Orr'gavol: The Hammersworn - Turn 8
D) With less than a quarter of the Hammersworn remaining in the Hovel, mainly the sick and the children, work was instead focused on teaching the young ones good work morals and proper techniques. Great classes in metalworking and etiquette were arranged by the foreman and the Union representatives who remained in the Hovel, these being Joron, Herim, Golaq, Erima, Ra'ol, Daven and Khyber.
X) The expedition uncovered some strange creatures in the hamlet.
X) The expedition uncovered some strange creatures in the hamlet.
In the Hovel
Osman sat in the empty great hall commonly used for council meetings, staring into the dying embers in the centre hearth. These last few days, he had begun feeling considerably weaker. The rations had grown much smaller of late, and he was getting tired of eating bark. However, his starving body was not the source of his despair. Herim had come to him earlier with grim news - the infected seemed to be getting worse. One of the older dwarves was likely soon to meet her ancestors. He felt a cold spike through his body at the thought, and he ran a shaking hand through his black beard. At that moment, Joron Scroll stepped in through the door and dusted the snow off himself using a small brush. The old, scrawny scholar looked like a mere set of sticks arranged into the shape of a dwarf, but Osman was at least glad to see the dwarf still had some energy left.
“Foreman,” Joron said curtly. “I thought I’d find you here.” Osman beckoned him over and threw a log on the embers. At first, Joron shook his head; however, right thereafter, he came over anyway and sat down.
“That’s the spirit, Joron. No need to be so cold. You have the council meetings for that,” Osman snickered. Joron did not return the snicker, but voiced a single sarcastic “ha”. Osman frowned and looked back into the flames.
“I actually came bearing a message, foreman,” Joron said. “Herim would like you know that bark is no longer on the menu. We will officially have to turn to our leather goods for sustenance.” Osman put his face in his hands and let out a long groan. Joron scratched his white-bearded chin and stood back up with the help of a walking stick. He gave Osman a partial bow and headed toward the door.
“Do you think me a poor leader, Logmaster?” Osman voiced through his hands. Joron stopped and turned around, running his idle hand through his beard to add to his inquisitive expression.
“Not poor, Osman. I agree that retrieving our families’ livelihood was important. However, one does not have to be a magister to see that you occasionally make… Less than ideal choices.” Osman deflated in his chair. Joron continued, “I understand you, however. We all make poor decisions under stress, myself included. My imprisonment was a just punishment and gave me time to think - I realised that Popomel was right about the gods’ disgust of sin, and sin, I did.” Joron lowered his head. “To kill your parent, sibling or child - the most grievous sin. I pray I never misinterpret the will of the gods in such a manner again.” The air grew thick and greasy with shame. “As such, while I frankly despise you for what you did to me, I respect it and agree with it. However, one right does not right all the wrongs, and to answer your question, foreman, you are not a poor leader; you are a less-than-ideal leader who struggles with stress.” Osman, now having deflated to the point where he technically sat on the floor leaning against the chair, gave Joron a look that could best be described as a confused scowl. Joron nodded and headed to the door. In the doorway, the dwarf turned, his white beard dancing in the wind.
“By the way, another convoy from the Whitepeak Mine has returned. Get your bum off the floor and do something other than sulk for once.” The dwarf then stepped out and slammed the door shut. Osman sat still for a few minutes. He regretted asking Joron of all people for feedback. However, there was some solace in actually hearing some for the first time in weeks. He got back on his feet and stepped outside.
After a few minutes, Osman had gathered every Hammersworn in the Hovel. He scanned the crowd and saw that it consisted almost exclusively of dwarflings too young to venture out of the village. It had been a while since Osman had spoken to children, and speaking to a whole mass at once was going to be tough - already some had begun splitting from the crowd to play in the snow. Osman opened his mouth.
"Sons and daughters! Hear your foreman's words!" Many of the children started crying at the sudden booming voice. In the back, Erima was snickering while Joron placed his face in his palm. Herim and Golaq tried their best to shepherd the kids back in line, while Daven sat down with the crying ones and began singing them songs. Osman let out a long, drawn-out groan. Meanwhile, Daven looked up at Osman and smiled warmly.
"They are not yet workers, good foreman. You cannot ask a seed to sprout fruits. First, it must be nurtured and grow." The old dwarf patted an adjacent little girl on the head and stood up. "Let us do exactly that." Osman raised an eyebrow. "What, tell them to sprout fruits?" he muttered. Daven chuckled softly. "No, let us instead take this time to teach them about what it means to be Hammersworn. Let our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers teach our sons and daughters a little bit about their respective unions; let the children learn about the thoughts and morals of their mothers and fathers; let them forget their rumbling bellies for a while. What say you, foreman?" Osman pondered for a bit. He then saw that some of the children began screaming and crying again. Daven swiftly shuffled over and saw to the issue. "Fine! I'll allow it. Spread the message on. I'll prepare some words on the virtue of shutting the HELL up!" His shouting caused more children to weep in fear. Daven let out another warming laughter. "Naturally, foreman," he said. "I'll tell everyone to prepare some words on the morals of our people."
