A slab of rock stymied the shovel, sending vibrations up Savh’s right arm and breaking his concentration. Thought returned to his voided mind. He flexed his hands, realizing they remained gripped to the handle without his consent. Prying them off, he looked around the pit; the torchlight had disappeared several feet above him, crude outlines of stone and hardened dirt colored a murky blue, and the depth doubled his height—several feet deeper than he intended. His wife’s voice came to him in his head. “War could erupt in your study and you wouldn’t know it until your chair was knocked from under you.” It was true, he realized, once engaged it took something truly startling to shake him.
So it was with this as well. However, this duty was more important than anything he had pondered in his study. He raised his hands into the faint light; ten sausages attached to a pair of mitts, coarse lines like ancient cataracts embedded with decades of soot, the strength of a millennia, and generations of mining throbbed through to the tips—a pair of true dwarf hands. They were meant to dig and carve the underbelly of the realm—but this was not their purpose this day.
He jammed his pick three feet up the pit wall and hopped onto it. He found foot and handholds and climbed to the top, light growing brighter with each ascension. The subtle sound of mining instruments pricked his ears. Sounds he had grown so used to stung now, for they were not the echoes of precious stones being unearthed, providing their city with wealth. No. It was far different this day. Endless rows of mounds along the giant cavern with weeping widows and mothers with clenched fists and misty eyes standing over them made Savh’s situation generic.
The polished wood of the diminutive casket sheened in the torchlight, as if it had sat out under a rainstorm. He lowered to his knees and ran a hand across it. His sanding and his wife’s polishing hadn’t missed a spot, this brought a faint smile. He needed that, something to lighten the pain, to offer relief to the tragedy of this day. His fingers reached the name, embossed in silver. Adon.
“You were far too young, my son.”
He drew a rope through two silver loops fastened to each end of the casket. Holding both ends of it, he lowered his son down into the tomb, avoiding every protruding rock that could blemish Adon’s final resting place.
It took him mere minutes to cover it, the grief of seeing the small casket expediting his effort. He grasped the final piece of Adon’s memorial in both hands. Made from pyre diamond, the red jewelstone reflected the light as if it was the source. The inscription, from his mother, spoke to the strength and ardor inside their son, in a far more eloquent fashion than Savh was capable of.
The thin jewelstone slide into a slot at the head of the tomb. Its color moved like an unquenchable fire and would do so until the end of time.
Savh laid a hand on it. “Your mother wishes she could be here, son. I did not want her to feel this burden while I still lived. She bore you … she taught you … she treated you in your illness. She did not need to bury you.” He gripped the top of the jewelstone. “You were our first. You will always have our first love. Let the dwarfs of old, our ancestors, take you into the halls of our kin and grant you your place among all that have gone before so that one day you will welcome us onto the throne of our family … for we are all kings in the afterlife.”
A grunt and the slam of a shovel drew Savh’s attention. Baeter, who’s grey eyes matched the hair on his head and face, cursed and dropped down to a knee. The old dwarf’s arms shook as they braced against his leg and the ground, his back seemed to rely on their support. He looked unfit to thread a needle let alone dig a grave. Savh returned to his son. “Wait for us, lad.” He rested his forehead on the jewelstone. “We’ll be with you again.”
Retrieving his tools, he walked over to Baeter and without asking permission drove the pick into the hard earth.
“You damned fool!” Baeter cursed under his breath, still keeling over with shaking hands. “It’s my grandson, which means it’s my job to dig.”
“Wrong.” Savh continued digging. “It is his father’s job. Since he’s no longer with us, I take it upon myself to fulfill his obligation.”
“The obligation falls on the grandfather, not you.”
“That is not written. But it is written that a man of his father’s age, one of his related kin, may take the burden in his absence. Since Doken’s are once removed from you Supters, I take the burden.”
Baeter ground his teeth as his grey eyes burned into Savh. “The stubbornness of a Doken knows no bounds. Go ahead then! Take your burden.”
“As a Doken, I accept this great honor on behalf your son Dith Supter.”
The old dwarf’s eyes softened, along with his glare, his arms shook as they lifted his shovel. “Thank you, Savh Doken … I’m sorry for your loss. Your son … the strongest I’ve ever seen for his age.”
Savh drove the pick and cracked a slab of rock in half. He went to finish it off but held for a moment. “Yes he was,” he said without looking at the old dwarf as he smashed it to pieces.
They spoke less than twenty words as Savh finished the tomb, Baeter remained sitting, trying to cam his trembling arms. He set up the young boys jewelstone, a green onyx gem that represented his calm demeanor and contemplative nature, and let the old dwarf say goodbye to his grandson undisturbed.
