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cover of book 1, Soeliok. The Breath of the Earth


Tales of Peopled Lands

book 1

The Breath of the Earth

Dearest Cousins,

Rarely do I write you by my own hand. However, when the strains of duty momentarily abate, it is with pleasure and pride that I do so to honour our ancient bond.

The snows shall soon begin to melt and the dwarf falconers shall once again take up their positions at the final eastern outpost, doubling the trading shifts.

I am writing to you in these troubled times to reiterate my warning about the Orkran. Norigia, our beloved capital, has been under siege for years and we’ve been forced to live in a constant state of war. All our efforts to bring peace to the Peopled Lands have been in vain.

Thanks be to the Gods for having blessed us with our falcons. Despite the years it took to teach them the way, it is thanks to them that today we can communicate and keep our vital trade routes open and active.

The towering mountain chain that has separated our peoples for millennia may stop us from sharing a meal or exchanging a fraternal embrace, but it can never break our blood bond.

Every day, I pray that the Gods give your flying ships the strength to leave Fiòrderik for the white cliffs of Norigia. I have been heartened by the knowledge that the mountains separating you from us are also protecting you from those terrible monsters.

In the hope that I will one day welcome you in person, with my hand on my heart I salute you.

HelGrov, Sole Emperor of the Dwarflands “The noble heart of Norigia, capital city.”

That night, thick snow fell on Fiòrderik. It was well into September and soon the icy autumn winds would rise. The steep stairs connecting the city’s squares and moorings were deserted. Shimmering hearth light illuminated windows here and there. The wind whistled through narrow stone alleyways and the sheer rocky mountainsides that plunged deep down into the shadows.

Mèlkam the Watcher began his patrol on one of the lookout towers. Suddenly, he glimpsed an ominous shadow, dark against the white snow. It wasn’t unusual for nocturnal animals to prowl around the city in search of food. It was almost totally dark and the heavy snow didn’t help, but, using his telescope, the dwarf managed to make out the hulking figure as it moved towards the western promontory. Judging by its size, it could have been a bear, but it was eerily silent and walking on its hind legs. The figure moved a few steps closer to a snow-covered wall. That’s when the dwarf realised the terrible danger he was in. It wasn’t a bear, but a much greater threat.

It was an Orkran, one of the horrible monsters described in the legends of the Peopled Lands. What was it doing in Fiòrderik? How had it reached the mountains? It was gigantic. A dark mantle covered nearly all of its powerful body. It moved silently, but its breathing was laboured. It wheezed nervously and glanced around impatiently. It appeared to be injured and hugging something to its chest.

It moved northward towards Grìtmabjork House, one of the largest buildings on the promontory. It climbed the staircase and stopped in front of the entrance. Old Mèlkam clearly saw it lay something on the ground before fleeing among the rocks. The guard hurried to the spot. The snow was frozen, revealing no trace of footsteps. As he neared the doorstep, what he saw there shocked him.

Wrapped in a thick blanket was a baby dwarf in swaddling clothes. A letter peeped out from the folds of its hood. A light went on in the house accompanied by the sound of heavy footsteps coming towards the door. Mèlkam grabbed the letter without thinking and hid in the shadows. The door was opened by a female dwarf with a strong step and thick curly red hair.

“Who’s knocking on my door in the middle of the night?” she asked. No one answered. She suddenly became aware of the baby at her feet. Picking it up, she held it close for warmth and stared searchingly into the dark a moment longer. Then she went back inside, shutting the door behind her.

Seven years later.


The sun hadn’t fully risen yet that morning, but only a few dwarves in Fiòrderik slept on. The new Master Engineer was about to be elected, a role that every self-respecting dwarf aspired to. The entire city was teeming with anticipation, eager to name the dwarf who would run Fiòrderik’s scientific production and technology research for the next five years.

