Sunday, 4 September 2016

Stonesworn - Part 1

Here begins part one of the next short(ish) story. Stonesworn follows Benyar, a young Syladrian Dwarf from an up-and-coming Khur-Karzanian noble family. Tipped to become the next family uplifted to the Ironrend Covenant, Benyar's family is on the cusp of greatness. On the surface, the future seems bright, but there is trouble afoot for young Benyar and his house-clan...

Part two will be released on Sunday the 11th of September.

‘What ye are, son of mine, is a disappointment.’
            Benyar looked down at his plate full of half-picked pork-ribs and honey glaze. As ever, Ermoldulus, the Gnomish servant, had surpassed himself. But tonight, Benyar was not hungry. Moodily, he pushed aside a cold boiled potato with his fork and picked a morsel of meat out of his long, black beard and tossed it away. It landed on the shadowy, stone-flagged floor of the great hall and was immediately forgotten. From the shadows that clad all sides of the long, rectangular room, the stone statues of his many ancestors glared out at him with gem-cut eyes. Weapons in their marble hands and displeasure upon their features, their death-idols peered disappointedly at the house-clan sitting to dinner before them.
‘I don’t see wha’s so bad ‘bout it,’ the young Dwarf man said through his dark beard. ‘People are stronger together: look at us Dwarf-folk and the Gnomes – we’d be lost without ‘em.’
            From the far end of the long, low table, his father rose from his great stone seat. Thored Volostag was tall for a Dwarf, some four-and-a-half feet from the ground and broad of chest and shoulder. His iron-grey beard covered the dark blue doublet he wore, and the great mass of traditional Dwarf plaits, golden rings, and beaded braids fell to his round, wide waist – though it did not hide the displeasure on the old Dwarf’s weathered and scarred face.
            It was to the largest of those scars the old Dwarf now pointed – a long, white mark scoring diagonally across his face from his right eyebrow brow to bottom-left jaw. ‘Do you know how I got this?’ he snarled. The fury in his voice echoed around the large stone room, dimly lit by the candles upon the tables and the huge roaring hearth behind where Thane Thored Volostag sat at the table’s head.
            Of course I bloody know, Benyar thought to himself, you tell the damn story at every opportunity you get. From where he was sitting half-way down the long table, Benyar let out a low sigh and glanced across the table to where his mother, Amelie, sat opposite him. Her coal-black hair was tied in a bun almost as large as her head, all bundled up behind her crown. There was sympathy and exhaustion in her chestnut-brown eyes, though no words came from her round lips. Dropping her gaze from her son and shaking her head in resignation, she continued to eat from her plate.
            Benyar turned to his young twin sisters, sitting on the side of the table between his mother and where his father sat at its head. Neither Berra nor Derra offered him any form of salvation in the cheeky, fresh-faced glances and giggles they shot him. Benyar gritted his teeth behind his chest-length, dark beard and looked between the identical young Dwarf-girls, with their identical plaits, braids, and dark-brown eyes. Still, neither of them offered him any support and instead continued to snigger, covering their mouths with their small hands. They’re giggling at Nanna Therrin’s statue – as always.
            Benyar’s attention was wrenched from his sisters and back to his imposing father by the sound of the old Dwarf’s boot kicking the long table. ‘We’d ‘eard word from the northern mines tha’ there’d been a sightin’ o’ the Old Enemy,’ his father began.
            Oh, here we go, Benyar thought and rolled his eyes. He dropped his gaze back to his plate and pulled a small strip of pork from one of the ribs before him. At every Stone-forsaken opportunity. With a long sigh, Benyar tossed his silver knife and fork onto the finely-crafted plate before him and made as big of a show of looking everywhere but at his father as he could. The great, studded iron chandelier above his head with its many dripping candles helped illuminate the long hall in which they sat, and it was thrice as interesting as the story he was about to be told for the thousandth time. Even the two-dozen or so house-clan statues that lined the edge of the grandiose hall seemed to sigh as a draft of warm air blew through the room.
‘Your Stone-blessed uncle, myself, and three other strong lads went to see if there was any validity in these claims,’ Thored continued. ‘We arrived at the northern mines an’ found ‘alf the workers there already dead. Yet low-an’-behold, there, standin’ over the bodies, was a goblin raidin’-party – and a stone troll.
Benyar sighed and rolled his eyes again, still casting his gaze about the room and resting his chin in his hands in a much-exaggerated show of disinterest. ‘So you, Uncle Garr, an’ yer lads all charged without waitin’ fer reinforcements in yer hunt fer glory. Everyone was slaughtered in the melee, includin’ Uncle Garr – would’ve loved to ‘ave met ‘im, by the way, sounds like a top character,’ he said passively, eyeing one of the many family weapon-heirlooms that were hung about the long hall. I always liked Grandma’s sword. Mind, I’d prefer a pot o’ ‘er miserable, cold ol’ gruel over this wretched tale.
