The door to the inner chamber opened with a creak, but Overlord Ulfand didn’t turn from his morose introspection. He sat at his desk, leafing slowly through an ancient volume with pages of cracked greatmole leather, each covered in densely-scrawled runes. The writing on the oldest pages was all but faded into illegibility, though it was enough for him to know it was there, and he ran his thick, callused fingers across their surfaces in a manner that called to mind a lover’s caress.
He looked up, heavy grey eyebrows knitting. The light from the braziers had grown dim, but before him stood a warrior in his prime, proud and squat, though his armour was rent and bloodied, the helm he carried beneath one arm dented, and his axe blade notched. “Uflir…” he said after a moment. He blinked a few times, then shut the book suddenly and straightened in his chair. “My son. I’m sorry; I was lost in memory.”
The younger Dwarf inclined his head slightly. “I understand.”
Ulfir sighed. “The Third Hall remains sacrosanct, father, though the cost was high.” He gestured down at his bedraggled appearance with his mailed hand. “I was fortunate, and many will need to be given to the Fyre. But we held.”
“I’m sorry, my son. Sorry that you must bear the burden of this fight. I am Overlord…it should be me…” He made to bring his fist down onto the polished stone of the table, but the shaking of his hand betrayed him, and he could only stare sadly as he tried in vain to flex his fingers. He’d never wield an axe again. They both knew that.
“I bear it gladly, my lord,” Ulfir said stiffly, “this is our home.”
“Our home. Yes.” Ulfand’s hand strayed back to the book. It was the history of their House. Little of it was truly worthy of recording in so grand a fashion, but it had been committed to the ages nonetheless. Let none say that House Stonemantle was not an ancient and proud lineage, inconsequential though they might be to the wider fate of the Underworld.
“Father,” Ulfir began, taking a few steps closer and lowering his voice, though they were quite alone, “I don’t know how much longer we can defend the Third Hall.”
Ulfand considered this. “You think we should retreat?”
“I don’t know,” his son admitted. His expression was pained. “If we fall back to the Second Hall, the same thing will happen there in a few days. We have to fight back, or we’ll be overrun.”
“But you need more soldiers…?” It was a discussion they’d had many times.
“Yes, father. Every battle costs us a dozen or more good warriors, and we had few enough to begin with. Even victory feels like defeat. We must send for aid.”
“From where, Ulfir?”
“Our neighbours…our oldest allies…bound to us by blood and marriage. House Cragdelve…”
“Destroyed. You know this.”
“But their Underkeep remains…”
“Those who rule there in Cragdelve’s name have no more right to be there than the creatures who assail our home.”
“Then what of House Grimhold? House Bloodfist? House…”
Ulfand held up his hand. “No. We’ve been through this many times. The entire Western Vaults are aflame. Those not fighting off the same vermin as us have been destroyed or swallowed up by the Widowslayer. Who is left to answer our call? Whose need is not just as dire as ours? No, House Stonemantle must stand alone. We must defend what is ours, or die trying.”
Ulfir licked his lips. For the first time that his father had ever witnessed since he was a smooth-cheeked boy, his son appeared nervous. “Then, only one option remains.”
“I won’t give that order. When I die, and you become Overlord, you may do as you wish. But I will not retreat from the Underkeep of our fathers, Ulfir. I will not abandon ten-thousand years of history.” He placed his hand on the book again, almost reflexively.
“Without more men, those of us that remain will certainly die then, and our bodies become fodder for our foes.”
The ailing Overlord allowed himself his first smile in many ebbings. “You doubt my resources, my son. I have something that may turn the tide.”
Ulfir looked confused. “Father?”
“I will show you. Here, help me up, lad.” The warrior did as he was bidden and the two of them moved slowly from the inner chamber to one of the wider common areas, now just as quiet and empty as the most private sanctum in the Underkeep, for all with the strength and skill to use a weapon were fighting to defend their home in the levels below. In the centre of the high chamber was an iron-bound crate. Ulfand gestured towards the clasp that held it closed and Ulfir, still frowning, set to, lifting the heavy lid with a low grunt.
“What is…oh…” He stared down at row after row of fresh-forged weapons. “Dragon rifles!” he said in astonishment, leaning his axe against the crate and putting his helmet on the worn flagstones so he could remove one of the firearms and hold it up to the flickering light. He turned it over and peered down the barrel. “And fine quality too!”