Outside the strange hamlet to the south:
Makkar wrapped the furs around him ever closer. He was starting to regret telling the group not to light fires as to not draw any more attention that what, for all they knew, they'd already drawn. However, it was, in his eyes, paramount that they not be caught unprepared should the hamlet be home to creatures of malicious intent. He blew some warm, steamy air into his palms and rubbed them rapidly together. Oh, how he longed for a fire right about now. He looked up and saw Quana Forge shuffle over. She put an index finger to her left nostril and snorted loudly. She then turned to Makkar and scratched her nose.
"So... What do we do, then? It's been an hour since we agreed to wait. I don't know about you, but I'm not really enjoying this whole... Sitting in the snow and waiting-situation." Makkar frowned and stood up. "Aye, neither am I. Tell the others I've made my decision. We'll form a small crew of our, uh, kindest looking and go over to ask for shelter and supper. Can't be that hard, right?" Quana nodded slowly. "Uh-huh," she mumbled, "and what if they're more bloodthirsty than world-eyes at a Bronze Union sermon?" Makkar shrugged and gave a sigh. "The alternative is pretty clear, ain't it? Go tell them now." Quana nodded and shuffled off. Makkar pulled some icicles out of his beard, grimacing at every tug.
Mere minutes later, the whole expedition crew had gathered. Forth stepped four dwarves, all of whom had been deemed the prettiest, kindest-looking, or just the least smelly. The first of them was a young-looking lad of the Copper Union, judging from the green tattoo on his face, who was smiling from ear to ear in spite of the weather; the second was also quite young, an appraiser from the Silver Union, whose beautiful golden hair looked even paler against the snow; the third was one Makkar knew - Gomril Ash, alchemeister of the Union of Phosphorous. He had always looked the docile dwarf, almost comparable to a doe; finally, the fourth, a dwarf of the Glass Union, one who had probably used the last of the tea flowers in his ration to make some form of perfume - Makkar agreed he smelled quite nice. He then nodded and pointed to the hamlet. "Alright. You four will come with me and act as bodyguards and support should an argument arise with the host. The rest of you - find whatever you can use as a weapon and wait until I give the signal - which will be a waving torch. If no such signal is given by nightfall, you will keep moving south in search of food - is that clear?" The crew nodded, though most looked rather annoyed or angry at the thought of being left in the cold. Makkar nodded back and beckoned his band of four. Together, they shuffled through the snow towards the hamlet.
Nothing happened as they stepped out from the trees, climbed over the first fence, and began making their way through the fields. As they came up on the second inner fence, they drew close to one of the hovels around the great hall. From inside there was the murmuring of voices and the crying of a child, and a few moments later, they saw a squat figure wearing a heavy cloak step out from inside with an axe in hand.
Makkar stopped in his steps at the sight of the weapon. He held his hand on the hammer on his belt and extended a palm forward. He nodded at his companions, who proceeded to take similar precautions. For a second, Makkar wondered what to say? Did this creature even speak his language? How would he react to Makkar and his crew looking almost ready to strike at him? He tried to look a little less threatening, and proceeded to make his greeting.
"Blessings on your soil and fertility for you crops, stranger!"
A cold wind had blown to the dwarves' backs and straight into the stranger's face, so he'd held up an arm to keep the worst of it out of his eyes and hold down the hood of his cloak. And then he'd stepped to the side towards a pile of firewood as if to split it, seemingly completely oblivious to the nearby dwarves thanks to that oversized hood obscuring his vision, and then Makkar had suddenly spoken. The short person jumped nearly half his height into the air when he suddenly became aware of the dwarves with a start, and the axe slipped out from his hands. His panicked yelp seemed to echo as loud as thunder through the quiet little hamlet.
Makkar nearly jumped at the creature's reaction, and whether due to the weather or the situation, he was frozen for a split second. That second was all it took for the golden haired Silver unionist to open her mouth as well.
"No, no, no! Don't scream, please! We don't mean any harm! Honest to Ognius!" She tried to make her point by taking out her knife and dropping it in the snow, though it seemed her companions didn't follow her motion.
For his part the stranger didn't immediately stoop down to take up his hatchet again, but he definitely glanced to make sure that it was still there. "Wut're you lot doin' here?" the halfling stammered, and then a few moments later they could hear the doors of other huts opening. Soon there were other faces peeking at them from around corners, and one or two calls of, 'Shirrif! Shirrif!'
"Oh, thank the gods, you can understand us," the Silver unionist said. She tried to move a little closer. "I'm Agnez Coin," she said. Makkar and his companions eyed her up and down in disbelief and looked at each other. Agnez went on: "We are the Hammersworn dwarves, and we come from the mountains to the north. A terrible winter has struck our home, and we were sent out to bring back food and resources for our people. While it is terribly rude to ask such of you, good stranger, we ask merely that we be allowed to stay the night in your village - just so we can rest like we haven't in months for a single night. We will be on our way by dawn." Makkar grabbed Agnez by the shoulder and pulled her back to whisper her something. In the meanwhile, the Copper union kid and Gomril Ash kept surveying the settlement. The Glass Unionist kept rubbing his hands together and blowing on them in a desperate attempt to prevent the loss of another finger.
