A Beacon in the Dark
The second morrow after the decision had been made, the small expedition left the Citadel. Despite his day of recovery, Jorund grumbled at the early hour and exertion, but his words held little sting. He wore a great pack on his back, easily carrying twice as much as his young companions tallied together. They seemed mute in demeanour and made no replies to Jorund’s remarks. By the time they had traversed the Arnsweg, he lost interest in conversation himself, and they passed through Saltgate in silence to leave Middanhal behind.
Once outside the city, they followed the walls to walk east. Hours after leaving the Citadel, they reached where the fortifications met the mountain of Wyrmpeak. The cliffs rose sharply to their left, proving impassable and protecting Middanhal from all attacks. The small band continued along the mountainside, entering the wild. As they progressed, they found neither roads nor people. The land was harsh in the foothills of Wyrmpeak; nothing grew except stubbles of grass, which fed only the occasional mountain goat.
They continued for the remainder of the day in the same direction, traversing the rough terrain. When night approached, they made camp nestled between hills, keeping them out of sight. The weather was warm and dry, allowing them rest in the open without need of a fire. With few words exchanged, they went to sleep.
The following day, Egil set a course north-east. “It’s time we walk up the actual mountain,” he informed the others.
“How do you know we should climb the mountain from the south and not the north?” asked Kate. “How can you be sure it’s this way?”
“The battle of Valmark was fought defending the Mihtea, meaning the enemy was camped south of the river. Sigvard had to pass through the enemy camp before he could scale the Wyrmpeak, so he must have approached it from the south,” Egil explained.
“Assuming we can trust people long dead,” Kate remarked curtly. “Not to mention, who knows how the land has changed since then?”
“The mountain and the river won’t have changed,” argued Egil. “I see no reason we can’t trust them.”
“We’re wasting the day,” Jorund told them brusquely, swinging his pack into its place. “The lad says this way, that’s where we go. Get to it!”
Spurred on, the group began the day’s journey. Slowly, the landscape changed as they moved from hill to mountain. The Wyrmpeak loomed ahead and above them, snow-capped even in the heat of summer. The path, such as it was, grew ever steeper, and the sun beat down upon them. They stopped to catch their breath quite often; on occasion, they would come across a stream of meltwater, giving them an excuse to rest, drink, and refill their skins.
At one such occasion, Kate returned to the topic of their course. “How far up the mountain are we going? We don’t have enough food to search everywhere.”
“Legend says Sigvard entered a deep cave. He overcame some sort of guardian and took the power that made him a hero,” Egil explained.
“A guardian?” interjected Jorund. “Blast you, boy, you didn’t tell me there’d be fighting! I only got this leather jerkin for protection!” He thumped against his chest.
“It was slain by Sigvard, presumably. I don’t expect we’ll encounter anything.”
“If we do, you children turn back, and you run and keep running,” Jorund growled. “I’ll catch up with you. Don’t either of you dare do anything stupid and get in my way.” He let his hand touch the pommel of his short sword.
“So we’re looking for a cave?” Kate asked. “I suppose that’s a start.”
“I don’t intend for us to walk around blindly,” Egil told them. “We’ll get help.”
Egil looked up the mountainside. “From the keeper of the beacon.”
“Well, we won’t get to them sitting here all day,” Jorund pointed out. “Let’s go!”
In spite of Jorund driving them forward, their progress remained slow. They attempted to follow the brooks upstream, ensuring their supply of water, but the rocky terrain often made this untenable, forcing them to move right and left rather than forward. They made camp a second night once it grew too dark to continue; next day, they continued anew.
In the afternoon, their surroundings changed again. They had reached a plateau of sorts, allowing for easier march; the soil was gentler, and soft grass grew. Eventually, the travellers saw sheep in the distance and steered towards them.
They were greeted by a large shepherding dog, barking from excitement. Kate and Egil stopped in their tracks, but Jorund stepped forward and let the beast smell him; a moment later, it was happy to let the Dwarf pet him.
The shepherd came soon after; it was a girl of twelve years at most. “I’ve never seen travellers up here before,” she remarked.
“I don’t imagine we’ll make a habit of it either,” Jorund grinned. “Gods’ peace to you. I am Jorund, and my companions are Kate and Egil.”
“Gods’ peace to you,” the shepherd replied. “I’m Wilhelmina, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so my pa and ma and others just call me Mina.”
“Could you point us in the direction of your home? We’d like to speak with your father,” Egil told her.
“We live that way,” she replied, pointing east. “You can’t miss it. There’s no other buildings.”
“He’s the beacon keeper, yes?” Egil continued.
“Aye, that he is. This is our land,” Mina said proudly. “Because we keep the beacon. Maybe one day I’ll be beacon keeper after my pa.”
