Cracked and worried wood planks. The well-worn bottom of an upturned stein. A puddle of what presumably was stale beer. What time was it?
‘I’m sure there was something I was supposed to do.’ Came a familiar voice through the din of pounding war drums at the back of the engineer’s thick skull.
Thrully lifted his leaden, throbbing head out of the puddle of Bugmans’ XXX and gazed blearily around the Common Room of the Giants Head Inn, Grunthemsberg. Wobbly distorted figures got up from adjacent tables and shifted cautiously over to darker corners.
The dwarf blinked and stifled a burning, acidy, frothy, biley burp. A humid and moist quack emanated from below the table.
“I’m sure there was something I was supposed to do” he muttered to himself as he tried to focus; a few of his ‘S’s’ contracted then elongated as he fumbled the sentence through cracked, dry lips.
Where was Dragon Kiss? He checked, unsteadily, about him his grip firmly on his seat. She wasn’t by his side or fallen under the table. Gone. Why wasn’t his humble axe at this belt? He repositioned his goggles then rubbed the back of his head massaging it through his leather cowl. Even this felt odd, as if it didn’t fit him anymore. Where were his friends? Where was his shirt! He hadn’t drunk alone in decades. And certainly hadn’t had a hangover of this magnitude in even longer. Could he be…still drunk? Surely not, dwarfs can drink solidly for a whole weekend then still get up first thing on a Mornday morning and pull a pit wagon out of a mine shaft.
A man in a filthy apron appeared and began mopping at the flood plains of Thrullys’ table.
‘Where Dragon Kiss?’ Thrully blurted, realising only moments afterward that it was he who had spoken.
The rippling distorted lines on the stout yeoman’s’ face shifted; what was probably an eye brow lifted slowly.
‘Behind the bar’ said the man, his voice coarse but not without an underlying note of compassion. However, with meaning he righted the upturned stein and carefully and deliberately removed it from Thrullys’ now empty table.
The dwarf rolled back in his chair. His mouth opened and his jaw sank. Moisture sprang up under his eye lids. His heirloom, his prized hand gun that his fathers’ fathers’ father hand built whilst besieged by vile Skaven in Karak Bottkrak. So intricate and so well-crafted that if was priceless and could never be replicated or sold at any price. Or so he thought. What could have possessed him? What manner of sorcery was this? That gun was his life, his heritage, his birth right! Him! And generations before him! His mentorship, his teaching.
His addled mind scrambled for answers and his heart sped up. He immediately thought about ordering a flagon to help calm his nerves and clear his mind, but the thought of rifling through his pockets only to find them empty affronted his proud nature. But wait, he wasn’t a beggar, why was he thinking like this? You don’t become a street denizen after a mere night of revelry. Even if it was Bugmans’ he was drinking.
His whiskery brow furrowed as he closed his eyes tight and gripped the table edge. He remembered…beer. He remember…more beer. He remembered…an explosion. Several explosions. And not the good kind. Not the kind that reveals gold after the smoke and debris had cleared. Then a flash of green. And corroded armour. Greenskins! They’re never the good kind. Well, the only good kind are the kind that are not there after a good explosion and all the smoke and debris had cleared. Rain. What was it about rain? Rain doesn’t worry dwarves. Rain doesn’t worry Greenskins. Why rain? Instinctively he leant forward and rest his head on his meaty, intensive-labour-chiselled fist and outstretched his other hand for a stein. Hopeless, despairingly, he withdrew his shaking hand, clenched it into the tightest rocky, knuckled ball then fell back against the robust chair. He spent the next few minutes staring, caught up in his strained thoughts trying to recollect.
A great weight seemed to be laying him low. He was a stout warrior of many campaigns, the hardest working of craftsmen and above all a dwarf. He had been Master Engineer of King Ulthred the Feareds’ throng for decades. Even thousands of leagues under the mountains he had never felt so…compressed! As if he was carrying a tribe of giants on his back.
The barmen must have noticed his anxiety and plonked a foamy headed stein of ale in front of him. Thrulleys’ first reaction was of repulsion and nausea as his head reared away from it.
