by Anta Baku
Chapter 4 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison (read Chapter 1)
They left Quentin in Robben’s cell, on the theory that the elves were expecting one dwarf there, but so far they didn’t seem to be able to tell one dwarf from another. And Quentin really wanted to be alone. Chino went back to his original cell, with the food-storage device to occupy his time. Robben and Button returned to the large cell Quentin had occupied, still the only one with space to hide a carroll and the equipment necessary to let the others out.
When they got there, Robben just wanted to go back to sleep. Listening to the all-day elven party next door to his cell, wondering if drunken elves were about to break in and make him an object of their amusement, had left him exhausted. The excitement of being rescued by his companions might have kept another dwarf awake, but Robben was an old soldier, and when he decided he was ready to sleep, he nodded off instantly. Button took a little longer to get there, but eventually he rested as well.
They woke up once when an elf delivered a meal, but Robben wolfed it down and went right back to sleep. If the elf servant noticed there was a different dwarf in the cell today than there had been before, they showed no sign of caring. Button dozed after that, but wasn’t able to sleep again, especially since Robben snored loudly and erratically.
Eventually the noise let up, and the dwarf started going through his morning routine. Button had seen it every day on the journey from the west: calisthenics, followed by weapons practice, followed by sparring with a partner chosen for the day. It had always been another dwarf, of course. Button hadn’t been envious of the position, or interested in volunteering. And while Robben felt responsible for making sure the other dwarves stayed in shape, he had largely ignored the carroll.
This time there weren’t any engineers to harangue into participating, and in their absence apparently Button would do. Robben made him get up, and started trying to teach him the calisthenics routine as he went through it himself. Button wasn’t totally hopeless at that, but he didn’t catch on quickly, and Robben made him repeat each move until he got it right.
Maybe if he could get the dwarf talking he could have a little break. Button didn’t have a lot of breath left, but enough for a couple of questions. Button always had enough breath for a couple of questions. Maybe that’s why Pendleton had chosen him to come along.
“Chino told me about how the dam was taken,” he said. “But you weren’t in his group, were you?”
“I was in the dam,” said Robben.
“What was it like for you?” asked Button. “How did you get out?”
Robben had been the deputy Master at Arms in those days, apprentice to the dwarf responsible for defense of the dam. The Master himself was always an older dwarf, skilled at logistics, managing the supplies, scheduling the shifts, preparing contingency plans for any possible combat situation. The deputy was a younger dwarf, in peak physical condition, who trained the population, kept up readiness, and learned the details of the operation so he could one day succeed to the role of Master when his own body began to be less of a prime resource. So it went on through the centuries, passing from generation to generation. Master at Arms was the most powerful and prestigious role a non-royal dwarf could hold, and Robben was destined for it. Deputy wasn’t that bad itself.
But then an attack came for real, and in a way that they hadn’t prepared for. That they hadn’t even conceived. Sabotage, sure. Attacks by elven armies, human armies, armies of the undead? They had plans by the dozens to handle those. Hundreds of plans for fighting off the milfoils if they somehow descended on their dam the way they had on Khatchi-Dami. They wouldn’t get caught off-guard by that again.
But a giant fish who could grow legs whenever he wanted, who was inside the dam before anyone even knew he was coming, who rampaged through the dense bodies of dwarves like they were made of cardboard? They had no plans for that. How could they have made plans for that?
The men they had trained fought back by reflex. Some of them even managed to organize into coherent units, remembering their lessons well, trying to hold off the Muskellunge in disciplined formations. It didn’t make any difference.
Neither Robben nor the Master were on the front lines when it happened, and they had time to make decisions. Minutes only, but minutes to try to come up with some plan beyond reflex. Something that might be effective.
The Master thought he had one, or thought he might have one. Or pretended he had one. It was his responsibility to lead the dwarves in battle, whether he believed in his plan or not. Robben never found out the details of how the Master thought he could stop the Elder Fish. The deputy’s role in the plan was clear: find the royal family and get them to safety at any cost.
