OT: Warren Tales

on June 3, 2013 in Other Tales

The Invention of the Rat


Hairy little lizard. Biter. Gnawer. Long-tooth and clever-claws. Scurrier in shadows. Breaker of seals and despoiler of stores. Where there are people, there are rats. Where the people dig, the rats are there. A new tunnel is opened and the rats are there. A new shaft is sunk and rats are discovered as if they had been waiting in the undug darkness of the world.

Where the people are, there will be rats. This will always be so until the bones of the world are devoured and the ceiling of the sky is shattered, but it was not always so. The pestilent vermin are as hardy as any creation of the crawling chaos, but they are our curse, not our kin.

Generations ago when the darkness was less dug, there were no dwarves in the diggings and there was but one commandment: do not break your way up into the bright sun. Cleaving to that, our ancestors hollowed mountains and tunneled for miles under the ground. We were all diggers in the darkness, children of the digger, and it was good.

But those were strange times, and in those times, some seven strange stones were disturbed, and you know well what happened next, flesh of my flesh: dwarves. Huge, lichen-draped, with lizard-like muscles unnaturally strong and lizard-like bones unnaturally tough.

Some say they were our fitting punishment for being lax in our obeisance to the one commandment, and it is true that the dwarf existed betwixt the people and the sun as if to head us off.

But if that was the dwarf’s true purpose, it was soon forgotten. Not content to impede our occasional upward progress, the dwarves dug downwards, digging up our darkness and breaking into our tunnels. The precious ore they excavated was sent out of the world and into the air and the sun, traded for mere soft gold and stinking silver, never to be gnawed by our young or fashioned into implements for our use.

But where dwarves were strong, we were numerous. Where they were big, we were clever. We forced them out, kept them out, and when we could fight them to a standstill we brought them to terms. In time, a sort of balance was reached. It was tenuous, as balance always is, and fragile, as balance always is, but it allowed the people and the dwarves to coexist with only occasional minor disruptions of the peace.

To us, this was necessary to sustain our lives and continue our great works. To the dwarves, existing solely to vex us and task us, it was intolerable… doubly so as through their own foolishness and no duplicity of ours, they had been slighted in the compact between us.

For when the world was divided between us, we took down and they took up, never reckoning how much more down there was. And their foremost king, the great grizzled warlord known to all chattering toothlings as Grandpa Graybeard, howled with rage when he realized how his greed had served him in the end. He and his kin were trapped against the skin of the world, trapped against the airy lightness, while we were free to delve ever deeper into the darkness.

The dwarves are not clever, but they are canny with devices and sneaky in their way, and to quell their great lord’s dread rage they bent all their dire arts to fashioning the instrument of their revenge. Where they could not go, it would. Where the way was sealed with doors and bargains, it would creep unhindered. It was created to be our match in fecundity, in tenacity, in all the things that make the people strong.

It was a small, sleek thing, swift as any cave lizard and three times as clever, and matted in the image of Graybeard’s hideous draping.

The dwarven artificers created it, and they loosed it upon the world knowing it would not fail to find us.

Wherever our tunnels intersected those of the dwarves, there were the rats creeping in. Even through passages flooded with waste water or collapsed beneath rubble, they crept in. They crept into our domains through the sites of ancient battlefields from that ancestral enmity. They crept in through the goods we traded with the folk of the surface… goods that invariably passed through dwarven territory, if not dwarven hands. Wherever they could, they crept in… and they could creep in nearly anywhere.

And once one rat is in the warren, there can be no end to them. Most lizards need a sire and a dam for the eggs to quicken, but a single rat can lay live young like eggs by the dozens. We learn quickly and we fight hard, but from the beginning there have been three enemies that could not be overcome and to this list we add another: the falling stone, the rushing water, the seeping gas, and now the spawning rat.

Koal and the Knockers

Once long ago there were two brothers born in a brood, two brothers so equally matched in strength and ferocity that their mother carried them while three further generations were spawned by other mothers, and they were born near full-grown when she expired from the strain of containing their vicious battles for so long.

Their father named them Moal and Koal, and as they were too big to be reared as children and there was none for them to take nourishment from when their mother’s cold corpse was used up, it was decided that they should become miners immediately. It would have been their profession anyway since this was a time of peace and balance, but because they were never toothling children they had not been trained for it.

The other miners of their cohort had been reared together, and though they knew the story of Koal and Moal’s mother and their mighty struggles within her iron womb, they did not know what to make of these near-adults who came to them fully formed and yet with neither knowledge nor learning. Their eyes told the story of their misgivings, and keen-eyed Koal judged that there was some merit to their mistrust.

“Look here, brother of my flesh,” Koal said to Moal as they descended into the diggings for their first shift. “We have not been alive very long and will not be alive for long if we do not learn the run of the shaft. Let us hang back and observe how the others do, and then be like them, that we may learn all that we have missed while warring in the womb before we have need of it.”

“I have had my fill of hanging back!” his brother replied. “I am Moal. Have I not the strength of ten? Has there ever been a kobold who gestated longer than I did? Has there ever been one born with strength that exceeds mine? I expect to be running this warren in no time, and all these suspicious, scampering rats will be answering to me.”

