WARNING: This story exceeds 1700 words!
It was evening, the perfect time for a celebration. Gilrim Spearstabber, commander of Hightop Fortress and its longest living veteran stood on a dais to one side of five stout, well-trained dwarf paladins, the fortress’ latest graduating Sons of Stone, all standing firmly at attention, and smiled proudly.
Looking back, Gilrim found it quite hard to believe that, only nine months ago it had looked very much like there would only be four graduates this year, instead of five. When Kathra Ironshard, the latest initiate of the year had arrived, the note that came with her had made Gilrim wonder if she was Hightop material.
The instructors of the fortress were all veterans of its training. Every dwarf that emerged successfully from these walls knew how necessary this was. Gilrim himself made a point of telling all new recruits who claimed to have “found their vocation” as Sons of Stone that things at Hightop wouldn’t be a simple walk down a mine shaft and invited them to leave with their honor still intact if they felt themselves less than adequate before training began. Kathra, however, was different. Gilrim hadn’t just warned her. He’d done everything he could to try to scare her away; to make her leave. When she’d arrived, she’d presented him with a letter of introduction from the High King himself.
“Gilrim,” the letter read, “I’m sending you another initiate. Kathra Ironshard is an ex-convict of Deepstone Prison. As you may have heard, she’s the dwarf who nearly beat my son to death six months ago. Train her as a Son of Stone, if you can. However, if it looks as if she won’t complete the training or if she becomes a problem, just send her back to Thunderhall and I’ll return her to Deepstone. In the meantime, keep an eye on her and let me know if she shows any signs of further violence towards other dwarves.” The letter was signed with the High King’s personal seal.
Like most dwarves, Gilrim didn’t like to think about Deep Stone. But, like most dwarves, he knew it as the place the Dwarven Kingdoms sent criminals who were so bad the kings didn’t feel comfortable inflicting them on the other races; murderers and rapists and criminals of that stripe. Otherwise, criminals were simply cast out. Usually, confinement in Deep Stone was a life sentence and Gilrim couldn’t help but wonder exactly what Kathra had said to convince the High King that she was worthy of having her sentence revoked. Then again, judging by the tenor of the king’s letter, he wasn’t convinced, even yet. “Keep an eye on her,” he’d said.
So, for the first three months of Kathra’s training, the ones that usually weeded out lesser dwarves and brought the better ones into fighting trim, Gilrim rode the girl like a recalcitrant mule. He knew he’d been harder on Kathra than he had with the others. He’d even considered making up new rules on the spot, just so that he could discipline Kathra more than the other recruits. It was only the fact that his mother had brought him up as an honest, god-fearing dwarf that had prevented this. When she did break rules, however unintentionally, he pounded on her like a blacksmith on a piece of heated steel. Through it all, however, Kathra remained meekly determined and never showed so much as the slightest sign that she might be about to give up. She simply pursed her lips and did what she was told. Gilrim rarely, if ever, saw the least sign of the violence the High King had warned him about.
Then, one rest day, Gilrim was in the fortress’ tavern talking with Hightop’s armory master when Kathra and two of the other new recruits entered it.
“I just can’t, Vonbir,” Kathra was protesting as the other two led her inside. “You don’t understand.”
“Nonsense, girl,” Vonbir laughed companionably. “Whoever heard of a dwarf that doesn’t drink.” That was what perked Gilrim’s interest. Kathra didn’t drink?
“But if you’d just let me explain,” Kathra protested as the other dwarf, Ovgar, ordered three pints of dwarven stout.
“You sound like an elf, Kathra,” Vonbir responded, “and we’ll tell you what we’d tell one of them. We’ll be insulted if you don’t drink with us.”
The barkeep set three tankards of the dark brown brew before the dwarves and Ovgar slid one of them into Kathra’s hands. “Bottoms up!” he roared, seizing his own mug and tipping it so quickly that his beard was quickly drenched.
“Well,” Kathra hesitated, grasping her own tankard with all the eagerness of a child taking his first trip out into the sun. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Just this once.” She lifted the mug and took a quick sip, wincing as the alcohol bit into her throat.
“Aw!” Vonbir bawled, disappointed. “You’re not impressing anyone! Drink it all!”
