Later that night, I am woken up by Vol’s hand roughly shaking me. He gestures for me to be silent, and creeps outside the den. I’m confused. Why did he wake me up? Vol pops his head around the entrance and impatiently signs for me to follow him. I carefully crawl down from my top bunk, freezing as the bed shifts, and my bunkmate snorts in his sleep. As he settles down I move softly over the stone floor to the door. None of the other Dwarves even stir. I wonder what Vol wants with me at this hour.
When I exit the small hut, Vol turns and silently begins leading the way. We go out of the cavern and down long winding tunnels to an older part of the mine. Vol navigates from memory, never stopping to look at a map. Eventually he does halt, but it is only to grab a torch from the wall, as he leads the way into a series of unlit caverns.
“Where are we going?” I whisper to him, my voice only intended to barely break the silence sounds like a shout to my ears. I wince.
“You said you wanted to trade, I’m going to show you what’s available.”
“Technically, I said I had something valuable, not that I wanted to trade.” I mutter, mostly to myself. Vol answers anyway.
“So? You told me that you had something valuable, and the two reasons you would do that is if you wanted to share it,” He grins, teeth shining in the torchlight “which isn’t something anyone of their right mind would do, or you wanted to use the value in a trade.”
“Very logical.” I admit.
“Thank you.” Vol says, nodding graciously at the compliment.
“But where are we going exactly?” I press.
“This week’s meeting place. You’ll see when we get there.” Vol says, effortlessly dodging the question.
We continue on in silence for a while, Vol never hesitating as he leads us down twists and turns. Finally he stops as we hit a dead end. I look at him confused, but then understanding dawns on me as he taps a certain pattern onto the wall. A fake dead end with a secret password that allows entrance. Clever. And rather extreme for a meeting place they’ll only use for one week. They probably have a few that rotate, which would explain Vol’s knowing the exact location of it.
My musing is interrupted as the fake dead end swings open and the Dwarf monitoring it glances over us, his eyes pausing on me for a bit. He shrugs though, and waves us through, taking our torch as we pass.
“Excuse me,” Vol says, teeth curling into a chilling smile. “My friend here would like a cloak please, he is rather susceptible to the cold.” The monitor frowns at him, the temperature down here is unpleasantly warm, he knows the request is bogus. But then Vol adds “I would be ever so grateful if you would oblige him.” and slides something into his hands. The guard looks at whatever it is, shrugs again, and hands me a cloak. Then he passes it back to Vol with a respectful nod.
As we leave I pull the cloak on, putting up the hood. I guess I’d draw too much attention without it.
“What did you show him?” I murmur to Vol as we head down another long tunnel. This one is large and well lit, unlike the ones we traversed earlier.
“My token as a verified trader. There are advantages to being a regular.” Vol passes it to me, and I halt under a torch to take a closer look. It is a small wooden coin carved with a single, lightly scorched, lightning symbol on one side, and a pick on the other. As I hand it back to him, he casts a glance over me. “You still need to work on your disguise. Crouch a little, and try not to stick out as much as possible.”
I bend my knees, lower my head, and hunch over a bit.
“Much better.” Vol says approvingly. “Now just keep that up and let me do the talking.”
We start forward again, and go around a few more corners before I quickly hear the noise of more than a hundred whispered conversations and bustling feet as shady deals are made under flickering torchlight. We turn three more corners and enter into a giant cavern filled with tents and Dwarves. Many people here are also wearing cloaks, but others don’t have the luxury and cast anxious glances around them whenever someone gets too close for their liking.
Vol struts into the cavern, completely at ease. I notice his eyes flickering from one stall to another, but he keeps a calm, even, smile on his face. Many Dwarves in stalls glance at him and nod, friendly smiles on their faces. A couple wave as we pass by. I hurry to follow him as he navigates through the swarms of grimy bodies, all doing their best to stay away from each other.
He stops at one of the stalls of a Dwarf selling mysterious looking bags.
“Vol!” The Dwarf says, guardedly. “What are you here for?”
“Just showing around a new client. Why are you still selling these Jackal? I thought the council told you to stop selling phonies.”
“Aw come on Vol, the council doesn’t need to know! Besides, no one has proven that my good luck charms don’t work.”
“And no one has proven that they have.”
“Innocent until proven guilty I say. I’ll cut you a deal, Vol, you get quarter my profits from tonight, and the council doesn’t hear anything. What do you say?”
Vol raises an eyebrow, the smile on his face turning predatory. “How do I know that you won’t cheat me?”
“Who would dare cheat the Crafty Vol? Certainly not I.” The Dwarf makes placating gestures and adds. “Here, how about I give you some up front, then you can come back later for the rest. That way you get some to spend right now with your client.”
“I’ll take that.” Vol says.
“Promise you won’t tell?” The Dwarf says, handing over a couple wooden coins and a purple stone.
“You have my word, the council won’t hear it from me.” Vol says.
“I’ll never know how you get all this information about what and who the council has banned.” The Dwarf says sighing as he watches Vol slip the bribe into a small pouch.
“No you won’t.” Vol says. “Nice doing business with you Jackal.”
