Mabel the Mafioso Dwarf: Chapters 1 – 3

Chapter 1

WHEN WE entered the cosmopolitan city of Leitham, I had only one thing on my mind: adventure. Real adventure, not just imaginary ones. The adventure of getting my shredded right shoulder fixed and starting a new life for myself. The adventure of seeing all of the possibilities now open to me.

Technically, the adventure had started the moment Da and my brothers disowned me and I agreed to move here with Mam.

The four weeks on the road from Gilliam to Leitham had not been the adventure I’d imagined it should have been, considering two of our traveling companions were the wizard Radier, and my friend Aramis, the greatest elven adventurer in history. I didn’t really expect we’d encounter dragons or other dangers, but I’d hoped for something to give some excitement to the endless hours on the road. The only thing we stopped for was sleep.

The trip wasn’t entirely uneventful. I was traveling with my mam. I would call getting to know her a bit of an adventure, a big part of building my new life. Da had exiled her when I was a dwarfling, and let me grow up believing she was dead. I’d learned she was alive and soon after that, I met her while acting in a movie being recorded in Gilliam. The total of seven weeks we’d had together was not nearly enough time to share everything about our lives. I thanked the gods that wasn’t the only time I’d have with her. It was just the start.

Finally my mam was going to be a part of my life.

The long road trip also gave me time to get to know Aramis a bit better. Radier had been his cart-mate for most of the trip, so my conversations with Aramis had been short and usually only when we stopped for the night or before we started out in the morning. A few days before we arrived in Leitham, Radier left our traveling caravan without a word. When he did, Aramis joined Mam and me and traveled the rest of the way with us.

Now, as the four- and five-storey buildings rose up around us, crowding each other and the road, my heart fluttered, and I swore my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I’d always known my home city of Gilliam was small and conservative. But compared to Leitham, Gilliam was nothing more than a quaint little town.

This city held everything for me: Mam, healing, and most important, a new life.

The road was lined with tall buildings and stretched for miles. I felt like I was in a deep and endless tunnel. I kept looking up, hoping to see the sun and sky. My neck cramped and my wounded shoulder hurt more. Carts passed our caravan, cutting in front of us and out again. I gasped. I’d been on a crowded road before, in Mitchum, but there had just been dwarves there. There weren’t only dwarves driving the carts here. There were almost no dwarves here, at least not in this part of the city. Elves, pixies, and a handful of trolls surrounded us on the road and on the walkways beside us—deadly beings I’d been warned about in childhood stories were walking around freely, like they weren’t dangerous.

I gagged and covered my nose with my sleeve as the stench hit me. I was sure it wasn’t just from all the horses and ponies. Mam, who sat beside me, driving our cart, appeared not to notice.

“Well, what do you think of your new city?” Mam asked.

There was too much to take in to have a moment to formulate a thought, much less an opinion. I pinned my right arm against my chest with my left, still trying to block the smell. Holding it this way reduced the constant agony a little. “It’s um, not like Gilliam at all, is it?”

“At first glance, no, it isn’t,” Mam said. “But when you get to know the city, you’ll find they have a lot in common. You will love it.”

Aramis put an arm around my shoulders. When we first met, he would touch me and his elven magic had done some marginal healing of my injury, but his powers were limited and had stopped working not long after we left Gilliam. Even though he could no longer heal me, Aramis was the only one who could touch me and not hurt me. Simply not hurting more than I already did was amazing. It almost provided me some actual relief of my existing pain.

“Frerin is right,” he said. “You are going to love it here.”

Mam steered our cart off the main road onto one side street and then another. The buildings pressed in on us. There were so many streets branching off in every direction. How did anyone find where they needed to go?

More importantly, how was I supposed to find Aramis’s father? Radier had promised he would take me to see him, but he’d left us so suddenly that I never got a chance to make any definite arrangements. I could have asked Aramis, but there was something between him and his father. From what I understood, Aramis never talked to him. I had a strong suspicion that, if I asked for Aramis’s help, he wouldn’t do it. I had to trust that Radier knew how to find me, and that he hadn’t forgotten his promise.

A few of the other members of our caravan left us, veering off onto various side roads. I wondered if I’d ever see them again. The entire movie crew, including the actors, had traveled together from Gilliam. They’d become like a family to me and now this family felt like it, too, was falling apart, just like mine had back in Gilliam.

Mam was the only family I had left. Well, her and Sevrin.

The Sevrin.

Sevrin being a part of my family could be an adventure in itself, I hoped. He was a legend among Dwarves for his heroics as a warrior, explorer, and dragon slayer. His adventures with Aramis and Radier were epic.

Mam told me how Aramis, being their mutual friend, had introduced them soon after she’d arrived in Leitham. They’d become close friends instantly. A few years ago, they acknowledged their friendship had grown into something bigger. It was then that they moved in together. She wouldn’t call him a life-mate—she still wore the golden ring in her beard that Da had given her, and she maintained her promise never to remove it—so she called Sevrin her life-partner.

That Sevrin accepted Mam’s loyalty to her mating vows and still loved her, made me love him. As far as I was concerned, Mam had no reason to remain loyal to Da, not after the way he had treated her all these years.

Mam maneuvered deftly through the crowded streets, swerving around other carts as easily as everyone else. Finally the traffic diminished, and the buildings were pushed back from the street and from each other. The sky was still next to impossible to see thanks to the giant elm and birch trees now lining the road.

We turned into what appeared to be another business district. The trees shrank in size and number. The buildings were not as tall as before and I couldn’t tell what was a business and what was a home. Here, at least, there were more dwarves. A lot more.

The toy shops carried dwarf-made toys for all species. How many had come from the toy workshop in Gilliam? It was kind of exciting to think that some of the toys I’d made when I’d worked in the toy workshop might have been sold here. It would have been so much fun if we’d been shown where our toys ended up. Of course, we understood that what we made was traded elsewhere. When we sat in that workshop day after day, making things for other species, things that had nothing to do with stone or gems, it had been nothing more than busy work until we were old enough to mine. Had we been able to see our toys in the hands of children, maybe it would have given some of us a bit more enthusiasm for the job.

The blacksmith shop windows displayed decorative ironwork fencing and furniture, and so many items I’d never seen before. We passed stores selling every kind of sporting equipment imaginable: bows and arrows, battle axes, uniforms, and boulders of all shapes and sizes. My shoulder twitched and I whimpered when I saw some beautiful throwing axes.

At last Mam pulled into a bit of a clearing. Several large white-washed windowless buildings stood before us, protected by a great steel fence with a guarded gate.

“Almost home,” Mam said as she stopped outside the gate. “Just a quick stop.”

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Studio City,” Mam said. “This is where I usually work, and where movies are finished in editing and production.”

“Of which I need to get started on,” Aramis said, hopping off our cart and stretching. At twice the height of dwarves, it must have been an incredibly cramped trip for him this last week.

“Aren’t you tired?” I asked. We’d been traveling for four weeks, and maybe Mam and Aramis were used to it, but this last part of the trip through Leitham was the longest and most exhausting of all.

“I am already behind,” Aramis said with a smile, flashing his gorgeous deep dimples.

“You are not,” Mam said. “We’re back a day ahead of schedule.”

“All right, then. I feel like I am behind. There is so much to do.”

Who would have ever thought an immortal elf could be so impatient and eager to get so much done in a day?

“Make sure you leave the editing room every few days,” Mam said.

“I shall try,” he said. “Tell Sevrin I have pierced the big one with the tip of my arrow. He can come by and pay me my winnings any time.”

Mam laughed. “I don’t dare get in the middle of your wagering, but I will pass on the message.”

I had no idea what they were talking about, and that was perfectly okay. I was witnessing true evidence of the legendary friendship between Aramis and Sevrin!

“I will see you all later,” he said. “Welcome to Leitham, Mabel.”

Mam snapped the reigns and we were moving again. “Next stop, home.”

We left Aramis behind. After a few silent minutes, I finally had an opinion about Leitham I could share. “I’m stunned.”

Mam smiled. “I was, too, the first time I set foot in Leitham. Still am, sometimes, considering how much it’s grown since then.”

The road tilted up in a gentle incline. It was only then that I noticed the mountains like a dark blue shadow in the distance, and the edges of the foothills rising around us. The houses here were more spread out here. In Gilliam, the homes on the mountains were crowded together in the owner’s efforts to be as close to the mountain as possible since they couldn’t be under it. Just like in Gilliam, the houses here were made of stone. Unlike the houses in Gilliam, they had all kinds of wood and iron ornamentation gracing the outer walls. The biggest house in Gilliam could have easily fit within the walls of the smallest house in Leitham, with plenty of room to spare.

Mam stopped the cart outside one of these massive houses, enclosed by a stone fence and an open iron gate, like arms outstretched, welcoming us home. Mam pulled in. Oak and pine trees in her garden lined the driveway and held me in awe. As a dwarf, it went against every natural instinct to like the trees. Thanks to meeting Aramis, and a panic attack during the regional Dwarf Games qualifying competition, I’d developed an appreciation, and almost an affection for trees, including their smells and the birds that inhabited them. These trees were taller than Mam’s house, shading the drive. Their arching branches created a spectacular tunnel of green dappled with golden sunlight, leading directly to the house.

Mam’s house was huge. She’d said she had no other family, that Sevrin was the only one that lived with her. The sheer size of the building made it hard for me to believe, except I knew she had only been honest with me from the start. There was so much room in Leitham, and so many large homes. Crowding families into homes was a Gilliam way of thinking. I had no reason to believe they did the same here.

The front door opened and I gasped as Sevrin, the Sevrin, stepped out, arms outstretched. “Frerin. Welcome home. And you must be Mabel. I am so happy to finally meet you.” Sevrin helped me down and hugged me. “Frerin has done nothing but talk about you since the day we met.”

Sevrin hugged me! “It’s… it’s nice to meet you, too.”

He then helped Mam down, embracing her and kissing her. Mam pulled away from him pretty quick, glancing in my direction, like she was embarrassed by the display of affection in front of me. She had no need, as I was grinning at them. She smiled and relaxed into Sevrin’s embrace. When she passed on Aramis’s message, Sevrin only grunted.

“You two go on in,” Sevrin said. “I’ve got a fire going and the kettle on for some tea. I’ll bring in your things.”

I stared up at Mam’s three-storey house. There was no wood or ironwork to decorate the outside, other than the shutters and the doors, though even those were plain compared to some I’d seen. Still, the place was majestic, the sun glinting off the spotless windows made of the clearest glass ever.

Mam and I walked inside while Sevrin unpacked for us, making several trips from the cart to the house.

The inside was more spectacular than the outside, so open and spacious, all stone, and yet blessedly cozy. In the living room, a fire crackled in a large fireplace and water boiled in the kettle. “I’ll take you to your room after some tea,” she said.

We sat on the armchairs in front of the fire. Mam smiled. “I am so happy you’re here. It has long been a dream of mine that I would have my family in my home with me, especially you.”

I had spent so many years growing up wishing Mam was alive, living with me. I’d dreamed about telling her my problems, asking for help, but mostly spending time with her, laughing, going out, doing mother-daughter things. My dream had come true. Mam was alive, and I was here, living with her. We’d spent plenty of time together while we’d been traveling, but there had been enough distraction and time apart to keep it all from sinking in. Now that we were here, inside her house, it became all so real.

