CAP ON straight, beard brushed and worked into two thin braids, I bounded down the stairs. Da and my twelve brothers all grinned at me from the kitchen table, even the ones who were usually sleeping by now after working the night shift.
“Look at you,” Max said, pushing me down onto the bench between him and Bernie.
Kenneth reached over the table and tugged on the two braids in my beard. “Hoping to attract a mate on your first day?” he asked.
I smacked his hand away. My beard was still on the scraggly side and I couldn’t risk losing any of it if he accidentally pulled too hard.
“Taking her duty seriously,” Billy said. “That’s what I like to see. Well done, Sis.”
I beamed as I helped myself to a heaping plate of eggs, sausages, and toast.
“Mabel, we are so proud of you.” Da set a soft brown leather bag beside me. Inside were brand new pick-axes, hammers—everything I needed. “A little something in honor of your first day as a miner.”
Some might think that this wouldn’t be a big deal to me because I come from a family of miners. Certainly, as the youngest I’d seen enough of my brothers receive such a gift on their first day at the mines to know that this was standard. It was part of the rite of passage for those lucky enough to enter the mines and therefore not one to be taken lightly. Especially by me. Not too long ago, it had been a very real possibility that I might not be hired for the mines. As the only female in the family, it was my duty to carry the family name and reputation on my shoulders. The shame would have been unbearable if I hadn’t made it to this day.
I would never take being a miner for granted.
“Thank you so much. I can’t believe it. I just…thank you,” I said.
“You’re a Goldenaxe, Mabel,” Bernie smiled. “Believe it.” He kissed the top of my head and went upstairs.
Danny, Wilbur, Bobby and Billy all patted me on the back, grumbled congratulations, and retreated to their beds. Their staying up for me filled me with pride. They’d done this for each other on the first day at the mines. I would have thought they’d be tired of doing this by the time my turn came along.
I helped myself to a few extra pancakes, and passed a few to Ross and Max. I needed the fortification for strength, but also to make my belly stouter. Strength and stoutness were important for mining. They were also what would make me attractive to potential mates. A thicker beard and a lower voice would help with that too, but I couldn’t control those.
“My dearest Mabel,” Da said. Were those tears in the corners of his eyes, or was it moisture from the steam in the kitchen? “Your mam—” He stopped himself. He hadn’t meant to mention her. I could tell by the way he pressed his lips together. He had relaxed too much, let some part of a secret slip and now he wished he could suck it back in.
I clutched my fork, every muscle in my body tense. Mam died when I was little more than an infant. I used to ask about her, but Da and my brothers would just scowl and change the subject. Eventually I gave up. So why would he mention her now? Unless there was something I needed to know about her before I started work, something that could affect my prospects at finding a mate. I knew the chief foreman had hesitated hiring me because my mam hadn’t been a miner. Would her career choice and early death mar my mating prospects? “What about her?”
“Nothing.” Da turned back to the griddle.
He had brought her up. I couldn’t let him change the subject now. Not if it would affect my future and that of my family. “No, really. What about her?”
He scraped the iron pan. He didn’t want to tell me, but he had to, and he knew it. “I’m sorry, pet.” He put the spatula down. “You look so much like she did on her first day at the mines. It reminded me of how she and I would hold you in our arms and dream of the future you would have, and here it is. She would have been as proud of you as we all are.”
Mam was a miner? But the chief foreman had no record of her. Why had Da lied to me about her? Why was he so dismissive of such big news? Something wasn’t right about any of this. I looked to my brothers for help, especially Max, who was closest to me in age, and just as curious about Mam. They all kept their heads down, shoveling food in their mouths, including Max.
“I’m sorry,” Da said and pointed to the braids in my beard. “This is your big day. You have more important things to worry about than your still-grieving da.”
The message was clear enough: The time had come for me to step up and find a mate to carry on the family line; the duty of female dwarves. And now that I was a miner, I could find a respectable mate; maybe even improve on the family name and reputation.
My oldest brother Frankie tapped me on the shoulder, “Let’s go.”
Go? In that moment, I forgot all about my conversation with Da. This was it. I was finally going to the mines. I rose slowly and picked up my bag of tools. It felt like sprite wings fluttered in my not-so-stout belly. What if I turned out to be a terrible miner?
Da hugged me. “Have a great first day.”
I slung the bag onto my back. The weight of the tools was comfortable, like they belonged with me. I straightened my cap and took a few deep breaths. This was really happening.
Frankie held the door open.
Our stone cottage sat in the thick forest surrounding the base of Gilliam Mountain. The city of Gilliam had outgrown the mountain several generations ago. Only the oldest and wealthiest mining families still had dwellings inside of it. I usually loathed walking through the forest, but today, either my dwarf-blood failed me, or my excitement was too strong.
Though the morning held a chill, a hint of warmth from the waning summer staved off the threatening cold. The wind tickled my cheeks. The scratching of the leaves in the breeze was music to my ears. The gold sunrise pierced the forest, deepening the browns and greens of the trees and bushes lining the path. Gilliam Mountain loomed majestic.
I was used to taking the path to the right, to the toy workshop where I’d worked the last few years training for life as a miner. This morning, we took the path to the left, toward the mines.
Pale green and blue crystallized stalactites and stalagmites filled the damp entrance cavern. Frankie pointed out the cleansing pool, a spring burbling from the wall of the mountain into a pond filling the right half of the cavern.
“That’s where everyone washes their faces and beards at the end of each shift,” he said with a hint of awe at the beauty of it all.
Even after all these years, he still loved the mines. I hoped I would too.
Frankie allowed me to admire it all for a few minutes then pressed me onward. I could have stood there all day.
From his own bag, he took out a lantern, lit it, then led me out of the entrance cavern into one of the dozens of passages that branched off of it. We descended down a long, gentle staircase that took a wide turn to our left before leveling out into another, much smaller cavern with several crosscuts and diverging drifts. Frankie started into the crosscut closest to our right. “This one is yours.”
I followed him through the narrow entrance. The crosscut widened into a stope fifty yards in where teams of miners had explored and excavated over the generations. Frankie lit the lanterns hanging along the wall, warming the ancient air and casting magnificent shadows against the beautiful, craggy stone.
