The old dwarf’s frown split his beard the way a mine shaft split ancient rock. “In my day, it was unheard of.”
“Please, Papa. Things are different now.” His daughter bustled about the kitchen, tiny and cramped even on a dwarfish scale, preparing dinner.
“How? Different? In my day, a man never left his wife alone for an instant.”
“Snorri had to travel on business. He’d never have left if you weren’t going to be here.” She paused briefly to kiss his seamed forehead. “He knew we’d be safe with you here to watch us.”
“Still…” Whatever he was about to say was cut off as a small bundle of energy caromed off the door sill with an audible crunch and, legs pumping hard, launched through the air, the trajectory ending in his arms.
“Oof! This one grows more solid by the day.”
“I take after my Grampa,” squealed the youngster, burrowing into the old dwarf’s thick beard. “Tell me a story, Grampa!”
“Tell us a story,” came a softer voice from the doorway. A—for a dwarf—willowy tween-age dwarf leaned against the jamb and smiled at her grandfather.
His frown faded, replaced by a suspicious softening in the leathery flesh about iron-grey eyes. “She’s the spittin’ image of you at that age, daughter. Too thin by half, though!”
“Harumph. Go entertain the children and leave me to finish dinner.”
Hoisting the younger dwarf over his shoulder with the ease of one who’d pushed around boulders his own size for most of his adult life, the old dwarf passed through the doorway, pausing to kiss his granddaughter’s forehead. Then he frowned again, tapping the wood, which groaned its protest. “Wood! Harumph yourself! Stone not good enough for you? ’Twas good enough for your parents, and ours before them!”
His daughter called through the doorway, “Papa, we’re living with the humans now. We have to adopt their ways.”
“We may have to live with them, but we don’t have to be like them.” He sank down onto a thick-legged stool by the fire and swung the smaller dwarf down onto his knee. “What would you hear of, little one? Dragons? Hoards? Hordes?”
“You already said hords, Grampa.”
“Different words, same pronunciation.”
“Tell us about the old days, Grampa.” The voice came, muffled, from beneath his thick beard.
“Very well. When I was a lad, no older than you, I worked by my Pappy’s knee, delving in the mines.”
“Digging uphill both ways, no doubt,” his granddaughter observed with raised eyebrow from the doorway.
“Shows what you citified young pups know! Digging downhill. Builds character, they always said, when you had to push the fallen rock back up the hill. Dig uphill and the rock slides downhill on its own, and all you’ve got to do is watch out for your toes. So… digging downhill. Both ways!”
He smiled fondly at the girl, who smiled back with a warmth that would’ve melted even a harder heart. “It’s how you learned the rock… touching it and feeling its living pulse, tasting the dust on your lips, smelling it with every breath… the tang of iron, the sulfury miasma of coal, the intoxicating scents of silver and gold. These humans you love so much, they know nowt of this. For them, delving is a war on the rock, each inch gained by brute force, and every mineral is one and the same to them: something to be transformed to their will. But a dwarf knows the texture of the rock, understands the subtlety of each material’s uniqueness, can feel its every strength and weakness, can coax it into parting before him with the gentlest tap of steel.” He gazed into the distance. “It’s why we tunnel ten times faster than the tall ones.”
“What’s our hurry, Grampa?” The youth squirmed out from under the beard and gazed worshipfully up at his grandfather.
“No hurry, as such. We have the patience of the stone in our hearts, just as its essence runs through our veins. But speed’s a matter of pride when a dwarf goes a-courtin’ his sweetheart. A lady dwarf wants to know her man can dig through stone like floodwater sweepin’ away sand, else she’ll find another man who can dig better.”
The tween dwarf blushed from her perch in the doorway. “Tell us about metalworking, Grampa.”
“The love of iron runs even deeper than the love of a good lady dwarf,” he observed, not without a touch of malice. “Deeper even than the love of gold and silver and other precious things. Iron’s a dwarf’s soul, and iron’s his will. It speaks to us, and we listen in our deepest hearts, and together nothing can stop us. Not goblins, not trolls… not even these humans or the dark things that dwell in the deeps of the earth. No one understands iron like a dwarf.” He cleared his throat, and at the last instant, caught his granddaughter’s eyes and swallowed instead of spitting.
“Humans aren’t so bad, Gram.”
