“Why did you put a bag over my head, anyway?” Alexandra demanded.
“So you’ll not see our secret ways,” said one of the dwarves. She thought it was the one she’d first met. Since none of them had offered names and they barely spoke at all while they carried her along, she dubbed that one Grumpy. The other six were Nasty, Grabby, Stupid, Ugly, Smelly, and Asshole. Asshole was the one who jabbed a metal point into her every time she spoke, like now.
They’d gone far enough that she no longer had a sense of distance, and she’d felt so many twists and turns and descents she doubted she’d have a clue how to get back outside even if she wasn’t hooded. It was dark and cool; they’d left sunlight behind. Echoes and the scuffing of boots, and many jolts and bumps against hard rocks, told her they were filing through narrow underground tunnels. Charlie had mostly ceased to squawk, but now and then the raven made small, distressed sounds.
Alexandra thought hard about trying to use magic to free herself. All of her practice the previous year with wandless magic hardly left her feeling confident enough to do battle with seven dwarves while hanging hogtied on a stick, but if Grabby got any grabbier or if Asshole poked her one more time, she was ready to take her chances. Except for Charlie. She might be able to do something to her captors, but without a wand, it was likely she’d end up doing it to Charlie as well.
Charlie made a sound that was almost apologetic. Then Nasty shook the net he was holding, and Alexandra winced reflexively. “Stop it!” she shouted. Asshole poked her again. It wasn’t a very sharp point, or she’d be dripping blood by now, but it hurt. As did her shoulders, bearing most of her weight, and her wrists and ankles, bound tightly together, and her chest, which kept getting dragged or bounced against the rocky floor. She’d learned to hold her head up so that her chin didn’t keep smacking the ground as well, but this was making her neck strained and sore.
Her indignation offered no relief from the pain. Slow-burning rage began to seep through her.
You’re. Going. To. Pay, she thought, clenching her teeth with each painful jounce. Something snapped inside her. She didn’t care what rules she’d broken or boundaries she’d transgressed. She didn’t deserve this. They had no right to treat her this way.
If hill dwarves didn’t like trespassers then they should post signs. Alexandra was tired of magical creatures who thought they could do what they liked with any hapless person who fell into their clutches.
She was going to be charming and witty and say whatever she had to to get herself and Charlie out of this. And then she was going to teach these little creeps a lesson.
When at last they dumped her onto a cold stone floor and yanked the bag off her head, she could barely see more than shadows and a few orange planes of light on the craggy surfaces of her captors’ faces. The light came from glowing embers ensconced in recesses in the wall. She struggled with the bonds still tying her wrists and ankles behind her back.
“Untie me!” she snarled, feeling all the anger that had built up since she’d been carried off. Then she remembered her plan to be witty and charming, and added, “Please?”
Charlie squawked in a distressed fashion. Alexandra wiggled her fingers, and wondered if she could improvise a variant on an Unlocking Charm to slip free of ropes. Maybe some doggerel verse, if she had to resort to that.
“Bigfoot intruder,” one of the dwarves said. “Ozarkers know to leave us be.”
“I didn’t know this was your turf,” Alexandra said. “I’m not from these parts.”
“Be witches bare-armed, bare-legged, in your parts?” asked one of the other dwarves. That, she thought, was Grabby.
“When it’s hot outside, yeah,” she said. “Did I violate your dress code or something?”
Charlie squawked another rebuke. Not doing a great job of being witty and charming.
She heard them rummaging through her pack, and bit back another snarl. They were taking the things Maximilian had left her.
“This isn’t a very polite way to treat a guest,” she said.
The dwarves paused in their rummaging, then they erupted in laughter.
“You be no guest,” said Grumpy. “You be a prisoner.”
“Look!” said one. “Be it gold?”
“Be it magic?” asked another.
Alexandra raised her head enough to see the glint of light reflecting off her Lost Traveler’s Compass. She started to shout at them to get their hands off it and put it back, but she strangled her protest, while her anger grew with the pain and the constriction of her bonds.
The dwarves found the fruit and the biscuits. With eager, piggish noises they began devouring all the food Constance and Forbearance had carefully packed for her. Alexandra clenched her fists.
One of the dwarves, still ransacking her pack, suddenly gabbled excitedly.
“Tobaccy!” he said.
“Gimme!” said another.
Alexandra heard a scuffle. She couldn’t see more than rough movement from shadows, and wondered how the dwarves could see anything in this light. Someone thumped the other two, causing squawks of outrage, and then Ugly, the biggest and broadest of the dwarves, said, “Spoils be shared, share and share alike, and biggest share is mine!” One of them protested, and Ugly thumped him again. After that, they divided up the tobacco, and Alexandra saw seven more flames burning in the darkness.
