A Journey Beneath the Lortmils
By Richard Di loia (inspiration, lore, and compass direction), and David J. Leonard (voice, prose, and the eyes, ears, and nose of the underoerth).
"He used to often say that there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary."
-- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
The Long and Winding Road:
Far too many humans and elves, too, for his liking. Best to be at one’s own behest. Every dwarf knew as much. You never really knew where you stood with the other races. Not really. Humans were a slippery sort; their history betrayed as much: one moment they were honest and true, the next they were raising vast armies and conquering hither and thither, keeping secrets and casting spells. One had only to call Vecna to mind to realize just how bad they could get. And the elves…. Now there was a holier than thou lot, if there ever was one. As capricious as humans, in their own way, too: They declared an allegiance for all ages, and then when the going got tough, and their own borders were secure, they slunk back into their forests and left their allies to fend for themselves. It was best to trust to your own. Experience taught a dwarf to rely on kith and kin, a sharp axe, a firm foothold, and a solid roof overhead. Therein lay security, not having to worry about burrowing beasts, and what may be whirling overhead in an endless sky; only what lay fore and aft, and sometimes above or below, but that was just the same below the surface, wasn’t it?
Best to take the Low Road, and bypass all that needless fuss.
You’ve never heard of it?
That’s not surprising. The dwarves keep its very existence a secret, even if more outsiders know about it than they believe healthy.
Others have stumbled upon it, to be sure; and a few know some short lengths of it; but you could pull every hair from a dwarf’s beard out by the root and he still wouldn’t tell you its exact route; in fact, he’d be sure to send you off into its most dangerous stretches, if you did, into its dead-ends and defiles, or down one or two holes where only the gods know what might be there, because no dwarf ever met a soul who’d ever crept back out of them.
Those who do know about the Low Road know it creeps high and low, connecting those dwarven cities and towns that dot the heights and depths of the spine of the range, and those that risk the foothills to trade with the gnomes and humans, and the elves, too, if we’re telling the truth.
Depending on which way you’re headed, it begins or ends in Gilmorack, and does the very same in at its end, in Balnorhak. There’s no need for it beyond Balnorhak. The Principality of Ulek is where the Low Road becomes the High Road, fanning out as rivers and roads generally do when they’ve flowed as far as they can.
You might ask why the dwarves keep it secret? And why are they so suspicious about outsiders? Because it’s in their nature to be so. You might say they came to it honestly, as it were.
Back in the old days, theirs had been a prosperous realm, until the humans had torn the world asunder, calling down such fury that the dwarves’ realm had been sundered along with their own. The very air had been set afire, the ground scorched and burned. Such was the devastation that they, like the humans, had no recourse but to flee to foreign lands and start anew.
They’d found such a place in the Lortmil Mountains. The southern bits were a bit too low for a dwarf’s liking, too low, too wet, and prone to be drenched in the autumn when the winds blew in a deluge from the Azure Sea, but the application of pick and spade set that to rights. Before long they had struck out, tasting the rock, their keen senses informing them that this was indeed a rich land. Gold glistened. Silver seams glowed. The depths were variegated with them, aplenty. Soon, they discovered that the Lortmils sparkled with gems, as well. This land was truly blessed by Berronar. It must have been by her hand that they were guided there.
Moradin must have forged the Lortmils before all others, because they were old; indeed, they were so old that they were worn down as only untold millennia can, lashed by oceans of rain, and a god’s age of wind, then scraped and scoured by glaciation. But their roots are strong, their heart stronger still. Only the oldest ranges are as rich, despite their once majestic heights being worn down to stubs, as are the teeth of the eldest of dwarves.
It would seem the orcs and goblins and kobolds considered those hills theirs, as if squatting there for decades, or even centuries, gave them a greater claim to this land of plenty than was bestowed upon them by Berronar. Had not Clangeddin lent them the strength to take them? And had not Moradin created them to be the custodians of the oerth?
They cleared the vermin out, cleansing the hills, and dug deep, discovering the caverns and the caves beneath, colonizing those most suitable, and tunnelling into where the oerth smelled sweetest. The nose knows, as the old saying goes, and where the nose knows, the dwarf goes.
And their noses have led them in so many directions: Pockets of ore are never clustered together nice and neat, making them easy to get at; no, they’re scattered hither and thither; so, a dwarf needs to cut more passages than he’d prefer, what with having to transport the cuttings back to mill for processing.
Mostly, new passages are cut because the nose knows there’s ore over there. Occasionally, a passage breaks into a cavern, or a long dead volcanic pipe; and sometimes those caverns are filled with beasties that need to be cleared out. That’s all in a days’ work, and no complaints about it. But before long, the workings were so far afield, and the trek back so long, that a new community needs building.
There are other reasons for cutting passages (they call them drifts, by the way, ‘cause they drift here, and they drift there); sometimes they need to raise or drop shafts, sometimes to coax the air in, and sometimes to coax air out; sometimes a dwarf needs to get higher or lower; and sometimes, there’s a need to trade with the surface folk, who always seem pleased to trade crops and sundries for a bit of iron ore, or a bit of gold.
A dwarf has to be careful about all these openings to the surface. There shouldn’t be too many. It’s a pain to keep watch over them, to keep the nosey and the greedy out. They had best be hidden, blending in with their surroundings, so as not to be obvious. One thing a dwarf knows, is that if a portal to the surface isn’t directly from a dwarven city, it’s best to rig it to collapse, just in case—you know how it is…. The thing is, some are natural, as it were. It took some time, but the custodians of each stretch had to find where every last crack and crevice that connects to the Low Road is. Every last one of them. They had to be capped or gated, set with thick iron doors, embossed with a warning to “Keep out!” (Yes, the warning is in dwarven. It’s not the dwur’s fault if a trespasser can’t read it. He shouldn’t be able to enter anyway, what with the doors being locked.) Barred. And trapped. And checked on, regularly. Just in case.