Mam had built a life for herself. A pretty phenomenal one by the looks of it. And yet there, over the mantle, was a portrait of my family. All of us. Da, my brothers, and me as an infant in Mam’s arms.

I got up and looked closer. It was weird to see all my brothers without beards, although Frankie looked like his might have been starting. Everyone was so young. I scrunched my nose at my scrawny, bald, infant self. “Ugh. I didn’t really look like that, did I?”

“You did,” Mam said with a smile. “I’ll never forget those beautiful tiny hands of yours. How you would grasp one of my fingers so tight it would go numb.”

Mam looked so happy in the portrait, and I heard so much sadness in her voice now. “If Da had asked you to stay in Gilliam, said everything was forgiven, to please come home, would you have?”

Mam was quiet for a few moments. “Your da’s forgiveness isn’t really forgiveness. You saw that when he told you that if you quit the movie all would be forgiven. You knew that you would forever be an outcast in his eyes. I would love to live in the same city as my family. They would never have to acknowledge my existence, as long as I could see them and know for myself that they are all right. He didn’t ask, and I can’t be there. I am so happy to have you with me, Mabel. I have had a family-sized hole in my heart since I was exiled from Gilliam. Having you here is helping to fill it.”

It must have been so hard for her, coming to this strange city, having her dwarflings torn away from her, never knowing if she would ever see them again. “Do you ever get lonely?”

Mam looked down, pensive, and I thought for a moment she was going to avoid the question entirely. “Yes,” she said at last. “I have been lonely. Lonely for my family in Gilliam. I have plenty of friends which helped allay the loneliness. I’d forgotten how much I missed all of you until I returned to Gilliam. The ache of loneliness for my family had become so much a part of my life it was just always there.”

“And Sevrin?”

Mam attended to the boiling water. “He helps. I love him, though I was fine without him, and I would be again if it doesn’t work out. I’ve learned to live on my own, and it isn’t so bad.”

That was the first time I’d heard anyone say that. Hearing it from a female dwarf was a double shock. She’d seemed remarkably independent to me before, but this solidified it. I believed she might understand my need to discover new things and who I was, without having constant pressure to have a life-mate. It was one of the reasons I had to leave Gilliam. “You should tell Emma that. She’d never believe it’s possible.”

Mam poured the tea into three mugs. “That’s the first time you’ve mentioned Emma since we left Gilliam. What happened between you two? You used to be inseparable.”

I stirred milk and sugar into my tea. Emma wanted a mate and would do anything to get one, removing anyone she thought was standing in her way, including me. I was a female and by our nature, and the fact there were few female dwarves, every one of us was a potential threat. Except I was never a threat to her and her mating prospects. It didn’t stop her from trying to poison me by giving me an ancient painkiller potion that ended up making my shoulder injury much worse than it would have been otherwise. “We came of age, and she changed. Or maybe I didn’t grow up.”

Mam put a loving hand on my knee. “I’m sorry, pet.”

I shrugged with my good shoulder. “It was probably bound to happen.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, Mabel, not here.”

“This is some magical city then,” I said. I desperately wanted to believe what Mam said, that Leitham could deliver its promises to me, of healing and a place where I belonged. “Maybe I need to do some exploring.”

“I’ll go with you, if you’d like,” Sevrin said, joining us. He squeezed Mam’s shoulder and pulled up a chair beside her. “I’ve put your things in your room, second floor, third door on the left, when you’re ready to go up.”

We drank our tea in silence for a while. It was really nice not to have the noise of other travelers milling about. Sevrin took care of the silence soon enough. In minutes he was lying back in his chair, feet up on a settle, snoring.

Mam shook her head. “You’d think he’d been the one traveling for weeks.” She took the drooping mug out of his hand and set it aside. “Come on, Mabel, I’ll show you around.”

After a quick tour of the main floor, I followed her up the stairs. I couldn’t wait to get my shoulder healed so that the real adventure of building a life for myself, the way Mam had, could begin. “Do you know how I can get in touch with Radier?” I asked.

“I don’t, but Aramis should. Why?”

“Didn’t he tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“Radier was going to talk to Aramis’s father about healing my shoulder. I’d hoped we’d have made some arrangements before we parted, but he disappeared so quickly I never got a chance to talk with him, that’s all.”

“I see. Does Aramis know about Radier’s promise?” Mam asked.

“I think so,” I said. I hadn’t heard them talking about it, but then I hadn’t been around them most of the time we were on the road. It was possible Radier hadn’t told Aramis. There had been some kind of falling out between Aramis and his father. He’d suggested as much to me in Gilliam, though he’d never gone into specifics. “Is it going to be a problem if I see his father?”

“I’m sure it won’t be, not if Radier thinks it’s okay.”

“Do you know what the tension between Aramis and his father is?” I asked.

Mam shook her head. “I just know they have been estranged for decades. Aramis has never spoken of it.”

I rubbed at my beardless chin. Six weeks since I shaved off my beard and not even a hint of stubble had grown back. I’d done it because Aramis had asked me to. I’d been happy to do it, and I’d probably do it again if he asked, but I’d expected it to have grown at least a few inches by now. I still felt naked without my beard.

“What exactly did Radier tell you?” Mam asked.

“He just said that he knew someone who could heal my shoulder, that it would be no trouble and done quickly, and that it was Aramis’s father.”

Mam opened up the third door on the left. My room. My bags were placed neatly at the foot of a bed big enough to fit five of me across and so high I almost had to jump to get on it.

“Is that why you came with me?” she asked.

How could she ask that? She witnessed Da disown me and my brothers turning their backs on me. I had nowhere to go… . Oh. I hadn’t said that I was happy to be here. She thought I didn’t want to be here, with her. “Initially. But I wouldn’t have come if you weren’t here. I just feel like my injury is holding me back. As soon as it is fixed, I can start to live again.”

Mam hugged me and kissed the top of my head.

I cherished her warmth and love. “I’m glad you came back and rescued me.”

#

I CRADLED my jewel-encrusted throwing axe in my lap. I’d decided to spend my first full day in Leitham unpacking and setting up my room to make this house feel like it was home. I’d stopped unpacking when I pulled it out of the bag. My brother, and axe-throwing coach, Mikey, had given the axe to me when I’d started competing and working toward going to the Dwarf Games. It was a beautiful gift that was now a painful reminder of how quickly my once close relationship with my brothers had turned sour. Except for Max. If it hadn’t been for Max rescuing my axes before Da burned all my things, I wouldn’t have it now. I was grateful to Max for saving my belongings. As painful as it was to be reminded of all I’d lost, I was grateful to have the axe in my hands.

I’d loved axe-throwing. I had never experienced anything like the purity of being alone in the arena focusing on the target and the exhilaration of a perfect throw until I’d competed, and I likely never would again. Practicing, as exhausting as it could be, was bliss.

I wiped away a tear and set the axe aside.

I’d lined half the walls of my room with the throwing axes my fellow competitors and miners in Gilliam had given me in tribute. A few months later and I’d lost everyone’s respect and Da had me exiled. The axes still meant the world to me, but they couldn’t help. They were only a reminder of what I was, what I had lost, and what I might never be again.

I didn’t know if I wanted to be an axe thrower. I’d loved it, but there had been a lot of pressure that went along with it. I’d like to try, someday, to work toward getting back into axe-throwing. But I didn’t know if I belonged in that world any more, or if I wanted to.

I looked away from the axe and up at the remaining blank walls. I decided to leave them that way for now. I was in Leitham, in my mam’s home. I was here to start a new life. I had unknown opportunities ahead of me. I would fill those walls with whatever represented what I decided to become. Maybe it was acting, maybe it was something else to do with movies, but gods only knew what might be out there for me to discover.

I couldn’t begin to think about how to fill the remaining walls until I had some answers about my shoulder. How long would it take to fix it? Would I be able to have full mobility ever again? What if I couldn’t? What kind of restrictions would I have to live with? Were the doctors here any better than Dr. Flint back home? If Aramis’s father wasn’t around to heal me, I hoped to the gods of all things dwarven that the doctors here could do the job. Dr. Flint could have fixed me, but it would have taken six months to a year. I hoped the doctors here would be able to fix me faster.

Not that I didn’t have the time to heal. I would have back home too, if I’d been allowed to stay.

It might take a while and I might not be able to do much at first, but I would find a way to work and figure out what I really wanted. I might even find some kind of employment that I loved.

I left my room and ran into Mam on the stairs. “Mabel, I was just coming to see you,” she said.

Before I could ask about dwarven doctors, she said, “Radier is here. He said Aramis’s father will see you this afternoon.”

My jaw dropped. After all this time of waffling between hope and utter despair, believing it would never happen, I could be fixed within a few hours!

“He’s waiting for us downstairs.” Mam continued.

“Us?” I asked. “You’re coming with me?”

Mam smiled and put a hand over mine on the banister. “Of course I am. You’re my daughter. I want to make sure everything goes well for you.”

Back home, my brothers had been the same way when it was time for me to see Dr. Flint about my injury. Back then, I wasn’t too keen on having anyone else with me. Now, I couldn’t be more grateful. “Thank you. I just… do I need to change my tunic or trousers?”

“Your clothes are fine,” she said. “You’ve been crying, love. What’s wrong?”

I rubbed at my eyes. “Just unpacking, thinking of home. Let me just splash some cold water on my face and I’ll be ready to go.”

In the washroom, I pumped a bit of water into the ceramic basin and washed my face. I grinned as I let the water drain and toweled off.

My second day in Leitham, and already I was going to see Aramis’s father. I’d hoped, but I hadn’t expected this to happen so quickly.

I rushed down the stairs, ending up a little breathless at the door where Mam waited. “Where’s Radier?” I asked.

“Outside. I wanted a few minutes alone with you. Are you sure you want to do this? Before you answer, Mabel, I want you to know that you don’t have to. There are some excellent doctors here who can help you. I understand your desire for a quick fix, I do. But you have a home here, now. You can take as long as you want to get better and to figure out what you want to do. This is a risk. I know Aramis did some magic on your shoulder in Gilliam, and it helped a lot. You have to understand, there is no evidence of what effect elven magic has on dwarves in the long-term. Maybe it’s fine. It might not be. This may be an answer to healing your shoulder. Certainly it will be the fastest option. But it isn’t the only one. Having said that, if you really believe this is your best option, I support you.”

She raised some good points, and I appreciated knowing I had her support no matter what, even if it took years for me to get better. Still, just thinking that it might take a year or more if I went to a regular doctor felt like a dark cloud had settled over me. It didn’t just weigh me down, it made everything bleak. I thought about the next day, waking up still in this pain, and all I could see was darkness. Maybe seeing Aramis’s father was a risk, but it was my best option. “It can’t hurt to go talk to him, see what he can do. If he can’t help me, or if the elven magic is too great a risk, we can always say thanks but no thanks, right?”

Mam smiled. “Absolutely. Let’s go get your shoulder looked at.”

We stepped outside. Radier stood by his cart. It was good to see him again. It had felt like forever.

