Slowly bringing a
dwarven sense of rigour and organisation to
cities across Caelereth, the Nerthers were
a society confined to larger underground settlements until relatively recently.
Gradually though, the value of their trade is beginning to be realised
aboveground, and the benefits can be smelt, or more significantly not smelt, by
anyone walking down the streets of, for example,
The Thergerim word "Verknerthaerar" (short Vernerthers) translates roughly as “hidden noses” referring to the breathing masks worn as part of the traditional guild uniform, with very good reason. The Verknerthaerar, or Nerthers, as they are most commonly known above ground, deal in the more unpleasant areas of communal living. Broadly put, they specialise in collecting, processing and finding uses for the refuse of the larger dwarven settlements, as well as a growing number of towns aboveground. They not only collect waste and food scraps from homes and businesses, but sort it and rot it down for fertiliser, or in the case of certain kinds of waste, sell it on to tanners or scrap merchants. They also place great weight on study, and educate their apprentices in many aspects of engineering, chymistry and natural history.
The Nerthers all wear a distinctive uniform of protective clothing, designed to
protect the wearer from contact with even the most pervasive substances. It
generally consists of overalls made from treated leather, oiled regularly to
keep it waterproof and buttoned into enormous leather gaiters, which are often
reinforced with kaimun skin or certain
gnomish lacquers to give extra resistance. The
uniform is completed with gauntlets reaching to the elbow and hoods that fit
close round the face. The wearer’s beard is often tucked away out of sight, or
even worn in a little net, as to risk it getting dirty would be unthinkable. The
gauntlets are treated with a special dye that, the Nerthers assert, is resistant
to even the most putrescent and cloying substances. The dye turns the leather
inky black, and so the symbol of a black hand has come to represent the
Though they do not always wear them, a Nerther can be easily recognised by their breathing masks, made of non-corrosive metals and layers of perfumed linen, to keep disease out and generally to make the more foul-smelling areas of their profession bearable. The masks cover the lower half of their faces entirely with a pouch of fabric held in a fine mesh basket. Some higher ranking Nerthers sculpt them into elaborate shapes such as beaks or fanged maws. When not wearing their masks, they’ll have the characteristic black gauntlets to make it clear that they are genuine Nerthers. As it is almost impossible to tell individuals apart in all this heavy garb, some customisation is common, and apprentices wear white fingerless covers to their gloves, both to signify that they have yet to really “get their hands dirty” and to instil the necessary habits of rigorous cleanliness expected of Nerthers, as it takes a great deal of washing to keep the white covers recognisably white. Masters of different departments often stitch designs into their overalls to make it clear which department they work in.
Territory. The Nerthers are found in most dwarven cities, where they have been an integral part of the smooth running of their communities. With the flourishing of dwarven trade with human cities, and many dwarves moving out of the mountains and expressing dismay over the state of hygiene in human cities, there has been a call for Nerthers to apply their skills above ground. The first Nerther guild to be established above ground was in Marcogg, founded by the eccentric guildmaster Ulbi NeenGerInn, and after the success they had in cleaning up the town, many others have been established throughout Sarvonia in towns such as Nyermerysys, where the idea of preventing future plagues was very well received. There are some less well-known guilds in dwarven cities outside of Sarvonia, such as the one in Tyr Faerath, which has long battled to keep the water supply clear of the poison that leaches from contrariwise salamander populations deep in the mountains. These guilds are harder for non-dwarves to see for themselves, but the records of Nerthers in human cities (where they are also known as Vernerthers, or Earthers) shows that there are guilds almost everywhere there are large populations of dwarves. A notable exception amongst human cities is Ximax, where the Boyzinna Fellowship Hall was already an established organization dealing with waste collection and recycling. There have been several attempts to set up a Nerther guildhouse in Ximax, but as of yet none, or at least no publicly recognised one, has survived the competition.
Organization. The Nerthers have little in the way of internal hierarchy, operating largely by a system of apprentices and masters. In every guild there will be one guildmaster who deals with administration and overall organization, and several orders within the guild, led by one or two masters; experienced artisans and experts in a specialised aspect of the varied work the Nerthers do. The masters are in charge of groups of apprentices, who learn the key skills as they go and do the majority of the heavy work. Apprentices serve at least a year in every order before deciding which they want to specialise in. It’s only then that they can begin studying in earnest for the examinations, which are set by masters of the order and vary depending on individual guilds.
The guilds of different settlements operate largely independently, and so the Nerthers of different towns can differ significantly in their approaches to their work. The guild of Marcogg, for example, has a council of seven guildmasters who go to great lengths to maintain good relations with the watch and the rulers of the city. On the other hand, the guild of Nyermerysys is reclusive and taciturn, with guild members forbidden from discussing guild business with non-members, and is reputed to be run by a single “muck queen” who is feared for her zealous hatred of dirt.
