The Dwarf’s Report
A Kingdom Come Short Story
By Jim Doran
Artwork by Daniel Johnson
[Author’s Note: Nor is north. Cuuth: south. Eft: East. Wif: West.]
From: The Dwarfs of the Tangled Grove of Kingdom, wif of Grok’s Teeth
To: The Lady Under the Glass – for her eyes only!
Report On: The recovery of her stepmother’s cursed items
My fondest friend,
My brothers and I greet ye. Their individual salutations are below, prefaced with their names.
After my brother, Fox, realized the pigeon pecking furiously at my head meant you desired an update, I take quill and ink in hand to inform you of our latest. To ensure a complete report, I restate the mission you gave us in your last letter after taking leave on the Swan Princess.
When you lived with us, we made you a promise to rid Kingdom of your stepmother’s cursed items. On our way to destroy the profane artifacts into the endless chasm, goblins ambushed us, and they stole the knapsack in the resulting melee. We informed you of what happened, and your last letter, full of concern for the dwarfs and other races of the mountain range of Grok’s Teeth, charged us with seeking out and recovering each of the foul objects we had previously set out to destroy. This list includes:
1 emerald necklace
1 brush and putty
1 pair of leather gloves
1 plain necklace
1 deck of cards
1 black cat figurine
1 headdress of purple silk
10 metal star-shaped items
1 purple seed
1 black orb
During the celebration of your restoration to life, the mysterious Magella, dwarven sage and enchantress, journeyed to our humble cottage to inquire after your health. Because she cast a divining spell, she foresaw what would happen to you before your rescuers appeared. You recall you prevented us from casting her out, and we are glad you did. We knew we had to consult someone who might quickly find the accursed trinkets. Fox suggested Magella first, and we initially resisted. Yet common sense (and four days of wandering) prevailed, and we called on her.
Magella expected us as nothing surprises that woman. Sitting on a chair she had won from Rydek the hobgoblin, She was a tiny creature with an iron headband holding in place her golden hair. She uses ink to paint her lips black—a far cry from the natural cherry color of your lips. Her thin eyebrows arched after welcoming us, and we cautiously approached her. As the dwarfs say, “Trust not the woman with little hair on her face.”
After listening to our tale of woe, she agreed to help us for free. Fox smirked satisfactorily with a smug “I told ye so” look. She scurried around the room, collecting teeth from the oddest of locations, and placing them into a small wooden box. She shook the box and closed her eyes. We wondered whether her actions were a ritual or precursor to a spell, but she replied the sound only helped her to relax.
She slipped into a meditative state and spoke to us in a low, even voice. The spirits revealed to her that Grismelda Rapstella, a dwarven lady of ill-repute—known for ruining at least two marriages and causing the Quaring clan to move to the eft—possessed the brushes and putty. As you told us, applying the putty and use of the brushes created a new visage, transforming the owner of the items’ appearance to one of immense beauty or ugliness. Grismelda, an outcast, uses the evil tokens to walk freely among the dwarfs of Grok’s Teeth. Her new scheme involved using her charms to woo an ignorant dwarf to her house and purloin his treasures.
Magella sent us to the small town where Grismelda operated on unsuspecting dwarfs. Certainly, the seven of us could have overwhelmed Grismelda, but the artifacts had masked her crafty physiognomy and no one knew where she lived. We came up with a plan to turn the tables on her. One of us would pose as a wealthy, mysterious dwarf from Faerie Forest, gain her trust, and follow her back to her abode. The decoy would make an excuse for her to leave her house and then the six of us would search her belongings, steal the putty and brush, and return to Magella.
We debated which of us would act as the rich stranger. In the end, we decided on Rabbit because he claimed to be the most handsome of all of us. I would not have used such a self-centered compliment to describe myself, but you know our Rabbit. We realized why my vain brother volunteered to act in the charade for we spent a good deal of our fortune on a waistcoat, top hat, and cane. Dressed in fine clothes, he looked the part of the gentleman of the hour and we, the impoverished brothers.
He soon met a lady at the tavern, but she refused to take him back home. We learned the maiden, Glissa Tenderhook, was well-known in these parts, a sweet lady of marrying age. We doubted Grismelda disguised herself as Glissa and asked Rabbit to abandon her, but he was convinced she was the enchantress. When she took him home to her small cabin and went for a subsequent walk, we searched the cabin. As we anticipated, Glissa possessed no dark items of magic. Stupid Rabbit!
