This particular yarn is the first in a series of origin stories (birth, adolescence, adult, etc.) for an RPG character in a Dungeon World Campaign run by PrimeLoki (check him out at https://primelokisden.wordpress.com/). I occasionally will use an RPG character to inspire a short story, and this one felt particularly strong:
The cold chill bit like icy teeth. The stars and moon shone through a cloudless sky, and a breath hung in the air as a ghost, long after it was forgotten. Two figures stood outside a cave, armored for war. Moonlight shone off their cold steel, polished bright for the occasion, and they huddled near two torch sconces hastily nailed to either side of the cave mouth. Screams of pain echoed out, and the two armored forms shivered not just from the winter frost. One drawn-out wail, louder than its predecessors, seemed to make the torches sputter.
One armored figure, a black-speckled braid as wide as an axe head hanging to the middle of his chest, turned and peered back into the cave, darker than the night, and moved further into the torchlight. “By the God’s Black Bowels, I’ve never heard such a noise.”
The other figure’s helmed visage did not move. Its face was obscured by a woven cloth to protect against the cold, and a long braid, red as the fire of the torches, ran down to the small of its back. “Bringing a child into the world is not unlike taking a man out of it. It’s a bloody, violent affair. It shouldn’t surprise you it sounds the same.”
“Just because mine dangle and yours don’t,” The black-bearded warrior turned back from the cave mouth and spat on the ground, “doesn’t make you an expert.” Now the long red braid turned from the torchlight and the eye-slits of the helm pointed at her counterpart.
“How silly of me. I didn’t realize you’d given birth before.” She slowly and quietly bent down and scooped up a handful of snow into a gloved hand. A fresh layer had fallen just that morning. Eyes still locked on the other figure, who was busy mumbling to himself and shuffling his feet in the snow, she brought her gauntleted hands together and worked the snow into a round ball. As long as she was quiet, the other guard wouldn’t see what she was doing unless he turned his head completely. Such was the danger of a full-helm in the middle of the night. Once the snow was sufficiently packed and round, she stared at the black-bearded guard, judging the distance, and then softly tossed the snowball underhand into the night air.
It landed with a muffled tink of packed snow on steel, and a litany of oaths and curses. She’d judged it perfectly, and the bulk of the frosty projectile had landed in the small gap between the armor and helm. Her counterpart was cursing and digging into the gap with little success. His gloved hands would not fit into the space, and he shook and flagellated trying to shift the invading piece of icy snow.
She’d planned on remaining stoic, eyes forward, and feigning ignorance of the snowball, but the sight of Agar Stone-Splitter shaking and pawing at himself was too much. She brought a hand reflexively to her mouth to stifle it, but a soft giggle escaped her lips. Agar stopped thrashing instantly. His eyes, visible through his open-faced helmet, bored into her and for a second she worried she’d made a mistake in trying to lighten the mood. Then his bright ivory teeth split the black beard surrounding his mouth.
“Oh you’ll pay for that, Stout-Heart. You’ll pay dearly.” He reached down with both hands and started rolling the snow, gathering up a mound of larger than his head. As he packed it down, she drew the round shield off her back. “That won’t save you, girl. I’ll show you how a real Dwarf does it.” Agar raised the gigantic lump of snow over his head two-handed, and made to fling it at her like a catapult.
A sharp crack of wood on stone made him stop. Both armored warriors looked at the cave mouth to see a grizzled old Dwarf, with a shaven head and slate grey plaits of beard reaching past his belt. He carried a long staff with banded iron at both ends, which had put a respectable crack in the stone wall of the cave entrance. He wore loose black robes that somehow clung tightly to his form in the night air. As Agar dropped his snow boulder and Stout-Heart lowered her shield, the old Dwarf was glaring at them with bloodshot eyes.