“They ought to be.” Ulfand limped over to the crate and tapped his shaking finger against the mark on the inside of the lid. Ulfir’s eyes widened as he saw the unmistakable sigil.
“Highthrone,” he breathed, “how did…when…”
“Last waning,” the Overlord said, “I sent the order in secret an ebbing past, never thinking to receive what I asked for. It was a fool’s hope, but for once that was enough.”
Ulfir shook his head in wonder. “But…our coffers…”
Ulfand’s face twisted sourly. “Arrangements have been made.”
“You said there was no gold for mercenaries.”
“And so there isn’t. Warriors will not fight and die for promises. Weapons, on the other hand, can be paid for in credit. At least, when dealing with the smiths of Highthrone.”
“Do you mean to say, you placed us in debt to buy these, father?” He looked shocked.
“Yes. And it pained me.” He looked back towards the entrance to his chamber, where the book still lay on his desk. He felt uncomfortable without it close to hand. “In all the long centuries of this Underkeep and our family’s lordship over it, House Stonemantle has never owed so much as a coin to anyone else. But these are desperate times, my son.”
“The bankers of Highthrone are not forgiving,” Ulfir said, “if we can’t pay them back, with interest…”
“Then they will take their due. I know. But I would rather see our folk labour in the pits with that mark branded into their flesh than become meat for the bellies of Goblins. It is a difficult bargain, but one I decided was necessary.”
“These will certainly help,” Ulfir admitted as he sorted through the guns, “the rabble will fall before our storm. But…”
“There are worse beasts among the horde that rises from the Deeps, father. Goblinkin of great size, with iron weapons and armour. I’ve never seen their like before. A dragon rifle is little good against such foes.”
“Look below then. There is a new invention, the merchant who brought these told me. Something that will slay even an enemy clad in mail.”
Ulfir looked sceptical, but he did as he was told and took out a different weapon. Superficially it resembled the dragon rifles, but the muzzle was altered. Not flared, but narrow and straight. Clipped to the stock was a leather satchel, from which Ulfir took out a number of metal cylinders with pointed ends. He looked up at his father uncomprehendingly.
“Bullets,” the Overlord explained, “ammunition. Look at the tips – pointed like a bodkin arrow. They will punch through any armour. For the skulking scum, use the dragons. Their fire will burn them to ashes in great numbers. For the big ones, these…” he paused, recalling the word, “muskets…will slay them, but only one at a time. I trust you to see to the correct positioning and deployment of soldiers armed with these weapons.”
“Yes, father. Yes indeed.” Ulfir looked happy for the first time in many ebbings. He lifted one of the muskets and sighted down its barrel. “Yes…these will make all the difference.”
“I’m certain they shall.” But Ulfand’s eyes wandered down to the mark of Highthrone on the crate again, and he reflected on the bargain he had made, and the legacy he would leave behind. The Underkeep might survive this latest onslaught, but what would be their fate afterwards?
House Stonemantle had never been wealthy or influential, but the Third Hall had for generations been a place of quiet grandeur. Now the great pillars had been toppled and the austere carvings torn free by scrabbling Goblin claws. Torches guttered fitfully around the ragged line of Dwarves who stood uneasily behind battered shields, peering through the slits in their heavy helms at the shadows that crawled at the far end of the long chamber. The unsteady shieldwall was now, for all intents and purposes, the limit of the Underkeep. Ulfir’s wife met him at the gates to the upper levels and regarded the crate borne by four sturdy lads with the same scepticism he had with his father. He touched his forehead to hers and gave one of her shoulders a gentle squeeze. Like all the warriors, she was bloody and bruised, and her arms and armour had seen better days. “What’s in the box?” she asked shortly.
“Is it my motherday already?”
“For all I know it might be, Drutha.” He smiled tightly as he levered open the lid. “Did you ask for guns?”
Her eyes had lit up at the sight of the weapons from Highthrone. “Sometimes, you don’t know what you truly want until you see it…”
They distributed the dragon rifles and new muskets amongst the defenders, who were grateful for their suddenly expanded arsenal. The only sour note came from the mercenary captain Varga. She had brought her company to the Underkeep several ebbings ago and, despite the brutality of the battles they had fought against the seemingly endless tide of Goblin invaders and the lack of gold, they had remained loyal. Varga herself was a heavily-muscled woman with a shaved head and one milky-white eye. She hefted the musket Ulfir handed her and curled her lip. “Guns?”
