Aailaine awoke to find the city in chaos.
Hvidr burst into her room as Aailaine woke up violently and the dwarf quickly yanked her out of the bed. Before she could even ask what was happening, Hvidr pulled her quiver from underneath the bed. She glanced around for a bow, but upon not finding one, looked at Aailaine questioningly.
“It got broken a couple of months ago by some people harassing me.” Aailaine admitted, sliding on the boots Hvidr had tossed her way. “I’ve been saving up to buy a new one. But how did you even know-”
Hvidr promptly began to curse as Aailaine fixed her hair and fasten the quiver around her waist. “...guofi Hebu kodad ritye! I’m sorry, but we don’t really have time for this. Let’s hope Rfkr has a replacement for you.”
“Hvidr, what’s going on?” Aailaine tried to pull away from Hvidr’s grip as she pulled her out of the house, but the dwarf’s grip was strong. Hvidr picked up the war hammer she had left by the door and fastened it to her back. It was at that moment Aailaine noticed the armored breastplate Hvidr was wearing, bearing the insignia of the Nivim clan.
“The Shadows are attacking Mathydar, and while the main of my clan is on their way, there are too few of us here to fend them off for long. All thanks to the Stryn and their stupid rules.” Hvidr admitted, rushing Aailaine out of the crevice as another group of dwarves rushed past them, heading toward the western side of the city. “We could’ve had a decent force here if not for them. We need to find Rfkr and get you out of here.”
“The…the Shadows?” A wave of fear washed over Aailaine. The Shadows were twisted beings, only shreds of their former selves. They attacked and preyed on the other races of A’sthy, instilling terror and fear with their very name. Aailaine desperately wished her bow hadn’t been broken as she followed Hvidr through the chaotic city. While the few soldiers quickly moved to the west side of the city, other dwarves and deep dwellers alike scurried into their homes.
Hvidr led Aailaine toward the heart of the city, weaving their way through the caverns and tunnels, taking shelter in a crevice or abandoned dwelling anytime someone other than a Nivim dwarf passed. Aailaine began to question why, but Hvidr always silenced her words. Eventually the dome of the Threrayrt came into view, the gem room shining brilliantly despite the chaos beneath it. Lying in the street beneath it was the crumpled form of a familiar figure.
“Rfkr!” Aailaine stepped from behind Hvidr and ran forward, taking the old dwarf into her arms. Blood began to soak into her shirt and trousers as tears poured down her cheeks. Rfkr sank into her embrace, no longer able to support himself. “Why are you here? You should’ve been in Slalan; you said so!”
“The Viwl were the ones who sent the warning. The Shadows were coming, had to make sure you were safe…” He was bleeding from several different wounds, and even Aailaine knew he wouldn’t survive until help arrived. Rfkr coughed and pointed toward the large brown pack that he had been attempting to move, covered in his blood. Hvidr went to inspect the pack as giant tears rolled down Aailaine’s face. The old dwarf meant more to her than any father ever could and yet she could do nothing to save him.
“Rfkr….” Aailaine’s voice came out choked as she tried to stop crying over the old dwarf’s body, closing her eyes to try and stop the tears. The old dwarf groaned and coughed more blood before sighing deeply. Aailaine opened her eyes to see a slight smile on Rfkr’s face before he met her gaze, a strong determination in his eyes.
“You have to be strong now, Aailaine. I have fulfilled the task your mother asked of me, and I have lived a fuller life than most. Don’t cry over an old miser like me.” Rfkr looked past Aailaine to Hvidr, who nodded and handed him his sword. Aailaine looked at the blade in surprise as Hvidr handed it to Rfkr; she hadn’t noticed that Hvidr had grabbed it as they ran out of the dwelling.
“You’re a liar, you know that?” Hvidr punched Rfkr’s shoulder lightly, and he returned the favor, hitting her with the hilt of his sword. “At least have your blade with you before you try to fight.”
“Why, when I think I did just fine without it.” The old dwarf laughed as he lifted his sword, smiling at the two women. “Now go Hvidr, take Aailaine out of here. I’ll see if I can’t take more of those Shadow heiirmeia with me.”
