The castle loomed ahead of me, like something out of a fairy tale. Indeed, bard and poet sang often of the ancient StoneMaster Guild's fabled craftsmanship.
The setting sun shone against the red tiled tower roofs, washing the gray-white stones a blood red and tinting the rare glass windows a vibrant orange. The majestic sight, literally carved out of a precipice, stirred dim memories of my childhood, when I listened to the Story Teller's tales and glimpsed wondrous castles and mysterious mountains within the dancing campfire flames.
I sat atop my horse, resting with the knowledge that the end of my arduous journey was a mile away down a narrow, twisting mountain trail. Such a trip, even as hard as it had been, wouldn't have exhausted me so much in my youth. But many, many summers had passed between my youthful days of wanderlust and now. Living as a wife and a mother in the wild, familiar moors of my childhood homeland had softened me.
For twenty-odd summers I had no reason to carry on the life of a Ranger. Until my beloved husband had mysteriously disappeared behind the somber walls of the StoneMasters' castle, I had no reason to follow Sylvan's divine arrow and leave my family behind.
Ahearn, my horse, snorted and shook his head in impatience.
"Shush, my old friend," I whispered softly.
His ears flickered back toward me and then forward, taking in the sound of my voice as the wind caught it and hurled it against the stone cliff on our right and the castle walls to our left. His impatience waned when he realized the wealth of long, rich mountain grass that stretched out around his hooves; with a satisfied whinny, he bowed his head and helped himself to the plenty around him.
My stomach growled faintly, but I was content to sit where I was and watch the blooded sun slip slowly behind the distant ranges of Sabreheim Mountain, legendary home of the massive Black Dwarf nation. One could never know by looking at the snow capped peaks stretched below the towering cliff on which Ahearn and I rested, that an entire dwarven race loved, lived, and ruled beneath the earth.
My husband, Vladoff, had often entertained our children with tales of the mysterious mountain dwarves. How his eyes had shone when describing the scene stretching out for as far as the eye could see – I lifted my head and glanced toward one of the castle's many towers, wondering if he was looking down just now, as I was, at mighty Sabreheim.
The greatest metal-smiths Tir-nan would ever know lived far from the eyes of prying strangers, their forges and craft-shops nestled deep within the bones of the world. No army, no enemy, could lay siege the whole length and breath of Sabreheim – no army of humans, mages, or Mageians could conquer the indestructible mountain, or subjugate the indomitable people who lived hidden and isolated beneath plant, dirt, and stone.
"Excuse me, lass –" a deep voice broke my reverie, startling me into action.
With a soft gasp of surprise, I jerked on Ahearn's reigns, pulling so hard that I caused the poor horse to rear slightly with a sharp whinny of protest. Wide-eyed and suspicious, I loosened my grip on Ahearn's reigns and nudged him with my right knee.
Ahearn turned to the side with a caution that mimicked my own. There, standing staunchly in the center of a crumbling, ivy-covered arch by the side of the road was a rather short, but strapping figure. I narrowed my eyes, but try as I could, I couldn't make out the stranger's features in the fading twilight.
"Who are you, Stranger?" I challenged the unknown.
"I could ask the same o' ye," was the calm, enigmatic reply.
I paused, slightly taken back by the unidentified man's response. Such a sharp retort to a perfectly logical question both angered and intrigued me.
"Are you going to stand there in the shadows, or will you allow me to at least see your face?" I tried again after several shocked seconds.
"How do I know yer notta' StoneMistress?" the stranger growled.
The question took me back and my chest puffed out in indignation.
"A 'StoneMistress?'" I sniffed. "If the light were better, strange sir, you'd see that I'm too dark to be an inhabitant of this frozen country and that I'm too small to be a human."
"A Ranger, then?" his voice turned hopeful – almost friendly.
"Yes," I pursed my lips, wondering briefly how much I should tell a man who refused to step out of the shadows. "A Ranger in search of her husband."
"Well, in that case…" the stranger grunted. "My people, nor I, hold any quarrel wi' Rangers. They are children o' Lord Sylvan and many are beloved of our own great god, Lord Ewan."
"'Lord Ewan?'" my eyebrows rose sharply. "The great god-protectorate of the Dwarves?"
"Aye," was the matter-of-fact reply.
With that having been said, the stranger finally moved out of the shadows and stood facing me, arms across his barrel chest, as Caya slowly climbed into the heavens in place of the sun's sleeping wake.
The man was a Black Dwarf…but not quite. For one, he was taller than any Dwarf I had ever seen. He boasted a beard, but it was close-cropped to his chin. I had never seen a Dwarf, either Red or Black, who didn't have a long, well-groomed, luxurious set of whiskers.
The moon's blue light shone off of the Dwarf's bare arms. As a red-blooded woman, I couldn't help admiring – with something akin to awe – at the muscles that bulged and rippled beneath his fur-trimmed, leather clothing.
He's like a miniature Giant, I thought with deep admiration.
It was true. The Dwarf, despite his short stature, was built as if he had been chiseled out of a slab of rock. He looked solid and thick – as if all the forces of the world would never be able to get the better of his brute strength of body and will. There was also something vaguely familiar about him that I couldn't quite name.
"Me name's Kraig," his rich voice filled the still night air with silent puffs of frozen breath.
"I'm Morgaan," I finally let go of my knife's hilt and rested my hand comfortably on my thigh, feeling no threat from Kraig. "Of Hexmoor."