The Tower: Part 2: Mabon
Post #2: In which stony seeds are sown ...
(If you are a new subscriber, you might want to start at the beginning of the Webbd Wheel Series with The Hanged Man. If you would like to start at the beginning of The Tower, go here. For the next serial post, go here.)
Slate cut granite into huge foundation blocks, wider and taller than he was himself. He worked alone, which he preferred, and as he worked, he chewed sunflower seeds, spitting the shells out with the deadly accuracy and sound of an angry snake.
Hades grew the best sunflower seeds in his (necessarily) green world garden. They were expensive, because the Underworld’s king and queen grew many other products as well and the supply was limited. Slate could obtain sunflower seeds at much less inconvenience and cost, but it satisfied him to prefer these. It pleased him to sneer at anything that came from aboveground. Refusing any seeds but those grown by Hades of the Underworld allowed him to indulge his habit without compromising his hatred of Gobs, all those who lived aboveground.
Of the Gobs, he reserved his fiercest hatred for his own people -- well, no, not his own people. His own people eschewed the gaudy, dangerous sun and stayed where they belonged, bending their backs in good, honest labor, rejecting the seductive, treacherous, female Green World.
Yet even the strongest people occasionally breed dangerous weaklings, and so the ancient race of proud and independent Dvorgs had unaccountably produced an aberration, a young Dvorg who deliberately went up into the Green World, adapted to the sun and, worst of all, became ensnared by the first woman, by name Pandora. Jasper had been that Dvorg’s name, and thus Jasper split the Dvorgs in two, just as Slate now cleaved the granite. The Dwarves were born, master stonemasons, smiths and gem cutters like the Dvorgs, but with deformed sensibilities and loyalty and distorted by curiosity. They moved up out of the mountain roots and ancient chambers below the straydles, the Dvorg nurseries, and occasionally mentored young women.
Women! Women were tuls, worthless debris.
“Pagh!” Slate spit a small dark clot of splintered sunflower seed shell viciously and accurately at a dark vein running through the granite’s face like a petrified cobweb.
The worst of it was that in the time since Pandora not one Dvorg possessed the flint, the grit, the backbone to do anything about this intolerable deviance, although Slate knew many conservative Dvorgs understood the dangerous aberration for what it was.
Now that had changed. Slate, from the years of his youthful apprenticeship, had known he had a destiny, a destiny perfectly suited to a true Dvorg, a creature as elemental, reliable and unchanging as stone itself. Stone, after all, was the master, the king, the godhead. Stone endured beyond anything else, and Dvorgs were the stone. A Dvorg with tools in his hand and stone and minerals to work was the most powerful being alive. Stone needed nothing, but Webbd’s foundations needed stone, and those who mastered the stone were Webbd’s rightful masters.
As masters, the Dvorgs had a right to maintain control over all the stone, minerals, gems and building material alike.
The ancient race of Dvorgs, in addition to their mastery over stone, metal and gem, had created the kingly game of marbles. Slate had learned to play as an adolescent in his straydle, and before he left the nursery to go into apprenticeship, he’d won every marble he coveted from his peers and caregivers. Many Dvorgs enjoyed a skillful and relaxing marble game, but for Slate the game represented a means to satisfy his lust and pride in collecting the marbles themselves. Shaped and polished from mineral, stone and crystal, he chose only the best, the most highly polished, the rarest and most valuable.
He guarded his collection jealously and kept a separate stash of inferior marbles for playing, though he rarely lost. During the years he had developed a reputation of being one of the most ruthless players in Dvorgdom. Occasionally a bold Dvorg challenged him to a game and insisted he play with one of his treasures rather than a common marble. Slate accepted such challenges with scornful contempt, secure in his skill and his right to guard and preserve the most beautiful and valuable marbles on Webbd. He was the chosen leader of his people, and the burden of protecting Dvorgdom from outside pollution and interference included maintaining control of the rich cultural history and artifacts of the Dvorgs. His collection was legendary, and Dvorgs played with him just for a chance to glimpse and possibly handle his famous and fabulous acquisitions.
