DIARIES OF A DWARVEN RIFLEMAN
Michael Tinker Pearce
and Linda Pearce
“They say heroes are forged in tragedy so I suppose I qualify on that score, several times over even. But the truth of the matter is that half the time I felt like a dog that’d been kicked ’till he just couldn’t stand it anymore without biting back. I’ll be damned if that seems particularly heroic to me. But the life of the boy is what shapes the man.”
From the diaries of Engvyr Gunnarson
BOOM! The ground leapt under Engvyr Gunnarson’s feet and he clutched frantically at the handles of the wheelbarrow to keep his balance. It didn’t help; the ground-shock was so severe it tipped over, spilling a load of shattered ore and the boy to the floor of the mine.
A blast of dust-laden air washed up the tunnel and over him, snuffing out the candles that dimly lit the passage. He coughed and slipped the bandana that he wore around his neck over his nose and mouth, but not before he tasted the distinctive tang of blasting powder mixed with the rock-dust. No one should be using blasting powder up here! He thought as he felt along the wall for the nearest sconce. He could hear other dwarves shouting to each other in the darkness as he found the candle and applied his lighter to the wick. The flame illuminated an area a few paces across, the air filled with swirling brown dust. He saw other lights flare along the passage as other miners relit candles and lanterns.
Still coughing he worked his way down the passage to the Grand Gallery, lighting candles as he went. The rock dust was already clearing out of the air, faster than it should. He could feel a warm, damp wind on the back of his neck yet his feet were cool. As he approached the Grand Gallery he felt a growing dread as the cause became apparent. He could see light ahead in the gallery, but it wasn’t the accumulated light of the miners candles and lanterns. It was daylight. The roof of the Grand Gallery had collapsed.
Engvyr joined the others that were trying to dig out miners trapped in the rubble. Though he was but seventeen he was already nearly four feet tall, over one-hundred and twenty pounds and his work in the mine had made him strong.
He turned from his work to see his father approaching.
“I’m alright! You?” he asked.
“Uncle Sifurd?” the boy asked.
His father gestured helplessly to the center of the open space where the rubble was thickest. Their eyes locked and they shared an unspoken moment of fear before they turned back to the grim work at hand.
Engvyr and his father sat on the edge of a pile of tailings drinking tankards of water, exhausted by their labors. It was the middle of the night and they had been working steadily since the collapse that morning. They had pulled a half-dozen bodies from the rubble, Sifurd among them, and twice that number of wounded.
They saw the foreman approaching and Engvyr’s father hailed him. He walked over and accepted a tankard. He rinsed the dust from his mouth and spat before drinking deeply.
“What’s the news?” his father asked.
The foreman looked angry.
“They found a goblin in the debris,” he said, scowling, “and a tunnel to the surface that we didn’t dig.”
Engvyr felt a shock run through him at the news.
“I smelled blasting powder right after the collapse,” he said.
The foreman nodded sourly.
“Ayuh. Damned renegades. They set charges in the roof and at the base of the braces, Maker take ’em. I can’t imagine what they thought they would accomplish,” He shook his head in disgust, “We’ve lost good men today, and the mine will be closed for weeks while they reinforce the hole and roof it over so that the tunnels don’t flood.”
“We can only thank the Lord and Lady it wasn’t worse,” his father said, “As it is I don’t know how I’m going to tell Egerta…”
A few days after the disaster the family sat in the common room of their modest hame, Engvyr quietly keeping his small cousins amused with a game of jacks on the flagstone floor of the common room. His Aunt Egerta sat with her hands clutching a cooling cup of mulled cider as she stared blindly into the fire.
A pot of side-meat and beans bubbled on the hearth and the air was rich with the smell of fresh-baked bread. His mother bustled about, setting brown earthenware plates and mugs on the table while his father cleaned his gun, a 14-bore shoulder-gun. The act was meditative rather than a necessity, as it had not been fired a dozen times since Engvyr’s birth when his father moved the family to Haebnetyl to work in the mine.
