The Hateful Wars: Chapter Thirty-Nine

Thomas Kelly

A soft mattress in a clean, well-lit place. Sunlight poured in through a round window. Beside the bed stood a small chair and desk. From pegs on the far wall hung a coat of glimmering mithril armor. Next to it, a short sword, still in its scabbard.

Kristryd passed her hands over her body, but she felt no wounds. On the desk beside the bed she found her personal belongings, including her comb and her silver-framed mirror. What was the last thing she remembered? A stab in the back, a blow to the head, a slow tumble into darkness. “How came I to this place?” she asked aloud as she sat up in the bed. “Where is this place?”

“How did you come here?” Alton Chubb Quickbread came through the open doorway into Kristryd’s room. He waved his hands above is head dramatically as he explained, “Your big griff carried you here. Upset all the eagles too. They were screaming at each other, swooping around, but your horse-bird set you down in the town square. They told me, ‘Alton, you will never believe what just happened. A big blonke hippogriff carried the broken body of pretty dwarfess, all dressed in mithril armor, and laid her down right in the center of town.’ I didn’t need to be told twice. I knew it could only be you, my fairhead.”

“You healed my wounds?”

“I also made muffins!” the halfling boasted.

“Is this Prinzfield?” Kristryd asked, swinging her legs out of the bed.

Alton shook his head. “You’re not in Prinzfield, my lady.”

He brought her a wash basin with heated water, and he set out some fresh clothing: a heavy fabric skirt, such as the halfling women wear, a pair of knee-high soft leather boots with long laces, a silk blouse that ruffled at the sleeves, and an embroidered vest, set with precious gems for clasps. Kristryd washed, put on the clothing, and then examined herself in the mirror as she combed out her hair. I look like a proper hobniz wife! 

Stepping out from her bedroom, she found herself in a comfortable hillside hovel. Paneled walls, wooden floors, and finely worked wooden furniture made the underground rooms feel finished and homely. The sun shone in through a large round porthole window onto a small dining table already set with teacups, saucers, and a platter bearing a neat stack of muffins, still steaming from the oven. Alton appeared from the kitchen with a kettle of hot water.

“You’re looking whole and healthy,” he observed as he poured the water for tea. “The clothes fit too.”

“I fell on the battlefield,” Kristryd’s mind searched to make meaning.

“A good as dead you were! But now it’s time for muffins and tea.” He gestured toward a chair, and she sat. Her eyes moved to the window, and she gave a startled gasp. She was looking out over a pleasant garden at the end of which stood two enormous women hanging out wash on a line strung between the tops of two tall spruce trees.

“The neighbors,” Alton explained casually as if it were a matter of indifference.

“Those are stone giants,” Kristryd corrected with dismay.

“Yes, they are.”

The Hidden Land

After muffins and tea, Alton Chubb led Kristryd out into the town proper, a beautiful village of pleasant groves and gardens. Kristryd struggled to take it all in. “I thought the hidden land a wives’ tale!”

“There’s some truth to wives’ tales,” Alton replied.

The city sat at the center of a forested valley surrounded by tall, wooded mountain slopes. A fabulous waterfall, more than a mile in the distance, plummeted from an impossible height. It formed a rushing river which wound its way through the valley before disappearing in a whirlpool called The Swelchie on the eastern side of the valley. Giant eagles wheeled about lazily in the sky above, guarding the valley below from any who might wander too close.

“Apart from the eagles, I don’t know if any eye has ever seen the Valley of Esmerin from above. A powerful illusion cloaks the entire land to conceal our home from those who would pillage us,” Alton explained. “But your hippogriff seemed to find us easily enough.”

“Yolande asked me about Esmerin. I thought she mocked me,” Kristryd mused.

In most ways, Esmerin could have been a typical halfling village, such as Riddling’s Pass in Prinzfield. Tallfellow halflings lived in comfortable hillside homes like Alton’s. He himself boasted Lightfoot ancestry. “I’m not originally from here,” he admitted. “But they let me come and go as I please.” He shrugged, “I guess I have a trustworthy face.”

“How do folk come and go from this place?”

“Not easily,” Alton chuckled. “The giants have their own paths, but the rest of us enter the valley only by a most-forbidding secret pass. It involves scaling sheer cliff walls and taking passage through tunnels concealed in the mountainside behind magically hidden doors. ”

Despite exterior appearances, Esmerin was not a typical halfling village. Alongside the halflings lived clans of peaceful stone giants. “The giants and halflings of Esmerin have lived in mutual harmony, hidden away in this valley, for centuries,” Alton told Kristryd as she looked with wonder on the enormous folk going about their daily chores.

“That’s a difficulty for me,” she admitted. “If there’s any one certain thing I know about being a dwarf, it’s that we hate giants and giants hate us. In Gyrax, where I grew up, there were priests of Ulaa who made pilgrimage into the mountains every year just to hunt giants. I myself accompanied them more than once.”