He found the King Under the Watershed and his son arming themselves for battle. They were preparing to set out and fight the Muskellunge in single combat if necessary. They hadn’t seen it. They didn’t know how impossible that idea would be.
Robben had to tell them. Had to give them details of everything he’d seen, of axe-wielding dwarves killed in instants, defensive formations with hundreds of years of history behind them shattered by the flick of a fin or one of those magical legs. This foe was not one that could be slain by personal valor. Not the source of tales of individual honor. If it could be taken down it would be through numbers, tactics, and the power of war machines.
If it couldn’t be taken down, someone would need to live to avenge them.
King York and Prince Waban were not dwarves to be discouraged by impossible odds, but they had to yield to strategic logic. Even so, they would not leave without the Young Prince, who was missing.
“Have you seen Chino?” Robben asked. They had not. “Chino will get him out,” he said. “We have to go.”
So they fled to the hidden exit which was known only to a few, and as dwarves died inside the dam their leaders took cover outside of it. Whatever the plan of the Master at Arms had been, it failed to drive back the Elder Fish, failed to return the dam to dwarven control. At the end only a few dwarven men were left for the King and the Princes to lead into exile in the west. Only a few men for Robben to organize, to drill, to hope to build into the seeds of an army strong enough to return and reclaim their home.
He was Master at Arms now. There was no prestige, no power, no wealth. Only vengeance.
“A few dwarven men to lead into exile?” said Button. “Weren’t there any female refugees?”
Robben flinched at that. “I need to spar,” he said instead of answering. “You’re going to help me.”
“I don’t know anything about fighting,” said Button.
“It’s about time you learned, don’t you think? Defend yourself.” And Robben came at him, faster than Button could react. He knocked the carroll to the floor. “Get up.” Button wasn’t hurt, so he got to his feet again. “Put your arms up at least,” said Robben. So Button put his hands in front of him in what he thought might be a defensive stance. Robben punched him in the left side, and when Button dropped his guard far too late, slipped him on the head. Button went down again.
“Come on, that wasn’t enough to knock you over,” said Robben.
“I’m not as heavy as you are,” said Button.
“You have to have some resilience,” said Robben. “You’re not hurt. Stay on your feet.”
Button checked himself and was surprised that the old dwarf was correct. The blow to his side had stung, but done no lasting damage. The blow to his head was merely embarrassing. So he stood against Robben a third time, determined to stay up as long as he could against the Master-at-Arms’ attacks.
But that wasn’t any longer than before, or any more satisfying to the dwarf. “You’re pathetic,” he said to Button.
“I tried to tell you that,” said the carroll.
“Get up,” said Robben. “Go again.”
“You’re not hurt. I can do this all day without hurting you.”
“But I won’t,” said Button from the floor. “You think you can punch me until you don’t have to answer my question. Why weren’t there any female refugees?”
“Get up,” said Robben.
The old dwarf stormed about the room, but he wasn’t going to hit an adversary who was sitting on the floor unresisting. No matter how annoying that adversary’s question was. And Button steadfastly refused to get up and let him turn things physical again. Robben almost punched the wall at one point, but even dwarves shy away from punching stone walls with their bare hands.
Eventually he gave up and sat down next to the carroll. He was silent for a while, but Button could be patient, and knew that was often the key to getting people to talk. Any story that made Robben that angry and avoidant must come to the surface eventually.
“I had a wife,” said Robben slowly. “And a daughter. They died.”
“I’m sorry,” said Button. “I didn’t mean–”
“They were at home, where they should have been safe,” said the dwarf quietly. “That was how it worked, in those days, in the west. Dwarven men built, and fought, and traded, so that our homes could be comfortable and secure. We faced danger so that our wives, and our daughters, wouldn’t have to. They stayed where they were protected. And then the monster came, and they weren’t protected.”
“It attacked your homes,” said Button.
“It came so fast,” said Robben. “It came through our defenses, but it didn’t completely destroy them. It was always possible, you see, that we might be attacked. That we might make our last stand against a powerful foe who struck us down defending our wives and children. We accepted that possibility. But we never thought–” He couldn’t finish that sentence.
