With a guttural roar that echoed off the rough-hewn walls and vaulted ceiling of the red-lit chamber, Baggronor swung his great iron mace, smashing apart the bronzed helm of the warrior that stood before him. For a second the Dwarf staggered, his fingers twitching on the haft of his axe, as if he were waiting for the rest of his body to notice the ruin that had once been the right side of his skull. He made a lurching sidestep before Baggronor grew tired of the sport and pushed him out of his way, to crumple into a heap of mangled iron, blood and bone on the stone floor. More enemies were already surging out of the doorway ahead, their armour reflecting the flickering firelight behind them. The defenders had attempted the old tactic of shutting off the torches as they retreated deeper into their Underkeep, letting Baggronor’s forces advance into darkness, stumbling blindly, then blinking in shock as they entered a strongpoint bathed in reflected light from the magma ducts. It would not work this time though – Baggronor and each of his warriors wore enchanted gems set in their helms that cast a feeble red light; sufficient for butchers’ work, if little else. This had the added benefit of keeping their allies in their element too.

As Baggronor strode forward to meet the next line of defenders, he could dimly make out the shapes of those allies slinking through the deepest shadows, sneering and cackling, the scrape of curved, cruel knives forming a grim counterpoint to their savage mirth. Goblins. The scourge of the Dwarves since time immemorial, but there were always some who were willing to use them when it was convenient. The defenders formed up in a shieldwall. They had no ammunition left for their dragon rifles, Baggronor knew, so all that was left was the bloody work of hand to hand fighting. That suited him. The Goblins were closing in on the flanks, trying to roll up the shieldwall from its weakest points, where a lone Dwarf acted a lynchpin for the whole formation. It was unlikely to work, but Baggronor was happy to allow his enemies to expend their strength on the worthless Goblins. They were poor fighters, but numerous, and once they had dug into a cave system and laid their eggs, they were almost impossible to permanently eradicate. He had known their grubs to be found worming in the deep, forgotten passages of an Underkeep decades after the initial infestation had supposedly been burned out. Dwarves fought hard to kill Goblins – perhaps harder than was strictly necessary.

Gesturing to his own warriors, all blooded veterans of his many campaigns, he began to pick up speed. They fell in together, moving with the surety of long habit, forming an iron-tipped wedge with Baggronor at the head. He would pierce the shieldwall with his mace; a weapon that smashed flesh and armour with equal impunity, and the wedge would drive open the hole behind him, widening it and splitting the wall. Once broken, it was useless as a defensive tactic, and the hall would descend into a brutal mêlée, when the ferocity and experience of his warriors would surely win out. He had repeated it time and time again in this battle, and time and time again the defenders had tried to beat it the same way, convinced that this latest shieldwall would finally slow down the relentless assault. More fool them. With each kill, Baggronor grew stronger, the blood feeding his murderous rage. Already his steel scale armour was slicked from collar to hem with dark Dwarf blood. His beard was matted with it, and the handle of his mace sticky and foul beneath his gloves.

He crashed into the shieldwall with another mighty warcry, and for a second as his body impacted against the defenders’ iron shields it seemed as if they would hold, but all at once the front rank collapsed. Baggronor almost stumbled and fell, but he recovered and swung his mace in a wide arc. A Dwarf’s head exploded like a ballfungus releasing its spores and, as another moved in on his left, bringing a comparatively small axe down to stop the rampaging attackers, Baggronor felled him with a contemptuous backhand. With a grunt, he spun the mace into a two-handed grip and drove it down into the warrior’s gut, reducing his entire midsection to mush. His own warriors were making equally short work of those that stood against him, and now the Goblins were swarming around the flanks and the rear too, making their opportunistic attacks, huge saucer eyes widening with savage glee as their blacked knives found the chinks in their victims’ armour. Baggronor’s advance was implacable. He dispassionately battered aside those few who still resisted and then led the attack deeper, into the firelit passage beyond, without pause.

Stepping through the arched passage into a wide, brightly-lit chamber, he knew that he had fought his way to the heart of the Underkeep. This would be the final defence. In his fury, he had lost track of the battle. He had not realised they had come so far and, as he beheld his final objective, he was almost disappointed. A dozen or so Dwarves were huddled, shields raised, forming a semi-circle around the locked door behind them. The Womens’ Quarters. This was where the final stand would be, as it had been in all the other Underkeeps Baggronor had taken. In the centre of the line was the Overlord himself, glowering beneath an ancestral helm, his thick fingers firmly grasping the axe of his forefathers, encrusted with powerful runes, or so it was said. Baggronor cared nothing for such things. He paused for just a moment to catch his breath. Then:

“Krunngar Blackhand!” he bellowed, so loud it caused the torches hanging from the walls to gutter and stream.

“Baggronor,” Krunngar hissed. His voice was hoarse: he was an old man, almost five-hundred.

“Overlord Baggronor,” he corrected.

“Not yet,” replied Krunngar with a sad smile, “not yet.”

Beneath his bronze skull-mask, Baggronor was smiling too. “Yield now, and I shall make your deaths swift and clean. Your widows will take my men as husbands and your children raised as honoured servants. Fight, and each of you will be maimed and left to die in the darkness. Your children will be given to the Goblins to torment and mutilate and your widows will be killed.”

There was an indrawn breath at that last. To execute womenfolk, the most precious resource in all the Dwarven Empire, was the ultimate crime. Krunngar’s knuckles were white as he gripped his axe. “You have murdered my kin…sacked the Underkeeps of my brothers and allies…now you threaten our wives, our daughters with death…you consort with Goblins and seek to take the title of Overlord by force. Baggronor, called by some Baggronor the Mighty, I name you Baggronor the Faithless, Baggronor the Despised and Baggronor the Widowslayer. When we are done here, your name will forever be a curse.”

“On that,” Baggronor smiled, “we can both agree. KILL THEM ALL!”

by Thomas Heasman-Hunt