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Shadow Ruins, Book One - The Crystal of Glath
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-520-7
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Fantasy/SF/Medieval
eBook Length: 309 Pages
Published: December 2007



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Total Readers: 1

From inside the flap

The Crystal of Glath has been rediscovered . . . by a direct descendent of Afner Thimlock, the great dwarven general! Daelin may not be a warrior himself, but when troll-slayer, Ancor Grelin, joins him on his quest for knowledge regarding the ancient stone, the simple crafter finds his prospects brightening. They are even brighter when the famous Feligrim brothers, Telitar and Hendol, join the cause. Finally, Alufin Antaneum, his best friend in the world, decides to go along for the jaunt.

The world of Lartoria is large and dangerous, as soon becomes apparent to the quintet of dwarven adventurers. As they travel from military outpost to neighboring realm, they begin to piece together a growing concern. In the south, on the old, scorched battlefields of Eridach, the first rumblings of movement can be glimpsed. The ancient home of Ryaarth, the Shadow Mage of Zoe Meace, has become a hotbed of activity recently. Is this a direct result of the reemergence of the Crystal of Glath?

Book One of the Shadow Ruins series follows the exploits of the dwarves and their human companion, Drestus, as they attempt to reach the ruins of the city of Glath, birthplace of the Crystal. They discover that its history is shrouded in death and mayhem, as each and every city that has hosted its presence has been eventually reduced to dust and ruin.

Should the Shadow Mage wrest control of the ancient talisman from the hands of the dwarf, Daelin, Lartoria’s people may be utterly doomed. The race to the Ruins of Glath is on . . . but will they reach them in time?


Shadow Ruins, Book One - The Crystal of Glath (Excerpt)


The Shrine of Acleron

Alufin Antaneum’s first trip to the Shrine proved remarkable. Not only had he seen the Book of Grelin, but he had also actually touched the breastplate and helmet of Acleron’s greatest warrior, Quamar.

The middle-aged dwarf was awed by the splendour of the Shrine. Hewed into the living rock of the mountain, Nendall, the majesty of the display was tenfold inspiring. The entranceway to the Shrine could be viewed from a quarter league away and as he had approached early this morning, it was all Alufin could do to contain his giddiness and excitement.

There was no fee to enter this most magnificent of places; neither were there guards. It had been a tradition of the dwarf people to keep this holy place free of the trappings of war in honour of the peace and restfulness of the dead. In particular, the tranquillity of Quamar was foremost in significance, for it was Quamar, himself, who had freed the dwarves from the tyranny of the dragons of Ablorsur. And although that event took place over four hundred years ago, the pride of the dwarvish people remained swelling in their breasts.

Alufin wandered about the halls of the Shrine and took his time to read all of the plaques of information regarding the history of the Acleron warriors. The halls, carved by many generations of dwarven crafters, were still presently under construction. Each subsequent generation added to the Shrine as the long list of great protectors grew ever longer. The hundred-foot-high ceilings, supported by the eloquently fashioned columns, were lighted by the phosphorescent mould of the fencloven bush, a plant that exclusively inhabited the shores of the Scoll Sea. Some of the displays were extremely antiquated, but one could not see this, as each of the sections of the Shrine was assigned a separate and dedicated caretaker.

Alufin was alone in this part of the Shrine at the moment and the sounds of his footfalls echoed in slow cadence. As he viewed the maps of Lartoria, he heard the distant footsteps of another, approaching from his right.

"This place is boring me!" shouted his friend, Thein Daelin. The slightly smaller dwarf, wearing a grey-blue cloak and adorned with a short blond beard, shuffled toward Alufin, who was now scowling at his friend’s impatience.

"I told you what this place was like," retorted Alufin as he finished viewing the map. "You chose to come anyway."

"I know," answered Thein. "What must have I been thinking?"

"Well, I happen to be only half-finished with my tour," replied Alufin. "If you wish, you may travel back to Acleron by yourself. I will meet you there tonight."

"You promised that we would be stopping at the tavern for ale," whined the other. "How can I drink by myself?"

"Then wait for me outside," answered Alufin.