“You never thought you would lose and survive,” said Button.
Robben nodded, but stayed silent for a while, head bowed in mourning. “I failed them,” he said eventually.
“By not dying?”
“By not standing against the monster.”
“You couldn’t have stopped it,” said Button.
“Of course I couldn’t have stopped it!” snapped Robben. “No one could have stopped it. The great dwarven kings of old couldn’t have stopped it. But they would have stood against it anyway.”
“And then your whole family would be dead,” said Button.
“My whole family is dead,” said Robben.
“No,” said Button. “You still stand. Robben the dwarf still has a chance to stand for his family.”
“That’s what I thought, at first,” said Robben. “But it doesn’t work like that.”
He wouldn’t explain further. Instead, he sent Button out into the elf-caverns in search of weapons. The Master-at-Arms instructed the carroll to seek out the elusive male elves. Surely there would be caches of swords wherever the men lived, and whatever other weapons these elves preferred. They might not fit the dwarves properly, but they were in no condition to be picky. Robben might be reduced to a carroll, a hydrologist, and a carpenter in his army, but he could do much with little if only they were well-armed.
Finding a male was surprisingly easy. Button started at the ruins of the previous day’s feast, and along with the cleanup crew of servants there was an elf who was taller and broader than any Button had yet seen. He even had a neatly-trimmed little beard on his chin, which startled Button a bit after a few days with dwarves who didn’t have access to personal grooming equipment. Even when they were properly supplied, dwarves believed in full, long, dense beards. Not sculpted minimalism, beard-as-concept, like the one this elf was sporting.
But no matter; Button followed him out of the festival tunnels and into a section where the walls were more-elegantly finished. Off to the right was what looked like sunlight, almost blinding in the dimness of the elf-tunnels, but the male elf turned left and Button continued to follow.
As they went on the trappings of the tunnels quickly grew more luxurious, and the construction more refined, though the light levels were still disappointingly low, especially after that one vision of the sun. The elf proceeded into a long hallway with beautifully-carved wooden doors spaced evenly on either side. Halfway down he entered one without knocking, and Button froze to the wall, not sure what to do next. But in moments the elf came out again, clearly disappointed in not finding someone he was seeking.
If that room was empty, it was a perfect opportunity for Button to search it for weapons. This looked like a row of residences, probably the living area of the elven males. So he abandoned following the tall elf and ducked through the door, closing it behind him.
Inside was indeed an empty bedroom. There was another open doorway, but it led into a bath, which was also empty. That was a surprising luxury, compared to what Button had seen of the rest of the elven tunnels. The servants used large communal facilities, and so did the female leaders at least some of the time. Button hadn’t found their quarters yet, but his vision of them hadn’t included individual baths.
There was a familiarity to the bedroom that unexpectedly struck Button’s emotions. Elves might be larger and see the world completely differently, but the bedroom of an elf who was in a position to command luxury wasn’t much different from that of a carroll in the same situation. The quality of the wooden furniture wasn’t up to top-level carroll work, of course, and a comfortably-large bed for a male elf was big enough for a party to a carroll. But the colorful silk sheets were just as soft as the ones at home, and the art on the wall, though clearly from a different culture, was just as tasteful. He was captivated for a moment by a wooden mosaic that was as appealing for its texture as it was for its visual form.
What the room didn’t contain was any weapons. Button gave the drawers a casual search, but he knew from the moment he set foot in the place that there wouldn’t be any weapons there. This wasn’t a warrior’s home. He should have left as soon as he knew it was no use for the mission Robben had given him, but Button couldn’t resist the homely feeling of being in a civilized bedroom again for the first time in months, even if it wasn’t his own. He just had to stay and experience it for a little while.
So of course he was still inside when the owner returned. He had just moments after he heard the door begin to open to find a hiding place. The bed-frame was solid all the way to the floor, and the drawers were arranged so there was no space to hide behind them. He ducked into the bath just in time, hoping to find some cranny there to fold himself into. But the walls were smooth and spare, the fixtures set flush in the corners, and the linen closet stuffed too full of sundries to contain the body of a carroll.