“It is an honor to be chosen to stand Vigil. A sacred way we honor those who came before us. It is the same reason all Dwarf children are born in the earth,” The old Dwarf’s voice was ragged and deep, punctuated by heavy breathing. As he spoke, Agar and Stout-Heart took a few steps toward him and saw his dark robes had started the day a light tan, but had been dyed almost black by the shadows. And then the familiar smell, like stale copper, hit them and they exchanged worried glances.
The old priest was practically covered in it. The pale torchlight gave it a black sheen, like oil or tar.
“I should beat you both senseless for this sacrilege, but there’s not time. Fetch the father. Quickly.” The two warriors turned their eyes toward each other again, didn’t move, and said nothing. Eventually Agar broke the silence.
“His father died in the raids, Slate-Jaw. The mother is War-Widowed.”
“A child born of war,” The old Dwarf looked down and shook his head slightly from side to side, “He will need that strength. Rouse the Jarl then, quickly.” The pair of warriors turned wordlessly at the old Dwarf’s command and stalked off into the night, moving with practiced ease in their heavy plate. It was a short jog to the Jarl’s stone Long-House, and after the inevitable complaints about the late hour, he listened intently and swiftly put on a long fur cloak over fur-lined breeches to follow the warriors back to the cave. None of them said a word as they hurried across the white snow, boots crunching with each footfall.
Jarl Ouric Storm-Bound was tall for a Dwarf, a full head above Agar, and just as old as Slate-Jaw, but his bushy hair and unkempt beard were shock-white, and he eschewed the braids and plaits common amongst the coastal Dwarves. He preferred to let his hair grow wild, and it was never wilder than when he was roused from sleep unexpectedly. Very few Dwarves could wake him without fear of retribution, but the mere mention of Slate-Jaw’s name had him rubbing sleep from his eyes and stomping through the winter night.
They reached the cave in silence. No more screams rang of its walls and out into the chill night air. The three waited in tense silence. Eventually they heard soft, crying noises rolling from the cave mouth, slowly getting louder. Slate-Jaw emerged, bloodier than before, his thick hands and arms caked in the dried ichor, made black in the moonlight. Both torches had blown out in the guards’ absence. In his arms, wrapped in a slightly-less bloody blanket was a wriggling child, crying softly.
“He is a strong boy, but his mother is gone. Something tore inside her during the birth. Nothing myself or the midwives did could stop it. She passed a few moments before he emerged. An orphan child, born in blood and death,” he held the mewling baby out to the Jarl, and the tall white-haired Dwarf carefully took the tiny baby into his arms, “It has been a long time since we have had a child slay the mother during birth, Ouric. Not since your father’s father sat in the Jarl’s seat,” He glanced at Stout-Heart, with a warm smile at odds with his butcher’s visage and the anxious tension in the air, “Dwarf women are made of granite and steel.” Unprepared for the intensity of his gaze, Stout-Heart looked down and studied the patterns her boots made as she shifted nervously in the snow.
“What does this mean?” Jarl Storm-Bound held the child to his chest but his eyes were slanted and his neck and back were bowstrings, straight and taut with tension. “Women have died from birthing before.”
“Indeed, but it is much more common after the birth. We had to pull this boy from his mother after she had died. And that marks him.”
“Marks him how?” The Jarl held stone-still while the tiny baby fidgeted in the make-shift cradle of his arms.
“He’ll bear the Stone Thirst all his days, I have no doubt.” Slate-Jaw took a step toward the Jarl and the mewling babe, and slowly stroked the child’s head to soothe it. The sight of the disheveled Jarl and the old priest, covered in blood, standing over the newborn like fresh parents was yet another eerie sight, and the two armored warriors averted their eyes. “The Old Words say a Dwarf born from death shall have a thirst he cannot quench, a hunger he cannot sate. Only the blood and death from whence he came shall slake his desire for the briefest of breaths. A Dodjagar, a death-hunter, they call them. There is little joy ahead for this poor child.”
