Sometime before midnight
"You seem troubled this evening, Mister Volsung," the Queen of Eluviar murmured, lips brushing the edge of her glass. The ruby-bright wine shivered as her words passed over the surface of the liquid. She looked across the marble terrace to the old adventurer, and took a swallow of the liquid. It was a precise movement, perfectly timed and considered. Everything she did was much the same; and little missed her eyes for poise and precision. But something was bothering her drinking partner this evening, something beyond the normal tribulations brought along by children and running a company of mercenaries. He'd had three glasses of the priceless wine, one after another, and told no stories under the moon that night. In her memory, this had never happened before. Well, the drinking, yes, but never the quiet. 'Quiet' was a word that really didn't belong within several miles of Grum Volsung.
Grum shifted uncomfortably in his borrowed elven robes, and cast his gaze over the lands before him. Manicured gardens, endless marble paths amidst fine stone buildings; here and there, a night watchman carried a crystal glowglobe on his rounds, the soft white light casting peaceful shadows over door and window. His town seemed so far away tonight, and his wife and friends. He shook the last few droplets of wine into his throat, and shrugged.
"Nah," he muttered, leaf-green eyes on the horizon. He brushed a few dust motes from the silver hem of his gown, and frowned. Grum could feel her knowing eyes upon his unshaved cheek. She never misses a thing, may the gods curse intelligent women everywhere, he thought to himself.
She waited for a few seconds, eyeing him carefully, and had another sip of wine. He'll open his mouth in three, two, one..., she thought to herself. And then, as if on cue, the warrior spoke again.
"Yeah," he added, as a smile broke across her face. "It's this whole...you know...thing with the, what's her name..."
"Her," she supplied, hesitantly. Neither was willing to speak her name aloud. Not on an evening as fine as this.
"Yeah, her." Grum paused, and reached for the shimmering decanter on the table. He poured her a finger's worth of the liquor, and then filled his glass. Wine sloshed over the side, spilling onto the white stone floor, but she paid it no mind. This room was used to such discrepancies of composure, as were her servants.
Spilling only a little bit more of the alcohol (don't quaff, don't quaff, he thundered at himself internally), Grum spoke again. "Got my folk worked up somethin' fierce back home. Everyone I know, scared like never before. Talkin' about the end of days, crazy things like that. Like we ain't got a real chance." He shook his head, sipped a bit more. "Never heard 'em speak this way. Makes me scared. Scared for my family."
"You are always nervous for those you love, Mister Volsung," she chided kindly. "It has always been your way. The world is dangerous, and you care what happens to those upon it."
"Not like this, kid. Not like this." The old warrior clutched the glass in both hands, watching the thin red liquid swirl around. "Different this time. Bad days comin', and everyone knows it. Might be time to stop thinkin' how to stop it, and start thinkin' on how to survive it."
The Queen of Eluviar sipped again on her glass. Her heart raced to even think of the madness that lay ahead, a month, or a year or a decade beyond. No one knew exactly when things would begin to unravel. There were many who claimed it already had. And while she and her subjects were preparing as best they could, even one as old and powerful as she didn't know if the work they were undertaking would be enough.
Still. It wouldn't do to exacerbate her friend's concerns. He was nervous enough as it was without her adding to his worries. "Grum, my friend," she said, her voice soothing and calm. "You are in Eluviar, surrounded by my people and my guard. We will let no harm come to you, and especially not your family. They are safe here. I promise."
Grum glanced up from his drink and his own dark thoughts, and watched her face. "You've done a lot for me and mine, yer ladyship, a hell of a lot. More than we could ever ask. But can you really promise that to me?"
She glanced away for a split second, and the adventurer nodded. "I didn't think so. It's okay, kid. No one can make that promise now, not with armies, not with spells. I don't blame ya. But you'll forgive me if I'm wantin' to take some matters into my own hands."
His own hands. That was his way, too. "I understand, Grum. What exactly did you have in mind?"
He frowned, half to himself, and looked out again into the darkness. "Shelter. Somewhere safe we can weather this storm. A place to hide, hide my kids and Nessa and...I don't know, Sasha if she decides not to stand and fight, the madwoman." A smile graced his lips as he imagined his beautiful mate striding to meet the armies of the Blood Queen head on, lightning coursing from her lips and frying pan. It might still come to that, if things went south. The grin disappeared under worry lines and a deepset frown. He hoped it wouldn't, more than he cared to breathe and pump blood through his veins, but it still damn well might.
