. “This was decades ago, before I was born, and they didn’t get anywhere.”

“That was right before we arrived,” said Robben. “Speaking out against drinking and materialism is a good way to get ostracized in dwarven society. So there were these young women who had lost their status, and eastern men coming in as refugees, and some of them thought they might as well get together. That’s why we have a younger generation at all.” 

“But it resulted in me,” said Newgate. “So something good came of it in the end.” 

Quentin turned away at that, ready to go back to his corner, but Newgate wouldn’t let him go easily. “Come on, Quentin,” he said. “If you really want to get Chino off your back just tie him up and spank him. My dad says that works on my mom.” 

“Oh yeah?” said Quentin. “And how often have you tried it?”

“It doesn’t seem to last very long for him anyway,” said Newgate.

“That would be what your last girlfriend said,” said Quentin. “If you’d ever had one.” 

Newgate tried to get up and go after him for that, but Robben held him back. “Why anyone would want to be paternalistic about you two I don’t know,” said the master-at-arms. “You’re so wholesome and mature. I feel like I’m at a garden party.” 

“I’d rather be in the garden,” said Quentin. 

“Yeah, well, no wandering off, please,” said Robben. “I think we’ll all be going back there pretty soon anyway. I hear the others coming back.” 

The master-at-arms was correct: the returning dwarves had found no method of approaching the body of the strange dwarf, or even coming close enough to learn more about him. Chino had a few ideas of what they could build to get there, but the others weren’t convinced it was important enough to justify the effort and the risk of stealing more supplies from the elves. They wanted to go back into the elven settlement and try to find more of their companions, and Robben agreed. 

Chino and Quentin avoided each other on the way back, staying at opposite ends of the group. Quentin was more forgiving of Newgate, apparently, or at least glad to finally have a dwarf in the party who was around his age. The two of them stuck together in the front, where Robben tried to convince them to go carefully and watch out for unexpected elves. Chino brought up the rear by himself. Button wasn’t sure whether to join him, but decided not to. Until they calmed down a bit, taking up with either of them might be seen as taking sides. He stuck with Angola, who didn’t offer much conversation, but also not much conflict.

There was one section of the botanical garden they hadn’t searched yet, one that Button hadn’t been able to identify the source of the design. It was densely planted with large trees, and while it was possible to move about between them, there were no defined pathways. The trunks had rough bark and huge circumferences; the branches and needles were almost too far above to see in the darkness. The elves hadn’t felt it was important to light this part of the garden at night, or didn’t want to ruin the natural flow of the trees. There weren’t very many built things here. 

That gave Chino the idea to try Button’s design sense again. If there was a dwarf hidden somewhere nearby, surely that would be apparent to the carroll. But since it was Chino’s idea, Quentin refused to have anything to do with it. That led to what seemed to Button to be an unreasonably-heated argument over who would have to hold Button’s hand. None of them really wanted to do it, which was fine by him, but they all seemed to think avoiding it was extremely personally important. Button tried not to be offended. For the first time in decades he wished he could turn the sense on by himself, just to spite them.

Eventually the older dwarves united in bullying Newgate to do it. As much as he had argued against the necessity, he wasn’t unkind to Button when the task fell to him. In fact he was more amiable about it than the force of his arguments had led Button to expect he would be. Even when the sense didn’t work as Chino was hoping it would.

“Everything around us feels built,” said Button. “Every tree trunk, at least.” Button felt smaller holding Newgate’s hand than he did even around Pendleton, who was much taller than the bulky dwarf. But he didn’t think that was likely to be interfering with his design sense. The trees around them looked like trees, and felt like trees, and smelled like trees. But either they weren’t trees, or something else was going on.

The most likely explanation was that Button’s haywire design sense just wasn’t working properly. But it had never malfunctioned in this way before. Natural things were a relief to him, because he never had to repress the urge to correct them inappropriately. He felt like the trees were betraying him, which didn’t make any sense, even though on a certain level this forest felt particularly alive. And if it were particularly alive, how could it have been built? 

With the trees so close together, none of them could see every other member of the group, and it took them a while to realize Quentin had wandered off again. Chino wasn’t watching him this time, naturally, and none of the others had been inspired to take over the task. They were just organizing themselves to go looking for the young hydrologist when he showed up again. But he wasn’t rejoining them, just passing through.

“What are you doing?” yelled Dannemora as it became clear he didn’t intend to stay.

“Looking for the outlet,” Quentin called back over his shoulder. 

“Do you have any idea what that means?” Dannemora asked the others, but they just shook their heads. 

