“Shieldwall!” the Sergeant roared, his voice muffled into near-unintelligibility by his all-enclosing greathelm. The phalanx had all heard the command enough times to recognise it though, and they formed up obediently, shields slamming into place so that they formed an interlocking wall of unbreakable iron. Oldrek was near to the centre of the line, which was the safest place to be – the weakest parts of the formation were the ends, where there were few or no Warriors to one side. The most experienced fighters always anchored the shieldwall there, repelling any attempts to drive in a wedge and cause the entire line to collapse. Oldrek had only a handful of battles to his name – most of them very minor skirmishes – and so far only one braid in his short beard, so he knew he was where he belonged. He also knew he should want to be in a more dangerous position, that he should be keen to show his mettle, but he couldn’t help but feel relieved that Borga, the old Sergeant, knew his craft well enough to put every man in the right position. He was also grateful that he was standing next to the standard bearer.
Bringrund had noble blood, like him, and more than a few braids. Holding the standard was another position of honour, and it was the key to any determined defence. Pyromancers could babble all they liked about the image of Moloch forming a focal point for any stalwart Dwarven shieldwall, but the truth was that it was the brazier that almost all standards featured that made them something worth rallying around. With its flickering fire casting light all around the cavern, the presence of Bringrund’s tall standard with its bronze minotaur’s head glaring balefully out, was not only a comfort, but an absolute necessity. A few other Dwarves were carrying torches, but if the standard fell, the phalanx would soon fall apart and anarchy would descend across the cavern.
Borga was on the other side of Bringrund and he squinted over the rim of his shield down the tunnel that wound away from the cavern in which they had chosen to make their stand. He was an old man – over four-hundred years old, some said – and his hair and beard were both completely grey. His beard had so many braids he had to coil them tightly, just like Overlord Hundrik. His vision must be poor, Oldrek thought to himself, but he had fought beside him enough times now to know that, as long as the enemy were close enough, he was as deadly accurate with his axe and dragon as ever.
“They’d better hurry up – it’s hot standing under this bloody thing,” Bringrund said in his usual deadpan tone, forcing Oldrek to stifle a snigger. He was only ten years older than Oldrek and they were the two youngest Warriors in the phalanx so had naturally struck up a friendship. Despite his honoured role, Bringrund almost always found something to complain about. And, truthfully, it was hot so close to the sputtering fire of the standard. Oldrek would rather that than the alternative though.
“When they’re here, you’ll wish they’d waited,” Oldrek said.
“Don’t count on it.”
“Shut up, you two,” Borga muttered.
In the few seconds of silence that followed, Oldrek thought he heard something. He turned his head slightly. In his helmet it was hard to hear anything, but he was sure he’d picked up a distant thudding noise. He waited, breath held, and then it came again – louder this time, more distinctive. A low, rhythmic beat. “Drums,” he whispered to Bringrund. His friend nodded.
“Drums,” Borga said a few seconds later with a smile of grim satisfaction. “My ears are still a damn sight better than yours, you bunch of sucklings. Get ready!”
Raiders. Even Oldrek could remember a time when the very idea would have been absurd this close to the Core. His first few decades fighting for House Deepdelver should have consisted of endless boring patrols around their territory, putting down the occasional bit of banditry with a show of arms and, every so often, flushing out a Goblin infestation. But these were troubled times and, more and more, heavily-armed bands of raiders attacked from the Western Vaults and the Deeps. There were rumours that a new, dangerous Overlord had begun building a kingdom out Black Keep way and that he was sending mercenaries deep into the Core to steal gold, good iron, weapons, slaves and even women. War was in the earth, and it scared Oldrek. He had a job to do now though, and he tightened his grip on the haft of his axe and shuffled his shield slightly to make sure it was locked with those on either side of him.
They drumbeat got louder and louder and it was soon accompanied by the rhythmic clank of armed and armoured Dwarves, iron-shod boots striking hard on the stone floor. They were fighting in unworked caves, some thirty miles from the nearest vassal Underkeep of Deepdelve, but these were still old and stable tunnels. Good territory – exactly the sort of place an upstart Overlord would covet. He saw a faint glow down the tunnel now and shadows in the flickering light of torches.
“Hold, men,” Borga said in a low voice. There was an answering ‘thunk’ as Bringrund planted the butt of the metal pole that held his standard on the floor of the cavern. They would hold. The first of the raiders came then, whooping out of the mouth of the tunnel. He was not armed for fighting in a shieldwall – he had an axe in each hand, and just a few scraps of armour on his shoulder and torso. His beard was heavily braided though and all of his exposed flesh was covered in tattoos and brands. He had an iron ring thought his nose and the mark of Highthrone had once been etched into his forehead, but was now scratched through by a deep scar. He snarled like a beast, baring his tusks at them. He didn’t wait for his comrades to join him and instead charged across the cavern with a furious bellow. Calmly, Borga levelled his dragon and blew a fist-sized hole in the raider’s chest. The unfortunate Dwarf continued to move forward for a few seconds before stumbling to his knees with a look of confusion on his scarred, cruel face. Finally, his eyes rolled up into his head and he fell to the ground, dead.
“Let’s hope they’re all that stupid,” Bringrund said. More raiders were pouring into the cavern now. Some were like the one that had just been killed, mercenaries and savages from the distant reaches of the Underworld, but most were of another sort, heavily armed like the Deepdelvers, their shields and armour black as the Deeps, each bearing a rune on their helms. Oldrek frowned at it – it looked like the symbol for woman in the Ancestor Tongue, but there was some inflection he didn’t recognise. “It means widow,” Bringund explained, seeming to read his mind, “and that line though it means death. They fight for the one they call Widowslayer.”
