Chapter 2: The Sword Coast and the North
This chapter details many of the locales of the Sword Coast and the North, as seen through the eyes and recollections of a person living in Faerûn. Rather than being exhaustive descriptions, what follows are snippets of information drawn from the experience of five individuals who have traversed, lived in, and explored these areas. Like any other narrators, they have opinions and biases, and may be drawing conclusions from incomplete information. No one in the Realms knows everything about any subject, even its oldest and most learned sages, and the views formed from such incomplete information can often suggest an inaccurate conclusion. This is not to say that any of the information the narrators provide is false, only that they may not be entirely knowledgeable in their declarations.
The details given here only begin to scratch the surface of the adventuring possibilities in the North. Although some of these locales are virtually unknown to outsiders, entire books longer than this one could be (and have been) written about others. If the descriptions leave you wanting to know more, consider them an inducement for you and your companions to visit these places and experience them firsthand.
Be aware, also, that there is a great deal more to the North than what is presented here. There are ruins without names, and settlements so small as to not even warrant mention in this tome. What lurks in the uncharted areas, waiting to tantalize or perhaps terrorize, is all the more formidable because it can’t be anticipated.
The Lords’ Alliance
For a century and a half, and more, the Lords’ Alliance has stood as the most important and influential group in the North. Its power has kept towns safe from the predations of larger powers, has kept the ambitions of Luskan in check, and has taught the rulers of many cities that it is better to cooperate, even for a time, then to merely shut one’s doors and allow the storms to rage outside. It was this philosophy that led to the founding of Luruar, and when the lesson was lost, so too were the Silver Marches. But it serves no purpose to dwell on the folly of the past. Better instead to look to the future, repair the walls, and wait for word from the watching sentries.
— Andwe Cururen, agent of the Lords’ Alliance
The Lords’ Alliance isn’t a nation unto itself, but a partnership of the rulers of towns and cities across the North, who have pledged peace with one another and promised to share information and effort against common threats such as orc hordes and Northlander pirates. It is a loose confederation of those settlements and their agents, all of whom owe allegiance first to their homelands, and second to the Lords’ Alliance.
In the harsh lands of the North, where winters are cold and monsters and human barbarians regularly stream out of the mountains to pillage outlying settlements, large nations are rare indeed, particularly in the current state of the world. Instead, great city-states have emerged, enriched by trade and protected by stout walls and loyal defenders. Such cities — including Baldur’s Gate, Mirabar, Neverwinter, Silverymoon, and Waterdeep — extend their influence into nearby regions, often creating or accepting vassal settlements, but in the end, these realms are cities, driven to consider their own protection and future before other concerns.
In the years soon after its founding more than one hundred fifty years ago, there was more interest in membership, and the Alliance accepted some members from farther south. Since then, events such as the growth of Elturgard into a power in its own right, and the recent fall of the Silver Marches, have caused the group to draw in on itself, restricting its membership to powers in the North. The current members of the Alliance are Amphail, Baldur’s Gate, Daggerford, Longsaddle, Mirabar, Mithral Hall, Neverwinter, Silverymoon, Waterdeep, and Yartar. There is some doubt that Mithral Hall will be part of the alliance for much longer, but until rulership of the dwarven city is more firmly established, it remains a member.
It is impossible to ascribe an overall character to the individual members of the alliance. As a group, the agents of the members are interested in the preservation of civilization in the North, and they share what information they can — and oppose what threats they must — to further that goal. In the end, though, a merchant of Waterdeep and one of Baldur’s Gate are concerned mainly for their own purses and the welfare of their home cities, and are unlikely to care what happens to the other, except inasmuch as it affects trade.
The advice and insights in this section come from Andwe Cururen, a half-elf native of Silverymoon who was once a Knight in Silver (a member of the city’s army), and now serves as an emissary and, when necessary, an active agent for the Lords’ Alliance. She travels the North on behalf of the Alliance, representing its interests and gathering and updating information on its settlements for her superiors, fellow agents, and potential recruits, including adventurers who might serve the Alliance or one of its members.
NOTE TO THE DM: MAKING THE REALMS YOURS
The information in this chapter is intentionally nonspecific with respect to threats, monsters, and statistics. While you can use these details to flavor your descriptions of the towns and cities your players might visit, you should in no way consider these pieces of narration definitive. They’re meant to provide touchstones, not to constrain your players to a narrow conception of the world. You might decide to change some of the details, either to surprise your players or to account for events that have transpired since they obtained the information herein. You’re encouraged to take what’s presented here and make it, and the Forgotten Realms, your own.
Named for its founder, a former warlord of Waterdeep, the small town of Amphail is home to just over seven hundred souls, yet it sought and received membership in the Lords’ Alliance just under a century ago, thanks to the maneuverings of the noble families that control its lands. Where once it was simply an example of the extent of Waterdeep’s reach, Amphail became the playground of that city’s noble families, a place where they can scheme against their rivals and send their more rambunctious offspring to unleash some of their destructive tendencies without harming the family’s reputation in proper society. As a result of being a member of the Lords’ Alliance, Amphail is the equal of such great cities as Neverwinter and Baldur’s Gate in matters that concern the other powers of the region, despite its clear inferiority in size and strength.
Amphail’s sovereignty means that, although patrols from the Waterdeep City Guard sometimes ride north to check on matters in Amphail, the only true authority in the town is the will of the noble families that control it. The primary business of Amphail is horse ranching, and the town is a fine place to find replacement mounts, and all manner of tack, bridle, feed, and other goods necessary to keep up one’s horse. Most farms have farriers, or at least hands that can swiftly shoe a horse, and spare shoes all but litter the town.
Visitors to Amphail often get a polite admonishment to “mind the high born” or “ware silver saddles” from the locals, but those who ignore such warnings should expect no help if they get into trouble with the nobility. Amphailans are by their nature suspicious of and quiet around folk who openly display wealth or status, having learned early in their lives that nobles are folk who like to throw their weight around, to the detriment of anyone nearby without enough coin or a grand enough title to stand up to them. I find that these common folk are ideal sources of information about the very people they distrust.
For their part, the young nobles that litter the town seem to make mischief mainly because they can. The feuds and rivalries that would generate only carefully worded insults in the city can escalate into brawls when these miscreants are far from the watchful eyes of their parents. Duels have long been prohibited by mutual agreement, due to the blood feuds they provoked in the past, but hands often drift to sword hilts when heated words are exchanged. Nearly every other sort of noble indiscretion is foisted on the residents of Amphail. Those who suffer property damage or worse at the nobles’ hands are forced to forgive the offense in exchange for the application of coin or a promise made in the transgressor’s name (suggesting that the youngster’s relatives will handle any obligations). Some businesses survive entirely by bringing the comforts of Waterdeep to Amphail, creating gathering places where young nobles can feel at home.
The three greatest families with significant interests in Amphail are Houses Amcathra, Ilzimmer, and Roaringhorn; and most coin and business eventually passes through the hands one of those houses or its intermediaries. When Amphail joined the Lords’ Alliance, these three houses were the loudest and most influential voices, and now control the rulership of the town, with the controlling family changing each Shieldmeet. The current Lord Warder is Dauner Ilzimmer, who speaks for the town to the Lords’ Alliance. House Amcathra has yet to choose its successor for next Shieldmeet. Houses Jhansczil and Tarm have smaller breeding concerns in the area, and House Eagleshields has holdings near Amphail that it uses to continue its long tradition of caring for unhealthy animals from nearby farms, and offers fine tack and other gear for sale.
Among the common folk, the Oglyntyr family has the largest and oldest cattle and horse farm in Amphail, and supplies some of the finest Amphail grays (loyal, intelligent steeds favored as personal mounts) to nobles and travelers in the region. A new family, not noble but possessing much wealth, has purchased the old Baldasker ranch. We suspect that the Hemzar family, who were unknown in either Amphail or Waterdeep before the purchase, like most of the mysterious matters in Amphail, may have the secret backing of one noble house or another.
My contacts say the Oglyntyrs have petitioned the Ilzimmers to help crush this upstart business, a move that they are considering. I visited the Hemzar ranch, and I’d consider such a move inadvisable. A large family of Tashlutar descent, they seemed capable and confident of their position, despite my warning. I wasn’t allowed the opportunity to explore the property fully, but I did note signs that the Hemzars are prepared to rear and train far more dangerous beasts than horses and cattle. I was then tempted to warn the Oglyntyrs, but that family can be as odious as the worst nobles. These things tend to sort themselves out.
The noble families of Waterdeep who send their children to Amphail, or allow them to go there, hope that their sons and daughters will learn some lessons about life while away from Waterdeep. If they are going to cause damage or hurt feelings in the process, at least they will do so far away from the watchful eyes of the other nobility of the city. To the young nobles, there is no one in Amphail of any real consequence who might be permanently harmed by any improprieties. They also believe there is no one of note nearby to hear these hotheaded youngsters issue their boasts and proclaim their schemes — I have more than once learned of a threat simply by listening to children of different houses brag to one another about matters that were meant only for the family.
Aside from the excesses of its nobles, Amphail is a peaceful town, with the threat of full-scale retaliation from both Waterdeep and the Lords’ Alliance casting a long, dark shadow over any plans to disturb matters there. The nobles of Waterdeep have heavy purses, and are willing to spend as much coin as necessary to protect their favored playground — and to punish anyone that might disrupt their control over it. The only thing the nobles don’t seem to be able to spend away is the smell of manure, which in the summer months hangs thick over the town. It is that manure that helps to feed the true business of Amphail: feeding Waterdeep with the produce from the many farms that surround the town.
Because so many of Amphail’s farms are owned by House Ammakyl, members of that noble family are by far the most enriched by the commerce there. They consider themselves good landlords to the folk that farm their lands, and are sure to bring any threats to honest, hard-working commoners to the attention of both the Lord Warder and the Lords of Waterdeep. Anything that threatens farming in Amphail threatens the City of Splendors directly, and such situations are dealt with swiftly and surely by the city’s Guard. As a result, even the most rebellious nobles are careful not to tread too heavily on Ammakyl turf in Amphail, as a house that does so might swiftly find its favorite foods suddenly difficult to procure for a revel or some other event where the family’s status is at risk.
On the Coast Way, some forty miles upstream along the River Chionthar from the Sword Coast, lies the bustling city of Baldur’s Gate. Home to tens of thousands, the harbor city has poor soil, but its sheltered bay, well away from the tides that batter the coast, make it an ideal location for trading goods from locations to the west in the Sea of Swords, inland along the river, and up and down the coast. Baldur’s Gate is a place of commerce, and the city enjoys great success handling the coins of other powers and making them its own.
Sadly, Baldur’s Gate has a storied connection with the dark god, Bhaal. Just a few years ago, the city saw the terrifying return of the Lord of Murder. Following a number of deaths, one of the city’s dukes, Torlin Silvershield, was revealed as the Chosen of Bhaal, and underwent a monstrous transformation, turning many citizens into bloodthirsty killers and inspiring a riot and much death before finally being put down by brave adventurers. Even now, murderous echoes ripple through the city and beyond, and reports of unexplainable, gruesome killings flow out of Baldur’s Gate.
Baldur’s Gate is ruled by the Council of Four, dukes who vote among themselves on matters of law and policy for the city. A single grand duke is chosen from among the four, and is empowered to break ties when the council is deadlocked. The current Grand Duke is Ulder Ravengard, who is joined by Dukes Thalamra Vanthampur, Belynne Stelmane, and Dillard Portyr, the former grand duke, who ceded the post to Ravengard after the city’s recent troubles. Below the council sits the Parliament of Peers, a group of about fifty Baldurians who meet daily (though almost never in full number) to discuss the future of the city and recommend actions for the dukes to take on all matters, great and small. At any given time, roughly one-quarter of the peers are powerful members of Lower City society, with the rest drawn from the Upper City’s noble families, called patriars.
Defense of the Upper City is handled by the Watch, the official constabulary of the city’s elite. Their duty is to defend the patriars and enforce their laws, and little else. For the rest of Baldur’s Gate, security is enforced and order maintained by the Flaming Fist mercenary company, a supposedly neutral force which is free to fight in external conflicts, so long as it doesn’t side against Baldur’s Gate. By tradition, the highest officer of the Flaming Fist is one of the city’s dukes, and Grand Duke Ulder Ravengard fulfills that tradition proudly. Membership in the Flaming Fist is fairly easy to achieve, and adventurers with much experience swiftly advance in rank (and, consequently, political influence) once they become permanent members. Many ranking officers are former adventurers who have “retired” to military life.
In both the Upper and Lower Cities, the underworld is controlled by a shadowy group known merely as the Guild. The dukes don’t acknowledge the power of this group in any meaningful way — at least not publicly — but try (at least nominally) to curb its influence where and how they can. I lost count of how many gangs claim territory in the Lower and Outer City, and all of them seem to owe allegiance to the Guild. Efforts to destroy the Guild have thus far failed, due in part to the inability of outsiders to identify a clear leader of the group, but in no small measure to the shameful lack of effort on the part of the rulers of the city to protect its people.
The Upper City of Baldur’s Gate is the enclosed haven of the city’s nobility — the patriars. Sitting atop their hill, the patriars look down on the rest of Baldur’s Gate in every real sense, wielding their wealth and influence to push the Council of Four to protect their lifestyle. Though at one time a wealthy merchant or powerful adventurer might hope to advance to the ranks of the patriars, there is no longer room, physically or otherwise, for the class of the Upper City to grow. Now, only those born into the patriar families inhabit the manors of this oldest part of Baldur’s Gate. The poorest among these go so far as to sell furnishings and decorations from inside their homes in order to keep up appearances with their fellow patriars.
Most would say that the lives of patriars are marked by luxury and decadence, and for a great many of them, this is likely true. However, some families do make an honest attempt at improving the city, and nearly every family has at least one member who engages in major commerce — no matter one’s heritage, everyone must have coin in order to eat. There is but one nonhuman family among the patriars, the dwarven Shattershields, who have been in Baldur’s Gate for long enough that they are just as accomplished as their human peers at looking down on the rest of the citizenry.
A number of gates divide the Upper City from the Lower City, but the one to note is the famous Baldur’s Gate, from which the city takes its name. Trade passes only through this gate, and is taxed by the city — despite the fact that it was just such taxes that led to the city’s being overthrown by its first dukes and the Lower City enclosed by its ring wall. The other gates exist solely for the convenience of the patriars and their retinues. Any who aren’t in the presence of a patriar, wearing a patriar’s livery, or bearing a letter of proof of employment by a patriar must use Baldur’s Gate to pass between the Upper and Lower Cities. Bear this in mind when trying to sneak from one part of the city to the next.
Hard against the harbor lies the Lower City, where stone, slate-roofed houses stand (sometimes unsteadily), and the folk who have long performed the real work of the city reside. Baldur’s Gate depends on trade, and that trade flows in and out of the Gray Harbor. The hands that load and unload ships, that tally cargo and haul goods, that repair keels and mend sails, all live here. The damp clings heavily in this portion of the city — some say it’s held in by the Old Wall — and lamps (lit and filled by citizens, not the city) pierce the fog. Most locals are wise enough to carry lanterns or lamps, and visitors that have not learned to do so can usually hire a young Baldurian to guide them through the streets.
The Lower City was long ago walled in to benefit from the protection of the city, but the divide between the two wards is as stark as it has ever been. The Flaming Fist is responsible for keeping order in the Lower City, and do so with brutal efficiency, deterring most from engaging in bold, public acts of theft, vandalism, or violence.
Where merchants in other cities might hope to one day join the nobility, in Baldur’s Gate the best one can hope for is to become an absurdly wealthy and influential merchant. Becoming a patriar is out of the question. Still, the wealthiest Baldurians live as much like the patriars as they can, buying up adjacent properties in the hopes of demolishing them in order to build large homes to echo the manors of the Upper City. The Bloomridge district has a number of such homes, and some of the patriars grumble that these merchants are growing too comfortable with their new status.
Outside the walls, there are no laws barring construction or settlement, and so those who are too poor to reside within the city or to purchase property have slowly built up a third ward of the city, living in the shadow of its walls, paying its taxes, and covering both sides of the roads leading into Baldur’s Gate. Here, the poorest of the poor live in the Outer City, but so too do those whose businesses are considered too troublesome, noisy, or foul-smelling to operate within the walls, so tanners, smiths, masons, dyers, and other tradesfolk abound. The city does woefully little to help the folk here, and charitable souls (myself included) sometimes start at one end of the road with a full purse, only to see it empty by the time they reach the other end.
The lack of laws in the Outer City has led to two strange phenomena, unrelated to one another. A walled Calishite district has grown up to the east of the city proper, known by Baldurians as Little Calimshan. Within the district, neighborhoods are divided by walls, but these walls have walkways atop them so that foot traffic can proceed unimpeded by the gates that slow carts and mounts. Here, refugees from Calimshan have found a home away from that southern nation, and largely depend on themselves for trade, culture, and defense.
Buildings have also been constructed along Wyrm’s Crossing over the Chionthar. Shops, taverns, and tenements choke the bridge, hanging from both spans, and even in some cases built to hang from the supports that hold it up. Folk must pay a toll to cross on foot or by cart or wagon, but many swear they would pay yet more to be able to use the bridge without having to dodge the hawkers and urchins that infest the area.
Built against the side of a low hill on the floodplains of the Delimbiyr, this small, walled town is dominated by the keep of the local duchess, Lady Morwen Daggerford. Counting the town itself and the nearby hamlets and farms that look to it for protection and guidance, some twelve hundred people call the area home. Lady Morwen is the sister of the previous duke, Maldwyn Daggerford, and she seems a capable and charismatic leader. The Daggerford family’s authority over the area dates back to the ancient Kingdom of Man that succeeded Phalorm in the region. Though that realm has been dust for centuries, there are those that see Daggerford as the last bastion of a better time of peace, wealth, and influence — a time that, given the right leadership, has the smallest of chances of being restored.
Daggerford is a pastoral haven. Wide, sprawling hills nearby offer peaceful vistas, but are sometimes overrun by raiding orcs or goblins. The frequent caravans heading north to Waterdeep or south to Baldur’s Gate need escort or guarding, and can offer news of both of those cities (and the settlements between them). Several inns stand ready to accept visitors, except in the busiest of trade or festival periods, when they fill swiftly, and many locals open up their homes to lodgers. Warriors in need of coin can help their purses by offering their services as trainers for the local militia, or accompanying the town guard on its patrols.
Daily rulership is in the hands of the Council of Guilds, composed of the heads of the town’s informal trade groups. These guildmasters believe themselves more powerful and influential than they truly are, imitating the Lords of Waterdeep by going robed and masked to council meetings. This charade, in the eyes of most, borders on farce, as everyone in Daggerford knows precisely who the council members are, and no magic disguises the forms, voices, or mannerisms of the guild leaders, and a trained spy can learn which guildmaster is which after only an evening or two of proper observation.
The largest and oldest building in Daggerford is the ducal castle, a three-level keep enclosed by a two-story wall that contains its own smithy, a wide parade ground, and stabling for a large number of animals. The dukes of Daggerford have always kept a well-stocked larder, capable of feeding the castle’s inhabitants and any citizens that might shelter inside during a siege.
Three gates lead into the town of Daggerford: River Gate, which provides access to the river, and through which shipping cargo is carted into the town proper; Caravan Gate, which handles most landgoing traffic, including land-based trade; and Farmers’ Gate, which remains open at nearly all times, but is wide enough only to let one wagon or cart pass at a time.
A militia guards Daggerford. Militia service is mandatory for all able-bodied adults, and lasts for twenty years. All citizens living within the town receive instruction from the duchess’s own soldiers in the use of spears and other weapons, and must spend at least one day a month in defense of the town, standing sentry on its walls or patrolling the nearby roads. Their training means that the common citizens of Daggerford aren’t easily cowed by armed folk demanding goods, coin, or passage, and are slightly more likely to take up work as mercenaries, caravan guards, or adventurers.
Although she is less amiable than her brother was, Lady Morwen is acknowledged as more capable of ruling Daggerford than Duke Maldwyn had been. She is well liked by the people, who understand that she has an honorable heart, and wishes what is best for Daggerford. She regularly trains with the militia, and is seen in the town wearing armor just as often as she is adorned in the finery befitting her station. She often visits the local shrine to Tempus, which only enhances her reputation as a pious woman. Lady Morwen’s features are only now starting to age, as though catching up with her white hair.
Most folk of Daggerford know one another, at least casually, by sight. Strangers are usually welcome, especially if they have coin to spend, unless such folk come armed and belligerent through the town. Guards stationed at each gate make note of new faces, but don’t take action against those they don’t recognize unless they are given reason to do so.
The largest of the town’s inns, the River Shining Tavern, is the second biggest building in Daggerford, and the site of many local celebrations and gatherings. Here, the wealthy come to eat and relax. The inn is old — many locals claim it to be older even than the ducal castle — and to many, is the very soul of Daggerford. The Silver Flood Inn and Lizard’s Gizzard also offer rooms, though the latter has no food to provide its guests, only beds.
One of Daggerford’s most unusual businesses is the Sword Coast Traders’ Bank, which accepts deposits from traveling merchants and enables them to receive these funds at a similar location in either Waterdeep or Baldur’s Gate. Lady Belinda Anteos (of the Waterdeep noble house) promises that her business is secure and that the bank’s magical means of communicating precise amounts of currency between cities can’t be tampered with.
Members of local guilds that do business outside the town don’t entirely trust the Traders’ Bank, preferring instead to borrow coin from the Hardcheese family of halflings that run the Happy Cow tavern. The Alliance officially has no preference, but I find Lady Anteos trustworthy enough to be an alternative to carrying large sums on the road. It’s easier to part with a small portion of one’s purse than to lose everything to a band of brigands during a journey through the wilds.
Visitors to Daggerford are advised both to avoid the tannery to the west and to swiftly cross Tyndal’s Bridge when approaching from the south. The tannery’s location, up on the hill, does little to contain the stink of the process, and the Watermen’s Guild dumps the city’s waste over the side of the bridge. On hot days, the scents exuded from both sites can be overwhelming, which is why I have again asked the Alliance to assign a different agent to visit on next summer’s rounds.
Tyndal’s Bridge is a low stone structure over which travelers pass when approaching from the west, where a local boy named Tyndal held off a number of lizardfolk with only a dagger. He grew to manhood, married the local ruler’s daughter, named himself duke, and built Daggerford atop the ruins of an older castle. This story, and most of the area’s history, is happily related to any who ask by Sir Darfin Floshin, an elf older than Daggerford itself. He longs to see a rise in cooperation between humans, dwarves, and elves in the region, such as was once embodied in the realm of Phalorm. Darfin has been advisor to many dukes of Daggerford through the years. Though he was rebuffed by Duke Maldwyn during his reign, there are signs that Lady Morwen may be more receptive to the advice of a gold elf who has witnessed the fall of the human kingdom of Delimbiyran, the founding of Daggerford, and all the days since.
RUINED KINGDOMS OF THE NORTH
Many folk consider the start of civilization in the North to be marked by the founding of Waterdeep. More learned folk are aware of the deeper history of the region, and know of at least some of the kingdoms that have been built by the residents of the North down the centuries.
Ruins of these kingdoms are scattered throughout the North, and many present-day cities and towns are built atop their remains, sometimes with their residents ignorant of what lies just beneath their boots.
Eaerlann. The elven kingdom of Eaerlann, a survivor of the ancient Crown Wars, stretched from the High Forest to the Delimbiyr Vale. Weakened by the retreat of much of its populace to Evermeet and by orc attacks, Eaerlann finally fell six hundred years ago to the demons that burst forth from Ascalhorn (once known as Hellgate Keep and now as Hellgate Dell).
Illefarn. Ten thousand years ago, the capital city of Illefarn occupied the site where Waterdeep stands today. A kingdom of elves that accepted both humans and dwarves in its lands, Illefarn stood intact for seven millennia. It was eventually fragmented by increasing human settlement of the area, and repeated orc attacks spelled its doom.
Athalantar. The short-lived human kingdom of Athalantar lay south of the High Forest in territory claimed by its self-styled Stag King thirteen centuries ago. Its rulers were briefly supplanted by magelords, but then reclaimed the throne, only to be wiped out by orcs within a few generations.
Phalorm. Dwarf, elf, and human monarchs all shared the rule of Phalorm, also known as the Realm of Three Crowns, which was founded nearly a thousand years ago in the High Moor. Phalorm lasted barely a century before repeated orc and goblin attacks overcame it.
Kingdom of Man. When Phalorm fell, the surviving humans of the kingdom established the Kingdom of Man, formally known as Delimbiyran, which lasted only two generations. Its dissolution left behind a number of petty “kingdoms” that welcomed new human settlers in several locations, leading to the founding of new cities and towns on the Sword Coast and in its environs.
Netheril. For centuries, the legend of Netheril served as a lesson of human hubris and a lure for treasure hunters too prideful to learn from its story. Long before the Dales Compact and the advent of Dalereckoning, Netheril arose as a human empire founded on the might of magic learned from the golden Nether Scrolls, artifacts at least as old as the creator races. Flying Netherese cities drifted through the skies all over the North, but primarily they hung high over a verdant land that is now the desert of Anauroch.
Then Karsus, one of the mighty mages of Netheril, dared to believe that he could wrest control of the Weave and become a god himself. He almost succeeded, but in his failure Karsus killed the goddess of magic, shredded the Weave, and sent the floating enclaves that couldn’t flee to other planes crashing to the ground. From the moments after the crash when the spilt blood was still fresh to the present day’s moss-covered or dune-buried stones, the ruins of Netheril and its arcane secrets have drawn many to their doom.
The hamlet of Longsaddle is little more than a row of buildings on either side of the Long Road, halfway along the lengthy journey from Triboar to Mirabar. A path leaves the road here and winds to the Ivy Mansion, the great house of the wizards of the Harpell family. Since the Harpells founded the town more than four centuries ago, they have brooked little nonsense and less mayhem. Their own behavior sometimes borders on the bizarre and can be disturbing — they once turned two rival sects of Malarites into rabbits for disturbing Longsaddle with their squabbles, leaving them at the mercy of the predators they had honored — but they are one of the most potent gatherings of mages anywhere in the North.
The Harpells are a jovial, if insular, lot. All wizards, they tend to marry wizards as well, and the elder women of the family (by blood or marriage) set the course for the house and utterly rule matters within the Ivy Mansion. The family takes on a number of apprentice wizards, using them for menial tasks and for basic defense of Longsaddle. Some apprentices are often the inadvertent test subjects for an experimental spell, but such is the danger of apprenticing to the Harpells. It is likely this spirit of experimentation that caused the Harpells to found their town so far away from other settlements. Young wizards with oddly sized or shaped limbs, strange hair color, or shifting forms are fairly common sights in Longsaddle, not surprising to locals though they might give visitors pause.
Given the Harpells’ reputation as powerful wizards, and the sheer number of them, there is no shortage of folk poking around Longsaddle and the nearby lands hoping to discover caches of magic, hidden like children’s treasures. Of course, few, if any, such bundles exist, but the locals draw no shortage of entertainment from sending would-be thieves on grand chases for wands, rings, and other magic trinkets that any prudent person would realize simply don’t exist. After all, if the average trader in Longsaddle knew where powerful magic was located, he would be more likely, down the years, to try to claim it.
The primary business of Longsaddle is ranching, and the lands surrounding the village are dominated by hundreds of ranches and farms of every sort and size, from tiny horse farms to great fields of cattle. During those days that livestock are brought in for trading, Longsaddle is a dusty, noise-filled place, with the sounds of the animals competing with the shouts of farmers hoping to sell their goods.
At all other times, it’s a quiet, almost sleepy hamlet, except when the booming reverberation of a Harpell-crafted spell breaks the silence. The family is constantly researching magic both old and new, and twisting spells and rituals into interesting (to them) innovations. This proclivity has prompted them to surround Ivy Mansion with as many magical wards as the family can muster, in order to protect the populace from an errant explosion, terrifying illusion, or the odd, galloping horse of lightning speeding by.
Several businesses designed to attract travelers stand in Longsaddle, if for no other reason than travel along the well-named Long Road can be tiresome. The first is the Gilded Horseshoe, an old inn to the west of the road that serves fine food and drink, offers comfortable beds, and is close enough to the Ivy Mansion that no one would dare disturb it or its guests. The owners have access to some of the choicest cuts of meat in Longsaddle, and as a result, their roasts and stews are exquisite.
Across the road, the Ostever family serves as the local slaughterer and butcher for folk wishing to take meat, rather than live animals, away from Longsaddle. Rumor holds that the sausages have much improved down the years but buyers are advised to “mind the tusks” by locals, a reference to an old joke that none remember. Folk willing to wait can have the able hands of the Ostevers perform a slaughter, hanging, dressing, and packing for them, though this process is likely to take days longer than most travelers can spare.
There is entertainment to be had at the Gambling Golem, where cheaters in the card or dice games are tossed out into the street, and a local marbles game known as scattershields is popular. Dry goods, candles, lanterns, saddles, rope, and wagon wheels are available from a number of other shops.
It can’t be stressed enough that while the Harpells have little interest in the daily running of Longsaddle, it is undeniably their town. They rarely suffer insults, and never tolerate violence against themselves, their family, or the locals. A conflict involving the Harpells is likely to end swiftly and bloodily, and (unless the offender is convincingly apologetic, unconscious, dead, or forgiven of the wrongdoing) will often draw additional Harpells to support their kin. Harpell supports Harpell in all public matters, and no one bothers to record the numbers and names of those that forgot that fact.
Aside from the Harpells, the dominant families of Longsaddle are ranchers: the Cadrasz, Emmert, Kromlor, Mammlar, Sharnshield, Suldivver, and Zelorrgosz families have ranched in or near Longsaddle for generations, and influence most of the daily life there. They set the market days, help resolve disputes among families, and broker purchases when a farmer or businessperson dies without an heir. They settle smaller matters and keep the peace as best they can, knowing full well that if the Harpells need to get involved in a dispute, there is always the possibility of an offender’s being blasted into nothingness.
These families are also the ones most likely to hire outsiders to deal with matters on the ranches, whether an orc raid or the appearance of lycanthropes in the area (though it’s rumored that the latter creatures may be the descendants of one of the Harpells). The major ranching interests often hire adventurers not only to further their own aims or provide for defense, but to secretly hinder or harm one another and gain an advantage in their ongoing competition. Adventurers that go too far on such a mission can be explained away as foolish outlanders, and if they offend a Harpell and get blasted in the middle of the Low Road, there will be no one left to ask about the matter. My best advice is to be mindful of the scent of magic in the air and act accordingly.
