“My arse is sore,” grumbled Daff Gamor.
He had been riding for three days straight, and there were another six or seven days of riding to look forward to. He was growing to loathe his pony; one of a particularly small species bred by the Dwarves for their own use. The poor beast was only doing as it was told, he knew, but he was growing sick of the sight of its black mane and grey-and-white dusted coat. The fiery face in the sky was nestling on the pillow of the horizon now, and shadows were creeping across the grasslands from the hills to the west. His arse had been sore since that morning – not that he wished to be walking. That would be just as bad. No, Daff would rather he was lying down in one of the wagons, sleeping amid the cargo.
He said as much to his friend, Chirri, who chuckled and replied, “Wouldn’t be very comfortable lying on top of that lot, but I know what you mean. My legs are aching something fierce.”
Daff and his fellow Dwarves were taking a shipment of metals across Shimyahein from the dwarvic city of Dwarrafug to the human capital, Eshimbranir. Shimyahein was one big, relatively flat savannah, so the journey promised to be an easy one, if tedious. It was one he had made many times before in his long tenure as a dwarvic emissary working for His Illustrious Majesty, the King of Dwarrafug, Albèr Olfonsso. He had visited Eshimbranir and its Radiant Emperor, Hadagosk the Third, numerous times, too, and so he was well-accustomed to the titles both rulers enjoyed the most. He also knew, from his interactions with humans on the road, of the surrounding countries’ opinions of Shimyahein; that it was scarcely a country at all, more an empty expanse of grassland around which a few nomads enjoyed riding their horses.
Daff sighed. “Why do we do this, Chirri? Why do we do it? Why do we ride across Shimyahein day after Gods-damned day? Ferrying bloody metals and spices back and forth, back and forth between that dung-heap, Eshimbranir, and our lovely little hole in the ground. Why do we bloody bother?”
“We carry more than just spices back,” returned Chirri, cheerful as ever. “We provide a vital service to our people, exchanging our wealth of metals for a wealth of foods, spices and fabrics. Unlike our cousins, we have learned to thrive on cooperation with the humans, Handaff. You ought to get on board.”
“I am on board!” Daff mumbled, irked by the use of his full name. No one used his full name; no one but his mother, who had passed away earlier that year while he had been away. “I’ve been doing this for some fifty odd years, by the Gods! I’m just achy is all.”
At ninety years of age, he thought he had earned the right to be achy. Dwarves lived to be more more than two hundred years old regularly, but ninety was still a respectable age, he thought – or it should have been. Chirri and the others, youths whose balls had barely dropped, nominally his bodyguards, barely paid him any heed. Chirri’s eyes were full of the romantic naiveté of youth, Daff could see it, and it made him sick.
He had no one else to whinge to, though, and there was little else to do on such a journey. “Gods-damned pony is sending my arse all to sleep!”
Chirri chortled. “Why did you get into this line of work, if you don’t mind my asking, Daff? All you do is complain about it!”
“That’s my right as a Dwarf,” Daff replied. “And I’ll tell ya. I got into this mess, because I got married and had kids. After a few months of that, I just had to get out of the house more often. Ten hours a day down the mines wasn’t cutting it, so I took to the road so as to have weeks of peace at a time. Then, you little snot-noses came along and ruined the tranquillity!”
Chirri burst out laughing at the sour look on Daff’s face, which only soured his expression further.
A league later, as the road wound under the shadow of the vivacious, green woodland to the east, Daff muttered, “Gods-damned Eshimbranir! Rancid horsemen – all they do is stink up the place! Reeking of leather and horse sweat. Ugh. The whole place is one big shanty town full of pestilence and people who smell like shit! Some capital!”
Chirri was covering his mouth to keep from laughing out loud, but his shoulders were shaking.
“Last bloody place I want to visit,” Daff continued, oblivious. “And it’s where they send me every Gods-damned time! Andhrun must be sitting down there in the First Forge in the middle of the world laughing his bloody head off at me running around up here!”
Chirri let out peals of mirth at the thought of the God of the Dwarves watching Daff ride around the country in cruel amusement. Daff almost smiled himself, but turned it into a frown.
“We do visit other places, as you well know, vaunted emissary,” Chirri said when his laughter had abated, adding a mocking emphasis to Daff’s title.
Daff bridled. “You watch your tongue, you young whippersnapper! Or I’ll … cut off your balls and feed ‘em to a frog!”
Chirri snorted. “We went to Dwarhummer only last month,” he pointed out.
“Yes,” Daff agreed ruminatively, stroking his long, grey beard. “Some welcome we got there, eh? They’re a bunch of miserable bastards down there.”
Chirri grinned. “There’s no place good enough for you, is there, Daff?”
Daff held his head high, haughtily, for a moment. “Well, some of us are just too good for this world, I suppose.”
Chirri snorted. “Yeah, right. Ever think that you might be the miserable –?”
“Watch your tongue, you little pest!”
Chirri smiled and shook his head, adjusting his own ochre beard, which was rubbing at his neck. Dusk had settled over the landscape now, though, inking it in mystery, and they felt the chill more in the forest’s penumbra. Daff felt a shiver run down his spine as he eyed the shadowy woodland and shifted in his saddle uncomfortably before hawking and spitting on the ground.
