The Revenge of the DwarvesMarkus Heitz
Translated by Sheelagh Alabaster
Table of Contents
A Preview of THE FATE OF THE DWARVES
The Third I dedicate to those who read my dedication without the dedication you have shown, its sister volumes would have stood alone
“Impressive height or exceptional length of a limb is not the be all and end all of a creature. What I say is: the taller you are, the more likely you are to get hit!”
—Boïndil “Ireheart,” Doubleblade of the Firstling Clan of the Swinging Axes
“Now and then you hear malicious remarks about dwarves. They are said to be of inferior build, to be cranky, to have a weird sense of humor; it is told that they only drink beer that is as black as night and are not able to appreciate music unless a hundred voices are bellowing in unison. But I say: only when you have been a guest in their majestic halls, as once I was, should you have the right to pronounce on these rumors and confirm them all to be true. Let us not laugh at them as if they were lovable children with long beards, but, on the contrary, let us praise the magnificent way they have preserved all of us from total destruction. More than once.”
—Excerpts from the ten-volume work My Life and Uniquely Heroic Exploits—the memoirs of the Incredible Rodario
“Ih did aforetimes ask a dwerff as what, other than such dwerff, he fain had byn born. Ih offert the chois of myghtie draggon, all seeing magus or his own god vraccas. He did look at me in wonder and did shayk his hed, saying: ye myghtie draggons were perforce slain by a dwerff, syns draggons are no more; ye all seeing magus lykewyse was vanquysht by a dwerff, syns he is no more. And vraccas neyther schal ih be, for ther be no thing left to mak, better than his dwerffis.”
—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 4299th solar cycle
Gray Range on the border of the Fifthling Kingdom,
Spring, 6234th Solar Cycle
Gronsha stood still, listening intently in the swirling fog that his yellow eyes were quite unable to penetrate, though he was one of the finest scouts in Prince Ushnart’s army. To tell the truth, he was one of only three scouts still left to Prince Ushnart. The others who had set off to reconnoiter for the Prince now lay at the Stone Gate, their heads struck clean from their shoulders.
He could hear footsteps. Many footsteps.
Swiftly he grabbed hold of his jagged two-handed sword, ready to wield it. He and his troop had made the fatal error of being over-confident when they had left the Subterranean Kingdom by way of the Stone Gate and seen the enemy recoiling before their superior numbers. And now the Bearded Ones were clinging to their heels as tenaciously as gnome excrement sticks to your boots.
Not that he was frightened of the Groundlings. Black Water, blood of the Perished Lands, flowed now in his veins and rendered him immortal. Unless, of course, someone were to strike his head clean off his shoulders.
But the enemy, unfortunately, were very good at that: even their stunted physique was no handicap there.
If they couldn’t reach the neck with their axes, they would slice at the legs. An opponent sunk to his knees was easy to decapitate.
In the Groundlings’ northern kingdom, a place thought more or less deserted, they had come upon an unexpectedly large enemy band. He and his two fellow scouts, facing defeat, had chosen to turn tail, heading back to the Outer Lands. Maybe they could locate another escape route back to Prince Ushnart’s camp to warn him about the Groundlings; could they manage to find an exit that did not involve a battle with a horde of ax-wielding warriors?
In the Outer Lands, it was said, it was his own tribe that reigned—the orcs. So far he had not come across any, but he wouldn’t object to a little support.
“It’s steamy as wash-day. You can’t see a thing in this fog,” he overheard one of the Groundlings complain. It was essential for any self-respecting scout that he be able to understand the language spoken by the enemy.
“You’d think the wretched fog itself was wanting to help the swine.”
Gronsha objected to the term swine—it was an insult indeed to be called a pig by that barrel-sized runt of a creature. Pigs were all right to eat, but they were nothing much to look at. And he, after all, was well built, twice the size of one of those Beard-Faces. Instinctively he tensed his muscles in anger. This made his armor grate against the rock behind, signaling his whereabouts to the dwarves.
They’d heard it.
“Ah, we’ve got him.”
Oh no, you haven’t, Beard-Face. Gronsha sprinted away to shake off his pursuers, but again the dull metallic clank betrayed him.
He’d no idea how far he’d gone or in which direction he’d been running. And where on earth were his companions?
He only knew that it was dark all around him. Was he in a cave? He pressed up against the nearest wall, holding his breath to listen out for the enemy.
“Halt!” one of them ordered, quite close. He could hear the creak of boots as his pursuer stood still. “Can you hear him?”
Gronsha gave an evil grin. So the Groundlings were as helpless in this fog as he was himself.
Carefully he sniffed the air, noting his opponent’s position by the unmistakable smell. He moved off, sword raised in his two hands above his head, ready to strike: he could split the creature in two with a single blow.
“Boïndil?”—he heard the voice of the Groundling querying his approach. A stocky shadowy figure emerged from the fog, and Gronsha launched his attack, sure of his target.
“Aha, so somebody’s listening to me, at least,” said the dwarf, stepping neatly to one side and wielding his own weapon in his turn. The ax-blade slashed into Gronsha’s right buttock. He let out a yell and disappeared into the wall of fog.