Mirabar is a human city that rests atop dwarven caverns. On the surface, humans dominate the population, with some dwarves mixed in, and a handful of gnomes and halflings. The uppermost level of the undercity is mostly dwarves, with some few humans. The mixing of races is due to convenience of trade, preference, or skill; just as some few humans like to mine, to imbibe strong dwarven drink, and to work underground, so do a minority of dwarves take to the open sky, doing dock work, or even manning and building ships. The lower levels beneath Mirabar are all dwarven, as even the most dwarf-like human can live so deep below ground for only so long. Almost all of its citizens, regardless of race, honor Moradin and the dwarven gods, making Mirabar a dwarven city in spirit and ethics, if not entirely by population, much in the way my own Silverymoon speaks to elven ideals of natural beauty.
Long ago, the great dwarven kingdom of Gharraghaur stood to the west of Delzoun, delving mines near the River Mirar and finding great, near-endless veins of gems. Like many of the dwarven realms, Gharraghaur fell to marauding orcs, which destroyed the kingdom and its capital city but couldn’t take advantage of the wealth therein. For millennia the lower city lay empty, until some eight hundred years ago, when Prince Ereskas of Amn settled the same spot, creating the city of Mirabar (coincidentally echoing the dwarven “-bar” naming convention used for citadels throughout the North). It was only when dwarves returned to work the mines below that Mirabar began to see its fortunes increase.
Mirabar is ruled by its hereditary marchion, Selin Raurym, who issues edicts fed to him by the Council of Sparkling Stones. The council is a group of dwarves and some few humans elected to make policy for the city, who determine where the output of Mirabar’s mines will be sold. Although the council has long kept Mirabar associated with the Lords’ Alliance, it is the marchion who negotiates with his fellow lords. Thus far, Selin Raurym has proved far more capable than his predecessors at making beneficial decisions for the city, and the council has given him great leeway to speak for Mirabar outside the walls. His threat to pull out of the Alliance following its failure to aid the northern cities against the most recent orc hordes, though considered by some an empty gesture, has brought Mirabar more advantageous relationships with Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate, something which has not gone unappreciated by the council.
The city’s guard, the Axe of Mirabar, exists primarily to deter and prevent sabotage of the mines, without which Mirabar would collapse. The guard also provides swift and capable defense and law enforcement within the city. The wealth of Mirabar is so great that it maintains docks, ships, and fortified harbors on many of the islands in the Sea of Swords, and as such the city is always seeking magical and military support for these defenses. Where other cities might use such vast mountains of coin as Mirabar possesses on shows of prosperity, Mirabarrens use it for more functional goals, making sure that the city’s defenses are new, that its gates close securely when they are moved, that its buildings and walls are strong and secure. Given the recent destruction of Sundabar’s surface city at the hand of orc armies, such expenditures are well justified, since no one in Mirabar wishes to see the surface city wiped out. It would simply be bad for business. Mirabar spares no expense in defending its wealth, and hires as many mages and adventurers as necessary to clear threats away from roads, investigate sabotage, and otherwise protect its vital trade.
With the rise of Mithral Hall in the last century, and now Gauntlgrym, Mirabar fears its place as the armory of the North is at risk. ‘The miners, smelters, and smiths of Mirabar work ever harder to increase their output and improve their craft, while the jewelers and enamelers study ways to incorporate ancient techniques of melding dwarven, human, and elven designs together in their work, in the manner of old Phalorm.
Mirabarren (or to some, just Mierren) dwarves like to cultivate long, wide (as opposed to tapered or pointed) beards and tight braids of hair growing elsewhere than on the chin, a fashion copied by some local humans. They love polished, everbright-treated sheets of metal, particularly copper, used as doors or mirrorlike wall-panel inlays. They often set gems into the pommels and nonworking ends of tools and weapons. Mierren dwarves tend to be wealthy, to have personal collections of unusual and rare gems, to use seals made of gems carved into signet rings, and to be investors in ventures (rather than property) up and down the Sword Coast. They are sophisticated and worldly, and they decry the isolationist and xenophobic attitudes of some dwarves. Mierren dwarves demonstrate their own broader attitudes by being the diplomatic traders and power brokers in trademoots and agreements in Fireshear and Neverwinter and everywhere else they can worm their way into, among dwarves and between dwarves and non-dwarves.
The dwarves were the first to discover the secret of treating their metal with everbright. The technique has been imitated by other races, to varying degrees of success. Armor, weapons, and other metal objects to which everbright is applied maintain their luster without needing to be polished, and are resistant to natural (and, in some cases, magical) pitting, rusting, and tarnishing.
To other dwarves, Mierren are translators and local guides and “the people who know the right people” in human-dominated cities everywhere along the Sword Coast and in much of the Heartlands. Most adult Mierren have dealings with a variety of human costers and merchants, taking care to avoid exclusivity or cultivate too narrow a range of business partners and contacts, so they control their own destinies and fortunes. They abhor the thought of humans having the slightest chance of dominating them.
The wealth that flows through Mirabar has not only extended the reach and worldly knowledge of all Mierren, it has enabled them to indulge all sorts of personal hobbies, such as art collections (statuettes and paintings in particular). The private living quarters of most Mierren feature comfortable furniture, painted artwork large and small, statuary, and hanging chimes — often metallic, but always soft and pleasant, never loud or strident. Gems are plentiful in Mierren families and are used as currency and in all manner of personal adornment, rather than being hidden away. Semiprecious stones line many of the streets in Mirabar, and gorgeous inlays mark important corners and intersections, some so new that one can still smell the jeweler’s dust.
Still, despite the city’s overall wealth, there are rich and (relatively) poor Mirabarrans. Not everyone shares in the coin the city’s sales bring in, and wage workers whose income is determined by a day’s labor or a month’s output can’t hope to expect that a well-worded contract by an employer will enrich them in the least. Wealthy merchants and business owners are careful not to show their success ostentatiously; their clothing might be of richer fabrics, but still in the same styles and colors as the garb of poorer folks. Waiting rooms and front halls in the fortified homes of the rich are just as sparsely furnished as those in poorer homes. Keeping up the appearance of relative equality in fortunes is vital, for if anyone in a position to commit a violent act — say, a weaponsmith with access to great stores of swords and axes — knew just how wealthy the wealthiest Mirabarrans were, there would very likely be bloodshed before the offended parties were satisfied.
A short while ago, Neverwinter was beset by all manner of damage, danger, and gloom. Now, the orcs that once menaced the city have moved east to join their brethren in being crushed by the dwarves. The Chasm that rent the land has been sealed by powerful magic. The High Road has been cleared and rebuilt, and trade has resumed with Waterdeep and realms to the south. What was the blasted, wounded city of Neverwinter just a decade ago is now an exciting, humming place, where folk seem eager to throw off the hardships from which they have emerged and create a new, brighter future for their city.
Nearly half a century ago, Mount Hotenow (the nearby volcano that perpetually heats the river flowing through the city) violently erupted, destroying much of Neverwinter, killing thousands, and leaving in its wake a great, gaping chasm that split the city. Neverwinter was in ruins, and external influences — from Netheril to Thay to Lord Dagult Neverember of Waterdeep to the agents of the Hells themselves — sought to exert control over the city. Many folk fought to stem all these dangers, and eventually, a measure of peace fell over Neverwinter.
Since Dagult Neverember was deposed as the Open Lord of Waterdeep, he has thrown his full attention and effort into the rebuilding of the city from which he claims descent. Whatever people’s opinions are of his claim to Neverwinter’s throne, he has proven a capable, inspiring leader over these last few years, and the population has embraced him as Lord Protector. He engineered the sealing of the Chasm and the restoration of the High Road, and is seeking other ways to repair and improve the city. Even if he can never prove his descent from Lord Nasher Alagondar, the people of Neverwinter have accepted his leadership. (My rumored personal dislike of Lord Neverember has nothing to do with my assessment of his leadership; I merely find him an intolerable flirt.)
Neverember’s influence radiates outward from the Protector’s Enclave, centered at the Hall of Justice. With Tyr restored to life and his worship returning to prominence, the Lord Protector has moved into a modest, private villa. This sacrifice — and the renewal of Tyr’s faith in the previous center of his operations — is only further proof, to some, that Neverember deserves to rule Neverwinter. As yet, Castle Never remains a dangerous ruin, but Neverember has plans to reclaim and rebuild it as a symbol of the city’s rejuvenation.
The faithful of Oghma have arrived in Neverwinter to restore the House of Knowledge to its former glory, but beyond that, shrines to all manner of gods have been cobbled together in every corner of the city.
As the city restores itself, there are likely to be requests for ennoblement and the privileges that provides, and certainly, trading interests will emerge. But Lord Protector Neverember is sure to point out that he is merely a protector, not a king, and so can’t invest or recognize anyone. Guilds may form, but it is sure to be years, if not decades, before any prove strong enough to persevere over their rivals.
Increasingly, calls come from the citizenry for the enforcers out of Mintarn to be replaced by respectable, local guards who have a personal interest in the defense of Neverwinter. This public sentiment has led to some neighborhoods organizing their own makeshift militias, and the Lord Protector wants to avoid conflict between them and the mercenaries he has hired. As a result, Neverember has slowly been drawing down the number of soldiers from Mintarn, as the citizens that grew up defending the makeshift Wall from threats out of the Chasm prove themselves capable of becoming a proper military force. Both Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep have offered to help train the new guards of Neverwinter, but Lord Neverember prefers the assistance of seasoned adventurers to the ignominy of seeking help from his former city.
With the restoration of nearby Gauntlgrym, Neverwinter hopes to have a close ally that can provide it with stout armor and strong weapons. Although the city presently has little to offer, trade activity is rapidly growing in Neverwinter, as word of its rebirth opens it up to shipping from the Sea of Swords, goods from the north, and coin from the south. Adventurers come to Neverwinter seeking work and following rumors of nearby treasures, and often find additional employment clearing out dangerous corners of the city and escorting the ever more numerous caravans up and down the High Road. It is the Lord Protector’s hope that, with commerce and income both on the rise, and talented craftfolk returning to ply their trades, that Neverwinter will someday again be worthy of its former epithet: the City of Skilled Hands.
Opposition to Neverember’s authority still exists, but with no unified leadership and no other power in the city to which to appeal, the rebels are slowly turning away from their resistance and toward helping the city rebuild. Many of the Sons of Alagondar, a rebel group that initially opposed Lord Neverember, have begun to volunteer as replacements for the Mintarn mercenaries currently patrolling the city. If the Sons of Alagondar can be brought into line with his goals, Neverember hopes to use that achievement as a draw for wealthy Waterdhavian nobles — who have been reluctant to link their fortunes to a failed Open Lord who was effectively exiled from Waterdeep — to invest in the city and perhaps rebuild some of the noble villas in that district as places for them to stay when they do business.
With the Chasm closed, and the wall that separated the rest of the city from its horrors now torn down, a great swath of Neverwinter lies empty, with no inhabitants and plentiful chunks of stone plundered from ruins all across the city. Anyone who is willing to do so can come to this area, claim a portion of land, and build a structure in which to live or work. There aren’t yet any guilds to restrict trade or construction, and no nobles to be petitioned or placated. Those seeking to create a home or start a business can simply do so, and even those without skills or money can use their hands and backs to provide until they can set up a place for themselves.
Along the river, many of the merchant villas are being claimed and restored by folk who have heard rumors of what Neverwinter once was, and might be again. Some have no skills to speak of, and many have no wealth, but all come with the desire to work and to enrich themselves in the process. New stores and workshops open by the tenday, and workers without training offer their services as laborers or apprentices; those that fail move on to other employment, taking advantage of the multitude of opportunities the city now offers. Those with no other options can get work dredging or mapping the city’s sewers for the Lord Protector, a task made necessary by the cataclysm that created the Chasm.
Like any city, Neverwinter isn’t without its drawbacks. Though most folk are willing to work, some steal as a means of making their living, and prey upon those who have little to be taken. Food is sometimes scarce, as inns and taverns underestimate the number of guests they will receive, or merchants simply run out of goods to sell. It’s likely to be a few years before the city entirely shakes itself of these ills, but for some, the uncertainties of life in Neverwinter are what make the place exciting. For many traders, in particular those who produce or vend the grains and vegetables needed in the city, it is a vast opportunity to both aid a fledgling power and get quite rich in doing so.
Long a powerful and influential member of the Lords’ Alliance — and, for its entire existence, the Silver Marches of Luruar — Silverymoon is what many cities aspire to be: a quiet, peaceful realm, where many races live together for common knowledge, celebration, and defense. The city is peopled primarily by the “goodly” races (humans, dwarves, gnomes, elves, halflings, and half-elves), but no being is turned away from Silverymoon because of its race — though a drow or an orc proving true to one’s blood is sure to be punished in full for transgressing against the peace of the city. I will make no secret of my love for my home in the following summary, but I will endeavor to be as evenhanded as I can in describing it.
The Gem of the North is a stunning place of sweeping curves, soaring towers, and structures built into the living trees. To many elves, the city is a reminder of the ancient elven cities of old; some call it the Myth Drannor of the North, even nowadays after the restoration and subsequent fall of that fabled city. Even where stone is employed in construction, ivy and other living plants grow through, over, or around most structural elements, giving most of the city a green cast.
Despite its arboreal architecture, Silverymoon is very much civilized, boasting schools of music and magic, a great library, bardic instruction, and temples or shrines to Mielikki, Oghma, Silvanus, Sune, Tymora, and Mystra. Knowledge, both the acquisition of it and the wisdom that comes from diligent study, is the real treasure of Silverymoon, as much as magic or wealth could ever be.
While it is easy and pleasing enough to get lost among the trees of the city, anyone who comes close enough to the River Raurin is awed by the vision of the Moonbridge: the great arch of silvery force that spans the water. Even for those native to the city, it is a powerful, moving sight, and some claim to see the goddess Lurue (for whom the city is named) dancing above the motes of the bridge when no one else is watching.
Given its beauty, a visit to Silverymoon is among the most memorable experiences most non-Silvaeren might have. Even among those that regularly fight monsters or handle magic, Silverymoon is a place of quiet, contemplative beauty, splendid opportunities for learning, and respite from the harsher realities of the North.
Folk seeking knowledge that has been lost or hidden often come to Silverymoon seeking a means to find it, whether by studying in the Vault of the Sages or perusing the Map House for the location of a lost city or grove. These are but two of the many buildings and houses of learning in the Conclave of Silverymoon, the great center of knowledge and wisdom that forms much of the city’s southern part. If a map, a book, or a spell exists anywhere in Faerûn, knowledge of it likely exists here, even if only a mere mention in a tome or a recollection of one of the city’s great sages. Candlekeep might be the greatest assembly of written knowledge anywhere in the world, but in the end, that place represents accumulation for its own sake. Silverymoon is where study and wisdom are honored. If your charge is to translate an ancient tome in a lost language, to learn the proper intonation of a complex song, or to better understand the cryptic writings of a long-dead sage, there is no better place to seek aid than Silverymoon.
It is an easy thing to come to Silverymoon seeking knowledge of one subject, and find oneself so enraptured by the study that it takes a lifetime to accomplish — or to realize that it was the study, rather than the sought-after fact, that one truly desired. Although tutors and sages in every field can be found In Silverymoon, rarely is interaction with one so simple as to ask a question and be provided an answer. Learning to cast a particular spell, to find an ancient ruin, or understand a specific secret might involve undergoing months of instruction to prove to a teacher that the knowledge imparted is being entrusted to a deserving person.
In the east of the city is the High Palace, capital of the city and of the fallen state of Luruar. Lord Methrammar Aerasumé lives in this high, slender-spired structure. The merlons of its battlements are carved to resemble unicorn heads. The soldiers of the High Guard, clad in shining silver plate, protect the residence and seat of power, and keep those out that don’t have business within.
Silverymoon has long been led by a high mage. One of the longest ruling, and certainly the most influential of these, Alustriel Silverhand, stepped down more than a hundred years ago to become the High Lady of Luruar, and was succeeded by Taern Hornblade. Though he ruled wisely over the last century, Taern recently relinquished the city’s leadership to High Marshal Methrammar Aerasumé, Alustriel’s half-elf son and the leader of Silverymoon’s armed forces. Taern still speaks for the city on Methrammar’s behalf at meetings of the Lords’ Alliance, as the new ruler is far too blunt and impatient to suit the other lords of the compact.
Silverymoon is defended by several forces. First are the Knights in Silver, the shining-armored warriors that patrol the city and the nearby lands. Officers of the Knights are well trained in tactics and military history, and have high opinions of their own abilities and those of their comrades — opinions that are very often borne out. They are bolstered by the Spellguard, a cadre of powerful wizards and sorcerers that train in battle magic. Last is the city’s own mythal, the great field of magical force that prevents the inhabitants of the city from engaging in all manner of spellcasting. In particular, spells that summon flame, conjure creatures, or permit teleportation fail when their target is within the bounds of the mythal. Should a foe try to traverse the Moonbridge, the span can be willed (by the city’s rulers, and certain others specially attuned to the mythal) out of existence, dropping attackers into the river.
No city’s prestige was harmed more than Silverymoon’s by the recent war and the subsequent dismantling of the Silver Marches. Though they tried to bolster the nearby cities, the Silvaeren were accused of providing insufficient and incompetent support to Sundabar, the surface population of which was entirely wiped out. In the end, all of the dwarven states stepped away from Luruar, and without the support of those kingdoms or the leadership that Alustriel provided at its founding, the confederacy collapsed. Taern Hornblade isn’t as powerful a voice in the Lords’ Alliance as Alustriel was, either, in part because his affection and respect for the former High Lady has been extended, in large part, to her sister Laeral, now the Open Lord of Waterdeep.
Despite reports of her death decades ago, rumors have recently reached the city that High Lady Alustriel is in fact alive and active in southern lands. Seemingly, she has contacted neither her son nor her former comrade, Taern Hornblade — though given how widely known Taern’s hopeless love for the High Lady was, and the long years he took to overcome his grief, it’s not certain how he would react upon receiving proof of her survival.
Silverymoon has nonetheless long been known as a safe haven for Harpers in the North, because the city doesn’t see the aims of the Alliance as conflicting with Those Who Harp. Where other cities’ rulers might see the presence of the Harpers as a threat to their authority, Silverymoon desires an end to tyranny as fervently as the Harpers do, and thus the greater good is served. At the same time, some Silvaeren believe that the city’s tolerance of certain other members of the Alliance (some mention Mirabar, others Baldur’s Gate) is somewhat naive.
Rising from the shores of its deep harbor to ring the great mountain standing tall out of the Sea of Swords is Waterdeep, the City of Splendors and the Crown of the North. To all of Faerûn, this great metropolis stands as the pinnacle of what a great city might be, in wealth, influence, and stability. Here, the citizens work, the nobles sneer, and the great masked lords plot and scheme, all while merchants dance between them to collect their coins and continue profiting as best they can. Waterdeep’s shops and merchants offer goods of every sort from every corner of Toril, and even the rarest of items can be procured, given sufficient coin and patience. Adventurers lacking one or the other can very easily find all manner of employment, from simple escorting of caravans, to guarding nobility, to investigating a ruin or rumor of monsters anywhere in the North.
Though it has stood for hundreds of years, Waterdeep is only now returning to its status of a century and a half ago. The recent disruptions began when the gods walked the Realms and slew each other before the eyes of mortals, until they walked back to their divine domains through the very streets of Waterdeep itself. Decades later, more deities began dying off, magic failed, and all manner of catastrophes started altering the very nature of the city. Lord Neverember wasted the city’s navy and then, instead of rebuilding it, hired sailors out of Mintarn (and profited from the endeavor).
Now, the City of Splendors is on the mend. The harbor has been cleared of the broken ships that made up the former district of Mistshore, and Waterdeep again has its own navy. The city’s Guard (its army), Watch (police force), Navy, and it famous Griffon Cavalry are all being reformed, but all of that might be a matter of years in the settling. A plague chased most residents out of the Warrens and Downshadow, and living or digging below the city’s surface has been deemed illegal except by those authorized by the lords to do so. Somehow, even the air seems fresher. In the words of one wise moon elf matron (whose status as my aunt has positively no bearing on her wisdom), “Waterdeep is back to where it was when I was a lass.”
Perhaps most surprising of the newest developments is the return of Laeral Silverhand to Waterdeep. Long thought dead, she reemerged only recently, and swiftly rallied the masked lords to support her supplanting of Dagult Neverember as Open Lord of Waterdeep. Very few remember Lady Laeral from her previous time in the city, but those elves who have been living in there for the last century claim she is more reserved than she once was. The new Open Lord doesn’t speak of her family — any mention of her children, her late husband (the fabled Blackstaff, Khelben Arunsun), or any of her famed sisters is cause for her to cut short whatever conversation may be in progress at the time. Her relationship with the current Blackstaff, Vajra Safahr, is cordial, but the two are seldom seen in one-on-one conversation, and most think that Lady Laeral has little to learn from a mage who isn’t nearly her equal.
As always, the Open Lord is selected and supported by several masked lords, who bear masks, robes, and amulets to disguise themselves when publicly sitting in judgment or council, and who make policies for Waterdeep. Every Waterdhavian has suspicions as to whether this or that influential citizen is or isn’t a lord of the city, and some are willing to make their beliefs public, but few who are confronted in such a way have ever claimed to be a lord, and none of those have also produced proof of that assertion.
Not hidden at all are the other lords of the city — the nobles of Waterdeep, whose high-nosed behavior and heavy-handed spending establish fashion in the city, which in turn creates trends all across the North for clothing, weaponry, favored trinkets, music, and any other preference that can be changed at a whim by those with enough coin to afford the expense. More than seventy-five noble families call Waterdeep home, representing between them all manner of business interests, rivalries, and internal strife.
Being a noble carries with it a great deal of advantage. Operating from one’s place at the head of the economic and social hierarchy, a noble can easily lift a mediocre craftperson out of obscurity, dash the hopes of a wealthy merchant of ever securing another contract within the city, or provide the backing an ambitious adventuring band needs to find fame and great wealth. The only true competition nobles face is from one another. Such rivalries are the source of much gossip and intrigue as the nobles of Waterdeep always try to maintain at least a veneer of civility in their squabbles.
Although they seldom agree on much, one matter that all the noble houses see the same way is that their status should not be tainted by newcomers, and certainly not by anyone so brightcoin as to purchase one’s way to a noble title. When during Lord Neverember’s tenure it became legal for impoverished houses to sell their titles, and thus allow others to become noble, many leaders of the old-blood houses were apoplectic, particularly after some purchasers lost all their coin and sold their titles again within a season or two. Open Lord Laeral Silverhand has, to the relief of those leaders, seen the folly of this decision, and gathered enough support among the Lords of Waterdeep to not only reverse it, but to restore titles and lands to noble families who lost them through folly. The change has won her much support among the nobles. Now Zhents and Thayans and Baldurian merchants have coin enough to buy property within the city, if they choose, but that is no reason to award them noble titles and legal rights, instead of merely a mansion, for doing so.
THE WARDS OF WATERDEEP
Waterdeep has long been divided into several large regions called wards. To locals these are essential to Waterdeep, but outsiders often lose track of which ward they’re in or what a ward’s name signifies. The names of the wards suggest the contents of the buildings and the character of the activity in each one, but no laws exist that restrict a given activity or class of people to any specific ward.
Castle Ward. As the name indicates, Castle Ward contains Castle Waterdeep, Piergeiron’s Palace, and many other public buildings of the city. This ward is home to mainly the wealthy or influential who can’t count themselves among the nobility. Other structures are taken up by educational or religious concerns that primarily serve the city at large, not the residents of the ward.
Dock Ward. Most of the city’s harbor area is located in Dock Ward, as are the businesses and warehouses that depend on the city’s newly restored harbor. It’s a crowded neighborhood of many winding streets, where folk are comfortable making deals that might in other places provoke the displeasure of the law.
Field Ward. Of relatively recent vintage, the Field Ward stands between the inner and outer north walls of the city (an area formerly used as a caravan grounds). This ward grew up in a messy, unregulated fashion and is home to many of the poorest residents of the city.
North Ward. Home to many noble villas, townhouses, and a great many inns, North Ward is the neighborhood of the respectably wealthy.
Sea Ward. Those whose fortunes are on the rise build their homes in Sea Ward, and they join many long-established noble families in residence. This area in the northwest of the city is home to much of the city’s wealth, the location of the grandest villas of the city’s noble families (except for those in North Ward).
Southern Ward. Stables, warehouses, and shops related to overland trade dominate Southern Ward. Most residents are hardworking folk that load and unload caravan carts, and otherwise perform low-paying work.
Trades Ward. A narrow slice of land between the Castle Ward and the City of the Dead, Trades Ward is the center of commerce for the city, with most of the smaller transactions and respectable trade taking place here.
City of the Dead. The city’s walled cemetery, the City of the Dead is the only place in Waterdeep where it is legal to bury the deceased. It is used by many citizens as a public park during the day, a lovely green space of pretty mausoleums and grand statues in which to escape the city’s hustle and bustle.
Undercliff. While not considered by many to be a ward of the city, the little villages and many farms that sprawl across the land east of the city were lawfully incorporated into Waterdeep when it moved a barracks and training facility to the area.
Situated in the fork where the Rivers Surbrin and Dessarin join near the Evermoor Way, Yartar is a fortified town that, were it not for its own petty, internal squabbles, might wield more influence among its fellows in the North. Currently, it is most remarkable for its barge-building operation (and that industry’s importance to the commerce of other settlements) and its annual fairs.
Each summer, except in years when Shieldmeet occurs, a vast Hiring Fair is held in Yartar, during which all sorts of undesirable folk gather north of the town looking for work as guards, miners, farmhands, guides, or other unskilled laborers. For the most part, those who attend this fair are brutes, bandits, freeholders whose lands can no longer sustain them, or Uthgardt who wish to be among “civilized” folk for a short time — but occasionally, a strong hand or a skilled warrior can be culled from the bunch. While this event is going on, Yartar is overrun with visitors it would rather not welcome, who steal goods, sell wares in the street (sometimes those they have just stolen), meet unscrupulous contacts to hand off coin, information, or purloined items, and engage in the occasional spell duel. It’s quite common for a new adventuring company to come into being at one of these fairs, when those who stand out from the crowd because they have legitimate skills to sell gravitate toward one another and decide to form a group.
In those years when Shieldmeet falls, the town is instead treated to a great festival on that day, sponsored mainly by the local temple to Tymora, the Happy Hall of Fortuitous Happenstance. The Shieldmeet festival features a number of games of chance, skill, and bravery, from dice and darts, to drunken running, to wrestling and other physical contests. Occasionally, the Tymoran priests use this festival to identify adventurers whom the goddess has called to a particular task, selected for a blessing, or otherwise marked for some undetermined destiny.
Whether during the Hiring Fair or the Shieldmeet festival, each summer at least one adventuring band seems to get its start in Yartar. Most fall into obscurity, but the Smiling Company — the still-active portion of a larger band of warriors who gathered in Yartar nearly a decade ago — still enjoys moderate success, and makes annual contributions to the Happy Hall.
Yartar is ruled by a Waterbaron who is elected for life. The current Waterbaron is Nestra Ruthiol, a hot-tempered woman who is wickedly calculating; though she is free with her words and her insults, she seldom takes action against rivals unless she is sure such can be done to the most efficiently painful effect. During my last visit to Yartar, accusations arose against the Waterbaron that she had murdered a man, Kaidrod Palyr, who was later revealed to have been her lover. His body was found in the river, with the soaked remnant of what appeared to be Nestra Ruthiol’s favorite cloak. That she loudly and publicly argued with Palyr’s wife, Tiarshe, shortly before the accusations came to light did little to help her reputation, or the impression of her innocence. When she was finally cleared of the charges, Waterbaron Ruthiol made it clear that she didn’t wish to speak of the matter again, and she would ensure that anyone who brought it up in official dealings would be quite unhappy with the results. Though there are whispers, it has not been mentioned in her presence since. Some blame the murder on the Hand of Yartar, the local thieves’ guild, but I believe that Kaidrod was killed, and the Waterbaron was implicated, in order to free up the post for one of her rivals within the city.
It is conflicts and schemes such as this that keep Yartar from gaining prominence in the North. If the town can overcome its internal problems, take advantage of what its fellows in the Lords’ Alliance can offer, and find a way to reap greater profit from its position along major trade routes — where it stands as the gateway to all the settlements of the northeast — Yartar might soon grow in size, wealth, and influence. Physical growth would require clearing terrain for further settlement and building another encircling wall to protect settlers — and additional guards hired to protect those who do the work.
With its location near two great rivers and its proximity to a third (the Laughingflow, forming a trio the locals creatively call the Three Rivers), Yartar is a fishing town, and its tables have fish as fare at every meal. Fresh crabs, eels, and other river life are available both to eat and to purchase, and serve as a primary means of income for the fisherfolk of the town.
The other major industry of Yartar is barge building. Most of the region’s river barges are built, or at least begin their service, in Yartar, and the works of the town’s bargewrights are famous all up and down the Dessarin and its tributaries. It is the importance of Yartar’s barges to the commerce of the North that earned the town a place in the Lords’ Alliance, to ensure that Yartar doesn’t fall to enemies and cause upheaval in the trade network along the rivers.
What can’t be transported to or from Yartar by barge comes and goes by caravan instead, and the town’s location makes it a key stop for most caravans passing between Waterdeep and Silverymoon. In Yartar, a caravan can arrange for swift repairs, replacements of wagon wheels, carts, or full wagons, or the replenishment of tack and other accessories.
Because Yartar has so few industries, and fewer close neighbors, its merchants are often in direct competition with one another, and have neither the resources to seek new customers, nor the space or funds to explore new trades. As a result, a good deal of the gossip, thievery, and assault in Yartar has at its roots one merchant trying to get the upper hand on a rival, either through damage of goods, intimidation of workers, or theft of patrons and customers.
To curb and control rowdiness, the Waterbaron employs the Shields of Yartar, a mounted force of guards who police the town, keep order, and chase off the Uthgardt raids that occasionally menace the lands nearby. The Shields are housed in the Shield Tower, a fortified structure on the west bank of the Surbrin (the town sits primarily on the east), whose outer wall has frequently been torn down and rebuilt. It’s rumored that guardian skeletons rise when unauthorized folk tread the ground between the walls, but no one has tested the area to see if its magic still functions; even if it doesn’t, more than a hundred angry warriors charging out of the tower at trespassers is enough danger to scare people out of pursuing the idea. A fortified bridge connects the banks between the tower and the town proper.
