“I believe there’s no task so serious that you can’t do it whilst slightly drunk.” – Filmore
Filmore Hjaldrung. Mountain Dwarf. Brewmaster. Barbarian. Outlander.
The springtime sun blazes in the sky. The road, chalky white, curves ahead through lush fields, and winds down through a shallow valley and beyond to the horizon. It is packed down, hard, a road well traveled. In the distance heat shimmers up from its surface.
A lone figure walks the center of the road. A bald dwarf, dressed in stained and tattered grey rags, carrying a club. Beads of sweat line his brow. A mottled, gnarled scar, tracing from behind his left ear to the crown of his head, stands out against his browned, weather-beaten skin. His ragged fur boots lashed to his feet with crude leather straps.
Trudging along at a deliberate pace, squinting at the brightness of the day. One foot in front of the other. Another. Labored, uneven steps, but onward. Another foot. One more step.
His thoughts wander….
[THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO]
The first days of winter in the Greypeak Mountains. Small snow-peaks formed on tree limbs in the morning, and by late afternoon had melted off. It was not quite yet cold enough for the winter’s permanent snow to settle in. As twilight descended and stars appeared in the dimming sky, smoke roiled and rose from the massive stone chimney of The Hammered Hog.
Stationed right at the top of the treeline, the tavern seemed to be part of the mountain. Layered stonework jutted from the mountain’s face to form the tavern’s sides, and the long, curved facade was fashioned from a low stone wall topped by thick planks of dark mahogany. Tall windows carved into the wood revealed the yellow glow of hearthfire. Music of the flute and lyre, mixed with loud conversation and laughter, drifted into the cold night.
A group of three dwarves walked through the small village of Kinnbarul and continued on for a short while, steadily making their way up the well-worn path toward the tavern. Their steps crunched the cold ground, their breath fogged the chill air. The first to reach the large door pulled the ornate brass handle, they entered and were immediately cheered by the warmth within.
The great hall stretched over a hundred feet in length. Dozens of tables were placed throughout the hall, many in small built-in nooks, up a step, or in some cases, down a step. The furniture was made from aged leather, a variety of rich woods polished to a mirror shine, and brass. Throughout the hall, waiters brought platters of food and ale to eager customers. At the far end of the hall, a group of dwarves crowded the bar. In the very center of the great room, an open fireplace crackled as a large boar slowly roasted on a spit. Near the fire, on a small elevated stage, three musicians played. It was early on week’s end night; the tavern was about a third full.
The three dwarves made their way across the great hall towards the bar. At the tap, a young dwarf sporting a waxed, layered, perfectly groomed beard, his hair in perfect braids, his leather tunic gleaming in the firelight, was filling a tankard. He looked up as they approach.
“Gulmore! What’s the word, brother?”
“We have mined every last bit of the ore that can be mined in all of Greypeak! Both Admar and Emgron here say there can’t possibly be no more ore. At least until next week. That’s the word.” Gulmore slapped a silver coin on the bar. “My crew’s thirsty, so fill ‘er up, Filmore.”
Filmore slid the tankard down the bar, and then in a flash, expertly filled up three more and set them down in front of the crew.
They raised their drinks and Gulmore intoned, “May we never go to hell but always be on our way.” Tankards clunked together, and the dwarves drank deep.
“Ahhhhh. That’s good stuff. And so I heard old man Berdram was going to make you Brewmaster. Did I hear right?”
“That is right. Been working like a one-legged-dash to master the craft. At the end of the month, the old man is going to officially name me Brewmaster of The Hammered Hog. We’re going to have a feast. You should come.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Gulmore paused, and looked at his brother. “You know father would have been chuffed to see that.”
Filmore nodded. “I’d like to think so.”
“Now how ‘bout the same again for these hard-workin’ miners?”
Filmore chuckled, and topped off the tankards. “So…. I’ve been thinking about moving out and getting my own place.”
Gulmore smirked. “Mom says you’re never home anyway. You should stop by and talk to her.” He put his tankard down on the bar and ripped out a belch loud enough to turn heads and raise eyebrows – even in a dwarf tavern! Several patrons raised their glasses in the bar’s general direction. An armored adventurer sitting a few tables away gave a mock salute. The music didn’t miss a beat.
Gulmore took a small bow, leaned over the bar and smiled. “How ‘bout same again?”
“You’re a credit to our clan, brother.”
* * *
One foot in front of the other. His steps scrape up puffs of chalky dust. Filmore Hjaldrung stops, stretches, and wipes the sweat from his forehead.
