Chapter One: Adrift upon Storm Clouds
The lantern light burned dimly, the oil within nearly gone. The acrid scent of that dying beacon meant little to the wide and eager eyes of the children, persistent with their folded hands and pouted lips.
A stout and surly dwarf raised his arms high, attempting to placate the crowd of children as if they were as easily tamed as dogs. His eyes were wide as well, though they were trapped beneath prominent ridges and a bushy brow. There was no escaping the wee captors.
“Alright, lads and lasses. You’ve got me cornered, fair and square. What’s it going to take for an old fellow to get some rest?”
One anxious little boy piped up louder than the other children.
“Mister Dorn! Tell us why one man travels with the dwarves!”
“I tell that story every time we come to Lacrimore,” the burly, squat fellow protested.
“Tell it again,” a young girl exuberantly squealed.
Sighing, the dwarf knew his fate was already set in stone. Conceding to the wishes of the crowd, Dorn pulled a stool away from a nearby table, placing it in front of the eager children. With another heaving breath, he hopped into the seat, and gazed at his attentive audience.
“It was a day much unlike this one, when high above the Goldenscale Cliffs…”
He sat just beyond where the light could show his curious appearance. The sun was obscured by vicious-looking grey clouds, not uncommon for that time of years above the cliffs that the Thunderfury dwarves called home. He knew that powerful gusts of wind would rip through the ravine late into the night, shaking the rope bridges and blowing out candles, torches and lanterns.
Dorn dwelled peacefully, just within the darkness, leisurely tearing apart pieces of crusty bread. Every once in a while, a faraway flash of lightning illuminated the cliff faces, and the homes carved into their sides. Those bolts of electricity were just powerful enough to brighten Dorn’s home for a moment.
Within his cliffside abode, the dwarf’s floors and walls were bolstered by stone. The entrance retained its dirt and rock composite, lending an earthy scent to the home. That pungent waft was overpowered by the thick aroma of the dwarf’s afternoon meal. Dorn carelessly dunked his bread into the bowl of stew beneath him, mashing past the vegetables.
Despite the favored meal, he could not keep his attention from wandering toward the outside. It was spring in Cracius, and that meant especially violent storms.
A loud snap, like that of a whip, echoed out in the ravine.
“There goes another one,” Dorn said.
The dwarf stood, then, dropping the latest torn piece of bread. He approached the entryway, sucking the bits of stew off his fingers. As he reached the place where stone transitioned into dirt, he could see the heavy rain coating the wooden planks of the rope bridge outside his home.
Before his eyes, another rope snapped, flinging the bridge from his side of the cliff.
A powerful sigh shook the dwarf as he began shaking his head.
A mighty boom shook the cliffs just as a flash of white briefly stole Dorn’s vision away. He leaned out of his abode, looking north. There, hundreds of feet higher than the cliffs themselves, a massive statue straddled the two sides of the ravine. A fading trail of displaced electricity was still barely present, but it dissipated after only a moment.
Another sigh shook Dorn’s stout body. The statue of Vaulen Thunderfury was constructed to perform just as it had. The dwarves’ ancient king held a steel hammer high, catching bolts of energy upon it like a lightning rod.
Dorn spat into the ravine, knowing that, despite serving as it should, the statue would still require an inspection.
That task always fell to him, the dwarf understood.
Only a little discouraged, the dwarf headed back inside. In mere moments, he emerged again, carrying a coil of rope upon his shoulder. Turning north, he began up the earthen ramp.
“Oi, Dorn! Heading to work already?”
He turned his attention to the eastern cliff. There, on the opposite side of the ravine, one of his neighbors stood against his dirt entryway. He smoked from a thickly packed pipe, only pulling it from his bearded face when he had been seen. He held it high, saluting the other dwarf.
“Aye,” Dorn said. “No sense waiting for Thurgan to come get me. I’d rather get it over with sooner than later.”
“Have an ale for me,” the neighbor said.
The worker nodded, but proceeded up the rest of the ramp. Before he could reach the top of the cliff, the path abruptly stopped, only halted by a short railing. Dorn needed only to turn slightly to his left to see several dozen, if not hundreds, of his clan.
