A brief fantasy tale by Howard Shirley
When you can’t hear your own breathing is when you realize that you miss it. I am not talking about when you don’t hear your own breathing. That happens all the time. I think we’re so used to it that we just dull it out and think of it as silent, just like we don’t really notice the sound our skin makes brushing inside of our clothing, or the way leather creaks as it twists against our movement. Thor knows I’ve even ceased to notice the scrape and dull jangle of my own armor on a long march. I put it on and as far as my ears are concerned, I might as well be wearing spidercloth. Unless of course there’s an enemy nearby with ears that will pick up even the slightest scratch of my axebelt against my hauberk, and then every sound I make might as well be the slam of a hammer against hot steel.
I’ve heard men like Brom say we dwarves are quieter than cats, even wrapped in breastplate on top of mail. I don’t know whether that’s true or not— I can’t stand cats, always eyeing my beard and braids like I’m dangling a fish on a line for them to swipe at. The Loki-cursed things creep up on you even when your ears could hear the ring of gold in a clay cup twenty shafts away. No dwarf is that quiet or that sneaky.
Except me, right now. I glance down at the quarrel in my crossbow. It doesn’t look any different from the others in my belt. You’d think it would glow or even gleam, like a dwarf craftspell would. But it doesn’t look one bit different— just black, with only the faintest hint of a glimmer from the sharpened edges I honed yester morning. The only thing about it that tells me Thalin’s spell is on the bolt is that I can’t hear anything— not my armor, not my leather, not even my own breathing or the pounding of blood in my temples. Even the vibrations of my feet against the floor are missing, sounds I’ve always felt with my body even if my ears have tuned them out. I can feel the rise and fall of my breath shoving my chest against my hauberk, I can feel the weight of armor and pack, the warmth of the crossbow’s stock against my hand, the tension in the trigger, even the pressure of my booted feet against the stone floor. I can smell my sweat and Brom’s strange human odor, and the hints of incense that drift from Thalin’s robes, even the tiniest tint of blood that lingers on Mada-Thor’s knife blade from this morning’s sacrifice. If I turned my head to look at them, I would see them all, stepping behind me, instinctively trying to be silent themselves, though with the magicked quarrel there is no need. I can’t hear them any more than they can hear me, or even their own breathing.
It is a . . . disquieting feeling, which seems an odd word to use given that silence surrounds us utterly. But there it is. And for an old dwarf like me, used to gauging the soundness of stone and shaft by the echoes and creaks no one but my own kind can hear, it begins to approach terrifying. “May you hear no stone,” is an old dwarven curse, a wish for disaster to befall another. Deafness among my people is like a death, for it means one can never travel alone again into the mountain ways, but must be guided as if blind, or spend the remainder of ones long years above our sacred delvings, forever an outcast amidst our kind. It is not a curse said lightly.
Yet here I am, under just such a curse by my own agreement, if however temporary. And the thought comes to my mind, What if Thalin erred? What if the spell lies not upon my quarrel, but upon my hand that held it up? I know that man’s magic is not always permanent without great labor by a mage, but dwarf and magic goes not well together, save for our own craftspells. I once heard of a dwarf who had permitted a human mage to give him wings, and instead his beard turned into feathers. If this magic of silence dwells now forever upon my person, I am cursed beyond all dwarfdom. It had seemed like a clever, even crafty idea at the time Thalin suggested it, but now with not even my own thoughts entering my ears, my fear arises that we may have mined into loose shale, as the saying goes.
Even though the pressure comes through hauberk and jerkin, the hand upon my shoulder makes me jump— I almost pull the trigger on the bow on the spot. I turn to look; it is Mada-Thor who has touched me. The look in her eyes says she understands my discomfort, she who has been my friend since before Brom held his first sword. In the overwhelming silence she can only gesture upwards. I follow her eyes, beholding the black scrawl against the ceiling, a crude sigil of a misshapen skull, cloven in two. The Damned Ones must have stood upon each other’s twisted backs to scribe it there. I am ashamed that I, a dwarf within my native realm of stone, did not see the khohbhauluth sign first— but then, Mada-Thor is guided by a god. I see Brom and Thalin turn their eyes upwards as well, and Brom mouth out the man-word “Kobold!” though not even he can hear his exclamation. Just as well— I hate hearing our sacred tongue corrupted in another’s mouth, and his cry might have alerted our quarry. For once I bless Thalin’s ploy— in one respect, it is serving us now. Brom starts at not hearing his own words, then I can see it break upon him that his outburst would have proved dangerous. He throws his head back in mirth and slaps Thalin upon his back. The mage startles at the blow, then his mouth splits into a sly grin. I like a mage with a sense of humor about themselves— all too many laugh only at the discomfort they can cause to others.