"But what are you?" the halfling asked in confusion. "An' what's that one sayin' over there?!"
Makkar put his hand on Agnez's head and rubbed it perhaps a little too violently. She suddenly looked furious. "Nothing to worry about, friend. Just needed to make it clear who's doing the negotiations here." Makkar gave a quick laugh which gathered little support from the rest of his crew. He muttered to himself before looking back at the halfling, taking note of the tiny creature's stature. "We're dwarves, good stranger! You know... Dwarves? Looking at you, actually, you ought to recognise a cousin when you see one, you know!" Makkar eyed the halfling up and down. "See the winter's left little to eat for your kind, too, aye."
By this point a rough-looking halfling in an obnoxious bright red coat had staggered out of the main hall and made his way halfway over to the assembled crowd. In one hand he'd carried a club and in the other a bottle, but to the credit of the drunken 'shirrif' he'd dropped the bottle into the snow as soon as he'd seen the dwarves, and at that point he quickened his pace. Embolded by his presence, some of the onlookers from the other huts started to follow their way closer to the commotion.
Makkar met the approaching stranger with as broad a grin as he could manage. He placed his palm on his chest and tipped his torso gently forward. "Ah, you must be the local foreman. Good harvests and full larders to you, good stranger. I am Makkar Stone, representative on the Union Council and ambassador for the Hammersworn Dwarves!" His companions frowned at him. Agnez mouthed something that looked like "ambassador" and Makkar tried to give her a well-hidden kick in the shin, but just ended up widening his stance somewhat awkwardly. The sheriff hardly seemed to notice, at least.
The first timid halfling that they'd spoken to backed up a little bit so as to visibly defer to the red-coated one. And then after a few very moments of awkward hesitation, he grabbed his hatchet once more and stepped a short ways away to start splitting the wood that he'd first outside to split...naturally, he kept one eye on the dwarves all the while. As for the sheriff, he approached closer than any of his fellows dared, but even his alcohol-fueled bravery made him stop at a few yards distance. "Well you seem frien'lier than most 'round these parts, not like we get many strangers!" He hiccuped before finishing, "That is, 'less you came for my coat! If that's the case you'll only pry 'er from me bloody hands!"
Makkar cleared his throat and looked for a good response. The lad from the Copper Union stepped forth and lifted his left palm in greeting. "While your coat is absolutely magnificent, good stranger--"
The whole crowd of halflings laughed at that line, the sheriff included. The young dwarf recoiled and gave an awkward, hacking laugh as well. Makkar pushed him back gently in a shooing manner and cleared his throat. "Aye, aye, we can all agree that it's, uh, somewhat nice. However, we did indeed not come to nab your jacket, good stranger. You see, our situation is a grim one, and we wish not bother you for too long, so..." Makkar cleared his throat, but it turned into a cough, followed by a loud sneeze. Gomril Ash sighed and looked at the sheriff. "To summarise what our 'diplomat' is going to say: we've travelled far, we're tired, and we're wondering if you good strangers have some shelter and supper to spare for the night. We-" Makkar, having regained control of his breathing, coughing and sneezing, gave him a glare and continued for him: "We don't have much to give in return, but we have good tools to trade, and should our relationship grow closer, come summer we will give back what you've given us tenfold!"
That statement seemed perfectly punctuated by the load crack of that first halfling splitting a log in half. The sheriff looked over irritably and shouted, "By golly Rory we're tryin' to talk over here, quit that!" Then he turned back to the dwarves and answered, "Too cold out here to talk, and not my job to figure out what to do with you anyways. My boss'll sort that out. The chieftain's prob'ly wonderin' what's causing all this rile anyways, so we'd best go see 'im right now." The halfling gestured toward the greathall on top of the hill and made as if to lead them there.
"Ah, very good," Makkar said and followed along for a few steps until he saw that Gomril, Agnez and Copper Union lad remained. Makkar looked at them funnily. "What're you doing? It's impolite not to follow along when you're invited in, y'know." Agnez crossed her arms over her chest. "We should tell the others first," she said. "We can't leave them out here in the cold while we're in there." Makkar rubbed his temples and let out a groan. "We -first- go in to negotiate -then- tell the others -after- we get permission? You got it?" Agnez stood as frozen in the snow, her determination manifesting in the form of a scowl.
The sheriff, meanwhile, seemed willing to break up the argument. "Wait now, there's more of ye out there? What, a dozen? Bring 'em all in here. No choice about the matter. We got the space and food, and Chief'll want to see all of you. Look you up an' down, make sure he trusts you much as I do. Then if he don't think you're liars or bandit scouts, he'll treat you fairly. But cross 'im the wrong way an' he'll crack all your skulls like treenuts! Ha!"
