chapter 2 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison (read chapter 1)

by Anta Baku


Though Quentin was the youngest of the dwarves, there wasn’t any way to tell it by his beard. It had always been as full and dark as any of the others’, but now it was becoming uncontrollable after only a few days of imprisonment. Dwarven beards grew unnervingly fast to Button’s perception, and no matter what nasty things had happened to them on their journey, the dwarves always made a point of twice-daily grooming, even during the times when their tools had been taken from them and they had to improvise. 

The carroll now understood why. Quentin, once he had woken up, was not as badly off for his imprisonment as Button had feared. But he definitely looked an object of pity, and Button had to continually remind himself not to treat the young dwarf that way, which would certainly have offended him. Finding Quentin a method of trimming his beard would have to be a priority. And the other dwarves would doubtless need to do that as well. 

For now, though, they needed to find a way out of this cell before the elves discovered them. They could just go back the way Button had arrived, but an elf had come through here and not returned, so there must be a second exit. And it was likely that exit led to an unexplored section of the caves where the other dwarves were being held. 

Button explained to Quentin the two door mechanisms he had discovered, and together they searched the walls of the small chamber for others they might have missed. The young dwarf had been too hopeless to observe the entries and exits of his captors in the early part of his imprisonment. So they had to try to discover the second way out by themselves. 

They fell easily into conversation while they searched, something Button had seen Quentin do with the other dwarves but never yet experienced for himself. On the journey he had been friendly and easygoing with everyone except Button; now with no one else to talk to he turned that skill toward the carroll, who found it welcome. They shared their experiences after they were separated by the disastrous attempt to join the elven feast. Quentin was particularly interested in the fact that the elves operated their mechanisms with water.

His specialty was something with water; Button remembered that much. But all the dwarves’ skills had sort of slipped by him in that first uncomfortable party, even the ones he had been able to understand. Quentin did something that sounded obscure and technical, but Button was pretty sure it had to do with water. So he asked the dwarf about it while they looked over the grimy walls.

“I’m a hydrologist,” said Quentin. “You’ve been with us for months and you don’t even know that much?”

“Nobody talks to me,” said Button. “Besides, I don’t even know what a hydrologist is.” 

“I manage the water cycle,” said Quentin. Button obviously didn’t look very enlightened by that, so after a moment he continued. “Rain, rivers, reservoirs, ground water, evaporation? I do all of that.”

“You make it rain?” said Button. 

“No, I don’t make it rain,” said Quentin. “What do they teach you people, anyway? No, I keep track of all the ways water moves through the environment. If I’m working at a dam I make sure we always have enough water behind it, and that we’re making good decisions about how much we let flow downstream, and about how we manage the reservoir.” 

“Have you worked at many dams?” Button asked. Quentin was a very young dwarf. 

“Well, no,” said the dwarf. “I was supposed to have an internship for the last summer of my schooling but that… didn’t work out, I suppose. And after I graduated I decided to come here instead of looking for a job.”

“Was school difficult for you?” said Button.

“Not at all! Well, the work wasn’t. I was at the top of my class! They couldn’t take that away from me. I’m good at this job, or I will be, when I get the chance to do it.” 

He may very well have been right, because at that point he discovered the second exit. It was another basin very much like the one Button had used to enter the room, but well-concealed by the dim light and the dirty walls. The carroll had to go scrambling back into the elf-caves for more skins of water; Quentin made it very clear he wasn’t to bring only one this time. They didn’t know what they might find on the other side of the hidden door, and by now both of them were expecting more water-driven mechanisms. 

By the time Button got back, Quentin had thought better of opening the new door right away. He asked what time it was outside the cell, because the elves had left him with no true perception of time. Even the meals were irregular. Upon learning that it was mid-afternoon, he determined to wait for most of the elves to go to sleep before setting out in search of the other dwarves. 

He hid the water-skins around the cell well enough that the short-sighted elves surely wouldn’t discover them. Button could have hidden there as well, but the dwarf clearly didn’t want him to. So the carroll went back to one of his previous hiding places, with directions to await the end of the elven day and return with as much water as he could carry. They didn’t need to waste a skin closing the door Button had entered by; Quentin simply pushed it shut behind him.