"How long shall I have to wait?"

"I will be done in two hours," said Alufin and turned to walk away.

"Two hours!" shouted Thein in dismay. "What shall I do for two hours?"

"You might wish to educate yourself, Thein," came back Alufin, who was becoming extremely agitated at this point. He adjusted his green cloak and ambled over to the next display.

"Educate myself?" mumbled Thein. "I have already been through school. My education is at its highest standard."

"I wish I could say such of your maturity," shot back Alufin.

Thein was irritated and shuffled away from the display, looking up at the glowing ceiling. As he wove between the pillars, his eyes dropped and fixed upon a spot in the dim distance across the cavernous hall. There, amongst the dimly lighted displays, he noted a different hue in the gleaming of silvre and bronze. It was a light of indistinct colour, but one that appeared to fluctuate between the defined spectrum of shades.

Drawn toward it, he began to note a prickly sensation on his skin, one that appeared to make the hair in his beard and on his arms become raised. His eyes were fixed on the dazzling display as he drew nearer. Finally, he had reached it and abruptly halted. A shield of mithril was mounted to the wall. On the shield was hammered a series of words in the ancient dwarven language and a javelin was piercing the breast of a hideous serpent. To either side of the shield, also mounted to the stone wall, was a magnificently crafted double-bladed battleax. They appeared to be twin weapons. Below this wall display was a small wooden table with a white rabbit pelt adorning its surface. Upon the fur was placed a simply carved wooden pipe, a hunting knife, and a belt of leather. The brilliance of light, however, was being supplied by a curious looking crystal gem, the size of a plum, which was resting upon the fur next to the pipe. Below the table, a placard in modern dwarf runes read:

Afner Thimlock

Afner Thimlock of the Roat Mountains emigrated to Acleron in

1079 and began training the personal army of King Minilfren.

In 1106, he led a battalion to Serinephis (Midlem Finth of old)

and destroyed the invading army of Aweowne. During his

exploits, he slew the great ogre, Norgrom the Black, whose

immense skull is mounted near the entranceway to this Shrine. Afner

Thimlock’s only surviving possessions are his shield (which

bears his family crest) twin battleaxes, his favourite smoking

pipe, hunting knife, belt (made from the hide of the dragon,

Korbo-Donegrotos) and the multi-faceted crystal of the Foth

Desert, recovered in the Troll Shaws of Rantis. Afner

Thimlock was slain during the Battle of 1232 against the

Dragons of Ablorsur, where he was said to have personally

slain four ancient wyrms.

After reading the plaque, Thein’s eyes rose to find the crystal where it lay upon the table. Staring for what seemed hours, Thein reached forward uncertainly and then paused. His eyes darted around him, piercing the murkiness of the vast hall, but no one was near. Fixing his gaze back upon the gemstone, he reached forward again and, this time, touched it. As he did so, his eyes were forced to close as the brilliance of the crystal’s light become unbearable to his sight.

Thein’s fingers closed about the warm stone and the heat of the gem travelled up his arm and into his chest. Soon, the warmth had filled him and he opened his eyes to peer at the crystal sitting in the palm of his hand. It was heavy, but quickly lost its weight as the light dimmed and went out entirely. As the display became dark again, the phosphorescence above appearing inadequate against the former brilliance of the stone, Thein noted that the crystal now seemed nearly weightless.

Looking around himself one last time, he pocketed the gem and backed away from the display quickly. Turning, he strode expeditiously back across the expanse of the Shrine toward the area where he last saw his friend, Alufin.

Alufin had been gazing in the distance at the flash of lightning that caused all manner of shadows to flee in this holiest of places. Then the light was gone, extinguished almost as quickly as it had appeared. He began to move in the direction whence the light had originated and spied Thein in the dimness, walking quickly toward him.

"Hullo, Thein!" he shouted at his friend and waved his arms over his head.

Thein stopped, appearing stunned and resumed his gait.

"What was that flash of light?" Alufin asked, as Thein grew nearer.

"I do not know," answered Thein as he looked back, feigning confusion.