Radier helped us into his cart and we were off. Both Mam and I dangled our feet from the bench in the front. It was awkward for me, but Mam seemed fairly comfortable with it, calmly chatting with Radier, letting her body move in synchronicity with the cart. I couldn’t relax. Instead, I held on for dear life, clutching the edge of the seat with my one good arm every time we hit a bump, praying I wouldn’t bounce off the seat and into the road.

We headed east out of the city, past a couple of small farms that reeked of hogs, and into a thick forest near the foothills.

“Here we are.” Radier pulled up at the edge of a dense section of the forest. “We have to go the rest of the way on foot. It isn’t too far.”

We descended from the cart and were instantly greeted by two elven soldiers, their arrows pointed at us, primed and ready to be released at the slightest erroneous twitch.

They bowed their heads to Radier then stepped back a couple of feet to let us pass, though they did not turn away their arrows. Who exactly was Aramis’s father that he needed guards? He was Lord of the Elves, yes, but I wouldn’t have thought he would be threatened in his position.

Radier cleared his throat and marched on ahead. I followed, wary of the guards behind us, and no doubt the countless others in the trees watching, prepared against any attack or suspicious movement. It was like a scene right out of one of the movies I had watched and imagined myself re-creating during my axe-throwing competitions. Although my imaginings had been about Aramis, saving him and winning his love, not about me getting anything healed or fixed.

My Aramis. My friend.

What would he think of me right now? Did he know I was going to see his father? Would I lose his friendship over this? Would I still have come if Aramis had asked me not to?

I was over-thinking this. Aramis probably didn’t know, and even if he did, he probably didn’t care. He may be estranged from his father, but he knew how important getting back to full health was for me. He would never be upset with me for this.

We came upon a large tangle of trees, their thick roots and branches intertwining. Radier paused at an opening among the roots and tapped his staff against one of them. We waited several minutes. Radier was about to tap his staff again when an elf who looked nearly identical to Aramis, the only real difference being his silver hair compared to Aramis’s blond, came to the opening.

“Radier.” The elf smiled and embraced the wizard. “Come in, come in.”

Mam gasped and grabbed my arm, shoving me behind her. “Aleric!”

She knew him?

“Aubrey, actually,” he said with a smirk. “Hello, Millie,” he said. “It is good to see you again. This must be your daughter, Mabel.” He extended a hand.

How did he know me?

Mam backed off, pushing me with her. I felt her trembling through her grip on my arm. “Stay away from me and my family,” she snarled.

“Come now, Millie. I have traveled a long way, at Radier’s request, to help your daughter. Are you so unforgiving that you will keep your daughter injured because of a small incident years ago?”

Oh no. Oh no! This was him!

“Mabel,” Mam said in a low voice. “We will find you the best doctor there is in Leitham, or anywhere else. But you will not have anything to do with Aubrey.”

He was the one who stole everything from my family. It was because of Aubrey that Da exiled Mam.

Radier moved to stand behind Aubrey. Aubrey raised his hand and gave a quick wave. We were surrounded by elves, their arrows aimed at us. We had nowhere to go.

“I came here as a favor to Radier and to you, one which I am happy to bestow because we are old friends, even though this is a great inconvenience to me.”

Mam grunted and sneered. “Aleric, Aubrey, whatever you’re calling yourself, you have taken enough from my family. You will leave us alone. Let us go. Now.”

Aubrey’s eyes darkened though the rest of his demeanor remained light, almost amicable. “I do not appreciate my time being wasted. I will give you two choices. You can allow me to do as I was asked to do, what I came here for, which is to heal your daughter’s shoulder. No payment will be made now, but Mabel will be in my debt, to be repaid when and how I decide. Or, you can face my wrath, brutal and relentless. What I did to your family in Gilliam is nothing compared to how I will ruin you.”

“Do your worst,” Mam said without hesitation, her voice low and gruff, menacing.

My heart thumped in my ears, my knees weak. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than what he’d done to my family. He’d taken everything, but worse than that, he’d broken my family. I couldn’t allow that to happen again, not because of me. “No, Mam,” I said.

“Mabel, we have doctors—”

“I know. This isn’t about my shoulder. I’m not going to let your life be ruined again.” I was a nobody. I had nothing to offer him. There was nothing he could possibly ever want from me.

“Smart girl,” Aubrey said.

One of the guards grabbed me away from Mam. Another held her back.

I was terrified, shaking. I kept my eyes on Mam, but the whole time my mind spun, wishing none of this had happened, that Radier had never mentioned Aubrey to me. I reassured myself that he would never ask a favour of me because I had nothing to offer. If I was ever in a position where he could call in my debt, he would have long forgotten about me. I hoped.

Aubrey rubbed his hands together. “I hear you have great potential. I know you will not disappoint me,” he said, putting his hands on my injured shoulder. The tingling started right away, the same healing tingling like when Aramis had touched it. This time it was stronger. Much stronger. Almost unbearable. It was most intense at the muscle tear where my injury had started, and stretched out, up my neck and down to my finger tips.

It ebbed, easing away from the periphery, pulling back to the source of the injury. With one last flare of pain, it was gone, and Aubrey removed his hands.

In shock from everything, I wasn’t sure it had worked. I flexed my fingers and it felt great. I raised my arm without a wince or cringe. I was pain free.

Physically.

The guards let Mam go. She rushed to me and embraced me, extracting me from Aubrey as she did so. “Are you all right?” she whispered in my ear.

“Fine. You understand, right?”

“I do, my brave girl.” She kissed the side of my head. To Aubrey, she said, “We’re done now. We owe you nothing.”

“You, no. Mabel, however, does. Payment will be made. Enjoy yourself, for now. I will be in touch.”

 

Chapter 2

AUBREY WAVED his hands and Mam and I found ourselves at the edge of the woods, just beyond reach of the guards, Radier’s cart in front of us.

“Get in,” she said.

“But, it’s Radier’s—”

“He’s a wizard, he doesn’t need it.”

As horrified as I was about what just happened, and Aubrey’s promises, I had to admit, it felt great not to need any help getting into the cart, and being able to hold on with both hands.

Mam snapped the reigns, in full control of the oversized cart and horses.

We were quiet. Mam didn’t look at me. Her jaw was set, and her body tense, exactly how I was when I was furious.

“Please don’t be angry at me,” I begged, my voice trembling. She had every right to be, but I wouldn’t be able to stand it, not on my second day living with her, not ever. I couldn’t have both parents disown me.

“I’m not,” she said curtly.

She had to understand why I’d allowed Aubrey to heal me. She said she did, but I needed to make sure. “He’d done enough to us—”

“Mabel,” Mam cut me off. She took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her tone was gentler. “I’m not angry at you. I’m angry at myself. I should have looked into this more, I should have known who Aubrey was. I can’t believe I didn’t know this.”

“Mam—”

“What’s done is done. We’ll get through this. We’ll make sure Aubrey will leave us alone from now on.”

“You don’t have to have anything to do with this. I’m the one he’ll come after, not you. It’s up to me to figure out a way out of it. Besides, what could he possibly want from me?”

Mam shook her head. “That’s not how this works, sweetheart. Aubrey isn’t just a vile thief. Not only is he the Lord of the Elves, which gives him immense power, he is also Lord of the Elven Mafia.”

“He’s what?” I’d heard the stories of the Elven Mafia when I was young. They were horror stories we told to scare each other, stories about how they destroyed businesses, and anyone who got in their way or refused them. “You knew that Aramis’s father was Elven Mafia?”

“No. I knew Aleric was. I learned about it soon after he disappeared from our lives. That made your da even more furious with me.”

My heart sank and that dark cloud descended around me again. “This is still better than if I hadn’t let him heal me, right? Because he would destroy us if I hadn’t. Right?”

“Only time will tell. It all depends on what he decides he wants from you. Listen, love, don’t get down on yourself. The choices he gave weren’t really choices. Either way, we lose. You did, however, buy us some time to try and figure out a way to protect ourselves, and that can only be a good thing.”

“Is it even possible to protect ourselves?” Hope wasn’t in the stories I’d heard about the Elven Mafia.

“Maybe. We’ll talk to Sevrin when we get home.”

I’d only just met him and I was already getting him involved with the Elven Mafia. If I were Sevrin, I’d regret the day Mam mentioned she was bringing me to Leitham. “Is he going to be angry?”

“I doubt it. He won’t be happy, but his issue will be with Radier who should have been clear from the start about what he was doing, and maybe with Aramis for not telling us who his father is.”

“Sevrin doesn’t know?” That seemed odd. He and Aramis had been friends for so long, how was it possible for Sevrin not to know about Aubrey? I could understand him forgetting in his old age, but to not know at all?

“Aramis never talked about his father. As long as they have known each other, he has never known Aramis to see his father, or talk about him, come to think of it. Neither of us have. No. Sevrin will not be angry. I think he’ll enjoy the challenge. He’s been a bit bored lately.”

“A challenge? You mean like this is some adventure to slay a dragon?” That sounded even crazier than the situation itself. It made more sense to me to run from it all, or to brace for a fight, not to look for one and be excited about it.

Mam shrugged like she didn’t understand him either, but her grin betrayed something else. Her joy? No. Her pride, in Sevrin. “Exactly like that. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s Sevrin, a life-long adventurer, and it’s one of the things I love about him.”

Mam and Sevrin could not be more different than my family in Gilliam.

“Look, I’m not making light of the situation. It is precarious and it is likely we will be ruined in the process. All I’m saying is that we are lucky to have Sevrin on our side. We stand a much better chance with him than without.” Mam waved her hand as though she were wiping everything away. “Enough doom and gloom. At least you were able to get your shoulder fixed. Don’t let this ruin that moment.”

Mam reached out with one arm and embraced me.

I flinched, expecting pain, but it didn’t come. I chuckled, “Sorry, Reflex.”

Mam smiled and pulled me a little closer. Instead of protecting my right arm as I had done for so long, I put it around her and returned the hug.

It felt wonderful.

I couldn’t wait to give her a proper hug for the first time. Still, Aubrey’s threats tainted what I’d wanted to be a purely joyous moment in my life. “Can we still make an appointment with a dwarf doctor? I want to make sure the elven magic isn’t going to cause some other kind of damage down the road. I know I was fine with elven magic when Aramis was using it, and before I knew what Aubrey is, I just want to make sure I don’t have to worry about his magic causing me some other kind of harm, on top of his threats.”

“I agree. In a few days I’ll make an appointment for you to see Dr. Thora. We’ll talk with Sevrin first, make sure he will have protections in place by then.” Mam said as she pulled into the driveway.

“Before we go in, there’s something I’ve been wanting to do since the day I met you,” I said.

“What is it, love?”

I reached out and hugged my Mam, with both arms, for the first time. Well, I’d probably done it lots as a dwarfling, but I didn’t remember it. Right now I didn’t want to let her go.

Mam sniffled and returned my embrace. “Thank you, my darling daughter.”

Sevrin opened the front door. “It worked?”

I hopped out of the cart without any help. “It did.”

“I’m so happy for you,” he said, hugging me.

“Don’t be,” I said.

“What do you mean?” He let go of me and we entered the house.