Half Harbour Square faced the east side of the mountains and was home to one of the highest quays. Though the square wasn’t very big, it was often quite crowded. Buildings bordered only half of it, and the longest side opened onto a sheer drop, perfect for air-ships to take off and dock. When the sun crested a point in the sky high enough to warm their faces, the master craftsmen sat on the cobblestone edge of the square ready to meet the incoming and outgoing air-ships.

Gaman loved this place. In addition to having the best view in the city, the most respectable dwarves in the area frequented this square.

“Here comes young Gaman!” a voice called out from the quay. “Come on youngster, the school-ship’s about to arrive. You don’t want to miss it, do you?”

It was the voice of Hèldimak’s, the guard of the Eastern Quay. The old dwarf was missing some teeth and nearly all his hair. He was wearing a yellowed jumpsuit held in place by a pair of braces fastened at his chest with an iron hook. Hèldimak made sure loading and unloading went smoothly, and for over a century he’d been in charge of public transport timetables, commercial trading and cargo operations.

“There’s no school today, Master Hèldimak! They’re going to elect the new Master Engineer in a few days, you know,” said Gaman.

“Oh, of course, the elections!” he answered, picking up his tool belt. “Come with me. I was just about to go up and have a look around. The supply-ship hasn’t turned up yet.”

The old guard untied a line from a cleat that was anchoring a huge soeliok-inflated balloon to the ground. He turned a gearwheel and the structure slowly began to rise. Gaman loved it when Hèldimak took him up to the top of Krowsnest tower. A few bystanders in the square lifted their gaze and watched as the morning light illuminated the boy’s smile. They were so high up that the faces of the dwarves in the square were indistinguishable.

When they finally stopped, the panorama was astounding. Gaman stared hard at the horizon, as far as his eyes could see.

“How far have you travelled?” asked the young dwarf. “I know our air-ships can only fly within Kélamnkor, but how far has a dwarf ever gone, really?”

His voice echoed in the ears of the dwarf guard like the cry of a caged bird.

“The grand Imperial Air-ship can fly for a full hour without refuelling with soeliok. It doesn’t go very fast, but it can go far.”

“Could it make it over the mountains to reach the plains and the Peopled Lands?”

Hèldimak smiled. “No flying vessel can get past the outer mountain chain. We’re surrounded by summits much, much higher than those where we built our city, and soeliok only springs naturally from the rocks inside the Confederate Frontiers.”

“But someone must have tried, at least once,” insisted Gaman, seeking confirmation in the old dwarf’s eyes.

“Many tales are told about our city and many others about villages further away. It’s a well-known fact that our mountains are impenetrable; however, it’s also true that we’ve always tried to find a way to cross them.”

Gaman stared at him transfixed. “And has anyone ever managed it?” he asked.

Hèldimak lowered his gaze straight into Gaman’s eyes. “There once was a time when our ancestors rode dragons and travelled to the remotest regions of the known world,” said the old dwarf, his index finger pointing to the east. “They had no enemies and knew no bounds. These mountains offered a perfect refuge for them and their dragons.”

Gaman listened, enraptured. He knew all the old stories and loved listening to the elders talk about those flying creatures.

Hèldimak’s finger indicated the point on the horizon where the external mountain chain’s highest peak dominated the others.

”That’s Mount Inekag,” he said, directing Gaman’s attention. “They say the oldest of all the dragons, the guardian dragon, took flight from its peak. Legend has it that he woke all the younger dragons from their hibernation and led them as they migrated into the east,” he said, turning around with a smile.

“They’re just legends, though; they couldn’t be true, could they?” Gaman uttered with a sigh.

“There’s a shred of truth in every story,” replied Hèldimak. “We can’t always know the truth, but our hunger for knowledge is what sparks our dreams. And believe me, son, a dwarf with a dream is a force to be reckoned with!”

“Everything’s so fantastic from up here!” exclaimed Gaman. “Maybe when I grow up and I’ve studied like you have, I can be the guard of the Eastern Quay. What do you think?”

