Taker of Skulls is about the dwarves of Kormak’s world. They have been central to the mythology of the series from the very start. Kormak’s signature weapon, his sword, the badge of his calling and his order, was created by them. They had been mentioned in passing in previous volumes but all we really knew about them is that they dwell beneath Mount Aethelas, the fortress-monastery of the Order of the Dawn. They had rebelled against the god-like Old Ones, and created weapons that allowed mere mortals like Kormak to slay their former masters.
Obviously dwarves carry a freight-load of their own mythology to the average fantasy reader– the beards, the shortness, the drinking, the vast underground Moria-like cities. I wanted to give a very different take on dwarves but still keep them recognisably dwarf-like. Dwarves are a fantasy race I have brooded on over the years.
Most of the Kormak books have taken a specific part of his world and explored it. When I decided to write about dwarves I knew it was going to have to be set in a vast abandoned underground city. I also knew it was going to have to explore some of the central myths of the world. Why did the dwarves rebel against the Old Ones? Why did they side with the humans? What actually happened to them? Why were they a dying race, hiding away from other peoples?
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Taker of Skulls is, in some ways, Red Nails set in Moria. The few of you have not read the classic Robert E Howard story should rush off and read it now. It’s a claustrophobic saga set in an isolated, sealed city where two decadent factions split by a fratricidal civil war are locked in brutal conflict using weird ancient weapons and dark sorcery. It’s a powerful expression of Howard’s dark vision, a story of ever-mounting violence in which the fatal struggle is finally resolved by Conan and his companion, the beautiful pirate Valeria. I read it as a teenager and it has haunted me ever since, just as much as Beyond the Black River ever did. There was also an excellent Marvel Comics adaptation with art by Barry Windsor Smith (then plain Barry Smith) which I owned in King Sized format and re-read almost as often as I did the Howard original.
As I was thinking of the ruins of the dwarf city, in my minds eye it became populated by the savage decadent tribesmen of Red Nails. In this case, the tribesmen were the degenerate survivors of the once proud dwarven nation of Khazduroth, lurking in the ruins of their greatest city. And they needed bitter enemies to stalk through the rubble. I decided on goblins because it seemed very iconic. In the endless darkness, a total war between the two factions was being fought out that had reduced both sides to pale shadows of what they had once been. The dwarves became Mad Max style survivalists, the goblins became twisted mutants driven by ancient hatred.
I needed a reason for Kormak to be sent to Khazduroth, so enter the enigmatic sorceress Karnea, friend of the Order of the Dawn, expert on all things Dwarven, one-time lover of Kormak’s boss, the Grand Master of Aethelas and a woman with a mission within the ruins of the newly-rediscovered city. Kormak is told to protect her with his life… or else. And, as it turns out, she is seeking something very important indeed to Kormak’s Order. Along with Karnea came her bodyguard, the sinister mercenary Boreas.
I needed an opponent for Kormak to fight, someone who would give even the mighty Guardian pause. That turned out to be Graghur, the Taker of Skulls, an Old One returned to the newly re-opened city for his own strange purposes. He turned out to be part of the ancient struggle that had led to the destruction of the city.
There were echoes of Dungeons and Dragons in the setting. Moria is arguably the first and most archetypal dungeon crawl. I thought it would be nice to take a look at the dungeoneering sub-culture of the Old Kingdoms. So Khazduroth has been newly rediscovered and around it has grown up a boom-town culture of dungeon explorers, plundering it for ancient artefacts. There are echoes of Deadwood and the tent-cities of the California goldrush in Varigston and the prospector camps outside Khazduroth. The camps also provided the fourth main character of the story, the prospector Sasha, hired to be Karnea’s guide into the vast ruins of the Dwarven city.
Once I had the mission, the setting, the opponent in place it was simply a matter of pointing the characters in the right direction and watching them go. The tale turned into something like Raiders of the Lost Ark set in the ruins of a huge underground city, full of chases, traps, massive battles and weird sorceries. It revealed many of the lost secrets of Kormak’s world and gave some insight into what the Old Ones once were and how they fell. It was an absolute blast to write. Hopefully, it will be too read as well.
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