Mam and I told him what happened. Sevrin kept a gentle hand on her arm. It was such a simple, loving gesture. There was no warning or rebuke to it, only a reassurance that he was there for us and would protect us.

“Right,” he said at last. “I’ll talk to a few of my friends. He won’t get near us.”

It couldn’t possibly be that easy.

#

A WEEK later, I woke up early, ready to find a job, become a productive member of society, and figure out what I was going to do with my life.

I had no idea how to start, but I was looking forward to figuring it out.

Since Mam and I returned from seeing Aubrey, Sevrin had suggested I stay at home, relax, settle in, and allow his friends to set up a protective perimeter. He wasn’t particularly pleased about the situation, though I could tell he wasn’t upset by it. Mam had started recording a new movie a couple of days earlier, and Sevrin had insisted on taking her to and from Studio City. Last night he’d said protections were in place, but he still wanted to keep us close.

I couldn’t stay home any more. In spite of the size of the house, I needed to get out. I was getting incredibly bored, especially now that I could use both arms.

I heard Mam downstairs and I made a quick decision.

In mid-dress, I poked my head out the door to make sure Sevrin wasn’t around before hurrying to the stairs. “Mam,” I called down.

She came to the base of the stairs. “Good morning, Mabel. What can I do for you, sweetheart?”

“Can you wait a couple of minutes? I want to come with you.” I finished fastening my trousers and tunic as I jogged down the stairs.

“Absolutely! I’m dying to show you off to everyone,” she said. “There are shops near the studios. We can have lunch together and dinner if it gets late. Let me just get some extra money for you.” Mam went upstairs. I heard her rushing around for maybe a minute before she returned, a new brown leather satchel in hand. “Here,” she said, handing it to me. “There’s a purse with some money and plenty of room for you to put whatever you pick up or need for the day.”

“Sounds great.” I followed her out the door. “I was also thinking maybe I could start looking for work.”

“Already? Why don’t you just enjoy yourself for a while?”

“Mam, I love staying with you, but I can’t just live off you indefinitely.”

“I’m not suggesting indefinitely, but in case you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of rich,” she said with a cheeky grin. “I don’t need you to contribute to the household. I want you to take your time, figure out what you love to do.”

“What are you two talking about?” Sevrin asked as Mam and I stepped up onto the cart.

“Mabel wants to look for work. I’m telling her she should take her time.”

“I agree, Mabel. We’re protected from Aubrey, but it might be best for you not to do anything to draw his attention for a while.”

“Surely whatever limited income I bring in won’t interest him,” I said.

We left Mam’s property and the smell of the city hit me. “Oh,” I gasped, covering my nose and mouth as we drove into the wind, into the stench. At Sevrin’s chuckles, I lowered my hand. I lived here now, I had to get used to it, just like I got used to the smell of the trees in Gilliam. Of course, I’d learned to like the smell of trees because they reminded me of Aramis’s natural aroma and I loved all things Aramis. I couldn’t imagine loving anything or anyone who smelled this bad.

“It isn’t the income he’ll be after,” Sevrin said. “It will be the kind of work that you do, very likely, that will be of most interest to him. Take your time, explore your options, explore the city. Let his other interests distract him.”

“I’ll do my best,” I said. It wasn’t going to be easy. It wasn’t in my nature not to work. Even with my injury I’d helped extract gems, acted in movies, and carved.

Mam added, “Think of it as me catching up on all those years I wasn’t able to take care of you. Let me do it now.”

“Mam, you don’t need to make anything up to me. It’s not your fault you weren’t there.”

“I want to make it up to you.”

I sighed. “I guess.”

Mam squeezed me. “Thank you.”

A few moments later, Mam said, “I expect it to be a long day today. I have my own dressing room on this project. I’ll give you the key and you can use it at any time, especially if you need to rest. If it gets too late, Sevrin can bring you back home whenever you want.”

“Thanks, Mam.”

“My pleasure.” She hugged me again. “I’ve been talking about you to everyone on set, telling them you’re here. They can’t wait to meet you.”

“Frerin,” Sevrin muttered.

Mam rolled her eyes. “I know. I know. I won’t push.” To me she said, “You only have to do as much as you want, and you only have to meet as many of the crew as you want, or none at all. You don’t even have to leave my dressing room if you would prefer.”

“Of course I want to meet your coworkers. And I’d love to watch you work,” I said.

I straightened my cap and tried to straighten my tunic. The thought of meeting others suddenly made me nervous. Was I dressed right? Would everyone expect me to look like the other female dwarves in Leitham? What exactly was the look of the other female dwarves?

Watching the crowds as we drove through the business district of Leitham, I saw plenty of dwarves dressed the same way Mam and I were, the kinds of clothes I wore to the mines. There were just as many, if not more, dressed in shiny tunics that hung to their knees with really tight trousers underneath.

Just how many female dwarves were there? By my calculations, it looked like at least half the population was female. Why weren’t they mating and having dozens of dwarflings? Were things really that different here?

Maybe I was in the right place after all.

As we got closer to the studios, I noticed even the male dwarves wore nicer tunics and trousers. They didn’t wear clunky boots like I did, but shiny boots with thin but hard soles. Mam’s boots were like a miner’s boots, but looking a little closer, I saw that they had the same thin, hard sole. Sevrin’s too.

The only time I’d really cared about my clothes before was when I was finally able to go up a size. Clothes were practical, for warmth against the cold of the stone, to wick away the sweat so we didn’t get hypothermia or pneumonia, for protection against the mine dust. I think I needed new clothes, to make me look like I belonged here, not in a mine. “Mam? I hate to ask, but do you mind if I do some shopping, spend some of the money you gave me, on clothes?”

“Of course not.” She looked at me like she noticed my mining and traveling clothes for the first time. “You look fine, but if you want to get yourself something, you should have plenty for whatever you want. If it isn’t enough, just come back to my dressing room, I’ll leave my purse there for you to get more.” She smiled. “You’re turning into a city dwarf already.”

I hoped so, but really, all I wanted was to blend in.

Sevrin pulled up to the guard-house at the gated entrance of the studio lots. He paused for a moment while the guard opened the gate with a nod and a wave. We passed between two large buildings and immediately came to an open lot filled with carts and horses and every species imaginable walking around. Not just elves and dwarves and sprites or trolls, but griffins, chimeras, centaurs and minotaurs, and all kinds of other… things? Creatures? People I’d never seen before—some tiny as sprites but did not fly so much as float; horses with manes of spikes; something the height of a dwarf but way too thin to be one, with a big bald head and enormous green eyes bulging from its bone-white skin. And oh, good gods, a gigantic, ten-times the height of an elf and twice as long as my home back in Gilliam, green and gold scaled dragon sauntering by at the back of the lot.

“Mam,” I said, absently tapping her arm. “Um, Mam? There’s a dragon.” My voice trembled almost as much as the rest of me.

“Yes, dear, that’s Dakkar.”

“I don’t really care what his name is,” I said. “Shouldn’t we run?”

“Dakkar’s harmless,” Sevrin said. With a sly smile he added, “I made sure of that a long time ago.”

I stared after Dakkar, who I noticed now was calmly being led by an elf pulling a long rope as a leash. “What? How? You slew every dragon you encountered.” I knew every story of his adventures. I would know if he had let a dragon live.

Sevrin continued out of the lot, down a narrow street barely wide enough for our cart. “Not all. Not most. Only the truly dangerous ones. The others were either tamed or moved to dragon preserves. Dakkar was just a baby when I encountered her and her mother. Dakkar’s mother was one of the dangerous ones, had been attacking a nearby dwarven settlement. Her mate had died and she had lost her mind from grief. We tried to settle her, tame her, move her, but she couldn’t or wouldn’t be. She was going madder by the day. By the time we put her down, it was an act of mercy. Dakkar had shown the same tendencies toward madness and danger but we couldn’t justify killing her. It was then that I discovered the gem piercing all dragons’ hearts. It’s what causes their greed and consequently their tendency toward harming all around them. I was the first to discover the gem. I was also the first to attempt, and be successful, in removing it.”

I stared at Sevrin long after he’d stopped at the edge of another lot. The real stories were so much more detailed and interesting than what the tales told us. “Wow. You did that to Dakkar?”

“I did. Calmed her right down. Made her a gentle soul, really.”

“Here we are,” Mam said.

The lot we were in was void of any other carts. Instead there were flat trees and what was supposed to look like the entrance to a cave. Fronts of homes were stacked against each other, leaning against a building on one side of the lot.

Sevrin helped us both down, not because we needed it, but because that was just his way. “Have yourselves a good day. Send a messenger for me when you’re ready to leave.” He climbed into the cart, turning it around and leaving, barely missing one of the flat trees as he did so.

I followed Mam into the building beside us—the studio. Three quarters of it was open space with more set props in it, set up ready for recording. Dozens of dwarves, a few elves, and a wizard milled around, preparing for the day’s session. On the far right were offices, and the dressing rooms.

Mam’s private room was huge, easily the size of the main floor of my home in Gilliam. She had it all to herself. It crossed my mind then that maybe Da no longer believed Mam allowed Aubrey to take everything from us. Da was just jealous because she had so much more now than my family ever would have in Gilliam, their lifetimes of earnings combined.

“Feel free to come back here any time,” she said, handing me a key. “If you want to rest, hang the sign on the other side of the door.” She motioned to a “Do not disturb” sign hanging on the door handle.

“You’re probably going to be a while in hair and make-up, so how about I do some looking around, and come back and join you for lunch?”

“Good idea. Once you’re outside, turn right, follow the road past a few smaller buildings, and you’ll reach the market square.”

“Great. I’ll come back in a couple of hours and watch you work then.”

“I’ll be on set, either inside or out on the lot in front.”

“Can’t wait to see you in action.” Not that I hadn’t seen her work before. We’d both been cast in Aramis’s movie in Gilliam, but this was different somehow.

“Just be careful,” she said. “I’m sure nothing will happen, but please stay in well-populated places.”

“I will.”

When I left the soundstage, I realized the massiveness of Studio City. I walked toward the market square, past about five different studio buildings and lots.

Unlike Mam’s lot, the studios I passed were quiet, almost all were unused, except for one. The doors were open, a cacophony of sound coming from inside. I poked my head in to check it out. A battle scene between centaurs and sprites was being recorded. By the sheer volume of sprites and their battle cries, I thought the sprites were winning. Good for them. It must have been a fantasy movie.

I kept walking and eventually the road broke into a market square. It was like I was in a city within a city. The best part: the smell was normal, livable. More than livable. It was perfect. Sure there were some smells—not every species emits a sweet scent—but there weren’t that many of them walking around, and whatever bad odor was here, it was more exotic than offensive.

The square itself was a massive open space covered in slate stones. Restaurants and pubs occupied one side, their tables spilling into cordoned off patios in front.

The odd minotaur, dwarf, or sprite crossed the square. There were no market stands though, only a few board signs advertising sales for all kinds of things from candy and snacks at a grocery store, to fancy clothes in boutiques.