Koal gave him no answer, though he did see that his brother was being careful and clever in his boasts, if not tactful. He himself had spent exactly as long in the womb as Moal had, and he boasted the same battle-tested strength to show for it, but Koal could not name the kobold who exceeded Moal in these virtues. It was not worth it to him to point it out, however.

“Brother Moal, truly we are mighty,” he said instead. “And in no time at all we will be the heroes of this warren. None will be more honored than either of us, though this is sure to inspire jealousy among the other workers if we are not careful to honor them as well.” For if one reared in the womb had no understanding of the world, he had much understanding of competition. “We will do well to pledge each other’s aid, to watch each other’s back, and to bend all our efforts—powerful as they are—together in the same direction.”

“This is a trick,” Moal said. “How can there be trust between us when we were conceived as rivals? When we were created to outlast and consume the other? Our mother’s death changed the venue of our contest, but it did not end it. I will defeat you yet.”

To this, Koal said nothing. There is never a need for hostility to be declared on two sides.

At the entrance to the live shaft, the miners stopped and removed their food from their packs. Each broke off a corner or dug out a tidbit and cast it into the darkness of a disused shaft.

“Fellow, why do we do this?” Koal asked another miner even as he copied the gesture.

“For the knockers,” the miner said. “In the hopes that they’ll keep us safe, or at least leave us be, if they have a better meal than us.”

“It seems prudent and wise,” Koal said, and in that moment he earned a small measure of trust from his cohort. “If you have any other wisdom to impart, my ears are open to it.”

“Hmph,” Moal said. “I think I will do better to eat my own lunch than to waste it on feeding the shadows of others’ fear.”

The mine shaft is its own competition, and that shift and the next three were won by Moal, though he produced prodigious amounts of waste stone and left it to others to shore up his diggings and pack up his burden. Though Koal could have matched his brother in strength and endurance, he outmatched all in patience, taking time to learn from the others the way of the mine and lending his strength where it was needed for the safety and productivity of all. He showed strength of the brain as well as the arm, and in his first four shifts he learned nearly all that a toothling knows of minecraft, so that by their fifth shift he began to compete in earnest with his brother and by their sixth they were tied for ore production, though it must be said that Koal’s was of a higher quality and he left less destruction in his wake.

Then as now the number seven was regarded as evil or unlucky, and so it was common for miners to be placed on guard duty after their seventh shift so as not to attract the attention of the knockers or the gray ones. Koal had noticed that some of their companions stayed behind at the entrance to the new diggings every shift, and so he was not surprised when his and his brothers’ turn came around. Moal was less prepared for it.

“This is intolerable,” Moal moaned. “We might as well be back in the womb. A whole shift’s digging lost!”

“Patience, brother,” Koal said. “We have worked hard and will profit from a little rest.”

“I see no profit in doing nothing,” Moal said. “I refuse to waste my time, and will find a profit to this day while you laze about like you always do.”

“How will you do that? We have been given no tools,” he said. “Strong as we are, you could not hew stone with your bare hands for long. Your claws would wear away to nothing.”

“Maybe,” Moal said. “But maybe I’ll set my claws to a softer prize… you and our fellows have been throwing your food down that shaft every shift we’ve worked. Why should it be wasted on ghosts? Think how much more productive my rest will be with a full stomach.”

“We have earned double full portions at every meal since we began working,” Koal said. “How much more room can there be in your stomach?”

“I do not know,” Moal said. “But I shall soon find out.”

So saying, he descended into the dark depths of the unused shaft. His passage downward must have dislodged some stones, for a distant knocking echoed up from the bottom of the passage.

“This is foolishness, brother!” Koal called down after him. “We have hot pies in our packs. Who would choose stale crumbs over something fresh and warm?”

Even as the words left his mouth, Koal felt an electric chill run through his bones. Shadows below him stirred. A cloud of dust rose up and obscured all vision of his brother’s moving form, and he heard something that sounded like a dry chuckle as a fetid draft wafted over him.

“Who, indeed?” a voice said, resonating through his skull like the vibrations of a distant digging. “We are offered crumbs, but here comes something fresh and warm, baked but seven shifts ago and delivered to our door. Will you come along, too, and offer us some more?”

“Who is it that speaks to me from shadows?” Koal asked. “Is this a trick of dwarves?”

“We are not dwarves, foolish fresh-baked pie,” the voice replied. “We are the knockers. Who else would be so foolish to descend into the depths given over to the dead?”

“My brother for one, and I would thank you to return him to me unharmed,” Koal said.

“Would you? Would you really? I think for most of your existence you would have been happy to see him dead. Ecstatic, even.”

“That is the way of the womb, not the way of the warren,” Koal said.

“For two to be born, it is unseemly. Surely you would like to see the grim competition finished the way it was meant to be? With one living and the rest consumed?”

“It is unseemly to speak of eating the living,” Koal said. “Our birth-battle did not end in the usual way, but it is ended and I will thank you to return my brother to me.”

“Would you exchange places with him?”

