Is there anything as cold as the frost in a mountain valley?
Yes, thought the dwarf as soon as the question entered his head. The smile of a woman saying goodbye.
Voltag Grimm let out a grunt of rage. He had promised himself that he wouldn’t play these maudlin games. That he would trade his melancholy for a righteous, burning anger. And here he was composing poetic phrases in his head. He was thinking like a bad balladeer. Like a second-rate bard.
Bard. That was something else Voltag had promised he would not think about. At least not yet. Not until the elf was within harm’s way. Not until Voltag felt his axe splitting the air on its arc towards the elf’s neck. Then he would think about bards. For now, he’d think about . . .
That was a start. It might ease the pounding in his head. How much had he drunk last night? There was wine with the dinner. A half-gallon. Then there were the two pitchers of beer he had won from the gullible bar tender. Then he had had a few brandies to settle his stomach. Then he had bought a bottle of something from the barkeep just as the tavern was closing. He had gone out in the alley to finish it. Then what? He had fallen asleep.
He must be getting old, he told himself. Years ago a drinking adventure of that size would have been considered a prelude to a night of real, dwarven drinking.
Now, what else happened?
Oh. Then the orc had stolen his finger and broken his sleep. And then Voltag had killed him with the broken bottle. That had been a mistake, but he had not been thinking clearly. Then he had searched the orc’s body and found 130 gold pieces, a huge amount. He retrieved his axe from where he had hid it in the alley. Then he had hiked until almost midnight and set up this camp. He had woken up to the cry of the birds, and had been lying in his bedroll obsessing about the past and shivering ever since.
And now he had to start a fire, make breakfast, and start walking towards the Finger of Torn. At the same time he had to be careful of any retribution for the death of the orc. But the creature had clearly been some sort of thief. What would an orc be doing with 130 gold pieces? He had said something about working for the Lord Dog-Bag, but it seemed unlikely. Who would hire an orc to do anything? They were stupid, venal, violent creatures. It had probably been the mindless boasting of a monster trying to justify its evil ways. No one would miss such a creature.
Reluctantly he crawled out of his bedroll and stretched. He started a small fire with his flint and steel and took a squirrel he had killed the other day out of his pack. He slit its stomach with his dagger and gutted it. He speared it on a stick and held it over the flame until the fur caught fire. He pulled it back and scrapped the burned fur off the carcass, then planted the stick so that squirrel would roast over the fire. It would take at least half an hour. Enough time to exercise.
The dwarf unwrapped his axe from its oil skin. It was a perfect weapon. Not ornate, but perfect in heft and balance. The huge blade curved gently outward in a line that was so symmetrical it did not look like it could have been made by hand. It was a curve as perfect as the horizon at sea, as the edge of the moon, the circle of an iris. Its sharpened edge showed the true colour of the metal: a flashing blue-sliver. The counter balance to the blade, the weighted extension behind the handle shaft, was a curved mass that looked like an intricate knot. But one curve stood out from its center, functioning as a spike. Runes were carved into cheek of the blade.
The handle was of dark wood, cured for twenty years, carved so its almost imperceptible curves fit the dimensions of a dwarf’s body. The bottom eight inches of the handle was wrapped in leather made from the hide of a dire boar. It was woven in a coarse braid structure that offered grip even when wet. And finally, a device known only on the axes of the Grimm Mountain clan’s weapons, there was a looped thong of supple but strong leather that was affixed through a knurl in the butt of the axe’s handle. This loop acted as a handle to secure the axe to a pack, but it could also be used to twirl the axe in like a sling around the head. This was a dangerous move practiced only by the most skilled of axe men.
The dwarf began by limbering up his wrists. He took the axe in his right hand, his grip two-thirds the way down the handle. He held it in front of him, the blade facing away. He spun the axe using his wrist muscles only, so that it described circles on the outside of his forearm. He did fifty revolutions, then reversed the direction and did fifty more. Then he did the same with his left wrist.
Next he warmed up his torso by grabbing the axe handle closer to the butt, holding it in front of him with the blade parallel to the ground, and sweeping his arm back as far as he could. He brought the axe forward in a horizontal arc, passed it to his left hand, let the momentum twist his body back, then swung it back in front of himself and passed it to his right hand, and back again fifty times. Next he did exercises for his shoulders, forearms, biceps and triceps, then did a series of squats. Then he swung the axe in a series of lazy figure eights in front of his body, transferring the twirling weapon from hand to hand with ease. Slowly he built up the speed until the blade began to whistle through the air. He had known dwarves of his clan to shape the counterweight of their axe blades to accentuate that whistle, comparing the sound to a battle cry, but this dwarf did not need such ostentation.
