The Battle of Blackvault
An account of the Battle of Blackvault, written in the year 10098 of the New Reckoning by Argev, Master of Letters to House Deepdelver, Chief Epistolary of the Great Library of Deepdelve for the education of the noble sons and daughters of my Lord Hundrik, and those that follow afterwards.
The Battle of Blackvault, called by some the Fall of Blackvault or the Disaster at Blackvault and also Gordov’s Folly and the Empire’s Shame, was a conflict that took place in the year 9982 NR, of a scale not seen since before the destruction of Vorganash. The political situation that led to it is complex, but I shall attempt to furnish the young lords and ladies with as much pertinent information as I can in this short space. Blackvault was and is a fell and dangerous place; a rude cave complex sited some three hundred miles from Deepdelve, to the south-east-down. It is on the edge of a great, impenetrable wilderness, and has long been held as the furthest point of civilisation in that direction. It is said that its lowest tunnels enter the Deeps, where the darkness is so absolute that no torch can penetrate it, but of course no Dwarf has ever returned from an expedition to such a remote layer to report whether this is true or not. It is known that the Deeps are dangerous and dark and that this black realm is the homeland of the Goblins, where their largest breeds multiply in the impenetrable shadows, growing huge on the unwholesome strains of fungus that grow there and the flesh of their own dead.
Blackvault was long held to be untenable as an outpost. It was first mined out in 7367 NR by Ulbrek Silversmith, a wealthy prospector who soon bled it dry of the ores that threaded the nearby rock. Once emptied, it progressively fell into ruin over the following two-thousand years, until the dispossessed Dwarves of House Halfhand, fleeing from the Western Wars that destroyed several of the great Underkeeps of the High Reaches, unearthed its passages and took it for their seat. However, with few natural resources and so close to enemies, Blackvault was not a secure stronghold. The ailing Halfhands had to constantly dredge the lower levels of the Underkeep for Goblins, and soon bankrupted themselves by paying the fees of mercenaries and Tunnelmen. Flooding was also common so close to the Deeps, as well as infestations of many parasitic creatures. Though they fell deeper and deeper into debt, the Halfhands’ plight caught the attention of Overlord Truldek of the wealthy House Greytusk, the rulers of Highthrone, which my young lords and ladies will know is one of the most ancient Undercities in the Empire. Truldek was an infamous merchant lord, an investor and broker of almost unequalled prowess. Through his mercantile machinations, he had increased the treasury of Highthrone by almost fivefold, and he saw an opportunity in Blackvault. He offered the services of his own household Warriors to Blackvault at a cut rate, flattering the Overlord Baldig Halfhand that he sought an alliance between their Houses. The Halfhands accepted the offer, and began to drain their dwindling coffers, selling marriages and their scant resources so they could pay off House Greytusk for their services.
Of course, Blackvault was impossible to cleanse. Truldek knew this, and knew that the Halfhands would continue to pour money into his coffers to maintain their pride, though they could ill-afford it. Truldek continued to send his Warriors into the depths of Blackvault, but never enough to make any lasting impression on the Goblin tribes breeding there. With a single act of seeming-generosity, Truldek Greytusk had essentially secured a bottomless well of revenue for Highthrone, and the only cost was the beggaring of House Halfhand. This was of no concern to Truldek – who had supplied weapons and armour to the opposing faction in the Western Wars anyway – and he was happy to reap the gold of Blackvault for as long as he could.
This state of affairs could never last. Baldig Halfhand was borrowing extravagantly to continue to pay off Truldek, and most of his debts were to House Firestoke, the fierce Warrior clan of the Northern Edge. Firestoke was one of the few Houses to have benefitted from the Western Wars, having supplied thousands of mercenaries to both sides, and they were happy to continue to profit from the fading fortunes of those harmed by the conflict by lending gold at extortionate rates of interest. When it became apparent that the Halfhands were in no position to pay back their debts, they began asking difficult questions and it soon became apparent that Truldek was extorting the beleaguered inhabitants of Blackvault. Seeing the whole situation as little more than outright theft from their treasury, the Overlords of Firestoke threatened the Greytusks with war, promising to destroy Highthrone. Though they may have had the military might to carry this out, many of the High Houses (including our own House Deepdelver) rallied to the Greytusks and, for one tense Ebbing, it seemed as if the Core would find itself in open war with the Northern Edge. Thankfully, this did not come to pass, as the Firestokes fell upon the Halfhands for their recompense.
The unfortunate Halfhands, caught between the two warring factions, were always bound to bear the brunt of the retribution. Firestoke had to expend only a tiny fraction of its might to annihilate the Halfhands. They stormed Blackvault with a force of savage Warriors and exterminated them in a matter of days. But the Halfhands had dug new passages during their tenancy that did not appear on the old maps – those that survived the onslaught disappeared into these new delvings and began to stage a guerrilla war against the Firestoke Warriors. Firestoke pride being what it was, the Overlords would not allow Blackvault to remain uncleansed and they installed a permanent garrison there, but they were constantly assailed by the remaining Halfhands as well as the Goblins and other foul creatures in the lower levels, which had multiplied in the chaos.
Truldek was still sore from having lost the potential revenue of Blackvault and began to move his own forces into position to take it. Ostensibly with the aim of restoring the Halfhands – whom he now openly touted as vassals of Greytusk, despite no oaths being sworn – he tried to buy the loyalty of the Firestokes’ own mercenaries, as well as deploying his own soldiers in key Underkeeps nearby. The Halfhands wanted none of Greytusk’s help now, having been brought to the edge of absolute ruin by them, and instead turned to another, more dangerous ally: the Goblins of the Deeps.