He looks at the grime on his arm and tries to remember when he last had a full meal. Looking around at the green countryside, he knows that at the very least he’ll be able to find a few grasshoppers and worms to eat.
Need to rest, but I’ll not stop until dark, he thinks. Should have stolen a damn horse.
The dwarf sighs and starts walking. He listens for the sound of running water but hears only the wind in the trees. That’s going to become a problem in the next day or two. Got to be a river or stream close to the road somewhere.
He trudges forward, one strained step at a time.
[THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO]
“WE CAN’T STAY HERE!” Berdram yelled. The Hammered Hog was aflame. Black smoke billowed out of the kitchen and hung thick in the main hall. Flames covered most of the back wall. The sounds of fighting could be heard outside. Screams. Horses whinnying. The clang of metal on metal. More screams.
Berdram, Filmore, and Emgrom crouched close to the floor behind an overturned table. They could barely see ten feet in front of them. Choking on the hot air; it was getting hard to breathe. The heat stung their eyes. An arrow struck the table with a sudden ‘thwunk!’
Emgrom said, “You’d think that raggabrash would have gotten bored of this by now!”
Berdram raised a hand, motioning for quiet. He tried to whisper and shout at the same time: “Well, he saw us! And there’s no other way out now! We’re going to have to charge the door. The next time he shoots, I’m charging. You two follow behind me. Together, we take him!” The dwarves nodded and peered around the table. Through the haze, they could barely make out the shape in the doorway.
The grey-bearded owner and master of The Hammered Hog grabbed an overturned chair and pulled it close to him, holding it sideways, legs to the front. He looked back and said, “This is my favorite shield now.”
Another arrow thunked into the table and without hesitation Berdram stood up and charged. He did not yell or cry out. Running as fast as a three-hundred-year-old dwarf could run while holding a chair out in front of him, he rushed the door. Filmore and Emgrom ran behind him. The archer leaning against the door jamb had the next arrow nocked, but never got the chance to draw. Bursting out of the smoke like a charging rhino, Berdram crashed into the man. They tumbled over just outside the door, and in a flash Filmore had the man pinned. The archer had a knife strapped to his thigh, and it was his undoing. Emgrom pulled the knife free and shoved the pointed blade into the man’s throat. The archer convulsed violently, spit a mouthful of blood, and went limp.
Hacking and coughing, the three dwarves gulped the cold night air. It hurt nearly as much as the smoke.
Filmore stood up and looked at the village. In the distance they could see buildings on fire. They heard only the occasional shout or scream. Riders with torches were moving through the village. Filmore wondered if they were looking for something else, or someone else, to burn.
Berdram pulled the quiver from the dead raider’s back and picked up the bow. “We’ve got to move before we’re spotted again. The only reason we’re alive is because they thought they killed everyone here.”
Filmore stared at the village. “I don’t know where my mother and brother are.”
Emgrom said, “They’re probably hiding in one of the mines. We could take one of the goat paths, go around Kinn’s Peak. … We should go up to the mines and hide with them.”
Berdram put a hand on Filmore’s shoulder. “Hey, lad. There’s at least fifty of those bastards over there. You can’t help your family if they’re in the village. And you can’t help them if you’re dead. Come on. Let’s move.”
The dwarves walked around to the side of The Hammered Hog, and up a narrow, rocky path that took them around the village. The column of smoke that rose from Kinnbarul was the largest Filmore had ever seen. The smoke was blacker than the night sky itself, blocking out the stars.
They moved slowly, careful to be silent, continuously watching and listening. It took almost an hour to arrive at the main entrance of the Southern Greypeak Iron Mine. When they emerged from behind the sheds and outbuildings, their hearts sank.
At the mouth of the mine were dozens of bodies. Berdram uttered a curse. Emgrom looked blank, his lips moving without making sound.
Filmore slowly walked among the corpses, and stopped when he saw his mother. She was on her side, her right arm thrown over her head. He knelt down and turned her on her back. An arrow protruded from her stomach, and another from her shoulder. He wondered which arrow had been first. He wondered what she was thinking when she died. Tears rolled down his face as he reached over and closed her eyes.
“There’s three more of them! Over there! Hyah!”
The dwarves heard the shout and saw four riders gallop toward them. Berdram nocked an arrow and took aim. Filmore shook his head, yelling in rage, and raced over to an impaled corpse. Grasping the haft of the spear while stepping on the neck of his clansman, he yanked the pike free.
Emgrom turned and ran back the way they came, screaming the whole way.
Berdram released his arrow, and his aim was true. The arrow took the first rider square in the chest, piercing leather armor with ease. The horse pulled up, confused as the rider slumped in the saddle and fell sideways, hanging from his stirrups.