"Yes, it was just there and then died," continued Alufin. "Did you not see it? It was brilliant. Lighted the entire Shrine."

"No, I did not," replied Thein, seemingly unconcerned.

"Well, I must go and have a look," said the green-cloaked dwarf. "I would not want to miss out on some wonderful display of prisms and such."

"I am going to wait outside, Alufin."

"If you must," replied Alufin as he waved and continued walking to the other side of the hall.

Thein hurried through the halls and past the many displays as he saw the exit mouth looming in the distance. As he reached the last display, he saw the thirty-foot-high carved stone archway and its black tunnel beyond that led to the surface. Quickly, he plunged into the darkness of the tunnel, relying on his excellent underground vision to wend his way through to the exit.

The darkness brightened and, at last, he was back on the surface world. He emerged from the enormous doorway that opened from the mountainside in the form of a tremendous dragon’s mouth. The huge platform of stone spread out beyond the entrance and led to a stone railing that overlooked the plains below. A wide stair led down to the foothills of the mountain, Nendall, and beyond to the plains of Orphis.

Thein breathed in the fresh air and shivered slightly as he sat down next to the large skull of Norgrom the Black. All at once, he began to tremble uncontrollably.

Alufin reached the far wall of the hall and searched the displays in good order. He read each of the plaques and perused the items and weapons. When he reached the display of Afner Thimlock, he took notice of the absence of the crystal mentioned in the narrative and looked around the display to ensure that he had not overlooked it. When he was positive that the gem was, indeed, missing from the display, he went on to the next and wound his way eventually back to the exit.

Following a quick run-through of the Shrine, to make certain that he had not missed anything, Alufin departed the halls and made his way to the surface.

When he reached the dragon’s mouth opening to the Shrine, he noticed that Thein was not waiting. Alufin concluded that his friend had decided to travel back to Acleron without him and began descending the thousand steps to the foothills of Nendall.

Thein rested on a boulder after his arduous climb down the many hundreds of steps and felt the sweat running down his brow and neck. Reaching slowly into his pocket, he touched the gemstone and rolled its multi-faceted surface over his fingertips. He did not understand what had urged him to steal it, or even why the object had lost its brilliance after he had touched it. The simple fact was that he now secretly harboured a relic of significant historical importance and all the spirits within that Shrine knew that he was the thief.

These thoughts swirled around in his mind as he continued to roll the crystal over his fingertips, losing time. Why? Why had he been compelled to steal it?

Suddenly, he heard a distant clatter of foot on stone and looked upward toward the stair. His eyes came to rest upon Alufin, descending the steps in a slow manner, a walking stick in his left hand.

"Ah, there you are," blurted Alufin with a smile. "I see you have decided to wait for the tavern visit, after all."

Thein smiled reflexively and stood.

"Ale is just not the same without a friend to drink it with you," answered Thein as he removed his hand from his pocket.

"Queer thing, though," Alufin started with a loss of his smile as he jumped down from the last step.

"What is?"

"Of all the displays in the Shrine, there was one that was incompleat," answered Alufin with a puzzled look.

"How so?" Thein asked with a loss of his smile as well.

"Afner Thimlock, a warrior from the west, supposedly discovered a crystal of some sort in the Troll Shaws," he explained. "Yet, when I attempted to locate that object in the display, it was not there."

Thein merely looked away in silence, as if interested in getting on with their trek. Alufin shrugged and clapped his friend on the shoulder.

"Let us go, my friend."

"Yes," answered Thein quietly.

The Obnoxious Goblin Inn (better known by local inhabitants as the "Ob-Gob") was somewhat busy when Alufin and Thein arrived there in the early evening. The crowd was familiar and the two made their normal rounds of "hullos" before nestling into comfortable wooden chairs and ordering their customary dwarvish pints (which actually resembled tankards the size of small barrels). Alufin unwrapped his pouch of pipeweed and used a candle on the table to light his elabourately carved clay pipe while Thein seemed oddly removed.

Drinking thoughtfully from his tankard, Alufin puffed on his pipe and blew the smoke past his brown moustache and beard.