More impressive than either the Shields or the Shield Tower is the Waterbaron’s Barge. This massive vessel can carry two hundred soldiers or seventy-five Shields of Yartar with their horses. Its sides above the waterline are armored with iron. Behind its walls stand multiple crossbow contraptions, each able to fire a dozen bolts at once. When brought to bear against a force on the riverbank, the Shields loose two volleys against their enemies, then bring the Barge ashore and charge. No raiders have stood firm against such an assault.
In the center of town is the Waterbaron’ Hall, a grand structure that is both the ruler’s home and the location where she hears audiences. Feasts are often held here, though more often, the hall sees activity in its side rooms, where merchants dealing in large quantities of goods, or making deals and proposals that affect the entire community, can meet in comfort.
Dwarfholds of the North
Who am I? Son, I’ve got hairs on my back longer than that little beard o’ yours. I fought with Emerus to retake Felbarr, and marched with every dwarf king of the North to win back Gauntlgrym. Lost half my foot to an orc’s blade, and slew every damned one that got in my way marching home. If I want to sit and enjoy my old age now that we finally drove the orcs back, I’ll do just that, and courtesy be damned. I’ve earned my rest. Your little lordling don’t like it, let him come and tell me himself. I’m not getting up until I finish my ale.
— Drorn Waranvil, to the envoy of the Marchion of Mirabar
The history of the dwarves in the North is a long and violent one, dating back more than six millennia. Before there was a Standing Stone in the Dalelands, or a Waterdeep, or a Myth Drannor, there was the brief (in dwarven terms) glory of Besilmer, and the realms of Haunghdannar and Gharraghaur. Ruins now, to be sure, but these kingdoms lasted longer than almost any living realm of humans, even if their works have been forgotten by humans and dwarves alike.
The greatest and most recent of these dwarven realms was Delzoun, also called the Northkingdom. It stretched from the western edge of what was then the Narrow Sea (later, the Great Desert of Anauroch) west almost to present-day Silverymoon, and from the Ice Mountains to the Nether Mountains. Citadels Adbar and Felbarr were fortresses of Delzoun, and Mirabar, Mithral Hall, and Sundabar all owe their existence to that ancient kingdom or its descendants. Fabled Gauntlgrym, said to be touched by the presence of Moradin himself, was built by Delzoun’s dwarves — first as a mine, and then as a city. It was the dwarves of Delzoun who built Ironmaster, too, and all the great mines and renowned forges of the North reside in the halls of the dwarves.
Now, when shield dwarves invoke the name of Delzoun, they are calling upon the glory of all their past accomplishments: every feat of architectural mastery, every fine blade or crushing warhammer forged, every kingdom and battle — won or lost — in defense of their people and the folk around them. The name is as much a battle cry and a badge of honor as it is a call into history, for although every dwarven settlement now has its own masters, kings, and queens, they all respect the memory of the great hammer of Delzoun and the glorious kingdom it represented.
The details in this section are drawn from the extensive teachings of Drorn Waranvil, a longbeard (dwarf elder) who is a retired veteran of the Iron Guard of Citadel Adbar and the Citadel Guards of Felbarr. Drorn fought in the orc wars of both this and the last century, and helped free Citadel Felbarr (twice) and Gauntlgrym before he put down his warhammer a few years ago and began to chronicle his experiences for the benefit of younger dwarves seeking to know more about their heritage and about the world of today from the proper perspective.
FALLEN DWARVEN KINGDOMS AND THEIR MARKS
The North is littered with the remnants of many dwarven realms. Although much of the wealth at these sites has been plundered by monsters and adventurers over the centuries, evidence of the settlements and their borders remains graven on cavern walls, trail markings, and scattered coins. Some of these realms, and the marks that bear testimony to their presence, are detailed below.
Haungdannar. The oldest evidence of dwarven settlement in the North comes from the former site of Haunghdannar. This small coastal realm arose nearly sixty-five centuries ago in the northern Sword Mountains and along the Sword Coast, then fell quickly and mysteriously some fifteen hundred years later. Some records suggest that many of the citizens, driven mad by the sea, sailed westward and never returned. Mark: A mountain, with a left-facing fish, surmounted by a seven-pointed star.
Gharraghaur. The dwarves of Gharraghaur were the original delvers beneath the earth at the site of present-day Mirabar. The kingdom was founded soon after Haunghdannar but didn’t last as long; twelve hundred years later it succumbed to a horde of ravaging orcs. Mark: Four vertical, diamond-shaped gems, three set in a triangle, with the largest in the center.
Besilmer. Nearly six thousand years ago, shield dwarves established an aboveground realm in the Dessarin valley that they named Besilmer. They were the builders of two noted landmarks on the Sword Coast: the Stone Bridge and the Halls of the Hunting Axe. Less than three hundred years after it came into being, Besilmer was overrun and destroyed by a horde of humanoids and giants. Mark: a wheel over a plow.
Delzoun. The great Northkingdom of the dwarves, Delzoun was carved out of the rock beneath the area known until recently as the Silver Marches. Founded soon after the fall of Besilmer, Delzoun remained a great power for nearly four thousand years, until orc hordes and subterranean monsters did it in. Many of Delzoun’s greatest works, citadels such as Sundbarr and Adbar, survive and thrive yet today. Mark: a horizontal, double-headed hammer in a triangle of three sparkling gems.
In the extreme north of Faerûn, near the Cold Wood, lie the Ice Mountains. There, in the bitter cold, stands the eternal fortress of Citadel Adbar, the last great remnant of the Northkingdom, and glory of fallen Delzoun. For nearly eighteen centuries, Adbar has stood strong against every threat from every foe, and stood fast, to the great pride of its residents and our people throughout the region.
From the surface, Citadel Adbar looks less like a castle or a human city than a mountain carved to suit the purposes of the dwarves who live there. The two great towers that stand uppermost are ringed with vicious dragonspikes to keep large creatures from landing to attack the structures directly. The great chimney of the city’s central foundry stands between them, belching smoke like a volcano about to erupt. Ringing the citadel is a host of platforms, battlements, and arrow slits from where defenders can fire crossbows at anyone foolish enough to attack the city.
For centuries, Adbar has stood as the living monument of the Northkingdom. Already the main fortress of Delzoun when that empire fell, it only grew in importance to the dwarves of the region as other settlements were overrun by orcs, assailed by goblins, or simply disappeared. An orc horde hoping to take Citadel Adbar might rage against its walls, but to little effect, until the great, unyielding granite became the anvil against which they were smashed. The great drawbridge allowed none to pass except welcomed guests, and such guests were few indeed. Standing unconquered, it was the bastion of dwarven hope, glory, and trade.
But now, for the first time in memory, my fellow Adbarran seem truly frightened at the prospect of opening the citadel to any outsiders. Perhaps they are reacting to the recent losses of the war, or the lack of leadership shown by our new king, or mere war-weariness, but for whatever reason Adbar’s gates are even harder to move with soft words than they have been in the past, and there are fewer traders coming out of the city nowadays.
The recent orc wars have cost the kingdom dearly, both in warriors and in leadership. In a short time, our long-ruling king, Harbromm, died. His unprepared twin sons shared the rule until the elder, Bromm, was himself killed by a dragon, leaving young King Harnoth with the rule of the ancient citadel.
What followed was a great bleeding of the realm. Much was required to break the North out of the great siege the Many-Arrows orcs held it under. There are also whispers that King Harnoth led his Knights of the Mithral Shield out into the field to vent his rage and grief on the orcs in ill-advised assaults, winnowing down the once great Knights to fewer than two dozen. The Iron Guard, Adbar’s army, appears as strong as ever it did, but given the extent of the losses against the orcs, it would be little surprise if their newer recruits were more smiths than warriors, serving their realm out of a sense of duty rather than a desire for battle. I served in the Guard for a century, but I’ve yet to test the newcomers to see just what they’re made of.
If you are fortunate enough to be granted entry to Adbar, be wary of walking around on your own. Within the citadel are traps, deadfalls, and other hazards in various places waiting for someone to approach a protected location incorrectly. A guide, if you can find one, is necessary for newcomers to get around safely.
Beneath the citadel proper, miles of dwarf-sized caverns form a confusing maze that frustrates most non-dwarf visitors. These tunnels are what remain of the early mining efforts inside the mountain. Below them lie the great ore mines of today, constantly being worked by crews of engineers and laborers.
By law, the mines are forbidden to visitors — even non-Adbarran dwarves — except in times of great emergency. So, given the impregnable nature of the fortress, no one not of Adbar has yet been privileged enough to witness what occurs down below. The citadel’s Great Wheel, a most impressive sight even to a dwarf, is an ever-turning water wheel that provides power to keep Adbar’s foundries, mines, and other operations working at all times. Near the wheel is the Hall of Moradin’s Forge, a place of worship that reminds every dwarf of the Soul Forger’s strength and enduring protection. One can’t help but feel safe in its presence, and a true dwarf is home in the warmth of Moradin’s shadow.
Given the current state of the surface lands around the citadel, it is no surprise that Adbarran are even more suspicious than usual of caravans and visitors that approach the city by means of an underground route. One such road arrives from the west, connecting Adbar to Mithral Hall and Mirabar through the ancient tunnels of Old Delzoun. Another tunnel leads south from Adbar to meet the Lowroad, which connects the ruins of Ascore in the east to Citadel Felbarr in the west.
No matter where they come from, all roads leading to Adbar converge so that all travelers must confront the great pair of iron doors known as the Caravan Door. Like the rest of Citadel Adbar, this gate has never been breached. Mention the idea of that happening to an Adbarran dwarf, if you’re looking to get a laugh.
THE DIRGE OF DELZOUN
The tale of the great Northkingdom of the shield dwarves, the Dirge of Delzoun takes more than a day to sing in its entirety. The song recounts the history of Delzoun, from its founding millennia ago to the dispersal of its cities and the settlement of the successor realms of dwarves in the North. It is performed only in Dwarvish, and no known written copies have ever been reported. Only a privileged few non-dwarves have ever heard the Dirge in its entirety, and dwarf bards who want to perform this epic must demonstrate great skill in both singing and history.
The current dirgekeeper is Ollyn Grimtongue of Citadel Felbarr, who was appointed by King Emerus Warcrown a century ago, and is the only dwarf permitted to add new lines to the ballad. It is believed that, now that Emerus has gone to the Halls of Moradin, Grimtongue is preparing a stanza honoring his former liege as a hero who rivals the champions of Old Delzoun.
Among the eldest and grandest of the Delzoun holds, Citadel Felbarr was built more than three thousand years ago — a span of time beyond the ability of younger races to comprehend. With great wealth, obtained through profitable trade with Netheril and some of the older human settlements of the North, the dwarves forged themselves a mighty fortress.
Like most dwarven settlements, Felbarr was built around mining. With the fall of Netheril, the reduction of trade along the Lowroad, and signs that the mines beneath the city were reaching the end of their usefulness, the Felbarran abandoned the citadel after nearly two millennia, whereupon a force out of Silverymoon occupied the fortress shortly thereafter. Within half a century, the orcs had come to realize the weakness of the much smaller garrison, and Felbarr was taken by the savages following a four-month siege. The orcs gave the place their tribal name, and the Citadel of Many Arrows stood as a fortress for orcs for more than three hundred years.
The recent story of Citadel Felbarr is the story of my fallen friend, King Emerus Warcrown. In 1367 DR, Emerus led a force of dwarves to seize on the advantage when, to our surprise and delight, another orc horde assaulted the orcs inside the Citadel of Many Arrows. Biding his time until the invaders broke down the gates, Emerus vanquished both tribes of orcs and reclaimed the citadel for the dwarves. After a first, brutal winter, Citadel Felbarr was restored: its forges were relit, and the sound of dwarven hammers began ringing through its halls once again. It was a proud time when we welcomed the following summer with Felbarr back in dwarf hands.
In the most recent war, the orcs again took Citadel Felbarr, but with the help of King Bruenor Battlehammer and an alliance of dwarves from across the North, King Emerus again retook Felbarr, slaying every orc that managed to enter the city and the tunnels below. The grateful king and his loyal warriors then agreed to accompany Bruenor to Gauntlgrym, and there aided him in reclaiming that ancient city as well, but Emerus was mortally wounded in the effort. Bruenor honored King Emerus by naming him the second king of restored Gauntlgrym (after King Connerad was granted the honor of first kingship posthumously), but for most Felbarran dwarves, this honor is an empty comfort, because their beloved hero-king has been taken from them.
Now ruling Citadel Felbarr are King Emerus’s distant kin, King Morinn and Queen Tithmel, who were recently married in a union designed to join separate claims to the throne into one family. Tithmel’s claim to the throne is the stronger by a small degree of kinship, but Morinn is a quieter, more thoughtful ruler. Queen Tithmel has ever been a warrior, and some Felbarran are afraid she may run headlong into the wrong battle before the couple can provide the realm with an heir, and so they hope that King Morinn’s softer influence will help to temper her impetuous nature and keep the city strong through the trying times following the recent conflicts. Although the two monarchs share the rule of the city, and speak with absolute authority, their citizens are wise to listen to what both have to say before deciding how to act on royal edicts.
Most humans know Citadel Felbarr from a distance. They see only a great raised road winding through a vale of broken rock, brooded over by two barbicans known as the Hammer and the Anvil. Two other fortifications loom higher still over the road, embedded in the nearby cliffs and built atop them. These are the North Vigil and the South Vigil. Far beyond them, the massive Rune Gate stands at the end of the road to give entrance into Felbarr, but visitors rarely pass through it.
Like most dwarven cities, Felbarr exists almost entirely underground. However, since it has been invaded by orcs more than once, no accurate maps of the city’s full interior are known to exist, preventing would-be attackers from gaining their information. Dwarves, even those visiting from other realms through the connections with the Lowroad, have little trouble finding their way around, but humans, especially those who can’t read Dwarvish or the shorthand runes carved throughout the city, have a far more difficult time.
Following the war, most Felbarran applauded the dissolution of the Silver Marches. In its time of greatest need, no races other than dwarves moved even the slightest to aid Citadel Felbarr, when more assistance and better coordination might have prevented not only that citadel’s fall, but Sundabar’s as well. Felbarran merchants remain willing to trade with the cities of the North, and will aid the other dwarven kingdoms when necessary, but it is doubtful that Queen Tithmel will ever consider an alliance with humans like the one that created Luruar, even if King Morinn might.
Gauntlgrym has a complex and contradictory history, the gist of it depending on who’s doing the telling. Humans have one story, of what they know from recent years, but for us dwarves, Gauntlgrym is an ancient place, first delved as a mine in the earliest days of Old Delzoun. All sorts of myths persist about the great mithral doors of the city, but at its start, Gauntlgrym was simply a mine. When they delved too deeply, the dwarves there discovered the presence of a great being of flame, sealed the mines, and left. Only later, when the humans begged the Delzoun dwarves to build one, was there ever a city in Gauntlgrym. It arose because, this time, the dwarves succeeded in harnessing the primal power of fire in the depths, thus creating the Great Forge that made the city possible. Or so the stories go.
Despite all the quests undertaken by adventurers down the centuries, none ever truly found the ancient city until the ghosts of Gauntlgrym’s former denizens began calling to living dwarves to seek out the city. And some did — or tried to, anyway. Shortly thereafter, the orc wars began anew, and nearly every dwarf’s attention turned back to the existing dwarfholds and the dangers those places now faced. Gradually, as the orcs were pushed back and the dwarven cities secured anew, those delvers began to recall their promises to their ancestors. Further, when the war ended, King Bruenor Battlehammer of Mithral Hall promised to lead the dwarves to Gauntlgrym and reclaim it for the dwarves of the North.
It took fierce fighting to drive out the creatures that had claimed the city from below, and no one is quite sure who or what — aside from the drow — had tried to occupy Gauntlgrym, but in the end, the dwarven armies prevailed, and Bruenor claimed the victory. King Emerus Warcrown of Citadel Felbarr was gravely wounded, and Bruenor proclaimed him the second king of Gauntlgrym before his death. When dear Emerus passed on, Bruenor assumed the rule of Gauntlgrym, once again abdicating the leadership in Mithral Hall.
There are some who think that King Bruenor has designs on a great, restored empire of Delzoun, with the dwarves of all the North — from Ironmaster to Adbar and Sundabar — swearing him fealty. Others fear that he will punish those settlements that didn’t contribute warriors to the cause to retake Gauntlgrym, but those folk don’t know the returned king very well. If he wants a reborn Delzoun, may Moradin and his children grant him the wisdom to do it right, and the fortitude to see it through. It’s a throne I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
The rise of a dwarven city so close to the coastal powers of Neverwinter and Waterdeep brings about its own special opportunities and concerns. Surely, once they get their forges going properly, the dwarves will sell armor and weapons similar to the excellent pieces they forged in the eastern cities of Old Delzoun, and this merchandise may lessen the demand for goods from more distant dwarven settlements. In particular, Sundabar is worried that its weapons will no longer be sought after along the Sword Coast, and is looking southward for new markets in Elturgard and elsewhere.
Beyond the great mithral doors of the city lies the great Iron Tabernacle, the holy center of Gauntlgrym, which the priests of all the Morndinsamman are meticulously restoring to honor the gods. Every portion of the city has a road or passageway that eventually leads back to this site, a vast cavern of crisscrossing walkways and great stairs. In its lowest levels, the Tabernacle holds the resting places of countless of Gauntlgrym’s dead. Scholars have set about cataloging the lineages recorded here, to give King Bruenor a more complete picture of the bloodlines of the city, and to determine whether any of the living clans have relations or honored dead among those interred.
Deeper still is the Great Forge of Gauntlgrym, where in times past hammers rang off adamantine anvils to forge wonders from every conceivable type of metal. Now the forge might be brought back to life again, and soon — the priests and spellcasters of the city are working on a means of containing the great heat emanating from the Fiery Pit where the being of pure flame is contained, to harness the unquenchable fire as the dwarves of old did.
THE CANTICLE OF GAUNTLGRYM
Passed down by dwarves throughout the North for centuries, the Canticle of Gauntlgrym is now something of an anthem for the reclaimed city. It is often sung on the road by dwarven travelers on their way to make a life in Bruenor’s halls.
Silver halls and mithral doors
Stone walls to seal the cavern
Grander sights than e’er before
In smithy, mine, and tavern
Toil hard in endless night
In toast, oh, lift yer flagon!
Ye’ll need the drink to keep ye right
At forge that bakes the dragon.
Come Delzoun, come one and all!
Rush to grab yer kin
And tell ’em that their home awaits
In grandest Gauntlgrym!
I’ve never set foot in Ironmaster myself, but I fought beside Storn Skulldark, a young warrior-priest of Clangeddin who was taking a sort of “vacation” from it in order to help reclaim Gauntlgrym. His descriptions of life in Ironmaster confirm much of what I’ve heard of the place, and so what I relate to you now is truth as solid as Moradin’s anvil.
The dwarves of Ironmaster don’t want you there, and they want little from the wider world that their traders can’t bring back for them. Approaches to the vale in which their city lies are clearly marked with the symbol of Ironmaster: an anvil on a diamond. Such a mark is your only warning, and those ignorant of its meaning court death at the hands of dwarf patrols that will attack any interlopers. Some innocents have been spared and turned back, but no one should rely on the mercy of a dwarf of Ironmaster.
If you were to pass beyond the borders and into Ironmaster itself, you would behold one of the wonders of the world. The great Shaengarne river rushes through a deep canyon of rock and ice in a series of cascades and waterfalls, throwing up freezing froth as it bashes against massive spires of rock that rise from the riverbed. Ironmaster is built in these spires and into the walls of the canyon, the tunnels and towers strung together by high bridges and cliff-side walkways. To hear Storn talk of the place, you would think that dwarves scrabbling about at such heights through the open air was as normal as badgers in a burrow, but I don’t mind saying I set aside my ale after he spoke of it.
Ironmaster owes its existence to the restlessness of Ilgostrogue Sstar, who left Citadel Adbar long ago with nearly a quarter of the population of the Northkingdom, headed for what is now Mirabar. By all accounts he was mad, and hoped to extend a dwarven empire to the sea. Once there, and settled, he grew restless again, and headed farther west with his troop, finally settling his nerves in sight of the sea over the Shaengarne River. There the dwarf leader died, and his heir demanded that the folk that followed him build a settlement in tribute to Clanmaster Sstar’s grand vision of a dwarven empire. The dwarves found extensive deposits of iron in the hills surrounding their valley, and so named their city Ironmaster.
Ironmaster proved true to its name, and the dwarves have been tunneling out under to tundra for centuries, following the veins of metal. This brought them into contact with duergar of the Deepkingdom a generation back, and Ironmaster has been at war with them ever since. Storn was himself a veteran of many battles for tunnel territory, and despite being so young that not a hair of his beard was white, his knowledge of tunnel-fighting tactics rivaled my own.
Their war with the duergar isn’t Ironmaster’s only secret, however. My friend Storn wielded two silvered axes, as befits any devote follower of Clangeddin Silverbeard, but when I returned to him an axe he had thrown in the heat of battle, I noted its remarkable weight, and Storn told me that the blade was not steel beneath, but adamantine. I questioned him more about this, and his readiness to tell me of its origin speaks to both the abundance of adamantine among the Ironmaster dwarves and of my friend’s innocence about the wider world. Apparently, the dragon-worshiping humans of the distant island of Tuern have long given raw adamantite mined from their island to the smiths of Ironmaster, and they render finished works of adamantine back to the Northlanders in return. Of course, not all the adamantine makes it back to the Northlanders, but since the humans are ignorant of the means of forging adamantine, they are likely none the wiser. What a trove of arms and armor must lie hidden beyond Ironmaster’s borders! Ah well, surely they put it to good use against the duergar.
I don’t think Storn will mind my sharing his city’s secrets. You can go and ask him if you like. He’ll no doubt enjoy another little “vacation” from the war in the tunnels.
The ancestral home of Clan Battlehammer, Mithral Hall was a place of great potential wealth when it was founded in the days of Old Delzoun. Dwarves of Clan Battlehammer left Citadel Adbar, heading west in the hope of finding mithral deposits hidden in the southern spurs of the Spine of the World. These they found, and so began the delving of Mithral Hall, with Clan Ironshield founding Settlestone nearby as a means of buffering the market for the products of the hall’s ore.
Mithral Hall enjoyed centuries of profit before its delving permitted the shadow dragon, Shimmergloom, to break through into the world. A settlement of thousands was reduced to fewer than three hundred — all of them too young, too old, too weak, or too ill to fight — who fled to Settlestone. There, they waited for months for word from King Garumn that their lands were again safe. When messengers to the city didn’t return, it was clear that Mithral Hall had been lost, and its dwarves headed north, first to Ironmaster, where they were treated with such distrust that they couldn’t remain, and then to Icewind Dale.
When Garumn’s grandson, Bruenor, was old enough, and sure of his path, he gathered allies to retake his former homeland, and went on a great many adventures with the group later known as the Companions of the Hall. At the end, Bruenor slew the dragon Shimmergloom and reclaimed Mithral Hall for Clan Battlehammer after almost two centuries.
After Bruenor regained the throne, his personal friends attracted some powerful enemies to Mithral Hall, including the drow of Menzoberranzan. This is one reason, his supporters claim, that the king abdicated in favor of his ancestor Gandalug Battlehammer: to protect the people from his personal enemies. Some of Bruenor’s detractors claim it was wanderlust that made him leave, but none will bother (or dare) to ask him. In any case, when Gandalug died, Bruenor did his duty and resumed the throne.
Before Bruenor died, he was instrumental in gaining dwarven support for the Treaty of Garumn’s Gorge, which brought peace between the dwarves and the orc Kingdom of Many-Arrows. When the orcs, in time, broke their treaty and made war on the North, he returned from the dead almost as though he had been summoned to rally the dwarves to defend themselves and punish their enemies. Some say he delayed receiving the rewards of Moradin’s own Dwarfhome to return and aid his fellows and kinsfolk. Such sacrifice, such loyalty, makes a dwarf king worthy of the crown.
Bruenor Battlehammer, the Eighth and Tenth and Thirteen King of Mithral Hall, no longer leads Mithral Hall or the Battlehammer dwarves that live there. Since his return to life, he has refocused his attention on Gauntlgrym, and doesn’t claim the kingship of his former home. Instead, the crown has been offered to General Dagnabbet Waybeard, granddaughter of Bruenor’s ally, the great general Dagna.
When last I visited Mithral Hall a few years ago, I passed through the rebuilt ruin of Settlestone, where a garrison of two hundred stands to protect the approach to the Mithral Hall. Once I reached the gates, the massive granite doors proved to be heavily guarded, and nearly impossible to open from the outside. Mithral Hall’s defenders call themselves the Host of the Hall, a disciplined, well-armored cohort that is willing to defend the city to the last dwarf. The famed Gutbuster Brigade is part of the Host, battleragers who strike fear into any enemy intelligent enough to realize whom it is they face.
Travelers allowed inside the city are housed in upper-level guest chambers just inside the labyrinth of caverns known as the Maze. From there, paths lead down into the middle levels of the city, past its various furnaces, and onward to either the lower levels and deeper mines (where guests aren’t permitted) or the undercity (where non-dwarf visitors are prohibited).
Despite its recent reputation and the growing legend surrounding its most famous king, Mithral Hall is much more a mine than it is a city. Like most dwarven realms, it lost significant numbers to the orcs, and saw its population further depleted by Bruenor’s quest for Gauntlgrym and the resulting permanent relocation of some of his people. As a result, Mithral Hall’s numbers are sorely diminished at present, and it remains to be seen whether its fortunes will follow suit.
Like Mirabar, Sundabar was a dwarven settlement atop which a human city was built. Sundabar’s recent fall should serve as an example to my fellow dwarves of what can happen when the balance of power shifts toward the surface and into human hands.
The city is descended from the citadel of Sundbarr, a stronghold of Delzoun constructed two thousand years ago around a strange volcanic rift that would come to be known as the Everfire — a mystical source of endless heat for the city’s smithies and foundries that allowed Sundabar to produce works of great wonder. Sundbarr was led by a Forgemaster, the smith most skilled at working with the Everfire. When one Forgemeaster died or another surpassed his or her ability, leadership of Sundbarr changed hands.
So it was until the fleeing remnants of Ascalhorn were pursued to the citadel’s doorstep some time later. Then the Forgemaster of Sundbarr aided the humans in fighting off the demons and other monsters that chased them. In recognition of a human saving his life during the fight, the Forgemaster permitted the refugees to settle on the surface, rather than forcing them to depart once the battle was done. The partnership that grew between dwarves and humans became renowned throughout the North, and the surface city of Sundabar was built up into a mighty fortress of commerce.
However, as the humans flourished above, the dwarf population dwindled, and eventually the Forgemaster was overtaken in prestige and influence by the Ruling Master of Sundabar, who came to speak for the human guilds and merchants of the surface city. One such ruling master, Helm Dwarf-Friend, was so beloved and respected that his descendants were able to crown themselves kings, something no dwarf before or since has dared to do in Sundabar.
King Firehelm, Helm’s grandson, was the king in Sundabar when the city fell to the orc horde. He did not survive. Beyond that tragedy, the recent war did horrific damage to Sundabar and the humans on the surface. A dragon dropped great stones on many of the buildings above, and a good portion of the city’s outer wall was destroyed. Most of Sundabar’s military leadership was wiped out when the building they were meeting in was crushed. Despite the best efforts of Aleina Brightlance of Silverymoon’s Knights in Silver to organize a defense, and the valiant efforts of the Sundabar garrison, orcs streamed into the city, slaughtering the human population on the surface and driving what few defenders remained into the caverns below, and from them many fled through the Underdark. The dwarves of the undercity barricaded themselves in the Everfire caverns, and waited. When the orc warlord Hartusk left only a token garrison behind in the city to slow pursuers, the dwarves emerged from below and set about slaughtering every orc and goblin in Sundabar.
Sundabar is now a dwarven city in its entirety; the human population is gone. Efforts to clear away rubble and debris from the attacks are slow, as most dwarves remain in the sheltered undercity, and those few who have duties on the surface have taken over the buildings with the least damage, scavenging stones from ruined structures to reinforce those that can be salvaged.
Before the war, Sundabar’s surface streets were cobbled smooth, but many of those roads have been destroyed by falling stones, torn up for ammunition or to repair walls, or simply neglected. Now, the surface city is a hollowed-out ruin. Some believe that the city above will be allowed to wither into oblivion, with the exception of the sturdy double wall that surrounds it (and which the dwarves have already repaired). The temples of human deities stand abandoned. The walls are patrolled by a few sharp-eyed sentries, whose duty is to report what they see and to turn away unwanted visitors.
In the center of the upper city, the Circle still stands around the ruin of the Master’s Hall, ready to receive visiting caravans, livestock, and merchants. However, few such visitors arrive, and fewer still are welcomed, as Sundabar prefers to engage in trade nowadays only with other dwarven cities through the Underdark. Were it within the Forgemaster’s power, he would see to it that all commerce entering and leaving the city do so by means of underground traffic, so that most surface trade routes could be abandoned entirely.
Sundarren trust of outsiders is low, and their assessment of humans lower still. During the war, of all the human cities, only Silverymoon made any attempt to aid Sundabar, and that aid was (to dwarven minds) far too little and too late. As a result, with the Silver Marches dissolving, Sundabar wasted no time withdrawing from the Lords’ Alliance as well, officially severing formal ties with the human realms of the North except for those necessary for trade. Given that such trade is now a rare occurrence, most of the human realms see Sundabar as jealously guarding its wealth and cravenly hiding beneath the surface, while the rest of the region does what it can to recover from the recent conflicts. Sundabar’s losses in buildings and in population have done nothing to diminish the contents of its overflowing coffers, and despite its current state, the city remains one of the wealthiest in the North, though most of that coin rarely leaves the city now.
The notion of kingship has come up among the dwarves in the undercity, but the Forgemaster has rejected the idea. Let the dwarves tend to themselves, surely, but there should be no king in Sundabar. I don’t know whether Flamestoker’s reticence is false modesty or true wisdom, or if he is waiting for a warrior-king to claim Sundabar as part of a larger realm.
West of the High Road and hard to the coast near the Mere of Dead Men lies what humans refer to as Thornhold. Once the keep of a petty warlord of the Margaster family of Waterdeep, it was captured and claimed by a paladin as part of the Second Troll War. For many years the Knights of Samular, an order of Tyrran paladins founded by one Samular Caradoon, used Thornhold as its base, though the hold remained the personal property of the Margaster family.
