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The fate of the dwarves, p.1
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       The Fate of the Dwarves, p.1

           Markus Heitz
 
The Fate of the Dwarves


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  Dedicated

  to all the friends of the “small folk.”

  You have earned this!

  “Word goeth that ye dwerffes be greyt relayters of riddles and wit. One of ye most famous is sedd to be the tayle wheyre an orc asketh a dwerff ye way and ye dwerff answereth.

  Ye tayle goeth lyke this: One aurbit orbit an orc was strollyng along a road, its eyes fixed on ye path, but still not knowyng whych way to tayke.

  It so happened that a dwerff was standing at that very crossroads seeing what was to be seen. Ye dwerff bore an axe of pure vraccasium, his chayne mayle tunic was strong and fynely wrought, fit to withstand ye arrows, swords and blaydes of all kinds.

  And it was clear from his stature that he fain must be one of ye fiercest and most valiant warriors among all ye tribes of ye dwerffes. His beard was brayded and oiled. Tiny pieces of gold were to be seen thredded into sed beard, whych was twisted around with fyne silver wyre to keep it in form. A very master among dwerffes, to speak true, with his hair and his weapons and his armour!

  And so the orc comes and sees the dwarf…

  And then the dwarf comes…

  And ye orc comes up to him and asks ye twerf dwerff whych road where long to tayke”

  —Taken from “Descryptions of ye Ffolk of Girdlegyrd: Manneris and Karacterystycks” In the Great Archive of Viransiénsis, drawn up by Tanduweyt, collected by M.A. Het, Magister Folkloricum, in the 4300th solar cycle, a fragment, much of the document having been destroyed in fire.

  “To be totally honest, I don’t care for the story at all. I still don’t understand why the whole world seems so keen to know the punch line. In my view the whole thing is a complete waste of time. But, you know what? They all laugh. It’s beyond me.”

  —Hargorin Deathbringer, Leader of the Black Squadron.

  “If I have to tell the joke about the orc and the dwarf one more time, even ONE SINGLE TIME, I’ll go dwarfingly fighting mad, and I shan’t rest till all the idiots who want to hear the stupid thing are slaughtered. I swear this on my crow’s beak!

  And I don’t care if it’s a twenty-headed dragon asking for it or a singing dancing talking unicorn or a shiny fairy who’s got a thousand wishes to grant me. I DON’T CARE! I’ll kill them all, no matter who they are! No more jokes, got it?”

  —Boïndil “Ireheart” Doubleblade from the clan of Swinging Axes, of the secondling folk, spoken at a banquet held in Mifurdania in honour of the comedians and descendants of Rodario.

  Prologue

  The Outer Lands,

  The Black Abyss,

  Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

  The air was filled with the smell of bone dust, ice-cold stone and frosty damp. The thin-armed creature stepped cautiously out of the shadow of a rock and blinked. Ten paces ahead the shimmering made everything on the far side appear hazy. The same as always.

  The nameless creature sent a long green tongue over the skin of its doglike face, revealing needle-sharp teeth. With two of its sixteen fingers it explored the short dark fur under the dirty armor, scratched itself and yawned. It adjusted the armor that was pressing uncomfortably on its balls.

  It gave a sigh of relief and then another yawn.

  On the orders of the Strongest One it had to keep watch from dawn to dusk and immediately report any changes to the quivering vibrations in the air. It was a boring task. Thankless and boring.

  After a while it picked up and ate a yellow beetle emerging from under a moldering thighbone on the ground. As it chewed it occurred to the creature that not one of the hundreds of its own kind could remember a time when the air had not shimmered.

  It grunted and kicked at the black wall of rock, then strolled up to the edge, trailing an over-long sword. As the rusty brown metal blade scraped against the rock floor, it collected yet more dents and notches.

  The creature sat down on the ground next to the shimmering. Yawning, it picked up a pebble and idly chucked it. The air hissed and flashed, for a second turning opaque like murky water and stopping the pebble’s flight. The little stone bounced back and landed at the tip of the creature’s boots. Another sigh. This was a ritual that never ever changed. It was obvious why the pebbles were being chucked: They did not disappear straight away when they met the shimmering.

  There had been times when the invisible barrier had simply been an indestructible wall. It would hurt if you ran into it, but nothing else happened. Then, all of a sudden, the wall would destroy whatever touched it: There’d be a crackling flash and you’d be drenched in fire and burned to a fine cinder ash that blew away in the wind. But for about seven world-ages now, the wall had been taking quite a long time to actually kill you. If you were quick and tore yourself back off it you’d get away with a burn.

  On the other side the creature could pick out a strange vertical structure composed of metal rings. When the sun stood high there’d be a bright light in the center. Every so often a few small chunky two-leggers could be seen going up to the rings, walking around and then disappearing again. You could just see strong high walls with colorful flags atop square towers, but the shimmering made everything indistinct. The towers were quite a way off.

  If it tried very hard, the creature could make out twoleggers walking to and fro on the battlements. They looked different from the ones that marched round inspecting the interlocking iron rings. Bet their job was just as boring—and would remain so until some time in the future the air no longer made waves like on a hot summer’s day.