Could they have missed one or two? Possibly. The dwarves would say otherwise. They have long memories, and a head for tunnels, one might say. Even so, they are pragmatic; they keep records; because, sometimes people forget. There are lots of tunnels, and just as many natural caverns and pipes, and not all of them are safe.
There have been times when scouts have disappeared, and times when a curious dwarf has gone missing. Search parties were sent out, and on very rare occasions, those search parties did not come back. Once or twice, able adventurers sent to discover their whereabouts of those search parties didn’t, either. When that happened, prudence dictated that those tunnels be sealed. And a warning was etched into the walls declaring unimaginable dangers.
So, is the Low Road safe?
Yes, of course it is. I’d bet your life on it.
But there is that bit in the middle….
Balazar breathed in the cold air. And rounded its expanse. The Yatils loomed to the north, an undulating green despite Abharclamh’s cap of snow and ice; and to the east, beyond Treunsgia, Rockhome lay beneath a bed of clouds on the horizon, their first stop.
He exhaled, and began the long spiral down through Gilmorack’s tiers, past the Royal apartments, and then the artisans’ demesnes, where they worked the metal, wove the gold, and set the stones into weapons, into armours that were the envy of any who had ever laid eye on them. Past the temples dedicated to Moradin, to Berronar, and to Clangeddin. And past the grand old city with its layers of hearths, great and humble, where the bairns grew strong and dreamt that they too would craft and war and know the glory that might be sung of for ages to come.
Clangeddin must surely have been pleased, for the clans soon commanded the length of the northern peaks, and stood at the foot of Mount Gilmorack. Although not as lofty as their ancestral peaks, its height exceeded those that surrounded it, if not Abharclamh’s.
Ever industrious, they dug in, and even as they applied their picks, they marvelled at what riches it was to bestow. This place must surely have been meant for them, they surmised.
But even as they dug down, and broke into the galleries of caverns that hollowed the hills here and there, they were welcomed by even more orcs and goblins and kobolds than they’d had the good fortune to have sent on back to Grummsh than they had on the slopes. The beasties had been down there some time, because they’d done their own bit of tunnelling, connecting this cavern to that. And they didn’t want to give up those filthy caverns, either, so the fighting was far fiercer below than above. The clearing of the caverns became a labour of decades.
Once again, they put their faith in the benevolence of Clangeddin, and persevered. Moradin would have had it no other way; and hadn’t Berronar led them to this land of plenty, where, under the light, the walls sparkled with even more abandon than had the slopes?
The distance between the glowing globes lengthened, the spans between dimmer.
Until he entered the head of the mine, the winze within the vaulted chamber illuminated by a ring of clustered globes whose light could no more plumb the length of the shaft than the sun could penetrate the rock above him.
He stepped into the conveyance, and the teams of roethe yoked to its vast spool unwound its wind. Balazar descended, and the heat of the hearths above gave way to the chill of the shallows, where the rock was cool to the touch. Darkness enveloped him, until even his dark vision dimmed, and the phosphorescence of the lichen bathed his eyes with its thin glow. Deeper he rode. The chill deepened, soon as cold as the snow upon the peaks.
Down one shaft. Then a second, and a third. Deeper, darker, colder.
When he could drop no more, he exited into the mine proper, where the breath of the oerth wafted up, smelling of cut stone and the damp of a dew that dripped, and collected until its pools flowed in the ditches, to the reservoirs. The deeps smelled of ore, and of sweat and the fungi the roathe grazed upon. And of the subterranean river that rushed out from the north.
Gilmorack is typical of all cities that spill out upon the surface world. Its façade is made to awe the onlooker, to evoke power and strength, and to enforce the notion that to attack such a fortress would be futile. Such a warning was necessary, what with the human’s love of war. Their history was strewn with them: Small wars, short wars, big ones, long ones, some even named Turmoils, as if those weren’t wars, too. Their need to claim dominion over their neighbours is alarming, to say the least. There were so many wars, and too many despots to count really, to say nothing of Tavish and Vecna, and the less said about them, the better.
It’s best to keep them at arm's length, and never within the city proper, if you can help it. And so, what the humans think of as Glimorak is, in actuality, Upper Town. The city proper is inside Mount Gilmorack, where the folk live, where the folk keep their riches. Upper Town, grand as it may be, is nothing compared to Gilmorack, proper. Upper Town is flat, one level, all at 2000 feet above sea level, if a little sloped. Gilmorack soars high into the peak, and dives low below, as any and all dwur cities do.
Dwarven district definitions:
- Upper Town: The part of the settlement that is on the surface and includes the Visitors’ Hall, carved into the mountain
- High Town: The part within the settlement that is closest to the Visitors’ Hall from the surface. Usually the older areas.
- Low Town: The part within the mountain that is furthest from the Visitors’ Hall. Usually the newer areas.
|The Visitors' Hall|
A naïve visitor might think that the large wooden gate leading at the Visitors’ Hall’s end is the main defense to Gilmorack. He’d be wrong. Formidable it may be, but the true defenses loom beyond.
Should those of the Visitors’ Hall be overwhelmed, the Entrance Hall awaits. Siege weapons and arrow slits face the Visitors’ Hall, from over a pair of thick steel doors. And should those unlucky invaders happen to make it to the Entrance Hall’s gate, murder holes await.
Only dwarven residents, and a very few illustrious visitors, are allowed past these steel doors and into Gilmorack proper.
