Tilruk escorted me towards the building I had to assume was the headquarters. A pair of stout, slightly more serious looking guards were at the door, wooden helmets open enough to allow their intricately braided beards to flow down.
I eyed up the beards and spent a few moments thinking.
Normally, the Rangers considered long hair to be an impediment in a fight. Easy to grab and pull, and I’d gotten good at cutting my hair short, as much as I wanted it long. I swear my hair was like a yo-yo at times. Long, short, magically long again, burnt off.
Anyways. The coarseness of the beard, along with how it was tied with little pieces of wood and beads woven in made me think that trying to stab or slice through said beard would end poorly, and it did make for a strong neck guard.
Wood was still the name of the game, and the building, while large and fancy and headquarters-like, still somehow gave off a strong “log cabin” vibe. I don’t know if it was the neatly stacked logs making up the walls, the wooden shutters, or sloped roof that was making me think log cabin, in spite of the huge size, but there it was.
“Tilruk Falvim the 91st” one of the guards saluted and respectfully greeted him.
It was a little unsettling. Rangers and Legionnaires saluted by thumping our right hand in a fist over our heart. The dwarves saluted by smashing their fists together, gauntlets and all. Sounded like someone knocking sharply on a door once.
“I am here to meet with Briga Glof the 90th on a matter of moderate importance.” Tilruk said.
I mentally gave him the stink eye as I was only of ‘moderate importance’. I liked being the super-important person that got things done. I would’ve hoped that being the first contact from a civilization within the dead zone would be enough to jump me up.
Ah well. Couldn’t have it all.
The guards eyed me up.
“Healer.” The second one respectfully said, bumping his fists together in salute.
“Who’s she? Some dwarf from the metal clans who isn’t even old enough to grow her first beard who wandered over?” The guard grumbled unhappily into his beard.
Idiots. They existed the world around, and no culture or race seemed to be immune to them.
Then again - I was short enough to be a tall dwarf, and we didn’t seem to look that different. Being slightly generous to Grumpy, as I was nicknaming him, his line of thought was reasonable, if off.
Also, the revelation about metal clans? Oooooh, I wanted to know more. Heck, this entire thing made me want to know more about everything. How they got wood to do all the things I saw them doing with it. Maybe I should ask for a tour at some point? Get a list of magical woods and what they could do?
I was totally getting ahead of myself.
“Visitor from the dead zone.” Tilruk eventually answered. “Figured Briga Glof the 90th was the person to bring her to.”
The guards glanced at each other and shrugged.
“Not our place to say if your reason’s good or bad for seeing Briga Glof the 90th” Grumpy said. “Might want to leave the weapons behind though.” He added, eyeing up my spear, still on my backpack, and the sword on my hip.
I frowned at him, and nothing more was said on the subject.
My estimation of their martial prowess was rapidly plummeting.
Another round of knock-on-wood salutes, and we entered the building. It was nothing special on the inside, although all the ceilings were lower than I was used to in Remus. I imagined there were no Arthur-sized giants roaming around.
A hop, a skip, and a jump later, and we were knocking on the door to who I assumed was Briga Glof the 90th.
“Enter.” A contralto voice called out, making my ears twitch in surprise.
We entered into a large wooden room. This one was a bit fancier and better decorated than the previous militant hallways we’d gone through. There was a fancy painting on the wall, a number of tiny dwarves working industriously around a large tower. Upon closer examination, the “painting” was actually just a large number of tiny wood chips, each one carefully painted and placed together, like a large puzzle.
Six different potted plants - saplings - were neatly tucked into corners, with two more flanking a large, elaborate desk. The desk itself was a work of art, looking like it’d been carved out of a single piece of wood, with a different dwarf having been carved into each of the legs, and a picture of a heroic battle of dwarf versus something was carved prominently in the front.
If the enemies were goblins, I couldn’t tell. The artist seemed to have deliberately made them as ugly and awful as possible. No points for guessing how they felt about said enemy, even in victory.
The rule of “Armor got more ornate and decorated as rank went up” seemed to hold true for dwarves as well, with Sentinels still being the only group of people who went for simple armor.
Except our capes. And our badges. And the silly amount of Arcanite and gems woven into our armor. And - ok, fine, we just did ornate a different way.
Behind the desk was a large flag, same as outside, and a bookcase.
I locked eyes with the dwarf I assumed was Briga Glof the 90th.
“Briga Glof the 90th.” Tilruk said, saluting in the same strange knuckle-clapping way.
“Tilruk Falvim the 91st.” Briga Glof the 90th said from behind the desk, saluting back. A benefit of their salute – it was easy to do while sitting down.