His evening was uneventful. He stole another meal, and tried in vain to find some food that he could keep in his pockets, but wouldn’t smell strongly enough for the elves to locate him. It wouldn’t have done much good to bring it to Quentin anyway; the elves may not have been able to smell carrolls for some reason, but the smell of unwashed dwarf was both much stronger and much more culturally relevant. 

He came back to the cell as the earliest elves of the leadership-class were retiring to their beds. The servants would take longer, and others doubtlessly would be staying up late into the night drinking. But at this point the risk of anyone visiting Quentin was lower than the chances they would find Button in his own hiding place. So they pushed the door shut behind them again and sat together in the dark for a while, waiting for a good moment to escape.

Button told him everything he could think of that he had learned about the elven caverns. That didn’t take long, and they quickly agreed that the only thing to do next was continue exploring in hopes of finding the other dwarves. There was still plenty of time to wait, and both of them were starved for conversation, but Button had a hard time thinking what else to talk about, and it seemed to him Quentin was in the same position. 

He had tried showing interest in the dwarves early in their journey, and been rebuffed. If anything, they had proved to be even more insular and standoffish than dwarves’ reputation in Carrollton society. But maybe this difficult situation would give him an opportunity to learn something, and maybe even make one of the personal connections he had failed to develop so far. The situation was marginally less hopeless, and the chance of having to stand as spokesman for the dwarves at some point in the future marginally more possible. And Button still took the job he was hired for a little bit seriously, even if it had become almost entirely ridiculous. 

“Tell me more about what it’s like being a hydrologist,” he said. Maybe that would get the dwarf going, and pass the time.

“You want me to teach you the water cycle in a dimly-lit cell? With no demonstration materials?”

“I don’t mean technically,” said Button. “I want to know what it means to you, what your experience is like.” 

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, how did you get started in it? You said you were the best in your class. Tell me about your education.” 

“Oh. Well, it started with a turtle, I suppose,” said Quentin. 

Or with a bunch of turtles, in a pond near Quentin’s family home, when he was a child. Well-off dwarves lived deep underground, in dry caverns dug into bedrock well below the water table. Quentin’s family were one financial misfortune away from having to live on the surface, and their quarters were constantly damp from proximity to natural aquifers and surface water. 

Quentin was too young to know he shouldn’t love them. While other dwarves in other circumstances were wielding toy axes and doing simple mineral extractions, Quentin’s play was following the water. He delighted in the flow through natural caves, the unexpected beginning and ends of karst streams, and the thorough saturation of gravel deposits. And eventually he made his way to the surface, which his parents were too busy to effectively forbid him. 

There he found a whole new set of fascinating animals who delighted in water as much as he did. Wading birds, frogs, otters, and insects were delightful, but the animals he bonded with most were the turtles. Heavily-armored, slow-moving, voracious omnivores had an obvious attraction to a dwarf, and Quentin envisioned a turtle society not unlike dwarven culture. One where knowledge and skill with water were prized, instead of sidelined. 

Naturally he wanted some of his own, but his parents quite firmly denied that ambition on the grounds that they couldn’t afford to buy their son a turtle habitat. Taking pets was a rare hobby in the dwarven halls, and an expensive one. 

So instead Quentin learned everything he could from watching turtles in the wild. He spent more time outside than any young dwarf ought to, and often came home smelling like pond. If his parents hadn’t been working multiple jobs to stay afloat, they might very well have objected. As it was, they hardly noticed. 

Soon he was scavenging materials and building homes for his favorite turtles. He couldn’t have hidden that at home, no matter how exhausted and unaware his parents were. So his first experiments were outdoors, and then as they got more sophisticated, inside darker, wetter karst caves that even the poorest dwarves hadn’t yet been driven to turn into rudimentary homes. 

Learning to make the turtles happy was easy. The hard part was figuring out how to keep them happy without Quentin’s constant maintenance. Cleaning and descaling the turtle habitats was easy enough, and would always be necessary, but they were constantly losing water and having to be rebuilt and resupplied. When he got old enough to be sent to school, there was no longer time for Quentin to keep up with it all. 

He ought to have cut back on turtles, and turned his attention to his studies. Instead he set out to solve the water problems. If he could keep one portion of water within the habitat for long enough, he could reduce the workload and keep all of his turtles. Maybe he could even add more.