The old dwarf twirled his moustache between his fingers. “If you keep that up, young Grìtmabjork, you’ll be the guardian of much more than just a mooring. Believe me!”

“That must be the supply-ship down there,” said Hèldimak, peering through his binoculars. He pointed them towards a sundial. “It’s late!” he grumbled. “You there, with the ropes!” he yelled down to the linesmen. “Clear the deck and prepare for docking!” he ordered in a bold commanding tone. “Bring casks and barrels to the quay! And you, Master Valdkor, hurry! Hoist the docking flag! You don’t want them to turn back, do you?”

Half Harbour Square was transformed into a crowded arena. The arriving supply-ship was carrying the mid-season foodstuffs from the city of Vernok, one of the largest cities besides Fiòrderik, where they made excellent beer, various types of flour and the best sausages in all of Kélamnkor.

A thunderous siren suddenly blared. The air-ship shot out past the rocks, blocking the sun. Silent and imposing to the eyes of young Gaman, it drifted slowly, majestically, dark against the bright sky. It seemed to glare down at them cautiously, like a cat sizing up its prey. The lively colours of the huge central balloon contrasted with its vaguely threatening appearance. The two-storey wood and iron barge had several slots from which a network of ropes emerged, connected to the balloons to keep the barge afloat.

Hèldimak directed the mooring procedure after the linesmen had prepared the bridge. The safety lines were tied, the gangplank ready. The powerful air-ship docked. Its propellers stopped spinning and the fuselage became still. Myriad lines shot up from the quay to the barge and the wooden gangplank was readied, resting on the furthermost balcony. The Master Flyer steadied the plank with one foot and then stretched it out until it touched down on the edge of the square.

He was a small sinewy dwarf with a thick curly red beard. He looked straight at Hèldimak and pulled him into a powerful hug.

“Master Karmak!” exclaimed Hèldimak, placing his fist on his heart in the imperial Fiòrderik officers’ salute. “Your monthly visits are always a pleasure!” Karmak returned the salute with the same formal gesture and a warm smile.

“It’s an honour to bring supplies to the capital, and I wouldn’t dream of missing the chance to see my old fellow pilot, not even for a hundred barrels of our best beer!” he roared with a deafening laugh.

The two friends, chatting vigorously, sat down behind a pallet to deal with paperwork, while many other dwarves busily unloaded the barge, filling the square with wooden boxes and barrels, cloth sacks and containers of every kind. A moveable bridge had been set up so that at any given time, dozens of dwarves could bustle back and forth from the air-ship, pushing and pulling their heavy wheelbarrows. A rope with a balloon was attached to the heaviest freight to lighten the load, making it easier to haul. The bottom floor of the barge emptied quickly.

All of a sudden, Gaman felt someone grab him by his jacket. “Dear Karmak, let me introduce you to one of the most promising pilots in Fiòrderik!” Hèldimak exclaimed, lifting up the young dwarf. “This is Gaman, son of Eira, from the Grìtmabjork clan.” Gaman found himself face to face with the burly dwarf and his curly red beard.

“So, you’re an aspiring pilot, are you?” asked the Master Flyer.

“I guess so,” Gaman answered awkwardly. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

“Oh! I don’t doubt it. I can see the stuff of Master Eldur in your eyes, and believe you me, he was a born flyer!”

“You know Granddad Eldur?” asked the young dwarf in surprise, beaming with a proud smile.

“Do I know him, you ask me? That old dwarf left us in the dust so many times in our racing years… Well, you know,” he laughed.

“Anybody who was lucky enough to represent their city at the top-level races in those days got a taste of it,” added Hèldimak. “Sooner or later they had to go head to head with Eldur. He was always the winner, no matter what the category or discipline,” he said shaking his head in resignation.

