I flexed my fingers beneath the sealskin gloves. Tarileah, the elflord who hiked before me, didn’t have to wrangle such thick clothing, his body being made for extreme climates such as these. “Storm’s clearing, eh?” I asked, hoping to inject some cheer.
Tarileah responded with a shout just over his shoulder, “Can your human eyes see it yet?”
“See what?” I asked.
“Hurgruld Mountain.” Tarileah pointed ahead, through some mist. “I can see unnatural shapes ahead. We might approach today, perhaps tomorrow if we must camp.”
I squinted my eyes, but I saw nothing, try as I might. The dwarven mountain was surely in that direction, and I could believe Tarileah wouldn’t lie about his excellent sight, but my senses couldn’t detect the mighty, dwarven Hurgruld.
The dwarves create magnificent things and leave fantastic vistas behind them wherever they go. After they’ve strip-mined the inside of their mountains, emptied every vein of gold and gems and adamantium, they saunter out of their underground holds and take a look at how they changed the shape of their abode.
After a long silence, something that makes us human visitors and researchers nervous, one dwarf harrumphs and declares the decor gauche, last century, out of touch. Another may point out cracks in what appears to be a flawless facade, yet another determine that it doesn’t have the essence of dwarfness about it.
Without arguing, the bearded folk take up a pickaxe or a shovel (some humans claim there is sexual differentiation in tool preference, but those humans have not studied statistics and would claim wrong) and leave everything without qualm.
It astounds me how quickly human and elven pilferers descend upon the mountain en masse and take out anything valuable and many things that aren’t. Hurgruld was, by rumor, recently abandoned, and I hoped to find it mostly intact. My nanothropology work for the University of Attenhold would be phenomenally enhanced by the presence of an entire dwarf city, complete with all the holdings thereof.
I chewed on some of the hard tack from my bag and longed for the strip of jerky I’d have with my supper. Tarileah’s pace didn’t slow, nor did the column of Attenhold students and technical workers that followed. Scarcely an hour of walking passed before the squirming excitement of the young elves (of which Tarileah most certainly was not a member) became audible, and chatter amongst the studentry in general flared up.
The slope beneath our feet pointed upward, and as the altitude climbed the fog soon cleared. Through the mist, at last, I could see the outline of a giant’s shoulders. The masculine figure (or feminine? with dwarves it’s hard to tell) held down a dragon by the nape of the neck. The immense mountain statue was carved exquisitely to reveal a chill marble finish. Snow capped the frozen threshold and smoothed the edges of the magnificent sculpture.
“By the ghost of Amathea,” I heard Tarileah mutter, “It’s amazing.”
I wasn’t about to swear by my own god and risk damnation, but certainly the mountain’s appearance was grand beyond belief. A human would have risked life and limb to retain this magnificent fortress, this astounding representation of one’s own form – and here it was, empty.
Not even my students, young and spry, responded as quickly as I. I hurried to the mouth of the (comparatively) small dragon, as I noted rightly that a stone door was lodged in the throat of the unrealistically proportioned dragon. As a good sign that the quarry within remain untouched, several inches of ice held the door shut and a crack of glassy frost sealed the two doors together.
Tarileah caught up with me easily. “It seems we’ve arrived prior to the robbers.” He placed his slender hand on the bas relief under snow, then brushed away some of the flakes to examine the intricate carvings underneath.
I removed a small pick and hammer from my own bag, then chipped away at the ice. Students, all of them aware of the work and prepared to do what was necessary, set up a camp outside the cave and immediately set to removing the scads of ice that kept the dwarven city alone and empty.
My breath, which turned into fog and eventually withdrew from the air, became heavy and wheezing by the time the winter sun began to set. The human students filled the lanterns with a little whale oil and the elves cast their spells so as to keep the area lively throughout the evening hours.
It was as dark as pitch by the time I sat down next to the campfire and pulled my hood from around my head. I hadn’t noticed how cold my fingers had gotten, not with the excitement of this find, not as hard as I had been working. I warmed them near the fire then reached to my bag in search of a little piece of dried beef, which in combination with the hard tack I’d already consumed should sustain me for the next day. Before I could get the morsel into my mouth, one of Tarileah’s students put a hand on my shoulder. “Professor,” the young human said, “We’re about to get the door open.”
I dropped the jerky back into its paper sack and shoved that into my leather bag. Supper could wait for this magnificent discovery.
The students had chipped and carried away the ice to reveal a smooth mosaic stone beneath the foot of the door. The tile seemed to creep underneath more ice that led up to the entry, but it wouldn’t be worth investigating until summer. Clever lines had been pushed beneath the doors to help pull them open, and the human students had contrived of a wire device to pop open the dwarven lock without breaking it.
I shuffled up beside Tarileah. “I hope this is as complete as we dreamed.”
“The omens are in our favor.”
“Heave!” someone shouted. A small team of students took to the ropes and tugged, pulled with all their might to get one of the massive doorways to budge. Without our having built scaffolds to remove the ice at the top of the door, the massive structure bent slightly before dislodging – thankfully in one, safe piece. Some of the taller humans placed tools between the open door and the closed one, helping to open the door with their levers.
Tarileah held an orb of magic in his hand as I lifted my torch. “Shall we tempt ourselves tonight by looking at what we must wait until tomorrow to search?”
“Oh, without doubt,” I answered. “It would be a right pity to leave this crypt dark after all this walking and work. Besides, we may be able to move camp inside.”
The students held off, many of them with jealous faces, as Tarileah and I shuffled into the doorway. The inside of the dragon’s throat was lined with glassy tile. Blues and tins swirled into marvelous garnets and flagstone chips, each placed with remarkable precision in a grout that nearly out-whited marble. “This mosaic is an impeccable example of what Dr. Stonington described in her thesis on the Nanopic Renaissance period – I never dreamed to witness so perfect an example!”
Tarileah nodded quietly, but his elven features betrayed an excitement rare amongst his people. This love of knowledge, adventure, success – oh, how grand to share something like this with another! How lucky was I that the stoic elves could share human love of study! His own joy rubbed off into mine, further spurring my own response.
We came to the end of the tunnel. Our frail lights failed to light the massive cavern in its entirety, but I was astounded at the reflective properties of the materials that lined the causeway. I suspected the spire that rose through the middle of the mountain was of diamond and anthracite – a magnificent piece of contrasting darkness and light, forged with methods unknown to man or elf. After checking my footing, I realized that traversing such a monumentally large cavern would be unwise without additional light.
“Get everyone in. We’ll grid this thing up, start cataloging tomorrow,” I said.
“We’ll need horses,” Tarileah announced. “Someone will have to return to town and get a telegram to Attenhold requesting money for the excavation and shipments.”
I smiled. That was of no matter. At last, scientific process had prevailed. Mount Hulgruld would be carefully excavated and its treasures brought to the University of Attenhold. No one would be allowed to rob this hoard!
This was written for D. Peach’s new challenge. I read the fantastic entry Glass Mountain by Robbie Cheadle and thought the photo was a magnificent choice for something to write about. Since then I’ve read other entries that have shown up on D. Peach’s blog, and wow – amazing!