So the young dwarf went to school, and instead of going home or socializing afterward, he retreated into the uninhabited caves and slowly built an empire of turtles. He took what he had learned from the underground rivers and the surface ponds, and reasoned his way into methods for keeping water flowing through his turtle habitats. Many of the things he tried were unsuccessful, but he learned from each failure and kept scavenging and building. 

If things had gone on that way, Quentin might have spent his life building and ruling over a turtle civilization. But his father was relegated to the most dangerous jobs in the bauxite mines, and one day the risk caught up with him. A grieving mother’s first mindless impulse was to find her oft-neglected son. In the moment of her life that was farthest away from thoughtfulness or reflection, she stumbled upon a cave in the undeveloped karst that was unexpectedly warm and well-lit. A cave that her young son had refitted into a veritable chelonian paradise. 

She took him home, and was unable to process the existence of the turtles for days afterward. Charity kept the grieving family in their home, and paid for the funeral arrangements. Quentin stayed home from school, and she kept him close to him as much as she could. He managed a few short trips to the turtles, and was gratified that they seemed to get along well without very much attention from him at all. 

When his mother was finally able to turn her mind to her son’s surprising hobby, consciously she worried about his excessive scavenging, about his lack of social development, about an obsession which had apparently grown for years under a lack of parental attention. But beneath all that she felt an uncomfortable grain of wonder at what he had done. No dwarf is truly immune to the great constructions of another dwarf, no matter how far from the expectations of society those constructions might be. And for all that Quentin’s turtle empire was unexpected and outrageous, she could see that it was also great.

So in among the scramble to stay alive as a new widow, she found bits and bobs of time to seek out dwarves who would be able to make a fair evaluation of Quentin’s work. That wasn’t easy in a society dominated by the mining industry and the military. But any underground civilization must give great attention to water management, and any population of water managers will have a fair proportion of people who are personally obsessed and a little bit out of the mainstream. 

Which is how Quentin came to acquire a collection of slightly-eccentric mentors, and a scholarship-funded place in a well-regarded boarding school. His mother, meanwhile, reduced her expenses to maintaining the life of a single dwarf, a pressure she was barely able to handle. They had never been close, and her dutiful visits to the school were awkward for both of them. Eventually she stopped coming. 

He wasn’t allowed to keep the turtles. Only one visit to set them free into the outdoor pond where he had found them in the first place. He resented that for a while, until he discovered that the workload in his new school was far too demanding to have continued caring for them in any case.

In most subjects, Quentin had to work harder than his classmates just to keep up. They were from wealthier families, and more comfortable, and more willing to spend their time on things Quentin considered frivolities. He gained a reputation for being studious. He also gained a reputation for being standoffish, although he always made an effort to be affable to everyone. He just didn’t have energy to spare for being interested in them. And they didn’t understand that he had nowhere else to go if he was unable to succeed in this environment.

In the standard academic subjects, he might have lost his scholarship despite his work ethic, for he consistently failed to stand out in any of them. But any time the opportunity to work with water was available to him, he seized it enthusiastically. Every year presented a few opportunities to show himself to be exceptional, if in a very limited realm. He didn’t love water-based mechanicals, but he was extremely good at them nonetheless. And any time he could make use of his knowledge of the natural water cycle, and his aptitude for manipulating it, he showed himself deserving of high honors. 

Sometimes those projects attracted attention outside of his own school. He got offers for other scholarships, at other schools. While some of his more ambitious classmates were scrambling for places to move onward and upward, Quentin just waited until someone tried to recruit him, and then made his choice based on which school he thought was likely to give him more opportunities to work with water. All of them were full of other work, and that other work was difficult and labor-intensive for him. But when he sought out water, everything was easy, and the results were always outstanding. 

“You couldn’t just concentrate on that?” asked Button.

“Hydrology is a narrow discipline,” said Quentin. “I didn’t get an opportunity to study it almost exclusively until the university level.”

“That must have been very rewarding for you,” said Button.

“It was. And in some ways it wasn’t,” said Quentin. “We should go. All good elves should be in their beds by now.” He took one of the skins Button had left with him and used the water in it to open the door to the unknown section of the underground kingdom.