My brain caught up to my eyes, and I barged forward.
“Whoa, is this a bookshelf!? You have books!?” I said, ignoring the stunned look from Tilruk and the glare from the commander.
I grabbed the first book I could see on the bookshelf, and read the title out loud, savoring every word.
“Playing with his wood: An in-tree-mate guide.”
There was dead silence at what I said. I felt heat rush to my cheeks as I realized what, exactly, I was holding and I’d read.
“Um, yeah, I’m going to just put this back…” I said, only for a skill to take the book and rip it out of my hand.
“YOU!” Briga Glof the 90th roared at me, and I felt a skill grab me and violently move me, placing me into a chair at high-speed in front of her desk. “What are you doing!?” She screamed at me.
“And you!” She yelled, pointing at Tilruk. “What are you doing bringing this cretin before me!?”
Tilruk was shooting daggers at me, which I suppose I deserved. He saluted, in the most polite “Get me out of trouble” military manner I’d ever seen.
“Tilruk Falvim the 91st reporting. Healer Elaine the 94th came out of the dead zone with a Void mage. Claims to be part of a civilization living inside the dead zone. Offered her hospitality, as tradition demands for a healer, and brought her to see you, so that we may all break bread together.” He said.
80 coins said he was leaning on tradition to bail himself out of trouble. Another 200 coins said that tradition demanded he get punished anyways.
Or rather – that Briga Glof the 90th would say that tradition demanded he get punished.
I got the stink-eye, which I couldn’t meet. Embarrassment flooded through me again, and I looked down at the floor.
“Hi I’m Elaine nice to meet you.” I mumbled.
“Tell me, Healer Elaine the 94th.” Briga Glof the 90th said with a dangerous voice. “Is pawing through others personal belongings normal from whatever backwater place you come from?”
“No ma’am.” I mumbled to the floor, still embarrassed.
“What made you think it was appropriate to go through my personal belongings?” She asked again.
“Sorry! I love books a ton, and it’s been almost 20 years since I last saw one! I just wanted to read…” I said, putting a pitiful, plaintive note in my voice at the end.
“You have great taste?” I tried to rectify the situation somewhat.
Nope. More evil glares.
I matched it, letting the shame fade away.
I locked eyes with her, feeling some of my confidence return.
Screw being Healer Elaine the 94th. I was Sentinel Dawn, and I had the class, skills, stats, levels, and experience to back it up. No two-bit commander on a semi-neglected fortification was going to stare me down.
Even though I had read the cover of her smut book.
In front of her minions.
She gave an amused grunt after some time.
“Not entirely spineless after all. Tilruk! Bring us bread, for the three of us to share. In the Willow room, if you’d please.” She ordered.
Tilruk saluted and hurried off.
I got another side-eye, followed by a sigh.
“Come. Let us break bread and share salt, and I’ll listen to your tale.” Briga Glof the 90th said, getting up from behind her desk.
I followed her as she exited her office, and we made it to another room.
I expected a picture of a willow tree as the door, or something.
No. Of course not.
They had a fully grown, miniature willow tree inside the room, branches reaching up to the ceiling then forming a graceful curtain around the edges of the room.
A sturdy, ornate table dominated the room, with chairs around said round table.
“Come! Sit!” Briga Glof the 90th said, gesturing around. “Feel free to put your pack down by the wall.” She pointed to a spot, where I happily shucked my backpack.
My strength and general fitness usually made it a non-issue, but it was still awkward to lug around, plus I did get tired.
Also, sitting in a chair with a big backpack on? I’d look ridiculous.
After my bookshelf fumble, I was being a hair more careful. I looked at the table. Completely round, no hints there.
The chairs though, each one was seemingly made out of a different wood. Or had a different color at least. I had a sneaking feeling that a “proper” dwarf could look at the chairs and instantly identify which one came from what type of tree, and the “right” chair to sit in, if any, depended on the wood.
I skipped a reddish-looking one, and sat on a pale chair. Birch? Was this birch? I hoped so. I think that was low on the wood totem pole? Probably wouldn’t cause offense by sitting here.
Unless TRADITION demanded that the healer always sit in the third chair from the left, or the maple tree was always reserved for the healer.
Shit. There was probably some tradition like that. I should’ve asked instead of just sitting. My plan of “just do whatever and don’t try to follow tradition” might backfire when there was a distinct way of doing things.
Tilruk came back, with a simple tray of bread, and a small bowl of salt. Without hesitation, he served me a small loaf, then looked at me expectantly.
Time to ask, and stop guessing at shit I had no idea about.