As we leave the Jackal’s stall I hurry to catch up with Vol.
“What sort of name is Jackal?” I ask him.
“A fake one. Most people use them here.”
“But you don’t? Why?”
“I do use one, did you assume that I told you my real name when we met?”
My shocked face speaks for me. “Faladel, I never give out my real name to anyone, and I’m happy with this one’s persona, so I don’t need a new one to be known by here. Do you get it?”
I nod, then hesitate as he turns around to continue walking. I quickly grab his shoulder though and ask “But what is this council you were talking about?”
Vol sighs, but pauses and explains it to me. “The council governs the trade in the black market. Nobody knows who they are, ‘cause they always wear cloaks and masks every time they appear to the visitors. Technically they could be anyone, or anyone could be them. They issue currency and decide who can and can’t sell here. Many people believe that they are actually the guards or the Overseers, but that wouldn’t make sense. I think they are the Dwarves who have survived here the longest. Which means some of them could be Overseers, but they don’t have to be.
“Basically the hierarchy goes like this: Council at the top, traders and sellers below them, and then everyone else. You, being who you are, definitely need the help of a trader like me to make deals here ‘cause otherwise you’d be recognised and some people would refuse to sell to you. Traders like me are the verified go-betweens, we keep the sellers identity and the buyers identity confidential, and I work hard to find the best deals for whoever hires me. Of course, I charge a small fee for my services, ‘cause many of my clients can’t buy or sell anything without me. Now, do you want to check out the rest of the stuff for sale or not?”
I don’t have any more questions, so I gesture for him to go on and he shows me the rest of the market. I watch him converse casually with some dealers and cautiously with others while I survey the wares around me.
There are all sorts of things for sale. Useful stuff like smuggled food, medicine, and blankets. Then there are luxuries for higher prices, things like fancy food, extra pairs of clothes, a set of barely used boots, I even see small decorations for beds, cute little carvings done in stone and wood. Then there is some weird stuff, religious talismans honoring Dwarven deities, good luck charms, bad luck warders, even a few flammable effigies in some of the shadier stalls.
Of course there are stalls of tools. Vol takes me into one of them so he can talk with the owner. But I suspect it is also so I can take a look. He has guessed that my valuable resource is Murdenblum, so I suppose he thinks I might need to mine it. It is a good and rather thoughtful idea, but rather useless for me, as the person who mined there before me left all the stuff I need. Nevertheless, I take time going through the items for sale in this stall. I take a look at the pickaxes, the hammers and chisels, the tiny knives and wedges, and the lengths of rope available. I even notice some of the powder that the Dwarves use for explosions available in tiny, carefully bagged, quantities. That could be useful, depending on what I want to do.
Soon Vol decides that I’ve had enough time to look around, and we head back out. Instead of continuing to wander around though, we leave the market. I drop off my cloak with the Dwarf monitoring the door, and we head back to the dens.
“Why did we leave so early?” I ask Vol, “We hadn’t explored half of the market yet.”
“I thought that you’d probably seen enough, most of the other stuff is either repeat, or stuff you probably aren’t interested in. We could go back another night to finish looking if you haven’t found anything of interest though.” He casts me a curious glance.
“No,” I say, carefully “I think I’ve found what I’m looking for.”
“And what might that be?” Vol asks. I stay silent, but then he says, “Come on Faladel, you’ll have to tell me sometime.”
“True.” I say, turning that thought over in my brain. “But I’m not certain I’ll need it yet. Give me a couple of days to work things out, and then I’ll get back to you.”
Vol nods, and we continue on in silence until we reach the dens. I climb in bed stiffly- now my back hurts along with the rest of my muscles. I don’t fall asleep for a while though, as I begin once again turning revenge plans over in my head. To figure everything out I’ll probably need a map of where groups work. I wonder if Vol can provide me with that for free, or if that will cost me something too.
The next day I’m still on running duty. Being up half the night and still recovering from wounds from two days ago doesn’t help. I’m basically running around in a daze. I get to the right places at the right times, but my mind isn’t really fixated on anything else. At first many Dwarves are swarming around me like yesterday, but eventually they all disappear. They either have work to do and someone told them off, or they just couldn’t keep up with me. When I stop for lunch my brain wakes up a bit, long enough to ask Vol about maps of where Dwarves are stationed and where I can get my hands on it.
“What do you want that for?” he says confusedly, putting his spoon down on his bed. “I don’t see why it would be important to you.”
“I want to know what areas Overseer Thravic has control over.” I reply, “and if a group of five Dwarves, one of whom has the others call him ‘boss’ is working under him.”
“Five Dwarfs, one of whom goes by ‘Boss’? Do you mean the Skain Gang?”
“Is that their name?”
“I suppose, I don’t know what other groups of five Dwarves call one of their numbers ‘Boss’. Why are you asking about that group of idiots?”
“Let’s just say we’re acquainted, but not on good terms.”
Confusion mulls around on Vol’s face, but then turns into a smile of understanding. “You’re out for revenge aren’t you?”
I nod, “Now about that map?”