Alton sighed. “Here in Esmerin, we gave up on hatred centuries ago. The giants here have learned the good-hearted ways of the halflings, and the halflings have learned their disinterest in the affairs of the outside world. They are remarkable craftsmen; their skills with the chisel and forge rival those of your own people.”

“How do you feed them? In all the places I have ever been, giants will eat halflings and dwarves and anything else that they can fit in a pot,” Kristryd said with a shudder.

“We have rich soil, fertile fields, abundant gardens, and healthy flocks. We have plenty for everyone,” Alton assured her.

Of Muffins in the Morning

The days in Esmerin passed like a happy sunlit dream. The fair secluded valley seemed to her like the reward of paradise reserved for those who have lived virtuously. Have the gods indeed favored me, despite my sins, to bring me to such a place of light and laughter? Surely I am lost in one of Sehanine’s dreams!

The citizens of Esmerin had an easy and unsophisticated air about them. They conducted themselves without pretense as if they held their personal honor and prestige of little account. They did love to laugh at simple jokes, the more-often told the better received. They knew little that transpired in the world beyond their secluded vale, nor did they show any interest in hearing about wars and alliances. Theirs was a world regulated by a common love for daily routines and the regular business of tending gardens, fishing for trout, and following flocks. The rise and set of the sun and the changing of the seasons ordered their lives. The soils of Esmerin lavished such abundance that none had any great need, for anyone who so desired could plant a garden or sow a field and reap thirty, fifty, or even one-hundred-fold.

For Kristryd, each morning began with hot black tea, fresh eggs, and warm muffins, or pound cakes, or raisin bread, or salted soda bread, or twist-bread, or tipsy-cakes—depending on the whim of her host. Over a long lazy breakfast, Kristryd and Alton discussed all the matters of the world: philosophy, theology, poetry, geography, geology, zoology, and xenology. Although she was twice or thrice the halfling’s age and could claim a prestigious degree from the schools of Niole Dra, the halfling priest seemed by no measure less educated. He could speak with authority on a wide variety of subjects, and he knew the goings-on of many nations and peoples. He spoke fluent elvish and both the dialects of the dwarfish tongue commonly employed in the Lortmil Mountains. “I enjoy these breakfast conversations,” Alton often said. “The folk of Esmerin have good hearts, but most of them know precious little of the rest of Oerth or the affairs of the Flanaess, and those that do know the outside world prefer to forget!”

After breakfast, they fed the chickens and spent a few hours laboring in Alton’s garden’s, weeding and pulling, culling and cutting. Kristryd always kept herself busy. “Indolence is a sin,” she warned. “At least that’s what we dwarves always say.”

“Then I am a frightful sinner without hope of reform,” Alton countered. “Ehlenestra have mercy upon me!”

After lunch, Alton received callers. The peoples of Esmerin sought his talents as a healer. The sick, those in pain, and those suffering from various bodily ailments, travelled to the village where Alton dwelt. For some he prepared medicines; upon others he laid hands, and over still others, he prayed in the name of Ehlonna and all the gods of light and healing. Stone giants also sought Alton’s healing, and the priest healed them without reservations. In payment for his services, many of his visitors brought him foodstuffs: wheels of cheese, salted mutton, pickled vegetables, and fresh produce. Kristryd never went hungry in the house of Alton Quickbread. The giants offered remarkably cut gemstones which glittered in sunlight and cast prismatic rays of splendor. The gems arrested the attention of the dwarfess, for she had not seen the like of them even among the most skilled of gnomish and dwarfish gemcutters. “You should see fitted-arches and spanning blocks of their homes! These are not cave-dwellers. In working stone and gems, the stone giants have no peers!” Alton said one morning over breakfast.

“In my father’s kingdom,” Kristryd mused, “Men and dwarves, halflings and gnomes, live peaceably. And in the Duchy of Ulek and in Veluna, elves and men dwell at peace. But who has seen such opposites dwell as closely or as peaceably as the peoples of Esmerin?”

“The rule of Esmerin is simple enough for any people to live by,” Alton replied. “Put yourself in the other’s shoes.”

“I can’t imagine a giant’s feet would fit too well into hobniz shoes!”

“Nor will a giant’s shoes fit my feet,” Alton agreed. “That is just the point. One must imagine what it is like to have big feet, or small feet, as the case may be.”

“I don’t know,” Kristryd dismissed the idealism with a shrug. “A giant’s shoes will always be too large for a halfling, and a halfling’s shoes will always be too small for a giant.”