Obediently, Kathra lifted the tankard again. This time, however, Vonbir slipped a hand underneath the mug and tipped it gently up, fairly forcing Kathra to quaff the entire thing in a single draught. When it was empty, Vonbir let go and the mug came quickly away from Kathra’s face. The next second, Kathra’s eyes grew wide with horror. Backing away, Kathra screamed, stumbling over the leg of another of the tavern’s patrons and falling painfully backward against a chair, which gave and broke under her weight. She continued trying to scuttle away from whatever it was that she saw and, as she made to get up and run for her life, she struck her head against the underside of the bar and collapsed, unconscious.
It hadn’t taken long for Gilrim to discover what had prompted this peculiar turn of events. Kathra had aided the other two in training to pass a particular test and, when they passed it, Vonbir and Ovgar had, as was fairly typical for dwarves, decided to share a celebratory drink with her. Gilrim reprimanded the two males, giving them guard duty for the next month’s worth of rest days. As for Kathra, he’d had her moved; lock, stock and barrel; to his quarters. A healer had examined the girl’s head and assured Gilrim that the injury was relatively minor and would heal on its own. Kathra finally awoke during the second watch of the night.
“Oh,” she groaned, feeling the top of her head where it, obviously, still felt fairly tender. “What happened?”
“You hit your head, lass,” Gilrim responded, continuing to sharpen the blade of his battleaxe, as he did nearly every night until sleep finally took him.
Kathra’s head turned, recognizing Gilrim’s voice, and she winced as her head gave a sickening throb. “Oh, gods,” she moaned, “I didn’t.”
“I can’t tell you what you didn’t,” Gilrim answered, pulling a long, dark hair from his bushy beard and dropping it across the blade. “What you did, though, was drink a pint of strong dwarven stout, scream like a cave goblin, trip over some poor drunk’s legs and hit your head against the underside of the bar. How long have you had battle visions, girl?”
Kathra blinked, confusion plain on her face, “What?”
“You haven’t heard of battle visions?” Gilrim asked, setting his axe aside. “Veterans of the wars often have them if a battle’s been particularly gruesome or they’ve been badly frightened. For most, alcohol makes the visions go. For others,” Gilrim gestured to the pitcher of water on the table beside him, “it just makes the damned things worse. How long?”
“I’m not sure,” Kathra stammered, levering herself up. “About a year, I think.”
Gilrim pushed her back against the pillow. “This is your bed, for now,” he told her. “Healers say your brain might be bruised, given how hard you hit your head. They want you to stay in bed at least until morning.”
Gilrim couldn’t bring himself to apologize to Kathra for the way he’d misjudged her, so he did the next best thing. He made her his personal student. He kept her busy from the first hour of morning until the beginning of the first watch at night. On rest days, he always gave her a special assignment that could be her honest excuse for not visiting the tavern with the rest of the recruits. Furthermore, he shared stories of some of the battles he’d been in and many of the adventures he’d had when he was younger, giving her first hand knowledge the other recruits would never receive until they were out in the field.
Kathra, for her part, showed her gratitude by working twice as hard as she had before. She seemed more than willing to learn just about anything he cared to teach her; even going so far as to ask him questions and badger him for details about many of the stories he told. In her turn, she shared her own story. So Gilrim learned she’d lost almost all of her clan to a group of angry goblins and watched her father die, then tried to drink herself into a stupor to escape the guilt of not being with them and ended up nearly killing the prince in a blind drunken rage. Just this information alone changed Gilrim’s estimation of her more than anything else and, in time, he came to think of her with all the fondness he devoted to his own children. At last, here, standing in the great hall of Hightop Fortress with four more of Gilrim’s top recruits, was the result of all her hard work.
“I name thee, Kathra Ironshard of Copperminer Clan, a Knight of the Axe and a Son of Stone,” declaimed the High King, touching the blade of his battleaxe lightly to the crown of her helmet. “Congratulations.”
The entire hall erupted with cheers, whistles and wild applause. Gilrim, feeling very much like an artist displaying his greatest masterpiece, clapped right along with them.
I should mention, for those who are curious, that Kathra is a character I came up with some time ago. I have another story that I wrote about her stay in prison and how she was released and, sometime soon, if only for the sake of reference, I’ll post it so you’ll have the full story. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, feel free, as usual, to leave them below.