"Shelter, Mister Volsung?" The Queen put a slender finger to her lips, and nodded to herself. A strand of star-white hair fell loose from her crown, and dangled against her cheek. "I believe I know a place. We could be there within an hour or so. Would you care to accompany me, and gaze upon its splendor?"
In one slight movement, she went from sitting gracefully in her chair to standing tall, cloak billowing out behind her. She looked free and strong, and Grum was momentarily taken aback. It was only through some desperate fumbling that he managed to catch his glass before it hit the stone.
Her eyes found his. She arched an eyebrow.
Grum nodded, set his glass down on the table. "Uh, of course I would," he said, nodding, and made to stand.
She left no footprints in the forest snows. Grum wondered if that was something all royalty did, or if it was just elves. Maybe it was just elf queens when they were in their own lands. He plowed through another snowdrift, cursing to himself, and shrugged the question away for another time.
Their path had led them deep into the forest outside the capital, past orchard trees heavy with snow, and quiet farms whose occupants did not witness their passing. Her personal guard she dismissed at the edge of the woods, citing her reliance on Mister Volsung for protection. Muttering amongst themselves, lighting thick clove cigarettes against the chill, the elven guardsmen settled against the trees to wait for her return. In the light of the moon, they huddled together, all plate mail and whispered worries. No one liked leaving the Queen alone in the forest at any time, but they wished to be left alone by themselves even less.
Together, the companions made their way deeper, uphill now, past elegant stone ruins of ages past, and thick rings of birch trees that shone with icicles and starlight. Grum bulldozed through another mound of snow, hammer smashing comfortably against his back. Elves probably built these ruins after they settled somewhere to make their woods look more mysterious, he thought to himself. Damn things kept cropping up everywhere. That had been his father's theory, and it hadn't even crossed Grum's mind to question it. And then she stopped, right in front of him, and it was all he could do to keep from crashing into her and carrying them both into the snow.
"We have arrived," she intoned, and gestured in front of them. Grum blinked frost out of his eyelashes and tried to focus.
They stood before the yawning mouth of a cave, the entrance covered in white, twisting vines and the silence of winter. It lay almost perfectly hidden in the side of a forest hill, covered from above and the sides by thick, ancient trees. Grum tried his best to look impressed.
"Er, it's a nice cave," he tried, and then shut his mouth as the Queen turned to regard him.
"This is a place I used to come when I was young," she smiled, eyes softening somewhat. "I played here, on windy days when I wished to be alone. It was peaceful then; no creature ever took up residence here while I was a child, or since." Her smile grew, just a fraction. "I still come here sometimes, to think."
"It is a nice cave," he repeated, nodding this time to show he meant it. "Good thinkin' cave if I ever saw one."
She looked sideways at him, bright eyes flashing beneath the moon. "It is at that, Mister Volsung. And like most hidden places of the elves, more than meets the casual glance as well. Follow me, if you would."
Cloak brushing soundlessly against the drifting snow, the Queen made her way inside the entrance of the cave. Grum kicked a path through the nearest mound and stopped, barely inside the entrance. He trusted the Queen of course, and would have followed her anywhere. It was just the rest of the world he took issue with.
Slowly, he unslung his hammer, and made his way inside.
"The cave itself goes on for quite some ways," she murmured, half to herself. The silver lining of her cloak flashed and disappeared, swallowed up by the darkness. Grum cursed and slid to a halt on the icy floor, fumbling in his pouches for his tinderbox. Maybe he could light the end of his shirt on fire, make a torch somehow so they could see -
Words, almost singing, drifted from further on. A trailing orb of golden light materialized from nothing, swirling around the Queen's cloak. It lit up the surrounding area easily and immediately, and Grum Volsung, who had seen the Kraken and Balron's Gaze alike, found his breath catching in his throat.
Everywhere he looked, the smooth walls of the cave lit up with silver fire. It whirled and flashed overhead, following the shadows, splitting into smoothbore bolts of lightning and then flying away as the light moved. The walls shone with it, positively radiated. Raising a hand to his eyes, the old adventurer could see the Queen was smiling like a little girl, like Nessa when his sons had been especially humorous.
"What is this?" he breathed, hammer a heavy weight in his hands.
She shook her head, a few white hairs bouncing loose from beneath her crown. "I have no idea," she said, and her smile grew broader. "It has always been this way, as long as I have come here. A strange, dancing fungus perhaps? An old spell, gone sentient and alive after millenia of being alone?" His companion turned and shrugged helplessly, grin lit up by the fires overhead. "I care not. It is beautiful, and I wish only for it to remain that way. So I do not bother it, and it does not bother me. Perhaps we have reached an understanding, over the years."
