Elminster's Guide to the Realms

The Talntower

by Ed Greenwood, illustrated by David Day, (Dragon #297)

One is seldom far from drinkable water in the Sword Coast North - though that water might often be frozen. Phaeraeze, an ancient elven dialect of the Sword Coast lands, gave the lands north of the River Delimbiyr a name that translates as "land of water, rock, and tree." There are, however, places in the North where water is scarce or seeking it (in goblin-haunted rock clefts or deep woods) might prove perilous.

In several such locales, ancient but still-operating dwarven works aid travelers. At Axe Rock (a prominent, uninhabited crag that serves as a wayfarer's landmark on the north side of the Evermoor Way, two days' travel west of Everlund), a spring is guided down from high rocks along smooth, carved channels to fill a roadside pond. In scores of places across the North, small basins have been hollowed out of roadside boulders to hold rainwater or spring melt water for easy use of passersby.

At least one far grander dwarven water-work remains: the Talntower, a trail-side water storage tower that stands on the west side of a back-country trail two days north of Beliard.

How the Talntower gained its name or precisely which dwarves built it is lore now lost to passing time (one can hear many competing tales about the origins of the tower, but nothing definite). Some say "Taln" was a dwarf or even a dwarven king. Some claim he was an infamous stone giant slain by dwarves at the site; others say he was a gargantuan creature turned to stone to form some of the cliffs. Other tales say "Taln" is simply a remnant of the name of a dwarf clan or kingdom.

What Meets The Eye

The Talntower stands among vine-cloaked, scrub-covered rocks. More substantial and rugged hills rise behind it to the west. It looks like what it is: a jutting prow of natural stone that forms a cliff some 70 feet high - a prow that's been roofed over with a huge slab of rock.

This roof slab slopes down enough to the east to shed water, and it overlies a huge bowl the dwarves scooped out of the solid stone promontory. This bowl is an oval, perhaps 70 feet across at its widest extent and half that high. The bottom of the bowl is usually filled with 8 to io feet of water. The upper reaches of its sides are cracked in several places, some of these fissures being large enough for humans to climb through. Their presence means the bowl can't fill much more than 12 feet deep without spilling water out through some of the fissures; stains on the cliff's sides suggest that this has occurred more than once in the past.

Cold, drinkable spring water wells up through fissures in the bottom of the dwarf-sculpted bowl. It's obvious the builders dug down into the cliff around an existing spring to make a basin and then somehow transported a huge slab of hard local rock into place to roof their basin.

Except in the places where the natural fissures pierce them, the eastern arc of the bowl's walls are 8 to 12 feet thick. To its north, south, and west, the solid stone continues for at least a quarter of a mile. At one point in this arc, as close to the trail as the Talntower gets, the dwarves hollowed out two drains or cylindrical tunnels within the thickness of the walls. These drains run from inlets 4 to 6 feet up the basin walls and descend to a ground-level chamber inside the base of the cliff.

This small cave is cool enough to preserve food in summer and icy in winter, although its shelter is preferable to braving the howling snows of a winter blizzard.

Most of the cave's floor is taken up by a pool into which the water seeps before running away through another natural fissure in the ground. The pool is perhaps 16 feet long, 3 to 4 feet wide, and 4 feet deep. It usually holds a foot or more of water. Except in the coldest months of winter, when everything is frozen solid, spring water seeps continuously up through the fissures, down the drains, and into this pool.

This seepage can be increased to a torrent by moving one or both "plug stones" to open the drains. These plug stones are two huge slabs of stone, each roughly the size of a human's burial casket and about a foot thick. Fashioned with projecting handles, they are laid on smooth beds with walkways on either side for the use of persons seeking to move the stones.

The beds and walkways are reached by climbing broad stone steps cut into the walls of the cave (one up each wall, about 20 feet above the pool). In freezing conditions, the plugs are usually immobile, but at other times they can be readily moved. Although very heavy, they can be pulled forth by roughly the combined strength of three strong men and pushed back into place by four such men. So good were the dwarven stonecutters that the plugs can almost entirely shut off the water flow.