I didn’t have a lot of time before I needed to go back to meet Mam for lunch. I was sure I’d explore every one of these stores dozens of times while I lived here, so I decided to head straight to the boutique, intrigued by the fancy clothes they sold. Maybe someday I’d need something from there, like for the premiere of Aramis’s movie. I’d heard some of the other actors talking about it while we traveled. It sounded like it was a huge deal, with really elegant clothes, lots of food, and a big celebration. I’d go to the regular clothing shops that afternoon, though.

The boutique carried clothes for all manner of species. It took a few wrong turns before I found the section for female dwarves. I scanned the few racks of long sparkly tunics, dresses they were called. A sapphire blue dress caught my attention, though I could not imagine wearing it. There were no sleeves, only thin straps, and the material was way too thin. I looked at the price-tag. This flimsy piece of material cost the equivalent of forty diamonds, half a year’s salary for top Gilliam miners. I quickly put it back on the rack. I’d be better off going to the regular clothing stores. Maybe they had something nice I could wear. I hoped the other shops in the square were more reasonably priced.

I returned to Mam’s studio. She sat at the edge of the lot, talking with another female dwarf who looked to be about my age. Mam laughed at something her friend said. When she saw me, her smile broadened and her eyes lit up.

“Mabel.” She jumped out of her chair. “Come, come. Mabel, this is Lillian, my co-star. Lillian, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Mabel.”

Lillian smiled, getting up. “It is so nice to meet you,” she said, shaking my hand. “Is it true you were a miner?”

I still was a miner, wasn’t I? Maybe I wasn’t working in a mine but… at that moment, I realized a part of me had assumed I would go back to it. Mining was my vocation. It was how everyone in my family and all of my friends identified ourselves.

“I mean, that is so awesome. Most of us dwarves in Leitham, at least those of us in the movie business, are long removed from our mining roots. Are you staying in Leitham for a while? You’ll love it. I can show you around some if you’d like. Show you the fun places to be. You are so going to love it here.”

“Oh, okay.” I hoped it would be all right for me to have friends. Mam and Sevrin had said it would be, but I didn’t want anyone else to be threatened by Aubrey like I had. I had to trust Mam. She wouldn’t introduce me to anyone, or allow me to befriend anyone, if she thought it was going to be a problem. “I’d like that.”

“Fantastic. Gods you’re cute. Are you going to go into acting with Frerin?”

“Um, probably not. It’s not really my thing.”

“Phew.” Lillian exaggerated wiping her brow. “Then I don’t have to worry about you being my competition. I’m kidding. It’s too bad, actually. We could do some movies together. There are so many male dwarf buddy movies but nothing decent for female dwarves. We could make history. Think about it.”

Something about her reminded me of Emma, my former best friend. Both were super friendly, talkative, perfect. I hoped Lillian wasn’t as vindictive or mean as Emma had been. “I did a little acting in Gilliam, but I think I prefer working on props and set design.”

“Frerin’s told me about your statuary. Perfectly noble profession.”

Carving was noble? Imagine that. No one in Gilliam would believe it.

Lillian continued, “It’s fantastic having some genuine dwarven art on sets. But think about acting with me. I’m working on a script right now. Can I show it to you when I’m done?”

I didn’t know what she expected me to do with her script but I was flattered. “Sure.”

“Frerin, Lillian,” the director called. “Places.”

“Sit here,” Mam said. “This is the last scene for the morning, then we’ll do lunch, all right?”

“Of course.”

“You’re fabulous, Mabel,” Lillian said. “We’re going to be best friends. I can tell.”

Mam and Lillian left me and I settled onto Mam’s chair. A few of the crew walked by and I introduced myself. They all seemed pleased to meet me. They all knew about me. It was like Mam was showing me off. It was almost like she was now able to prove to everyone that she really did have a daughter, maybe even that she had been capable of having one. I hadn’t considered what she must have gone through. It had been hard enough for me listening to Emma talk about the number of dwarflings she wanted to have, and worrying that I would never meet a mate and have any. To have had dwarflings and be made to leave them behind must have been torture. Everyone Mam encountered and told about her family must have, at some point, thought she was making it up, or maybe that something was wrong with her because she wore a golden ring in her beard and yet she appeared not to have any dwarflings or a mate to have dwarflings with.

Mam and Lillian jumped right into the middle of their scene. Lillian intrigued me. Were all female dwarves that friendly? In Gilliam, it was rare to find two female dwarves who were friends. Not impossible, since Emma and I were friends, though coming of age strained and eventually ended it. There just weren’t enough female dwarves. You would have thought that being outnumbered by the males the way we were, it wouldn’t have been a problem to find a mate. It would shock most to know just how few male dwarves were interested in mating, especially the most desirable males: the miners. Maybe there wasn’t competition among the females here. Or maybe Lillian was as competitive as Emma and wanted to pretend to be my friend so she could control the males in my life and take them from me, the way Emma had, or would have, if there had been any males in my life. With Emma around, no males ever looked at me. Maybe that was Lillian’s plan. She needed me with her to make her look even better to the males. I’d befriend her because I would like to have a friend, but I’d be careful around her.

No, that was the Gilliam way of thinking. This was Leitham and Leitham was different. Mam had said so. I’d seen it already. Mam knew what had happened between me and Emma and how I’d felt about it. Mam would have warned me if Lillian was like Emma.

“Okay, sweetheart, are you ready to go?” Mam said, walking off the set.

“I am.”

“Great. Usually I’d eat here, from food services, but there’s a fabulous eatery in the market square I want to take you to. Did you have a good morning?” she asked as we started walking.

“I did. This place is huge.”

“And it has everything you need. Did you buy anything?”

“No. I just started looking. I thought I’d take more time this afternoon.”

“Frerin. Frerin!” One of the crewmen called, running up behind us. “Sorry, Mabel. Frerin, you’re needed back on set. Dave just announced a shortened lunch break. You don’t have time for the market square. Not today.”

“But—”

“I’m sorry.”

Mam sighed. “I’m sorry, Mabel. We’ll have to wait until dinner to eat together.”

“That’s all right. You have to work.”

“Well, you go on and have lunch at the White Rabbit.”

Mam returned to the set, and I returned to the market square. I wasn’t particularly hungry yet.

One of the stores I’d seen earlier, The Fancy Frock, sold clothes for dwarves and I wanted to see what they carried. I doubted their prices would be more reasonable than the boutique I’d been in earlier, but I thought it might be fun to look.

I stopped at the window, admiring one of the outfits on display. The knee-length tunic was a shimmery blue with a charcoal grey undertone. The trousers were much tighter than traditional trousers, and they matched the tunic. Both were a thin silk material. The belt was encrusted with diamonds. I didn’t think they could possibly be real, but they looked spectacular. The boots with the outfit, and the cap, were both charcoal grey.

I could imagine myself wearing it. The blue was my color, and the grey would look great with my dark hair.

“Mabel?”

I jumped, my heart stopped for a moment at the sight of the tall elf. It took a breath or two before I realized it was Aramis, not Aubrey, who stood next to me.

“Aramis, hi.” I cleared my throat. My cheeks burned, embarrassed that I’d thought he was his father, and out of anger for the position he’d put me in.

How could Aramis have kept his father’s identity secret from everyone?

“It is great to see you. How have you been?” he asked.

“Fine. Thanks.” I wished I could just disappear.

“Your shoulder. You are not wearing a sling any more. Does that mean…” His face changed, from happy to see me and happy for me, to sadness and what seemed like hurt. “That means Radier took you to him,” he muttered. Aramis swore. “I told him not to.”

He knew Radier had planned to take me to his father and yet he’d said nothing?

“I am so sorry, Mabel. I thought Radier understood. He left us on our way here and I thought that was the end of it. Not important. I am sorry.”

I no longer had any interest in shopping, or in having lunch. Hiding in Mam’s dressing room seemed like the best thing to do right now, away from everyone, especially Aramis.

“I am not like him, Mabel.”

Maybe not, but I wasn’t so sure. I could understand why he wouldn’t tell me. We were friends, though not particularly close friends. Sevrin was his best friend. By default, so was Mam, because of her relationship with Sevrin. He had to know what Aubrey had done to my family. Why hadn’t he told them?

“I should go,” I said, backing away.

He reached for me but stopped short. “Please, let me take you for lunch, we can talk about it.”

“I don’t think—”

“I should have told you. Give me a chance to explain.”

Why did he care what I thought? “Mam’s working right now, but Sevrin should be home, you can talk to them.”

“It is you I need to tell. Please. Let me take you for lunch and we can talk.”

We would be in public. And he was my friend. He’d given me a chance after Da barged onto the movie set in Gilliam. He’d come to see me later that day. He understood about difficult family relationships. I supposed I should listen to what he had to say. He had already done as much for me. “All right.”

We crossed the square to the White Rabbit, distinguishable from all the other masses of tables spilling into the square by the sign of a, well, a white rabbit, over the door. The hostess, a sprite, greeted us right away and sat us at a table inside by the window—Aramis’s usual table, according to her. I could see why, and assumed he came here with Sevrin a lot because one of the chairs was elf sized, and the other was elevated for a dwarf to sit on with a foot rest so the legs didn’t dangle embarrassingly.

Everything on the menu looked fantastic, but my stomach churned too much for me to want to eat anything.

“What would you like?” he asked.

“I’m not hungry,” I said. “Thank you, though.”

He paused a moment before waving over our waitress, another sprite. “We will both have the flame grilled skewered coney with rosemary and basil marinade on the garlic mashed potatoes, with a side of seared mushrooms and onions. To drink, we would both like your stout ale. And we would like to begin with the coney dumplings.”

He didn’t listen to me. Relentless, like his father was going to be.

“Coming right up,” the sprite said, taking our menus.

“It is my favorite,” Aramis said. “I hope you like it. And whatever you do not eat, you can always take it home.”

“Thank you.” Like he cared. He was stalling. I looked at him impatiently, willing him to say what he had to say and let me go.

Aramis licked his lips and cleared his throat. “This is very difficult for me. I apologize. This is something I have never told anyone. I should have told you everything the moment you decided to come to Leitham. I should have told Frerin a long time ago that I suspected that my father, if he was not the one, knew of or had some involvement in what happened to your family in Gilliam.

“Radier betrayed all of us by merely suggesting he take you to see my father. He and I had talked about Aubrey endlessly when I first left my clan. Radier knows how much I loathe my father and all he stands for and all he does.

“Sevrin and I have been friends for a long, long time. I have not known Frerin as long, but she is a good friend as well. I would never do anything to bring harm to her. I wanted to reunite her with her family, not bring threats to them. That is why I, in part, chose Gilliam. I knew how much she missed you and your brothers and wanted to see you. I wanted to help. Maybe make some amends for what I suspected my father had been involved in.”

“You say you suspected, but you know exactly what he did.” I couldn’t keep the hurt and accusation out of my voice.

“I knew an elf lord had robbed your family. I had my suspicions. I suppose a part of me truly hoped to be wrong. Not because of any familial loyalty, but because I knew that if I was right, I would be guilty by association. It was not until we left Gilliam that I knew what my father had done. Radier told me, sort of. After we left Gilliam. We were on the road and I told him to leave you alone, that he never should have mentioned my father to you. I made it sound like I knew. Radier never denied it.”

My jaw dropped. “If Radier knew all along… why would he have so easily suggested he take me to Aubrey? Why would he do this to me? Why does he hate our family so much?”

