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Deep underground, where the Dvergar took refuge, a place called the Inner World flourished. It was a wondrous place, full of strange creatures, twisting tunnels, and dark mysteries. One of the children of the Inner World was called Thyra.

For the little orphan girl, the Dripping Hall, the Hall of Earth’s Gift, and the Hall of Stone’s Flame were not enough. She loved to explore as soon as she could walk, drawn to the deepest caves and the furthest corners of the Dark Fields. To try and keep her safe, Thyra was instructed by her concerned elders, the Ascended of her Node, to think on her path in life. She was often sent to meditate in the phosphorescent blue light of the fountain that took up most of the Dripping Hall.

However, one eye would open on its own, and peek out to look at the wondrous light, then slide over to the unlit corners or crevices in the halls, looking for something that no one else had noticed. She spent all of her free time exploring the profound darkness of tunnels as yet unwalked, or swimming the strong rivers that delved even deeper into the world. She only listened to the stories of the Ascended of her Node to hear about wondrous things and places she had not yet seen.

Though she was bold enough to go alone, it was always more fun with a friend to share jokes with. Her close friend Gaumr often accompanied her, but he often mentioned that he was not so bold, nor so reckless as Thyra, who would hurl herself across chasms and seemed so in tune with the stones she never got stuck in the tightest of spaces. He might have been a bit important, son of an Ascended of their Node, but the little orphan girl outstripped her friend quickly in her desire for more, to go beyond the stone walls where she had been born. Others tried their hands at building or crafting, or perhaps turned to the chanters and the magic of runes and their mysteries, but Thyra only wanted to explore.

And so she grew into a Dvergr woman with few ties and one strong friend. She wondered and wandered, mostly on her own.

One day, she found herself wandering back to the place of meditation, the Dripping Hall where she had never been able to sit still. She found it nearly deserted, but for a boy practicing his craft by himself. He had a table set up, and a set of complex devices and tools that made no sense to her. In the quiet stone vault, his clockwork and golden gears seemed to click in time with the dripping of the water into the never-still surface of the pool. The grey-blue walls all around looked on silently, as they had for thousands of years even before the Dvergar came.

She approached, and looked over his shoulder with interest at the gleaming mess of things he was working on. The boy looked up at her fiercely. “It’s not finished yet.”

“Clearly. That’s alright, I prefer a boy who finishes on time.”

All he did was glare back at her in the rippling reflection of the pool.

Just as she was turning away, the boy spoke again. “You can help me if you want. My brother is too clumsy. My name’s Sindri.”

Thyra raised her eyebrows. “That’s the same name as…”

“Yes, I was named for the place where we came from. My brother says it’s a silly name for me, but I like it. Anyway, I already know you’re called Thyra. So, will you help me or not?”

“I can try, but I know I haven’t the patience.” Nevertheless, Thyra bent over the low table he had set up and held down a spinning gear with a pair of tweezers while Sindri set a thin glass lens carefully in place. “What is it, anyway?” she asked.

Sindri smiled without looking up from what he was doing. “It’s not anything yet, remember? What it’s going to be, well…you’ll have to wait and see. Something new, I think.”
Thyra sighed and leaned back. “I hate waiting. It’s beautiful, though.”

Another voice replied, “Like your face. I mean, you can have it. When it’s finished. I mean, it’s for you.” Sindri kept his eyes focused on what he was doing, but it wasn’t he who had spoken.

Another Dvergr was standing near the pool. It was Gaumr, grinning sheepishly at Thyra. “And I’m the one who commissioned Sindri to make you a gift. You’re welcome, before you ask. Consider it a…bribe, to let me go with you when you explore up there?” With another grin, he pointed at a dark opening above the fountain that spilled into the pool.

Thyra had never noticed the dark opening before, despite all the time her eyes had wandered about the room of meditation. It must have been because she had kept her head lowered. Thyra met Gaumr’s eyes and nodded, never noticing Sindri’s mysterious smile.

Later, when they had gathered their things together and were finally ready for the expedition, Gaumr hesitated. “Are you sure this is enough? What if we get stuck in a tight space, or get lost? Maybe we should ask one of the elders–”

Thyra held up her hand to stop him. “This is an adventure for us brave and bold ones, Gaumr. There’s no need to come, though, if you don’t want to.”

