Firehorn a dwarf fortres.., p.1
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       Firehorn: A Dwarf Fortress Story - Part One, p.1
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           J. C. Bass
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Firehorn: A Dwarf Fortress Story - Part One


  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1: Rorec

  Chapter 2: Datan

  Chapter 3: Zas

  Chapter 4: Ngom

  Chapter 5: Morul

  Chapter 6: Lor

  About the author

  ROREC

  The wagon lurched from side to side, and once again Rorec had to dab at the ink with his soft silk kerchief in an effort to correct the misprint that the sudden motion had caused. He was crammed into the back of the wagon with his collar turned up high on his ruddy cheeks to protect himself from the icy easterly wind. His worn walnut lap desk was placed across his knees and his inkwell stood rattling and jostling on the edge of a nearby crate of salted fish. Writing was a continual fight with the motion of the wagon and the wind, and he had to try to hold the paper with his bad hand while he wrote with the other.

  Around him was a sea of soggy brown grass and slick moss-covered rocks stretching infinitely outward. There wasn’t a single hand-made object (save for the wagon) to break the monotony, and there wasn’t even the promise of mountains looming on the horizon, something which still greatly surprised Rorec. When he thought of the great unexplored north he always pictured gargantuan mountain chains of white craggy rocks rather than the dreary unbroken flatness of somber untillable earth. But then again, his kind knew very little of mountains save for the partly explored Razors in the south, and those were dry and arid and tiny compared to what he’d thought he would find here.

  The overcast sky hung like wet green-stained cotton above, and the only sound besides the tuneless piping of the wind was the sloppy thud of hard hooves hitting muddy earth as they rode along. There were two travelers besides himself; one was the hoary old fisherman who owned the wagon, and the other was his sullen oily-faced grandson. The boy’s loathing of the bleak wind had dominated the bulk of his conversation over the past two weeks, but the old man hardly spoke at all except when he was urging along the horses. They were not ideal travelling companions, but the aged fisherman had been the only one at Boulder Coast who had been willing to lend his wagon to Rorec’s journey.

  Each knew the risks they were taking, but it was easier to not speak of them. No one owned a weapon, but Rorec figured that even if they had been armed to the teeth, a Goblin raiding party would likely kill them before they even knew what was happening. Three untrained men wouldn’t even be enough to put up a fight, and all the swords and armor in the world wouldn’t save them if they were spotted.

  And besides, the main enemy here was the weather.

  Early on they’d encountered an eastward-marching snowstorm that slowed their progress considerably. Their food stores were low but game had been plentiful in the taiga. They’d seen deer and foxes and white-coated winter hares that skipped along the top of the snow, and the old fisherman managed to snag a few of them in crude traps he’d brought.

  But as they had travelled farther north, the land around them seemed to change somehow. The game disappeared as the trees thinned out, and a sickly greenish-gray overcast set in above them. The horses became harder to handle, and the slightest noise would set them wild. Moreover, there was an unnamable feeling that weighed on them as they traveled, some dark-hued pall that lingered in their minds as they slept and made them sit up gasping in the dead of night sure that some enemy was at their throats.

  And then one night as they camped, the boy thought he glimpsed something leering out from behind some birch trees. It was gone before Rorec and the old fisherman had a chance to look, but the boy’s alarm was such that neither of them could convince him that he was just imagining things.

  Rorec stretched his neck as the wagon clattered along. That had been two nights ago. Since then he’d hardly slept, and what little sleep he’d managed had been fraught with abstract nightmares filled with images of dark shambling horrors that left him screaming out in terror. The boy and the old man had suffered the same, and it was clear to each of them that the journey was taking a heavy mental toll.

  Rorec tried to put all that out of his mind. He refocused on his letter, but found it hopelessly marred with ill-placed drips and splotches. According to the duke it could take up to four months for a letter to be delivered, so everything he sent would be a full season out of date before his wife would even receive it. That made the whole endeavor feel rather pointless, but Ella would worry herself to death if she didn’t hear from him. Rorec dipped his quill and began trying again.

  “Whoa,” the fisherman told the horses. The reigns and their metal clasps jingled as he pulled them to a stop. “What’s this, then?”

  Rorec craned his head about. He saw a large jagged rock formation that seemed to jut right up out of the ground. It was craggy and black and roughly forty yards tall and wide, but despite its size, it wasn’t altogether unique. The barren terrain had been punctuated with similar formations every so often and they must have seen dozens over the span of their trek.

  But then he saw the wall.

  Rorec shoved his lap desk aside heedless of the scattering of his papers and stood up. There was, indeed, a solid wall ahead of them, just peeking out from behind the giant rock formation. It was roughly twenty yards high and gray in color, so drab and so much like the nearby rock and ground that he hadn’t noticed it at first. It was strikingly smooth and appeared, impossibly he thought, not to be made of multiple blocks of stone, but rather one giant piece. If there was an entrance hidden in that perfectly featureless wall Rorec couldn’t see it, but legends told of master masons creating entrances that only they themselves could find. Behind the first wall was another wall and he could see the tip of a stone keep built into it, also made of the same featureless gray stone. The keep had unusually large apertures leading to two levels of stone-carved balconies on the outside, but for what purpose, he didn’t know. A delicate trail of smoke streamed from its rock roof and disappeared into the dead gray sky, and as Rorec stood there looking, he realized he could smell the aroma of cooking meat wafting on the air.

  Firehorn.

  “We’re here,” Rorec heard himself say, though he could scarcely believe the fact itself. After so long a journey, he’d begun to think that it would never end, and for it to finish with such little warning and so suddenly came as a great shock.