“Before the others—”
Something sparkled at the edge of a lantern beam. I took a step toward it.
Frankie grabbed my arm, holding me back. “Mabel, your attention for a few minutes.”
“Right. Sorry,” I said but looked for another moment before turning back to Frankie.
“I realize this is your first day and it can be a bit awe-inspiring, but I assure you, the beauty never fades. You have many, many wonderful years ahead in the mines.”
Overhead, a soft rumbling grew louder and closer. Within minutes the roar broke up into clusters of chatter then distinct voices.
Was I going to meet my mining partners today? I hoped they’d like me.
I heard a gasp and turned around to see Emma, my best friend. “Mabel! This is so perfect. I’d hoped you’d be our new partner.” She dropped her bag and hugged me. Thank the gods I was with Emma.
I faced the entrance, anxious to see who else I’d get to work with. I broke out in a huge grin when Phillip entered the crosscut. This day could not get any better. I got to mine with two of my best friends.
“Hey. Welcome,” Phillip said, all cool and casual.
Hands on my hips, I frowned at him until his demeanor broke and he hugged me too. “This is going to be fantastic working together,” he said.
Frankie interrupted us. “You’ll have plenty of time for talking later. Emma, Phillip, keep working where you left off yesterday. Mabel, bring your tools and come with me.”
He led me to a section of the crosscut a few feet from my friends.
“Don’t I get to work with them?”
“After I’ve trained you. Now, I want you to run your hand over this rock—carefully, slowly. Tell me what you feel.”
I did as instructed but wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear. It felt like stone should: hard. I looked at him, hoping for some kind of hint of what I should be feeling. He was smiling, not scowling. At least he wasn’t disappointed in me.
“Get up close, smell it, press on it,” he said.
I did, taking my time, pressing, tapping, sniffing. At first I didn’t understand what he expected. But then I pressed my ear to the stone as I tapped and pushed on it. “It’s firm, but almost spongy, like there are air bubbles beneath the surface, and a sulfur scent,” I said at last.
“Very good. Now take out your axes.”
Learning about the textured stone was fascinating. And my brother was pleased with me. I removed my tools from my bag and spread them out on the floor, out of the way of everyone. I looked at my three pick-axes.
“The harder the rock, the bigger the axe you want to use. This rock is fairly soft so you want the smallest one.”
Soft? I picked up the axe, hand close to the head.
“Who taught you to hold it like that?” Frankie asked.
“No one. Why? Is it wrong?”
“It’s perfect. Good natural instinct, Mabel. With gentle, small strokes, scratch at the wall.”
The rock fell away from the tip of my axe in a fine white dust that soon coated my beard. Now I knew why no one mined before their beards were thick enough. It wasn’t just an issue of attractiveness. The thicker the beard, the more it kept the dust from the face. My scraggly beard had been a concern during my interview. But I guess the chief foreman thought it was thick enough. Or my pleading had convinced him of it. The dust worked its way through my beard’s almost adequate protection and scratched my skin. I could do without this discomfort.
“Smaller strokes,” Frankie said. “Very good.”
Frankie’s instructions were slow and methodical. He was so patient and encouraging that even though I was scraping rock for hours, it was exhilarating.
The horn sounded, signaling the break for lunch much too soon. I felt like I’d only just started! Frankie gave me leave to join Phillip and Emma.
The cafeteria cavern could easily fit a thousand dwarves. Crystals lined the ceiling, and tables sat among pillars of stalactites and stalagmites. The wild boars roasting on open spits smelled more succulent than anything I’d ever tasted.
Phillip and Emma directed me to a corner of the dining cavern populated with others our age, most of whom we’d worked with or at least known in the toy workshop. Emma tugged at the braids in her beard, reminding me of my duty. Any time I wasn’t actually mining, I needed to look for a mate. For my first day, this was the perfect opportunity to see what my mating opportunities might be. We sat near our good friends Jimmy and Zach.
Jimmy put a hand on my back. “How are things going, Mabel?”
“I hear Frankie’s a great teacher.”
“You’ve got Frankie?” someone yelled from down the table.
“That’s Oliver,” Jimmy nodded.
Oliver’s skin had a touch too much color; not a nice gray, but he was a miner and had two braids in his beard signaling he was interested in finding a life mate. I supposed I should consider him as a possible mate.
“You’re so lucky,” Oliver sighed.
“He’s our coach and Mabel’s brother,” Phillip said.
“You’re a Goldenaxe?” Oliver stood, bumping the table in his hurry to get to me.
A bit clumsy. He grabbed my hand and shook it, his grip too firm. I might wait and see if any better options came along first.
“You must be the youngest. I’m such a fan of your family’s work.”
Well, that made him a more favorable possibility. And a strong grip probably meant he worked hard and had strong mining skills. “Ah, thank you.”
Jimmy elbowed Oliver out of the way. “A bunch of us are going to The Bearded Prospector Tavern after work. You’ll join us, won’t you?”
“Of course she will,” Phillip said.
“I guess I am,” I shrugged. “I’ll see you there.”
In the afternoon, Frankie had me feel more stone and smell it and asked me to point out the differences in the textures of the walls of the crosscut. I ended the day chipping at some solid rock with my biggest axe.
“Good first day,” Frankie said when the horn blew to end the shift.
“Thanks. Can you tell Da I’ll be home late? I’m going out with my friends to The Bearded Prospector.”
“Will do. Stout ale is the best tonic after a day in the mines. Have fun.”
Emma and I walked to the entrance cavern and joined the throngs gathering at the cleansing pool. I took off my cap and thrust my head into the water like everyone else. Glorious cool water rushed around my face and flowed through my hair washing away the dust. When I came up after half a minute, I wrung out the water from my beard. I ran my fingers through it to fluff it up.
Hundreds of us headed out of the mines, down the three-abreast path in the forest, around the base of the mountain, and finally to The Bearded Prospector, the preferred tavern of Gilliam miners. Dozens of dwarves were already drinking outside the Prospector, and there were ten times as many behind me. I didn’t see how the tavern could hold all of us if patrons already spilled out its doors. No one else seemed to take notice, so I went in with them.
The powerful yet refreshing scent of stout ale greeted us the moment we stepped through the door. A gray haze of pipe smoke hovered over the room, which was much larger than I had expected. Ancient mining axes hung on the walls, placed there by generations of miners upon their retirement.