On his way out of the cemetery, he walked cautiously around others grieving the recent loss of their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, each someone he knew or met in his forty years.
None of their losses matched the pain he felt for his son, but he felt them—each one.
The warmth of his wife’s cooking wafted over him as he walked through their door and shut it to the communal pain behind. Everything looked just as he had left it early this morning, minus a few toys strewn about in the main room and a pleasant aroma from the kitchen. Ussen and Evri, their young twins, absorbed in a game, failed to notice he had come home—no excited faces or encompassing hug to greet him this day. His son, Ussen, had his back to the door and Evri, his daughter, laid on the ground with her head propped under her hands with some game of cards between them.
Trying to walk quietly as not to disturb them, his feet scuffed the floor and they both turned, flashing haphazard smiles. “Hi, Papa,” they both said and returned to their game.
Savh didn’t blame them for the lack of jubilation at his return, they knew where and what he’d come from. He crouched down next to them and ran a hand across the back of their heads. Thick, strong tufts of hair adorned both, like pelts of an animal born in a frozen land. Pulling down his son’s tunic below his neckline, he inspected it.
“Mama didn’t see anything this morning,” Ussen said while continuing to play with the cards.
Savh nodded. “You must also check—several times a day. Never know when blackmark might show.”
“What about me, Papa?” Evri asked, turning and setting her amber eyes on him.
Savh grinned out of habit, finding it impossible not to feel some filament of joy when his daughter looked to him for answers. “You and mama don’t have to worry about that, only Ussen and I.”
Her brow furrowed. “Why?”
He went to respond but held, for he did not have an answer for her. “I don’t know, love ...”
She studied him for a second, he couldn’t tell if she was satisfied with the answer or trying to think of another question. Before he could quell the puzzlement in Evri’s face, he felt the arms of his wife, Etta, slide underneath his from behind and pull him in. It lacked the fervor of her usual embrace, laced with sorrow it struggled to hold on.
“I wish I could have recited the benediction with you,” she whispered to him, too low for the twins to hear.
He turned, causing their faces to touch, hers far softer and pleasant looking. It was the last thing he hoped to hear on his return, to know that his decision, the one granted to the father to bear the burden of burying a child had caused her pain, denying her the final moment with her son. It pulled on his heart with the weight of a mountain and his vision turned grey as the attempt to spare her brought further hurt.
He caressed her face, if felt like water to his raw hands. “I’m sorry, my love.” He sighed. “In my honor, I robbed you of the final moment with our son.”
She cradled his face and turned it to her, all her features soft and her green eyes kind—a stark contrast to his hardened facade. “No.” Crystal tears trickled down from the emerald orbs. “It was more than I could bear. I wished I could be there, to help you … it would have broken me though.”
“There’s nothing that could break you, my love.”
She kissed him, her lips cold, surprising him. “I will say goodbye to him tomorrow. After he’s been laid to rest for a day.”
He nodded and wiped away her tears.
“Come now. Supper’s ready.”
Pork, onions, and potatoes made for a hearty meal after a longer than usual day. Savh sat at the head of the table with his wife at the other end, the twins on opposite sides and Adon’s chair remaining. It was wittled from the same piece of wood in the exact same pattern as the others but for his initials, which Adon had carved into the back. He had done this shortly after the twins were born. For six years he received all Savh and Etta’s affection, time, and focus, that is, until Etta became pregnant unexpectedly. At the first sign that he would no longer claim the moniker of only child, Adon began marking everything that was, and what he deemed should be, his property. This did not end well for the child when in his haste to claim all, he carved his initials into Etta’s most priceless antiquity, a silver candle holder that was passed down from her great great great grandmother. It affixed the candle inside and reflected its light in all directions to provide enough for an entire room on its own. Two-year-old Adon would stare at it for as long as they would allow him to, transfixed by its shimmering rays, which diminished as he got older, yet it still caught his eye.
A hapless smile crept onto Savh’s face as he recalled his oldest child’s actions. He looked to the others as if they were thinking the same thing, however, they all stared down at their food, picking at it like birds. The urge to regale them in the story diminished and Savh returned to the meal.
“Papa?” Ussen asked, setting down his fork. “Could you teach me how to play svidig tomorrow?”
Savh swallowed a chunk of pork and dabbed his mouth with the back of his hand. “Of course I will.”
“Would you teach me to play like Adon?”
Etta looked up toward Savh with a pair of pitiful eyes and a hopeful smile. He reciprocated the look and turned back to his son.
“I was never as good as your brother. Truthfully, I was never very good at the game at all.” He chuckled along with his wife. “I’ll teach you the rules and do my best to coach you on the skill.”
