Mirzak, the half-demon, leaned forward on his throne and scowled as he cast his eye over the pair of pitiful creatures that huddled before him. His lip curled in disdain as he considered the poor quality of the wretches being presented. Then he spied a third, a smaller one cowering at the back and his interest was sparked anew. He gestured and the slave-master pushed the small creature forward.
Mirzak stared curiously down at the small form in front of him. Then he swung his arm and struck the gold bracelet around his wrist against a bronze tube hanging beside his throne. The harsh sound of the crude gong echoed around the cavern.
A moment later a gaunt human stepped out of a tunnel and made his way to stand below the throne. His skin was sallow and ragged clothes hung from his skeletal figure.
“How may I serve you, master?” he asked in the harsh language of his demonic overlord.
Mirzak pointed a sharp fingernail at the smallest of the creatures in front of him. “That little one. What manner of creature is that?”
The man glanced at the pitiful creature trying so unsuccessfully to hide behind the other two and nodded. “That is a dwarf, master.”
“And dwarves are long-lived, are they not?”
“Yes, master. They can live for several centuries if the fates are kind.”
Mirzak chortled. “If the fates are kind? After all this time with me, do you still think the fates have power? Or, if they do, that they might be kind?” Then he pointed again at the dwarf. “It seems young.”
The man sighed and nodded sadly. “Yes master, it looks like a child, not yet fully grown.”
“Excellent!” The half-demon rubbed his hands together. “Such potential for life! I shall feed richly tonight.” Then he scowled and sniffed. “It is soiled. Take it out the back and clean it while I prepare the ritual.”
The man nodded sadly and walked over to where the young dwarf cowered. “Come, young one,” he said quietly in the Common Tongue. “Come with me and I’ll help you get clean.”
The boy looked scared but his eyes opened wide at hearing words he understood and he stumbled forward. The man placed a guiding hand on the child’s shoulder and steered him towards a tunnel entrance. Behind them, the slaver cracked his whip and drove the remaining pair of creatures away from Mirzak on his throne.
Once the man had led the boy down the winding tunnel far enough to be beyond sight and hearing of his master, he stopped and knelt before the small dwarf.
“Where are you from?” he asked quietly in the Common Tongue.
“Saltmarsh, sir, it is” replied the dwarf, his awkward grammar betraying a lack of familiarity with the language.
The man nodded. “And is it a good place, this Saltmarsh? Is it a good place to live?”
The child nodded. “Good it is. Father dig metal. Very proud.”
“A miner? Your father is a miner?”
The child nodded. “Slave man take. Father fight. Die.” Tears made streaks in the dirt on his cheeks.
The man sighed and awkwardly patted the boy’s shoulder. “Come along and let’s get you clean.”
The pair stopped at an alcove where a thin pallet rested on the floor. The man picked up a tattered blanket, a spare shirt and a small sack, which he slung over his shoulder. They then continued on along the twisting, poorly lit tunnel.
Eventually, the tunnel opened into a small clearing and the pair blinked in the harsh light that beat down from the baleful red sun. He led the young dwarf over to where a small stream trickled into a shallow pool.
The man picked up a small, carefully carved wooden bowl. He dipped it into the water and then stepped over to where an ancient gnarled tree clung to life among the rocks beside the pool. He sprinkled some water around the base of the tree while he sang a short phrase of a song in the light tinkling language of the fey creatures that live in the wild places of the world.
Then he scooped up some more water and returned to the young dwarf. “Here, drink,” he said softly in the Common Tongue. “The water is good.” Then he reached into his sack and produced two small and wrinkled figs. “Eat this, you’re probably hungry.”
His words proved true as the youth drank and ate quickly. Then the man retrieved the wooden bowl, which he stashed in his sack, and led the boy splashing out into the middle of the pool. “Sit and wash yourself. I’ll be back in a moment.”
The man splashed his way back over to the ancient tree and knelt before it. A small fey creature could now be seen sitting on a curling root at the base of the tree. She was ancient and wizened though clearly still beautiful.
“It is time. I must go now,” he said softly in the language of the fey. “Mirzak intends to consume this child and I can’t do it. I can’t stand by and let this happen.”
The small being looked at him with unblinking eyes. “I have not finished training you to walk the paths between the worlds. You are not ready.”
“I understand the risks,” said the man. “If I try and fail then so be it, but I can’t deliver up this child to Mirzak. I simply can’t do it. So I shall carry him away from this place or die trying.”
The ancient fey looked across to where the boy was washing himself. “You are human. This is not a human child.”
The man shrugged. “A child is a child. I will not do this thing for Mirzak.”
“That foolish creature,” scoffed the small fey. “It thinks it knows so much yet it can’t even sense my presence here. It lives on borrowed power and that very act blinds it to so much.” It paused and shook its head. “You know the risks if you mis-step. But I understand. You are a good man. I will begin the preparations.”
“Thank you, teacher. I am sorry for the mischance that brought you here so long ago, but you have been my saviour in this desolate place. I was little more than a scared child when I was brought here and you have taught me much. I love you and I owe you everything.”
The little fey nodded. “My life here has not been what I might have chosen, but it has not been without joys. Many beings have visited me here and I have learned something from each of them. You have been one such joy and you have become like a son to me.”