Even if the plug stones are left out, the bowl retains at least 4 feet of water, and the natural flow from the Underdark brings water down the open drains at about the rate of a small mountain spring.

No one guards or inhabits the Talntower, though travelers are warned that goblins, orcs, and sometimes more fearsome predatory monsters often lurk in the vicinity, watching for prey. Useful to generations of travelers, the water tower would remain no more than a little-known curiosity if it wasn't haunted.

The Rasping Spirit

For at least the last 120 years, the cave in the base of the ancient dwarven water tower has been haunted by a rasping voice that many folk consult as an oracle.

If offerings are left on the floor of the cave or on two flat seating areas that bulge out from the wall of the pool - but not in the pool itself - the Rasping Spirit often speaks, in a hissing whisper that echoes around the cave, answering questions put to it. When offerings are given but no queries are uttered, it almost always speaks on topics of its own choosing rather than remaining silent.

The Spirit Speaks

Here are some recently recorded oracular utterances. No comments or attempts at explanation or to identify recipients are provided here. It should be noted that many who consult the oracle keep its replies (and even their visits) secret, so these sayings might by no means be representative. For the same reasons, it's not known if the Rasping Spirit has ever said the same thing to different petitioners. Those who make additional offerings and ask for explanations of earlier utterances always receive very cryptic explanations.

Elminster's Notes:

Many folk of the North (even Harpers and other worldly folk who should know better) trust in the Rasping Spirit of the Taintower. Some believe it's a wizard bound beyond death, or the voice of one god or other, and others care not what's behind it, nor want to know - but seek out and heed its utterances.

It falls to me here to spoil their faith in the guiding oracle: It's no wise or divine guide at all, but a fraud perpetrated by a resident gnome family who take care to keep themselves hidden.

For generations the hardy Elhaembroe have dwelt in extensive chambers cut by the dwarves inside the rocky promontory that contains the water-tower. The bulk of these chambers lie a good quarter-mile westward of the cave and the water-bowl above it, but a long passage (that rises and falls several times to guard against being flooded if the bowl should shatter or the spring water be redirected) joins them to a spy chamber low in the walls of the cave. Anyone sitting in the spy chamber can see and hear beings in the cave through a few tiny spy holes, and they can speak through a curving tunnel cut through the rock to join with these spy holes in a way that magnifies speech. Various elder Elhaembroe steal into this chamber when the cave has visitors, and if they see offerings being left, will "play oracle" for a time.

Offerings, of course, become the property of the gnomes after the visitors depart. The rugged hills west of the Talntower sport several well-concealed entrances to the Elhaembroe complex. The doors closing these entrances are large roll-stones set in carved grooves, and the thresholds within are guarded by snares and traps designed to prevent snakes, skunks, and other small wild creatures from readily roaming the gnomes' caverns. Their home consists of at least six large granary chambers, ten isolated prison caverns walled off from the rest of the complex by stout iron bars, a kitchen with an entrance out into a small hole in the rocks where an outdoor stone oven can handle cooking and the smoking of meats, and dozens of small sleeping-chambers and nooks with high, hidden storage or ambush ledges.

When not pretending to be the Rasping Spirit, Elhaembroe gnomes hunt and forage in the nearby countryside, snaring beasts via extensive traplines and whittling scrounged wood into trade goods and novelties for sale in Beliard. They have been raised to be quiet and covert at all times, frequently looking around to see if they are observed. So far as I know, none of them have become adventurers or achieved any prominence in skills beyond archery, knowledge of nature, and whittling. They take care not to sell or barter recognizable offerings in Beliard, storing them in their extensive caves or trading them to certain gnome peddlers for sale in Waterdeep.

While none of the Elhaembroe are guilty of copying and modifying prophecies and predictions set forth by other sources, they have, down the years, become adept at crafting utterances that sound both perceptive and plausible. So far as I'm aware, none of them feels divine inspiration or influence when devising what the Rasping Spirit says.

Elminster's Guide to the Realms