The new tunnels didn’t look any different than the old ones, but Button was aware of an immediate increase in the difficulty of staying unseen and unsmelled. It wasn’t the architecture, but the presence of a dwarf who didn’t have carroll-style hiding skills, not to mention whatever it was that made Button personally unsmellable. Button had to go significantly in the lead, and retreat hastily any time an elf was nearby. They made very little exploring progress, and he began to wish he had just left the dwarf in his cell and moved through the new section of elf-tunnels on his own.

Even Quentin started to entertain that idea by the tenth time they had taken refuge in a deep, uncomfortable nook. “We aren’t getting anywhere like this,” he whispered as they were preparing to leave this hiding place. Button just nodded agreement, hoping the dwarf could see him in the dimness. Talking was just going to make it worse. 

But soon they encountered a region of the underground settlement that smelled so strongly it even overpowered the stench of unwashed dwarf. Maybe the elves could have distinguished one reek from the other, but this smell was so strong Button could only imagine elves wanting to run away from it. It wasn’t totally unpleasant–one of the dominant undertones was mint, and another Button couldn’t immediately identify, though he associated it with food as well. But there was a third component of very unpleasant character. 

Button and Quentin pressed on into the stink, because it might just conceal the dwarf well enough to get some exploration done. Button found it very unpleasant, but tolerable. Quentin could tell there was a smell in the air, but didn’t seem to mind it very much. 

They were both surprised when they found several dozen elves in the center of the smell. There were two female supervisors wearing masks, presumably to cut down on the stench, but the rest were a group of servants who had no masks and no clothes. And rather than trying to mitigate the smell, they were creating it. 

There were barrels in the center of the room, with a greasy mixture that contained green chunks of mint and white chunks that Button now identified as smashed garlic cloves. They were held together by a yellow-brown ooze that was probably some sort of rancid animal fat. 

The servants were rubbing this mixture all over their own bodies. 

Button couldn’t come up with any reason to do that. Or maybe the smell was the reason. Whatever the meaning of this activity, though, what was certain was that these elves were in their way. And while they wouldn’t be smelling anything but the grease on their bodies anytime soon, even elven eyesight would have spotted Button and Quentin sauntering across the room. They backed out carefully, and Button led them hastily out of range of the stench, which had spread almost back to Quentin’s cell. They ducked back in and closed the door behind them to keep it from passing through into the outer section of the elven community and revealing that the door had been opened. 

“That’s going to take hours to dissipate,” said Quentin. “Even after they’ve finished. Whatever it was they were doing.”

Button had had a moment to think about that. “I think it was a punishment,” he said.

Then he had to explain to Quentin about the female leadership of the elven society, and the scandal over the servants who had been fraternizing with the males during the feast the dwarves had interrupted. These must have been those very servants receiving their elven justice. Not only would they be extremely unpleasant to themselves until the smell of the mint and garlic mixture wore off, surely no other elves would be interested in coming near them. 

“It’s a sense-driven form of temporary ostracism,” said Button, marveling. 

“That sounds like women,” said Quentin.

“Do dwarven women do something like this?” asked Button. “I thought you were a male-dominated society.” 

“We used to be,” said Quentin, grumpily. “Now we’re egalitarian, supposedly. But who knows how long that will last.”

“What sense would you use to punish a dwarf?” asked Button, imagining that somehow it might be possible to ostracize someone through their awareness of gold. 

“Not sensory,” said Quentin. “But ostracism? They love ostracism.” 

“That sounds personal,” said Button.

“It is.”

It’s not that Quentin thought Tutwiler and Holloway weren’t important. The duo had done a lot of work to systematize hydrology, and put it on a par with the mining disciplines in the dwarven higher education system. And he had to admit they hadn’t been wrong about letting dwarven women into the discipline, either. Many of the young women in his classes were highly capable. 

But being leaders in the integration of women into the science meant that much of their other work was treated as if it were above criticism. And nobody with a large body of work is right all the time. Quentin was never out to attack Tutwiler and Holloway (and Styal before them)  over their gender politics. He just wanted to think about underwater habitats.

Those had been popular in the East, before the fall of the dwarves’ greatest dam to the milfoils and the elder pinniped who gave them power. Before the fall of their second-greatest dam to the terrible Muskellunge. They were never so popular in the West, where dams were smaller and habitable caves more abundant.