Grum gave the walls a more than suspicious glance, but after a moment's more hesitation, slung his mallet over his shoulder. "Pretty," he grunted, as manfully as he could. The boys will go nuts when I show them this, he thought to himself. So will little Nessa, for all her calm.
"But pretty won't keep my kids safe, or we'd move to Treschele and buy a foofy-lookin' castle. There must be more, right, yer ladyship?" he asked, smiling.
With one crooked finger, the Queen bade him onwards, into the darkness. Grum hustled to keep up, eyes glancing from the floor to the ceiling, trying to keep an eye on the woman in front of him and the lightning bursts that ricocheted through the stone.
A few hundred feet onwards, tucked behing an outcropping of perfectly rounded stone, the Queen came to a halt. Glancing behind him out of habit, the warrior skidded to a halt, and peered around her.
Down into the rock, black and endless, lay a hole. It was three feet across, and unfathomably deep. Grum eyeballed it with the deep suspicion bred from a long relationship with Midnight, and looked up to his friend.
"Where does this lead? And don't tell me you don't know, or that it goes somewhere strange," and here he adopted a higher-pitched tone to his voice and waved his arms dramatically, " 'somewhere beyond my magical sight, to a place with spirits and genie Nagas,' or any of that nonsense."
The Queen laughed, the sound like tiny wedding bells. She put a gentle hand on his cloak, and the old warrior looked away, a little embarassed.
"My friend," she replied, shaking her head. "Would I do that to you?"
Grum shrugged, and offered a keen smile in return. "Dunno," he admitted. "Last thing I did for you, I ended up in waist-deep snow, carrying your missing sword and shield and running for my life from the Mallykurge. Ain't got a track record from you yet."
More laughter bubbled up from her middle, and she grinned. "That is fair. But this is safer, I promise you." Reaching down to the cave floor, she produced a length of old silk rope, and held it aloft.
"We'll climb down, and I'll show you. You will like it, I'm sure."
The adventurer eyed the rope and shrugged. "Well, okay," he managed, as she bent to tie one end of the rope around a convenient stalagmite. "But don't you be fallin'. Not sure I could carry you out if I had to."
The Queen looked up, and her smile was steel. Clean light sparked across her teeth, cast from the orb at her side. "As if the Queen of the Eluviar elves would ever lose her grip on a rope."
The journey down took several minutes of grunting, swearing, and skittering boots on rock. The Queen was silent, though from time to time her sides shook, as if she were holding something back.
Eventually, the shaft terminated in a large chamber. The Queen's light source didn't manage to penetrate all the way to the back of the room, but if he squinted, Grum could make out tall, smooth walls of stone, and the barest hint of water. He dropped the last few feet into the chamber, and cracked his knuckles. The way down had taken more out of him than he cared to admit.
The Queen dropped lightly to the stone floor, her magical light hurrying to catch up with the sudden movement. She stretched her arms over her head in a distinctly unladylike fashion, and smiled. "A good exercise, and one I have not enjoyed for some years, Mister Volsung," she said, nodding vigorously. "Wouldn't you agree?"
"I'll have to live down here for a few days until I get my strength back, but yes, it was lovely," he remarked in reply, his voice echoing across the room. Her smile at his words made him grin, though, and after a moment or two he found his arms did not ache quite so badly. She gave him a few more seconds to slow his breathing, and then pressed forward into the shadows.
Fifteen feet or so from the dropshaft's exit, the companions came to the edge of a lake. A wave of her arm sent the golden orb skittering overhead, trailing shining sparks of light, and illuminating the chamber entirely.
Stretching out a hundred feet or so beyond his feet lay a placid underground lake. It looked to be about twenty feet deep or so, and was fed from a tiny hole in the rock on the other side. The shore here was worn smooth from the water's slow recession through the centuries, and stretched in a semicircle around the water's edge. Here and there, foot-long cave fish jumped and danced, searching for water-skimming insects or the odd wayward moth.
Grum looked around for bears, ghouls, or untrustworthy demons. His eyes found only the Queen, slight smile on her lips. Some part of his shoulders untensed then, loosened up from a stress he hadn't really known he was carrying. Here, then, one might survive the destruction to come. And if not, well, it would make a quiet place to die.
His eyes grew stormy, and set. But they wouldn't die. Not his family. Not if he could help it.
"This place is...beautiful," he managed, nodding his shaggy head. "Safe, clean. Got water and food. Reckon if it were properly stocked, a family might live down here for a long time." He stopped, and raised an eyebrow.