For a brief time a little more than a century ago, Thornhold fell into Zhentarim hands. When the Zhentarim marched through the Underdark to claim Thornhold, they passed through the caverns of Clan Stoneshaft, which had lived below since before the time the surface city was erected by humans. Though the Zhentarim killed or enslaved many of the dwarves there, they failed to destroy the clan. The survivors soon escaped, regrouped, and retook Thornhold by force under their leader, Ebenezer Stoneshaft, with the aid of Samular’s descendant, the Harper Bronywn Caradoon. After the fortress was reclaimed, in a gesture of respect and gratitude, Caradoon bequeathed its custody to Clan Stoneshaft.
The dwarves of Thornhold are all of the Stoneshaft clan, and because tunnels from their home connect to the castle, they refer to the place as Stoneshaft Hold; they use “Thornhold” only when a non-dwarf in a conversation is confused and an explanation must be made. By habit and nature, Stoneshaft dwarves are secretive (even for dwarves), but nonetheless always eager to hear what’s afoot in Waterdeep, particularly any doings involving the Margaster family, whom they see as foes who will one day attack their home to regain it or destroy it if they can’t take it back.
To most humans, Thornhold is merely the fortress above the surface, a castle of gray stone with a thick, curving wall and a two-towered central keep. They don’t know of the caverns below that lead to the Stoneshaft clanhold. The cliff facing the sea is so sheer that no wall need be built to protect that side of the hill on which Thornhold sits. The castle is utterly without adornment or ornamentation, and only crenellations and arrow slits break the solid face of stone. Within the castle, surrounding the bailey, are small buildings of wood and plaster that hold animals and are used for smithwork, candlemaking, laundry, wood repairs (including wagons and the like), and brewing beer.
Long ago, Thornhold was a profitable stopover for caravanners, adventurers, and other travelers journeying north along the High Road past or through the Mere of Dead Men. For decades, the expansion of the Mere in the calamities of the Spellplague cut off most travel along the High Road. During that time, the Stoneshafts lived in relative isolation, stockpiling their ore, refined metal, and crafts. Stoneshafts are known for the fine metal- and gemwork they craft, considered by most to be works of art worn as personal adornment.
The Margasters of Waterdeep believe that they still have a right to Thornhold. The fortress sits on the reestablished High Road leading to Neverwinter, so it is no wonder that the nobles wish to profit from the fortress’s location along that route. The Knights of Samular also show interest in restoring their outpost at Thornhold as a prelude to sorties into the Mere, and there is talk that these desires may lead to a curious alliance between the grasping human nobles and the high-minded paladins.
Stoneshafts fear the politics of powerful Waterdeep will lead to an assault on Thornhold. They have thus been preparing for siege by gathering supplies and reinforcing Thornhold’s defenses.
Stoneshaft dwarves can taste the wealth, bustling energy, and constant excitement of nearby Waterdeep, and want to share in it. They don’t want to be forced into isolationism, and kept away from Waterdhavian society and the riches of trade. The Stoneshafts aren’t blind to House Margaster’s ambitions, and they know that they must bring in profits if they hope to weather the challenges to their home. They’re very careful to avoid being caught alone, fearing kidnap or torture at the hands of hired agents of the Margasters eager to learn the secrets of their defenses. For the same reason, only the Stoneshaft elders know and plan all the details of those defenses, so any single dwarf doesn’t know everything and can’t reveal it.
Stoneshafts like and are interested in the full variety of clothing and fashions, music, jokes and current news and rumors, and household goods and tools that Waterdeep offers. They tend to favor maces and morningstars and other bludgeoning weapons, plain armor with full-face helms that conceal a wearer’s identity and that have plates to protect the vital areas of a knocked-down dwarf, and spicy foods.
What makes me such an expert on sailing off the Sword Coast? Well, experience, for one. Survival, for another. I’ve been doing this longer than most of my readers have been alive, and this is the third version of this book I’m offering. I write one of these only every half-century, and if you think the purchase price isn’t worth the heaps of coin you’ll make by selling my work to your customers, you’re a fool. Don’t want it? Don’t buy it.
– Gardorra Burr, to a Waterdhavian bookseller
West of the Sword Coast lies the Sea of Swords, and beyond that the Trackless Sea, a vast expanse separating Faerûn from whatever lies to the far west. Between the shore and the unknown are a number of islands, some large and others so small they lack names of their own. These island nations trade — and war — with Faerûn and one another, just like any mainland nation.
The information below is drawn from Fifty Years at Sea, Volume the Third, by Gardorra Burr, a gnome sailor who has spent most of her two hundred years traversing the Sea of Swords.
I don’t know what the people of Mintarn did to attract Beshaba’s ire, but they surely have her attention. For as long as I can remember, Mintarn has lived in the shadow of the dragon Hoondarrh — called the Red Rage of Mintarn since he dwells on an island close by — but for just as long, the people of Mintarn have been able to purchase the dragon’s mercy. Now a series of events conspire to threaten their power to pay the dragon, as well as their other aspirations on the Sword Coast.
Mintarn has long been a neutral ground for various forces — a place aloof from the conflicts between the city-states of the coast and the rivalries of the Northlander isles. Any ship — be it pirate, privateer, or merchant vessel — could dock at Mintarn and find a warm welcome. Many treaties were struck on its shores, and when peace couldn’t be achieved, soldiers and ships of Mintarn hired themselves out to various power groups, with no fear of retribution on Mintarn.
Not long ago, Mintarn was awash with coin. Dagult Neverember invested heavily in the island, creating a ship-building company, combat-training facilities, and even lending his coin to the yearly tribute to Hoondarrh when other means fell short. The White Sails company in which he invested grew to become Mintarn’s preminent supplier of mercenary ships and soldiers.
Things only improved when Waterdeep wasted its navy chasing Northlander pirates. Then Neverember, acting as Open Lord of Waterdeep, relied on his connections to Mintarn to draft a new mercenary navy for the city. What’s more, Neverember took it on himself to raise Neverwinter from the ashes, hiring more mercenaries of Mintarn to serve his needs as that city’s Lord Protector.
With funds from two of the greatest cities of the Sword Coast filling its coffers, Mintarn knew a prosperity of which its people had never dreamed. It’s true that the same tide that had coin flowing into Mintarn drew much of its young and vibrant people outward, but those they left behind were comforted by the knowledge that their family and friends didn’t leave for war, but for much safer duties.
The trouble started, not surprisingly, with Hoondarrh. Though Mintarn made yearly tributes to the great wyrm and was always careful to neglect not a copper, old Hoondarrh was known to sleep for decades at a time, and the folk of Mintarn took their agreement with the dragon for granted. But something awoke him early a few years ago, and it was as if the red bastard could smell the gold coming into the island. Although Mintarn had made proper tribute, Hoondarrh landed atop Castle Mintarn, toppling two of its towers with his weight, and roared a demand for more treasure, right then, and in future tributes.
Of course, the folk of Mintarn scrambled to meet the impatient wyrm’s demands. Even if they had all the soldiers shipped away to Neverwinter and Waterdeep, what could they hope to do to mighty Hoondarrh?
Things got worse recently when Neverember was deposed as Open Lord of Waterdeep. The Lords of Waterdeep have decided to reestablish their own navy, and they’ve told the soldiers of Mintarn to leave the city or take a commission among the navy or the city’s other armed forces. Now in Neverwinter, Lord Neverember has decided to do away with a mercenary force as well. He says he wants to instill a sense of civic pride among the folk of Neverwitner, but many in Mintarn see it as a betrayal. Neverember is a cunning man. I think with Hoondarrh active, the Lord Protector is simply cutting his losses. He didn’t get the nickname Dagger just because his first name is Dagult.
Mintarn had been playing the game well, but now it finds itself backed into a corner with few moves left to make. The coin is no longer flowing into its harbors, and many of its best and brightest have decided not to return. There’s talk of hiring adventurers to slay Hoondarrh, but Hoondarrh’s hoard must be massive. If that’s not enough of a draw to dragon slayers, then there’s no amount of money Mintarn could offer that would sweeten the deal.
I like Mintarn. It has cozy inns, and they make a brilliant green wine unique to their island. But, there are safer harbors during the current storm. Maybe in another decade or two I’ll try Mintarn again.
In the case that you visit, here are a few other things you should know of Mintarn.
Every five or six years, a new tyrant — yes, that’s what they call themselves — emerges on Mintarn, ruling the island kingdom in the name of preserving its status as a neutral ground and a free port. A few years ago, Her Tyrancy was Bloeth Embuirhan, the supposed great-granddaughter of a tyrant from a century ago. She ruled the island through its most prosperous days, but odds are that the folk of Mintarn (and maybe herself as well, if she has her wits bout her) wants someone else on the throne now.
Despite its open harbors and many fine establishments, Mintarn remains a loosely settled island. There are farms and homesteads, to be sure, but also wide, open spaces between them, and enough land that anyone could make a small living if so inclined.
The Red Rage of Mintarn dwells in this mountain that rises from the sea north of Mintarn. I’ve never heard of any treasure hunters making it out alive, but those who give tribute to Hoondarrh say they sail into a sea cave and leave it on a sandy beach within. More caves are said to lead out from that bay, one even going straight up into the ceiling. Sometimes the tribute carriers can hear Hoondarrh’s breathing from one of the caves: great inhalations, exhalations, and deep rumbles of slumber. When they can’t hear such noises, you might think folk of Mintarn would be inclined to explore Skadaurak, but as it was explained to me, the lack of the dragon snoring might mean he is away hunting somewhere, but it could just as easily mean he is present, watching, and holding his breath.
Cloaked in mists, the rocky cliffs of the Moonshae Isles rise high above the surf of the Sea of Swords, their tops clothed in ancient forests. The Moonshaes lie due west from Mintarn — and Baldur’s Gate, and Candlekeep, and even Amn, for that matter: this great stretch of islands is nearly half as long as the Sword Coast, enclosing the Sea of Moonshae.
On the southern isles live the Ffolk, humans ruled by their High King, Derid Kendrick, from the fortress of Caer Callidyr on Alaron. The Ffolk worship a goddess they call the Earthmother; her druids gather in sacred groves on the islands. Some of these groves hold moonwells, magical pools that the druids say the goddess uses as her windows onto the world.
The northern isles are the territory of the Northlanders, who spread south from Ruathym to settle here, and have fought occasional wars with the Ffolk in the centuries that the two groups have uneasily shared the islands.
The largest and most populous isle of the Moonshaes is Alaron. The Ffolk stronghold of Caer Callidyr overlooks a bay south of the Fairheight Mountains, at the northern edge of Dornall Forest. The forest is a perilous place, filled with goblins, worgs, and their ilk. The deeper one goes, the more otherworldly the woods become, with fey creatures leading travelers astray — or to their doom. Even the High King’s rangers walk the forest with care.
Rumor has it the Rookoath dwarves of the Fairheight range — bolstered by Clan Rustfire of the isle of Gwynneth, and adventurers out of Callidyr — have won victories against the local orcs and their shadow dragon master. High King Derid hopes to forge an alliance with the dwarves, but thus far they have spurned the aid of the crown.
Meanwhile, Kythyss, a port town on the Great South Head of Alaron, has been hiring mercenaries to guard caravans running north to Callidyr. Caravan masters there are always looking for help, if you’re willing to brave the road for a while.
Over my lifetime, the isle of Gwynneth has become ever more fey and mysterious, home to the elven realm of Sarifal, under the rule of High Lady Ordalf.
Sarifal shares the island with the reclusive mountain kingdom of Synnoria, the home of the Llewyr elves, plus a few small shield dwarf settlements, and the ruins of Caer Corwell, the former Ffolk settlement on Gwynneth. High King Derid wants to reclaim the old citadel and rebuild it as an embassy, but has yet to secure Lady Ordalf’s consent to do so.
Gwynneth is also home to Myrloch Vale, a lush valley nestled in the mountains with the shimmering waters of the Myrloch to the south. Druid circles are active in the Vale, allied with the elves and the fey creatures of this area.
In the north of the island, High Lady Ordalf’s son, Prince Araithe, leads the struggle against the darker fey of the forest of Winterglen. The prince is a pragmatist willing to accept aid in fending off his people’s foes, and so has been known to allow adventuring companies to cross the Strait of Alaron and land on Gwynneth, if they pledge to aid the cause.
The Korinn Archipelago is dozens of rocky, rainy, and windswept islands populated mostly by Northlanders, who herd sheep, fish the nearby waters, and occasionally go raiding or pirating. Dozens of separate settlements are their own mini-kingdoms with little that unifies them besides a shared Northlander culture.
There’s no safe harbor for outsiders; you just have no idea what you are dealing with. For other Northlanders, the settlement of Westhaven on Pandira serves as a neutral ground where Northlanders of all stripes who ply the waters of the Sea of Swords might come to port and wait out a storm or resupply.
To the west of Gwynneth, Moray is a land at war with itself. The embattled Ffolk of Caer Moray struggle to keep the port town open so that Dynnegall, farther inland, can receive vital goods and supplies.
These supplies sometimes include reinforcements to deal with the threats of the island, which are many and varied: the Black Blood tribe of Malar-worshiping werefolk, the giants of the Trollclaw Range in the north, and the ogres and orcs of the Orcskill Mountains in the south.
The Ffolk of Moray are loyal to the High King. They hope for a return to a unified Moonshaes under the Kendrick banner and are determined to hold on long enough to see it.
North of Moray lies Norland, the stronghold of the Northlanders of the Isles. Much has happened among the Norls of late, weakening their grip on the Moonshaes, but I fear High King Kendrick lacks power to capitalize on it.
In recent years, a Northlander woman calling herself the Storm Maiden arose as a battle leader among them, which was unusual because Northlanders don’t allow women to raid or fish. Said to blessed by both Valkur and Umberlee at her birth, the Storm Maiden gathered great numbers of Norls to her banner, and it seemed she might contest the king for control of Norland. However, a decade ago, she seemed to be consumed by the power of Umberlee, and she drove her followers on a mad quest to control the Sea of Swords. When at last she was defeated at sea, she and her ship vanished into the waves. She is known to be unable to drown, and many people fear her return.
Rault the Wise, king of the Norls, lost both his elderly son Olfgaut and grandson in battles against the Storm Maiden, leaving succession in question. He has a granddaughter of great spirit and wisdom, but in the male-dominated Northlander society — and so soon after the disastrous rise to power of the Storm Maiden — it is unthinkable that rule should fall to her.
The last time I set foot on Oman’s Isle was just after the Moonshaes had unified, and it was a peaceful, lovely place. It had sheep, farms, and fishing boats, and plenty of folk willing to trade the gold from their mines for goods from the mainland or other islands. Now, Oman’s Isle is a blasted place is controlled by giants, especially fomorians, that hurl huge stones at any ship that comes too near the coast. If you do make it to shore, bring friends, and plenty of weapons — it’s a dangerous place, but might be worth the risk. I can scarcely imagine the reward Jarl Rault or High King Derid would offer to the adventurers who reclaimed the ruins of Iron Keep, once home to the isle’s rulers.
The little isle of Snowdown, south of Alaron, is a possession of Amn, where Lady Erliza rules from Caer Westphal. She is the second of her name, noted for her striking resemblance to her great-grandmother, the first Amnian ruler of the isle.
Since taking possession of the place, Snowdown’s occupiers have cut down its woods, stripped its mines, and choked its waterways with the refuse of the overworked Ffolk under their rule. Lady Erliza and her soldiers have ruthlessly put down several rebellions, and the Ffolk here refer to her as “Bloody Erliza.” Some Amnians believe the isle is becoming more trouble to hold on to than its diminishing exports are worth, and further uprisings are almost certainly brewing amongst the Ffolk, quietly supported by Alaron.
Well to the north of the Moonshaes and west of Faerûn are the home islands of the Northlanders, which exist as they have for centuries. The greatest of these islands, Ruathym, holds the oldest settlements the Northlanders claim, and from there, all manner of northern kingdoms and legends have sprung.
The Northlander Isles are scoured by strong winds and powerful waves, and also suffer biting, bone-chilling cold for most of the year. In deepest winter, the inlets are choked with ice, and fog lingers late into the day, if it breaks at all. Most wear furs to keep out the cold, and those going to war supplement their protection with thicker hides, and helms lined with wool or fur. They disdain magic and glorify battle, to the point that most communities grow restless when they don’t have an enemy to fight.
Because the Northlanders are good at fighting and sailing, and perfectly willing to attack ships close to their shores, best to be cautious around any Northlander Isles, especially if you haven’t been assured of safe passage, and often even then.
Northlanders pay homage to several deities, but they most honor Valkur, a hero-god of their own who exemplifies the qualities their warriors hold most dear. Take care not to question or insult this veneration in their presence.
VALKUR, HERO-GOD OF THE NORTHLANDERS
While Northlanders revere many other gods — Auril, Umberlee, Talos, and Tempus, in particular — they see mighty Valkur as the most important. This hero-god is unique to the Northlanders and embodies the qualities that Northlanders most admire: fierceness, cunning, courage, strength, and sailing skill.
The fisherfolk and merchants of Gundarlun are more like their mainland cousins than most island folk. Unlike other Northlanders, they are less apt to start a fight with folk they don’t recognize. Because of their more peaceful bent, you’re more likely to be able to safely get fresh water and supplies in Gundarlun, though you should be prepared to trade generously during your stop.
More than a dozen settlements pay homage to the king in Gundbarg. They profit from the island’s reputation as a safe stopover. Though Gundarlun might not provide the best seaworthy warriors, nevertheless ships that are looking to make repairs, take on sailors or sail-menders, or store large cargoes are likely to find their needs met here.
If you seek shelter during a storm, you might find it in the many islands of the Purple Rocks. It was once my great fortune to find safe harbor at the port village known as Ulf of Thuger. The welcome I received was nearly as warm as I might have found among the Gunds, and I found the Rocklanders to be a fine audience for my tales of travel and adventure. However, something makes me think I shouldn’t return.
On the day that the storm broke, I emerged from the longhouse in which I had been hosted and beheld a well-tended and organized settlement with green pastures and full fishing nets. The ship’s crew and I were dealt with cordially by everyone, and the ship was already repaired and prepared for our leaving, the Rocklanders having apparently worked through the night to make it ready.
We left on good terms, and it wasn’t until we were well away that we realized we all shared a strange apprehension. We had not seen much of women while we were on the island, which was to be expected since Northlanders typically house guests well away from the homes, farms, and forges that are the Northlander women’s domain. But we also neither saw nor heard any children or young men, and never once did we see any old men or women. Indeed, I hesitate to say that any man among the Northlanders we met had a single gray hair on his head or in his beard. This strange fact, and the Rocklanders’ weird custom of giving any human figure in their art the arms of their totem — a many-tentacled squid — makes me leery of a return.
The island of Ruathym is the ancestral homeland of all the Northlanders who live on the islands of the Sea of Swords and the humans who would go on to found old Illusk, now Luskan, and spread out as the Illuskan people. The warlike folk of Ruathym know they have this legacy, and they consider rule over other Northlanders and the cities of the coast to be their birthright.
Merchants can occasionally trade with Rauthym at its capital city, also called Ruathym, but I don’t risk such a stopover if I can help it. One never knows when Ruathym is going to be at war, and any ship within sight of the island when it is will be fair prey.
Well to the west of its nearest neighbor, the remote island of Tuern is host to violent folk who raid and pillage at will and seek to enslave any outlanders they capture on or near their island. They trust no magic of any kind, and offer tribute to the red dragons and giants that dwell in the high mountain caves of this place. They have five kings, with a High King supposedly enthroned in their capital of Uttersea, but like any sailor with sense, I’ve avoided the island by a great distance, so I can’t tell you which bloodthirsty knave currently rules the roost.
The tiny outcrops that make up the Whalebones are so numerous it’s impossible to accurately chart them all. Each has its own legends and its own (often self-proclaimed) king, and they battle one another incessantly in skirmishes where the casualties number in the dozens, at most.
The Whalebones are so called because of the scattered skeletons of those great sea creatures that litter the beaches of most of the islands. These bones are the only real commodity of worth these isles have — which means that anyone thinking to simply sail up and pluck ivory from the shores of the Whalebones is sorely underestimating how furiously its inhabitants defend their property.
If you’re looking to purchase or repair a ship, there is no better place to do it along the Sword Coast than in Orlumbor. The finest shipwrights in the world live here, and their joining work is among the reasons Waterdeep remained so strong for so many years. Even when much of the city’s navy lay disabled in its harbor, the strong ships of Orlumbor proved sturdy enough that folk could live on and in them while the city recovered.
Orlumbor was once a simple shipwright island, supplying the city-states of the Sword Coast with vessels for their navies. Waterdeep in particular relied on Orlumbor to supply ships for its defense, making the island a wealthy and well-protected place in return. When Lord Neverember sank Waterdeep’s navy in his fight against pirates, he arranged to hire mercenary ships to replace the force, funneling ill-gotten proceeds into his own pockets, and leaving both the coffers and the shipyards of Orlumbor high and dry. After Neverember’s ouster, Waterdeep’s business returned, and with it much of the isle’s prosperity.
Reaching Orlumbor by ship is tricky because of the rocky, cavernous approach to the harbor. Once a ship navigates the route properly, it can find a wider berth, and any minor damage to the new visitor is happily (and cheaply) repaired by the Orlumbor dockworkers. These are folk born and bred to work on ships. The homes on Orlumbor are built into the caverns of the island, and just as well defended as the docks that are its life’s blood.
More than once down the years, Waterdeep’s protection has kept Orlumbor from falling to Mintarn, Luskan, Amn, or Baldur’s Gate, all of which have sought to claim the islands and its shipyards for their own. None of these other places ever considered that Orlumbor might simply choose not to build ships for them, but thankfully, it’s never come to that. Now, Orlumbor once again serves Waterdeep, in exchange for coin, foodstuffs, and other goods from Faerûn.
Off the coast of the southern realms of Faerûn, even south of the Moonshae Isles, are some smaller, less influential island nations. The Nelanther, just across Asavir’s Channel from Tethyr, is a land of raiding pirates. Farther south, some three hundred miles from the Moonshaes, is the fabled island of Lantan, birthplace of many odd inventions. Well south of there, beyond the jungles of Chult, is the mysterious island of Nimbral.
I had not visited Lantan for over a year when it happened, but the way most tell it, when magic failed utterly in this place, all the stored smokepowder and magical gewgaws in Lantan exploded, one by one, just as great waves washed over the island. Within a terrifyingly short time, Lantan was no more.
Or so the stories of survivors went. It appears now that Lantan was transferred to another world, much like Halruaa. Halruua, though, had foreseen the calamity and taken time to prepare. Lantan was not so lucky.
The Lantanese were fascinated — some say obsessed — with building mechanical wonders. Though they employed magic from time to time, the whole island smelled like sawdust, grease, and freshly scraped metal, as shop after shop worked on refining its latest and greatest invention. The new creation might have been little metal knights that walk and fight and knock each other over, elaborate coffers with locks that latch themselves, or mechanical arms that copy what a scribe is writing onto a second sheet of parchment. During my past visits there, I’d seen all of those and more with my own eyes.
Were these gewgaws and trifles of help to the Lantanese when the whole world was ripped from under them? To whom did they turn when in that other world their prayers to their favored god, Gond, went unanswered? What happened in their century away, and now that they are returned, are they happy to be here, or does it seem like their world has once more been ripped away?
Some ships claiming to be from returned Lantan have appeared in ports along the Sword Coast, but from what I hear, the Lantanese who emerge from them are guarded and say little about their homeland. These traders seek to attain large quantities of raw materials such as various types of woods and metals, trading unusual gems and strange gold coins in return. Of their inventions, folks have seen little, but the few glimpses attained have fueled much speculation about Lantan’s development of smokepowder weapons and greater willingness to blend magic with machinery. Indeed, Lantanese traders have reportedly offered many shield guardians in private auctions up and down the Sword Coast, and such golem-like constructs are usually the province of wizards, not tinkerers.
Take an old salt’s advice and beware the Pirate Isles of the Sea of Swords, the Nelanther. Here, all manner of seafaring or sea-dwelling creatures live, from lizardfolk and minotaurs to orcs and ogres, with a smattering of humans and others thrown in for variety. Where some pirates hold to their own code of conduct, the folk of Nelanther care nothing for rules, honor, or even good, neighborly sense: they attack each another as often and as viciously as they do any passing ship or convoy. Simply put, the Nelanther Isles are a chain of reavers and raiders, who eke out a living fighting whomever they can find.
No one’s ever bothered to count or name all the tribes of these islands, and I doubt anyone’s going to start now. For one thing, it’s a fool’s errand: tribes split up or are destroyed at such a rapid pace that by the time you finished counting, you’d have to start over anyway. For another, it’s dirty, dangerous work, and dealing with pirates is a task best left to swift ships, well-armed navies, and the kinds of fools that would want to count them in the first place.
If you do find out the name of a tribe in the Nelanther, be careful about mentioning it to another Nelanther ship unless you can confirm that the ship belongs to a friendly tribe. Even so, be advised that alliances are short as summer storms in these isles, and it’s not likely you’ll be around long enough to witness a new one being forged. Proclaiming your allegiance to a certain tribe might anger the one you’re talking to.
Still, if you’re looking for cheap, strong hands, Nelanther may be the place for you, but don’t expect much in the way of loyalty or cleverness out of them. Hiring too many Nelanther sailors on a ship is just asking for your ship to be taken from you, sailed back to the islands, and given new life as a pirate vessel.
Ever seen an island simply disappear? That is, supposedly, what happened to Nimbral at about the time Lantan drowned, or so they say. Four ship captains of my acquaintance claim to have seen it one moment, and then not seen it the next, and sailed straight through its former location as though it was never there.
Some claim that powerful magic moved or hid the island in a vast illusion. That I find believable, because the Lords of Nimbral have long been known for illusion and trickery. If any isle were to vanish into thin air, it would be theirs. Likewise, Nimbral’s return is certainly within their capabilities, and perhaps this event is the climax of a trick so long and complex that even a gnome can envy its scope.
Nimbral today is much as it has always been: far-flung and secretive. Where the island went, what it did while gone, and why it came back all seem to be facts the Lords of Nimbral prefer to keep to themselves.
Nimbral is still ruled by its mysterious lords, a closely related family of archmages, master illusionists all. They in turn appoint the heralds, who proclaim the laws, and the Knights of Nimbral, fabled hippogriff riders clad in armor clear as glass but strong as steel. Don’t let the fact that they are called knights fool you. The Knights of Nimbral have always acted as pirates when out on patrol over the seas, preying on ships that strayed close to their island.
What my captain friends were doing in waters so close to Nimbral they did not disclose. “Business” was all they’d say, but no one has business so far south as Nimbral, unless they expect to dock at the island. Alas, in the time since we last spoke, all those captains have died, and I can’t question them further about what they know of the place.
If you have cause to sail south by Chult, keep a wary eye on the skies. It might not help, since the Knight of Nimbral have been known to appear out of nowhere, apparently invisible before they attacked, but it pays to be cautious when you’re doing something foolish.
What I tell you now is truth as pure as Garl’s nugget, and the only reason I’ve written it in a book for all to see is that no one else shall ever achieve the feat: I stowed away on a ship bound for Evermeet, and my feet touched its blessed ground!
Any who’re knowledgeable about the place might scoff at my claim, and those ignorant of it like as not think the deed not the feat of legend it was, so let me explain to those doubters among you what Evermeet is and why, by the end of my tale, you’ll envy my boots.
A Little Piece of Heaven
Legend has it — and so believes every elf I’ve ever met — that the island of Evermeet is not of this world, and that it never was. In ancient days, so long ago that even elves think of it as their mythic past, the elves of many nations sought a perfect homeland for their people. (That was the problem there, of course. You’ll miss out on a wealth of beauty it you’re always looking for the perfect gem.) Not finding it in the world, some elves (sun elves, I’d wager) looked beyond the world to create one. These High Mages gathered together to perform a mighty work of magic that would bring Toril into contact with Arvandor — that’s right, the mad fools actually wanted to bring into our world some of the lands in which their gods dwelt!
Tales differ on whether Corellon allowed this or was powerless to prevent it, but it happened, and calamity gripped Toril as a result. This was the first Sundering, and elves have always said it echoed through time. Recent calamities would seem to prove them right.
When things settled down, the elves realized their folly. For thousands of years, no elf dared set foot on Evermeet. But eventually Corellon must have forgiven his wayward children, for the oldest elves began to feel the call to the west.
Perhaps you’ve seen a moonbow hang over Selûne and heard the idea that it means an elf is being called to Evermeet. Well, that is no children’s story. Ever met an elderly elf? How would you know, right? Well if you’re ever honored to meet an elderly elf at such a time, you’ll see a similar arc in each of the elf’s eyes above the pupil. This is Sehanine Moonbow’s way of guiding the elf to the afterlife. The arcs can blind the elf to this world, but they vanish when the elf enters the next, allowing sight of the elven heaven. Well that’s exactly what happens in Evermeet, and the elf need not be dead to achieve it. Don’t believe me? Well, I saw what I saw.
Some elves followed their aged kin to Evermeet, and soon a kingdom of elves dwelt in a heaven on Toril. For ages Evermeet was protected by mighty beasts, mighty magic, and the might of the Seldarine themselves. Elves of all types from all over the world journeyed to Evermeet seeking solace. And when the elves declared their Retreat from the world, where do you think they went?
Then the Spellplague struck, and some of that old elven High Magic must have unraveled. Evermeet became unmoored from the world and found itself instead in a sea of the Feywild, that strange realm of faerie that touches the world in mystical places. For a century, it seemed Evermeet was lost to the world. Venerable elves tried to hold on, hoping that this echo of the first Sundering might echo Evermeet’s connection to the world once the period of calamity ended.
Their patience (who but an elf could have such patience?) was at last rewarded, when ships from Evermeet docked once more in Sword Coast ports.
Sailing to the West
Knowing all this and having just met a venerable elf who was preparing for the journey, how could I not take the opportunity to tag along? I felt a little bad about taking advantage of the elf’s blindness and forcing him to leave behind some of his baggage, but it was the opportunity of a lifetime!
I overheard it said by the captain of the ship that Evermeet now somehow straddles all three planes: our world, the Feywild, and Arvandor. It touches them all, but exists fully in none of them. To find it, you must follow a pattern of stars until the stars change and then follow new stars. (I swear by Garl’s nugget that’s what he said!) Those who stray from the path are lost. How I wish I could have asked the captain where the lost ships went! But I couldn’t give myself away.