“Don’t talk like that.” Gaumr made a sour face, as though he’d eaten something. “I was just askin’. So, you comin’?” And with that, he hoisted his pack and set off up the well-hidden steps that were carved into the side of the fountain.

Leaving the Dripping Hall behind, they found little light in the tunnel. It was just enough for their reflective eyes to pick out the twisting formations and strange patterns on the walls of the stone tunnel. Tiny cave-dwelling creatures battled their way across the path, and Thyra, following Gaumr’s lead for once, stepped carefully around them. The miniature denizens of the Inner World took little notice; they were consumed by their own concerns.

They walked for a long time through the dark twisting tunnel before they came to a place where the stone spread out and away, opening into a vast hall that was lined with columns that had formed in ages past. Their footsteps were the only movement in here, where the silence and stillness had reigned for millennia uncounted, where stone formed and took shape in hidden beauty.

The stone flared out into complex designs. Rivulets of water flowed down the walls and gathered in pools, where the stone was soft and had dissolved into milky liquid, waiting to dry and form new shapes in eons to come.

Thyra and Gaumr stood breathless, looking around and taking in the corners and crevices that patterned the walls of the enormous cavern like fish scales.

A voice from behind them said, “Wow…a forge of earth.”

They turned in alarm to find the boy Sindri standing there with a pack of his own. He had followed silently, with all his hanging tools and instruments wrapped in cloth to protect (or perhaps just to muffle) them.

Thyra frowned at first, then grinned at Sindri’s look of wonder.

“What?” Gaumr chuckled, “Never seen a cave before? Anyway… what’s a forge of earth?”

Sindri’s eyes were unfocused. “It’s this. This place, where shapes are formed in stone. I can build here…I can build amazing things here. Anything.”

Thyra looked around the beautiful cavern. “Really? You can make anything? Have you been at the mushroom beer?”

“No!” Sindri looked annoyed. “I finished Gaumr’s gift for you, by the way. Here. I never knew there were places like this…I wish I’d gone exploring with you before!”

Ignoring Gaumr as he began to explain that Sindri wasn’t exploring ‘with’ them, Thyra pulled the golden trinket out of the leather bag. It was all gleaming gears and glittering lenses, and hummed to life in her hands. “What does it…do?”

Gaumr turned before Sindri could answer. Clearing his throat, the older Dvergr shrugged his rough-stone shoulders. “I thought that, what with your interest… well, it’s supposed to lead you to new places, find things you couldn’t see before. Sindri’s a bit of a prodigy, so I commissioned him to build you something. Don’t tell him I said so, of course,” he added, glancing down at the boy with a smirk.

However, Sindri had already wandered off again, staring in wonder at the formations and mysterious curves of the walls. Gaumr turned back to Thyra with another joke on his lips, but she had wandered in the opposite direction, turning his gift over in her hands and exploring the hidden corners of the underground hall. Gaumr had to laugh in the echoing hush. “Heh, oh sure, don’t mind Gaumr, he’ll be fine on his own. Lots of things for Gaumr to do.”

He watched for a moment as the two of them walked and clambered about the beautiful place, then shook his head. “Might as well eat something, I suppose.” Plopping down on a smooth rise in the stone, he pulled out a sealed mug and a wedge of cheese. Eyeing them both critically, he added to himself, “One of these is much more nourishing than the other… and makes for better companionship.” He put the cheese back in the bag and took a deep drink…

…Almost spurting out all the beer when Thyra said from behind him, “You should come with me!”

Wiping at his beard with the back of his hand, Gaumr glanced up to find Thyra standing over him, holding the trinket up to her face. Her eyes were almost glowing with excitement. “What are you talking about?” He started to cough.

“I’m talking about this thing. I think I’ve found something… some kind of trail that leads upward! To world above!”

“The Outer World?” Gaumr looked dubious. “Why would you want to go there? It’s covered in terrible storms!”

“The storms that made us who we are? Anyway, don’t you want to see the things the Ascended tell of? The storms, the mountains, the… sky?”