Happy Rabbit, too. The idiot fell in love and did not want to proceed with the plan. We had to remind him of the innocent lives at stake, his vow to Kingdom, and our promise to you. Our leporine brother took Glissa into his confidence, and, of course, she indignantly deserted him. Rabbit was crushed. I know you will have pity on the boob, but ’tis his own doing. We had no time for such distractions.
Rabbit went to the bar of the local pub and told us through the barm on his ale he wanted to be left alone. While he drank up the last of our money, a fetching female dwarf approached to console him. At first, we didn’t think much of it, but she persisted despite Rabbit’s attempts to wave her away. From a distance, I overheard her invite him back to her house. The scandal! And then I knew. The young, comforting beauty had to be Grismelda.
Rabbit nearly walked away until he spied us across the room. Behind her back, we gestured for him to take an interest in the young lady. Realization dawning on his white-whiskered face, Rabbit allowed Grismelda to lead him from the tavern.
We followed them down a lonely, country lane to her cottage, a remote but expansive dwelling of wood and iron. They entered, and we waited for Rabbit to make an excuse to lead her away. All of his proposals were met with rejection. “Your eyes are like the pools of Inksbark. Let us journey there to compare them.” Hedgehog groaned aloud at Rabbit’s suggestion, and we clamped a hand over his mouth. Rabbit decided to take his leave to consult with us and return another night, but she wouldn’t let him go. She said, “A handsome gentleman like ye should not travel this late at night. It is not safe!” We expected him to make an excuse and nearly fainted in surprise when he said. “Ye are correct. I will stay.”
“What is he doing?” croaked Turtle. We made a council as Grismelda closed her shutters and the lights dimmed. Low voices and sweet laughter followed. Bull snorted and stomped his foot, and favored my suggestion to storm the house. Fox urged patience. He was afraid if we tipped our hand too soon, she would not reveal her hiding spot.
Twenty minutes later, a woman screamed inside. We rose to our feet and readied our weapons, but the door opened and a figure rushed out. The escaping person ducked and dodged a pewter mug. “To think!” shouted a hysterical woman inside the house. “I kissed your cheeks, your neck, and your disgusting wiggly nose. Ye have deceived me—an honest woman.”
The figure, cloaked and cowled, stole quickly toward us. He kept his head hidden but Rabbit’s voice emerged from the head covering. “I have them. We must get away rapidly before she realizes.” Surprised and elated, we followed Rabbit, and (as you know) keeping up with him requires extra exertion. After many minutes of running, we caught up with my brother. When we reached him, he revealed himself and surprised us from our heads to our bootheels.
Rabbit explained. “She seduced me. Disgusting. Nothing compares to the sweet kisses of blessed Glissa. She even tried to kiss my lips once! I explained to her that her gown was too cumbersome for…uh…a late night rendezvous. She agreed and left the room. Using my superior speed, I searched the room and found the brushes and putty. And then I thought: are these the right ones?”
Bull put his hands on his hips. “How many dwarven ladies have brushes and putty?”
Rabbit wiggled his nose. “I do not know. Potentially many. I had another thought as well. ’Tis why I appear as I do.”
Smooth skin, long eyelashes, a pert nose, and a delicate chin replaced Rabbit’s rugged looks. Rabbit turned his head away shyly, and with his new countenance, the gesture was positively effeminate. “If she thought me a woman disguised as a man, she would throw me out.”
“Beautiful is now a fitting word,” I remarked.
Fox set a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Come along, sister. Your bravura performance earned a tankard of ale tonight at Grok’s Gullet, but I fear ye must keep your cowl up.”
Rabbit’s mouth twitched. “I hope it wears off!”
We returned to Magella the next day. She wanted to know what we had done and we regaled her with the tale. Her black markings on her lips curled upward when she learned we had the brushes and putty. She asked to handle them but we refused, to which she pouted but nodded. “Ye simple ones do not know the power ye hold. Keep the artifacts out of sight from all others!”
While we did not care for the simple ones talk, Magella told us she had been busy. She had located the spikes. One of Magella’s bat scouts had spotted them on Jesaphat the Younger, commonly known as Jes, in the caverns of the tallest spires of Grok’s Teeth. We agreed to set out to find Jes the next day.