If the elf who had entered had intended to use the facilities, he would undoubtedly have discovered Button. But Button’s luck held, for the moment, and although he was in the open in the bath, he could at least stay out of sight through its doorway. He even risked peeking out into the bedroom, knowing that elf-eyes weren’t likely to spot part of a small head at a height they wouldn’t be expecting.
This was a different elf, still tall, but thinner than the other, with no beard. And he was clearly at home here, tossing the contents of his pockets onto the top of a chest of drawers and flopping his long body down on the bed. He looked exhausted. He pulled some of his pillows around into a little nest for his head, and was clearly about to go to sleep. Button prepared to sneak quietly out of the room at the first opportunity.
But then the door opened again. The elf Button had followed before was back, and had entered without knocking again. “There you are, Branyeso,” he said. “I thought I saw you sneaking in here.”
The tired elf looked up at him. “I don’t have to sneak into my own quarters.”
“With what you’ve been doing you ought to be sneaking everywhere.”
“Go away, Vendiku. I need to sleep.”
“Of course you do,” said Vendiku. “You’ve been meeting with that servant again.” Branyeso threw a pillow at him. “I was supposed to watch you during the feast,” said Vendiku. “Keeping you out of trouble. But you were nowhere to be found. I might as well have been looking for the lost island of Otarinesse.”
“I haven’t been anywhere I wasn’t supposed to,” said Branyeso. “Go away.”
“Where were you just now, then?” demanded Vendiku. “I know you weren’t here a few minutes ago. I looked.”
“Getting breakfast,” said Branyeso, waving at the chest of drawers. “For after my nap.”
“Oh, a fresh pastry,” said Vendiku. “Why didn’t you bring me one?”
“I didn’t know you were looking for me,” said Branyeso.
“Well if you’re going to sleep, I’m going to eat it,” said Vendiku, picking it up off the chest. “The least you can do for making me chase after you all night.”
“Eat it somewhere else,” said Branyeso. “I didn’t make you do anything, but take my breakfast if it will satisfy you.”
“Of course it won’t satisfy me,” said Vendiku. “You were with that servant of yours again. Admit it.”
“Leave me alone.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Fine,” said Branyeso. “I was meeting with Massei. Are you happy?”
“No, I’m not happy,” said Vendiku. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“I’m in love, Vendiku.”
“You told me once that elves don’t fall in love.”
“They do now.”
“You lied to me. Lied to get rid of me. And now you tell me you’re in love with a servant? Telling me elves don’t fall in love might as well have been the dark lord Mephitus saying he just wanted to disrupt the magical artifact industry.”
“Oh, come on,” said Branyeso, provoked into sitting up. “I’m not trying to bring about the end of the world.”
“Do you think the Queen is going to see it that way?”
“We’re just two people.”
“Massei is a servant. A relationship with a servant makes as much sense as depending on dwarves for our electricity. What do you think you’re going to do with them? What are you giving them? They’re headed for the worst punishment we’ve seen in centuries.”
“Massei is becoming female. She told me last night.”
“How did she get the Queen’s permission for that?”
Massei just stood open-mouthed at that admission. “You’re going to…. She’s…. You….”
“She’s becoming female and we’re going to love each other forever.”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“I’ve never been more serious.”
“I never thought you would be a revolutionary.”
“It’s not a revolution. Just a life. Two people’s life together.”
“You can’t just start something like this and think it’s going to stop. Either you’re going to have a revolution or the Queen will kill you both to make sure there isn’t one.”
“We’ll find some sort of compromise.”
“Going halfway on this is like planning a regatta to advocate for sexual liberation on Otarinesse. Like winning over the heir to a Queen who isn’t ever going to die. Like lending your private army to Mephitus and expecting that someday you’ll get it back.”
“Oh, leave me alone.”
“I’m serious,” said Vendiku. “If you’re going to do this, it’s a revolution or nothing.”
“Now who’s a radical?”
“You are! That’s what I’m trying to get you to see!”
“I just want to be with my love.”
“And how many people are going to get killed doing it?”
