Tergon finds himself in an unknown land, looking to capitalise on his unique skills
|The great dwarven city of R’gar was ablaze, the flames clawing up at the black sky, a false sunset against the blanket of dark smoke. From the city gates a disorderly line of refugees trudged disconsolately, carrying their belongings in carts and rucksacks. Occasionally one would stop and turn to look longingly at their home, watching it be swallowed by the greedy embers.
Atop a small hill that local folk knew as Axe’s Crest, Tergon sat straight-legged with his glowing eyes fixed on the flaming city. A shower of ash gently rained down upon him, feeling like the first snow of winter. A great winter of discontent, perhaps, he thought to himself.
“All that gold, lost,” Dax said from beside Tergon. “Great halls, gone. What a bloody waste.”
Tergon scratched his thick, matted beard and nodded quietly in agreement. He rose clumsily to his feet then mounted his pony. “Sometimes it’s what must be done,” he said, feeling to his belt for the heavy bag of coin.
“Aye. Doesn’t feel right though.”
“It doesn’t have to lad. Let’s go.”
Jordi Halfgoat had worked at the Dancing Dragon for fifteen years and in his time he had seen all sorts: halfmen; mummers; dopplegangers; soldiers; refugees; even, once, something that he could have sworn was a zombie. Today was something a little different, even for him. Sat among his usual crowd of heavy drinkers and card players, was an armour-clad dwarf. Now, he had nothing against dwarves in themselves, in fact, he did some business with a good bunch of dwarves in the north (tight buggers, always had to squeeze every coin from them), but this one made him feel uneasy.
Jordi had heard him first. The clunking of metal against metal, which sounded like chains rattling and reminded him, uncomfortably, of some of the stories of the palace dungeons. Turning round he had seen a dwarf wearing thick, heavy iron armour and carrying a huge axe.
“Here you go,” Jordi Halfgoat said, presenting a clay pot of ale to the newcomer. Because an important part of his job was mingling with clientele and learning and sharing stories of the road, Jordi felt compelled to make conversion. “Getting a lot of dwarves in here lately.”
The newcomer turned with a scowl. His heavy brows were black as soot and his weathered cheeks had a red flush that could have been anger or windburn.
Jordi tried a new tact. “You don’t see the likes of metal in these parts often, especially not armour; you must be a man of means. Jordi is the name, I’m the innkeep. Will you be requiring a room?”
This time the armoured dwarf’s companion interjected. “We will. Food as well please, Jordi.”
“Excellent. Mr…” After allowing the pause to hang in the air for a second too long, Jordi decided to take his leave, pretending to clean nearby tables whilst keeping an ear out for any news.
“Tergon, we’re too open here,” the companion said when the innkeeper had left.
“When you’re two dwarves travelling in human-country, you’re going to be open wherever you are. If we have enemies then let them present themselves openly too,” Tergon said, smiling.
“Not everyone plays by the rules.”
“That includes us Dax. Don’t worry. Tomorrow is a day of opportunity in the land of plenty.”
Jordi’s arrival halted any further discussion, with the presentation of a sizzling goat leg and a bowl of soft potatoes. As with all dwarves at the dinner table, all debate was forgotten, the clay cutlery was ignored, and the food was quickly devoured, then the two left. Every patron watched them go – for many, it was the first time they had seen metal in such a large quantity.
At first light, the two dwarves left the inn, picking up their ponies on the way. Tergon’s armour glistened in the morning sunlight whereas Dax’s boiled leather jerkin looked decidedly dull and normal in comparison.
A few days later, a man on a huge grey stallion had arrived at the Dancing Dragon. Jordi Halfgoat thought it was incredibly odd that he should see two heavily armoured folk within such a short space of time, especially in these parts. The man’s face was obscured by a visor and his voice was deep and thick. “Have you seen two dwarves?” he had wanted to know.
“There are dwarves everywhere at the moment,” Jordi had replied conversationally. “What with what happened at R’gar and all.”
“One will have been wearing armour.”
“Ah yes. You see metal so rarely nowadays that you can’t help but notice. Not the most friendly sort, mind, I tried…”
“Where did they go?” The voice was cold, impatient.
