The Black Hammer
Laura J. Underwood
The quiet village huddled in terror from the ruins crowning the hill beyond. Arula reined in her horse and cast a puzzled glance over the wretched landscape. Instinctively, she reached down to touch the war hammer hanging off her saddle. The Thunder Hammer responded with a cold, nervous thrum of symbiotic magic, and Arula frowned.
"Not the most inviting place to spend the night, eh, Ham?" she said.
She let her dark gaze shift to the black-bearded Dvergar who dragged his large pony to a halt beside her. Hamlin Gobbler wrinkled his nose. "It's seen better days," he said.
"Do you know this place?" she asked.
He nodded. "Thunor's Hill," he replied. "That used to be a temple to your god up there."
"Those ruins?" she said. "What happened?"
Ham shrugged. "Haven't a clue, Rul. Haven't been here in ten winters or more. Strange. I don't remember that mountain in the middle being so tall."
Arula frowned, not sure if she was more disturbed to think a temple to her god had been deserted or the fact that Ham, like all Stone Folk, could tell if a mountain had grown. The peak he stabbed one stubby finger at did look oddly taller than those around it. It cast a long shadow towards the village. On the road ahead, she saw thralls making quickly for their homes. Since when do farmer folk leave their fields so soon before sundown? she wondered.
"Come on, Rul," Ham said. "I know the inn here. We'll find good food, good ale and good beds there."
He drummed his heels against the pony's flanks and urged it on down the road. Arula lifted her gaze to the ruins. The late afternoon sun bathed them in a wash of crimson. Like blood, she thought with a shiver. She kicked her horse into a trot and followed Ham into Thunor's Hill.
Ham took Arula straight to an inn called the Dirty Mouth. Set back into the hillside, it had been build of stone, each one carefully carved and placed to for a nearly seamless faŤade. One had to admire Dvergar construction, for it was practical as well as artful.
They took their horses to a small shed that stood beside the inn. Once the animals were bedded and they had removed their packs, Arula followed Ham. He stepped through the door of the Dirty Mouth and paused long enough to press lips to one of the archway stones before he thumped a fist over his heart. She said nothing, for she had seen him do this at the entrance of many Dvergar dwellings. It was a custom, she had come to understand, born out of the Dvergar need to show their natural love and respect of the stones. To them, stones were the bones of the earth from which their ancient race was said to have been born, and as such were revered as a god. In fact, it was said that Dvergar were the guardians of the Heart of Ymir which beat deep inside the world. Their affinity for the mines and caverns and their skills as masons and iron workers were why men called them Stone Folk.
Ham moved on, leading the way into the interior of the Dirty Mouth. The tables were spotless. New reeds garnished the floor, and a crackling long fire had been sprinkled with pine cones to scent the air. It was a far cry from the doom and gloom of the village itself. Very few guests occupied the tavern. Most of the locals had cleared out and gone home to lock their doors, according to Ham. From the looks of things, only one or two travelers were staying at the Dirty Mouth this night, and they showed little interest in the priestess or her short companion. We're a good twenty leagues from the nearest range of mountains of the Dvergar realms, she thought. Yet Stone Folk didn't seem to be an uncommon sight, especially since a trade route did pass this way.
The proprietor had given the inn its name. He was about Ham's height, which was taller than average for one of the Dvergar. His beard was a grizzled mixture of iron and white, the latter dominating it color. His overall appearance was clean, but his mouth quickly gave away his less savory nature. As soon as he saw Ham, he opened up with a rash of expletives that fairly burned Arula's ears. She hastened over to the fire to warm herself, the Thunder Hammer now slung from a loop on her belt. The Dvergar finished his tirade and gathered Ham into a bear-hug of affection.
"Ham, my boy," the elder finally said. "Good to see you, Nephew. Looks like you're finally getting a bit of silver in that scruffy beard of yours."
"Uncle Scorcher," Ham returned, his face going red. Aptly named, Arula thought. "Let me introduce you to Rul... er... Arula. She's a priestess of Thunor, his Hammer Maid."
"Oh?" Uncle Scorcher cast a squint in Arula's direction. She had thrown back her traveling cloak, revealing her blue and red tunic as well as the pendant in the shape of a hammer. Dangling about her neck on a thong, the pendant carried a stone that looked for all the world like an eye. "Well," Scorcher said with a nod. "Looks like I'll have to keep my mouth in check while the blessed lady's under my roof." He winked. "Welcome, Arula, Hammer Maid."
Arula shifted a bit and smiled. "Thank you, Master Scorcher, but this is your house, and you may speak as you please." After traveling with Ham, she was used to the fact that Dvergar tended to be openly brash.
"So, what's the special, Uncle?" Ham asked.
"Hungry, lad?" Scorcher said, slapping Ham's shoulder. "Well, we've got a slab of venison roasting in the kitchen, and your Aunt Nora has baked a few fresh loaves of her black bread."
"Sounds delicious, eh, Rul?" Ham said. "And we can wash it down with your best mead, provided you've left any for your guests."
Scorcher chuckled and gave Ham an affectionate poke in the gut before ambling towards the kitchen door. "Nora," Scorcher shouted. "Dinner for two. Little Ham's come for a visit."
He followed that with a fresh string of curses that even made Ham wince. Arula grinned at him and shook her head as she claimed a seat.