Sufficiently warmed up, he prepared for fighting practice. First he checked the sharpness of the blade’s new edge by taking a clump of squirrel hair and blowing it gently off his hand into the air. Before it could float to the ground the dwarf swung his axe. He was pleased to see the blade slice the hair cleanly in half.
Voltag chose some four saplings at the edge of the forest. In his mind the dwarf assigned every sapling a weapon and a rate of attack. The one farthest to the right he thought as charging with a halberd lowered at his chest. The sapling to the left of that he imagined wielding a cutlass. No. Make that two cutlasses, with equal dexterity, and the monster wielding them was coming at a good run, about four paces behind the monster with the halberd. The next sapling was assigned a crossbow and two bolts. The first one would let fly at the same time the sapling with the cutlasses was within harm’s way. It would take at least ten seconds for the next bolt to be armed and ready to fire. The last sapling the dwarf imagined as carrying a sickle. But the dwarf imagined this warrior as being so light on his feet, so graceful and so fast, so elven, that the rustic tool became a flurry of cutting steel.
Voltag set his feet and closed his eyes. He breathed deeply, reaching for a connection through the soles of his feet into the power of the soil and the living rock buried beneath. He summoned the history of his clan into his mind, tapping into the glories of their past. He tightened his grip on the axe handle, feeling the weapon’s potential for destruction. Then he called to mind everything he knew about battle.
Momentum is everything in axe fighting, he reminded himself. Any swing that is designed to slam into its victim and stay there is a killing swing for the axe-bearer as well as the enemy. For if the path of an axe swing is aimed at an object that will stop the momentum and hold the blade, a minute or more of tugging the weapon free must follow. That is a minute in which the axe-bearer is weaponless and exposed. You wanted the axe to cleave through, not into. So swing the axe at the shoulder, not the skull. Take off the arm and redirect the axe’s momentum to the side and through another enemy. A humanoid whose arm has been lopped off at the shoulder is no longer a threat, no longer alive for all intents and purposes, though some would hang in for five minutes or more, spinning in agony of the ground.
Real axe fighting, axe fighting as it had been perfected by the Grimm Mountain clan so many centuries ago, was a dance of dwarf and steel, an eloquent maelstrom of violence. Grimm Mountain dwarves trained in axe fighting for years, learning the different swings, the different foot movements and pivots of weight that would redirect the blade on another killing arc. Unlike other dwarves, they treated the axe as a one-handed weapon. A second hand came to the handle only in the lightest touch, to redirect motion. But they trained both hands equally so that the weapon could be transferred from side to side without losing speed or accuracy.
And unlike other dwarves, the Grimm Mountain clan understood the defensive properties of the axe. Its blade, held flat against the chest made an impenetrable shield. And when the axe was spun in fast figure eights in front of the body, it made a blur of death-dealing steel that no sword could penetrate.
“But what about an arrow?”
Rolf, the dwarf’s younger brother, had asked that question during the second year of their axe training. The axe-master, a massive red-bearded dwarf by the name of Branton Slaughter had sneered at the question. “Arrows?” he asked. “The weapon of a coward. There is no glory in killing from a distance.”
“But an arrow could pierce the axe defense,” persisted Rolf. “Arrows are fast. Crossbow bolts are even faster.”
The axe-master’s eyes had gleamed from beneath his bushy eyebrows. He was about to turn the question of this upstart boy into a lesson.
“What will you wager me, young master Grimm,” he said, “If I can stop an arrow shot at my chest?”
Rolf became embarrassed, but since his friends and elder brother were looking on, he bravely said, “Four gold pieces!” His friends had gasped at the sum.
“Oh, I don’t want your gold,” said the axe-master, his voice sweet with sarcasm. “No, I’ve a better idea. If I win, you spend the night, all night, training. Real training.”
The axe-master’s idea of training was a grueling, blister-inducing, muscle straining practice that bordered on sadism. What real training could be the young dwarves could not guess, nor did they want to find out.
“And if I lose?” asked Rolf.
