Author: D.P. Prior
Page count: 546
I was born in the South East of England in the late sixties, just in time to get a good sniff at the Summer of Love.
I spent most of my childhood immersed in fantasy and SF novels as well as Marvel comics. I also had an unhealthy obsession with D&D and was, for a long time, a member of the rather dodgy wargaming society at the Archery recreation ground.
After studying theatre at Lewes I did a season as Father Christmas, worked as a lighting and sound technician, and then trained for three years to be a Mental Health Nurse. I started in one of the Victorian asylums but ended up at the University of Sussex.
Once qualifying, I was immediately off to Aberystwyth to study for a BA in Drama. I also studied Classics and Medieval History and ended up specializing in Acting and Intercultural Theatre.
I gained twenty years of varied experience in mental health, working in acute services, crisis resolution, management of violence and aggression, and eating disorders. This was interspersed with a five month postulancy with the Carmelite Order in Melbourne and masters studies at the University of Notre Dame in Western Australia.
On my second sojourn in Australia, following the birth of my son, Theo, I began work on my first completed novel, The Resurrection of Deacon Shader. This went through many iterations and ended up forming the raw material for Cadman’s Gambit, book one of the Shader series. It was at this time that I took to wearing a poncho and Panama hat whilst chopping firewood. It seemed to help with the writing at the time, but now I have my doubts.
I founded and moderated the Mysticism Unbound discussion group to help explore some of the themes for my postgraduate research into Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty. Although the group eventually closed, it has subsequently been resurrected twice and is currently flourishing on Facebook.
Following my return from Australia I trained to become a Personal trainer and set up my own gym (Fitness Instruction for Strength and Health). I specialized in resistance training and worked exclusively with private clients until I sold the gym.
I began to edit professionally in 2009 during a trip to Chicago and this developed into a flourishing business (Homunculus Editing Services).
Since 2011 I have been a full-time author and editor.
I am married to Paula and have two children, Theo and Cordelia.
My chief influences as a writer are: David Gemmell, R.E. Howard, Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Stephen Donaldson, Joe Abercrombie, and Mary Doria Russell.
I love hearing from readers, so if you have any feedback on the books or just want to say hi, please email me at email@example.com and I promise to get back to you.
Tell us about your book:
The Nameless Dwarf is the single volume edition of the Complete Chronicles of the Nameless Dwarf:
1. The Ant-Man of Malfen
2. The Axe of the Dwarf Lords
3. The Scout and the Serpent
4. The Ebon Staff
5. Bane of the Liche Lord
The dwarves have gone!
Thousands have been slaughtered in the blood-drenched streets of their ravine city by one of their own wielding a demonic axe.
The survivors have fled beyond the mountains, heading into a realm haunted by the nightmares of a twisted god.
When Nils Fargin, son of an underworld boss, is hired to find them, he travels with his client to seek the advice of a lowlife mage. With what he learns, he should have asked for more money.
The trail leads them to the domain of the terrifying Ant-Man, who is rumored to eat the flesh of anyone refusing to pay his toll.
And as if that wasn’t enough, it turns out Nils’s client is none other than the Nameless Dwarf, better known to his kind as the Ravine Butcher.
The Nameless Dwarf is an epic tale of remorse and redemption that pits a whiskerless thief, a guilt-driven assassin, a consumptive wizard, and an amnesiac dwarf against the worst imaginings of a craven mind.
But the companions bring troubles of their own, not least of which is an ancient grimoire that leads them inexorably towards a forest of tar and an evil that threatens the existence of an entire race.
The last hope of the dwarves comes from the unlikeliest of sources: a mythical city beneath the waves, an axe from the age of heroes, and the Nameless Dwarf, in whose veins flows the blood of legends.
The Nameless Dwarf: The Complete Chronicles contains all five books of the Chronicles of the Nameless Dwarf, fully revised and including all the original covers and a stunning map of Aethir.
Priced individually, these books cost:
The Ant-Man of Malfen – $0.99
The Axe of the Dwarf Lords – $2.99
The Scout and the Serpent – $2.99
The Ebon Staff – $2.99
Bane of the Liche Lord – $3.99
By buying The Nameless Dwarf you get all 5 books for $5.99, which represents a saving of $7.96
It was against the laws of the dwarves to act in the world beyond their city, to study the old texts, or to enter the underworldâ€”and with good reason. The deceptions of the Demiurgos, Father of the Abyss, are everywhere, and once before they brought betrayal and death on a scale that must never be repeated.
When they are accosted by one of their own with a demonic axe found on the brink of the Abyss, drastic measures are needed. The link between axe and wielder is broken by a helm of scarolite, and the lawbreaker is held in stasis in the bowels of the Ravine City, Arx Gravis. To complete his shame, his name is taken from him, permanently removed from history.
When this Nameless Dwarf is awakened by the voice of the knight, Deacon Shader, he becomes embroiled in the battles against the unweaving of all creation by the technocrat, Sektis Gandaw. He later partakes in a quest to find three artifacts with which to shatter the lingering power of the black axe and free himself from the scarolite helm. Too late, it is revealed as a trap laid by the Demiurgos and his spawn, the homunculi, and the Nameless Dwarf returns to Arx Gravis as a brutal dictator, slaughtering his kin by the thousands.