She began to think about what she could do without a wand. It was easier to do things with something that was already magical, and the dwarves were smoking wizard tobacco.
“Charlie,” she said aloud.
The raven croaked from the shadows, “Alexandra.”
Not too far away, she thought. Nasty had put Charlie down.
“Raven stew,” said Nasty.
“Raven roast,” said Grumpy.
“Raven boiled,” said one of the dwarves whose voice Alexandra couldn’t identify.
“Raven toast,” said Ugly. He exhaled a long puff of tobacco smoke.
To Alexandra’s horrified bemusement, the dwarves broke into a chorus:
“We don’t go out in the sunlight,
Because it’s far too bright,
We avoid the nasty sun,
And prefer the moonlit night,
But when big feet stomp above our heads,
When witches roam our hills,
Then we take up our axes,
And go look for witches to kill.
Now look what we’ve caught;
Two fine black birds,
One’s big enough to eat her.
Let’s put them both in a fire,
And see whose meat is sweeter.”
They cackled again with laughter, all smoking their stolen wizard tobacco.
Alexandra said, “I have a rhyme, too.”
The laughing stopped for a moment. Then Grumpy said, “Like we rhymes.”
“Like we riddles better,” said Nasty.
“Here’s a riddle,” Alexandra said. “What’s ugly and stupid and really rude to visitors?”
The silence was thick this time. Then Ugly said, “I don’t like your riddle.”
“Then you probably won’t like my rhyme,” Alexandra said. “Ugly little goblins, should’ve let me be. I suggest you run real fast, as soon as I get free.”
“Be we not goblins!” said Grumpy.
Metal scraped on stone. Asshole said, “Be you making threats? Never you be free.”
Alexandra flexed her fingers.
“Enjoy your smokes, you stupid dopes.
While you told jokes, I broke my ropes.”
She rose to her feet, and her eyes burned green. The dwarves jumped up, just as seven fiery flashes flared in the darkness. The pipes full of wizard tobacco and the crudely rolled cigars ignited in blazing balls of fire. The dwarves screamed as flames erupted in their faces and between their teeth.
Four of them went running, two fell to the ground clutching their faces, and one staggered into a wall, bounced off it, and ran into it again, all while his face was engulfed in flames. Alexandra stepped carefully between the writhing dwarves on the ground to where Charlie lay wrapped in Nasty’s net. She sensed more than saw the bird. She picked her familiar up gently.
“Charlie,” she whispered, “are you hurt?”
“Fly, fly,” Charlie managed, as Alexandra carefully unwrapped the constricting net.
“We will.” Alexandra looked around.
As the flashes faded, the coals in the stone wall barely gave enough light to see by. Hill dwarves must have eyes like cats, she thought. The one who’d run into the walls — Ugly — was now trying to edge toward the exit through which the others had fled. The other two were still rolling on the ground, moaning and crying.
She felt a twinge of guilt, before she recognized Grabby, and remembered that they’d been talking about eating her.
She let Ugly escape and seized Grabby. “Where’s my wand?”
Grabby made incoherent whimpering sounds, but when Alexandra groped around in his pockets, she found the basswood wand with goat feathers. It might not be much, but it was better than nothing. She grabbed the other crumpled form on the ground and said, “Take me to the surface.”
“WY WIPS!” cried the dwarf. It was Stupid. “WY WHONGUE! OO URNGED WY WOUFF OHH!”
“I’ll do worse,” Alexandra said, trying not to let the smell of burned flesh and Grabby and Stupid’s piteous cries bother her.
“Fly, fly!” Charlie cried, more insistently. A moment later, Alexandra heard many feet and a multitude of angry dwarvish voices coming their way. And the sound of metal clanking and scraping on stone, lots of it.
She grabbed her backpack, and was about to run into the yawning darkness furthest from the direction the voices came when a green ball of light materialized in front of her.
“What?” she exclaimed. But she recognized this fiery green apparition.
Ignis fatuus — like what she had created during winter vacation when she was in sixth grade. A will-o-wisp that had led her into a blizzard and almost to her death. It might have been exactly the same fire bobbing in front of her now. It darted forward, then back, clearly enticing her to follow it, and without even thinking, she took a step in that direction —
She stopped and shook her head. “No way.” She knew she couldn’t trust it.
Dwarves spilled into the cavern, carrying torches and awls and axes.
“Fly, fly!” repeated Charlie, more frantically.
Alexandra turned. “Incendiarus blitzen fatalis! Dwarf mortis maximus!” she yelled, making grand sweeping gestures with her wand. The dwarves pushing their way forward jerked to a halt. There was a mad panicked scramble as they backed over their comrades behind them, and Alexandra fled the cavern before they realized that her words had no effect. She followed the floating green ball of light; wherever it was going to lead her, it would be away from here, and right now here was a place she needed not to be.