Styal had warned against the construction of underwater habitats in ancient days, but her predictions had languished in obscurity until the awakening of the pinniped and the loss of the great caverns of Khatchi-Dami. Tutwiler and Holloway found them, then, and revived them. The ancient predictions of the first female hydrologist became a famous symbol for the cause of integrating women, when it looked like they were coming true. 

And when the Muskellunge arose from the long lake and drove the dwarves Quentin and Button were now traveling with out of their own dam, their own homes, it made the conclusion undoubtable. The dwarves had built too greedily, and too deep. 

Except for one young hydrologist who was convinced the underwater habitats had nothing to do with it. A socially-awkward but extremely intelligent western dwarf who was destined to be the star of his generation of hydrologists, if only he could fit into the expectations of the discipline.

But it was never Quentin’s personality to deny his perception of the truth in order to fit in. Underwater habitats weren’t very important, in the grand scheme of things. Not to Quentin, and not to anyone else in the west. (And there were no dwarves left in the east.) But questioning Tutwiler and Holloway, and particularly questioning the wedge issue which had allowed them to force egalitarianism into the hydrological establishment, was important to a lot of people. Particularly every dwarf woman who was studying to become a hydrologist. They saw it as an attack on their own positions, and their own futures. Quentin just saw it as seeking the truth about the risks of building homes beneath the surface. 

Neither of them could convince the others. And while Quentin maintained the highest standing in his classes, where the question of underwater habitats never came up, as time went on his external opportunities dried up. Lesser students got internships, research opportunities, and awards. In class he overheard young women talking about the professional connections they were making. Outside of class they wouldn’t talk to him at all. Male classmates quickly learned that befriending Quentin was a path to similar treatment. 

Quentin took advantage of being left to himself. He did more schoolwork, and more independent research. He widened the gap at the top of his class. He proved to his own satisfaction that the theory of underwater habitats awakening ancient monsters was unjustified. But showing that proof to others not only failed to convince them, it made things worse. 

By graduation no one wanted to listen to him, and while he got a few job interviews based on his high marks, all but one were rescinded before he actually got into the interview room. Even Quentin was socially sensitive enough to know that word against him was getting around. 

That one interview didn’t go well. Maybe it would have if he hadn’t been deeply self-conscious by that point. If he hadn’t brought up the concept of underwater habitats all by himself in an attempt as self-justification. The job had been about maintaining the drinking water supply. Underwater habitats had nothing to do with it. It went to someone else, and the last of Quentin’s once-high prospects went with it.

“So you came out here to prove that underwater habitats were safe after all?” 

“That’s not why,” said Quentin shortly. “We should try going out again. The night is getting old.” 

Button gingerly opened the door into the smelly part of the caves, but his fears of being assaulted via the nose were unfounded. The smell had dissipated enough that it couldn’t be detected from here, at least not by Button’s nose. An elf might have felt differently. 

Some scent still lingered in the room where the punishment had been administered, but it was more tolerable now. The elves, of course, were long gone. The servants had presumably returned to beds whose sheets would have to be burned in a week or so. And the supervisors to richer quarters where they could scrub off any smell that had attached to them from the miasma. 

There were no elves about at this hour at all, and Button was willing to take more risks. If the other twelve dwarves were all being imprisoned together, perhaps they could release them and escape before the morning shift arose. 

That was a lot to hope for, and before long they had explored every area available to them and found no dwarves at all. No elves, either, sleeping or otherwise. There must be more hidden doors around, and they set out hunting for them. Quentin found one quickly, and was already working to open it when Button arrived. The carroll’s better sense of smell made them think better of that idea. There was definitely mint and garlic behind that door, and they presumed it was where the punished servants had gone.

If there were other doors, they were harder to find. Either the elves already knew where all their controls were, or they were marked with scents too subtle for Button’s nose to discern. Quentin at least had a good idea where doors ought to be, if not necessarily their controls. So the two of them went around the dimly-lit caves together, looking for another way out. 

As they searched, Quentin slowly became more willing to talk. He told Button a little bit about what his life had been like immediately after graduation, when nobody wanted to hire him and he had to live frugally and scrounge for his most-basic needs.

“So how did you end up here?” Button asked.