Trades. The varied nature of Nerther work means it is not considered a trade strictly for males or females, though certain orders are heavily weighted towards one or the other, depending on the skills required. There is even a small but growing minority of non-dwarven members of the above-ground guilds, and the Marcogg guild accepted its first elven member last year. The orders found in each guild vary depending on the particular nature of each town, but certain orders are always found:
Piss-takers: collection and processing of
Useful in tanning, urine is generally sold, though in some smaller settlements they process it themselves and use the revenue earned from skins to help fund the guild. In terrestrial cities such as Ximax this order is not needed, as establishments such as the Boyzinna Fellowship hall take care of this independently, as well as some other refuse collection. This however is not seen by many Nerther guildmasters as the way things should be, and though not publicly acknowledged, it is common knowledge that a silent war between the Boyzinna Hall and the Nerthers has been underway for some years, over who should have responsibility for keeping the city clean.
Muck-rakers: collection and processing of
What cannot be used for tanning is generally sent to be composted. This department is generally considered the worst to work in, and masters of it are regarded with awe by other Nerthers, and considered especially repellent by everyone else.
Rat-catchers: vermin control
Nerthers generally don’t try to exterminate all vermin from settlements, but instead try to keep the numbers from growing. In many towns they contract this out to individuals, by offering modest bounties for dead rats, vilerats, and other pests, especially those that spread disease. They do generally keep a small rat-catching order as well though, which focuses on “knowing the enemy”; keeping tabs on which pests are prevalent in the area and how many there are, as well as seeing to serious infestations. Many important discoveries about Santharian vermin can be attributed to the research of rat-catcher Nerthers, and their knowledge on skitch, skeetohs, rats, vilerats, mice, cheerk worms, flies, and other pests is unrivalled except by the most dedicated experts.
Rot-gardeners: compost management
This is often the largest order in a guild, and certainly takes up the most space. Rot-gardeners work in a series of large chambers or sheds, where successively well-rotted composts are carefully tended and mixed. According to demand, the rot-gardeners can produce compost tailored to all manners of farming, and selling it to farmers is the most reliable source of income to the guild.
Worm-wranglers: breeding of animals which help with decay,
and also of beneficial moulds and fungi to sell to healers and mages
Working closely with the rat-catchers and rot-gardeners, these Nerthers specialise in raising the creatures and plants which help them to rot down waste into useable compost. They are skilled in the care of mudworms, fleshworms, aglan slugs (which are also used for food), etherus worms, lín’már’jóh, as well as various moulds and fungi which help to decay all sorts of waste into useful compost.
Dredgers: responsible for keeping waterways free and clear
This is amongst the hardest work, and tends to attract wiry male dwarves who are good in small, damp spaces, and strong swimmers. The dredgers not only trawl silt and rubble from sewers and waterways, but tend to banks of yealm reed that help to purify waste water, and keep a close eye on the quality of the water to make sure no harmful substances are leaching into it.
Dross-dibblers: collection and processing of industrial
waste, especially dross from metalwork and mining
Those who work in this order have to be especially careful to keep up their protective equipment. They are in charge of dealing with the waste products of metal work, ore refineries and all sorts of other industries. They are mostly female, requiring a detailed knowledge of alchemy to safely dispose of the chymicals produced. Dross-dibblers often have close relations with communities of Daran gnomish alchemists among the human cities, as they can provide many useful reagents in return for knowledge of chymical cleaning receipts.
Crumb-rats: collection and processing of household waste,
This is a small department in most settlements, where there is little food waste that doesn’t get re-used somehow, but in larger cities they are vital for keeping the markets, warehouses and slaughterhouses clean and free of foul odours that can foster disease. Almost everything they collect can go straight to the rot-gardeners. In partnership with the Piss-takers and Muck-rakers, this order make up what is known as the twilight patrol, the regular procession of Nerthers going door to door to collect household waste onto their great reeking carts, usually in late evening or early morning.
Beliefs and Moral Codes. Since their founding by the charismatic
Brygd KorKneph, the Nerthers have held certain rules with almost religious
strictness, to the extent that many other dwarves regard them as rather odd,
intense sorts of people.
They are fiercely aware of their reputation among the public, especially above ground, and so perhaps the most rigorously enforced rule is that a Verknerthaerar must always appear neat and clean in public. This of course is rather difficult given the nature of their work, but through regimes of regular washing, protective clothing and lavish use of scent to mask what cannot be avoided, the average Verknerthaerar will be cleaner than most people you might meet on the street. As guildmaster NeenGerInn put it, “Cleanliness is next to Varcopas”, but nobody is quite sure what he means by this, and when asked his successors on the board of Marcogg guildmasters generally pointed out that he had been a Dross-dibbler for fifty years before becoming guildmaster, and the levels of metal in his blood were somewhat more than is considered healthy.