  That was the moment the Strongest One had been waiting for, along with so many others, big and small, two-leggers and many-leggers, screech-phantoms and soul-rippers alike—and the kordrion, of course. Even the Strongest One was afraid of the kordrion—the flying horror was obeyed by all.

  When the shimmering stopped a new empire would open up, the Strongest One had told them. There’d be delicious fresh meat and rich pickings for all. The Strongest One before the Strongest One had promised that as well. And the one before that, the Strongest Ever, had said the same.

  The creature didn’t believe it any longer, but wasn’t going to let on. You died soon enough if you stepped out of line. A single life was nothing—the Strongest One had thousands of nameless foot soldiers at his beck and call.

  Another pebble was chucked, half-heartedly. The large brown beetle crawling out of its rocky hiding place was really much more interesting.

  Moving swiftly, the creature grabbed the beetle, pulled off the poisonous mandibles and sucked out the entrails, which tasted of rotten wanko berries. There was a lot of satisfied chewing. The empty beetle case was discarded and the creature bent down. Where had the pebble fallen this time?

  Long fingers searching the ground found—nothing.

  Curiosity now aroused, it lifted its head and saw the small stone lying out in the sunshine.

  Snorting in disbelief, the creature got up and stared: The shimmering had stopped.

  It hardly dared to move. Its whole body was tingling. Its nostrils widened to catch new scents. For the first time you could smell the land on the other side without the stupid filte
r: Flesh, iron, dust, stone—the smells of excitingly different things in your nose. Freedom! Booty! Meat! And untold treasure!

  Looking back at the entrance to the underground empire of the Strongest One and the kordrion, the creature knew it had to make its report as quickly as anything, but… It turned its narrow head again, long pointed ears erect. Why not take another look before anyone else turned up? What was the world out there going to look like without that shimmer effect? Might there be some rich pickings to secure for personal use?

  You’d have to inspect it properly, or your report wouldn’t be accurate. There was a big chance they’d call you a liar if your description wasn’t specific enough. Liars got treated the same way as the ones who stepped out of line. A very good reason for not racing off to the Strongest One’s lair in the abyss, quite apart from the rich-pickings possibility.

  Carefully, one step at a time. Here’s the edge of the rocks now, and then out into the sunshine.

  Any hope of a bit of secret pillaging died a death. Those fortress walls couldn’t possibly be scaled. The Strongest One’s help would be needed there. The kordrion’s, too. Tough… Without the distortion caused by the shimmering those square towers appeared even more invulnerable than ever. The creature’s dreams of rich pickings and fresh meat faded fast. The stonemason’s art up there—you wouldn’t get that type of thing back home.

  But the creature’s approach had been noted. Vast numbers of weapons were heard rattling. Shouts came from the battlements. Then the dread sound of alarm horns.

  This was scary. Best duck down!

  Still trying to get a good look at all the colors and the patterns on the banners, the creature turned tail and made for the rocks—but a hefty blow on the back hurled it to the ground. The sword slipped out of its grasp.

  It could scarcely breathe. It spat and saw its own green blood! But then the pain flooded through from the wound.

  Yowling and whimpering by turns, it clutched at a thin wooden shaft sticking in its back.

  From the right-hand side something came hissing, striking the creature in the face, shattering the upper jaw and adding to the torture. The howls grew louder and stopped, suddenly, when a dozen arrows whirred in from all directions.

  One arm pierced and anchored to the flank, the creature dragged itself steadfastly on, groaning and spluttering. The Strongest One must get the report and avenge the death. Let the storm break!

  Once back in the shadow of the rocks, past the place where the air normally shimmered, everything felt safer. Now the report would be made!

  All at once the smell in the air changed.

  In spite of all the blood and the mashed nose, you could sense it clearly: It was the smell you got just before a thunderstorm. Invisible energy was gathering, crackling all around.

  Shrieking in terror, the creature clutched at the floor of dust and ground-up bones, trying to get a hold to pull itself forward…

  The magic sphere flared into being once more, cutting the creature in half at the hips.

  One last ghastly scream escaped its throat before it died; the legs convulsed for a time before falling still.

  “Praise and thanks to Vraccas! The shield is up again!” Boïndil Doubleblade, known by friends and enemies alike as Ireheart on account of his ungovernable rage in combat, had observed the fate of the thin-armed creature. Putting the telescope down on the stone parapet, he watched the glittering shield that enclosed the Black Abyss. “The artifact seems to be running out of power.” He turned a quizzical gaze on Goda. “Can you tell me anything about that?”

  He was standing with his beloved consort on the north tower of Evildam, which had defended these parts for the past two hundred and twenty-one cycles.

  Built by dwarves, undergroundlings, ubariu and humans, the four walls of the fortress formed a square thirty paces high and, at the widest points, over fifteen paces thick round the Black Abyss. The structure was simple in form but masterful in execution. The cooperation of the various participators had ensured the creation of something unique, even if the dwarves’ contribution had been the greatest part. Ireheart was proud of it. The runes on the towers praised Vraccas, Ubar and Palandiell.

