This story is by Justin Schottmuller and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Tol raised his head, trying to discern if his eyes were indeed open or not. The rough stone bit into his hands but his keen dwarven eyes could not make out anything around him. Pushing himself up, he found nothing in his vision changed. His scar bitten hand could be faintly seen as a shadow in front of him as he waved it back and forth. He cursed as his knuckles knocked into the stone in front of him. Drawing his hand to his mouth he could taste the metallic tang of fresh blood as he sucked on the pain filled knuckle.
Pausing a moment he tried to slow the rising panic in his chest. He could tell the space was small, his ever increasing heartbeat sounded like it was emanating from the stone around him. Looking up he could see the faintest light far above him. It was too distant to judge how far he had fallen accurately, but he at least had a goal. If he could just find his steam hammer in this darkness he would be set. He turned his attention back to his surroundings, trying to reclaim his tools.
Tol slowly shuffled to the right, letting his hands lead. His crooked nose had suffered many breaks in his seventy years and he would gladly avoid another one. Tol set aside the fear of the unknown and moved his foot, finding that he was holding his breath as he shifted his weight. Letting it out through his mustache he pressed on. He slid sideways a few times before his foot tapped against something metallic. Wrapping his hands around the familiar shape of his steam hammer, he hoisted it into his arms. He knew his tool well enough to check it for damage by touch. His hands slid along the body, feeling for cracks along the steam cylinders. Finding none he moved towards the cutting edge. While the edge itself had a few imperfections, it was not enough to keep him from working. It was just a matter of firing up the boiler on his back.
The boiler was quickly on the ground in front of him as he groped for the flashpowder port. One small injection from his belt would be enough to flash boil the water in his boiler and run his hammer for the better part of an hour. Thankfully he had just refilled the water tank before he set out that morning. His hand slid down to his belt to get the charge of flashpowder when he felt water seeping through his britches. Panic took hold as he frantically rubbed down the body of the boiler. Water poured out freely through a gash in the copper, taking his dreams of escape with it.
In horror, Tol heaved the ruined boiler hearing it slam off the wall far closer than he had expected. He stormed straight forward reaching for the wall of his prison, finding it with his busted knuckle. Scouring the wall for handholds, he muttered prayers and curses that resonated in the pit around him like a low hum of an insect swarm. He quickened his pace to a frantic rate, one thought seared in his mind: he was trapped in his grave. His head felt like it was spinning as thoughts tumbled one after the other out of control. Sweat streamed under his beard as his fingers heavily scrambled over the stone; his fears running free.
By the time Tol came back to his senses he was sitting on the ground, his fingers rubbed raw from his arduous search for an escape. He had found nothing except one solid handhold that led nowhere, mocking him with its existence. He closed his eyes and laid his head back, taking a moment to reflect. The day had seemed the same as any other. He had come into the mines to work a vein of copper. It all seemed safe enough but he had cut through to some type of pit and now he was alone at the bottom of it. It would be a miserable death starving down here. Tol tried to push those thoughts aside, his need to survive forcing his brain to work on a solution.
Overcome by exhaustion from his frantic searching and the weight of his impending doom, he simply sat there staring up at the distant speck of light that taunted him. His hand lingered back to his belt and his charges of flashpowder. If it could boil off a tank of water it would do the same to him, wouldn’t it? It would be a far better choice than wasting away in this hole. His hand tugged at his beard as he let his mind wander along the question. Again his mind ran away, taking any path it chose, creating the most agonizing end possible. Panicked sobs wracked his body as his hand moved from beard to belt coming to rest on the charge again.
A surge of defiance forced his hand away from his belt. He closed his eyes to rest them after straining them fruitlessly against the dark. He fitfully drifted off to sleep, wet, miserable, and defeated.
Jolting awake, he heard a deep sound like drums or an organ. He thought it was a rescue party and he gazed up expectantly. That same distant light greeted him with a twinkle and made it obvious he was alone. The sounds of his own movements drowning out any other sound, he sat again, straining to hear any sound to give him hope. For a time there was nothing, making him question if his sanity had also left him. Just as he was ready to give up, he heard it again. It came from all around him. Was he truly alone?
