—by Douglas Seacat
(This story first appeared in Gaming Frontiers magazine.)
The lurker scurried up the wall, clawed gloves finding purchase between packed stones, his spiked boots doing the same. He leapt atop the roof with little noise, and hunkered down into the shadows, his dark garments blending into the surface easily. He was a lean dwarf, but had wiry strength. He crept to the edge and peered over, then got comfortable against the nearby chimney. From here he had good vantage on the back gates of the nearby fortress, which opened onto a narrow alleyway. He settled himself down for a long watch, and rummaged in his rags to find an apple he'd stowed for breakfast.
He almost dropped it when the back gates opened with a bang, and dwarves poured forth. They were followed by oxen pulling heavily laden wagons. A great number marched forth into the alley then turned northward. All armored in heavy, riveted plate, their boots clanking on the stones, some had long powerful rifles held on their shoulders. The lurker watched them go and counted.
Golrick snapped his thick fingers and pointed to the window, fidgeting impatiently. His servant unlatched the brake-pads on the wheels, turned the heavy throne-like contrivance on a pivot, then leaned into it to push it toward the window. The throne was heavy, but the wheels glided smoothly across the polished tiles. Golrick's useless legs, atrophied and shrunken, were concealed beneath blankets on his lap. The wheeled throne was his only means of locomotion, as he was decades too old to support himself with crutches.
Despite this handicap, he was a proud dwarf and his bearing was regal. His hair was pure grey, as was his long braided beard. He insisted on wearing a shining mail shirt, despite the weight and the fact that it looked peculiar with blankets on his lap.
On each window of his room was a long apparatus affixed with lenses, perched on rods with swivel joints. He peered through this onto the city, scanning the rooftops, the narrow alleys, the buildings packed closely together, the towers rising into the air. He smiled at the sight, good dwarven building all of it, of various clan design, decorated sparsely and with clean lines. This was Ghord, greatest city of Rhul, and thus greatest of all cities. Golrick's hand had played its role in a number of those buildings. He knew them like he knew his own bones. He was Master Builder of Clan Dorgun, and he had bled life into the stones of this city for over two hundred years.
He whispered, "How long before we build again?" It was a question voiced behind his back, in the halls, and by all the dwarves in his command. It had been years since Clan Dorgun had laid foundation to a new building. Their status in the Moot had slipped, their proud heritage was in question. All by his command. Golrick tapped the windowsill thoughtfully, frowning.
He did not turn at the sound of a soldier's boots entering the map-room, the clank of a rifle butt striking the floor in salute. "Master Builder Golrick, Lord Dorgun summons you."
"Does he now?" There was humor in his voice.
With another snap, he pointed to the door, and his servant moved into action, turning the wheeled throne and pushing it toward the door. The guard stepped out of the way with a short bow.
Outside of the room a polished metal pole was firmly bracketed into the wall. This pole ran the length of the hall into the distance toward the battlements of the fortress. At the terminus of the pole near the doorway was a complex engine set on wheels with two metal prongs near the floor. The device had two arms extended up to the pole, cupped over the top of the rail like hands.
Golrick's servant and the guard worked a variety of locks on the base of the throne, removing the chair from the wheeled base and lifting it in tandem, bringing it down to slide onto the prongs. Clasps were adjusted, and the throne secured onto the device. The servant drew a metal rod from his belt and twisted the end, causing a flame to light at its tip. Upon inserting this into an open panel, there was the sound of fire catching. Soon the mechanism began chugging in earnest, as smoke and a white plume of steam rose from different pipes on the back. The entire throne vibrated as the clanking increased in tempo.
Golrick waved forward and the servant engaged the gears, sending the whole contraption into motion. Golrick was pressed into his chair as the mechanism accelerated along the railing, moving down the hall. The door at the end banged open, and the chair proceeded out along the battlement, circling sharply down and around the inner courtyard, toward a side-hall enroute to the main hall. Golrick squinted against the sun and the wind in his eyes, but in truth he enjoyed the ride, as always. He also enjoyed watching guards and servants leap out of the way of the passing chair, barely alerted by the noise. He groped for the braking lever as the chair rolled smoothly into the main hall, pulling to an abrupt halt not ten feet from Lord Rolgor Dorgun. One of the nearby guards, well used to such appearances, bent to the back of the machine, disengaging the gears and reducing the clatter.
Golrick bowed his head to the young clan leader. Rolgor had come into his position just four years prior, at the unfortunate death of his father. To Golrick's venerable gaze, Rolgor still had his baby-fat, his short beard barely long enough to tie into a few simple braids. He wore the garments of a clan lord, but the heavy iron circlet sat somewhat awkwardly on his brow. The young lord was not surprised at the sudden entrance of the Master Builder on his railed throne. He smiled in welcome and held up a sheet of parchment, covered in runic script and stamped in colored ink at the bottom. "A contract! We have a building contract, exclusive for Clan Dorgun."