Gaumr took another drink to steady his nerves. No one had thought of going back, not in millenia, it seemed to him. “My father tells that everyone up there became monsters. Is it even possible for us to go? ”

“No.” Sindri scrambled back to them over the smooth rocks. “Not yet, it isn’t! Even with my special little compass, you’d never find a path through. So I ask myself, how do I travel if I come to an impassable obstacle, like a lake of water. I can’t go by myself. I need to take a ship!”

The pair looked at him with confusion. “What’s that?” They asked in unison.

Gaumr added, “Did you just say what I think you said? Because you should have gone before we set out.”

Ignoring the last comment, Sindri shrugged. “It’s something you can travel in. My father spoke about them sometimes. In one of the other Nodes, they use them to cross a wide lake. In this place… I will build a ship that sails the earth!”

His voice echoed through the cavern, and for a moment, they both believed him. But then Gaumr shook his head. “I’ll have to ask my father…”

Thyra jabbed him in the ribs with her stony elbow. “Can’t you see he’s thinking? If you want to go, let him be.”
Gaumr looked at her and sighed again. “I can see you’re bound and determined to this already. See the Outer World, eh? Perhaps you’d better come and talk to the Ascended with me.”

In the Hall of Hearing, where the beards wagged long and were spotted with grey, Thyra pleaded her case.
“Allow us to travel to the surface, and at least see if the storms are still there!”

Gaumr’s father had demanded a hearing. The other Ascended of the Node had called king Durnir himself to hear the appeal.

The king stood, stroking the salt and pepper of his beard. The only sound in the hall, lined with rows of massive stone chairs and benches, was the clinking of the golden amulets woven into Durnir’s hair. It seemed an eternity before he spoke. “The greatest tragedy of our people happened there, on the Outer World. We lost the town we came from, our husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. We heard them become ravening beasts, filling the tunnels with their cries. We came here and built a new life in a new world, the Inner World. You want permission to throw all of this away? You want permission to tempt others to leave us as well, and take their skills and their abilities away from us?”

His eyes turned questioningly to Thyra where she stood upon the dais in the center of the room. She swallowed with a dry throat and spoke with hesitation. It seemed as though a life spent exploring empty caves and discovering unheard-of places did not prepare one for public speaking. “I ask permission only for the boy Sindri to build his… his masterpiece. I ask permission for Gaumr to find new glory for his family name,” she added, her voice growing stronger now, as she glanced at where Gaumr’s father sat in state, his robe of Ascended office about him on his high bench. “And I ask for permission that I, and any Dvergr who has wanted more, who has wanted to breathe the open air and see the sky, be allowed to follow that dream. I assure you, we will come back–all the wiser and better for having traveled.”

Durnir nodded slowly. “I understand what you intend. But I do not think you understand the dangers of such a journey, nor the consequences of failing to fulfill all your promises.” He leaned over to his left and right, listening to the whispers of Gaumr’s father and another Ascended. With a firm nod, he straightened and looked straight into Thyra’s eyes. “It is the decision of the Ascended of this council that you desist from all you are doing regarding a journey to the Outer World, and also from tempting others to build a vessel–no matter how much of a masterpiece it might be–capable of making such a journey.” For a moment, his grey eyes softened, and he smiled wryly behind his beard. “Do not take it too hard, dear Thyra. After all, a ship made of stone would just sink like one.”

A sprinkling of laughter spread around the hall, echoing through among the smooth pillars and walls. Thyra looked down at her knees, staring at the stony caps below her skirt. Stalled before she started.

“No!” The voice that broke into the murmurs of the Hall of Hearing was gravelly and cracked with age, yet full of a playful wisdom. It was Motsognir, first of the Dvergar. He appeared as if by magic from a crack in the wall, covered in dust. He was dressed in a strange mixture of Ascended robes and miner’s uniform, all mismatched pieces of brown and grey. “No! There will be no sinking of ships, or of ideas.” He glared up at Durnir where he sat on the highest bench. “The desire to explore, to find new places, was what got us here to safety in the first place. You became a king from a foreman, Durnir–have you forgotten? Will you deny this orphan the same opportunity?”

