Thursday, 21 March 2013


"I'm sorry," Thang said. The King of Karak Norn went from crimson to maroon in a heartbeat.

"You're what? Sorry? Sorry! You false-bearded, shale-choked barren! You axe-less, run-of-mine sampling! I'll winze your forehead with the spikes of my mug, you robbed-out face!"

Thang ducked as a granite flagon sailed over his head, breaking into chunks against the wall behind him.

"I mean, I am as of yet still-grudged, o great King Regen Gravelbeard, long may your seams give hoist," Thang said, correcting himself hurriedly.

"You spend too much time with the thrice-damned humans!" snarled the king, digging his thick-muscled fingers into the arms of his throne. "Now you're starting to talk like them!"

"It's quite true, sire," Thang said, staying in his impromptu bow. "A miserable state of affairs. But you need an emissary in Axe Bite Pass, and as my fathers all did before me, I serve you in this role."

"You're doing it again. Bringing me... what do they call them? Axe users? Pole orgies?"

"Excuses and apologies, my King," Thang said.

The King's left eye jerked closed for a second in an involuntary spasm. "Gnaaarr," he managed, as it popped open again. "Them. Instead of good news!"

"It cannot be helped. And nor is it my fault, I might add."

"That's better. Stop grovelling and explain. What's happened to Thorgnur?"

"Well, as you know, great King, you sent Lord Blackaxe north of the pass with a full company last month..."

"I bloody know that," roared the King, snapping the left arm clean off his chair. "I was bloody there, you goaf!"

"Hear me out, O great King," Thang said patiently. "Don't choke the canary. I bring the news, not write it." He waited until the King had swallowed his ire again, and dropped the broken piece of throne.

"He sent this missive back with me not two weeks ago," Thang went on, producing the first of a pair of carefully-inscribed stone cylinders. "I was on my way to deliver it to you when his runner caught up to me with this second message. Neither make for cheerful reading, although I don't follow some of the finer points."

"Get on with it, then. Let's hear them."

Thang cleared his throat and read from the first tube. It was written in terse runic shorthand, an urgent message.

"O King stop have located lost hold stop human scholars have dug into upper halls stop suspect Gazarkhame stop marching in haste to sealed lower entrance stop will prevent further breach or shave beard full stop."

Thang stopped, for breath as much as for having finished the first message, and looked cautiously up to see how it had been received. The King was pounding his fist into his forehead repeatedly and gnawing on one of his beard plaits. Thang sighed inwardly. He'd known the news was bad, although he still didn't understand why. This looked even worse than he expected.

"Forgive my ignorance..."

"Gnnnnaaarrr! You're doing it again, you black-damp-blasted butt cleat!"

"...but I have never heard of this Gazarkhame. Surely the finding of a lost hold is glad tidings, not grim?"

"Gazarkhame? Great Grugni's gritty groin!" swore the King. "Grimfork's Folly, we called it! The ancestors weep for its finding! The old coot was madder than mad. We struck his name from every record but the Dammaz Kron.  He was a king and a carver, fine at both. Then the damned Elgi got to him. Turned his mind, raddled him like rats' eggs."

"What mean you, O King?"

"The bloody elves!" bellowed King Regen, leaping up on his throne in a colossal fury. He danced on his iron boots, kicking at the back of the chair until it split. "The whey-faced, plant-loving traitors! Grimfork went a-trading with them, came back a pervert!"

"A pervert?"

"He loved them! Couldn't stop talking about them! Carved them everywhere, and when carvings weren't enough, he started sculpting them! It was indecent! Great forests of his filth everywhere you looked. We sealed the hold and declared it dead. That dirty, dirty dawi!"

King Regen paused, the destruction of his throne almost complete. Suddenly an icy calm descended on him, and he jumped down from the ruin and stalked over to the young emissary.

"You know, he used to go walking in them?" he asked, his bulging eyes inches from Thang's own.

"My King?" asked Thang, confused.  "He went walking in... the elves?"

"ELVES?" screamed Regen. "Who's talking about elves, you bald-chinned sump? If only it had been elves! We could have blamed them for it."

"I thought you did," Thang said, now thoroughly lost.

"Blamed them for it properly! Beaten them into ungrudgedness! But it was worse than elves. Grimfork was mad for a much fouler thing, a thing no Dwarf should be enamoured of, a stain so dark that burying it wasn't enough to blot it out. Grimfork was mad for only one thing, Thang, and it'll freeze your heart to hear of it."

"Say, O King," Thang stammered.

Regen brought his face, still contorted with hatred, closer to Thang's, until the broken veins in the King's broad nose were pressed against his own.

"Grimfork was mad," the King hissed quietly, "for trees."

Thang's gorge rose, he blanched and staggered back.

"Trees?" he gasped.

"Trees," the King confirmed grimly. "Not a cave in his hold but he didn't carve a stand of stone trees into. Leaves everywhere the eye could see. Acorns carved from agate. Wrought iron ivy in stands of sandstone spruce. Silver birch! With tiny golden squirrels on it. And that was just the start of it. By the time we'd got word to the High King, got him to agree to shut the place down and collapse all the tunnels in, he'd gone on to worse and dangerous things. Warpstone willows, they said."

The King sighed deeply, and an infinite melancholy came over him, the last dregs of his anger draining away.

"It was a great loss. Grimfork the Gardener's halls were deep and deft before the madness took him. Great open expanses of stone, rich in oathgold and adamant. A great abundance of gems and ore. His throng carved well, and we lost them all.

"The ratmen, the orcs, they were already circling the hold like ogres round a stewpot. Probably still there now, fighting each other for the spoils. And his final abominations brought demons up from the depths. But for his madness, it would have been a fine hold. Hah. In the old days, such a thing would never have happened. Long gone."

The King shuffled sorrowfully back to the wreckage of his throne, kicking at some stray rubble.

"Don't make them like they used to," he said mournfully. "Ah well. Read the other scroll."

Trembling, Thang held it up.

"O king stop worse than expected stop many enemies in lower depths stop unable to prevent breach of lower level stop leaves leaves everywhere dear ancestors so arboraceous..."

Thang tailed off.

"Arboraceous?" the King asked quietly. Thang nodded slowly. "Then the madness has him too. It'll leak out of that twisted realm until what's left of Dwarfdom is infected. There's only one thing we can do."

"My King?"

"We need a mighty general to claim Grimfork's Folly long enough to demolish it forever. Send for my champion!"

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