Golrick scowled and took the contract, scanning it quickly. With a snort he ripped it in half and let the pieces of paper fall to the floor.
The young lord stared at the falling strips in disbelief, "That was a good contract, Master Golrick! Morale has been poor of late. The men want to be about some work."
Golrick sighed, "I know well how the morale is, my Lord. That is not a good contract. it was a death warrant. This is not the time."
"Death warrant? It was by Felson Clans Federation, work to be done on a plot just south of here..."
"And how do you think that contract came into our hands, boy?" Golrick saw the nearby guards wince at this breach in protocol, but none made a move to correct the Master Builder, "Your father was rash. A good man, may the Great Fathers protect him, but impatient. He angered two rich clans into feud, when we couldn't afford conflict with even one. That contract comes as a gift from your enemies, my lord. The moment we sent men forth to that plot to start building, we'd leave our defenses open here."
The young lord frowned skeptically, "So you have said before. Must we be paralyzed forever? If so we have lost already. We must take a contract some day, start some new project, or our clan is dead!"
"We move when the time is right, not before. Need I bring you to my tower again? Show you through my lenses where the spies are? How they watch our walls for movement? We have not been attacked in months, but only for keeping defenses strong. Patience is required, not brashness."
Before the lord could respond, the hall doors swung open and two clan guards stepped in, stopping to bow, fists at their chests. Between them was a thin dwarf dressed in dark rags, wearing clawed gloves and with spiked boots clanking on the stones of the hall.
The lord looked away from the ragged dwarf in disdain, glancing at the Master Builder. "It appears your lurker has news." He stepped away toward a nearby table, as if in thought, clearly not wishing to address the grimy figure himself.
Golrick leaned forward on his throne, "Brand, what news?"
The lurker was excited, out of breath from haste, and still wearing his gear. Golrick knew he'd never have considered pushing into the hall of the clan lord if he didn't have important information. "It is Clan Lurgin, Master. They are on the move! The main of their force is out the back gates!"
Lord Rolgar Dorgun turned around, "On the move here? To attack?"
"No, away, with wagons bearing stone, cranes, lumber, defense engines. They're off to work. Looked like forty strong, maybe fifty. All armed, mostly hammers, swords, axes, crossbows. A dozen with heavy rifles, saw as many pistols too. They're ready for trouble. But rigged for work. Didn't see their destination, but looked like they went north on the Tarrow Road."
Golrick grinned, fists tightening on the armrests, mulling over the possibilities. "Probably to Geldin Hill, had heard there were some plots there being contracted. They were in a hurry too?" Brand nodded, and the Master Builder laughed, "Trying to stake a claim before someone else could. Bold move, bold move. They have no feuds but us at the moment, and all has been quiet long enough to lull them. And with fifty men, they can hold the plot."
Golrick exchanged a brief look with the young lord, who came more fully about, surprised at the excitement in the old man's face. "What does this mean, Golrick?"
"This means it's time." The old dwarf laughed again, "It's time to move. I knew the chance would come, just not so soon."
"Three years does not seem soon to me," the lord remarked, but mildly. "You think we should try for the plot? Fifty, armed like that, that's trouble. We would lose many men."
"Not the plot, no. Cudor! Where is Cudor?" Golrick bellowed out the open door past the guards. One of them turned and ran off, picking up the cry. Momentarily he returned, a stout older dwarf in plate armor at his side, bearing a double-bladed axe, vambraces and greaves inscribed with the patterns of rank.
This dwarf bowed deeply, "Yes, Master Builder?"
"Cudor, bring to me fifteen champions, the best pick from the north wall, eastern tower, inner watch, and the long gate. Bring those not presently on duty, and quietly. Tell the watch captains to impose a double-shift on those standing now, with double-pay to soothe their grumbling."
Cudor turned to go, but hesitated when the clan lord asked, "What good are fifteen going to do us against fifty, even armed to the teeth? And how are we to legally contest a contracted plot we've not even heard of before today? Or are we just going to try to sabotage their efforts? A raid?"
Golrick shook his head, "We're not going near that plot, my lord. We're sending our skirmishers to Mithran Tower. They've left it open, it will be ours."
The lord blinked in surprise, and swallowed, realizing again he was out of his depth. "Mithran Tower? What a coup that would be. My father's people put much blood and sweat into those stones."
Golrick nodded slowly. Construction of Mithran Tower had started the feud with Clan Lurgin in the first place. The tower falling to their hands had chafed the dead lord worse than any dispute in recent history. "Regaining the tower is also practical. It will give us higher ground, where we can station men to provide cover for stonework on the Dillvale plots."
The dream of building shined in the eyes of the young lord, Cudor, and the old master alike. Yet still doubt showed in Lord Dorgun's eyes, "That tower is very defensible, even if they've sent most their men afield."