Finally, his tyrannical rule is brought to an end by his closest friend, the assassin Shadrak the Unseen. With the axe destroyed and the scarolite helm broken, the Nameless Dwarf realizes the magnitude of his atrocities. A mere few hundred dwarves have survived his reign of terror, and they have fled Arx Gravis in fear of what he might do next.
Hearing rumors that they have headed into the nightmare land of Qlippoth, where they will surely face extinction, the Nameless Dwarf hires the son of a New Jerusalem guild boss to help him find them.
What reviewers are saying:
“… so excellent, so Fafhrd and the Mouser type good – you remember those stories by Fritz Lieber, that you have to read at least three of these Nameless Dwarf stories to appreciate how absolutely fantastic they are.” – Pinky Mo
“… it just doesn’t get any better that this.” – Ray Nicholson
“D.P. has established a fan for life in me” – Scott Poe
How long did it take to write the book?
It’s taken almost 3 years for the entire Nameless Dwarf series to reach completion. I began work on The Ant-Man of Malfen in Chicago in 2009 and finished book 5, Bane of the Liche Lord in Florida 2012.
What inspired you to write the book?
The Nameless Dwarf is a character from my Shader series of epic fantasy novels. He made quite an impression in that series and so I wanted to follow up on his story.
Talk about the writing process. Did you have a writing routine? Did you do any research, and if so, what did that involve?
Generally I write the first draft as quickly as I can (usually 6-12 weeks). I then sit on the novel for a while and then begin the lengthy process of revisions. This is followed by reading aloud to my wife and son, revising again, and then 3-4 rounds of copy-editing and further revisions to the content as required. I find it best if I work on a particular scene each morning from about 5.30 AM, before anyone else is awake in the house.
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book?
I just hope the readers get transported to the world and enjoy identifying with the characters. I hope they will have a few laugh out loud moments, but also get wrapped up in the pathos. There are a lot of emotions flying about in these tales, and a lot of dramatic tension.
Where can we go to buy your book?
Any other links or info you’d like to share?
For all info on The Nameless Dwarf and Shader please visit: http://dpprior.blogspot.co.uk
Excerpt from book:
Nils ducked into the tavern’s porch and pushed his rain-drenched hair out of his face. He shivered and hugged himself, wondering how clear sky in every direction could suddenly give way to a sagging sheet of blackness.
The cracked wooden sign groaned in protest as the wind buffeted it back and forth. Its crude painting of a flaming skull leered down at him and set his guts to churning. Looked like a glimpse of the afterlife, the sort of thing that should’ve made a guildsman think seriously about the straight an’ narrow. Fat chance of that, though, far as Nils was concerned.
His teeth chattered of their own accord as he squinted up at the lettering. Where the Abyss had the cold come from? Only minutes ago it’d been sweltering. If he’d known it was gonna be like this, he’d have packed his sheepskin jerkin and knitted hat. He could almost hear Mom’s nagging voice all the way from New Jerusalem: “What did I tell you, Nils Fargin? You’re just like your father: you never listen, the pair of you.”
His eyes watered with the effort of reading. He could make out â€˜The’ and was half sure the last word was â€˜Skull’. Didn’t take no genius to work out the one in the middle was â€˜Grinning’. He felt his chest swell with pride. See, he hadn’t let no one down. He’d done his job, no messing.
Nils gave a quick butcher’s at his companion, who waited beneath a barren yew. The dwarf’s face was swamped by a mass of sodden hair and beard. He, too, was hugging himself for warmth, but other than that he stood stock-still. So still, in fact, he appeared as rooted as the tree. His somber clothes, all blacks and browns, merged with the charcoal skies. If Nils hadn’t known he was there, he’d have looked straight through him.
Sticking up above the dwarf’s shoulder was the cloth-wrapped head of an axe. He carried a bulging pack on his back, and whatever was inside had scraped and clanged as they walked.
Shifty bastards, dwarves, Nils thought, not for the first time. Canny, his dad called them, and tough as mountains. Least they had been till they’d upped and left Malkuth, abandoning their ravine city of Arx Gravis following the overthrow of their bloodthirsty tyrant. Far as Nils knew, his nameless client could be the last of his kind, ‘cause if the rumors were trueâ€”if the survivors of Arx Gravis had set off across the Farfall Mountains into Qlippothâ€”there was slim to no chance of seeing them again. Not that Nils gave a shog. He was just saying.
The thrumming of the rain on the tin porch gave way to the fierce pelting of hail and sleet. The racket was deafening, but the dwarf didn’t seem to notice. He was like a stony statue set beneath the tree to glare at the tavern door, a warning to the scumbags and rogues within. Either that or he was cursed, barred for all eternity, and desiring nothing more than to enter into the warm, smoky interior so he could get drunk on ale.
Least that’s what Nils thought taverns were like. Seemed that way in the stories, the sort of place a weary traveler could hang his hat, put his feet up, tamp down a pipe, and neck some grog. Might even be a serving of hot broth and a buxom wench to ease away his travel sores.
Nils didn’t know nothing about none of that. What he did know was that he was bone cold and just wanted to get the job over and done with, warm himself by the fire, and then get as far away from the borders as he could. Didn’t matter how shogged up it was, his folks’ home back in New Jerusalem suddenly seemed like one of the Seven Halls of Araboth.