We pushed our way through the crowd until we found an empty table in a back corner. Emma squeezed herself in between Zach and Jimmy. Phillip said he would get the first round.
Zach launched into the story of how he’d found his first emerald today. His find reassured me that this was all real, that it would happen for me, too.
I was the last of my friends to get hired on at the mines. I’d worried for so long, believing I wasn’t going to be good enough, that I’d never get here. But I’d finally made it. And today proved it had been worth the wait. I couldn’t stop grinning.
Phillip returned, arms laden with tankards. I helped distribute the ale. Before anyone could take a sip, Phillip raised his mug. “To Mabel, on her first day at the mines!” We knocked rims.
“And to Zach, on finding his first ever emerald,” Jimmy said.
I couldn’t wait to find my first emerald. I had so much to look forward to.
“I was thinking of going to the movie theater tomorrow after work,” Zach said. “Anyone want to join me? Sevrin’s in a movie playing there.”
The movie theater was a new arrival in town. I hadn’t heard many dwarves talking about it yet. I hoped that was because most dwarves didn’t know what to make of movies. We liked our mining and our ale. To do much else wasn’t considered respectable, though I didn’t see why. There were plays put on all the time and as I understood it, this was the same except the action was somehow captured in a wizard’s crystal and projected on a screen, and that I had to see.
SPLITTING OFF from the crowd to walk in the opposite direction from The Bearded Prospector felt wrong yet exciting. I’d only been working at the mines for two days and already I felt like I was breaking tradition.
Frankie had scowled when Emma, Phillip, and I talked about our plans today. Da and my brothers, especially the four oldest, Frankie, Patrick, Mikey, and Danny, had grumbled about the theater opening in town ever since it was announced. “No respectable Dwarf would be seen in one,” they’d said.
But we were with Ben and Zach, mountain dwellers from respectable families. And Sevrin was in the movie. There was no dwarf more revered than Sevrin.
Perhaps Da had a point though. We walked in the opposite direction of The Bearded Prospector, away from where most of the Gilliam miners lived. The forest trees crowded in on the path.
Emma walked with Zach and Ben, her arms hooked through theirs, but her attention was clearly on Zach. She was telling him about the time she’d gone to a movie in Mitchum. It looked to me like she was trying to impress him.
Phillip, Jimmy, and I followed. I smiled. The three of us were together again. We’d spent months on our masterworks together in the toy workshop. We were great friends before then, and now we were family. Every now and then, Zach glanced in our direction. He’d done a masterwork with us as well, though he’d left shortly after I was selected for the extra training. Still, there was a special bond between those of us who had been chosen to practice and demonstrate our skilled craftsmanship on a special project. I had the feeling that because of that bond, Zach would have preferred to walk with us.
“I’ve never been to a movie, have you?” Jimmy asked me.
“Are you kidding?” I scoffed. “My family has been too busy mining to go anywhere there might be a theater. They might have when Mikey was competing in axe throwing, but I was too young to remember. I know my family, though, and I’m quite confident in saying that they wouldn’t have gone to one then.”
“I don’t think movies were around back then,” Phillip said.
I had to think about that. He was right. Movies had only been around for a couple of dozen years.
Jimmy nudged me and pointed at Emma who had dropped Ben’s arm to walk closer to Zach.
“How long has she been flirting with him?” I asked.
“Since she arrived at the mines.” Jimmy said.
“He doesn’t seem too interested,” Phillip added. “Don’t blame him, though. Until you started working with us, she’d been constantly talking about how masterworks are for the slower dwarves, to give them more time to grow into their mining bodies.”
If she hadn’t said the same thing to me for months, while she’d gone from toy-making to mining, because she wasn’t chosen for the masterwork, I’d have been upset. I’d believed her for a long time, until my wonderful brothers set me straight. I shook my head. “She’ll have him interested in no time. And when he is, he’ll have long forgotten her ideas on masterworks.”
The horrid trees thinned and we came to a clearing bordering the neighborhoods of miners, hunters, and shop workers. I supposed it was a strategic location, to try and draw in the biggest crowds. I was just relieved the theater wasn’t any farther away from the mines.
I hesitated at the edge of the forest so I could take in the beauty before me.
I knew the theater was a new construction but I hadn’t expected this. To say it was made of stone just wouldn’t be adequate; pretty much every building in Gilliam was made of stone. The walls of the theater were large, rough, layered, and built to look like a mountain, with the front of the building looking like a cross-section cut into that mountain. “Wow. Who owns this?”
“Remember our vocational advisor from the toy workshop?” Phillip asked. “His son, Callum.”
Even though the vocational advisor generally spoke of mining as the only real true vocation for a dwarf, he must have thought owning a movie theater was a respectable enough vocation for his son to allow him to open and run one in Gilliam. If he didn’t, he was crazy, because by the looks of things, Callum must be doing pretty well with the theater business to be able to build something this spectacular.
Inside, the lobby was a smaller version of the entrance cavern of the mines. Callum was certainly doing his best to make mountain dwellers and miners comfortable. If only comfort and appearances were enough to earn the approval of even the most traditional dwarves like my da and brothers.
There were only a handful of other dwarves in the lobby. A lot of expense was put into this building. I hoped it gained more popularity soon. I’d hate to see it close before it really got going.
“Tonight’s on me,” Ben said.
“What?” Phillip asked.
“Mabel’s joined us at the mines, Zach’s first emerald yesterday, and my first emerald today. We have a lot to celebrate.”
“Congratulations, Ben,” I said. “This is very kind of you, but you don’t have to pay for all of us.”
“We all like to celebrate first emeralds in our own way,” Ben said. “Zach bought a few extra rounds of drinks yesterday. I’d like to buy the tickets tonight.”
“And a round of drinks tomorrow,” Zach said.
“You got it,” Ben said with a smile.
Ben bought our tickets and we walked through. On the way into the auditorium was a stand with a stack of movie programs.
“They even have magazines,” Emma said, picking up two and handing one of them to me. “Callum knows his business.”
The dim, flickering candlelight illuminated the smooth stone walls and the red velvet seats.
Emma marched us all to the third row from the front where we could get a whole row of seats to ourselves. I was happy to see several more dwarves enter behind us.
