“Her Burning Heart”

Tales of the Heroes – DeFrantis

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Illustration by Mark Hansen


Tales of the Heroes

Karendle

An excerpt of a short story By Mark Hansen

“Shaking stones, girl, how come you’re so tall?” the boy called out. 

Karendle shrugged as she walked past, glancing over at him and the other dweorg girls standing beside him. The three scrutinized her with narrowed eyes. Still, she slid her chin down with her jaw tight and turned away. I’m not! I’m not that much taller than he is. She wanted to ignore the comments, to pretend they didn’t bother her. She had hoped to avoid them, but they liked to stand in the main hall of the city where everyone could see them. She stole a glance back.

He scratched the scruff of hair growing on his chin. It wasn’t very thick yet, but then he probably only had a dozen or so winters of life so far.

A stout girl with widening shoulders stood next to him. She wore a thick wool skirt woven with crossed stripes of red and brown, accenting her long hair. “It’s her mom’s fault. She’s a flatlander!”

He scoffed. “A flatlander? What dweorg would marry a flatlander?” he asked. The other girls laughed. 

Karendle’s cheeks heated. She kept walking but couldn’t hide the slouch of her shoulders. She was too tall. She knew it and she hated it. For most of her childhood, she’d been fine, and she’d fit in well enough. Her friends in the neighboring hallways had played with her as much as any other kid, but once she’d counted her thirteenth winter, she’d changed. Her mom had said that most of it was normal for girls, but Karendle knew better. The other young dwarven girls in their hall were growing, it was true, but mostly it was in the hips and shoulders, getting stockier and stronger. Karendle just got taller.

“It’s no surprise. Her dad would have to marry an outsider.  Her dad’s just a seller, not a full miner. What dweorgdamm would have him?”

Karendle came to a stop, her hands curling themselves into fists.

“Yeah, girl, is your dad afraid of the dark?”

“Maybe he doesn’t know how to swing a pick.” Karendle grit her teeth and her shoulders tensed. She knew the girl that had tossed in that last stone, and she didn’t need to see her to know about the smug expression on her face. She was a little older, and her father was a Master Dugger in the gem mines, a very prestigious title. The girl loved to stand on that particular pedestal, and Karendle was sick and tired of being thrown down at its base. She hesitated, wanting to turn and shout back at them. Her jaw was too tense to even allow breath. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Without sellers like my father taking the gems downriver in the flatlands, their fathers wouldn’t be so rich and high and mighty.

She moved again, and picked up her pace, trying to get away from the taunts. Hopefully, they wouldn’t follow. She dodged past a pair of men pulling a cart down an outbound lane and then twisted to avoid a train of ibex goats inbound on the opposite side, laden with huge baskets of wood and ore. One of the beasts jerked away from her and brayed with annoyance as she brushed by. 

Hmph. Even the animals don’t like me. 

The hall was long and high, and the small group’s sneers and laughs quickly faded into the echoes of a thousand footsteps and hundreds of other conversations. Magically illuminated gemstones, the oculi creatori, hung in dangling brackets from the ceilings, showing many branches, bridges, and balconies connecting the many great hallways of Dweorgilan, the mountain city.

As she walked, she stuck her hand in her vest pocket, and absently wrapped her fingers around a small, smooth opal gemstone there. It was a nervous habit, one she was barely even aware of. She shook her head. Why don’t any of the others like me anymore? What’s their problem?

She passed under a bridge that spanned the wide main hall, then turned after a large stone pillar into a slightly narrower tunnel shaped into the space under a lower balcony. Right away she had to step to her right, out of the way of a large wagon pulled by a team of four mountain deer. The wagon wobbled slightly from side to side with a creak from an off-angled wheel that made it not so stable. Karendle slid away from it, worried that its load of mead barrels might come loose. 

She watched it lumber by, out into the main hall where people shouted at it as they tried to move around its bulk. She rolled her eyes and turned back to walk farther inward. 

This hall was only a few yards high, just high enough for the wagons to pass through and wide enough for them to slip past each other, inbound or outbound. The walls and ceiling were hewn stone, decoratively crafted by a multitude of dweorg craftsmen over many years. The oculi of light here were much dimmer than those in the main hall. Still, as she walked, she recognized a few of the residents in the spaces in front of their doorways. Some relaxed in chairs while children ran, others swept their part of the hallside clean. Most of the spaces were empty, their occupants still working or deeper inside the tunnels.

She ignored most of her neighbors, moving quickly and keeping her head down. She didn’t want to deal with any of them, not today. Today she just wanted to get home and hide. 

