The Council Chamber of Deepdelve was a meagre place compared to the Great Hall, the Gold Plaza, the Glowfungus Gardens, the Grand Shrine and the other uncounted wonders of the Undercity, but in its stark confines decisions that had shaken the Empire to its foundations had been made. In days past, wars had begun and ended around the wide, square table of polished slate, and alliances forged with clasped hands and broken with bellowed words. Blood had been shed, even, but not in a long while. The walls of the Great Hall, where the Warriors feasted and sung the battle songs, were hung with the banners of all those who had stood against House Deepdelve over the long centuries and been vanquished, but here the relics of the conquered were less ostentatious – though no less hard won, or less remembered with grim satisfaction. Notched axes, battered helms, skulls even. Trophies of single combat, of plundered halls, of widows made. These were not glorious memories: they were painful and bitter. They were for the powerful and wealthy of Deepdelve to remember, not to celebrate. No battle songs were ever sung in the Council Chamber.
Overlord Hundrik himself, the eightieth to bear his name as ruler of the city, sat at the head of the table. His thick fingers, each ringed with iron and gold – but no stones, for in Deepdelve gems were considered a woman’s adornment – played idly with the tight coils of his white beard. When a Warrior’s victories became so many, braids would not suffice, and instead it became necessary to use tight coils. A Warrior whose victories were greater than his beard was a mighty foe indeed. Hundrik no longer bothered to add coils for his conquests – only boys kept count, he had decided long ago. His prowess was well enough known by now.
The droning of the Master of Coin was like a gnat in his ears. Hundrik had a love of gold, like any Dwarf, but his treasury was overflowing with drakes minted in Highthrone, and his mines were seemingly inexhaustible. It mattered little whom the city traded with and why. He had all he could need, and his people wanted for nothing either.
“I tire of this,” he finally said, running a finger under the edge of his steel crown: it always itched in a certain place, where the hard metal sat on an old scar across his forehead. It was hot besides. This last century, as Hundrik’s girth had expanded alongside his wealth, he had felt the heat much more. Sometimes he longed for the cool caverns of the Fringes, out beyond the Molochfyre, where he had won glory as a young man. The amount of magma pumped into the wall crystals of the Council Chamber was always too much for his liking.
Belgir, the Master of Coin, abruptly snapped his flapping mouth shut and inclined his head slightly, backing away from his place at the Overlord’s side.
“Buy whatever you think should be bought,” Hundrik said, trying to soften his dismissal, “you know more of it than I, good Belgir. I am an axe with a beard and a belly underneath; I have no head for figures. Your investments are always wise.”
“As you say, Lord.” Belgir seemed pleased, though it was always hard to tell with the dry little man.
“What else is there?” Hundrik asked, turning to the other Dwarves seated around the great table. They met thrice each Ebbing, the Masters of Deepdelve, to decide the things that must be decided. It was a duty Hundrik had always found onerous, but he had learned the folly of sending another in his place. He despised the politics and backstabbing of the Council Chamber, but he had found that his continued presence at these meetings tended to keep his loyal advisors exactly that.
Offur, the Master of Alliances, cleared his throat. He was a young man – only one-hundred-and-fifty – and a little zealous in his duties for Hundrik’s tastes. Deepdelve’s alliances were old and as sure as carved stone, but Offur seemed hungry to make his mark. So be it. Hundrik nodded, allowing him to speak his piece. “We have received a missive from Overlord Ringtooth of Shalepit, my Lord.”
“Ringtooth? Never heard of him.”
“Abbel Ringtooth, my Lord,” Offur continued, “or so I am reliably informed. It seems he succeeded his father to lordship of Shalepit just a year ago. He claims to have a young daughter, nearly come of age…”
Hundrik was already shaking his head heavily. “And who does he want for her? One of my great grandsons? Or one of their sons? I forget how old they all are now.”
“Merely a nephew, Lord. It needn’t be one close to the line of succession. He has expressed – in very eloquent words, I should add – the desire to join your two great lines together.”
Hundrik snorted in contempt. “Two great lines? House Ringtooth is a new one to my ears. What’s their pedigree?”
“They have ruled Shalepit for almost a thousand years now.”
“And before that?”
“Well…I believe they were of common enough stock. Shalepit, as you know…”
“Bah. I know nothing of Shalepit. I won no wars there. I sell no iron there. Who are they to me? The girl: is she comely?”
“Lord Abbel claims so, my Lord.”
“Give her some lackwit cousin then. I seem to have dozens of them around. Who was that boy who swore to me last Ebbing? Never mind: I’ll have forgotten as soon as you tell me his name. Pick whomever you think I am least likely to miss, and who will cause the least amount of fighting if he brings the wench back here.”