“We thank you,” Jorund said. “Come, let’s see what this keeper has to say.”
“Farewell, Mina!” Kate waved to her, and the three set off.
As the girl had promised, they easily spotted a cottage with a lean-to on one side. A man and a young boy were weeding in the vegetable garden while a woman skirted wool. From a distance, Jorund raised one hand to wave, put it down, and did the same with the other, thereby showing them both to be empty.
“Well met, good people,” the Dwarf said in a convivial tone. “Your daughter was kind enough to point us in your direction.”
“Well met,” said the man of the household, leaning on his rake. “It’s only been two summers since we last had visitors. This place is starting to get overrun,” he remarked with a glint in his eyes.
“Hush, you old codger,” his wife reprimanded him, standing up while dusting off her hands. “You’re welcome here,” she told the travellers. “Don’t mind my husband. He fancies himself a wit.”
“Perhaps your husband will indulge us in conversation, and he’ll have the chance to impress us,” Jorund grinned. “You are the keeper of the beacon, I take it?”
“Aye, that I am. You came all this way just to see it?” The peasant nodded behind him. “I don’t mind showing you, but it’s just a pile of wood.”
“Ah, it is not the true intent of our journey, good master. We could simply use some knowledge of the area, and we figured there’d have to be a keeper nearby,” Jorund explained.
“Aye, you guessed right. What’s your need?”
“My young friends work for the royal library,” The Dwarf continued. “They found mention of old artefacts in on Wyrmpeak, naught of interest save for scholars. At the behest of the King’s Quill, we’re looking to salvage any that we can find.”
“The King’s Quill?” The farmer widened his eyes. “I’ll say. I fear he may have sent you planting seed for sheep! My family has lived here for generations, and we never find anything but thistles.”
“But we’re common folk, Wilhelm, and it’s not like we go looking or ever put the soil under plough to turn things up,” his wife interjected. “I’m sure the King’s Quill knows his business better than us.”
“Fair word,” replied the husband. “I don’t see how we can be of any help to you good people, though.”
“Our sources tell us that we’re looking for caves,” Egil told them. “Caverns, really. Do you know of any?”
The farmer and his wife looked at each other. “There’s one in that direction.” He pointed east. “I’d be careful though. There’s a bear in those parts, and I reckon it uses the cave for its den.”
“What about west? Across any streams of water?” Egil enquired.
The others frowned. “There’s caves north-west,” said the woman. “You told Oswald about finding them as a child, remember? And he went searching for them himself that whole afternoon once.”
“Seven and Eighth, I forgot,” the man exclaimed. “You gave him such a scolding for skulking off, the boy still has nightmares, I bet! That’s many miles north-west. I couldn’t rightly tell you.”
“Are they on the other side of the river?”
The farmer frowned again. “There’s lots of brooks here in summer. You’re talking about the Mihtea? I don’t rightly know if any of those streams is the river or not.”
“You’ve been of great help regardless,” Jorund told him. “At least we have a direction now.” He looked at Egil. “Anything else we need to ask of these good people?”
Egil shook his head.
“You’ll stay for supper, won’t you?” asked the woman quickly. “You won’t get far tonight before it’s dark. We don’t get many visitors, but we’re good hosts when the need be.”
“A proper meal would make a nice change from the food we brought,” Kate pointed out. Jorund looked at Egil, who shrugged.
“Why not? Those caves aren’t going anywhere,” the Dwarf said with a smile. “We’d be grateful for your hospitality.”
“You’re in luck.” Wilhelm smiled. “I got some salted pork when I was in Middanhal for solstice.”
“You’re too kind,” Jorund told them.
“Any excuse not to eat mutton,” said the wife. “The old sheep had a lamb, bring out the pork! We’ve harvested all the cabbages, let’s have some pork! There’s a nice breeze today, you guessed it –”
“Pork!” exclaimed Kate.
“Hilda grumbles, but she always fetches it,” Wilhelm laughed.
“Have it your way,” his wife conceded. “I better get started. We should have some barley flour left, and Osmund can pick some thyme for the meat. The wool will have to wait until tomorrow.” She turned around to enter the cottage, followed by her little son, who had been quiet throughout the entire exchange.
“I’ll give you a hand,” Kate declared, following after the wife.
“We can’t stand here with idle hands,” Jorund told Egil, and he sat down next to the bowl of wool, resuming Hilda’s work. Egil did the same.
“That’s mighty kind of you,” Wilhelm told them, resuming his work weeding the vegetable garden.
“You mentioned Middanhal, Master Wilhelm,” Jorund continued. “Have you made many travels?”
“Hah! I was born in this homestead, and I’ve never gone further than Middanhal. That city’s so big, it satisfies all I’m curious about! My eldest, Oswald, on the other hand, he was never one to settle here. He took the white star as soon as he was twenty-one.”
