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Prologue: The Deserter

It is silent when I wake up. A long night spent hiding in a hole left multiple kinks in my back. I stretch, crawling outside and quietly stifling a moan as my back pops. The cool moist morning air has a menacing feeling to it. If I go into the forest today I might be able to shake off my pursuers, but then I’ll have to brave the deep woods without a weapon. Inside the forest there are said to be giant cats, snakes as thick as tree trunks, and harmless looking animals that can kill a dwarf if they so much as touch him, not to mention the Elves. Just as I’m beginning to doubt my escape plan, I hear a shout, someone spotted my trail from last night! Scrambling upright I run into the forest, heedless of the branches and thorns tearing at my skin. 

As I sprint around tree trunks, I can’t help but make noise. The bushes swish as I scramble past, the frightened birds disturbed by my intrusions fly off, calling to each other disgruntledly, the fallen leaves crunch underneath my feet leaving a trail that will bring my pursuers right to me. I wince, stumbling as my foot lands on a particularly weak fallen stick and makes a loud “CRACK!” I desperately try to regain my balance, but trip over a hidden log and let out a small yelp as I fall flat on my face in a pile of leaves on the forest floor. I’m too noisy. The dwarves pursuing me will notice my all too obvious presence if I try to continue, but if I take the time to disguise my trail, perhaps I can find a good hiding place. If they do follow me into the deep woods, and I disguise my trail, the only way they’ll find me is to trip over me. Meanwhile, if I keep running, there’s no guarantee that they won’t catch up.  

Decision made, I start forward again, this time more carefully, trying to disguise my trail, stepping as lightly as I can, careful not to break any more branches. I don’t hear my pursuers any more. Maybe they decided not to follow me into the woods after all? No, they wouldn’t risk going back to camp empty handed. I overheard too much, I trusted the wrong person with that information, so now the General knows I know too much. Just because these woods are elven territories, doesn’t mean he’ll be lenient if they fail to catch me. I attempt to hide myself in a circle of bushes. For some reason, there are a lot of leaves on the ground here, even though it’s spring but I don’t question my luck. Instead I bury myself to the best of my meager abilities, and hope the woods stay silent. 

 There aren’t many forests in dwarven territory, many dwarves fear the woods and believe that all sorts of demons and ghosts live in them. I always scoffed at those stories when I was small, but now in the near silence I can hear many things that I wouldn’t be able to hear otherwise. The buzz of bees and flies combined with the rustle of tree leaves really do sound like spirits communicating. As I look around me, I see the branches shift and hear leaves slide against each other, but there isn’t currently any wind. There is no way the stories are true. No possible way there are ghouls and ghosts in these woods. My logic does little to convince my body though. My heart pounds and my every breath I exhale sounds loud enough to wake a sleeping giant. I grit my teeth and close my eyes.

I have always had an overactive imagination, I freak myself out when there is no good reason for it. I need to remember that now and think. What else besides ghosts could cause tree leaves to rustle and branches shift when I can feel no wind? A wind that only affects the higher branches, a bird, a squirrel,… what other species hang out in trees? I shift a little, feeling rather uncomfortable.

Suddenly I, and the leaf pile I was trying to hide in, shoot up into the air, surrounded by a net! I immediately start thrashing around trying to get down as I rise higher and higher above the ground. Now would probably be a good time to mention that I am terrified of heights. The leaves fall out of the net and I am left hanging there frozen with fear as the ground gets further and further away. I don’t want to fall down now. Falling would probably mean at least a few broken bones.

Now I remember what other species hang out in trees. How could I forget them? I should have expected this, I am in Elven territory after all. There’s no way that many leaves would be on the ground naturally during this season after all! I hear a distant crashing, a sound that is distinctly different from the birdsong and the rustle of leaves that I had gotten used to. I guess this is what I sounded like when I was running through the woods. Definitely not as quiet as I had hoped. 

The crashing is getting closer. Do they have a tracker with them? Did they find my ‘hidden’ trail? I thought I did a good job, but if they have a skilled tracker, my only hope is staying silent. I breath slowly and deeply through my nose, trying my best not to shift at all as the group chasing me grows closer. The dwarves in question, my foes, my hunters, my brethren, run right underneath my net, and I forget to breathe for a minute. The last one pauses, just for a second, as if the gods were giving me a chance to reconsider my actions. But I stay silent. If I give myself up, these dwarves will most likely die within the year. I do this to save them, and all the others that will die if the plan for The Scourger goes through. The last dwarf in the group tracking me leaves, and I let myself breathe again. 

One minute passes by. Then two. The sounds of my pursuers grow further and further away. But just as I begin to relax, something breaks the silence.

“What do I have here?” I lurch at the unexpected voice. “A dwarf caught like a mouse in my trap, who didn’t call for his fellows to help him?” An elf is perched on the joint between the branch holding the net and the main trunk. His russet brown hair is tied back in a messy ponytail, and his green cloak matches the dappled shading of leaf shadows perfectly. His face is weathered, but his eyes are bright and his smile positively cheery. He sounds and looks like a teenager, or a young adult at best.