“I am afraid I cannot answer that.”

Our waitress brought us each a tankard of stout ale. It was perfect timing. I took a large pull on mine.

Aramis left his untouched. He clasped his hands and rested them on the table. “You asked me once if I would tell you about starting over in Leitham.”

I remembered. It was in the back garden of the house Mam rented in Gilliam. Da had disowned me that morning. I’d been terrified Aramis hated me. I was devastated by the coldness of my family. Mam was all I had left. Aramis had come to me and told me how he understood what I was going through.

“I came here because of my father. I refused to be like him so he disowned me. I was more than happy to leave. I would have within a day or two anyway.

“I do not know the full extent of everything my father has done. Or, more accurately, what horrors his orders are responsible for. I do know that what he wanted of me was bad enough. At his very best, he was harsh with our own clan. He rewarded betrayal and punished honorable behavior. He stole from his own, but more than that, he encouraged theft and the destruction of others: elves, dwarves, any creature he and his loyal followers came across.”

Our waitress came back with a bowl of dumplings and another of dipping sauce.

Aramis pierced a dumpling with his fork and cut it into pieces. He  dipped a tiny piece into the sauce. He ate it, then continued. “I had been long gone by the time he truly organized his operations to maximize his profits from his criminal activities. That was several centuries before he was in Gilliam. That is why I could only suspect him. Given his position, and his preference for giving orders, I could not see him being directly involved. I have had nothing to do with him since I left home, so I could not know with absolute certainty what he had or had not done.

“Sevrin told me what happened to your family. The way he described the elves, it sounded exactly like something my father would condone. I knew that Sevrin wanted information, hoping I might know who it was. I could not say for sure, so I said nothing. I deeply regret that now.

“My inaction goes deeper than not knowing, or even my distaste for my father’s business practices. He… he was brutal and controlling. Not just to me. My sister… ”

“You have a sister?” I didn’t know what to think of this revelation. I was curious about this side of Aramis. I helped myself to a dumpling. It seemed a waste to leave them untouched. My stomach betrayed me when it growled. One or two couldn’t hurt. It was so tasty. Just the right amount of salty meat mixed in with the sweet dough. It didn’t even need the sauce.

“Had a sister. Elves are immortal, but there are ways we can die—in battle, for example. I liked to be reckless in my adventures. It has been mentioned more than a few dozen times that I have flirted with death. For a time, I sought death. I saw it as my only means of escape from my father. Eventually, though, I had found a new life, thanks in large part to Sevrin. I had a way out, and so could Arienne. I went back for my sister. I was too late.”

The pain was strong and evident in his eyes as though it had happened just yesterday. My brothers had turned their backs on me, but I couldn’t imagine the horror of knowing one of them had died because of something Da had done. I reached across the table and put a hand on Aramis’s arm.

“Thank you,” he said. “Arienne, she, well, she was wonderful, loving, caring, a free-spirit, a bit of a trickster. He crushed her. I vowed to never have anything to do with him, to forget him. When I left Aubrey, I made him promise that he would stay away from Leitham, from everything west of the Haddam Mountains. We agreed to the territorial split.

“I had been successful in forgetting him, and over time, my father became a shadow. Radier was my one last connection to my father. Radier and I had a long-standing agreement: he was to never, ever mention my father to me or to anyone. I did not want to know about the odd occasion he went to see him.

“I was furious with Radier for suggesting he would take you to see my father. It was a blatant breech of our agreement.” Anger laced his words.

Aramis stopped, took a breath, glanced out the window then back at me. When he continued, he was calmer, remorseful. “I am so sorry, Mabel. When your father barged onto the set in Gilliam, when I saw how he was with you, I saw my father and Arienne all over again. I should have protected her and I wanted to protect you. I thought I was doing just that when I told Radier to leave you alone. I cannot apologize enough for how I have failed you.

“I will not let my father harm you.”

He covered my hand with his own. I knew now that I could truly trust him. He was more than a friend to me, he was family. “Thank you,” I said.

Our waitress and another came over carrying our main dishes.

“It’s not all bad,” I said with a smile, picking up my utensils. It was going to be nice to use both hands to eat. “Sevrin has talked with some friends. He said they’re protecting me, us.”

Aramis nodded. “Good. I shall add reinforcements. And I will talk with Sevrin and Frerin.”

#

LILLIAN WAS horrified when I’d returned to the set empty-handed after my lunch with Aramis. She insisted she take me shopping herself because I couldn’t continue to walk around in my mining clothes. Mam was hesitant. I knew she was worried about Aubrey. Lillian said it was because Mam probably wanted to take me herself, but Lillian had insisted that while there were times to shop with a mam, this wasn’t one of them. To me, Lillian said she loved my mam, but Frerin had no idea about fashion for our generation.

We made a date to shop during her free time the next day.

So there we were, in the same shops in the square of Studio City. I browsed for a little bit but I had no idea what to look for. Most of my clothes, admittedly, had belonged to my brothers before they came to me. Lillian and the sales clerk sized me up and sent me straight to the dressing room. A minute or two later, Lillian reached around the curtain thrusting a handful of outfits at me.

They were colorful: red, purple, teal, blue, and silver. Some were just the one color, others had patterns stitched into them. Some were tunics and regular trousers. Others were long tunics with tight trousers. One or two were dresses. I refused to try those on the moment I saw them. For all the variety, every outfit was made of a thin, shimmery material, just like the costume I wore in Aramis’s movie we recorded in Gilliam.

“Put the teal one on and show me.” Lillian said.

It was really nice, a longer tunic with diamond patterns stitched into it, with coordinating tight trousers. I loved the color on me and though I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the idea of my legs being so exposed, the outfit was surprisingly comfortable.

“How are you doing in there?” Lillian pushed aside the curtain. “Lovely. Wait a second.” Lillian pulled up the hem of my tunic and reached for my trousers.

I gasped, stepping back. Lillian simply pushed my hands out of the way and adjusted the waist of the trousers. I could have died of embarrassment.

“Mabel, honey, if you’re going to be in movies, you can’t be so modest. It isn’t uncommon for you to be seen in half-dress, especially in wardrobe. Sometimes even on set.”

What kind of movies did Lillian make? “I’m not going to be in movies.”

“Frerin says you have a lot of talent. You must, you’re her daughter. There’s no reason you can’t work behind the scenes and act.” Lillian straightened my tunic. “This one is perfect on you. Now do the blue one with lace embellishments.”

Lillian gave me a couple of minutes to change before unceremoniously pulling back the curtain again.

“Definitely this one too. With some accessories.” She smiled, pleased with her choice of outfit for me.

I looked in the mirror. I did look nice. And I liked the normal trousers that came with it. I wasn’t sure about the lace cutouts on the sleeves, but it wouldn’t take much to get used to them. “These are lovely, for a premiere, or something. But I need clothes for every day.”

“Premiere?” Lillian chuckled. “Oh, honey. You are so cute. This is hardly suitable for a premiere. No, no. This is for every day.”

They were comfortable enough, and they were what I saw other dwarves wearing, but they were too impractical. “What am I supposed to do in this? I can’t mine or carve, or work in these. I’ll get stone dust all over it, if the tools don’t catch or tear the material.”

“You’re not mining anymore, Mabel. When you’ve figured out what kind of work you’re going to do we’ll find you some appropriate work clothes for it. If you decide to carve or whatever, you wear your work clothes for work, and then change into these after, just like when I’m on set wearing the clothing designated for my character, my work clothes.”

“But I don’t go anywhere I might need such fancy clothes.”

Lillian crossed her arms and jutted out a hip. “Mabel, you’re in Leitham now, and you are the daughter of one of our biggest movie stars. These are not fancy clothes. These are plain clothes. You’re the one who wanted to look like you belong. You’re not sitting at home now, are you? No. You’re in Studio City, walking around in your mining clothes, looking like you’ve walked off set still in costume. Besides, you won’t be staying home much longer. You’re going to be invited to all the top parties soon.”

Parties? Aubrey’s threat echoed in my mind. Sevrin and Aramis had promised protection, and I felt safe enough, but I didn’t want to endanger anyone else, and I certainly didn’t want to make connections with anyone who would attract Aubrey’s attention.

“And it isn’t just the parties,” she continued. “We’re going to go out plenty with our friends.”

“Our friends?” I didn’t really have any friends. Family and Aramis didn’t really count. I supposed I could call Lillian a friend, but she was the only one I knew here.

“Of course. We’re going to meet them tonight. Speaking of parties, though, we need to find you some proper party clothes.”

“Aren’t these good enough for parties?”

“Ha! Hardly. I like the miner look. It works for you so we don’t want to lose it completely. Every female dwarf has a standard accessory, something they never leave home without. For me, it’s my earring. It came from my mam’s golden ring from my da. She gave a piece of it to all her dwarflings when we left home. Of course she might not have if Da hadn’t given her a new one, but still, it’s my piece of home. For you, I think we’re going to get you some accessories with axes. They’ll symbolize your mining background and your axe-throwing prowess. Keep trying on these outfits, and I’m going to go see what kinds of accessories they have.”

I tried on several more outfits. Lillian and the clerk had a great eye. Every one of them looked good, fit perfectly, and were comfortable. I also tried on a few pairs of boots, including an incredibly soft black pair, with a slightly pointed toe and lift in the heel.

Lillian insisted I wear the teal outfit with the boots out of the store, and pack my old clothes in a bag. If I wasn’t going to burn them, Lillian suggested I at least put them in storage.

She helped me put the dozen tunic and trouser sets on the counter, along with matching caps, and a silver chain with a double-headed axe pendant.

I was stunned at how well I’d done. I’d never had this many clothes that hadn’t been worn by one of my brothers before me.

As the sales clerk added up the cost I panicked. Mam had given me enough to pay for all of the clothes, and then some, but it was just too much. The total was more than Patrick, my second-oldest brother, top diamond miner in Gilliam, made in two years. I couldn’t spend that much of Mam’s income. I couldn’t spend that much of anyone’s earnings on clothes.

“You know, maybe just this teal outfit for now,” I said.

“What? No. Don’t listen to her,” Lillian instructed the clerk. “Mabel, you need to fit the role of Frerin’s daughter. She’s proud of you, as she should be. She won’t care what you spend or what you look like, but executives will. It will matter if you want to work in the industry. I promise you these clothes will help.”

“I don’t know.”

“She’s right,” Aramis said.

Aramis? When had he come in? How had I missed seeing him? An elf in a dwarf shop kind of stood out.

Lillian’s jaw dropped. She quickly closed her mouth and smiled.

“Hi Mabel,” Aramis said.

“Hi.” After yesterday’s talk, I felt much better about him. We were friends again.

“This one is spectacular,” he said. “These will all look great on you. The necklace is a nice touch. You really should get them. Frerin can afford it.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am. What you have there in your purse,” he pointed at it. “That is nothing to her. That was one day’s wage for her on the movie in Gilliam.”

Wow. Mam wasn’t kidding when she’d said she was rich. “All right, then. I guess all of them it is.” It was a rush to spend so much. I couldn’t help but giggle.

“Good.” Aramis said. “Frerin will be happy. I was actually looking for you. Frerin said I could find you here.”