“He has no father, and now no mother, Slate-Jaw. What do the Old Words say of that?”
“That is your decision, Ouric Storm-Bound. He has not been named. He shall bear the surname Thirst-Born until he comes of age, but he bears no true Name yet. It may be a mercy simply to take him to the trees and let him pass back into the earth.” They were doing little to cover their conversation, and upon hearing this Agar’s shoulders slumped and he gazed at the snow once more. Stout-Heart’s back tightened and she took a small step forward. Agar grabbed her wrist tightly and shook his head, unwilling to lift his helmet and meet her eyes. She stopped advancing but stayed coiled and tense, watching the two elders decide the child’s fate.
The white-haired Jarl stayed silent for a long time, looking down at the boy he held. He scarcely blinked, his only movement white steam rolling from his mouth and nose as he breathed out into the winter air. In the dead of the night their small village was silent, and in the middle of winter few creatures could bear the cold. The silence was sacred and complete. Agar and Stout-Heart willed their limbs not to shake their plate mail and break the reverence.
“No,” Storm-Bound’s proclamation cut the pregnant silence, “He shall have a name. And a chance to prove himself greater than his birth, same as any man,” He turned slightly so that he was facing the two armored figures, “Did either of you know the father?” Stout-Heart shook her head, but Agar stepped forward.
“A good man, by reputation. A good soldier. I fought with him in many raids, but never beside him. He was of the Steel-Hand family, and the mother was a daughter of the Forge-Born.”
“He can bear neither of those names,” Slate-Jaw interrupted from the cave mouth, rapping his staff on the ground to call the small group’s attention, “He is Thirst-Born. He will also need someone to care for him. No other Steel-Arm or Forge-Born dwells nearby. All the other clans have found their own safe places until the frost breaks, leagues from here.” He seemed to be looking past the Jarl and directly at the two warriors standing in the snow. Agar’s helm turned toward Stout-Heart, and his shoulders shrugged with the slightest hint of ivory peeking through his black beard.
“Comes with the honor of the Vigil. And I’ve already got three boys of my own, plus two girls.” He did nothing to hide the smile now, and even favored her with a wink. Stout-Heart muttered something long and full of hard consonant sounds, too low for any of three men to hear, and continued the string of thick oaths beneath her breath as she took deliberately stomp-like steps towards the Jarl and the baby. She had no children, and no designs on changing that any time soon, but the honor of the Vigil meant protecting the newborn child, and she wouldn’t retreat from her duty. But she didn’t have to be happy about it.
“No,” Ouric Storm-Bound stopped Stout-Heart’s boisterous march with one word, with both Agar and Slate-Jaw watching intently, “My sons are all grown, and my wife is in dire need of a new distraction.” The silence returned for a few moments, until he raised his head and smiled. The two warriors laughed at the jest, and Slate-Jaw’s solemn countenance broke long enough for him to share in the levity, albeit briefly. “I’ve a large house with few enough occupants, and we’ve raised boys before,” He held up a hand as Slate-Jaw seemed ready to interrupt, “I know he will need guidance, old friend. That’s where you come in. I’ve read of the Stone Thirst, and he will need your hand as well as mine to keep him on the right path.”
Ouric took a step forward and put a hand on Stout-Heart’s shoulder, “No need to make you a mother before your time, Thena,” her smile, obscured by the scarf, went unnoticed as she nodded her head in assent. The baby cooed softly, and the Jarl looked down with arched brows, “He should still carry something of his parentage, even if he cannot bear the family names. Agar, do you remember his father’s true Name?”
“Krom, I believe, Jarl Storm-Bound. Krom Steel-Hand.”
“Krom. A good strong name,” as the child reached one tiny hand up, the Jarl took the tiny digits between his massive thumb and forefinger, feeling the tiniest pinprick of warmth at the tips, “Fits him like a glove.”
Well, if you’ve made it this far, you might as well leave a comment. In all seriousness, thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.