“What’s the traditional thing to do here?” I asked him, gesturing. Behind him I saw Briga Glof the 90th crack a grin, then quickly suppress it down.
“Dip the bread in the salt, and take a bite.” Tilruk said.
I did exactly what he said, chewing thoughtfully on the bread as Tilruk moved on.
He served Briga Glof the 90th the second loaf, and himself the third. Both of them performed the same ritual, dunking the small loaf of bread in the salt, and ritually eating it.
I felt like I was expected to say something here, and, just blind guessing, I figured I’d go with my “do something sincere and hope it panned out” plan.
“Thank you for granting me shelter, food, and hospitality.” I said, deciding to just check off all the boxes. “And letting me in. Talking with me. Meeting with me. Helping me level. Educating me…” I said, ticking the items off my fingers.
Briga Glof the 90th gave Tilruk a significant look, who made himself scarce.
“Speaking of educating, I’d love to know more about where you’re from, and what you are. Do you really live in the dead zone?” Briga Glof the 90th asked.
That was a big question. I figured I’d tackle it one at a time.
“As far as I know, yeah.” I said, stretching in a luxurious manner. The feeling I’d had the entire time I’d been in dwarven territory was fantastic. The intrinsic happiness and completeness that I hadn’t known was missing. “I’m in a group of people that are some of the highest-level humans Remus has, and we just barely got the first of us to hit level 500, which is a rarity. Only managed that after killing the Formorians. Dozens of Royal Guards at level 750, and the Queens, over level 1000.”
Tilruk came back at this point, wheeling a trolley loaded with food.
Including apples! And pears!
“What are those called?” I asked, pointing to them, totally side-tracked. I could eat an apple again! I could taste a sweet, juice pear once more!
Sure, I hadn’t been the biggest fan of pears back on earth, but a chance to try them again! Oh my heart be still.
“Apples.” Briga Glof the 90th said in the standard language we all spoke, pointing to the apples. “Pears. They’re tasty, you should try them.”
“Thanks! It’s been ages since I last had one!” I said, happily accepting the apple from Tilruk and biting in, closing my eyes in delight as an explosion of flavor erupted in my mouth.
I got a look for that.
“How have you eaten them before without knowing the name?” I got asked, with a tone of genuine curiosity.
I froze, juice dribbling down my chin. I chewed slowly while I thought about it.
I was not having another interview with government vivisectionists. I wasn’t going to go over the whole reincarnation shtick, not again. This time, I could bail, and was going to.
I also didn’t want to lie to them.
Think. Think. Think!
“Um. Long story?” I said, happily starting on the pear. “What other questions do you have?”
“Does nobody have a beard?” Tilruk blurted out.
I smiled. Easy question!
“Men can grow beards, women generally can’t. However, with the exception of one city, culturally, men shave in Remus.” I answered.
“Wait – they voluntarily shave!?” Briga Glof the 90th asked with surprise. “And you can’t grow a beard at all?” She said, with a tone of extreme pity.
“I’m so sorry to hear it.” She said, moving her hand as if to pat my shoulder.
Briga Glof the 90th opened her mouth as if to ask another question, then closed it.
“Tilruk. Can you please get Quartermaster Dwen Flidi the 90th, Executive Officer Kolran Dem the 91st, Head Builder Khelvem Kroku the 91st, and Captain Dwen Flidi the 92nd here? I believe they should be present for what Healer Elaine has to say.”
A quick shuffling around, a delicious lunch eaten in relative silence – I had no idea what the steak was, but it had a delicate, sweet, and juicy note to it. Didn’t have that strong flavor I associated with most dinosaur meat, but who knew. They probably had radically different dinosaurs here to boot!
I wanted to know more. I wanted to know everything.
Four more dwarves filed in, three of them with a book and quills. The better to take notes, I guess? Or read under the table during yet another “boring” meeting. Heck, I totally would’ve read under the table during most of the Sentinel meetings if there had been any books to read!
I had to get as many books as possible from the dwarves. I also needed to import the book technology. Heck, forget spending my money on artwork or real estate. I could manufacture books instead!
Wait, shit. That would require authors and writers to make stuff to print.
I’d need to import it from the dwarves then. Might be a bit of a pain, but if I was going to be living in the border town anyways, might as well get some trade started.
Assuming there wasn’t going to be a war.
… I could totally see Night trying to redirect the generals into attacking the dwarves over having a civil war though. For all that he was espousing neutrality, I could see him seizing the chance for relative stability, especially against an opponent who showed no interest in invading back. Humans were warlike enough, and tribal enough, to jump at the chance to boot.
I was going to get a massive headache from all of this.