“C’mon Aailaine. We don’t have much time.” Hvidr shoved the bloody pack into Aailaine’s hands. Aailaine carefully slung the pack on her back and glanced at Rfkr once last time. The dwarf’s eyes were surprisingly full of vigor, although he kept shaking his head, holding on to life as hard as he could.
“Rea kodad beirz, Rfkr.” Aailaine turned and ran to catch up with Hvidr, who began toward a tunnel Aailaine had never noticed. After Aailaine entered, Hvidr pulled a switch, blocking the entrance with a giant rock.
“That should buy us a little bit of time.” Hvidr placed her hand on the giant stone and lingered on the rock for a moment. Aailaine thought she might be holding back tears as Hvidr’s hand slowly dropped away. Breathing deeply and straightening herself, the dwarf turned and took the lead. Aailaine followed closely, tracking their progress by counting the Elddess lamps they passed. The dark spaces between the lanterns caused Aailaine to become filled with fear and she stayed very close to her dwarven guide. All the while she lead, Hvidr spoke to herself softly and tossed her war hammer between her two hands. Although Aailaine was curious to know what Hvidr was saying, she remained silent.
After the twelfth lantern, the dwarf paused, leaning against the wall. She slowly lowered herself to the ground and sat against it. “We’ll rest here for a moment. We should be far enough ahead that we could afford a small break.”
Aailaine remained standing, staring into the darkness from whence they came. Hvidr watched her for a moment and then took a swig from the container she had on her person. She offered some to Aailaine, who refused.
“Take this time to unpack that.” Hvidr motioned to the pack Aailaine carried. “That pack should have everything you’re going to need to face what’s ahead of you.”
Aailaine finally sat down and spread the pack before her as Hvidr pulled out her ponytail and closed her eyes, her long red hair shielding her face. The largest item was a large black bow, with silver runes that danced and pulsed down its length. Aailaine traced the runes with her finger, and the shapes grew brighter with her touch. The bowstring was made from twisting the hair from a black totiriel and even Aailaine knew it was made by elves. As she plucked it, a residual “twang” resounded through the tunnel and Hvidr sighed.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she examined the rest of the contents. With the bow were two large pouches: a pouch of money, more than twice the amount she had saved up, and a pouch of various jewels. The jewels were of great quality and she could sell any of them for a high price. Among the money and jewels were a few scattered bottles of smibi, easily a season’s worth.
“Hm, I suppose that’s enough of a rest.” Hvidr stood, stretching her limbs. She redid her hair, tucking in the loose strands and began to start off again when Aailaine caught her arm.
“No, I want answers. Explain to me where you’re taking me, or who the dragon woman I saw earlier was.” Aailaine stared at her, the tears still flowing from her eyes. “I need to know why Rfkr died.”
Hvidr raised an eyebrow and twisting her arm, easily broke free of Aailaine’s grip. After repacking Rfkr’s gifts and tossing the large pack in the girl’s lap, she grabbed Aailaine’s shirt and angrily pulled her close. With their faces close enough to kiss, Aailaine noticed the tears in Hvidr’s eyes that she refused to let flow.
“If you value the life of Rfkr and everyone else who is dying for that life of yours, you will keep going.” Hvidr’s voice was deep and full of anger as she softly spoke to Aailaine. Compared to the dwarf’s unnerving tone, Aailaine wished Hvidr would’ve just raised her voice and yelled at her. “To be honest, I don’t know why any of this is happening, but I value that stubborn fool’s life enough to do this last thing for him.”
Hvidr made as if to drag her on the ground until with a heavy sigh, Aailaine stood. She slid the bow into her quiver and slung the bloody pack over her shoulder and resumed counting the lamps as she walked behind the female dwarf.
After the thirtieth lamp, Aailaine’s patience had reached its end and her curiousity was getting the best of her. Crossing her arms, she sighed as she walked behind Hvidr. “Can’t we at least talk while we walk? You have to know something.”
“It’s not much.” Hvidr admitted, not missing a step. The anger had faded from her voice, but she still sounded annoyed with Aailaine’s pestering. “If you really want answers, wait until we reach the trolls.”
“Trolls?!” Aailaine nearly tripped on her own feet in surprise. “I thought you were trying to save my life, not kill me!”