A theater usher blew out the candles around the room. I turned around and watched the projectionist set the wizard’s crystal between two fine metal tines of a fork and tap them. The tines vibrated against the crystal, releasing the images, projecting them onto the white screen.
I settled into my seat and stared at the screen and the images flashing on it. How were the movie makers able to capture the action like that, in a crystal? The images were so clear and the sound so perfect. At times, I managed to turn around to look at the crystal because it couldn’t be real, but seeing it certainly convinced me it was.
When Sevrin came on the screen, all of us in the theater cheered. I’d seen pictures of him, I’d heard the legends, but I’d never seen him like this, so real, so close. His voice rumbled and I swore I could feel it vibrate through me as he declared war against the elven army amassing on the other side of the mountains. His speech to the dwarven warriors, rallying them to his cause, it was like he spoke to me, stirring the passion in my heart. I was ready to join his cause. I think all of us in the theater were. We yelled the war cry with the warriors and cheered them as they charged into battle.
The scene changed.
I stopped cheering.
The room dimmed as his face filled the screen. I sat up straighter. My heart fluttered like a leaf in a light breeze. My insides felt like mush. I tucked my hair behind my ear and ran my fingers through my beard, tugging on the two braids. I was unable to look away from him: his long, straight blond hair, smooth chin. The spark of mischief in his piercing blue eyes jolted my heart. I licked my lips as I watched his lush mouth form the words, his gentle voice lulling me into a trance. I held my breath, mesmerized by his long, thin fingers, his slender yet powerful arms. Heat rose in my cheeks.
Aramis, leader of the elven army, stared out at me. I leaned forward, sinking into his splendor. He raised his bow, drew back the arrow, his arms sinuously powerful, preparing to release a hail of arrows at the dwarven army.
The dwarves outnumbered the elves. Aramis would be crushed. Sevrin had to let him live. They couldn’t harm Aramis. They just couldn’t. Yet there’s no way I could cheer for Aramis.
The war was devastating. The dwarven army lost more than half of its numbers. Sevrin survived, and so, much to my great relief, did Aramis.
I wanted to listen to Aramis speak forever, to revel in the beauty of his being. I wanted to touch him, hold him, kiss him. I wanted… him.
I was in love.
With an elf.
I sank into my seat. How could I be attracted to an elf? An elf, of all beings. A tree-loving, open-air, too-afraid-of-dirt-to-do-any-work, fine delicate-featured pretty-boy elf. Elves were a completely different species from dwarves. Love between us was impossible.
“THIS CROSSCUT was started and abandoned long before Da began his mining career. A year ago—”
“I get it.” I said, exasperated by the non-stop history lesson. I just wanted Frankie to be quiet, to let me use the monotony of work to think about what I’d experienced the other night at the movie theater—the wonder of the wizard’s crystal and the beauty of Aramis. “I know we’re a part of a great mining tradition. Why else would I want to work here?”
I combed my fingers through my beard to remove most of the mine dust matting itself into the hair. I think I only made it worse. Right now that mining tradition and thinking about the movie were the only reason I endured any of this, especially the monotony.
“Good then,” Frankie said. “As long as you know. Some seem to think this is only a place to meet a mate or gain prestige. It’s my job to make sure you are here for the right reasons.” Frankie looked sideways at Emma who rolled her eyes.
If Frankie thought Emma’s determination to find a mate was a problem, he should talk to her, not lecture me. What he should do is try and see things from the perspective of a female. The mines were the best place to find a respectable mate. Da told me every morning that when I wasn’t actually working, I needed to pay attention to the males with two braids in their beard. Any one of them could be my life mate. He said I should make sure the one I choose is respectable enough to carry the reputation of the Goldenaxe name.
But maybe Frankie was right, sort of. I was distracted. Not because I was too busy thinking about the fellows. It was the movie. More specifically, the movie magazine. I’d practically memorized the whole thing in the last couple of days, learning everything there was to know about making movies, and, of course, Aramis.
Before work today, I’d been in the middle of reading an article about how Radier, the Wizard who’d recorded the movie on his crystal, had to ride alongside the dwarves and elves and get between them during the battle sequences, risking great injury. I kept imagining myself in his place, the risks he’d taken as horses thundered past, arrows flew, and axes swung. How many near misses had there been? Had Radier needed to use his magic to protect himself? What if one of the weapons had gone astray? How much time did he get to spend with Aramis, and Sevrin?
I would rather be watching the movie again now that I knew more about how it was made. Actually, I’d prefer being in a movie to scratching at this stubborn rock. I couldn’t make a mark in it.
“Frankie, just help me figure out what to do here. The large pick isn’t doing anything.”
“Really?” Frankie put his ear against the rock where I’d been working and ran his fingers over the area. “Come here. Do what I’m doing.”
I patted at it a couple of times then stepped back.
“Do it again. Let your fingers be your eyes. Do you feel it?”
“Feel what?” Did Aramis have to put up with this kind of nonsense when making a movie? I bet he didn’t.
“The change in the rock.”
There was a change? Interesting. I caressed the stone up and down, side to side, pressing into every dent and crevice, searching for the edge and feeling for a difference until I found it. “Yes. Where I’ve been working is the same hardness but a different, rougher texture.”
“Good. Phillip, Emma, come do the same. Do you feel it?”
They stopped what they were doing and joined us, imitating our rock exploration.
“Yes,” Phillip said.
“I think so,” said Emma.
Frankie pushed them away from the wall. “I knew it. I knew when the chief foreman assigned me here to re-explore that the emeralds I’d found weren’t a one-off. Mabel, with the medium pick, I want you to gently tap the rougher part.”
The rock cracked into thin spidery lines like the shell of a hard-boiled egg. Finally something different from scratching the rock.
“Very good Mabel. Very, very good. You may have found something. Thank the gods I never gave up on this crosscut. Now take out your chisel and with the tip, dig in between the cracks and pull out the pieces. Be very careful. You two, watch what she’s doing.”
Had I really found an emerald?
I picked at the cracks. The outer part crumbled beneath my touch. Below the surface lay hard packed dirt rather than stone.
“The mines are our cathedrals to the gods of our creation,” Frankie said.
“Now what do I do?”