I had brought some food with me, since I didn’t know how long I’d have to remain hidden aboard the ship. At the start of the journey, I pricked my ears up at every creak of the boards and at each elven voice, but after a time, lulled by the rocking of the sea, I fell asleep. The journey after that has a dreamlike quality. I know I must have awoken, eaten, slept, and taken care of other necessities — at least my food was all eaten by journey’s end — but I don’t recall the specifics. I only know that at some point the ship stopped, and someone took the basket in which I was hidden and placed it on a sandy beach.
What I Saw
I felt it before I saw it. With the barest glimmer of golden light through the basket weave all that I could see, Evermeet took my breath way. Coiled in the basket like a snake, with cramps in every limb, I was desperate not to give myself away, yet I could feel the magic of Evermeet seep through my body, soothing aching limbs and easing guilty conscience. When I could breathe again, I gasped. And that was how the elf discovered me.
The blind elf, whose beloved treasures I’d displaced to take my journey, pulled me from his basket, and when he did so, his eyes were clear as diamonds and just as hard. I thought for sure that I was dead, and on seeing my surroundings, I can say with all my heart that I didn’t care. Had the elf killed me on the spot, my soul would have gone to Garl and demanded a ship so that I could sail right back to Evermeet. My dumb wonderment caused the elf to turn and look, and he too was enraptured.
As to what we beheld, well, imagine a place of staggering natural beauty and impossible elven artifice, an alien realm as distant and beautiful as the stars, but as much a part of you as your own dreams — part heaven, part home.
I’d like to say we shared a moment there, the elf and I. Perhaps in recognition of that, he didn’t kill me.
It was over all too soon. I was put back on the boat, returned to the world, and warned never to try anything so foolish again — on pain of death. And I don’t think I will — at least not until I’m getting up there in years. Then I’ll keep my eyes peeled for elves with cloudy eyes looking west!
Now, see? Wouldn’t you have liked to have been a gnome’s boots and touched Evermeet, even for just a few beats of the heart?
I have wandered these lands for longer than you’ve been alive, caravan master. I say this not to somehow lord these years over you, but so that you understand that when I say your proposed “short cut” leads only to the bloody demise of yourself and your work hands, you will believe me, because I have seen others make the same assumption, and die the same deaths.
— Aedyn Graymantle,
to Wundrith Parr, Waterdhavian caravan master
Though there are myriad nations, kingdoms, and city-states scattered across the length and breadth of Faerûn, it would be a dangerous mistake to assume that all of the lands in and between those places are tamed. Travel a short way beyond most civilized places, and one finds oneself in the midst of wilderness haunted by creatures deadly and foul.
The information below is excerpted from Far from the Misty Hills, a treatise on far-flung places in the North, composed by one Aedyn Graymantle, a moon elf ranger who hails from Evereska. In her years of braving the wilds, Aedyn has acted as guide, caravan guard, bodyguard, and trailblazer.
Boareskyr Bridge stands on the Trade Way and is the only consistently safe crossing over the Winding Water for more than a hundred miles in either direction. This alone makes it remarkable, but there, in the midst of a wilderness with nothing to set it apart for greatness, a mortal man murdered Bhaal, the god of murder. This is no tall tale. Even a century after Bhaal’s blood was shed there, the river’s waters run black and foul for miles west of the bridge.
Adding to the location’s sacred nature, Cyric, the man who killed Bhaal, was himself elevated to godhood. Although he proved to be a malign power, statues of both Cyric and Bhaal were erected on the ends of the bridge, the two gods facing each other (though it is said Cyric stabbed Bhaal in the back). About a century ago, fanatics of Mystra tore down the statues and flung their stones in the river, but fearing retribution for such sacrilege, the merchants who use the bridge pooled funds to have them rebuilt in grander style than before. Now each god stands atop his own decorated archway that serves as entrance to the bridge.
Boareskyr Bridge is named for a long-ago adventurer who built the original bridge and used it as the center of a small kingdom, which also bore his name, north and east of the Trade Way, though it lasted only a few decades before falling to threats from the Fields of the Dead. The bridge serves as a connection between the lands of the North and the Western Heartlands.
The enormous black granite bridge is wide enough that two wagons can pass one another going opposite directions, and its waist-high ramparts are thicker than some castle walls. On most days of the summer and even during seasons less suitable for travel, merchant caravans cross the bridge and pilgrims come to pay homage, all beneath the protective gaze of the paladins of Elturgard stationed at nearby Fort Tamal.
For many years, a ruined keep on the southern bank dubbed Bridgefort served as the campground for caravans passing over the bridge. Whether going north or south, caravan masters could anticipate a safe rest within the grassy space enclosed by the ruined walls, sharing the duties of keeping watch with other travelers.
Then in the midst of a crisis of leadership in distant Elturel, one of the heirs apparent for the post of High Observer, a paladin named Tamal Thent, went missing with her entire retinue near the bridge. Although an investigation was undertaken, no sign of Tamal or any of the others was discovered. Thavus Kreeg, Tamal’s rival for the post, was elevated to the post of High Observer soon after, and one of his first declarations was that Bridgefort be rebuilt and given a new name in honor of lost Tamal.
A flurry of activity occurred around Boareskyr Bridge at that time, with the soldiers of Elturgard making frequent patrols of the road and surrounding lands while Fort Tamal was being constructed. Today things are fairly quiet at the bridge. The tradition of caravans camping at the bridge and pilgrims visiting it continues, but now people stay in a caravan ground around a small village that has grown up outside the fort.
Activity around the area is overseen by a curious mix of Companions of Elturgard. The Companions — all paladins of gods such as Tyr, Torm, Helm, and Amaunator — tend to be either young firebrands or grizzled veterans content to sit by a fire. Many of the veterans have been stationed at Fort Tamal since it was constructed, and they have families that live in the village outside its walls. Their more youthful counterparts come from all over Elturgard, but all seem to have been assigned to Fort Tamal after some act of insubordination. Perhaps it is hoped that time out on the frontier with their more experienced counterparts will cool some of the young Companions’ zeal.
Certainly some of the young Companions I’ve spoken with see their post as a punishment. Boareskyr Bridge is far from the rest of Elturgard, and the caravans that camp at Fort Tamal never seemed to need such a robust guard before. Even the relative nearness of Najara seems to provide little reason for so many of Elturgard’s mightiest defenders to be squandered on such a trivial task. For their part, the elder Companions talk of fulfilling duties and following orders, but to me they seemed too content.
A paladin should have drive. They have been granted the power of the gods for a reason, and surely that reason can’t be to stand guard while merchants sleep. Then again, the High Observer is, by all reports, a wise and effective ruler. Perhaps he perceives threats at Boareskyr Bridge that I can’t. Najara has been more active of late, despite its quiet exterior, I assure you. Dragonspear Castle to the north was once again the source of an infernal incursion. And maybe there is something sinister about this place where a god of murder died and a god of lies is honored.
For my part, I sympathize with the young firebrands, and I counseled those to whom I spoke to look to the skies. In the time of Cyric’s legendary battle with Bhaal, pegasi dwelt nearby. The magical creatures are said to favor those of pure heart and even allow themselves to be ridden by such folk when the cause is just. That favor might never be bestowed on the young paladins, but I’m sure the thought will provide them with some pleasant daydreams.
The great keep never fails to take my breath away: it stands on a volcanic crag a hundred or so feet from the coastline, a flat-topped spur of rough stone out in the midst of the surging sea. Imagine, if you can, the top of this crag hemmed in entirely by a tall wall. This wall is interrupted by several towers all the way around, and it encloses a large space from which even more of these same towers rise. Those who have seen this vista from above have said that it looks like nothing so much as a cake decorated with too many candles. The mist of sea-spray fills the air nearest the western walls, and in winter, this moisture can cause treacherous build-ups of ice. Sometimes entire towers along the western edge of the keep have to be abandoned for the season, they become so overtaken by frost.
From the center rises the largest and thickest tower of Candlekeep. If the other towers are well-wrought branches and blossoms, then this surely is the bole of the tree: strong, massive, and rising well above the perimeter structures. About the central keep a garden spirals in rising steps, and those lucky enough to enter the library proper do so by passing around and up through this green space to the keep’s main door. However, most folk who visit Candlekeep see this structure only from the courtyard east of it, where the facilities for arriving scholars lie.
The only gate into Candlekeep stands at the end of the Way of the Lion, which is the only road that provides access to and from the outside world. The route extends from Beregost, leagues away, and winds a lonely path out on the peninsula where Candlekeep stands.
The Great Library
Candlekeep is the largest repository of lore and writings in all the Realms (although my scholarly kin in Evereska don’t like being reminded of that). It was once the home of the great prophet Alaundo the Seer, and within its walls were written the Prophecies of Alaundo. Its vaults, it is said, contain hidden knowledge enough to make any person with the ability to discover and absorb it all powerful beyond compare. The problem with doing that, of course, is the same as with secrets in any other location: one must know that a secret exists before its details can be sussed out.
To that end, Candlekeep’s vast library is something of a defense in and of itself: for every bit of hidden lore of potentially great power that lies within, there are thousands of inconsequential recipes, old songs, bits of history, journals of long-dead folk, and myriad other pieces of writing of no lasting importance save to the monks of this place, and the sages who come seeking such trifles.
Of course, before this treasure trove can be plumbed, one must gain entry to its hallowed halls. The cloistered scholar-monks of Candlekeep, who are called the Avowed, guard this place and work tirelessly to ensure the library’s protection and preservation. Though they are friendly enough in a workaday fashion, they are also suspicious of all visitors to the library.
I have assisted more than one visitor with entry into the library, so I know the process well. The price of admission is the donation of a work of writing not already in the possession of Candlekeep. Though the monks refer to this offering as the “entrance-gift,” it is a toll to be paid, and often a quite high one.
To most, this requirement might seem difficult or even impossible to fulfill. After all, how is the would-be visitor to know exactly what Candlekeep does and does not have in its labyrinthine stacks? To this end, most visitors come to Candlekeep with multiple books they suspect might meet with approval.
Fortunately for some, the donation need not be utterly unique. Some tome or treatise the library doesn’t have in its archives is preferable, but the monks are open to a few other possibilities: rare editions, books with a great deal of history tied to them, even tomes with insightful (or just interesting) notes scribbled in the margins have all been accepted, as have the journals of folk who are well traveled or highly learned.
Most of those who come as petitioners to the gates of Candlekeep already know the cost of entry; those who don’t are told of it at the gates, and turned away kindly if they have no such gift. Heralds; priests of the gods Oghma, Gond, Deneir, and Milil; certain archmages; and others acknowledged as “friends of Candlekeep” are permitted to enter without making such a donation (though such folk often contribute to the library’s vaults as a matter of course anyway).
The great double gates of Candlekeep are as three times the height of a human, and wrought of strange black metal that seems to repel lightning and to be immune to magical divinations, according to at least one wizard I’ve accompanied here. Both of these panels are emblazoned with the castle-and-flame sigil of Candlekeep in their upper reaches. One of the two gates stands open far enough to admit visitors during the day, with the other kept shut.
Five purple-vestmented monks tend this entrance. One of them steps forward to greet those seeking admission, discussing with new arrivals their intentions and examining what gifts they have brought. As the first monk examines an offered gift, determining its title and provenance, a second gate guard performs a casting of the message spell. The Waterdhavian sage Waldrop tells me that the recipient of this spell is an Avowed in a room nearby with a massive tome that notes the books in Candlekeep’s vaults. Apparently aided by magic of some kind, that tome-keeper determines if the library has the book being offered, and responds concerning whether the gift is accepted or not.
One of the priests of Deneir whom I regularly accompany to Candlekeep has mentioned truth-seeking magics being at work on this threshold. The door-guard’s fellows watch closely for any trouble, and other monks peer from the high towers that flank the gates, ready to summon help or lend magical support in case of attack.
Those who are admitted are referred to as “seeker,” but also addressed by name if the monk knows it, or by “goodsir” or “goodlady” otherwise. Once a visitor is admitted, the monks at the gate part ranks to allow the seeker inside to the Court of Air. Visitors are instructed to cross that area and stand before the Emerald Door, where another monk receives them, offers them food, bath, and sleeping quarters, and arranges for each to meet a monk who will help to plan and then supervise the seeker’s visit to the library.
The Court of Air
The Court of Air is aptly named. This cobbled courtyard is empty, containing neither tree nor well. Its southern wall is the southern wall of Candlekeep itself, with a number of fieldstone-wrought buildings intended for visitors’ use built along it. Nearest the western wall of the courtyard stand two buildings: the House of the Binder, a large temple of Oghma with plenty of space to allow his faithful to camp and socialize, and the Baths, a public facility that draws water from the natural spring beneath the keep.
On the other side of the baths is the Hearth, a great eating-place and social hall for seekers, which has shrines to Deneir, Gond, and Milil built into it. The Hearth connects to the House of Rest, a structure with four-bunk rooms where seekers are assigned quarters upon their acceptance. Finally, next to the House of Rest, and built up against the eastern wall of the courtyard, are the stables, where mounts are housed and provisioned for the length of a seeker’s stay, and the granary.
The northern edge of the Court of Air is made up of a wall into which are set twelve towers. These are the towers within which visitors are allowed to study.
The famous Emerald Door stands in the western wall. Here a Keeper of the Emerald Door stands at all times, assisted by a small group of under-monks who act as messengers and runners. It is the Keeper who officially welcomes newly arrived seekers, and makes arrangements for their stay. Only this door leads deeper into the inner ward; the other towers have entrances onto the Court of Air, but don’t have points of egress into the inner ward and thus the rest of the library.
These court-facing towers in the north wall, called the “necessariums” by the monks, are the main places in which visitors interact with the treasures of Candlekeep. They are honeycombed with reading rooms and small gathering chambers, where monks may bring individual tomes to seekers to be read, and where seekers may consult with monks on further materials to enable their research. Despite being adjacent to other towers and having bridges to more distant ones, the chambers that guests can reach in the necessariums don’t allow access to the rest of the keep.
Within the Keep
Unfortunately, the foregoing is the extent of the information I have about the interior of Candlekeep. My personal experience is limited (as is the case with most visitors) to the Court of Air. Though the stories fly fast and thick in the Hearth about what lies beyond the necessariums, it is almost all conjecture and hearsay, with a heavy dose of fable, you can wager safely.
From the Court of Air, one can see that the tall towers that rise up above the northern court wall are interconnected by covered walkways. Many of these are roofed, but not walled, and monks — some of them under quite prodigious burdens of books — scramble to and fro along them. The passages are sometimes interrupted by small spiral staircases that provide access to higher and lower levels, and some of the larger walkways slope gently from one floor in a given tower to the different level in another.
The only other fact I know about Candlekeep’s interior is that it extends even beneath the level of the courtyards, with staircases in the cellars of certain of the towers that lead down into the very bedrock of the pillar upon which the keep is built. A monk once confided to me that these caverns store emergency supplies and provide access to great wells, all of which would enable the great fortification to survive entire seasons — if not years — of siege.
The monks of Candlekeep are all cloistered scholars. Most of them have no magical power to speak of (though many of them are trained to know about such things); a notable handful, though, are spellcasters — either clerics of gods that represent the pursuit of knowledge or wizards. Even warrior-monks and paladins have been known among the Avowed, though never many at once.
The Avowed are the sworn servants of the great keep, each rigorously tested to weed out any deceit before being permitted to take the oaths of the order. The monks’ first priority is the defense of the library’s knowledge against those who would steal or destroy it, but also against natural effects that might do likewise, such as mold, wet, and decay. Many of the monks wield various kinds of magic items to aid in these endeavors, and Candlekeep’s facilities include more than a few scriptoria to facilitate the copying of books becoming worn, binderies to repair the same, and even magical storage that preserve rare books from any further decay or damage.
I’ve never made a detailed study of the Avowed, as it’s never been terribly needful for me to do so, but from my time spent in Candlekeep’s Court of Air, as well as my conversations with Waldrop, I’ve picked up a few things.
The rank-and-file of the Avowed are divided into acolytes, who are newcomers to the order, and scribes, who tend to the majority of the work in the keep. Acolytes provide labor, doing the cleaning, lifting, and general sweating that a place of such size requires, and work at their studies, hoping to prove themselves and be accepted into the ranks of the scribes. The scribes do most of the archival labor required of the Avowed, and often pitch in with hands-on efforts when a particularly large chore needs doing.
The master readers are the sages and elder monks who oversee the scribes and teach the acolytes. All are possessed of significant experience and dedicated to the great library, and it is from this group that individuals are chosen to fill in the upper ranks when positions open up.
Above the master readers are other high-ranking posts, each with specialized duty, from the Gatewarden who tends to the security of the keep to the Guide who instructs and educates the Avowed. Of particular note is the Chanter, who is responsible for continuing the ongoing recitation of the prophecies of the great seer Alaundo, who once made his home here.
I remember the first time I came upon the Endless Chant. It starts at the edge of one’s hearing (I was one of the first in the courtyard to sense it), and slowly grows closer and louder. As it does so, everything else falls silent around you. In short order, a procession of Avowed arrive on the scene, and the only sound anyone can perceive is their echoing, sonorous chant. The Chanter or one of his subordinates (called “voices”) leads this procession, and each of the Avowed is expected to lend his voice to the procession occasionally.
It was through my friendship with Waldrop that I met one of the eight Great Readers, the council of elder Avowed who oversee the operation of Candlekeep. She was tall, and I remember thinking that she was one of the most erudite folk I’d ever spoken with. Each of the Great Readers is given an arena of responsibility within the Avowed, usually a topic of scholarly importance, and acknowledged and treated as the foremost expert in that field.
Finally, above them all are two others: the Keeper of Tomes and the First Reader. Where the First Reader’s focus is maintaining the integrity of Candlekeep’s scholarship, and ever expanding its literary resources and base of knowledge, the Keeper governs the great library. The Keeper’s word is law, quite literally — each Keeper’s edicts are recorded for the edification of future Keepers, and all are maintained as ongoing traditions until changed by the word of a future Keeper. Waldrop tells me that traditionally the Keeper and the First Reader are supposed to have an antagonistic relationship, one focused on the cloistered monks and the enlightened goals of the library and the other on the mundane aspects of scholarship and Candlekeep’s interactions with the outside world.
Although these high-ranking monks keep most visitors at arm’s length, it isn’t unknown for them to deal with adventurers directly when they need such services. While these scholars rarely have much coin to pay for the services of a company of venturers, they do possess the precious currency of Candlekeep: knowledge. I know of many companies who have been shown lore concerning lost ruins, then asked to brave some dangerous place and return with prizes that can be found only in that location. If the treasure that might be found in such places isn’t enough of a reward, some Avowed are empowered to offer inducements such as procedures for creating magic items and written copies of rare spells to sweeten the deal.
Those who come to Candlekeep are permitted to remain for one tenday before departing, and must remain away for at least a full month before returning. During this tenday, they may ask to read specific tomes known to be in the possession of the library, or they may ask the monks to find them tomes concerning certain topics. These works are brought to the reading rooms in the towers that face the Court of Air. Guests are permitted to ascend into those towers and read (but not copy) the tomes there, always in the company of one of the monks.
One of Candlekeep’s main sources of income is the sale of books. Three kinds of such books exist: copies of tomes of nonmagical lore, copies of spellbooks and other magical formulae, and works of the Avowed.
Copied Lore. The copying and binding of a work of nonmagical lore in Candlekeep’s library is generally performed at a cost of 100 gp or so (though quite large books are always more). This manufacture may take several weeks, particularly for large tomes, so it isn’t uncommon for those who desire such a work to commission it in writing, along with advance payment, and then come to the gate to pick up the book, or pay an additional price to have it delivered.
Spellbooks. In contrast, magical books of spells and formulae cost much, much more — a spellbook might be priced at thousands or even tens of thousands of gold pieces. Each simple spell or cantrip in such a tome costs 25 gp or so, with the more complex and powerful spells fetching 150 gp or more each.
Works of the Avowed. Each year, the monks of Candlekeep release a small book stamped with the sigil of the keep, and credited to “The Avowed of Candlekeep.” These books are always focused on singular topics, and contain short essays, excerpts, and other writings germane to the topic. They are sold at Candlekeep and by representatives in large cities for between 50 gp and 100 gp per book, though some are often resold for a great deal more.
Candlekeep also buys books and even sponsors adventurers on expeditions to seek out lost sources of lore across the Realms. The exchange of coin in such undertakings is, of course, open to the usual sort of negotiation.
I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Darkhold. It’s been many years since folk whispered the name of the place in fear. After all, the Zhentarim, the organization that gave Darkhold its evil reputation, are by all accounts no longer the cadre of thieves, assassins, and evil wizards they once were. And strangely enough, according to my source among the Zhentarim, that change in character can be traced right back to Darkhold. As it was told to me, it came about like this …
Zhentil Keep was burning. The Citadel of the Ravens lay in ruins. The leadership of the Zhentarim died, were captured by the Shadovar of returned Netheril, or were in flight. The vaunted Black Network was shredded. Cells of Zhentarim agents were cut loose, and without connections or direction, they dissolved or were crushed by rivals. The Zhentarim was no more.
Or so it seemed. There was one stronghold of the Zhents that had not fallen and whose leader never wavered in his dedication to the organization. Darkhold stands deep in the mountains of the Western Heartlands, and there the remnants of the Zhentarim quietly gathered. There they swore allegiance anew to the leader who promised to reforge the organization into something stronger than before.
The man to whom this new Zhentarim owed fealty was a dark knight known only as the Pereghost. The Pereghost had long led the armed forces of the Zhentarim at Darkhold, and his vision for the revival of the organization was along military lines. After a time of recruitment and training, the Zhentarim emerged from Darkhold not as conquerers or as bullying capitalists but as mercenaries willing to serve others instead of forcing them to serve.
In the years that followed, the transformation served the Zhentarim well. They earned a reputation for sterling service, and their ranks swelled. Those who knew of Darkhold thought of it as the headquarters of this new version of the Zhentarim.
Membership in the Zhentarim is difficult to assess, but my source told me they might have greater numbers now than before their organization’s fall. New leadership for this larger group has led to a shift in focus. While still a source of capable mercenaries, the Zhentarim have diversified into mercantile pursuits. Zhent guards now ride alongside caravans of their own. And whereas a military organization served it well in the chaotic period after its fall, my source frequently described the Zhentarim as a “family” and leaders as “my good friend.”
My source also spoke in awed tones of the Pereghost, as though that figure were still alive and a leader of Darkhold. The Pereghost is never seen without his full armor and a face-covering helm. If it isn’t an elf behind the mask, then I suspect a series of humans might have masqueraded as the Pereghost during the past century.
I was curious about my source’s tale, and so when I had cause to be in the region, I made my way toward Darkhold. An enormous mountain peak called the Gray Watcher of the Morning looms behind Darkhold to the east, casting a great shadow over the keep from sunrise until nearly midday. Darkhold sits in a cleft in the side of the Gray Watcher, the highest point of permanent occupation in a relatively flat and defensible valley called Darkhold Vale.
Darkhold Vale contains a small settlement of the same name, consisting mostly of shepherds who tend their flocks in the high meadows of the Sunset Mountains, and a few farmers who coax fine crops from the soils that cling to the vale’s fields. The settlement’s main source of prosperity is the black stone quarry at the southeastern edge of the vale; the heavy carts groaning with slabs of stone for sale and the large, muscled workhorses that pull them are common sights here. The common folk of Darkhold Vale tend to be surly and suspicious of outsiders, though they are careful to avoid offense.
This settlement of about a hundred or so is utterly under the dominion of Darkhold and has seen some benefit from the situation: the vale folk see a great deal more traffic and trade than the little hamlet would ever expect otherwise. Until recently, all the caravans bound for Darkhold could seek sanctuary only in the shadow of the keep itself. Now the people of the vale have recently built both an inn, called the Wyvern’s Rest, and a separate tavern, called the Rookery.
Some of the locals send to market bales of the thick, rich wool they shear from their sheep. Others make a living hawking the dandelion wine that Darkhold Vale has always produced, but only recently begun to sell abroad. The vale has a small militia, technically under the command of the Pereghost, but which answers to a local captain named Sulvarn.
To those who’ve come into conflict with the Zhentarim, living in a place so firmly in their power seems unthinkable, but the reality is that life is sedate here. Certainly, the soldiers in the castle aren’t to be trifled with, but they hardly ever engage in the acts of petty cruelty that one expects from warriors serving a local lord. Those who misunderstand the Zhentarim often do so because they imagine them to be cackling villains in the vein of the Zhents of yore. In reality, they are pragmatic, willing to do whatever necessary to achieve their ends. But they have no need to terrorize the folk of Darkhold Vale, for one simple reason: they already control them.
In years past, these folk lived in fear and suspicion, with a hearty helping of racial prejudice; my first visit to Darkhold nearly a century ago was occasion for me to hear some of the vilest epithets attached to my kind that I’ve ever heard — even worse than those that fall from the foul lips of orc raiders in the North. The attitudes of the vale folk have changed over the years, however, no doubt due in part to the orders of the Pereghost when he reengaged the Zhentarim with the wider world.
When I first beheld the great black walls of Darkhold, I thought all the legends about it must be true. On my second visit, I thought I’d try to confirm my suspicions.
According to legend, Darkhold’s story began more then a millennium ago, when it was known as the Keep of the Far Hills. It was built as a summer capitol for the so-called “giant empires.” Situated in the Far Hills, the castle was in a position to dominate trade routes north out of the Iriaebor Valley. It could also dominate river trade down the Yellow Snake Gorge.
The role of the so-called Giant Emperors is still a matter of conjecture and discussion today. However, there are some, scattered among the giant tribes of the North, who claim to be heirs to the ancient thrones. Whatever the truth of the empires might be, the castle itself was definitely built for giants. Its size and construction support no other explanation.
Legend has it that Darkhold was lost to the giants due to internal strife — a pair of brothers quarreling over their inheritance. Through poison, magic, and mercenaries, the brothers thinned the castle’s population until only the brothers themselves were left. The two fought and mortally wounded each other, and each dragged himself off to die alone. The brothers’ spirits are still said to stalk the castle, each still seeking his brother’s destruction.
The keep was then occupied by a succession of owners, including a dragon of some repute, but it was not until a lich claimed it that the castle came to be known as Darkhold. The lich was called Varalla, and supposedly she conjured all manner of evil creatures to serve her, sending them out to dominate the lands beyond and establish an empire of evil. Varalla ruled Darkhold until the infamous leaders of the old Zhentarim — Manshoon and Fzoul — heard tales of her wealth in magic and gold. Lured by the promise of such rich rewards, the pair defeated her and claimed the castle for themselves.
Upon my arrival at the great gates to the fortress, I found that I was expected, as I must have been watched since entering Darkhold Vale — perhaps even before then. After a short wait, I was met by a seneschal, a forthright woman with a strong handshake, who warmly referred to the person who secretly supplied me with the history of the Zhentarim. I found myself taken aback by this because I had thought my source and I had spoken in confidence. As you no doubt have noticed, I’ve avoided mentioning the name, gender, or physical description of my source, for I swore an oath of secrecy. Besides my initial shock, my exchange with the seneschal was pleasant, and I was given a tour of some of the mighty castle.
When I asked about the legends of Darkhold’s creation and occupation, she told much the same story as I have told, adding a few characters from its history that I hadn’t heard of before. When asked about castle hauntings, the seneschal only smiled in reply. Although it seemed a genuine smile, I could wring no truth from it.
Of the castle’s defenses, I can say little. My tour was limited. But I did note that, while some things on the giants’ scale have been modified to suit humans (such as stairs and most doors), other things remain titanic. For instance, I have no idea how they managed to open the gates for my entrance without the use of magic.
Denizens of Darkhold
I didn’t see the Pereghost during my visit, so I can’t confirm anything about the man. But the seneschal and everyone else with whom I conversed spoke of the Pereghost in awed tones. Whatever the truth of this savior of the Zhentarim, he is apparently too busy to entertain curious visitors. While at Darkhold, I heard the name of another leader of some importance, Manxam, but my queries about this figure were redirected to other topics, and I didn’t feel comfortable pressing the seneschal on the matter.
Of the rest of Darkhold I can relate only a little more. The Zhentarim maintain two war units within Darkhold: the Storm Watch, a cadre of veteran Zhentarim soldiers who act as heavy infantry, and the Gray Feathers, archers primarily responsible for the defense of the fortress.
These aren’t the only forces Darkhold can bring to bear, however. The years when a contingent of giants lived in Darkhold are long gone, but in their place is an aerie of wyverns, bred and trained to defend Darkhold and to obey the Pereghost. Their trainer is a ranger named Grigarr, whose body is pocked with myriad scars from wyvern stings. The man is a greedy wretch who claims he is now immune to the wyverns’ venom, after having been stung so many times. He loves telling stories in the Rookery about how he got his many stings, and thinks himself an entertaining storyteller because people listen and applaud. The truth is that the locals are terrified of him, so they humor him while he is in his cups.
Ah Elturgard! If any place in the world exemplifies humanity’s potential for greatness, it is this nascent nation. Who could forget the shining sight of a host of its Companions, paladins all, riding out on the field, banners taught and snapping, breastplates and shields agleam with the symbol of Elturgard, and each bearing a holy symbol of his or her god — armor for the soul. We have no shortage of the good and the just among my people, but the sheer zeal and genuine bravado the Companions have in pursuit of righteousness seems to me something uniquely human. And it’s not just those few touched by the gods who seek these high ideals; Elturgard’s armed forces swell with men and women who aspire to join the Companions. They are the Hellriders, so named because long ago warriors of Elturel literally rode through a gate into the Nine Hells to pursue and destroy devils that had been plaguing their people. With these bright examples to look up to, is it any wonder that the common people of Elturgard also tend to be devout in their pursuit of justice and worship of the gods?
Oh how bright Elturgard’s light burns! If only it could last. Humans are, after all, short-lived creatures, and fickle in their faith and attentions. Elturgard is the product of just a generation or two of humans, and it seems implausible that it will last many more. Sadly, I think I shall witness Elturgard diminish. But it was a miracle that brought about the nation of Elturgard, and perhaps that divine provenance will preserve it.
It began, as all the great stories do, in darkness. Half a century ago, the city of Elturel was a petty power. It had claimed its neighbors’ territory under various excuses, putting them under “Elturel’s Guard.” Then, the city’s leader, its High Rider, was revealed to be a vampire. The extent of the vampire’s network of charmed servants, undead allies, and willing sycophants took the Hellriders by surprise. An undead plague swamped Elturel, and although its Hellriders made some gains by day, in darkness the vampire and its minions inflicted cruel losses. Each night the good people of Elturel prayed to the gods that dawn might come more swiftly.