Since you are a dear friend, I will describe Jes in detail. A human thief of little skill, Jesaphat the Younger lusted after magic. The dwarven saying ‘Hard work forms the soul’ is lost on one like Jes. He has sought the easy path all his life, hoping for magic to bring him riches and pleasure.
Two years ago, he attempted to raid the stores of the magician Elinez. I am sure you have heard of Elinez and how she attempted to become a giantess and failed. Despite this misstep, she is not to be trifled with, and when she caught him within her artifact chamber, she cursed him. With Elinez, things are never straightforward. Instead of a traditional fumble-finger or mute curse, she granted him skills to increase his prowess. She elongated his body and gave him four extra arms.
Jes was overwhelmed with gratitude. A thief with six arms? Now he could pickpocket three times as many people—the other three arms distracting his targets. He did not realize at first that the extra appendages marked him as a thief and everyone avoided the multi-limbed bugaboo. He abandoned thieving and decided to put his hideous body formation to another use—searching for gold.
Despite his six hands, he remained a poor mountaineer. He became a fixture around dwarven taverns, bandaged and bruised from his many falls from great heights, and our race ignored or pitied him. I have heard tales of dwarfs buying him food and drink for he has become the equivalent of a pet to us.
But now he had the spikes. It did not take us long to locate him in the cordillera of Grok’s Teeth at the top of a mountain named Jolhandvar—bitter cold but possessing an inside walkway only known to dwarfs. We ascended the narrow, hidden trail to reach Jess, but halted when we came upon a fissure overlooking an adjacent mountain—Sweena’s Kiss by name—the most haunted mountain in the Teeth. A pyramid of a mountain, a thick layer of mist hovered and shifted above the snow, summoning the unwary. Rabbit, restored to his masculine physiognomy, trembled as he examined the deadly downward slope. “Do ye think she is there?”
Bull, in the lead, quickened his pace. “Best not to think about it.”
We emerged a couple hundred yards from the summit onto a boot-and-a-half wide edge, overlooking the clouds. Rainwater had worn smooth the rocky exterior of Jolhandvar at this height and the drafts cut through us like an ax through pumice. A slight distance away, we spied Jes holding, with five of his six hands, onto spikes embedded into a sheer edge of the rocky side. He had plunged his remaining arm into a hole in the mountain up to his elbow, fumbling for something inside.
He did not notice us at first, retrieving an unusual creature the likes of which we had never seen before. The wind buffeted us and obscured our vision, but it cleared long enough to reveal a small, yellow, avian-structured animal with eyes twice as large as a typical bird. Jess removed a hand and petted it until we called him. Upon hearing his name, he secured his prize in his jacket where it made a lump and moved around during the subsequent conversation.
Bull, the only one solid enough to not be holding onto the side of the mountain, called to him. “Jes. A word!”
His eyes narrowed. “What is it you want, animal clan? I have never wronged you!”
Normally, we would rely on Fox’s eloquence, but experience has taught us when someone does not trust us, Turtle’s steadfast manner is often the best approach. The wrinkled dwarf stepped forward, extending his neck. “Jesaphat the Younger, we have come to ask something of ye.”
We had discussed what we would say to the thief when we met him, and we decided to appeal to his ego. Turtle continued speaking at his methodical yet unyielding pace. “We have heard ye possess remarkable treasure from the mountain. Would ye be interested in a trade?”
“Now why would I trade with you lot o’stampcrabs? What do I gain?”
Turtle reached into a bag on his belt and produced a handful of coins. “Magic treasure.”
Now, you can only imagine what Jes thought of this. Two of his favorite items mixed into one—currency and magic. We thought for certain he would trade us for it. Magella had given us the coins, in reality pixie trinkets, which would revert to dull stones when removed from sunlight. We assumed Jes a dullard who would give up the spikes for the coins. While he counted outside, we would beat a hasty retreat down the secret passage. And if he failed to trade with us, we would simply beat him up.
Jes’s eyes widened. “Wot? You tink I not seen zirc coins before? Wot kinda thief do you tink I am?”
“The poor kind,” mumbled Fox.
