Prince Ulther paused on the broken road, eyes on the horizon. Behind him, Borri Forkbeard called the Dragon Company to a halt. Eighty pairs of heavy boots came together in unison. They had been on a forced march north for three days, with a bare few stops to wash the dust from throats and beards. All around them, the country was dark, storm-tossed and grim. Wild thorns grew in the sunburnt fields which were once the source of Karak Ungor’s beer, and along the worn old road laid by cunning dwarf hands, goblin dung had been gathered and molded into crude effigies. Before the throng, not half a mile away, the gates to the fallen hold were closed. But Ulther’s eyes were to the east, across the fields to the foothills of the World’s Edge Mountains, where the tips of spears and skull-topped battle standards could be seen moving towards them.
“Battle lines!” barked Ulther.
Long-bearded sergeants took up the cry, the dwarf throng positioning itself in squads along the old dwarf road, forming a shieldwall. Each sergeant went up along his lines, exhorting the men, checking to make sure their powder was dry and handguns at the ready. Ulther’s eyes never left the enemy, even as four dwarfs set his oathstone in front of him, and Borri Forkbeard planted the dragon standard into the earth at his right and let it unfurl.
“Think you to die here this day, Ulther of Karak Ungor?” said Dwalin Ironbeard, one of the few slayers that had come with the expedition. Ulther stepped onto the oathstone. “By my oath, today I will have death or vengeance.” said the prince, unslinging his great axe. “Well spoken” said the slayer, hefting his great flail. Ironbeard had come to his disgrace late in life, and when the time had come to shave a runesmith had taken the longbeard’s great plait and fashioned it into a weapon, a thick rope knotted with iron nails and ending with a great spike-covered steel ball. When whipped at speed, the beard-flail could crush the skull of a troll.
Over the hills road a company of wolves the size of ponies; ridden by tall, lanky, crookbacked greenskins in strange attire. Some bore rough spears, poles of wood topped with skull and cruelly serrated leaf-shaped iron blades and iron-rimmed wooden shields; others bore strange curved blades or twisted bows of bone and sinew. The larger hobgoblins beat their smaller brothers into the ragged semblance of a line, slapping hobgoblin and wolf alike with the flat of their great curved swords, preparing for a charge.
“Stand fast you sons of Grungni!” Prince Ulther yelled to his troops. “No grobi shat into this earth can match Grimnir’s sons in battle, nor will our vengeance be soothed by every drop of blood in their veins! These are but the vanguard of our great enemy that blight our hold. Here we stand! Here they fall! Our fire will consume them like the mighty drakk of the undgrin…what are we?”
Eighty dwarf voices rise in unison, clanging the butt of their handguns on their shields. “The Dragon! The Dragon!” Prince Ulther gave a grim snarl as the hobgoblin wolf-riders fought to keep their mounts in line at the sound of the din. The largest hobgoblin of them all, the khan, bedecked in black chainmail and stolen silks raised his sword and beckoned his greenskins forward.
The first line of wolf-riders loped down the hill, directly toward the shield line like a gigantic arrow, the leading spears aimed at Ulther and the center of the Dragon Company’s line. The wolves loped easily across the wild grass, picking up speed as sinewy hobgoblins dug their heels into the beasts’ flanks, spears leveled ahead of them. Ulther waited until the last possible moment to give the order for his men to fire.
The massed volley of handgun fire tore into the hobgoblins flanks, felling wolves and greenskins alike. Riders were flung from the saddle as their mounts collapsed beneath them, and riderless wolves stopped to feast on the dead without their masters to stop them, some even turning to rip the dying greenskins from the saddle and devour them while the meat was still warm. One hobgoblin got close enough to nearly impale Ulther on his oathstone, but a shot rang out from Borri Forkbeard’s handgun and took the greenskin in the eye, and Ulther himself smashed his axe down into the wolf’s skull, anointing his father’s blade with brains.
Up and down the line, the scene repeated itself as the leading edge of the hobgoblin line came within range; here and there the greenskins managed to touch the line, but most fled back toward the hobgoblin line without ever engaging the dwarfs at all. The hobgoblin khan let the cowards flee through his second line, then ordered the second assault. Here again came the flying arrowhead, pointed at Ulther’s heart, this time with the hobgoblin in the lead.
This time, however, was different. Hobgoblin archers broke off from both sides of the wolf-riders to flank the farthest edges of Ulther’s throng. The prince could have chewed his beard in frustration, but there was naught he could do against the tactic at the moment. He focused instead on the hobgoblins in front of them. They were better-armored than the last wave, and fewer fell to the massed handgun fire.
Beside the prince, Ironbeard began swinging his beard-flail, building momentum in anticipation of the battle soon to come. Dwarf troopers, without time for another shot, laid down their guns and reached for their axes. A bullet from Borri passed through the hobgoblin khan’s ear but did not kill him; the standard bearer simply reversed his grip to wield his handgun as a club.
This time, the crash of impact was louder. Great stinking furry bodies pressed themselves up against the groaning shieldwall, fangs and claws snapping at legs and beards, while the hobgoblin riders leaned in their saddles to strike and chop at the dwarfs. Then the shieldwall would flex as the dwarfs pushed back, sometimes knocking a wolf over where it would squash its rider and be prey to a quick axe blow, or else provide room for the dwarfs to swing their blades at wolf or hobgoblin rider.
At the oathstone, the khan locked his blade with Ulther’s axe, but the spiked ball of the slayer’s beard-flail caught him in the side of his head and knocked him straight from the saddle. Ulther kicked the riderless mount in the snout with his steel-shod boot, and the wolf fell back as blood poured from his nostrils. At the base of the oathstone, the hobgoblin khan flailed to remove his dented helmet. Borri stepped in and clubbed the dying khan to death with his handgun.
Along the line, the dwarfs held back the hobgoblins. Here and there a dwarf would fall to claw or sword-stroke, but another would step up in his place; fewer than one dwarf fell for every three greenskins they killed. On the far flanks, when most of the battle was already over, hobgoblins bows and dwarf handguns continued to exchange fire. Ulther prepared to give a facing order so that the massed fire might once again be brought against the greenskins, when he felt a rhythm in the air. Instinctively, he squatted down to lay a hand on the oathstone, then looked again at the hill over which the hobgoblins had come.
Squat, familiar forms marched over the hill, in perfect step despite their heavy armor. They were a twisted parody of a Dwarf throng, stubby legs covered by long plaited skirts of bronze scales, faces and beards covered by bronze masks and guards molded in daemonic visages. Their banner was a lightning bolt shattering an anvil, on a field of red trimmed with black.
Black laughter like the cackling of a dwarf in the grip of gold-sickness came from the sky, and a warm breeze washed across the Dragon Company. Ulther stared into the sky.
A great red dragon-winged bull flapped powerfully in the afternoon sky, hovering above the approaching throng of Chaos Dwarfs, fire flashing from its nostrils. The lord seated upon its back wore a tall, flat-topped helm, his coiled black beard flashed with gold tokens in the shape of skulls, and in his hands lay an axe as familiar as Ulther’s own.
“Grimmaz” said Borri. “Lost to the Twisted Goblin tribe when Belegar fell trying to reclaim the hold.”
“Praise Grimnir, brothers.” said Ironbeard. “For today we may all find our dooms.”
“That may be,” said Prince Ulther. “But when night falls, dead or alive, we shall all be kinslayers.”