"You seem preoccupied with other business, Thein," he began as he tapped the table to the beat of the lute music being played by the human minstrel near the fireplace. Thein looked up briefly before smiling weakly.

"Nonsense, friend," he replied. "I am tired from the day’s journey to the Shrine."

"Are you certain?"

"Very much certain," Thein said as he patted Alufin’s forearm. "There is a lot of work to be done on the temple doors and I have been behind schedule for their completion."

"Ah…work," answered Alufin with a nod as he looked away to blow more smoke. Drinking deeply another draught from the tankard, Alufin reflected on the day. "The Shrine…what did you think?"

Thein drank and wiped his beard with a sleeve.

"It was boring," he replied without a blink of the eye, to which Alufin chuckled. Thein smiled.

"Mincing words is not one of your skills," laughed Alufin. Thein smiled, momentarily forgetting the gemstone in his pocket.

"I apologize, Alufin," elucidated Thein. "I know that you are interested in all our history being the chief builder to the king, but I have never appreciated the tales as much as I expect I should. Perhaps that is the reason I am working on the temple doors and you on the king’s throne room." Alufin was shaking his head slowly.

"Nonsense, friend," he answered as he tapped out his pipe with the heel of his thick hand. "You have talents for stone well beyond my reach. Perhaps the clerics did not trust me with their doors and sought someone with a finer touch and keener eye."

"You give me too much credit, Alufin," replied Thein. "Do not worry for my sentiments. I am not unhappy working for the temple clerics. They treat me with enough respect. And I am much content with my lot."

"You do not credit yourself enough, young dwarf," answered Alufin as he pointed the stem of his pipe into Thein’s chest. Thein stood slowly and stretched.

"Alas, I am weary and must bid you farewell for the night."

"But you have only had one pint," Alufin protested as he looked up in disappointment.

"Aye, but I have to rise rather early on the morn and I dare not be late," said Thein with a nod of his head. "The high priest will be there tomorrow to view my progress. I would not wish to be with the sickness of too much ale."

"Very well, Thein, good eve to you…and sleep well," answered Alufin. "I will catch up on gossip with Derapor and Kiosop. Perhaps I can find out if there will soon be new granite or marble brought up from the mines."

"Good night, my friend."

Thein walked slowly along the cobbled road, drawing closer to the entrance of the mighty dwarven fortress city of Acleron. The outer city served as a façade for the real community within the mountainside. Several regiments of dwarven soldiers were stationed on the outer battlement walls and within the many guardhouses that dotted the marketplace, taverns and inns. The outer walls were thirty feet in thickness and forty feet high, chiefly consisting of basalt and granite. The stone gates of the city operated on gargantuan pulley systems designed specifically for use within these walls. The tops of the battlement walls sloped outward, so that adversary forces scaling the walls would, in essence, be climbing upward and backward simultaneously. This produced a most difficult battlement to breach.

Every thirty-foot length of the parapet met with another watchtower where soldiery stood ready with crossbows and throwing axes. The walled city was situated twelve hundred feet above the plains below, reached only by one reinforced road leading directly to the front gates. On every side of the fortress (save the mountain-facing northern edge of the city) lay a sheer precipitous drop to the sparse forests below.

Even if the defenders were unable to hold the front gate, and the siege forces entered into the towering arch beneath the wall, they would find nothing save death there as murder holes had been fashioned every five feet to the left, right and above. As enemy forces entered, they must survive dropping boulders, searing hot oil and crossbow bolts from every conceivable direction, only to stand in the end baffled by the great forged iron portcullis.

As Thein walked along the wall, safely within the sealed city, he gazed up at the three half moons in the dark skies. The stars twinkled with a keen bluish light and Thein’s hand went suddenly into his pocket where he found the crystal. Suddenly, he halted and brought the gem out of his cloak and into the light of the moons. The many facets sparkled with life and he became entranced by its natural beauty. There was a sudden shout as a drunken group of dwarves began departing the Obnoxious Goblin, singing loudly about working in the forges.

Thein stowed the crystal quickly back into the folds of his clothing and hastened home. The singing of the intoxicated dwarves faded away as he approached the inner city regions.