Grumbling quietly to himself, the dwarf proceeded inside. The mead hall was expansive. Visitors to the place were apt to express their awe, for the place seemed to stretch on much farther than it needed to. Yet, at every table, dwarves sat about, telling tales and imbibing of thick, frothy ales. At some tables, an earthen pillar rose up from its center, bolstering the ceiling above. Drunken fellows leaned around the pillars, practically lying upon the tables.
Beyond the walls, passages led deeper into the earth. Some led to other dwarves’ dwellings, while the larger ones led down into the mines. The complex was naught but a giant anthill, by Dorn’s reckoning, toiling endlessly within the ground without a second thought.
He blew out a large, yet quiet sigh, continuing into the crowded hall, hoping to go unnoticed by his kin. Most seemed content to talk about nothing in particular.
“I love the smell of the Goldscales after a good rain,” one squat fellow shouted. “The cliffs carry the same waft as what’s atween me good wife’s legs!”
A hearty shout left the mouth of many a dwarf following that observation. A score of stony mugs rose into the air, sending amber liquid splashing everywhere.
Upon Dorn’s path, a trail of suds dampened the dirt. He scowled, but didn’t turn his attention too closely to the rambunctious dwarves.
Better if they don’t know I’m displeased, he thought. My, but dwarves love to hear themselves talk.
The rest of the journey through the mead hall was much the same. He had glided through the place like a ghost, until finally his eyes settled on the stone steps that marked the ascent toward the surface.
“There he is!” came an exuberant cry.
Dorn was stopped in his tracks, nearly gnashing his teeth together upon hearing that voice. He turned slowly, aware of who had seen him.
No sooner had he completely faced the speaker had the full weight of the situation been thrust upon him.
“Hello Thur –”
Not one to let his words alone do the talking, Thurgan Thunderfury leapt out at Dorn. The stout dwarf’s large belly struck Dorn completely, and it was only due to their low centers of gravity that either remained standing.
“Well met!” Thurgan exclaimed as Dorn stumbled backward.
We’ve met before, Dorn thought to himself. He stood straighter, and dusted his clothes off.
“Ye’ve arrived at just the right time,” Thurgan asserted. “From what I’ve been hearin’, the weathers been clearing up. By the time ye get topside, I’ll wager even them stormclouds’ll be gone.”
“Out with it, Foreman,” Dorn pressed. “What is it you want from me?”
“Well, ye are the best climber we have.”
“And, as always, I’ll be the one to inspect the statue to make sure it hasn’t been damaged. Is that what you’re getting to?”
Thurgan’s brow furled. “Well… yes. In a roundabout way, I suppose!” He let out a loud belly laugh, and clapped the younger dwarf on the shoulder. “Think of it this way… nobody but ye gets that close to ol’ Vaulen’s heart.”
Grumbling, Dorn turned and began up the steps.
“Mind the wet steel of the hammer!” Thurgan called out.
The journey up the steps was uneventful, for nearly all of the dwarves were celebrating the storm. It was a happy time in mid-spring, before the flowers bloomed. Every rain was heralded as a boon from their long dead king. Vaulen had created quite the clan, and Dorn was sure that all of them, in constant mirth, shook all of the Goldenscale Cliffs, from their cold northern peaks to the canyons in the deep south.
Though his thoughts drifted to the history of his clan, the dwarf wasn’t able to concentrate on them for long. The dwarven warren had been mostly left behind and beneath him, but some of the more powerful clan members remained near open air.
While Vaulen had long before been entombed within the cliffs he called home, his descendants were still proud to carry on his legacy. On opposite sides of the long hall, the throne room and the council room faced each other.
Dorn could see that both sets of grand oak doors were thrown open, the bright torchlight within spilling out into the long hall. Breathing deeply, he held his breath, and quickly tiptoed past.
While voices within grumbled and mumbled and whispered and shouted, no one seemed to be concerned with the quiet passerby.
Satisfied with that, the dwarf continued on his way.
The scent of the withdrawing rain was powerful, and grew stronger still as Dorn stepped into the sunlight once again. He longed for the following months when the wildflowers would bloom about the western fields. That sweet bouquet was worth every pungent, wintry moment of every year, the dwarf told himself.
“Bright and early,” a voice called out as Dorn emerged from the caverns. “Sure ye aren’t an elf?”