Brom shares Thalin’s grin and nods to me to advance. I’ll say this for the man, he may not be as cautious as need be, but he doesn’t swagger forth into the lead like those fools who think their bulk is proof against all comers. Brom has an inkling for tactics and a respect for where others’ abilities may be more useful than his own. In my case, I’m familiar with the nature of these passages. And I’m the best shot in the Twin Kingdoms, Above and Below, if I say so myself— even in silence.
I glance at Thalin. He needs no explanation, and waves his hand in an odd caress across the rough-hewn crystal atop his staff. The glow from it fades to a dull glimmer. My eyes adapt quickly to my native dark; I worry that perhaps even these faint beams may be too much and reach the khohbhauluth with warning. But no, even the sigil cannot be seen. I turn back to my companions. Brom has his sword out now, fine make for man-work, held cautiously wide to avoid the rest of us. Mada has her hammer ready, mouthing silent blessings over it— I wonder if Thor can sense her prayer, devoid of sound? I think one of my own for that, not much considering the irony. Thalin merely places one hand on Mada’s shoulder for guidance, she does the same for Brom, who moves forward and places his free hand on mine. We move off, the deaf leading the blind through halls of stone— how my ancestors would shudder at the thought!
The way is windy and slopes downwards. My eyes and feet pick out signs of loose rock, the faintest pebbles, and my fear rises at not being able to hear the faint shift of stone that warns every dwarf of coming cave-in. This movement with half my awareness lost is beyond bearing.
I feel the faint change in the air current on the edges of my beard before I see the light. It is not the strange whiteness of Thalin’s staff, nor the warm yellow of dwarven fire— it is orange and sputtery, barely giving glow where it licks against the stone far ahead, but the air moves towards it, drawn towards some thin shaft that must serve as a flue. The kobolds must be burning bhakhumen. It gives poor heat and poorer light, but for Those Who Chose The Blackness it is the light of ritual. It is the light by which they take blood.
The odor reaches my noise now, despite that the air moves away from me. Instinctively my voice tries to growl in disgust, but I feel only the rough movement in my throat. I tap Brom’s hand on my shoulder quickly, to tell him we are there, then move my hand back to the trigger.
We step forward slowly, only because the others cannot see to move faster. The dull glow from the bhakhumen fire grows more, and I can see that it comes from a side chamber along our way. Strange shadows move across the glow where it hits the wall opposite the chamber— the kobolds have begun their rite. My beard prickles at the thought we may even now have come too late.
I race forward, crossbow at the ready, no longer concerned for my companions— even their Above eyes can see the light from the chamber. Stepping into the opening, I see the scene. A score of khohbauluth are dancing before a crude altar of jumbled stone. My sister Kima is stretched across it, her chest bared below her beard, her lower garments ripped and stained with blood— not hers, I know— the kohbauluth send their sacrifices on unsullied. Her eyes stare upwards at the jagged obsidian blade held aloft over her breasts. She does not blink or show tears— she is a dwarf. All this I see in the instant, just as I see the khohbaulutavak priestess who holds the blade.
I shoot, the bolt racing across the room, and suddenly a cacophony bursts upon my straining ears— Brom in mid war cry, Mada calling upon her god, the kobolds’ chanting, suddenly growing less as the bolt appears in the priestess’s shoulder. She lurches back, the knife falling from her hand to shatter silently against the floor. I drop the bow and reach for my axe, watching her recover and reach up to clasp her wound, her mouth moving to call upon her demon lord for healing— and then her eyes flair wide when she realizes her dark prayer makes no sound. She grabs desperately at the bolt, but the flared head is stuck fast in both mail and flesh.
I grin, letting her see the teeth behind my beard. “May you hear no stone,” I growl, and rush to battle, my axe singing gloriously to my ears.
--- ©2010 by Howard Shirley