Two roving guards passed Thein in the street and he waved nonchalantly in their direction. They acknowledged Thein as well, but barely noticed him. Winding his way upward, he finally reached one of the inner city gates and walked through, entering the mountain’s belly. There was much more bustle here than in the open city marketplace, even for this late time of the evening, for dwarves from many different reaches of the city congregated here to bid on work or to buy, trade or exchange items of interest. Dwarves tended to barter in the evening more than in the morning, leaving the afternoons for ale and relaxation. Mornings and early evenings were the times for work and, of course, late night was the time for much revered slumbre.

Thein hailed a few of his neighbours as he worked through the crowds toward his home. As he began to descend deeper into the mountain, the crowds became sparse, but the great cavern walls began to show openings. The openings were tunnels leading to all the different dwellings of that particular region, reached only by long ladders of oak.

As he approached a ladder and climbed, he realised that he had forgotten to eat this evening, his mind revolving constantly around thoughts of the crystal ever since he first set eyes upon it. Odd, he thought, for him to forget to eat. Eating, after all, was one of his favourite pastimes.

Approaching the top of the ladder, he climbed onto the platform that stood before the large opening. Then, entering into the blackened corridor, he quietly found the door to his home and opened it, the inviting scent of freshly roasted pheasant wafting to him from his neighbour’s nearby dwelling.

Thein’s hand removed the wondrous gemstone from his cloak and he placed it upon the table in his pantry. As he undressed and made himself comfortable, he continued to gaze at the strange crystal. It appeared that this stone drew his stare no matter where he walked within the room. That thought was unsettling and he wondered if this new phenomenon was not the start of a life of thievery. He hoped that there would be resolution in his mind on the morrow.

Placing the crystal on his bedside table, he climbed under the blankets and stared at the gem. Before long, his eyes had closed and dreams overtook his sleep.

Thein looked out upon the battlefield as Afner Thimlock strode slowly toward him, clad in his gold breastplate and his twin battleaxes held in each hand. The smoke of the fires that burned upon the fields obscured his face, yet his eyes were like bluish stars twinkling in the darkness. Soon, he was there before Thein, breathing heavily, his weapons coated in blood and the odour of perspiration soaking his clothes and armour. Thein watched as the great dwarven warrior thrust one of his battleaxes into the scorched earth and slowly put forward his hand, as if asking for something.

Thein’s hand fell immediately into his pocket and he reached around for the gemstone; but it was not there.

Awakening from the dream with the sound of hammers banging, Thein realized by the light coming into his cave region that he was late for work at the temple.

The clerics were gathered round the entrance to the temple of Kardun as Thein hurriedly arrived with his rolled bundle of hammers and chisels. Kardun, one of the chief deities of the dwarven people, sat on his throne to the right of the doorway in large fashion, a twenty-two-foot high statue with eyes that did not look up and outward, but downward. This was not to gaze upon his dwarven worshippers, but rather to ensure that the earth below his feet was stable and well maintained; for the rock and earth and mountain were his domain.

The clerics noticed Thein’s arrival and immediately ceased their quiet chatter, parting the way for him to witness that the high priest was speaking in soft tones to another crafter/builder named Norin. As Thein drew closer, Norin’s gaze rose to capture Thein’s worried face. The high priest perceived this and turned.

Thein came to a quick halt and bowed low.

"My apologies, your lordship, but I was on vigil* last eve and, alas, slept through my normal hour of awakening."

* When a dwarf mourns the passing of a close friend or relative, it is called vigil.

Remaining bowed with his head toward the ground, Thein chastised himself for lying to a high priest.

"For whom, may I inquire, were you on vigil, master dwarf?" asked the high priest in a clouded voice, giving the impression of illness.

"For ― for ― Afner ― Afner Thimlock, your lordship," Thein stammered. Finally, he raised his head since the aged cleric appeared to have forgotten the custom of relieving Thein of his salutative gesture.

"Afner…" began the high priest, "…Thimlock?" The cleric turned to the young dwarf next to him and gave him a confused look.

"I believe…" began Norin, "…Afner Thimlock was a great warrior."