Benyar’s father’s face grew dark with anger behind its great grey beard. ‘How dare ye?’ Thane Thored hissed through his yellow teeth. He slammed a fist onto the long, dark mahogany table, making the whole thing quake and the light reflected upon its fine, polished surface twitch and dance.
Benyar pulled his eyes away from the great, wide tapestry depicting his house-clan tree that hung behind where his mother sat, face in hands and muttering to herself. ‘Yet it was ye,’ Benyar said as he rose to his feet and leapt onto the table, sending a decanter of mead spinning towards where his two sisters sat – they squealed excitedly and laughed at Benyar’s antics. ‘It was ye who, wit’ yer great axe in one ‘and an’ yer fallen brother’s shield in the other, slew the great stone troll – the hideous rock avatar, the amalgamation of malformed mountain-made-flesh,’ he cried loud, thrusting with an invisible weapon, much to his younger sibling’s mirth. ‘An’ ye hacked its head from its shoulders an’ brought it ‘ome to Ma, who gave ye permission to mount the hideous thing on the mantle.’ Benyar raised a large finger and pointed to where the fire roared in the wide hearth behind where his father sat. On the great wall above it was the huge, stone skull of the hideous troll. ‘Why Ma ever let ye put tha’ there is beyond me. By my ancestors, it’s hideous.’
His twin sisters giggled together until their father shot them a dark, nasty look. ‘See?’ the old Dwarf hissed. ‘Ye’ve not an ounce o’ respect for the past. This is why ye want to try and make allies o’ the pissin’ Vidorians, and o’ those so-called Free Esdarian jellies! Yer uncle died to defend ‘is ‘ome from outsiders – yet ye want to welcome them wit’ open arms? This house-clan has always defended the Halfling-folk o’ the Syladras Mountains from tha’ which lies above and blelow – yer nae a Volostag, yer nae a Dwarf! Yer a disgrace to yer family name!’
Benyar shook his head sadly and leapt back into the thick, sturdy wooden chair on which he had sat. ‘If ye say so, Pa,’ he said with a shrug. ‘An’, in my opinion, it’s antiquated ol’ fossils like ye that are holdin’ back the Halfling people – think o’ how easily we’d crush the goblins an’ their hordes o’ monsters if we ‘ad a unit o’ Vidorian soldiers to assist us!’
‘Tha’s quite enough,’ Benyar’s mother finally spoke in a strong, cold voice that cracked across the hall. Amelie Volostag pushed back her chair and rose to her feet – she was of average height and stature for a Dwarf woman, but her face was cold and collected. Like diamonds amongst dirt, her pale green eyes glittered dangerously through the half-light of the room. ‘I’ll no’ ‘ave you two bickerin’ and arguin’ like a pair o’ old ladies,’ she snapped. She turned and glared down the table towards her husband. ‘Thored, ye’re the house-clan patriarch, fer Stone’s sake, not some moody, babblin’ storyteller. An’ Benyar,’ she said, narrowing her eyes as she stared across the table at her son, ‘yer our eldest son. Act like it.’
With her words ringing about the Volostag house-clan’s hall, those assembled fell to quiet. For a few moments, no-one spoke, and only the gentle clatter of cutlery upon plates was heard. Then, a shuffling sound came from the back of the room and a fifth, well-dressed figure appeared. He was short – below four-feet in height – and had a large, round head. The hair upon his scalp was greying and receding, and his torso and legs seemed too small for his head. The high, quizzical brow and a long, hooked nose upon which balanced a small pair of spectacles gave him a near-scholarly appearance, though the tidy apron across his front told a different story. The small fellow had ears that were as large as his deft hands, and he carried himself with a sense of duty-won respect.
‘Is all well?’ the small, smartly-dressed figure said.
‘Yes, Ermoldulus,’ Thored said from the head of the table in his deep, gravelly voice. ‘We need no more food, though if ye could bring another decanter of mead-…’
‘Ye’re a wise Gnome, Ermoldulus,’ Benyar interrupted, the young Dwarf turning in his seat to look at the small man. ‘Do you think the Halfling-folk should seek allies to the south?’
Benyar!’ his mother snapped, hurling slamming her hand into the table. ‘Will ye just drop it?’
Benyar gestured to the Gnome-servant with a hand and glared at his mother. ‘No, I want to know what Ermoldulus thinks. He’s a clever chap, an’ the Gnome-folk don’t even get to play a major role in the Ironrend Covenant, despite makin’ up ‘alf the population beneath the Syladras Mountains!’
His father’s voice echoed from the end of the table: ‘The Ironrend Covenant was established by King Torunsson I to help the Dwarves rule – the Gnomes were never involved because, much unlike ye, son o’ mine, they know when to keep their mouths shut.’
Ermoldulus blinked his heavily-lidded eyes and glanced from Thored to Benyar, then back again. ‘T’is not my place, Master Benyar,’ the Gnome said dutifully, before turning on his heel and quickly retreating into the shadows.