The mirror of these defenses are at the other end of Gilmorack, facing the Low Road. Those would never be needed, a dwarf knows, but it’s better to have and never need them, than to be caught with your britches down.
The dwur had no such need. The stone tells their story of steadfast power, its magnificence embossed with the faces of their ancestors, and a warning etched atop their gate to all who might ever think them weak:
“To Thee who are True, Welcome;To Thee who Come to Conquer,Look upon these Walls,And Despair.”
Travel Along the Low Road:
There are more tunnels beneath the oerth than meets the eye. You can easily get lost, if you don’t know your way.
|Under the Oerth|
But enough talk about mines, we’re here to discuss the Low Road. Those tunnels that are the Road are the widest, the most expansive, and the safest. When I say widest, and most expansive, I do not mean tall, nor wide, nor expansive. Natural caverns may be, so too the wendings of the waterways that creep and gush here and there; but not those that they themselves have chiseled out of the oerth, those are only as wide and tall as needed. To have done otherwise is time-consuming, and a waste of precious labour. Where the river may be wide where nature decreed, the canals are no wider than the beam of their boats and rafts, and the space to ply their poles. And only as tall, too.
If you were to describe them in a word, that word would be practical. It would not be “comfortable.” Where water flows, they are cold and damp, awash with the rush of water to the point of deafening where it flows swiftest. Mists rise, and dew drops. Where there are no rivers, no creeks, no rivulets, the air is as dry as ground bone, each step raising the settled dust until shins are sheathed with its puttees, and the nose blows black into hankies.
The Road is not entirely without amenities, though. There are rest spots along the way: Waystations, inns, taverns, and even settlements (you’ll not find such on side passages; there’s not enough traffic to warrant the expense), invariably located at the end of an average day’s journey. Most are little more than a small side cavern managed by a pair of dwarves in rotation (their tenure averaging six months, with a long list of applicants in wait, so lucrative are these posts). Settlements invariably arise on the crossroads to the more widely spaced mining towns.
|A Glimmer in the Dark|
He could hear the exchange already:
“What’s your pleasure?” the innkeeper would most surely ask, all smiles, anticipating the coin to follow.
“A bed, a meal, a stable for the moles, and the boy,” Philbus was sure to answer. “Is it clean,” he’d ask?
“Cleaner than your wife’s kitchen,” the innkeeper would swear.
It would not be; and could never hope to be; but it would suit a traveller’s need. Even the boy would be issued clean bedding, and he’d be glad to have it after so many days of a bedroll, with a pack for a pillow, after trekking on these less trafficked stretches.
The soup would surely be hot and hearty, thick with root vegetables and as little meat the innkeeper could get away with serving and not be called to account for the lack of amenities the traveller most certainly expected.
The room would be clean--the floor swept, at the very least--and the sheets fresh, the wool cover thick and snug and a comfort. A tallow included. Not for the boy; that would be extra.
All in all, it would serve Philbus’ needs.
“Ten silver. Five for each of the moles. Two for the boy.”
Philbus was not disappointed. And after a little haggling, the price was two silver less than he’d expected. The price depended on the day’s traffic, and the number of rooms available. Today, he was lucky. He paid, and laid his head upon the luxurious feather pillow, and rested easy, secure in the knowledge that he and his goods were safe and sound.
Not that bedding down on the Low Road would have been. The Low Road wasn’t dangerous. Everyone knew that. But it was prudent to take precautions. There were some who by their very nature just couldn’t be trusted, could they?
Despite its name, the Low Road is not always low, neither deep beneath the surface, nor even below sea level. As any dwarf knows, it rises and plummets, as do the tunnels and terrain that flow through the Lortmils. So do the Lortmils themselves, ever lower as they step down south, sometimes outpacing the downward flow of the rivers that spill off its slopes and out of its depths. So, sometimes the Road skims very close to the surface of the mountain slopes, indeed. And where the Road draws close to the surface, shafts are raised to vent the heat of the depths. These shafts are well hidden, and where possible, high up cavern walls, coming out on the surface in spots where a mountain goat would be hard-pressed to climb.
Despite this, there’s always the possibility that some enterprising rogue might find one, so it's best to be tricksy then hiding them: The best places are in crags and fissures, blinded with bush, and where water spills into them, in that case drawing fresh air with it.
There are stretches that are exposed to the light of day. That can be a problem, but it also makes for a pleasant walk in the sun. There aren’t a lot of garrisons along the Road, but they are there. One good thing about those “walks in the sun” is that if you array a few polished sheets just so, they coax light down the Road for quite a way. Beyond that, if you want light, you have to carry it with you, or place magic globes, or plant lichens that glow.
Why don’t those underoerth rivers freeze, you ask, if it’s that cold? Because deep down, the heat marries the cold and evens them both out. And water flows. In some places, the edges get a little crisp in winter, but never more than that.
*A simplified geology lesson: Newly created volcanic rock is very hot. It cools as it ages, so very old rock is cold. But billions of tons of rock overhead weigh a lot, the pressure immense. If there is enough pressure, the rock becomes “pliable, “reliquefies,” and begins to “metamorphose.” Volcanic intrusions will reheat the surrounding rock, as will meteor impacts. As the rock above erodes, the pressure is released, and the rock cools again.
From Gilmorack to Grimahl’s Hill:
“I ought to get a sit-down job,” he thought, one where he took stock of the foodstuff imported, and didn’t have to suffer delivering it to those impatient souls expecting their deliveries. They were forever chaffing on how the price of resupply was too high, and that it was rising by the day.
Was it his fault prices went up? Prices always went up. That’s what prices did: Go up.