  Catapults installed on the broad walkways, the towers and the levels beneath the roofed platforms could launch stones, arrows and spears when needed; there were enough missiles in store to contend even with attackers outnumbering them by many hundreds to one. A garrison of two thousand warriors manned the defenses of Evildam, ready to take up arms and fight back dark armies.

  But for two hundred and twenty-one cycles this had never been necessary.

  The creature that lay there in its own blood was the first ever to leave the prison: A dark cleft half a mile long and a hundred paces wide was a blemish on the surrounding landscape and marked where evil would emerge if the magic barrier and the fortress allowed it.

  Goda turned to her warrior husband—a sturdy secondling dwarf with such a reputation and so much combat experience behind him that he had been appointed commander of the fortress. She tilted her head to one side; dark blond hair poked out from under her cap.

  “Are you afraid the shield won’t hold, or are you hoping it won’t?” In contrast to Ireheart, who was sporting a chain-mail shirt reinforced with iron plates, she wore a long light gray dress, simple and unadorned apart from the gold thread embroidering the belt. Goda wasn’t even carrying a dagger, showing plainly that she eschewed conventional fighting. Her arsenal was a magic one.

  “Oh, I’m not afraid of what’s out there in the Black Abyss! It can’t be any worse than what’s abroad in Girdlegard,” he growled, pretending to be offended as he stroked his thick black beard, now exhibiting its fair share of silvery gray. It was a sign of his advanced age. But really he was in the prime of life. Ireheart gave his wife a sad little smile. “And I’ve never given up hope from the day he went to the other side.” He turned his head back to gaze at the entrance to the Black Abyss, over behind the shield. “That’s why I’m waiting here. By Vraccas, if I could only glimpse him behind that shield, I’d be off like a shot to help! With all the strength at my disposal.” He slammed both fists down on the top of the wall.

  Goda looked over at the artifact with its impenetrable sphere enclosing the abyss. The artifact stood at the entrance to the Black Abyss and was composed of four interlocking vertical iron rings which formed a kind of ball with a diameter of twenty paces. The metal circles showed runes, signs, notches and marks; horizontal reinforcements connected to the central point where there was a fixture decorated with symbols. And it was there that its power was to be found: It drew its strength from a diamond in which enormous amounts of magic energy were stored.

  But the stone was developing defects; each orbit would bring yet another fissure. When that happened you could hear the cracking sound echo from the fortress walls. All the soldiers were aware of it.

  “I can’t say how much more it can take,” Goda told him quietly, her brows knitted in concern. “It could give at any moment or it could last for many cycles yet.”

  Ireheart sighed and nodded to the guards passing on their rounds. “How do you mean?” he growled, rubbing the shaved sides of his head. Then he adjusted the plait of dark hair that hung down the length of his back. It was showing just as much silver now as the beard. “Can’t you be more specific?”

  “I can only repeat what I always say when you ask that, husband: I don’t know.” She didn’t take his unfriendly tone amiss because she knew it stemmed from worry. Over two hundred and fifty cycles of worry. “Perhaps Lot-Ionan could have given you a better answer.”

  Ireheart’s laugh was short, humorless and harsh. “I know what he’d give me if we met now. I expect it would be an extermination spell right between the eyes.” He picked up and shouldered his crow’s beak, the one his twin brother Boëndal Hookhand had once carried into battle. He made his way along the walkway. He used his twin’s long-handled weapon in honor of his memory: It had a heavy flat hamme
r head on the one side and a curved spike on the other, the length of your arm. No armor could withstand a crow’s beak wielded by a dwarf.

  Goda followed him. Time to do the rounds.

  “Did you ever think we would spend so long here in the Outer Lands?” he asked her pensively.

  “No more than I ever thought things in Girdlegard could change like they have,” she replied. Goda was surprised by her companion’s thoughtful mood. The two of them had forged the iron band together many cycles before.

  Their love had provided them with seven children: Two girls and five sons. The artifact had not objected to its keeper no longer being a virgin, as long as her soul was still pure. Goda had retained this innocence of spirit. Nothing dark had entered her mind. She had remained free of deceit, trickery and power lust.

  The fact that she had abandoned Lot-Ionan made this very clear. Many others had remained with him. She had gained herself a powerful enemy by leaving him. “Don’t you think it’s time to go back and support them? You know they’ve been waiting for you. Waiting for the last great dwarf-hero from the glorious cycles.”

  “Go back and leave you alone, when the artifact may burst at any moment? Give up command of the fortress?” Ireheart shook his head violently. “Never! If monsters and fiends come pouring out of the Black Abyss I’ve got to be here to hold them back, together with you and our children and my warriors.” He put his arm round her shoulder. “If this evil were to flood over into Girdlegard there would be no hope at all anymore. For no one, whatever race they belong to.”

  “Why stop Boëndalin going back to our people? He could go in your place,” she urged him gently. “At least it would give the children of the Smith a signal…”

  “Boëndalin is too good a fighter to be spared,” he interrupted her. “I need him to train the troops.” Ireheart’s eyes grew hard. “None of my sons and daughters shall leave my side until we’ve closed up the Black Abyss for all time and filled it up with molten steel.”

 
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