One of the riders hurled a spear in response. Berdram was reaching for his next arrow when the spear pierced his torso, knocking him backwards.
Filmore roared and ran at them, holding the pike aloft. The rider closest to him wielded a blunt mace. He swatted the pike out of Filmore’s hands with a perfectly timed swing, nudged his horse, which rounded the stunned dwarf, and with a quick stroke cracked Filmore on the head with the mace. Blood flowed from the wound, soaking his hair and washing over his face.
In the two long seconds it took for him to fall to the ground, Filmore’s last fleeting thought was: Blacker than the smoke.
* * * * * *
* * * * *
* * * *
* * *
Searing pain. All-consuming. So much pain that screaming seems like a bad idea. Is cutting your own head off a good idea? It couldn’t be worse than this. I can’t move. I don’t want to move. Why am I being poked? Who is making the pain worse? I can’t hear. What is this noise? Why? Why?
“Filmore! Filmore, man, are you dead? I thought I saw you breathe. Hey, can you hear me?”
By gods above and demons below, Filmore thought, I’m not dead. Or am I?
Through a great force of will, Filmore tried to open his eyes. He remembered that it was once easy to open your eyes. It seemed impossible to do so now. He paused a moment, tried again, and the dried blood caked to his face pulled his eyelashes and cracked. He could see a sliver of the morning.
He immediately realized this was a huge mistake, and closed his eyes.
“You’re not dead! All right! I’ll get some water.”
Filmore wondered what that could even possibly mean, then an ice cold splash of water hit his face, which brought back all the pain, and added different pain.
“Arrrrrrrh! Boil-brained pignut! Don’t!”
Filmore opened his eyes again, and this time the pain wasn’t searing, just a normal amount of horrible. He slowly turned his head and looked up.
“Emgrom. You’re alive. That’s good. The raiders gone?”
The young dwarf shifted on his feet, looking uneasy. “For now, seems so. No one knows if they’re coming back. Or even who they were.”
Filmore sat up, slowly, deliberately, and then vomited, a gushing flow of yellow-gray sluice.
“Uhhh, you leprous … gowpenful … dammit … to … hell.”
Emgrom silently handed Filmore the waterskin, and Filmore sipped, swished and spat.
Still moving with great care, Filmore looked over at Emgrom. “We the only ones?”
Emgrom shook his head. “No, but there’s not many. My sister Einnyss got away and hid in the forest. Admar’s dead. Old man Berdram’s dead too.”
“I saw Berdram die. What about my brother?”
“Don’t know for sure. You know Hjulrik? The Tanner? He said he saw Gulmore run from the village when the raiders first arrived. So maybe Gulmore’s still out there in a cave or somewhere on the mountain.”
“I see. So. What now?”
“There’s talk of heading south to the Sunset Mountains. There are a few clans down there, distant relations, who will take us in. I think I’ll go with them. You?”
Filmore looked over at the fallen dwarves.
“I’m going to bury my mother and my clansmen. Then I’m going to find Gulmore.”
And then I’m going to kill every last one of those bastards.
* * *
The faint clattering of hoof steps intrudes on the quiet of the day.
Filmore turns in alarm, and readies himself. He waits, hefting his club, wondering if he’s about to be in a fight.
Haven’t seen another soul in days, and now this.
Really. Really. Should have stolen a horse.
[FOUR MONTHS AGO]
The Forest of Tethir was warm at night. Humid air dampened the ground, and made for slick footing. Smooth stones on the woodland floor gleamed in the dull moonlight, slippery as ice. More than one careless hiker had slipped on one stone and cracked their head open on the next. You had to watch your step.
Two travelers sat around a campfire, their tent pitched nearby. Their conversation was drowned out by the sounds of the forest. Crickets, hoot owls, the occasional screech from a bird.
Twenty feet away, Filmore Hjaldrung lay flat on the ground, partially behind the trunk of a large tree, the winding root system providing cover. The travelers could have looked directly at him and would have seen nothing but forest and shadow.
He was a creature of the wild. Garbed in patchwork burlap and fur, he carried a wooden club in his left hand and knife in his right. His necklace was made of handspun twine and seventeen human teeth.
Filmore was on the eleventh day of this hunt.
Inch by inch, he crept closer to the camp. When he could hear the crackle of the fire, he paused and waited, settling into the forest floor behind a shrub. He planned to wait until they fell asleep, and cut their throats, and pull their teeth. Eighteen and nineteen. More than a third done, he thought. He measured his breathing, motionless as stone, and watched.