‘S’ on the house, Venger. But after that you’re going to have to move on’ again, that same surly tone, although with a lukewarm hint of morale fibre lubricating each syllable.
The dwarf tried to focus on the mans’ earnest eyes. Failing, he slumped back then reached for the beer all the same. If he could he would have asked the man why he pitied him. Unaccustomed to human generosity and their mannerisms the words to express this felled his tongue short.
He sipped. Vomit and stomach acid immediately leapt up his throat as soon as the liquid hit the back of his tongue. But he wrestled down the biliousness and felt the rich ale sploshing down through his empty stomach. The familiar taste and warming sensation took a mere moment to jolt his misty mind-The rain. The rain had been…green!
Memories came flooding back too fast for him to grasp what they were signifying or to put them in to any logical well maintained order. Wave after wave of familiar images assaulted him. Snotlings had got into the ammo cart. Spawn in the larder. Sabotage, subterfuge! Damp fuses in handguns, cannons filling with lumpy green rain. Sorcery. Hordes of orcs and trolls. Too many. His organ gun, its crew which he’d personally trained bolted as the trolls smashed through the Dwarven right flank flattening proud Irondrakes in their wake. They couldn’t stop them. Sickly green matter clogged mechanisms, everything far too wet to ignite. Dwarf artillery for which he was responsible, all laid low. Filthy green rain. Even Dragon Kiss…failed.
Dead. Hundreds of fierce, loyal, hardy dwarf veterans, dead. Comrades. Drinking partners. Butchered. The centre of the dwarf line smashed by wild, rampaging, Neanderthal orcs. The mighty war banner of Ulthred, held high and proud by Thane Guthri The Epic, trampled into the stained earth by blood mad barbarians. The left flank ridiculed and humiliated by filthy gobbos on spiders and insane greenskin contraptions of death.
The Great Cannon misfired continuously even with the powerful runes of artificers plastered all over it. The Quarrellers and the Grudge Thrower fared little better, plagued by freak mishaps or else payloads wildly off target. Ammo sailing through the green skies battered by freak winds and rain. The Irondrakes didn’t get more than a handful of shots off at skirmishing spider riders before being overrun by stinking trolls.
Thrullys’ head rolled away from his chest, his welling eyes tried to focus on the ceiling. The anguished roar of an outraged dragon cut through the commotion in his head and mercilessly slew the silence pervading the bar room. Very few Umgi have ever seen a dwarf cry. Or for that matter howl in such a disturbed manner.
The only sounds thereafter were the scraping of tables, chairs and the patter of boots beating a hasty retreat to the tavern door.
‘I should have died.’ Sobbed Thrully to the silence in general. I should have been holding the line with my comrades’. His teeth gnashed as he spat wretched curses; ‘rather than trying to oust green filth from supplies already ruined and contaminated. Brethren died because of my folly’. Tears streamed down his cheek and beard. Saliva jettisoned from his curled lips as he shook with revulsion and torment.
The tavern door burst open, a shaft of brilliant mid-morning sun cut deep into the gloomy interior. A Gromril encased dwarf, broader than the doorway, confidently crab walked in. From behind his gigantic shield and helmet visor he scanned the room. Satisfied he crab walked back out into the street. A young Runesmith in the livery of King Ulthred and bearing a long handled Runehammer of office then appeared defiantly and aloof in the doorway. This newcomer seamed shocked to see the place deserted. He spied the landlord peering at him from a doorway behind the bar. The young dwarf gave him a quizzical raised eye brow.
The proprietor slowly and gravely shook his head then disappeared into the back rooms. The newcomer eyed the place and his gaze finally rested on the sombre hunched form of Thrully.
‘Brother Thrully, thank Grungi. I’ve been searching for you.’
Not a muscle moved in the silence. The Runesmith, advanced an arm outstretched in greeting.
‘I doubt I would ever have found you were it not for that colossal howl!’
More dumbfounding silence.
The Runesmith brow furrowed and he adopted a harder edged demeanour, ‘I have a summons from King Ulthred the Feared. You are to report to him immediately.’