By herself, she’d never have been able to outrun the dwarves in their own tunnels, so she had no choice but to follow the will-o-wisp in a reckless, headlong plunge into the depths of the mountain. She might have simply chosen a random direction, except that she could barely see when there was a choice of paths to take. For all she knew, the tunnels were one big loop that would simply bring her back to the dwarves. But the will-o-wisp sped ahead and occasionally swerved right or left, like a helpful guide.
It wasn’t being helpful, Alexandra was sure. It was getting her lost. But what choice did she have? She tried to be cautious, and watched her steps as much as she could, which was hardly at all. The light of the ignis fatuus was all she had. She could hear Anna scolding her for her recklessness, and mentally retorted that it wasn’t as if she could do much else, without her Lost Traveler’s Compass. She didn’t dare light her wand, as even after several minutes of scrambling through the dark, the sound of her pursuers was still close behind.
They came into view several times, visible only as squat, ugly shadows cast long against the stone tunnels by the torches they carried. Alexandra yelled nonsense incantations at them. She managed to throw some sparks from her wand, and once she even made a dwarf’s hat fly off his head. That had kept them cautious, but she didn’t think bluffs were going to work when they finally caught up to her. If she couldn’t produce real fireballs or something, she would be in trouble.
“Charlie!” said Charlie.
Alexandra didn’t know if this was a warning or just an exclamation of fear. Charlie could see no better than she could, and certainly wasn’t able to fly around in these tight confines like a bat, so she was carrying the bird tucked under her arm.
The tunnel had been getting narrower for many yards. Footsteps and voices echoed behind them, but the tunnels were such a labyrinth that their pursuers might have been a mile away or just around a bend for all Alexandra knew.
The will-o-wisp bobbed ahead of her, as if signaling impatience.
Alexandra squeezed between rocks that seeped moisture. It was becoming very cool and damp. She let go of Charlie to lift herself over some stones that extruded into the narrowing passageway in a waist-high barrier. Sliding over them, she set her foot down… into nothingness. She almost plummeted, but caught and held herself, balanced on the palms of her hands with her arms supporting her entire weight as her feet kicked empty air on the other side of the rocks she’d just clambered over.
She felt a faint breeze, and far below, a moist "plop" from a pebble she’d dislodged. Charlie fluttered around, almost swallowed in the darkness for a moment.
The green sphere of light continued to bob encouragingly in front of her, but its light did not reflect off of anything near it. This passageway, Alexandra realized, ended in a cavern of unknowable size, with a sheer drop into water below. The will-o-wisp had almost led her to her doom.
With a grunt, she heaved herself backward and collapsed. Her arms, already twisted and sore, could no longer hold her up, and she just lay on her back for a moment, her legs hanging over the drop into black water below. Charlie landed next to her.
After catching her breath, she pulled herself to a sitting position with a sigh.
“Nice try,” she said to the ghostly green light. “You almost got me. Now buzz off. I’m not following you any more.”
The light bobbled for a moment. Then, with one final dip down and up, as if saluting her, it drifted slowly off into the darkness, until it was a dim glow, then a pinpoint of light, and then gone.
“Well, Charlie,” Alexandra said, “I guess we go back the way we came and try to find another way out.”
“Crazy!” said Charlie.
“A little late for criticism,” Alexandra said. “But if you have a better idea, let’s hear it, birdbrain.”
A rush of footsteps, angry, cursing voices, and the clank of weapons dragged or bouncing against tunnel walls, filled the narrowing passageway behind them.
“Fly, fly!” said Charlie.
Alexandra tore open her backpack. “Easy for you to say.” Fire from torches lit their escape route with a dim orange glow.
A dwarf howled in triumph as he saw Alexandra. Alexandra made a threatening gesture with her wand and twisted her face into a wild-eyed fright-mask as she shouted, “Avada Kedavra!”
Perhaps because she was actually angry enough to kill someone, her wand glowed a sickly green.
The dwarf, and the dwarves behind him, flinched, but when nothing else happened, they continued charging down the tunnel.
Alexandra snatched her Skyhook out of her backpack with her other hand. She flung it into the darkness before her and yanked on the rope as it slid through her hand. As the first dwarves came within swinging range, she hooked her arm through one strap of her backpack and propelled herself off the stone ledge. The dwarves gaped at her in astonishment as she swung out into the darkness.