“A reputation goes multiple ways,” said the dwarf. “The women were telling everyone why they shouldn’t hire me, and they did a good job. But any time you spread the word around far enough, eventually it will get to people who don’t like you very much.” 

“They wanted to live underwater?” said Button.

“No,” said Quentin. “But they were opposed to the women for other reasons. Some of them were eastern dwarves, refugees who hadn’t been welcomed in the west as well as they thought they deserved. In the big eastern dams, dwarves were more traditional. The male-dominated society you’ve heard of. Others were western dwarves with their own conflicts. They needed a hydrologist, and no one would work for them for a lot of the same reasons no one would hire me.”

“So you were a natural fit,” said Button.

“We thought so. Now, after months of traveling with them, I’m not so sure. I try to be nice to them, but they have their own groups, their own loyalties, and no one lets me in.”

Button was surprised to hear that. To his eyes, the dwarves were a mass of not wanting to talk to him. But apparently the youngest dwarf felt the same way. 

“I thought all of you were keeping me out,” said Button. 

“Well, you didn’t make the best first impression,” said Quentin. Button asked him how, but the dwarf didn’t want to talk any more about that. Instead he continued the story of how he met the other dwarves.

“They all wanted to go to the east,” said Quentin. “Reclaim their lost dam, and their lost culture. Their lost dominance, or the dominance they had never had and felt they deserved.”

“And you don’t want that?” asked Button.

“I just wanted to be hired,” said Quentin. “To be able to eat. Although that hasn’t been as successful as I hoped, so far.” 

“We could go back to the kitchens,” said Button.

“I’ll have you steal something for me later,” said Quentin. “We have to use this night as well as we can.” 

They went back to quietly searching for hidden doors. After a while, Button had a thought. “Going to the east meant going back to the underwater habitats. Maybe proving that they weren’t as dangerous as your enemies thought they were.” 

“I had that thought,” said Quentin. “Right now it looks less like we’re even going to get there.” 

At that point the dwarf found a wheel-driven valve not unlike the one Button had used to get into the elven halls in the first place. It was too high for either of them to reach, but Quentin boosted the carroll onto his shoulders. 

“You know I broke the last one of these that I turned, right?” he said.

“Just turn it and see what happens,” said Quentin. “I can’t hold you up all night.” 

This wheel only turned one way, preventing Button from getting it wrong. At first when he opened it fully he thought he had broken something again, because water started gushing out of the wall nearby, and quickly formed a small stream cutting them off from the rest of the room. But they soon saw that the bed of the stream was well-worn, and the opening it was exiting from was reinforced to make sure the water didn’t undercut the walls around it. 

Nothing else happened, though, and it seemed to Button like the wheel was just there to keep the stream from constantly pouring through the room. Quentin was more interested, and pointed out that there was an area not far from where they were standing, on their side of the steam, where water had regularly pooled. 

“This stream has been dammed before,” he said. “We should find out what happens if we dam it ourselves.” 

Pieces of wood in the room that Button had dismissed as random debris now looked like they might be materials to build a small dam. Unfortunately they were on the other side of the water from the carroll and the dwarf. Button found a narrow spot in the stream and leaped over, barely managing to stay dry. Quentin just grunted and trudged through the running water. Of course a dwarven hydrologist would have waterproof boots. 

The wooden bits fitted together more easily than Button had expected, and they found the obvious right place to set them up to stop the flow of water. A pool quickly grew on the side of the stream where they had originally been standing. Just before the water level reached the height of the dam, the flow started leaving the room through a previously unseen hole beneath a small ledge on the wall on that side. They could never have poured a significant amount of water into it from their skins, but it took the entire flow of the stream. 

There was a grinding sound, and a section of wall near the wheel-driven valve slid open. Behind it was another dwarf, this one older, balding, with white hair and beard. He was recently awake, and clearly in need of water. Button gave him one of the water-skins he was carrying, useless for getting through this door, but happily ready to hydrate a weary elder dwarf. 

This was Chino, the party’s oldest dwarf and the most skilled with his hands. Button and Quentin had managed the simple task of putting together the pieces of the small dam, but if they needed to build anything more complicated, Button was glad to have Chino along. 

However, now he had two dwarves, and it was almost morning. The elves would be awake soon, and would expect them in their cells. The search for their remaining companions would have to wait.

Read chapter 3 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison.

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