“That’s good work, keeping the king’s peace,” Jorund replied. “Myself, I was the same. Soon as I was old enough to set foot on a ship, I sailed away. I could tell you many stories, if you’d want?”
“Nothing better to while away the time while working,” the farmer said, to which the Dwarf gave a grin.
As the sun began to sink behind the western cliffs, the plateau was plunged into twilight, and Mina returned with the sheep from grazing. Her dog herded the animals into their pen while she greeted her father, who patted her on the head. The wool had been cleaned, the weeds removed, and supper prepared inside the cottage.
Like the homes of any village, the small house had a single room under its thatched roof. A fireplace in the middle provided heat for cooking. In winter, it might burn through the night to keep the cold at bay; tonight, such was not necessary, and the embers were covered by the ashes.
Stew was poured into wooden bowls from a cauldron standing in the fireplace. Pieces of meat mixed with beets, carrots, other vegetables, and the occasional herb for flavour. Once all six had a full bowl, Wilhelm broke a piece of bread for himself and passed the rest on.
“Fit for a king,” Jorund declared, dipping his bread into the stew. “I should know – I have dined with several.”
“Your words have more honey than this pork has salt!” Wilhelm laughed.
“Guilty,” he replied, stuffing his mouth. “Tell us of your son. Where’s his posting?”
“Oswald was at the siege of Grenwold,” Hilda explained, “but he’s been pulled back to Middanhal. I know it’s not a good sign for the war, their retreat and all, but it was good to see him at solstice.”
“Aye,” Wilhelm nodded. “I’d rather the high lords let their mercenaries do all the fighting, spare my boy the danger. If someone has to die, let it be the foreigners.” Egil gave a cough.
“As it stands, nobody is dying at the moment,” Jorund said placidly. “Let’s hope it continues.”
“Gods willing, it will. Are you a soldier, Master Jorund? I couldn’t help but notice your sword,” Hilda pointed out.
“I am, good mistress. Not much use digging through scrolls and books, but I can keep these two safe.” The Dwarf tussled the hair of his companions on either side of him. Egil pulled his head away, while Kate did not seem to notice; she was engrossed in conversation with Mina while feeding bits of bread to the sheepdog.
“If you know these things, can you tell us how long the war might go on?” asked Hilda. “I’d dearly like to know how long my boy has to fight.”
“As it currently stands, it could drag on for years,” Jorund admitted. “But neither side is eager to fight. For the time being, your son is as safe as any Order soldier can be.”
“Besides,” Wilhelm interjected, “if the war ends, Oswald will probably be sent to Hæthiod, which would be much worse. Our boy fighting savage outlanders, can you imagine!” His wife shuddered in response.
“Why do you have an earring?” asked the small boy seated between his parents suddenly.
“Osmund, that’s not polite,” his mother reproached him.
“I take no offence,” Jorund told them. He touched the golden ring in his ear; it was the most obvious sign of his Dwarven nature along with his skin, dark in colour with dyed runes upon it. “It’s custom among my people, especially those of us that travel far, to carry such a ring. Should I die in distant lands, it will pay for my funeral.” The little boy stared with open mouth.
“That’s bleak,” Wilhelm remarked, “but I suppose if you’re leaving home and hearth, you best make preparations. It’s a dangerous world out there.”
“It is indeed,” Jorund assented, tapping the scar where his left ear had once been.
“What happened?” asked the little boy.
“Osmund!” his mother scolded him.
“I think your own ears are a little too young for that tale,” Jorund told him with a wink. “But I know a fanciful tale told in Alcázar, involving a master thief and an emerald necklace.” Finished with their meal, the small family along with Egil and Kate settled in to hear the story.
When daybreak came, the wanderers packed their bags. Hilda gave them some bread and dried fruit to take along; in exchange, they promised to stop by on their way back to Middanhal. Mina, her dog, and the sheep followed them some of the way west until the herd reached its pasture; with a final wave, they parted ways, and the small group headed north.
They left the green plateau, moving into rocky terrain once more. Wildlife grew scarce; on occasion, an eagle might soar above them, flying to or from its nest higher up. They set their course not according to sight, but sound. In the distance, a rumbling could be heard; they followed the stony path only tread by goats, drawing closer towards the distant thunder.
Hours later, they reached the origin of the noise. Ahead of them, meltwater flowed swiftly. This was the source of the Mihtea, the mighty river that crossed through Middanhal. If they were to follow it downstream, they would reach the edge of the cliffs and the waterfall that marked the river’s entry into the city.
“This is it,” Egil declared, almost shouting. While they could not see it, the noise of the waterfall reached them even this far away. “This must be the waters that Sigvard crossed. We have to do the same.” They stared, some with dismay, at the daunting challenge ahead of them.