He lifted one leg at a time to brush off the dried mud he’d picked up on the trail. It’d been five days of hard going across some of the wildest land in Malkuth. They’d left New Jerusalem by the Old Straight Road that had been built by the dwarves centuries ago as a penance for almost bringing about the Unweaving, the pulling apart all of Creation. After fording the Origo River and cutting west through Clarus Wood, they’d taken the barge over the Chalice Sea to Lowright. Then it’d been hard graft stumbling along in the shadows of the Gramble Range. Harder still scouring the great plains of the Outlands till they’d spotted the scattered brigand settlements.
No one came out here ‘less they was desp’rate. Either that, or they had dealings with the proprietor of the only tavern for miles around. The dwarf, Nils figured, was the former, whereas Nils himself, being a professional, was most definitely the latter. He might never have been in a tavern before, might never have snogged no woman, and he might have only had his first shave a week ago, but at that moment, Nils Fargin was someone important.
Since Shadrak the Unseen had fled New Jerusalem following the assassination of the newly elected mayor, Mal VatÃ©s, Nils’s dad had been top dog in the underworld. Anyone who wanted a job doing came to Buck Fargin and his Night Hawks. Theirs was a guild to be feared, and Nils was rightly proud of that. Mind you, back home, Nils was a little fish in a big pond. Out here in the borderlands it was a different story. Big fish, little pond, he nodded to himself. Noâ€”more than thatâ€”he was a bloody shark.
And so, with a final look at the dwarf and a last minute straightening of his collar, Nils puffed out his chest, sucked in a deep breath, and pushed open the door of The Grinning Skull.
The pelting on the tin roof gave way to the hum of voices, the clatter of spoons in bowls, the jingle of change and peals of barking laughter. The place was heaving, thick with smoke. Hops were strong in the air, blending with sweat and the scent of ripe apples. Nils took a step into the throng and found his face pressed against something soft and warm. Sweet musk inflamed his nostrils, sending a delicate thrill along his spine.
“Steady there,” a husky voice said.
He drew his head out of a mountain of cleavage, barely able to take his eyes off the milky flesh pushed up above a black leather bodice.
The woman was looking at him with her head cocked and one eyebrow slightly raised. Nils pretended to peer over her shoulder, as if he were searching for someone in the crowd, but he still managed to notice her cat-like eyes and the scar running down one tanned, high-boned cheek. Her hair was glossy and black, tumbling loosely over her shoulders.
He squeezed past, mumbling apologetically, glancing at her arse as he went, noting its lift and the way it stretched her leather britches. He didn’t miss the length of steel strapped to her hip, neither, nor the bone hilt of a dagger sheathed on the other side.
Nils didn’t have a clue what to do next, but he was a quick learner, so his dad always said. He’d work it out. Back in New Jerusalem he’d picked a few pockets as the drunks spilled out of the bars, and they’d been good pickings. Those were city-folk, though, all dolled up and dandified, nothing like this crowd. These were hard folkâ€”bandits, thieves and assassins. These were his kind of people.
He took another big breath and fingered the pommel of his sword, peering through the milling bodies. He knew Jankson Brau was a mage of some sort, but it seemed unlikely he’d be decked out in a pointy hat and silk robes. Best place to ask was at the bar, he s’posed, and so he squirmed through the drinkers and leaned over the counter, first crossing his arms one way and then the other.
He caught the barmaid’s eye and opened his mouth to order. He weren’t sure what to ask for, but everyone else seemed to be clutching flagons overflowing with froth.
The word was swept away in the hubbub and the barmaid turned to a swarthy no-neck with a head like a leathery egg. Nils was about to protest but thought better of it when the bloke shot him a smile that resembled a gaping wound. His forehead was a deeply furrowed ledge, and his close-set, hard eyes studied Nils coldly. The man’s great bulk was at least as much muscle as fat. Nils winked his approval that he was welcome to be served first.
Someone roughly pushed past him to get to the bar and Nils found himself straining on tiptoe in an attempt to attract the barmaid’s attention.
“Buy you a drink?”
It was the black-clad woman again, her mouth pressed close to his ear. Nils hadn’t seen her approach. He’d heard nothing, either, above the din. He was starting to feel exposed and vulnerable, but nevertheless, he couldn’t resist breathing in her scent.
“Nah, I’m all right, love.” Nils raised his purse and jingled it at the bar.
Silence fell around him in a small circle that swiftly spread like ripples across the surface of a lake. The only sound that remained was the striking of flint on steel as a grimy young girl tried to light the fire.
“Put it away.” The woman took hold of his hand between hers and pressed it down.
She gave Nils a motherly smile, but he couldn’t help noticing how her lips glistened, how the tip of her tongue peeked through and wetted them. He dropped his gaze to her swollen breasts and then lowered it again until he was staring at her boots. He felt his cheeks burning and knew he’d gone red as a strawberry.
“Mina.” She broke the silence without raising her voice. “Ale for my young friend here.”
“Right you are, Ilesa,” the barmaid said with a shake of her head.
The moment she pulled on the pump and the amber liquid splashed into the tankard, the hubbub resumed and Nils no longer felt the entire tavern was looking daggers at him.
“All that money you’re carrying,” Ilesa said, passing him the ale. “You looking to hire someone?”
“Hardly,” Nils said, taking a sip and doing his best not to wince at the bitter taste. “I’m up from New Jerusalem on a job.”
