Through a series of improbable circumstances, a small group of young elven lieutenants, some civilian elves and a dwarf find themselves in the Elven Navy hospital in the “secret” Navy base on the Rock of Bral:
When they left the base and stepped out into the forest, all the trees were alight with their autumnal shades, perhaps in reaction to being in the phlogiston. Birches cast golden leaves gently to the forest floor, oaks were blazing orange and ripe with acorns, ashes were aflame with various shades of red tinged with orange and gold, and laurels were green bleeding into red and then browning. Shaundar didn’t think he had ever seen anything quite so beautiful. He reached out and touched a laurel leaf. The fresh bay scent lingered faintly on his fingertips.
“Look!” Sylria exclaimed, pointing up into the branches. “There are even songbirds!”
And there were. Shaundar noticed them now; finches and robins and even a nightingale. They twittered as though they were settling in for twilight. “Wow,” he breathed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen birds other than ravens and crows. Corethi laughed out loud with sheer delight.
They meandered down the forest path, struck with wonder, and soon they found themselves at the edge of the forest staring into the hustle and bustle of the city. They were looking out into a market square, where beings of various species hawked their wares and made purchases. Two Navy elves in shining armour, obviously serving guard duty, nodded to them as they approached the border of the woods. Star-gulls cried as they circled above them, looking for discarded foodstuff.
Sylria reached out and took Shaundar’s hand. “For courage,” she explained. Shaundar gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. They ventured into the market hesitantly. Shaundar half-expected on some level to be shot for leaving the perimeter. He shook his head to clear it. They stepped cautiously into the fray.
Gabble in a thousand languages assaulted their senses. A fruit vendor offered them blue apples, first in Espruar and then in Dwarvish. A Halfling bard sang a soft ballad accompanied by a lute. Yathar sighed, and Shaundar put a hand on his shoulder, knowing that he was lamenting both the loss of his lute, and the loss of one of the hands needed to play it.
There were a lot of mind flayers walking around and conducting business, which, in light of their recent experiences, couldn’t help but make Shaundar a little edgy. It was very much a bustling market district in a busy spaceport. The plethora of cultures and species present was impressive. “Are they allowed to be here?” Nashavara asked nervously of the illithid. Shaundar nodded.
Grimmauld turned and said something to the fruit vendor in Dwarvish that sounded like a question. He nodded, spoke a reply and indicated up the street. Shaundar knew enough Dwarvish to understand the “thank you” that Grimmauld responded with.
“Come on!” he said cheerfully to the group. “I’m told there’s a fine dwarven establishment up that way.”
They followed him. Shaundar noticed that even in the busy cosmopolitan spaceport street they were getting more than a few odd looks, and people were whispering behind their hands as they passed. He tried not to let it bother him.
Along the way they found a tobacconist, and so they replaced their pipes and tobacco, and purchased some proper snuff for the first time. Knowing nothing about it, Shaundar went with the hairfoot Halfling proprietor’s suggestion, which was rose-scented snuff, “our most popular snuff among elves.” He pinched it and found it exquisite. They gently turned down the tobacconist’s offer of lunch and continued on.
They also stopped at a magic shop to replace their spellbooks, ink and quills, and some of their harder to acquire magical components. The human proprietress gaped at them openly as they shopped.
It was Yathar who pointed out the piercing parlour. “Let’s go in there,” he said, and they did. He told the aging gnomish jeweller within that they wanted to replace their gold hoop earrings, and they each needed one to be threaded through a black pearl.
Sylria sniffled and wiped at her eyes, and Shaundar nodded solemnly. A black pearl was traditionally worn by sailors who were survivors of a sunken ship.
“What happened here?” the jeweller inquired as he put the black pearl on Shaundar’s earring. He was touching the spot on Shaundar’s ear where the whip of the scro had cut him on his first day at Raven Talon, when he had not been able to fit his feet into the wooden shoes he was given. Its legacy was a long white scar that matched the scars from his court martial. He had seen it in the mirror.
Shaundar hesitated. “Zigged when I should have zagged,” he said simply. What else could he say? What would the friendly little gnome say if he told him the truth, when he knew he was just making conversation? “You should all get your ears pierced too,” Shaundar recommended to their companions. “You’re all starhands now.”
“I do believe that I will,” Marafel smiled. And all of them did so, even Nashavara.
At last they made it to the dwarven bar, which was marked by a sign with a foaming gold mug on it and a legend in Dwarvish. Shaundar was much better at reading Dwarvish in print than he was at picking it out by listening to it. Aptly enough, the place was called, “The Golden Tankard.”
Inside, the establishment was largely occupied by several grizzled and tough looking dwarves in the same uniform; a tabard with a silver axe standard on a black background. A couple of them were missing eyes, hands or legs, but all of them were armed, mostly with axes but not a few with crossbows. They were loud, rowdy, raucous, and drinking like fiends. All conversation trailed to a halt as the elves and Grimmauld entered the bar.
Grimmauld was undeterred. He put his hands on his skinny hips and demanded in Common, “Something wrong?”
A dwarf with an eye-patch and a bright red beard stood up and wiped foam from his chops. “Don’t see a lot of elves in here,” he rumbled, “especially Navy elves.”
