Modin, Prefect of the Ironhammer Clan, Defender of the Faith, tossed back his hood and peered out into the foggy night. There were no alarms raised. The night was still and the fog was impenetrable.
The longer Modin had waited, the more the old dwarf had fidgeted and the louder he had grumbled. Minutes had ticked by and minutes had led to an hour, still there was no sign of Nilly. He had to act.
He kicked the soldier off the steps and yanked the other off his bolt. Not having time to cock it, Modin decided to leave his crossbow behind.
The door creaked when he opened it. An old woman, holding the hem of her apron to her mouth, stared at him in horror.
Modin slammed the door behind him. She screamed and ran out a doorway to another room. Modin followed.
It was the kitchen. He stood with a scowl on his face as screaming scullery maids and cooks scattered.
So much for surprise, he thought. Picking the largest door, he marched through it.
He found himself in a long, wide hall. The walls were richly paneled and decorated with a myriad of pictures, tapestries, and military artifacts.
Muffled shouts continued behind him. Down the hall, Modin saw a Church Soldier and a monk emerge from a doorway. The two, engaged in some conversation and oblivious to the threat he posed, walked away from him. He noted that the soldier was not completely outfitted for battle, lacking both helm and shield.
He started off after them at a trot, his armor rattling with each downstep on the hard marble floor. As he did so, a sharp pain shot through his knee and into his hip, but he didn't slow a bit. Damnable arthritis, he thought.
The soldier glanced over his shoulder, spun about, drew his sword, and shouted, "Run, Torrance! Run and sound the alarm."
Torrance, his mouth open, stared stupidly at the soldier, then stupidly at the rapidly advancing dwarf.
"Run," screamed the soldier.
Torrance didn't move.
Picking up the pace, Modin, his shield braced before him, ran headlong into the soldier. Combined, his mass -- greater than that of the soldier - his low center of gravity, and his momentum, knocked the legs out from under the human and sent him tumbling over the dwarf to land heavily on his back.
The force of impact bringing the dwarf to a stop, he wheeled and rained blows upon the man's unprotected head with his hammer. It was short, brutal, and messy. Blood and carnage was splattered across the floor.
Hooking his hammer back onto his belt, Modin reached up, grabbed the monk, by his collar and dragged him down onto his back.
Mere inches away from his face, the old dwarf, his blood- splattered face full of crags and wrinkles, rumbled, "Where do I find the Docent?"
"T-t-t-the Docent?" Torrance's eyes bulged.
"Are ye an idiot, boy?" roared Modin, his reddened face tuning crimson, "point me to the damn Docent if ye value yer life." Spittle sprayed from his mouth.
"U-u-up the stair. Follow the hall." The monk's eyes began to roll back.
"Don't faint on me now, damn ye," bellowed the dwarf, "which way down the hall?"
But Torrance had fainted.
"Damn," cursed Modin. He let go of the monk's robe, and when the monk's head struck the marble floor, it sounded just like thumping a ripe melon.
Farther down the hall, he found the staircase. He climbed it as fast as he could and as he did so, more pains tore through his body. There were pains from hundreds of healed wounds, injuries, and there were pains from parts of his body who were just worn out.
He remembered when he wouldn't even notice such strenuous activity. Now he had trouble catching his breath, and he could feel his heart pound within his chest.
Three flights later, he made the top of the stairs. He grasped the marble post to steady himself while he panted. Sweat trickled down his face into his armor. Taking his rag from his war harness, he mopped his brow.
Somebody shouted from down the hall. More Church Soldiers. They were milling about a door that -- no doubt, thought the dwarf -- would lead to the Docent.
He counted six of them. Not good. He heard more shouting coming up from the stairs below. No retreat.
An emotion of elation washed over him and he smiled. This was it. These were the Docent's personal guard. They would be good. He didn't stand a chance.
As he rushed them, he bellowed the ancient war cry of the Ironhammers. He wouldn't give them an easy victory. No, he respected them too much for that. He raised his shield above his head as was his usual tactic when fighting folk as tall as these. Driving head on into their flank, bowling over one soldier as he did so, he fell back against the wall.