He watched her closely to gauge the reaction. Her pupils widened slightly but she remained stony-faced.
“What kind of job?”
Nils tapped the side of his nose with his finger. “Oh, you know the sort of thing. Guild business.”
“Really?” Ilesa said, her eyebrows lifting. “Well I guess you must be someone. Not like this rabble, eh?”
Nils glanced around the room, pretending to drink the ale.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Could say that. Mind you, you don’t exactly look like one of the localâ€”“ He leaned in close so that he could whisper. “â€”riffraff. Reckon you must be someone, too.”
Ilesa’s eyes flicked to Nils’s money pouch. When they returned to his gaze she looked bored and disinterested, as if he’d somehow failed a test.
“Listen, I’ve got things to do,” she said. “Enjoy your drink, and don’t go waving that money about anymore.”
“Sure,” Nils said, raising his tankard. “Oh,” he called to her back. “Do you know where I can find Jankson Brau?”
A corridor immediately opened up between the drinkers, leading to a long table beside the fire.
Three men sat one side of the table, all wearing studded leather and armed to the teeth. Opposite them sat a robed and turbaned man who Nils took to be a merchant. You could tell by the swell of his belly under his velvet robes, and the jewels dripping like sweat from gold chains beneath the rolls of his chin. He was flanked by a hunched-over scribe and a lean man in eye-glasses whose hands clutched a bulging pouch as if it were a chicken’s neck. Between the two groups, at the head of the table, sat a man in robes the color of blood and a crooked pointy hat.
“I think he’s making it easy for you,” Ilesa said. “Good luck,” she cast over her shoulder as she strutted away with a mesmerizing roll of her hips.
Jankson Brau was studying Nils with the intensity of a rattlesnake about to strike. His eyes were unnaturally blue, like polished sapphire, and ringed with a disturbing corona of yellow. The tip of his sickle-shaped nose almost met the rising curve of his chin, and sandwiched between the two was a narrow slit of a mouth. It was an ancient face, bloodless and mask-like.
Nils’s heart fluttered down to his stomach like a trapped bird. His mouth was dry, so he took a swig of ale, coughed, and then tried to meet Brau’s gaze.
“Buy you a drink?” Nils said, doing his best to imitate the confidence Ilesa had exuded when making the same offer to him.
Roars of laughter went up around the tavern and the corridor began to close. Nils slipped through and stood at the edge of the table.
“Why would I need you to buy for me what is already mine?” Jankson Brau’s voice was thin and lisping.
“Point taken,” Nils said, wondering how to proceed. He racked his brains thinking about what his dad would say next.
“Don’t bother,” Brau said, without changing his expression. “Your father’s an idiot who’d struggle to articulate a request for somewhere to shit.”
Nils’s mind reeled. He hadn’t expected that, and more to the point, how had Jankson Brau known what he was thinking? His eyes alighted on the pointy hat and that particular matter became much clearer.
“My father’s head of the Night Hawks in New Jerusalem.” Nils stuck out his chin and checked to see who was listening. “I bet you wouldn’t say that to his face.”
The three goons snickered, but Brau showed no reaction besides drumming his fingers on the tabletop. Nils could’ve sworn tongues of fire sparked off at the contact.
Without warning, Brau swept his arm towards the fat merchant and his men. As if struck by a hurricane, they flew across the room on their chairs and crashed into a huddle of drinkers. The merchant scrambled to his feet and hurriedly ducked out of the tavern followed by the hunchback. The man in the eye-glasses stooped to pick up the coins that had spilled from his pouch, thought better of it, and bowed and scraped his way to the door. No one complained in the slightest. Apparently, the clientele of The Grinning Skull knew better. A couple of them even reset the chairs at Brau’s table before nodding and backing away.
Brau turned his palm up to indicate that Nils should sit.
“Little men often carry big ideas of who they are,” he said as Nils seated himself opposite the armed men. “In the case of Shadrak the Unseen, I’d say he wasn’t too far from the mark; but he’s the exception rather than the rule. Whilst it is admirable for a son to look up to his father,” Brau inclined his head towards Nils, aureate coronas shimmering, “it is far more important that an operative in your line of work learns how to see clearly. Your father is an arse. Am I making myself understood?”
Nils gulped and felt his face flush again, only this time for a different reason.
“Clear sight,” Brau went on as if he didn’t really expect a response. “Take the example of our friend, Ilesa. Your brain was addled by the size of her breasts, am I right?”
Nils shook his head but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You’re not the first. I’m sure they are magnificent.”
There were nods and grunts of agreement from the three heavies.
“But,” Brau said, raising a finger to emphasize his point, “they are not real.”
Nils frowned his lack of understanding.
“Magical enhancement,” Brau said. “Illusion. Ilesa changes her appearance in order to get what she wants. Now that she knows you’re not looking to hire, she’s probably as flat-chested as you are.”
“Shame,” said one of the heavies.
“Shut up, Danton,” Brau said without even sparing the man a look.
Nils twisted his neck to peer over his shoulder as someone started strumming a banjo and crooning in a voice like a suffocating bear. The crowds started to pull away from the fire to stand in a rough semicircle about the musician. Tankards were raised and a chorus of whoops and jeers went up before most of the tavern was singing along.
