Grimm Tidings

Chapter 12

Grimestoke finally found a clue in an old book of martial arts. Entitled Palgreave Manot’s Most Complete and True Anatomy of Weaponry, Armor, Fighting Styles, and Strategy, the book contained a chapter on axe fighting. After listing a variety of axes and speculating on their genealogies (“Does the double-head orc axe, renowned in southern realms, derive from the most ancient farming implement known as the two-chopper? Learned scholars disagree . . .”) the author went on to discuss techniques of axe combat favored by dwarves, the race most associated with that weapon. The techniques listed, for the most part, involved over-head chops and cleaves. But at the end of that section was a passage that caught the gnome’s eye:

What generalizations that may be made of the axe-fighting skills of dwarves must be laid aside, nay, cast aside, when consideration is turned to the reclusive Grimm Mountain clan. These fearsome warriors have developed a martial art & science based on the near-constant motion of their axes in complex arabesques through the air, a veritable storm of swings & passes. A Grimm Mountain dwarf armed with a well-balanced axe gives lie to the notion, held by so many ostensibly accomplished scholars of the arts of wars (a less generous spirit would point out just such an error in the work of Dol Saddlewon) that axe fighting is a primitive matter of hacking & hewing. Your humble author has seen with his own eyes, when travelling through the Caliron Pass, a Grimm Mountain dwarf reduce the great club of an attacking orc to sticks, nay splinters, nay sawdust before dispatching the bewildered brute with a movement of swirling grace.

A trip to the map books revealed that the Caliron Pass was located hundreds of miles to the east in a short but very steep chain of mountains known as the Stone Spires. And there, at the far eastern end of the pass, was Grimm Mountain. It stood beside Needle Valley. It looked a remote and forbidding place. There was a small town, named Marketshire, in the foothills of the mountains. The map did not mark dwarven caves. In the corner of the map Grimestoke could make out a small note: “In accordance with the diaries of Litorn Kalrally.”

The name was familiar.

The gnome began to search the library for a copy of Kalrally’s diaries. He had no idea whether they might be there or not. As he searched his mind wrestled with the practical problem of organizing a library. As far as he could tell, the books in this room were organized by size. This saved shelf room as no space was wasted – small books were all in a line beside small books and large beside large – but it meant that there was no order to the collection. On a shelf of quarto-sized volumes he saw the following titles side by side: Cats: A History and Cookbook, So You Want to Charm Trolls, The Necromancer’s Spellbook of Arcane Secrets, and A Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Planes .

As he searched he began to imagine a system for organizing large numbers of books. They should be arranged by topic, he thought. But also by author. But what about title? If all that information about any book were written on a scroll, no, on small slips of parchment, they could be arranged in different fashions and used to direct the curious towards shelves that would be marked by subject. Or author. It would take some thinking on.

As he ruminated on a system he came upon the diary by pure chance. It was a folio, at least 400 pages long, bound in lurid red leather. Grimestoke had trouble carrying the heavy tome down the ladder and over to the desk.

The first thing the gnome checked was the date. The book was only fifty years old and still had the smell of new vellum. He began to flip through the volume. Kalrally had been a human bard who had travelled the realms for over five decades. He claimed never to have slept under the same roof two nights in a row since he had turned twelve. Much of the book was given over to his amorous adventures, some of them patently unbelievable (“A night of sport was had in Tidelow that I will not soon forget. A lady elf and a lady hafling shared my . . .”), but about three-quarters of the way through the book he found a reference to the Stone Spires:

Leaving the town of Marketshire at something of a less-than-dignified pace because of the less-than-sympathetic attitudes of the fathers of assorted local wenches, I climbed the steep road eastward through the Spires. What terrible mountains they are! Cold, forbidding, and utterly devoid of the inns and taverns in which a handsome young bard might earn a coin or a kiss. On my second day of travel through said Spires a fearsome dwarf stepped out from behind a rock and demanded my business.

“I am but a travelling bard,” said I, “Ready to sing for my room and board.”

The fearsome fellow was a music lover and invited me to spend the night in his clan’s cave. The clan was none other than the mysterious and seldom-seen Grimm Mountain clan! Their hospitality was royal and they were delighted by my songs and tales of goings-on in the realms. At a great feast I was invited to sit at the right hand of the clan thane, Tolman Grimm, and I was introduced to his two sons, Voltag and Rolf, both of them children but already possessing impressive beards (their mother, it seems, had died birthing the second child). It was a wonderful night made all the more memorable by the amorous attentions of one Tamara Leadenthigh, a young dwarfess smitten by my songs. She proved to be double-jointed and could . . .

