A log popped and hissed loudly, sending sparks drifting into the stone room. Grahlius drew her child a little closer into her breast, sighing heavily. The little girl reached up, her small fingers twirling around her the wispy hairs protruding from her mother’s chin, just like her wife had used to do. She stroked her child’s hair tenderly, feeling the lack of ease this night always brought with it.

  “Mama, why do we fear this night?”

  Grahlius let a small smile break across her face, assuring her with her winter cracked lips that everything was all right. She silently chided herself, knowing her daughter had sensed her discomfort.

  “You are right, young one. We do fear Tenarlian, the Solstice, but this eve is not truly about fear. Tonight, we celebrate hope. Tonight, young one, is the longest night. The daylight hours are at their shortest. While this may not seem like much for those who dwell underground deep in Samsarras’s bosom like us, even we know the cold as the sun refuses to rise far above the horizon.

  Tomorrow, however, the days will start to get longer. Tundar Ankin awakens after his long slumber and begins to stoke the coals of his great furnace, bringing the world warmth and light as he prepares to forge once again. This is how winter passes into spring, and it is this that we celebrate, child. Tonight, we keep the torches lit and the hearths burning til the morning to ward off the dark. Our hill Brethren bring their families and herds of goats farther up the mountain to the very gates of Pfillarderth, where great bonfires are lit. They stay there, close to their ancestral home, and sing songs they have found on the surface world to ward off the evil spirits that are so plentiful in this coldest time. Your cousins have made their way to the surface to meet them there. We have brethren who now live among them.”

  “Mama, why do we not sing?”

  “Our people are older. Our traditions stronger. Tonight, we tell hushed stories or dwell in silence. The evil can not find us if it does not know where to look. We hide from it in quiet and remember our pasts.”

  “Do the elves do this too?”

  “No, child. All the other races have odd ideas about where they are from. They have different gods, younger gods. The High elves lock tight the doors of their homes and the gates of their castles and cities. They eat cold meats and unleavened bread. They are silent too, but they refuse to light any blaze. They huddle in the dark with dread until the dawn comes.

  The wood elves leave their woodland homes, venturing to the largest and oldest trees, going deep into the forest to ancient glades that none other but them know how to reach. Here they feast and drink and give each other gifts. They celebrate their frivolity, which is their usual custom. Your great uncle, Lantilun, attended their feast once. He was a strong man and very accustomed to the strong ales of the dwarves.”

  Grahlius chuckled.

  “He awoke three days later, alone and more hungover than ever he had been in his life. He told us this tale every Tenarlian, and every year the description of the festival grew in scope until they were said to revel with the gods themselves.”

  The child giggled.

  “What do the Mirlethians do, mama? Do they celebrate?”

  “Oh no, young one. The tribes spend weeks traveling and hunting the land bare, swallowing brews of horrible smelling herbs to give them ferocity. Tonight they congregate in the deep swamps, or at the mouths of volcanoes. There they sacrifice and wail and scream all night to drive the evil spirits away. The Gods must be deaf to their cries! Oh, how terrible it must be. “

  “Why do they think the Elves are bad?”

  “They fear their cities, young one. They think cities are where demons dwell. They think the old ones are under their sway.”

  “How terrible! Why don’t they fight them and scare them away?”

  “To fight the humans is like fighting flies or rodents. You can never get rid of them. They have no cities to raze and have little fear. No, it is simply better to ignore them. They are newest to this world. They will evolve, or they will die. Either way, we will always persist. Remember, young one, the dwarves are Samsarras’s eldest folk. We existed here long before all else and will be here after the rest are gone. This world is truly ours, though we are content to dwell here in the great mountain, perfecting our crafts.”

  Grahlius opened her mouth to speak more on the strange traditions of the Mirlethians when the great mountain rumbled and quaked, the sounds of cascading stones echoing through its many chambers. For a moment there was silence, and then the sounds of the horns of warning, ringing loud in the ears of all. Small tremors continued to shake the very walls of Phfilladerth. The child began to weep loudly, as only a child can. Grahlius, clutching her daughter closely, swept the animal skins over her door aside, peering into the great corridor outside. She could hear yelling and the sounds of battle in the distance, though how far, it was hard to say.

  Quickly, she strode back into her home. With her free hand, she opened the dusty old chest which sat at the edge of her bed. It squeaked loudly with age as it fell opened. She reached inside, retrieving a short sword she hoped she’d never have to use again. Grahlius turned once more to her child, soothing her face with her fingers.

  “Hush, little one. We must be quiet. We don’t want the evil to find us.”

 

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