“Hmph, shows how well deep-dweller education has failed you.” Hvidr scoffed, shaking her head. “At least I can fill you on that.”
“Nowadays, few beings even believe in the existence of deep-dwellers outside of these mountains. The deep-dwellers cut off all ties to outside, so other races grew to believe that we wiped them out during the Tolsan Conflict. The trolls I’m taking you to, however, were close with Rfkr and are aware of your upbringing. They won’t harm you.” Hvidr paused, taking another swig of her drink. This time when she offered Aailaine some, the girl accepted, realizing with disappointment that it was only water. “Most other trolls won’t even realize you’re a deep-dweller. If anything, they’ll probably think you as a plainsfolk, especially with your complexion.”
“What even am I?” Aailaine asked timidly, handing Hvidr back her water.
“I don’t know, but you’re not from Tolsan. Your mother brought you here to hide you from the outside world, that dragon woman arriving shortly after her death. I don’t know any more than that.” Hvidr sighed, staring into her water before putting it away. “Rfkr is… was the one with all the answers, and he was supposed to be the one to bring you to the trolls if anything happened. However, that task now falls to me.”
“Did all the dwarves know? Is that why you all were so kind to me?” Aailaine stopped in her tracks, staring at her feet. Hvidr paused to look back at her and sighed with annoyance again.
“No, only Rfkr and I knew. I only know because I insisted on him telling me. As a whole, we may tend to not like other races, but we don’t forget our debts. You saved the SkiRyldes of the Stryn and helped the Viwl Hongekako when the stone wouldn’t listen. You even proved yourself a warrior to my clan.” Hvidr started walking again. “You earned our respect and kindness and so it was given.”
Aailaine began to mull over what Hvidr said as she walked quickly to catch up to the she-dwarf. She knew so little of the woman Rfkr had called Kleia, and even less about the dragon woman. “Hvidr, did you know my mother?”
“No, I never even saw her.” Hvidr shrugged. “Rfkr told me what I needed to know in case it fell to me to take you and as fate would have it, it has. I do know that when she died, she was encased in a sapphire tomb deep in the Fourth Crypt. She’s one of the few to actually have their body there.”
“Wait, the Fourth Crypt? Was she not human? Why not the deep-dweller Crypt? Why did Rfkr-” Hvidr huffed, shooting Aailaine another glance, causing the girl to pause in her questions.
“You know that the Fourth Crypt is for those the dwarves hold in high enough regard to be buried in a jeweled tomb. Your mother was highly enough regarded in these mountains to have one made for her, although no one thought she would ever inhabit it.” Hvidr sighed, glancing into the oncoming darkness as Aailaine mumbled. “I don’t know why Rfkr never took you to see her, but I think he didn’t want to remember her as anything other than the woman he knew. When he used to talk about her-”
“Rfkr used to talk?! About Kleia?!”
“He wasn’t always a bitter old man, Aailaine.”
Aailaine wasn’t satisfied with the answer but gave up her interrogation. At least now she knew where her mother was buried and she vowed to return to Mathydar to visit her mother’s tomb.
Aailaine followed silently behind Hvidr as they continued to pass the twilight lamps. After what seemed like an eternity, the moon’s soft light appeared in their path and a cool breeze brushed against her face. Hvidr’s pace picked up as they neared the exit, and the silver light stung Aailaine’s poor eyes as she stumbled out into the open air. Hvidr merely rubbed her eyes and continued walking into the cool autumn air of the plains. Aailaine attempted to follow, her eyes barely open as they tried to adjust to the soft moonlight.
“Hvidr! Hvidr wait!” she called out, rubbing her eyes again. Hvidr seemed to pay her no heed and continued getting further and further away from her. “Hvidr, I can’t-”
Her sentence was cut short as her half-blinded eyes caused her to run into a tree. She rubbed her stubborn eyes for a final time and managed to open them fully. That’s when she noticed her tree was wearing a long kilt and was covered in hair instead bark. Startled, Aailaine stumbled back and tripped, landing on her backside.
That’s when Aailaine realized her tree was actually a troll.
 Damn those stupid Deep Dwellers
 I’m sorry