Now, here’s the thing about dwarves: they’re not like you and me. We wake up, we shower, we get dressed, we go to work, and while we’re doing all this, sometimes we get an idea. “I should write a cookbook that focuses on pomegranates,” we think, and then we get out of the shower and towel off and we don’t write the book. “I should create a mosaic depicting Washington’s terrible defeat at Fort Necessity,” we think, and then, almost always, we reach our bus stop, we step off the bus, and we go on with our lives.
Dwarves aren’t like that. They have lives, and jobs, just like us, and they have normal ideas that don’t come to pass, just like you and me, but sometimes – often enough that the Dwarves have five different words for it, all of which translate, roughly, to “touched” – a dwarf gets a particularly strong idea, an idea that he can’t shake. “I should write a cookbook that focuses on pomegranates,” the dwarf will think, “and I will make the cover from pomegranate peel. And the ink will be made from pomegranate juice, and the pages shall be made of the finest papyrus, and the pages will be bound with a single thread of gold. And the book shall be called ‘Berrydowned’.”
The dwarf’s co-workers might say to him “Hey, Arast, why did you stop hammering?” and Arast will say “Fuck you,” walk in to a grocery store, kick everyone out, and spend the next nine hours obsessively examining each pomegranate to find the perfect materials for his cookbook. That’s what dwarves are like.
This is a story about two dwarves in the fortress of Bekemlogem, “Springpainted.” One of these dwarves became a legend. The other died miserably, starving in the dark. The first dwarf’s name was Nish Oddomshetbøth. The second’s was Urist Köbukrinal.
Bekemlogem was an unusual fortress, built as it was in the middle of a swamp. Dwarves, by their nature, are not fond of swamps. There’s too much mud, for one thing, and too much water. There are many adjectives one can apply to a dwarf, but “moist” is not the first that comes to mind. This was not just any swamp, but a swamp that, as near as anyone could tell, was over an aquifer. An aquifer can make it hard to mine safely, and no mining means no profit. The leader of the expedition to found the fortress, a merchant by the name of Stukos Oddomsanreb, had to do an awful lot of fast-talking to persuade people that he wasn’t crazy. “There’s a caldera there,” he insisted, “which has to be solid rock. We can tunnel down near the caldera, and mine under the aquifer. If we’re careful, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Stukos was a good man, but not a persuasive one. Only 6 other dwarves left the safety of the mountainhomes to try to find their fortune in Stukos’s swampy paradise.
The funny thing about this is that Stukos turned out to be mostly right. There was solid rock near the caldera, and although their miners had to be careful to not accidentally take a bath in hot magma, they were able to dig down below the aquifer and establish a workshop, where they began growing mushrooms and carving crafts in order to trade with anyone crazy or stupid enough to visit them out in the middle of the marshlands. Soon enough, they started attracting immigrants.
The swamp was peaceful and quiet. There weren’t even any goblin attacks, and when was the last time you heard of a fortress that wasn’t attacked by goblins? Even the goblins, it seems, were smart enough to not come to the swamp.
Nish, a glass-blower by trade, had arrived at Bekemlogem on a spring morning and was promptly informed that out here in the country they didn’t have much call for fancy things like glass, that stone was good enough for plain-spoken honest dwarves, and that we don’t have any sand around here anyway, so here’s a crossbow and you’re in the army now, son.
As I said, there were no goblins in the swamp, which was good, because there weren’t any bolts for Nish’s crossbow either, and even if there had been bolts, there was nothing to shoot at. Military service at Bekemlogem mostly involved standing around outside, swearing, and sweating, not necessarily in that order. Occasionally one of his squad-mates would offer to wrestle, to relieve the boredom, but this just made Nish feel even more uncomfortable, especially since this particular squad-mate always wanted to wrestle naked, “to keep our uniforms from getting wrinkled,” he said.
So mostly Nish just stood outside in the swamp, sweating, and thought about beer.
Nish thought about dark beer, light beer, frothy beer, flat beer, ale, lager, porter, and stout. He thought about beer mugs, beer steins, beer taps, kegs of beer, a beer mug, tall glasses filled with beer, coasters that you could fling at people after you’d drunk enough beer from that stone beer mug, and a table for putting the beer mug on, except there needs to be a little bit of something on the bottom of the mug to make sure it doesn’t scratch the table. A bit of turtle shell would be perfect. He thought about drinking beer on cold days, nice days, rainy days, hot and sticky days, when your hand slips on the beer mug and you drop it, spilling your beer, which is bad, so you’d want to have a good grip. Maybe you could nurl the handle? No, no, too boring. You want something textured. Something you can really feel. Bones. You could wrap the handle in small bones. But you’d have to position the handle so as not to obscure the carving on the mug, the carving depicting the founding of the first Fortress.