The empty space was not as vast as she’d imagined. She swung like a pendulum and bounced painfully off a rock face on the other side. Gritting her teeth as she swung back toward the mouth of the tunnel crowded with dwarves holding sharp implements, she allowed more of the rope to slide through her fingers while trying to wrap her legs around the rope so she wasn’t hanging on with just the one hand.
Charlie circled her head cawing unhelpfully. A spear — or maybe it was a shovel — sailed past her from above. It made a splash in the water below. Then another thrown object struck her in the shoulder. Alexandra yelped in pain — she didn’t know if it had impaled her, couldn’t even see what had hit her — but the impact made her lose her grip on the rope. She fell and hit the water. It was shockingly cold, almost as frigid as when she’d jumped into Old Larkin Pond the previous winter. Before she could draw breath, she felt a pull from below that sucked her under.
It was just like diving into that icy pond, except this time her feet didn’t touch the bottom. There seemed to be no bottom. Alexandra was sucked down and down by an irresistible force. Light vanished. It was dark and cold and she couldn’t hold her breath much longer, and she was desperately trying to come up with a non-verbal spell that would save her and nothing came to mind and her head hurt and it was so cold and this wasn’t fair —
Suddenly she was moving up instead of down, and then she surfaced. She had no idea where, because it was pitch dark. She gulped air and splashed about in a near-panic, until she realized that there was rock below her, within arm’s length. She pulled herself out of the water onto a rocky embankment that cut her palms and scraped more skin off her knees.
She lay there for a moment, breathing hard. Her backpack had stayed with her, still hooked around one arm, but how much of its contents had spilled out?
“Charlie,” she groaned.
There was no answering caw.
She lay there for another moment, eyes closed. She repeated the call to her familiar, this time in a whisper.
She didn’t know where Charlie was, and she didn’t know if it was because she was just too weak and unfocused to feel the connection that bound them, or… something worse that she didn’t want to think about. Cold water dripped down her face and she would not add tears. But if Charlie had been hurt — if she wasn’t able to reunite with her familiar — then those little bastards were going to pay.
Alexandra coughed and dragged herself further out of the water. She needed to get herself out of here before she could start planning vengeance against an entire clan of hill dwarves. Where was she? Deep underground. Well, she’d been there before. She’d fallen all the way to the Lands Below, for all she knew.
“Lumos,” she said, and her basswood wand lit with a small but steady glow.
The Light Spell revealed a small cavern with walls and ceiling made of buckling, rolling limestone. The contours of the space stretched off into a still pool of black cave water and a dark opening that might lead somewhere else, or only to a wider part of the same cavern, but the rock in that direction continued above water. Behind her, the water from which she emerged was still rippling — evidently there was some sort of current, perhaps responsible for her being sucked under the surface and dragged here.
The rocks at water’s edge she had dragged herself onto were sharp and rough. She was beginning to wish she’d kept her Questing dress on. Or at least worn long pants. Then she remembered the impact to her shoulder. Almost afraid to find out how bad the injury might be, she raised her hand to her left shoulder and ran it over her bare skin.
It felt bruised, but to her relief, she couldn’t find a wound or any bleeding. Whatever had struck her, it hadn’t been very sharp. One small mercy.
The contents of her backpack seemed mostly intact — that was another small mercy. She found the lantern the Pritchards had packed. They had given her flint and steel as well, but Alexandra had no need to resort to that. Even the basswood wand could produce a flame to light the lantern, so she did, and then extinguished her wand with the word, “Nox.”
Before she set off to see where she might go from here, she stripped off her wet clothes. She was already shivering. She didn’t remove the Questing dress from her backpack, but she did retrieve dry socks and underwear, long pants, and a shirt. She also replaced her Seven-League Boots with her magically waterproofed JROC boots, which seemed much more useful down here.
Dressed in clothes that were dry and slightly more practical for her environment, Alexandra felt better, though her knees and elbows burned and her arms and legs ached, and the headache from being hit by a spade up on the surface was fiercer than ever. She put a few bandages from her first aid kit on her cuts and swallowed down some Ibuprofen, wishing she had a healing potion instead.
She put the pack on her back and carefully edged around the nearest outcropping of rock, which threatened to push her into the water if she stepped unwarily. The interior of this cave made her feel like she was crawling around in some giant stone monster’s intestines.
The continuation of the cavern branched into several black holes she could choose to descend into. None of them looked well-traveled or friendly to explorers, and all were at least partly filled with water. Alexandra wondered how deep this cave system went. Could she wander for days without finding an exit? She had no way of knowing whether there was any way to get to the surface from here. She hadn’t heard any footsteps or even the faintest echo to indicate that the dwarves traveled these passages.
She could wander forever here, or more likely, starve to death.
No, she thought, I’m a witch. She chose one of the black mouths gaping into the unknown, and walked into it.