Alton poured a second cup of tea and sipped at it thoughtfully for a moment, peering out the round porthole window over his sunlit gardens. “I’ll tell you a story about the first giant and the first halfling of Esmerin,” he said at length. “Hobniz owned a farm with gardens, fields, orchards, and vineyard. Giant herded flocks of sheep and goats on the mountainsides. Both had large families and many mouths to feed. When the harvest came, Hobniz said to his goodwife, ‘We small folk have an abundance and all that we need to feed our children, but our neighbor is large and his family too. Will he have enough to feed his children this winter, or will they suffer famine?’ The next day Hobniz hitched his pony to a wagon loaded heavy with produce from his gardens, fields, orchards, and vineyards. He set out for Giant’s home. Who should he meet on the way but Giant who was, at that very hour, on his way to the halfling’s home with a flock of sheep and goats. ‘Where are you going with these flocks?’ Hobniz asked. Giant replied, ‘We giant folk have sufficient for what we need to feed our children, but you, Hobniz, are so small. How will you feed your children this winter or keep them warm? I bring you these sheep and these goats.’”

The Water of Oblivion

The days in Esmerin faded dreamlike one into the next. Kristryd could not say if she had been weeks or months in that place. Alton marveled over the improvements she made to the garden and the grounds. “Thanks to my houseguest, I have fine new walk paved with flat stones that fit together tighter than the pieces of a puzzle,” he boasted. He could point to other improvements to the property and boast, “Best part is that she works for muffins and tea.”

On market days, Kristryd and Alton visited the market square of Esmerin proper. She delighted in the variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, peppers, breads, cheeses, spices, flavored oils, dried goods, fresh fish, dried fish, salted meats, woodcraft, glassworks, pottery, scrimshaw arts, leathercraft, wool, linen, items of clothing, and everything a person might find needful, both in halfling sizes and giant sizes—all of it made locally within the valley.

Not everyone she saw was a halfling or a giant. She caught sight of unexpected characters in the streets of Esmerin, working behind a market stall or lingering in the gardens or wandering about the shady lanes or strolling the riverwalk near the swirling Swelchie. Here and there she saw an elf or human, occasionally another dwarf; gnomes were not uncommon. Even more surprising, she espied an orc cobbler selling shoes and boots, goblin hoopers working at barrels, an orog peeling potatoes, and once by night, she saw a dark-skinned and white-haired elf woman playing a reed flute beneath the light of the stars and moons. Kristryd’s eyes beheld a stranger one yet—an unoerthly beautiful creature resembling a woman horned and hooved, winged and clawed, blinking in the sunlight and nodding politely, revealing fangs behind a timid smile.

“From where and whence comes one such as that creature?” Kristryd asked Alton the next morning at breakfast.

“The River Lethe that flows through this valley flows also through other worlds,” Alton explained. “It flows from the highest of the Seven Heavens and empties into the lowest of the Nine Hells. It has happened that, a few times, some from the lower regions have found their way upstream and risen from the Swelchie, but in their passage, the water has purged them of all malice and wickedness. Those who wash themselves in Lethe purge their souls of all memories. The river washes away guilt, impurity, all shame, all memory of being, draining it all away into the lowest hell. Conscience-stricken sinners seek out fabled Esmerin. The inconsolable broken-hearted come searching too. They seek to bathe in the water of sweet oblivion. Only a few ever find their way. Those fortunate few who do immerse themselves and find a true rebirth.”

“Is that what the stone giants did?”

“The giants came before the time of men and dwarves and before the time of halflings. They discovered the river. Esmerin, they named it. In their tongue, the word means ‘oblivion.’”

“How did the halflings come to Esmerin? Did they too drink the water of oblivion?”

“That will be another story, but as long as we yet wait for the tea kettle to sing, I can tell it in brief.” Alton’s voice took on a singsong quality as he told the tale, “Ages past, the Flanaess suffered in cruel bondage under wicked Vecna. (No need to blanche so. No evil will come of speaking the name in this place.) That foul sorcerer, father of liches, sought to purge the world of what is good and lives in the light. He hated living things and especially the olvenkind and hobniz folk. In those days a certain village of tallfellows survived the purges only because a neighboring clan of human folk protected them. Those men hid away in a certain lair that Vecna could not find, and their rangers did the armies of the Spidered Throne much mischief through ambush and traps. Vecna’s agents turned to the tallfellows and said, ‘We have no quarrel with you hobniz. Reveal to us the hideaway of these men and we will spare your village.’ Perhaps from fear or perhaps by some greed for gain, the folk of that village betrayed the secret location of the rangers’ clan. Vecna thanked them by slaying the tallfellows along with the menfolk. Insane with terror and tormented by shame and guilt, the survivors found their way to Esmerin to drink from the Lethe and wash away their sin.”

“Now I know you’re making things up. If the Lethe really made the halflings forget everything, they would not have been able to remember that tale to tell it to you in the first place,” Kristryd laughed.

“I hadn’t thought of that! Perhaps you’re right. But the properties of the river are beyond dispute,” Alton insisted. “I myself have no memory of how I first came here or why.”