“I told my friends I would stand them to a pint of ruby ale,” Grimmauld replied, “to celebrate our survival. Seems the least I can do for elves that saved my life. And I told ‘em that dwarven hospitality beat elven hospitality any day. Are ye makin’ me a liar?”
Silence fell for a few seconds. Then the bartender, a distinguished looking dwarf with a long, gray beard, called from behind his counter, “Not here. Come and get yer drinks, and be welcome.” He nodded to the elves.
Shaundar had just been about to leave. He knew they were in no condition for a brawl if these hardy marines decided to take it there, and without their spellbooks, they had not been able to prepare more spells to replace the ones they had already cast. “That’s all right,” he said warily. “We don’t need any more trouble than we’ve already had. If we’re bothering you, we’ll just take our ale and go.”
“Ye won’t, be gods,” Grimmauld growled. “You saved my life, and if these folks are dwarves at all, they’ll treacha with the respect and courtesy ye deserve.”
“Yer from Spiral, aren’t you?” inquired a dwarf maid in the same uniform, but wearing a silver axe charm around her neck. Her blond hair and beard were in fine braids with silver clips, but even if she hadn’t spoken, Shaundar would have realized that she was a maiden by her generous bosom, which swelled roundly under her tabard. Sometimes, because of their beards, it was difficult for him to tell.
“I was,” Grimmauld acknowledged with a nod. “Grimmauld Stormhammer, I am.”
“I’m Brunahilde Goldminer,” she introduced herself, “Priestess of Haela Brightaxe. And ye’ll be welcome here and further, ye won’t be buying a bit of yer liquor. The Dwarven Boarding Company will be honoured to buy yer drink tonight.”
“We can’t let you do that, noble dwarf maid,” Sylria gently refused.
But the whole attitude of the bar had changed. “Ye will so,” insisted the red-bearded dwarf with the eye-patch. “We saw action on Spiral. Nasty business. And we heard that the elves had survivors of one of those prison camps here on the Rock. That’d be you folk, I’d guess?”
“It would be,” Yathar confirmed with sharp eyes that challenged him to make something of it.
“Well then, let us buy yer drink as an apology for our failure,” he continued. “Damn orcs are bloody tough and there were just too many of ‘em. And I saw some of them places. T’would be an honour to buy ale for elves tougher than most of the dwarves I know.” He peered around the bar with his one eye. “Present company included.”
Shaundar allowed a hesitant smile to creep across his face as he realized that the dwarven marine was serious. Grimmauld nodded with satisfaction and marched himself up to the bar. “Thank you,” Shaundar accepted gratefully. He joined Grimmauld and grasped one of the tankards.
Sylria, always better at diplomacy, radiated a smile and added, “It will be our pleasure to drink with such brave and distinguished dwarves.”
They roared laughter. “Ye elves and yer flowery tongues,” Brunahilde chuckled. She fished one of the ales off of the bar that the barkeep was drafting from a tap at the far end, and plunked the foaming liquid into Sylria’s hand.
Shaundar took a solid swig of the dwarven ale. It was potent, matching the reputation of dwarven drink, but it was also the smoothest ale Shaundar had ever tried. “Fantastic,” he pronounced it, wiping away the foam. This produced cheering and hearty clapping on the back that nearly knocked him over and left bruising. But he didn’t complain.
The dwarves were not stingy with the drink and Shaundar felt it impolite to refuse. Before long he was abysmally drunk and most of his companions were as well. They were also offered something which the dwarves called “stone cake,” which turned out to be a heavy pound cake full of molasses and fruit. Shaundar knew that the healers wouldn’t suggest that they eat it, but he did anyway and found it absolutely delicious.
They had to be carried back to the hospital, which the dwarves did cheerfully as Shaundar practically fell over himself apologizing. Yathar just laughed and went on laughing. That stopped abruptly when the guards at the edge of the forest that they had seen earlier stopped them and explained that this area was out-of-bounds to the dwarves.
Yathar snarled, “These folks are just seeing us home, you lout!”
The guard speaking reddened, but persisted. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m just following my orders.”
“Never mind,” said the one-eyed dwarf with the red hair. “You elves keep yer damn secrets. But ye folks are welcome back any time. Cap’n Thorvin Skyhammer’s my name, and the Dwarven Boarding Company will be glad to be of service to ye.”
“I’m Ssshhhhaundar Sssssunfall,” Shaundar slurred. “Likewise, and thank you.” And he shook hands with the dwarven mercenary.
Brunahilde planted a kiss on Grimmauld’s mouth. “Come back anytime,” she invited. He blushed to his roots and assured her that he would, he would indeed.
“If you won’t let them in,” Yathar snapped, “then you’ll have to carry us. I’m too damn drunk to walk.”
“It will be my honour, sir,” said the guard patiently, and the two of them took turns carrying the inebriated refugees back to their rooms. Shaundar didn’t see it. By the time they came for him, he had passed out under one of the oak trees. Mercifully, for the first time since their arrival on the Rock of Bral, he slept through the night without nightmares.
The hangover and the stomach cramps he had from the stone cake the next morning were murder, but in his opinion, it had definitely been worth it.
– from A Few Good Elves (Toy Soldier Saga book 1).
Diane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author. Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012). Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power will be published by Red Wheel / Weiser in September of this year. Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.