“Entertainment,” Brau said, stifling a yawn. “Keeps the masses distracted. Keeps them in their place; but I guess you know that, what with you being a big man from the big city. Must have been terribly exciting during the siege.”
Exciting weren’t exactly the word Nils would’ve chosen. He’d been packed up and ready to flee with the rest of the guild. They’d forced the mad mage, Magwitch, to open up a portal that would have taken them into the middle of nowhere, but thankfully the siege had been broken, and the dwarves had fled back to Arx Gravis.
Nils didn’t know a lot about the causes of the war, only that it began when an upstart dictator overthrew the Council of Twelve in the ravine city, butchered his opponents, and then fanned the flames of hatred against the Senate and people of New Jerusalem.
No one had seen hide nor hair of the underground dwellers for centuries until they spilled forth from the earth like an army of ants whose nest had been disturbed. Within days they’d torched the lands around New Jerusalem and set their sappers to work on the Cyclopean Walls.
There was a rumor going about that Shadrak the Unseen had a hand in the defeat of the despot, but then he’d taken off and left the guild up for grabs. The dwarves withdrew from contact with the surface once more, and soon after they left Arx Gravis. That was kind of the point of Nils’s mission.
“My client,” he said with the sort of seriousness Crapstan â€˜the money’ reserved for negotiating a contract on behalf of the guild, “is looking for the survivors of Arx Gravis.”
Brau sat up and clasped his fingers before him on the table.
“Really? And who is this client of yours?”
Nils was a little embarrassed about that. He didn’t rightly know. He shrugged. “Don’t know his name. Said he didn’t have one. Just said he needed to find the dwarves.”
Brau’s eyes narrowed. “Did he now?”
Nils didn’t like the tone of his voice. Felt like he was taking the piss. “Paid my dad a lot of money for information. Our snitches said they’d been seen heading towards Malfen.”
Nils suppressed a shudder. Malfen was the last outpost of Malkuth, a border-town of cutthroats ruled over by the notorious Shent, said by some to be a leftover from the experiments of Sektis Gandaw. Nils didn’t know about that and didn’t really care. Dad had been quite clear in his instructions: lead the dwarf to The Grinning Skull amongst the bandit dwellings outlying Malfen, introduce him to Brau and then head straight back home.
Brau apparently knew everybody’s business in this neck of the woods. All traffic passing through Malfen came to his attention. He most likely had some sort of arrangement with Shent, maybe even warned him of pending visitors. It wasn’t a lot of traffic, mind, for what sane, self-respecting person would have business in such a den of scum? Besides which, there was nothing beyond Malfen save for the cursed lands of Qlippoth. No one would go there. Least no one without a death wish.
Brau was leaning towards Nils now. “So, where is he then?”
“Outside.” Nils cocked a thumb towards the door. “Said he didn’t want to draw attention.”
“Attention to what?”
“Fact he’s a dwarf.” Actually, Nils thought the dwarf had mumbled something about avoiding temptation, not drawing attention, but his version seemed to make more sense.
Brau sat back in his chair and made swirling patterns on the table with the flat of his hand. “A dwarf looking for dwarves in the vicinity of Malfen,” he mused out loud.
“Funny that,” Brau said to the grunted agreement of his thugs. “Whole bunch of dwarves passed through here not so long ago. Hundreds of them, I’d say. Said they were heading for Qlippoth. Good luck to you, I said, butâ€”“ Brau rocked suddenly forward and fixed Nils with his two-toned eyes. “â€”no one gets into Qlippoth without first passing the Ant-Man.”
Nils swallowed. “Ant-man? You mean Shent?”
“He’ll expect payment at the very least,” Brau said. “As do I.” He held out his hand.
Nils shook his head. “I’m sorry?”
The three heavies pushed back their chairs and stood, hands on hips. They were all watching Nils with dark eyes. He cast a look around. Maybe Ilesa was still there. She’d seemed friendly enough. He thought he saw her amongst the spectators gathered around the musician, but no one even batted an eyelid in his direction. He may as well have been alone with Brau and his goons.
Reluctantly, Nils opened his purse and began to count out some coins. “How much?” he asked in as manly a voice as he could muster.
Brau snatched the purse from him. “More than you’ve got there, boy.”
One of the heavies reached over the table and dragged Nils out of his chair by the collar. Nils knew he should do something, knew he should draw his sword, but it was all he could do to stop his bladder from leaking.
“The choice is simpleâ€”“ Brau was saying as the door flew open and a gust of wind sprayed them with sleet.
The thug released his grip on Nils’s collar and everyone in the tavern turned to look at the figure in the doorway.
The dwarf stood there, sodden and miserable. His beard and hair were plastered to his face. His eyes were like pools of mud. He was motionless, the rain dripping from his dour clothes and forming a puddle on the floorboards. The axe was in his hand, unwrapped, twin blades gleaming orange in the glow from the fire.
He sniffed the air and nodded in the direction of the bar, then casually leaned the axe against a table, unshouldered his pack and dropped it on the floor. Raising a curling eyebrow at Nils, he took a step into the tavern.
“You all right, laddie?” his voice rolled out across the room.
Nils swallowed and smiled lamely at the man who’d been holding him. “Uhm,” was the only thing he could manage to say.
The dwarf grinned and waved to the gawping crowd. “Carry on, people, carry on. Madam.” He winked at Ilesa and gave a little bow. “A tavern is a place for making merry. Play on, sir bard, and if you’re half decent I’ll stand you a drink.”