“No, nary so bad at all, I confess. Of late, I’ve spoken with John Henry, one of their miners. He’s a good man, and he too fears the new machines his people are bringing to the mines. No, we can deal with them—some of them, at least—and we’ve oft made alliance against a common foe. They’re soft until push comes to shove, then their spines stiffen up almost as well as ours. They may not like us much, but they respect us, and that’s better. If we’ve got to live above the ground, there are worse places to live, and worse neighbors.”
“It’s true, Grampa. Here we have opportunities you never dreamed of.”
“What? Working in their factories?” This time he did spit, and his granddaughter frowned and knelt to clean it from the wooden floor with a rag pulled from her pocket.
“It’s a new and different age, Grampa. There’s nothing so wrong with the old ways, but things change. Sometimes for the better. We can have luxuries like these!” She gestured at her pink—pink!—hobnailed boots.
“Still, it’s a violation. Coal was meant to cook iron and smelt gold, not power these steam things the humans love so much.”
“You’re just sore that a steam-powered drill can dig nearly as fast as a dwarf.”
“Sore? Nae, lass, not sore. Scared, more like. It’s early days. What shall it be like when they’ve had time to perfect these infernal devices? When they have no need of us to dig their mines and grub their ores?”
A squeaky voice emerged from beneath the beard. “They’ll still need us for their iron. Nobody understands iron like a dwarf!”
The old dwarf patted his grandson fondly. “Truth, young’un. But look around you. Where’s the need for dwarfish iron when they have their own steel, smelted faster and in larger quantities in these manufactories of theirs? Gone are the days when a human would wait a year and pay a prince’s ransom for dwarfish mail or a dwarfish sword. Man-flesh is softer than ours, goblins have learned their lesson and stay far away, and trolls are growing scarce, even in the hills. For carving that soft flesh, even human iron suffices.”
The young dwarf emerged from beneath the beard and gave a delicious shudder, eyes wide. “Have you ever killed a troll, Grampa? A goblin? A human?”
“More of each than you have hairs on your head, young’un.” He glared ferociously at his grandson, who giggled.
“No, not really. Those days are long gone. A few goblins, when I was young. Never a human. I once helped hew down a troll, but I was one of half a dozen dwarfs, and the beast never had a chance. They’re slow and easy to fight; if you have a couple helpers to dance about and hold their attention, you can chop them into bits afore they know they’ve been in a fight.”
“Ahem. What are you telling the children now?” Their mother’s stern face peered into the dining room.
“Nothing I haven’t told ’em before, a dozen or more times,” he shot back. Then, softer, “They wanted to know about the old days, daughter. They need to know these things. The old days can come again.”
A snort came from the kitchen. “Only in the dreams of your generation, Papa. That world has passed on, and it’s time you accepted it gracefully.”
“Grace is the sign of a poor loser,” he grumbled. Then, perking up, he bounced the youngest on his knee and smiled. “So what newfangled things are you learning in school?”
“Oh, nothing, Grampa.”
“Seems like a terrible waste of time, then.”
“Well, we’ve learned some games. We play Hunt the Troll with the human children. They run faster than we do, but we’re stronger. So we hold the troll and they run around behind and push it over. Then we all jump on it.”
The older dwarf looked at his granddaughter for help. “Shirah?”
She smiled. “It’s like the dwarfish game you taught us, only they use a log for the troll. The humans can’t push us over, and if we jumped on them, we’d flatten them like an iron bar in the smith’s hands and never hear the end of it.”
“Ah.” He winked at her and returned his gaze to his grandson. “And are you the fiercest of the troll hunters?”
“You’d be proud, Grampa! Wham! Crash! Down they go, and stomped to splinters!” The boy whacked the wooden table to demonstrate, and the dishes jumped and splinters flew.
“Dafydd!” his sister hissed. “Mom will have your hide if you damage the table.”
“Peace, Shirah. There’s no harm done.” The old dwarf patted the boy on his thick thatch of hair, then gathered him into a fierce hug.
“Dinner’s ready!” came a shout from the kitchen. “Shirah, come help me serve.”
The girl slipped nimbly past her grandfather, pausing only to peck him on the cheek. From the kitchen came a wash of warm air and the smell of baking bread.
The old dwarf shook his head. “There are worse things than progress, I suppose.” He slung his giggling grandson over his shoulder, and carried him to the lavatory to wash his hands.
— Geoff Hart