“Gwynth,” his father said, “We are going. We will leave this place and this cursed mine.”
His mother turned and stared at him uncertainly, ladle in one hand and a bowl in the other.
“We are going away to the Northlands, to our clanhame in Thorvyl’s Hollow. I am through with the deep mines and so is our son; it’s no kind of life for a boy. I have decided, and there’s an end to it.”
Engvyr’s mother filled the bowl with meat and beans and moved to set it on the table before replying.
“Is it, then? Have I no say in the matter?”
His father shook his head, “It’s no good, Wife! Look at our boy. Pale as an earth-worm he is, and him only working the mine a year or less. Last year in this season he was an active lad, all smiles and mischief, his skin browned by the sun. I’ll not see him spend his life hidden in the depths of the earth and never the clean, open sky above his head.” He lowered his voice, shooting a quick glance at the silent woman by the fire, “And what of the twins and their mother? The wergild for my dear brother will not keep them long, and we can scarce support them of our own selves.”
“But Gunnar, to travel so far, to make ourselves beholden to the Clan… and what trade have you but mining? How will we live? It is hard here, true enough, but we’ve a roof over our heads and steady work at least.”
“It’s a miner I am, so we will make our way by that trade. But not under the ground. There in the high-country we’ll be placer-mining as I did before I went off to the Regiment. I can still remember how to lay a trap-line and there’s hunting besides.” He patted the big gun affectionately, “I’ve not forgotten the use a’ this lovely lady.”
His mother snorted, but smiled and said, “Oh aye, your first love- and well I know it!” her brow creased in thought. “Well if that’s the way of it, we’ve a bit put by and we can sell the hame. Likely that will be enough for the trip. We should write ahead to the Clan, of course, so they can ready a place for us…”
Engvyr kept his silence through the meal and the rest of the long evening as his parents laid out their plans. Eventually even his aunt joined in the discussion, coming to life a bit for the first time since the disaster.
Dwarves are known throughout the world as the best miners and metal-crafters under the sun. Engvyr knew a lot of miners that loved the deep places of the world and would rather nothing but that they spend their lives in the bosom of the earth. But his father, Gunnar, was of a northern Clan and had grown up in the high country. Engvyr seemed to have inherited his love for the open sky and wild places. He looked forward to the prospect of a life above ground.
The very next morning Gunnar was off, with Engvyr in tow, to see the Foreman of the mine. They found him at his family’s hame, the mine being shut down while the soldiers made sure that it was clear of Goblins. The engineers also had to roof over the hole and make the workings safe again.
When given the news of their departure the Foreman shook his head and said, “I can’t say as I blame you, but are you sure you are doing right by your family? It’s a long journey and likely to be hard on the young ones. And…” he hesitated briefly, “I’ll not lie to you. We’ve lost a lot of good dwarves. We need you and I think we could see our way clear to give you a raise in wages, mayhap even a promotion to Line Chief.”
His father never so much as looked tempted.
“No Tom, my mind is made up. I’ve given this a fair shake these last sixteen years but it’s just not for me or my boy either. You’ve been a fair boss and you’re a good man, but I’ve had my fill. Truth be told it’s been in my mind for some time to move on.”
The Foreman argued and pleaded with him but his Father would not be moved. Seeing this, the Foreman sighed.
“Well, if that’s how it’s to be then I suppose that I must wish you well… But it’s cruel hard of you to be leaving just when I need you most! And don’t you be expectin’ to come back with your tail between your legs and have that promotion waiting for you! You’ll be back to running a muck-stick then, and serve you right for abandoning the company!”
They left the Foreman’s place and went down the hill. Homes and shops were built half into the hillside, and many of the ‘streets’ were in fact stairways carved into the mountain. At the bottom they went out the gate to the station along the High road and posted the letter to their clan. It made for a fair climb back up to their own hame but having worked in the deep mines it was nothing to the dwarf and his son.