Then, on a particularly disastrous night when all seemed lost, dawn did come. A warm golden light suffused the city and surrounding lands, cast down from a golden orb that hung unwavering in the sky, so bright that it seemed a new day had dawned. Caught outside when this miracle appeared, the High Rider and his vampire spawn burned away to dust, and the other undead quailed in its illumination. In short order, Elturel was free.
When the true dawn came, the new sun remained. And it stayed in the sky through the next night, and the night after, and each night from then until now. While some called it Amaunator’s Gift, none could say what god granted them this boon. Most saw it as a companion to the sun and to themselves, and so it is known as the Companion. This holy wonder brought pilgrims of all kinds to Elturel. The devout, the curious, the afflicted — all came to bathe in its warmth and see its blessed light by night. Paladins had always been small in number among the Hellriders, but the Companion drew many to Elturgard, and the best among them was named High Observer to rule in the High Rider’s place.
To maintain order among the many faiths of the paladins, a special knighthood was created, named after the Companion sun. These paladins swore to uphold the Creed Resolute, an oath of service to Elturgard and all good people. And thus Elturgard now has both the Companions and the Hellriders.
The post of High Observer is no longer occupied by a paladin, but by a priest of Torm named Thavus Kreeg, and this to me seems fitting. Paladins should be out in the world, using their divine gifts for the good of all, not signing documents behind some desk or dithering with dignitaries. High Observer Kreeg has ruled wisely and well these past forty years or so, but as a short-lived human, he is nearing the end of his years. When he passes or can no longer cope with the demands of his office, I hope that Elturgard can make a smooth transition to equally strong leadership. It is during such change and the struggles for power that result that humans often stray from the righteous path. Perhaps the light of the Companion will show them the way.
Sometimes called the Kingdom of Two Suns, Elturgard encompasses Elturel, Triel, Scornubel, Soubar, and Berdusk. It also claims and protects many small villages and farms strung along the roads and rivers in the Western Heartlands.
The heraldry of Elturgard — the sun and a smaller companion sun surrounded in a blaze — is familiar to many of us along the roads that lead to and through Elturgard, for it also blazons the armor and flags of its two groups of guardians, the Hellriders and the Companions.
It might be fairly said that the only reason Elturgard can exist as a nation is because of these knights, for it faces threats from all around. The wilderness to the south is home to ravenous monsters, and the serpent kingdom of Najara to the north routinely sends agents — both raiders and spies — to test the strength of Elturgard. The knights can’t afford to be anything but vigilant, and fortunately for the folk of Elturgard, they are just that.
I regard crossing the border into Elturgard as a relief, for it usually means the beginning of a safe haven, with a need to set fewer guards at night. Many adventurers find good cause to visit Elturgard, whether pursuing personal goals or seeking sanctuary from the dangers that surround the small nation. Additionally, the High Observer is known to employ groups of adventurers in matters of importance to the nation. Though it has many paladins and clerics in its ranks, outside assistance is essential to the continued defense of the realm.
Several years ago, the entire complement of paladins at Fort Morninglord simply disappeared in a calamitous event that blackened every stone and sealed its doors and windows. The High Observer at the time ordered the fort, a day’s ride west of Elturel, to be bricked up, and the curious forbidden entrance, for fear of what evil they might release into the world. The fort remains sealed today, and guards occupy a fortified encampment nearby to patrol this area and serve as a deterrent to adventurers and other ne’er-do-wells who might otherwise try to find whatever is trapped in the fort’s depths.
The second sun that sits directly above Elturel burns night and day. This orb is commonly called the Companion, but some ascribe it to one deity or another. Where the natural sun journeys across the sky and disappears at night, the Companion is steady and loyal, ever preventing creatures of darkness from assaulting the city.
This second sun provides daytime illumination to the people of Elturel at all hours, and its illumination is as harmful to creatures vulnerable to sunlight as the sun is. This constant daylight lessens the farther one travels from Elturel, casting a sort of wan dawn light for fifty or so miles around the city. Beyond that, the orb is visible as a bright beacon in the sky. It can be seen clearly at night from as far away as Boareskyr Bridge and Berdusk, looking like an unmoving star low on the horizon. It might be fairly said that every land touched by its light is now under “Elturel’s Shield,” but such claims raise hackles among Elturgard’s neighbors.
The Creed Resolute
With no clear sign of the source of the Companion and so many faithful arriving in Elturgard each day, the first High Observer brought together a cadre of paladins and devised the Creed Resolute. This series of oaths and maxims outlines, among other things, that those who swear by it will not ascribe the Companion to any one god, nor allow religious differences to come between themselves and others. Those who swear the Creed Resolute also promise to serve the High Observer and uphold the laws of Elturgard, and always be in service to the greater good. While originally the Creed Resolute was intended to forge the fractious paladins of Elturgard into the Companions, the oath has since been taken by all among the Hellriders as well. If a Hellrider or Companion oversteps the bounds of the law or good conduct, often a fellow will say “recall the Creed,” and soon things are set right.
Though some of the Creed’s agents seem unnecessarily stern, the people of Elturgard hold the Hellriders and Companions in the highest esteem. The Companions are without a doubt the champions of the people first and foremost, and the folk of Elturgard love them for it. Though it might be hard to get the Companions to crack a smile, I’ve found even the lowliest of the guards here willing, without a second thought, to lay down their lives in defense of their people, and the folk of Elturgard know it. Disrespect the Creed, and it isn’t the Creed’s wrath you face, but that of the local citizenry.
Elturel is a city on a hill. It stands overlooking the River Chionthar, constantly illuminated by the Companion. A major location along the trade route through the Western Heartlands, Elturel and its environs for many miles around are a safe haven for visitors and citizens alike. Much of this safety comes from the efforts of the Hellriders, whose cavalry patrol the roads that lead into Elturgard, as well as the paths along the river.
In the city’s center, directly beneath the Companion, is a cliff-sided tor that holds aloft the High Hall. This castle, whose walls surround the summit of the mount, is home to the High Observer, and to a great deal of the bureaucracy of Elturgard. A stream runs out of the center of the castle, spawned by the powerful springs in its cellars. It flows north across the tor’s top and then down one of its cliffs in a series of waterfalls called the Maidens’ Leap. By canal it forms a moat for the eastern Dock District, before it joins the Chionthar. Along the stream across the tor lies the long, narrow garden, an open place of flowers, wooded paths, and arched bridges. The garden is a favorite meeting place for citizens of Elturel and retains a wild beauty in winter. The rich folk of the city dwell nearest the garden atop the tor, while folk in the town below live mostly in tall, narrow homes that are rich in balconies and windows.
Its benefits notwithstanding, the constant illumination that bathes Elturel can be difficult for newcomers to adjust to. Inns and boarding halls usually swathe the windows of their guest rooms in thick cloth to block out the light so that visitors can get some sleep. Without the onset of dawn or dusk to frame the day’s labors, citizens rely on the tolling of the bells from the High Hall to denote the start and end of the workday. The lack of natural darkness means the city sees less of the sorts of activities that city folk in other places often undertake at night. Elturel has a low incidence of brawling and ambushes in the alleys around its inns and taverns, and those who would engage in thievery must be especially careful and shrewd to succeed.
A few other major settlements of note are located within the borders of Elturgard. I describe three of them briefly here.
Berdusk. A large population of artisans drives the activity in the city of Berdusk. Its native nobility, the so-called “First Folk of Berdusk,” have made a great show of their piety since the founding of Elturgard, and a great many of the high-ranking priests hail from their families. Over the years a few bad apples in their midst have given Berduskans a reputation for the sin of “false piety” — pretending to a stronger faith than one actually possesses. Though this attitude is disapproved of by the Creed, it has given rise in other parts of Elturgard to the expression “as holy as a Berduskan priest” — which is to say, not very.
Scornubel. Known far and wide as the City of Caravans, Scornubel is the great trading nexus of the Kingdom of Two Suns, and the Elturgard city I am most familiar with. Though responsible for a great deal of the nation’s prosperity, it is also the source of plenty of its trouble; Scornubel is a haven for outlanders, many of whom are either troublemakers or folk whom trouble is pursuing. Add to this the machinations of Scornubel’s native merchant-princes and the rumors of a thieves’ guild somewhere in its walls, and it can be understood why the saying “The High Observer’s headache is named Scornubel” has some merit.
Soubar. Soubar is a small walled town with supporting farmsteads strung along the road to the north and south. It is a waypoint settlement much like any other except for the existence of the Black Abbey. This dark stone structure once served as a monastery to Bane and lay in ruins for many years. Now priests of Bane have begun rebuilding it, bringing an influx of wealth and trade, along with the many skilled masons and laborers necessary for such a project. Some people question the desirability of a temple to Bane in Elturgard, but those who do are encouraged to recall the Creed. For their part, the priests of Bane have pledged to aid in Soubar’s defense against raiding goblinoids and other threats, a promise that gives some solace to the suspicious.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Evereska, but I will be brief for I have no desire to publish all its secrets. I shall endeavor to describe my own homeland in as unbiased a way as I might, but I must warn: I am a daughter of the Greycloak Hills, and its mists yet roil through my soul as surely as elven blood does through my veins. Ere I make mention of my home, though, I will discuss the meeting-ground that is the closest most outsiders will ever get to fair Evereska: the Halfway Inn.
The Halfway Inn
Evereska lies hidden in the Greycloaks. Our paths to it are secret, cloaked by natural features and magical guise. No significant human settlement stands within a hundred miles west of it, and to the east lies the hungry desert sands of Anauroch.
Strange, then, that the Halfway Inn should stand where it does. Perhaps it is there because, as humans put it, “It is halfway to everywhere.” A small village surrounds the titular inn, which is itself not a single building, but a small compound that includes stables and other outbuildings. The folk who live here year-round are hunters, trappers, gold prospectors, gem seekers, smallholders and their families, and it is they who staff the inn when traders come to see what goods can be reaped from the region.
Evereska is self-sufficient, but its citizens in their travels sometimes stop at the Halfway Inn and, if traders are present, exchange goods with them. Whenever I return home, I make it a point to spend at least a night at the inn to see old friends (often much older since last I saw them) and learn what has passed since my last visit.
Elf artisans sometimes come out of the Greycloak Hills to sell their goods here, and some of the best-known can sometimes spark impromptu bidding wars over the right to purchase their wares. My kin don’t do anything so pedestrian as set up booths or tables for themselves, but instead deal with a few traders who might be at the inn at the time. These agents then travel out and sell the elven crafts to others, which has given the Halfway Inn an undeserved reputation as Evereska’s trading post.
Permit me to state this in as clear a fashion as writing allows: don’t venture into the mountains seeking Evereska unless you are in the company of a citizen of Evereska. You will not find such accompaniment easily, for we are determined over the whole of our lives that no outsiders may gaze upon our homes without invitation from the eldest among us. If strangers need to meet with any of us, that is the purpose the Halfway Inn fulfills.
The Refuge in the Hills
When I rest at the end of the day and retreat into reverie, I do not revisit the wonders of ancient ruins and majestic creatures I have seen on my wanderings. At those times, I recall the Evereska I wandered as a youth, when I followed a haunting song or a wisp of light among the roiling fogs of the Greycloaks, picked sweet berries in the hollows of the hills, and swam in the cold streams that flowed out of their heights.
Evereska nestles in a sunny canyon, high in the mountains. The surrounding peaks hide it from all but the most powerful fliers who can stand the chill and high winds of their towering heights. Yet should such approach Evereska, its guardians mounted on giant eagles would ensure no ill befell the vale.
Unlike cramped and crowded human cities, Evereska is composed of clusters of buildings throughout the many levels of the great valley, with many a footpath between them. These clusters are separated by clearings, meadows, and small woodland groves — natural spaces just as much a part of the city as the buildings are, their presence essential to our way of life.
With the recent tragedy of Myth Drannor’s second fall, Evereska has seen the largest influx of new citizens in many centuries, in the form of our Cormanthan brethren. They have been warmly welcomed into Evereska, but some of our people are concerned that so many new residents will disrupt the peace and balance we’ve thus far been able to maintain. At the same time, some of the newcomers have reacted unpleasantly to Evereska’s reclusiveness, which they see as a form of prejudice or cowardice, and a few of their younger folk have taken it upon themselves to speak on such topics rather heatedly. I’m hopeful that the coming decades will smooth over these differences and sooth the contentions. Evereska is a beautiful place, and I see no reason to mar that beauty with an argument among friends.
Fields of the Dead
The expanse known as the Fields of the Dead has been the battleground for myriad wars and skirmishes over the centuries. It is said that the hills that dot the countryside here all hold the dead, and there is some measure of truth to that — many of the hillocks are indeed barrows, raised to house the fallen dead of one faction or nation on either side of a war. I have seen more than one such barrow, either broken open from the outside by those seeking lost treasures, or somehow broken from within.
The Fields of the Dead is a vast, rolling plain of windswept grasses that seems to go on to the horizon in every direction. Regular travelers through the area speak of the “whispers of the dead,” the popular term for the sound that results when a breeze rustles the grass. The wind almost always blows here, and it isn’t uncommon to smell salt in the air even dozens of leagues inland.
Though this land is uncivilized, it isn’t barren. Even if many monsters hide in the tall grass or build burrows in the sides of the hills, the fields represent an opportunity for shepherds and free folk to claim a plot that no one else has yet occupied. Small, stout farmhouses and even a few walled enclosures that contain several such dwellings can occasionally be found a short distance away from the roads and rivers that run through or near the Fields.
The folk of this land are kind but wary, usually willing to share their wells or cisterns, and part with the goods they store away in return for goods in trade. I have met a few who show greater hospitality, letting strangers make camp within the shelter of the low stone walls that surround their steadings. They are a good and honest people, by and large.
Away from the vicinity of these settlements, there are threats aplenty. Small bands of nomadic humanoids traverse these grasslands, as do monsters from out of the Wood of Sharp Teeth to the south, the Trollclaws to the north, or the serpent kingdom of Najara to the east. Occasionally, one of the barrows bulges and vomits forth undead, wakened by some instinct known only to them, or a patch of terrain buckles and collapses in on itself, revealing a sinkhole to warrens beneath.
Though the structure is crumbled and perpetually shrouded in mist, more than one of the caravans I’ve guided through these lands have seen Dragonspear Castle from afar and expressed a desire to seek shelter there. As I tell them at such times, it is better to seek shelter inside an opened tomb in these lands, and crawl in to huddle among the warrior dead within, than to seek anything like sanctuary from Dragonspear.
Built by an adventurer named Daeros after he found a wealth of gems in a sunken dwarven settlement, Dragonspear Castle was erected above the very caverns where that settlement — fallen Kanaglym — was interred. Two hundred years ago, sorcerous machinations brought about the fall of Daeros and the opening of an infernal portal in the depths of the castle.
After that event, Dragonspear’s ruins were occupied by hobgoblins and myriad bands of bandits, until Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate sent troops to root them out. Discovering that the portal yet existed, but unable to destroy it, they established the Hold of Battle Lions, a fortified temple of Tempus, in an attempt to prevent anything from coming through. In time, though, devils broke through new portals inside the castle’s walls and overran the defenders.
Then came the Second Dragonspear War, more than a century ago, during which a strange cloak of mist settled over the castle, and the forces of Waterdeep and Baldur’s Gate once more attacked. This time, they defeated the devils, leaving the castle ruined and still cloaked in mists. At least one other time since then, the devils have punched back through, amassing other fell creatures to attack the nearby settlements (notably Daggerford), but they have been fought off by adventurers each time. The most recent stories tell of heroes confronting Red Wizards of Thay and other devilry. I pray that this will be the last time such efforts are necessary, but somehow, I think not.
Today, Dragonspear remains crumbled and mist-shrouded. Rumors say that the castle — seemingly quiescent — has become home to undead horrors of some sort, but no one seems terribly inclined to investigate such claims, so long as they don’t threaten the folk who live nearby. Some interested parties out of Baldur’s Gate offered me more than a fair amount of coin to investigate the truth of these rumors, though I demurred. I don’t fancy myself an investigator or a spy, and I know better than to seek out whatever foulness might have taken hold in this place.
A tangled landscape of rough hills along the northern edge of the Fields of the Dead, the Trollclaws are home to a great many of the regenerating, bloodthirsty beasts. Exactly what makes these hills such prime ground for trolls is unknown (and a favorite topic of conversation around many of the campfires I’ve sat at while passing through or near this place), but there’s no doubt that they dwell here in great numbers.
Those traveling south to Baldur’s Gate or north out of the Fields of the Dead typically travel through the Trollclaws. The Trollclaw Ford, so named for obvious reasons, is the only place for leagues that wagons can safely cross the Winding Water. Important as it is, the site has been occupied by several forces over the years, as evidenced by the ruined remnants of forts and similar buildings nearby. But those claimants have always fallen eventually to prolonged assaults by trolls. My advice is to avoid the region entirely, but if you can’t, keep a lit torch handy at all times.
I have been to Hartsvale only once, and found it surpassingly beautiful each time. Its wonders are wild and untamed, with even the so-called civilization of the place exuding a kind of primal beauty that is found nowhere else that I know of.
Hartsvale is far in the windswept north, a fertile mountain valley where the Ice Spire Mountains abut the High Ice. The Clear Whirl River, easily the cleanest and coldest I have ever bathed in, flows south into the valley out of the lands of the Endless Blizzard, feeding the rich soil tucked between the northern and southern arms of the Ice Spires. The river splits as it runs through the hilly lands, eventually draining into a series of lakes along the southern edge of the vale. Two small woods also grow in the vale, one along its northern edge, between the vale proper and the northern Ice Spires, and another fed by the lakes on its southern edge.
Originally the home of giant clans and ragtag barbarian tribespeople related to the Uthgardt, Hartsvale was conquered by the hero Hartkiller. He was a giant who had ventured into the lands to the south and learned of their ways. When he came to Hartsvale, he rallied the human tribes, uniting them into a fighting force capable of defeating the giants who tyrannized them, and they threw the giants down, claiming the vale between the mountains for their descendants.
Giants aplenty still dwell in Hartsvale’s mountains and forested hills, but they’ve reached an accord with the humans of the vale. So far as I know, they live peaceably distant from the human lands, and taboos exist among both humans and giants that keep them separate. In my time in Hartsvale, I saw no giants, but surely I saw their works. At the boundaries of lands where humans (and other folk smaller than giants) may not go stand titanic menhirs, likely erected by stone giants.
The folk of Hartsvale are ruled by House Hartwick, a line of royals supposedly descended from Hartkiller. Though human, House Hartwick’s scions are all very tall and strong, most standing seven feet in height. The king of Hartsvale sits on the Alabaster Throne in Castle Hartwick, and the many earls of the vale’s duchies owe their fealty to him.
Peace has reigned for many years in Hartsvale. Grauman, called the Good King by his people, sits the Alabaster Throne, though his years are advanced. His eldest son and heir, Taumarik, is a young ranger who has recently returned from a three-year journey to explore the North. He came back with a wife, the sorceress Ylienna of Silverymoon, and has begun to take on more of his father’s onerous responsibilities. There is some strife in the court, however, for the earls don’t seem to trust his “out-vale witch-bride” (a phrase that infuriates Taumarik, but seems to gently amuse Ylienna). For myself, I found the lady Ylienna a delight on the one occasion when I was in her company.
The vale is well guarded, as all jewels should be — in this case by the perils of the mountains and giant-steads that surround it. Nonetheless, a certain strong breed of merchant travels the narrow mountain passes leading into Hartsvale. The dwarves of Citadel Adbar jestingly refer to these people as “goats of coin,” for they will cling like such animals to the most precarious of mountain ridges while seeking the opportunities that wait beyond. My own journeys with the goats of coin have impressed upon me the skill of these folk, who brave crumbling paths, avalanche-ridden passes, terrible howling blizzards, and monsters of all sorts to reach Hartsvale and get safely out of the vale again.
It isn’t merely the high mountains around the vale that hold dangers. Though the valley has scattered settlements, all of Hartsvale can hardly be considered civilized. In my time traveling these lands (with one of the few goats of coin that refused to be daunted by the fens around Castle Hartwick), I’ve found these lands to be still frontier-like, similar to some of the wilder portions of the North, particularly in the days before the founding of Luruar and the resettlement of Mithral Hall. Fell beasts aplenty make their lairs in out-of-the-way places across the valley, and raiding bands of ogres often come down out of the mountains.
Castle Hartwick and Stagwick
Between two branches of the Clear Whirl River lies a great island on which Hartkiller built his castle. Stagwick, on the east bank of the river, is a small community of folk who work as farmers, fishers, herders, and artisans. These folk do a brisk business, as most outland merchants choose not to journey beyond Stagwick and instead sell their wares to the Hartsvale merchants. Perhaps a third of the merchants who journey to Hartsvale choose to undertake the trip out to the fiefdoms of the earls, who pay more to encourage this behavior.
For reasons I can’t fathom, Harstvale and its surrounding mountain ranges host many tribes of ogres — indeed, not mere family groups, but whole tribes of them! Whereas elsewhere ogres seem to live like bears, near Hartsvale they act more like orcs. Thankfully the brutes are still too stupid for such complex tasks as working metal, but from what I heard in my time in the vale their culture is surprisingly sophisticated. Different tribes worship different gods, Vaprak being the one I heard most about, and these differences in religion apparently set the tribes against each other. From what I heard, both the giants and the people of Hartsvale hate the ogres, a fact for which I’m sure many are grateful. If one or more giants decided to organize the ogres, I don’t know if any in Hartsvale could stand against them.
Helm’s Hold has stood as a place of watchfulness and protection for generations. Ever since its foundation by the Company of Crazed Venturers, travelers have used it as a safe place to rest and recuperate on their journeys. Even during the dark times when Helm ceased showing signs to his faithful, the priests and people at Helm’s Hold kept their doors open and their eyes on the road, providing refuge to any who came in peace. This outlook was recently sorely tested, and I’m uncertain if Helm’s Hold passed or failed the test.
Even though the Watcher was destroyed just prior to the Spellplague, the faithful toiled on through terrible times to complete a grand central temple for the good of the community and the glory of their god. The kindly clergy of this temple, dubbed the Cathedral of Helm, took in those who had been touched by the plague or rendered insane by the destruction of Mystra’s Weave. Sadly, as all too often occurs, corruption crept into the settlement, in the form of predatory creatures and malefactors who sought to experiment on the unfortunates in the care of the temple
In time the leadership of Helm’s Hold was itself corrupted, falling into the hands of a shapeshifting succubus, who turned many monks into willing servitors. When her machinations were at last revealed and the battle for Helm’s Hold began, other otherworldly forces came to the fore: summoned devils, undead raised from the very crypts of the temple, and tentacled, jelly-skinned things whose origin I dare not consider. With the aid of adventurers from nearby Neverwinter, all were defeated and Helm’s Hold at last cleansed.
Order of the Gilded Eye
Among those stalwarts who saved Helm’s Hold was a member of the Order of the Gauntlet. This man was Javen Tarmikos, and seeing the horrors unleashed on the world in Helm’s Hold, he found his own order at fault. The Order of the Gauntlet doesn’t punish the criminal before the crime is committed. When evil arises, members of the order strike and strike hard, but they leave the orcs alone in their mountains and don’t disturb dragons in their slumber. After Helm’s Hold, Javen found this philosophy flawed. Evils unlooked for can breed in the shadows, growing stronger until they attack. This seemed particularly true of otherworldly threats, such as portals to fiendish realms, evil spirits that seek to possess the living, and the corrupting influences of alien planes.
Javen says he was ruminating on this when he received a sign of Helm’s return. In the main chapel, the faithful had erected a new symbol of Helm after the last had been desecrated. Javen says he was gazing at this symbol and meditating on his order’s failure when Helm’s unblinking eye wept tears of gold. Soon after, uncorrupted priests of Helm’s Hold, men and women who had remained ever watchful for Helm’s return, experienced their own divine signs. In response to prayers, some were even rewarded with spells. Javen took those priests and followers from the Order of the Gauntlet loyal to him and formed a new order, swearing them in under the watchful gaze of Helm’s still-weeping eye.
The Order of the Gilded Eye is dedicated to protecting the world and good people by rooting out hidden evils and severing connections with other planes. According to their members, it’s not enough to fight threats that arise. Many lives can be saved if the signs of evil and those who dabble in darkness are actively sought out and destroyed before they open the gateways to larger threats. Since its founding, the Order of the Gilded Eye has grown in number and its capacity to deal with threats, welcoming exorcists, abjurers, and spies, as well as paladins and clerics of Helm. I’ve even heard that assassins bear the order’s symbol — Helm’s eye upon a golden gauntlet curled into a fist — and it is a claim I can’t disregard. The Order of the Gilded Eye can be brutal in their pursuit of evil.
Did Helm’s symbol weep as Javen Tarmikos and others have said? If it did, was Javen’s creation of this order Helm’s intention? Is the Helm that has returned from death different from the god whose worship was familiar to me in my youth? How can we mortals know? Helm was ever a god of watchfulness and protection, but that didn’t make him a just god, nor a kindly one.
Whatever the truth may be, know this: The Order of the Gilded Eye controls Helm’s Hold now. If you hide evil in your heart, or if there is the whiff of something otherworldly about you, ride on. You’ll find no sanctuary there.
Places and People of the Hold
Helm’s Hold is still a relatively small settlement: a handful of streets that encircle a central marketplace, with sturdy stone-and-timber embankment walls all the way around. In the center of town sits the Heartward, a large marketplace with several rows of stalls radiating out from its central feature, an old gallows that doesn’t see much use these days. The market is so named for the shrine to Sune that once stood along its edge. That shrine has since been replaced by a recently constructed temple to Lady Firehair, called the Heartward Hall.
Not far from Heartward lies the town hall, a former inn that has been turned into the council building where the Speakers of Helm’s Hold meet. The Speakers are the duly elected representatives of the hold, numbering eight in all, plus the Chief Speaker. The current Chief Speaker is Amarandine Wanderfoot, an older halfling matron who was an adventurer in her day. The Speakers work closely with the Holy Watcher to see to the proper governance of the hold.
A short distance from the town hall lies the Venturer’s Rest, a favorite stopping-off point of adventurers in the area, and of the locals who like to sit at the bar and listen to the tales such folk bring with them. The Rest was until recently called the Old Dirty Dwarf, but was rechristened by its new owner, a winsome Chauntean paladin by the name of Kharissa Anuvien. Dame Kharissa claims that one of her ancestors was in the Company of Crazed Venturers, associated with the founding of Helm’s Hold, and her quick-rising popularity among the people has won her a seat as a Speaker.
Dominating the skyline of the hold is the great edifice: the Cathedral of Helm. As much a fortification as it is a temple, the cathedral has a small building on its grounds that serves as an orphanage, wards for caring for the sick and injured, as well as a newer addition that houses the mad and deformed who have been brought up from the catacombs.
The settlement enjoys prosperity today, but such benefit was hard-won and requires vigilance to retain. Helm’s Hold is vulnerable on many fronts, in large part because of its proximity to Neverwinter Wood — which, if anything, has become more dangerous in recent times. Rumors of maddened treants abound, as well as stories of Uthgardt barbarians once again raiding the trails that lead to the hold.
Worse still, the Holy Watcher has seen premonitions of something unspeakable rising from the depths beneath the hold, bringing down the lowest vaults of the cathedral in its bloody ascension. As a result, the temple has dramatically increased guard patrols in the tunnels, perhaps as a prelude to hiring adventurers to explore the tunnels deep under Helm’s Hold for some clue of what those visions might portend.
Anyone with even a hint of elven blood can’t help but feel it stir upon setting foot in the High Forest. The sheer age and the power of the trees, the depth of their roots, and the wind whispering through their leaves — all these things call to us.
A vast green cloak in the midst of the North, the High Forest is a reminder of ages past, when thick woods blanketed much of Faerûn, and sylvan creatures of all types lived among the trees. Even today the High Forest has barely known the tread and touch of humans, and old growth dominates its flora.
Elven communities in the forest are typically small and often nomadic. In part, this is a reflection of the desire to keep the woods untouched, but there are ruins here, such as those of Ascalhorn — now called Hellgate Dell — that remind us of the fallen cities and empires of the past.
The High Forest once sheltered three great elven realms beneath its boughs, and the bones of those empires still lie tangled in its roots. Many tribes of wood elves — and a few moon elf tribes — still roam the wood protecting these ruins, the monuments to their golden age. Few beyond the borders of the High Forest know much about these elves, who have no single leader and make little contact with the outside world. Travelers in the High Forest must always be wary of elves they meet for they can never be sure of their welcome, and any promises of safe passage might not be honored by the next band of elves.
One elf is leading the effort to change this situation. Known as the Red Lady, or simply the Lady of the Wood, Morgwais is a wood elf who seeks to unite the disparate tribes. She leads the Caerilcarn, the “Council of the Wood,” which periodically gathers many tribal leaders together to share information, consult, and deliberate. Her stated aim is to resurrect the kingdom of Eaerlann, and she has made bold steps in that direction by allying the settlements of Nordahaeril, Reitheillaethor, and Teuveamanthaar (which most know as Tall Trees). As yet though, the elves who believe in this vision are small in number and spread far apart over the eastern reaches of the High Forest.
Fey and sylvan creatures of all sorts — including satyrs, dryads, and treants — inhabit the High Forest. Small wonder that one almost immediately feels the presence of unseen watchers upon entering the woods.
Nowhere in the forest is this feeling more palpable than near the Grandfather Tree, an oak larger than you might imagine possible, which serves as a holy site for the Treeghost tribe of the Uthgardt. Four smaller oaks — enormous indeed, though still smaller than the Grandfather — mark the boundaries of the site, protecting the tree and aiding those whom its spirits determine are worthy, speeding their natural healing. Teleportation magic often goes awry here, and the caverns deep beneath the site are rumored to contain all manner of magical portals.
If it isn’t the elves, the fey, or the trees themselves watching visitors, it might be the centaurs who make the High Forest their home, claiming the plateaus near the head of the Unicorn Run. For decades, the centaurs have been growing in number, enough so that they may soon divide their tribes and claim additional lands as their territory. Pegasi and unicorns can be found here, and even some of the fabled aarakocra, the winged bird-folk, live among the peaks at the heart of the wood.
Within the depths of the forest is an entire mountain range known as the Star Mounts. Constant strong winds keep weaker flying creatures from approaching the peaks of the mountains, with the strange exception of the aarakocra, who had an ancestral homeland there before being chased out by a dragon. Most the peaks may be viewed only from afar, and at a distance they seem to glitter from the strange, massive crystals dotting their slopes. They are also known to hold rich deposits of iron and nickel, but no one has mined these mountains in hundreds of years.