Silence fell again for a few moments. Eventually, Ermoldulus returned with a decanter of mead and a cloth for the spillage Benyar had caused. He left the fine silver vessel on the table and retreated after wiping the table clean and bowing low to the assembled family.
‘Our house-clan is on the cusp of being allowed a seat on the Ironrend Covenant – we could ‘elp rule over our people, or maybe even be kings, Benyar; a Volostag rule the Halflings under the Syladras Mountains,’ Thane Thored said in a low, threatening voice from the far end of the table. ‘It’s taken me decades to get the Volostag house-clan where it is, an’ ye’re goin’ to drag us back into the dirt if you keep ravin’ on about ‘ow we need Humans to help us wit’ our affairs.’ He took a swig of whatever alcoholic beverage was in his large, steel tankard and slammed it down on the table. ‘You’ll destroy us with these views o’ yours. Thanks be to the Great Creator I ‘ave a second son – my first is no Dwarf.’
Part of Benyar wished his father’s words would hurt him, but they could not – at least if they had stung, it would have meant that he cared for the relationship he had lost. Instead, Benyar found himself simply wishing his father would disappear. Tomorrow, his younger brother, Gorgrim, would return from the Pits draped in heroism and glory. He would tell tales of the goblins he had slain, of the Dwarf-warriors he had rescued, and of the adventures he had been on down in the deepest, darkest depths of the Syladras Mountains.
Benyar knew exactly what would happen: his father would praise his name and lift him high, calling him his ‘true heir’ before taking delivery of the huge amount of ancient, lost treasure Gorgrim would doubtlessly bring back with him. Thane Rhodd Steelshatter, patriarch of the Steelshatter house-clan and one of eleven High Councilmen in the Ironrend Covenant, would then appear – it had to be him, Benyar knew his father had orchestrated a deal with Thane Rhodd.
Thane Thored would bow to Thane Rhodd and gift him gold and jewels from some dark, shadowy corner of the Pits.  Then, as everyone was cheering and celebrating Gorgrim’ victory, King Boragsson II, himself a member of the Steelshatter house-clan and father of Thane Rhodd, would arrive in a great fanfare and uplift Benyar’s father to the position of High Councilman as reward for the Volostag house-clan’s service to the Syladrian Halflings.
King Boragsson II would take Thane Thored, his eldest son Benyar, and the glory-draped Gorgrim into the High Chamber where they would make oaths upon the High Seat – all were necessary, for it was not just Thored being sworn-in, it was also the heirs who would one day take his place. Once complete, though, it would be Thane Thored Volostag who then became the twelfth councillor to the king, and would ensure his family joined the list of most noble households from which kings and queens could be elected – and Benyar would be his direct heir. And in that moment of familial glory, Thane Thored would look at his eldest son, Benyar, and he would curl his lip and shake his head. And Benyar would not care.
If father became king, the Halfling-folk of the Syladras Mountains would be doomed, Benyar thought. His father’s antiquated views on how Halfling life should be – separate, aloof to the problems of the Upper World, and wasted on pointless quests for glory against monsters in the Pits – would drive his people to ruin. Benyar knew, however, that if his brother Gorgrim returned from the Pits with so much as a whiff of glory upon him, his father’s place upon the Ironrend Covenant was secured – such was the agreement between Thane Thored and Thane Rhodd.
Benyar was aware of the honour involved in being a member of a house-clan upon the Ironrend Covenant; the thousands-of-years-old organisation assisted the king in the governance of all things that took place under the Syladras Mountains. The young Dwarf knew, though, that change was coming. Not normal change for the Halfling-folk, such as a new golbin threat, or a shift in the Stones. Nor was it a change that would just affect the Halfling peoples. No, whatever was coming, was far greater. He could feel it in his bones.
Sick of his father and his own thoughts, Benyar tossed his fork down and left his seat without a backwards glance. He heard his mother sigh and his father let out a huff of amusement, but Benyar had better things to be doing. He left the dimly-lit stone hall and strove deeper into his family’s residence. Losing himself in the great stone corridors of artisan-level craftsmanship, hewn straight into the insides of the mountains in which the Syladrian Halflings lived, Benyar tried to think of some way to convince his father that there was power in alliances. Perhaps Gorgrim can help, he thought. Perhaps his experience in the Pits has changed him.
Benyar doubted it, though. Gorgrim knew he was the house-clan favourite over his elder brother, though rights of succession still meant that, should Thane Thored die, Benyar was first in-line to receive his wealth and titles – a fact that made Gorgrim bitter towards his elder sibling. We shall see, Benyar thought as he turned a corner and walked past the life-sized statue of his great-grandfather, Amensus. Flesh of fine white marble and eyes of intricately-cut gemstones, even in death Amensus Volostag was an indomitable figure: tall and broad – for a Dwarf, at least – with arms as solid as tree-trunks and a replica of his mighty hammer in his hands.
Amensus’ statue did not stand with the others in the house-clan hall where Benyar’s mother, father, and sisters were eating. One-hundred years ago, Amensus had been involved in a civil dispute, the nature of which every Volostag knew but never spoke of. Thane Thored’s father had attempted to usurp rule of the Syladrian Halflings, though his attempts had been thwarted when his plans were discovered by the Ironrend Covenant.