Golrick chuckled, "We will not need take the tower by force, I promise." He turned to Cudor, "Fifteen loud dwarves, arm them well, and tell them to make much noise. They will march from the gates up Barter Road and let all know they go to reclaim Mithran Tower in the name of Clan Dorgun. Cudor, you will lead them. Use what force you must, and let none stand in your way."
Cudor nodded eagerly and turned to go, but Golrick stopped him once more. "Take Buren with you as one of the fifteen. He will be eager to join. Tell him he'll get the chance to fight Lurgin. You'll find him drinking, I'd think, or arguing with that pretty wife of his."
Cudor grinned at this, "Buren? With him at our side I pity our enemies." The veteran bowed deeply, then strode from the hall, his steps more confident than before.
Lord Dorgun looked at Golrick with a mix of confusion and awe, "I have no idea how you expect to do this."
Golrick gave him a long look, "I know." He waved the almost forgotten lurker closer, and handed him a pouch of coins." We need to send word to a Judge Arbiter of the Moot, and let him know a brawl has erupted on Barter Road. Make no mention of my having sent you."
The typically busy intersection had frozen to a silent pause, as word spread among the dwarves to take alternate routes than these stone-cobbled paths. Dwarven men and women watched from the cover of nearby buildings and no one spoke for fear of showing favor to one side or the other. A quick barricade had formed across the east intersection comprised of wagons, ore carts, and bags of sand. Behind the barricade, two dozen dwarves hunkered down over their crossbows, keeping to cover, helms gleaming. At their sides were axes and hammers, ready to be put to work. On their arms were the sashes of Clan Lurgin.
This hastily cobbled together and poorly armed group was looking fearfully past the intersection to where just over a dozen dwarves of Dorgun were assembled, some keeping behind the cover of a huge statue which took up the center of the street. Others were taking cover in recessed doorways of the nearby buildings, rifles at the ready. These dwarves all bore huge tower shields, almost as tall as themselves, and by overlapping their edges they formed a shield-wall. Several wounded dwarves bled in the space between the two groups, and others had been dragged off to one side to be attended by grim shaven-headed clan chaplains.
Cudor hunkered behind his shield and watched the opposite camp for movement. He glanced behind him and saw Buren, the guild weapons-master, sitting almost casually behind a nearby statue, which blocked the foe from him. The dwarf seemed relaxed and entirely uninterested in the stand-off. "Buren, you going to help us or take a nap? Draw that pistol of yours and pick a target!"
Buren just sneered, "I didn't come here to take pot-shots at a barricade. Call me when the real fight begins." Cudor just shook his head, turning away. He sighted down the barrel of his rifle, which was steadied in the diagonal gun-notch of his tower shield. He scanned the barrier across the way, murmuring under his breath, "What a shame, these Lurgin boys seem to have loaned all their guns away..." There was laughter from the dwarves around him.
He saw the gleam of a helmet poking above the sand bags and took his shot. The sound of the rifle was loud in the stillness, and the bullet punched through the helmet with a puff of blood like smoke. There was the sound of a body rolling back, followed by cries of dismay. "Nice shot Cudor, for an old man!" the dwarf to the leader's left clapped his shoulder. Both ducked as crossbow bolts sunk into their shields. Cudor opened the rifle breech to clean and reload, fumbling at the satchel of wrapped alchemical charges at his waist.
From the northern intersection a single dwarf strode into the center, heedless of his danger. He wore a robe of dark metal plates, and walked with an ornate heavy staff carved with runes. A silver skullcap was upon his brow and his eyes were fierce. His beard was long and braided. Whispers from both sides could be heard, "Hold your fire, it's a Judge-Arbiter! Lower your weapons!"
The Judge spoke loudly, "What is this strife that puts a halt to the traffic and important work that should be happening on this road? What is the meaning of this blood on our stones? Do I see the colors of Dorgun and Lurgin?"
A stout dwarf with scarred arms stood from behind the barricade and stepped forward, speaking clearly. "I am Kuln, son of Kolorn. Clan Lurgin is simply defending itself, Your Honor. We got word Clan Dorgun was on the move to unlawfully attack Mithran Tower and try to seize it like the rogues they are. We are here only to protect what is ours."
The leader of the Dorgun shield-men stepped from behind the fountain. "I am Cudor, son of Culdorr. Clan Dorgun moves to claim Mithran Hall per our old feud with Lurgin. We helped build that hall a hundred years ago, yet they have spit on our work. The names of our forefathers who laid hammer to stone are nowhere to be seen inscribed on the walls, as they should be. Lurgin has dishonored us, and the hall, and forfeited their right to it. We have lawful claim!"
"Be silent now," the Judge commanded, "I will not have lawless brawls in my street! Both clans, send from your ranks five champions to fight in your stead. Come stand here before me with your Dispute-Champions and let us be done with this nonsense."