We advanced on him, ready for a fight, and Jes held up four hands. “Wait. I have anotter deal. I will give you wot you want, but only if you pass my test!”
Turtle craned his neck. “Test?”
Jes sneered and retrieved a spike still attached to a rope, and he slammed it into the side of the mountain. He tossed another spike over his shoulder and it flew like an arrow back toward Sweena’s Kiss, further down. It stuck into the side of the mountain near a cavern. “Catch me.”
With two gloved hands, he grabbed onto the rope, encased in ice, and started to slide to Sweena’s Kiss.
Hedgehog ran to the line and grabbed it. “We must follow him.”
Rabbit shook his head. “Not Sweena’s Kiss. She will kill us.”
The wind, swinging Jes back and forth, did little to stop the thief’s progression. He slid slowly downward. Turtle said, “We could take the spike in this mountain.”
Fox rubbed his chin. “We need the spikes. They are more important than his life, but our lady would never forgive us for murdering him. Besides, we would gain only one spike. The rest would fall with him.”
Squirrel had retreated four steps and then sprinted forward and jumped on top of the rope. With the dexterity of a dragonfly skimming along the surface of a pond, he ran along the length of the rope after Jes. We all cried out for him to stop, but he wouldn’t be deterred. Now you know Squirrel has an incredible sense of balance. He walks on his feet and his hands along a line strung between trees at home for fun, strolling easily back and forth much like his namesake. But you must realize we were hundreds of feet in the air and the wind whipped us, plucked our beards, and pressed snowy kisses on our noses.
Yet Squirrel scurried after Jes and had caught up to him only yards away from an alcove in the Kiss. A misty figure, hauntingly beautiful, formed at the other end of the rope and we knew the specter waited for her prey. Later, Squirrel told us he planned to outrace Jess to the other end, release the other end of the rope, and hold it, and Jess’s life, in his hands. He would then bargain for the spikes. But the specter floating at the Kiss circumvented any hope of this occurring. Instead, wind whipping around him, Squirrel reached Jes and stomped on his many gliding hands.
Jes tried to hold on with multiple hands, but Squirrel danced up and down on each one. The thief cursed over the wind and two of his hands released the rope. “Dwarf, stop or we shall both perish!”
“It matters not to me!”
Jess relinquished and turned his body around, making his way back up the rope toward us with a teetering Squirrel following. Our expressions of displeasure and resolve greeted him as he made his way to our spot. Defeat etched itself in the lines in his face while he climbed back onto our ledge. Without a word, Jess retrieved the other end of the line and its corresponding spike and handed them all to us.
To celebrate, we went first to our favorite tavern. We were fortunate upon returning to Grok’s Gullet for we overheard a drunk from the north bemoan his fate at the hands of a fortune teller to the north. A few well-placed tankards and he managed to remember a name. San Tswai.
The following morning we visited Magella. She sat in darkness, her eyes capturing white lights she had cast on the ceiling, studying them closely, tugging her chin. Double pleased to learn we had the spikes and a lead on the third item, she eagerly threw a locator spell on San Tswai.
“A locator spell will tell ye where she is at the moment it is cast. She may have left by the time ye have arrived.”
She pulled a length of rope and her eyes alighted on Hedgehog. “I need a volunteer.”
“Someone else perhaps?” he squeaked.
She ignored his protests and tied the rope around his waist. Ten minutes of incantation later, the end of the rope on the ground reared up on its own and swayed back and forth as a snake when threatened. We exclaimed and Hedgehog trembled and fumbled on the rope at his midsection. Magella placed her hands on his, steadying him. The other end of the rope turned away and moved in a direction from her house.
“Follow it. It will bring you to her.”
And that is how Hedgehog developed his leash. For a sennight, we traversed the lush valleys between the Teeth’s mountains, heading steadily nor. The rough terrain we passed took its toll, and we had to tie up the rope when we camped. In the mornings, like an eager puppy, we set the animated end of the rope on the ground and it slithered ahead of us.
Within Grok’s Teeth, a pocket of land exists between the mountains filled with bountiful low-lying hills. This was our destination. The hills—rolling, verdant, jade-hued—made for light traveling. We passed a grove of ancient, towering oaks, and Rabbit swears the bark formed a face when all but his head were turned.