The Star Mounts are the source of the waters of the Unicorn Run, which cuts through the rocks of the lower range to form a series of gorges and cliffs known as the Sisters. The sight of the tiered waterfalls is positively breathtaking, well worth the challenge of reaching them. Mist shrouds the Sisters, and feeds the vegetation on the small plateaus of the area. To the north, the headwaters of the Dessarin River flow down from a smaller pair of mountains called the Lost Peaks.
Far less idyllic are the cursed ruins of Karse. Here are the remains of the great heresy of the Netherese wizard Karsus, who sought to claim godhood, slew the goddess of magic, and brought about the end of an age and untold destruction across the entire world.
The High Moor was once a place much like the High Forest or the nearby Misty Forest, but during the Crown Wars, thousands of years ago, powerful magic burned the land such that all that remained was a blasted moor. It is a rocky wilderness infested with trolls and goblinoids and all manner of other dangers for anyone who treks across it instead of going around.
As the name suggests, the High Moor is a raised area extending for many miles of heath, lichen-covered outcroppings, and hidden gullies. Herd animals wander the land, from sheep to rock ponies to the occasional rothé. These beasts graze without great risk, because wolves and other predators that would thin the herds are themselves the prey of the trolls and goblinoids that otherwise rule the moor. These two-legged threats sometimes seed the High Moor with traps, but are normally occupied with fighting and killing their prey and each other. There is something of a cycle to the hunts of the High Moor: wolves are killed off by the hobgoblins one year, leading to more sheep grazing, which brings the trolls out (the local trolls enjoy mutton, it seems), which brings intrepid adventurers to deal with the growing menace, enabling just enough of the wolves to survive that they aren’t wiped out completely.
Human barbarians also inhabit the High Moor, living mostly on its western fringes with large herds of sheep and goats, the soil being too thin and too poor for farming. They aren’t Uthgardt or related to them, but they might have some distant ties to the Northlanders, as they seem to be of Illuskan stock. They speak a dialect of Illuskan I’d not heard before, and my first meetings with them were quite tense and filled with misapprehension. However, I came to know people from both the Girondi and Belcondi tribes, all of whom acted with bravery, honor, and good humor in my presence. Travelers in this region should note that the human tribes share the suspicion of magic common among many Northlanders, but thankfully it isn’t the fanatic hatred shown by the Uthgardt.
There are also some small orc tribes, Redclaw and Blue Feather, among them. The humans and goblinoids both despise the orcs, and my hosts said they allied with one another in the past when the orcs grew great in number.
For such a large expanse, the High Moor contains few known ruins. One such is Orogoth, the former villa of a noble family of old Netheril. Local legends say the family dabbled in dragon magic, attempting to capture those powerful wyrms and acquire their powers. The tales differ as to what folly led to the family becoming immolated in its home, but most agree the culprit was a dracolich, of all things, residing in the ruin and defending the family’s wealth. The gods only know what led to the creation of such a creature or what binds it to this place. The answers — if any there be — lie within its lair.
West of the High Moor but heavily influenced by it, the Misty Forest draws its name from the fog that rolls off the heights of the moor to shroud its trees. Melandrach, King of the Woods, rules here and holds the forest as the exclusive domain of the elves. Though game animals roam in plenty, the local humans know well that the elves protect them and punish trespassers who poach in the forest. Even barbarians know better than to hunt here, as they don’t wish to draw Melandrach’s attention or ire.
Travelers who leave the inhabitants of the Misty Forest alone, and who build their campfires small and solely of fallen branches, are usually permitted to pass, so long as the folk of the forest aren’t in a foul mood or stirred up against outsiders for some other reason.
Just off the High Moor, on the north bank of the Delimbiyr near the Unicorn Run, is the small town of Secomber, on the border between the North and the settlements of the Western Heartlands. Built over the ruins of Hastarl, capital of the ancient kingdom of Athalantar, Secomber is a quiet place where fishers and farmers go about their work, and local folk hire out to hunt or fish, or guide travelers through the area. Skilled guides who know the High Moor well, and can navigate its many dangers and its local tribes, are common — or appear to be, given how often their services are offered. Local stonecutters, primarily from a small clan of dwarves, excavate pink granite from the rock walls on northern edge of the moor.
Rhymanthiin: Hidden City of Hope
Stories persist that Faer’tel’miir, an ancient city of Miyeritar, was restored by High Magic sometime in the last century — perhaps even before the Spellplague — up on the High Moor. The restored city of dark, smooth stone, called Rhymanthiin, or “The Hidden City of Hope,” appears on no maps, and is reputedly concealed by magic or some other artifice. Supposedly only those who are worthy, without malice in their hearts, may reach it, while others (as the tales have it) “shall not find their way there.” Such tale-tellers must be few and far between, as I know of no one who can rightly claim to have seen it, but still the stories seem to have a life of their own.
Gone are the days when the tales of a kingdom of serpents were rumor and hearsay, stories concocted by adventurers and travelers who strayed far off the path and somehow managed to escape. It was once easy to doubt their veracity, for what nation didn’t patrol its borders or establish communication (amicable or otherwise) with other nations? The stories of naga and yuan-ti were easy enough to believe, for this area had always hosted such things. But a nation of such creatures?
As we now know, the kingdom of Najara, as proclaimed by the serpents that live within, lies along the northern edge of the Trade Way, northeast of Boareskyr Bridge and southeast of the High Moor. The Winding Water flows through these lands, and its other main geographical features are the Serpent Hills, the Marsh of Chelimber, and the Forest of Wyrms.
I discovered for myself the truth of Najara, the Kingdom of Serpents, when a sage in Baldur’s Gate hired me to guide him, his apprentices, and a handful of adventurers to some ruins in the eastern edges of the High Moor. I will forever regret accepting that commission, for not only did half the adventurers turn out to be greedy swine intent on plundering the ruins rather than allowing the sage his study, but their idiocy awoke an ancient spirit that caused most of the group to drop off into a deathly sleep while it consumed their souls. Since I am unaffected by magics that force slumber, I escaped, along with a half-elf among the apprentices to the sage. The spirit chased us across the moors relentlessly, forcing us into the tunnels beneath the Serpent Hills, where we were taken prisoner by yuan-ti patrolling the borders of their domain. The half-elf was hauled away in slaver’s chains, but for some reason I was taken to the court of Jarant, the Serpent King. A brief account of that experience follows.
Ancient and evil, the spirit naga Jarant rules the kingdom by virtue of his personal power and thanks to the aid of the Marlspire of Najara, a thin silver crown that has protective and other magical abilities. Though he still preferred to remain utterly isolated from the outside world at the time when I met him, ten years ago the Dark Serpent began sending ambassadors to neighboring kingdoms to warn them about the consequences of interfering in Najaran matters. Though I saw the king for but a moment, Jarant’s influence in his realm is undeniable, for his name is spoken reverently by all his subjects. A guard might swear “by Jarant’s crown” to emphasize an edict, and the yuan-ti who owned the keys to my shackles referred to Najara’s laws as “Jarant’s will.”
No one knows why Jarant chose the time he did to make public his kingdom’s sovereignty, or what he hoped to gain by such an act. The yuan-ti ambassadors he sent forth made their king’s wishes clear to the nations they visited: leave Najaran prosperity alone, and discourage intruders (such as adventuring types) from violating Najaran borders to steal the fortunes of the serpentfolk. In return, the serpents promised that any caravans and other legitimate travelers passing through Najara’s dominion would be unharmed and unhindered — as long as they don’t stray from the main route.
Reaction among the places approached raged from one extreme to the other. Darkhold reportedly feted the ambassadors well, and the serpentfolk left with not only an agreement from the Zhentish lords, but also an offer of a possible future military alliance. Not surprisingly, Elturgard refused the edict outright — and in the process of expressing that refusal, bloodshed erupted. The paladins slew all but one of the ambassadors, and sent the survivor back to Jarant’s court to communicate their answer.
The other responses to the Najaran ambassadors fell somewhere in between. Acceptances and refusals to cooperate, usually polite, trickled in, but regardless of their substance, Jarant’s goal had been accomplished: Najara’s neighbors now saw the realm as a nation, no matter whether they viewed it as a potential ally or foe.
The economy of Najara, such as it is, depends on slaves to exist. Slavery is arguably the only actual trade conducted in Najara, with the ruins of Thlohtzin in the Forest of Wyrms serving as a gathering place for those who would stoop so low as to sell slaves to the yuan-ti. Different factions among the Najarans have agents waiting near Thlohtzin, each hoping to strike a bargain with slavers before others arrive. Slaves with unusual abilities or specialized knowledge sometimes set off bidding wars among the yuan-ti. I fear that such was the fate of that apprentice who accompanied me out of the High Moor.
To everyone of any influence who might read this, heed my words: do not be misled. The serpents do not intend to coexist peacefully — they merely wish to use their strange diplomacy as a cloak and a shield, to protect them against the vigilance of others until they are ready to put their plans, whatever they may be, into fruition.
The Court of the Serpent King
I was imprisoned in Ss’khanaja, a mostly subterranean city on the Winding Water, where gathers the court of King Jarant.
During my time in the custody of the Najarans, I learned much about — and from — Dhosun Silverscale. A yuan-ti pureblood in Najara, Dhosun acts as a councilor to the king and often seeks to mitigate Jarant’s excesses. I believe that the sending out of the ambassadors was Dhosun’s idea, for while I was imprisoned, he visited me several times, asking what I knew of the arts of embassy and ambassadorship. From the talk at court, Dhosun makes no secret of his desire to help his king build a nation whose status equals or outmatches other realms across the face of Faerûn. Jarant keeps him near, it is said, because of all the king’s courtiers, Dhosun is the likeliest to attempt to steal away the Marlspire. Whether or not he is capable of such an act, I found the yuan-ti naga to be honorable — it was he who secretly arranged the opportunity I needed to escape, and I know he has done likewise for others in the past. I owe him a debt I intend to repay one day.
Another figure of note in the court is the cunning green dragon Emikaiwufeg, often called the Emerald Daughter. She is young for a dragon and still small enough to fit in tunnels leading down to Jarant’s audience chamber. Jarant is said to appreciate the twists and turns of her wit. Some courtiers believe that she is frequently kept to hand as a foil to Dhosun, as her slickly vicious nature offsets the Dhosun’s more honorable tendencies. For my part, I believe she’s biding her time. A great many metallic dragons dwell in the Serpent Hills, and a clear rival for mates, wealth, and power — the green dragon known as Ralionate — lives in the nearby forest of Wyrms.
A variety of advisors and hangers-on can be found within Jarant’s court, which is a dangerous place. A trio of yuan-ti warlocks, who claim to have tapped into the vestiges of the ancient serpent deity once worshiped at Ss’thar’tiss’ssun, leads the yuan-ti of Najara, though at court they frequently lurk in the background, simply watching.
The Serpent Hills is a desolate region of red clay hills and deep, treacherous ravines, featuring stretches of rough, ridged land surrounding tall mesas. Only scrub can manage to grow here, tenaciously clinging to the dry clay. Beneath this perilous territory — filled with serpents and poisonous creatures of all manner — lie the Serpent Ways, a series of intricate, well-guarded tunnels interspersed with caverns and chambers. The passages serve as the main pathways for the folk of Najara through these lands; indeed, it was while resting within such a cavern that the half-elf apprentice and I were captured by yuan-ti. I have since learned that in general, the serpents don’t care who tromps over the hills, so long as they stay out of the places under them. The Najaran capital city, Ss’khanaja, is found in the northwest of the Serpent Hills, but an even larger population of snakefolk live beneath the surface. It is common to find settlements inside the large underground chambers connected by the tunnels, excavations many centuries in age.
Marsh of Chelimber
I didn’t have occasion to travel to Chelimber before my “sojourn” with the Narajan court, but I did ask Dhosun about the place. It was through those questions that he divined my intention to escape, in fact, and offered his aid. A vast marshland pocked with sulfurous pools that often gout their steaming contents high into the air, the marsh is inhospitable even to most serpents; the majority of the denizens in these lands are lizardfolk. Once a Netherese principality, ruled by vampires, and then a holding of the Zhentarim, the Marsh of Chelimber is solidly within the grasp of Najara today. Though each tribe of lizardfolk is dominated by a chieftain from among their kind, each of those leaders has sworn fealty to the King of Najara.
Forest of Wyrms
In the end, it was through the Forest of Wyrms that I fled Najara, though Dhosun advised me against doing so. Ultimately, I chose it for the same reason he tried to discourage me: because only a fool would enter this wood intentionally. The forest is infested with a great many serpents of both normal and monstrous varieties.
Sages who have studied the serpent-life of the forest claim that some force seems to draw ophidian creatures here and then changes them — varieties of snake that ought not be poisonous bite with envenomed fang in this forest, and most breeds of snake grow to nearly double their size here. Ralionate, an ancient green dragon apparently not aligned with the yuan-ti, makes this forest her lair. It is good terrain for her; tall redwoods and coarse pines create a dense, dark canopy.
Dhosun warned me that the ruins of Ss’thar’tiss’ssun, an ancient temple-city, lie in the northern fringes of the forest. At some point in the distant past, humans built a small settlement, once called Serpent’s Cowl, above these ruins, but it now stands empty, likely due to the depredations of yuan-ti. Though discernible as little more than low hills in the forest today, Dhosun told me that deep inside the ruins lies the Shrine of the Cowled Serpents, a site of pilgrimage for the serpent-folk.
A place of great danger within the forest is Thlohtzin, once the citadel of a lich and now an important site in Najara’s slave trade. Slavers from around the region know that the serpent-folk pay good coin for slaves brought here. They are then usually transported to other places in Najara for service.
I chose to make my escape from Najara through the Forest of Wyrms because, though serpent-infested, it is a woodland yet, and I am at home in such places. I moved through its shadows, remaining deep enough within the forest to avoid notice but not so far as to come near its heart, and then skirted its edges until I could see the hills of Trielta in the distance.
In the rolling terrain of the Trielta Hills, scattered with small settlements of gnomes and halflings, life seems pastoral and idyllic. Halfling farmers tend to their plots, and gnome miners scrape out the interior of the hills seeking the bits of gold and silver they may find waiting there. No warlords threaten this land, no liches or dragons plot to seize it for themselves. There are no great castles to covet here, nor ruins to pillage. All told, the place seems dull and unremarkable.
That, of course, is just the way its residents like it. They enjoy their solitude, which is broken only rarely. The hills of Trielta do occasionally offer up some impressive bounty, in the form of heretofore-undiscovered gold and silver. While such finds are usually small lodes that are played out almost before others become aware of them, Trielta has played host to full-on gold rushes from time to time. Someone stumbles on a particularly large vein of ore, and prospectors and fortune-seekers come pouring in by the dozens. Trieltan folk tend to see these occasional influxes of gold-hungry seekers the way other settlements look upon periodic plagues of locusts: aggravating, inevitable, and thoroughly disruptive, but also part of the natural order, and so nothing to get bothered about.
Indeed, even the largest of these discoveries isn’t so lucrative as to be worth the construction of the full-scale mining operations that can be found in other lands. No large nations or trading consortiums are waiting in the wings to invade and take over the mines of Trielta. They are what a dwarf acquaintance of mine once referred to as “scratch mines” — close-to-the-surface operations, with decent yield for a small amount of digging, but not worth the construction of “proper” (by which he of course meant dwarven) mines.
I was in Trielta resting after my escape from Najara when just such an outbreak of “gold on the brain” (as the locals term it) occurred. Though most of those who come at such times are honest prospectors seeking to make their fortunes, the sudden opportunity for wealth does attract less scrupulous sorts, including all manner of thieves, swindlers, and claims-jumpers — not to mention monsters that prey on unlucky or ill-prepared miners who unknowingly invade their territory.
The most intense traveling I’ve done through these hills was in pursuit of a band of marauding lizardfolk. The head of the kindly gnome family I was staying with was taken prisoner, along with his oldest son. I helped the local halfling sheriff and the small band of militia he put together to track the band, and to do so quickly, rescuing the captives. I’ve been welcomed in this area ever since, and have gotten to know the goodly folk here well.
At the southern edge of the hills lies the walled settlement of Hardbuckler. It is a town of mostly gnomes, with the occasional human, halfling, or half-elf among their number. It is one of the best-defended towns I’ve visited, with a several batteries of ballistae on impressive cog-run cranking mounts that allow for a nearly constant cycle of firing and reloading from any of the wall emplacements. Though the folk of Hardbuckler don’t have cause to use them very often, these weapons usually discourage the bandits, raiders, and occasional orc bands that would lay claim to Hardbuckler’s wealth.
The town eschews the sort of street network that tends to delineate most large settlements; instead it has a single street running inside the circular town wall, and another pair of straight roads crossing the town north-to-south and east-to-west that meet in the center of town in a crossroads marketplace. Many buildings structured for larger folk line these streets, for taller folk tend to prefer the comfortable familiarity they provide, but the rest of the town is made up of a series of narrow paths between the smaller-proportioned buildings that are the homes of the city’s gnomes.
The first time I walked along these tight lanes, I felt as though I was only seeing a small portion of the actual settlement, and I was right. Later I discovered that beneath the slate-roofed houses, with their modest little adjoining gardens behind plank fences or fieldstone walls are the tunnels that constitute the true thoroughfares of Hardbuckler.
Beneath each small dwelling is an extensive cellar, often three or more levels in depth. These spaces are where the industrious folk of Hardbuckler engage in their livelihoods. Some of the cellar spaces are shops or workspaces for artisans who sleep in the house above. Other of these croftholds rent out their extra space to travelers, setting aside a few rooms for rent, and using a single large space as an open taproom, serving the sort of fare one might find in an inn. The food in such an establishment is odd — a great deal of mushrooms, potatoes, turnips, dense lichens, and stews made of shrews and voles — but filling and tasty in its own way.
The chambers in these underground inns are well heated by generous hearths, and thus provide for very comfortable accommodations. More than a few merchants arrange their travels so as to be in Hardbuckler ere winter arrives, so that they can spend the cold months beside a hearth, with a slice of fried pie in one hand, and a tankard of bitter gnomish stout in the other.
Any cellar space not devoted to another purpose is used for storage rather than being left vacant. Almost every family in the town has some space that it uses for its own needs or rents out for use by others. Those who buy storage from a Hardbuckler must purchase their storage crates and other necessary goods from local artisans, who also make locks, latches, waxy sealants for waterproofing crates and boxes, and the like. The crates are all built to specific sizes, with shelving and space in the cellars measured so that each container fits snugly and exactly.
Hardbuckler has a well-paid wizard who provides magical security for stored items, for those who wish it. Outlander wizards aren’t permitted to lay wards or protections on goods destined for the cellars — such must be applied by Daelia Inchtarwurn, the latest wizard in a long line of folk who have worked in Hardbuckler over the generations. She wears a set of magical bracers passed to her by her father.
Most of the outlying settlements in the Trielta Hills consist of a dozen or two dozen halfling or gnome families, living in homes molded gently into rolling hills. Relatively shallow valleys serve as agricultural land, while the slopes are used for growing vine crops (such as pumpkins and strawberries) or grazing small herds of the large-horned sheep many of the halfling families keep, or the ornery braid-bearded goats favored by gnome goatherds.
Most of these small communities aren’t exclusively populated by halflings or gnomes, since such groups seem to prosper better when members of both races are in residence. Halfling families often focus on agricultural endeavors (aside from the small fungi gardens many gnomish households maintain in their cellars), while the area’s miners are almost exclusively gnomes. Both folk work as herders, with halflings favoring sheep, and gnomes goats, as well as artisans of all sorts. Each community has a sheriff who maintains peace and leads defense — a role most often fulfilled by a halfling, I’ve found, though gnomes will certainly rise up in defense of their homes and neighbors when called upon.
Some of the rural settlements mark the former locations of mines that have been played out. It isn’t uncommon for halflings to move in where a gnomish mine have been abandoned, fixing up the surface entrances into acceptable, comfortable homes, with built-in tunnels that worm through the settlement. These passages might be helpful for defense or escape, but they are most often used when it’s raining out to reach a neighbor’s door and borrow a cup of honey, so as not to get oneself wet or track mud everywhere.
On occasion, a community that sports large dwelling-tunnels, with ample space for larger folk (or “big’uns,” as the local gnomes say), turns its settlement into an establishment that caters to such clientele. The inns I know of are the Merry Mine-Lass, the Pipe and Hearthstone, and the Giants’ Respite, my favorite.
Each of these settlements is impressively self-sustaining. When official leadership is needed, the eldest halflings and gnomes are called upon to act in that capacity, but amity is the heart of community life in these hills. It is a shameful act among the Trieltans to refuse to reach a peaceable accord with one’s fellows over some dispute. The folk here enjoy their simple lives, although I’ve come across a half-dozen or so young adventurers who hail from here, seeking out the newness of the world as a contrast to the familiarity of their homeland.
Few dangerous creatures lurk in the hills — they are so densely settled (on and beneath the surface) that there is little space for monsters to lair. Cruel or ravenous creatures do occasionally creep into Trielta, mainly from the Forest of Wyrms, but such incursions don’t last long — after a few sheep (and possibly a shepherd or two) are eaten, the sheriffs waste no time in forming a posse to hunt down or chase off the predators before they can do more harm.
Now, sad to say, this situation might be changing for the worse. According to recent letters I have received from friends in these hills, parties of Najaran raiders have become more common and numerous. My friends fear that the threat from the Serpent Kingdom to the north will force Trieltans to seriously consider putting up an active defense of their lands for the first time in generations.
When I was newly departed from my homeland and first found my way to the North, I encountered a band of Uthgardt nomads on the trail — a part of the Elk tribe, led by a warrior named Gyrt. It was a tense meeting.
I think the only reason I was not killed on sight is that I was an elf traveling alone. I think they feared I was a wizard. Uthgardt hate all magic but that of their shamans and any enchanted weapons and armor they find, but a wizard willing to walk the wilds alone could be a powerful one. Traveling as we were on a grassy plain, we could see one another for some distance. Since I didn’t strike them down with lightning from afar, they were willing to approach peaceably.
Still, they stopped when they were within bowshot and seemed to be arguing about whether to shoot me. I waited as patiently as I could until one who seemed to be their leader addressed me in heavily accented Common. I replied a greeting in Bothii, their own ancient language, which again set the group to argument. At last, the leader dismounted and approached me, giving her name as Gyrt. Glad was I then that I took the time to learn the language from a learned friend in Evereska!
In anticipation of any demand, I offered Gyrt a fine dagger from Evereska, as well as a necklace I wore. For her band I offered a bag of baubles I’d brought for such an occasion. Pleased with my gifts and assured that I was no wizard, Gyrt and I sat down to talk. I asked to share her campfire for the night, and Gyrt made space for me. That was my first meeting with Gyrt, but it wouldn’t be my last, nor my last encounter with Uthgardt. I’m grateful to my friend Gyrt for teaching me so much about her people, for it has allowed me and many fellow travelers to see Uthgardt and live to tell the tale.
Over the years, as I earned Gyrt’s respect and she mine, we became friends, and I came to know her three sons as well. Though Gyrt died some decades ago, I still visit her children, whom I played with when they were young. They now have children of their own, and all call me auntie.
During my time with Gyrt and her kin, the people of the Elk explained much to me about the workings of their tribe — their view of the world and their place in it, their traditions and the laws they live by. I came to realize, as I came across other Uthgardt tribes in my travels, that much of what is true for the Elk tribe is true for other Uthgardt. Though they comport themselves in seemingly disparate groups honoring different totems, Uthgardt have much in common. What follows is what I have learned of the people who call themselves “children of Uthgar.”
Though the Uthgardt each belong to a given tribe, these are markers of identity, rather than coherent populations. In my experience, it is rare outside of occasional large events (such as the ascension of a new chieftain, or certain religious gatherings) for all members of a single tribe to come together in one place. Instead, the Uthgardt tend to travel in bands, groups of tribesfolk that number between a dozen and a hundred, usually twenty to fifty. These bands generally consist of several family groups, each led by a matriarch or patriarch. In many ways, these folk are similar to nomadic Tel’Quessir, in that they make their decisions by consensus among the heads of the families, and disagreements are handled efficiently: those who don’t like the decision of the majority go their own way, forming a new band or joining a different one.
THE UTHGARDT TRIBES AND THEIR TERRITORIES
For most Uthgardt tribes, the only stability in their history is the site of their ancestral mound. Most of the Uthgardt holy sites have existed since antiquity, but the fortunes of the tribes that revere them have hardly been static. Following are brief descriptions of the Uthgardt tribes today.
Blue Bear. The easternmost of the Uthgardt are the Blue Bear — thought destroyed more than a century ago — who have recently emerged from inside the High Forest and reclaimed their ancestral mound at Stone Stand, just south of the Moon Pass and north of the forest. The Blue Bears have reoccupied much of their old territory in the time since they returned to prominence, though they don’t venture near Hellgate Keep, considering it a taboo place.
Black Lion and Red Tiger. North of Blue Bear territory, in the Glimmering Wood, is Beorunna’s Well, a settlement of some size that near the ancient ancestral mound of the Red Tiger tribe. The settlement was founded some time ago by members of the Black Lion tribe, who put down roots here rather than continuing to live as nomads.
Though the Red Tigers are less than comfortable with the present situation, they consider Beorunna’s Well their holy site, so they make the best of things. Bands of Red Tiger tribespeople often winter in Beorunna’s Well, and many of its hunters and trappers use the settlement as a place to sell the leather and furs they acquire in nearby forests.
Sky Pony. In a part of the Glimmerwood called the Moonwood stands the One Stone, the ancestral mound of the Sky Pony tribe. These are a people divided; half of the tribe has settled and built a sizable steading around the One Stone, similar to what Black Lion has done at Beorunna’s Well. The other half of the tribe considers this act an insult to their totem, so they launch raids on the settlement, burning as much of it as they can and then escaping.
Tree Ghost. In the depths of the High Forest stands the Grandfather Tree, the ancestral mound of the Tree Ghost tribe. The Tree Ghosts split off from the Blue Bears long ago and all but disappeared into the forest, although occasional reports reach civilization that they are still alive and can sometimes be seen clustered around the Grandfather Tree. Some sages postulate that the newly reborn Blue Bear tribe might well be Tree Ghost Uthgardt who are following a call from a revived Blue Bear totem.
Great Worm. The Frost Hills, a small southern spike of the Spine of the World Mountains just north of the Evermoors, is the site of Great Worm Cavern, the ancestral mound of the Great Worm tribe. These Uthgardt are notoriously reclusive; it has been twenty years since the tribe has sent raiding parties out anywhere but against the orcs of the Spine Mountains.
Black Raven. As forbidding as the Spine of the World Mountains they roam, the Black Ravens are fanatical in their adherence to the old Uthgardt ways. Ranging out from Raven Rock, their ancestral mound deep inside the mountains, they have been known to send raiding parties as far south as Silverymoon, but their most frequent targets are the caravans that come in and out of Mithral Hall.
Elk. The Elk are fierce raiders and savage killers throughout their nomadic range: the Evermoors and the plains east of the Dessarin and lower Surbrin river valleys. Of the Uthgardt tribes, they are the most arrogant, surly, and self-indulgent. Considered by many to be little more than bandits, they often raid other tribal settlements for food, plunder, and sport.
The Uthgardt are spread across the North, rarely found farther south than the High Forest. There is no nation of Uthgardt to which they belong; instead, each tribe has a central ancestral mound, regarded as a holy site. Gyrt told me that the holy site of the Elk tribe is at a place called Flint Rock, somewhere in the Evermoors. She, understandably, never offered to take me there, and I was never foolish enough to ask.
By and large, the Uthgardt are a hunting people who rely on game for much of their sustenance, favoring large herd animals such as elk, rothe, and deer. Young men and women looking to make a name for themselves sometimes build their reputations by hunting dangerous predators and great beasts: bears, great cats, large boar, and even monsters such as wyverns, owlbears, and displacer beasts.
Some tribes put the prowess they demonstrate in hunting to good use in another endeavor, for which the Uthgardt are well known: raiding. As a rule, the Uthgardt engage in raiding only in remote areas — meaning that the closer a potential target is to civilization, the less likely it will be set upon. The raiders prefer to strike against wealthy merchant caravans and nobles’ baggage trains, which offer the likelihood of fine foods, alcohol, and jewelry that Uthgardt wear as trophies and trade among themselves. For the most part, Uthgardt have little use for coin, so travelers hoping to buy their way out of a confrontation are advised to offer something else.
Uthgardt don’t see national boundaries or the bonds of civilization that tie a merchant to a farmer whose house the merchant passes on the road. To them each interaction with us — meaning we who aren’t Uthgart — is different. Thus, an Uthgardt band that raids in one season might come to trade during the next. They do understand the concept of belonging to a larger group, and that those groups might be in conflict. After all, each tribe of Uthgardt has its ancestral enemies among the other Uthgardt tribes. Yet when I attempted to explain how I, and elf from Evereska, was connected to folk in Waterdeep or Silverymoon, Gyrt just laughed. She had not seen these cities, so I might as well have said I knew folk who lived on the moon. When I mentioned Yartar and Red Larch, places that I knew Gyrt’s band had passed near, she laughed still harder. To her I was too great, too “strong” as she put it, to have any connection to places she saw as providing prey for her tribe.
If a band of Uthgardt come upon your campsite, my advice is this. First, do what you can to hide all signs of magic or spellcasting. Then show them hospitality and invite them to warm themselves. If you have jewelry or a fine weapon, offer these gifts to the one who seems like the leader. Ask how their hunting goes, and give them a chance to brag. Be appreciative, but not obsequious. Tell them you have heard of the prowess of the Uthgardt people — their hunting skills and strength first and foremost — but attribute these claims to a tribe other than their own. The strongest among the band will insist on the chance to prove him- or herself better than the stories you’ve heard, and will want you to bear away tales of about his or her tribe instead.
You or one of your companions might need to agree to a challenge of some kind, a feat of strength or a bout of fisticuffs, by which the band may measure your prowess. It doesn’t greatly matter if you win or lose, though. Simply express a desire or a willingness to compete, and you will earn some measure of respect. If you win the challenge, be gracious, and express gratitude that you finally found someone of great status to test yourself against. If you lose, be self-effacing and rueful, and give the victor the best part of the meal at hand.
