Blood of my Blood

The shrine was one of the oldest parts of the Underkeep; near the heart of the complex of passages and chambers, caverns and tunnels that wound their way through living rock. Here, so close to the Core, it was possible to pump the Molochfyre’s magma up through ancient crystalline ducts so it provided light for the whole Underkeep. But here in the shrine it flowed and pooled unfettered, bubbling hotly down narrow channels that criss-crossed the floor so they formed the angular runes of the Ancestor Tongue, spelling out words and phrases sacred to the Furious God. The heat was almost unbearable, Oldrek Deepdelver thought as he sweated in his armour. Rivulets of perspiration ran down his brow, stinging his eyes, but he blinked it away and held his position, kneeling on the floor with his head bowed. The vapours from the magma were toxic enough to kill if one spent too long in the shrine during Waxing – after the midday meal, when Waning began, the ducts would be shut off to pay homage to Mammon instead of Moloch – which is why most ceremonies were short and perfunctory. An offering to the fire, a brief prayer or dirge, and then back to the living quarters. For this though, they must all endure the fumes for longer than was comfortable. It was the way of things.

It was Oldrek’s fiftieth nameday. He was a man grown – or would be, very soon – and this was the rite of passage required of him for his chosen career. He was a lesser scion of House Deepdelve, great-nephew to Overlord Hundrik, but the Deepdelvers were observant of tradition and, as a noble, he would be afforded great honour. His father and mother, all of his brothers and even his young sister were present, along with the lords and masters of the Undercity of Hunganosk – Deepdelve in Common Dwarvish – foremost amongst them his great-uncle himself. He was a huge and terrifying Dwarf, a veteran of hundreds of battles with a list of titles and honours that even he could not remember. He had not marched to war in decades, but for this he had taken down his helm and armour, his shield and axe, and donned them nonetheless. Those arms only added to his frightening appearance, embellished as they were in runic devices and fetishes that recalled his greatest victories. His massive beard, so long it brushed the polished obsidian floor, was knotted entirely in complex braids, interwoven with more charms and talismans, most of them gold or bronze. His heavy iron helm, which completely covered his face, was crowned with a sweeping pair of minotaur horns, a symbol of Moloch’s favour. Standing thus, one mailed hand resting on the pommel of his great war-axe Krignir – simply, foe killer – with the ruddy light of the magma reflecting off his black and gold armour, he looked every inch that which he was: one of the great Warchiefs of the Dwarven Empire. A legend in his own lifetime. As if to drive that point home, a semi-circle of half a dozen Royal Guard in their ornate gilded armour stood behind him, as motionless as he was.

“Oldrek, son of Garrek of House Deepdelver,” Hundrik said, his voice booming hollowly in his greathelm, “rise and step forward, that you may be judged by those you would have as your peers.”

Creaking in his unfamiliar armour, Oldrek stood and walked towards the dais where the Overlord and his bodyguard stood. At first he instinctively kept his eyes averted, as a child, but then he remembered his father’s advice to him before and he lifted his head and met Hundrik’s fierce gaze, gleaming through the eye slit in his helmet. When he reached the dais, he went down to one knee again.

“You are Oldrek, son of Garrek, of House Deepdelver?” Hundrik asked.

“I am, Lord.”

“You are blood of my blood. In your veins runs the strength and the honour of the Lords of Deepdelve, who have ruled this Undercity since before the fall of Vorganash. How would you use this strength and honour, Oldrek?”

“I would use it to be a Warrior, my Lord.”

“This is no easy path. To be a Warrior is to devote yourself to a higher ideal. The vows you speak here today will bind you inexorably to a path from which you will not turn until your arm grows too feeble to swing an axe, and your eyes too clouded to aim a dragon. The most likely reward for your service is death in the darkness. Though you may dream of glory, few who take up the mantle of Warrior achieve true greatness. If it is won, it is done by blood and toil, by fear and fury. Even success will not be easy. Do you understand the seriousness of the vow you are about to make?”

Oldrek’s father had told him to think long and hard at this point. When he took his own vow before the Stonecarvers, he had told him, the true enormity of what he was about to do had not dawned on him until the Overmason had explained the implications, just as Hundrik had.

“I understand it,” Oldrek answered almost immediately. He had understood it since he was a young child, suckling in the Women’s Quarters, and time had not dulled his conviction.

“I trust that you know the words,” Hundrik rumbled.

Oldrek took a deep breath, trying not to let the vapours from the magma send his mind reeling too much. He had rehearsed this a thousand times but, for a moment, he went blank. Then, he felt himself relax, and the vow tumbled from his lips:

“I, Oldrek son of Garrek of House Deepdelver, pledge my life and my blood to the service of my House and to you, Hundrik son of Hundrik, my Overlord and Warchief. I pledge myself as a Warrior, to be deployed according to the wishes of you or the superior you appoint. I pledge to fight with all my strength, to resist with all my will, to destroy with all my rage as you command and, if necessary, to give my life for the glory of House Deepdelver. This I do willingly and gladly. I will protect our Underkeep, I will never stand idle while foes walk our halls, I will defend to the last breath our riches, our relics and, above all, our women and, in the uttermost bleakness of defeat, I solemnly vow that I will avenge that which can no longer be defended. I do this, knowing the full weight of the duty that is henceforth laid upon my shoulders.”

Hundrik stepped forward and placed his mailed hand upon Oldrek’s bare head. “I accept your vow. Before, we were bound only by blood. Now we are bound by words and, in time, we shall be bound by iron and steel. Bring forth the arms that signify the sacred covenant that has been made twixt me and this child today.”

From the sides of the shrine, Warriors moved towards him just as Hundrik moved back. One handed him a great round shield. It was a battered, ugly thing, not nearly so splendid as those carried by the veterans that thronged the chamber, but it was his, and that made it finer than any of them. Next came the axe, which he took in a fierce grip. It was plainly made, in simple iron, but to Oldrek its weight was comforting and, somehow, familiar. Finally, another faceless Warrior stepped in front of him carrying an all-enclosing helmet. Reverently, it was placed upon his head, and the clasps securely fastened. It plunged him into a world of echoing darkness, with only a narrow gap across his eyes. He had trained in helmets before, but the experience was still deeply discomforting. He knew though that the helmet was not just a symbol of his new status: it might also save his life one day.

“Rise,” Hundrik bade him, and he did so, stiffly, but proudly. “When you knelt, you were a boy. Now, you are a man. In the sight of Moloch, the Furious God, let no one here doubt what has been done. Behold Oldrek son of Garrek, Warrior of House Deepdelve!”

A mighty cheer rose from all of the Dwarves present, and Oldrek’s chest swelled with fierce pride. His beard was short, and still free of the braids that he would take to mark his victories in the coming years, but he knew he had set his feet upon the path that would lead to his true destiny. Lesser scion he may be, but one day, he knew he would stand upon that dais as the Overlord and Warchief of House Deepdelve.

By Thomas Heasman-Hunt