“You were there when it started?” Vinmar asked.
“Aye. The first day.” Durgen answered grimly.
“What was it like?”
The old dwarf shook his head. “I don’t like tellin’ of it. Some things are best forgotten.”
“Please,” the young man pleaded. “I grew up here within the walls of Qeynos. It’s not as if the city has gone untouched, but I’ve never seen the worst of it. I met a Teir’Dal once who claimed she was in Freeport when it began and saw an entire section of the city start to–”
“Enough!” the dwarf growled as he slammed his tankard on the bar. “You babble as if this was all some children’s story told for your amusement. I’ve lost friends in the Rendin’. I’ve lost brothers. You hid in your mama’s skirt and soiled your diaper. You know nothin’ of it.”
Vinmar was quiet for a moment. “I lost my father. He was first mate aboard a ship that went out to look for castaways when the seas started to go wild. My mother pleaded with him not to go, but he insisted it was his duty. He never came back.”
Durgen stared at the young man for a time, then spoke softly. “How old were you when your dad went missin’?”
“I wasn’t born yet,” he answered. “My mother found out she was carrying me a week after his ship was lost. Up until the day I was born, she would walk to the harbor every night at sunset. She’d stand there and watch for that ship to come sailing back. It never did.”
Durgen took a long drink of ale. “I lived in the Karanas for many years. Made a livin’ there, along with my three brothers.”
“You were a farmer?”
The dwarf chuckled. “No, boy. I was a thief!”
“Oh,” Vinmar replied nervously.
“No need to watch your coin purse. I gave up that life a long time ago. But back in the day, my brothers and I were the most feared bandits in the plains. Brell’s Brigands, we called ourselves. Nothin’ made us gladder than to see some rich merchant caravan makin’ its way across the countryside, for we knew it was ours for the takin’.”
“So you stole from the rich and gave to the poor?”
“Ha!” Durgen scoffed loudly. “We stole from the rich and gave to ourselves! Well, and to the card tables in Highkeep, that is. We had a taste for gamblin’ and for fine the ladies up in that old castle. We lost our gold as quickly as we stole it, but it was a good life.”
“So what was it like when it began?”
The old dwarf lost his grin and stroked his gnarled beard. “We were headin’ eastward. We’d just robbed some rich high elves and were feelin’ pretty pleased with ourselves. There was a village near the eastern edge of the plains, just some farmers and ranchers. We never troubled them, for stealin’ from honest folks wasn’t our way. We stopped to water our horses, and that’s when we noticed it.”
“Noticed what?” Vinmar asked.
“The silence. Every bird and every critter all of a sudden got quiet. The wind seemed perfectly still. It was eerie, I tell ya. My brothers and I looked at each other, wonderin’ what in blazes was going on. Then, after a few moments, the animals went wild. The birds started crowin’, the horses were buckin’ and fussin’. Seconds later the ground shook like I’d never felt before.”
Durgen paused and drank again. Even beneath his overgrown eyebrows, Vinmar could see the sad, faraway look in the dwarf’s eyes.
“My brothers and I were knocked clear off our feet–and to do that to a band of rowdy dwarves, you know it was a powerful force indeed. Most every buildin’ in that village started breakin’ apart, and the people ran out in a panic. Cracks started formin’ in the ground, then those cracks ripped wide open. Many of the poor animals got dragged down as the earth beneath them gave way.”
“Poor creatures,” Vinmar noted.
“We could barely stand up. The ground was tearin’ itself apart all around us. I pictured the stories I’d heard about the Battle of Defiance, and suddenly I felt like one of those wretched orcs being punished by Brell. I didn’t know if the gods were cursin’ us, but it sure felt like it that day.”
“What did you do?”
“We tried to run. I was the slowest of my brothers, so they were out in front. Bergen and Bormen were no more than fifteen paces ahead of me when the ground opened up under them. They tumbled downward, and in the blink of an eye they were gone.”
Vinmar silently looked away as the dwarf paused to collect himself. Durgen was quiet for a long while.
“Curnen and I couldn’t do a thing to save them. We sat there in shock, knowin’ we were probably next. I looked around and couldn’t believe how everything was bein’ ripped apart like that. A family of halflings was runnin’ toward us, and I saw their little girl trip as a crack opened up beneath her. She started slippin’ away, screaming out for her mama.”
“Gods!” Vinmar exclaimed. “Did her parents help her?”
“They each had a child in their arms already. They couldn’t do anythin’ without puttin’ another child at risk. Without even thinkin’ I grabbed Curnen’s arm and charged toward that little girl. I yelled at my brother to hang onto my ankles so I could scoot forward and grab her. I got hold of her little hands and pulled her up, then we ran westward with that family to find safer ground.”
“What became of the village?” Vinmar asked.
“I turned around to look. There was no trace; not one house or buildin’ stood. The earth had ripped open and made a small canyon where that family’s house had been. Over the days we spent travelin’ toward Qeynos, we saw even more destruction. Bridges had collapsed, roads were torn up, and many lives were lost. That was only the start of it. Soon it happened again, then again, and again, with more devastation comin’ at a quicker pace. The seas went wild and became impassable. The wind brought fires one day and storms the next. Priests prayed for the elemental gods to come back and restore balance, but there was no answer. They keep on prayin’, and nothin’ comes of it. Norrath is still tearin’ itself apart.”
“You were a hero, saving the little girl like that.”
“Bah, some hero,” Durgen scoffed. “I couldn’t save my own brothers. Nothin’ we did mattered.”
“That’s not true,” a small voice responded. Vinmar and the dwarf turned to see the barmaid, a pretty halfling woman standing nearby. “What you did mattered a lot to my family, and especially to me. I was the little girl you rescued that day, and I’ve always wanted to meet the brave dwarf who risked his life to save mine.”
The young man smiled. “See, you are a hero!” he said to Durgen.
“No,” the dwarf replied. “I’m just a retired thief who spends too much time in bars. Look for heroes elsewhere, boy.”
“Nonsense,” the halfling declared. “Heroes arise when they’re needed. Whatever you did before, that day you proved yourself. And I’ll always be grateful.” She climbed up onto the barstool next to Durgen and leaned close to him, kissing the dwarf’s nose. Beneath his hairy features, he almost seemed to blush.
“A round of drinks then,” Vinmar told the barkeep. “A toast to Durgen!”
“A toast to my brothers,” the dwarf added.
“To all of those who have been lost,” said the halfling.
The three of them nodded and drank in silence, grateful for the things that still endured.