What did they expect? He had to make a profit, too.
|Gilmorack to Grimahl’s Hill|
Trade Along the Low Road:
Bissel was blessed with such soil that their farms were truly bountiful; as were Veluna’s, each with a cornucopia of crops: root vegetables and wheat, apples and peaches and berries; and with the precious timber the depths of the oerth could never provide. So too the Gran March. The Duchy of Ulek was a veritable garden of citrus and grape. Keoland and the humans settled along the Principality of Ulek’s coast netted schools of fish, and such armored and ugly water bugs that when boiled were worth the misfortune of having gazed upon them.
For such luxuries, the folk traded what copper and iron these nations required, and such gold and silver and gems they could afford. They will pay what the folk demand, because they desire these things almost as much as the folk do, but they don’t have the skill, nor the will to dig as deep as needed to gain them. And because they fear the dark.
The dwarves trade in another luxury, one as hotly desired as is their gold. Ice. High in their mountains there are caverns that are veritable lodes of ice. And where it does not form of its own accord, it can be coaxed to do so. Cut in blocks, and wrapped in cloth, it keeps, and keeps long enough to be got to market.
|The Grimahl's Hill Market|
He only wished they had the good sense to speak one language. Keoish was reputedly their common tongue this side of the Lortmils, while Aerdian was on the other; but despite that notion, each and every other human he crossed path with babbled in some other, or so it seemed.
How did they understand one another?
Judging from the way they spoke to one another, even when they could understand one another, he wondered whether a common language was truly the problem.
The High Town of Grimahl’s Hill overlooks Bissel and the Gran March, and it is here that those two nations peddle their produce for the folk’s gold and copper, and silver and iron. Indeed, so many merchants from either nation come to the foot of Grimahl’s Hill, that there are more humans than dwarves. As such, the dwarves are very careful in who is in the know about the entrance to the Low Road, even among themselves.
From Gilmorack to Rockhome:
He heard it long before he saw it, too. Faint at first, its flow bounced off the walls in ever greater volume, and before too long, he heard the toil of his crews.
He was pleased by the progress he saw upon gaining the docks. The final preparations for launch were already underway. Their wares and sundries had already been stowed in the wide, pointed-bowed, shallow-keeled boats: Chests with coin for purchase were spaced and fixed to the beam between kilns of spice from the far west, with enough spare slats and wrought iron under the gunnels to build the boats half again. Gossamer silks were bundled against the finest bone porcelain from Ekbir, and the most exquisite carvings from Tusmit, and atop these were rolled and bound hand-woven rugs from Zeif. Tarps were tied taught, the knots firm and fast. What lay between the keel and the true bottom of the craft should not be listed, lest even the most trusted hand be tempted.
One last test of the knots and the crews boarded, untied the boats from one another, and the docks, pushed off, dipped oars, and coasted down current, poling the walls when needed.
Globes fore and aft lit their path and wake.
It would take no more than five days to arrive in Rockhome, at least half the time the return would take, that trek made by caravan, the boats affixed with wheels, and made to trundle up the grade they would whisk down with ease.
Balazar muttered a prayer to Berronar for her forethought in providing them with such a swift passage.
|Gilmorack to Rockhome|
The trek back to Gilmorack is not as easy, the caravans are not aided by the river. Gentle though it may be, Caleb’s head is too steep, and too swift; and the southbound traffic too frequent, for the boats to ply their way west. Crews would be at their oars without rest. And so, the road west is by foot, and by mole, the boats, fixed with wheels, are hauled up its length, where they might cruise down stream again. Hoists raised those carts toiling north, just as the locks lowered those going south.
|Moradin's Temple in Rockhome|
The ranks of lit votive tapers lining the walls beckoned, each flicker a prayer, a plea, a bribe, petitioning the benevolence of the Lord and Creator, Moradin.
He crossed the floor and slid a gold piece into the slot and lit a wick of one taper to another. Kneeling, he sang his prayer, its rhythm as might accompany the hammering of steel.
“Your forge burns within me,
Let me burn with Your fire.
Safeguard my trek,
The oerth beneath my feet, blessed be;
And let Your Will be my desire.”
Rockhome is a crossroads. In fact, it is The Crossroads. As such, there is a saying that “All roads lead to Rockhome, because, insofar as the Low Road, and the Lortmils are concerned, all roads do.
It is the largest and greatest of the crossroads, between Gilmorack and Irondelve, and the Road south. It is no wonder that it is so populous.
It is a dwarven city. None but the folk live here, because no visitor would ever be allowed this far along the Low Road, no matter how trusted.
The hub in the north, all pass through, and thus, all the deities of the dwarves are in attendance. Their chapels and temples line the Low Road’s crossing. Their doors are always open; for who can say when one of the People might need succor, weary from their travels.
From Rockhome to Irondelve:
If you were to guess which stretch of the Low Road is the busiest, you would surely presume it to be the Road to Irondelve. A great deal of trade follows this path. It is no wonder. This is the market linked to Verbobonc, the breadbasket of Furyondy, to Dyver and the Nyr Dyv, and to the riches of Free City of Greyhawk.
The passage east is swift, still aided by that canal, Caleb’s Head, flowing from Gilmorack and spilling out into Iron Lake at Irondelve. The way west is not so easy. Like the route between Rockhome and Gilmorack, the boats are fixed with wheels, hauled, and hoisted, and wheedled up slope, step by step, bench by bench, and up tortuous switchbacks until they reach blessed Rockhome, and perhaps Gilmorack again, whence the wheels are stowed, and the swift journey east and south might begin anew. Waste not, want not.
