Chapter 1: Stone Halls of the Dwarves Edit
Some years ago, at a time when Orzammar was uncharacteristically open to visitors from the surface, I traveled to the ancient thaig deep beneath the Frostback Mountains to learn more about the dwarven way of life. Like many people of the surface I had met surface dwarves before, but had no idea how truly different they lived from their cousins in the "homeland". Surface dwarves are considered outcasts from Orzammar despite their necessity to farming and trade, and by and large they have eschewed the culture, the politics, the honor, and the brutality of the world they left behind.
Hidden from the sight of the Maker, the "dwarva" (as the dwarves refer to themselves, our own word no doubt deriving from theirs) revere the Stone – the very substance that gives them shelter and inspires their creativity and strength. When a dwarf dies an honorable death, he is said to have "gone to the Stone." They do not worship it as a god, however, as I quickly found out upon asking. With stares of incredulity they mocked such notions. The fact that they came from the Stone and thus return to it is, as they see it, a matter of practicality.
Most people on the surface think of dwarves and imagine greedy merchants or dour craftsmen, and certainly those are the faces most often seen by those of us who live under the Maker's eye. But a journey to the thaig reveals a culture of nobility and of poverty, of proud warriors and of necessary brutality. Much as the heat of the forge strengthens the blade, the dwarves have been hardened by the constant threat of the darkspawn onslaught, forcing their warriors to excel or die, their craftsmen to create masterpieces of durability and style, and their nobles to engage in a deadly political game of intrigue that shames the goings on in the simpler courts of Ferelden. Everything done in Orzammar is done to fortify the remaining domains of the kingdom (of which there are, regrettably, few) against the relentless onslaught of the darkspawn.
A more fascinating culture I have never visited, and my time there was bittersweet. For while I was blessed to be among a people so dedicated and stout-hearted, I could not shake the feeling that I was witnessing the last days of a proud people that, despite their best efforts, were destined to be overrun by evil.
Chapter 2: The Paragons Edit
As I studied among the dwarves, I became aware that their social system was as rigid as the stone that surrounded them. From the lowest servant to the king of Orzammar, each dwarf has a caste, a rigid social standing, which dictates what he may do and how he may do it. What fascinated me then was that the dwarves, stubborn and proud as they may be, have built in a way for even the lowliest dwarf to bypass the caste system and reach prominence. Any dwarf who has made an achievement of significance can be named Paragon, elevating that dwarf above all others.
To become a Paragon is to be recognized as, essentially, a living ancestor. Your words are considered ineffable, and the dwarves liken you unto a god. Your family, those you choose to ascend with you, become the founders of a new line of nobility. Indeed, every existing noble house among the dwarves traces its line back to a founding Paragon. It is a rare thing, however. In my visit, I learned that only one Paragon has been elected in generations: The smith Branka, exalted for her discovery of smokeless coal.
I met the Paragon Branka only once during my stay, and I consider it an odd occasion indeed. Surrounded by those of her house, this ill-tempered woman was draped in the finest clothing and jewelry, and was obviously revered even above the highest nobles--perhaps above even the king--yet she seemed to enjoy none of it. The burden of being a living legend is great, it appears.
Statues of the Paragons are found throughout Orzammar, though nowhere so prominently than in the Hall of Heroes through which one passes on entering from the surface. It is a breathtaking sight to behold, great works of stone all seeming to hold up the ceiling above. It is meant to impress upon visitors to Orzammar of all who have gone before, I think. It is also meant to remind dwarves going to the surface--and thus abandoning their brethren forever--of all they are leaving behind.
Chapter 3: The Endless War Edit
I spoke with a dwarf of the Warrior caste who told me tales of sacrifice and honor and glory found in the Deep Roads beyond Orzammar and a realization struck. Whereas we on the surface mark four darkspawn Blights, four distinct periods during which the darkspawn have assaulted us only to be driven back by the Grey Wardens, the dwarves have experienced precisely one: the original one, stretching back to the rise of the first Archdemon, unbroken by peace or respite.
The dwarves are a dwindling race, their exiled surface-kin threatening to match their numbers, if the projections of their scholars are correct. They are under a state of constant war, and judging from my warrior-caste friend, this serves as a backdrop for all that they do. Dwarves have few children, and so priceless sons and daughters are sent into battle day after day against the darkspawn, but it is a price that is paid both at the behest of their noble lords and out of a desire for a glorious death.
My warrior friend introduced me to the strange custom known as "the Provings." Initially I thought these combat-arena matches to be barbaric on the levels of the great gladiatorial battles of ancient Tevinter, which were said to emulate the dwarven tradition. But my friend noted the true importance of the fights: the dwarves believe that a fighter who wins a Proving has the approval of the Paragons and so they use Provings to settle debates and honor challenges that could not be settled otherwise. This often falls to Warrior-caste champions, and some Proving matches are fought to the death, but even in a dwindling society such as Orzammar, that one death is thought preferable to the widespread bloodshed of a conflict between noble houses. In recent years, the Provings have also been used for entertainment matches and events to honor special guests, and each year the best fighters in Orzammar meet for the Trials of Blood, a great tournament that crowns the kingdom's best and most popular fighter.
Being a warrior in Orzammar is, as expected, a bloody, deadly affair, but the warriors accept their role with stoic pride, knowing that they die to save their brethren from death. They have the most to lose in the face of the constant darkspawn threat, but they risk it with stout hearts and unmatched skill. Theirs are lives of battle, meant to end the same way.