Thein nodded and swallowed hard.

"Warrior," the high priest murmured. "Very well, young Thein, but be forewarned." He strode slowly toward Thein and raised his bejewelled hand. "If you are late for this project one more time, I will have you replaced and will ensure that the King hears of your improprieties."

"Thank you, lordship," Thein puffed with relief as he again averted his eyes and bowed his head.

"I must attend to other business," continued the high priest. "The doors are becoming somewhat of an eyesore. I am certain that you will do your utmost to compleat them in a most professional and expedient manner."

"They will be completed within the fortnight," stated Thein, secretly knowing that this time frame was probably impossible to follow.

The high priest lowered his eyes and hobbled carefully away from Thein and Norin and began talking more congenially to the other clerics.

"Thank you," said Thein as he looked at a quiet Norin.

"For what?" Norin answered, genuinely bewildered.

"For not telling the high priest that this job will probably take longer to compleat," elucidated Thein.

"I told his lordship that you should be relegated to other work," replied Norin without a deviation in the tone of his voice. "I told him that I wished to finish the work on the temple doors."

Thein stared at the younger dwarf in disbelief.

"I do not believe that you deserve another chance," he finished. Turning, Norin strode off as he shook his head in frustration. Thein was stunned, but managed to mustre his strength of will to approach the doors and drop his bundle onto the ground. Steadying his ladder, he unrolled his bundle, chose one of the many finely crafted chisels and a very old blackened hammer and climbed the steps of wood.

"I will finish this job in a fortnight," he thought to himself as he raised the chisel and hammer and began his work.

Days passed and work on the temple doors went well. Thein had hardly enough time to visit the Obnoxious Goblin with his friend, Alufin, let alone go home to get some sleep. Nevertheless, he continued to push himself and work well into the night and obtained very little sleep. And what small amount of slumbre he did manage to get, was filled with dreams of Afner Thimlock and his relentless search for his crystal.

As the first week ended and the second began, Thein was sure that the temple doors would almost certainly be ready in two days. Excited to be nearing the end of a very tough job, Thein sought his companion, Alufin, at the king’s court and found him delegating work to a few artisans.

They met at the "Ob-Gob" later that evening and nestled into their favourite wooden chairs by the fireside. Norin happened to be there with some friends and saw Thein as he sipped his ale, but appeared to be enmeshed in another conversation and merely looked away unconcernedly. Alufin, who had noticed the snub, wondered aloud.

"What goes on there?"

Thein pretended not to notice.

"Trouble at the temple?" Alufin quipped and then chuckled.

"He told the high priest that I should be replaced on the job," Thein clarified, to which Alufin spurted suds from his pint tankard.

"And I suppose he has chosen himself as a replacement," Alufin blustered with a smile.

"Aye," Thein noted quietly. "He is right, though, friend. I was late to the temple the very day that the high priest had arrived."

"You have never been late," Alufin snorted as he looked back toward Norin, hoping that the much younger dwarf would reciprocate with a gaze.

"I was that day," replied Thein miserably. "The good tidings are that the doors will be compleated in two days’ time."

"There…you see?" perked up Alufin. "You are compleating the project and in efficient time. I knew you would be ―"
Alufin halted as he looked at Thein.

"By Grelin’s beard, boy!" he exclaimed. "Why are your eyes so . . ." He searched for the words as Thein tiredly watched him sputter.

"Speak, old dwarf," said Thein softly.

"You look ill," he stated finally.

"Nay, just tired," Thein replied. "I have not been sleeping well and it has ―"

"You are ill," Alufin forcefully maintained. "You are ill and you have been hiding it from everyone."

"No, Alufin, no," Thein answered with a soft laugh.

"Well, there’s something wrong with you," continued Alufin as he took his clay pipe from his vest and patted his pockets for his pipeweed. "No healthy dwarf has such careworn eyes at your age."

"Just tired, Alufin, that’s all."

Alufin lit his pipe and raised his arm, twitching his fingers to get the tavern keep’s attention. The very old dwarf saw his arm and nodded as he navigated through the sea of dwarves with handfuls of tankards.