Nils slipped back down in his chair and watched as the dwarf strode up to the bar. He couldn’t quite see over the top but he reached up with a meaty fist and rapped hard on it.
“Bar-wench,” he called. “A flagon of stout and the same again for my friend.”
The dwarf then turned to Jankson Brau with a big toothy smile gaping beneath his mustache. “Toss that over here, laddie.” He indicated Nils’s purse and then patted his own pockets to show they were empty. “Unless this round’s on the house.”
Brau looked like he was about to comply, but then took a hold of himself.
“Who the shog do you think you are to talk to me like that? Why, you shogging little stuntedâ€”“
The dwarf reached up and took the two flagons from the bar then sauntered over to the table, plonking himself in the chair next to Nils.
“That’s a lot of wasted words, laddie. I don’t mind an insult in a tavern, but two is taking it a bit far. Now â€˜little’ and â€˜stunted’ mean pretty much the same thing, so I’ll grant you that as one. â€˜Shogging’ has an altogether different meaning, making it two. If you stop there, you’ll be all right. Three, though, would be no trifling matter.”
Brau’s jaw hung slack as the dwarf took a deep draft of his beer and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Froth clung to his beard like the scum hemming the coast of the Chalice Sea.
The three thugs didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Their eyes flicked between Brau and the dwarf. Finally, one of them spoke.
“Do you want us to sort him, guv?”
The other two drifted into position behind the dwarf’s chair.
Brau’s eyes lingered on them for a long moment and then he turned his gaze on the dwarf. “Your friend says you are looking for the dwarves of Arx Gravis.”
“True, true,” the dwarf said, taking another gulp of stout and raising his empty tankard. “More!” he bellowed across the room.
“What happened?” Brau asked with a sneer. “They leave you behind?”
The dwarf glowered at that and all his good humor seemed to dissipate. “Not exactly,” he mumbled into his beard. “It’s more a case of them fleeing and me following.”
Brau’s eyes widened. “It’s you,” he said at last. “You’re the one who made them march on New Jerusalem. You’re the one who slaughtered them if they refused.”
A lump suddenly formed in Nils’s gut. His mind was whirling with the possibilities of what might have happened on the journey from New Jerusalemâ€”what still could happen. The Ravine Butcher! Here. Right next to him.
Nils inched his chair back but stopped dead when it scraped against the floor. He ground his teeth and cringed as a nervy tingle crept across his skin. It was the same feeling he used to get whenever Magistra Archyr raked her fingernails across the chalkboard to silence the class.
The dwarf stared into his empty tankard. “Then you know I must find them.”
Brau laughed and clapped his hands. “Why? So you can finish what you started? No wonder they’re willing to risk the horrors of Qlippoth.”
“No.” The dwarf looked up from under craggy brows. “I need to show them there’s nothing left to fear.” He spoke almost to himself. “I need to bring them back from Qlippoth before it’s too late; before they are lost forever.”
The barmaid approached the table like an obedient dog and set a full tankard in front of the dwarf. He gripped the handle and studied the froth.
Brau glanced at his thugs and, with the slightest of gestures, sent them over to the bar. They took up their perches on stools and made a show of watching the musician, but Nils could tell they were still keeping an eye on the table.
The dwarf tilted his head back and drained the tankard in one long pull. He belched loudly, wiped his mouth and then shook the tankard at the barmaid for another refill.
“I told you, laddie,” he let out a rancid burp in Nils’s face, “it’d be too much of a temptation coming in here.”
Nils grimaced and coughed as far back in his throat as he could manage. He was starting to see what he meant. He was also getting worried that the dwarf was playing right into Brau’s hands. The wizard was watching him drink with a slightly bemused but self-satisfied grin. He caught Nils’s glance and the grin turned into a smirk.
“Tell me,” Brau said to the dwarf, “why is it you have no name? I’d understand if the shame of your recent activities led to your being stripped of it, but I heard you had no name when you usurped power from the Council of Twelve.”
“Nothing wrong with your hearing then.” The dwarf accepted another drink from the barmaid, who’d had the foresight to bring a huge pitcher to the table. She glanced at Brau, who nodded.
“You’ve heard of the Pax Nanorum?” the dwarf said.
“The Black Axe of the Dwarf Lords?” Brau made a steeple of his fingertips. “I heard that was the source of your power. Funny, though, I’d always thought it was just part of the foundation myth of Arx Gravis.”
The dwarf sloshed some more ale into his tankard from the pitcher. His eyes were glazing over and he was starting to slur his speech. “It’sh real enough,” he said. “Though my brother got shmall thanksh for dishcovering it. Bashtards killed him. I went after the axe. Found it in Gehenna.”
Nils was starting to lose interest. Either the dwarf was talking nonsense because he was drunk, or he was mad. He suspected it was a bit of both. Brau, however, was listening intently. Perhaps he was just humoring him.
The dwarf swilled the beer in his tankard. “Such…such power,” he said as if he were speaking about a lost lover. “Such shtrength. Could have been the shalvation of my people.”
Brau leaned forward, keeping his voice soft. “But they took it from you; didn’t trust you with all that might. They wanted it for themselves, am I right?”