This was no way to fight. This was not the type of encounter he enjoyed.
This accursed fog.
He decided to retreat rather than stumble around hoping for a chance hit before one of them managed to strike him again.
The wound on his backside was quickly closing up. The Black Immortality draught that he had been taking would heal him instantaneously, though the cut had been in a sensitive and undignified area. Typical of those devious Groundlings. They would always avoid honorable combat and sneak off and hide in their strongholds and caves.
Gronsha turned and headed back through the thick mist. Behind him he heard the screams of a dying orc, felled by a Groundling. The ghastly sound curdled his blood.
He caught sight of a small figure backing into view through the mist. Without pause for thought he raised his weapon and smashed the blade right down on the enemy’s helmet. Death struck so fast that not a single cry was uttered. Blood sprayed out on all sides.
Gronsha was not yet satisfied. “You scummy rockslime worm. I’ll cut you to ribbons!” He hacked away at the corpse in a blind rage, oblivious to the din. Laughing, he severed the bearded head and booted it off into the fog: this was his way to take revenge. His victim’s helmet and shield he took with him. They would serve him well.
As he lifted the shield the next dwarf rushed up ready to kill. “Here!” the dwarf shouted, ax upraised. “Here he is. This way!”
“Damnable maggot,” croaked Gronsha, taking the blow on his shield. The blade skidded over the edge of the metal, hitting him on the shoulder. The thick layer of lard on his body armor, designed to foil enemy weapons, had failed him this time.
back, but his adversaries were attacking from all sides. Running straight ahead he crashed against a rough granite wall that tore at his skin as he slid along it.
His discovery of the wall was no real help. He felt he was going round in circles. The enveloping mist allowed no escape and seemed to be mocking him as it imprisoned him in the swirling darkness. The combat zone for him and the Groundlings must be a cave with many interconnecting tunnels.
His shoulders throbbed and burned. The Black Immortality healed him fast but even so the pain was intense. He attempted a cautious movement of his arm, which obeyed him dutifully. Gronsha would have to rely on that arm because his enemies were still at large.
He could smell their presence despite the hateful damp cold gray vapor that was like a blindfold on his eyes. The further in you ventured, the less you could hear in this fog. Even his own armor had ceased to give off any sound. He was swathed in a cold damp blanket of the stuff.
Those other caves, the ones in the land of Toboribor, Realm of the Orcs to the southwest of Girdlegard, were always warm and dry: you could move about unhampered. This cavern was the exact opposite: cold, eerie and forbidding.
The gray veils swirled about wildly, making him think there were Groundlings on all sides about to attack as he felt his way along the wall searching for an exit. Three times he was fooled by his imagination and stabbed furiously at empty air.
At last Tion and Samusin, the gods of his people, took pity on him and showed him a way out—a black opening in the rock wall.
All at once a Groundling was in his path, jumping out at him from the fog and wielding a deadly ax. “Perish, fiend!”
This time Gronsha was ready for him, parrying the blow and kicking his attacker in the face so that the dwarf lurched back into the wall of mist, spitting blood and teeth. “You shall die first, rock-louse!”
Time to apply some trickery. Gronsha squatted down low, put the battered dwarf helmet on his head, took up the captured shield and altered his voice as he lurched from side to side, gurgling in desperation. “Help! He’s done for me.” He groaned and whimpered. “For the sake of Vraccas, friends, come to my aid!”
“Bendagar? Are you injured?”
“My leg,” moaned Gronsha, battling with the urge to laugh. This was no time for laughter—not yet.
“Hold on, we’re coming,” he heard the Groundling’s comrade call. The dwarf’s outline appeared in the fog. “Mind you keep quiet. There’s another of those snout-faces round here somewhere. He—”
Gronsha did not wait. He thrust the sword tip violently through the chain mail and into the belly of his enemy. “Well, well, Beard-Face, you don’t say?” His laugh was full of malice as he twisted the blade. The dwarf groaned and tried to strike at him but Gronsha fended off the blow, grabbing the ax handle and forcing it out of the weakening grasp of the other. “Bite on your own blade,” he growled, slicing into the bearded face.
The Groundling sank back into the wall of fog. This time forever.
Gronsha leaped over the body and raced into the swirling mist of the tunnels through which he hoped to make his escape.
It was a leap into the unknown and nothing like the sort of exploring he was used to.
He was aware of a feeling of great unease. I am in the Outer Lands, he thought, quaking with fear but unable to name the source of his terror.
In Toboribor there were legends about the mighty territories of the orcs. One place alone was as big as the whole of Girdlegard and could sustain a vast population of orcs—more orcs than there were stars in the heavens.
He thought the myths were exaggerated. But still, there must be orcs in the Outer Lands. Many thousands of solar cycles ago the first and only ever successful raid had started from the north.
Of course it was thanks to his people that the Northern Gateway had been breached. Every orc descendant knew the legend of the glorious orbit that celebrated the victory over the Groundlings. Only orcs had the necessary stamina, strength and courage. Cycle after cycle, the memorable event was honored in Toboribor.
