“Damn nobles!” Ranolth threw his cup into the wall and it shattered into several pieces. He got up and walk over to the polished mirror at the bar. Sigrith had put it up as a way of allowing the guards drinking there to adjust their uniforms before heading off on duty again.

His breastplate was a bit askew and he tightened the straps to adjust it. The lower part of the plate pressed against his growing stomach. He was getting older and his body showed it out of uniform. In uniform, he still had the same shape as he had when he had fought against the Sorian tribes when they laid siege to Barkoth. He missed his city of birth, but it was probably still burning from the hellfire wrought down upon them by the priests of Sor.

Ranolth looked around in the tavern. The patrons were both guards and a few commoners. Some of the guards were playing Tower at the back, a game that Ranolth had loved as a youth, but now his empty pockets could not take as many rounds. Days of drinking and whoring would do that to a man. He corrected his shield below his neck which symbolized his station as night watch commander. His men noticed him and started to grab their gear and get out of their chairs. Some were rustled from sleep by their comrades. If one was missing from the shift, the others would be blamed.

“Is it nightfall already?” One of the younger and more eager guards approached him. Nagoth had yet to have his braids done due to his shorter beard. A boy really when Ranolth really thought about it. He should really be the apprentice of some tradesman, but times were different since the Sorian war. The Dwarves had been beaten back and started to seek out their native land of Gathor. Bar-Gathor, which meant city to the west, was the last outpost of the old Dwarven Empire. The last someone stopped before they left in search of Gathor.

“Not yet, but we best be getting to the barracks. You know how the commander gets if we do not show up on time.” The boy nodded. “I will head back and polish some of the men’s boots. If Graaleth does not get his boots nice and shiny, he’ll have my hide.” Nagoth ran out of the tavern as he shouted in Graaleth’s general direction. Ranolth smiled. The boy would become a good man. Loyal as few and hardworking. The ideal Dwarf. In fact, he reminded Ranolth of himself as young. Wars, thankless service and fools for rulers had put an end to that idealism.

“Back on duty already?” Sigrith walked up to Ranolth drying a cup with her apron. The Dwarven woman was the light of his life, even if she did not know it. Not only did she keep him with good Dwarven ale, but her warm smile could lift him out of any rot.

“Yes, duty waits for no Dwarf.” He did not like the proverb, but it seemed to fit his life. Years of duty and service, but nothing to show for it. He still did what was asked of him. It was the only life he knew. She walked over him and took a rag to his shield and polished it. “You should take better care of yourself, Ranolth. Maybe get someone to take care of you?” Her eyes glinted and she smiled. Ranolth felt a little ucomfortable, almost as if he was naked and defenseless. He straightened up and looked at her. “You might be right.” Her smile always softened his heart, but he had duties.

He walked over to the stairs up to the door. “I will see you tonight, Sigrith. Keep a bench warm for me.” The door opened with a forced squeak.  Oil was probably needed for the hinges. Ranolth made a mental note for himself that he would have one of his men come down with oil for her.

The last light of the day hit Ranolth and his eyes had a hard time adjusting to it. These last few years of nightwork took its toll on him. He took a step outside and started to make out the various traders take their wares off their counters. Some of the stands were already closed for the day, but food stands were still busy. He took a few steps towards one when a tremor hit. A few vases started to fall over and several vendors tried in vain to secure their wares. Ranolth lost his footing and stumbled into a few people who were walking past him. The rumbling was followed by a bright light on the opposite side of the town.

Ranolth gathered himself and dusted of his uniform. He looked around at the people in the street. Most of the vendors were trying to gather up their few broken wares and others were helping people who might have lost their footing. The night commander started towards the palace and the town guard barracks connected to it. Nobles always wanted their soldiers as close as possible to them and Ranolth understood why. If something were to happen, it was nice to be surround by armed guards pointing their weapons away from you. This was also why nobles who remembered to pay and take care of their guards lived far longer than those too greedy to spread the wealth. They always seemed to die in some horrible accident, often involving some large object falling from the sky.

Some young Dwarves were gathered outside on of the inns. They were looking up at the sole mountain peak on the island. A plume of smoke started to rise from the mountain top. It was not the first time rumbling from the ground had plagued the Dwarven settlement, but it was the first time Ranolth had seen smoke from the mountain. If Ranolth knew anything, he knew that this could not be a good thing. He started to run up the streets towards the palace grounds.

More and more people were now gathered in the streets, all of them with their eyes directed at the mountains. Mothers with children in their arms came out on the porches and seemed frightened. Some of the children were crying and a lot of the dogs were howling. No, he thought, this is not a good thing at all.