 For the Volostags, all that mattered was that Amensus had been on the losing side and had been tried for and found guilty of high treason. As a result, he had been forced to swear upon the Heartstone itself – a legendary and ancient Dwarf relic – that he would enter the Pits in search of only the greatest glory: the acclamation of such great glory that one’s previous crimes were outweighed by the magnanimity of new deeds. For most, this meant the destruction of a great and legendary monster that would either lift the Oath of Stone from the criminal and earn them their freedom, or mete out their punishment in the form of a glorious death in battle.
Benyar’s grandfather had never returned when he was sent into the Pits. He had taken with him his great hammer, Lightstorm, the most valuable weapon-heirloom that the Volostag family had previously possessed. At least a millennia old, Lightstorm was a weapon shrouded in myth and familial tale – though talk of the weapon had ceased as soon as it became clear that Amensus Volostag was never coming back from the Pits. It was not well-to-do for a house-clan on the cusp of having a seat upon the Ironrend Covenant to speak of past transgressions and failures.
With another long, sad sigh, the young Benyar turned and left the statue of the grandfather he never knew and walked back into the shadowy corridors of his home. I hope bein’ a high councilman is worth it, Benyar thought as he wandered into the shadows once again.


The under-mountain metropolis of Khur-Karzana was the beating heart of the Syladrian Halfling way of life. From the mines came gold, silver, gemstones, copper and iron in great buckets and barrows. From those deep, dark places the treasures of the mountains were taken to the High Forges – great coal-powered furnaces from which came the most beautiful creations one could imagine. Bars of gold and silver as large and thick as a forearm were piled high onto mule and pony-drawn carts and wheeled away from the towering furnaces. Others, piled high with copper, iron and steel, went another way, destined to become enormous hammers, swords, shields, and every kind of armour that existed. Polished gemstones of every imaginable colour poured from the mines, polished for the artisan Gnomes who would cut and fashion them into delicate trinkets worth more than the finest townhouse.
Then there were the coins. The many long, wide streets of Khur-Karzana that arched this way and that through the Syldras Mountains like stone veins were packed full of Halfling-folk – and where there were people, there was money. Coins the size of a Dwarf’s palm flowed like golden nectar through the streets, emblazoned with the bearded face and name of King Boragson II on one side, and on the other a mighty sword and two crossed axes. The richest Dwarves and Gnomes were unimaginably wealthy, owning vast quantities of gold that they kept hidden away in giant vaults. Even those who were poorest had a little to their names.
Coin changed hands and business was done in the streets that ran like arteries through the mountains, as pony-pulled wagons carrying huge boxes and crates of goods from the forges rattled through the great caverns and caves that made up Khur-Karzana. Stone buildings on all sides that were hewed out of the very mountain’s rock squatted low and stoically gazed out over the streets. The light from their windows, low and golden-glowing, seeped out onto the great iron brazier-lit cobbles of the cave-streets.
But everything led to one place. All the gold that came and went, like blood, passed through a heart. In the greatest natural cavern under the mountain, known as Kava-Toa, sat the High Chamber. The great stone hall was decked with the statues of the mightiest warriors and ornamented with thousands of trophies from only the most heroic battles. It sat on a huge shelf of stone on the far-side of a river of molten rock, only accessible by a long and wide stone bridge that was guarded at all times by elite Dwarf guards called the Ironrenders. The fierce guards wore entire suits of heavy plate armour, fashioned to be dark and menacing, with covered faces but holes to allow for their beards to hang through. The High Chamber was where the king and the Ironrend Covenant met to discuss matters of state, and on normal days, the was empty aside from the Ironrenders in their heavy armour that watched its great gates and the long, wide bridge. But today was no normal day.
That very bridge was packed with Dwarf-folk and many Gnomes. Benyar had counted around four-hundred of the Halfling-folk. Everyone with as much as a drop of Volostag blood was present – fifth cousins, thrice-removed aunts and uncles, even the unpopular Loran-Volostags had turned up for the occasions, though they stood separately to everyone else in a small group of two-dozen.
‘It’s nice o’ them to come,’ Benyar’s mother had said when Thane Thored had begun to grumble. ‘At the very least, they make up numbers a little. An’ don’t you go kickin’ up a fuss – we’re standin’ in the middle of a crowd o’ your family. Who knows who’ll hear wha’ ye say.’
Thane Thored had glared at his wife. ‘I am the ‘ead of the Volostag family. I am house-clan patriarch and wha’ I say-…’
‘Shut up, Da,’ Benyar said with a sigh. ‘We could be standin’ ‘ere fer hours yet, an’ you bein’ a miserable sod isn’t gonna make time pass faster.’
Benyar!’ his mother hissed. ‘The same goes for ye! Show your father some bleedin’ respect!’