  “Gods be praised,” said the old fisherman, kissing the wooden visage of a deity he kept around his neck. He’d remained fairly stoic throughout the journey, but the immensity of his relief now showed through his worn features. The boy beside him was in tears, and had yet to lift his buried face from his grandfather’s shoulder. None of them had wanted to admit it, but the eeriness of the land and the length of the journey had become unbearable. The environment itself had seeped into their bodies and their minds, and it was only now, in his great relief at the trek’s end, that Rorec felt the noxious grip slacken around him.

  “Look there now,” the old fisherman said, pointing. “A Dwarf!”

  A vague dark shape lumbered forward at the far edge of the wall. Rorec knew immediately that the old man’s eyes had failed him; this was no Dwarf. Instantly the eldritch fear that had fled ever so briefly came back wholesale and with an intensity he had not previously felt even during the worst of his nightmares. The shambling figure twitched and lurched unnaturally, as if its limbs were being subjected to some intermittent but torturous pain. It jerked and writhed, and though Rorec still couldn’t tell exactly what it was, he could tell now that it was crawling along the ground.

  Whatever it was raised its large head and turned their way, as if some foreign sense had told it of their presence. Now Rorec could see that it was some type o
f wolf, but of a kind that he did not recognize. Its fur was coarse and bristled like spikes and was stained with multiple layers of mud and dark grime. It strode haphazardly toward them as if it were wounded and trying to run. As it got closer, Rorec could see that great swathes of flesh were missing, and thick chords of tendon and muscle were bulging slick and dripping red in the cold open air.

  Rorec tried to shout a warning but was drowned out by the screeching of the horses. They thrashed and tore at their restraints as the fisherman struggled to hold on. Rorec was tossed amongst the crates of supplies as the wagon suddenly lurched to one side. The animals were clearly trying to turn around and run, but their panic was keeping them from working together so the wagon was stuck maddeningly in place.

  The beast ahead of them was now close enough so that Rorec could see its eyes. Instantly he knew that this was the vague and shambling thing that had stalked his dreams throughout the journey, the one that had left him drenched in sweat with a cry for help lodged in his throat. This was the nameless fear, the shadow in the dark, the mindless ravenous evil of that which knew no reason, no mercy, and no rest.

  And it was coming right for them.

  There came a sharp twang followed by a wet and sickly thud like a nail driven into thick fruit. The beast fell limp before them, its cold and empty eyes still locked on Rorec, still seeing, still hungry, still longing to sink its blood-slick teeth into the meaty flesh of his neck and-

  The wagon lurched again and Rorec was forced to brace himself with his bad hand. Immediately his grip failed and he went tumbling over the edge. He landed shoulder first and hard on the wet stony earth. The fisherman shouted something unintelligible at the horses as he and his grandson grabbed the reins and tried to regain control. The animals were still reeling violently from the beast on the ground despite the fact that it was no longer moving.

  Rorec winced as he rubbed his shoulder. It was a rough landing, and he was lucky that he hadn’t fallen on a rock. As he rose to his feet, his breath was suddenly taken from him, and he had to put his kerchief to his nose. The creature lying dead before him was emitting an odor that was foul almost beyond words; it was the stench of gore and rotting flesh, of grave worms and burnt hair. Its bulbous glossy eyes seemed to be writhing in front of him despite the fact that the crossbow bolt had-

  The bolt. Rorec whirled around.

  There stood a Dwarf in full military regalia. He wore a tarnished iron helm decorated with strips of embossed red leather, an equally decorated though more ragged breastplate, polished bronze gauntlets, and a very dirty pair of iron greaves. He carried an extraordinarily lethal-looking crossbow, all gleaming metal and oiled gears, and though Rorec knew very little of weapons and even less about the Dwarven sort, he could tell that this particular model was far more complex than anything he’d ever seen a Human carry. Of the Dwarf himself, he was lesser than Rorec’s height by a full foot, and his ragged waist-length beard was the color of raw earth. The bridge of his nose was wide and flat and had clearly been broken at some point, as it had grown slightly knobby and crooked. His skin was a light shade of cream, like raw basswood, but looked rough and craggy to the touch. His eyes were a deep dark hazel set beneath a pair of eyebrows so thick and coarse that they seemed to be holding up his metal helm.

  The old fisherman and his grandson finally managed to get control of the horses. They turned and stared, their panic replaced by awe as they saw the Dwarf in front of them.

  Their shock at finally seeing a citizen of Firehorn was great indeed, but it was matched, if not surpassed, by that of the Dwarf. He seemed to almost recoil at the sight of the Humans, and for a frightening moment Rorec thought that he might actually raise his weapon, but he did not.

  Rorec had rehearsed this moment many times over the past several months, but due to the shock of the last few minutes he found that all the things he’d planned to say had fled his mind, and he was left standing there with all the awkwardness of an uncouth child.

  He cleared his throat. “Hello…” he said. “I’m Rorec.”

  The Dwarf said nothing, only stared.

  Rorec remembered the letter, and he reached deep into his woolen coat and found the piece of parchment there. “I received this from Duke Goden Korabul,” he said, showing him. “It’s an invitation to come visit Firehorn.”

  The Dwarf in front of him blew his nose out onto the ground, but again said nothing.

  Rorec continued on. “I’m a writer. I wrote the duke asking permission to write a book about life at Firehorn.”

  The Dwarf said nothing for a long time, then finally, he shifted his glance to the wagon. “Just the one?”

  “…The one wagon?” Rorec asked. “Oh yes, I’m afraid so. It was all I could…well, it was all I could afford.”

  He spat. “So no trade goods, then.”

  “…No, I’m afraid not.”

  The Dwarf grumbled something, then reached down and grabbed the great bloody leg of the dead wolf in front of him, turned, and began dragging it the other direction.