“I…yes, very well, Lord.”
“Excellent.” Hundrik folded his hands across his ample stomach and smiled. “Is there ought else? News, perhaps? I grow bored of this talk of coin and brides. Tell me who is killing who in the Fringes this Ebbing.”
Brogor, the Master of Arms, cracked a smile at that. Brogor was almost as old as Hundrik, and they had fought together since they came of age. Alone of the Dwarves seated in the Council Chamber, Brogor had Warrior’s braids to match the mighty Overlord. “It’s war in the Western Vaults, Lord,” he said.
“War? Did they get tired of cooking Hellmites in the dark and skinning Goblins for jerkins?”
“There is some new Overlord risen, or so I’m told. He calls himself the Widowslayer.”
Hundrik’s heavy brow furrowed. “A dark name. Whence does this ‘Widowslayer’ come?”
“From the High Reaches, by way of the pits of Highthrone and Blackvault, it seems.”
“Ah, I see. Another legacy of Gordov’s Folly then, is it?”
“Apparently. I had word of his doings some time ago, but I thought you would like to hear the whole story, Lord.”
“I do so hate to leave a thing unfinished,” Hundrik agreed, taking the opportunity to ferret around one of his tusks for a greasy morsel of greatmole left over from breakfast.
“This Widowslayer – or Baggronor, to give him his true name – comes from some mine in the High Reaches. It was a rude kind of place; little more than a few dozen peasants grubbing around in the dirt for tin and copper, selling all they had to Highthrone. Unfortunately for them, they were in the path of some of Greatbeard’s hired axes at the start of the Western Wars. The miners had little choice but to let the soldiers take what they had, which was little enough, and they hung up Silvermine’s banner from their gates to prove their loyalty.”
“I suppose that went ill for them then?”
“Aye, it did. When Highthrone came to collect on its debts after the war, they demanded reparations from the traitors. The leaders they hanged, and from the survivors they levied a heavy tithe. Baggronor’s sire was one of the ones who hanged, and he being just a boy, he had no way to pay his debt. So they took him, his brothers, his cousins and anyone else they misliked the look of to be indentured servants back in Highthrone. He spent the next twenty years in some nameless pit below the Undercity.”
Hundrik nodded. “And how did he come to Blackvault then?”
“Simply enough. When Gordov emptied Highthrone, he rounded up every man able to lift an axe. Baggronor was strong enough after years of hard labour in the darkness, and so he was marched to Blackvault with the rest.”
“And he escaped the massacre?”
“Was left to die, more like. The Highthroners didn’t stop to collect up their conscripts when they fled the Goblin hordes.”
“But he didn’t die…”
“No. Seems he hammered together the other Highthrone slaves, the disenchanted and the forgotten Warriors, and the dregs of the Firestokes into some sort of army. A lot of men died at Blackvault, but a lot survived too, and Baggronor swept up most of them to his ragged banner. And that’s not all.”
Hundrik’s face clouded over. “Goblins?”
Brogor nodded sadly. “Slaves or allies, who knows? But Goblins go with him. Word is he’s already toppled a dozen Underkeeps in the west, and the last was Black Keep, where he’s made his seat. He styles himself Overlord now.”
“I’m sure he does. The Empire has no shortage of lowborn scum with dreams of nobility though. Just go to Oldfort or Quakeblight and you’ll round up thousands of the little shits without even trying. This Widowslayer: does he have designs on any of our vassals?”
“I wouldn’t be party to his councils, Lord,” Brogor shrugged, “but he seems ensconced in the Western Vaults.”
“And Black Keep: what is that to us? Who did he depose?”
It was Old Argev, the Master of Letters, who supplied the answer. The ancient Dwarf rarely spoke up in these meetings, and Hundrik only invited him out of respect for his father (the seventy-ninth Overlord Hundrik) to whom he had been a stalwart friend. “My Lord,” Argev said, “it is the seat of the Blackhands.”
“And who are they when they’re at home? Which they aren’t now…”
“A small House, but with a good line. They trace descent from the Blackbeards of Ironhold, through a cadet branch that split some two millennia ago. By all accounts they are – were, I should say – just and noble masters of their realm.”
“But nothing to us. It is a shame to see a highborn House ousted by some upstart, but the Western Vaults will need to deal with Baggronor Widowslayer themselves. If he decides to ply his bloody trade here in the Core, we will give his men a taste of Deepdelve iron and hang him for the brigand he is. But until then…” he waved a hand dismissively.
By Thomas Heasman-Hunt