Thane Thored glared at his son. ‘Nae respect for your kin; nae respect for your people’s way o’ life; nae respect fer your position in the house-clan. Ye’re no Dwarf. Run along to your tall, thin friends down south.’
Benyar shrugged a shoulder. ‘Still, if ye’d ‘ad some ‘elp from the Vidorians, yer brother may be standin’ next to ya to celebrate the Volostag victory. Instead, his bones have returned to the Stone.’ Benyar pulled an unappreciative face and shook his head. ‘An’ all this nonsense with the Pits. One Vidorian Legion – even a Garedian army from the Free Kingdoms – an’ this whole farce wit’ monsters and goblins’d be over before ye knew it.’
Thored glared at his eldest son. ‘An’ ‘ow’d ye know tha’? ‘Ow’d ye know the tall-folk wouldn’t jus’ pull down our stone halls an’ call us their conquered, like they do everythin’ else they touch?’
Benyar glared up at his father, unafraid. ‘Because they’re goin’ to end up ‘ere at some point anyway. ‘Ow long d’ya think it’ll be before some scout party stumbles across the Great Gates of Khur-Karzana? Then they’ll come wit’ fire an’ sword.’
Enough!’ Amelie hissed and smacked both Thane Thored and Benyar’s shoulders with the back of her hand. ‘Ye’ll both put this stupid quarrel to rest this instant. Benyar, if ye’re so desperate to be a political player, perhaps ye’d be best tryin’ to ensure your family gets its place in the Ironrend Covenant, instead o’ causin’ a scene on the High Chamber’s very doorstep!’
Thane Thored snorted, folding his big arms across his chest and looking away from his son. ‘Him? A member o’ the Ironrend Covenant? Not on my watch.’
The entirety of the Volostag house-clan had come out to celebrate Gorgrim’s return from the Pit – for it was rare anyone ever went into the Pits voluntarily in the search for glory, and even just one of a group of adventurers returning would see to it that their names was recorded within the Book of the Stone. The Halfling-folk crowded both sides of the long bridge to the High Chamber, stopping a few dozen paces from its great, carved doors which were flanked by two large groups of dark-armoured Ironrenders. Benyar found himself uninterested though, beyond finding out whether or not his brother was still alive.  He’ll be fine, he thought to himself. He’s a good swordsman.
Time ticked on. The molten rock hundreds and hundreds of feet below them continued to bubble and seethe. Gradually, the crowd grew and grew as more and more the common folk of Khur-Karzana heard word that someone may be returning from the Pits. Excitement grew, and soon enough, the entirety of the huge stone bridge was flooded with several thousand of the Halfling folk. The Dwarf men, all bearded and braided, muttered and grumbled to one-another through their magnificent manes of facial hair. A few wore armour and carried magnificent weapons with them, though most simply wore common shirts and doublets. The women, some brawnier than the men, chatted and compared tips on hair-plaiting, cooking, armour-care, and weapon-use. Like the men, a few of them wore their armour and carried their weapons with them, comparing axe-size and shield-posture.
The Gnomes were much quieter. They were tucked in amongst the Dwarves, wide-eyed and round-faced, with large ears that seemed to hear everything yet repeat none of it audibly. They whispered, tucking the intricate and delicate tools of their varied artisan trades into their belts and making quiet conversation with their friends and kin.
‘By the Stone, where is tha’ son o’ mine?’ Thane Thored grunted, adjusting his great sword, Trollbane, where it hung from the leather strap about his broad chest. Of course he called it Trollbane, Benyar thought with a disdainful sniff. He went into the mines once an’ came out again draped in glory ‘cos he ‘eld a single troll’s ‘ead – no-one even knows if it was him who killed the damn troll, he was simply the last sod to be left alive. Benyar said nothing, instead folding his arms across his chest and lazily resting his hand upon pommel of the fine sword which hung at his waist.
More time passed, and the mood of the crowd began to change. Though a few merchants had arrived with great trays of ale and sweetbreads, their wares had done little to calm the worry that was beginning to set in – particularly amongst the most immediate Volostags.
‘Where is brother Gorgrim?’ Berra asked, her long, golden-blonde hair in two spiralling buns on either side of her head. She pulled on the sleeve of the flowing green-silk dress that her mother wore.
‘I thought he was supposed to be ‘ere by now,’ Derra echoed, her bright eyes looking up at her mother. Like her sister, her hair was in two identical buns either side of her round head.
Amelie smiled down at them and took one of each of their hands in either of hers. ‘He’ll be here soon, girls,’ she said. ‘Don’t you both go worryin’ yourselves now.’
Benyar glanced up at his plate and mail-wearing father beside him. ‘Perhaps he’d be ‘ere sooner if he had some Vid-…’
‘Don’t you damn-well say it,’ Thane Thored snarled. ‘Tha’s yer brother yer talkin’ about.’
Benyar glared at his father. ‘An’ if he’s dead, ye can live with the knowledge that if he’d ‘ad a few brave Humans at his back to ‘elp ‘im on ‘is quest, he might’ve made it back alive.’