It often seemed to be the case that those who could afford to flaunt metal were not the most polite of individuals. Often they were dangerous too, not the sort to make enemies of. “They rode north my lord, through the woods and towards the capital.”
Getting in through the gates of the city had been simple enough for the two dwarves. A few coins spread into the right palms and they were waved through with little ceremony.
“There he is,” Tergon said. “Remember the plan, boy. And don’t forget: today I’m a lord.”
Dax smirked and nodded. Climbing to his feet he walked over to the bar and perched himself onto one of the stools, then ordered two more drinks. Nodding his head to the music, he turned to the pale elf next to him. “Great music here!”
“Loud is not always great,” the elf replied drily.
Dax laughed a little too quickly and a lot too loudly. “Absolutely. Can’t stand this stuff myself.”
Dax flushed then spoke in staccato sentences. “Right. Well, anyway, good meeting you,” he said, reaching over to take his drinks. As he took hold of the two tankards, he allowed his grip on one to slip, which caused it to spill over the elf’s silken shirt. “I am so sorry, let me get that for you,” Dax said, reaching over to wipe the harassed elf’s shirt with the sleeve of his own. “I’ll just…”
Tergon’s paw-like fist interrupted Dax, crunching into the back of his head like a lance and knocking him sprawling from the stool.
“Sorry my friend,” Tergon said to the elf, pushing Dax out of the way and kicking him back towards their seats. “Let me buy you another. Bloody servants.”
“Indeed. The boy has quite the tongue on him.”
“Doesn’t always know when to hold it in front of his betters. Lord Tergon’s my name. Allow me to buy you another drink.”
“Thank you. Quite the impressive metalwork there, you must be from one of the Fine Families to be able to procure something like that.”
Dax watched from his table as Tergon did what he so often did, speak with that silky silver tongue until the target’s guard was down. It was mastery in motion, almost like watching theatre with the grand, exaggerated gestures, the nods and smiles at the correct time. It was amazing how disarming a smile could be. Tergon had once said to him that all people desired validation and all he did was give it to them.
Before long, Tergon and his acquaintance came to the table. Dax knew his role now. Mouth shut, be ready to refill drinks and speak only when spoken to. He was still learning the craft and, at 23 years old, was only a minor by dwarf measures.
“Well, we must take our leave,” Dax heard Tergon saying after some time, speaking in an exaggerated, yet believable, noble accent. The two ‘lords’ shared a hearty handshake, but it was cut short by a theatrical gasp from Tergon.
“The Lion of the Outlands!” he exclaimed, his eyes wide, staring at the obsidian ring upon the elf’s finger.
“Yes, the lion. The only ring of its type,” the lord replied. Unable to resist, his suggestibility softened by the bewitching effect of alcohol, he had to ask. “Come now, what is the matter?”
“Last night I had a dream about a pack of vultures attacking the Lion of the Outlands. The lion fought valiantly but eventually the vultures overpowered him and picked his carcass clean. This was shown to me by the gods, my lord. Having seen your ring I am sure that the lion is you.
The elf paused, his long, serpentine face frowning. He took another sip from his wine, which was instantly topped up by Dax. “A vision?”
“Yes my lord.”
Scrunching his narrow eyes to focus better and shake the grogginess from his head, the elf spoke slowly. “I find it difficult to believe…”
Dax knew this dance. It was an old-fashioned staring contest. Don’t blink first.
“I find it quite the coincidence,” the elf then said, but trailed off, his voice cracking slightly.
“Heed my words,” Tergon said sternly. “Protect yourself.”
Tergon and Dax then got to their feet and walked out of the inn without turning round, leaving the stunned lord sitting in an uneasy trance.
It took three more nights before the lord approached them in the same inn. He spoke quickly and excitedly. “I decided to be cautious and heed your advice so had three guards follow me for the next few days. After the first night I decided that it was all foolishness, however my wife, a superstitious young lady, insisted that I persist. The next night I was returning home and was set on by four gang members, who circled me like birds of prey. They had those ghastly tattoos on their faces. The leader spoke to me, identifying me by name, and told me they were going to kill me. And do you know what he had tattooed on his cheek?”