As far as Slate was concerned, one of the greatest evils perpetrated by the Dwarves was their willingness to shape and create jewelry, metal and marbles and sell or trade such objects to and with Gobs, thus undermining and depriving the Dvorgs of their rightful wealth and power. No amount of money adequately recompensed Dvorg craftsmanship and skill, and Slate looked upon the Dwarves as little better than thieves who stole from their own people.
Slate felt no confusion about his role or where he belonged, and because of this he saw more than his brethren. Only he could understand the full betrayal of the traitor Dwarves.
His had been a dual apprenticeship. He had been a diligent student, working with not one but two of the greatest Dvorg stonemasons in his youth, fashioning his own tools, in keeping with the tradition, and spending years learning the structure, strength and capabilities of stone and mineral. In common with many Dvorgs, he categorically refused to travel aboveground, but he quarried, cut and dressed stone and built foundations for towers, castles, walls, wells, bridges, and cities.
At the same time, he made himself a tool in service to the stone. In every team at every building site, he learned to recognize the Dvorg most susceptible to fear. Some Dvorgs were gneiss and others were limestone, and limestone and shale required only the lightest tap in just the right place to yield to shaping. Working side by side with a Dvorg suited to his purpose, it took only a murmured, “At the last site they said Dwarves are taking away our tools,” to begin rumor and sometimes even fighting, if the site proved particularly receptive. Slate kept his head down and slipped away so quickly often the Dvorg he’d murmured to never even saw his face.
Another favorite tactic at mixed sites where Dwarves worked aboveground and Dvorgs below involved misplacing tools. A true Dvorg carried his own tools, made during apprenticeship and never shared or used by another. Dwarves crafted with wood as well as stone, however, and wood, weak-fibred and in every way inferior to good honest stone and metal, required special tools, soft things even a Dvorg child would scorn. Exchanging a Dvorg’s chisel for a Dwarve’s lighter wood chisel had the potential to lead to outright violence, especially when fueled by a rumor that the Dwarve involved believed wood and stone superior to plain stone.
In addition to fracturing Dwarve from Dvorg, Slate chipped away at the ridiculous old spiritual traditions of his people. The Dvorgs, for the most part, put their faith and trust in nothing but themselves and the stone, and Slate strengthened this inclination with his two rallying cries: “Only the stone!” and “Stone above all!”
Unfortunately, sometime in the distant past, superstition infected the Dvorgs with belief in a divine creator, a keeper and shaper of stone. Her name was Pele, and she was a tul.
Slate didn’t understand how Dvorgs could be so gullible. Everyone knew the mighty race of Dvorgs had no need of tuls. This fact made them superior in power to any other people. Their strength must remain undiluted by the dangerous softness and seduction of tuls. It followed, therefore, that Pele was nothing but a ridiculous story, and honoring her a waste of time and effort. Worse, tradition dictated the finest crystals and gems were offered to her, offerings invariably carried away by fire salamanders, or sals, Pele’s familiars.
No tul could possibly be stone’s creator; clearly the true keepers and shapers were the Dvorgs themselves. Slate felt certain the sals maintained a secret cavern filled with treasure, the result of generations of foolish Dvorgs making offerings to an imaginary tul.
With a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a refusal to participate in the simple fire ritual of making offerings, Slate undermined false belief in Pele. He encouraged younger Dvorgs in rebellion, slyly mocking elder Dvorgs for wasting their time and most valuable treasure. He threw pebbles and chips at sals, with whom the Dvorgs had always lived peaceably. He emphasized the uselessness and weakness of tuls, shaking his head sorrowfully over the delusion that any tul deserved respect, honor or offerings.
In this way, as Slate moved from site to quarry and back again and the decades passed, he patiently shaped his people with a tap here, a word there, a mocking expression, readying them for a final revolution in which they would cleanse themselves of the deviant Dwarves and weak superstition and rise again into strength and legend, grow rich and fat by their skill, wield the power they deserved. Stone would endure and once again take its rightful place as king. Stone above all! Only the stone!