This advice will not always work, of course. Some bands aren’t so easily assuaged, particularly if they are out deliberately hunting you or folk like you. At all times, remember that these are a proud and strong people with a fierce love of life and its simple pleasures. Demonstrate an outlook complementary to theirs, and they might make of you a comrade. Show fear or contempt, and they will respond with quick violence.
LOST TRIBES OF THE UTHGARDT
Some Uthgardt tribes are seen by others as lost to the world. They are considered anathema, and even speaking of them outside certain contexts is forbidden.
The Thunderbeast tribe has not been heard from in several years. When the Thunderbeasts made their annual pilgrimage to Morgur’s Mound in Neverwinter Wood, they found their holy site desecrated. Soon thereafter, their chieftain took them back into the depths of the High Forest, and they have not emerged since.
The Gray Wolf tribe is taboo because of its many werewolf members. It has done much to plague the people in the environs of the Neverwinter Wood. The tribe doesn’t share the ‘gift’ of lycanthropy with others and therefore ensures there are no survivors of its attacks.
The Griffon tribe has long been shunned due to its practice of trading with non-Uthgardt – and even spellcasters – at a settlement known as Griffon’s Nest.
The Red Pony and Golden Eagle tribes vanished centuries ago. They were last seen in the vicinity of the One Stone, the ancestral mound those tribes shared with Sky Pony.
The People of Uthgar
The Uthgardt trace their origins back to the mighty hero Uthgar, a warrior without compare. During my time with his tribe, Gyrt spoke freely of the tales of Uthgar that have been passed down among his people. The saga begins in the distant past when the humans of the North lived in fear and isolation. Great spirits roamed the forests of the North, preventing humans from banding together to rise up against them. Into this turmoil came Uthgar, who challenged each of the great spirits, one at a time, besting them and subjugating them to his rule. Each of the defeated spirits became embodied in the totem of one of the groups of humans who followed and revered Uthgar. Thus were born the tribes of the Uthgardt, each taking the name of their totem spirit.
The sites of Uthgar’s victories are marked even today with the great ancestor-mounds of the Uthgardt. Each is said to have been built over the remains of a tribe’s totem spirit, along with the tribesfolk who died while helping Uthgar to fight the creature.
A tribe lays claim to the territory around its ancestral mound for many leagues, declaring it as the grounds in which the tribe hunts and sets up camps. Generally speaking, Uthgardt bands of a given tribe will range as far as two to three weeks’ travel away from the tribe’s ancestral mound, with raiding parties going much farther afield. These holy sites are scattered through the North; in almost all cases, the exact location of one is known to few people other than members of that tribe.
Almost all of the original tribes of the Uthgardt are active in the North today. Even a tribe thought to be lost or destroyed might be represented somewhere by a small number of humans who claim to be descended from the one of the tribes of old, but such people, where they exist, aren’t numerous by any means, and their claims are often spurious.
The Uthgardt take their ritual practices and taboos very seriously. Most taboos and traditions vary from tribe to tribe, but at least one stricture is universal among the Uthgardt: magic other than that of the shamans or the magic of weapons and armor is forbidden.
The priests of the Uthgardt revere their ancestor-god and also invoke the names of their totems as intercessors with the Father of the Tribes. Their ethos is simple: strength is rewarded with more strength, and when strength fails, it is because a person is not worthy.
On the western edge of the Troll Hills lies an area of bizarre terrain: shattered rubble is strewn across the landscape, between and among mounds of upturned earth and deep furrows of the sort one commonly sees in the wake of trebuchet blows that miss their mark. Farther in from the perimeter of this blasted land lies a scattered mess of buildings, some relatively intact, others half-collapsed and leaning on their neighbors.
In the center, rising above it all, is a handful of twisted towers looking for all the world like talons clawing at the sky. These towers can be seen from a good distance, seemingly unharmed by the cataclysm that produced the damage around them. Indeed, because of their pristine condition, some folk conjecture that these towers must have been built after that event.
The truth of the place now called Warlock’s Crypt is something different altogether. All of the structures visible here, from the now-shattered outbuildings to the central towers, comprised a city that floated atop a disc of stone during the time of ancient Netheril. When the ancient and wicked magics of the Netherese failed, this city plummeted from the sky; the chunks and slabs of stone scattered about the site are not natural terrain, but are the shards of that disc.
My Only Visit
I have been to the Warlock’s Crypt but once, in the days of my youth before I knew better. I was hired by Daerismun Aerath, one of the Avowed — the esteemed scholar-monks of Candlekeep — to guide him there. He was writing a treatise on the place and desired firsthand experience of the locale. Fresh as I was from Evereska, I’d never heard the warnings of the wise regarding this site. I am either extraordinarily beloved of Solonor, or stupidly lucky, to have made it back out alive. Tragically, Daerismun was not so fortunate.
As we approached, this ruined cityscape seemed uninhabited. Its expanse is fairly limited, and consists almost entirely of a mess of destroyed buildings and massive boulders.
The central towers were apparently preserved by some aspect of their magical construction — which isn’t to say that they were entirely unaffected by the crash. Upon closer inspection, one of the central towers has a great crack running along its western edge, and several of the others display a degree of damage.
As we came even closer to the towers, they appeared to be anything but abandoned. In their windows flickered occasional eldritch lights, and on their sides we could see indistinct shapes scampering across the surface. These buildings were crafted to appear as though clad in black mail, made of overlapping plates and slightly discordant, off-center architecture creating the impression of joints that might bend at any moment.
The towers, joined in a rough circle by walls of smooth black stone, form a perimeter around the heart of the Crypt — which can be seen only from a terrifyingly close vantage. Obscured and protected by the towers are several strange plots of land: some barren, others overrun with twisted, thorny flora not found in nature. Rail-less bridges connect these towers at various points, and all of them spiral around the heart: that which is reputedly the demesne of the lich-king Larloch himself, who has also been called the Shadow King.
Threats and Defenses
I warn you: do not come to this place. And if you must, do not tarry, for its defenders are brutal and bloodthirsty, as inimical to life as any plague or poison, and they take delight in the suffering of those who come into their reach.
This place is rife with undead, of all varieties. In addition to the Shadow King, the Crypt houses several other liches, undead sorcerous vassals to Larloch. He calls upon their power when he has need, but otherwise leaves them alone to conduct the experiments and plots he demands of them. Though he once bound their influence tightly, reports suggest he has begun giving them a greater lead on their leashes, for magical horrors that could well be the result of their experiments have been seen unleashed in the Troll Hills and Troll Forest around the ruins.
Such monstrosities are also common prowling the ruins of the Crypt itself. During my brief sojourn into this place, I identified several creatures that likely began their lives as griffons, owlbears, trolls, and even a beholder, but they had become twisted and nearly unrecognizable. What it is these liches do to these creatures is a question for minds far more wise than mine — I know only that the first such abomination I fought nearly killed me, and I barely escaped from the others we sighted.
The Crypt has defenses other than monsters, as well. My companion Daerismun asserted that it was protected with layers of “spell webs,” constructions of magical energy waiting to unleash spells against those who stumbled into them. I had the terrible opportunity to see one of them in action, when the Avowed scholar unknowingly breached one of those so-called webs and set off a ball of fire, which ignited with himself at its center.
As one might imagine, this blast drew the attention of all manner of twisted predators and hungry undead, which came forth to investigate. I don’t know how these creatures kept from being caught in these traps, or if they had simply dwelt here long enough to know how to avoid them. Before I could give the matter any thought, I was forced to flee, and I don’t intend to ever return.
Anyone who goes to Luskan should know about its ruling Ships and the Arcane Brotherhood. The Ships of Luskan have been described as bands of pirates, but that characterization misses how deeply ingrained the Ships are to the society of Luskan and the mentality of its citizens. Attack a Ship member and you might incur not just the wrath of the Ship, but of much of the city as well. As for the Arcane Brotherhood, one member of it may or may not come to another’s aid, but know that each of these egotistical mages is eager to prove his or her magical prowess, and none can afford to show weakness before the folk of Luskan.
Luskan, the City of Sails, spans the icy River Mirar, which tumbles from the Spine of the World, races past Mirabar, and then plunges toward the sea. The swift river has cut deep here, and Luskan rests atop two escarpments on either side, with sheer, forty-foot bluffs of gray stone rising above the water. Around the city’s perimeter, thick stone walls with squat towers provide defense. The southern gate, called the Twin Teeth, boasts the most impressive towers, standing twice as tall as the city walls, and bedecked with crenellations and arrow slits enough for numerous defenders, in a show of strength toward the southern approach.
Within the city walls and on the nearby waters, Luskan is ruled by its Ships and their five High Captains:
- First High Captain Beniago Kurth
- Second High Captain Barri Baram
- Third High Captain Dagmaer Suljack
- Fourth High Captain Throa Taerl
- Fifth High Captain Hartouchen Rethnor
The five High Captains take the names of their Ships when they ascend to leadership. The captains are the highest authorities in Luskan; they and the members of their Ships conduct themselves as a sort of nobility, albeit one that isn’t hereditary.
Despite the name, each Ship is not a single vessel, but an organization of stalwarts owing allegiance to one another and to their captain, whom they elect for life. To be a member of a Ship is a select privilege, one that only one in ten of Luskan’s residents can claim.
The five Ships of Luskan are more than gangs of pirates. They are fellowships of people who live, train, work, make love, and go to war with each other. To join one is a mark of honor and continues a grand tradition that Luskar associate with democracy, self-determination, and individuality.
Each Ship has its own symbol and colors. Members of a Ship often wear their colors, decorate their round shields with the symbol and colors, and tattoo themselves with the symbol. Like their Northlander relations, Luskar Ship members regularly tattoo their faces, but instead of representing their island, the tattoos are either personal marks or tattoos of their allegiance to their Ship.
Membership in a Ship is voluntary, but once undertaken it is until death. To join a Ship, a Luskar must be of fighting age (fourteen or so, for humans), and possess at least one sword or axe, one spear, and three of the sturdy, bossed shields the Northlanders prefer. Each Ship accepts new candidates from time to time to fill vacancies caused by death, but as a rule, the Ships don’t expand their ranks by taking on a large number of new members at one time.
Each Ship has some number of sailing vessels, the size, crew, and type of which help to determine the influence of the Ship’s High Captain and its rank within the city. The current First Ship, Kurth, has so many vessels that it nearly outnumbers the next two Ships combined, and its membership is so numerous that Ships Suljack, Taerl, and Rethnor could merge and still not equal it.
The laws of the city govern the behavior of the Ships and their captains, decreeing the Ships responsible for the city’s defense, its administration, and the management of its resources. Beyond these universal tasks, each captain takes on other duties as desired in order of that Ship’s standing in the hierarchy, leaving less glamorous and less lucrative tasks to the captains and Ships of lower rank.
Since each of the Ships has the ability to take what it likes and leave what it doesn’t want to the lesser Ships, a strict division of duties has arisen among them.
Ship Kurth controls the city’s docks and activity occurring thereupon. Among the most profitable of the merchandise that passes through the port are weapons and tools from Ironmaster, and ambergris for the perfume trade.
Ship Baram operates Luskan’s fishing industry. The food it provides is so vital to the city’s welfare nowadays that Baram has risen to Second Ship on the strength of its successful forays out to sea.
Ship Suljack holds sway over, and conducts most of, the piracy and raiding that originates out of Luskan. It occasionally passes the more meager opportunities down to Taerl.
Ship Taerl, recently elevated from Fifth Ship, had been accustomed to taking the hindmost. Now its workers and sailors happily accept chances for profit handed down from above, and just as happily delegate the most menial and undesirable chores to Rethnor.
Ship Rethnor engages in few worthwhile activities aside from guard duty, which is a poor source of income. Rethnor toughs sometimes roam the streets of Luskan, looking for a quick and perhaps violent way to grab some coin.
People and Laws
Without question, the people of Luskan show their Northlander heritage. They raid ships and coastal settlements, engage in interdiction and piracy, and value strength of arms above most other qualities. During Luskan’s long history on the Sword Coast, however, the city has adopted many of the attitudes of mainland folk. Luskar don’t kidnap people from other settlements or tribes, and they hold that women have social standing equal to men (two of the High Captains, Suljack and Taerl, are women). They don’t distrust magic, as their island brethren do. Slavery is, at least nominally, illegal in Luskan, though a slave taken and sold at sea is usually overlooked by authorities.
The law in Luskan is supposed to be upheld by soldiers of the Ships, who are empowered to arrest criminals and bring them before the Magistrates of the city. In practice, arrests are as often made by mobs, but the result is the same: an appearance before the Magistrates. Each of the five Magistrates is chosen by a High Captain, but need not be a member of that captain’s Ship. The Magistrates are, at least officially, neutral. Most citizens have their cases decided by a single one of these judges, but a dispute involving a Ship member is heard by all five.
Trade and Commerce
Luskan doesn’t officially tax its citizens; the city makes its money through trade, fishing, piracy, and raiding. The defense of the city comes at the expense of the Ships, paid for by the profits of those activities as well as the protection money the Ships extort from businesses and homes to keep the thieves and gangs at bay. Bribery is a common practice, a seemingly accepted means of gaining the favor of one of the High Captains to obtain fishing rights, earning an advantageous decision from the Magistrates, or having a business rival or undesired suitor arrested, accosted, or roughed up.
Given its status as the harbor that feeds the goods of Mirabar to the Sword Coast, bridging the coast with the utter north, and offers the only convenient crossing of the River Mirar for many miles, Luskan makes considerable coin as a crossroads. Merchants wishing to avoid Luskan can choose to use the Blackford Crossing, some thirty miles upstream, eventually connecting with the Blackford Road on the northern bank, but the savvy know that Luskan’s Ships control the cable-guided ferries at the crossing, and demand tolls based on the size and contents of the goods being ferried across. The Blackford Road still bears the ancient marks of the dwarven realm of Gharraghaur, reminding travelers of whose wealth sustains the region.
North of the city, the Northern Means heads up toward Icewind Dale. Not many take this route without purpose, but scrimshaw from the dale finds its way into Luskan, where those who would purchase it can do so without going any farther into the frozen terrain.
The north side of the city, known as North Bank, is devoted almost entirely to warehouses, caravan yards, and workspace. It includes the Mirabar Shield, the fortified compound that represents Mirabar’s trading interest in Luskan. Mirabar uses it as a base to trade with the Sword Coast and the islands of the Trackless Sea.
The main city stands on the southern side of the River Mirar. North of Reaver’s Run is the Reach, where most of the homes and smaller businesses are located. South of the Run are the slums, the “bad” area of town. Near the slums is the Captain’s Close, where the residences of High Captains Taerl and Suljack stand, but the area is otherwise quite poor.
Five islands stand in the bay formed by the River Mirar and are claimed by Luskan:
- Blood Island is filled with Ships’ soldiers tasked with guarding the city; it holds a guard tower, barracks, an armory, and little else of interest.
- Closeguard Island is the home of High Captain Kurth.
- Cutlass Island has two rocky heights split by a pebble-strewn beach. The southern peak is surmounted by the Sea Tower, where Luskan’s first pirates built their stronghold, while the northern one is home to the Hosttower of the Arcane and the stables it shares with Ship Kurth.
- Fang Island has no inhabitants, and is named for its propensity for destroying vessels swept down the River Mirar.
- Harbor Arm Island is a tall spire sheltering Whitesails Harbor from the worst of the storms and waves that wash in from the south.
The North and South Banks are spanned by three bridges: the Upstream Span, from the South Bank straight to the North Gate; Dalath’s Span, the middle bridge with a name none can place in legend, and Harbor Cross, split between the Short Span that runs from the South Bank to Blood Island, and the Long Span that continues on to North Bank. Only Ship members and those authorized by a High Captain may traverse Harbor Cross.
Dark Arch connects South Bank with Closeguard Island, and only members of Ship Kurth and the Arcane Brotherhood may cross that span unchallenged. The same is true of Sword Bridge, which crosses from Closeguard Island to Cutlass Island. Although Closeguard Island is officially unguarded, it’s still true that only members of the Arcane Brotherhood or Ship Kurth are expected to be there, so anyone out of place is aggressively questioned about their presence.
The Arcane Brotherhood
In the last decade or so, two great changes have come over Luskan. The first was the plague that crippled the gangs that had controlled the city, allowing the High Captains to reclaim the power they had long held in Luskan. The other, far more sudden, was the return of the Arcane Brotherhood and its five-spired tower. A few years ago, the ruined Hosttower of the Arcane began regenerating its damaged stone, climbing into the sky once more. Shortly thereafter, mages of the Arcane Brotherhood emerged, almost immediately began cleansing the Luskar ruins of undead, and fought off a dragon menacing the city. Cheered by the citizens, they swore to keep themselves out of the politics of the High Captains and the city at large, but the notion that powerful wizards closely aligned with one another can truly remain neutral is laughable to anyone familiar with such things.
Now, the Arcane Brotherhood again walks the streets of Luskan, marked by the distinctive colors and patterns of their cloaks. From a distance, these cloaks all bear the same cut and silhouette, but each wizard of the Hosttower chooses a color or a design, and a moniker to match it. The leadership of the Arcane Brotherhood is the archmage and the four overwizards of the other spires of the Hosttower:
- Cashaan the Red, Archmage Arcane
- Zelenn the White, Overwizard of the West
- Jendrick the Blue, Overwizard of the South
- Teyva the Gray, Overwizard of the East
- Druette the Raven, Overwizard of the North
Other notable members of the Brotherhood include Vaelish the Brown and Maccath the Crimson.
Go far enough north, and you will come to the mountains rightly called the Spine of the World. Turn west and go toward the Sea of Moving Ice, and you might eventually come upon one of the scattered communities of Icewind Dale. You can also travel up the ever-narrowing road from Luskan called the Northern Means, and eventually come upon the frozen tundra beyond.
Why travel so far? Well, if you’re like many who’ve drifted up there from the south, it is because an easier life doesn’t suit you, you’re running from something, or you just don’t fit in anywhere else.
Coming up the hard road from the south, the first thing you’ll see is Kelvin’s Cairn, a great mountain scarred by a crack down its southwestern face. Even in high summer, its peak is capped in snow and ice. In the mountain’s southern shadow is Bryn Shander, the largest, most populous, and most fortified of the Ten-Towns of Icewind Dale. Ten-Towns is a grouping of communities clustered around the three lakes of the area: Maer Dualdon, from which the Shaengarne River flows down toward Ironmaster; Lac Dinneshere to the east, whose waters are nearly always cold enough to kill; and Redwaters, named for an old battle between rival fisherfolk that left the waters bloody.
Ten-Towns thrives on fishing and trade, both endeavors reliant on the knucklehead trout of Icewind Dale’s lakes. Without these fish, the people of Ten-Towns would starve, but there would also be little for them to barter or sell. The ivory-like bones of these fish are the basis of the famous scrimshaw that is sold as far south as Calimshan and farther east than I care to consider. The bones are also used to make all manner of small, sturdy tools: fish hooks, arrowheads, sewing needles, buttons, and more. Each town on the lakes has its own fleet of fishing boats, and the towns carefully divide the lakes to protect the population and the delicate balance between the communities.
Independent-minded folk who come to Ten-Towns are discouraged from striking out on their own, and when they do, they often fail, either due to the dangers of the waters, being blocked out of the best fishing areas, or simply being refused trade by the scrimshanders, whose wares are expensive. Icewind Dale is a place where cooperation is essential for survival, and ignoring that fact can leave one quite alone in a time of need.
Where nine of the Ten-Towns survive primarily on fishing, Bryn Shander lives on trade, making it the place to visit when you come here. The walls keep the town safe from barbarians who raid the area and the beasts of the tundra, and the packing in of its people means Bryn Shander is also warmer than the other towns, both literally and in terms of the welcome you receive.
I have visited only a few of the other towns, and while they have their quirks and charms, they are mostly what you might expect: fishing villages at the edge of frigid waters in a frozen waste. Certainly, there is trade to be done, coin to be made, and intrigue to be investigated in even in the smallest of these communities (which can number as few as a hundred souls). The only other point of interest is the town of Targos, on Maer Dualdon, which has grown rapidly and is threatening to burst the bounds of its protective wall, and thus has a hum of opportunity about it.
Ten-Towns isn’t the only community in Icewind Dale. Tribes of human barbarians called Reghed also operate in the area. Hunters and raiders who value strength and devotion to their ancestral heroes, they claim a great many heroes among their honored dead, including some who were responsible for the safety of Ten-Towns, Icewind Dale, and beyond. A Reghed camp is made up of a large ring of hide tents, able to be broken down and transported as the Reghed move to keep up with the herds of reindeer they depend on for food and clothing.
Dwarves still live in the mines of Kelvin’s Cairn, but in fewer numbers than they once did, and with less influence than they had on the rest of Icewind Dale a century or two ago. The dwarves here claim their continued allegiance to Clan Battlehammer of Mithral Hall, even though they returned to the colder north when they discovered their ancient home no longer suited them. Bryn Shander serves them as a trading post, allowing them to keep humans and other strangers away from their mines, which are some distance away in the shadow of the Cairn. The dwarves send a representative to the council of speakers that governs Ten-Towns, but have no say in their proceedings except to declare acceptance or refusal of the decisions of the human gathering.
Do you know what it is to be a slave? To feel the crack of a whip, the venom of a drow priestess’s snake-headed lash, the weight of a burden you can’t possibly lift after so much toil? No, you don’t. So close your mouth and open your eyes and ears, and dip your quill.
— Oshgir the half-orc, to Kimitar Thaeless,
glyphscribe of Deneir
Known by many as the Realms Below, the vast, miles-deep network of caverns, caves, and underground waterways called the Underdark is home to many strange creatures and even stranger societies. No one is quite sure the extent of this massive ecosystem, except to say that it reaches at least the breadth of the continent, and that most creatures are fully capable of surviving their entire lives within it, provided they can find enough food and safety to do so. Breathable air is plentiful, and clean water can be found. Beyond that, most surface folk only have the tales of adventurers, the survivors of attacks, and the occasional escaped captive to describe the horrors lurking below the surface.
What follows are portions of the tale told by Oshgir, a half-orc warrior who was captured by a duergar raiding party, sold to a Zhentarim agent, captured by drow, and then escaped his captivity by killing an overseer and fleeing to Blingdenstone. This account was recorded by a traveling scribe of Deneir named Kimitar Thaeless and submitted to the library at Candlekeep. Most don’t believe that a half-orc was quite so eloquent in his telling, and thus contend that the scribe embellished the tale somewhat.
It’s impossible to describe the shame of a hardened warrior driven to his knees by a half-dozen duergar that have just slain his fellows. Never mind that we were asleep and unarmored at the time, or that I was able to take four of them down before an axe cut the strength from my leg. I was shackled and gagged, my wound wrapped in a bandage tight enough to stop the bleeding and numb my leg, as the gray pests laughed and spouted jokes at me, and then forced me to walk until I lost consciousness. When next I awoke, there was no longer a sky overhead.
After days of walking in the deep, dark places beneath the surface, I was led, in heavy chains, to Gracklstugh, on the shores of the Darklake. I was set to work almost immediately at a forge, to pump bellows, heft ingots, and carry barrels of quenching oil. The place is called the City of Blades, for good reason: the fine steel of the duergar is impressive, considering the quality of the iron they were starting with. Hammering, refining, and careful polishing gave the metal the strength and sleekness necessary, and diligent sharpening added wicked edges to many of the blades I handled.
The duergar make their homes mainly beyond a great wall, which I never passed through. To the north, the floor of the cavern that contains the Darklake hovers dangerously low, such that in some places it is barely ten feet above the water’s surface. The whole of the great cavern glows, and the continuous flow of hot iron through the city gives the illumination a yellow cast at all times. It is frightening, if you forget where you are. More than that, it is hot.
After a month or so of working under a minor smith, I quarreled with the apprentice set to supervise me, and he dared me to test the strength of his new blade. It broke, as I expected, but did the job well enough. The duergar didn’t seem to be angry that the apprentice lay dead at my feet, but it was only a short time thereafter that I was dragged off to the market to be sold. As it happened, a human was in the city on some diplomatic mission. I caught his eye, and he purchased me.
I soon learned that I was not bought entirely for my brute strength, but also for what knowledge I had of the duergar. My new owner was a member of some group he called the Zhentarim, and when I told him all I knew, he offered me my freedom and a place among his agents. Together we would journey to a place called Mantol-Derith, where I would serve as his bodyguard. From there we would go to the surface, and I could remain in his employ if I wished. Freedom and a job? How could I refuse?
Mantol-Derith is a hidden place accessed by secret ways. Slaves, such as I had been, are typically not permitted to go there. Once in the cavern, I had to remain near my employer, but by keeping my eyes and ears open, I learned a lot about this place.
Mantol-Derith is where duergar, drow, and svirfneblin come to trade with each other and with surface-dwellers interested in conducting business with the deep places. Its location is kept secret — I only know that it is fairly close to the Darklake. The drow sell weapons, armor, magic scrolls and potions, and fine works of art. The duergar trade mainly in fine steel, and demand high prices to do so. Deep gnomes come to market with gems, certain fungi only they are capable of growing, and salt, which much of the Underdark has little ready supply of. The surface folk bring wines, ales, and spirits, cloth, wood, paper, and a great many other goods.
The laws of Mantol-Derith don’t seem to care about anything other than commerce. There must be no prohibition on what sorts of creatures can visit here — among other things, I saw a pair of mind flayer envoys doing business in the market. The most serious of crimes are theft, the use of magic to influence negotiations, and the counterfeiting of goods by mundane or magical means. Anyone discovered to be in violation is sentenced on the spot, wrapped in heavy chains, and carted off to be tossed to the bottom of the Darklake.
When my employer’s business was concluded, he was true to his word, and we left for the surface. If only the drow with whom he did business were so trustworthy. We were ambushed, he was killed, and I was again put in chains.
I eventually got away from the place, but not before I had learned more about Menzoberranzan than any sane person would care to know. Although the life of a slave can be brutally short in the City of Spiders, the drow aren’t so extravagant that they do away with every captive they take. At the same time, they are masters of punishment — it is fear of pain, not fear of death, that motivates the slaves of drow. If you’re lucky, you’ll only feel normal shackles and the occasional whip or light spell-blast. A bit less luck or more malice, and the serpent-headed whips of the priestesses come out.
If you aren’t a drow in the City of Spiders, you aren’t worth a name. All manner of surface-dwellers — orcs and elves, humans and halflings — are brought here to serve as slaves to the drow in their refuge. The constant fear of punishment, from one’s mistress or another, more powerful drow, keeps most slaves obedient, even when they aren’t directly supervised.
The great cavern of the city is filled with tall spires, and homes both great and small are carved into the stalagmites and stalactites that pierce the darkness. Gentle illumination from magic or glowing fungus decorates some homes and businesses, as well as the mansions of the high houses of the city, eight of which have positioned themselves above all others. While the lesser houses dance and fight and scheme for advantages over each other, they all live under the heel of House Baenre and the Matron Mother, who rules the city in Lolth’s name.
On a large plateau high above the cavern floor is Tier Breche, also called the Academy, where the city trains its priestesses, mages, and noble warriors. The city’s market is centrally located, and rothé are raised on an isle toward the eastern edge of the city.
If you are ever so unfortunate as to be enslaved by the drow of Menzoberranzan, my advice to you is simple and stern: do as you are commanded, avoid insulting their goddess (which means don’t even brush off a spider crawling on you), and attempt escape only if you are desperate or sure of your survival. If you are given the proper opportunity, as I was, you might discover that the neck of a drow snaps with surprising ease.
THE CAVERN OF MENZOBERRANZAN
Menzoberranzan fills a large vault that was formerly a lair of giant spiders and beholders. The vault is known by its dwarven name, Araurilcaurak (“Great Pillar Cavern”), because of Narbondel, the giant rock pillar at the vault’s center that joins floor and ceiling. The cavern is roughly shaped like an arrowhead, with the pool of Donigarten at its tip, and stretching two miles across at its widest point. The ceiling rises a thousand feet high, and the floor is studded with stalagmites.
Two areas rise above the rest of the city: Tier Breche, the side cavern occupied by the Academy where most drow citizens are trained for adulthood; and the larger Qu’ellarz’orl (or House-Loft), a plateau that is home to many of the city’s mightiest noble houses, separated from the lower city by a forest of giant mushrooms. From either of these heights, a surveyor can view the city. The view shows rows of spired stone castles, their sculpted highlights lit by the soft, tinted flows of permanent faerie fire lights.
One day, well after I had lost count of how many days I’d been a captive, I was in a small outlying cavern with a few other slaves harvesting a mushroom patch. I was given leave to answer nature’s call away from the mushrooms, and I lingered long enough in a side tunnel to force my watcher to come and find me. I took the first lash he offered me with his whip, then grabbed the weapon and pulled the skinny fool toward me before he could sound an alarm or get his blade out. It took me but a second to get both hands around his throat. When he lay dead at my feet, I took his sword and ran as fast and far as I could. I knew the gnomish city of Blingdenstone was nearby, and I came upon it eventually, but the journey took days as I wound through convoluted passageways and tried to avoid notice.
My initial joy at reaching Blingdenstone was quickly tempered. The deep gnomes don’t seem to like visitors they can’t recognize or identify, and being a half-orc didn’t help matters in the least for me. After dodging arrows loosed from the high walls of the city, I gave up on going through the gate and snuck in through a small cart tunnel, emptying out part of a load of ore to make room for myself.
I managed to avoid conflict with the guards that discovered me in the cart. When they ordered me to stand, I did so with my weapon held at my side, and I turned to display my back to them. When they saw that it was covered in lashes and the scars of the priestesses’ fanged whips, and they realized that my blade was of drow manufacture (though I clearly was not), they were willing to believe my story.
Though the gnomes kept me under watch, I was allowed to regain my strength for a few days, and I saw a bit of their community in the meantime. Once I was inside the city, I could tell that it’s not much of a city at all. The svirfneblin all live in close contact with one another, and this togetherness can be disconcerting, especially for someone accustomed to small luxuries like shutters on windows and doors on privies. The homes are all smoothed-over natural stone, with little evidence of hard corners.
Each industry has a portion of the city to itself: trading, smithing, mining, and the growing of a special fungus crop. Still many of the old tunnels and caverns remain unclaimed and sealed off, whether to guard against invasion or perhaps because of what now dwells there, I don’t know.
If you’re welcomed long enough to the city, you can trade for fine goods and armor here; the gnomes’ chain mail and mining picks seem most worth acquiring. Before sending me on my way, the gnomes were kind enough to give me a pick, a dagger, and some of their trillimac, an odd fungus that can be made into something like bread. It’s a bit spongy, but it doesn’t spoil quickly, and it got me to the surface before I starved to death.