“I’m not going to kill anyone,” said Branyeso. “I don’t even have weapons. None of us have weapons. I don’t know what sort of revolution you think you’re going to have.”
“A futile one, it looks like. It’s no good talking to you.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Vendiku’s response to that was a wordless, frustrated yowl. He stormed out. Branyeso tried to settle back into his nap, but he was restless, too keyed up by the argument to sleep. He tossed for a while, then got up and left the room as well, more calmly than Vendiku had. He might have gone in search of his lover, or just another pastry.
Either way, Button took the opportunity to get out of there before anything worse happened. He stayed only long enough to grab some beard-trimming tools from Branyeso’s bathroom. If he couldn’t find weapons, maybe this was the next best thing.
Robben was grateful for the opportunity to freshen up, but he couldn’t get over the absence of weapons in the male quarters. How did they fight? What did they do if they didn’t fight? What would they do if their society were attacked, cower in a corner?
Button was just as glad to know that there was one group of elves he knew they wouldn’t have to battle to get out of here. But he couldn’t convince Robben of that. He couldn’t even get the old dwarf to talk about anything else. By the time it was late enough to leave their cell and release the other dwarves, he was completely sick of the topic. Robben still wasn’t, but when they let Chino out of the cell with the little dam, he had worrisome news, and fresh bruises to go with it.
“An elf came in and caught me working on the food storage device,” he said. “They took all the pieces away.”
“Did they wonder about where the parts came from?” said Button.
“Of course they did,” said Chino. “They tried to beat it out of me. But they didn’t try very hard. It seemed like they had more important things than dwarves on their minds.”
“They might,” said Button. “I’ve been hearing things. There might be a revolution brewing.”
“Well, look out for an opportunity to help it along,” said Robben.
“Wait,” said Chino. “We might yet use that, but we need to find the others first. If we reveal ourselves too soon, that might never happen.”
Robben grunted and folded his arms. “You have to think about the possibility that we won’t be able to rescue everyone.”
“We have to try,” said Chino. “Besides, where would you go next with the two of us oldtimers and Quentin?”
“And me,” said Button.
“We’d take you home,” said Robben. “And then we’d figure out something. I’m sure it would involve fighting, and you’re no good at fighting.”
“Also, you still have a home to go to,” said Chino.
Button had to admit the justice in that. As unlikely as retaking the dam had seemed with thirteen dwarves, a carroll, and a wizard, attempting it with himself and three dwarves was obviously futile. If they wanted to go on, they needed to find everyone. And if they wanted to go back, the bigger the group the better, as far as getting safely over the mountains again was concerned.
The idea of fighting got Robben back onto the topic of the unarmed elven males. As they were letting Quentin out, he tried to recruit Chino as the sympathetic confidante that Button was failing to provide. But Chino wasn’t willing to go along. Nor was he as willing as Button to let the other old dwarf run himself out.
“There are women warriors in the east,” he said.
“Pah!” said Robben. “Neither real women nor real warriors.”
Quentin, coming out of his cell, gave one disgusted look at their bickering and moved quietly over toward Button. “They’re really going to do this here?” he said in an undertone. Button didn’t feel the need to answer, just gave him a wry look and a shrug.
“They never seemed like fake women to me,” said Chino.
“A real woman stays home and lets her man do the fighting,” said Robben.
“And everything else, I suppose,” said Chino.
“Damn right,” said Robben. “Women keep the home and raise the children. They let the men go out and be vicious when it’s necessary.”
“I don’t know,” said Quentin. “I’ve known a lot of women who were naturally vicious.”
“Only in your degenerate eastern culture,” said Robben. “You encourage it by treating them as equals.”
“And you never got a Master-at-Arms job in the east because you couldn’t do that,” said Chino.
“No honorable dwarf would command women,” said Robben.
“Or, more importantly, be subordinate to them,” said Chino.
“Exactly,” said Robben. “Can you imagine sending them to die in battle? Or taking their foolish orders in the heat of combat? It’s disgusting.”