After the belief in cleanliness, all Nerthers hold in their hearts a hatred of waste. Rot is healthy, as it is just a means of transition between states, but to waste anything is the worst outcome and to be avoided at all costs. Disease is believed to stem from the bad smells given off by things allowed to go to waste, and finding a use for such things before they become a nuisance is the only way to prevent contagion. It is this attitude that has led to many useful discoveries, such as the use of fleshworms in clearing up putrefying meat, or the methods for extracting valuable metals and ores from the dross of smith work. A Nerther can make soap from a dead sheep and a half-rotted apple crate, with the makings of some excellent compost to spare.
This attitude of course goes hand in hand with the need for education. Nerthers are expected to be educated not only in the basic skills required to do their jobs, but also in every aspect connected to the work. They are encouraged to cultivate enquiring frames of mind, and expected to contribute something to the sum of the guild’s knowledge if they wish to gain any sort of standing therein. An education is also another weapon in their constant fight to be respected by polite society.
As with most aspects of the Nerthers, the particular beliefs held by individual guilds varies greatly. In Marcogg, guildmaster NeenGerInn, besides being mildly lead-poisoned, was a great believer in keeping in the good books of important people, and to this day the guild works closely with the big merchants and nobles to make sure the town looks spotless and runs smoothly. Their cooperation with the watch has also proved beneficial, as the Nerthers are often the ones who first come across bodies, and their expertise in the workings of decay mean they are well placed to tell how old a corpse is, and the precise circumstances of its becoming one. In Nyermerysys, on the other hand, the guild leader is a mysterious figure known locally as the Muck Queen, and runs her guild largely on the understanding that rats are the greatest scourge of civilisation and must be eradicated without mercy. Thus the guild is run a little like a cross between an army and a nest of spies, emphasising secrecy and dedication to purpose. It is believed that the Muck Queen may even have a hand in the persistent and rather underhanded attempts to oust the Boyzinna Fellowship Hall of Ximax from their role as waste collectors to the city, or if not her then quite possibly those who trained under her. By all accounts the rumoured use of espionage, blackmail and some quite literally repellent means of sabotage reek (as it were) of that most mysterious Guildmaster’s methods.
Relation to Santharian Society. Any traveller in Sarvonia can easily tell the difference between a city that employs Nerthers, and one that doesn’t, often without so much as opening their eyes. They may be rather zealous, and prone to haranguing passers-by who happen to drop rubbish in the street, but they do an excellent job of keeping things clean. They work with civic dignitaries and engineers to help design sewers and water supplies. They have at times been called in by healers during outbreaks of disease, to help quarantine areas, as nobody is so good at knowing where everything goes as the Nerthers. They are indispensable to farmers, especially dwarven mushroom growers, who rely on their specially mixed composts to produce regular crops. The Daran gnomish communities of many cities are on good terms with the Nerthers, with frequent exchange of alchymical knowledge and reagents. The knowledge they have contributed to researchers in many fields is limited only by the secrecy of the guilds. This secrecy has in some cases stoked the fires of urban legend. For example, the Nerthers in New-Santhala are known to the public as Unearthers, and are rumoured to be involved in all manner of intrigues, with connections to the Thieves Underground and several spy rings. Perhaps it is their masked, uniform appearance and the way they can be seen shuffling through the streets under loads of rubbish in the early hours of the morning, or perhaps it is just that people mistrust those who take what nobody else wants, but as of yet there has been no evidence to support these tales.
Despite all this vital work, the nature of the Nerther’s work is such that they come in for a measure of friendly ridicule. In cities above ground, where the guilds are relatively new, their arrival has spawned several new idioms. To be “gifted with black gloves” is to be laboured with all the dirtiest jobs. “Mask hours” are the times of day, usually late evening or early morning, when the masked faces of the Nerthers going about their collection rounds are a common sight on the streets, and even the name of Nerther is often used to describe something dirty, rotten or unpleasant. Of course, the Nerthers take grave exception to this, but the sad fact is that unless they can change the nature of all the sentient races, things are unlikely to change.
Origin/History. Nerther is not the oldest of dwarven occupations, having grown into a necessity only as dwarven settlements became big enough to require organization as far as the collection of refuse was concerned. Previously, it would be thrown down a deep crevasse, or into a pool of magma, and in some smaller settlements this is still how it’s done. But the need for a regular supply of fertiliser for farming, as well as the ever present danger of contamination of water supplies, meant that as settlements grew larger they required more careful management. The first guild of Nerthers was established in Kor Mithrid, the largest dwarven city in the Mithral Mountains, by Brygd KorKneph, a charismatic woman reputed to have an extraordinarily sensitive sense of smell. She set in place the various departments or orders of the guild, and saw to it that they enmeshed as closely as possible with the running of the city. She also outlined the strict rules and moral codes still held by the Nerthers, including the need to keep detailed records of everything that goes on, a fact which means we can trace the growth of the Nerthers from this one dwarven woman with a fierce hatred for all that was putrescent and wasteful, to the myriad and varied guilds now present across Sarvonia, and even beyond. With their spread into human cities, the thergerim name for them, the VerKnerThaerar, has been smoothed and colloquialised to Vernerthers, and finally the common terms used by most people, the Nerthers, or Earthers.