  Realizing the Dwarf wasn’t going to say anything else, Rorec decided to follow and motioned for the wagon to come along. The horses were calmer now that they were a good distance away from the foul corpse, but Rorec could see that they still shook and trembled at the mere sight of the thing. It was only at the behest of the fisherman that they came at all, but they completely refused to move at anything more than a snail’s pace.

  Even with a handkerchief in front of his nose, Rorec’s lungs remained filled with the awful scent of the dead creature. The Dwarf, however, didn’t appear to notice, and seemed only concerned with dragging the thing. Despite the fact that he was carrying all that weight, he appeared to glide across the ground with little or no effort, and it took a moment for Rorec to even catch up with him.

  “Thank you for what you did,” Rorec told him. “None of us have weapons and I don’t know what we would have done if-”

  “No weapons?” His vivid brown eyes scanned Rorec’s features, and it was clear that he found him to be quite queer indeed. “You travelled here alone with no weapons?”

  Rorec knew himself to be a fool, especially now that he had seen what type of creatures dwell in the north. “Yes,” he admitted. “We’re not fighting men, so we felt weapons would have only been a hindrance.”

  He half expected the Dwarf to mock him, but he did not. “Perhaps wiser to be quick and quiet than to fight, then. The animals of this country have learned that lesson well. Those that stand and fight end up like this here.” He gestured to the deformed corpse of the wolf.

  Rorec was about to ask what type of creature it was, where it came from, and why it was there, but as they passed the far edge of the wall, his questions died in his throat and he froze where he stood.

  There were bodies scattered all throughout the muddy field; wolves, bears, badgers, foxes, deer, all hewn and torn asunder, all bloody with patches of skin missing, all with terribly vacant eyes that shown gibbous like a full moon. They were dead, all of them, killed by the forty or so armed and armored Dwarves that stood above them with torches. Rorec’s stomach roiled and churned as he realized that the smell he had found so inviting upon their arrival was actually that of burning corpses.

  Of the Dwarves, there were males and females in equal number, and each was armed with either an axe, spear, short sword, hammer, or a crossbow. Most of them wore mismatched armor, some favoring certain metals over others, but there were a few that had full sets made entirely of bronze, iron, or even steel. Those were the more formidable looking of the bunch, and several had battle scars that rendered their faces nearly as awful as those grotesqueries whom they had killed.

  As soon as they were sighted, Rorec and the wagon became the center of attention. He could feel the hair on his neck stand up as all those armed and fierce looking Dwarves shifted their eyes to him, and one quick glance told him that he wasn’t alone in his discomfort. The f
isherman and his grandson wore similar worried expressions, and the old man reached into his shirt to grab his wooden idol, muttering silent prayers as he did.

  A Dwarf shoved through the crowd and strode forth to meet them. He was quite tall for his kind, nearly as tall as Rorec, and was barrel-chested with shockingly wide shoulders and hips. His arms were bare despite the cold, and thick tufts of curly brown hair covered his bulging biceps. He carried a massive silver hammer that had been engraved with various images of war. It was covered in blood and bits of rotten flesh, and the easy way in which he shifted it from hand to hand made Rorec recall butchers in their shops back home and the way they nonchalantly pounded great slabs of beefsteak to make it more tender. The Dwarf’s beard was walnut brown and not terribly long, indicating that, despite his sharp and menacing features, he was scarcely older than Rorec himself, perhaps even younger.

  “Drop what you carry,” the Dwarf commanded. His baritone voice was weighted with the easy confidence so often wielded by those with great physical strength, but there was a sharp and untempered tone lurking there just beneath the surface, something which gave Rorec pause. The Dwarf’s cheeks were slick with sweat and ruddy from toil, and his dark eyes seemed lit by an interior fire that burned just at the edge of his ability to contain.

  Rorec stopped where he stood. He noticed that all the Dwarves were stepping aside, giving the two of them a wide berth. “I only carry this,” he said, showing the letter. “It’s from your-”

  The Dwarf snatched the letter and threw it to the muddy earth without so much as a glance. He moved forward until he was close enough for Rorec to smell his pungent alcohol-soaked breath. Though they were the same height, Rorec felt like a child compared to the blood-drenched behemoth before him. “It’s queer that you arrived just as the night creatures did. How do you explain that, Human?”

  Rorec drew back at the sudden hostility. “I-I beg your pardon?”

  The Dwarf sneered. “How do three men such as you with no weapons in hand travel unmolested through the Long Night?”

  “We were fortunate,” Rorec said, surprised to find his voice steady. “We encountered nothing until-”

  “You encountered nothing because the creatures of the night do not harm their own,” he growled. “Seize them.”

  The boy screamed as he and the old fisherman were pulled down from the wagon. Two Dwarves grabbed Rorec, and one forced a bloody bronze spear to his chest.

  “What’s going on, Tobul?”

  Everyone turned and watched as a female Dwarf strode forward. She had high cheekbones and inquisitive blue eyes that were keen and hard, but kind as well, and totally devoid of the hostility that Rorec saw in the other Dwarf, the one she had called Tobul. Her straw-colored hair was flattened from where her helm had been sitting, but her armor had the gleam of polished steel and was decorated with numerous gemstones. Rorec saw rubies and emeralds and, shockingly, diamonds as well. Detailed scenes had been engraved on the metal, but instead of battles and beasts there were images of altars and gods, flags and murals, statues and architecture.

  “I’m taking these men as prisoners for questioning,” Tobul said.

  “Prisoners? Just what do you think they are, exactly?”

  Rorec watched as the anger in Tobul instantly shifted over to the female Dwarf. He’d heard legends about the notoriously unpredictable Dwarven temperament, but he’d never had a chance to witness it firsthand. He was simultaneously fascinated and terrified. “Are you a fool? Isn’t it clear they had something to do with the attack?”

  She remained expressionless. Despite all her armor, she moved with a silent and easy grace like all was effortless before her. She bent and picked up the letter. “This is the duke’s seal.”