“He’s got some wild idea,” said Robben. “Let him look for it, whatever it is. The rest of us aren’t getting anywhere.” 

Button had to admit that was true, and let go of Newgate’s hand, to the young dwarf’s relief. The sense of builtness of the forest receded just far enough to be irritating at the edge of his conscious perception. 

The others just waited, and this started to get to Joliet. “I think I saw one of these trees move,” he said nervously.

“Where?” said Dannemora.

“Out of the corner of my eye,” said Joliet. He turned to his left and pointed. “That one, I think.” 

“I was looking right at that tree,” said Angola. “It didn’t do anything.” 

“I wish I had an axe,” said Newgate.

“If you had an axe they might see you as a threat,” said Joliet.

“You think I’m not a threat now?” said Newgate, flexing.

“To a tree?” said Chino. “What are you going to do, punch it?” 

“He might,” said Dannemora. “He’s as dumb as a box of silmarils.” 

“Why say that about a young man who’s looking for something to punch?” said Angola. 

“Because I’m not afraid of him,” said Dannemora.

“Maybe you should be,” said Newgate. But before he could do anything to Dannemora, Quentin returned. 

“Did you find what you were looking for?” said Button, hoping changing the subject would defuse the situation.

“There’s more than one outlet,” said Quentin. “But only one of them is running.” 

“And what does that mean?” said Button.

“Oh, right,” said Quentin. “So, there’s an underground river running beneath this forest. I found where it goes underground up at the top. There’s just one entrance there. Down at the bottom there are dozens of exits, one big one and lots of small ones. But only one of them has water coming out of it right now.” 

“They’re watering the roots of the trees directly?” said Joliet.

“I don’t think so,” said Quentin. “There’s more to it than that. Button thought everything here was built, right? I think the whole forest is a giant machine of some sort. When the water goes to the places that lead to the smaller outlets, it does… something. I don’t know what.” 

“The only way to find out is to try it,” said Dannemora. 

“But try what?” said Quentin. “There’s got to be a control panel here somewhere. Probably uphill. We have to look for it.” 

There was a tall waterfall at the top of the woods, cascading into a tiny pool. Quentin said it was flowing out the bottom underground, and Button believed him. The water had to be going somewhere. He held Newgate’s hand again, but his design sense wasn’t any more useful up here than it had been downhill. Everything around them still felt built, except the wall of the cave behind the waterfall. At least that was a sign it was the place that was strange, and not Button’s design sense failing more completely than usual. 

It was Newgate who spotted the section of wall that wasn’t natural, because the tall dwarf was looking higher than everyone else. There was something up there rather like a balcony, and they could just make out some sort of equipment at the rear of it. It didn’t have an obvious access. Only Newgate could reach the floor of the balcony, and he had to jump to even get his hands on it. But he was able to get a grip and pull himself up with an ease that Button envied. 

“There’s a door up here,” he said. They tossed a water skin up to him so he could open it. “And a stairway leading down.” In a moment another door opened next to the waterfall, one they had missed, and Newgate poked his head out. “It’s just a way up to the balcony.” But it was one the whole party could take, and they did.

There was barely room for all eight of them on the balcony, and Button was worried that if they jostled around too much they might knock Joliet or Angola, who were on the outside, off of it completely. Perhaps they should have left some of them on the ground. But all the dwarves stayed to precariously watch Quentin experiment with the complicated controls. 

The main part of it was a row of two dozen keys, meant to be pressed, but none of them did anything when Quentin tried them. “Those must control the outlets,” he said. “But maybe something else controls the inflow.” There were other controls at the top of the panel, dials and pushes, pulls and switches, and Quentin started methodically activating them and then trying the main keyboard. After one of the pulls, the dwarves were all startled when pressing the keys produced a musical noise from the forest, and Joliet almost fell off of the balcony. Button couldn’t call it a chord, more of a cacophony, but then Quentin hadn’t been using the keys in a directed way, just hitting a bunch to see what happened. 

He started on the right side of the keyboard and worked his way left, hitting each key one at a time. The musical tones started high and stepped down as he went. Button and the dwarves carefully turned around on the platform so they were looking at the forest rather than at Quentin, but they couldn’t see what was causing the music. 

“I want to go down and see how this works,” said Quentin. He hadn’t even gotten halfway down the keyboard, but he turned it over to Angola. Button and the rest of the dwarves followed him down the staircase, except for Newgate who jumped off the balcony. They walked out into the woods as Angola continued to sound notes, trying to figure out what was causing them. The music came from all around them as they walked; it seemed to be coming from the trees themselves. 