“You know,” interjected Gaman suddenly, “I’ve built a racing-ship. l’ve been fine-tuning it for the last year and I’m sure I could –”

“A racing-ship?!” interrupted Karmak. “You don’t want me to believe that you’re old enough to fly an air-ship, do you, young dwarf?” he said in an oddly authoritarian tone.

“Of course not!” replied Gaman. “But I’ve got no intention of being unprepared when that day comes, and I also want to be sure to have a racing-ship good enough to compete with.”

“Oh, oh!” chuckled Karmak. “You’re quite a force to be reckoned with, young Grìtmabjork!”

The air-ship siren blared for the second time. The docking flag was lowered and the half-mooring flag was flown in its place. The barge had been emptied entirely and the moveable bridge taken away. Two dwarves approached the fuselage with a huge machine held up by two balloons. They inserted a metal tube into the engine compartment and unhooked the safety latch. The whole machine began to vibrate noisily unloading all its contents into the supply-ship.

Karmak picked up his logbook and stood up. “I think our brief monthly encounter has come to an end, dear Hèldimak,” he said, embracing his friend and dispensing with any kind of formal salute. He boarded the ship.

“All’s well, in any case. Release the moorings!” yelled the Master Flyer. The lines were untied and the air-ship lifted lightly. “Let’s take it up to three klicks, cruising speed,” he ordered the driver. “Helmsman! Route north-east.”

The supply-ship left the Eastern Quay and slowly vanished from sight behind the rocky crags of Mount Smaragd.

Gaman turned toward Master Hèldimak. “This has been the best morning ever!” he exclaimed with a smile.

Fiòrderik seemed to vanish amidst the dense mid-altitude fog. The shadows stretched long across the outer walls sustaining the terraces from which most of the buildings and lookout towers rose. The snow lay atop those imposing structures like a white blanket, while the broad openings in the side of the mountain looked like voracious, hungry mouths swallowing the city whole. Just above the sloping roofs, large balloons of coloured cloth floated silently, languidly moving from one quay to another. Some carried heavy objects or machinery, others served as means of transport. A closer look revealed a myriad of small flying objects taking off and quay here and there, each one a different shape and colour, although the frenetic activity was not enough to overcome an ancient stillness that enveloped the city and spread acrossI the outer chain of high mountains.

The falcons had been crying for a while now and a reddish light shone through the window of old Eldur’s workshop. Models and miniatures of flying apparatuses and a huge wooden world map hung from a ceiling so high that the space could have been divided into two floors. A mezzanine ran along the entire eastern wall, just beyond Eldur’s desk the other walls were lined with books from the furthest reaches of the Peopled Lands. Dozens of strange instruments filled the rest of the room. Some were anchored to the stone wall, others scattered across workbenches.

Eldur, the eldest member of the Grìtmabjork family, was a venerable two hundred ninety-four years old. Few dwarves in the capital were fortunate enough to live a full three centuries and none of them could easily fly an air-ship anymore. The old dwarf headed Fiòrderik’s most advanced experimental projects in the applied alchemical sciences. He’d been elected Master Engineer multiple times in his life, but politics took too much time away from his studies; recently, he’d turned down an invitation to join the High Council. Now his days were filled with research into the bounds of known science, which often proved to be incompatible with dwarf society’s active lifestyle.

In truth, he’d never cared much about what the other dwarves thought of him. He cared so little, in fact, that for the last century he’d habitually spoken in rhyme. What had begun as a joke had over time turned into a true passion, so much so that eventually it completely took the place of normal speech. Many dwarves had tried to convince him this wasn’t a wise choice, but the old Grìtmabjork patriarch never compromised and to the most insistent protesters he simply replied:

“If you can’t grasp the words I utter,
gladly I’ll repeat them, careful not to stutter.
Until each word said my usual way
becomes to you clear as the light of day.”

On that morning he was immersed in his studies, browsing through dusty pages of notes and consulting old books pulled precariously from the staggering piles set in random places about the room. Every now and then he moved away from his desk to use one of the many instruments, all while never even rising from his mechanical chair. Its special mechanism, a combination of wheels, pedals and pulleys, enabled him to move about agilely in every direction and reach even the books on the highest shelves.

