This story originally appeared in Game Trade Magazine, obviously during my Tolkien period. It was written for the Sovereign Stone setting.
Crockery tinkled on the shelf above the hearth, where a fire of dried dung smoldered beneath a dented copper pot. Pyhram’s knobby hand trembled as he set the spoon beside his plate and tried to swallow the food that had suddenly turned to clods in his mouth. A low grumble shuddered through the stone floor and walls of his small abode, slowly mounting to a growling thunder, like an approaching avalanche. Dust sifted past the thick, sooty beams that held up the low roof, sifted down onto his upturned soot-stained face.
He looked into the low coals of the dung fire, watched the gray smoke rising from it, and began whispering a chant under his breath. The smoke coiled about the cooking pot and began to glow with some inner light, hanging in the air and no longer pulled by the draft of the chimney. An image appeared in its midst – a fierce dwarven face, beard blowing in the wind. Pyhram’s breath caught, the chant died on his lips, and the image vanished as the smoke boiled up the flue, free of his spell. He blinked and sighed before pushing himself wearily to his feet.
The heavy wooden door creaked as he pulled it open by its leather cord. Outside, a late autumn sun slanted its golden rays into the combe were his farm lay. His homestead was cut into the steep slope of the hillside above a small natural grotto that served as his barn. A rail-and-stone pen meandered around the edges of a brown wallow, where a lone motherless calf bawled in fear at the sound of the approaching thunder. In the valley below, a crisp wind rippled through acres of tawny grain.
A half dozen hideously naked chickens, half through their molt, scratched in the dirt near the door. Pyhram looked at them in weary disgust. The wind blew the stink of their middens into his face, even as it carried to his nostrils the scent of the open steppe beyond the valley, the wild grasslands that were his birthright.
Still, the thunder grew, though the sky was a clean washed blue and the air as clear and bracing as springwater. He felt the thunder through the thick soles of his boots, felt it thrilling in his joints and bones, even as his stomach knotted in fear. A rusted axe hung from a roof beam protruding from the cut earth above the door. Pyhram took it down and examined its pitted edge. Little good it would do him when they came, but he could not help but fight to protect what was his, even though he hated this place, this prison, as he considered it, to the depths of his dwarven soul. The stink of the chickens brought the bile into his throat, but they were his chickens; the bleating of the motherless calf filled him with revulsion of its domesticated weakness, but it was his calf, and dearly bought as well.
They were coming, he knew, to steal his grain and slaughter his calf, to burn and loot and kill what they had left the year before and the year before that. They didn’t come every year, but they came often enough. He tried to save, to plant extra, to horde and hide so that there would be enough to give to them and still have something left over to last him through the long winter.
But this time, they had come early. The grain was still in the field, and when they found it unharvested, they would burn it. He hadn’t yet hidden the calf in the cave only he knew about, the calf that would provide his meat and leather for the winter. The wolves of the steppe had come early and caught him unprepared. He would have to fight this time. He had fought before and lost. There was nothing else to do – fight and die, or surrender and starve.
The haft of the axe felt good in his hands as he walked down the hillside to meet them. They were in the combe now. Though hidden by the folds of the land, he knew where they were - now passing the old sheepfold where blood still stained the mossgrown and lichen encrusted stones. He followed them with his mind’s eye, trying to count their numbers by the thunder of their hooves. There were too many, he knew. No infantry tactic would serve him now. He stopped at the far corner of his fields, where three heaps of gray stone stood like gateposts to his land.
They came. He saw them passing like ghosts through the dappled light beneath the old orchard, where the charred bones of his first house still stood and the trees had grown ruinous and wild. Down through the trees they came, riding hell bent over their horses’ necks, their beards flying in the wind of their speed. Short bows of horn and hide slapped against their backs as they galloped splashing down into the stream and across it. Their horses surged and heaved up the nearer bank, water spraying from their thrashing legs and manes. They rode up to him and stopped, looking down at him with his rusted axe and his feet planted solidly across the path. Iron caps were on their round heads and spears gleamed in their fists. Their half-wild horses stamped and pranced impatiently, fighting the bit, their hooves pounding the earth like hammer blows.
One of the dwarf riders shouted fiercely, his teeth gleaming in his beard, “Who are you? What is your name and your clan?”
“I am Pyhram,” he answered. “As for my clan, I have none. I am unhorsed.”
The rider laughed and slipped from the saddle, tossing the reins of his unruly horse to one of his companions. He approached Pyhram, a pair of savage, stone-gray eyes staring out from beneath a crag-like brow. It was the face he had seen in the fire.
