Beorn cups his hand under a fountain spout and splashes his face with water mystically pumped and filtered from the nearby river. Rolling his broad shoulders, he waves Theros over.
The horse-sized goat snorts and stands, scattering a gaggle of human children who had been brushing his coat. With a clatter of hooves on cobbled stone, he joins Beorn and dips his muzzle into the evening-cooled water.
Beorn reaches under the goat’s horns to scratch his thick neck. “These Badgertown kids are enamored with you. Do mind if I tell them your story?”
Theros slurps and lifts his head. His golden eyes sparkle with a soft glow, and a deep sound rumbles up from his belly that makes Beorn’s hair stand on end.
“Okay, so you’re grumpy,” says Beorn. “You’re always grumpy, but I don’t have magic active to interpret your exact meaning. Stomp once for yes. Twice for no.” He holds up a finger. “But consider how disappointed your little groomers will be if they don’t get a proper bedtime story.”
Theros stomps once, and his ears droop.
Beorn chuckles and cups his hands around his mouth. “Children! Come over to frame dramatic dreams with a tale of blame!”
Adults nod and release their little ones to run to the fountain. Near a dozen settle on the dusty stone in a half-moon around Beorn and Theros.
“Look into my large friend’s eyes.” Prodding with his boots, Beorn forces the children to scoot further from the giant goat’s diamond-hard hooves. “Glowing like twin suns, his eyes are windows to another world. His world. His home.
“Two suns in the sky, taking turns to keep away the night. Despite the bright light, it was a cold world of tall mountains and land more white than green.
“In this harsh, unforgiving landscape, lived a herd of giant goats called gruffs. They survived with grit and intelligence that far surpassed most wild creatures. Any who understood the gruff language or saw them dance to hoof-stomping music could even consider them people rather than beasts.”
Theros snorts and hops from hoof to hoof with a drummer’s rhythm. A boy slaps a stone in time with the gruff, and the other children giggle and join in.
Beorn clears his throat until Theros stills and the accompanying slaps stop. “Yes. My friend can hoof along to any song, as could his herd.
“They could handle most anything that came along, hopping free from avalanches, huddling together through blizzards, and defying almost all predators. Only griffins dared to chase the herd up into the peaks, and the gruffs gave as good as they got.
“Imagine them with only hooves, horns, and each other, rolling boulders almost vertically up through ice and snow. Positioned with such care and precision, these stones were tactical traps to crush griffin wings.
“When that failed, gruffs past their prime were always ready for a suicide leap to protect the young; more than one griffin got dragged down to share death with a stubborn old goat.
“The herd was ready for anything their world could throw at them, but redorcs were not of their world.
“Small and slow compared to the goats, but the redorcs had hands. They used tools, both mundane and mystical. They also had keen wolf-like ears and a relentless drive to hunt down prey.
“The gruffs retreated from the beady-eyed intruders, fleeing to the highest peaks. Walking on two legs, the redorcs followed. Creeping up, they came in waves of hundreds.
“Herd members in their prime could leap over the redorc nets and dance between clumsy attempts to trip them with sticks, but the old and young were getting caught. Plus, one mother was very pregnant.”
Theros bows his head, closing his golden eyes.
The boy that had started the slapping before says, “Was that his mama?”
Beorn nods and paces in front of the fountain. “With stomping hooves and echoing snorts, the herd elders met on a cliff shelf and discussed options. Some wanted to survive separate and free, leaving any who could not leap as had to be done with avalanches. More considered the baby in the womb and shook their fuzzy heads.
“For as long as memory had been passed down from generation to generation, the gruff herd had survived by staying together. They could not write with hooves and had no books to read. They only had each other’s minds to preserve their history.
“Those giant goats of that mountainous twin-sun world were proud and stubborn, but as one, they surrendered.”
The boy crosses his arms. “Why?”
Beorn smirks. “The redorcs were also confused and joyous at the complete capture of the herd. Every goat was taken, young, old, and the one that was very pregnant.
“Mystic enchantments were cast that bound them all to service as mounts and beasts of burden. It seemed the redorcs knew of gruffs in general, but were ignorant of this herd’s mental potential.
“The elder gruffs stomped for silence, and their intellect remained a secret.
“In the new world, this world, the first born was named Theros by his mother. She saw greatness in him for the fleeting moment before she was taken by the redorcs to be butchered for dinner.”
The boy grumbles, and the other children whimper. Theros walks away, hooves clattering on stone with slower and slower steps until the gruff stands frozen.
Beorn shrugs. “It had been a hard journey for the redorc raiders, and they weren’t in the mood to care for a goat mother weak from giving birth. At least they kept Theros alive, let him nurse on a horse mare’s tit since they’d already eaten her colt.
“Anyway. Sadness and rage warred within every goat, but they held strong to the greater good of the herd. They worked harder than their enchantments demanded, proving worth beyond an easy meal. This earned enough respect and status that the redorc tribe stopped killing them for food, though they never refrained from eating those who died from age or injury.”
“I don’t like redorcs,” says the boy. “You should kill them all.”
Beorn pats a warhammer clipped to his side. “We’re working on it.
“Now, the herd also struggled to be fair with the horse-nursed Theros, but as the young gruff grew, he was burdened by their shame.
“Theros was the first that wouldn’t know the peaks of their homeworld and the continuous bite of its chill air. He stood straighter and had shorter hair. His horns curled too much and his ears missed the subtleties of hoof-music. As much as they could, they loved him, but he was a disappointment.
“Those born after Theros shared his physical tendencies. No less intelligent, only adapted to our warmer, flatter world. They were as different, but Theros was the first and remembered as the reason why the herd had surrendered and why his mother had died.
“With stomps and grunts, Theros was added to the herd’s history as the first scapegoat.”
Beorn clasps his hands and sits.
The boy raises his arm. “Is that the end of the story?”
“Yes,” says Beorn. “But don’t blame me.”
Beorn, Ranger of Thorn—Colgrevance’s right hand
Theros, giant goat—a gruff that serves as Beorn’s mount