As she approached her family’s hollow, carved into the side of the hall, she slowed, then stopped. Her two half-brothers relaxed on the small porch before the front entrance. One sat in a steel-framed chair, leaning back on two legs against the carved stone wall of the hall. He wore a tough and dirty leather apron and his arms were darkened with the soot stains of a blacksmith. The other stood next to him. He had stout muscular shoulders barely covered by a thin shirt with no sleeves. The two were smiling, in the midst of conversation. She rubbed her forehead as if trying to ward off a headache. She was probably in for one anyway. Shaking stones! I wanted to get home before they did. They’re the last ones I want to deal with. Maybe I can slip past them…

Karendle sighed and quickly stepped forward to the wide-arched entrance into the hollow. The stone floor before her was dusty under her feet. She suddenly remembered that she had been asked to sweep it earlier that suncycle.

“Hey, little sis. Where’re you going in such a hurry?” 

Karendle stopped just outside their doorway. She tipped her head slightly backward, groaning inwardly. I almost made it.

She turned around and nodded to her half-brothers. Even at her age, she was already almost able to look them straight in the eyes. This time, however, she didn’t. She kept her shoulders drooped and her face down.

“Inside,” she said through gritted teeth. 

“I can see that.” Her brother, Danekle, stepped toward her and repeated himself slowly. “What’s the hurry?”

She bit her cheek and started toward the door again. “I’ve gotta get inside. Mamm needs help.”

Sollmon tipped the chair forward and stood. He stepped in front of her, crossing his arms. He was slightly taller than his brother and more muscular. He stroked his thick auburn beard and chuckled. “Of course she does. All sun long, and most of the moon she needs help. She needs to just get up and get her work done. Why should the rest of us have to pick up her slack?”

Karendle raised her gaze to look him in the eye as she clenched her fists. “She’s sick! If you–”

“Quiet, there, little pebble-girl,” Danekle cautioned, “and don’t be getting all your rocks ground up at me. She’s the one you should be mad at. You shouldn’t be chained here in the house taking care of her every sun.”

Karendle spun around, her eyes flaring with anger. “She’s my mother! And if it bothers you so much, why don’t you two help?”

Sollmon spread his palms out defensively. “Hey, I work for my living. I’m a forgesmith, remember? You’d do better to go learn yourself a trade, too. You’re gonna have a hard enough time finding a good dweorg husband.”

Danekle laughed. “That’s a rock-solid truth!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Karendle spat. “Do you think I’d want to marry someone like you slobs? So tell me why aren’t you married yet? Maybe all the girls see how badly you treat your mother!”

Danekle’s face turned sour in a heartbeat and he tapped his sooty finger hard onto Karendle’s shoulder. “She’s not our mother. She’s your mother. Our mother was a stout, full-blooded dweorg mamm, not some weak, sickly flat-”

Karendle lunged at Danekle, slamming her shoulder into his chest and sending him sprawling. She jumped on top of him, screaming and flailing wild punches at his face. His arms jumped up to block the surprising onslaught, but he quickly overpowered her and tossed her off to the rock floor. In a couple of strides, Sollmon sat on her back and grabbed her head, pushing her cheeks to the gritty stone below her. He pulled her hair back, lifting her head. 

Danekle had leaped to his feet and leaned over her. “You think you’re tough enough for us, eh? You’re just a cracked little sliver that the sculptors chisel away, then sweep aside.” He spat and the slimy wetness landed on the side of her jaw. She struggled, but her hair was pulled tight and any motion hurt. 

“Sollmon! Danekle! Let that poor girl up!” a raspy voice called out from the windowgap next to the door. The brothers grumbled, but stood and stepped away. A human lady with a pale, thin face and scraggly black hair pulled back into a bun appeared. She looked weak, but her eyes flared with commanding intensity. “What would your father say, seeing you two treating her like that?”

Karendle stood slowly, wiped her jaw, and dusted herself off. She drew in a sharp breath and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Sollmon walked over to the chair and straightened it back against the wall, but didn’t sit down. Danekle just stood glaring at Karendle. For a few awkward moments, the only sound was the echoes of passersby.

“Karendle?”

“Yes, mamm?” Karendle muttered, still breathing heavily from the struggle.

“Did you bring me the tubers from the market?” 

Karendle’s eyes grew big and her heart stopped. The tubers! She had forgotten all about the task she’d been given. All of her attention had been on those teasing her, and then her brothers…

Her mother sighed, “Honestly, please, Kar. Just go get them. Your father’s coming home tonight, and I want to make him a great roast.”

Karendle’s shoulders sank. How could I forget that? Well, with any luck those rockheads won’t be there anymore when I go past. She nodded and started away. 

“Oh, and get some gourds, too. We’re out of gourds.”

“Yes, mamm,” Karendle mumbled and snuck away…


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Author’s Note: Karendle’s Childhood

Karendle has always had troubles fitting in. First, in Dweorgilan as a half-human, half-dwarf, then in Twynne Rivers as a wannabe mage (read all about that in books 1 and 2!), she just can’t seem to get a break. Spoiler alert: She does finally find her place in life, but it’s not an easy road to get there.

This post is an exciting exerpt of the story (the full story is just about 5000 words) of how she first struggled with her lot. She has a good-hearted mom and dad, but her brothers are kind of jerks. You can get the rest of this short story by joining the mailing list below! Check it out!

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