Grimestoke closed the book. Now he remembered. He had not read the Kalrally’s name, but heard it on one of his walks through the town. Where was it? A tavern, the one full of old people. He had stopped in there one night to hear some music. Grimestoke had soft spot for a good ballad, and since Baltrog did not allow music in the castle he often spent an evening in one of the taverns of the town, sitting at the back and wearing a hood so the locals wouldn’t run from his presence. Kalrally had been a bard at that tavern. But that was some weeks ago. Would he still be in town? It was worth a trip to find out.

“You’re sure this is the right place?” asked Baltrog.

“Yes, my Lord,” answered Grimestoke.

They stood on one of the side streets of Tzanasaport outside the Rusty Spear tavern.

“I hate music,” said Baltrog.

“I know, my Lord, but sometimes we must suffer for knowledge.”

Baltrog made a face that said he accepted the point but was not pleased by it.

“Lead on,” he said. “But if anyone sings ‘tra-la-la,’ I will incinerate the place.”

Grimestoke pushed open the doors and led the way down the short flight of stairs into the warm and smoky room. There were two fireplaces, one at each end of the long rectangular space. The bar was in the middle, against the back wall. There were perhaps twenty tables, most of them occupied.

The crowd was old: old dwarves, old elves, old humans, halflings, gnomes, and various half-breeds. There was none of the raucous laughter or crude horseplay familiar in the other taverns of the city, the ones that catered to the young and to specific races. This was a tavern for those who were past such nonsense, who had no need to prove their meddle by downing excessive pints of ale or starting a fight. None of these patrons would spill onto the streets at closing time and rumble with another race that had been drinking at another bar down the street.

This was a tavern for the rarest of breeds – the old warrior – the fighter who made it into his or her golden years. It was a tavern for those who savored the irony of a warrior’s last years: that the only people who would appreciate their company are the same who were they tried to kill so many decades ago. And so, in the shadows and quiet of the Rusted Spear, sworn enemies of 400 years sat arm in arm protested undying respect for their former foes as they salted their ales with tears and called for sentimental ballads.

Baltrog and Grimestoke took a seat at the back of the room just as those ballads began.

The bard was an old human. He was, perhaps, in his seventies, though he still moved with some grace. It was clear from the bone structure of his face and his posture that he must have been a handsome, even commanding, man in his time. He sat on a high stool beside one of the fireplaces and picked up a small lute that he tuned carefully. When he was satisfied, he strummed the instrument and began to sing in a sweet, slightly wavering voice. The song was about a battle that had taken place centuries ago. The narrator described walking the fields of glory where his ancestors had died generations ago.

The crowd gradually grew quiet as the song went on. By the end, several old warriors were surreptitiously wiping tears from their eyes.

The Lord Baltrog was bored.

After the song there was loud applause and customers began to shout requests:

“The Battle of Rock Mihide!”

“I’ll Go No More to Tubber!”

“A Merry Tra-la-la!”

Baltrog gripped the edge of his table.

The bard began to sing, a capella, “I’ll go no more to Tubber, for my heart belongs in Gort” and soon the entire room joined in, banging their tankards on the tables during the chorus. When the applause for that song died down, the bard played a sentimental love ballad and then a “The Battle of Rock Mihide.”

There was one more ballad after that, and then the old bard said, “And now, my friends, a small pause while I wet my throat.”

He stepped off the stool, placed his lute on its stand, and walked towards the bar.

Grimestoke got there before him and bought him a drink. In a minute he had brought him back to their table.

“Master Kalrally,” said the gnome, “May I introduce, uh, Jonathan Drinkwater.”

The bard shook Baltrog’s hand and took a seat. “Drinkwater,” he said. “Water’s for bathing, not drinking.”

He laughed at his little joke and Grimestoke joined in.

Baltrog smiled tightly.

“We’re great fans of yours,” he said.

“I have not seen you in the Spear before, sir,” said the bard.

“We’re fans of your writing,” said Baltrog.

Kalrally sat up. “You’ve read my book? You’ve actually read my book?”

“Of course,” said Baltrog. “A wonderful work of, um, travel literature. Thrilling and, uh, romantic.”

“That is the single nicest thing that anyone had ever said to me,” said the bard. He seemed on the verge of tears.

“And we were wondering if you could tell us a bit about some of the wonderful adventures you recount,” said Baltrog.

“Especially about the east,” said Grimestoke.

“The Spires,” said Baltrog.

“Grimm Mountain,” said Grimestoke.

“And the dwarves therein,” said Baltrog.

“I have not thought of that journey in many years,” said the bard. “Many many years. You will have to forgive an old man whose memory is not what it was.”

Baltrog glanced at Grimestoke.

“What about the dwarfess?” Asked Grimestoke. “I believe her name was Tamara.”