“You were?”

“I have been going over the movie and I would like your opinion of a couple of scenes. Can you come by my office tomorrow?”

Tomorrow I had an appointment with a dwarven doctor to make sure my shoulder was all right. “I’d love to. I can’t tomorrow, but the day after I’m free, if that works for you.” Aramis wanted my help on the movie!

“Great. Here is the location.” He handed me a slip of parchment with an office and building number and a map of Studio City.

“Looking forward to it.”

“Me too.” He smiled and winked.

After his deep sadness yesterday, it was nice to see him happy. “See you in a couple of days,” I said and waved good-bye.

I paid for the clothes and Lillian had to help me carry the packages out of the store.

“Aramis,” Lillian said. “You’re working with Aramis? Frerin never said. I mean, she mentioned you’d been in his movie with her, but not that you were working with him. I’m impressed. And here I thought I would be introducing you to the important executives. I think I should be asking you to make the introductions instead.”

“Well, sure,” I said with a chuckle. “But you’ve already met the only one I know.”

Lillian rolled her eyes. “You’re so useless.” Then she smiled. “Totally kidding. Let’s go get a drink and you can tell me all about mining. It must have been so exciting.”

“Mostly it was dusty, but finding the gems was… indescribable,” I said.

She was a whirlwind, and so positive about everything. She reminded me of Emma when she was nice, except Lillian was genuine. I really liked her.

 

Chapter 3

“YOU HAVE to wear it.” Lillian tied a belt around my waist and fitted one of my competition throwing axes into it. The axe handle dangled against my right hip, a sparkly accessory of sapphires and diamonds embedded in the handle, adding to the already shimmery material of the blue tunic and trouser set with the lace cut-outs. “Like that. Perfect. Wow, it is so beautiful,” she stood back admiring her handy-work.

It felt natural to have the weight of the axe on my hip, like I was back in the mines with my pick-axe ready for the sensitive and detailed work of extracting gems. I did like the way it shone and the sapphires matched my outfit, though it seemed too fancy to wear as an accessory to a tavern, especially since I wasn’t planning on getting into an axe-throwing contest tonight. In theory, my shoulder was all better, so I could throw axes if I wanted to. The thing was, I didn’t feel confident enough in my shoulder’s strength. Who knew what damage the elven magic could cause if I tried to throw an axe?

Still, I liked the idea of having the axe with me. I felt like it embodied who I was. While it was a painful reminder of everything that had happened back home, there were also a lot of fond memories attached to it. I’d won the respect of my brothers and my city with it. I’d almost qualified for the Dwarf Games with it. I’d been most comfortable when I was throwing it. “What if I lose it or someone steals it?”

“Where we’re going, no one would dare take anything.”

Her tavern. Her friends. An inexplicable panic settled over me. I was usually pretty good at being sociable, but I wasn’t anything like the apparently gregarious dwarves in Leitham. Maybe it was a good thing I had the axe with me. It gave me courage. It reminded me of how much I had accomplished with it. “I hope your friends like me.”

“Of course they will,” Lillian said with a dismissive shake of her head.

“How do you know?”

“Because I like you.”

“You hardly know me.”

“I could say the same to you.” Lillian paused. “You do like me, don’t you?”

This had to be the first time anyone had asked me that. Had others worried if I liked them? I’d never considered it. I was always too worried about what others thought of me. It felt strange to think about it. I can’t remember ever not liking someone unless they gave me a very good reason for it, like Emma had. “Of course I do.”

“Oh, good.” Lillian smiled and then was back to her chatty self. “You had me worried there for a minute. I want us to be friends. I have to say, I was nervous about meeting you at first because Frerin and I are so close. She’s been like a surrogate mam to me since I moved to Leitham and we first worked together. I didn’t want you to think I was taking over your family. I’m not. I swear it. I would love it if we could be like sisters… or friends, or whatever works for you.”

“So you want to be my friend because of Mam?” This was unexpected and disheartening. At least she was up front about it and not vindictive like Emma.

“No, not, that’s not what I mean. I’ll step away, if that’s what you want. Family is family and that comes first. No, I was afraid you wouldn’t like me. Then we met and I thought that you were great and sweet and nice, which you would be because you’re Frerin’s daughter. Just spending the bit of time I’ve had with you, I really like you. I don’t care who your family is. I remember what it was like to be new to Leitham, knowing almost no one. It’s only right that I return Frerin’s kindness to me. You’ll have to trust me. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t like you or if I thought my friends would have any reservations about you.”

Fair enough. I’d go out with her and her friends. I’d think of this as a real-life adventure, not one I’d day-dreamed up. “I guess I’m just feeling paranoid after Emma’s crazy stunts,” I said.

“Who’s this Emma?”

“My former best friend who did everything possible to make me feel bad about myself, to make others think less of me, and blamed me for everything wrong in her life.” I took a deep breath and felt my cheeks flush. I hadn’t intended to spew what I thought about Emma, but now that I had, it felt great.

“I’m so sorry, Mabel. So you know, I don’t play games with friends. I don’t manipulate them either. If you do something that bothers me, I will tell you. Just promise you’ll do the same for me.”

I smiled. I liked her so much. “I promise.”

She grabbed my hand and we walked out of my room, down the stairs and out to her waiting cart. “I’ll have her back before dawn,” she called back to Sevrin. To me she said, “You have got to tell me more about this Emma. She sounds like a crazy evil character.” We turned out of the driveway, heading into the heart of the dwarven neighborhood.

“That she is,” I said. “Where do I start?”

“How about at the beginning.”

So I did, with how Emma and I been inseparable practically from birth, and quickly jumped to how that had all changed the day my beard started growing.

“Wow,” Lillian said when I was done.

“I know. You’re probably wondering what is wrong with me that I stayed friends with her so long. I ask myself that every time I think about her.”

“You could, but why waste time beating yourself up about it? I think it shows me how kind and patient and good-natured you are, which makes me like you even more.”

I felt warm inside, and relieved and accepted. It felt amazing. “Thank you.”

“We are definitely having a character like her in our movie.”

“Our movie?”

“You know, the one I told you about when we met.”

“No, no, you said nothing about an actual movie, just that we should work together.”

“Right. On our movie. I have no idea what it will be about, but we’ve got our first character. This is so exciting.”

Adventure and opportunity. This could be fun. “When are we supposed to make this movie?”

“No idea,” Lillian said with a laugh. “I’ve only been talking about making one since I arrived here, which is what makes it so much fun. I can be as imaginative as I want until I, and now we, hit on the right idea.”

It was like when I imagined different stories while throwing axes and once or twice when mining. The difference being Lillian actually imagined movie ideas, and talked about them without fear of reproach. I loved Leitham.

Lillian parked the cart in an almost full lot beside the Dragon’s Lair Tavern. “Come on.”

She pulled me inside. I closed my eyes for the briefest of moments, breathing in the overwhelming smells of ale and pipe smoke, mingling with the roar of a room crowded with dwarves who were drinking, or already drunk. It was just like The Bearded Prospector back home, only the Lair was bigger, and no one talked about mining. At the table closest to us they were talking about the upcoming Dwarf Games.

I was pleased Lillian had convinced me to wear this outfit. It was very much like what everyone else was wearing.

I was wrong in one way, though. This tavern was nothing like The Bearded Prospector where everyone was a miner, talked about nothing but mining, wearing their work clothes, coated in mine dust.

This might actually be fun. There wasn’t any pressure on me, like there had been back in Gilliam, to impress the fellows and find a mate. As far as they all knew, they had to impress me. Well, maybe not, but still, I didn’t need to put the pressure on myself. I could just sit back, have some ale, and get to know everyone, see how the social circles worked here. I assumed it was the same as in Gilliam.

That was probably erroneous thinking on my part. Everything else was different, so why would sitting in the tavern with friends be the same?

Because we were dwarves and drinking and socializing in taverns was as much a part of us as the love of axes and gems and stone. Actually, it would be better because we could talk about things other than mining.

“Over there,” Lillian said, pointing to a table toward the back of the room. We stopped at the bar and each picked up a pint first. Holding our drinks aloft, we wove through the press of bodies, toward her friends. I caught snippets of conversation, almost all of them about the Dwarf Games. The rest of the conversations, I assumed, were about whatever they did for work.

“Hey everyone,” Lillian said. “This is Mabel Goldenaxe. Frerin’s daughter.” Lillian introduced me. “She’s going to help me with my movie idea. Our idea, now.”

“Good gods, we’re on that already?” One of her friends asked, but he smiled when he said it. Good natured teasing then, I hoped. “Lovely to meet you Mabel. I’m Brent. Here, take my chair.” He had a fantastically resonant bass voice. No braids in his beard, but he did have a sparkle in his eye.

“Excuse me,” someone from the table next to ours said. “Did I hear right? You’re Mabel Goldenaxe? The Mabel Goldenaxe?” A male, voice not quite as low as Brent’s, but he did have the fullest beard I’d ever seen, and he wore two braids in it.

How did he know who I was? “I am.”

“Fantastic to meet you. My cousin competed in the Regional Games in Mitchum, in the Boulder Toss. He watched you compete, impressed by your skills. He and everyone watching were horrified by your injury. What a shame. He said you would have been spectacular, could have even won the Dwarf Games. Here, let me buy you and your friends a round of drinks.”

I was known in Leitham! I’d imagined something like this when I was throwing, that somehow Mam, or Aramis would hear about me because of my throwing. Mikey had said it would get me noticed. Now I knew it had. Just not by the fellows in Gilliam like he thought it would. This was so much better! “That’s very kind of you, thank you.”

“You are a good one to have around,” Lillian said with a laugh. “Right, so you met Brent. This is Samantha, but we call her Sam, Chris, Jeff, and Hannah.”

I waved at them all, said hello, and sat back, sipped my ale, and observed their interactions. Not one of them wore braids in their incredibly thick beards. Beards looked so much better when they weren’t coated in mine dust or semi-wet from the cleansing pool. Not one of Lillian’s friends, or any of the tavern patrons, were particularly stout either, which, I had to say, was a relief. It was tough being the thin one in a room full of desirably stout dwarves. It made me wonder if perhaps stoutness was really only attractive among miners.

Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen any stout dwarves in Leitham, except Sevrin, though even he wasn’t as stout as some miners in Gilliam. There also didn’t appear to be a huge press to find a life-mate and have a golden-ring ceremony. Everyone seemed rather casual about it, like they wanted to have some fun for a while first, like they were waiting until they’d found true love and partnership.

I liked that.

A lot.

“Mabel,” Brent said. I loved his voice—it vibrated at my core. “Lillian says you’re an artist.”

An artist? What’s that? “She did?”

“I told him about your carvings,” Lillian leaned over, helping me out.

Oh, right, carvings. That was art? How did she know about my carvings?

“She’s so good, Aramis used one of her statues in his movie,” Lillian said.

Mam must have told her.

“Brilliant,” Brent said. “I’d love to see your work sometime. Maybe we could talk about featuring some of your carvings in my gallery.”

What was he talking about? “Oh, well, I think I only brought three or four with me.”

“No problem. You should come by the gallery some time and bring the carvings with you. Remind me to get you the address before the end of the night.”