  “Yes, he invited me,” Rorec said, trying to edge back from the spear that was jutting into his chest. “I’ve been corresponding with him for some time.”

  “Ah,” she said, giving a slight smile. “You’re the writer then.”

  Rorec felt a wave of relief rush through him. “Yes. Yes I am.”

  “Writer?” Tobul asked, spitting the word. “What writer?”

  “The duke has been expecting him.” With a motion of her hand, the Dwarves lowered their weapons.

  “Thank you,” Rorec said. “We were supposed to arrive a fortnight ago, but we encountered some difficulties. The weather in the south has been quite bad.”

  “Yes, the storms have been just missing us. It’s good you came when you did. This far north the snows fall even in breakup season.” She handed him the letter and gave him a smile which, despite its stoicism, was kind and warm. “Welcome to Firehorn.”

  “Datan, this is foolish,” Tobul said. “We should at least question them before-”

  “There’s no need,” she said. “Finish disposing of the bodies. I’m going to see our guests inside.”

  Tobul’s eyes were full of unchecked anger, but at her word he seemed to diminish somewhat. “Aye captain.”

  As he and the others moved off, Datan removed her gauntlets and stuffed them into the rugged leather pack she carried. “You’ll have to forgive Tobul. He’s a fine hammerdwarf, the finest we have, in fact, but oftentimes his emotions get the better of him. Do not take it personally.”

  “It’s forgotten,” Rorec said, though it wasn’t. The various ups and downs of the last few minutes had left him more than a little shaken, but he was determined not to let it show. “I apologize for the poor timing of our arrival. We didn’t mean to cause problems.”

  “You didn’t. We’re just…” She glanced back at the pile of malformed bodies, her eyes darkening. Rorec thought he could read a lot in that look. Tension, worry, and…fear? “One of our speardwarves was injured.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Is it severe?”

  “Yes, I’m afraid so. But let’s not speak of it,” she said. “Goden will be pleased at your arrival. Come, I’ll show you inside.”

  Rorec was very curious about the nature of the attacks, but since Datan seemed reluctant to discuss the issue, he decided not to press her further. In truth, his desire to find shelter from the fetid stench of those accursed creatures took precedence above all, so whatever questions he had about them could wait.

  He followed her to the wall, but even as he came closer Rorec was still unable to locate the entrance no matter how hard he looked. As before, he saw no cracks in the masonry, and it wasn’t until the drawbridge was being lowered that he realized it was the same kind of system that his own kind had been using for centuries. It was the craftsmanship (or craftdwarfship, he supposed) that made the structure so unusual and spectacular. The drawbridge fit so seamlessly into the outer wall that it appeared to be all one piece, and the only sound Rorec heard as it was being lowered was a mechanical almost clock-like ticking. When it touched the ground, it fit perfectly into a natural dip in the earth, so their horses and wagon transitioned to it without even a hint of difficulty.

  They were just about to cross the threshold into the interior when the fisherman’s wagon came to a halt. Rorec saw the man was weeping.

  “What’s the matter?” His grandson asked.

  “We mustn’t,” the old man said, his voice barely above a whisper. His features seemed a decade older than when they had first left Boulder Coast, and his gnarled old hand wouldn’t release his wooden idol.

  “I don’t understand,” Rorec said.

  “I agreed to drive you. And I did.” Tears collected in his scraggly white beard, and he brushed them away. “Now I’d like to go.”

  His grandson stared agape at him, but said nothing. He seemed too shocked for speech.

  “But surely you’d like to rest first,” Datan said. “If you’re worried about sleeping beneath the ground, we have surface dwellings built for guests. Most of our trading partners prefer those when they visit. It would be no problem.”

  “Thank you, but no,” he
said, his voice quivering. “I fear…I fear that if we stay…”

  Rorec understood immediately. Now that they knew the difficulty of the journey and the horrors they might face on the way back home, the temptation to stay behind those high Dwarven walls might prove too great if they stayed for long. They’d only taken this job out of desperation for gold anyway, and Rorec couldn’t fault them for wanting to get back home as soon as they could.

  Rorec grabbed his purse, sorted through it, and after a moment of thought, handed them the purse itself. “The promised amount and half as much more.”

  The old man hesitated. “…That’s too much.”

  “Never mind that. If I need more, I can earn it working.” Rorec turned to Datan. “I don’t intend to prey on your hospitality without giving back. My skills are meager, but I am happy to do whatever you may ask.”

  Datan nodded. “We’ll arrange something.” She motioned toward a few of her soldiers. “Bring them some supplies from the keep.”

  When they returned, they brought with them two short copper spears, stone pots full of sweet meats, eggs, mushrooms, greens, bread, and a full barrel of Dwarven wine. The fisherman protested that it was far too much, but Datan would hear none of it. “You’ll eat well on your return journey, and tell the men of Boulder Coast about the hospitality of the Firehorn Dwarves.” The fisherman promised to do so, and now it was his grandson that wept. He hadn’t eaten so well in years.

  As Rorec watched them turn around and go, he felt a wave of dread rush over him. It was a dangerous thing he’d had them do, and though his journey was over for the time being, theirs was only half finished. They had been very lucky to reach Firehorn without incident, and now they would be travelling through the night with one less pair of eyes to help them watch the shadows.

  Rorec said a silent prayer for them, then took his first steps in the great Dwarven fortress called Firehorn.

  Rorec passed through a second gated entrance that was surrounded on two parts by an overarching northerly keep built of the same gray-brown stone as the outer wall. It had been smoothed to such an extent that it reflected the gleam of Datan’s sword as they passed by, and Rorec fancied that he could see a bit of his own reflection there. Beyond the keep was a series of channels dug into the earth where Rorec saw Dwarves leading huge white bears by chain leashes into earthen pens.