Chapter 4: Dust in the Wind Edit
The caste system in Orzammar includes many groups of privilege--the nobility and the warriors above all others, but to a lesser degree the merchants and the smiths and the miners. Tradition establishes a clear hierarchy. But as in any culture with an upper class, there is also a clear underclass. These unfortunates, the so-called "casteless," are believed to be descendants of criminals and other undesirables. They have been looked down upon since Orzammar's foundation. They have taken up residence in a place called "Dust Town," a crumbling ruin on the fringe of Orzammar's common areas.
Orzammar society considers these casteless lower than even the Servant Caste (indeed, the casteless are not allowed to become servants, as it is too honorable a position). They are seen as little better than animals, their faces branded at birth to mark them as the bastard children of the kingdom. Their home district, little more than a slum, is a haven for crime, organized and otherwise. Orzammar's guards seemingly cannot be bothered to patrol its streets. The best that most casteless dwarves can hope for is a life at the whim of a local crime lord, ended abruptly by violence or an overabundance of toxic lichen ale.
Even so, there is some hope for the casteless, a dangling rope that offers a way up into greater Orzammar society. Since a dwarf's caste is determined by the parent of the same sex, the male child of a nobleman is part of that noble's house and caste. Strangely, it is acceptable for casteless women to train in the arts of courtly romance to woo nobles and warriors; they are known as "noble hunters." Any male born from such a union is considered a joyous event, considering the low rate of dwarven fertility. The mother and entire family are then taken in by the father's house, although they retain their caste.
The dwarves we know on the surface are also considered casteless once they leave Orzammar, although this is only relevant to those who return--if they are allowed to return at all. Dwarves who leave for the surface (the "sun-touched," as they're often called behind their backs) lose their connection to the Stone and the favor of the ancestors, and thus are worthy of little more than pity, for upon dying they are said to be lost to the Stone forever. Put that way, it seems a sad existence indeed.
The Legion of Steel Edit
Paragon Caridin vanished in the eleventh year of the reign of King Valtor, and with the Paragon the entire process for golem manufacture was lost. Expeditions were sent into the Deep Roads to track him, but the darkspawn drove them all back.
Finally, in the second year of the reign of Queen Getha, one hundred and twenty six golems, the entire Legion of Steel, were sent to recover the Paragon.
The Shaper of Golems refused to support any further attempts to find Caridin, and the Paragon was officially declared dead.
The Shaperate never recovered from the loss of an entire legion of golems, and never again allowed an all-golem regiment into the Deep Roads.
Legion of the Dead Edit
"Yes, Stone's greetings friendThe Legion accepts all.
You will fight ceaselessly in
The Legion of the Dead."
--Motto of the Legion of the Dead.
So I was told by one of the Legionnaires himself, a dwarf who waited quietly at the entrance to the Deep Roads for the rest of his unit to assemble. They gathered slowly, each equipped with heavy armor and fine weapons, each painted with grim tattoos applied at their funerals the night previous.
For that is the nature of the Legion. They are all dead. Any dwarf may join the Legion, so long as he is willing to give up everything he has. The funeral rites are somber: a final goodbye is said to family and loved ones, any material goods are dispersed to heirs and last words are said, and then it is done. The new Legionnaire marches out into the Deep Roads, never to return. The Legion fights against the darkspawn to the last, striking one final blow against the monsters that have claimed so much of their homeland.
Many join the Legion to clear the slate. Criminals join to avoid punishment. The dishonored join so that their houses and families need not suffer on their behalf. The bankrupted join so their debts might be forgiven. A very few join for a last chance at glory, but the Legion takes them too.
This group hopes to reach the fabled fortress of Bownammar, once the Legion's home, associated with the greatest of their Paragons. Bownammar is a holy place, its loss the last great blow against the dwarven kingdoms, and its recapture would be a glorious signal to all of Orzammar. But capture it or no, all of these warriors will die in the Deep Roads. It is a sobering thought, and I now know why the dwarves say the Legion's charge is the battlefield's most frightening sight. They have nothing left to lose.
Paragons Known and Lesser Known Edit
The criteria the dwarves use to name a Paragon never cease to fascinate me. While a relatively rare distinction, it seems almost any achievement of significance warrants the title. Some Paragons are the victors of great battles. Others write books or songs. The only common thread is an act that betters or sustains the dwarven way of life in some notable fashion.
Aeducan is among the oldest and perhaps most famous Paragons. Not to be confused with his descendent, King Endrin Aeducan, this prior Aeducan was a humble member of the Warrior Caste whose brave leadership during the First Blight saved Orzammar. When other thaigs were lost, Aeducan claimed defeated—but his service made him a hero. History now remembers Aeducan as the quintessential Paragon.
Other Paragons have been more controversial. Caridin, a master smith, created the powerful golems who helped the dwarves immeasurably in their battle with the darkspawn. Caridin then disappeared amid much speculation, taking the secret of his craft with him.
There is also Astyth the Grey, a Paragon of the Warrior Caste. She was famous for her skills in unarmed combat and cut out her own tongue to focus on the art without distraction. An order of female dwarven warriors known as the Silent Sisters persists; they remove their tongues in her honor.
But these are the most well known of the dwarven Paragons. Others have earned the rank over the ages for far less noble pursuits. I've found references to Paragons who made their names writing particularly good rhymes or brewing stronger ales.
Then there's the Paragon named Varen, who separated from his legion and lost his way in the Deep Roads. Varen nearly starved to death before breaking down and eating a nug, believing at the time as appetizing to dwarves as a rat. Devouring the creature not only saved his life but opened his palate to a new world of flavor. When they finally found him, Varen was fatter than ever and raving about the miraculous subtleties of nug flesh. The creatures are now considered a dwarven delicacy.