“Yes. These will penetrate even heavy armour, or so I’m told.”
She turned the weapon around in her hands, now examining the cleaving blade mounted on the barrel. “So does this.” She grinned evilly, running her thumb along its edge.
“You’ll command the shieldwall then?” It was Varga’s way to be in the thick of the fighting, where her strength and ferocity was most useful. He suspected her blinded eye might also be behind her reluctance to use a ranged weapon too.
“I’ll hold your line, highborn.”
He let her be, ordering his men to continue handing out the weapons before returning to Drutha’s side. She watched the activity across the hall. “They’ll be here soon,” she told him.
“How can you be so sure?”
She shrugged. “You learn their rhythms. It’s time.”
Ulfir sat down beside her on part of a fallen column. He took her hand, entwining his fingers around hers. She squeezed and edged closer to him. They’d married for love. He had been immediately attracted to the tough, self-sufficient woman, who had been a lowborn trapper from a settlement less than fifty miles from his home. During their years together, she had given him six daughters in all; each a rare and precious gift. At his insistence, his children had been sequestered in the Women’s Quarters where they would survive longest should this desperate defence fail. Five of them he knew to be safe but the sixth, his eldest, had donned armour and joined one of the other ragged battalions. He knew very well that the resourceful Jaggin, truly a woman grown herself now, had snuck out without his permission but he had the good grace to maintain the fiction that she had bested him and stayed away from where she fought. She had the right to make her own destiny and defend her home.
“I wonder what will become of us?” Ulfir pondered aloud.
“We live, we fight, we die. When was it any other way?”
“I never thought it would be like this…”
She glanced at him. “How else would you go?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”
He laughed. “No, not like that. In bed, as an old man, surrounded by my greatchildren, to be remembered and honoured.”
“If you asked Varga, she’d tell you that the only real way to be remembered is to die with an axe in your hand.”
“No. That’s how to be forgotten. Dead on the floor of some cave.”
“This isn’t some cave,” she told him, “this is the hall of your fathers.”
“My fathers can go to the Fyre – it’s my daughters I care about.”
Drutha looked away, then inched closer still. “Would you run?”
“Leave this place. Let the Underkeep fall. Gather up you family and flee to the Core. Let the Goblins have these halls.”
He thought back to his father, alone at his great table, now a frail old man looking sadly through the mouldering pages of history. “Never.”
“Well then,” he agreed with a slow nod.
She was right about the Goblins, of course. They came less than an hour later, visible at first by the glowing orbs of their bulging eyes in the shadows. Their initial attack was completely without order: just a shrieking swarm of pallid, oily flesh, bristling with misshapen limbs waving weapons made of bone or flint. They moved more like a single gestalt creature than individuals. A Goblin, even more so than a Dwarf, was a creature of community, though for Dwarves the unit of that community was the House, the Underkeep. For Goblins, it was a foetid hive of cannibalistic, androgynous wretches, driven by nothing save the desire to consume and to lay their eggs in every nook they could find. But, as Ulfir had reflected more than once since these attacks had begun almost a year ago, perhaps the Goblins felt the same casual contempt for the Dwarven way of life.
The shieldwall stood firm as the first rank of dragon rifles let rip. The helmeted Dwarves, led by Varga, hunched low as the space over their heads was filled with spinning shrapnel. The roar was deafening, and the Goblins died back like blackfungus before the fire. Little was left of their front rank, and those behind were now clawing at the onrushing horde, desperately trying to escape the Dwarves’ wrath. As the first rank reloaded, the second stepped forward and unleashed another volley. There were enough guns and warriors to wield them to make up four ranks in all, continuously rotating. The slaughter was total and, as Ulfir watched from behind, he felt heartened for the first time in as long as he could remember. “It’s working!” he said, exulting in the rare moment of triumph.
“Wait…” Drutha warned.