The tea kettle began to sing and Alton retrieved it from the stove. Kristryd stared pensively into the tealeaves that floated to the surface of her cup.

Leaving the Hidden Land

“As much as I would prefer to live here forever more in your peaceful valley,” Kristryd explained to the elder’s circle of Esmerin, “I cannot stay here. Nor can you require it of me. I am a noble born and noble wed queen among my people. The lives of many good folk depend upon me. I have already stayed far too long. What is worse, I am under a most terrible oath before the gods, and I must strive to fulfill that vow so long as any strength remains in my bones.”

“It is not our way to let strangers enter our valley,” Bunglethumbs the stone giant intoned his words slowly. “But when they do, our law says the stranger must never leave. Why not bathe yourself in the river and forget your sorrows?”

“But you allow Alton to come and go as he pleases,” Kristryd objected. “Surely you can also make an exception for me.”

“Alton comes and goes,” the tallfellow called Lord Theophilus admitted, “only because he was coming and going before we knew he was coming and going, and before we realized it, it was already too late to do much about it.”

“And I have a trustworthy face,” Alton put in helpfully.

“I have a mission and destiny to fulfill,” Kristryd insisted. “It is a mission and destiny which will benefit Esmerin too. I am sworn to purge all these mountains of goblinkind.”

“How would your war be of any benefit to Esmerin?” Lord Theophilus asked. “The goblinkind protect these mountains from men and dwarves who would otherwise stumble into our hidden valley, discover our secrets, and steal away all that we value.”

“We dwarves have a saying: ‘A thing is either done or it is not. There is no half done.’ I must finish what I have begun, though I no longer have any stomach for it.”

Alton sighed. The elders shook their heads.

“Consider this,” Kristryd tried again. “I do not even know where I am. I was carried here while unconscious. Whether near or far, north or south, I have no way of knowing. Let me leave the way I came, blindfolded, and I swear by Ulaa and Moradin and Berronar, I shall never reveal your secret or tell another soul of this place.”

“I will agree to this,” Bunglethumbs resigned. “Let her be blindfolded, and I will carry her by winding ways so that she will not find her way back, even if she would want.” The elders’ circle agreed, albeit reluctantly and only after further debates.

The following day, Bunglethumbs carried Kristryd away on his shoulders. Although a blindfold tightly covered her eyes and Bunglethumbs did his best to confuse her, pacing this way and that, turning around and turning back, climbing and descending, she could not be disoriented. She knew exactly where she was. Dwarves have a keen sense of the lay of the land and especially their own mountains. Nevertheless, Kristryd made as if she could not be certain if the giant turned north or south. While Bunglethumbs carried her aloft, she made conversation with him.

“A pity I have sworn not to tell anyone about this adventure. I should like to boast of riding upon a giant’s shoulders.”

“You mustn’t speak of it,” Bunglethumbs cautioned.

“If not for this blindfold, I could boast of having seen further than others by standing upon your shoulders,” she jested.

“I am sorry for the blindfold,” Bunglethumbs rumbled sincerely. “A necessary evil.”

“Is evil necessary? I wonder how Esmerin remains neutral when there is evil in world?” she mused. “Some would say that’s evil.”

“Were I the euroz, dwelling in these mountains so many generations, I would name you the evil one,” the giant hmphed.

“I see things differently,” Kristyrd argued. “I believe that good is good and evil is evil. Evil might wrongly think itself good, but the gods are the judges!”

“Then let the gods be the judges,” Bunglethumbs agreed. “I am too simple to decide who is evil and who is good. What is right and what is wrong I can say easy enough, but the question of who is evil and who is good, that one lies far beyond me. When good does wrong, is it not evil? And if evil does right, is that not good?”

“I have burned orc families alive and thrown their children and infants to their deaths, dashing them upon the rocks. Do you call me evil or good?”

“Well now! There you go. It’s an agathokakological puzzle. That’s why I take no sides.”

Late that night, Bunglethumbs gently lowered Kristryd to the ground and removed the blindfold from her eyes. Her dwarven senses had not failed her. She knew exactly where she stood, only a short way from Defile’s End, near the cairn that marked the place the Prince Consort had been ambushed.

“I thank you Bunglethumbs,” Kristryd said as she straightened herself and hoisted up the sack of her belongings and her supplies. “Perhaps we will meet again.”

“If not this time,” Bunglethumbs agreed, “Then another, just as we have surely met before.”

Kristryd bowed low. The stone giant returned the gesture before turning away and stomping off in the direction of Esmerin.

James M. Ward, Greyhawk Adventures (TSR, 1988), 1010-102.

Ragson, “Esmerin, the Vale of Oblivion,” Canonfire!

Artwork: JJPeabody “Waterfall”

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Read the next chapter: Heroes of the Fey Kingdom

Read the story from the beginning here.

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