Oldrek swallowed hard. It was no wonder he didn’t know that word – it was a horrible curse in any language. “Not for much longer they don’t,” he said with a bravado that he didn’t feel at all.
The drummer took up a position near the centre of the enemy line, beating out a rhythm as the Warriors with shields advanced, beginning to form a wall of their own. The savage mercenaries, left out, floated towards the ends of the line, ready to do exactly what Oldrek had feared they would. The two shieldwalls would clash and, for a while, they would push against one another, trying to land blows over the tops or underneath their shields, desperately hacking and slashing, until a gap was opened up somewhere and one of them collapsed into desperate knots of fighters, all pretence of order immediately lost. At that point, the fight was effectively over. That was how it went with two shieldwalls anyway, but with the lightly armed fighters on either end, who could duck beneath a shield, or even try to leap right over it, the rules were different. He couldn’t think about that now. He had a job to do. He checked his shield was fastened to his forearm by its tough leather straps and braced his shoulder against it. His fellows on either side did the same. The line bulged outwards almost imperceptibly around the standard as they all anticipated the impact. The enemy drummer dropped back into the second rank as he lacked a shield, but he kept beating out his inexorable rhythm that ensured the black-armoured Dwarves advanced in perfect lockstep.
A shieldwall, Borga had told him on his very first day of training as a Warrior, was all about cohesion. Every man in the phalanx had to be of one mind. When one fell, all fell, because the shieldwall depended on each overlapping shield being in exactly the right place at all times. If everyone in the wall held their ground, they could never be moved. But all it took was one chink in the armour. You always deploy across a cavern or tunnel, he had said, and the rank is as wide as it needs to be to span the entire distance. If that means the phalanx is only one rank deep, so be it – exposed flanks mean death. Finding the best space for your numbers to work for you is the secret of good tactics. Too narrow and you just get in each other’s way, too wide and you get spread too thin. Oldrek thought they were spread too thin, but the tunnels around here were unusually narrow – this cavern was all they had been able to find. He had no Warriors behind him.
Thankfully, the enemy did not seem to have any advantage in numbers and they came in one long line too, except for the drummer and a few others who hung back. Oldrek hoped they weren’t concealing dragons anywhere about them. They were close now, less than ten yards, and the advance had not quickened. The steady drumbeat continued until it seemed to reverberate through Oldrek’s entire world, everything leading up to the awful moment when the two shieldwalls met, and the bleak butchery would begin. Just a few yards now. Their helmets were like grim skulls, and he could see old bloodstains on their shields, weapons, armour. They were mercenaries, escaped slaves, desperate killers, from a life he could not understand. He could feel his arm shaking. His shield wasn’t steady. He would be a weak point, and these dread foes would see that right away and direct all their efforts to making their line buckle around him. They were about to die and it would all be his fault. He wasn’t sure which was worse.
Two yards maybe… They had strange gemstones set in their helmets, Oldrek noticed now. Was it his imagination or did they glow with a dull, ruddy light when the shadows pooled on their bearers?
One of the Dwarves handing back reached into his dark cloak and drew out a dragon. Borga let out a yell and tried to aim his own. Time slowed down. Oldrek could only stare helplessly as the enemy Warrior levelled his weapon, seeming to fire at Borga. That would be a disaster, Oldrek thought, but his mind had no time to process it because the shot was already fired and it seemed as though he could see the fiery bolt moving through air thicker than tar, leaving a glowing trail across his vision. Borga tried to lift his shield, but in doing so he disrupted the cohesion of the wall – there was a gap, and it seemed that, somehow, that was where the shot had been aimed all along. It went wide of Borga, slamming straight into Bringrund’s throat, snapping his head back at an impossible angle and knocking him backwards. His grip on the standard went limp and it began to fall backwards. As the light, so completely necessary to their way of making war, swung upwards and plunged them into shadow, Oldrek saw how the gemstones set in their enemies’ helmets sparked into life, giving them enough light to see by without the aid of torches.
Borga was yelling something. The shieldwall was in disarray. The standard was falling. Bringrund was on the floor, a pool of blood forming underneath his shattered helm. What was left of his head was still stuck at the same awkward angle and his shield, fastened securely to his forearm, now lay uselessly across his corpse.
He looked up from his friend’s lifeless body. Borga was shouting his name. The enemy were just a few feet away now. The standard was falling. With something deeper than instinct, Oldrek reached out and grabbed the iron pole, dropping his axe to do so. It would mean he could not defend himself in the shieldwall. But if he didn’t do this, there would be no shieldwall at all. The minotaur-head brazier guttered as he righted it and planted it at his feet. Their black-clad foe were almost on them, and they sensed this would be an easy fight.
“Shields up! Close that gap!”
Oldrek stepped into the breach beside Borga and raised his own shield. Men on either side shuffled into place and they locked their shields just an instant before the enemy shieldwall crashed into them. Oldrek shuddered from the impact, but he was no longer scared. The drumbeat had stopped. It was hot under the standard, he realised, hotter than standing next to it. And now he was holding it, he saw it was more than just a practical piece of equipment. It was what made them better than these savages, these men who called themselves Widowslayers. They fought beneath Moloch’s fire. And, as long as they held to that, they were utterly immovable.
He planted his feet and pushed. He had no axe now, but he had his shield, and he had the eyes of the Furious God upon him. It would be enough.
Shieldwall by Thomas Heasman-Hunt