The palace grounds were very busy. Men were already moving vast amounts of art and valuables to the carts standing at the ready in the courtyard. Lord Ishtar, the commander of the Dwarven forces, were directing their efforts.

“Load the most valued art in the first cart with his Highness and his family. We need to hurry.” The commander’s voice boomed through the courtyard. Ranolth walked up to his commander and saluted. “What is going on, sir?” The grey-haired man turned to his subordinate and scowled at him. “The royal family is being evacuated.” Ranolth was shocked. “Why have I not heard of this before now?” The commander pointed towards the night sky and the orange glow coming from the mountains. “That is why you were not informed. We did not know before now.” Ranolth bowed to the lord. “I humbly request to warn the citizens of the city.” Mostly he thought of Sigrith, but he did not want to see needless death in the streets.

“No!” The commander barked at Ranolth and he could almost see panic in the eyes of Lord Ishtar. “If you do that, there might be panic in the streets. More people could be killed clambering for space onboard the few vessel in the harbor.” Ranolth tried to hide his anger at that. “But there must be something I can do for them?” The commander sighed. “As soon as the royal family is onboard their vessel, the general alarm will be sounded and those able to save themselves will be saved. The royal lineage must be saved.” The commander turned back to the guards. “Hurry, you fools!”

The queen and her five children all coming rushing out of the palace. They were quickly ushered into the carriages behind the first two carts containing valuables. Near the front carts, Ranolth could see his guards approaching with a quizzical look on their faces. He noticed that most of them had managed to turn up dressed respectfully. Graaleth, probably the largest Dwarf in the city, sauntered towards Ranolth in his usual relaxed pace. “What is going on here, commander?” Lord Ishtar and looked at the large Dwarf, but before he could answer a scream was heard from the carriage carrying the royal family. All the guards not carrying anything ran towards the carriage. The queen was rummaging in her luggage.

“It is gone!” Lord Ishtar seemed relieved when he saw the queen and children was not harmed, but the queen was distraught. “What is gone, your Majesty?” She did not notice the lord commander’s question. “I told the servant to get it from the vault.” Queen Livith kept on looking for whatever it was in her bag. “Your Majesty?” The Queen finally acknowledged the commander. “What have you lost?” She looked horrified at Lord Ishtar. “The Heart!” She seemed like she was about to cry. “The Heart of Barkoth. I swore on my husband’s death bed, your king’s deathbed, that I would keep it safe.” Lord Ishtar looked ashen as he turned to Ranolth. “Take two men and go to the vault. Look for the Heart of Barkoth and bring it to the harbor.” Ranolth was a bit shocked. “Go, man. I will make sure the queen and her children gets to the harbor safely.”

Ranolth, Graaleth and Nagoth walked up the mountain towards the old smithy that had been turned into a stronghold above the city. It held all the valuables and could all most of the city’s nobility in case of an invasion by sea. It loomed above the city like a raven perched on a branch above a battle and it seemed to be anticipating them. Ranolth felt his skin crawl when the yellow glow became even more apparent as they climbed closer and closer to the entrance of the stronghold. The rumbling from the ground made pebbles bounce across the cobblestones in the street. People were watching the glow and the guards who rushed up towards the stronghold. Ranolth could see worried looks following them and he hated himself for not being able to say anything.

“Should we warn them?” Nagoth walked up behind him with Graaleth in tow. “This is not right. They deserve to know what is happening.” The large guard bellowed this and several people heard him. They started to follow the guards and several of them were talking to the other guards. A massive tremor hit and the women and children in the streets were screaming. Ranolth had never felt a strong a tremor before and as it calmed down, he got up on a box.

“Please keep calm.” The people did not respond to this. A young Dwarven woman with a baby in her arms walked over to Ranolth her red braids swaying. “What is happening?” Nagoth looked at the night commander. “Tell them the truth, sir Ranolth.” No one had used his honorary title since he left Barkoth. Ranolth looked at the faces of the citizens gathered around him. “We do not know. The royal family is evacuating the city. I suggest you calmly head to the harbor and seek any form of transport off the island.” The people stood there shocked as Ranolth stepped off the box and he and his men started back up towards the stronghold. When they had passed a few houses, Ranolth looked back at the people. They were still in the street when burly Dwarf, probably a blacksmith, started to organize. He hoped they got off the island and then he wondered if he would get himself, his men and Sigrith off the island.

The stronghold was built into the natural cavern. Easy access to heat and metal had first lured the Dwarves to this island. Seven hundred years earlier they had started building a settlement below a massive foundry. After a few hundred years, the liquid rock had started to sink and foundries had been moved further into the mountain. Now the orange glowed from the massive iron doors made one thing clear. The liquid rock must have broken through. Ranolth saw the door slightly ajar and the glow was even more intense there. As they got even closer, it was clear that the inside was pretty hot. Three soldier ran away as rumbling became even worse. They seemed to be carrying something heavy.

