We journeyed as silently as possible around the edge of the cavern, passing many grottoes and passageways, until we came to a scattering of discarded weapons and rotten timbers. Clearing them aside, Ashirk revealed a small hole, just wide enough for a man to slip down. In an instant, he had disappeared.
Haltingly, I followed, my hands still awkwardly bound.
Down in the hollow I shivered in discomfort at the sight of a crude, ruinous shrine. A semi-circular sunburst of spears stood against the wall, in front of which various strappings of armour and helms lay. Blocky, straight-edged swords had been jammed in a smaller crude sunburst, with charms of tooth and bone hanging from them. Twisting roots and glowing fungi poked through but in the centre lay a tattered, red banner, atop which sat an awful, fang-toothed golden circle ringed in spikes. It scowled miserably, unlike the wicked grins of those others I had seen in books as an apprentice. On the banner was painted its likeness. A simple wooden altar of sorts lay in front of it, covered in goblin skulls, ogre teeth, and metal implements in the dark twisted dwarven style. I saw a handful of other colours amongst them. One small figurine, I felt sure, was an effigy in gromril.
The presence of gromril in this place suddenly called out to me. It seemed significant that this here was a greenskin shrine, deep in the underbelly of Hashut’s fortress, and yet of the offerings placed upon it, those most prominent were dwarven. Not just any dwarven item, either - something that looked to pre-date the coming of Hashut, whenever that had been.
Ashirk solemnly stepped forward, and I felt a gentle tingle of otherworldly energies across our bond. He was being touched by something, regarded by it.
With the sweep of a clawed hand, he callously knocked away a few bone totems from the leftmost end, before placing a skull there in the space he had cleared.
At the other end, he placed the skull of Turshu.
He bowed low, and muttered words, though I knew not what. I caught a few clearly that must have been names. Throg, he said. Grunmunter. Mork. Gork. And something about the dawi.
It was almost impossible to make out, but the ghostly glow of luminescent mushrooms faded green for a heartbeat, then he rose and turned away. He did not look at me as he scrambled back up the thin passage. I did my best to follow.
I wanted to raise the subject as best I could, but the taboo against questions weighed on me heavily. I had dared a beating prying into the matter of his melancholy only a few minutes prior. And, I felt cautiously, in his own way - that moment I had just witnesses was an act of worship and honour, however primitive. There were perhaps some things I ought not pry about.
We paused in the cavern mouth and watched the flickering shadows of the knife-fight on the cavern wall. He sighed, a rattling, weary sound.
“Once, we were - more than this. We were… stronger.”
I said nothing. As far as I could remember, he had never simply spoken to me unbidden before. Only orders, warnings, transactions.
“Shrine. War-banner. Old. Throg the mighty. Throg, despoiler of the dark lands. Great king of my people. Grunmunter - champion. By his side. Two brothers. Mork. Gork. Together, strong.”
I had a glimpse of the bones in the haunted forge, a glimpse of the wrestling greenskins in their empty desert, a glimpse of the two players in the Royal Game. A shiver once more.
“Throg conquered. Before chains. Before… this,” he said, gesturing expansively to the cave. “Conqueror of western Dark Lands. First, killed orcs. Killed goblins. Made them serve. Hobgoblin king. Not in east, petty khans of the great nothing. West. King of the mountains. Not frozen hovels of Mourn - the Dwarf mountains - your mountains. Where we travelled.”
I had another hazy vision. A stop he had made as we journeyed eastward. Fresh, cool mountain springwater. A few snatches of bright sunlight. A secluded gully beside a mountain pass. I was out of the wagon for only one or two minutes, but I knew even then that he was somehow affected. It must have been a similar spiritual observance.
“Throg entered the Karaz Ankor. Before the coming of the Prophets. Before the great bull. Throg fought dwarfs. Throg won,” he spat bitterly, voice barely more than a murmur. “Grunmunter won. Murdered dwarf king after dwarf king. Once - Throg entered Karak from beneath, in the kitchens. A great slaughter. Murdered Boran Fireheart as he feasted and sang. Knives in dwarf throats. Treasures from dwarf vaults. Hobgoblin king on dwarf throne.”
I felt images flowing back and forth between our minds. Of armoured hobgoblins storming dwarf-halls, unleashing torrents of destruction to shatter great walls, marching in great columns through the mountain passes. But there was a great sadness to this glory. Every image was a glimpse of a ghost long passed, like so much from the world before; as they faded into nothing, I could see he had little else to say. The scene before us spoke for itself. Gathered in a fetid cave, slave-soldiers to a dwarf sorceror, murdering one another for sport. The Dark Lands themselves utterly subjugated.
The banner, it seemed, was truly Throg’s. Or - one of those held aloft by his hosts. I saw it fluttering strong in the hands of a hunched brute, awaiting the order to advance. Throg must have had a mighty army indeed. But his sigil was a hidden thing of shame and secrets now. Did Ashirk’s fellows here even know the tale he told? If they did… what difference could it even make?
“What happened to Throg?”
I could not help the question. I had judged it right. There was no explosion of anger in him. He didn’t even turn to me, just hung his head lower, and softly shook it.
“None knows. Attack on Ravenshold. Blood beyond measure. Some say Dwarf cannon. Some say Grunmunter’s blade. Whatever - it fell apart soon after. Dwarfs never recovered, but… hobgoblins never truly great again. And then…”
He gestured expansively, to all of this darkness. And then the Bull came, I thought to myself. Best not speak the obvious.
A few more moments of silence passed, when the White Fox began to march slowly over to us from a dark corner. The warriors were fully engrossed in their pit-fights. Standing pitiless before the downcast Ashirk, he nodded toward the darkness of the wolf pens, turned on his heel, and marched away.