Table of Contents
The Mystery of the Black-Bearded Dwarf..... Michael A. Ventrella
Embarrassing Relations..... Bernie Mojzes and Bob Norwicke
Knight’s Gambit..... Tera Fulbright
Curso and the Perilous Purple Pixie Problem..... Roy C. Booth and Brian Woods
A Hero of Padrin’s Hold..... Mike Strauss
The Golden Gifts..... Laurel Anne Hill
A Hero is Born..... Davey Beauchamp
The Vacarran Corsair..... Jesse Grabowski
The Chandler’s Tale..... Henry Hart
Beyond the Bitter River..... Jon Cory
Dreamed Tortures..... Mark Mensch
The Mystery of the Black-Bearded Dwarf
Michael A. Ventrella
I dropped the hardboiled egg. It rolled across the uneven floor. The cats in the room took an immediate interest.
"Squire Terin! We need yer assistance!"
Rendal and Darlissa gave me sideways glances. As my senior squires, they sometimes had a problem hiding their frustration that my fame caused Ashbans everywhere to seek me out instead of them.
"Who was murdered?" Dar asked.
The stout dwarf with the long black braided beard spread his hands. "Orit! They killed him, the bastards!" He glared at a white-bearded dwarf sitting at a nearby table. The white-bearded dwarf returned the look and added a rude gesture.
With a nod to my fellow squires, I jumped from the table and followed the black-bearded dwarf out of the hall and into the center of the rustic camp. Dwarven King Kelanor declared this neutral place as the perfect site for the peace talks, but now that we were here, without town guards, a sheriff, or a magistrate, the wisdom of that decision was questionable.
"This way!" the dwarf encouraged us.
"What’s your name?" I asked.
"Myrok Coalbeard of the Blackaxes," he replied over his shoulder. He slowed down, and then stopped to face us. Ahead, a crowd of dwarves gathered around a small cabin, their voices rising in the brisk morning air.
"Listen, I know yer all new here," Myrok said, "but ye need to keep an eye on anyone who ain’t got no black beard. They’re all against us, and they all hated Orit."
I sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy.
I had noticed on my last trip to Dwarvenholm that many dwarves dyed their beards; I had only recently learned it was to denote their individual families-families with grudges going back generations. Of course Myrok would tell me to not trust anyone else.
The pause allowed the crowd to grow, which blocked our way. I stared over their heads-they were all dwarves, after all-and tried to see into the building.
"Let us through!" Dar cried over the angry voices and a loud howling. No one paid any attention.
Ren shook his head and pushed forward. With muscles to match any strong dwarf, and a foot or so reach beyond that, he managed to part a path like an ox plowing through a snow bank.
"Everybody out of the area!" Ren yelled as he approached the small cabin.
"And who are you to order us about?" bellowed one extremely inebriated red-bearded dwarf.
"I am a squire of the Duke, and can have any one of you arrested," Ren replied calmly.
The dwarf angrily opened his mouth but then his eyes fell to Ren’s biceps. He made a slight clucking sound and backed away.
Ren pushed forward toward the building, and we followed. Two large black-bearded dwarves stood in the doorway, holding back dwarves with beards of white, brown, or red trying to enter.
"Ye won’t pin this on us!" yelled one red-beard.
"Ye probably killed him yerself!" shouted another.
The door guards noticed us and their eyebrows raised. We certainly didn’t fit in-a large dark-skinned warrior in thick leather armor, a biata woman whose feathery eyebrows flared in the breeze, and me-a skinny young lad with hair falling in his eyes. Our ducal tabards and red belts indicated our status as squires-knights in training-and they parted to let us by. The door slammed shut behind us, which muted the yelling outside a bit.
A dozen fat candles lit the room, but could not cover the stench of death. A somber deer head hung over an unlit fire, and shutters were open to let in the morning air. Crude furniture fit the "hunting cabin" decor. A large gray dog howled in a corner.
Two black-bearded dwarves stood by the large bed where the victim lay in a pool of blood. Orit’s head was twisted to one side, displaying the huge gash that ended his life.
"We found him like this," said a female voice.
I blinked. With those beards, I often had trouble telling the women from the men. She apparently didn’t notice.
Dar bowed her head slightly. "I am Squire Darlissa Corak. This is Squire Rendal Smith and Squire Terin Ostler. We are squires of the Duke, and have been sent here to aid in the negotiations over-"
"We know," said the male dwarf, "but this is more important!"
"Of course," Dar said. "And you are?"
"I am Cretes, and this is Gardly," he said.
Gardly held up a knife. "We found this."
Ren took it from her and held it for us to see. The blade was covered in blood, some of which had already dried. But it was the handle that attracted our attention-ivory carving of such intricate design that it could only be dwarven made.
"Was this his knife?" I asked.
Gardly shook her head. "Never seen it afore today."
"Don’t tell anyone about it," I said. "It may help us find the murderer."
The two dwarves nodded their agreement.
Dar knew healing magic to a degree I could not yet match. Although it was plainly obvious that Orit was dead-the fact that his head was almost completely removed from his neck was a pretty sure sign-she leaned over and looked closely at the wound, and then Orit’s eyes.
I turned away from the gruesome sight and allowed her to continue her inspection. "Who found him?"
"We did," Cretes said. "I came t’ wake him this morn-will ye shut up?"
The dog curled its tail between its legs, flattened its ears, and sat down as if trying to make itself as small and unnoticeable as possible. The howling, however, stopped.
Cretes cursed. "Never liked that mutt. Anyway, we came t’ wake him but the door was locked. He didn’t answer, but the dog was howlin’ somethin’ fierce, and so I kinda broke the door down."
Dar looked up. "Wait, the door was locked?"