After some discussion five burly dwarves stepped from the barricade, weapons at the ready, adjusting their armor. "We stand for Clan Lurgin!" As one they raised fists to their chests and bowed to the Judge. Buren finally took an interest. He stood and muttered, "Stay back boys." The Lurgin champions watched as the very large dwarf stepped forth. He was holding a great hammer, wearing fine armor, with a heavy pistol at his waist. Buren stroked his red beard and his eyes danced when he laughed, making him appear more than a little mad. He rested his gauntlets upon his hammer and stared evenly at the Judge.
"And where are your other four Dispute-Champions, Clan Dorgun? Are there no others brave enough among you to step forth?"
There was muttering among Cudor's men, and several made to step forward, but the red-bearded one waved them back. "I am Buren of Clan Dorgun, and I will stand alone. We have no need of five heroes to match that sorry crew." He sneered at the five warriors before him, and there was much dark muttering. "If I should fall, then my kin will step forward, but I am not worried."
"So be it. Step forward, Buren, and you." He pointed at the first of the opposing Dispute-Heroes, and they stepped to face each other.
Buren was as good as his claim. He stood still as he faced the first man, who shifted uneasily from foot to foot. The Lurgin dwarf stepped forward to test his foe's defenses, but Buren moved with deadly speed, bringing his hammer about and down in a blur. His opponent fell to the earth in that single blow, his skull shattered under the mighty hammer, helm and all. His lifeless body was pulled away to make room for the second champion of Lurgin. Buren didn't even wait for this man to charge, his hammer whistling in a circle to shatter the dwarf's shield and slamming into the side of his head with a meaty sound, sending him down to the pavement. A gasp went up from the onlookers who had now gathered, made brave enough to leave their shelter at the sight of the Judge.
The third opponent gave a better fight, darting and weaving with a knife in each hand. He danced under the hammer and managed to slide a dagger into Buren's leg with a spray of blood. The red-bearded dwarf winced but did not seem much hindered. His next swing sent that man flying half way across the street to land unmoving. The fourth champion seemed to think loudness and courage would aid him where skill had not. He screamed a warcry "For Lurgin!" and ran at Buren, axe over his head. Buren laughed and stepped aside of the blow, letting it wedge between two cobblestones, then yanked his hammer up along the shaft, breaking his foe's arm. Buren's next swing buried the hammer's long point – opposite the blunt end – into the dwarf's temple. His adversary's eyes glazed over and he screamed no more.
Blood coursed down Buren's leg, but his bright eyes were happy and mad, as he limped to face the fifth and last of the Lurgin champions. This warrior looked at the bodies of his kinsmen on the ground, shattered and broken, and his hands trembled visibly on the sword he held. He gave a low moan as Buren limped toward him, and raised up his shield, backing rapidly away in terror. The crowd parted behind him, trying to stay out of harm's way.
"Stand and fight me, coward!" Buren roared. An older dwarf in the crowd had apparently seen enough of fleeing, and promptly pushed the Lurgin champion back toward the fight with surprising strength. The man stumbled but kept his shield before him, moving blindly toward the red-bearded hero. Buren swept the dwarf's legs from under him, then finished the fight with a powerful swing over the lip of the shield and onto the dwarf's bare crown. The crowd cheered and was still.
Buren surveyed the bodies with a grim smile, and dropped a heavy coin on each of them, then turned and bowed to his kinsmen.
The Judge nodded, "Clan Dorgun wins the day. My judgement goes to them. Clan Lurgin is to vacate Mithran Hall without pause. The Hall belongs to Lurgin no more. So I have spoken, let it be done."
Kuln protested, "This is not right! I demand judgement before the Moot! We had to throw our men together quickly; we did not anticipate one such as Buren among them. We had to rush here with all speed to defend ourselves."
The Judge was not moved, "Next time consider who you bring to defend your clan, Kuln. Clan Dorgun wins the day. We can discuss this at the next Moot, but for now you must vacate as I have ordered, or I will send the Mootguard to remove you."
With that, both sides put down their weapons. Clan Dorgun gave out a great cheer, while Clan Lurgin walked in dejected defeat toward their family compound. None could gainsay a Judge-Arbiter, but Kuln vowed he would seek justice in the Moot, and that their feud had not seen its last battle this day. Buren was lifted on the shoulders of his peers, and Cudor promised to buy them all drinks as soon as they returned with the news.
Meanwhile, atop the tower of the fortress of Clan Dorgun, Golrick's eye was pressed to the lens of his viewing apparatus. He observed the cheering and leaping men of his clan. He smiled and nodded, forgetting for a moment the long decades that had taken their toll; his withered legs, the throne that imprisoned him. The Master Builder felt young again, and he spoke to himself with satisfaction, "It begins again."