Deep underground, in a twisting network of caverns, ten dwarves huddled around a fire. The small, guttering flames were their only light and would be for the next few hours while they waited for reinforcements. In the next cave, easy strides from the corridor where they now crouched, they’d found sign of cave ogres. That they’d been looking for those signs was little consolation for their enemy’s nearness, or for the fact that there appeared to be more than a dozen cave ogres nearby -- more than they’d counted on. Nine of the ten dwarves sat uneasily, their weapons in their hands and their eyes on the shadow where the corridor turned, cutting off their line of sight.
The scouting party was a mix of young Blazing Brews and Stout Axes, lead by one Balmur Strongbrew, the Brewmeister of the Blazing Brew Clan. He was the only one who set aside his weapons, choosing instead to pour himself an ample serving of brew from a small cask he carried.
Into the nervous silence, the Brewmeister asked: “Have you ever heard the tale of how I triumphed over a dozen cave ogres all on my own?”
The young dwarves shifted, looking at each other.
Finally one piped up.
“I haven’t,” she said. She was a Stout Axe warrior called Valka and like the others, this was her first mission.
“Well then,” said the Brewmeister, continuing after he sipped his brew. “You’re all in for a treat! Once, I was on a scouting mission -- much like this one. We were to find a crew of cave ogres that liked raiding the surface pasturage Lord Slithrig insisted we keep. Never met a dwarf who liked goat as much as Lord Slithrig. Do you know why he liked goat?”
Valka shook her head, suspiciously. “No… but how would you know, exactly?”
“I was his chief confidante!” said the Brewmeister. “Before and after he was mad. He liked to eat goats because, as a child, Slithrig had his toe bitten off by a one of the vicious beasts.”
“Vicious beasts?” asked a Blazing Brew, a weak smile.
The Brewmeister looked at him seriously. “Have you ever faced an irate goat? I’d take a cave ogre any day!”
“Which toe?” asked Valka.
“A big one!” said the Brewmeister with a wicked grin. “That’s why he ate goats whenever he had the chance. Just gobbled ‘em up. He hoped if he ate enough goat, his toe would grow back.”
“That’s not how that works,” said Valka, disappointed by the joke.
The Brewmeister threw back his shaggy head, cackling, and the others looked around nervously, worried by all the noise he was making. “Ah, you’re right, of course, young one. But he wasn’t right in the head. And there’s no accounting for what a madman will thinks. I tell you -- that’s why he ate so much goat, and why I and a few other brave souls were sent down into the tunnels after the cave ogres -- to get his goats back.”
Valka, more disappointed still, said, “So, it wasn’t you alone against the cave ogres? It was you and a small band. Like us, right now.”
“Aye, it was. But it was me alone that beat them,” said the Brewmeister.
The young dwarves were unconvinced, but the Brewmeister continued, unperturbed:
“So there we were, climbing down into natural tunnels -- nothing so nice as these -- squeezing down into small spaces and scrabbling around in the dark, looking for cave ogres. Luckily, we’d a few good trackers with us and plenty of my finest brew-”
“Of course you did,” muttered a daring Stout Axe, shaking his head.
The Brewmeister ignored him. “We were commanded not to return until we’d found the culprits and the goats and Lord Slithrig had a spiteful streak in him at the best of times, so we had a powerful motivation to find the wretches. We tracked them into a likely looking cave, and lo -- found that we’d walked right into a trap! They’d rigged a rockfall ahead of us and set up camp right behind us. There was no way out and we didn’t have the tools to dig our way free.”
“So what did you do?” asked Valka.
“Well,” said the Brewmeister, refilling his mug. “At first we tried fighting our way out.”
“When did a Blazing Brew ever try anything but fighting first?” muttered the same Stout Axe, growing bolder.
“And when did a Stout Axe have the manners to stay quiet for more than a minute?” retorted the Brewmeister, glaring at the youngster, who shrank under his gaze. “As I was saying, we tried fighting our way out -- but they had us well penned up and we couldn’t draw them into the gap to fight, where the numbers wouldn’t have mattered so much. They were content to starve us out.”
“We had a few days worth of food,” continued the Brewmeister, “But to be honest with you, we were planning to eat a few of those goats and be done with the mission in a day or two. We ate sparingly, we tried attacking when most of the ogres slept, we threw rocks at them -- trying to rile them up and lure them into their trap with us. Nothing worked. We were well and truly cornered and weakening by the day.”
A hush fell on the group then. The young dwarves had forgotten to stare at the shadowy corridor beyond or worry about the noise. They were caught in the story.
“Now, you’d think -- in such dire straits -- we’d have been in a melancholy mood, no? But you see, we’re the Blazing Brew Clan. We do not succumb to melancholy. And temperament aside, I’d brought a proper supply of brew!”
“I think I’d rather just be dead,” muttered the Stout Axe lad. “Than drink that vile concoction.” The young Stout Axes giggled and the Blazing Brews bristled.
The Brewmeister drew himself up, his eyes glinting fiercely as he proclaimed to the Stout Axes: “The Blazing Brew is an ancient recipe, handed down for a hundred generations, carefully preserved, and always made exactly as our noble ancestors made it! It is the most revered tradition of our people and the making and drinking of it is why the Blazing Brew Clan produces the bravest and most cunning dwarves of all the Clans. Say me different, and we’ll fight here and now! I’ll not stand for such calumnious slander!”
None of the wide-eyed young dwarves took him up on the offer. With a sly look, the Brewmeister asked softly: “Have any of you young Axes tried the brew?”
