The pirate homeland of Narcarbia consists of ten islands arranged in a circular pattern. The central island, Liswan, is by far the largest, and is run by the Dwarven Clan Afflet. The mining clan consider themselves the facilitators of the Dwarves, and in the Narcarbia islands, this is true - there are embassies for the four other Clans, and they meet regularly to discuss diplomatic matters.
But once one leaves Narcarbia, anything goes. When face-to-face with a Dwarven pirate ship, all that matters is who is better with a cutlass and how willing you are to kill.
Borge was born on Liswan, in a small mining colony called Hatura. The island's more expensive metals (gold, silver and - of course - aitt) had all been depleted long ago. Dwarve are miners, however, and so they continued to dig for whatever they could fine. Hatura was built around a silver mine - nowadays, Haturans mined for sharonium.
No one has ever made a fortune from mining sharonium, but it can be sold in bulk to Peedlings, who use it to fashion cheap instruments for children or other races.
The mine provided a steady business, but the colony was not a rich one, and so it was the dream of most young locals to join one of the pirate clans, and earn a living on the seas.
Dwarves are born with two conflicting desires: to live in the earth, mining out the world's resources, becoming one with the soil itself...and to sail the eleven seas*, letting the wind and the currents be your guide.
*technically seven oceans and four seas.
Borge had spent years scratching his mining itch, but as soon as he became of age, he left his brother Torge to continue the family tradition and set off to find his fortune on the seas.
His parents bid him a proud farewell - his father gave him a firm handshake, warning him not to get any girls pregnant, and his mother kissed him goodbye, her beard mingling with his.
With a spring in his step (a rare thing for a Dwarf), Borge said goodbye to his mining hometown and set off on the road for Galtua, the Dwarven capital, to get recruited by a pirate clan.
To Borge's surprise and dismay, it wasn't as simple as he'd hoped. Despite the staggering of pirate ships on the ocean (some estimate that as much as a quarter of the population of All-That-Is consists of pirates), there reached a point in every Dwarf's life where they set off for Galtua and tried to sign up.
After two Dwarven weeks of trying - and failing - to attract the attention of a single pirate clan, Borge was faced with a choice. He didn't have the funds to travel somewhere with less competition, which meant he could either give up and return to mining (he didn't even have to go back to Hatura - mining, being a comparatively unexciting choice for Dwarves, always had plenty of jobs going)...
...or he could do something to attract the attention of some pirates.
Twenty years of mining hadn't left Borge with a huge number of skills, but even within the sharonium mines, he'd been noticed for his strength.
Pirates aren't in the habit of doing a lot of heavy lifting. Less well-equipped ships sometimes had to haul cannon from gunport to gunport, but those ships tended not to recruit in Galtua. The only other time that strength was required was for hauling treasure chests, but in those moments every pirate managed to find a hidden reserve of strength, regardless of size.
And so Borge decided that he would fight his way onto a ship.
Not literally - he'd be run through before he even made it across the gangplank. But Galtua had a dedicated gladiator ring, and Borge noticed that whenever the Pirate Leaders were done recruiting for the day, they would inevitably visit the ring and watch a few fights.
Approaching a Pirate Leader outside of official recruitment centres was considered to be poor form, but Borge suspected that if he'd just been seen winning a fight against Galtua's best, they might ignore protocol and consider him a potential asset to the ship.
And so for the next week or two, Borge spent his time split evenly between training and watching fights.
Fighting to the death is strictly outlawed in Liswan (and most of the Narcarbia Islands) - as soon as your opponent is felled, continuing to attack is a crime punishable by ten years as a Canary. There were rumors of underground death-rings, but Borge had no interest in taking any risks.
If his plan worked, he'd be sailing with pirates - and that, his Dwarven blood told him, was the time for risks.
Borge would never forget his first fight. He had spent the last of his savings on gear - he'd noticed from his time watching the fights that almost every dwarf fought with an axe. Most of them, he presumed, were from mining towns like his, and so the closer their weapon resembled a pick, the more comfortable they felt with it.
He decided on a sword - a cutlass, specifically. Partially so that he'd stand out, but mostly to show any recruiting pirates how comfortable he was with their weapon of choice.
The armor on his back was light - not by choice. He knew that he'd feel more comfortable with as much metal as possible between him and his opponents. The healers may be able to prevent any permanent damage, but he wouldn't be able to avoid the pain.
