Soft hits of chisel against the rock – tsink, tsink, tsink - echoed repeatedly against the surrounding terraced quarry walls, the sound announcing slow birth of another beautiful creation out of its ugly stone cocoon. Rugged but agile hands brushed off a layer of dust from the stone that now resembled a shape of index and middle finger and half of hand – sized as a fully grown man – bent as if to hold a bowl up, but still only halfway out of its misshapen shell. The rugged hand then moved to a large clay jug on the ground next to the half-born hand and lifted it to cracked lips, framed by bushy brown beard that showed whiteness on the chin already. The larynx moved up and down with large gulps of water running down, refreshing the owner's body. Finally, the man lowered the jug back down on gravelled ground, raised his brown eyes up to the sky that was peeking from over the top of his work tent and brushed the sweat from his wrinkled, tanned forehead. He took the hammer and chisel back into his firm hands and hit it against the rock again.
But the soft sound of chisel was often overpowered by much heavier and greater in number sounds of rock being hit with massive hammers held by broad-shouldered men landing repeatedly on large chunks of rock that end up at the bottom of the pit that is the quarry and then get turned into sleek, even bricks for grand buildings or carefully crafted sculptures by orders of highest paying customers.
The mason with the chisel continued his precarious work diligently, ignoring the heat, so uncommon for the start of harvest season, the dust that occupied dry quarry air and the noise of hammers falling, loud deep voices yelling and echoing into a disjointed chorus from the bottom of the scorching pit.
The mason was so used to the ruckus it was much like chant to him, another prerequisite to bring out the shape from within the stone.
The quarry was a deep pit, encircled by wooden stairs and passages that lead up and up into the sky that now poured the autumn sunlight generously onto dozens of workers that inhabited the pit not unlike a colony of ants. The Horror's Pit – an ironic name for the most productive quarry in the former Forsenite Kingdom.
Hours passed until bells rang throughout the pit, signaling the end of another day of production and creation. Dozens of men, from young lads to grizzled older men, tired, sweaty, dusty, but smiling made their way up the carapace towards the sky.
"Dunstan, the workday is over, mate" an orcish man of indeterminable age said to the diligent mason and put his large bronze-green hand on his shoulder and gently – as much as this scared former half-orc soldier could be gentle – pulled the mason away from the massive hand which Dunstan was still chiseling patiently
"Cassie will not let it pass, for you AND me."
"Hmph" Dunstan looked at his creation from under his dark bushy eyebrows and then back at his neighbor, colleague and friend.
"The order is to be delivered soon" he said stubbornly "I'm out of time, Robert"
"You will be out of dinner and out of ears by the time Cassie will be done with you" Robert the half-orc, who was named so by his very human father who brought him home as a trophy, but ended up raising the child as his own proud son, now all grown into a large frightening being, gingerly pulled Dunstan away from his work and directed him towards the first flight of creaking wooden stairs – the way out of the horror as the workers joked.
Dunstan and Robert made it up the scaffolding last behind large group of dusty quarrymen. As they emerged from the pit, the contrast of lush grassland hit their eyes and even after a decade of going in and out of the quarry, Dunstan still was mesmerized by the depth of green that the grass held, or maybe it was because he was looking at bare plain stone all day, that it always hit him so, especially the thick layer of black peat between the stone and the grass, like a carpet between life and death. Every time he saw the layer, he'd thank Magyla in his mind for taking good care of souls passing through that thick layer between life and death, that probably felt just like lying in thick, moist peat. Dunstan wondered how many others always felt the same way looking at the black fertile layer, but never braved to ask.
The quarrymen were gathered around a small way station, where some took their belongings on their shoulders, others saddled or mounted their horses into carts, getting ready to return home to the village. Robert and Dunstan approached their own cart and Dunstan took to get it ready while Robert went to fetch his horse Argent. This was their agreement: Robert provides the horse – a beautiful Sonder gray stud that used to be a warhorse, but got injured in his hind leg and now couldn't take too much weight, but was good, calm horse for pulling the cart and despite the injury was still an envy of the town. Dunstan provided a cart – and not simply a cart, but a sturdy four-wheel carriage with comfortable soft seats, holsters for water and food and even a rooftop rounded from the back, under which a cushy sofa could take two or three more people. Dunstan made it himself after fashions he saw in Forsentum during his masonry training and it was the talk of the town for a while as well.
"Mates talked about going to the tavern after dinner" Robert said jumping onto the front seat and taking the reins "Dubby let it slip tha' there's new batch of The Quarryman ready from summer 'arvest, boys and I are eager to try it" Robert grinned at Dunstant, who hopped on the seat next to him, widely, baring his fangs which should've made his face look rather menacing, but it came out lively and inviting "w'at do you say, mate?"