"You mind if we stay here for a while?" he asked, carefully.
The Queen shook her head. "Mister Volsung, it is yours to borrow as you please. My guardsmen can have this place stocked and supplied for you and your kin in a matter of days - "
Grum stopped her, held up a hand. The Queen blinked, surprised.
"Beggin' your pardon, yer ladyship, but if you don't mind, I'll tend to that myself. Best...best to keep this place as hidden as we can. Don't want word gettin' out that I'm buildin' a shelter up here." He looked away, ashamed at his selfishness. "I'm sorry. The fewer folk who know, the better."
The Queen was silent for a moment or two. She regarded the warrior with a look that held bits of hesitation and worry. "Are you sure, Grum?" she asked eventually, tone soft. "This place may house your family for as long as you like, but...surely you don't mean to prepare it entirely by yourself?"
At this, he smiled, and shook his head. "Nah," he said, looking up into her face, teeth showing gold and white. "Got some old favors to call in for this one."
She shook her head, and smiled back. Her worries were not entirely assuaged, but she knew better than to argue with him on this. "Very well then. I shall leave it to you and your...favors. If anyone asks, I'll say you're out here building an extremely poorly-built woodland lodge. You humans are so fond of such things; no one will question it."
Grum snorted, but didn't argue. Instead, he clasped a hand around her arm, and squeezed, tightly. "I can't thank you enough for this," he managed, voice thickening. "I...I just don't know what to say..."
Tenderly, she touched her hand to his, and squeezed back, and no more words passed beneath the golden shadows for some time to come.
Grum kicked his heels against the post, and watched the crowds come in off the forest road. Every morning he came this way, to inspect those traveling with the gypsies and the merchants. He'd sent messages out some weeks ago, and had immediately begun to wonder who would come, if anyone. His preperations had already begun, such as one old man could manage, but even at this preliminary stage he could see he would need help. And he didn't want to ask the elves. They were good folk, to be sure, and kind to him and his children; but Grum reasoned that if you hadn't stood shoulder to shoulder with a person, you couldn't be sure of them. So he chose to put his faith in people long gone, and nod politely to those nearest him. It was not the best mentality, or the most practical, but it was his, and that was that.
The wagons rolled by, one after the other. Bright colors and gypsy songs assailed his eyes and ears. His mouth twitched upwards as he imagined his wife returning to his side, for peaceful evenings alongside the fire and his children. She wasn't on any of these wagons - at least, she'd best not be, because that would mean something had gone really wrong - but there was no harm in imagining it. He sighed and thought of how she would smell, worn out from the road, all spices and sugar and sweat. His thoughts turned to how she might look beside the cauldron, the firelight dancing on her skin, and he coughed into his fist and glanced away from a pair of passing guardsmen. The footmen ignored him utterly, and he breathed a sigh through his chapped lips.
Finally, an arm stretched overhead through the crowd, muscled and pale. It waved wildly in greeting. Grum smiled. Of course, if one person was going to answer his letter for help, it would be him. The boy was practically a fourth son as it was.
"Grum! You look ancient ya old bastard!" Amos called, grinning through the crowd of rapidly dispersing wanderers. He dropped the kitbag from his shoulder and drew the adventurer into a bearhug. "Ah've missed ya you ornery old man!"
"Stop callin' me old, damn it," Grum growled happily, hugging the young man back. The two held onto one another for a while, before breaking contact. They inspected one another for a moment or two, looking perhaps for missed wounds or signs of magical disease. Things were different in Shadowfane, and old habits died hard. One never knew if a friend might not know about that strange tattoo on the back of their head.
"It's a wonder ya ain't dead of exposure," Grum muttered, looking his friend over. "Wearin' naught but this tunic thing and these old pants. Gotta get you some proper clothes while you're here, son."
Amos laughed. "I've got my coat wrapped in my bag, you curmudgeon. You know I'm a grown man, right?"
Grum just waved his hand dismissivley. "I'm glad you're here anyway, son. Road treat ya all right?"
The younger stormdancer looked away for a moment, his brow furrowing slightly. "Roads are quiet," he said eventually. "Like everything's waiting for somethin'. A bit nerve-wracking."
"Or they're hiding," the old man grumbled. "Got some sense, maybe." Both men were silent for a second or so, wrapped up in their own thoughts, before Grum clapped Amos on the arm. "But you're here safe. That's what matters. Awful good of you to come."
"As if I'd refuse a letter like that," Amos replied, grin returning to his face. "Let's be off then, shall we?"