I didn’t really think mining was boring. I’d just forgotten how fascinating it was; how much I loved it, especially the detailed work.
“Get your brush and with small strokes wipe away the stone the same as when you were scratching it with the pick.” Frankie stood beside me, his arms crossed and his fingers twitching. Either he was really happy for me, or dying to get in to work this wall instead of me. “When we mine, we worship our creators. The treasures the mountain holds are gifts from the gods.”
I had found an emerald, I knew it, but I didn’t want to say anything out loud until I saw it. I imagined I was in a movie with Aramis, working as miners, finding our first emerald bed.
I grabbed my brush and swept at the rock. Is it real, Aramis? Have I really found my first emerald? I’d cleared a fairly large area of the outer shell, about the size of my upper body, and the dirt under-layer. There it sat, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, glittery, glassy and green. It’s as beautiful as you are, Aramis said to me.
“Frankie!” My voice shook, I shook. It was too exciting to keep inside.
“What do you see?”
“Frankie.” Aramis! I pointed at my first emerald.
“Sweep a little more around it.”
I did and he whispered, “Yes, yes, yes. Congratulations, Mabel. You’ve found your first bed of emeralds.”
I dropped my brush and covered my scream. The gods accepted me and chose to bless me.
Frankie squeezed me, picked me up and spun me around. And as happy as I was to be celebrating with Frankie, I wished it was Aramis who hugged me and gave me a kiss to commemorate my find.
“I am so proud of you.” Frankie put me down. “Right. Everyone. Get back to work. Mabel, when you’ve found the edges of your emerald and taken it out, keep it, a gift from the gods for your devotion.” He winked, grinning from ear to ear.
Frankie was so passionate, reverent even, about mining. He nearly convinced me I should never want to leave the mines for anything. I understood then why Frankie, why none of my brothers, were interested in finding a mate. I momentarily considered abandoning my own search and removing my braids so I could join in his full devotion to the mines. Unfortunately, I’d never heard of a female miner so devoted to her craft she declared herself uninterested in mating. That was not an option open to females, to me. Maybe there was less pressure on Emma because she had an older sister. But even she had to fulfill her duty to mate and have dwarflings. As the only girl in my family, that pressure was doubled.
I brushed and blew away the dust, careful not to scratch my emerald. Aramis looked over my shoulder, smiling, his eyes sparkling, his dimple deepening. He whispered to me how much he knew I would find it, how he knew I was meant to be a miner, a skilled miner, how proud he was of me, and how we’d have our own celebration at the end of the day.
The emerald was bigger than my hand. I didn’t think anyone could keep a gem that size, but Frankie said I could so I put it in a side pocket on my tool bag for safe keeping.
Frankie helped me excavate more of the site, chatting the whole time. “I knew this would be a productive crosscut. I knew it. ‘Give it up,’ they said. ‘Not even Frankie Goldenaxe can find gems where there are none,’ they said. But I persisted. Mabel, I am so proud of you for being the one to find the emeralds. And so early in your career as a miner. You’re keeping the tradition in the family. I bet you’ve got an eye for locating gems.”
“I appreciate your vote of confidence, but I just scratched at the rock where you told me to.”
“Sure. But you could tell there was a change in the rock. It’s the first step. So many crosscuts have been abandoned because miners don’t know what to look for. They give up so easily. It’s a lot of hard work and often we don’t find anything, or it can take years to get to the gems. So many will say the rock is too hard, or there is nothing there. I have the ability to spot places where we should look. If you keep in mind what you learned today about the difference in rock texture, you will go far here, Mabel. You will go far.”
If every day was as exciting as this one, finding gems, life would be perfect. But that was only the reward for mining, for endless days of chipping and scratching at rock. And as an explorer, like Frankie, it wouldn’t just be days of chipping and scratching, it would be years. I loved his faith in me, but—and I hoped the gods would forgive me for thinking this—I didn’t think I wanted to spend my life in such boredom.
We’d barely started on the emerald bed when the horn blew to end the day. I didn’t want to stop. Frankie appreciated my enthusiasm but assured me we could be working on this part for many days or weeks to come. “Go on to the Prospector to celebrate. I’ll take your tools home for you.”
I couldn’t move inside the Prospector without people congratulating me on my find and asking for details on how I did it. The first request for a recounting of my tale came with an offer of a drink. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by eager listeners.
“So you’ve got your brother Frankie’s eye for exploration,” said Ricky, a friend of my second eldest brother, Patrick. “Let’s see if you’ve got your brother Mikey’s talent for axe throwing. A contest?”
Suggesting I had Frankie’s skill for mining was a great compliment but a huge exaggeration. And Mikey’s axe-throwing skill was out of everyone’s reach. Mikey had been Dwarf Games champion in axe throwing.
I was too small to remember much of our family trip to the Games. The only really clear memory was of the thunk of the axe sinking into the throwing post in our back yard. The rhythm of it used to lull me to sleep. Soon after he’d won the Games, Mikey stopped throwing. Even so, his prowess was legendary.
“A contest,” the room resounded with the unified shout.
I glanced at Emma and Phillip. Maybe they’d come up with a reason why I couldn’t compete. They had a smaller group around them to hear their version of the story of my first emerald. Emma straightened her cap and tugged on her beard as she talked and accepted drinks. At the call for a contest, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “I’m in.” So did Zach and Jimmy.
Dwarves don’t turn down challenges, and I wasn’t going to be the first one to do so. “You’re on,” I said to Ricky. Good gods, this was going to be embarrassing.
We were followed to the back of the Prospector by half of the patrons, including my brothers Patrick and Mikey. Like there wasn’t enough pressure on me simply to live up to his reputation. To have him watch? This wasn’t going to be just embarrassing. This was going to be mortifying.
Of the six competitors, Emma and I were the only females. We each took a few practice throws to get a feel for the weight of the axes. As Ricky reset the target, Mikey and Patrick edged their way to the front of the crowd. I motioned to Mikey with my axe to ask if he wanted to join us. It might take the pressure off me. He shook his head, raised his mug to me then took a sip, smiling. I hoped that if I couldn’t make him proud, at least I wouldn’t blow the contest and shame him.