How wonderful, thought Gronsha, to have celebrated the next festival in a conquered dwarf kingdom. And with the severed head of a Groundling to serve as a missile for the shot-put event, the way they used to at the festival commemorating the fall of Girdlegard. The feasts they provided had been enormous; this time he’d certainly have carried off the prize for competitive belching. Instead of enjoying the games, though, there he was, on his own, stuck in the Outer Lands. He had been born in the caves of Toboribor and knew nothing of the land of his forebears. The same as all the orcs in Toboribor.
But it wasn’t just orcs he was hoping to come across; there would be ogres, trolls, älfar and all the other creatures that worshipped the gods Samusin and Tion.
“Those were the days,” he grumbled. Since the defeat of their ally Magus Nôd’onn there was no chance of any more good times for him and Prince Ushnotz, who was wanting to establish a new empire; they were constantly running away from the Red-Bloods, they had no home anymore and the prince was weak and treated them unfairly.
He still didn’t dare to stand up to Ushnotz, to kill him and take over. Others, those with more experience, he was sure, would be getting there first with their plans for a coup. Whoever managed to vanquish the prince would replace him—that was always the way with his people. The best man would take power. So Groshna went on waiting. He was waiting for his chance.
The only good thing about his position was his immortality, granted him by the Black Water. But immortality without power was like a bone with no meat.
Gronsha’s plan was changing, the further he advanced and the more the mist lifted. “Why should I go back and serve Ushnotz at all?” he asked into the empty air, and his words echoed back from the cavern walls. Reflections from the glistening moss gave enough light for his sensitive vision. He could see nearly as well as in bright daylight. His confidence grew. “I’m as good a prince as any.”
Perhaps he would be able to drum up a small band of mercenaries in the Outer Lands and get them to attack the Stone Gate. He and his troopers had managed to inflict substantial damage on the gates before having to retreat; the Groundlings would not be able to secure the gates easily. A few hundred orcs and they’d soon dispense with that puny handful of defenders. He’d have to act quickly and find allies enough to launch an attack before the Groundlings got their repairs underway.
Gronscha grinned. He, the immortal orc, would be the one to take the Groundlings’ stronghold. All he needed were comrades in arms. No point in being choosy. Anything that could hold a weapon would be fine with him. Now he was convinced: it had been Tion’s will that he should go into the Outer Lands.
His eyes picked out a sign on the cave wall. It was a rune, elaborate and strange and revoltingly dwarfish. The shape couldn’t be from the Sharp-Ears.
“Are those confounded bearded boils on this side, too?” cursed Gronsha. He couldn’t work out whether the marks on the stone were recent or had been etched a thousand cycles previously. He would have to be careful.
He carried on, following the tunnel that soon branched into two, and strode along after a moment’s hesitation, taking the passageway that had the slightly warmer air.
Soon the passage fanned out into a dozen corridors. Gronsha was entering a maze.
He marked his chosen path, scratching a large orc rune: two vertical lines with two dots between them. He might need to find his way back. Before long he was faced with the same decision about which direction to take. This happened eight times.
It was deathly quiet.
His footsteps made no sound now; the layer of grease on his armor had melted into the gaps and was lubricating the metal so there was no noise from the plates grating together. You couldn’t even hear a pebble dislodging from the roof, or a drop of water splashing down. In the Outer Lands there was neither sound nor life. Nothing but him and the passageways, sometimes high and wide as barn doors, sometimes as small as a human female
Fear started to take hold of him.
He began to sweat. He was seeing hundreds of shadows surrounding him, then he thought his own shadow was moving when he was standing still. In no time he was so far gone he’d have welcomed even the sound of an orc’s death scream. At least he’d have been able to hear something.
Finally he broke into a run, not knowing what he was running from or running toward. He was so desperate to get away from the silence, he forgot to mark his way. No matter how tired he was, no matter how much time had passed: nothing else was important.
Then the passage opened up into a cavern.
Gronsha stopped on the threshold, gasping, in his left side a piercing pain each time he drew breath. He reckoned the cave was about forty paces long and over a hundred in height. Great shafts of sunlight, wide as tree trunks, fell through. It looked as if they were columns supporting the roof. The bright light cut through the gloom, tearing pale holes in the darkness of the floor.
He stopped short. Bones… heaps of bones. Orc bones!
Either he had found a burial chamber where cowards’ remains were unceremoniously thrown to rot away, or else these caves were home to some creature that was preying on his people for food.
Gronsha took a few careful steps into the cave, went down on one knee and poked around with the tip of his sword in a pile of bones the light had caught.
The bones did indeed show knife marks. Someone had painstakingly scraped off the flesh. They had broken open the larger bones to get at the marrow. Nobody had touched the skulls. He had the distinct impression that these remains were quite fresh.
He breathed out, stood up and tested the air. Perhaps the Groundlings had been, in all senses of the words, the smaller evil.
He strode on across the cavern, instinctively avoiding the patches of light. On the other side he took the next passageway and followed it, his stomach rumbling. All this running around had made him really hungry.