“No,” Koal said. “For if all other things were equal, we would be equal assets to the warren and nothing would be gained by my sacrifice.”

“And other things aren’t equal, are they? You know who the greater asset is and still you barter with the knockers.”

“He may learn in time,” Koal said.

“Or he may bring a tunnel down on all your heads, and then we’ll feast in full. “

“All the more reason for you to release him back to me,” Koal said.

“Would you wager with us for him? Would you gamble? Would you pit your strength and skill at tunneling against the greatest of ours?”

“If that is necessary.”

“But what of stakes?”

“If I win, you will release my brother to me,” Koal said. “If you win, you will have us both.”

“You would deprive the warren of both of you?”

“You will not win,” Koal said. “I know what you are, knockers, and I know what you were. There has never been a kobold greater than me, so the greatest of you is less than me.”

“Then you have nothing to lose in accepting greater stakes,” the knockers said. “If you do win, then our knocking will forevermore guide you to the richest veins of the best ore… but if you lose, we will drop the tunnel on your cohort and claim all.”

“I cannot accept those stakes,” Koal said. “I do not gamble with the lives of other miners.”

“And if we will not yield your brother back to you otherwise?”

“Then I will be sorry to lose him to you,” Koal said. “But truly, he climbed into your pit of his own will and none aided nor enticed him. I will not risk one of my fellows on his account.”

“Then rejoice, little miner, for your brother shall be returned to you,” the knockers said. “For we were miners once, and though we are sometimes blamed for collapsing caverns… and sometimes rightly so… we remember what it was to have a comrade who cared for our safety.”

“Thank you, generous spirits,” Koal said. “Know that I will never pass by your hole without giving you an offering.”

“We know that you would not have anyway. Know you that if your brother’s ways cannot be mended, our interference will not be needed to cause the ruin of your cohort and your intervention will not be successful in stopping it.”

“If this misadventure does not mend Moal’s ways, then my next offering to you will be a familiar one,” Koal said. “Now, enough of talk and more of action!”

“Your brother is restored!”

With that, there was a tremendous shudder from below and then an explosive belch of stone dust and stale air. It was as though the abandoned shaft had just collapsed upwards. Propelled along by the jet of debris was Moal, frozen with terror.

It is no fault to miners that they do not run in the direction of a sound such as the one that returned Moal to Koal, but in due time and with due caution they investigated and found the brothers unharmed, though Moal bore a frightful coating of gray dust.

“He has gone unwisely exploring,” was all that Koal said, and all that he needed to say.

Moal’s temperament was not wholly reformed by the encounter with the knockers, though from that day he was a bit more careful and slightly more considerate. His brother soon surpassed him and all other miners, and the cohorts he championed always had the best safety records as well as the best productivity.

Some said that this was due entirely to Koal’s scrupulousness in observing the safety rules of the mine and his concern for his fellow miners’ safety, but many believed… and still believe now… that it was because he had earned the respect of the knockers, and if they did not lead him to the best ore they took pains to warn him at least of danger, and caused him none.

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15 Responses to “OT: Warren Tales”

  1. N. says:


    Current score: 0
    • Markas says:

      A kobold hero….

      Current score: 1
      • e says:

        There’s something to be said for a society in which a cultural idea of a hero is someone who prioritizes the safety of their fellows over their own aggrandizement. Sort of an anti-Achilles.

        Current score: 3
        • grothvar says:

          its like a lot of american indian stuff. they were all about putting the community first,(although there were definite strong notes of this being at the expense of the individual with some tribes) at least most groups in the north and north west, and also the east coast.

          the west started out like that but when they got the horse made a huge jump to the other side of the spectrum and became all about individualism and personal glory. and the south(the parts not on the east coast) overall seemed to be much more individual based) but mostly they were much more about the tribe than the individual. Like the kobolds.

          …or the legends I’ve read were anyway. The Koal one in particular reminded me of an Apache story

          Current score: 1
  2. Zathras IX says:

    If you can dig it:
    There can never be any
    Lasting “Warren Peace”

    Current score: 0
  3. Readaholic says:

    A bit more insight into the knockers. Nicely chilling, and a wonderful legend.

    Current score: 0
  4. Potatohead says:

    Have we heard of the knockers before? I assume they’ve been mentioned in another OT, but I can’t remember where.

    Current score: 0
    • grothvar says:

      not sure about that name, but I feel like I’ve read “the gray ones” before

      Current score: 0
    • Brenda says:

      There were superstitions and tales about “tommyknockers” among real-world miners.

      Current score: 1
  5. estelendur says:

    Striking. I deeply enjoyed the story of Moal and Koal. 🙂

    Current score: 0
  6. pedestrian says:

    It would be interesting to link the Miner’s practical acceptance of the Knockers, within the overall chthonic mythology of Kobold society.

    Current score: 0
  7. grothvar says:

    post moar legends

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  8. Antonious says:

    I have miners in my family tree and have heard or read many of their stories. Yours is every bit as good as the best I have heard.

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  9. Laural H says:

    Is their unlucky number seven merely due to dwarves?

    Current score: 1
  10. Lara says:

    Loved this one.

    Current score: 0