He placed his chisel and gave it an almighty blow with his mallet. The granite split along a rough plane and Slate grunted with satisfaction. That was the way to proceed! Find the plane, insert a wedge and apply force. Working the rock took time and experience, but stone was patient beyond all else.
Slate wasn’t a scholar, but the Dvorgs, like other races, preserved their legend, lore and skill in language. The name and location of Jasper’s birth, the one who began the poisoning of the master race, was well known. It was called Alder Straydle.
The Dvorgs reproduced without tuls. Dvorg babies were born in stone and earth nurseries. The nurseries, called straydles, formed under certain trees with huge root systems. Slate had been told the trees above the straydles were tall -- taller than the highest cavern underground -- and old. He’d never been aboveground and had only the haziest idea of what a tree looked like.
Every straydle grew between six and eight new Dvorgs each year. Slate didn’t know how many straydles existed. Many, he supposed. He’d only ever seen the one in which he himself had been born. Babies began as nodes. If all went well, the node slowly enlarged and matured over eleven months, finally bursting and releasing a Dvorg infant, which was cared for by adolescent Dvorgs in a dormitory-like nursery until old enough to become an apprentice and learn his craft. Each generation cared for the next, as the tree roots bore only every three years and Dvorgs became adolescent by age three.
Slate had an idea something was wrong in Jasper’s birth straydle; some subtle weakness or fatal taint began producing the unnatural Dwarves.
Thus far, Slate had taken no Dvorg into his confidence. He was a slow, heavy thinker, accustomed to rely on no one but himself and with little interest in anyone else. It was the rock he loved, the dim tunnels, the weighty reality of stone and tool, the demanding skill of building. Soon he would need to come out of the shadows and take advantage of the unrest he’d nurtured for so long. It would be necessary to rally and organize. To do so he needed a focal point, something bigger than a personal dispute or rumor, some tangible threat affecting every Dvorg. He’d counted on Alder Straydle to provide that unifying motivation, and it had.
Alder Straydle lay two days’ walk away from his home caverns, mines and quarries. He had stumped through miles of underground tunnels, carefully extracting handfuls of sunflower seeds from their shells with his tongue and spitting out the resultant splinters, raking through his slow, stubborn thoughts as though stirring sullen coals. He would examine Alder Straydle’s matrix until it gave up its secrets and pointed him in some direction.
Legend said Alder Straydle was one of the oldest straydles in the Dvorg kingdom. It was also one of the most famous, not only because of its ancient status but as Jasper’s birthplace. Consequently, the generation of caregivers currently in charge of the straydle was well used to visitors and not particularly interested in Slate. They gave him a bed apart from the children and their youthful guardians (thankfully) and left him to his own devices.
After a hearty meal and a good night’s sleep, Slate began his inspection.
He had only vague memories of his own birthplace, Ironwood Straydle. He loathed children and had found the whole responsibility of caring for young Dvorgs repulsive. After his release from Ironwood Straydle, he went into apprenticeship with a stone master and never ventured near a straydle again -- until now.
Alder Straydle looked much as he remembered his own. A round entrance, Dvorg sized, admitted him to an enclosed cup of interlacing bare tree roots. Above and below the cup earth encased the roots. The roots gnarled and knitted together, some as thick as his leg and others the diameter of his strong, broad fingers. It reminded him vaguely of mineral veins running through granite or marble.
Alder Straydle had been nourishing six young Dvorgs, just past node stage. Slate judged they were perhaps two months along, which accounted for the caregivers’ youth. By the time these nodes burst, the children would be adolescent and prepared for the responsibility of caring for the next generation.
The first day Slate had examined the straydle minutely, staying away from the swelling nodes where the baby Dvorgs gestated. They made him uncomfortable.
As far as he could see, there was nothing unusual about the straydle. It felt cool and dim, a sheltered earthen womb nourished by interlacing roots.