Makkar groaned again and nodded. "Fine, bring me a torch and-..." Makkar flinched at the halfling's final sentence, and he turned to his companions. They, too, seemed to have gotten the threatening undertones, too, but at the same time, they looked starved and freezing. The Glass Union dwarf had resorted to sticking his freezing hands under Gomril's beard. "... And I'll summon them," Makkar continued. The dwarf received a torch and stepped a little distance away from the hamlet until he estimated that he was within line of sight of the rest of the expedition crew. He waved the torch from side to side for a good half-minute. Following his actions was nothing but wind and an occasional cough from the Copper Union lad. Then, ever so quietly, came the familiar cracking noise of dwarven boots breaking through ice and snow. It grew louder and louder until dark shapes formed in the winds that soon turned into the familiar hairy shapes of the Hammersworn. Makkar spoke, "These good strangers have invited us inside for food and warmth. We will be on our best behaviour while we're here, is that clear?" While nobody said anything, most seemed to at least not protest. Dwarves were known for their courtesy, after all. Or, well, that would depend on the union, and probably situation, and... Makkar decided to leave the thought.
And while Makkar had summoned his fellows out in the field with the impatiently shivering sheriff not far to his side, the red-coated halfling had taken aside one of the hamlet's folk and murmured something to him before the lad had ran off to the great hall ahead of everyone else. If they were to take the sheriff in good faith, that fellow was probably telling the chief to expect company, or something of the sort...but otherwise it could well have been an order to prepare some sort of trap. Agnez, Gomril and the Copper Union lad all gave the runner a suspicious stare. Agnez picked up her knife from the snow, dried and sheathed it. Then when the others had come close enough for him to make our their faces, the sheriff let Makkar give his address before he likewise spoke to the oncomers, "Yeah, we bid all you folk welcome to Heel's Hundred. The Chief's expectin' us in his hall, and we'd best not keep 'im waitin'." He certainly noticed Agnez gather her knife and seemed to note that all the dwarves had weapons, but he didn't seem perturbed and said nothing of it. Now that the dwarves looked closer, most of the halflings had at least some tool that would service as a weapon, if not for similar small knives or clubs. They were smaller and thinner, but in such numbers the halflings would definitely have the advantage should any violence break out. Makkar murmured a prayer to every god he knew in hopes that this would not happen. It was evident on the faces of his people that no one felt easy about the situation - however, empty stomachs and tired legs on top of no food in sight beyond this hamlet led most to ignore the potential dangers.
As he led them at a fairly brisk pace from the fields back into the hamlet proper and up to the hill, the sheriff heard a few stomachs grumble. "Suzy's cookin' will give you lot good spirits! Maybe she'll even put some meat in the soup tonight since you lot 'ave come to give us company!" Makkar faked a laugh and felt cold sweat form on his forehead. He called Quana over. The tall dwarf came stomping through the snow, her hand resting firmly on the shaft of her hammer. "I don't like this, Makkar," she whispered. "Don't like it one bit. We can still turn back and keep moving south. One more day on empty stomachs won't hurt." Makkar grit his teeth. "I'm starting to think you're right. Gods' curses, why did I listen to that little-..."
The little sheriff suddenly came to a stop at the base of the hill. "Aha! There she is!" he called out, stooping to reclaim the bottle he'd dropped earlier. The jovial halfling took a few great gulps then held it out for Makkar. "Warms you right up!" Makkar scowled at the bottle. "What is it? Blackberry wine?" He grabbed the bottle and gave the top a good sniff, though his stuffed nose yielded little information about the contents and more than he'd wanted about the sheriff's oral hygiene. Reluctantly, Makkar took a small nip of the contents out of courtesy. It was a dark beer, nothing that would have normally been terribly impressive to a dwarf, but a long ways better than the swill they'd been brewing at the Hovel for the past few months. Makkar felt his heart skip a beat at the flavour and took another, much larger swig before handing the bottle back. "Thank you, friend. That... That really did warm something up, aye." The short moment of joy was switfly broken by Quana poking at Makkar's shoulder, looking very concerned when he turned to look at her. Makkar's nostalgic smile turned back to a cold, hard expression that mirrored both terror and desperation.
The hill that the great hall sat upon was not a terribly steep or tall one, so it wasn't long with the sheriff's quick pace before they passed the few crude fortifications and were suddenly at the doors. There were two absolutely massive doors to the hall, each one of what looked to be terribly heavy oak, and they were both completely shut. The sheriff spat. "Gah, did that fool really have to close it behind him..." He mumbled something about keeping the heat in, and then he grabbed one of the doors and started heaving. He started to make progress, but cast a glance over to the dwarves. Obviously he didn't want to ask for their help, but he was struggling. Probably too much of the beer. Makkar and the dwarves all seemed to visually compare the huge door and the tiny sheriff trying to open it. While Makkar was not the sharpest axe on the rack, it did not take a magister to deduct that whatever was inside the great hall was far bigger than any of these halflings, and suddenly the slightly more menacing word choices the sheriff had made began to make more and more sense.