“What?” Dax said.
“The wings of a vulture.” He paused to let the news sink in. “Fortunately, I had my guards following me. They struck from the shadows and made short work of the scoundrels.”
“I am pleased you escaped safely, my lord.”
“Thanks to your warning. I was not sure if I could trust it at first, but you have certainly proven your value. Do you know who I am?”
“My lord?” Tergon replied with a deep frown on his face.
“I am Lord Farhwa, advisor to the king.”
“Advisor to the king? I had no idea.” Dax couldn’t help but smile at this notion.
“I come to this inn to drink with the common man and learn of the city’s attitude to his grace. To have met my saviours like this…”
Farhwa finished his wine and wiped his red lips with the side of his thumb and smiled. “You were not completely honest about who you are either.”
Tergon’s hand automatically went under the table to the one-handed axe at his belt.
“Tergon of H’gar, the prophet who predicted the Great Disaster. No one has heard from you in two years.”
After a brief pause, Tergon released the axe and forced a smile.
“The king would like to meet you, he’s heard a lot about you. Come to the palace tomorrow at first light.” Farhwa said, then left.
“Pretty risky them knowing who you are, Tergon,” Dax said. “There are some who would pay well for information on Tergon of H’gar’s whereabouts.
“Maybe. Very few know what really happened on that day though, and we are a long way from home. This is a golden opportunity.”
“And I suppose we’re sticking with ‘lord’ Tergon?”
“Don’t forget it. If you want to keep those pockets full then you will bloody well call me ‘lord’, you little sod. Everything has to be believable, title, accent and all.” Tergon scratched his pockmarked face as he considered the situation. “From now on, keep your eyes sharp boy, we need to stay a step ahead, just in case the past is watching us from the shadows.”
The two dwarves climbed to their feet to leave but their exit was blocked by a short, plump man with a flat, round nose and a toothy smile. “’Old on lads, think I’ve got a bit of info you might be int’rested in.”
“Make it quick,” Tergon said.
The man held out his hand expectantly. “Guy wearing that much metal must be able to pay a few coins for a bit of golden info, surely?”
Reluctantly (as all dwarves were reluctant to part with anything of any value), Tergon obliged, scowling miserably as he did so.
“So this is it, right: earlier today this fella, big lad, massive arms like anvils, comes in the inn and starts asking around about some dwarf called Tergon. Says he’s got some business with him. I thinks to meself, fella like that only has one type of business, if you know what I mean.”
“What did he ask?”
“Who’d seen ya, where they’d seen ya, when they’d seen ya. Folks round here are a tight-lipped bunch but I’d bet ya a piece of metal that someone spilled it.”
Tergon’s bushy eyebrows furrowed further, creating a nest of hair across his ruddy forehead. “What did he look like?”
“Like I said, big fella, dark skin. No tattoos. Most distinct thing though, loads of metalwork on his face, piercings all down his cheeks. Dunno how anyone can afford that but it probably means that he’s good. Which means you might wanna get out of here.”
“You got anything else?”
Tergon pulled out more coins but the rotund man shook his head.
“Metal, I want metal. Coins ain’t worth anything anymore. Trus’ me, it’ll be worth it to ya, I know a lot…Tergon of H’gar.”
Upon hearing this, Tergon thrust out an iron-gloved hand and gripped the stranger’s neck, pinning him to the wall. “Keep your mouth shut,” he said, then, realising where he was, released his grip. He dropped a small shard of iron on the table then walked out without turning round. Everyone in the inn watched them leave.
Two winters passed and Tergon had been prophesising with startling accuracy, each vision more terrible than the last. Sitting comfortably upon a large, steel chair in the king’s private chambers, he gorged himself on strong, rich wine and sweet pastries.
“And you are sure of this?” the king was saying with a frown etched into his face.