“If I should, even for irony’s sake,
name my best noble innovation,
let the sky fall if these my words be fake,
you, mechanical chair, are surely my selection.”

He repeated the rhyme in a sing-song voice like a child at play.

Eldur had just stuck his prominent nose in a dusty tome when he heard a knock at the door.

“Don’t wait for a summon,
it’s open, come on in!”

Eira strode in with determined steps. The Master Archivist at the Grìtmabjork Library, she was an expert in both ancient and modern history and had been a member of the Lesser Council for the last few years. “Granddad, you’ve got to help me!” she exclaimed, setting a letter and a box overflowing with doughnuts down on the desk. “Bilosk has announced that he’s going to present to the Council the greatest scientific discovery that Fiòrderik has ever seen!” she announced breathlessly.

“Your visits to me are always a pleasure,
especially when you bring me such delicious treasure!”

said Eldur biting into a pumpkin doughnut.

“I’m serious, Granddad! I can’t bear the thought of that charlatan making fools of us. He must be stopped!”

There was nearly two hundred fifty years’ difference between Eldur and his great-great-granddaughter. Eira was Eldur’s daughter’s son’s son’s daughter, but she simply called him granddad.

“Perhaps first fill me in?
You’re aiming for a victory
in a role that’s no easy win.

And if I can trust my memory,
a female Master Engineer in
our age would make history.”

Eira leaned on the back of a chair. “Obviously, being the first female dwarf to become Master Engineer would be an incredible victory. But Bilosk is powerful and I’m sure he’ll find a way to garner lots of votes. There must be something I can do!”

Eldur swallowed the last bite of his doughnut.

“Politics is like the wheel of an air-ship,
with a judge at the helm supported by the voters he needs,
if he’s an idiot liked by the town-ship:
“Full speed ahead!”, they cheer; we’ll see who will be the one who leads.

I think you should act as a rival.
Three of you are favoured, good chances for survival.
Don’t turn up your nose, it’s all legal,
and if you’re only two, that’s better for us all.”

Eira stood silent for a moment.

“Are you referring to Nodfri? We haven’t seen each other since I was promoted to Project Head,” her face darkened. “We were a great team in the past, but I don’t think it would be a good idea.”

“Sometimes the events life deals
give us another chance
for old wounds to heal.

Pride is just an emotion
you should try not to feel,
if you’ve truly grasped the notion.”

“This has nothing to do with pride!” exclaimed Eira irritably. “We both worked hard in that mine, but when he got the chance, he didn’t hesitate to make his choice.”

“I’m sure you would have done the same.
Project Head before fifty-two!
That’s a privilege few can add to their name.

Have you tried walking in his shoes?
It’s normal to envy those with fame,
but it doesn’t mean he’s tricking you!”

Eira clenched her fists in anger. Eldur could make her smile and then a moment later make her face up to her own fragility. She knew deep down that he was right and if she wasn’t speaking to Nodfri anymore, it wasn’t because she was too busy. She wanted to say something, but she knew her great-great-granddad well enough to see that the discussion was closed. As always, he’d said his piece and so now there was nothing left to say.

The sun had already been up for a while when Nodfri’s alarm clock began screeching. Anyone else who heard the racket would have thought it was one of the quay sirens, but this was the only way Nodfri managed to wake up every morning. He slept so soundly that even dragging him out of bed by force didn’t make him stir. He’d been battling this problem since he was a kid. Still today around the village of Ankad, stories are told about the cacophony that could be heard coming from his house every morning.