  “Gods…what are those?” Rorec asked.

  “Polar bears,” Datan said. “We find them on our hunting expeditions. They’re the ultimate arctic predator. They care nothing for cold or snow and make for fearsome opponents in combat. Even more so when armored.”

  “You put armor on them?”

  “We do.” She flashed a slight a smile. “But it’s easier said than done.”

  That much Rorec had guessed. “Do you raise the beasts from birth?”

  “We do, but we still capture some from time to time. Same with them, too,” she said, pointing.

  Rorec glanced toward the easterly keep, and in one of the great apertures he’d seen before, three massive snowy owls stood feeding from a trough. They were beefy, bulky things with white feathers that were flecked with bits of black and brown. They stared down at him with the cold, haughty look of fierce predators, and Rorec could feel their eyes probing him as if they were trying to decide whether or not he was too big to eat.

  “They serve as an early warning system,” Datan said. “Whenever something approaches the fortress, they come flying back. You caught us by surprise because they were inside already, for they fear the night creatures. Most animals do, even the bears.”

  They walked along a cobblestone road lined with unlit torches. There were three keeps in total; the doubly-large northerly one where they had entered, the easterly one that kept the owls, and a western one that Datan said was used mostly by hunting parties or for training new recruits. There was no keep in the south, for the large rock that came out of the ground was so high and wide that nothing could be built there. Rorec saw now why the Dwarves had chosen this location; the great rock served as the fourth and largest of their walls.

  There were very few other buildings on the surface, and the bulk of them were contained within the centermost area where small stone hovels surrounded a larger three-level structure. That’s where Datan led him.

  “The duke will meet you here,” Datan said. “If you feel more comfortable above ground, you may stay in the guest suites, but you’re welcome to live amongst us if you wish. Your things will be brought wherever you decide. Do you require anything else?”

  “No, thank you. You’ve been very kind already. I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you, especially considering the circumstances. I don’t want to keep you from your duties any longer.”

  “Very well,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to see how our wounded speardwarf is getting on.”

  “Thank you very much captain,” Rorec said. “I wish them a speedy recovery.”

  “As do I,” she said, though as Rorec watched her go, he thought her expression didn’t seem at all hopeful.

  The building he’d been led to apparently served as something of a welcome center, and it was lushly decorated for the purpose. There were beautifully crafted stone statues of all different kinds and colors, and each was decorated with jewels and gems of astounding value. According to the accompanying carvings, the figures depicted were famous Dwarves from the Emerald Eyes, Firehorn’s parent civilization. Only their general history was known in Rorec’s homeland, but that was one of the things he intended his book to remedy.

  Rorec was exhausted, but the writer in him felt compelled to begin working immediately in order to capture the awe and splendor he felt at being surrounded by such displays of wealth. He gathered his writing supplies and placed them at an immaculately carved stone table, then began the attempt at describing what he saw.

  Covering the walls were bas-reliefs illustrating the founding of Firehorn. The engravings were spectacularly detailed, so much so that Rorec could instantly read the expressions of the Dwarves depicted there as if they were full life and standing before him. The history of Firehorn was one of long difficult toil and fierce perseverance in the face of hostile weather and the forces of darkness. Its early history was rife with attacks like the one he had seen, and from what he could tell, the early settlers had had great difficulty weathering them. There had been much death and hardship, and the images were moving in that they often depicted the final moments of citizens who died trying to protect the fortress.

  But the depictions were not all sadness and woe; there were many detailing great accomplishments such as the building of the walls, the creation of fine works of art, and the general prosperity of the fortress itself, which appeared to be doing remarkably well despite its isolation. It seemed to Rorec that there was an exceptionally high standard of living at Firehorn, a fact which surprised him greatly. His home city of Motherhold was notorious for the bulk of the population (which included Rorec himself) living in abject poverty, and he couldn’t help but wonder how a fortress on the outskirts of the known world could manage to provide so much for its people despite all the disadvantages inherent to living north of the taiga.

  But the statues and engravings were not the main attraction of the welcome center. The bulk of the space in the large room was filled with weapons; axes, spears, swords, hammers, crossbows, bolts, armor in all shapes and sizes and of all manner of decoration from the mundane to the intensely intricate. Rorec could tell instantly that the quality of the objects here was completely unparalleled and unlike anything he had ever seen.

  He was busy writing about all this and more when a number of Dwarves rose from an unseen hatch in the floor and greeted him.

  Rorec had built a firm picture of the duke in his mind based on their correspondence; he’d been swift of wit and infinitely kind, and his eloquence had evoked the image of a stately aristocrat. But unfortunately, that image did not ma
tch up with the Dwarf he now saw before him. Goden was shockingly corpulent even by the standards of his kind. As he walked, Rorec was reminded of a toy he’d had as a child; rounded and weighted on the bottom, it would rock back and forth and side to side, but would not topple over. Goden moved as a ship moved on storm-riddled seas, ever leaning, ever lurching, and ever seeming on the verge of capsizing. He wore a vast and beautiful silken robe that had obviously been dyed by a master of the craft, for it had intricate patterns of color that Rorec hadn’t thought were even possible. He was covered in jewelry of all sorts; gold and silver and, shockingly, platinum, the color of which he only recognized from depictions he’d seen in books. There were no less than a dozen such bracelets jingling on his bulbous wrists, and each had been encrusted with diamonds of such purity that they seemed to almost glow in the torchlight. His belly-length beard was just beginning to show speckles of gray, and was decorated with numerous colorful baubles so that they clinked together much like a series of cowbells as he waddled his great bulk forward.