“The heavens have told it true, sire,” Tergon replied severely, brushing a spatter of wine from his silk shirt but only succeeding in smudging it, like a bloody fingerprint. “It will start with the animals – the horses, cows, goats - but, soon enough, the wraiths will come for the people of your keep. And you. The shadows are hungry, my lord.”
A loud, officious knock hammered onto the thick wooden doors. Cautiously, the king wandered over to the peephole, nodding a few times, frowning a little more each time until his face was scrunched into a scowl, the lines of age showing like crinkles in paper. He turned to Tergon and, speaking sombrely, informed him of the tidings.
“Three horses were found dead by the river. It may be too late. Tergon, go to your quarters and await my command. This is grave news you have delivered but I am grateful that you have given us fair warning. As always, you will be rewarded handsomely. I may need you shortly.”
Tergon nodded then began the long descent down the narrow stone stairs of the king’s tower. When he stepped into the morning air, the chill whipped his face like the lash of an enforcer and caused him to huddle under his lion skin cloak. He paced rapidly across the courtyard and into the large quarters that had been custom built a year previously, after he had proved his worth as a prophet who the heavens whispered to. He considered the past two years and the successful predictions that he had made: the three month drought, where water was painfully scarce because something had defiled the reservoir, which had led to great profit in maritime trade with neighbouring K’tar. Then there was the famine where the granary stocks, believed to be plentiful, had been found to be rotten and in lower quantities than the records would suggest. Although this famine was quickly dealt with through rationing and long-term farming accountability plans, it still led to great opportunity with Leehk, who exported dried meats and fish. That had made him a rich man indeed.
Walking into his quarters, Tergon was greeted by Dax.
“This doesn’t sit right with me,” the young dwarf began. He had filled out recently, Tergon observed, and his forearms were beginning to thicken, ready to carry the weight of a dwarven axe.
“You complained about the fighting too, lad. Your heart’s too soft.”
“We nearly had a war on our hands last time! How many fathers and husbands passed in the battles last year? A hundred? Two
“My teacher always used to ask me questions he knew the answer to. Are you my teacher, lad?”
“Four hundred!” Dax spat, ignoring the sarcasm.
“Aye, and that helped to buy the cart and horses that you and that little lady friend of yours prance around in, don’t forget. The king chose to fight that war, we just helped it along.”
“Selling weapons. It wasn’t right.”
“No one forced you to do anything, boy. This business of ours isn’t for people with mushy centres, it’s for proper dwarves. We’re prophets for profit. Everything we use is metal, none of this clay or wooden rubbish. We live the life we deserve, so don’t give me this crap.”
“We’re criminals though, Tergon.”
“Everyone’s a criminal in this city lad,” Tergon replied, picking up a thinly rolled tobacco paper and placing it into the steel holder. He sucked deeply, considering for a moment “Good work with the horses Dax.”
Dax lowered his eyes to the floor in response then walked quickly out, slamming the door behind him. Tergon simply sat back and enjoyed the hot feeling of smoke snaking into his chest. This time he had predicted that people within the city would start to die, including the king. There was no moral objection, the king, although friendly enough, was mismanaging the kingdom’s finances horribly, which had led to the crown being in debt to some very unsavoury characters. Tergon’s viewpoint was that someone was going to take the money and the metal, so it may as well be him. A few lives here and there were of little consequence given the huge population of the city. But was regicide a step too far?
He was snapped out of his reverie by two loud thumps on the door. A solider, probably. The knock had that sense of dutiful courtesy that the king’s men always showed. “His grace requests your attendance in the throne room,” the man had said, then left.
Tergon went and put his armour on – the king liked people to see his warrior prophet, he believed him to be the first of his kind, a dwarf who could fight and speak with the gods. Indeed, he was the first of his kind, a prophet making great profit.
The next stage in his prophecy would require sacrifice and he had two suitable offerings in mind. George and Jerimiah Horsham had recently been accused of raping a young girl, but without further witnesses, given the twins standing in society, they were due to walk away unscathed. The people’s justice was blind but not silent.