The answer finally hit him so soundly that he sprang to his feet. It was the stone! The legends had spoken of those who could sing to the stone and shape it to their will. Rumor had it that there were even a few such stonesingers present up in the volcanic caverns of Nurdirth. One story said that it was the stone that sang. The stonesingers merely made the stone what it wished to be by singing its song. His hands stretched out for the walls again, this time following the command of his ears. As his hands set to the stone he could feel the song vibrating through it. It was somber, though not like a dirge. It was like the soothing song a mother would sing to comfort her child and it had a similar effect on Tol.
The song, now gripping him, grew in strength and vigor telling him of the entire mountain he now sat under. Unable to hold it back, Tol added his voice to the song. He was by no means musically talented, but this song was burning in his throat and he had no choice but to let it out. Strong and deep, he echoed the song back to the stone, taking hope and comfort as his voice rang back in concert with the music. He belted out the song, diverging slightly as the stone shifted to a deeper tone and he harmonized with it. In response, the stone shifted around him, jutting out a small shelf. In shock he stopped, the stone still singing around him. The stone’s song had changed, mimicking his melody.
With an excited cry, Tol raced forward and climbed up onto the ledge. It was solid, still as much a part of the wall as it had been before he sang it into its current position. A wave of relief washed over him as he realized that he had a way out. He took up the song again, singing with a passion he had not known before as the stone led him. His ears had taken over for his eyes and the music showed him the walls of the pit he was in.
The wonder of the song was not lost on Tol, even as he heard his own voice singing it. The stone here was old but unworn. Well protected from the things that wore down its kin miles above him. It hummed with life, still trying to grow the mountain around it. Far above he could hear the empty space of the tunnels they had painstakingly carved like pauses in the music. From deeper still the song flowed faster, the rock giving way to magma. The many metals and gems of the mountain sang to him with their own voices. The copper he had sought sang lightly, adding a tenor to the music. A pocket of emeralds added a soprano voice, smooth and clear in their untouched beauty. The other veins of ores continued to chime into the chorus, adding to Tol’s own song and bringing the beauty of the mountain to life.
Line after line, verse after verse, he thundered on. Around him, ledges formed as he changed the song. Cracks formed for handholds and the very rock slowly molded to his wishes. His throat began to dry and his voice fade, but still he sang. The clear echoing words faded with time till he was croaking out the melody, missing notes his weary throat could no longer force out. The stone shifted slower, sometimes failing as he missed notes, but on he went, willing the song on as the mocking light grew ever closer.
“Tol has ta be down there,” Agamm muttered. “It’s his lantern we found and no one has heard from him fer nigh on twelve hours.”
Belad nodded, a scowl etched deep on his brow. Tol had been one of his best miners and if he had indeed fallen here it was a loss to all. Such holes did not give up miners nor did he have the ability to mount a rescue. They often went on for over a mile and meant death when they opened up under a miner.
“He’ll be missed,” Belad finally answered, turning his back to the pit. “Tol was one of our finest and will be remembered. It’s a dangerous job down here lads, but he never once backed away from it. He’s an example to follow if ever there was one.”
The other dozen miners who had followed their foreman nodded gravely, silently mourning the loss of their brother. Belad was proud of his crew. It was times like this that their profession was one of the hardest to handle.
“Oi,” a newcomer interrupted. “Any of ye hear that?”
Belad spun back on the pit, listing his head to try and hear what the other dwarf had questioned. He finally did catch it and a smile threatened to ruin his scowl. It was singing. The voice was tired, but the song was one that caught the heart of every miner present. They all stared at each other in amazement. The song was one they had never heard and yet they all felt as though they knew it. The stood dumbfounded until the voice cracked, the spell breaking with the song.
“Get me a light and a line,” Belad barked, three of the dwarves jumping to obey. Belad was in a harness by the time the line was retrieved. Hooking in, he leaned against the rope, six strong pairs of arms lowering him down the hole, his lantern held high as he searched for the source. He found it, two hundred feet down. Resting on a ledge, was Tol, his feet hanging over the edge. He smiled when he saw Belad.
“Ye just saved us all plenty a grief lad,” Belad said, swinging over to the ledge. “Grab on and we’ll drag ye up.”
“You grab on,” Tol said with a mischievous grin that mismatched his exhausted voice. He started to sing again as he pulled Belad onto the ledge. The foreman’s eyes grew wide as the stone itself raised them up.
Tol had found his voice.