Eventually, the rope guided us to a tower-shaped dwelling. Three stories tall made of bulging white stones, the tower had windows placed irregularly around the base. The bottom floor stood off the ground on four giant smooth boulders. While we marveled at it, it began to roll away. The house moved on the boulders like a cart on wheels, and the round stones never rolled out from beneath it!
We shouted and sprinted after the thunderously-loud dwelling gliding away from us. The house slowed, heeding our cries, and came to a stop. A door opened and a middle-aged woman appeared, eying us imperiously. Human, square-jawed, and brown-complected, her most unusual feature, her hair, stood erect and jagged as if she had been struck by dragon lightning. Fox read a sign on the door and greeted her.
“Ye are a soothsayer? My brothers and I wish to have to have our fortunes told.”
Amenable to the arrangement, San Tswai lowered a ramp for us to climb into her house. We observed the inside of the tower—deceptively larger than the outside: a square table, silk tapestries with gold embroidery, three bats hanging upside down, radiating light. She gestured to the floor and we sat.
San Tswai selected a box from a shelf and placed it on her table. Waving her fingers, the clasps on the container unlocked on their own, and she opened it. She removed a tattered deck of cards held together by a thin line of twine. I recalled your warning. The cards do not predict your future—they create it. When the card player flips a card and reviews its image, she imagines a story and whatever she speaks aloud comes true. The profane deck can create life temporarily or destroy it forever.
We had planned to steal the cards from her at night, but we panicked when we discovered her house rolling away and had switched to this new uncharted course of action. Now we caught each other’s eye surreptitiously. How could we distract her to snatch the deck?
San Tswai shuffled the cards and at first didn’t say anything, creating two piles. From the left pile, she played a card unknown to any tarot deck—a scroll. Her brow furrowed and the next card depicted a maiden trapped in a forest. The third card showed our house with the seven of us standing in front of it. With the cards, she read our history.
Fox stood. “Perhaps we should come back.” We all rose to our feet, following his lead.
Too late! She flipped the cards rapidly now, scanning their contents. The black orb, the fight for the items, a goblin dying on the ground beneath the soothsayer’s feet with the cursed deck spread out near his hand, seven dwarfs taking the spikes from Jes.
Bull lunged for the cards but she flipped a card on the right. It depicted a starry night and she rasped an interpretation. “The stars freeze your bodies in place.”
We halted in our tracks—Bull’s hand inches away from the deck. We were as still as the statues on Hero’s Hill, unable to move. Only our faces remained under our control. San Tswai eyed us nefariously.
“You came to steal? From me?”
Fox spoke for us. “Certainly not to steal but to save. The cards steal a portion of your soul every time ye play one.”
“What care I for my soul?”
After the blasphemous remark, she reached for the next card. “This shall be your fate.”
San Tswai revealed the next card, pursed her lips, and held it aloft for us to view. If I had had the ability to tremble, I would have. A large knight, adorned in plate armor and helmeted, stood with a sword brandished above his head. He appeared positioned to strike down an enemy.
The fortune teller’s eyes flicked back to us. “And an evil hero comes to the soothsayer’s rescue.”
The door opened, the ramp extended on its own. Footfalls marched on the wood leading to the house. Click clack. The boots clomped on the floor of the room where we stood frozen, and he stepped forward next to the fortune teller. He turned and faced us, sword ready to run us through.
“The knight strikes each of you down!”
The breath caught in our lungs, but the knight did not move. Frustrated, San Tswai growled to herself, stroking the knight’s card.
“It only fulfills one command per card. No matter. The next shall determine your fate.”
Fox said, “Listen to me. It is drinking the essence of your soul, and when it sucks the last drop, it shall find a new owner. Ye are not its master. It is yours. Do not play that card lest ye suffer a fate worse than death.”
“And how would a simple dwarf know this?”
“Because a friend of ours knows the consequences of the deck. She witnessed the death of the soul of a prior owner of the cards.”
San Tswai snorted. “You are convincing, but not conniving enough for me to hand you the most powerful artifact in Kingdom.”
She flipped another card and we spied a man and woman embracing. “The knight is in love with the fortune teller, defending her to the death.”
The knight turned to us and raised his sword, recognizing us as the woman’s enemy.
She flipped the next card and we all turned pale. Death stood on a plain, pointing at a group of people breathing their last.