The Stout Axes looked at each other and Valka shook her head. The young Blazing Brews smirked as the Brewmeister began to produce drinking vessels from about his person and his pack -- setting down a flagon, two more mugs, a small flask, and a tankard in front of the astonished Stout Axes. As the Brewmeister started to fill the vessels with brew, the Blazing Brews each retrieved their own mugs. They all carried one.
“Try it,” said the Brewmeister, when all the mugs were filled. “The rest will make more sense once you’ve had a taste.”
The Stout Axes looked suspiciously at their drinks -- the lad who’d spoken up afraid to even touch his mug. Valka lifted hers -- the tankard -- sniffed it and then looked around at the poorly concealed glee on the faces of her Blazing Brew peers. With a game shrug, she took a swig, gulping down a proper mouthful of the brew.
The Blazing Brews cheered her and she immediately spat half of it out, her mouth and throat burning from the caustic liquor. She coughed violently while the other dwarves looked on in horror or chortled with laughter. The Blazing Brews began to quaff their brew, without so much as a hiccup.
The Brewmeister took his own gulp of the fiery drink and then said, “Now. Where was I? Ah, yes. We were trapped, about to die, and determined to enjoy ourselves to the fullest before we did. If there’s one thing -- besides fighting and mining -- that the Blazing Brews excel at, it’s throwing a party. Doesn’t matter the situation, we know how to be merry.”
“Now, the ogres heard our jollity, and they were confused. They didn’t understand, you see, the resilience of the Clan they were dealing with. Finally, the King of the Ogres came into our little cave to see what all the fuss was about.”
“The King of the Ogres?” asked Valka.
“Of course! The great ugly brute had a crown on his head -- enormous, ornate hunk of gold. Not dwarven work, but shiny enough for an ogre. When he stuck his head into our camp, all my companions leapt for their weapons, ready to cut this interloper down. But not I! I know how to be hospitable! I offered him a mug of the Blazing Brew.”
“He was a stronger fellow than the usual run of ogre. He drank the mug I gave him in two gulps and I knew we weren’t dealing with any ordinary ogre. So I said to him, I said: ‘Let’s play a game you and I, Majesty. If I win, you let us go on your way -- and if I lose well, you can have the last of our brew along with our lives.’”
“He liked the brew so much that he agreed on the spot. We found a good flat rock and laid out the drinks, all nice and even like. Fair. He even had the advantage, since I’d had a few more myself by that point. The ogres crowded in to watch too. They were as close to me as you are now.”
“I’ve been in a couple contests of gastronomical fortitude, before that one and after, but never anything so difficult as that one. We burned our gums that evening -- that ogre king had the highest toleration for pain I’d ever seen outside my Clan. Even the other Blazing Brews were wincing for him.”
Valka rubbed her own throat in sympathy.
“Finally, we came to the last mugs. Now these, I don’t mind telling you, were filled with my most potent brew. My finest secret recipe. Even most Blazing Brews can’t take it.” He looked to his clansmen for confirmation. Heads nodded in vigorous agreement.
“I was swaying by that point, myself. My sight was foggy and my skull a roaring furnace, but I knew, if I could just finish this drink, that I had him. No ogre would be able to stand it. The ogre king’s eyes were crossed and he slurred his words, saying, ‘I’ll be sad to kill you, Sir Iron Gullet. It’ll be a loss to the world.’ and I laughed at him, and replied, ‘We’ll see who is about to be lost to the world!’”
“Hardly had their king gotten a whiff of that liquor, but he fainted clear away! Just toppled over. Now the other ogres leapt to their feet, sure I’d cheated somehow -- so I let them smell my cup. Two more fainted dead away -- from sober to unconscious on the mere fumes. Now they really thought I was cheating, so I threw back my mug in one go.”
The young dwarves all gasped and then chuckled.
“In awe, the ogres bowed to me, acknowledging my prowess and victory and calling me by the name the ogre king had given me: Sir Iron Gullet. They let us go-”
The Brewmeister cut off sharply, listening. In the sudden silence, the dwarves heard shuffling feet in a distant corridor, the echoes rattling around the walls. It was too early for dwarven reinforcements. The sounds were coming from the direction of the ogre signs they’d found. The young dwarves looked to each other, suddenly afraid again.
The Brewmeister tapped the side of his nose knowingly, and emptied his mug. Then he took a different flask from his belt and filled the mug with a few fingers of the amber brew inside. Then, with a wink, he stood and walked around the corner, vanishing from sight.
The dwarves sat in hushed stillness. He returned quickly, the mug gone from his hand.
“What did you do?” whispered Valka.
“I left our friends a present. Just listen.”
The footsteps grew louder, coming nearer and nearer. They could hear the ogre’s breathing and the jingle of their armor. The dwarves’ knuckles were white on their weapons and sweat stood out on their brows. Deep voices sounded, indecipherable whispers and grunts from ogre throats. They sounded as though they were just beyond the shadow, around the corner.
Then came the thump of a large body hitting the cave floor.
A cry arose from the ogres, so close but unseen.
Then there was a short silence, followed by the distinctive sound of a body being dragged away as they retreated.
With a low chuckle, the Brewmeister watched the young dwarves exchange wondering looks. He settled more comfortably against the wall and helped himself to one of the Stout Axes’ full mugs.
“Then it was true?” asked Valka, consternated. “All of that crazy story?”
“Every word, lass,” said the Brewmeister, with another wink. “I wouldn’t lie to you! Now, since we’ve a bit more time on our hands, let me tell you about the time I fought a beastman on the brink of the pits of fire. I was only twelve summers old, had one hand tied behind my back, and only a small keg for a shield...”