I stepped up to the marker. I held the axe at the base of the handle. Raising my arm, I closed my left eye to improve my focus. I brought the axe back then hurled it forward, releasing it. I didn’t hit the exact center of the target as Ricky and another fellow, Curtis, had, but close enough and slightly better than Zach and Jimmy. Emma’s throw had hit close to the center too. On my second try, I hit the second ring, still better than Zach and Jimmy. Emma’s was well off the mark but Zach stood at her side instructing her on her technique. My third try, I hit dead center. Emma didn’t but her throw had improved over her second. I finished third behind Ricky and Curtis. Considering they were a lot older and had more experience, I thought I had done all right. Actually, just hitting the post was a victory for me.
“Not bad at all,” Ricky said. “You’ve got some raw talent. Just remember, I’m the Prospector’s champion.”
“Ah, don’t mind him,” Curtis said.
Others soon surrounded me, talking about regular contests held at the Prospector, and the new emerald bed I’d found. I’d established myself as a part of dwarven tradition as a miner. I loved it all, and yet I found myself tiring. I wanted to go home, look at my emerald, and read more of my movie magazine.
“Well, that was fun,” I said to Emma an hour later, after I’d managed to break out of a conversation.
“I know.” Her eyes glittered. “And several of the fellows talking with me tonight have offered to court me. Don’t worry, I only accepted offers from the few mountain dwellers among them.”
I hugged her. “Congratulations.”
“I hope you’ve been selective in whom you’ll be courting.”
Was I supposed to be trying to get offers of courtship out of this? Did everything have to be about finding a mate? Couldn’t I just enjoy myself? “Oh, yeah. Maybe a little too selective. Anyway, I’m going to head home. I’m exhausted.”
“Have a good night. I’m going to try and get a few more dates before the night is up.”
Alone on the road home, I thought about my amazing day. “Aramis, I found an emerald,” I whispered and told him everything. “Having you here with me, really here, not just in my head, would have made it a perfect day.”
“I’m proud of you, Mabel,” Mikey said, catching up to me on the way home.
I froze. I had to be more careful. No more talking out loud to Aramis. Wait. If Mikey heard me, he would have said something. He had only given me the biggest compliment of the night. I relaxed a little. “Thanks. I thought my nerves might get the best of me.”
“You’re a Goldenaxe through and through. I knew you could handle it. I talked with a few of my friends during the contest. We think you’ve got potential to go all the way with this. If you’ll let me, I’d like to coach you.”
“All the way? You mean to the Dwarf Games?”
I hugged him. Mikey, my third oldest brother, axe-throwing champion, thought I had enough talent to get to the Dwarf Games—only the biggest sporting competition among all dwarf nations. They were held every five years and the next one was coming up in just over a year. He believed in me enough to put in the time and effort to return to a sport we all thought he’d abandoned, to train me.
“I take it you’ll let me coach you?”
“Yes,” I squeaked with excitement as we entered the house.
MIKEY’S OLD throwing post stood at one end of our back garden and on the ground beside it was a small leather bag. The post hadn’t been out here in years. I thought it had been destroyed or thrown out. He must have kept it in storage somewhere and brought it out today, which surprised me. He hadn’t thrown an axe in decades. He hadn’t talked about it, either. I assumed something incredibly horrible or painful had happened to make him give it up, though none of us really knew why. Maybe he hadn’t given up on throwing as completely as I’d thought.
The first thing Mikey did was walk me through a series of stretches.
“It’s important to have fluid, loose, flexible muscles,” he said. “Mining is terrific, but it keeps us stiff, stuck only in a few positions. To be a champion thrower, you need to keep limber. These exercises we’re doing now, especially the stretches, do them every morning and night, and of course at the beginning and end of each practice.”
I wasn’t particularly flexible but the stretches felt pretty good after a long day of mining. Mikey assured me that with time and patience, my muscles would loosen up.
After that, he had me work on building up my strength. “Mining is great for shoulder strength,” he said. “But you need it all over to be a champion.”
He had me do push-ups, which I was disastrous at, only managing to do five proper ones. Then it was sit-ups, squats, lunges, and arm raises. He said, “Using your own body weight for resistance is best.”
Finally, after endless exercises, which I think made my already-pathetic, less-than-stout stomach shrink, I got to throw an axe.
Mikey delved into the bag in front of us and took out one of his hand-held throwing axes and lovingly placed the beautiful piece of craftsmanship in my hand. He’d used this axe to win the Dwarf Games. The jewels were inset into the handle and the handle was varnished so it was smooth in my hand. I wouldn’t feel the jewels when I released it. In the Dwarf Games, this axe must have been spectacular to see spinning through the air, the gems flashing in the lantern-light.
“You did well last night, but I want you to forget everything you did. Last night’s contest never happened.”
What kind of talent did he see in me then, if he wanted me to forget it? “Okay. It never happened.” I agreed to it, but I was a little hurt. It wasn’t like I was the only one in my family that showed an interest in the sport. My brothers have all bragged on more than one occasion about winning a throwing contest at the Prospector. There had to be something good in what he saw from me. Mikey had quit the sport. He never talked about it. Now, with me, his eyes were shining with such enthusiasm, it was like he’d never stopped throwing. “But, why?” I had to know.
“Throwing at the tavern is fun and you can get away with less than perfect technique,” Mikey explained. “To be a champion, I want you to have the best training and use the right technique from the start.”
“So should I never throw at the Prospector? What if someone challenges me?”
“Of course you can throw there. You should. Though it hardly resembles true competition standards, it is good practice. The next time you throw there, you will have the best discipline and technique of all of competitors. You’ll stomp their asses. Especially Ricky. I know he’s a friend of Danny’s, and I like him well enough, but he’s gotten too big a head over being top thrower at the Prospector. He needs to be dethroned.”
“So why don’t you do it?”
“I’m too old,” he said, a little too quickly, I thought. “Now. I want you to hold the axe at the lowest end of the handle, like that. Perfect. Hold it firm, but not tight.”
He wiggled it in my hand until I had the right kind of grip.
He helped guide my arm up and back, so I could feel the proper angle it should be at. Then, in slow motion, he moved my arm up and around and stopped it at the exact place I should release the axe. We repeated these motions several times, slow at first, then picking up the pace. He had me continue the repetitions without his help while he watched.