“This is one of the strangest things I have seen out here yet.” He continues. “And trust me I have seen some strange things on this battlefront. Dwarves trying to disguise themselves as flower pots for instance. Whoever came up with that must have been brilliant because the elves were almost too busy laughing to notice them trying to attack. But that’s not the point. The point is who are you? And why are you hiding from your kin? If you are a deserter, it was really stupid to run right at the Elven territories. Haven’t you heard how dangerous the forest can be? Honestly, I’m surprised the other Dwarves followed you, you must be really important.” His nonchalant smile suddenly seems a lot more sinister as he raises his bow and aims it at me. “Give me a good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now. Preferably along with an explanation of what you are doing so deep in Elvish territory, running and hiding from your brethren instead of begging them to rescue you.”

I try to straighten up as much as I can in the net. I was expecting this sort of reception and questioning, although I certainly didn’t guess that I’d be trapped in a net when it took place. “I deserted the army with vital information that will save hundreds of lives on both sides of the war. If you kill me now, your entire race will be wiped out within the year.” I hesitate, that was as far as I’d rehearsed, but this elf doesn’t look very impressed. “I want to give the information to someone important who can do something with it.” I add on nervously.

He hesitates a little longer, then shrugs, a good natured smile back on his face. “Come on then, strange deserter dwarf!” He cuts down the net and helps me to my feet “Is it okay if I call you that? It’s better than desert dwarf, or worse dwarf desert, which implies that I want to eat you, which I don’t, you would taste horrid. And as you haven’t given me your actual name, I thought it would be appropriate. By the way, my name is Briareth. Since those dwarves chasing you are likely still in the vicinity, I’ll take you to our camp before asking further questions. However, I don’t fully trust you yet, so you’ll be under guard when we get there.” He walks off at a brisk trot. I hesitate, does he want me to follow him? He glances back at me and, as if replying to my unasked question, says “Hurry up now, you’re falling behind!”

With one last glance towards the border, I follow him. There’s no going back now. I’m committed to this path, no matter where it takes me.

About an hour and a half of fast walking and Briareth talking about whatever catches his fancy later, he brings us to a halt saying “You look like you need a breather, so we can stop for a while. We’re nearly at the outpost anyways, and once we get there we can have lunch and you can tell your story in full. Then we’ll decide if the information you carry is important enough to bring to higher ups.”

I collapse on the ground sucking in air gratefully. Once I’ve caught my breath, I protest his verdict “You don’t believe me? But I deserted to bring you this information! I could have been killed!”

Briareth shrugs. “You can easily fake a desertion, and I’ll need more details than a hysterical ‘you’ll all die in a year without it!’ before I’m convinced you’re not lying or over exaggerating to get better treatment. Now that you have caught your breath enough to speak we need to get going again. Don’t worry, the camp is just ahead.” He smirks at my ensuing groan.

“It’s harder to get back up after you’ve sat down.” I complain.

“Really? I never noticed.” I swear, his grin is diabolic. I think he’s getting pleasure out of my torment. First the fast walking, the constant ‘hurry up’ along with a barrage of other chitter chatter, and now this way too short break? How does he have so much energy? After a lot more running and one-sided conversations because I’m too out of breath to respond, we reach the elven campsite. 

We have lunch, which consists of leafy greens and a vegetable broth with rainbow colored mushrooms that looks suspicious. But the elves drink it so it must be okay, I suppose. During supper one of the elves accuses Briareth of stealing his coffee beans, Briareth protests of course, but they search his supplies and find a small bag of them, which he claims are his personal supply. However, personal or not, the beans are still confiscated, and after supper it is a very depressed Briareth that takes me to the captain’s tent where I tell my story. 

When I’m done, I nervously ask the stern faced elves in the tent if they have questions. Briareth who has cheered up substantially already, raises his hand as if he’s in school, and then, without being called on, asks “Did your grandma really own twenty-three cats? How did she do all their litter?”

“That’s really all that stood out to you?” I ask, sure he must be joking. I had mentioned that in passing at the very beginning of my tale when I was still trying to figure out where I should start.

Briareth shrugs in response. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter that much, but it’s an impressive achievement in my mind. My little sister owns 3 cats, and she can never keep up with their litter. Anyways, I think that tale is reason enough to send you back to the capital with one of us. Any dissenters?” Briareth, barely halting to give anyone a chance to raise an objection continues “Great, I volunteer for the job, does anyone else want to come or have any suggestions?” 

“Don’t try to leave this afternoon.” One of the other elves says. “The dwarf should stay the night so we can be sure he doesn’t try to murder you in his sleep and then escape back and report our location to his brethren.”

Briareth considers that for a second. “Makes sense, I can also use that time to gather my stuff. Okay strange deserter dwarf, it’s off to the capital with me on the morrow!” He leads me out of the tent and across the camp as I protest my nickname.

“Will you stop calling me that! My name is Balderk Ungart, as you already know.”

“But I didn’t know that when I first named you so this name is more original. Also it just rolls off the tongue, way better than the harsh sounds of your normal name.”

“Has anyone ever won an argument against you?” I ask, completely exasperated

“Yep, but never a dwarf, and I don’t plan to break that record today!” Briareth claims confidently.

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