Quentin nudged Button on the shoulder. “I just realized that’s why Robben and Prince Waban refused to take any female soldiers with them to Khatchi-Dami.”
“Was Prince Waban like this too?” said Button.
“I never knew him,” said Quentin. “But he didn’t fit in in the east any better than the rest of them. So probably.”
“Are the female soldiers as weak as Robben thinks they are?” asked Button?
“Oh, not at all,” said Quentin. “If they’d taken some along, they might have won.”
Robben and Chino stayed annoyed with each other, but they both recognized the need to be quieter when they moved into areas of the underground settlement they hadn’t previously explored. So instead of arguing they just seethed. Button led them, since he had a pretty good idea where he wanted to go: the corridor where he had seen sunlight earlier in the day, and had to pass it by in order to follow Vendiku.
There wasn’t sunlight there now, of course. The sun had long-since set. But even at night the elves had provided more artificial light to their botanical garden than they did to the rest of the tunnels.
That was obviously what it was. The trees and flowers were the same ones Button and the dwarves had become far too familiar with during their sojourn through the forest. But they were arranged deliberately, in defined patterns with clear aesthetic sensibilities, even though they didn’t particularly match Button’s. He had visited a high-elf garden early in their journey, before the whole thing had become quite so terrifying, and the design of that one had been more organic, flowing, and complex. It felt more satisfying somehow than the rigid geometries of the wood-elves.
It wasn’t all indifferent to the heart. In the middle of the artificial, underground woods, a creek ran that might have been at home in the outdoors. Even Button could tell that it didn’t sound like a subterranean stream. It burbled through roots and over boulders. Quentin was completely fascinated, and immediately set out to discover how it had been done.
Chino was more interested in the decorative building situated on an island in the stream. There wasn’t a bridge to it, but the water was only a few steps across, and the practical dwarf still had his good boots. Quentin, of course, was so waterproof he could have waded up to his belt if the creek had been deep enough. Robben and Button stayed on the shore and watched them.
“There’s a way to open this,” said Chino. “I just need to figure it out.”
“You think there’s a dwarf in there?” said Robben. At that there came a banging and a shout from inside the little building. “I guess there is.” They couldn’t make out words, though; they would have to open it before they could find out which dwarf was imprisoned within.
Chino poked around the building, but couldn’t find a way to open it. Eventually Button had an idea. “All the previous cells opened with water,” he said. “I bet there’s something that involves the stream.”
“Good point,” said Chino. “We need Quentin to come help us.”
Robben looked around. “Where did Quentin go, anyway?” The young hydrologist wasn’t anywhere in sight.
“Last I saw him he was heading upstream,” said Button. The source of the water was somewhere back in the direction they had entered from, out of sight.
“I’ll go find him,” said Robben, and stamped off to round up the stray.
“We’re working on it,” said Chino loudly, so the dwarf in the building could hear. “Just give us a few more minutes.” The response was muffled.
But before a few minutes were up, Quentin and Robben came back, running. “Come on, come on,” said Robben. “We have to go.”
“What happened?” said Button.
“Mister Curious here startled some elves,” said Robben. “They can’t be too far behind us.”
“That’s our way out,” said Chino.
“Not anymore,” said Robben. Chino splashed his way to dry land and the four of them fled deeper into the garden. Rescuing the new dwarf would have to wait.
The garden itself was huge. Button could see paths leading away into different chambers, with different plants and different organization. But Robben led them out the first exit he saw that led into the dimly-lit tunnels, and Button didn’t have the breath to argue. The garden would have been a better place to hide, but even its floral abundance might not have been able to cover up the smell of three unwashed dwarves. The regular tunnels might give them a better chance to escape.
Nothing here looked familiar, though. For the moment they could just run and try to get as far away from their pursuers as possible, but eventually they would need to know how to get back to the cells the elves expected them to be in. If they knew for sure that there were dwarves running around free in their tunnels, even the drama of a nascent revolution wouldn’t keep them from hunting the fugitives down.