Aiko emptied his cart with a care befitting the love he clearly had for his wares. The uneducated might think them toys, but those with a keen eye understood what wonders of clockwork they were. As only a gnome could create. Intricate. Delicate. And exquisitely detailed.
|Aiko emptied his cart...|
The others, those that might fetch a princely sum, those he most truly wished to sell, were behind him, and behind glass. Under lock and key, and only brought out on request from those patrons who could afford such automata. These did not merely hop, or clap cymbals, these could play music and dance; one could even write simple phrases, dipping its quill and recreating the text on the spool inside it. Such sorts of clockwork impressed all who saw them, but very few could afford such a device.
Then there were the few he never displayed. Few enquired about them; because very few knew they existed. Maybe one or two of the most respected and learned of sages. Archmagi. Not many more. Kings might be able to afford one, or better yet, commission one (and have the patience required to wait for its fabrication, as such things took time). They were the real wonders. Not merely clockwork, nor even automata, but suffused with magic.
Each creation was special. Such love went into their creation that parting with them was difficult.
One he would never sell. It was the culmination of all his artifice and skill. It had got him out of more than one scrape, and surely would again. That one was his.
His display complete, set just so, he stood tall, as only a proud gnome might, and waited.
He had already seen the first glimmers of interest as customers strolled past, and paused. And pointed.
You might ask yourself, is Irondelve a dwarven city, or gnome? There are as many gnomes crowding the market in the Visitors’ Hall as dwarves, and far more gnomes than humans in Upper Town. Trees line its streets, and there are gardens galore. Burrows dot the hills. Groves shelter beds, and their flowers paint the boulevards. It’s all so very undwarven, all that greenery. And all too gnomish. And neither. It’s a blend of both. But this is the Kron Hills. And as such, the Visitors’ Hall is no hall, at all. It’s a garden under a canopy of trees. What do the dwarves think of that? What do they care, so long as the merchants come?
It’s an all too human city, too, what with so many merchants and delegates from Verbobonc and Dyvers and the Free City. From Safeton, and Hardby and Chendl. There is even a scattering of Rhennee, their barges so numerous that their collected berth has been called the Little Dyv, or Swindle Isle, depending on who you ask.
All this traffic has made many a dwarven merchant quite wealthy. And that wealth is made obvious by the abundance of gilded opulence on display. Visiting dwarves don’t like such a display. It draws attention, they say. And jealousy.
Which is why, once beyond the Visitors’ Hall, the dwarves built their Entrance Hall within the largest hill. Facing outwards, defensive fortifications are made obvious in display, to give pause to any would-be invader. Past the Entrance Hall is the dwarven town of Irondelve, even better warded and forbidden to all but dwarves and a few trusted friends. And even some dwarves are not permitted past if their allegiance to the Kingdoms of the Lortmils is suspect.
From Rockhome to the Lost City:
|The Lost City of Flint|
Few venture close to Flint. Only the most adventurous dwarves seeking the truth. It is a dangerous path, infrequently patrolled; the least patrolled of any, in fact. It ought to be blocked. It ought to be sealed. Trapped. Glyphed. What need be. But it’s not; because the dwarves still hope to find out what happened to their lost brethren.
Some time ago, they disappeared. Some believe Flint was overrun during the Hateful Wars. Some say that they dug too deep. The former is possible. But the other is just as likely, even more so. There are no bodies. Not one was ever found. No blood. No sign of struggle. They just disappeared.
The city lies under a shroud of silence and dust. Tracks crisscross its streets. Layer upon layer of web climb its walls. But not spiders. No ghouls. No revenants.
Below, its mines are foul with stagnant pools, echoing with drips, and the very rare oerthfall.
It is here that the dwarves allow others. The brave. The foolhardy. Those adventures who risk all in the pursuit of vainglorious thrill. Driven by Curiosity. And Greed.
From Rockhome to Tharak’s Hold:
Though there are side passages, they are few.
Most scurry north and south, with nary a glance to either side, meaning to get to the other end as quick as can be.
The only traffic on this passage is for goods being shipped between the northern and southern kingdoms, those luxuries not easily had to either side. There is no need to ship gold, or silver, or iron; those can be had, in abundance, on either side.
Not so fish, and lobster, and crab; or fine silk from the Far West. Keoish wines. Sea salt. Ivory from Blackmoor and Stonefist (don’t ask how they got their hands on that, and they will tell you no lies). You can get anything your heart desires, for a price, and if you’re willing to wait a little while to get it.
South of Rockhome, and south of Flint, there’s a valley betwixt Celene and the Duchy of Ulek. You might suspect that it’s mostly used by the elves, what with there being elves on either side. Clearing that and the Celene Pass had been the elves’ main objective during the Hateful Wars, as far as the dwarves were concerned, ‘cause once that was done, they turned their sights on the Suss Forest and left the heavy work for the folk to do. That’s the dwarves’ side of the story, anyway.
But so do the dwarves.
Not far from Tharak’s Hold, the dwarves stumbled upon a cavern, a very special cavern. It’s chock full of crystals. Not your garden variety crystals. Enormous crystals. House-sized crystals. As if you could afford such a house.
So what, you ask? What good are big crystals? Are they worth anything?
You might say so. If you stare at the crystals long enough, you start to have visions. You may see images of your past, and sometimes, you might see something else. The future, mayhap.
From Tharak’s Hold to Hoch Dunglorin:
|A Broad Expanse of Lake|
The oars slipped into the water, and gently pressed themselves forward. In what they hoped was blessed silence.
If there was a stretch of the Road Balazar would describe as dangerous, this would be it.
The elders insisted that the Road was safe from one end to the other, but Balazar knew better. Boats disappeared along this stretch. Not many, and not often, but just enough to raise an eyebrow. The elders declared that their loss was most likely from misfortune. Boats crashed and sank, and few dwarves could swim.
Those who plied the road nodded at such sage words, and did not believe them, not for one moment.