Mountain dwarves go into a sort of brief hibernation when they sleep. Their heartbeats slow down and their vital energy drops to a minimum. It’s one of the characteristics that enable them to survive the long cold winters at high altitude. Unfortunately for Nodfri, something didn’t work properly when it was time for him to wake up. He’d seen top experts, but none of them could put their finger on the cause or prescribe a cure. All the Master Healers that had seen him had come to the same conclusion: “the subject presents with an inexplicable inability to complete the transition from the sleeping to the waking phase”. As years passed, the situation had not improved, and since he’d moved to the capital, the problem had turned into a real conundrum.

It had taken many months of effort and endless humiliating scoldings at work before he managed to get a handle on the situation, but at last, albeit precariously, he’d managed to create a strategy. He lived in a small house dangling amongst the rocky roofs of inner Fiòrderik, so neighbours complained about the unbearable racket, and passers-by, even if walking through the city’s streets far below, would gaze upwards amused.

That morning, the giant horn connected to his alarm clock had been sounding at regular intervals for quite some time. Nodfri, completely undisturbed, slept soundly until a spring shot up from under his bed, catapulting his still sleeping body out of a window that had just been opened. Groggy and confused, he was hurled against a net that closed like a sack upon the impact, activating a mechanical arm that dropped him through another window into the loo. That was the highlight for the regular viewers of the spectacle.

Still entangled in the net, he was soaked by a strong jet of water. Then he was dried by a blast of hot air, ruffling him like a baby bird.

The bathroom door, which led onto the kitchen, opened and a conveyor belt carried him to the table. A tray laden with powdered sugar-topped pancakes shot out from a niche beside the sideboard. With his eyes finally open just enough to see them, he reached out, picked up a hot, fluffy pancake and took a bite. He’d eaten at least a dozen before he began to comprehend where he was, and only when the tray was completely empty did he find the strength to get up and get dressed.

Young Gaman burst into Granddad Eldur’s study, the door slamming against the wall. “Granddad, Granddad!” he yelled, running over to him. “There’s no school this morning!” He climbed into the old dwarf’s arms, grabbing his beard.

Eira scolded him. “Gaman! Is that any way to come into Granddad’s study? You know full well that there are very important things in here.”

Eldur let the boy sit on his lap.

“Your mum is right, my boy.
Things in here aren’t toys.
You move like a cyclone, and that’s no sin,
but you’re so fast, I don’t see you come in!

Let’s see if your mind’s as quick as the rest.
Here’s a question to put you to the test.
What can you do to use your talent best?”

The young dwarf furrowed his brow and bit his lip.

“If I had to guess, I could stop and rest?!”

“Excellent reply, you’ve done splendidly!
If your mum speaks true, she’ll have to agree!”

Eira’s expression was unhappy. “You know I don’t want you teaching him to speak in rhyme. Our language is complicated enough as it is.”

“Come now, Eira, please, don’t be so alarmed,
teaching him to rhyme won’t do any harm.
He can read and write and do maths at school.
He knows it’s all a game, the boy’s no fool.”

“Of course he knows that!” Eira retorted quickly. “I just don’t want…”

“Me to wake up one day
and suddenly decide
to rhyme all that I say
to show my fam’ly pride?”

Eira kept silent for a second, then she put on one of her most patient smiles. At that moment, a white falcon entered the room through a small slot in the southern wall and glided to rest on the arm of Eldur’s chair.

“Excuse me, my dears, this letter is private.
I’ve waited so long, I must read it in quiet.”

The old dwarf untied a small piece of parchment from the falcon’s leg. Eira smiled ironically as she watched Eldur with the bird. “We’ve got the most sophisticated postal system in the Peopled Lands!” she said, waving her hands in the air. “Hundreds of dwarf falconers are trained every year to guarantee the service to everyone, but you still insist on using a personal falcon!”

“The Falconguild is a great achievement.
Without their work, no letters could be sent.
The Imperial Archives sort the mail
to carry to dwarves over hill and dale.
But some letters, like this, I handle all alone.
When I must be careful, I do it on my own,”

said the old dwarf, raising his eyebrows.