They swarmed about him like ants on a beetle. The blows of their weapons on his shield and armor made metallic, staccato sounds. Searching for chinks in his armor, they found none, armpits, elbows, knees, all were covered by sheets of impenetrable steel. Only his face was exposed, and the dwarf guarded that furiously.
One soldier withdrew, his forearm smashed and useless. Another screamed, fell, and crawled away with a smashed foot.
"Enough!" The tone of the voice held such an authority of command that everyone stopped, even Modin. It was the Docent. The soldiers backed off. The Docent had his forearm wrapped around Nilly's neck and held a dagger to her throat. Blood stained his white bed shirt where he had been wounded.
"Drop your weapons, dwarf," he said. Then, when Modin didn't move the Docent's face twisted in rage, "drop them, or by God I'll slit her throat."
"No," screamed Nilly as she flailed him with her arms and legs, "don't you dare, Modin."
With vicious swings, the Docent pommeled the girl with his dagger until she went limp.
He smiled. "Ah, Modin, Prefect of the Ironhammers, Defender of the faith. It is a pleasure. Drop your weapons milord Prefect or I'll kill the girl. You know I will."
Modin sighed, and as he let his breath out, all of his strength and resolve went with it. He dropped his hammer and shield to the floor.
Church Soldiers moved in and grabbed the dwarf's arms.
"The last time we met, it was on the battle field wasn't it?" said the Docent, "I believe I won that time as well."
He passed Nilly to a soldier. "Have the witch burned in the morn." The Docent turned and began to walk back into his room.
"Should we kill the dwarf as well, milord?" asked one of the soldiers.
With his back still turned, he spoke quietly. "No, I think not. He is equal of my rank and position. Strip him, take him down to the dungeon, and beat him. Milord Prefect will live out the rest of his years in a filthy, rat-infested cell. It will be a fitting end."
Then, without looking, he entered his room and closed his door behind him.
* * *
Modin opened his eyes. The fever he had suffered through had broken, and the pain that his torturers had inflicted upon him had reduced itself to dull throb. It was manageable. At that moment, he knew he would survive.
He was laying on a cot. Someone, a monk, was holding up a spoonful of thin gruel to his still swollen and sensitive lips. The monk was young and he smiled as he noticed his patient was conscious.
"You have survived. God is indeed merciful."
Raising his hand to take the spoon -- he was not some babe who needed to be spoon-fed -- the dwarf winced as he discovered that his fingers had been splinted.
"God had nothing to do with it," grumbled Modin.
The monk moved to put the spoon into the dwarf's mouth, but Modin closed his mouth before he could get it in.
"Of course he did. Now open up."
"Would God allow me to be captured? Would God allow me to be tortured? Would God allow a misguided child to be burned alive?" Anger grew within the dwarf, and his tone became mocking, cruel.
The Monk was nonplused, even serene. "I don't know. I don't question God. All I know is that you have survived and that is proof that God is merciful."
"Come along now. Open your mouth."
"Look, I am tasting it. It is good."
"Be gone," barked the dwarf, turning his head away. "Very well, I'll place it here on the floor. When you want it, you can have it."
Opening the cell door, the monk stepped out. Modin could hear the key being inserted into the lock and turned.
They had shorn his beard and locks. Was nothing sacred? In a sea of depression he slowly, like a leaf falling from a tree to the ground, sank to the bottom.
* * *
The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months and the months into years. Modin's wounds healed and his beard grew back.
The monk who had tended to the dwarf's injuries, Brother Chuttin, was to the dwarf as the shore was to the sea. No matter how severely Modin raged against him, Brother Chuttin remained calm, and even though the sea can wear away the shore, it's not noticeable in a single lifetime.
Modin quickly began to look forward to the monk's daily visits. They argued every aspect of theology. Does God exist? Is there a hell? Is there a devil? Why does God allow acts of evil to occur? Does it all come down to a matter of faith? When the monk would leave, the dwarf would go over the arguments in his mind, thinking of things he should have said and things that he would have better left unsaid.