"Can't. Still waiting for another arrival." Grum peered past his friend into the crowd, face scrunched up with the effort of those who need glasses but refuse to wear them. Amos shifted his bag to the other shoulder and frowned.
"Who else is coming?" he asked, looking over the shorter man's shoulder. "I hope you had the sense to invite someone pretty."
"Oh, he did," came a third, deeper voice from behind the pair. Both men startled just a little bit as a strong, red hand pressed down on each of their shoulders. The fingers of the newcomer were warm to the touch. They squeezed each shoulder tightly, and then drew away. "The prettiest, in fact."
A muffled boom echoed his words as the man behind them set his huge bass violin case to the ground.
"Good, you're here," Grum smiled, and turned to face Kayjack. Amos sighed in relief and pushed the huge man right in the chest.
"You scared me you know!" Amos complained, grinning. He threw his arms around the fire Irvane's middle, hugging him tight. After a moment's percieved confusion, Kayjack hugged him, too. Looking up from his midriff, Amos added, "It's been an age. Where have you been?"
"Fighting off the hordes that threaten our southern borders," the huge man intoned. Amos nodded, as if this made perfect sense. Grum rubbed his chin, and frowned.
"What sort of hordes?" he asked, scrunching up his brow.
"Undead spider apes," Kayjack remarked, expression totally serious.
Amos nodded again, and Grum did as well. "Sounds like crap to me, son. Not gonna lie," Grum offered a few seconds later. Kayjack managed to hold on to his serious face for a few more seconds before bursting into laughter. Amos chuckled uncertainly, and Grum nodded, his suspicions confirmed. There were more slaps on arms and other manly gestures of goodwill, and together the three men began making their way through the crowd.
"So I hear you're building a hideaway," Kayjack began, but Grum punched him on the arm and gave him The Look.
"Quiet, lad," he whispered, even though the caravans on the roadway made a great din as they passed by. "Don't want everyone to know. Gotta keep it secret if we can."
Amos nodded. "Or we'll have a load of elves cluttering up the place, right?"
Grum nodded. "Right. Not going to be a lot of room down there, gents. Not at first anyway."
The Irvane and the young stormdanger eyeballed one another, but didn't quite know what to say. A hundred feet passed in companionable silence before Amos dared to ask, "So, what all is going into this, Grum? Your letter was...vague."
The old adventurer frowned as he strode onwards, towards the forest. "Everything I have is going into this, my boys. Every last damn thing."
Amos and Kayjack hefted their belongings over their shoulders and said nothing more. Part of being in Grum's Company, they reflected privately, was knowing that when Grum's tone went all serious-like, he meant what he was saying. It had been some time before his voice had turned to stone like this. Perhaps the old man had finally lost his touch with reality, and was undertaking work that was beyond the scope of any of them.
But they were his friends, and if they had these thoughts, they kept them to themselves. He hadn't led them particularly wrong before. Surely, they reasoned, he wouldn't start now.
"Just let it down easy!" Grum roared up the shaft, arms wrapped around the barrel's middle.
"I'm lettin' it down, ya ancient bastard!" Amos's voice drifted back, slow and tinny.
"You're ancient," Grum grumbled under his breath, muscles shaking. He was too thin for this work, and he knew it.
Swearing under his breath, back straining with the effort, the old warrior finally levered the barrel of candles down onto the floor. The rope creaked alarmingly under the weight, but held. A few more spine-tingling seconds, and it was level on the floor. Grum undid the rope, gave it a few yanks, and stepped away. The rope snaked back up the shaft, and was gone again. Soon it would deliver another piece of cargo down to the cave floor, and another, and another. Grum fully expected his back to break before the day's work was done.
Kayjack strode away from their base camp, nestled in the living rock by the lake. He'd forgone a shirt for this work, claiming he was overheating. His red chest heaved with the exertions of the day, but for a magician, Grum reckoned he'd stood up pretty well. Not that he could complain about anyone's work. They were here of their own accord, after all.
"So Grum," the Irvane remarked as they worked. "Who paid for all of this? It surely wasn't you."
Grum snorted. "I saved up!" he complained, leaning against the offending barrel. Kayjack raised an eyebrow.
"There is far too much cargo here for a man of even your modest, hobgoblin-chasing means, my friend," the mage replied, smiling. Grum scowled, but nodded.
"Who do ya think paid for most of it?" he said, thumping the barrel. Hidden almost entirely on the top of the lid was a faded blue and yellow sigil. Kayjack didn't recognize the symbol, but he did recognize the colors. His eyebrows went up, and he smiled back at his grinning friend.