The dwarf continued to stare into the depths of his flagon. “No. They didn’t want it at all. It was the axe they didn’t trusht. I…I grew angry. I…I took control of the counshil.” He turned and indicated his pack by the door with a jab of his thumb. “Shogging phiosh…philosho…wizard trapped me. It’sh in the bag…Shogging helm broke the link with the axe. Shtole most of my memory and my name with it.”
The dwarf turned back to his drink and took another gulp.
“Couldn’t remove the helm and the shogger had to feed me with magic. Told me there was a way to remove it without me shuccumbing to the axe. Shtupid shogger got it wrong. I grew…grew too shtrong. I did…shuch things. Shuch things.” He looked up and there were tears in his eyes. “That’sh why they’re running. My people. I harmed my people.”
Jankson Brau poured him another drink from the pitcher. “So the helm stole your memory and your name, eh?”
The dwarf nodded, a trail of drool rolling down his chin. “‘S’right. Memory came back once the helm was broken, but the name’sh gone. Gone. Without a name you’re no one. Can’t be a dwarf with no name.”
“So what do we call you?” Brau said.
“Shadrak used to call me Namelesh…Nameless. A good friend. Good, good friend.” His head thumped onto the table.
Nils winced. That had to hurt. Or at least it would when the dwarf came round.
Brau rubbed his hands together with glee. “I’ve heard of this helm,” he said, clicking his fingers and pointing to the dwarf’s pack.
One of the heavies fetched it for him. Brau unfastened the straps and pulled out a concave piece of black metal. Nils leaned closer. It was one half of a full-faced great helm. The black metal was veined with green, which sparkled even in the dim light of the tavern.
“Scarolite,” Brau said as he pulled the other half out of the pack. “The puissant ore of the homunculi. Worth a bloody fortune. Gentlemen…” He raised the two halves of the helm so his thugs could see. “We’ve hit the jackpot.”
The crowd around the musician broke away so that they could gawp at the helm, muttering to each other, nodding and pointing.
Nils stood and tugged down the front of his shirt. “Well,” he said. “I guess that’s our business concluded. Introductions made and all that. I’ll be off then.”
Two beefy hands clamped down on his shoulders. He’d not even seen the heavies move, he’d been so focused on the dwarf and his helm.
“There’s still the small matter of my consultation fee,” Brau said.
“Everything I have is in that purse,” Nils said. “You can keep it.”
Brau stuck out his lower lip and looked genuinely sad. “Not enough. Not by a long chalk.”
“That’s right, boss,” one of the thugs said. “Reckon we should sell him to the Ant-Man.”
Nils struggled to break free but both his wrists were deftly twisted into locks. The thug on his right tweaked the back of his hand, sending shooting pains all the way to his shoulder. Nils squealed and bent double, both arms held up straight behind him, elbows extended almost to breaking point.
“Ordinarily,” Brau said, “I’d demand a ransom, but knowing your father for the scumbag he is I think it would be a waste of time. Tony’s right, I could sell you to Shent, but he doesn’t pay too well these days. Might be easier if we just slice and dice you ourselves, unless you’ve got a better idea.” He looked at Nils expectantly.
“My dad will pay,” Nils insisted. “I know he will.”
“My dear boy,” Brau said, “you really must get a grip on this emotional thinking. Your father would laugh in my face if I asked him for a ransom. Do you really think he prizes you above money? Clear thinking is what’s needed here, not idealistic fancy. What do you think, Danton?” He turned to the third thug who was looming over the unconscious dwarf. “Is it worth the effort of taking him to Malfen for the sake of a few dupondii?”
Danton rubbed his chin and then his eyes lit up. “There are two of them,” he said. “Double the takings.”
“No, no, no,” Brau said. “The dwarf’s too dangerous. If any of the stories about him are true, we can’t risk him getting away from Shent and coming for revenge. Take him outside and kill him. No, on second thoughts take them both outside. I really can’t be bothered to think about this anymore.”
Nils tried to kick out at the shins of both men holding him, but with his arms locked behind him all he could manage was to prance about on tiptoe. With practiced coordination, the thugs bent his elbows, and ran his wrists through to the front of his body, gripping his hands by the thumbs. Then they leaned into the back of his shoulders and frogmarched him towards the door.
“No,” Nils cried out. “I can get you the money!”
Brau wasn’t listening. He was fitting the two halves of the black helm together and muttering to himself. Nils caught Ilesa’s eye but she just blew him a kiss.
His captors turned him around to face the table once more.
“What about him?” one of them asked, indicating the dwarf.
“I’ve got him,” Danton said, grabbing a fistful of beard and yanking the dwarf from his chair.
Nameless hit the floor like a sack of potatoes and Danton started to drag him along. The thugs were about to turn Nils around again when Nameless’ hand shot out and grabbed Danton by the ankle. With a terrific surge of strength the dwarf flipped Danton onto his back and clambered to his feet. Before Danton could recover, the dwarf’s booted foot came down on his neck with a sickening crack.
The two thugs holding Nils dumped him on the floor and drew daggers.
The dwarf snatched up a chair and grinned. Nils was shocked to see the sparkle in his dark eyesâ€”he was clearly enjoying himself and not showing the slightest sign of drunkenness. In fact, he looked fresher and more alert than he’d done before he started drinking. It was as if the thrill of violence had burned the alcohol from his blood.
