Here for your entertainment and commentary is the first chapter of the sequel to ‘Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman.’ Please let us know what you think.
“Some men are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them. Still others have no better sense than to make themselves so useful they are dragged to it, kicking and screaming the whole way.”
From the Diaries of Engvyr Gunnarson
SHUNK! The red and black tattooed head spun through the air and landed in the mud with a splash. More muck sprayed from the pony’s hooves as it stopped, then wheeled around in its own length and launched itself back at the row of enemy infantry.
“Hold!” bellowed the trainer standing nearby. Engvyr sat back in the saddle to signal his mount to halt, raising the broad-bladed saber to rest spine-down on his shoulder. He blinked to clear the sweat from his eyes as he guided his pony towards the trainer at a walk.
“What is it this time?” he asked irritably, “I thought that was a good cut!”
The tall afmaeltinn man, Gedric Ullfson, nodded and said, “Aye, it was as near-perfect as a man could hope for. That’s why we’re stopping now.”
Engvyr’s breath was coming in frosty puffs as he panted from the exertions of the morning’s training. His shoulder ached from swinging the long saber again and again. He thought he had felt every ache and pain that it was possible for riding to inspire, but this morning’s training had been an education on that score. Despite the mid-winter cold he was sweating under the thick padded jacket and the unaccustomed weight of armor. He, his mount, and practically everything else in sight was speckled with mud. He glanced at the row of slaughtered ‘Baasgarta’ dummies with satisfaction.
Gedric gestured to the group of a half-dozen mounted dwarves standing nearby and shouted, “Right, ya sawed off runts! That’s how ya do it. Yer lordship here almost gives me hope for you lot. We’re done fer today. Clean yer sorry asses up, and if I see so much as a spec a’ mud on your armor or gear tomorrow you’ll probably live to regret it!”
“Sawed-off runts?” Engvyr inquired with a grin as he removed his helmet and shook his sweat-soaked hair. Gedric turned away from the departing trainees and returned his grin. He was near tall enough to look Engvyr in the eye even though the dwarf was mounted.
The man nodded. “Keepin’ them hating on me stops ’em from takin’ out their aches and pains on each other, and gives ’em a feeling of solidarity.”
Engvyr shrugged and said, “You’re the professional here so I’ll not take issue. Just mind you keep that sort of thing in its proper place.”
Gedric really was the professional; he had served in the Taernealian Cavalry for more than twenty years. He nodded, “A ‘course, M’Lord. I’m not likely to insult the fine folks as cook m’food and wash m’clothes! Too much room fer mischief there.”
“Seriously, though,” Engvyr asked, “How are they shaping up?”
The Afmaeltinn frowned in thought before replying, “Honestly? As well as any I’ve trained, and better than some. A’course these boys come from the Rangers or Mounted Infantry, so they’re already accomplished riders and used to military discipline. When we get to them as aren’t, well, we’ll see what we see, won’t we?”
Engvyr nodded. “Indeed. Well, no rest for the wicked.”
He sketched a salute to the trainer and headed for the stables at a walk, giving his mount a chance to cool down on the way.
The dwarves of Dvargatil Baeg had never bothered with cavalry before. With their short stature and mountain-bred ponies they could not hope to go head-to-head with the humans horsemen they thought themselves most likely to fight. Instead they had focused on mounted infantry that travelled on ponies but fought afoot, and on tactics to deal with mounted assaults. The ongoing war with the Baasgarta had shown them that they might need their own cavalry after all; the goblin tribe rode to war on ulvgaed, strange carnivores that resembled a mountain goat except for their wolf-like teeth and jaws. The six dwarven trainees were to form the training cadre for dwarves units, which for the moment was to be based out of Engvyr’s estate in the Makepeace Valley.
My estate, he thought bemusedly, who could have guessed such a thing could come to pass? For a dwarf that had started life as a humble miner’s son he had come far, and in a relatively short time as dwarves reckoned such things. After serving three decades in the elite 3rd.Rifles he had spent the next twelve years as a Ranger of the Mountain Guards. After the brief, disastrous but ultimately victorious battle for the Baasgarta capitol he had been sent home with the title ‘Lord Warder of the North.’ He stopped a moment to admire his new home.
The foundation of the High Hame had been carved straight out of the bedrock of the mountainside. The Stonewrought building looked as solid as the mountain itself. Work was still in progress but the great hall, kitchens, and their personal apartments were finished enough to occupy. Temporary shops and stables had been erected in what would eventually be the walled court below the building.
It was to the stables that he headed now, dismounting and leading his pony inside. The other riders were already seeing to their own animals and he began to do the same, stripping off the barding, tack and harness, setting those aside for later. He first rubbed down the pony, and began to curry it. Most dwarves of his station would leave such work to grooms but he was not the sort to put work off on others when he could do it himself. Besides, the condition of his mount was literally life or death; he wasn’t about to leave that to another.
The beast was of a different sort than he had ridden in the army or Mountain Guard, longer of limb and body. These were actually cutting-ponies used by herdsmen in the south; a full thirteen hands, fast and agile but with good stamina. They had been brought here for just this purpose, and been waiting for him when he and his entourage returned from the war in the north.
He’d be damned if he’d let someone else care for his mount but he reluctantly allowed the grooms to see to his gear. There were but so many hours in a day and the Lord Warden of the North had other responsibilities than cavalry training. Though what exactly those are remains to be seen, he thought. So far it mostly seemed to constitute studying and signing endless requests for materials from the construction team, and finding local accommodations for people coming up from Ironhame.
The war with the Baasgarta was in abeyance for the season. Apart from scouting and the occasional small skirmish, winter in the deep mountains was not a time suited to warfare. Deeply piled snowbanks impeded movement and concealed all manner of hazards. Avalanches were a constant danger and blizzards could blow up with little warning. Trolls that normally kept to themselves could become territorial and aggressive.