"You should go to the healer and see if she has mushrooms or roots for your illness," Alufin went on, as if compleatly ignoring Thein’s testament to the contrary.

Thein suddenly felt odd and gazed around the room. His friend’s words garbled into nonsensical sounds and he became at once disoriented and dizzy. He found himself reaching into his pocket for the crystal, but his fingers found nothing. Like a blast of cold water on his face, he remembered leaving the stone on his bedside table. His eyes cleared and he stood quickly.

"What is it?" Alufin blurted, interrupting his story about one of his artisans. "Did Norin challenge you?" Alufin stood and looked in that direction, but Norin was not there.

"No, Alufin," began Thein. "I must go."

Alufin’s face soured and he squinted at Thein.

"Go?" he shouted. "This is the second time in a week that you are leaving the tavern first, friend. It is just damned unnatural!"

"I am truly sorry, Alufin, but I fear that I am in no condition to stay late," Thein explained, "…what with the temple doors and all."

"What about your oldest friend?" blustered Alufin. The tavern keep arrived with two new ales and placed them on the table. "You see, there…new ales!"

Thein patted his broad shoulder and bowed his head.

"Alas, I must go," he answered softly. Skirting the table, he walked through the mass of patrons quietly and deliberately.

"Fine!" Alufin spouted. "There is just more ale for me, then!" Alufin sat again and slid the two full tankards toward him. Then he gazed off in Thein’s direction as he departed the tavern and squinted with suspicion.

Thein’s arrival in his home was one of relief. He was not entirely sure why, but he felt the serenity of his home wash over him, particularly when he beheld the jewel upon his bedside table. Ambling over to the bed and sitting down slowly, watching the gem as it caught the shimmer of the candle he had lighted, Thein removed his boots and wiggled his toes in comfort.

Reaching forward, he picked up the gemstone and held it up by the candle. The many facets reflected dozens of tiny flaming images and he turned it in his fingers with fascination. A knock at the door rudely gave him a shudder and he dropped the stone onto the rug.

"Who is there?" he shouted as he stooped to recover the crystal.

"Me," came Alufin’s voice from outside the door. Pocketing the jewel, Thein walked to the door and opened it. Alufin stood there, breathing heavily.

"Let me guess," began Thein, "…I forgot to pay."

"You always forget to pay, friend," joked Alufin, eliciting a chuckle from Thein. His face changed suddenly. "May I speak with you?"

"Of course," Thein answered as he waved the older dwarf with the brown beard into his home.

Alufin paced across the room and sat down on a chair by a table. Thein followed and sat down across from him. Alufin immediately reached for his pipe and leaf. Thein realised that something was amiss. Alufin only smoked on two occasions: when he was relaxed and when he was agitated or worried. At the moment, Thein assessed that Alufin was anything but relaxed.

"What is wrong," Thein started the conversation.

"I am, uh, concerned," he answered, "…about you."

"Me?"

Alufin nodded slowly and lit his pipe with a nearby candle.

"I told you that I am not ill," Thein maintained. The older dwarf shook his head and squinted.

"I have known you for a hundred years and I am sure that there is something bothering you," Alufin replied. "Something, perhaps, you are unwilling to discuss… even with your best friend."

Thein shook his head slowly and looked about the room.

"I am sorry, friend, but no," Thein lied. "There is nothing."

Alufin nodded and smiled. "Very well, Thein…I shall take you at your word. But know that I am your friend and, as such, would like nothing more than to help you in your time of need."

Thein smiled.

"I know that, Alufin. I know."

"Right," Alufin said with a quick nod. "Well, then, I shall be off." He stood and slowly made his way toward the door. "By the way, what is that hideous reek?"

Thein looked down at his feet and wiggled his toes again.

"Might I remind you that the healer has quite a few remedies for reeking feet," Alufin said with a straight face.

"I know," laughed Thein. "Good night, you old grump."

"Farewell…see you on the morrow." With that, Alufin left the house and closed the door, leaving behind the sweet scent of pipeweed. As he did so, Thein’s hand slid slowly back into his pocket.

I