"The HIdden Valley"
A Tale of Stoneheart the Slayer
A Flintloque Short Story by Jaffa Holland
Artwork by Maxx Burman*
Stoneheart's tale, now in its now in its twelfth year, sees Stoneheart and Xaneg searching for somewhere barely remembered from her past that could be of great significance to the future of their Dwarven people...
It was becoming clear that Xaneg, was growing in confidence and strength in her belief that she had a right to bear arms. A month had passed and each evening after camp had been set I set out tasks of martial combat. The first time a female and male had to wrestle was something to watch. Although Xaneg lost to Brege it was a close thing. As Brege celebrated it was obvious that he knew that he was lucky to have won.
As he turned to leave I pushed forward and spoke, “Brege, as you are the winner of this combat you need to bow low to your opponent, you also need to sit and after drink and food talk through the moves you both used in order to gain Xaneg knowledge. Each night you will spar until she bests you. Each female and male will be paired now, once a female has bested a male they will then rotate to fight a female then again to a male. This way you all gain strength and an understanding of how each fights.”
Several males were about to object but one look at my face meant that none dared to speak out. Over the first month, all my Dwarfs suffered cuts and bruising but with the food and watching each was growing in strength. Avicii had his work cut out as each evening he took to writing down the histories that each remembered of their clan, again it was obvious that the majority did not know the history and deeds of their families. Kings yes, but not their own. This pained me greatly. Avicii asked if he could take a few Dwarfs under his tutelage, that it was like a fresh history was going to grow, from the embers of forgotten time. I agreed as for me, history and art as are important as weapons, weapons defend but history, art and music make a people.
I kept my band away from the main roads, we crossed through valleys and through forests in our search for food and the Confederation of Finklestein. I had no real idea where to find the Confederation and no clue as to how we would be greeted, not that it was worrying me overly. The maps that I had taken I was using to find our way South. What was clear though was that we needed to grow in numbers. On the third day of the sixth week, Xaneg started to recognise the land. She called to me and advised that these lands were where she hailed from. That there were maybe more of our kind in the area. This brough a sense of excitement from the rest of my people. It could mean some solid shelter for a few days, maybe even some new members to add to their number.
It was decided that Xaneg should head forward with three others and scout about and return back and report. The excitement ended two days later when the three came back and reported that all the small settlements were burned to the ground, however no bodies were found and there were no fresh graves.
The war had passed by and its effects but be felt for a long time to come, as we travelled on, the land that should have been ploughed was barren. Tall grass grew where grain and wheat should have been. No domestic animals were to be seen, no sheep, no cattle. Not even any chickens. Xaneg was in a dark mood and in no place to talk, but suddenly she called out to me. She remembered that a days walk to the North was a holy place, with a large building, it was in a hidden valley and a bit hard to find. She thought maybe that the villagers had headed there. I wanted to continue to head South but it was clear that my band needed some positive news, so I agreed that we would head North led by Xaneg.
Xanegs memory of a hidden valley was sort of right, but the landscape had changed. We had to climb up a steep sided mountain, the carts really struggled but we managed to get them all to the top. There was no identifiable path that Xaneg was following. However I noticed some runes on some of the rocks we past, very old and worn but made in the hand of Dwarves.
At the top Xaneg indicated that we need to start down what could only be called a crack in the mountain, wide enough just for the carts, but a death trap if we were attacked, silence fell on everyone as any noise vibrated through the steep gully.
We came to a dead end with no way to turn the carts round, my Dwarves were far from happy. However I had faith in Xaneg, she was in deep concentration, trying to remember something lost and dimly remembered. A spark shone from her eyes as she placed her hands on the rocks, her hands moving in what looked like a random movement, but it soon became clear that she was pushing and pulling small rocks in a very complex pattern. There was a loud click and Xaneg pushed at what still looked like solid rock.
A low wide stone door swung open, tall enough for our carts with there wheels taken off to fit through, a short tunnel maybe twentyfeet lead to another very narrow passageway. Once we were all through Xaneg pulled a hidden handle and the low stone door swung closed and another at the end of the tunnel also closed.
Xaneg said, “Pull the wrong handle and the mountain falls to block the tunnel and it becomes impossible to enter this area. We are now heading to the last settlement of dwarfs in this area if they are here.”
We kept walking for an hour or so, something told me that we were being watched, yet no one appeared, no rocks or arrows dropped down on us. Then we were out into what could only be said to be heaven. We were in what looked like a mile wide crater, snow was visible on the rim of the crater and it was clear that it would be folly to try and enter from those frozen heights, low buildings were clearly well maintained and lived in as smoke rose from the hundred building or so. Farm stock were in abundance as well.
Xaneg said, “This is the hidden valley of the thousand, for it was long ago agreed that only a thousand could ever live here, any more and the land could not cope, once the number is reached then either the old take the long cold walk to the top of the ice peaks or the young have to leave. Normally it’s the long cold walk that happens. One generation sacrificing for the next, also women here are free, like how you have described. If anywhere our old histories are kept then the knowledge will be in the hall of the written and spoken.”
I looked at Xaneg anew and had a lot of questions, but I could tell she was amused with all our faces and delighted in our wonder.
I ordered that all weapons were stored and that all armour removed, we had come in peace, and I wanted to make it very clear that we were not a threat. I asked that Xaneg go ahead and announce us, that as with the old custom we would set a fire and cook our best food and have our best ale for those that would welcome us. Not everyone was happy with this but again I explained that this is our way, if we only had hard travel bread and water we would share it, as it stands we have good food and will provide our best.
Some hours later a group of twenty or so came to our camp, they were dressed in the old style, buckled from the back, making it impossible to be dressed by one dwarf, trust that those around you would not strike at the naked back, a very old custom. This warmed my heart, as they approached I spoke in high dwarf making them welcome. Something momentous was about to happen, of that I was sure...
Stoneheart's tale will continue in 2023...
The above short story is an Orcs in the Webbe original and was published on the 23rd December as the thirteenth entry of the 2022 Advent Calendar.
Jaffa is a long time friend and ex-house mate of mine who has been my opponent in many battles of Flintloque and Darkestorme over the years (although not for some time I am sad to say). At my request a few years ago we transported Stoneheart into the Third Age of Valon, the time of Flintloque, and Jaffa is taking keynotes from Flintloque but making the story of the Dwarves of Valon in these dark ages very much his own.
You can see the previous Stoneheart tales, in chronological order by clicking on the maroon Stoneheart tag just below.
* Note that the image has been used without permission and will be removed if requested by the artist/copyright holder.