Eventually, and after Modin swore an oath to Brother Chuttin that he wouldn't attempt to escape, the dwarf was allowed to leave his cell and do simple chores around the prison. He would sweep the floors, change the straw in the cells, tend to the sick, and minister to the forlorn.
* * *
Every day, for the last two years, the Docent would walk down the great hall on his way to his rooms and every day he would stop to look at the suit of armor that stood empty, against the wall. He marveled at the craftsmanship. Its lack of seams, joints without gaps, and its light yet strong construction. A man wearing this -- a man couldn't though, the armor was made for someone much too short -- could move normally, even run, without restraint. Wearing it would be like wearing another skin.
His eyes drifted over to the crossbow. Made entirely of metal, strewn with pulleys and winches, his best craftsmen could not duplicate it.
He thought about the old dwarf, the owner of the armor, who now rotted away in the dungeon. The Docent sighed as he hefted up the hammer admired its symmetry, its balance. All that talent going to waste...
* * *
It could even be said that Modin was happy, if it was not for two things: He was homesick and he couldn't stomach the atrocities.
The prison was not for the common criminal. This prison existed to house the religious violator, heretics, atheists, and others whom the Church deemed a threat. Modin found the Church to be cruel to those who strayed away from its flock.
It was happening again. Modin laid in his cot with his eyes squinted shut and his hands cupped over his ears, but this was not enough to block out the screams. The thugs were going at young Vik, a zealot who thought his ideas were better than the Church's. They had been torturing him for several days now. The dwarf had treated him; he knew that he wouldn't last the night.
Finally, Modin could take no more. "Stop it," he screamed, jumping out of bed and pounding the door with his fists, "stop it you bastards." He raged against the door until he collapsed from exhaustion, laying on the floor with tears streaming from his eyes.
Modin heard the key turn in the lock. The door opened. It was the Docent, surrounded by Church Soldiers.
"Milord, Prefect," said the Docent, "is there something wrong?"
"There's no need to do that to him," he roared in reply. Leaping to his feet, he advanced toward the Docent.
Swords were drawn and leveled at him. "Now, milord Prefect, whatever is the problem?"
"It's senseless what you are doing," replied Modin, speaking with such intensity that he spit with each word, the sword points pressing against his chest.
"I stopped by to ask you to make me a sword." Vik's screams continued. "I've seen your work and admire it greatly."
"Make them stop." Modin was breathing hard. "Now."
The Docent waved his hand. Shortly, the screams ceased. "As you wish."
"And I don't want that ever to happen again."
The Docent stared at the dwarf for a long time. He toyed with the holy medallion he wore about his neck. "It will not."
* * *
He paused at the doorway. His palms grew moist and his stomach soured. It had been three years since he stood over a forge, and three years since he had seen the face of God in the flames.
As Prefect he denounced the edicts of kings, and stood on the battle fields as bulwark to his armies. He had feared nothing his entire life, but now, he feared this.
The dwarf wished he could order everyone out of the room, but of course, someone would be needed to pump the billows. He walked across the smithy -- the smells of the place bringing back life long memories -- and picked up the hammer. It was heavier than he remembered. A good deal heavier.
Briefly, he struggled with an overwhelming urge to bolt...
He swung the hammer about in a vicious arc and smashed his guard's skull. He feinted and parried with the other guard, eventually breaking the human's sword. Without opposition he smote the man, crushing the arms that he put up over his head to protect himself and finally breaking his skull. Running out into the courtyard of the Basilica, Modin, Prefect of the Ironhammer Clan, Defender of the faith, lay about him with his hammer. Smiting monks, guards, and others until, his strength running out, bleeding from a score of wounds, he collapsed in a blaze of glory...
The hammer struck the steel, and with a loud ring and a burst of fiery red sparks, the dwarf's daydream vanished. Again and again the hammer fell, clanging out a mesmerizing rhythm.