Any other dwarf might have been offended by that comment, but the owner of the voice was known, and the joke was appreciated.
“Aye, Fali. I’m sure,” Dorn said.
“One o’ these days, ye’ll fart a flower, and the whole clan’ll be calling ye Dorn Lilybritches,” the other dwarf continued.
“And my clan will be feared from the Mar Coast all the way to Gandarst,” was Dorn’s retort. He remained silent for a few moments as his friend laughed at the remark. Several dozen of his kin were topside, their eyes pointed toward the sunny sky above the statue of Vaulen. “What have we got going on out here?”
A distant roll of thunder answered that question, though Fali seemed intent to offer his own insights.
“Every few minutes, we hear a noise from up high. At first we thought it was a seabird, flown too far from the ocean.”
“But by now, I’m sure all the rest of them think it’s the baying of old Vaulen’s ghost,” Dorn assumed.
“Or worse,” Fali said.
“It’s been a long while since the clan’s heard the screeches of those winged bitches. All I’m saying is, if ye be set on headin’ up there, be sure’n be careful.”
Dorn nodded. “It’s about time something exciting happened here.”
A cry from above challenged that notion, and both dwarves furled their brow as it echoed through the Goldenscale Cliffs.
“Not too late to be a proper dwarf and choose to love digging more’n climbing,” Fali offered.
“Bah,” the other scoffed, sounding more like his kin than usual. He began forward, his friend by his side. As they went, he began uncoiling the equipment he had moved topside with. “Give me a rope, a hook and a book any day.”
Another cry from the top of the statue had Dorn reflexively scowling.
“Any day would be better appreciated without such distractions,” he clarified.
“Ye forgot yer book anyway,” Fali said. “No sense worryin’ about it now unless ye planned on pickin’ up a sharp, quick read.” As those words pushed past his friend’s ears, his stubby fingers gently tapped against the crescent edge of his axe.
“I never go unprepared,” Dorn replied, gripping the small dagger on his belt.
“Aye, and I’ll be sure to thank the gnomes what gave it to ye after a harpy takes off with it in its rump while another takes off with ye.”
They arrived near the edge of the western cliff, where one of Vaulen’s large steel boots sat upon a large stone pedestal. Fali gave his friend a hand to step upon, and boosted the climber to the base of the stone.
Dorn turned and nodded. “I don’t plan on being supper for some bird maiden,” he said. “I may look a mite more tender, but I’m still as tough as any dwarf you know.”
“Start climbin’ afore you start sproutin’ that flower,” Fali teased.
Nodding, the dwarf prepared for the ascent. Even as another cry echoed out toward the clouds, Dorn gathered up his rope, a hefty hook tightly bound at its end. The spring breeze was overpowered then by the sound of that rotating grapple.
In the blink of an eye, the rope and its attachment soared skyward. The hook came down just where the dwarf had planned. It locked into place just above Vaulen’s belt, where enough steel jutted out to provide a hold. The dwarf pulled firmly on the rope, but was unable to free the hook.
A subtle smile briefly parted Dorn’s lips as he stepped beside the old king’s leg. Without hesitation, he leapt up as high as his squat frame would allow. His powerful arms helped him to rise as he brought his hands over each other in mere seconds. If the dwarf had any difficulty climbing, it didn’t show.
“Ye aren’t tied off anywhere,” Fali mentioned.
“I don’t need to be,” he contested.
True to his words, Dorn seemed to need no assistance. His feet moved up Vaulen’s leg so swiftly that he appeared to be more akin to a squirrel than a dwarf. Fali looked on in disbelief as his friend continued to scurry up the statue.
After only a short while, the dwarf’s ascent had him sitting upon the belt of the effigy. He rubbed his hands together, trying his best to distract himself from the meager blisters his climb had caused. Dorn wasted very little time, however, retrieving the grappling hook and sliding over to the center of the belt.
When he arrived beside the pronounced buckle, he looked down, to where a score of his kin congregated. Fali stared above with his mouth agape.
“I’ve done this dozens of times, and you’ve watched,” Dorn called out.
The muttering of the dwarves below didn’t gather his attention. Rather, he focused on the task at hand. He stood, bracing himself against an oversized steel button upon Vaulen’s tunic. With one foot upon the large buckle, the dwarf began spinning the grappling hook in wide circles again.
