Castellan Dorgrun brooded silently in the chambers that had been his home for over a century now. Trophies of long decades of warfare hung from the walls, illuminated by the feeble, flickering light of the torches – fuel was scarce these last few ebbings, since violence had engulfed the Western Vaults, his adopted homeland. Here in Fyrepit, so close to the Molochfyre and with the patronage of Risegate, they had thought themselves safe from the power rising out of The Deeps, but they had deluded themselves, Dorgrun now realised. Lost in his thoughts, idly turning his gilt mask over and over in his weathered hands, he barely noticed the knock on his door. Only when it came again, louder and more insistently, did he look up in surprise and bark a response. One of his men opened the iron door and announced the arrival of Overlord Hurbrid and Dorgrun nodded. “Show him in,” he said, managing to keep his voice even.
Hurbrid entered the chamber and took the seat opposite Dorgrun without being asked – he had that right. Though the chambers set aside for the Royal Guard were almost as sacrosanct as the Women’s Quarters, he was still the master of Fyrepit. “It is as we feared,” Hurbrid said without preamble.
Dorgrun nodded slowly, staring at nothing. He rested his mask on his knee and instead began to run his fingers down his beard, toying with the elaborate braids and coils that marked his many victories. “How soon?” he asked eventually.
“He is less than a day’s march away, we think. He uses Goblin guides and those damned enchanted gems to travel ways we would never dare though. He could be here in a matter of hours.”
“You have tried to parley?”
“He has slain all the messengers we sent. One we found, in the darkness, blind and gelded, hands and feet hacked off.”
Dorgrun kepts his face impassive. “They put out his eyes?”
“No, his face was scarred with Stonewyrm slime. They burned them out with the acid.” Hurbrid’s face was just as calm as Dorgrun’s, but he couldn’t disguise the burning anger in his eyes. The silence stretched between them, until the Overlord asked the question Dorgrun knew was coming. “Have you received word from Highthrone yet?”
Dorgrun sighed. He had tried to keep the missive to the Golden Citadel sent last ebbing a secret from Hurbrid, but the canny Overlord had found out about it. He must have known it would be sent, but it was clear he was still pained by the knowledge. “The response from the Lord Warden came last waning.”
The Overlord stood up and turned away from Dorgrun, for which he was glad. He knew he couldn’t look into his old friend’s eyes as he said what he was about to say. “When you came here to Fyrepit over a century ago,” Hurbrid began, his voice surprisingly soft, “you were an ordinary Royal Guard – if such a thing can even be said to exist – a pious man raised in the Core, keen and fierce, but still green, despite wearing that golden mask. I remember your first battle here in the West, Dorgrun, beating down raiders out of the slums of Southember. I remember old Castellan Irdic, with a beard whiter than quartz and a heart just as hard. I remember when he fell to a Goblin’s knife and the way you avenged him. I’d never seen a man kill so many of them in so short a time. Your comrades let you take three braids for that.”
“I remember too, Hurbrid,” Dorgrun said, looking down at his mask, at the way its gilt surface reflected the dancing light from the sconces.
“Those same comrades unanimously voted to make you their new Castellan. The youngest Castellan of a Royal Guard Garrison in recorded history. The Golden Citadel sent a formal complaint, but you ignored it on the basis that a Garrison is allowed autonomy to set its own agendas, its own strategies, its own deployments within the bounds of its contract. For a hundred years, you led this Garrison, the finest Warriors in Fyrepit, many recruited from my own House, against every foe that came knocking on our gates. You and I marched to Risegate to defend it against the uprising of the Wyrm Cult; we stood side by side in the shieldwall. When all hope seemed lost at the Battle of Stonestep, we fought back to back like the heroes of the ancient stories, each laying into the foe with a tireless strength we didn’t know we had. We shed blood together, we broke bread together, we got drunk together and I always thought we would die together, axes in our hands.” Hurbrid turned then, and Dorgrun was shocked to see that his eyes were red from weeping. “So, tell me what I already know. Tell me what that heartless bastard who calls himself the Lord Warden, sitting on his gold chair in Highthrone, has ordered you to do.”
Dorgrun met his oldest friend’s eyes. “You cannot know how strongly I worded my letter, Hurbrid. You cannot know how passionately I argued. If there was time, I would have gone to Highthrone in person to plead with Lord Argun. I, who have stood against every foe imaginable in my three centuries of battle, would have humbled myself on my knees for this cause.”