“Me too, me too.” Evri said with a mouth full of potatoes.
“Of course, sweetheart.” He patted his daughters hand to reassure her.
“Do you remember his last match?” Etta asked the entire table.
Savh threw up his hands. “How could one forget.” He chuckled again. “He shambled five players and captured the gavold singlehandedly.”
“Six shambles actually.” Etta corrected.
“Six? My goodness, six shambles. It truly was a sight to see.” Savh’s voice quivered with the last few words.
Etta froze, so did the twins, as all their minds seemed to go the same thing at once. Savh’s gaze returned to his eldest’s chair, focusing on the initials. His son’s hands had once touched them, made them, not out of anger or frustration, rather out of distress, driven by the deep need to for his assuredness of his parents love. Savh looked to each of his children and his wife and gave as much of a smile as he could.
They finished their meal without another word. He cleared the plates while Etta put the children down, the usual sounds of a story being read, childish inquisitions that couldn’t be answered at such a late hour, and finally of hugs and kisses goodnight comforted Savh as he returned the kitchen to its usual caliber.
He stood by their only window looking out into the southeastern half of the underground city. Their home, carved into the fourth level, a level up from Shorie’s main road that traveled the entire circumference of the city’s labyrinth layout, gave them a wonderful view of one of four main plazas, the mining corridors, and the forum. A few taverns remained lit and even fewer had patrons; the distant sounds of heartbreaking moans and sobbing, a stark difference compared to even six months ago—before the sickness. He could remember when he’d look down and the plaza and forum bustled until early morning with red-faced dwarfs, celebrating whatever they could think of to justify drinking and galivanting into the late hours. Lechery and adultery rarely occurred at such events, as they were vehemently ridiculed by society, although on some nights a few rows broke out. A broken appendage usually the worst of it—at most two—but the bones and hard feelings would always heal in shorter time than most outside the race of dwarfs would think necessary. The city, like all dwarf cities, needed a level of harmony and participation from every full-grown citizen to progress their way of life. Without it, they would stagnate and fall to the treacheries of living in the mountain’s underbelly—which were plenty.
“It’s so quiet,” said Etta, coming up and standing next to him while looking out the window at the once volitant city.
“It’s hard for me to sleep nowadays. I miss the distant clatter of dwarfs being dwarfs.”
She squeezed his arm. “So do I.”
A pair of taverns, The Dull Axe and Little Hairy Women Inn, Savh’s favorite, lights went out and a minute later their respective operators closed the doors.
“Is there any word on a cure?” Etta asked as she let go of his arm.
Savh could only shake his head. Not even a salve to temper the infection had been concocted. Every doctor in the city worked on it day and night, that is, until they fell ill as well. This left a heavier burden on the remaining ones as they prayed they too would not succumb to the sickness. It was all a vicious cycle.
“Have we gone to anyone else for help? Men? Elves?”
Savh sighed. “No word from men. I fear, like many others do, that they are engaged in a different sort of battle and have no time for the troubles of dwarfs.”
“The elves then?”
“Their civil war drove a chasm through the race. It seems the old ways of elves are forgotten as factions spread further and further away from each other in an attempt quell future fighting … and any chance of reunion.” He caressed his beard. “Once Prima Earth’s greatest thinkers, all once said, reduced to nothing but a mess of squabbling cabals.”
“What then?” Etta turned him toward him and laid a soft hand on the side of his face. “That can’t be it. We mustn’t sit here and wait for this plague to take you all. It came from this world … it can be undone by this world.”
He admired his wife’s strength in the moment, the unwillingness to accept defeat without resorting to sobbing or anger—neither of which would help in a time like this. Many nights he toiled in thought until his mind became raw, trying to come up with a solution, yet nothing came to him that hadn’t been tried already. The weight of the mountain slid from his heart onto his chest, making it hard to breathe as the truth of his failure to not only their people, but his wife, and his eldest son, became clear. His skills always laid in labor, not great thought, not in the solving of profound societal issues. The burden of physical limits were often defeated by him, but the burden of the mind, the problems that could only be remedied by mental tools, remained an enigma.
“Gordels,” said Etta, interrupting his grief. “They are of sound mind when it comes to these matters, are they not?”
Savh shook his head. “I don’t know. They keep to themselves. I think the only thing I know about them is that they faint at the first sign of physical conflict.”
“Where is the closest city?”
“A few days journey. Someone must make the trek.”
“We don’t even know if they can help. Perhaps I’m wrong and they become violent and more lose their life.”
“Life is already being lost. Someone must go.”