Why? Because the lake was a bed of the dead. Innumerable orcs and goblins had been cast into this vaulted cavern, and buried under a bed of what rock they could scrape up, and then rivers had been diverted. You’d think that would have been the end of it. This was not the first time they had buried such a number of these foul beasts; and not one of those other mass graves had ever raised anyone’s hackles once it was done; but here, if you were very quiet, you could hear...something. A keening. A glimmer of howling. Like the essence of the evil concentrated here was clawing to get out.
It had to be the place, Balazar believed. Orcs and goblins didn’t have souls, or spirits; all they had was hate, and when they died, they just died, and rot.
Rumour had it that the Flan had found this place first, and that they might have found something, or dug something up. Who knows where such stories begin? But every one of the folk had heard such. After all, where had the Flan gone? One day their city Haradaragh was there, and the next it was gone and them with it; and it wasn’t until Vecna rose up that anyone ever ventured into this stretch of the peaks. He did, they say. That’s where the story ends. Most stories like that end that way, leaving you hanging, thinking the worst. Like Balazar was just then, his head swimming with revenants and banshees and the like.
So no more thoughts of orc spirits. It had to be the place, this eerie place. Water dripped, and in some places cascaded, and poured from fissures in the ceiling, raising a fog that blanketed what little might be seen, and muffled what little sound might be heard. And there were sounds to be heard.
He took a deep breath and held it. He wished he could hold it unto Hoch Dunglorin. If he could, he could hear every drip, every grain of sand disturbed, every foot that might fall.
If there is one dangerous stretch of the Low Road, it is the link between the Northern Kingdoms and Southern Kingdoms. Neither claims the territory. Neither wants to. At its center is Dead Lake.
Why Dead Lake? Because it is a mass grave.
It was once a large, deep, barren cavern. Days wide, miles below the surface. Tales say that it wends as far east as the Suss Forest, and that it stretches even further west, not that anyone can say for sure now. After the Hateful Wars, the dwarven armies from both the northern and southern kingdoms piled the bodies of the tens of thousand humanoid dead into this cavern. They buried them. They had the rock: All that tunnelling leaves a lot of waste, and if truth be told, the dwarves were happy to be rid of it (their tunnels were full of it, and they couldn’t cart it to the surface; not only would that have been the labour of years, if not decades, all that scree upon the slopes would have drawn every curious spelunker for miles around into their Low Road, and they had no wish to let the existence of their Low Road be known). That done, they didn’t want thousands of rotting corpses smouldering with disease stinking up their Road, so they diverted underground rivers, flooding the cavern. Thus was Dead Lake born. The dwarves gave it wide berth, knowing what lay at its bed; but the fish and other life diverted with the rivers were not so particular. Food is food.
This cavern now holds an enormous lake with rivers flowing into it from the north and east and the west, and with sheets of water cascading into it from above, before spilling out to the south. The very air is soaked with it, drilling wet, stalactites brushing the surface, stalagmites jutting out, too much like teeth for a dwarf to not shiver at the sight, despite the fetid heat.
It’s an eerie place. The fog glows. Sound echoes without end.
You can’t help but imagine shapes resolving from the fog.
|The Long Dark Lake|
They gasped. Panted. One retched. A few trained their crossbows on where they fled from. To no purpose. The lake was calm. Not a ripple stirred. In the distance, a cascade beyond the veil of fog echoed. Just as before.
One moment the surface had been placid, and the next the lake was a-boil with froth. A blackness reached up and out from the depths and dragged those poor unfortunates down into their watery grave, with little enough time to scream, let alone fight, or call for help.
Balazar and the others raised their crossbows, but before the first quarrel could be notched, the others were gone. They called out to whomever might be afloat; but there was no answer.
They panicked, threw down their bows and bore down on the oars, unmindful of the noise they made, all too thankful when they beached, that they were no longer out on that black, and once again, placid lake.
What did you see, they asked one another?
Tentacles, one ventured, a water spout, suggested another, but most were at a loss as to what they might have seen. The fog was too thick, the boat too dim. The fog swirled, thickening, and what might have been shadow, or a jet of ink, or the black blood of Grummsh, thread with it, plunging the cavern into a far more Stygian pitch than it ever had a right to be.
They failed. They wasted so many lives that when the dwarves marched against them, they had no strength to repel them.
This is not to say that the hobgoblins did not perch on the slopes for decades, howling their hatred, pouncing on the unwary. And did so until there were no more of them.
Or so say the dwarves.
There are still hobgoblins in the dark valleys. There always will be. They will never abandon the carcass of Grot-Ugrat.
“Why’d ye want to muck about with dirt and vines and trees,” Irgor’s brother had asked him. It was a common opinion, a very dwarven opinion. And rightly so. Their gods were concerned with honour and courage; with the crafting of the stone, the steel, and the weaving of mithril. Not the dirt scattered over it. But Irgor thought that a dwarf ought not to be dependent on the other races, that a dwarf ought to feed himself, and his people. He wasn’t the only one with that opinion. Others shared his view. The tiers that stepped up the slopes spoke as much.
His vines were surely pleased by it. The grapes were larger, sweeter, and ready for harvest far sooner than they would have been, otherwise.
He “stole” the idea from a human down in the Duchy, hailing from Tringlee, or thereabouts. They were a clever lot, humans, he thought, far cleverer than most dwarves give them credit for. Then again, most dwarves rarely gave humans a second thought. Or farming, for that matter.
He shouldn’t say stole the idea: That tree-hugger, Giles Hamm, had hinted that he ought to lay the stone, and suggested how much space each sapling needed, asking only that he might sit awhile, and share in a pot of tea, and chat about the weather and the welfare of the crops. Hamm had given those down slope advice, as well. A strange fellow. Said he could talk to the animals. One might wonder what a rabbit or squirrel had to say?