"Uh, quick question, good stranger, uh... What livestock do you keep here?" Makkar asked while slowly reaching for his hammer.
"Ah, I never introduced myself did I? Sheriff Wilret, I am," he answered as he stopped pulling on the door to take another sip of beer. "Uh, got a couple sows down in the barn...somehow Heel hasn't eaten 'em all yet..."
Right on cue, the great door suddenly swung open. Wilret leaped back before it knocked him over, and there standing in the doorway was the biggest creature any of the dwarves had ever seen before. He wore clothes and had a full beard and a head full of hair, but if weren't for that, he might as well have been a mountain of flesh.
The sight of the creature made the entire flock of dwarves jump back. Half then proceeded to pull their weapons and scream, while the other half stood frozen in fear. The sheriff fell into the snow and rolled around laughing. "Surprise! Payback for that witty remark 'bout my coat, yeah?" he asked between gasps. None of the dwarves heard him over the battle roars and panicked howling. At this point, some of the dwarves began to run back down the hill, screaming their lungs out. Makkar and Quana stood at the front of the group. Quana let out a warcry and pointed her hammer at the giant - or rather, at the giant's toes - while Makkar stood frozen and, seemingly, praying. Chief 'Heel', as the sheriff had called him earlier, looked over the closest ones at his doorstep and cast his gaze down to Wilret and the fleeing dwarves. He suddenly looked furious. "Wilret you dumb sot! Stop playin' this joke! And go bring back those ones running. Right now!"
The sheriff scrambled back onto his feet and chased after the dwarves that had fled, and then the ogre looked down to Makkar and Quana. "Welcome to my hall! Come on in, Suzy's cooking us a stew." Quana, looking like she'd just witnessed a miracle, slowly lowered her hammer and looked up towards the giant's face which, due to the angle, was hidden behind its beard. "You... You mean it, g-.. Good stranger?" she whimpered. "Yup!" he answered simply. He didn't seem at all bothered by how they clutched onto their weapons, but in fairness, to him it was probably like they were mere children brandishing toothpicks.
He turned around and began to walk into the hall, but slowly and with a heavy limp. He hardly even moved his left leg so much as dragged it on with his right. Quana let out a joyous chuckle and slapped the still-praying Makkar so hard on the back that the dwarf fell forward and landed face and beard first in the snow. This knocked the dwarf back into reality and he rocketed back up to his feet and shot glances in all directions, brandishing his hammer profusely. Quana sighed and punched him again to calm him down, shaking her fist afterwards and murmuring, "Gods, that felt good...". Makkar clutched his now bloody nose and gave Quana a glare, which she returned with a smirk. "N'aw, don't worry about it. It'll be fine after some rest." Makkar keeled his head back and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You could lose your seat on the council for that, y'know," he grumbled. "We're not in a meeting right now, are we?" Quana snickered. "Come on now. Oi! Urdo! Gather up the wimps who ran. Everyone! Follow along, now." With that, the group of dwarves slowly began to realise the reality of the situation. After the last of the stragglers had been rounded up, the dwarves were at last inside a warm hall again. After a small entryway with more than few bear pelts and stag antlers to be seen as decorations, there was a room with a huge heart off to the side of a long table. At the head on the far end was a giant chair that must have been Heel's throne, since it was the only one big enough to fit even half his bulk. He practically had an entire raised table to himself over there. Closer to the middle were a few halflings playing cards and drinking, at least two or three of which wore the same red coat that Wilret had. Judging by their state of stupor, they seemed to take their work even less seriously than Wilret. Or perhaps they simply weren't on shift. They hardly even looked up from their game as the dwarves entered.
With a groan, Heel eventually made his way to the raised table and took his place, then started rubbing at his left heel through a thick fur boot. "Messed that one up a long time ago, so I let the little ones in red run around for me," he explained in good humor. "Chief Heel Hardhand. Just call me Heel." Makkar stepped forth and beckoned over Quana Forge. He put his palm on his chest and bowed, while Quana raised her fist over her head and shouted, "Gods' and ancestors' blessings!" Makkar straightened himself back up. "I am Makkar Stone of the Hammersworn Dwarven Council, and this is Quana Forge, also a representative on the council. It is truly a great honour to be allowed into your hall, good chieftain Heel." Makkar nodded in respect. Some of the dwarves behind him raised their folded hands to the giant; some cried tears of joy. "We will not trouble you for long," Makkar continued, "but we have travelled far and through harsh weather on the quest to bring food from the south back to our village. You see, we come from the valley of Darr, the forests between the Golumnar and the Eastpeaks - and many moons ago, now, our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters all suffered a terrible catastrophe that left us unprepared for a winter unmatched in cold cruelty. We ask therefore merely three favours, if we are worthy of receiving your aid, good chieftain Heel." Makkar knelt down before the giant. Quana first looked at him funny, but when the dwarves in the group behind her knelt down one by one, she eventually succumbed to group pressure. "We ask for one night of rest; we ask for one night's supper; and we ask if you know of somewhere we can find food to bring home to our people. Know that, come spring, the forges 'neath Golumnar will once again bloom with flames and sparks, and all you may request of tools, weapons or the like shall be yours."