“Cowards!” Graaleth’s voice could be heard across the city. They were only three men now. Ranolth stepped in first with Nagoth and Graaleth right behind him. The heat hit them even harder as they entered. It was completely deserted there apart from the body of a servant in the middle of the vast hall. Gold coins laid strewn around him. Ranolth walked over to the body of the young man. Nagoth leaned over to his commander.

“Is he dead?” The young guard had his axe pulled off his belt. Ranolth nodded. “Probably those traitors we saw leaving.” Graaleth walked slowly towards the door towards the vault. The cavern was the size of the palace and many noted that the interior of the palace had been modeled on the cavern. An orange glow could be seen from the vault. Ranolth got up and followed after Graaleth. He turned to Nagoth. “You stay here. Keep our backs clear in case others come seeking royal treasure.”

The two moved slowly towards the vault. As they crossed the threshold to the staircase down, a small tremor shook the room and cracks appeared in the ceiling above them. Ranolth could see the old smithies again orange with liquid rock. Some of the had started to overflow and the sizzling sound of metal melting could be heard as the molten rock melted everything in its path.

Dust and pebbles were falling from the ceiling as the two slowly descended the stairs toward the treasure vault. They could see the vault door was open and some molten rock was slowly creeping in the open door. Ranolth hoped they were not too late.

Suddenly the stair beneath Graaleth fell away and Graaleth followed. Ranolth dived after him and managed to grab a hold of his hand. “Do not let go of me!” The massive guard dangled perilously over the now filled smithies beneath him. Graaleth weighed quite a bit mor than your regular Dwarf, but Ranolth would not let go of the grumpy guard. He gathered all his strength and put his feet towards the sturdiest part of the rock face and dragged the man up towards him. Ranolth felt exhausted as the large Dwarf smiled at him. “As soon as we get off this island, I will start to lose some weight.” Ranolth laughed. “Thank you, Ranolth!” Graaleth got up and held a hand out to help Ranolth up. They both jumped across the gap and continued down the steep descent into something as hot as Thorbar’s smithies in Gathor.

The room at the bottom of the stairs still had some areas where the two Dwarves could move across. It took some navigating, but finally they reached the vault door. The heat caused both Dwarves to sweat profusely and Ranolth felt like he was being cooked in his armor. Molten rock seeped through cracks in the wall and the more heat there was the wider the cracks became. The trembling was intense, but they pushed passed the vault door and into the main treasure vault of the royal family.

The orange glow of molten rock and gold seemed to almost rob Ranolth of his senses. He wanted to run over and grab as much as he could, but he kept his hands to himself. Graaleth also had his eyes on the massive treasure there, but they were there for one thing, The Heart of Barkoth. Ranolth looked around and then he saw it. The bright red jewel was resting in the hands of a stone version of the late king. King Knuth looked kindly upon them as they approached. He had been the only noble man that Ranolth trusted after Barkoth. The king had never looked down upon his people. Ranolth walked up to the statue and carefully removed the box containing the royal jewel. He closed the lid and turned around. Graaleth was still staring at the gold.

“We have what we came for.” He walked towards the door, but Graaleth would not move. “It would be shame to leave it here. “It is not ours, Graaleth. Leave it!” Graaleth did not move. “For years I have slaved for those nobles. Guard this! Guard that! Fight these people! Kill them! And what do I have left? Nothing. A bar stool, a bunk at the barracks and debt.” Ranolth walked closer to the other guard. “We need to go. This place could collapse at any moment.” Graaleth turned around and his face seemed frenzied. Ranolth had seen that look before. Graaleth jumped into the pile of gold. He laughed as he stood on top of it. “I could hire a fleet of Wanderer ships and legions of Wrenian mercenaries with this and take back our ancient city.” Ranolth looked horrified upon him as the pile of gold slowly started to melt as the molten rock started to burst into the chamber. Graaleth laughed even as he was covered in molten rock and gold.

The entire chamber started to shake violently. Ranolth turned around and headed for the stairs up to the entrance. Molten rock started to burst out from the walls. Ranolth could see the stairs coming apart. He ran. His heart pumping and his feet hitting the rock beneath him hard. He feared he would not make it. The top part of the stairs started to break apart. He hoped Sigrith was safe and that Nagoth would head to the harbor. As the stairs fell out from beneath him, he said to himself. “Damn nobles!”

JH Lillevik is a writer of sci-fi and fantasy. He writes screenplays, novels and short stories. He also works as a writing consultant for upcoming writers. His specialty is mythology, world building and psychology.

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