On my first effort, the axe thumped at my feet. I think I was lucky not to lose any toes. Mikey had me repeat the motions several more times before my second attempted throw. The axe wobbled out of my hand and landed only a little closer to the post. After several more pitiful throws, I was getting frustrated.
“Remember your technique,” Mikey said. “For now it is more important than hitting the post.”
I took a moment to regain my composure before throwing. After a few more tries, I finally hit the post. It was glorious the way the axe slid from my hand, spinning once, end over end, and the iron head piercing the wood with a thunk. It was the lower edge of the post, but still, it was a hit. I threw my arms up and cheered. “Mikey, did you see that? I hit it. Did you see how it flew? It was so natural, so fluid.”
“Well done,” Mikey said, with only a twitch of a smile. “Keep throwing.”
I did, and eventually hit the post again.
“Good. Focus on your technique.”
“What’s going on here?” Da yelled, thundering out of the house as my axe bounced off the ground in front of the post.
“Mikey’s coaching me,” I said, retrieving the axe.
“I can see that,” Da said. “Mikey, a word with you, please.”
“Of course. Don’t stop, Mabel.”
I continued to throw, but I also listened in on their conversation. They weren’t exactly being quiet about it.
“It’s great to see you out here, son, but why are you coaching Mabel?”
“Da, she’s got talent.”
“Yes, but why Mabel?”
“I just said why.”
“Mikey. Mabel just started at the mines. She needs to focus her time and energy on finding a mate. How is she going to be able to do that if she spends all her non-working hours back here, alone, throwing axes? Besides, she’s having a hard enough time getting a stout belly and this exercise isn’t going to help.”
Hey. That was mean.
“She needs to use every asset she has,” Da continued.
“It’s not my fault she looks like… you know,” Mikey said.
Mam? Do I look like her? When Da said it the other day, I thought he was just being sentimental.
“Da. I know how important it is that Mabel find a good, respectable mate. But she has a few years to find one. With the right instruction, she can win the Dwarf Games. We’ll have another champion in the family. Think of the honor and respect that will bring our family. This will only work in her favor.”
“Fine,” Da growled. “Mabel.”
I turned to him. “You need to eat more, especially if you’re going to be training like this.”
Why did it always have to be about looking a certain way to attract a mate? Couldn’t I just do what I enjoyed doing, look the way I look, and be loved? “Yes, Da.” I threw the axe, another beautiful throw.
“HAD A date last night, with Ben,” Emma said on our way to work. Two weeks since the contest at the Prospector and already Emma had gone on six dates, each one with a different fellow. She always beamed as she gave me the latest report on her pursuit of a mate. It was wonderful to see her so happy.
“How was it?”
The shine faded from Emma. “All right, except he talked about you all night.”
Why would he do that? “Maybe he was nervous and wanted something to talk about. He probably talked about me because you both know me. I’m sure the next date he will focus all his attention on you.”
Emma shrugged it off. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not set on him or anything, even though he’s a mountain dweller. Zach is more what I’m looking for.”
Da would love Emma as his daughter. He’d asked me again today about what my courtship prospects were and if anyone had shown any interest. I think next time I’ll lie and say I’m just being picky or weighing my options. Maybe that will make him happy and keep him quiet about it for a while. A few days, at least.
We stepped into the cool darkness of the entrance cavern. Several males crowded around Emma, pushing me away from her, including Ben who kept Emma close, holding her arm. He asked her to go on another date.
I didn’t get a chance to hear her answer. Ricky sidled up to me and I thought, almost hoped, for a moment, for Da’s sake, he might be interested, until I saw his beard, which had never, for as long as I could remember, ever been so much as kinked by a cowlick, never mind a braid. “How about a re-match at the Prospector tonight? Just you and me.” he asked.
Ricky, the one Mikey said needed to be dethroned and that I’d be the one to do it. I looked forward to seeing his expression when I showed off my new throwing skills. “Sure. Sounds like fun.”
“Excellent.” He smirked. I didn’t know why he did that, or why he even asked for the re-match. It wasn’t like I beat him last time. “I have to warn you, I’ve been practicing. Be prepared to lose big time.” Ricky winked. It was like he took pride in defeating one of Mikey’s siblings. I guess if he couldn’t compete against Mikey, he thought I was the next best thing.
“We’ll see about that,” I said as he and his friend, Curtis, walked away. Mikey was right. Ricky did need to be dethroned and I’d be more than happy to “stomp his ass,” as Mikey said.
That evening at the Prospector, I was glad Mikey had made me practice throwing into the wind the last several days. I’d complained that all official competitions were indoors so I shouldn’t have to suffer like this. Mikey had rebutted that it built my throwing strength and endurance, and that I wouldn’t have the advantage of throwing with the wind indoors either. Now I wondered if Mikey set up the throwing post in our back garden to face the same direction as the one at the Prospector so there would be no surprises whenever he entered contests here. At least I assumed he’d entered contests here when he was starting out as a thrower.
With the change of seasons, the wind had turned from a warm southerly to a biting north. Except for the warmth of the sun, the cool air predicted an early onset of winter. Of course it wouldn’t matter how great my endurance or strength was if my hands were too frozen to let go of the axe.
Because only Ricky and I competed in the re-match, everyone else watched, including Mikey and Patrick. Mikey’s presence last time had made me nervous; now, having my coach with me kept me relaxed.
Ricky flung the axe at the post. If I had thrown that way, Mikey would have yelled at me for my sloppy technique, calling it loose and bendy. I glanced at Mikey who snorted into his ale, confirming my theory. He was probably surprised Ricky actually hit the target. Ricky retrieved his axe and swaggered back to the throwing line.
I rolled my eyes. I didn’t remember his form being so bad last time. If he could do it with such horrid technique, I had no excuses.
“I thought you said you practiced.” I snickered and flapped my arms, mimicking his hideous throw. Everyone laughed, including Ricky’s friends.
I stood at the line, axe in hand, flexing my wrist and closing my eyes. In training, Mikey always told me to visualize myself pitching the perfect throw. When I visualized, I added a little extra to the scene. I imagined myself in a movie, fighting alongside Aramis. I often pictured myself throwing the axe in a perfect tight line right into the heart of Aramis’s enemy. Of course, I never told Mikey that part. This time I visualized myself throwing to win a competition. Losing the competition meant Aramis’s execution. If I won, Aramis would be freed and I would win his heart.