  The Dwarves arriving with Goden appeared to be his attendants. One opened a copious leather pack revealing containers of food and ale and handed the duke a mug. He drank greedily while another attendant wiped the perspiration from his reddened forehead with a silk cloth. When he was ready, the large man began to speak, his bejeweled arms flailing about him with an odd maniacal flair.

  “Welcome to Firehorn!” The duke said with practiced drama. “Behold the glory of the finest fortress ever built in all of Dwarven history. Feast your eyes on our wares; our golden chalices, our obsidian swords, our steel armor, our gem-encrusted furniture, our master work statues, and lament dear Human, for you will never see beauty such as this again even if you live another thousand years. No nation of Men or Elves has reached the pinnacle of glory and splendor that Firehorn has, and none ever shall. Behold, and be awed to silence.”

  Normally Rorec would be put off by such an overdramatic and boastful welcome, but considering the grandeur of what he’d seen thus far, he actually thought it quite fitting.

  “I truly am awed, duke. When you described the treasures of Firehorn in your letters I formed such high expectations that I thought them impossible to reach, but they’ve doubtlessly been surpassed. And it is good to meet you finally, after so many months of correspondence.”

  “And good to meet you too, my Human friend. I was beginning to think your reluctance to make the journey had gotten the best of you. It was as simple as I said it would be, eh?”

  Rorec hesitated. Was Goden serious, or was this some ill-made attempt at humor? During their correspondence, Rorec had indeed expressed reluctance at making the trek, but who wouldn’t? It was thousands of miles and drifted dangerously near Goblin territory. If anything, the trip had turned out to be even more dangerous than Rorec had thought it would be, and he couldn’t help but feel like the duke was being more than a little flippant about the truly mortal danger he and his companions experienced.

  But before he could answer, Goden whirled on one of his attendants. “Urdim, have you not offered our guest ale?”

  The Dwarf withered. “Oh, I beg your pardon.”

  Instantly, Goden’s features twisted into a rictus of disgust. “How dare you? The man is clearly thirsty, he’s had a long journey. Do you think of nothing but yourself?”

  Though Rorec was indeed thirsty, he didn’t want the poor attendant to get in trouble on account of him. “Thank you duke, but-”

  “I ought to have you hammered,” Goden told the Dwarf, fresh sweat dripping from his brow.

  “No no, that’s not necessary,” Rorec said. “I actually don’t drink.”

  All the Dwarves suddenly turned to him. Goden himself had an expression that approached something resembling terror, and even the Dwarf that he’d been chastising looked offended.

  And then Goden burst out laughing, clapping him on the arm. “Don’t drink? Ha! Good one!”

  The tension broke as the other attendants joined in on the laughter, and before Rorec could tell them that he was actually quite serious, they slapped a beer mug into his hands and began filling it with a frothy amber-colored ale that smelled frightfully strong yet inviting at the same time. They toasted his health and, not wanting to offend them, he drank. It was as strong as he had thought it would be, but flavorful too, and seemed to have all the richness and complexity of a full meal.

  Goden polished off an entire mug of the stuff in what looked like record time, and his attendants immediately poured him another. With his previous anger now forgotten, his eyes began to sparkle with a prideful glee. “Come now, and I’ll show you what you’ve traveled so far to see.”

  The attendants lifted the hatches from which they’d entered, and immediately Rorec was inundated with the overwhelming smell of rich wet soil. As Rorec walked in he realized he was stepping on earth that had been packed down so tightly that it felt like stone. Inside was a wooden lift surrounded by a spiral staircase so wide it could fit five Dwarves abreast. Goden waddled ahead, leading him down the torch-lit stairs until they came to a set of double stone doors, and when the attendants opened it, Rorec saw the source of the deep earthy smell.

  There were a series of long, wide rooms sculpted entirely of earth save for a series of gray stone supports that had been placed at occasional intervals. Torches kept the place well-lit but relatively dim compared to the welcome area. As Rorec’s eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he heard the gentle babble of running water. It flowed through channels dug into the floor, and immediately Rorec recognized an irrigation pattern similar to what Human farmers used in their fields around Motherhold. There were bushes and vines and stalks bearing odd-looking vegetables that Rorec had never seen before. Dozens of Dwarves were tending to these, either checking the plants for blight or spreading potash around. Others harvested, loading up wheelbarrows and large pots of rough stone and whisking them off to the lift. Once they had it loaded they activated a lever, and from somewhere down below there came the metallic thunk sound of counterweights being shifted, and the wooden lift and its contents disappeared down into the vast depths.

  “Fascinating,” Rorec said. “Where does the water come from, duke?”

  It was one of his attendants that answered. “Above. There are small channels cut into the surface so when the snow melts, the runoff comes down to the farms. We end up with far more water than we need actually, so we store the excess in a small reservoir for the warm season and release it when we wish. That’s what you’re seeing now.”

  “How long does the warm season last here?”

  “Two months if the Gods are good,” Goden said. “A month if they’re not. It’s been warm three weeks and looks to be so for longer than usual this year. But the snows will come and when they do we have to be ready. We have just over two thousand Dwarves living here, and that’s a lot of mouths to feed.”

  They took the stairs further down and beyond a series of rooms that appeared to be used for simple storage. Rorec noticed that they kept most everything in stone containers. “Wood must be difficult to come by.”

  “It is, but we have a supply,” Goden said. “We send hunting parties on trips south in good weather and they come back with meat and wood. We also harvest some from the caverns below, and we make a point to plant two for every one we take down.”

  “Caverns? You’ve found caverns here?”

  “Oh yes. Caverns the likes of which you’ve never seen, my friend. And if you think the farms I showed you were impressive, you’ve seen naught but a fraction. Most of our food is grown below.”

  “Interesting,” Rorec said. “I’ve heard tell of Dwarves keeping their livestock underground.”