They stopped to visit one of his father’s oldest friends and sat out under the stone overhang that sheltered the front porch, drinking thick earthenware mugs of coffee and enjoying the captured warmth of the early spring sun.
“I’ve known you half my life, Sergeant-Major, ever since the Regiment, and of all the folk in this place I will miss you most, you old codger!” his father told the grizzled dwarf. He gestured to indicate the town and the mine. “This is all the boy has known his whole life. If a job in the deep workings is to be his lot it will be by his choice, knowing and having lived the option.”
The old dwarf and his father had served together for five decades. When the Sergeant-Major had retired, a legend after most of twenty decades in the Regiment, he had come here, returning to the town where he was born. Engvyr’s father, newly married and in need of a livelihood, had followed after when he mustered out three decades later.
“Truth is I envy you the journey. I’ve half a mind to pull up stakes and come along but I’ve taken to the road for the last time; these old bones would never put up with a long journey.”
The Sergeant-Major levered himself out of his chair with an effort. He seemed near as wide as he was tall and solid as the mountain they stood on. Engvyr realized that he must now be nearing three hundred years of age and this was likely to be the last time that he would ever see him. The old dwarf gestured for them to remain seated, and taking up his cane he hobbled into the hame.
He returned shortly with a bundle almost a pace in length and extended it to Engvyr’s father. His father stood with a startled look, protesting even as he accepted the package.
“Thorven,” he said, calling his old friend by name for the first time that Engvyr could remember, “I can’t; it’s too much!”
“Nonsense!” barked the old dwarf with a pushing-away gesture, “You can and you will. I’ve told you I’ll not take the road again. The old girl will serve you better than she will me, sitting on a shelf as a sad relic for an old dwarf to dote on.
“Besides which,” he said with a grin, “I’ll still have her sister to keep me warm at night.”
His father held his friend’s gaze for a few moments, his eyes strangely bright, then nodded acceptance and sat once again, the bundle cradled in his lap. The Sergeant-Major grunted in satisfaction and eased himself back into his own chair.
His father smiled and slowly unwrapped the object that he had been given. Engvyr stared in wonder as the weapon inside was revealed. Guns were a rarity outside of the Regiments as few dwarves could afford them. He’d never heard how his father came by the 14-bore he so lovingly kept but he knew of no other miner that possessed one.
But if a gun was rare, the weapon that was now revealed was a genuine oddity. It was a hand-gun, one of a pair given the Sergeant-Major by the Regiment after his first century of service. He watched intently as his father checked the chamber and then extended it to him. He took it gingerly; with the reverence one would give a holy relic. Having watched his father he repeated his motions and checked the chamber himself. He knew that one never, ever trusted that a gun was unloaded. Seeing this, the old dwarf guffawed.
“Isn’t he a proper little Trooper,” he exclaimed in approval, “you’ve brought him up well, Gunnar!”
He leaned forward in his chair and gestured to a mark inlaid in silver above the breech and said, “This is ‘The Hammer.’ I’ll be keeping ‘The Anvil’ for my own self. You can’t expect an old man to give away all his memories!”
Keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction the boy turned it over, examining it carefully. The curved hand-grip felt good in his grasp and the fore-stock settled comfortably in his other hand. The checkering on the oiled hardwood of the stock was worn half-smooth with age and use. It could be slung about the body with a strap and a bar on the side slipped through the belt to keep the gun from swinging free as one moved.
It was a short-ranged weapon but at thirty paces the 36-bore lead ball could drop a charging horse, or hammer its rider right out of the saddle. It was worth the price of a modest hame and after examining it Engvyr gingerly handed it back to his father, who carefully re-wrapped it and set it on the low table next to his chair.
“I’ve no words to thank you, old friend,” his father said.
The old dwarf waved dismissively, “It’s not all settled land you’ll pass through on the way… If’n it helps you to care for your family that’s thanks enough.”