The Duergar (a story)

The Duergar (a story)

“So, traveller! Welcome to Rothbury. Thinking of crossing the treacherous Simonside hills? I’d advise you not to try it in the dark. As any shepherd worth his wool would tell you, and I am he, the area is full of sharp crags and ravines in which one false step could mean serious injury… or even death.

Few people know that this hospitable part of the country is the home of a peculiar race of dwarves known as the Duergar. No one knows why they chose to live here, of all places. Maybe there’s gold hidden among those cliffs? Or maybe they just like to carry off my sheep. One thing’s true, though. They are malicious little buggers. Hairless, no higher than your knee. Would kill you as soon as look at you; and look they will, for no one ever heard them speak a word.

Oh, you think I’m fooling a poor stranger with fairy tales, do you now? There was one upstanding young person such as yourself who came to these parts a month or so back, as it happens. Not having been to these parts before, he got himself lost among those hills after dark. This gentleman though, he had the sense to sit himself down at a rock, wrap his cloak about him and wait out the night.

You’re not listening to me, my friend; there are greater dangers up there than the night chills. He would’ve been wise to stay there until daybreak; but he spied a light in the distance. Picking his way carefully over the ground – for this man was no fool, mark you – he reached it safely and saw it was a fire, very much like this one we’re sitting at, aside a shepherd’s hut like this here one of mine. A lucky find in the darkness. And so he built up the fire a bit and sat down on a stone to wait for the shepherd’s return.

But no shepherd was he who came in at the very moment he sat himself down. A dwarf, nigh three, maybe four foot tall, dressed in lamb’s skin and shoes made of a mole’s. He had a hat made of moss, with the fine tail feather of a cock pheasant all gentleman-like. And he wore a scowl, when he saw our man, sitting there in his hut all cosy, as if to ask him why he was there. So surprised was our friend at the appearance of this dwarf, he spoke no word to it. Neither did the dwarf speak to him, but scowled fiercely at him, as if to pick a quarrel.

I said that this gentleman was no fool, did I not? He had listened to the folk of the country and knew of the duergar-folk of these hills. He knew that he had one as such sat in front of him. But what could he do? He knew that to offend the creature would be a worse fate than to throw himself from the cliffs below. They are fierce fighters, he knew this, my friend. Marvellously strong. So he sat there, still as a mouse, staring right back at the dwarf until the fire burned down to the embers.

Then the cold crept into the hut and he shivered for want of the heat and light the fire had been. But the dwarf, he saw, did not feel the cold, but sat there scowling at him. He was afraid to move. But need overcame fear, and he reached down to his feet where lay a pile of sticks, yes, like this one, and threw them on the fire. The dwarf scowled all the more. Our gentleman, although warmer, was near terrified of what it would do.

Reaching over to the left-side of the fire, the dwarf broke off a piece of the gatepost with his bare hand and broke it over his knee as easy as matchsticks, throwing it into the fire. All at the same time as glaring at our man; and the thought came into his mind that this creature was daring him. As if it was saying ‘Any child can throw kindling-sticks. Take the other post and break that, if you can.’ And the dwarf smirked at him. Our man knew though, that this was a trick. He’d listened, see; he knew that what this dwarf wanted was to see him dead. So he sat there, still as a statue, and left the right gatepost untouched.

Soon enough the fire began to die down and the cold and dark once more crept into the hut, until our friend could see little else but the eyes of that creature glowering at him. The light faded until he could see not even that, and it got colder and colder and colder until suddenly, he heard a cock crow and the first day light and the sun rising over the hills. Then he saw the the dwarf had gone; and neither was there a fire at his feet or the walls of a shepherd’s hut surrounding him. Nothing remained of the night before, save the stone he sat on; by the daylight, the topmost stone of a high precipice with sharp rocks below. Had he risen to the creature’s dare, he would have reached for thin air and fallen to his death.

Mind my words, my friend; listen and take them with you. There’s none that knows Simonside better than us shepherds; and come night-fall, we’re the only friendliness you’ll find among these hills. Farewell.”

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