Dvorg eyes were well-adapted to the dark, but on the second day Slate took a small miner’s lantern into the straydle. By its light, he noticed for the first time a fine whitish filament of hair-like threads forming the same intricate pattern as the roots, but on a much smaller scale. The closer he moved to the nodes, the thicker the mat of threads became. Holding the lantern in one hand and examining these white threads minutely, he saw each brown node was supported from underneath the root bearing it with a dense thatch of hairs like a thin hammock. As he moved away from the nodes the mat thinned, becoming a loose network of fragile hairs he could easily break with a fingertip.
Slate backed out of the straydle, lantern in hand. He sat down against a rock wall and chewed thoughtfully on a handful of sunflower seeds.
He couldn’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about fine white fibers in the straydles. Were they in every straydle, or unique to Alder Straydle? Of course, Dvorgs who became Dwarves were not only from Alder Straydle. The contagion, whatever it was, had spread. But was this the original source? He must find out.
From then on, every time he came in contact with a Dwarve (which was sadly often) he questioned him casually about his birth straydle. Laboriously, he compiled a grubby, creased list, and as chance took him here and there on his increasingly skilled work, he visited every straydle on the list.
In every straydle he found the tell-tale polluting white threads.
It was the evidence he’d waited for, the spark he’d needed. Here was proof positive that the dreadful deformity of the Dwarves threatened the mighty race of Dvorgs. Unless he, Slate, took decisive action, the Dvorgs faced eventual extinction.
The Dvorgs had only the loosest government. An elder Dvorg took responsibility for each straydle, and these elders informally met and exchanged information. Slate didn’t know how big the group of elders was, how often or where they met, or the purpose of their meetings. He’d heard rumors they collaborated with Dwarves and occasionally Gobs. For the most part, the master craftsdvorgs governed themselves and their students. Dvorgs did not naturally cooperate, being fiercely independent. They could and would form working teams, but each Dvorg remained his own master and few cared to negotiate, cooperate or communicate outside the necessity of work.
Therefore, Slate saw no reason to change his methods, and determined he’d recruit supporters of the cause one Dvorg at a time as he went about his business. Everywhere he went, he whispered of the discovery of sinister white threads in the straydles where Dwarves had been born. Thanks largely to his years of effort, the Dvorgs’ natural suspicion and conservatism had gradually become paranoia and a growing sense of fanatical allegiance to their race and the stone. It was not hard to convince them of their duty to destroy the white threads wherever they found them and thus cleanse and purify their race.
As months and then years passed, Slate had listened and watched, hoping for a sign that Dwarves were gradually disappearing. He was disappointed. If anything, the talk indicated straydles lost productivity, affecting the population of true Dvorgs. In spite of this, Slate observed with satisfaction the Dwarves, unnaturally social and cooperative, often conversed with each other about serious or troubling matters. Obnoxious fellowship and joviality diminished, and sometimes Dwarves on work sites appeared nearly as dour as the Dvorgs.
All in all, Slate felt he had reason to hope the Dwarves’ pernicious influence waned. Perhaps they began to see the error of their ways and understand the depth of their betrayal of their race. He felt certain disrupting the white threads had something to do with the Dwarves’ changed demeanor, and so redoubled his efforts to spread the word, traveling as widely as possible himself, standing in every straydle he passed and running his clawed fingers through the fine web of pale threads wherever he found it. He soon discovered the sly threads returned after a time, and gradually the pleasure of raking his hard, callused fingers through the fragile but persistent web of threads became nearly as satisfying as chewing sunflower seeds, winning a marble game or hoarding treasure. He never tired of it.
All we need is time, he thought as he worked. All we need is the stone’s patience. Slowly, an army will grow, like an avalanche, every soldier recruiting two more, until the white threads are killed. Then the Dvorgs will be free and proud and mighty once again, and we shall be here long after the weak Green World and Gobs wither and die.
He set aside his tools and ran his hands lovingly over the square-shaped foundation stone he’d released from the quarry’s granite embrace. It looked perfect, every side level and smooth, with a lovely web of dark lacy mineral decorating the stone. He brushed away the small clot of sharp-edged sunflower seeds he’d spit out at the thought of the unnatural Dwarves and their tuls, gave the stone a final caress and turned his attention to the quarry wall in search of the next one.
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