It was around this time that Nish dropped his crossbow and began slowly walking towards the nearby outdoor workshop, like he was in a trance. “Hey, get back to your post!” said his captain, Momuz. “Fuck you,” said Nish. He walked in to the workshop, elbowed the master stonecrafter in the face, picked him up by his breeches, and threw him out of the building. Momuz put his head in his hands, and moaned, as the realization hit him. “He’s touched. This is going to end in blood.”
In fact, it didn’t end in blood. It ended in a lovely beer mug, engraved with an image of a dwarf raising a scepter, that Nish called “The Undignified Worries,” which when you think about it is a truly appropriate name for a beer mug. Nish never drank from anything else for as long as he lived. On unveiling the masterful mug — and its artistry and craftsmanship were undeniable — Nish was honorably discharged from the army, was given his own workshop and a generous stipend, and basically allowed to do whatever the hell he wanted for the rest of his life. When not in his workshop, “whatever the hell he wanted” turned out to be drinking beer, from his mug, inside.
No, it didn’t end in blood, but Momuz can be forgiven for thinking that it probably would. The funny thing about ideas — dwarven or human — is that there’s no strict requirement that they be practical. We can all imagine building a hot-air balloon to fly to Jupiter, or making a bicycle entirely of bacon, or, to take an example from Minnie the Moocher, a diamond car with platinum wheels. But when a dwarf is touched by the idea of a car like that, he doesn’t stop to think “this isn’t practical.” Instead, he starts looking around for diamonds and platinum.
What happens when a dwarf can’t find enough diamonds and platinum to build his car? Someone dies. Every time.
Sometimes, the dwarf will go mad, grab the nearest weapon, and start cutting down anyone he comes across. This is what Momuz expected when he bemoaned Nish being touched, because that’s what usually happens. Momuz, being captain of the guard, was likely to be the first person killed. An insane dwarf can usually take down four or five of his comrades before being killed himself. It’s a lot easier to kill when you aren’t afraid of dying.
Strangely, this outcome is viewed by most dwarves as the lesser of two evils.
Sometimes, instead of going on a rampage, the thwarted dwarf will kill himself. Suicide is not a part of dwarvish culture, and they would be bitterly offended to hear me describe it this way. Their word for this sort of death translates roughly to “melancholy.” The melancholic dwarf stops eating, stops drinking, and simply wanders aimlessly around the halls, sometimes for months, until she or he eventually dies from starvation and malnutrition. This is infinitely worse for the dwarves than the violent outcome, which at least is over quickly.
The key thing to realize here is that to the dwarves, the failure of a touched dwarf to create his artefact is a failure of the community, not a failure of the dreamer. “If we had only dug deeper, and worked harder,” they think, “we would have had enough diamonds and platinum for her to build that car. The vision of that car was a gift from the gods, and we were too shiftless and lazy to be able to claim it.” The melancholic dwarf, dying slowly in public, is a constant reminder of the community’s inadequacy.
Which brings us to Urist, a name that to this day will make the dwarves of Bekemlogem weep in shame and shake in self-loathing. Urist was an engineer, a shy boy who one day was touched. True to his nature, Urist snuck downstairs to the lowest levels of the fortress and, in the deep, quietly and shyly claimed a mechanic’s workshop that no one was using. No one noticed he was missing at first, but when they finally found him in the deeps he was surrounded by sketches of something, and refused to say a word. His sketches had rock, and bone, and cloth, and he was surrounded by pieces of rock of varying sizes. The town elders brought him the cloth they had, but none of it was right. They didn’t know how it wasn’t right; Urist wouldn’t say. It was four months until the next caravan would arrive. There was no way that Urist would be able to make whatever it was he was trying to make. And so the dwarven elders of Bekemlogem, perhaps thinking of their children, whom dwarves love as much as we love our own, did the unthinkable.
They walled Urist in his workshop.
Urist made no attempt to escape. He just stood behind the workbench, calmly watching each stone as it slid into place. The masons, their cheeks red with humiliation, would not meet his eyes.
When the last stone slid into place, he sat down and, quietly, waited to die. It took fifty-two days. He never made a sound.