This was what Dax could never see. Yes, sometimes people had to die for the prophecies to come true, but they were people who deserved to die. Even the horses from this morning were old pack horses that were half-blind and had lost their legs – killing them softly with a painless poison was the humane thing to do. Of course, Tergon didn’t try to fool himself that he was a hero; he didn’t give to the poor or even put others before himself – he was not a good man. But he was not a bad man either.
Tergon left a note with instructions for Dax in the usual hiding place, then made his way towards the throne room where the king awaited his attendance. It wouldn’t be long before the boy turned up again.
Arriving in the throne room, Tergon took in his surroundings. There were the usual guards at the entrance and flanking the long, carpeted aisle leading to the throne. At the soldiers’ sides were weapons of crude steel, expensive and difficult to forge, however sharp as icicles. The ceiling was high and adorned with tapestries of great battles from previous ages, great human armies defeating every manner of race, including dwarf, Tergon noticed. At the centre of the room, perched upon the throne like a dragon upon its roost, was the king, dressed in regal finery with a polished iron longsword on his lap.
“Good evening your highness,” Tergon said brightly, striding along the aisle. The king didn’t reply. His face betrayed an unusual frostiness. “A great winter is upon us sire, we must prepare well.”
“Prepare for what, may I ask?”
“Prepare for the wraiths, for they will take everything.”
“These wraiths, do they operate in the shadows Tergon?” This time there was definitely a spit of venom in the words.
“Aye, sire. They operate unseen and invisible, spreading poison through our land. You’ve seen that it has started with the horses, soon it could be your people. I have heard rumours of people coming down with a terrible sickness…”
“Heard, Tergon? Or started?”
Tergon looked quickly over his shoulder to see that the guards at the door had sidestepped in front of it, crossing their swords over the entrance which blocked any chance of a quick retreat. On his left and right was an impenetrable wall of trained fighters armed with steel, far cruder than his own axe, however far more numerous too. In front of him, the king was slouched in his throne, lips turned up and head bowed slightly down, with disconcerting dark eyes staring up at the dwarf. The king raised his right arm limply and gestured towards Tergon.
It truly is a great winter of discontent. This is what a fall from grace feels like.
In that moment Tergon thought back to the past three years, events flashing in front of him like fireworks. Arranging for fires to be started at fourteen different oil refineries in R’gar, the great dwarven city; walking away in a cloud of ash, destruction and strangled orange flame; paying local thugs to attack Lord Furhwa; blocking filtration systems in the city’s granaries so the stores went bad; rerouting sewage into the drinking water; standing in front of the king and making prophecy after prophecy, each bolder than the last, for gold and metal.
Perhaps I deserve this. The gods frown upon a prophet for profit.
“These wraiths are not the only ones who operate from the shadows, Tergon,” the king sneered. “You do too. As does he.”
From the back of the room strode a colossus, Tergon estimated him to be about six foot six, with broad shoulders and a thick, wide chest. He wore a metal-link vest, metal belt and metal ringlet trousers. With each step, the man clinked in a slow rhythm, like the ticking of a clock.
My death clock.
“Tergon,” the man growled, with a sinister grin. He licked his lips with his red tongue, revealing a round, metal piercing in the centre. His cheeks were pockmarked with steel studs, creating rivets across his face like glistening tears. “I’ve been trying to get to you for a long time.”
“If only I’d have known then I would have come and found you,” Tergon lied, his eyes darting back and forth to try to perceive an escape route. Physically, he was about a hundred pounds lighter and several feet smaller than his opponent. “How can I help you, Dies Irae?”
Dies Irae smiled wider, revealing black fillings and a coated iron tooth. “You can’t. And I’m afraid I can’t help you, either. The dwarves aren’t happy Tergon.”
“They never are.”
“They’re not happy at you. Nor is the king. A false prophet, one who creates his own wisdom. The first of your kind.”
“You snake,” Thildur spat. Chants of ‘snake’, ‘traitor’ and ‘devil’ exploded from the guardsmen, furious that their king had been risked in such close proximity to this dangerous trickster.
“Allegedly,” Tergon replied coolly, although the sweat on his brow and his flushed cheeks betrayed his casual tone.
“George and Jerimiah Horsham. Sound familiar?” Dies asked.