“So what you want to buy will probably help you with this revenge plan? Is that why you didn’t give me any specifics, you don’t really know how you’re going to do it yet? In that case, just bring me to any of the maps on the prison walls and I can point out what groups work where and for whom for you.”
So before the end of the lunch break we head out and look at the maps on the cavern walls. Lots of the areas I already know, but now Vol gives me details of what groups work in different places, how they feel about certain things, and who their supervisors and Overseers are. Apparently Thravic controls a lot down here, including most of the Dwarves in the ‘Skain gang.’ I don’t think that is a very good name, and Vol agrees, although he notes that it does have a ring to it.
“They are really just a bunch of brawny morons who enjoy making life miserable for anyone else. They think that makes them superior or something. Skain, the one the others call ‘boss’ says he was the illegitimate son of a noble from the outside, which he claims makes him better than anyone in here. Bunch of hogwash if you ask me. Even if he was the son of a noble, his rich pappy obviously doesn’t care about him, otherwise why would he end up here? And if his own father doesn’t acknowledge him as some sort of ‘superior being’ why should the rest of us? Not to mention he could just be lying.”
I chuckle at Vol’s description of him. My brain is definitely more awake now. Lunch ends and Vol asks before we part ways, “Now have you got an idea of what you want yet?”
“Give me a bit more time, I’m still sorting some things out in my head.” I say to him. “I’ll probably know by tonight though.”
“Excellent.” Vol grins at me, his bright white teeth peeking out from between his dark mustache and beard.
We separate, and I begin to run the rounds again. Back and forth, from mine to supply and back again. About after an hour of running deliveries I slow down, planning to halt at a way station for a drink of water. But when I arrive at the way station I see Golik. I frown, I had been trying to avoid him on the pretext of him wanting to kill me, but I am really thirsty, and he hasn’t tried anything so far. He might have totally forgotten about it.
Eventually my thirst wins, and I walk over for a drink, planning to drink fast and then get out. But Golik completely destroys that plan when he tries to make conversation with me.
“Hey, Elf, your name’s Faladel right? What are you doing here?”
“Grabbing some water.” I reply rather coldly, trying to shut down his curiosity. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“No, I meant, like what are you doing here, how did you end up in the mines?”
“I came here on the prisoner caravan.” I say, finishing my drink. “Now I need to get back to work, if you’ll excuse me.” I walk out of the way station, but Golik follows me.
“Oh come on, there’s got to be more to the story than that. How did an elf end up in a Dwarven prison? For example, I ended up there on false desertion charges, but what about you?”
“I got captured, but not killed, I guess they messed up the paperwork or something. Or perhaps they just forgot to kill me.” I instantly regret adding the last part, but Golik doesn’t appear to notice that I just quoted him. I start jogging off awkwardly trying to breakup the conversation, but he follows me. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” I ask him pointedly.
“Oh, we’re going in the same direction so I thought it would be nice if we traveled together.” He is acting annoyingly friendly for someone who wants to kill me. Or perhaps he just wants to stick around with me because he thinks I might find more Murdenblum. I take a left turn, and then another left, while Golik chatters on amicably a few steps behind me. I take another left at an intersection, and then another, and yet he still follows me, chattering on about nonsense. I suddenly stop, turning around and facing Golik, who skids to a halt a few feet away.
I turn the question that he asked me earlier back at him. “What are you doing here?”
“Um, well, I already told you that, I got arrested on desertion charges. Nobody would listen to reason, so eventually I-”
I cut him off, “No, like here, following me.”
“We’re going in the same direction.” Golik shrugs, eyes wide, probably trying to look innocent. I’m not convinced.
“I’ve led you in a full circle, and yet you didn’t notice. Admit it, you aren’t meaning to go anywhere. So what are you really after? If it’s more Murdenblum, it doesn’t just appear around me. I’m not some sort of magical Murdenblum magnet. You’d probably have better luck searching on your own.”
Golik freezes, a bit of surprise on his face. I guessed right then. These Dwarves are such idiots, thinking I wouldn’t notice.
“I just wanted to get to know you better?” He says hesitantly. “I mean, I’ve never met an elf before, so…” He trails off, “But I wouldn’t mind if we happened to come across Murdenblum as well. Though I wasn’t really thinking in that direction.”
“Well I don’t really want to get to know you better.” I say, bluntly. “I already know plenty about you for my liking. You and your friend were plotting to kill me on the march here.”
“How do you know that? Do Elves really use magic?”
“I just have keen ears.” I say, frowning. I mean elves do use magic, but I really don’t feel like going in depth with him about that right now.
“I advocated for killing you later though!” Golik protests, “Surely you heard that bit?”
“Only so it would be harder to trace it back to you guys. I’ve had enough of people trying to kill me or beating me up because I’m an elf. I don’t want any more of you guys hanging around me.” I start jogging again, ready to leave the Dwarf behind me. Suddenly a giant rumbling echoes through the air, and the whole cavern shakes. From nearby I hear a massive Boom! It rocks the ground again, and I can’t keep my balance. Stunned by shock and noise I fall, barely catching myself on my hands and knees.