While the pair waited for Amos to send another piece of cargo down, they sat against the cool cave wall and talked. Kayjack told Grum of his many adventures since wandering in and out of Shadowfane, and Grum told the Irvane about the Blood Queen and Kath and trying to raise three children plus half a girl. They were debating which of those three jobs was actually the most trying when Amos started to yell, and the sound of smashing wood started to echo down the shaft.
"Heads up lads!" the man up top roared, amidst the sound of rapidly approaching failure. Kayjack and Grum hustled to the shaft to look at what was coming. It had been a long day already, and neither was thinking too clearly.
Grum saw the barrel first. It was hurtling at what he saw was a terribly fast speed, spraying its cargo of beans everywhere. One or two fell before the bouncing vessel, skipping into Kayjack's left eye. He swore, put a crimson finger to his eyeball to sort things out, and looked away.
With one mighty push, Grum shoved his friend out of the way. The long-limbed Irvane sprawled onto the hard stone floor, hissing with pain. His dark eyes turned to regard the older warrior, and went wide.
The barrel detonated in a shower of dried vegetables and wooden splinters all over the cave floor. Bits of Grum's blood and hair mixed in with the beans and scraps, though most of the barrel remained buried in his midsection. Coughing in the dust, Kayjack sprang to his feet and hurried over to his leader's side.
If Grum wasn't dead from the impact, he soon would be. Bloodied and sagging inwards, the warrior's chest heaved with the struggle for life. His breaths were thin and shallow. One eye rolling, the other a shattered mess of jelly, Grum looked up at his friend, and smiled.
Kayjack grabbed his discarded shirt and pressed it the sagging wound, watching as the blood slowly ceased to flow. He did not cry, though the frown on his lips could have cut through stone. They'd had accidents like this before, but never this bad. The mage had suspected something terrible would happen before the job was over, but it had still taken him by surprise.
Losing Grum was a given, he mused, mind spinning madly. The man was old, and not as strong as he liked to boast. Kayjack had prepared for this moment some years prior, mentally. Humans were frail, and always would be. Fire lasted, where flesh and blood did not. The proof lay before him, choking on blood and beans. Still, it was difficult to see him go. Kayjack grabbed Grum's left hand and squeezed it tight.
Grum started to laugh. It was a sick, burbling sound from somewhere deep in his smashed chest. Kayjack raised an eyebrow, and then the other as his dying friend patted his arm with a wrecked hand.
"Not gonna die, kid," Grum chuckled. Kayjack boggled, watching bits of the stricken man start knitting back together. The old adventurer's eyes closed, and he winced in pain as his body started to perform its most magnificent trick.
Cloth rustled on stone, and Amos dropped to the ground, sweating with his haste. He looked over Grum's rumbling, hitching form, and grimaced. "Hoped it wasn't gonna hit anyone," he said, shaking his head. "Glad it landed on you, though, if it had to land on someone." Face still screwed up from watching the spectacle, Amos looked down to his red-skinned friend. Kayjack was struggling to remove the barrel from Grum's midsection, the offending object finally releasing with an audible sucking sound.
"Fae blood, remember? He ain't as weedy as he'd like you to think he is." A pause. "Well, I mean, he is, I guess. But as long as you don't kill him, his blood just sort of...comes back together. Gross, isn't it?"
Grum swore and raised an extended middle finger. If the digit had still been attached to a hand, the effect would have been less disconcerting. Amos shied away, and looked to the ruined barrel, the wasted food.
"We ain't strong enough to do this. Not safely. This was lucky, really." Kayjack nodded his agreement a bit distractedley, unwilling just yet to let Grum's hand free. He had forgotten about the faerie magic within the man, and was still coming to terms with the idea that Grum would yet live. Amos kicked a pile of red-soaked beans aside and huffed.
"I hate the idea of asking for more help," he muttered. "But there's one man who'd be strong enough to do this work, and keep his yap shut in the meantime."
Even half-dead, Grum's eyes went wide. He tried to form words amidst his shifting teeth, but he was too late.
"Let me get a paper and quill," Amos mused aloud, "and send a letter to that idiot. He'll believe anything I tell him, I have no doubt."
"You said there'd be girls here," Roderick thundered as he rolled another barrel to the shaft.
"I lied," Amos replied, wrapping the thick silken rope around the container. His pink tongue stuck out as he tried to remember how to tie the so-called, 'extra thick no death from above knot'. After a few moments' fiddling, he shrugged and tied a granny as tight as he could.
Roderick strode back from the cave entrance carrying two more barrels, one under each arm. "You said that Sasha'd be here, and she had more baked goods than she knew what to do with." he grumbled, setting each vessel down with a creak.