The Firestokes and the Greytusks were moving into position as 9981 NR began, and they both brought Warriors from Houses across the Empire to their banners. Few Houses allied to one side in particular, but instead contributed Warriors as mercenaries. Just as Truldek had smelt the opportunity for profit in the pointless cleansing of Blackvault, the whole Empire saw that the brewing war was a chance for everyone to rake in gold from two wealthy dynasties, much as House Firestoke had during the Western Wars. The first clashes took place in the third Ebbing of the year, and the blood flowed freely on both sides. Blackvault and the surrounding tunnels rang with the clash of steel on steel and the reverberating of dragon rifles. The Firestokes, veterans of the Western Wars and countless other conflicts large and small, made the first gains. Their gold had bought the best Warriors to supplement their own core of loyal veterans, and this advantage proved decisive in the grim confines of Blackvault. Truldek was furious at the losses his armies were taking, and travelled to Blackvault with a cadre of Royal Guard. This encouraged many of the High Houses – already incensed by the audacity of a Fringe House like Firestoke standing up to the established order – to send their own Royal Guard into the fray, and the fighting intensified as a result.
In one relatively minor skirmish, Truldek and his bodyguard were caught unawares by a flank attack from a narrow tunnel and he was cut down. His head was brought to Overlord Gogard, the most senior Firestoke in the field, who had it mounted on his standard. If the war had ever been about business interests, it had now become deeply personal, and the new Overlord of House Greytusk, Gordov, swore revenge against all Firestokes. He had an enclave of theirs in Highthrone hurled alive into the Molochfyre and marched to Blackvault with the greater portion of his own Warriors along with as many mercenaries as the Undercity’s considerable treasury could buy. For their part, the Firestokes recalled their mercenaries from across the Empire, and the war in Blackvault began to swell to titanic proportions, encompassing the entire region.
Many attempts were made at mediation between the two factions, but the final clash was inevitable as the final Ebbing of 9981 came and went. 9982 waxed, and the two great armies poured all their forces into Blackvault itself. Whole chambers and passages were demolished in the attempts to gain strategic advantage, such that Blackvault resembled nothing more than a giant, black hole in the ground by the end. At the time, some academics believed the massive earthworks were what caused the final catastrophe, but it became clear in the following years that this was not the case.
The Halfhands had not been idle during the fighting. Retreating into the Deeps, they made evil pacts with the teeming Goblin tribes, promising them wealth and resources in return for their loyalty. The Goblins readily agreed, but bided their time to strike at the insistence of Fadu, who called himself Overlord of House Halfhand, though he was lowborn. As the two great armies stood off in what remained of Blackvault, preparing for battle, the Goblins surged out of the Deeps in such force as to defy all estimates of their previous strength. Thousands upon thousands of the creatures, in every colour and breed, armed with every kind of weapon their crude technology could forge, poured into the ruined chambers of Blackvault. The Dwarves were caught entirely unawares, and attempted to rally against this new threat, but the element of surprise was too decisive. Their defences had been arranged to defend against the enemy before them, and the Goblins came from every direction, swarming over them. For days, the fighting raged, with the embittered Halfhands directing the Goblin assault as best they could. Few of them survived the battle, for they were obvious targets for the Dwarven armies, and those that did were killed and eaten by their so-called allies afterwards anyway.
The Battle of Blackvault was bloody and terrible. No doubt the Dwarves slew many times their number in Goblins, but it seemed as if all of the Deeps were emptied and the tide of Goblins was never-ending. Eventually they were simply overrun, and only a few hundred escaped the massacre. House Firestoke was essentially annihilated, and the few factions that remained splintered and formed their own Houses (whose names will be familiar to my young lords and ladies – Flamestrike and Dragonborn number amongst them) and House Greytusk beggared by the costly war. Gordov managed to escape death in Blackvault, but he was overthrown shortly afterwards and Highthrone was taken over by House Biteaxe, long-time rivals to Greytusk.
Such was the force assembled at Blackvault that there are few Houses in the Empire who did not lose at least one son in the disaster. The Goblins gained an important foothold in the Empire, and Blackvault is now one of their chief lairs. The route from there into the Core is a straight and well-travelled one, and now many Houses must expend money and effort to fortify the passages along that fell road, lest the Goblins attempt to press their advantage. Goblins, once a source of occasional infestation in the Fringes, have now become the single biggest threat faced by the Dwarven Empire, and some unscrupulous Houses have been known to use them as mercenaries, following the dubious example set by the Halfhands. It is to this that some have attributed the recent rise of the Warlords, the lowborn mercenary captains who now take noble titles by force of arms, using Goblin troops in their warbands. Some Dwarves have even experimented with enslaving the vile creatures, but they make for a poor source of labour, with their uncontrollable natures and propensity to lay their eggs wherever they go. To invite a Goblin into an Underkeep is to curse oneself to dealing their spoor forever more, as the old saying goes.
What lesson can a young lord learn from the Battle of Blackvault? There are no tactical lessons at all, for the actual fighting was desperate and ugly. Instead, never forget that Blackvault had no value either in resources or as an outpost. It became the site of the greatest catastrophe in recent history because of pride, ego and politics. Neither House Greytusk or Firestoke were forced to allow the situation to escalate as it did, and had they not attempted to exploit a resource that did not exist, they never would have incurred each other’s wrath. Both are guilty of profiting from the misery and debt of the Halfhands, and the Halfhands themselves guilty of putting pride before practicality, and then turning to Goblins for their salvation. All of the other Houses that sent Warriors to the battle were profiteering from a bleak and pointless war. Gold makes fools of even the wisest, as some say.
Blackvault is a dire stain on the honour of all Dwarves, and we would all be wise to remember the hard lessons learnt there.
By Thomas Heasman-Hunt