When you think about dwarves, farming might be the furthest thing from your mind.
For shame. How do you think they eat? It’s true that it’s not the most respected of professions (some dwarves might even turn their noses up at the notion of a dwarf plowing furrows in the oerth), but they do. And they are good at it. Dwarves are good at most skills they set their minds to master. And farming is as much a learned skill at blacksmithing.
Hoch Dunglorin, the northern tip of the Southern Kingdom, is one such spot they excel at the venture. The climate is ideal. They tend groves there, and vineyards, and harvest all manner of vegetables above ground, and so many mushrooms below, that not only do they meet their needs, and those of the travellers trekking the Road, they trade the surplus with Tringlee, in the Duchy, and Anyanes, in Celene. The Celene Pass is famous for its bounty (among dwarves, in any event).
It helps that there are a number of druids nearby, and that the druids are inclined to help those who tend the oerth, insofar as they don’t want those souls to deplete the soil, or clear more land than is necessary. They say that “one ought to live in harmony with the Mother,” whatever that means.
From Hoch Dunglorin to Hearthguard Tower:
It is for this reason that the folk had a devil of a time clearing the vermin out from this stretch. The hobgoblins fought with a fury hitherto unheard of, what with Grot-Ugrat so nearby, their idea of a holy city, or some such.
It’s a walking Road. An arduous Road. No rivers flow beneath this stretch, and the way is dry and dusty. It’s as much a desert as one might find in the underoerth. A caravan need be twice as long as it ought to be, what with the need to carry water the whole way.
It’s so difficult that most take the High Road of the Celene Pass almost unto Alabaster Abbey, before slipping below again, for the dash to Hearthguard village, just south of the Druid’s Defile.
There are gnomes and halflings and humans in Hearthguard Tower.
There would be. The Druid’s Defile, despite its ominous name, is a pleasant land, with pleasant weather. Long settled on either side. Civilized. And densely populated, as mountain passes go. If one can call the Druid’s Defile a mountain pass. It is a low country, as far as the Lortmils are, less peak than majestic hills. Gnome country, for the most part. It is ideal gnome country: forested, dotted with lakes.
And estates. Such is the way of beautiful, scenic, pacified places.
Courwood and Altimira lie to the east, and Kewlbanks and Junre to the west, and as such, there is a great deal of traffic between, cut timber carted west, and culture east. It’s the safest passage through the Lortmils, despite the Suss being a stone’s throw away, seeing that an enormous amount of trade passes between Celene and the County of Ulek.
An enterprising dwarf would never let such opportunity pass by without poking his nose up to the surface to see what might be had, and what might be sold.
It’s an odd name for a town. There is no tower to speak of; but there is a tall, sculpted, rounded cliff face over top the gate, and if you crane your neck to it, it very much looks like the corner tower of a keep. The wings of a palisade stretch to either side, rows and rows and rows of arrow slits beneath it. And above, balconies etched into the face, their banisters, the very image of a phalanx of the bearded folk.
It’s grand. It’s formidable. Or so the dwarves would have you believe. It’s a bit of a pale reflection of its past. Its vast populace has moved on. The bounty of gems had petered out long before the Hateful Wars had flared up. But the oerth still had a few more gems to mete out, and a few kept on digging.
The nose knows, and a few knew there were more still, deeper down. They applied their picks, and pried at the deep.
And a few years ago, a sheet of rock peeled away, and those who looked on, marvelled at the spark of glitter that gazed back at them.
From Hearthguard Tower to Balnorhak:
The Low Road opens up again beyond Hearthguard Tower. There are caverns and caves, rivers and lakes, and the way is made swift again, as though the Road can smell Balnorhak, the former capital of the united dwarven realms of the Lortmils.
Ah, Balnorhak, city of kings. Every dwarf knows of it, and its fabled grandeur. It once ruled over the whole of the Lortmils, and the lowlands, too.
The Road here is befitting that of kings. There is not one foot of its length that is bare of decoration. Tiled mosaics. Frieze. Caryatid columns. It is a sight to behold.
Made a mockery by the betrayal.
His grandfather had told him of its beauty at its most glorious, and it saddened him to see it brought so low. Stonework was scarred, as though smashed by hammer blows, or scored by chisel. Tiles lay scattered upon the station quays they glided past. So too the spheres that had once cast light upon the mosaics that graced their walls, and guided one down the presumptuously expansive corridors and canals that led into the city, and the thoroughfares that crossed them.
The corridors that struck straight and true into the depths were shrouded in darkness now, the shadows somehow suffocating. His keen eyesight could hardly pierce but a few feet into it before failing utterly. What lay beyond was a mystery that infected the imagination, with only the destruction exacted upon these close quays to inspire it. malice during the exodus. That had been a resigned, sullen affair, said he. Not one of anger. So who, or what, might have carried out such violence? Those left behind? That which might have crept in to fill the void of what was? Grandda would surely have shed a tear, had he beheld his beloved Balnorhak now.
Where once, it surely echoed with activity, the only sounds that cut the silence were their efforts, their poles breaking the surface, an eerie keening of the distant whirl of ventilation.
It stank of rot, mould and mildew, of abandon. It caught his breath, and urged him to speed their passage from this place.
It was once a beautiful city. No more.
Balnorhak had once ruled over the whole of the People. Now, cannot even say that it rules over itself. It does not have the right. And no wonder. Its kings had grown selfish, myopic, and vainglorious. Until finally, one had betrayed the people.
That had not been so, once.