Over the charred and mangled remains of their lesser kin came the Great Goblins. They were of the same kind, but their flesh was dark and warty, and their eyes narrow, glowering slits over fanged maws. Their thick bodies were clad in dark iron plates. The dragon rifles fired and some of the beasts fell, but most simply waded through the fire, ignoring the places where their exposed flesh was singed, even disregarding lost limbs. If ordinary Goblins were driven by fear and hatred, Great Goblins were driven by a strange, simmering fury. They had only emerged from the Deeps during the last century. If anyone knew their origin, they had not shared it with Ulfir. He stood tall and raised his arm as the armoured attackers closed. That was the signal for the dragon riflers to step backwards and for their places to be taken by the warriors carrying the more precious muskets. These weapons were untried, and Ulfir felt a moment’s hesitation before he brought his arm down to order the first volley. The guns fired with a sharp crack and a flash of powder. The bullets moved too fast for his eyes to follow, but he heard the bellows of pain in the darkness and saw the heavy shapes of the soldier Goblins fall. Reloading was swift thanks to the muskets’ mechanisms, and there was no need to rotate the ranks. Even as the smoke from the first barrage cleared, another came, just as loud and destructive. The Great Goblins did not retreat, but they did die. He could see their iron breastplates glow hot as they were cracked and shattered by the impact of the penetrating bullets. Another volley, filling the hall with smoke now, and only a remnant of the advancing horde remained, trudging slowly over the bodies of their fallen comrades. Those few who reached the shieldwall were cut down in moments.
“By the Horned God…” Drutha whispered.
Ulfir nodded dumbly. “Who can stand against this?” he wondered. If Highthrone’s smiths had devised such weaponry, it was hard to imagine what force could pose a threat to the ancient Undercity’s dominance. All this talk of the Widowslayer and his savage armies would amount to nothing before such an onslaught.
Minutes later, all was silent. The smoke cleared. Only a handful of Dwarves had fallen and, in the lull this unexpected victory had afforded them, the survivors took the opportunity to move into the far end of the hall to recover the bodies of those slain in the earlier battles. The respite gave them the chance to tend wounds, repair equipment and count ammunition. No one had any doubt another assault would come soon enough.
Ulfir led a small group of warriors into the darkness. Varga held aloft a torch to light their way. They clambered over the heaped bodies of Goblins, putting those that still mewled softly out of their misery. They would need to burn the halls clean once this was done – Goblin eggs could remain hidden almost anywhere, and an infestation was always difficult to fully eradicate. He glanced back over his shoulder at the little island of firelight in the distance where his wife and the remainder of his warriors patched up their injuries. “Tough brutes,” Varga said, turning a Great Goblin corpse over with her boot and bringing him out of his reverie.
“I wonder where they got this armour,” he said, looking down at the mangled carcass.
“Who cares?” she shrugged.
He frowned at the creature. It was a hideous thing, as leathery and malformed as all its kind, but the armour was of decent make. Looking at its twisted, grasping claws and ungainly limbs, it was hard to imagine how it might have crafted such an object. Goblins had no fire, no metal of any kind save that which they managed to scavenge and, though the Great Goblins were undoubtedly a more advanced breed, he couldn’t reconcile what he saw with what he knew. He stooped down and wiped soot from the breastplate. It was cracked and a bullet had burrowed its way into the flesh beyond, leaving a sticky wound. He beckoned Varga to bring the torch closer.
“What are you looking for, highborn?” she asked.
“Answers.” He took the plate in his gauntleted hands and pulled it free from the body. It was held on with leather straps. How could a Goblin have tied those? He turned the armour over. There was some marking on the underside, obscured by rent mental and blood. “The light, Varga,” he murmured. In the orange glow, he could make out a familiar rune. He wiped away the blood. His frown deepened. “This is…” he started to say.
The knife slid through his throat, just above his gorget. Hot blood spilled out, soaking his beard. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Varga twisted the blade as her warriors looked on nonchalantly, then tugged it free. Ulfir fell to the ground atop the corpse of the Great Goblin. She looked down at the breastplate still clutched in the noble’s hand. “Take that off him,” she snapped, “no use letting anyone else find what he did.”
One of her warriors did as she ordered, dragging it free and tossing it into the darkness. No one would ever think to search for it. No one would ever know what Ulfir had realised the moment before he died as he saw the same mark on his enemy’s armour that also adorned the weapons his father had bargained away his people’s futures for: the mark of Highthrone.
By Thomas Heasman-Hunt