Thalia tromped through the woods and went around the rocks that jutted up here and there in the forest. She ignored everyone else. Nevah floated along, hardly making a sound in the forest, but she insisted on climbing over every rock outcropping she could find. Sometimes she hooted when she reached the top, and Phadon kept telling her to keep quiet. He tried to move stealthily through the leaves and underbrush, like he did not want to alert the whole neighborhood. He failed on every crumpled leaf and snapped twig. It did not matter in any case. Bezos tried to make extra noise because he would rather not startle a bear or a big cat or something. He had his hammer in his hand and occasionally rapped it against the trees. What is more, Anwanna was struggling to bring along the donkey, who complained. For some reason, the donkey thought the stop for lunch should have been the stop for the night.
“We are about to come out of the trees on to the rock ledges that should lead us up to the tower,” Thalia shouted back. She signaled the others to wait where they were while she jogged up ahead. She sensed something the others could not imagine.
Anwanna pulled up and raised his voice to answer her. “I take it we have made it past whatever traps he may have set for unwanted visitors.”
Bezos laughed and Nevah spoke. “Haven’t faced any traps yet.”
“What about the skeletons and bears and everything?” Anwanna wanted to protest.
“Just testing us, to see if he could scare us off,” Phadon gave the explanation.
“The fun is just beginning.” Nevah said, happily. Bezos nodded and grinned.
“You people have a strange sense of fun,” Anwanna suggested, and Phadon nodded again before he hushed everyone. It took a minute to figure out what he was hearing, but then a howl rang through the trees, and Phadon grabbed the donkey’s reigns.
“Hurry. Get to the rocks and out from the trees. Anwanna and Phadon were glad the donkey did not argue. Bezos pulled his axe while they ran. Nevah had the harder time as she tried to get her bow out. She had to pause at the edge of the woods to bend it and string it, but then she needed a bit of speed—not like elf speed, but faster than human speed, to catch up.
The wolves were right behind, about a dozen of them. Nevah spun around and put two down with two arrows, but two more reached the group. Phadon caught on with his spear when it was in mid-leap. Bezos gutted the other with his axe.
Two wolves circled the group to come up on Anwanna and the donkey. Anwanna screamed while the donkey let out a great bray and kicked. The wolves were wary.
“Use your knife,” Phadon yelled as he pulled his sword. The spear fell with the wolf.
Anwanna pulled his knife after a minute. He yelled like a madman, or a man afraid, and waved the weapon at the wolves. The wolves ignored him. They were concerned about how to bring down the donkey without being kicked.
Nevah shot another one, but it was not a perfect shot and imagined she only wounded the thing. They appeared to pause at the edge of the trees.
“Have they had enough?” Phadon wondered.
“Here they come,” Nevah yelled as she fired her arrow. Phadon raised his sword, and Bezos pulled his hammer to have a weapon in each hand. Phadon lost his sword in the neck of a wolf. Bezos lost his axe in a wolf head. Bezos swung his hammer and maybe busted a wolf shoulder but there was another one. Phadon and Nevah also faced another, and all they could do was grab their long knives.
They stood as three arrows came from behind them and the wolves went down. Bezos had the satisfaction of smashing the head of the one with a busted shoulder, but that was it. When Phadon and Neva turned to see who their benefactor might have been, they saw Thalia standing on a rock some twenty yards behind and above them, and four of the funniest looking, heavily bearded little men jogging to meet them. Thalia wore a cape that fluttered in the wind, and when she slipped her bow in a pocket of the cape, the cape was in no way restricted. It continued to flutter as she climbed down the rock. In fact, she bunched it up to drape it over her arm as she climbed, so Phadon was prompted to ask a question.
“What happened to the bow? I swear she was just holding a bow and arrows.”
“Ours is not to question,” Nevah told him.
“I’m all right,” Anwanna said, grumpily. Both wolves that faced him were down with arrows.
“We can see that,” Bezos grinned his grin, but helped Anwanna calm the donkey which was spooked by the wolves and now by the blood, everywhere.
The little men came up arguing about whose arrow hit which wolf closer to the heart. They retrieved and checked their arrows while the others could only stare. As they went by, three of them tipped their hats to Nevah and said, “Missy,” “Breedy,” and “Hobby-Gob.”
Nevah shook her head and stared before she said, “but it gives me strange feelings to look at them. I don’t know why.”
“They’re dwarfs,” Thalia shouted, having heard Nevah’s comment. “Let me introduce you.” And she introduced her gang to the dwarfs Poogbara, Gildurien, Metikas, and Zed. “Chief Zed, I should say. We have been invited to spend the night.”
“Is it safe?” Anwanna wondered out loud.
“The only place that is safe,” Thalia answered. “They have a magical shield up against the sorcerer in the tower so he can’t raise up their long dead ancestors. Chief Zed has said we can get a good night’s sleep, and they will watch the land, the skies and the under-earth.”
“Sounds like an offer we can’t refuse,” Phadon said.
“To refuse would be rude, I think,” Nevah agreed.
“Ready.” Bezos had gathered his weapons and his pack, and the others hurried to get their things.
The dwarf home was not far. The trees on the surface shaded the work sheds and a great hall used now and then for feasts and celebrations, but most of the home was underground in the mines that honeycombed the mountain. The group had to stay on the surface, but that was all right. It was a chance to rest after the last weeks of struggle.
The sorcerers tower could be seen from the roof of the great hall, and they all climbed up to get a good look. The tower appeared to be about three days away, jutting into the sky on the edge of a mountain that smoked. Steam billowed out from the inside of the rocks there and made great clouds to be blown off by the wind. Presently, the tower and the clouds appeared golden as the sun began to set in the west.
“Do not be fooled,” Chief Zed said. “There is no gold in that mountain, only hot red rivers beneath the surface like the blood in the earth. Soon enough, you will see the sky and the tower turn red as the sun drops to the horizon. I think it is the color of the blood that shows before the darkness covers everything. If you are going there…” he paused to look at Thalia, “and I have no doubt that you are, you will find that even the moon and the stars cannot penetrate the smoke and steam. The darkness at night is utterly dark, a fitting place for the man and his wicked sorcery.”
Anwanna lowered his head and shed a few tears. Nevah slipped an arm around the man to comfort him, even as Phadon spoke.
“Nevah. You are being quiet this evening. I though you always had something to say.”
Nevah looked at the dwarf and lowered her own eyes. Thalia thought she better say something before Nevah joined Anwanna in his tears.
“Nevah is a breed, half-hobgoblin and half-human. The earth spirits do not think good thoughts about half-breeds since their god has made such a fuss about it and told them plainly that they are not permitted to mingle with human mortals in that way. Then, her spirit half is hobgoblin. Most earth spirits keep hobgoblins at arm’s length and do not trust them, and rightly so, since most are such terrible, manipulative schemers. So you see, Nevah has two strikes against her already, even without opening her mouth. Too bad, because Nevah is really a very nice young woman who tries very hard to be honest and good.” Nevah did start to weep softly as Chief Zed spoke.
“Not a problem,” Thalia said. “Our path goes overland, but right now I say we go back down. I can smell the feast the dwarf wives are preparing, and Bezos is hungry.”
Phadon looked up from Nevah’s face, from where his hand reached out to touch her arm and comfort her as much as he could. “I believe Bezos is always hungry,” he said. Bezos nodded and grinned.