The man Brau had called Tony lunged at Nameless, who deftly sidestepped and smashed the chair over his head. Tony collapsed from the waist, right into the path of Nameless’ knee. There was a spray of blood as his nose split like ripe fruit, and then the dwarf stepped in to pummel Tony’s torso with his fists, as if he were tenderizing a shank of mutton.
Maybe Nameless was still a little drunk, Nils wondered, as he paid no attention to the other thug who was advancing more cautiously. The dwarf seemed lost in his own world, thumping out a rhythm on Tony’s ribcage. Incredibly, Tony kept his feet but he swayed and swaggered until Nameless cracked him a meaty right under the chin and he went down hard.
That was the moment the other thug leapt. Nameless turned and grabbed his wrist, staying the knife a mere hair’s breadth from his face. The dwarf swung with his other fist but the thug caught his forearm and the two were locked in a grapple. The thug’s neck veins stood out like earthworms and his face turned purple with effort. Nameless’ arms were knotted and swollen but his face was eerily calm. The thug made the mistake of looking him in the eye, clearly trying to rattle him, the way boxers did at the fights Nils’s dad took him to. It was a mistake. The man saw the effortless ease with which the dwarf held him and must have realized he was being played with.
Nils saw an orange flare out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Brau, still seated, with fire forming at the ends of his fingers. He tried to shout a warning but his mouth was dry and no sound came out. Without thinking, he drew his sword and ran the thug through the back. The man crumpled to his knees and toppled sideways to the floor. Nameless pouted, like his favorite toy had been broken.
The flames swelled around Brau’s hands, the air about them rippling. Nameless spun, overturned the table and leapt at him. Before the mage could react, Nameless had him by the wrists and shoved his flame-wrapped hands into his own face. Brau screamed as his flesh popped and sizzled, and when Nameless released him his face was a charred and weeping mess.
Cold steel touched Nils’s throat and he froze.
“That’s enough,” Ilesa said. “Back away or I bleed the boy.”
Nameless took hold of Brau by the hair and slammed his head against the wall. The wizard slid to the floor.
“There’s a touch of magic about you, lassie,” the dwarf said, advancing on her.
Nameless’ eyes smoldered and, to Nils, there was an aura about him that made him seem as hard as stone. He was like the indomitable elements outside. Right now, Nils wouldn’t have wanted to be Ilesa for all the gold in Malkuth.
”Last warning, stumpy,” she said, pressing the blade a little harder and breaking the skin.
Nils felt a trickle of blood rolling down his neck. He was shaking now, and the pressure in his bladder was getting uncontrollable. What if the dwarf didn’t care? What if he just came at her and she slit his throat to make her point? This was not a good situation. Not good at all.
Nameless glowered and strode towards them. Ilesa backed away, pulling Nils by the hair as she kept him between her and the dwarf. Suddenly, she yelped and fell over, Nameless’ axe clattering to the floor with her. Nils broke free and ran to stand behind the dwarf.
Ilesa still had hold of her dagger and rolled to her feet. She retreated through the door into the porch, drawing her sword with the other hand and narrowing her eyes. Nils noticed the absence of cleavage. Clearly she preferred the flat-chested look for fighting.
Nameless continued towards her unperturbed and picked up his axe. He slapped the haft into his palm and gave a satisfied growl. Ilesa stumbled back, almost tripped over her own feet, then turned and scarpered.
“Hmm,” Nameless said, watching her go. “Nice arse for a human.”
“Don’t go there,” Nils said. “She can change shape to get what she wants.”
“Interesting.” Nameless wrung some of the moisture from his beard. “Do you think she could lose a bit of height and sprout facial hair?”
Nils frowned at him but Nameless was already on his way over to the upturned table. He picked up the two pieces of the great helm and stared at them for a moment before placing them back in his pack. He gave Jankson Brau a prod with his foot but the mage just groaned.
“Shog,” Nameless said. “I was going to ask him if he’d seen any dwarves come through here.”
Nils puffed out his chest. “They did. Told me that before you came in. I was just on my way out to tell you when you barged in and nearly ruined a bloody good piece of work. That’s what you hired me for. Professionalism, they call it.”
Nameless snorted and his eyes narrowed beneath their ledge-like brows. Nils felt an icy knot in his stomach and licked his lips so that he could carry on.
“He said a whole bunch of dwarves passed through on their way to Qlippoth. That means they must have gone to Malfen. It’s the last border town and there’s nowhere else for food and supplies within a hundred miles. Plus it stands guard over the only pass through the Farfall Mountains.”
“Good,” Nameless said, chewing on the end of his mustache. “Good, good, excellent. Coming?” He strode to the door and peered out at the roiling clouds beyond the porch. “It’s a fine day for a stroll.”
Nils scampered after him. “That wasn’t part of the deal, remember? My job was to get you to Brau, nothing more.”
“True, true,” Nameless said. “And I thank you for your service. Good. Very good. Well done.”
With that, he wandered out into the rain bellowing a tuneless song. Nils couldn’t quite catch the words, but he was sure there was something about a fat-bottomed girl and a flagon of ale.
Nils watched the dwarf disappear into the storm and then went to gather his coins and pouch. Jankson Brau stirred and muttered something. Fearing it might be a spell, Nils made a run for it.
He briefly considered going after the dwarf, but then common sense got the better of him and he turned east for the long trek home to New Jerusalem.