Thane Thored’s grey-bearded face twisted in wrath. His big hands clenched into heavy fists and for a moment Benyar thought that he was going to strike him. Then, from the far end of the long bridge leading to the High Chamber, there came a yell. ‘He comes!’ a low voice called out. ‘He returns!’
A great cheer went up from the assembled crowds, and Thane Thored lost interest in his eldest son. He strode out from where he stood in the crowd and into the middle of the road to greet his youngest boy, barging into Benyar as he went. Benyar felt his fist tighten around the hilt of his blade and he gritted his teeth to try and control some of his anger. That fat prick, he thought darkly, screwing his eyes closed and taking a deep breath. One day I’ll-…
Someone whacked his elbow and he opened his eyes. He spun and glared into the furious eyes of his mother, who still held one and of each of his twin sisters in one of hers. Eyes brimming with fury, she pursed her lips together and shook her head at him. ‘You,’ she mouthed, ‘you…’
Benyar dropped his gaze, suddenly ashamed. It’s not worth it, he told himself. The house-clan is all; don’t wreck everythin’ over grudges. Benyar’s hand fell from the hilt of his sword, and he looked back towards the road to see a lone Dwarf walking across the bridge towards his father. Fighting for a better view, Benyar pushed his way to the edge of the crowd and leaned out, gazing down the length of the long stone structure.
His brother had left with a dozen other Dwarves; some of the hardiest, bravest and talented fighters that Syladrian Dwarves had to offer had gone with him. Yet now, only one of them returned. Suddenly afraid for his brother, Benyar strained his eyes to get a better look. The lone Dwarf making his way across the bridge towards the High Chamber was strong-armed and short-bearded. The dark hair that fell from his face was not enough to hide the cuts, bruises, and fresh scars that criss-crossed his flesh. His platemail hauberk seemed too big for him: it hung loosely around his broad shoulders and was tatty at the arms, covered in many puncture-holes and tears. There was a huge dent in his helmet, and the back of it had cracked opened, allowing for a cascade of his long, jet-black hair to fall out.
The Dwarf was holding something in his battered and cut hands. He staggered forwards, clearly wounded and exhausted, clutching his charge in both of his fists. Word quickly began to flutter through the crowd. ‘He’s found something,’ people were saying. ‘He’s recovered a great relic, a treasure of old. It must be priceless – it’s all he’s carrying.’
Benyar leaned out further from the crowd, just as the lone Dwarf reached where Thane Thored was standing. The crowd fell silent as the lone Dwarf in his battered armour fell to his knees and held the item in his hands up to Benyar’s father.
‘Gorgrim,’ Thored said in a short breath. ‘My son, what has ‘appened?’ He placed his hands on his son’s battered and sagging shoulders.
The battered Gorgrim raised his eyes and held up the object in his hands. ‘We spent three weeks searchin’ the Pits,’ Gorgrim began. His voice was not as Benyar remembered it – it had been strong and boisterous, full of life and always quick to laugh. Now, it sounded hollow and there was an echo to it – the far-off quake of too many memories.
‘We went deeper an’ deeper,’ Gorgrim continued, ‘fightin’ hordes o’ goblins without any problem. But-…’
‘Now is not the time,’ Thane Thored said and placed his hands on each of his youngest son’s sullen, sagging cheeks. ‘We shall remember the dead an’ commemorate ‘em accordingly. But this is a good day – for you have returned! Now is the time for celebration! Tell me, son, what is that in your hands? What ‘ave ye brought me?’
From the sidelines, Benyar could see the exhaustion in Gorgrim’s weary face. ‘Father,’ he said in a fatigued, thirst-strapped voice, ‘I bring ye yer father’s hammer.’ He lifted his hands up, presenting a warhammer of shimmering, folded steel. Wrought about a strong and sturdy haft and emblazoned in glittering gold with a great star, Benyar looked at the warhammer with his mouth wide in awe. All across the bridge to the High Chamber, silence fell as whispers spread of just what had been found.
‘Father,’ Gorgrim said in a choked, weary voice, ‘I bright ye Lightstorm.’
Thane Thored looked down at the hammer presented to him by his youngest son. For a few moments, he said nothing. Benyar could see on his face that he was unhappy. He wanted gold an’ riches, the eldest son thought. He wanted a way to buy into the Ironrend Covenant – and a hammer doesn’t give ‘im that. More importantly, though, it was a reminder – a symbol of the dishonour that once befell the Volostag family.
Slowly, Thane Thored took the hammer from his son and held it aloft in both hands. ‘This is a great day!’ he cried loud, though Benyar could hear the uncertainty in his voice. ‘My son has returned, and he has brought a great house-clan heirloom back from the Pits with him! The dead died gloriously, and their heroism shall no-doubt earn them a place in the Book of Stone!’
A great cheer went up from those assembled, and people began to chant the Volostag house-clan name. Hands clapped and feet stamped, and the great cavern in which the Halfling-folk of the Syladras Mountains had communed began to shake. But Benyar could hear a few folk crying. The other house-clans are here, he thought with a sigh. Some dozen went in, yet only one comes back.