  “Indeed we do. Chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, guinea fowl, pigs, sheep and reindeer. I dare say you’ll eat more meat here than you ever could afford at Motherhold.”

  Rorec tried not to take that as an insult. “…But how do you
feed them all? One of your crops?”

  Goden let out a haughty laugh, and Rorec saw the attendants sharing similar glances between them. They clearly thought him a fool, but so little about Dwarven civilization was known that he felt he had to ask these basic questions. “My dear Human, no. The caverns provide. Mosses and fungi grow freely there, and the animals graze as they would on the surface, were it grassy and temperate.”

  Rorec heard the dining area long before they reached it. The spiral staircase wound straight downward into a large vaulted hall of stone. A few dozen Dwarves were there eating and drinking and shouting with raucous laughter. Dogs and cats roamed freely and, oddly, so did a yak and an alpaca. The stone walls were the same brownish-gray as the outer fortress walls, but punctuated with occasional streaks of earthy yellow, some stone that Rorec wasn’t familiar with. There were bas-reliefs, and though they were older and less-intricate than that of the welcome center on the surface, they were interesting nonetheless, and Rorec made a mental note to study them closely when he had the time.

  “This is Iron Hall,” Goden said. “It was the first full dining hall the founders dug out, and for some years, it was the only one. Many a long day and night were spent here while other parts of the fortress were being readied, but now most Dwarves prefer to dine in the guild halls.”

  “Guild halls?”

  “Oh yes. Firehorn provides a dining hall for each of the major guilds; mining, gem setting, blacksmithing…we have nine in all. But we also have a Grand Hall for ceremonial purposes, and it’s large enough to seat every Dwarf in the fortress. That’s where your welcome feast will be.”

  “A feast? For me?”

  “Of course,” Goden said, clapping him hard enough on the shoulder to splash his ale a little. “It’s not often we have guests, as you might imagine, and you’re certainly the first writer.”

  “I’m honored,” Rorec said. “Truly, thank you.”

  “Think nothing of it,” Goden said. He turned to an attendant. “Pour him more ale you oaf, he’s almost out.”

  Rorec’s head was already swimming from the first mug, and though it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation, he was unsure how much his frail constitution could handle and he didn’t want to make a fool of himself. They continued on down, and as they did Rorec noticed the sweat accumulating on Goden’s brow. The other Dwarves walked up and down the stone stairways as if they didn’t even notice them, but Goden was clearly having difficulty. His attendants seemed used to this, for they never made any effort to walk any faster than he did. Rorec was actually quite thankful for the slow pace, for though they had only traveled downward thus far, his legs already felt a little weak, but that was most likely due to lack of use throughout his long wagon voyage.

  What he saw next, however, would completely force the thought of fatigue from his mind. The great stone staircase on which they traveled led them downward into a vast cavernous space the size of a town in itself. Rorec gasped and instinctively clutched at the railings, staggering back into the solid chest of one of the attendants behind him. It was seventy feet to the bottom, and only the railing had kept him from tumbling over into it.

  Goden erupted in laughter, as did his attendants, and his blubber covered belly rolled and sloshed about as he clapped his hands. “What’s the matter, afraid of heights?”

  Rorec felt himself blush with embarrassment. He couldn’t help but feel a little irritated at being mocked by his host, though he was sure it was just Goden’s idea of fun. Perhaps Rorec was just being too sensitive due to weariness. He decided that was it, and forced a smile. “I did not expect it to be so…”

  “Big? Of course, my dear Human,” he said, his oily voice emphasizing ‘Human’. “We Dwarves don’t do anything small. This is the upper market. You will find all manner of wares here, and I can say with absolute certainty that you will find no greater crafting of any sort in any other settlement in the world.”

  Though still bothered by the staggering height, Rorec forced himself to peer over the railing. Hundreds of Dwarves moved down below, many of them in yak or horse-pulled carriages or wagons. Shopkeepers were calling out the deals of the day from countless dozen market stalls and workshops. There were gambling dens and taverns beyond number, each with a Dwarf outside of it shouting about their special new brew that couldn’t be tasted anywhere else. Rorec saw that the lift they’d seen departing the farms upstairs was being unloaded here. Many of the stone pots were being put into storage warehouses, while others were taken to the taverns to be brewed or cooked. Rorec inhaled an amalgam of aromas, and his stomach rumbled at the exotic spices wafting toward him on the air of sweet wood smoke.

  “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Goden said, his eyes lighting up with avarice. “The market area is the heart of any fortress. You probably thought it was the dining halls, but no…This is where Dwarven legends are made, Human. It is here that all Dwarves make or lose their fortunes. See those taverns there? Those are mine, as are the wood and stonecrafter shops there. A third of my income comes from this market,” he said, smiling. “But just a third, for we have another market such as this deeper underground.”

  “Dear me, two markets this size?” Then it was no small wonder why Firehorn was doing so well. Two thousand Dwarves, and yet they had all the economy of a village two or three times as large.

  “Aye, Human. Now you’re beginning to understand. But even all the wealth that is generated here is but a fraction compared to that which we gain from trading. Once a year, merchants from the White Hills come to do business, bringing fruits and meats and ale and wood, and in exchange, we give them the finest weapons ever crafted by Dwarven hands.”

  “White Hills?”

  “Hill Dwarves in the west,” Goden said. “Our chief most trading partners, besides those from the mountainhomes, of course. Come, I’ll show you where you’ll be staying.”

  With his strength ebbing and the strong ale ringing about his brain, Rorec was thankful to hear those words. They took the spiral stairs downward until they reached level with the market, where the noise and smells were so strong that Rorec almost asked to stop so he could sample the food.

  Instead they kept going, and as they did Rorec had the realization that none of the areas he had seen so far appeared to have been adapted from natural caverns. These had all been dug out by hand, a feat so staggering to Rorec that he could scarcely believe his own senses. Before he had come, he had pictured dim tightly-packed low-ceilinged corridors and shallow rooms where space was the most expensive luxury.