“Why then,” said the axe-master, composing his face into what almost seemed to be a smile, “There’ll be no training for the rest of the week, because I’ll be dead.”
The bet went ahead. A cross bow was fetched because it would take less skill to operate than a long bow and Rolf had no experience with bows at all. Slaughter stripped off his leather jerkin and shirt, revealing a torso so muscled and covered with scars that it looked like a storm-blasted tree. He went to one end of the hall with his axe while Rolf took a position some thirty feet away. The axe-master flexed and stretched, then picked up his axe. He began to spin it and flip it from hand to hand until soon it was whistling through the air. Slaughter looked calm, almost relaxed, as the axe became a blur.
“Alright boy,” he shouted from behind the whirling axe. “Kill me if you can! But if you don’t we have a date tonight.”
Rolf raised the cross bow and aimed at the chest of the axe-master. He hesitated a second, then pulled the trigger. The bolt flew from bow so quickly the eye could not follow it. There was a cracking sound and the axe-master slowed his axe until it stopped. He was unharmed and smiling.
“Come here the lot of you,” he shouted. The young dwarves ran over and formed a circle around Slaughter. When he was sure his audience was paying attention, he bent down and came up with a small piece of the bolt: the head with an inch of the shaft still attached.
He gave it to the nearest student to pass around.
“Note that, boys,” he said. “The bolt did not shatter against the head of the axe. It was cut clean by the axe blade while in flight.”
And, in truth, the bolt was cut neatly, almost surgically.
“Where’s the rest of the arrow?” asked someone.
“Oh yes,” said Slaughter casually. He bent down and came up with two more pieces of the bolt. He gave them to a student to pass around.
No one said a word. Two more pieces! Each cut as cleanly as the first! That meant that Slaughter had cut the arrow twice as it passed through the swing of his axe. He had cut a flying bolt into three pieces. It did not seem possible.
Slaughter pulled on his shirt and hefted his axe onto his shoulder. “School dismissed for today, boys,” he said. As he walked through the crowd he paused by Rolf. “I’ll see you tonight lad. Oh yes, I will,” he said happily. He left the hall whistling a dwarven drinking song.
Rolf never spoke of what that training night entailed, but for the next two days he could barely walk for the muscle cramps in his legs and back, and could not pick up a cup for the blisters on his palms. But he must have proved himself for after that Slaughter treated him with a grudging respect that he showed few students.
Voltag shook his head. He was not concentrating. He was falling into the trap of nostalgia, hunger for what was lost. He took a deep breath and composed his thoughts. “Your mind should be clear,” the old axe-master had told his students. “No hate, no fear, no self. In battle you are a force, an element, as hard and unknowing as rock. You forget everything but purpose. You become the battle. We Grimm Mountain dwarves are not berserkers foaming at the mouth or boastful charlatans like the Needle Valley clan. We don’t tie scalps to our belts or carve notches in our weapons to count kills. What is our cry?”
“My clan, my family, my axe!” The young dwarves shouted in response.
“I can’t hear you, you snivelling pack of halfling girls!”
“MY CLAN, MY FAMILY, MY AXE!” the dwarves had roared.
“Exactly,” said Slaughter. “But never my self. Forget yourself and you become your clan, your family, your axe. You become something greater than yourself. In battle, you become death.”
The dwarf moved his mind through a series of mental exercises to purge his thoughts, to forget everything except the moment of battle. To forget even himself.
He was ready.
He began to swing the axe with his right wrist on the outside of his forearm. Then he switched to one-handed figure eights, done at a lazy speed, and he turned to face his enemies.
He imagined the first sapling charging with the halberd, a dangerous weapon because of its reach. He took one step forward, pivoted on his right foot, spinning around while taking the axe out of the figure eight and into a horizontal sweep with just enough of an angle to make sure it would catch the imagined halberd shaft, cut through it, then around and in front of the dwarf to stop the crossbow bolt that would have been fired by the third sapling. And now the second sapling, the one with the two cutlasses would be upon him, weaving a wall of slicing metal as complex as that old Slaughter had used to stop Rolf’s crossbow bolt. An axe had the weight to smash through any sword made, but it could become tangled. Instead the dwarf redirected the swing low, cutting the sapling off a foot from the ground. Had it been a man the axe would have passed under the cutlasses and both his legs would have been severed. He would have bled to death in a matter of minutes. The dwarf did not stop to think about that but swooped the axe up, around his head, into his left hand, and back down to cleave through the top – the neck – of the crossbow-bearing sapling and then through the sapling with the halberd. He directed that cut down so it would have taken off the enemy’s leg just below the hip.
