Staring Into The Abyss
Holdfast of the Steel Overlord
Ruler: Longbeard of the Clans, Saraas Helsborne, the Steel Overlord
Population: 3,001,480 (dwarves 87%, humans 7%, elves 2%, other 4%)
Resources: Gold, silver, platinum, gems, iron, steel, weapons, and armor
Capital: Ul Balhar
With the ruins of forgotten clanholds and mines scattered about the mountains of known world, scholars can be forgiven for assuming that the Bearded Folk of the Mountains are in decline. Such cynics need only trek within sight of the scarred tower gates of Ul Gaolnor to know the truth of the matter:
The forges of the dwarf clans burn brighter than ever.
Once, the dwarves were a disparate people, with no unified governance above that of the clan. This changed when the dwarf seer Nomothamai peered into his dark crystal and foresaw the coming age of Man. Rather than surrender their lands to a war of slow attrition, the Bearded Folk abdicated their scattered mines and spent the next thousand years consolidating their power into a series of connected strongholds centered about the Ul Dominor Mountains.
While independent clanholds still thrive, it is the Holdfast of the Steel Overlord that embodies the might of the dwarves. Unified beneath the will of a single Overlord and the Council of the Clans, the dwarves have successfully avoided the endless skirmishes that plague the elves. The present Overlord is a hardy longbeard named Saraas Helsborne, who first sat upon the throne one hundred years ago, and fully expects to rule for another three hundred.
The choleric dwarves have embraced war as a philosophy and lifestyle; their guiding principle is to answer every injury or slight tenfold. The saying goes that if a human cheats you in trade, crush his family; if an elf snubs you in court, burn her forest to the ground; and if any mortal is so foolish to attack a dwarf at home or abroad, level entire nations to punish the guilty.
The law is seldom enforced to the letter, but its spirit pervades Holdfast society. Whereas a human duelist might count himself a master after a decade of training, dwarven warriors study for hundreds of years. Their weapons, armor, and tactics are all the result of thousands of years of innovation and endless refinement. Heroes of all races make regular pilgrimages to the Holdfast clans, hoping to apprentice with a renowned weapons master, for while the dwarven physique might limit the practice of certain combat styles, it in no way limits their study of warcraft.
The halls of Holdfast are open to all, but few races can tolerate the dark galleries, clammy mines, and dour company for long. Most visitors attend the seasonal trade meets, when thousands of traders and merchants fill the outer halls of Holdfast. The Holdfast maintains cordial ties with the lord barons of the Criestine Empire, and makes regular shipments of mithril and adamantine to the elven nations.
Dwarven cities are nearly entirely underground, hidden beneath mountaintops or in the walls of craggy canyons. Exposed elements like towers and gates are always well defended and can only be entered via tunnels and the like.
The following is a partial list of the strongholds that pledge allegiance to the Steel Overlord.
(Small city, pop. 7,016)
Lording over the Saedre River, the city of Stalgard is the Holdfast’s chief trading post to the west. Goods are hauled upstream on barges and then hoisted several hundred feet up sheer cliffs, to wide stone balconies set in the face of Mount Ajai. There, in the stuffy bazaars and low roofed caverns, dwarven traders exchange fine blades, armor, and shining ingots for fortunes of smoked meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. The dwarven traders are notorious for their copper pinching avarice, and greedy Northlanders are often accused of having “cousins in Stalgard.”
While well defended, the city is less martial than most. Nevertheless, dwarven axemen patrol the balconies and bazaars, while well trained artillerists scan the skies. The accuracy of dwarven ballistae teams is famous throughout the Northlands, as is the deadliness of their razor sharp bolts. Ballistae ammunition is often augmented by spells to cause terrible wounds, spread panic, or—most effective of all—paralyze fliers.
(Metropolis, pop. 27,203)
In the dwarven tongue, Ul means “place of battle.” Built as a testament to ancient Amonzadd, the capital of the stout folk is also the site of a celebrated dwarven battle.
Mighty Ul Balhar has exceeded even the great dwarven cities of legend. All of the complex’s original caves have been enlarged and reinforced, the galleries decorated with flagstones and martial murals, and a maze of mines bored into the heart of the mountain. It would take the armies of several nations to even threaten mighty Ul Balhar.
The city has never lost sight of its violent origins. The dwarves maintain a standing army of disciplined heavy infantry, tunnel fighters, artillerists, and sappers. With the constant press of marauding giants, humanoids hordes, and worse, the soldiers’ battle prowess remains sharp. A proud martial tradition has evolved over the centuries, with warriors and warrior-priests revered by the common folk.
(Small castle, pop. 1,592)
Warding the eastern border of the Ul Dominor mountains, Ul Gaolnor sees more regular battle than all other dwarven citadels combined. The formidable iron gates of Ul Gaolnor are flanked by massive stone towers. Scarred from iron bound battering rams, terrible spells, and the blood of a thousand foes, the gates stand in opposition of any who would dare challenge the might of the Steel Overlord.
The armies of Ul Gaolnor are legendary among martial circles. To have fought atop the towers is to have stood beside the greatest warriors in the history of the Northlands, and any dwarf that has served at Ul Gaolnor is honored and admired by his people. Sadly, for every dwarven war hero returning from Ul Gaolnor, there are twenty warriors that never return, slain by dragonfire, a scourge’s spear, a harpy’s lance, or any of the hundred other perils that regularly threaten the citadel.
The commanding officer of Ul Gaolnor is the revered general Durgin Dwurthiel. Respected by his armies, feared by his foes, “Irongut” Dwurthiel has commanded the armies of Ul Gaolnor for over ninety years. Old before his time, the craggy dwarf conceals a heavy sorrow born of regret for the thousands of dwarves that have died under his command. So far the sadness has yet to affect his ability to command his armies, but Dwurthiel can often be seen stalking the battlements late at night, in full armor, urgosh glinting in the moonlight.
(Large town, pop. 3,804)
Once a citadel built to stand down the armies of human barbarians raiding from the north, Ul Yazhmotk has grown into a community where dwarven smiths, generals, and engineers retire to live out the end of their lives.
The tradition began when the citadel, beset by an army of frost giants astride remorhazes, put out a call for aid. The beleaguered Holdfast had few warriors to spare, leaving the call to be answered by ancient and venerable warriors. When the threat had passed, the old axes remained.
Since that time, Ul Yazhmotk has served as a living vault of dwarven wisdom. Great smiths, warriors, and artisans of every culture make pilgrimages to apprentice with the citdel’s masters or simply gaze upon the vast collections of matchless masterworks.
A council of seven master craftsmen, elected by their respective guilds, rules the citadel. More than simple politicians, the craftsmen are artisans selected to represent the height of dwarven culture.
(Small castle, pop. 2,058)
While the Holdfast is not known for the might of its spellcasters, the outcome of many of its battles has rested on the casting of a single well placed spell. The underground galleries and lonely watchtowers of Zan Tarkhaal are home to the war casters, sorcerers, and battle priests of the Holdfast.
The stout folk of Zan Tarkhaal are fiercely passionate (even for dwarves) about their studies, resulting in unusual collaborations between arcane and divine spell casters. To hail from Zan Tarkhaal is to be keenly aware of the mystic forces that shape the multiverse, and of a spellcaster’s place in dwarven society.
The town’s nominal ruler is a young general named Yuthor Relmarok, a dwarf with little appreciation—and even less respect—for mystic studies. Relmarok has come to regard his post as a form of punishment, and passes his sentence finding ways to impede the work of the spellcasters.