San Tswai grinned wickedly and glared at us, deliciously prolonging the moment we knew was inevitable, as if Fate itself decided to hand her the most damning of all the cards in the deck.
She licked her lips to speak, but Fox interrupted her. Later, he told us he had no idea if his ploy would work, or if the deck would recognize his statement instead of hers. His voice remained steady and clear.
“And Death was miserably pulled into the foray by the card-bearer.”
Death stood before us. It had draped itself in a burial shroud and had a drawn, emaciated face and long skeletal fingers. Its empty eye sockets examined us first—so terrifying it made me long for the specter on Sweena’s Kiss. The figure did not linger long on us, turning on the knight and the fortune teller. San Tswai sat frozen, her fingers touching the death card.
Death pointed a long finger at the fortune teller. “How dare you disturb me!”
The knight gallantly stepped in the way of the death summons. The conjured knight clutched its chest, a dying pose, and disappeared. Death extinguished its magic and relief washed over the fortune teller’s face. A sepulchral growl emerged from Death.
“I will not be cheated so easily.”
San Tswai turned pale as the moon, swooned, and fell to the ground. Death went to the fortune teller, picked her gently up, and turned back to us. The soothsayer’s spell broken with her death, we cowered under its gaze.
Fox swallowed nervously. “She did not summon ye. I did. I am your prize.”
Death turned toward him. “You interpreted the card. Is not the loss of a part of your soul enough for today? Besides, you are not the first to die of your brothers.”
With that, Death vanished. We all took a moment to sit and catch our breath. To come as close to death as we had, literally, was an experience one should never take lightly. We collected the cards and left quickly.
We returned to Magella’s house with our putty and brush, our spikes, and our deck of cards, seeking guidance for destroying them. We held too many now and we knew we must dispose of the artifacts we had collected. The enchantress murmured to herself. “Cursed items are resistant to common weapons or spells. If we hide them in a general location, someone will find them. These artifacts draw people to them. They call to the vulnerable.”
“We made a promise to a dear friend. If we cannot rid ourselves of them, we shall guard them.”
Magella examined me for a moment before speaking. “Absolutely not! The seven of ye—brave, honorable, and steadfast ye be—will succumb in time. Yes, even ye Dear, braver than most in Kingdom. If ye all want to keep your promise, we must find another solution.”
Fox stepped forward. “Perhaps we know of another solution. Mount Voyle.”
Magella eyed him keenly. A wide grin emerged. “Ye truly are a wise dwarf and do a credit to our race. Yes, Mount Voyle will do nicely.”
The rest of us protested. Perhaps, dear lady, you do not know of Mount Voyle—the legendary mountain in Kingdom. Majestic, rising above its neighbors, its peaks have a purple tinge. A beautiful mountain said to house gems as large as a troll’s head. You would think, with riches galore, everyone would mine there, but they do not. Finding Mount Voyle is nearly impossible. It appears and disappears around Kingdom. No one knows whether someone controls it or it has a will of its own, but for no rhyme or reason, it suddenly appears along with a bevy of ferly tales about it. It stays an unpredictable amount of time and then disappears. Common are stories of dwarfs who enter the mountain and then exit miles away.
Magella turned and dug into her immense copper trunk, throwing items aside. With a scream of delight, she produced a scroll, uncapped it, and spread its contents, a map of Kingdom, on her table. Magella reached into a drawer, withdrew a small case with many locks, and whispered incantations. The locks snapped open, she reached inside and removed a magnifying glass.
The magnifying item had a thin silver border and glass bending in a convex manner. She held it above Grok’s Teeth. Unlike other glasses, this one revealed more text and illustration than printed on the map. She swept the item over the mountain pass and chuckled, crooking a finger. “There ’tis!”
We looked through the glass, and on the sheet, someone had scribbled in a mountain among the others in Grok Teeth’s range. A label next to it proclaimed “Mount Voyle.” When she removed the glass, the mountain disappeared from the map. Only under the enchanted glass did the mystical formation reveal itself.
She handed Bull the map and the glass and waved us toward the door. “Get to work. Ye shall not find it on your first try but on subsequent attempts. And return the glass.” She had dismissed us and we left without a word.
And so, my letter ends at this point. We start our journey when the morn breaks. All blessings on your own adventure. I will write again.