“What would you have of me?” Pyhram asked, impatient under the dwarf’s appraising stare. Pyhram returned his gaze, noting the youth of this dwarf by the silkiness of his beard, yet also appreciating that the other dwarves, a score at least and some of them a century older, treated the young dwarf with respect. There was something disconcerting about the young dwarf’s features, some familiarity or remembrance that troubled Pyhram even as he tried to present a bold front. They had not attacked on sight. They had asked his name. Perhaps they would leave him alone, or so he hoped.
Suddenly, the younger dwarf laughed. “It’s true! We’ve found him!” he shouted, turning to his horsed companions. “This dwarf is my brother.”
Pyhram grabbed the young dwarf by the wrist and spun him around. He looked hard into his eyes, studied his features, recognized them as like his own, and denied the evidence of his own eyes, all in the same moment. “Who are you?” he snarled.
“I am Neram, your brother,” the younger dwarf said. “Likely, you don’t recognize me. I was but a lad when you left.”
Eyeing the other dwarves fearfully, Pyhram dragged the young dwarf some distance away. He whispered harshly under his breath, “You must not say that. I am unhorsed. I have no clan, no family, no brother. If you acknowledge me, they will cast you out as well.”
Pyhram turned to the other dwarves still sitting their horses beside the stream. He said loudly and a little too jovially, “Yes, he is mistaken. I am not his brother. I have no brother. An honest mistake.” The dwarves glanced at each other with puzzled expressions. Pyhram turned back to his young brother. “Now go.”
“I have a brother!” Neram shouted joyously, throwing his arms around old Pyhram and lifting him into the air.
“No!” Pyhram cried, struggling against the unwelcome embrace.
“It is true,” Neram continued, setting Pyhram on his feet. He took his older brother by the shoulders and held him firmly, looking deeply into his eyes. “Once, I did not have a brother. I remembered him, but it was forbidden to speak of him. I was beaten for mentioning his name, for he betrayed our clan by marrying against our father’s wishes, for marrying an unhorsed woman. But as our father lay dying by the fire, he regretted the curse he had laid upon his eldest son and grieved that he must die without seeing him once more, without hearing his voice, without being forgiven by the son he had wronged.”
Neram turned to the other dwarves. “The curse against my brother is lifted,” he pronounced. “Pyhram of the Bloodtooth clan lives. Hail your chieftain!” In response, they loosed a ferocious cheer, thrusting their spears wildly into the air as their horses stamped and neighed.
“What is this?” Pyhram asked in the confusion of noise.
“You are the eldest brother,” Neram shouted. “Our father became chieftain during the last wars, when the old chief died childless, the last of his family. Now, you are chieftain.”
“I cannot be chieftain,” Pyhram protested, still refusing to believe. “I am unhorsed.”
“Have you heard nothing that I said. Our father lifted his curse. You are unhorsed no longer,” Neram said, shaking his brother by the shoulder. “In truth, our father’s horse goes to you, the chieftain’s horse.”
As he said this, one of the riders led a roan-colored mare before them. She was a fine horse, steady, clean of limb and bone, calm and fearless as the setting sun, whose color she mirrored. On her face she bore a white blaze, the sign of a chieftain’s horse. She eyed Pyhram steadily for a moment, and then dipping her head, she nuzzled his beard. Pyhram lowered his forehead to hers, and closing his eyes he breathed in the warm peaty smell of the horse. His hands caressed her finely tooled and silvered harness and the silky forelock of her mane.
“The chieftain’s horse has claimed him,” Neram said ceremoniously. “Let no one doubt that my brother has returned.”
Pyhram lifted his head, tears streaming into his beard. “I do not understand,” he said. “What would you have of me?”
“You are our chieftain!” Neram exclaimed. “We are your warriors. Lead us. The time of riding is upon us, the villages and steadings to the south are ripe, their barns full of grain and their sheep bleating to be sheered!”
Pyhram looked around at his farm prison, the fields and the grotto barn and the smoke rising from the chimney of his house. “I… I cannot leave now,” he stammered. “There is the harvest, and…”
Neram laughed in thunderous merriment, and the other dwarves joined him. “You speak like a farmer, brother. So this place of yours is Middenstead, I have heard it named.”
“I did not name it so,” Pyhram answered darkly.