The engineer didn’t stir. He merely continued to outstare his beer. Knuckles white around the stein. The Runesmith became impatient at this impertinent display of disrespect.
‘Master Thrully, can you hear me? I said…’
‘I am no engineer, Beardling’. Spat the older dwarf coldly with venom and spite. ‘I can barely be considered a dwarf.’ Fresh tears welled in his eyes.
The Runesmith, not used to being addressed this way, took a moment to rally. His tone softened somewhat ‘All the same, I think you should come pretty sharpish…’
Cumbersomely and laboriously Thrully reached up and dragged the leather cowl and goggles off his head. The Runesmith gasped.
Rather than a full head of grey white, semi platted locks there was a rough shorn white scalp and flash of white Mohawk. A demented gaze met the Runesmiths’. The dead, stone cold glare caught the newcomer off guard and he took a faltering step back. Thrullys’ fists clenched and he scowled, ‘I no longer answer to any king, boy. I have taken the oath.’
‘Thrully,’ Said the younger dwarf almost softly, ‘the massacre at the crossroads was all of our undoing, not merely yours to bear alone’.
‘My presence could have shifted the tide. I faltered in my duty to the king and the throng. My kin…’
‘We all did what we could in the face of elements beyond our control or wisdom. The powers of chaos we’re aligned against us. Have you seen the lesser moon ever shine so…green?’
‘I was aware. It matters not. I should have fallen with my crew. Not swatting lesser Greenskins in my trailer.’
‘But surely…master engineer, you have not atoned to myself nor the alter of Grimnir. Proper procedures have not been addressed. What of your station, what of the Throng? What of Dragon Kiss?’
‘I am no longer permitted to use my beloved Dragon Kiss.’ He motioned toward the landlord who was spying again from the reasonable safety of the bar. ‘But keep her well.’ He hollered at the man. ‘I shall return for her in this life or the next.’
Without even turning nor a second thought the Runesmith whipped a heavy purse from his belt and threw it sideways at length towards the bar. The crunch and subsequent tinkling suggested the purse had burst showering the bar top with gold. The subsequent scrabbling, scuffing and clinking suggested the barmen was gathering up all he could find.
‘This is to be your path then?’ asked the newcomer solemnly. ‘I cannot plead with you to Judge yourself fairly at my alter?
‘The Greenskins made my choice for me before the throng even took to the field’.
The landlord cautiously sidled up to the Runesmith his laden arms outstretched.
‘I shall inform the king’ sighed the Runesmith relieving the barmen of his burden and shouldering the glistening heirloom. ‘Grimnir bless your tred, Brother Thrully and may He bear your doom directly.’
‘Aye, Bretheren. I hope he does.’
The Runesmith stopped at the tavern door, light splashing of his ornamental robes. He took one last look around the room then said in a low voice, ‘It may interest you to learn that our Lord intends to meet the Greenskin filth at Harbrough woods. He cannot hope to defeat the entire orc tribe but moves to hold it long enough for a reprieve. Reinforcements from this very town are even now moving to outflank our foe. Perhaps your doom is not so far away after all.’
The Runesmith departed to a chorus of clinking Gromril armour marching back down the street.
Thrully focused on the stein in his hand. It groaned slightly then crumpled in his fist.
The slayer stood up fast knocking the table over and away from him. ‘You got a weapon around here human? He roared toward the bar. The Landlord peered over the top. The wide eyed man disappeared into the back then came hastily round the side of the bar with Thrullys’ hand axe. It was a simple light weight, short handled affair but dwarf made, keen and hardy. The terrified man passed it to him reverently with both hands.
‘It’s yours, take it. Just don’t come back’
The dwarf took the familiar weapon gave a half nod to the barkeep then lurched toward the door. Warm sun bathed him in light stinging his eyes. He steadied himself on the door frame then looked over his shoulder with a sneer.
‘Don’t worry’ said Thrully. ‘No-one can be that unlucky. Not even me’.
…And so here ends the tale and tragic life of Engineer Thrully Fusebeard. But so too begins the story of Fusebeard the Orc Slayer…