Some of their diction seemed to go over the ogre's head, but for his part they could tell that he was listening closely, and watching even closer. Some felt a little bit uneasy at how he seemed to be staring at their every mannerism. Anyways, he didn't immediately answer when they finished. He sat there in silent contemplation for a long several moments before gesturing to the table and chairs. "Sit, I give you the first two," he said. As they shuffled over, he was quiet again before he at last began a long ramble, "You see these tiny folk all around? The halflings? I care for them quite a bit. They toil on a hundred cropfields out there to keep me fed and Suzy is the best cook in the world. All I do is sit here and give 'em some direction, so it's only fair I also do my best to protect them."
He reached down for a keg that rested next to his chair, cracked it open, and then chugged enough to knock out or kill a smaller creature. "You made a few of them nervous, y'know. Fought and whispered among one another. Heard you gave Rory a good scare, and the weapons also didn't help ease them. All this village has got is me and these sheriffs to drive off the wild animals and any would-be raiders, so you know that we gotta stay quiet and low. Don't want others to find out we're here an' start thinkin' of us as an easy target."
They weren't especially comfortable at where the conversation was now steering, but at least they had the savory smell of a delicious stew wafting in from the kitchen to ease their nerves. Heel became quiet once again, but this time he didn't look to be thinking so much as waiting for some response from them.
Makkar grunted and ran a hand through his beard. "The weapons, good chieftain, are mere tools against possible threats. We've been walking through ice and snow for a long time, and it's been even longer since we saw something without a beard... Well, something that isn't a woman or a child, anyway. Our judgment was clouded, for certain. We all swear on every god and ancestor, on our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, that we have no intention of harming your, uh, subjects. We will naturally also keep your village a dear secret to all others."
"Subjects! Ha!" He let out a bellowing laugh and slammed a fist on his table hard enough to made the wood creak. "I'm hardly a master now, just the biggest one here and the thing that they turn to for safety. I was once practically a king, though! Never been so miserable in my life. See, I come from the ogre territories in the mountains south. Never knew there were any other mountains in the far north; just thought it was grass and the sea, honest. Don't know why anybody would live so far up there where it must be even colder...but anyways, back to the story. I know how this world works, because they kept me in a cage and made me fight beasts and other ogres, sometimes to the death. I became a crowd favorite. Usually just used my fists, didn't need anything more. I was king of the arena, never lost a match, until the day one sot sliced open my heel so bad I could hardly walk. But by that point the crowd loved me too much and they couldn't just kill me and throw my body in the river. So they set me free and gave me a sack of gold for all the profit I'd brought them, and then I bought the freedom of all these halflings or their fathers, and we marched up here and have never looked back to that shitty place since."
He only paused to take another massive drink. "Been a long time since I've seen a forge," he finally continued, and then he looked at Makkar so intently that his giant eyes might well have bored holes through the dwarf. "You do a lot of promising. More than most, but I've never seen your kind before. Fair enough, I believe you, Makkar Stone. Just know that we've come too far to give up what we have now."
His rambling only ended when a tiny halfling girl, probably the one called Suzy, peeked out from the kitchen and announced that the stew was ready. With a few assistants, she brought out a great pot and started serving the assembled dwarves and halflings. Then they took some for themselves, and then they finally brought the entire pot with all the remaining contents (as well as a giant spoon) to Heel's table. The dwarves all collectively dug into their stew as if it was a mountain wall hiding a vein of gold. Makkar paused after a few spoonfuls and nodded at Heel. "Of course," he said. "A dwarf's honour is his life - to betray a friend is to betray family. The gods condemn treachery above all. My people will never forget this, good chieftain. We owe you our lives." Quana shoved another spoonful of soup into her mouth before whispering to Makkar, "So, how long did you conjure up -that- entry speech?" She flashed him a smirk. "Shut up and eat your stew, Quana..." he muttered.
Heel grunted through a mouthful as if he'd suddenly realized something. All the eyes turned to him as he swallowed, and then he announced, "Say, you came through the grasslands to get here? Must have. You're lucky you made it through alive." Makkar looked up from his stew again. "Aye, we did. The storm was bad, aye. Gods and ancestors walked along us on those cold nights."
"No, no, it's not the weather that I'd figured might nearly kill you. It's the natives. Arpaho, they call themselves. Surprised you didn't run into any; they wander all over the grasslands. Big, horned things. Some bigger than me. Know how to treat them and they can be agreeable though; I know a few of them that sometimes come here to trade."
Makkar chocked and coughed for a while. Meanwhile, Quana licked her bowl clean and looked up. "Big, horned things, you say? Nuh-uh, didn't see anything like that. Think we would've remembered if they're bigger than you, though. Can you tell us anything else about them?" she inquired. "Also, is there more stew?"