Durnir looked annoyed. “I became an orphan myself, all those years ago. Would you have me allow Gaumr to make his father weep?”

Motsognir nodded. “If that is what’s needed. I am too tired and too old to make the journey… but if you stop the young ones, you’re condemning them to stagnation.”

Durnir stood and swept from his high bench, his face alight with fury. His dark robes billowed as he stormed from the hall. “You may say what pleases you, Old Motty, and out of respect, I cannot answer what I truly think!”

Afterward, in a dim corner of the Dripping Hall, with the bluish light of the fountain playing across everything, Thyra was drank quietly with her two friends. Sindri was chewing at his mug, while Gaumr simply stared at the shimmering on the dark liquid between gulps.

Eventually, Thyra stood, setting down her mug. “This is ridiculous. They don’t even know where the tunnel mouth lies, or what lies beyond. They certainly don’t know what Sindri can do. We can ascend and descend, and be back before they realize what has happened.”

Sindri jumped up on his chair, grinning wide. “I was hoping you’d say that! Now, I have a list of materials I’ll need–”
Gaumr grunted and glared up at them. His eyes were a little bleary. “Would you have me defy my father? All the Ascended, really? Durnir himself?”

Thyra sighed at him. “Leave it to Gaumr to feel a bit gormless in his cups. Yes, of course I’d have you do that. And when we’re ready to leave, grab anyone with an ounce of curiosity in their stones–assuming you’ve got any left, yourself.”

Gaumr’s eyes were bulging. “How can I? How could you? Why ruin things… ”

Thyra shook her head. “Think for a moment, Gaumr. Your father will live on, and on… long enough to forgive you. Nothing will ever change down here. There’s no movement. Yes, the Inner World is beautiful, and full of amazing things… but it will always be the same, to us. Once in your life, don’t worry about everyone else. Just think about what you can see, and experience.”

Gaumr set down his drink and grunted again, reaching to pour some more from the steaming pitcher. Sindri and Thyra simply stared at him, looming. Gaumr paused, his hand in the air, then let it drop. “Oh, all right,” he muttered. The Dvergr heaved himself upright and looked from one to the other of his companions. “Okay, I’m standing now too. We’re all standing. Now what?”

Sindri flipped the paper at him. “Now you both figure out how to get me these materials while I go to the forge of earth and get started on the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.”

Thyra and Gaumr could barely understand what Sindri was doing. Eventually, the boy brought his older brother in to help direct the flow of muddy water in the cavern and carve at the rippling waves of stone that formed. It took many weeks of hard work, but slowly and surely, the friends watched a huge ship take form in the cavern.

When Sindri informed them that it was almost ready, Gaumr made quiet inquiries into who else would dare to ascend, while Thyra went to find Motsognir. The old Dvergr told her more of life on the surface, and included a few warnings about the Outer World. He still refused to join them, but gave his blessing.

Sindri’s brother also chose to remain behind, with the secrets of the stone ships in his head.

When they finally set out, that first company of brave Dvergar, it is said they numbered more than twenty, but less than a hundred. The stories do not tell all their names. Some of them doubted that Sindri’s stone ship would work; others doubted Gaumr’s leadership, or Thyra’s vision of the Outer World. The only thing they did not doubt was their courage.

When they were all packed inside, Sindri tossed a drink for luck and called out the ship’s name. “Skíðblaðnir,” he shouted, “Take us home!”

In response, the stone beneath their feet began to quake, and the Dvergar within had to brace themselves as the vessel began to rise. The ship glided through the earth, of the earth and in it, yet apart, much like the Dvergar themselves. It left no tunnel or passage, but used the flow of the stones themselves as the path, guided by Thyra and her magic compass.

Thyra and Gaumr reached out with all their senses and felt, rather than saw, the many mysterious layers of earth that they passed, the running streams of gold and silver, the grand vistas of buried granite, and the strange flows of igneous. They glanced at one another in wonder, realizing at last how the ground is no immutable, steady thing, but a churning maelstrom of chthonic wonders and hollow halls.

They sailed the earth, traveling in twists and turns, but upward, always closer and closer to the Outer World they had heard of only in ancient legend.