“Dung-home. The wind in your eyes will wash the memory of it from your heart,” Neram said jovially. “Yes, and the smell of fire burning field and farm will cleanse the stink of this place from your nostrils. You are a dwarf, a chieftain of dwarves, brother. Let us slaughter your livestock and make a feast of celebration. In the morning, we shall raze this place to the ground so that it may never haunt your dreams. Then you shall lead us to war and slaughter to the south, where they say the cattle are fat this year and the humans grown lazy and content from our wars with the elves of the north.”
Almost Pyhram could hear the ringing of axe on shield and the twang of bowstrings, the thunder of horses’ hooves over the hard-packed earth, the battle cries of his raiders. But as he did so, he also heard the screams of the dying, the crackle and whoosh of fire as a burning home collapses upon itself. He heard in his thoughts the weeping of a woman and the shrill terror of a child swept up in the tides of reckless battle. And as he did so, his eyes settled upon the three stone mounds marking the edge of his field. In the fading light of the day, he read the small inscription he had carved and placed on each.
“I cannot do this,” he said. “I cannot leave this place. I buried my wife and two sons here, after they were murdered by raiding dwarves.”
“They were not slain by the Bloodtooth clan, this much I swear. Our father would not allow his people to raid here,” Neram said defensively.
“It does not matter, my brother,” Pyhram sighed. “Can’t you see? I have lived too long unhorsed. I am the farmer who fears the time of the riding, the farmer whose family, whose sons were murdered by such raiders as you would have me now lead. How can I sweep down upon the sleeping village when I know I shall see in the faces of the dead the faces of my own sons? I have suffered too much from this to take part in it now.”
“Revenge, then!” Neram said fiercely. “Lead us against the clan who destroyed your family. Kill their sons and their wives to pay for the loss of your own. We will follow you, and gladly.” The other dwarves growled in agreement, their fists tightening around their spears.
“I don’t know who they were,” Pyhram said. “They come every year, and each year it is a different band. One blends into another. It was all so long ago.”
“Then lead us against them all. The Bloodtooth is the strongest clan on the steppes. Lead us against the other clans and we shall bring them under our dominion. This is our destiny, and you shall be our king. You shall have a dozen sons to replace the two you lost,” Neram pleaded.
Pyhram shook his head and pushed away the roan’s muzzle. “Brother, your words stir my blood like the wind in autumn, but my feet have been too long in this place. Beneath those stone mounds lies the better part of me. I am bereft, hollow and alone, waiting for death so that I may join with what I lost. I left the clan for love of the one who lies there. I cannot leave her now.”
Neram stepped back from his brother, his gray eyes pooled with unshed tears. “You truly are unhorsed,” he said in a voice thick with emotion. “But my father’s curse remains lifted. You are still my brother.” Saying this, he strode to his own horse and leaped into the saddle. He sawed angrily at the reins, the horse stamped the earth and tossed its head.
“This place, this Middenstead of my brother, lies under my protection now,” he said. “No riders will come here again, unless it is to trade or visit.”
“I thank you,” Pyhram answered.
“One other thing, brother. We need grain. Last year’s raids were unsuccessful, for the elves had fled before we came. That is why we raid south this year.”
Pyhram looked at his fields, still tall with tawny wheat. “I have no food fit for you,” he said. “No meat or bread, only roots and dried berries that I find in the wild fields.”
The other dwarves wrinkled their noses in disgust. To them, he was unhorsed once more.
“Very well. Good bye, farmer,” Neram snarled as he lashed his horse and dug his heels into its flanks. The riders dashed away, splashing across the stream. The chieftain’s horse stamped the ground and snorted, but she did not follow them, and they did not seem to notice or care that she remained with an unhorsed dwarf.
But as they mounted the bank into the ruined orchard, Neram paused and turned his mount. The others rode away, vanishing with thunder into the gathering darkness beneath the trees. When they had gone, Neram shouted across the babbling stream, “You may keep the horse, brother. She chose you and you are her chieftain now. But do not bow her noble neck beneath a plow or I will return and kill you.”
Pyhram lifted his hand in thanks. “Return with the next moon, if you have not already ridden south,” he said. “We shall slaughter the calf together.”Neram nodded once and turned his steed back toward the wooded slopes. As he rode into the orchard, the sun dropped behind the hill. In the chill evening darkness, Pyhram walked back to his house, followed closely by the stamping, shuffling tread of the mare. When he reached the grotto that served as his barn, he realized that he would need to enlarge it before winter, now that he had a horse to stable. But the prospect of this labor suddenly seemed pleasant to him, as nothing else had for a long, long time.