No, light armor was all that he was able to afford. The last of his coins had gone towards his entry fee - as long as he didn't come dead last, he'd win enough to enter again.
He came dead last.
Borge had thought he was prepared - he'd thought his strength would serve him well, his incresed mobility from the armor he was forced to wear would get him enough of an edge to fell at least one opponent. He'd at least thought that facing an unusual weapon would throw someone off enough for him to get a blow in - just one blow.
But he'd underestimated the skill of his opponents, his own unfamiliarity with a cutlass. Training against dummies doesn't prepare you for a fight against actual, flesh-and-blood opponents, and most of the Dwarves in the arena were professionals, full-timers who had been doing it for years.
He'd never stood a chance.
But what had truly taken Borge by surprise was how much he'd loved it. Even while getting his beard handed to him, even after being felled less than half an hour into the ring, he'd felt alive. The roar of the crowd, the beating of his heart, the need to pay attention to everything happening, to watch all sides...
Borge understood what he hadn't been able to see from the outside. Being a gladiator wasn't a step on the path to piracy - fighting in the ring was its own reward. He hadn't even realized he'd been thinking of the other warriors as failed pirates, but he now realized how wrong that train of thought was.
Totally broke, with a broken sword and armor bent beyond repair, Borge took the first mining job offered to him. He was given room and board, and a percentage of the amber he mined.
In his first three days, he set a new record for the mine. One week later, he broke it.
Borge had mined before, but it had been a job, something to fill the day. He'd enjoyed it - his beard meant that the ground would always hold a strong draw for him, just like the sea. But never before had he mined with purpose, mined with an agenda.
He knew that the faster he mined, the sooner he could try his chances in the ring once more.
After three Dwarven weeks of mining, he had enough to go back to Galtua, buy new equipment, and try his luck in the ring three more times. This time, he bought the armor he felt most comfortable in, and - like almost every other gladiator in the ring - used an axe.
He'd worked out that the axe was thew weapon of choice because of familiarity with its form (although that almost certainly helped) but because of its weight, its ability to swing on all sides at once - even its ability to function defensively.
Some saw gladiator fighting as inelegant and chaotic. Sixteen gladiators are released into the ring - the last one standing wins. Often there are other elements in play as well - boulders swinging from the ceiling, mythical creatures conjured and brought into the ring to fight - but at its heart, gladiator fights were about one person triumphing over many.
Borge lost the first fight. He was too eager, too excited to be back - he kept trying to pay attention to everything at once, to soak in the adrenaline, the sweat, the sense of life-and-death. It was too much, and he was felled in even less time than his first battle.
But his second match...his second match, he was in the top three.
The payout was enough that he could afford several more bouts before he had to go back to mining, and he was proud to see how dramatically his odds shifted between the first and second battle.
Borge never went back to mining. For the next three years, he fought in the gladiator rings of Galtua. He rarely won, but he was almost always in the top five. It became a reliable, steady income - but he never lost his passion for it.
One night, after narrowly leaving the ring without being felled (his first victory in several weeks), Borge was approached by a Dwarf with hair almost as long as his beard. He had an eyepatch, a wooden leg, and hooks in the place of both his hands.
"Ye did good out there," he growled, and Borge started at the sound. Adrenaline was still pumping through his body after the bout, and turning to see the one-limbed Dwarf, marvelled at how quietly he was able to move around.
"Thanks," Borge replied, his grin revealing several missing teeth. He'd get them back after healing, but - as tradition dictated - had allowed the fell to be healed first.
"We could use them kind of skills on the seas," the stranger said, and Borge's eyebrows raised. It had been so long since he'd desired anything but the thrill of the fight - he'd completely forgotten the reason he'd first stepped into the ring. "How about it, boy? Ye feel like dropping that axe and picking up a cutlass?"
"I appreciate the offer," Borge said after a moment's pause. "And maybe I'll take you up on it some day. But right now, the ring is my home, and I don't see myself leaving it anytime soon."
"Fair enough," the Dwarf replied with a nod. "Ye ever change your mind, come find me - Albur's the name. I'm with Jolee - most anyone at the Clan will know who I am."
"Thanks," Borge repeated and held out his hand before dropping it in embarrassment a few seconds later. The pirate's wheezy laughter would stay with him for days.
Little did he know that less than a month later, the mysterious Dwarf's offer would be the only thing that could save him from a long and painful death.
Fantasy city by David Revoy, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.