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This story is ancient. I take no responsibility (now) for its many errors of grammar, style, punctuation, and spelling. Read my childhood works and despair.

This story was part of a series I wrote in my late teens called "Tales Retold", which were re-tellings of classic fairy stories updated to the modern day. I'd been reading Katherine Briggs "Dictionary of Fairies", an invaluable guide to countless such tales.

This is a variation on the 'meeting with a duergar'.

A Duregar Tale

John swore and swore, just to keep his mouth moving, clenched and unclenched his fists, just to keep them mobile, that's how cold it was. The Highland wind tears through any protection, if it turns its teeth on you then no wool, no expensive artificial fibres, will defend you from it. So it was for John and Trent and Martin.

It should have been a days outing, a round-trip route up into the high plateaus of the North-West and then down to the road again by dusk. But a slab of grey cloud had come down, as if God had slapped the highlands with the palm of His hand. The blue-grey peaks had been swallowed as had the high pale sun, behind this even plate of greyness. The world was a heather-brown sheet hung from the sky by every distant rise in the land. They had a compass, but there were no landmarks on which to take bearings. They stumbled on through peat bogs, over hills scraped smooth by ancient glaciers. Light shone on the surface of serried ranks of shallow icy ponds, that vibrated in the wind pouring down from the North. It spread wings of grey sleet and drizzle that drifted across the plain like ranks of shrouds.

They knew even then that they were lost. Trent, the humorist, chattered on regardless, quipping about Scottish weather, Scottish mountains but John walked faster, ahead, trying to ignore him. Martin was the stronger walker, Trent the least experienced. So Martin stayed with Trent to keep him right.

The air grew colder and the wind harder, so that the clouds came down into the valley on the backs of the rain which slashed at the brown banks of the plateau. Huge arms of blank greyness folded around John till he saw only the ground just before him, the scattered stones, the springy sphagnum, the occasional looming boulder. Bursts of stinging rain spiralled around him confining him to a tunnel vision. He strode ahead oblivious, head down to the wind. Only when he came to a blue-grey stream, wide and swollen with water, churning in a channel so large that it must have been cut at the end of the ice age, when wild meltwaters had poured down from the North to the valley below, did he stop and gaze around him. The stream rushed over black stones pitted by the grit of centuries, uncrossable. John waited for the others to appear. Waited by the roaring water while the rain fell, watching the swirling greyness. At last it became clear that Trent and Martin were not coming. They must have gone a different way at some point, while he forged blindly and stupidly ahead. He peered into the darkening mist and sleet, trying to pick out some sign of them. Night was falling, must be from the light, and the rain had become, if anything, colder. There was no point in waiting where he was, Martin had the compass, they were better equipped than he was. Perhaps they had already found the steep chasm that led back to the valley where the road was, they could have reached the car and driven up the road to the Highland hotel where they had planned to eat.

Buoyed slightly by this bare hope he decided to make his own way. Since he could not see to cross the stream then he must go back across his own path, and downstream, meaning south, to gain the lip of the valley.

He marched on the moss stained, rust tinted, sepia grasses while the rain faded to black. The sheets of mist and sleet were black as Ravens' wings on the sky. The thick cloud glowed from backlit moonlight but little ran the gauntlet of the rain to reach the ground. Soon John picked his way in a circle of torchlight that lit the rain as much as the ground, till ground and air seemed one.

To his left the rain plunged past him. He had reached the lip of the valley below, an inky expanse of nothingness, distant wind howling in its confines. Steep screes of rain soaked boulders tilted down at impossible angles under his feet, icy tongues lay in the deep cracks, perhaps unmelted in ages. The wind hounded at him, trying to persuade him that he was a bird, able to fly down into that chasm, or buffeting at him, to get him there by force.

So now John walked the cliff edge, swearing to keep his mouth moving, making fists to keep his hands supple.

Then, suddenly, he saw a light. A light on his level, glittering in a tunnel of rain. The light picked a shape out of the darkness, a tiny stone hut, walls of uneven stone single chimney, single floor and one window. John guessed that this was a Bothy, a Highland rescue hut, provisioned perhaps with fire-wood and tinned food, a refuge, perhaps more accurately a life-line, he did not think that he could survive the night without it.