“By someone you mean me.”
“I …” She trailed off, her distant stare into the plan she had begun concocting withdrew and landed on him. “I do not mean to put this burden on you, to guilt you into it by challenging your claim as a father, as a male, I was simply thinking out loud because I’m scared … scared of losing you and Ussen. Nothing in life has ever perplexed me like this, challenged the faith in our people—in myself! What happens when all of you are gone? Do we go next? Is this the end of dwarfs? I cannot abide that. The songs and tales of the dwarfs must live on in infinite beauty, not in legend, in mythos, not in the great ‘Once upon a time,’ yet in the ever present of our glory as a noble species of Prima Earth.”
Savh froze as if death himself sat across from them in his favorite chair, prattling fleshless fingers, waiting for the entire brood of dwarfs to feel his touch. He would sit for as long as it took for there was no one more patient than the reaper. Could she be right though? Could the dwarfs end up a tale of failure on the grandest of scales? To fall, as a collective, as a race, was there a greater sin against the generations prior, a greater catastrophe to life? The impulse to take a hundred different actions riveted through his body, causing him to do nothing but stare blankly at the woman he swore to cherish, protect, and love. He braced himself against the window as the power of indecision sucked the strength from him.
“My love.” Etta went to him.
“I’m alright.” He held up a hand as he straightened himself. “I don’t know what to do.” He peered down into the now lightless and motionless city below. “If I leave and they need me here, I’ve failed. If I go and the gordai have no answers, I’ve failed. If I stay here to help and the answers lay somewhere out there, I’ve failed. If I do what is asked of me by the elders and they die before a cure is found … I’ve failed.”
She pulled his arms around her. “I know, my love. I don’t know what to do. All I want is answers, all I pray for are answers and fate seems to laugh at me.”
He couldn’t hold the tears back as they dribbled into his beard.
“Promise me that when you do know what to do, that you won’t let anything stop you.”
He kissed the top of her head. “I swear it.”
Savh didn’t remember falling asleep that night.
It was a dreamless, agitated slumber that left him feeling frazzled as he woke. The children and his wife remained asleep, no sounds from the city outside meant it was still early. The thoughts, the only ones that endured, stoked as he closed his eyes to try doze off until a reasonable hour. He gave them a minute before he conceded and sat up as sleep had bid him adieu until their next session.
He pushed himself to his feet and paused as he felt something damp on his pillow. Plucking the small candle from a holder above their bed, he drew it down to inspect. Red. Blood covered the left half of the pillow, ending in the outline of the side of his face. He ran a hand across his nose and felt a thin line of the substance running down to his lip. It appeared death had been in their home last night, waiting patiently for Savh to become one of his flock.
Clarity, not fear moved through him, he knew what he had to do. “I will not wait for you,” he said to the omnipresent ender of life.
Savh moved through the house like a mouse, collecting anything and everything he thought would be useful to him. He didn’t even have to think, his instincts carried him to each object he would need and into the rucksack it went. The benefit of a dwarf who had mastered the physical, that once indecision was removed and an action made clear, the muscles that had served him for decades came alive with purpose.
The last loop of the rucksack latches stained as he belted them closed, everything he imagined he would need had been stuffed inside. He cleaned the blood off his face and returned to the bedroom with his wife still asleep.
He ran a hand across her hair. “Etta,” he said softly.
She woke with her eyes squinting at him. “What time is it? Did I oversleep?”
“No, my love. I just came to say goodbye.”
The drowsiness drained from her face. “Where are you going?”
“You were right. We cannot just sit here waiting for a cure. It is somewhere out in this world and I mean to find it. I’m going to the gordai city. If the gordels are who we think they are, they might be capable of a cure.”
Her eyes widened as she started to rise in protest. Savh kissed her before she could. “Trust me. I know what I’m doing. Sleep now. I will return. Later rather than sooner, and with a cure in hand.” He kissed her again and left the room without another word, although he was certain she had much to say on the matter.
His conscience begged him to tell her that he was infected now, the blood-stained pillow would do that for him though. He knew if he told her before leaving that she would find a way to stop him. He did not want to sit and wait for death, to be pitied over by her, the children and what would surely be a constant stream of well-wishing friends. The outside world, the open road called him to action, not mourning. This way his death would feel quick, a dagger to the temple, a plummet onto rocks, not an axe to the side or a poison in his mead.
He invited death to join him on the journey as he closed the front door. It would provide ample motivation, a counterbalance to the sickness that would strip him of everything while in pursuit of a cure. He smiled as he felt the grip of the reaper take its first hold. “You will wait patiently … for I have much to do before I let you take me.”