Quentin spotted one while it was sounding and wrapped his arms around it. “It’s vibrating,” he said. “I think all these trees are hollow. The water flowing below must be making them resonate.” 

“So they really are built,” said Button. “The whole forest is a musical instrument.” He was about to comment on how beautiful the notes were when Angola struck a key that wasn’t beautiful at all. It made a particularly-rude sort of blatting noise, one Newgate couldn’t stop laughing at as Angola hit it over and over again trying to figure out what was wrong. 

The dwarves on the ground looked for the tree that was sounding incorrectly, and as they got closer to it they heard the muffled swearing of a bass voice every time Angola hit the key again. “There’s a dwarf in there,” said Chino. 

“Why would they put a dwarf in their musical instrument?” said Dannemora. 

“Who knows why elves do anything?” said Robben. “We’ve got to get him out of there.” 

Newgate offered to try to tear the hollow tree apart, but the others knew there had to be a mechanism to open it. There had to be some method the elves had used to get a dwarf inside, after all. Joliet found it near the bottom of the tree, a false root that could be raised to unlock a portion of the trunk. Out came an annoyed young dwarf, swearing in a deep voice that could only belong to Leavenworth, the turbine engineer and medic. He was surprised to see the dwarves gathered around him as he came out of the tree.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “I thought that was a new form of elven torture.” 

“We had to figure out where you were,” said Chino. 

“At least I’m out now,” said Leavenworth. “Are the others here?”

“Just Angola on the controls,” said Chino. “We still have more to find.” 

“And we’re out of time for tonight,” said Robben. “Besides that, I’m sure the elves would have noticed someone playing music in the garden in the middle of the night. We have to get out of here.” 

“There might be someone else here,” said Chino. “If all of these trees are hollow they might be full of dwarves.” They sent Quentin back to have Angola hurry through the rest of the notes, but none of the others sounded off. While he was gone the others decided Quentin should take Leavenworth’s place in the tree. 

“We can’t have that note work correctly if some elf comes down here and tries to play the thing,” said Dannemora. The other older dwarves agreed, but they didn’t want to climb in themselves. So when Quentin came back they told him he was going to spend the day here. He didn’t argue; Button suspected he was more than ready to be done with the other dwarves for a while.

Button told the other dwarves to go ahead, and he would get Quentin into the tree and catch up with them. But he really wanted a chance to put a thought into the young hydrologist’s head before they all split up for the day. “About Chino,” he said.

“I won’t apologize to him,” said Quentin.

“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” Button lied. 

“Then what?” 

Button had to come up with something to say quickly. Asking Quentin to apologize was exactly what he had intended. “Being a mentor is very important to him,” he said instead. 

“Then he should be better at it,” said Quentin. “Step one would be asking for volunteers instead of just following me around. Not that he’d ever get any.” 

“He’s been helping me,” said Button. He held up a hand to stop Quentin from responding. “And you’ve been helping me. If we’re going to get out of this I need both of you to keep helping me. Not fighting each other.” 

“I won’t fight him if he leaves me alone,” said Quentin. 

“Is there a way to get you two working together again?” Button asked. “Can you respect each other like colleagues?” 

“That’s what I’ve wanted all along,” said Quentin. “He keeps trying to be my boss or my father or something.” 

“I think you’ve told him not to do that now,” said Button. 

“So you want me to find some sort of middle ground? Why should that be my responsibility?” 

“Because we don’t have the luxury of giving the work only to the people who deserve it,” said Button. “If you can do it, I need you to try. Even if it shouldn’t be your job. We can worry about fairness when we don’t have to worry about elves.” 

“I can see that point,” said Quentin. “And I could make an effort, for you, and for the others. I just don’t know what that would be. I can’t apologize to him.” 

“Just think about it,” said Button. “It doesn’t have to be a lot. Make an effort to understand his position. Show him that you’re still present with him, even if you’re angry.”

“I can’t not be present with him,” said Quentin. “Elves.” He waved his hands to indicate the everything of everythingness. 

“Maybe think a little more symbolically than that,” said Button. “You might find an opportunity to say something. Maybe even without saying something.” 

“I’ll think about it,” said Quentin. “What else am I going to do inside a tree?”

“Sleep, I hope,” said Button. “We all could use some.” 

Quentin climbed into the tree, or the organ pipe. Button wasn’t sure how to think of it, but he sealed the young dwarf in anyway, and went off to catch up with the others.

Chapter 9 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison is Leavenworth.

For news and new story notifications sign up for my newsletter

  or follow me on Mastodon