He mounted to the door and worked the handle, raising within a metal latch. Inside there was only one room, with an open fire burning in the centre, blazing in an iron grate, that was positioned directly beneath the chimney. On the far, southern, side of the fire a pile of pine logs was stacked beneath the window, on the near-side there was a large blanket near the fire, already warmed by its flames. John entered and closed the door behind him. For a moment he considered getting some more logs, but the fire was already high and needed no attention. Instead he hurried to the blanket and shed his coat replacing it with the enfolding blanket. In fact he wore a number of layers beneath the coat and the blanket provided as much comfort as warmth.

As he warmed he realised that someone else must be here, to have lit the fire. They were not in the Bothy certainly but they could only have just gone out, for the fire to be so high. "Perhaps" he thought, "It was Trent and Martin." They would have found the Bothy before him, perhaps they were out looking for him now! What should he do? it could only make it worse if he went out as well. He gazed into the fire, pondering. The red flames danced and bowed, the crackling of the wood keeping time for them.

The door opened, startling John from his reverie. He stared at the figure in the doorway, a short dark shape shrouded in mist and rain from outside. "Who was it ?" John wondered, "Trent? Martin?", but no, it was neither. The figure came in and closed the door. He was black, not the dark brown of Africans or of Indians, but real black, like a man decorated with ink, or coal dust. Even the eyes seemed dark, they did not stare from the face like those of miners do in photographs. Besides that he was short, not even short, 'dwarf' ', but not like dwarven humans like he had seen upon the streets of Britain, really Dwarf, he struggled to understand, as if it as from another race, that had always been dwarves, the proportions of head and body were obviously wrong.

The dwarf smiled at John and then went to the far side of the room and sat down, beside the pile of logs. It was not a nice smile. It was a smile smiled at the expense of John, not for him, and it seemed to... anticipate something.

John smiled back and said "Hello. I'm John Drummond. Are you lost too?" The man did not react, did not move a muscle, just sat cross-legged beyond the fire and grinned. It looked to John as if his black skin was shiny, from the way the flames reflected in it, but he assured himself that it was just the light.

There were no tins, but John found a bar of chocolate and ate it silently. The dwarf sat unmoving, minutes became hours and the fire burned low. John started to feel the cold again, just in the tips of his fingers and on his face, but it would surely get worse if the fire burned out. The single window rattled and boomed softly in its frame as incessant wind lashed it. Rain drops smashed upon it and smeared, the wind dragging them sideways across the pane.

John waited for the man to feed the fire, he was, after all, just by the wood. Also, although he strived not to admit it to himself, John did not want to have to go closer to the dwarf, as he must if he were to get the wood. Something bothered him about the dwarf's eyes, something unpleasant lay in the smile.

The dwarf did not move, even as the fire crackled lower he ignored it.

"The fire's getting quite low, don't you think?" said John, wrapping the blanket closer about him. The dwarf stared at him, shifted its gaze to the wood, shifted it back and grinned once more.

John started. There was no mistaking the meaning of that gaze! It was a challenge, if he wanted the fire he would have to get the wood himself, would have to go round the fireplace and get it, round to where the dwarf was. John was about to accept that challenge, but a certain fear stopped him. He still did not want to go closer, the malice of that dark figure taunted him, jeered at him, but caution kept him back. He could not put it into words but something warned him not to go, it was what the dwarf wanted.

So he waited, huddling tighter as the fire dimmed, eventually retrieving his coat and wrapping it about himself as well. Across the room the dwarf's face had vanished, but the dark eyes still smouldered, still challenging him.

He drifted in and out of sleep, curled up in the bubble of still air that was the Bothy. To his ears the wind was awfully close, transforming the stone of the walls to a paper thin dividing line, a tenuous thing at which the wind tore with its sleety claws. Every time his eyes opened he saw the red coals and the distant eyes, still unmoving. His cold limbs pleaded with him to rise and stoke the fire with new wood, but he resisted.

At last he drifted to an uneasy sleep, still conscious of that dark shape looming in the room, growing in the last instant of his wakefulness to an all enclosing blackness that filled the room with arms of shadow.

Bright sunlight woke him. Warm Highland sun penetrated to his skin. John blinked his eyes and looked up into an endless arch of blue sky. He started up and then caught himself in shocked surprise. The cottage was gone, no trace of it remained but two worn stones in the grass. Where the dwarf had sat, where he might have gone to get the wood, arched the blue sky, descending into the great gap of the valley where sunlight lit the upper surfaces of wheeling birds, far below. If he had moved, if he had answered the dwarf's challenge, he would have plunged to his death in that void.

Two hours later, having reached the valley's floor, he studied his map. There was no Bothy, no cottage.