Khalin moved swiftly to source some of the broth for both himself and Rhasgar and settled back down next to the dragon-man. Zero had already started to snore, but Tradden inched closer to listen to the conversation. Kireth did not move, but remained hidden under his hood, though no doubt was fully aware of the idle talk.
The warlord had already given Rhasgar a brief overview of Blackengorge and quickly offered a what little more information he had. The attacks by the goblins, further detail on the strange happenings under the mausoleum, the marshland, lake, and strange tower of mists. It was the Gorge Wall Gate that seemed to pique Rhasgar’s interest the most.
‘You say this wall stretched from cliffside to the lake, then? All of the way across the gorge?’ asked Rhasgar, studying Khalin carefully as he spoke. ‘Quite a feat of engineering. And to what end one might ask. To what end indeed.’
The dwarf felt as though he were on the edge of some precipice with knowledge waiting far below. His heart beat louder and his breath came faster as a giddying sensation tingled through his body.
Then, abruptly, the conversation turned.
‘I hail from Fallcrest,’ Rhasgar stated. ‘It is a small town, perhaps passable for a city within the Vale, as it certainly once was. Maybe a thousand in all live there, maybe two. Most of us,’ he continued with a wide gesture of his arm towards his own comrades, ‘now live there. It is in the centre of a Vale, the Nentir Vale, perhaps fifty leagues across from the Cairngorm Peaks in the west to the Dawnforge Mountains in the east and maybe thirty or so leagues from the Winterbole Forest to the north down to the Harken Forest in the south.
‘Our community may be small, but it is varied. Humans mainly, but elves, halflings, tieflings, dragonborn like myself, and dwarves all seem to live together fairly well. A bright light, one might say, in a sea of darkness. There are other communities like ours, out there in the wilderness. Some we keep in touch with, others we have lost contact. The grip of the Iron Circle and that of Karkoth ever tightens and we have remained vigilant to protect ourselves as long as we can remember.
‘Perhaps as long as our community remains small, and does not interfere too much with the outside world, we will not be crushed. It is only a century past since the Bloodspears descended from the Stonemarch and laid waste to the Vale. We are recovering still from that.’
‘I’m not sure I understand,’ Khalin interrupted. ‘What is this Iron Circle, this Karkoth?’
‘The Iron Circle are a cult, dedicated to devil worship,’ Rhasgar spat. ‘The Karkothi drive for power and mastery across the world, using whatever arms or foul magics they can. Between the pair they devastate the lands and each attempt to gain control in their own grip.
‘They started to come to power some five hundred years ago. Our Empire of Nerath was a peaceful one, then, stretching from the Stonemarch to the Dragondown Coast and east over the Midnight Sea to the Zannad Jungles, a shining example of what civilisation could become. But all civilisations must fall, it seems, like Arkhosia and Bael-Turath before it,’ he glanced over to the bedchamber and the prostrate Sorrow.
‘New powers arose, and spies infiltrated the cities, turning state upon state. We were driven back, west and north, even over the Stonemarch they say. A last stand by the King. A battle to end all battles. Legions of dragonborn and humans and elves and dwarves, all together, comrades in arms.’
The dragon-man, a ’dragonborn’ it seemed, had a faraway look in his eye. Perhaps it was pride in his forebears of battle, or maybe even a wish that he could have been there.
‘And what happened?’ asked Khalin, thirsty for the knowledge.
A sad look overcame the dragonborn. ‘A great wall had been erected, keeping out the hordes that Karkoth threw at us. Again and again they assaulted the walls, and again and again they were rebuffed. Thousands and thousands died they said, sinking into marshes only to rise again and assault the walls once more.’
‘The walls held?’ asked Khalin incredulously.
Rhasgar paused for a moment as if contemplating the dwarf’s words.
‘They might have, yes,’ he began. ‘They might have. Supplies were becoming scarce for us, but the walls might have held, the battle could have been won.’
‘They did not, then?’ surmised Khalin.
‘No, they did not. But they were not toppled by force alone. A company broke ranks on our side. They turned and fled, joining the women and children on boats that were being prepared just in case, and sailed away. Their positions on the walls were overrun, and despite a last hurrah from the wizards, the King was slain and we were scattered to the winds as their ranks tore through us.
‘The Empire fell that day and civilisation turned to chaos. It has taken nearly five hundred years to rebuild what little we have now. The years have been dark and dismal, though we have never been subjugated — both the Iron Circle and the Karkothi seemed content just with our decimation.’
‘We hold a similar tale,’ offered Khalin. ‘The same battle, perhaps, with the last stand, a ’Great Retreat’. The two cannot be coincidence, it must be the same.’
‘Do the tales offer you the name of the company, then?’ asked Rhasgar.
Khalin thought for a moment, attempting to remember what history he could. ‘No, as far as I can remember they do not.’
‘They who survive live to write the annals, they say,’ stated Rhasgar, ‘though I do not hold you responsible.’
‘Responsible?’ questioned Khalin. ‘What do you mean?’
Rhasgar locked Khalin’s eyes with an unwavering stare.
‘The company that broke ranks. The cowards. The traitors. They were a dwarven clan. Clan Grundokri.’