Then, just as the cheering was reaching its climax, the great doors to the High Chamber opened. Whilst the roar of great cogs and gears twisting and turning echoed through the enormous cavern of Kava-Toa, the Ironrenders guarding the great doors stepped aside in perfect formation. From the vast space within, stepped two figures – both of whom Benyar recognised. The smaller of the two men and the youngest of the pair was Thane Rhodd Steelshatter: imposing, dark-featured, with mahogany-brown hair and a great beard spilling out from beneath the winged ceremonial steel helmet he wore. Beside him was his father, King Boragsson II – resplendent in glorious years and dark blue and gold-trimmed armour. His silver-white beard had not thinned, neither had the hair from his head; his features promised experience and wisdom, and his dark green eyes glinted with cunning and calculation. He carried at his hip Thundersoul, a sword held by the Steelshatter family since before the Eons began – it was as much a right to office as the huge golden crown upon his head.
The entire assembled crowd fell to their knees before their king as two-dozen Ironrenders poured out from the High Chamber behind their king. Benyar followed suit, dropping to a knee. Before him, the procession continued as he had expected it would: his father and younger brother also kneeled until the king bade them to stand. Any moment they’ll call me, Benyar thought. I’ll be made to swear upon the High Seat to be true to the Ironrend Covenant. Benyar understood the importance, and knew that one day he would have to step up and take his place amongst the Halfling nobility when his father died. Maybe then I’ll ‘ave a chance to undo some o’ the havoc he’ll doubtlessly sow.
‘Thane Thored Volostag,’ King Boragsson II said in a deep, booming voice. ‘Ye an’ yer son, Gorgrim, come before your king and the Ironrend Covenant draped in glory. For it ‘as been many a year since a Halfling has returned from the Pits with such a prestigious treasure.’
The king paused and cast his eye out across the assembled crowds. For a moment, the kneeling Halflings held their breath as they looked up at their king, proud and glittering. They all knew what should come next, that the Ironrend Covenant should gain its twelfth house-clan representative. Benyar knew it, his mother and sisters knew it, the Gnomes and other Dwarves crowding the bridge knew it.
‘I thank you for your heroism and bravery,’ King Boragsson II said to Gorgrim with a nod of his head. ‘You shall be well-rewarded for your heroism.’
Benyar watched as Thane Rhodd Steelshatter stepped closer to his father. ‘The High Seat is ready for their oaths, my king, should you-…’
The king raised a hand. ‘No,’ he said slowly and quietly, shaking his head. ‘Maybe one day, but not today.’
Benyar watched as his father quickly staggered to his feet. ‘Wha’s this?’ he said. ‘My son and I are ready, we-…’
King Boragsson II shook his head. ‘I know wha’ my son promised ye. He was a fool. Your family shall not be uplifted into the Ironrend Covenant this day.’
There was a collective gasp from the on-looking Halflings, followed by murmurs and whispers as words of rumour and speculation flew from lips to the ears of others. Benyar’s eyes widened in surprise, and beside him he heard his mother gasp in shock. His twin sisters broke into a torrent of questions: ‘What’s going on, Mother?’ and ‘I don’t understand, what’s happening?’
Benyar was about to step from the crowd and approach his brother and father to see if he could be of any assistance when, quite suddenly, King Boragsson II looked him dead in the eye. His gaze was as sharp and piercing as the legendary sword at his hip, and his face was as cold as the white of his beard. ‘Your house-clan is not fit to be upon the Ironrend Covenant,’ he said in a threatening hiss. Without another word, he turned and marched back into the High Chamber, his cohort of Ironrenders with him.
Thane Rhodd looked desperately from the fast-retreating figure of the king to Thane Thored before eventually breaking into a jog to catch up with his father. Benyar watched as the figures disappeared back into the dark space within the wide, low building. He could see pillars and more statues through the gloom. With a great boom, the doors to the High Chamber slammed shut, and the Volotstag house-clan, along with the hundreds of other Halflings present, were left in a stunned silence.
For a moment, no-one moved or spoke. It had seemed so certain to all present; surely Gorgrim Volostag’s return from the Pits provided all the glory and excuse one needed to be uplifted into the Ironrend Covenant? So few ever went down to the Pits voluntarily, and even fewer ever came back – particularly with a long-lost family heirloom. But Benyar had a terrible feeling he knew why his family’s passage into true Halfling greatness had been denied: the look on King Boragsson’s face had been one of utter distaste – and it had been directed straight at him.
He’s heard, Benyar thought nervously, glancing at his boots. Around him, he could hear whispers: people were talking, tongues were wagging and ears were listening. ‘I just ‘eard ‘im talkin’ to ‘is mother,’ one voice was saying, ‘an’ he was sayin’ ‘ow we should go lookin’ fer ‘elp from Men an’ Elves.’
‘Pah!’ a Gnomish voice said in reply, shrill and firm. ‘Us? Need help? Never!’