“I do not doubt that. However…”
“However,” Dorgrun nodded, “that was not possible. I hoped my words would carry more weight. I hoped my opinions, my unique perspective on these events, would be taken into account. But the Lord Warden was not moved. My orders are clear: we are to withdraw.”
Hurbrid looked away quickly, as if trying to compose himself, then back again. His hands were balled into tight fists, his knuckles white. “Does what we have been through over the last hundred years mean nothing?”
“It is not my decision, old friend.”
“But the contract…”
Dorgrun sighed heavily. “In the circumstances, it has been declared void.”
Hurbrid drew himself up. “This Underkeep has had a contract with the Golden Citadel to house a Garrison of Royal Guard for nearly a millennium. Not once have we failed to pay the rates demanded of us. Not once have we stepped outside the strict bonds of the agreement. When my great-greatsire wrested control of Fyrepit from House Spiteaxe, with the unswerving support of the entire population, only the Royal Guard stood against him, because they were sworn to serve the legal Overlord and none other. Only when the last of the Spiteaxes were put to death did the Citadel allow the contract to change hands, and it was as if there had never been crossed axes between my House and the Garrison. These are old and binding ties – have we not earned the indulgence of the Lord Warden? Have we not proved ourselves loyal customers?”
“Empty coffers pay no bills, as they say in Highthrone,” Dorgrun said sadly, “the tide has turned against the loyal Overlords of the Western Vaults – at least this is the majority opinion in the Core. The Lord Warden does not believe Fyrepit will survive this attack and the contract has been terminated. Our orders are to withdraw,” he repeated.
“And our friendship means nothing to you?”
“Our friendship means everything to me!” Dorgrun roared, “But I do not command the Garrison as Dorgrun of House Brightvein, I command them as a Castellan of the Royal Guard, answerable to the Golden Citadel and the Lord Warden who keeps the contracts of our order! When we swear ourselves, we forgo honour and glory, as in the days of the Kings and Emperors of Vorganash, and devote ourselves to the good of the Dwarven Empire.”
“To the good of Highthrone’s treasury you mean!”
“It’s the same thing!” Dorgrun nearly rose from his seat, but then he slumped back down and ran a hand across his eyes. “Or so it is said. In Highthrone. This is the way of the Underworld, Hurbrid. It all comes down to gold. The Western Vaults are under attack, and so your money is no good in the Core. You have no stability these days. You fight instead of mine.”
“We have to fight,” Hurbrid said, his voice dangerously quiet again, “or we’ll be destroyed.”
“I know that. What do you think I said in my letter? But the Lord Warden disagrees. There is no contract. We withdraw.”
“Given your news…as soon as possible. We must take no part in this battle. I am sorry, my old friend. If I were any other man, if I was sworn to any other service, I would fight and die beside you. But my oath is to the Citadel. I am a Royal Guard, and I go where I am sent.”
Hurbrid turned away again. “I do not pretend to understand the oaths you take. Perhaps I will before the end.”
“Understanding is not required. It is enough to know it was an oath.”
Hurbrid nodded. “You say you fight for the good of the Empire?”
“Those words are at the head of our charter. You know this.”
“Aye. If you hold true to those words, then do me one last favour.”
“I will do anything I can, within the bounds of my oath,” Dorgrun said.
Hurbrid turned back to him again, and now tears stood openly in his eyes. “Our wives, our daughters and our children…Baggronor is not called the Widowslayer without good cause. The most sacred calling of our race is the protection of our womenfolk. For the good of the Dwarven Empire, I ask you to take them with you and protect them against the predations of these vile renegades on your way back to the Core. The Warriors will defend Fyrepit to the last, knowing they have been carried to safety by your Garrison.”
“No oath I have sworn precludes carrying out this last duty for your House,” Dorgrun answered solemnly, “I will bear them from this place, and no harm will befall them while I live.”
“Thank you, old friend.” Hurbrid walked towards the door, then paused as he stepped over the threshold. “Tell them what happened here, Dorgrun,” he said without turning around, “In Highthrone. Tell them how Fyrepit died and why. Tell them how they might have saved the West from this. Tell them how the golden drakes in their treasury are stained with our blood.”
Dorgrun said nothing. The door closed with a dull thud and the torchlight guttered in sympathy. Silently, the Castellan continued to stare into the golden depths of his mask.
By Thomas Heasman-Hunt