“I hate trees,” Daff announced not long later, still regarding the trees suspiciously.
Chirri laughed. “There’s a shock!”
“Gods-damned forests. Could be anything hiding in there. Still, I can barely see my prick to take a piss, so I guess we’ll have to make camp here for the night.”
Chirri chuckled. “I guess so.”
“Give the call then.”
The six wagons rolled to a halt by the woods, and the score of armed men – Chirri included – pulled back on the reins of their snickering ponies, all stopping in perfect formation around the wagons. Daff almost smiled again, but scowled instead. He had trained them well. Each wore armour made from the bones of the subterranean eyeless creatures known as Rodici, whom the Dwarves kept as pets, of a sort. Each carried a steel axe and a dagger, too. Banditry was rife in Shimyahein. There were few laws, foremost among the few being that you only owned what you could hold on to. Daff put a hand on the haft of his own axe as his dismounted to ensure he didn’t accidentally cut either himself or his horse. Unlike the others, he wore only a linen tunic and baggy pantaloons, having eschewed the armour’s protection in favour of comfort.
“Why don’t you give your pony a name?” asked Chirri as he jumped off his pony far more elegantly than Daff. “A pony should have a name, I think – something to complement its personality and solidify a bond between you.”
“A pony does not need a name,” Daff said, not even looking around as he stroked his mount. “His name is pony. That is what he is. That is what I call him. He is a good pony, as ponies go, but no more than that. When you have had several ponies, named them, fed them, reared them and watched them die, you lose interest in the naming. What is the point?”
Chirri shook his head in bemusement. “What is the point of marriage? Your spouse will likely die at some point, too. That does not mean the connection you make isn’t worthwhile.”
“Doesn’t it?” returned Daff. “My wife’s not even dead yet, and I can barely remember her name.”
Chirri shook his head again, but his smile crept back.
The Dwarves built a fire by the side of the road – the opposite side from the forest, Daff insisted. They started cooking a couple of rabbits and a grouse that had been brought down by bow earlier that day. The smell made Daff drool like a hungry dog, and he had to keep wiping his lips. He took out his pipe, stuffed some baui into the bowl and lit it with a leaf-taper. He puffed on it until a goodly amount of smoke wreathed him like a mystical aura.
Then, he spoke, his voice deep and smooth and measured, lilting in the fashion of storytellers everywhere. “Did you ever hear the tale of the monsters of the woods of Shimyahein?”
Chirri and a number of others looked around to bestow their gazes on him at that.
“No,” said Chirri.
“Well then, let me fill in this most egregious gap in your knowledge,” said Daff. “Ahem. Legend tells of a breed of creatures so ancient and so evil that their name was forever spoken in a hushed whisper. More than a breed of creature. Legend tells of an infection – an illness that can be spread from person to person through the ingestion of tainted blood. These creatures were said to be human once, long ago – human Sorcerers who dabbled in magics too dark even for their black souls. It is said that these humans sold their souls in exchange for bestial power, but that they were tricked. They did not consciously get the power they sought, but they did get it unconsciously.”
He gestured up at the full moon rising in the sky, a silver coin flipping in the void. “Every month, at the time of the full moon, these human Sorcerers would transform in their sleep into monstrous beasts with no knowledge of the person they had once been. These beasts rampaged throughout the towns and villages where the Sorcerers lived, slaying and eating those closest to them. Then, when the full moon was gone and the sun had risen again, the Sorcerers would transform back into men. Upon seeing what they had done, many took their own lives with their dark arts on the spot. Those that did not wander Maradoum to this day, forever cursed, undying ... Unable to die, unable to take back what they have done, they seek only to spread their horrific blight in their spite. You know, of course, of whom I speak.” He dropped his voice to a dramatic whisper. “The were-jackals!”
Silence roamed the camp for a moment, towering over them all like a spectre.
Then, Chirri chortled. “Full of old fishwives’ tales, aren’t you, Daff?”
Everybody laughed, and the spell of storytelling was broken.
Daff scowled. “T’aint an old fishwives’ tale! That’s a Shimmish legend, that is! I heard it from the stinky bastards over at Eshimbranir.”
“Sure,” said Chirri cheerfully, condescendingly, “and I suppose you believe in Mermaids, too? Haha!”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Daff mumbled, crossing his arms. “What’s so funny about that? They’re real, they are! That’s why I’m never going near the ocean, not me.”
This redoubled everyone’s mirth, and they fell about laughing. One Dwarf almost rolled into the fire and had to be pulled back by his comrades, who then patted out the flames in his beard and chortled at the sight of his singed eyebrows.
The sound of a scuffle down the road made them all fall silent and spin to look out into the blackness, their eyes stifled from looking into the flames. First one human man appeared in the firelight, then two women followed him and all three stood in sight with empty hands raised, facing the Dwarves.
“Please,” said the man in a pitiful, warbling voice, “will you help us? We were robbed by bandits on the road, and we have no provisions – no way to survive! Please, help us!”
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