"Again, a fabrication of the truth," Amos murmured, heaving on his end of the rope to tighten the binding.
Roderick's eyes narrowed. "You also said that you knew the truth about the Turnip Monster and that you'd tell me if I came to help."
Amos's eyebrows waggled, and he grinned his prize-winning, shit-eating grin.
"Put him down!" Grum roared, hauling himself up the ladder and out of the shaft. He strode over to where Roderick held the dangling rogue over the open shaft, the big ghoul growling, the smaller man babbling out fibs and hasty promises.
Roderick smiled. "You sure?" he asked, shaking Amos a little more. The rogue waved his arms wildly, trying to gain purchase on the floor and keep from disappearing down the hole.
Grum scrunched his face up in thought. "Set him down, is what I meant," he said, finally. With a flip of the wrist, Roderick tossed his smaller friend into the air, and caught him by the scruff of the shirt. After one more moment's steel-eyed consideration, the ghoul set the struggling Amos down onto the floor, and smirked.
"You know I would have come if you'd asked, without all the promises," Roderick said, smiling.
Amos nodded. "Yeah. But I do so love dashin' yer hopes all over the floor," he replied, and like a flash, the grin was back upon his lips.
It was some minutes before Grum could get the pair to stop slapping the shit out of each other. Still, progress was good that day. By sundown, they were so far ahead of schedule that Grum called an early halt. Kayjack wove his hands in a complex design, and a smoke-free fire flickered and danced on the shore of the water. Soon dinner was roasting over the campfire by the underground lake, and the cave echoed with stories and the well-worn lies the heroes of Shadowfane carry with them. Sometime after supper, Roderick produced a bottle of wine he'd lifted from 'someone who didn't need it anymore', and the Company members fell to a few drinks. It was some time after midnight when Amos and Kayjack had fallen asleep, snoring by the fading flame, and Grum and Roderick got down to some serious drinking.
"You think this'll work?" the ghoul rumbled, looking around the smooth walls of the shelter. He lifted the bottle to his lips, a thin red trickle of the stuff dripping down into his ribcage.
His companion shrugged. Grum itched at his wine-soaked beard and sighed. "I don't know," he admitted. He ran his gaze over the pile of barrels and crates, the good oaken bedframes they'd hammered together the week before. "I mean, I know we'd survive most anything down here. The kids'll be bored sometimes, but I've taken precautions for that." His fingers drummed across his iron mug. Grum poured the dregs of the alcohol into his mouth, wincing inwardly at the taste, before adding, "But really, if things are as bad as they say, this might all be wasted effort."
Roderick shook his skull, socketed eyes boring into the human's. "It's not wasted," he said. "A father's effort to take care of his family is never wasted, seems to me. I'll never have children, of course, so I don't know...what that might be like, personally," and here it was the ghoul's turn to look out over the sparkling surface of the lake. "But as far as I can see...what you're doing here is good." He paused, eyed the bottle, but didn't take another drink. "It's good."
Grum and Roderick were silent for a while, lost in their own thoughts. Eventually, Grum asked, "Do you remember when we first met? On the shield wall, in the dark? I told you to stick close to me, that I'd keep an eye on you?"
Roderick chuckled, the bones in his throat clicking together. "I remember."
"And then you turned out to be this unstoppable killing machine, and it was you takin' care of me..." Grum continued, smiling at the memory.
Roderick snorted a chuckle in agreement.
"Funny how that turns out," the old warrior added, reaching over the fire and availing himself of Roderick's bottle.
"How now we all sort of take care of each other. Everyone. All the time." Grum poured himself a small measure of the wine, watching his reflection dance within the mug. "It's been sort of quaint, bein' honest. Good, old-fashioned lookin' out for one another."
Roderick nodded his agreement, though his sockets still gazed out over the lakeside. A blind fish jumped into the silvery light for a moment, and disappeared under the surface again.
It was silent for a while. After a few more sips of wine, Grum added, "Quaintness feels like it's gettin' away from us now, though, don't it. Like it might all be coming to an end."
The ghoul turned his skinless face towards the tired-looking man across the fire. He smiled, though whether or not Roderick was currently capable of another facial expression was debatable. "Good thing you've got a hideaway, then, isn't it?"
Grum smiled, and nodded. "Yeah. It's good."
"Come on now," Grum murmured. "No reason to be scared of this place."