Gasps could be heard from below, for Dorn was moving before the grappling hook had ever reached its target. The dwarf was airborne as the rope began coiling upon Vaulen’s partially outstretched arm. The king of old squeezed his hand into a fist, the arm facing upward. It provided the perfect support for the diminutive fellow scaling the statue.
Dorn made the arduous task seem incredibly easy. His strength was a spectacle to behold, for his legs did naught but dangle. He lifted himself solely by the power of his burly arms, until he reached the silvery wrist where his rope had coiled.
Fighting against gravity, the dwarf scaled the rope. Before anyone could worry that his strength might be fading, he was sitting plaintively upon Vaulen’s arm. Almost leisurely, he tugged at the rope, slowly apprehending the grappling hook. With that once more in his possession, liberating the rest of the rope was easy.
After taking a few moments to steady his body, Dorn stood. The air was thinner up above, and when he looked down at his captive audience, over two dozen feet beneath him, he had to inhale deeply to catch his breath.
Another baying reminded him of his task.
He walked down the straightened path that Vaulen’s arm provided, stopping just at the elbow. At that point, he was near, again, to the ancient king’s heart.
The grappling hook was aimed a bit higher. At once, it left Dorn’s hand, flying high into the air. The rope sped upward, and almost escaped his grasp, but another three feet of slack became accessible as he tugged it into place upon Vaulen’s crown.
So far below him, Fali and the others could barely see the fearless dwarf.
That thought had never crossed his mind. With ease, he hoisted himself up, once again able to rely on his sturdy legs for aid. He proceeded up the ancient effigy as though it were a mighty mountain. Before long, he was at eye level with the former ruler of the Thunderfury Dwarves. Vaulen stared south, perpetually unaware of the miniscule mortal that scaled his likeness.
Only a few moments later, Dorn sat upon the exquisitely crafted head of the statue. Individual strands of greasy dwarven hair had been timelessly captured and recreated. It wasn’t the most comfortable feeling on the climber’s backside, but he took solace in that moment anyway. So far from the ground, he felt freer than ever.
The lone dwarf was almost deaf to the cries he heard, despite the fact that his proximity had made them much louder. He looked to the sky, where low flying clouds looked ready to take him away.
Nearly obscured by those fluffy white distractions, Dorn could see the silhouettes of some winged beasts. He swallowed hard, his hand slowly migrating toward the dagger on his belt.
After a brief observation, he saw several more, circling around the statue. He realized then that they were divebirds from Blacklehn, likely returning north following the harsh winter.
Yet still, the dwarf was sure that the cries he continued to hear did not come from any bird.
He stood, knowing that only one more climb was necessary.
Dorn’s eyes pierced through the skies, toward the weapon that his clan had looked to for strength and courage.
Vaulen’s hammer shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. The intricate etchings upon the weapon would serve as the dwarf’s only grasping point.
Swallowing hard, the climber gathered up his grappling hook. He began spinning it in wide arcs. Without trepidation, he heaved it a dozen feet in the air, watching the pronged metal glide over the hammer.
With a resounding tonk, the tool fell into place. Dorn tugged fiercely several times, but the grapple wouldn’t budge.
Nodding, the dwarf stepped to the edge of the crown. He only stopped long enough to take a breath and say a prayer.
Then, he leapt into the air above Vaulen’s shoulder.
The rope swung forward, and the brief weightlessness had Dorn forcibly closing his eyes. After only a few moments, however, he teetered beneath the oversized steel mallet.
Forcing a smile, the dwarf began his final ascent.
With raw hands and nowhere to use his feet, the way up was difficult. Despite the arduous task, Dorn proceeded on with contentment. As he reached the hammer, he was able to set his legs into motion again. In mere moments, he hoisted himself up to the top of the mallet.
Breathing heavily, he wasn’t immediately aware of what he shared the platform with.
The cry was so near and so loud that he nearly tumbled backward. He fought to preserve his balance, but when his eyes landed upon the protruding handle, he still nearly fell back in surprise.
For there, dozens of feet in the air, resting upon the circular pedestal at the head of the hammer, was a baby.
“I’ll be damned,” Dorn said.