The night grew darker, and quieted down. The travelers spread out blankets and curled up next to the fire. This surprised the dwarf; he had expected them to bunk in the tent. But no matter. The men slept deep and unaware. They had grown into late middle-age, whereas Filmore was a dwarf, and in his youth. Living in the wild had given him strength and cunning. In less than a minute their throats were gushing blood onto the dead leaves and grass. They were delivered into hell, never knowing it was the vengeance of Kinnbarul that claimed them.
Filmore went through their bundle. A few coins. Not much of value. Picked up a bag and rifled through it. Clothes, and … a journal. The dwarf stopped and looked at it. Odd, he thought. He opened it and looked at the last entry.
“Stopped in Murann. Met up with R. and A. Acquired the jewel. V. needs it for the mine. Will be a fine payday. Setting out for Riatavin, but have to avoid patrols.”
Just great, thought Filmore, a varlot’s diary. He flipped through the book, and stopped cold when he saw:
“Was in Last Hearth, met 2 dwarves said they were from Greypeak. Names ‘Balnik’ and ‘Grulmir’. Think they recognized R.’s armor. Dwarves are like that. We got out of there before any trouble.”
At that moment, the tent flap slapped open and a lanky figure stepped out into the night. The tall man’s pale skin and white hair contrasted with his flowing black robe. He looked at Filmore, stunned.
“Who the hell are you?” He looked down toward the campfire. “What did you … “
Without finishing the sentence, the tall man raised his hands and started muttering an incantation. Dark energy sparked from his palms.
Oh shit, thought Filmore. He hurled his knife at the wizard, who stopped muttering long enough to swat the knife out of the air with his bare hand.
Filmore had already turned on his heel and started running. With surprising speed for someone of his stature, he covered the ground to the treeline and headed deeper into the forest. As he huffed and ran, a tree right next to him exploded into searing woodchips. He kept running.
Filmore thought, What the hell? I’ve been tracking these yaldsons for eleven days! Was just the two of them. Where did that wizard come from?
And then: Dammit. Didn’t even get their teeth.
As he ran further into the forest, distancing himself further from the dark mage, he smiled.
I can’t contend with a wizard today, but I’ll get stronger. Next time I’ll be ready for anything. And the souls of Kinnbural will be closer to their rest.
Filmore quickened his pace. I knew everyone who lived in the village, and there wasn’t anyone named Grulmir. Nor even Grul. Gulmore might actually be alive. Have to find out where this Last Hearth is, and get there.
After almost an hour of running, Filmore broke through to a clearing, and saw a wide road on the other side. As he crossed the clearing, he spotted a farmstead of several small buildings, and stacked hay bales near a large barn. Next to the barn, he noticed a small paddock containing several strong-looking horses. He briefly considered taking one.
Nah. I’m a sturdy dwarf, in my prime, only eighty years and three. Don’t need the bother of a pack animal.
I’ll just walk.
* * *
Filmore waits silently, looking on as they approach. Three men on horseback, one riding point and the other two a few lengths behind him. All three are geared in matching light chainmail, and each has two swords strapped to their backs.
The leader approaches and stops ten feet away, eyeing the dwarf with uncertainty.
Filmore stares back, surprised to see that the human is barely out of his teens. He thinks, Kid looks nervous.
The young horseman calls out, “Well met, traveller! What news from the region? Was there an attack here? Are you a refugee?”
“What? What? No, I’m not a refugee. I’m not from here. Don’t even know where here is, exactly.”
“We are twelve leagues from Last Hearth, a township on the border of the wilderness. There has been news of giant attacks in this area, and dragons, and worse.” He leans forward in his saddle.
“I am Kyril Oth, Leftenant Second Brigade of the Merchant’s League Patrol.”
“Your mother must be very proud. I’m Filmore.”
Kyril huffs. “I apologize for thinking you a beggar, Master Filmore. You have the appearance of someone who has slept in a sewer.”
“Been living off the land for a few decades. Reckon it shows.”
“It indeed shows … and smells. Look here, man, we’re safeguarding a trade caravan making its way to the township. We’d appreciate any news you could share. All the trouble reported in this area of the world, and you’ve really seen nothing?”
“Nope. Been walking this road since last week. Boring as a library.”
“Huh. That’s good to hear. Even so, it’s not safe to travel this way alone.”
“I’ve been on my own for a long, long time.”
“Well, it’s up to you, dwarf. The caravan is half a league behind us. You could travel with it, maybe find some work. Safety in numbers, aye? There’s actually quite a lot of people on the road to Last Hearth.”
“Wouldn’t that be something, then.”
“To meet some that are worth knowing.”
The dwarf turned, faced the setting sun, and started down the way.