Heel narrowed his eyes at her second question and looked greedily down toward his own pot, but finally seemed to succumb to good manners. Although very reluctantly, he gestured her over and spooned some of his own stew into her bowl. Meanwhile, he rambled, "They seem pretty dumb to me. Arpaho will tell you that they've lived in those plains forever, yet you can look and see that they still run around with stone tools. They never build houses or settle down to farm and grow their food. They herd some big animals that look sorta like them but walk around on four legs instead of two; those beasts are pack animals used to carry their tents and supplies around. They run all around the plains in small tribes and families, looking for their favorite kind of grass. You'd think that all the grass would taste the same, but there's only one kind that the Arpaho will touch, and they know all the spots where it grows. So they run all over, circling around to their favorite grazing places and then moving on to others so that the grass has time to grow back. If you ever see the Arpaho, here's the one thing you've got to do: don't stare right at 'em. You can look off to the side and watch them out of the corner of your eye, but the moment your face points towards them, they'll charge. It's a sign of aggression among them to point their horns straight at one another, and I that they look at our noses sticking out from our faces and take 'em to be our horns. Dumb, like I told you."
Quana happily took her newly filled bowl and began slurping its contents loudly. Makkar, in the meantime, had stopped coughing and looked at Heel with a mixture of fear and disbelief on his face. "Well, that's bad. Quana, relay the message on not to look big things in the eyes from now on. Oh, except the good chieftain Heel, of course." He grinned at Heel. "Do they often come up north, by the way?"
Heel shrugged. "Not sure where they go. Don't get around to talking to them much; they smell bad, aren't nearly so polite as your kind, and have all those strange customs. If they didn't bring that sweet golden stuff around with them, I'd tell them to stay away from this forest for good and not even bother coming to trade."
"Sweet golden stuff?" Makkar inquired. More of the dwarves had moved in closer to listen. "None left to share," the ogre said, "Suzy mixed the last of it into my oatmeal this morning." Something about the ogre's tone was different and he seemed to be a little disingenuous with that claim, but perhaps it was best not to push it. "Oh, well, perhaps another time, then," Makkar proposed with a grin, followed by a yawn. Quana punched his shoulder lightly. "Oi, stay awake. Rude to fall asleep by the table, you clod." Makkar snapped to and nodded. "There was one more thing, good chieftain - one regarding the third favour. Is there somewhere close by we can procure food from? Perhaps through trade or work? All options are on the table, as far as we're concerned."
"Far be it from me to tell you not to look for those grasses that the Arpaho like to eat and harvest some of it for yourselves, but they might object. Beyond that you could...fish? Look for berries in the woods around here?" he shrugged after offering those suggestions. "Hardly anything in the grasslands or this forest, though. The only real food around here is our winter stores. I wouldn't feel loathe about trading some of the halflings' grain to you in exchange for the promise that you'll bring them some of those tools from your forges that you mentioned. It's been years since their bronze tools broke and we've hardly got any way to make new ones, so they've been stuck with flint and wooden tools. But I bet you could make good bronze, yes?"
Many of the dwarves stood up and cheered. Quana and Makkar, while looking very excited themselves, did their best to calm down the warm-spirited dwarves. Makkar then nodded at Quana, who beckoned a large, chestnut-bearded dwarf over from the crowd. Even after days in the snow, this one seemed to have permanent stains of soot and ash in his beard and on his clothes: a true Steel Union smith. The dwarf pulled out a large axe from a holster on his back and handed it to Quana, who stepped on top of the bench she was sitting on and held the axe up for all to see.
"This is Hammersworn steel - one of the few of its kind after the Calamity! Urdo here spent weeks getting the layers of the axe head just right. Provided it does not rust, this axe will last for a lifetime with proper maintenance." She lowered her arm and proceeded to extend her hands holding the axe shaft first out to the nearest halfling. "Consider this the start of many great things to come."
And as that steel hatchet's head glistened in the light of the hearth's crackling fire, Heel squinted at its shine for a few moments before waving a hand dismissively. "Too shiny," he declared, "Looks pretty, yes, but your strange 'steel' must be a soft treasure metal like silver or gold. What we need is good bronze!"
All the dwarves raised their eyebrows collectively at the giant, and then burst into a deafening chorus of laughter and cackling. Quana herself had to wipe a tear or two off her face. Makkar stood up and tried to quiet everyone down as to not be insulting to their host; however, it seemed he had little luck quelling the well-spirited collective guffaw. Once the laughter finally began to die down enough, Quana shouted, "You mean you'd rather take bronze over steel?! Not even a world-eyes would do something so stupid!" She continued to laugh until she was interrupted by a snowball hitting the back of her head. She turned around in a raging fury. "Alright, who threw that?!" From the back of the crowd, she saw two dwarves from the Union of Phosphorous sprint towards the door. Quana let out a warcry, left the axe on the table, jumped off her chair and charged after them. The drunken sheriffs at the other end of the table, thus far having kept so much to themselves that it'd have been easy to forget their presence altogether, looked over and collectively winced at Quana's remark. Then when the fight began to break out they descended into the dwarves' midst to break it up, albeit not without getting in a few good punches of their own that hardly seemed necessary.