“Brent owns the dwarven art gallery in Leitham,” Sam said. “Displays the work of only the best dwarven artisans. Show in his gallery, and you’re guaranteed sales and plenty of commissions by the wealthiest residents of the city.”

I doubted my carvings were good enough for such a place, but it was kind of Brent to offer to look at my work. “Sure, I’ll see what I have.”

“What was it like working with Aramis?” Jeff asked. “My brother has acted with him, said it was incredibly tedious. He said Aramis kept asking to re-record each scene, never satisfied with his own performance, always changing things. Sounded like a total nightmare.”

“I didn’t think so. I mean, yes, he’s a perfectionist, but it was his movie, his reputation, so why shouldn’t he expect perfection?”

“Be careful of Jeff,” Lillian said, quiet enough that only I could hear. “He tries to dig the dirt on everyone in the business, tries to use it to his advantage. He’ll use you too, if you let him. Be nice, but don’t get personal with him.”

“Thanks.” That was the kind of warning I should have had about Emma. My friends Jimmy and Phillip might have saved me a lot of trouble if they had said something.

“Speaking of Aramis, sort of,” Hannah said, “I heard he sacked Radier and blacklisted him from the industry all together.”

“What? Why?” Chris asked.

“No one knows,” Hannah said. “Something must have happened on that last movie they recorded in Gilliam. Mabel, you were on the set. Did you see any conflict between them?”

Not on set. They didn’t have to know that other part, about Aubrey. “Not true,” I said. “Radier wasn’t sacked. They got along great on set.”

“Then something must have happened after,” Hannah said, “because he was supposed to be at the studio today recording the movie I’m in, and he’s been replaced. Neither our director nor the producers will talk about it. It’s like he’s taboo.”

“You must know what happened,” Jeff said to me.

I did, but they didn’t need to know. If I told them, they could be embroiled in the whole mess with Aubrey. I shook my head. “Haven’t a clue.”

#

I COULD not get used to the stench of the city. Because I’d been either in Mam’s house or in Studio City, I’d been protected from it. Now as we traveled through a neutral business to my first doctor’s appointment, it was overwhelming.

There were too many horses in the streets. It was rare to see horses in Gilliam. Back there, the only smell we had to worry about was the odor of the forest, and the animals that lived in it. How could Sevrin stand this? Sitting there, smiling, waving at pedestrians and others on carts, like he was breathing the purest air. Our own horse raised its tail and a putrid gas escaped. I nearly gagged and covered my nose. Sure it had been bad traveling from Gilliam to Leitham, sitting behind the horses, riding through forests. But here, all the smells combined. Dear gods of bodily fluids and sanity. I thought I was going to die.

Sevrin chuckled and patted my knee.

“What?” I glared at him.

“You’ll get used to it,” he said.

“How would you know? The city grew around you. You probably have no idea how bad it is.” I dry heaved. I’d talked too much, let too much of the fumes into my body. No wonder Mam kept her home so isolated. The trees that surrounded it probably helped filter the air.

Sevrin laughed harder. “I haven’t lived here that long. It is an acquired taste, that’s for sure.”

Great. That was a taste I wasn’t sure I wanted to acquire. How did the stench not seep into the homes, embed itself in on our clothes, our skin, our hair? Really. If Da wanted to keep me from acting with Aramis, and living with Mam, all he should have done was let me smell this place.

Thankfully we didn’t stay in the business district long. We’d barely entered it before we rode out, back into another residential neighborhood, closer to the foothills. There weren’t many horses here, and only dwarves walked the streets. A few sprites flitted here and there, but they were hardly worth noticing. The houses here looked a lot more like the homes in Gilliam, like the home I left. Small cottages made of stone, with small front and back gardens, close to the road, close to each other.

The road widened, becoming another business district, smaller and much less crowded than the main one. This was a dwarven business district. The smell was much better here. I let go of my nose. The air was almost fresh compared to where we’d been. The stone had such a sweet and salty scent to it. If I closed my eyes I could have sworn we were inside the mountain. Gods of stone and sky, I almost missed mining.

Sevrin stopped the cart and I hopped down with his help. All the businesses here were in individual buildings, like small shop fronts. Sevrin held the door for me; the sign above it read “Dr. Thora.”

I expected a bigger office building, with maybe nice leather chairs in the waiting area, and I don’t know what else, but it wasn’t this. The waiting room was small and empty. A handful of chairs in a corner, a small table with a few magazines scattered on top of it among the chairs.

“He’s the specialist? The best one in Leitham?” I asked. Shouldn’t he be in a big fancy office? Perhaps in the centre of the city? With a waiting list a year long?

“She is.”

The receptionist looked up from the magazine she was reading, DwarfStyle, its glossy cover featuring a fabulously stout female dwarf in a sparkly red dress. The receptionist was wearing a nice green shiny tunic with embroidered embellishments on the collar and cuffs. Even her cap had some embroidery on it. Lillian had been right. I was glad she convinced me to buy these clothes. The receptionist put down the magazine next to a book opened to a page with a diagram of a dwarf’s insides. “You caught me on a study break,” she said with a smile.

“Hiya Stacie.”

“Hello Sevrin. And you must be Mabel,” Stacie said, smiling. “Come on in,”

I followed her into one of the two offices off the waiting room. It didn’t look any different than my doctor’s back in Gilliam, except maybe the tools of needles and knives and other metal things were newer, or maybe just shinier.

Stacie motioned for me to sit in the chair next to the desk. “I’m going to do a preliminary exam before the doctor comes.”

“Okay.”

“An axe-throwing injury.” She smiled. “I used to throw axes, only at the tavern though, and I was terrible at it. I heard you made it to the finals at the Black Mountain Regional Competition. Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” I felt like a fraud accepting her praise. It was a great accomplishment, yes, but usually regional finalists were only known in their region. It seemed my injury had made me more popular than my throwing might ever have. Maybe I should thank Emma for the poison that made my injury so much worse. “How did you know?”

“Frerin told me, when she set up the appointment for you.” Stacie opened up a file folder on the desk and looked over the parchments inside. “What we don’t have, is any detail on the kind of treatment you’ve received.”

“Oh, well, mostly rest, some small exercises to keep my shoulder mobile. I did get some healing from an elf—” At that, Stacie cringed. “That’s why I’m here. I want to make sure no other damage was done by it.”

“Got it.” Stacie wrote quite a bit. I wished I could read upside down to know what she said. “Now, what about this ancient pain-killer you were taking? Can you tell me what it was called, or what was in it?”

“No. I don’t remember any of that. My doctor, Dr. Flint, back in Gilliam, may be able to get you that information. A friend of mine gave it to me. It was an old family recipe. All I know is that it was poison. Dr. Flint said it weakened my muscles, my bones, everything, that’s how my shoulder ended up shredded and I was too numb to notice.”

Stacie was quiet for a few moments. I guess my bitterness had come out. “Sorry,” I muttered.

“It’s quite all right, Mabel. You’ve been through a rough time.”

At least she was nice about it all. “Thanks.”

“Have you taken any pain medication today?”

“No. Don’t need it.”

“Elven magic. Right. Stretch your arm out, straight in front, palm down.”

I did.

She picked up a quill, dipped it in ink and scratched something on the parchment. “Can you lift your arm out to the side?”

I did.

Stacie scratched a bit more on the parchment. “Good. Full range of motion. What about before the elven magic?”

“Pain, all the time. I couldn’t move it at all. I had to hold it like this,” I clutched my arm to my chest.

“Was that the most comfortable position for your arm?”

“Yes.”

“Did you feel pain in that position?”

“Yes. It was a dull ache though, not the sharp stabbing of dozens of spears all over my shoulder, running up and down my arm and back and body. That’s what I felt when I tried to move it, or if someone touched it, or when I got jostled, or accidentally knocked it against the edge of a cart.”

Stacie nodded as she wrote down everything I said. “So it hurt all the time, for every reason.”

“Pretty much,” I said with a half smile.

“And now nothing.”

“Right.”

“Well, then, let’s hope it really is that way.” She put down the quill. “Sit tight, Mabel. Dr. Thora will be with you in a few minutes.”

“I’m right here,” Dr. Thora said, entering the office. “Hello, Mabel.”

“Hello.” She was awfully young to be a doctor; her beard didn’t have a single strand of gray in it yet. At least she wore a proper tunic and trousers.

“I’ve finished the preliminary for you,” Stacie said, vacating the chair.

“Thank you.” Dr. Thora sat and reviewed what Stacie had written. “Well done, Stacie.”

The receptionist smiled and left the room.

“She’s in training to be a doctor herself,” Dr. Thora said.

That would explain the book on dwarven anatomy. I didn’t know what it took, but I had liked Stacie’s demeanor and the time she took with me to write everything down. If that was anything to go on, she would make a good doctor.

“Well now,” Dr. Thora said. “Let’s see what we can do about this shoulder of yours.” She put a hand on my shoulder and gently massaged it, feeling the scar tissue and the extent of the injury and determining my mobility. She frowned and focused her examination on one specific spot. I couldn’t quite remember, but it felt like she pressed the exact same spot Aubrey had touched when he healed me.

My breath hitched. “What is it?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said, still massaging it, moving my arm in gentle circles. “It feels like there’s something there. I’m not sure if it is damage that occurred after the original injury, scar tissue, or what.” She examined it a bit longer. “It feels foreign. Elven, or a trigger for elven magic. It appears to be dormant. I don’t know how long the dormancy should last, or what or who might set it off.”

So that’s how Aubrey would guarantee I would do whatever he asked of me. I’d be fine as long as I paid my debt to him, whenever he might come to collect.

Dr. Thora wrote something down then said, “It might never happen, but I don’t want to take that chance. I highly recommend we try to get rid of it before it does damage.”

“If you do remove it, does that mean whatever healing has happened will be reversed?” I was calm. Curious. “It’s okay if it does, honestly.” And I meant it.

Dr. Thora was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know. I’m going to have to consult some colleagues on what to do. If I find out anything sooner, I’ll send you a message to come right away, otherwise I will see you in two weeks. By then I should have some idea if I can help you. I won’t lie, Mabel. This may be beyond any of our capabilities.”

“Great. Sure. What about other damage? Has the magic done anything else to me, or is it just the trigger?”

“I didn’t feel anything specific but there are some tests I’d like to do. Let me just pluck a few of your hairs for analysis, to determine the effects of the magic. I should also be able to determine the extent of the poisoning from the old medicine.”

“Go ahead.” If she could figure out all of that, then things were more advanced here than in Gilliam.

Dr. Thora picked up a pair of tweezers, plucked a few strands of hair, put them in a jar, and set it aside.

“I’ll have more extensive results for you in a few weeks, once I’ve completed the analysis of your hairs, combined with my findings.”

“Thanks, so much, Dr. Thora.”

“You’re welcome. I hope I’ll have good news when I next see you. Set up an appointment with Stacie before you go.”

“Will do.”

I hoped she could find a way to remove the elven magic in my shoulder. I would welcome the pain back if it meant I would be free of Aubrey. Surely, once his healing had been reversed and his services were no longer necessary, he couldn’t ruin me, or my mam.

 

Keep Reading