Benyar swallowed, playing with a long black plait in his beard. He glanced around himself, suddenly aware that there were eyes upon him. People were whispering. People were talking. He’s ‘eard that I think we should look for allies, Benyar thought frantically, swallowing a nervous lump in his throat. An’ now he’s denied us passage. That must be it. That must-…
Benyar’s brother and father stood where they had before the king, right before the doors to Thane Thored’s great goal: the High Chamber. Those doors were tightly closed, perhaps to the Volostag house-clans forever, and once again a row of Ironrenders had arranged themselves in front of the high, heavy structure to block any attempt at entry. Thane Thored had turned, though. His eyes were no-longer on the doors to the High Chamber. Now, they were fixed on his eldest son. Cold and brimming with fury, for a few moments Thane Thored said nothing. Beside him, Gorgrim looked heartbroken. His eyes were wide with sorrow and his posture had fallen. He looked like a carcass in his ruined armour and clothing, propped up on sticks and lashed together with string.
Thane Thored approached Benyar, holding Lightstorm in his hands. As soon as he stood before Benyar, he thrust the heavy steel hammer into the hands of his eldest son. Finally, the patriarch of the Volostag house-clan opened his mouth and spoke: ‘A fitting weapon for ye. Just like my father ye’ve heaped shame upon us all,’ he said with a wide sweep of his arm at the crowds around him. ‘Ye’ve humiliated us. Your ploughin’ opinions on so-called allies ‘ave left us with none.’
‘Father, this is no’ what I wanted,’ Benyar cried. ‘I jus’ thought tha’-…’
‘Ye thought what, hm?’ Thane Thored snarled at Benyar. ‘Ye thought tha’ spoutin’ off about how the Halfling-folk so desperately need outsiders to help us would see us carried to the High Chamber atop Dwarf-shoulders?’
From nowhere, Benyar’s mother appeared. ‘Thored, tha’s enough,’ she said sternly. ‘Not now, not ever. This can be fixed.’
Fixed?’ Thored yelled, startling some of the Halflings still close by. ‘This cannae be fixed! King Boragsson will no’ admit us into the Ironrend Covenant for as long as he is a part o’ this family!’ The Volostag house-clan patriarch jabbed a finger into Benyar’s chest. ‘Everythin’ I’ve worked for me entire life has just been brought to ruin about me because my weak son needs to be friends with the tall folk!’
Amelie said nothing. Instead, she took Berra and Derra by the hands and led them away with nothing more than a reproachful glare at her husband. Benyar felt crushed. She agrees, he thought, gazing at the floor. She agrees wit’ Father.
Gorgrim appeared at his father’s side, eyes ringed with great grey bags. His face was blank and his eyes faraway. He seemed to have aged three decades since Benyar last saw him. His face was weathered and there was blood dried around his nostrils and at the corner of his mouth. He looked at Benyar – or rather looked straight through him.
‘I’m sorry, Gorgrim,’ Benyar said quietly.
‘Don’t,’ Gorgrim said in a low whisper, his eyes flitting away from Benyar’s face. ‘Just don’t. My friends died to try an’ bring this family a few ounces o’ glory. A dozen good men lie dead in the Pits – for nothin’.’
 Silence fell between the three Volostag men for a few moments. Eventually, Thane Thored put his hand on the exhausted-looking Gorgrim’s shoulder and began to walk away from Benyar. Just as he was leaving, he turned and looked over his shoulder at Benyar. ‘Ye are no son of mine,’ he said in a low, dark voice, before barging his way through the departing crowds and back towards the rest of the metropolis of Khur-Karzana. Gorgrim shot Benyar a deeply wounded look before disappearing after his father.
Benyar stood alone on the bridge that led to the High Chamber for a long time, Lightstorm, his grandfather’s hammer and the symbol of his shame, heavy in his hands. The rest of the crowd had long-since left, and, aside for the Ironrenders who stood as still as the Stone itself, he was alone. He wanted to be able to cast his ideas on alliances aside and grovel at the feet of his father, to beg for forgiveness, and to weep his regret before his brother, but he could not. The Syladrian Halflings had been too successful for too long: there was gold everywhere, there had been for centuries; goblin incursions were at an all-time low; wealth ran through Khur-Karzana like water down a deep, wide river. It made most complacent, for men like his father thought that the occasional foray against goblins was enough to constitute a continuation of house-clan honour. Benyar, however, was worried. Things were quiet. Too quiet.
As he gazed at the stone of the Syladras Mountains arching away above him, Benyar found no way to reconcile his beliefs with the love of his family. Maybe it was Dwarven pride that stopped him, but he could not bring himself to seek out his father and apologise. He could not stand before a man so opposed to what he believed in and pretend he was sorry for his opinions. He would not do it.
Heavy of heart, Benyar turned and began to make his way back across the great stone bridge. ‘By the Stone,’ he said to himself in a whisper, ‘wha’ ‘ave I done to myself? Wha’ am I to do?’

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