It was awkward at first, but soon a lifetime of skill and experience awakened within him and anvil, steel, hammer, forge, and he became one. The sword slowly began to take shape. Each strike of the hammer shaping the lump of steel in gradual steps. And as it did so, Modin began to pray.
"I need more heat, please," he said quietly to the young human apprentices who were manning the billows.
The two, already pumping at a rapid pace, looked at each other, shrugged, then redoubled their efforts.
He prayed for his clan, he prayed for Brother Chuttin, and he prayed for Nilly. Those were easy. He prayed for the Docent. That was much more difficult, but exercising some effort, he could do it. But it took a tremendous effort of will to pray for the most difficult of all, an internal battle that he nearly lost. He prayed for himself.
* * *
"What did you say?" said the Docent, looking up from the sword that the dwarf had made him some months before.
"... I was merely speaking of the King's edict on the Morturo lands, milord Docent," replied Brother Leppe.
"No, I meant the part about the peasants. Read that back."
Leppe became nervous, the Docent had been acting strangely of late. He would sit with the sword for hours and stare down at it, running his hands over it, testing its edge for sharpness with his thumb.
Brother Leppe didn't like it one bit. A person begins to appreciate the mundane after a while and surprises became unwelcome.
"... For his service onto the King, all Morturo lands will be deeded onto Lord Aspil, Duke of Helensforth. Buildings, livestock, and harvests, are to be made his property alone. All those peasants, supporters of our vanquished enemies, current occupants of Morturo lands, are to be driven off..."
Brother Leppe, took the pen from the inkwell, dabbed it on the blotter, and put it into his Docent's hand. "It is ready for your signature, milord."
The Docent was staring at down at his sword again. He lost himself in the etched patterns, the roses, the ivy leaves, and the feathers. He saw himself reflected in its mirror finish with the swords etchings imposing a kind of gilded cage on his image. It was not a cage to imprison him; it was a cage to keep harmful things out. While he was in that cage, he did not need his trappings of power to keep the world at bay. He was safe there and he could rest.
"I think not." The Docent Smiled at Brother Leppe -- the Docent never smiled at Brother Leppe.
"But milord," said Leppe, "the King. The war..."
"It is our calling, dear Brother, to be the moral compass of our people."
The Docent stood and paused. He looked as though he was in deep thought.
"Yes. I like that. Write that down. To milord, the King. It is my calling to be the moral compass of our people. In this capacity, milord, I must point out to you that removing the peasants from the Morturo lands, peasants who are our brothers in faith, is a moral wrong..."
Brother Leppe, writing furiously, took a rag from his frock and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
"... If you proceed in this matter, I fear for your very soul. Yes. That's it. Fill in the gaps as usual, seal it, and send it to his Majesty."
"And Leppe," said the Docent, cutting the man off as he was leaving the room, the sword casually carried over his shoulder like some walking stick.
"Ready the Church Soldiers."
* * *
Modin was busy sweeping the halls of the prison, as was his duty. It had almost been a year since he had given his handiwork to the Docent, and doing so had been like giving up a part of himself. He remembered the feeling of euphoria he felt as he saw his work form before him. For the brief span of time that he worked on it, he could do no wrong. He had known perfection.
Ever since the Docent had banned the torturing of prisoners, the place had become something of a theological battle ground. There had been more than one instance when the dwarf had to physically separate a pair of overheated debaters.
He found out things about heretics that he didn't know before. If you tell a heretic that something is white, he'll go out of his way to show you just how black it is. If you tell a heretic to eat, he'll tell you he's not hungry. If you mention how hot it is, he'll wrap a blanket around himself. Heretics went out of their way to be difficult.
He didn't like heretics.
"Modin, my friend," shouted Brother Chuttin as he came running down the hall, his monk's habit flapping behind him, exposing his bare legs.
"Yes? What is it?" replied Modin, looking up from his work, at first concerned then mystified by the monk's ecstatic expression.
"The Docent requests an audience with you." Brother Chuttin was breathless and he found it necessary to pause between words.
Modin began to sweep again. "I suppose he wants a suit of armor now?"
