Stoneheim Hold had been carved out generations ago. Clan lore told of how a natural cave system had been extended over the centuries, taking shape around a deep magma forge and rich veins of iron ore. Smiths had transformed that iron into great wealth, and masons worked caverns into great halls, and fortified the cave entrance into an impregnable fortress designed to hold off an army. Stoneheim’s proud warriors had easily held off Goblin hordes and Orcish raiders there, and that was part of the problem – they watched lazily, and in the wrong direction.
Dhom was still an apprentice smith when they lost Stoneheim. He thought he was a pretty good smith by then, although his parents still disagreed – Stoneheim had a significant reputation to maintain, and young upstarts with only a quarter of a century of experience couldn’t be trusted to produce the finest weapons and armour yet. So he still laboured in the workshop of his mother, Braenlyn, but that was enough to earn him a vote on clan matters.
In a way that made it partially his fault; the sages warned against it, but he vociferously agreed with the majority to extend the magma channels in search of increased forge heat. Afterwards they thought that must be why it happened, with either the sound of the tunnelling or the great machines to raise the magma calling up the invaders.
The first kobolds seen that night actually burst into a tavern hall. The day’s mining shift happily interrupted their drinks for a brawl, and the alarm was raised. The stout smiths quickly joined them and pushed the kobolds back deeper, a direction they seemed strangely reluctant to go. Then things rapidly became worse, with the tunnels belching forth unholy alliances – beetled hulks, and things with too many tentacles, and others with too many eyes. The warriors running down to join the fight soon joined the rout upwards and outwards, confusion and fear strangely seizing everyone.
Once outside the bedraggled clan regrouped, but it was too late. A tide of kobolds were trying to fight out of the gates, not into them, and the dwarves fled before the creatures of the deeps came out into the night. They trekked for days for get to their sister clans further into Mzendethil; every family had lost members, and most were only carrying the wounded, not what they would normally have chosen to carry with them on a long journey. The clan had survived but their status had forever changed.
The clans that had taken them in were kind, but also pitying – what kind of dwarves would lose their home so easily? Dhom joined others in swearing they would not be so easily surprised again, and reluctantly borrowed gold to hire master rangers to train them. The erstwhile smiths’ strength and stamina proved useful as they roamed the mountains under the expert eyes of the humans and elves.
Dhom had always had an eye for detail, a skill that proved useful, and he soon gained an agility that his appearance belied. But although he gained a proficiency with a bow he still often preferred to use his strength in new martial ways against the creatures they encountered.
As they trained, and mapped and patrolled the caves near their adopted holds, their clan elders were not idle. Their trade caravans around the kingdoms were recalled and their last master-crafter goods were sold, debts were called in, and warriors were re-equipped and trained further. The first groups back to Stoneheim Hold had been quickly rebuffed by Kobolds, with the fortifications now working against them. But plans had been drawn up and the dwarves had long memories; they needed many years to prepare, but the time came for them to reclaim their home, and their honour.
Dhom and his fellow rangers led and flanked the dwarven force as they retraced their steps back to the hold. The area had been increasingly avoided over the years, and the rangers soon noticed that also affected the wildlife; no way to supplement their provisions on the march. As the fortress was scouted at dawn, no sign of any kobolds were seen; Dhom his fellow rangers kept a careful watch, bows nocked, as a team of rogues scaled the gates and disappeared above. Soon the gates creaked open; they all winced at the noise, but nothing emerged.
Dhom and his colleagues were gestured forward, switching to axes for close work. But the darkness behind the gates revealed nothing but bones and musty smells. As the rangers worked their way down, with the main force behind, much had changed; new tunnel mouths gaped, and rubbish and detritus filled the ruined, previously gleaming, halls.
Dragging tracks and strange footprints with snail-like glimmers could both be why the only kobolds to be seen were dried husks. Rangers were sent short distances down side passages and reported strange noises; scouts were posted as the force stalked slowly towards the main forge chambers, the center of the old hold. Ahead, Dhom froze – the magma was no longer moving and had gone cold and dark, but darkvision showed floating shapes with four eyestalks heading towards them. Ducking behind a fallen beam, the rangers switched back to arrows as the fighters and priests hurried towards them.
This time the battle was short and sweet. But the central chamber didn’t feel like the end, and every scout sent to the further halls reported unsettling sights and noises. Everywhere had been defiled and parts strangely eroded. Home didn’t feel like home, and the treasures they had hoped to win back were no longer in the upper levels – in fact, strangely little was in the upper levels. As the elders and warleaders conferred, Dhom already knew the decision would be to pull back; they had been ready for kobolds and Hulks, and the Spectators had proven no match for the clan, but there was much worse here and little to fight for any more. They could take the bones of their clan away to be buried, and there was some honour to be regained there, but it was too late for their home to be their home again.
Dhom moved to where his mother Braenlyn’s workshop had flanked the magma forges, searching through the rubble and ashes for the past. Shifting a rock, he spotted a squared hammer for shaping platemail, and grasped the haft with a grin.
Hammers could be used for other things, and perhaps it was time to range further afield.
For a while.