Eventually Robben slowed, and they were able to catch their breath and get a better sense of the neighborhood they had ended up in. The dwarves sent Button back, stealthily, to make sure they weren’t still being followed. There was no sign of any elves who might have been pursuing them. Now they just had to get unlost, and quickly.
They wandered about for a bit, and eventually Button spotted something he thought he recognized. The utilitarian corridors gave way to luxury on this side of things just as they had on the other, and he followed the elegance cautiously until he found himself in the hallway full of carved wooden doors where he had witnessed a conversation that afternoon. At least he thought it was the same hallway. All the doors were closed, and it was hard to be sure.
He called out to the dwarves, and they thumped up with their heavy bootsteps, then belatedly tried to be quiet once they saw that Button had located a residential area. “Don’t worry about it,” he told them. “I’m pretty sure all these doors are soundproof.”
In any case, he led them through quickly. He didn’t think it was likely any of the elves inside would get bored and venture out, but there was no reason for them to linger. He was relieved when, on the other side, they reached the intersection which had led them into the botanical garden in the first place. He waved the dwarves back into their familiar section of the tunnels just in time, as he heard a door opening behind them as they passed out of the abode of the males.
He risked a look back and saw a familiar bearded face. Vendiku was looking in their direction, and Button saw his eyes straight on for a moment. But the elf must not have seen the carroll, for he raised no alarm. Button ducked out of the elegantly-decorated area and set about putting the dwarves back into their cells for the day.
Chino didn’t want to return to the cell he had been beaten in the previous day, and Robben contemptuously volunteered to take it instead. Quentin still preferred being alone in the smaller cell, so Button ended up sharing the larger one with Chino again.
“You and Robben don’t seem to like each other very much,” he said.
“He was the Master-at-Arms at Khatchi-Dami,” said Chino, as if that were all that needed saying.
“Quentin said if you’d brought female soldiers you might have won.”
“Hah,” said Chino dryly. “I don’t know about that. It would have meant someone other than Robben was in charge. That might have done more good than a few extra fighters.”
“His generalship was that bad?” said Button.
“His, and the King’s, and the Prince’s,” said Chino. “But Robben was the one who came home. A lot of my kids didn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” said Button. Chino just nodded acknowledgement. “If you blame him so much for that,” said the carroll, “why are you willing to work together?”
“No one else would,” said Chino. “Khatchi-Dami was a disaster, and the eastern dwarves held us responsible. Not wrongly. Those of us who were left from the west, we were all each other had. Still are. There may not be any love lost between some of us, but we’re all in the same rotten spot.”
That was all he was willing to say. The old dwarf drifted off quickly to sleep, but Button lay awake for quite a while thinking about how he was going to manage a bunch of dwarves who didn’t get along. They had all seemed such a unit, back when they weren’t talking to him. He wasn’t sure he liked this new openness any better.
But there was no continued conflict the next night. All three dwarves had resigned themselves to being professional, and they made it back to the stream in the garden without incident. The elves who fed Robben hadn’t seemed to notice he wasn’t the same dwarf they had beaten the day before. Quentin had dreamed of a method of diverting the full flow of the stream around one side of the island with the building, and once he got there in person, it worked just as he had imagined it. Chino found another water-wheel, larger than the previous one, folded down flush with the streambed that Quentin had emptied. He and Robben wrestled it into a vertical position, and when Quentin restarted the stream, one of the walls of the little building slid silently down into the ground.
Button just stood on the bank and watched, pleased that the dwarves were working together. And that he hadn’t had to make it happen. He supposed Chino and Robben had decades of history of getting the necessary task done without becoming distracted by personal issues. He had a little twinge of envy; there was no carroll companion to join him in that sort of partnership in his own middle-age. Perhaps he would seek one if he ever managed to return home.
Inside the building was a dark-haired dwarf with a beard just starting to see a semblance of grey. Joliet, one of the electrical engineers. Even while the dwarves had been ignoring Button, Joliet had been exceptionally quiet, letting his more gregarious twin brother do all the talking. Perhaps Button would have more of a chance to talk to him now.
Chapter 5 of 40 Days in an Elvish Prison is Joliet
For news and new story notifications sign up for my newsletter