Normally, travel to the Makepeace Valley was impossible in the wintertime with the High Passes closed by lethal cold. But in the past year the Hidden Ways, tunnels that passed under the mountains, had been revealed and opened to travelers to support the war effort. Engvyr found it ironic that these long-suspected tunnels had been made originally for the dwarves to flee into the deep mountains in time of need. Thank the Lord and Lady that they are equally useful in moving dwarves and material towards a war, he thought.
Having seen the pony tucked away in a snug stall he set about removing his armor. He had worn a light breastplate for decades, first in the army and then as a Ranger of the Mountain Guard, but this was a whole different thing. Blue-gray steel encased him from ankle to throat and it had to be removed in a specific order, more or less from the top down once the helmet and gauntlets had been removed. First the paldrons that protected his shoulders, then the gorget from around his throat followed by the articulated arms. The breastplate was next, then the quilted armor-cote. Lastly the tightly laced linen vest that supported the leg-armor. The feet themselves were protected mainly by the armored stirrups, which of course had remained with the pony’s tack. That done he stood a moment, stretching to ease the kinks and shivering in his sweat-soaked linen undershirt. He nodded to the apprentice who came for his armor, then he shrugged into an old grete cote. He tossed a casual wave to the other trainees and made his way up the stairs to the High Hame.
Entering the great hall he greeted the workmen that were even now putting the finishing touches on the room. A full fifty paces long and half that in width, lined with broad benches where the walls weren’t broken by the entrances to apartments, three to a side. At the far end a fire roared in the huge hearth, with kitchens to the left and the entrance to his private apartments to the right. It was there he headed now for a wash and change before the next endless round of paperwork and consultations from the workmen.
Consultations! He snorted to himself as he stripped off the soiled, sweaty clothes, as if they paid the least attention to our desires… Engvyr was a dwarf of simple tastes, and his wife Deandra felt much the same. So the foremen came to him, asked what he wanted, and then politely explained why he needed something much more grand and proceeded to build it the way they had intended to all along.
He hadn’t been there for the first stages of construction, having been at the siege of the Baasgarta capitol and the clean-up in the aftermath. He grinned as he opened the spigot to fill the bathtub. He had been told of his lady wife’s objection on first seeing the plans for the High Hame. ‘How am I ever to clean such a great barn of a place?’ she had wailed. It had not yet sunken in that as a Lady of the Realm she would have her own household to attend to such details.
Indeed, it still befuddled Engvyr from time to time. He had gone almost overnight from being a simple Ranger to being a Lord, and before he was even used to that he was named Lord Warden of the North. Aside from the Royal Stipend that accompanied the position (the amount of which had boggled their minds all over again) so far it seemed to mean paperwork and headaches.
On the other hand it also means a hot soak at the end of a morning’s training, he thought, as he gratefully lowered himself into the bath. The lavatory was toasty-warm, sharing a wall with the great hearth as it did. Hot water piped through the stones of the hearth was just the balm his abused muscles needed and he sighed with gratitude. He luxuriated in the heat for a few moments, then ducked his head under and washed quickly. As pleasant as it might be to loll about in the tub there was yet much to do.
He dressed in a linen shirt and pants and donned a light cote. Thick knotted wool socks and soft, low shoes protected his feet from the drafts that inevitably blew along the floor. Making his way to his office he looked at the pile of paperwork that had already accumulated over the last night and this morning. I swear the bloody stuff breeds in the dark, he thought crossing the office to the door that opened into the kitchens.
Poking his head in, he flagged down a cook’s assistant and requested coffee before settling at his desk and tackling the pile. He was so absorbed that he only dimly noticed when someone entered and set a tray on the corner of his desk. Warm arms encircled him over the chair-back and he smelled wildflowers as a soft cheek pressed against his.
“Deandra!” he exclaimed with pleasure as he leaned back into his wife’s embrace and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“Mmmm…” she sighed in his ear, “This job does have some perks… at least now I can hug my husband instead of his breastplate!”
Though his half elf – half Afmaeltinn wife was a full foot taller than him, he had no difficulty snaking an arm around her slender waist and sweeping her into his lap. She giggled as he kissed her then leaned against him and nuzzled his ear.
“This is no way to get your work done, love,” she whispered.
“And I care because…?”
“Because that pile will be twice as big tomorrow,” she said firmly, pushing away from him and giving him a peck on the lips as she stood, “plenty of time for that later.”
From the look she gave him he earnestly looked forward to later. He growled at her in only partly mock frustration. “If I’d known you were such a practical wench… I’d have married you anyway.”
She laughed, eyes sparkling as she dodged out of his reach and he watched regretfully as she slipped out. Besotted, he thought, not for the first time, that’s the word I’m looking for… With a sigh of regret he returned his attention to the task at hand.
He frowned over his reading, a report from the Northern front. While the offensive was stalled over the winter, scouts were pushing north and what they were finding was disturbing. Isolated farm-holds were still tenanted, but major settlements were abandoned. The assumption had been that the Baasgarta were retreating and consolidating their forces in anticipation of resuming hostilities in the spring. Now however the scouts had found The Pit, the great central strip-mine of the Bassgarta, and it too was empty. While some of the mined material had been removed there were still massive stocks of ore and refined metals simply left behind. Where the hell are they going? He wondered. The Pit was the centerpiece of their nation, their civilization, housing tens of thousands of Brael slaves. Not to mention their guards, administrators, refinery workers and the workers that ran the great smelters and forges… All gone; they had simply picked up and left. Indications were that they had gone north and west, but he had no idea what was there, or what they were doing in that place. He had a suspicion that they were going to find out come spring, and that they would not find the answer to their liking…