Eyes open, I saw only the bulls-eye of the post. I pulled my arm back. Aramis’s life hung on the line. I had to make this throw. The axe flew head over handle and hit the outer edge of the bulls-eye. Good enough to count full points. Whew. Two more throws to free Aramis.
Phillip and Jimmy cheered; Mikey raised his glass to me.
“Lucky throw,” Ricky said. He stepped to the line with less swagger and heaved the axe at the post. It hit and stuck in one of the outer rings.
“One throw and already his confidence is blown,” Mikey scoffed.
I didn’t have to be so accurate this throw but Aramis depended on me. No way would I let him down. Ricky might be trying to lure me into a false sense of security. A perfect throw would prove to Aramis how much I loved him and wanted him to be free.
I focused on the post. I reached back and released the axe a moment sooner than I had the first one. This time the line was better. I hit the heart of the bulls-eye. Aramis, watching from the tower where he was held captive, smiled down on me, knowing I loved him and that he would soon be free.
“You’re being coached, aren’t you?” Ricky growled.
I shrugged. “I might be.”
“Not fair. You should have said something when I challenged you.”
Being coached wasn’t cheating, was it? “You never made it a condition of the challenge. In fact I seem to recall you thought you had the upper hand because you’d practiced.”
He huffed and puffed for a moment. “I declare this competition forfeit on the grounds of unfair advantage.”
“Oh come on, Ricky. Don’t be an elf,” Patrick called out. “You took the risk when you challenged and didn’t set out the terms. The rules state no additions to terms can be made during a contest.”
The onlookers chanted, “Throw! Throw! Throw!”
I considered making a bad throw to restore some of Ricky’s ego. But dwarves don’t lose anything on purpose, particularly a contest of strength and skill. Besides, Aramis needed me to finish this and win it for him.
“Fine.” Ricky took his time setting up and focusing on the post.
“Throw the bloody axe already,” someone yelled from the back of the crowd.
I agreed. He was playing a mind game, trying to rattle me so I would lose the contest, and Aramis. I shivered and I waited. Aramis blew me a kiss that warmed me from head to toe. I would wait as long as I had to.
Eventually Ricky threw. He kept himself straighter and tighter, a much better line, the way I remembered it being last time. He hit a middle ring, second from the bulls-eye. After he retrieved his axe, he glared at me.
The cold might be good for throwing axes, but I had stiffened up while waiting. I stretched my neck, rotated my shoulders, and flexed my arms the way Mikey had taught me. I wanted to get this competition over with so I could go inside and warm up with some ale before heading home.
I focused. One more throw for Aramis. His life rested in my hands. One more throw and his heart would be mine. His powerful yet thin arms would be around me, I could gaze into his sapphire blue eyes as he kissed me ever so gently.
Right. Don’t think about his eyes, focus on the target or I’d lose Aramis forever.
I hurled the axe. I’d released a fraction too soon. I could only hope as it flew from my hand. I managed to hit the first ring away from the bulls-eye. Not perfect, but I had won. I had freed Aramis, and he loved me.
Ricky pushed his way into the tavern. He hadn’t even grudgingly congratulated me. I didn’t care. Phillip and Jimmy were beside me shoving tankards of ale at me. Everyone else surrounded me, hustling me inside as they shouted their congratulations.
“What about her?” someone behind me said.
“Who, the axe thrower?” his friend asked.
“Yeah. She’s interested.”
Oh. I guess Mikey was right. Maybe axe throwing was a marketable skill after all. This would make Da happy.
His friend chuckled. “I don’t think so.”
“Too skinny and the most pitiful beard I’ve ever seen. She can throw, but I doubt she can do anything else. Her friend, though, is perfect. Where is she?”
“She’s out with someone.”
Seriously? Did he not just see me throw? Did he think I came in here by mistake? Didn’t he see me with Mikey and Patrick? I am a miner. I am a Goldenaxe for crying out loud. That should be more than enough for anyone.
I’d like to stomp his ass in the throwing arena.
I downed five tankards of ale in quick succession. What was the point of eating and mining and strength training if I would never look right? I could only hope not every fellow in Gilliam held the same opinion as that bloke. In the meantime, at least I had my Aramis who loved me, flaws and all.
Mikey and Patrick walked me home. More like they had to carry me—each holding an arm—as I swayed and stumbled so much from the drink.
“You held yourself well tonight,” Mikey said. “Tomorrow I’m moving the throwing line back a couple of feet.”
“Hey. Why don’t any other females throw axes?”
“They do, just not in Gilliam.”
“Why not? Is it repulsive to the males? Because I’m showing my strength and skill but no fellow is asking to court me. So maybe Da’s right. Maybe it’s the wrong thing to do to find a mate.” I stubbed my toe on a twig, tripping. They held me firm.
“Easy there,” Patrick said. “You’ve won yourself a lot of admirers tonight. Male ones, if you didn’t notice.”
“So why aren’t any of them asking to court me?”
“Most of us males are slow at deciding if we are interested in mating, and even slower at doing something about it if we are,” Mikey said. “Don’t worry. You’ve only just reached mateable age. Like I told Da when I started coaching you, you have several years to find a good mate.”
“No, I don’t. I have to find one now, or I’ll be like Mam, too old to have as many dwarflings as I can.”
“There is no such thing as being too old. And Mam certainly was not,” Patrick said.
“Well she must have been because she’s dead. Mams don’t leave their families unless they die.”
We turned the corner to walk up the path to our home. Patrick lowered his voice. “No, Mabel. Mam isn’t dead.”
I stopped moving and slid to the ground. She had to be. If she were alive, she’d be with us. “Then where is she?”
“We don’t know,” Patrick said as he and Mikey picked me up.
“Forget about Mam. She isn’t worth thinking about,” Mikey said, glaring at Patrick.
“Why?” Had she been banished and we were all forbidden to talk about her?
“She just isn’t.” Mikey opened the door.
What had she done to get banished? “But—”
Mikey frowned and Patrick shook his head. The subject was closed. At least I knew this much now. I wouldn’t give up asking. I’d bide my time. When the right moment came, I’d pounce.