Eira held out her hand to Gaman. “All right. Come away now. We’ve got a full day ahead and I’ve already hung about long enough.” The young dwarf jumped into her arms. “Now remember, Granddad. You mustn’t be late to lunch today, no matter what!’ Eldur smiled as Eira and young Gaman left his study, the door closing behind them.

Gaman was sitting, as he did every morning, at the end of the Grìtmabjork family’s kitchen table waiting for his breakfast. From that position he could see the stairs to the upper floors. He liked to watch the sleepy faces of his relatives as they came downstairs into the kitchen. This part of his day helped him to get his thoughts in order.

He knew he wasn’t related to his family by blood. Eira had found him on her doorstep when he was just a baby, but she had raised him as her own son. In Fiòrderik, the specifics of parentage weren’t important. The high mountains that encircled Kélamnkor had a deep influence on the concept of family, so kinship included everybody within that insurmountable barrier. Gaman knew this, but the urge to know more about his origins set off thoughts too difficult for him to control. It wasn’t just curiosity: a craving hidden somewhere deep inside compelled him to push on, to go farther than anyone else had gone before.

The first to join him at the table were Granddad Sebat and Grandma Kali. They worked nights at the astronomy observatory and enjoyed breakfast just before going to bed. Soon after, Granddad Rakel and Grandma Simak came down, followed by several younger cousins. The energy in the room quickly became animated, as was usual here, the most popular spot in the city centre. Dwarves of all ages stuffed themselves with eggs, salted meat and beer, chatting loudly. Gaman fiddled distractedly with a bit of savoury biscuit while awaiting the best part of the show.

Suddenly, a loud creak emanated from the wooden stairs, as if half a dozen dwarves were carrying the winter beer rations to the cellar. It was Uncle Eridur, the largest dwarf ever to have lived in Fiòrderik. He was a few hand-spans taller than the average dwarf and weighed at least twice as much. It was said that one night, while out chopping wood, he’d even battled a bear, throwing down his axe to fight it barehanded. He’d pulled out one of the bear’s teeth, and ever since he’d always worn it proudly around his neck as a memento.

Gaman wasn’t the only one anticipating Eridur’s arrival. When he came through the door, he was met by warm laughter. He was still wearing his woollen pyjamas and two large cloth and leather boots. The bear tooth peeked out from under his thick curly beard. He sleepily scratched his beard and raised the tankard he was holding. “A toast to my family, the most precious gift a dwarf could hope to have.”

Thunderous applause met his words and the youngest dwarves began to sing.

Ancient, wise, primordial explorers of our kind, look closely with the eyes of those who hope to see in flight, the wings spread wide on winds that blow so cold into the night, so cold into the night.

Ancient, proud, you recognised what’s false from what is right. You knew how to survive the past. Your steeds you rode to fight. Dwarf and steed becoming one, revered, inspiring fright, revered, inspiring fright.

Ancient, shy, thankful to those who flee far from their sight, take refuge in the places that are hardest to find. On slopes so steep, try as you might you cannot come behind the waterfall that seals them inside.

Gaman had always loved that song, as he did all songs about dragons and mysterious treasures. At the puddingstable, he cut two thick slices of cake and shut them in a small iron box, which he carefully slid into his shoulder bag. Today was his best friend’s birthday and nothing in the world could have made him forget it.

Nodfri had found the strength to get up and sleepily put on his jumpsuit for work when someone tapped at the window. Against the backlight, Nodfri could see the visitor’s silhouette hovering mid-air in an airshot. He shaded his eyes with his hand to try and see the visitor’s face. “Need a lift?” asked the mysterious visitor, giving herself away.

Nodfri recognised the female voice with great pleasure. “Eira!” he exclaimed, coming over to the window. “What a surprise!”

The female dwarf pulled the airshot up next to the windowsill. “Hop in! I’ll drop you off at work today, if you’re not too proud to accept help from a lady.”