That left one enemy, the fourth sapling, armed with a sickle.
The dwarf allowed the axe to fall back into the easy one-handed figure eight. He advanced slowly on the sapling, imagining a tall, lean and handsome elf. A thought crept into his mind: I want you to die slowly. Many small cuts. Nicks. One across that pretty face, another across the chest. Then maybe a deeper one, across the stomach, so you can watch your guts pour out in the dirt. And then the real fun will begin. Then I begin chopping.
The dwarf tripped, his toe catching on a root. The axe, in mid swing, flew from his hand, spinning end over end, slamming into a tree trunk. The dwarf hit the ground hard and found himself on his stomach, looking at the base of the sapling. If it had been an enemy, he would be dead now.
“By Moradin’s scrotum!” he cursed and pounded the ground with his fists. He had clouded his mind with hatred. He had let revenge distract him and he had become clumsy because of it. What would old Slaughter have said if he had done this in practice? If he had lost control of his axe? He could hear the axe-master now, shouting abuse in his face.
A woman’s voice.
The dwarf scrambled to his feet.
“Did you lose something in the grass?”
The speaker was a young woman, dressed in green leather and wearing a soft cap. She stood in the road looking at the dwarf. She was tall, slender, and muscular, her features slightly exotic. She had a compound bow slung over one arm and the arrows in the quiver she wore on her back were visible over her shoulder.
The dwarf picked up his axe as casually as he could.
“What would you be wanting?” he asked.
“I’m passing on this road to the peninsula,” said the woman. “Nothing else.”
The dwarf gave a curt nod. “They’ll be nobody stopping you.” He lowered his axe and headed back to his fire.
The woman nodded in thanks and began to walk by. When she passed Voltag’s small camp she hesitated.
“It’s been a long time since I ate,” she said.
“Longer still if you don’t start walking,” said the dwarf.
The woman turned on him. “I was always told that dwarves were the most hospitable of people.”
“You heard wrong,” said the dwarf.
“A shame. I will tell everyone I meet to avoid a dwarf’s hearth,” she said, and turned to go.
The dwarf grunted. “You can have a bit of meat,” he said. “But I eat in silence.”
He hunkered down beside the fire and checked the squirrel.
The woman took off her bow, her quiver, and her small pack, and sat cross-legged on the ground across the fire from the dwarf.
The dwarf was satisfied that the squirrel was cooked, so he pulled the cooking stick out of the ground, and broke the squirrel, stick and all, in two with one hand. He did not seem to feel the burning fat that squirted onto his fingers. He tossed the half he had broken off across the fire to the woman, who caught it only to drop it again when it burned her hands. The dwarf smirked and began to eat the squirrel on the stick. The woman produced a small knife, speared her piece, blew the dirt off it, and began to eat delicately.
They ate in silence for five minutes. When they were sucking the last morsel of meat from the bones, the woman said, “I’ve just come from Oakborder. Can’t say I liked it much. Are you headed there, or the peninsula?”
The dwarf gave a noncommittal grunt.
“Well, don’t go to Oakborder. Dreary place. Unfriendly.” She chewed some more meat. “Nice tavern, though. Harry’s. Did you go there?”
The dwarf made another ambiguous sound.
The woman chewed some more, then said to herself, “The ballad of Griselda.” She shrugged and kept eating.
The dwarf looked up at her. “What did you say?” he asked quietly.
“The ballad of Griselda,” the woman said. “That was the song I heard at Harry’s tavern last night. There was a bard there. Not very good, except for that song.” She continued to eat.
“Yes,” the woman said. “I don’t remember his name, but he was very good looking. An elf. That Griselda song was so romantic.”
“Hmm,” said he woman.
“Was he with anyone?” asked the dwarf. “A woman? A small woman?”
“There were lots of people there, so there might have been. I had drunk a bit too much so I don’t remember. Maybe.” She tossed her bones into the fire and stood up. “Thank you, good dwarf, for your hospitality,” she said. “If you’re headed to the peninsula you may join me, but I travel fast.”
The dwarf shook his head and stared into the fire. The woman bowed, and began to run down the road.