Once, it had been the seat of wisdom, and creation. Crafters came from wherever dwarves had settled, because it was said that they felt “closer” to their patron here, inspired beyond measure, their fires hotter, the strike of hammer truer, the result of their work beyond their skill. Moradin appeared to them in dreams, they claimed, and whispered what could not be recalled upon waking. Those dreams guided their hands, they said. It was by such a dream that the Anvil of the Lortmil Mountains was conceived. Swords created upon it could cut through the thickest armor, and keep their edge. Shields retained what was embossed upon them no matter the number of blows that fell on them. Kings desired what was crafted on it; and they were willing to pay the princely sum demanded, too.
And so it was until the War. The Hateful Wars waged on, year after year, ten in all, and still it burned. Far too much blood was shed, even if the People never once lost a battle. But their enemies were innumerable, an evil tide without ebb.
When will it end, they wondered? It may never end, they worried.
The king sent an appeal to the hobgoblin priests of Grot-Ugrat, and the goblins sat with him to discuss terms.
The People were shocked? How could He negotiate with such things? They can’t be trusted, they said.
A treaty was struck. The People were outraged. They cried out: You cannot trust a goblin! The king did not listen. He held the treaty aloft before the. Look, he said. “Peace in our time!”
The treaty was doomed from the outset. The goblins never had any intention of adhering to its promises and terms. They struck, even as the ink dried.
Incredulously, the king did nothing. A misunderstanding, he said.
A hero rose, and led the People to victory.
The priest turned against the king. He has betrayed Moradin’s faith in him, they said. The artisans concurred. Moradin no longer visited their dreams. Their creations were no longer as inspired. Moradin had abandoned the king. And Balnorhak. Its mines dried up; its markets fled. And still the king did nothing.
The exodus began. The People would go to Gilmorack, for it was rumoured then that Moradin had placed his hope and his faith in that northern city. They took with them the Anvil of Lortmil Mountain, the instrument of his creations.
Balnorhak withered, and soon its streets howled with silence.
Few live there now. Those who do live in Low Town.
Some say that High Town is the demesne of goblinkind. Others suggest that duergar and the derro have found their way to its Halls. None have seen as much, but few venture into Balnorhak’s depths.
And no wonder. Shadow reigns where Light once did.
And shadows keep their secrets.
The High Road:
The caverns and canals of the Low Road gave way to sunshine. Balazar shielded his eyes to its brilliance.
He exhaled, his very soul pleased to be quit of Balnorhak’s dark rank waterways.
Low Town was little better, he noted as his dark vision adjusted to the light of day. It had weathered since Grandda’s day. Erosion ruled where kings did. Lintels had bent and fallen; columns were no longer smooth. Roofs has caved. The streets were choked with what walls had crumbled. Those that stood were blackened by long spent fires.
The destruction eased as the core gave way to the outer city. It was there, beyond the walls, where Balnorhak squatted. Low, thatched cottages huddled together, round a meager market on the riverbank, its piers crowded with boats and rafts. Further on, a herd of moles were corralled.
It was in the market where the silence was finally broken, as those caravans embarking north, and those boats steering south, haggled for what would either provision themselves, or tide them over until making final landfall at Havenhill or Eastpass, still four days distant.
Balazar’s spirits rose.
It had been some time since he’d bunked down on a bed, and not on a deck.
Or ate anything other than trail mix, jerky, or unsalted meat.
Or savoured fresh ale.
He was looking forward to it.
|Better Days Behind|
Balnorhak is the end of the Low Road.
And the beginning of the High Road.
The single Road becomes many, a fan, a web of rivers and roads that spread out over the Principality, the nearest cities of note being Eastpass and Havenhill. It is there where trade is plentiful and brisk, where goods flow from Grygax and beyond: Fish and salt, and all manner of things from such far off places as the Amedio, and Hepmonaland.
Not far away, a half-day’s surface journey to the east, lies the human village of Thrunch. It’s a quiet place. Few there ever speak of Balnorhak, let alone venture there. They whisper warnings to those who enquire after that once great city: “Go there if you must,” they say. “but be wary. Keep your bow strung. And a hand upon the pommel of your sword.”
"And whichever way thou goest, may fortune follow."
-- Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
One must always gibve credit where credit is due. This piece is made possible primarily by the Imaginings of Gary Gygax and his Old Guard, Lenard Lakofka among them, and the new guards, Carl Sargent, James Ward, Roger E. Moore. And Erik Mona, Gary Holian, Sean Reynolds, Frederick Weining. The list is interminable.
Special thanks to Tommy Jon Kelly whose Hateful Wars fiction inspired much of the history of the Low Road found within. His Hateful Wars serial can be found on his web blog: Greyhawk Stories.
Further thanks to Jay Scott, some of whose creations have made an appearance in this piece.
The Lortmil Mountains, by Darlene, from the World of Greyhawk Folio, 1980
Dwarf Combat, by Stephen Fabian, from Rockhome, 1988
Dwarf Elevator, from Underdark, pg. 34, 2010
Parlay, by Stephen Fabian, from Rockhome, 1988
Dwarfcraft, by Stephen Fabian, from Rockhome, 1988
Greyhawk Map details, et al., by Anna B. Meyer
Road Illustration, by Stephen Fabian, from Rockhome, 1988
An Exchange, by Stephen Fabian, from Rockhome, 1988
The Long Dark Lake, by Francis Tsai, from Underdark, pg. 80, 2010
1015 World of Greyhawk Boxed Set, 1983
1064 From the Ashes Boxed Set, 1992
2023 Greyhawk Adventures Hardback, 1988
6025 World of Greyhawk Folio, 1980
11743 Living Greyhawk Gazetteer, 2000
The map of Anna B. Meyer
The Hateful Wars, fiction by Tommy Jon Kelly
The Greyhawk Campaign World of Jay Scott (Lord Gosumba)