"Sounds rather unlike Dubby to share his summer goods before late autumn" Dunstan considered Dubhan – the dwarven owner of Quarryman's rest – a crafty man that calculates his profits ahead of time and therefore was weary of any "slips" about sharing the best of brews with the local townsmen: everyone knew Dubhan made the best coin from travellers and traders. Still, Dubhan had to keep the local clientele happy, since during winter months, when travel all but stops and townsfolk become the only source of income for the crafty dwarf. "But I say let's see how the dwarf managed to brew this year" Dunstan, for all his lack of enthusiasm, did like a good pint of dwarven craft beer. Robert laughed loudly and urged Argent to go. The carriage jumped forward sharply as Argent's powerful hooves dug into the ground and quickly pulled the two friends forward ahead of the long line of quarrymen making their way back to the village.
Zonnya had almost finished reining her scorching ball of fire through the sky when Robert and Dunstan made it back to the town – the Horror's End. It was bustling with people, humans and elves (all of whose ears were clipped at birth) mainly, some dwarves too, tired farmers, returning from fields at the height of harvest season, traders passing by with their goods and foreign clothing, salesmen and women, closing up their market stalls for the night, still haggling with some travellers over a set of spoons or a load of bricks, priests and monks on their pilgrimages, sitting around a large statue in the centre of the market square together with beggars, all praying to four lifeless statues, all holding arms up into the sky, not unlike the one Dunstan was chiselling back at the bottom of the pit. The statue was unkept, dusty, bird droppings all over it, dead flowers at its feet, some local townsmen spat on it when passing by. Dunstan watched the monks in red, moss green, grey and teal all kneeling, whispering with their eyes closed and arms open wide to the dirty monument. They will likely spend a night underneath the statue, the green ones will also visit the cemetery at night to pray for the dead, Dunstan wasn't sure why they did it, something to do with the new god overseeing the dead; the grey one will ask about the infirm to treat them (the only useful one in Dunstan’s eyes), the teal one Dunstan never saw do anything other than look at wells for unknown reason and the red one (this time with claw-like scar over his forehead) will keep burning fire at the feet of the statue and invite beggars to warm up by it – such were the new ways in Meerstrand.
"Another bunch of those clerics" Robert growled under his breath, looking at those four men with considerable amount of disdain "what are they doing here anyway, looking up at that monstrosity"
"You are a monstrosity" Dunstan teased his friend "this is just a badly made piece of stone. Kalvi clearly had nothing inside of it" the mason nodded at the four stone figures as they passed through the main round square – the only cobbled place in Horror's End "as to the clerics, I heard that in Meerstrand, if you want to become part of the temples, you must complete a pilgrimage. I assume this is why these four are here"
"The Four" Robert sighed and pulled on the reigns gently, directing Argent to go right towards a road, lined with wooden houses on each side "you believe in any of that hogwash?"
"No" Dunstan leaned over the side of the carriage to look back behind him at the praying men in colourful robes "but these surely do and I've seen many people in Meerstrand that took up The Four instead of our gods" the mason sighed heavily, his memory filling with images of pyres burning in the Temple square of Meerstrand, hundreds of people on their knees, arms spread wide towards the fire, praying in chorus, then bowing onto cold cobbles, pressing their foreheads against it, then taking up drinks, from mugs, glasses, bowls – anything, even sharing jugs – then inhaling and exhaling deeply and loudly. All this while three unfortunate souls were burning on pyres and another one was being taken into the temple. Dunstan prayed fervently to Feyra to bring him back to his home fire safely that day.
"Gaila caught your mind, friend?" Robert nudged his companion to awaken him from deep thought and memory, for he just fell silent mid-sentence.
"These Four new gods make me uneasy" Dunstan gripped the handle next to him tighter as Argent made another sharp turn: he could now see his house at the end of cul-de-sac.
"You an' me both, mate" Robert pulled on the reins right in front of Dunstan's house and got off the carriage, followed by Dunstan on the other side. The half-orc's abode was opposite of Dunstan's and they lived as neighbours for many years now.
"Don't forget the Quarryman's rest tonite" Robert waved from behind Argent before leading the horse away towards a small corral behind cul-de-sac.
Dunstan watched his friend move away to put the four-legged companion to rest for the night. No, he will not forget the Quarryman’s rest tonight, but he will also not forget the four clerics in the middle of town square, whispering their strange prayers. How silly it all seemed to Dunstan, having new gods when the current ones bless so often and so much: here was his house, sturdy, two storey townhouse he built himself from carefully crafted bricks and neat clay roof tiles that safeguarded from the elements. He remembered as the first smoke rose from the chimney, calling for Feyra to bless the family’s fire and a wreath of oak leaves hung in the breeze over unfinished roof, calling for Kalvi to bless the construction, windows and doors were died bright red, the fresh scent of paint still lingering in his memories, as they shunned away Gaila from their dreams and minds and she never brought them nightmares or misfortune. Dunstan stretched, smiling from underneath his bushy beard, and opened the red door to his home.
To be continued…
Image credit: Still life with plaster head and two Japanese dolls by Marie de Jonge. Currently displayed at Stedelijk Museum Zutphen, Netherlands.