For his part Heel gritted his teeth at being called stupid by Quana, but as one of the red-coated halflings threw her down, he sat back in his chair and seemed to feel a bit better about the whole ordeal. He overlooked the slight and answered, "Bronze is a mighty metal. The Gordok Kingdom mastered it long ago, and that's what let them conquer half a dozen other ogre tribes!" That history lesson was punctuated by him scooping up one of the last bits of stew from his ridiculously huge helping that'd been half the batch. "What's 'steel' ever done?" Makkar gave the floored Quana a quick glare, while she was busy trying to get the halfling off of her. He was about to speak when the young lad from the Copper Union stepped up and gave the ogre a deep bow. "Forgive my elder sister, good chieftain, for she has not been this happy for many, many weeks, perhaps over a moon. None of us have, and for that, we are ever grateful." The young lad remained bowing. "However, while she was quite improper in the delivery of her statement, the claim stands true: Steel compared to bronze is like stone compared to bone. A plow made from steel will reap a thousand more fields than one made from bronze. While the process to make it is perhaps more sophisticated, the main component of steel, iron, can be found almost anywhere. My parents and siblings of the Bronze Union know all of their metal's strengths and weaknesses, and they can tell you that, in terms of strength, it pales in comparison to steel." The present unionists of Bronze all nodded to support the lad's claim.
"So prove it to me," the chieftain rumbled as he he offered an outstretched hand to catch the (comparatively) tiny axe. Makkar, who was closer to the axe, grabbed it and handed it to the lad, who then handed it to the giant. "Introduce yourself, lad!" Makkar whispered loudly. The lad straightened up and added, "Oh, terribly sorry for not introducing myself, by the way. I am Joron the Younger, son of Logmaster Joron Scroll." Makkar raised an eyebrow, as did many of the others. He did not know Joron had a son; although, thinking about it more, he found it hard to imagine that old heap of bones and beard thought of anything other than his logs and the gods.
The ogre nodded to acknowledge Joron, but kept his eyes and attention fixated upon the axe. When he turned it over in his hands, he pushed a finger into the edge. Nothing. Then he rubbed it up the edge and a few droplets of blood fell down as a bit of skin broke. He looked towards the sheriff that even now was continuing to restrain a struggling Quana. Halfway out of mercy for her, he beckoned for his henchman to stop. "Get me a log of firewood."
The halfling vanished to some other room to procure it, and when he returned he laid it upon the table before Heel. The ogre effortlessly used the axe to cleave the log clean in half, but considering his bulk and strength, he likely could've done as much with an axe of paper. Still, he examined how clean and smoothly the axe had made its way through the log, noted how the axe had neither warped nor lost its edge, and then he seemed satisfied. "Ha! You speak truth. Today I learn."
He made an attempt to wipe off the remaining blood on it, then passed the thing back to Joron. "This 'steel' will do just fine towards upholding your part of the bargain, even if the farmers out there might gripe about wanting the familiarity of bronze."
There came another collective cheer from the dwarves. Quana, who had gotten to her feet again with a furious glare, was once again knocked to the ground by a couple of dwarves hopping and skipping around on the floor in a festive jig. Luckily Makkar was ready to hold Quana back by the time she tracked down the culprit. The dancers soon inspired more to join, and soon, nearly every dwarf was on the floor kicking, jumping and clapping in celebration. Those that had yet to join the dancers instead broke out into song. Quana felt her anger subside at the unfamiliarity of this warm, cozy atmosphere and shortly after, she was also dancing and singing. The chieftain looked mildly entertained at the spectacle. A few of the sheriffs joined in with the dwarves, even if they were too intoxicated to understand what they were doing. The dwarves looked happy to have more join.
The jig ran on for quite a while, but one by one, the dwarves felt their exhausted bodies give in to fatigue. Quana let out a loud yawn, wiped some sweat off her forehead, and sat down next to Makkar. Some of the sheriffs were already making themselves comfortable laying down on the benches or in odd corners by the wall nearest the fire; judging by the furs and blankets strewn around, they all had their favorite spots. "Well I'll let you, uh..." Heel tried to remember what they were called, just barely managing to recall,"...dwarves get your rest. Find a spot, anywhere's fine. I'll find Suzy and ask her to bring more furs." Makkar echoed Quana's yawn and nodded. "We truly appreciate it, good chieftain." Makkar stood up and turned to the rest of the dwarves. "Alright, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters - grab some furs and lay down wherever." The dwarves lined up to get some furs and, pretty much, laid down wherever. Makkar reserved a good spot on the bench he had been sitting on by leaving his hammer there. However, when he came back with his newly acquired sleeping furs, he found his hammer on the ground and a snoring Quana on the bench. He muttered angrily to himself and rolled out his furs next to his hammer, where he then proceeded to lay down.