Nodfri hesitated. His reaction had nothing to do with receiving help from a lady; rather, it was his deep-rooted aversion to any type of flying vehicle that made him standoffish. Cautiously, he climbed over the windowsill and aboard the two-seater air-ship. The two dwarves had to squeeze together a bit for him to fasten his safety harness.

It felt very odd for Eira to be sitting next to Nodfri. She was still angry with him about what had happened in the past, but she wanted to control her emotions instead of letting them control her. “Isn’t it about time you got one of these?” Eira asked, the wind blowing in her face.

“I’ve never got the hang of these flying contraptions,” Nodfri replied, his mouth close to her ear. “I’m quite fond of my flycycle, you know. It keeps me fit and gets me wherever I need to go,” he added confidently.

“Anywhere at all?” Eira challenged him. With a quick turn, she headed towards the large junction that led to the outer zone. She gunned the propellers and shot away from the mountain like a bullet from a gun. The sunlight was blinding, the air dry and biting. Their eyes gazed upon the breath-taking scenery that unfolded below them. Eira flew higher so that they could see the whole city. Beyond the lookout towers stood the Central Norkiak mountain chain in all its majesty, its snow capped peaks sparkling in the morning light and blocking the horizon in every direction.

“Look down there,” said Nodfri, pointing east. “It’s the Minelands. I’ve never seen them from up here before.”

He suddenly found himself breathless as Eira drove the airshot into a nosedive and then turned sharply towards the diggings. She knew Nodfri didn’t like dangerous manoeuvres, which is exactly what had spurred her to push harder on the controls.

In a flash, they found themselves in front of the dark central shaft of the ancient silver mine. “It would be brilliant if you came back to work with our team,” said Nodfri, attempting to smooth his ruffled hair.

Eira put on a safety helmet. “I can barely keep up with the library. I put all my energy into the Council, and I couldn’t imagine giving it up now, just when my voice is just starting to be heard,” she replied, trying to sound detached.

“Right, the Council,” said Nodfri. “No one could show their worth better than you amongst those old fools.”

Eira didn’t give in to his flattery. “My new role as Master Librarian has brought me a certain level of popularity,” she asserted proudly. “I thought it was my chance to –”

“You’re not the only one who thinks that!” interrupted Nodfri. “I’ve been waiting for you to announce your candidacy for quite a while. I never thought we’d end up as rivals,” he added, smiling.

Eira nodded smiling too, but her face quickly changed. “Still, there are those who see our lives from a different point of view.”

Nodfri fastened his helmet under his chin. “I imagine you’re referring to Bilosk.”

Eira’s expression became more severe. She took Nodfri by both hands. “He’s more dangerous than you could imagine. He’s rich and powerful and his ideas about progress are nothing more than a bunch of projects intended to get votes.”

“I’ve never liked him either. But our electoral system is solid. I don’t think he can cheat.”

“But that’s exactly the point!” exclaimed Eira. “He’s got the stage all to himself. He can open and close the curtain and get applause from an audience who’ve already paid for their tickets… and they’ve paid a very dear price.”

Nodfri listened intently. “And what about the project for the final decision? Don’t you think he’ll have a hard time convincing the High Council?”

“This year’s different,” replied Eira. “He claims he’s got a revolutionary invention and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s paid an army of engineers to help him.”

“If that’s the case,” acknowledged Nodfri, “it means that science must triumph once again.”

“But it’s unacceptable!” declared Eira angrily. “I’m telling you that if he should…”

Nodfri placed a shushing finger on her lips. “I understand what you’re saying, believe me. Every single word. But I want to have faith in our people. The High Council is made up of the Empire’s wisest dwarves. One actor can’t ruin an entire show. He can play an important part, but only we can decide whether to applaud or not when the curtain falls.”

Eira looked into his eyes for a moment, then she hugged him tightly. “I’ve missed you, Nodfri.”

“I’ve missed you too, dear Eira. You’ll never know how much.”

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Tales of Peopled Lands