"It's dark," Wen reasoned, standing in the sunlight outside the cave. Rye poked a hanging vine with interest and suspicion. Jack was being wrangled somewhat successfully by Roderick, Amos and Kayjack, the three mercenaries waving their arms and chasing the small boy like he was escaped poultry. Jack for his part showed no fear of the cave or anything else, and ran, squealing happily through the forest glen. Grum eyeballed his youngest for a moment or two before returning to his task. Convincing his boys to be adventurous was normally not a problem. Today, for some reason, they were nervous.
"It's only dark a little ways," Grum remarked. "Gets light further in. Go on. I'm right with you."
Rye looked up at his father with worried green eyes. Wen frowned, and then, after a fierce internal debate, nodded.
"Come on," he said to his brother. "It can't be all that bad. Dad's been in there by himself; how scary can it be?"
"Har har," the old warrior muttered. Yelling over his shoulder, he called, "Lads, get that little boy in here right now! Honestly, is this harder for you than fighting nightmares, or easier?"
With a great deal of coaxing and cut-off swearing, Roderick finally gave up. Scooping Jack up under one arm, he strode into the cave, Grum and the rest along with him.
Overhead, the cave walls lit up with their running, silver fire, and the boys lost their minds. Wen started yelling and pointing in delight, Rye oohed and aahed and told the menfolk how he had, just HAD to tell Nessa about this, and Jack wiggled free of Roderick's bicep and immediately tore after a point of light, deeper into the cave. At the youngest Volsung's sudden explosion of movement, the others tore after him. Grum, Roderick, Kayjack and Amos stood stunned for a split second before taking off after them.
"Keep away from the ladder!" Kayjack roared, long legs bringing him ahead of the pack. Amos grit his teeth, boots pounding on the floor. Roderick pulled up alongside Grum.
"You see this?" Grum yelled, gesturing madly at the fleeing children. "This is what it's like, taking care of you lot! Every mother-lovin' day!" The father built up a massive head of steam over the next few feet, and flew ahead, tackling the twins by their midsections. The family went down in a heap, Wen and Rye laughing, Grum clutching his aching face.
Kayjack leapt forward, over his prostrate leader's form, and snagged Jack by the back of the pants. The toddler wailed as he was pulled away from the spinning, silver light. Kayjack held him aloft like a squirming gypsy ball, and grinned. Jack stretched his little hands for the ceiling, where a long beam of silver light had paused, as if waiting for the game to begin again.
"Day One," Amos remarked to no one in particular, in between panting. "None of the Volsungs have fallen down the hole. Yet"
While the boys played by the lakeside, throwing old stones into the water and laughing, Grum leaned back against the nearest crate. His friends sat with him, keeping an eye on the boys, and generally enjoying their rest.
"Good work lads," Grum rumbled. The mercenaries nodded their thanks and agreement.
"How long you reckon you'll stay here?" Amos asked, eyeing the shelves, filled to bursting with scholarly texts and storybooks, puzzles and gameboards and bad old novels. It was a good start, he reasoned, but probably not enough for more than a few months.
Grum shook his head. "Year, I would imagine. Any more than that...we could do it, maybe. But the boys would go nuts. And anyway, I don't want to move here if we don't have to. They'll stay in Eluviar as long as it's safe to. We'll only come here if there's no choice."
Kayjack grinned. "Fires will be difficult, won't it?" he asked, eyes twinkling with presumed understanding.
Grum said nothing.
"And won't you get lonely?" Roderick murmured, frowning. "Grum, this'll be hard with just you and your boys and Sasha, won't it?"
"Damn near impossible," the old adventurer said.
Amos shook his head. "Did you actually think this through? Not to question your ability to think ahead, but, uh..."
Grum laughed, pointed at a large red box, brought down last of all. "Go open that," he said to the bewildered Amos. "See what's in there. That's your answer."
Stretching, Amos got to his feet and wandered over to the crate. Picking up a nearby prybar, he levered the top open, and started pulling away straw. His eyes went wide at the sight within, and then he frowned.
Smoothly, he lifted a massive pickaxe from the depths of the container. "Erm," he began, eyeing it, then Grum. "What're these for?"
Their leader got to his feet, slowly, pained from the weeks of backbreaking labor. "In my letter, what did I write to you? What did I tell you I had planned to do?"
"Dig a hole," Kayjack said, smiling to himself.
"Store supplies for the end of the world," Roderick said, still not understanding.
Amos stood, lips working, thinking his answer over. Then, with a sudden bout of comprehension, he smiled, huge and wide.
"Take care of your family," he said, clearly.
Grum nodded, and hefted the pickaxe. "Damn right I'm taking care of my family," he murmured. "There's always room for expansion, lads."