"No," said Brother Chuttin, unable to suppress his joy, "you are free." He wrapped both arms around the dwarf -- having to bend down to do so -and gave him a vigorous hug. "You are free!"
* * *
The monk who ushered Modin into the austere room quietly closed the door behind him. Across from him, stood the Docent, the sword the dwarf had made was in the man's hand.
It was an awkward moment. The two had a hard time meeting each others gaze.
The Docent went first. "I have your equipment here. Your arms and armor that is..." He trailed off.
"Thank you," replied the Modin, looking at his things placed upon the table, ordered in neat rows.
"I have assigned you an escort, that will lead you to the border." The dwarf nodded.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
The Docent stroked his sword with his hand. "And I have decided to give you the Parchment."
Modin raised his bushy eyebrows.
Reaching under the table, the Docent brought forth a little chest. Opening it ever so carefully, the two peered in at the yellowed roll of paper, the edges of which were brown and crumbly. It was hard to believe that so many had died for it.
Modin couldn't think of anything to say.
The Docent turned and started to leave.
"Thank you, milord Docent."
Stopping, but not turning, the Docent replied, "No, thank you, milord Prefect." He then continued out of the room.
* * *
The King looked out across the lush, green farm fields at the Docent's army. He saw a few red tunics out there, trained Church Soldiers, they would be trouble, but for the most part, they were simple peasants.
"Peasants!" He spit the word out like it was an insult. "Who in the hell would let peasants into their army?"
"Obviously, milord Docent, your Excellency," replied Lord Kerrum with a smile.
The King glared at Lord Kerrum. "I didn't mean you to answer that." "Yes, your Excellency," said Kerrum, still smiling.
A call came up the flank. "Messenger! Messenger!" Sure enough, a man on horseback was riding full tilt down the ranks. "Finally," said the King as the messenger slowed his horse to a trot, then stopping before the king. Not waiting for Kerrum to retrieve the message from the horseman, the King scrambled up and got it himself, nearly yanking the scroll tube out of the soldier's hand.
In agitation he unraveled the scroll and tried to read it. As always, when he read, he had to hold it at arm's length to bring the text into focus, and even then, it was tedious. The King gasped in exasperation. "Kerrum, read this to me."
He passed the scroll to Lord Kerrum.
Kerrum carefully unrolled the scroll and read it aloud.
"To his Majesty the King. I am glad you have taken the time to write. It is a pleasure to hear from you after all these years. I understand your concern, but if I may allay your fears, I shall tell you that the thirty-four-thousand dwarven warriors massed on your border are there for training and nothing else..."
"Damn them," swore the King, striking out so angrily at the air with his fist that it almost spun him around. "What does he think I am? An idiot?"
"There is more, your Majesty." Lord Kerrum continued reading.
"Send my regards to my friend, milord Docent, your Majesty. Inform him that we have built a shrine on the border to house the Parchment. If he would be so kind as to send a few of his monks to share the chore of tending it with a couple of our monks, I would be most grateful. It is our decision that the artifact will be shared by our peoples."
"It is signed: With my deepest regards, Modin, Prefect of the Ironhammers, Defender of the Faith." Kerrum rolled the scroll up.
"What to do!" shouted the King. Spinning about, he flopped down onto his field throne.
Lord Kerrum moved behind the King and began to rub the man's shoulders.
The King put his hand on Lord Kerrum's. "Kerrum, we've been together for a long time."
"Since the beginning, my Excellency."
"I value your opinion, my friend."
Kerrum was quiet for a long time. "Give into the Docent." The King sighed. "I can't. I'm the King. I can't let the Docent order me around like some lackey."
"Be firm," replied Kerrum, "you'll get some concessions. It is better than wallowing the Kingdom in civil war and allowing the dwarves to march in unimpeded."
"I suppose," replied the King, his shoulders drooping. "Send for the scribe." *
Story copyright © 1995 by James Bayers
Illustrations One and Two copyright © 1995 - 1998 by Romeo Esparrago <email@example.com>
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