Sindri seemed worried, however. Every jolt and shake of the ship seemed to throw him in greater alarm. Thyra asked him what was wrong.

“Pieces of the ship are coming apart, left behind in the earth. I don’t…I don’t know if we can make it. It’s the nature of the stone ship…I should have realized and warned you.”

“At least we’re still floating like a stone,” Gaumr grinned at him. “No Dvergr has ever done this before. It is an adventure for all of us.”

They held on to the ship and one another as they traveled, sensing the stones fall away around them. Thyra stood toward the prow of the stone ship, her eyes wide, her jaw set, as if impelling the vessel upward through sheer will. The rumbling shook them to their stone bones, thunder beneath the earth.

It took days of travel. The Dvergar caught what sleep they could, shaking in the darkness. By the time they neared their destination, they could see the rough earth flowing past through large holes in the ship. Thyra knew they wouldn’t make it. The ship was too large, too strange, and too mysterious to work. She had finally pushed too far, and doomed them all.

Through the ribs of the ship’s hull, which had begun to look like no more than broken teeth, hot water burst upon them. Full of warmth, bright sunlight struck the Dvergar, a light they hadn’t seen in generations. Angry shouts and yells of surprise filled Thyra’s ears, but she smiled into the blinding glow. The storms had not lasted forever. She had found a new world to explore.

The large group of Viking warriors who had been bathing in the hot springs were not filled with such aplomb. As tremendous stones rose from the water, barely in the shape of a ship any longer, they shouted and scrambled naked onto the bank. The image of the nude men jumping, yelling, and snatching up their weapons would forever form Thyra’s first impression of the Outer World inhabitants.

“Well, that’s eye-opening all right,” muttered Gaumr, drawing his own blade.

Sindri looked around with a morose expression. “Never mind them. My ship is in pieces! There’ll be no returning in this thing…”

“Easy, there,” said Thyra, holding Gaumr back with one hand even as she drew her dagger with the other. Taking a step forward in the bubbling pool under the looming remains of the stone ship, she called out, “Why do you threaten us? We have no need to tangle with your dangling swords… ”

There was silence for a moment, as the tall warriors looked from one another in anger and confusion and down to their pantless state. Then, with a huge guffaw, one gigantic red-haired warrior strode forward, formally lowering his blade. “I see this lady has a sense of humor, if not one of timing! You may have ruined an excellent bathing spot… but you’ve given me a good laugh!”
The other warriors relaxed as well, an appreciative chuckle spreading rushing through them like the wind that was blowing freely through their skin.

The massive red-haired man pulled up his pants. “You’ve got quite the ‘stones.’ You must come share a meal and a drink at my hall, stony folk.” With a grin, he added, “I am Sigurd, king of this Realm.”

Thyra and Gaumr looked at one another and nodded slowly as they sheathed their weapons. There was no return path; they could only ever go forward.

In this way the friendship between the Dvergar and the Vikings was born, a friendship that would prove sturdy as stone and deep as the Inner World.

Nodding as if in affirmation of a story well told, the old Dvergar leaned back in his chair and grasped his mug, which no longer steamed. His eyes reflected the firelight as he looked at it over the rim, taking a massive swig.

“And is that the one, Grandfather? The stone ship outside? Is that all that’s left? I’d have thought it would be bigger…” The small Dvergr twisted his face into a smile.

His elder laughed into his beard, setting the mug down on the stump that served as a table and slapping his stony knees. “Ha! No, boy, that was a ship built by Sindri’s brother, which brought your amma and me up from the old lands of the Inner World long ago…No, the first ship that ascended to the Outer World was made by Sindri, and she was a great vessel indeed, none like her in the world. She was massive enough to hold a company of Dvergar, and none of us has been able to match her greatness. And yet, for all its wondrous power, it could not return, no, never go back…” Once more, he lapsed into silence.

When the little Dvergr was certain that his afi had fallen asleep, he stood carefully, set down his toy, and returned to the window. As if from a great distance, his grandfather’s voice came after him. “When you look at the stones that stand outside, think of the Inner World, and laugh at the great joke of jokes.”

“What do you mean, grandfather? What joke?” But there was no answer.

The snow started falling again, hushed as a stilled breath.

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