“Should they?” Tergon replied.
“According to this note, yes.”
This time Tergon had no reply. To have attained the note and understood it could only mean one thing.
“Now, for your judgement,” Dies said. Turning to the king, he asked: “My lord, command it and it shall be so.”
Dax? Really? How could you?
For the first time, Tergon felt himself breaking. A tear forced its way out, unbidden, meandering down his bristled cheeks. Judgement, he could take. But betrayal?
“He dies,” the king said coldly.
Dies strode forward, with the march turning into a run. Lifting his huge greatsword above his head he roared something unfathomable but, to Tergon, completely comprehensible.
Time to die.
The greatsword swung through the air effortlessly and came slicing down towards Tergon, who had still barely managed to move. Through reflex more than response, Tergon arced his axe high to meet the sword, taking most of the force from the blow, but unable to stop it from landing on his armoured shoulder, knocking him to the floor. Tergon gasped for air but could find none. Groping around he realised that his armour had not been pierced, but the force of the blow had knocked all wind from him and left him prone and vulnerable. His brown-orange eyes could only plead as Dies stood above him like a wraith in the fires of hell, raising his greatsword for the blow of judgement.
They say that in the final moment everything is in slow motion and your senses are heightened. Tergon could testify to this. He could hear a guard grating his teeth to his left and another screaming for his head to his right. He could smell the stale sweat of a guard who had been on duty for fifteen hours without rest and hear the fast, shallow breathing of excitement all around him. He could taste the metallic tang of the end on the edge of his tongue.
For metal I lived and because of metal I will die. The first of my kind.
He could see through the haze of fear and the multiple rainbow-tinted strands of death. The inevitability of darkness and shadow taking him from this world. He hear the ping of elastic, the rush of something parting the air as if were a great sea. He could see the shaft coming his way.
Dies dropped to one knee, in an executioner’s stance, his arms still high above his head. But then his sword fell to the floor, harmlessly. A crystal of thin, red blood trickled from his neck. His teeth were gritted in a horrifying death grin, frozen into place by the arrow that had harpooned his throat. Breaking his fall was the yellowed, crumpled note that Tergon had left for Dax a mere hour previously, intercepted by a hunter that would pursue his prey until victory or death.
Tergon looked into the broken shadows that garlanded the room’s walls and, to his great relief and surprise, saw the bloodied vision of Dax, standing slumped over, one arm hanging limp, breathing heavily. His left eye was swollen over in a black mass and his nose was twisted like a boxer’s.
Great shot, lad. But now we’re dead anyway.
The king screamed something incomprehensible and the soldiers, frozen in shock, stirred and charged, some towards Dax at the far end of the room and some towards Tergon in the centre. Tergon forced himself to his feet, ready to die with dignity in the honourable way intended for all dwarves.
For gold and metal.
An explosive whistle seared the air, followed by a volcanic eruption of flame and smoke that left everyone’s ears ringing and eyes watering. When the smoke cleared and the noise died away, all that was left in the throne room was the king, his guards and the enormous prone body of Dies Irae.
“Find him!” the king screamed. “Find him!”
It may not surprise you to know that this isn’t my final chapter. Some people’s deeds are catalysts for their own deaths. Today was not my day to go, but then, I feel like I say that a lot. At times like this, I really do believe that the heavens must have a grander plan. Perhaps one day they will speak to me.
When Dax left me, Dies had followed him and beaten seven shades of…well, he’d hurt him pretty bad. What actually went on, I don’t think I’ll ever find out, Dax is still barely speaking to me. From what I can discern, Dies had got hold of the note from my quarters when I responded to the king’s summons. My best guess is that the king’s ear had been tainted before that though, and that Dies intended to use the note as the final nail in my coffin.
So here I am, fleeing a city again with my old friend, the lad Dax. Prophets for profit. The first of our kind. Market conditions in this part of the world are poor, it’s time to find a new land to set up in. Maybe this time I’ll keep a lower profile. Or maybe not.
Gold and metal will drive us, gold and metal will sustain us. But I’m not ready for the final stage yet, there’s too much metal to be made…