The bard’s face lit up.

“Tamara,” he said, savouring the word. “Tamara was exceptional. Did you know she was double jointed? She could . . .”

Baltrog interrupted him. “Yes,” he said. “I know. But what we were more interested in was the Grimm family. I read that you met the thane and his two sons.”

The bard shook his head to clear his mind of thoughts of Tamara and focused his watery eyes back on Baltrog.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I did. I remember now. I sang for the thane. They demonstrated their axe-fighting techniques for me.”

He drew elaborate circles in the air with his hand while making whistling sounds.

“Most extraordinary,” he said.

“We’re interested in one of the sons,” said Baltrog with elaborate patience. “And a dwarfess called Griselda.”

“Ah! You know the story!” exclaimed Kalrally. “I have been working on a ballad about it. Would you like to hear it?”

“No, thank you,” said Baltrog, but the bard did not seem to hear him.

“A dwarven lady there was, there was,” he sang. “Her eyes were green and blue. But her heart, alas, was fickle, to her love she was not true. She ran away with a . . . urp!”

Baltrog had grabbed the bard by the throat and was squeezing. Grimestoke pulled at his arm.

“My Lord,” he said. “This is not the place.”

Various old warriors at surrounding tables were beginning to look over at them. One, a powerful if ancient human, had put his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Baltrog smiled and released his grip. “Another drink for our friend,” he cried to the barkeep, then turned his attention back to the frightened bard.

“Tell me the story,” Baltrog whispered, “And I’ll buy your drinks for the night. Sing, and I’ll kill you.”

Kalrally rubbed his throat. “Kill an old man,” he said, “That’s what the world has come to.”

The barkeep placed a round of drinks on the table, looked carefully at the bard’s company, and headed back to the bar.

“I’ll tell you what I know,” said the bard, “But I want something else.”

“What might that be?” asked Baltrog.

The bard leaned forward, embarrassed. “A woman,” he whispered. “Just for tonight. It’s been a great while.”

“Done,” said Baltrog.

Kalrally took a long drink. “Tamara sent me a letter, many years ago,” he said. “There was a great scandal in Grimm Mountain. It seems the thane’s oldest son fell in love with a dwarfess named Griselda. She was from a good family so the marriage was approved and the entire clan celebrated their betrothal. But just before the wedding, she ran away.”

“Ran away?” asked Grimestoke.

“Romantic, isn’t it?” asked the Kalrally. “She met a bard at the local market in the foothills. She fell in love with him and ran off.”

He leaned forward across the table. “And the strange thing, the scandal of it all,” he whispered, “Was that he was an elf.”

“An elf?” asked Baltrog.

Kalrally sat back in his chair and rapped his knuckles on the table. “An elf!” he declared. “Have you ever heard the like? A dwarf and an elf? Together? You know? Together?

“What then?” asked Baltrog impatiently.

“Well,” said the bard leaning forward once more, “The two ran off, but the scandal it caused in Grimm Mountain was too much for the son. I wish I could remember his name.”

“Voltag,” said Grimestoke.

“Yes!” exclaimed the bard. “Voltag. Anyway, he was humiliated. Imagine, your fiancée runs off with an elf. And he was angry. Apparently he vowed vengeance to his brother. He said he would travel the ends of the earth, that he would never return to the mountain until he had found Griselda and killed the elf. And then, in proof of his vow, he pulled his axe and cut off one of his fingers because it bore a ring that she had given him as a token of her love. He took up the severed finger, grabbed his axe, and walked out of the mountain never to be seen again.”

The bard sat back in his chair. “It will be a great ballad.”

Baltrog and Grimestoke processed the news.

“Do you know the name of the elf?” asked the gnome.

“Yes, yes, I do,” said Kalrally. “His name was Himo Songweaver. I met him once, many years ago before he found Griselda. He was an indifferent singer, but the ladies swooned over him.”

Baltrog thought it over. All the pieces fit with what he had learned from the fat barkeep in Oakborder and what he had seen of the dwarf. But could it be as simple as that? Was all this nonsense the result of unrequited love? And what was Yolanthe doing with him?

He stood up and Grimestoke followed his example.

“Thank you,” said Baltrog.

“What about, you know?” asked the bard.

“Oh, yes,” said Baltrog. “Choose someone.”

The bard looked eagerly around the room. In a second his eyes alighted on an elderly but hale dwarfess who was drinking alone at a table in the corner. He raised his eyebrows in her direction.

“For old times sake,” said Kalrally.

“There is no arguing taste,” said Baltrog.

With a flick of his wrist he cast a spell at the woman, then he and Grimestoke turned to leave. Just as they passed through the door they heard the voice of the dwarfess.

“I really liked your singing . . .”

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