  Apparently he’d been grossly mistaken.

  Goden led them to a level passage branching off the staircase (though Rorec could see that the stairs still went ever downward and downward). They walked through a short but busy hall until Goden, wheezing, threw open a set of double doors. Once again, Rorec let out a cry.

  They were now at the top of another hugely open area, only this one was filled with endless rows of dwellings carved into the rock. The hall was so vast that Rorec could not see the end of it, for a great pall of almost palpable darkness filled the air, kept at bay only by the torches lining the walkways and walls. From his perch at the height of it all, Rorec fancied that he was looking upon a massive stony labyrinth like he’d read of in legends, the kind that lured glory-seeking adventurers to hunt for whatever treasure or horror was at its center. There were five levels in all, each attached to one another by yet more staircases. Lifts held with metal chains and pulleys had been placed at intervals, and Rorec watched as one, packed full of goods, was lowered from a hole in the vaulted ceiling above, while others, some empty and some full, were being pulled again upward.

  “Welcome to the neighborhood of Granite,” Goden said. “It houses roughly five hundred Dwarves and now, one Human. Most of your neighbors will be brewers and cooks and carpenters and the like; basic tradesdwarves. They work directly below in the lower market, which you’ll get a chance to look
at later. That is where the second third of my wealth is made. Ha!” Goden said, clapping him on the back again. “But that’s a story for another time, for I have important business to attend to. The attendants will see you to your room now.”

  Rorec thanked Goden, then followed the attendants as they led him through the maze of twisting, turning pathways. He could not discern any real pattern to the way everything had been dug, but he knew it was unlike Dwarves to build in a pell-mell fashion. Perhaps it was an advanced motif that allowed for comfortable expansion when needed and he just didn’t recognize it.

  Oddly enough, Rorec felt as if these were familiar surroundings, like Granite was the Dwarven equivalent of his own neighborhood back in Motherhold. Since his wife had taken ill, all they could afford was a simple apartment they shared with another family. They’d been fearful when first moving in, but after getting to know his neighbors he’d found that they were actually very fine people, just poor, like himself. They may have had nothing else in common, but poverty was the great equalizer, and rather than divide them, Rorec had found, at least in his experience, that it had brought him together with people he might not have normally known otherwise.

  He felt the same way as he studied the Dwarves around him. They weren’t poor in comparison to the Humans he lived near, but it was clear that they were very much the underclass of Firehorn. Unlike Goden, these Dwarves wore clothes of simple cloth or leather, and what jewelry they had was fairly mundane in comparison to his. This Dwarven equivalent of poverty was hardly such at all, and he couldn’t help but admire a civilization that could provide such relative equality to its citizens.

  Granite was alive in a way that even the marketplace hadn’t been. The halls were filled with the sights and sounds of Dwarven families laughing and talking and shuffling back and forth, moving things in and out of their little carved apartments. There was dirt and grime, but not nearly as bad as the filth of the Motherhold slums. The halls were strewn with objects large and small; dressers, pots, innumerable articles of clothing, dirty plates and old stale bread. Cats and dogs ran about and chased one another in a wild free-for-all, endangering the footing of all who walked past. But despite the clamor and cold stone, there was a singular charm about the place, and he found himself more intrigued by these modest hovels than by anything else he had seen thus far.

  The attendants pointed him down a hall, directing him to his room. Rorec was shocked to find that a large crowd of Dwarves were waiting for him there, clapping and hollering and yelling out greetings. When he hesitated, half a dozen Dwarven children (the boys with beards that adult Humans would be proud of) grabbed him by the hands and began pulling him into the crowd. Apparently he was a celebrity there, for Goden had informed them all of his intention to write a book on Firehorn and the citizens therein. He found the Dwarves universally bright-eyed and full of smiles, and they immediately began to ask him all sorts of questions about his journey and his book and whether or not he’d seen the forges yet. They seemed to take immense delight in him, and though he was exhausted, he couldn’t help but enjoy their child-like inquisitiveness. He’d been hesitant to ask Goden and his attendants certain things since they had seemed to find his ignorance amusing, but the Dwarves of Granite were more than happy to answer anything he wished, and he never once felt the fool for asking. He spent a full hour talking with them before he even got a chance to step inside his room.

  As he’d learned from his neighbors, his room had been dug out of a vein of silver found in the granite. They’d been tremendously excited for him, for apparently rooms such as that were highly coveted. Though Rorec had previously possessed no appreciation for stone, he found himself running his hands across the smooth silvery surface, marveling at the mastery the Dwarves wielded over hammer and chisel.

  His dwelling was small but comfortable, and was furnished with all the amenities he could have asked for; a stone cabinet, a wooden desk, and two coffers for his things. What little belongings he’d brought with him had been placed on the desk and bed, and when he looked inside the coffers, he realized they had been filled with pots of ale and meat and cheese; gifts from his new neighbors.

  Rorec sat down on the hard wooden bed, and for the first time in what felt like months, his body seemed to relax. He had made it to Firehorn. It had taken two sea voyages and a long wagon ride to get there, but the journey was over. When he’d first set out, part of him refused to believe that he would ever make it at all. He’d never been a lucky man, and he’d failed more times in his life than he’d succeeded. The trip to Firehorn had been a huge gamble in a lifetime of unblemished cautiousness or, as he sometimes confessed to himself, cowardice. He was not an adventurer, but yet here he was on the greatest adventure of his life. The undertaking before him was as staggering as the Dwarven dwellings were in their vastness, and now was time for him to begin. Now was time for him to make his name.

  It came as no shock to him then, to find that he was completely and utterly terrified.

  DATAN

 
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