When time allows, I like to answer interesting questions submitted by my Patreon backers. This week, I’m going to answer a few questions about the Dragonmarked Houses. Today’s question comes from Alex. According to the 3.5 Dragonmarked sourcebook, the Mark of Sentinel was the first dragonmark to appear among the humans of Khorvaire. The Deneith warlords ruled the region around Karrlakton for around four centuries; it then fell into two centuries of warfare, which came to an end when Karrn the Conqueror united the region and established the nation of Karrnath. Alex asks:
Given that they were in power for 400 years, should we assume that some of Karrnath’s culture is actually the culture of the Deneith bloodline?
While the subject is Deneith, this is a question that applies to all of the houses. Where did the houses come from? To what degree do their cultures reflect those of the nations in which they first appeared, or vice versa? A critical factor is that the houses didn’t begin as HOUSES. The houses as they exist today evolved over time. Consider this passage from the 3.5 sourcebook Dragonmarked.
It is often assumed that each house has a single founder: that some ancient Master Cannith was the first person to develop the Mark of Making, with House Cannith born of his children. The truth is not so simple. Each dragonmark first appeared within multiple families, although the marks were bound to specific races and regions. The Mark of Sentinel appeared among the people of Khorvaire’s northern coast, while the Mark of Making was found in the region that would eventually become Cyre. It took generations for these first dragonmarked to realize the significance and power of their marks.
The Lyrriman gnomes of House Sivis claim that their forebears were the first to identify and unify the dragonmarked families, while members of the Vown family of House Cannith make similar claims. Seven dragonmarks were known by the time Karrn the Conqueror sought to bring all Khorvaire under his rule, though the families that bore them were not yet unified. The Sivis League, the Tinkers Guild of Cannith, and the Phiarlans of Aerenal had all laid the groundwork for their future houses, but the Sentinel families of the north were still divided. Some fought alongside Karrn, while others were among his strongest foes.
So: the Mark of Sentinel didn’t appear on House Deneith, because House Deneith didn’t exist at the time. Each mark appeared on multiple families. These families were united by their species and by their general region, and also by their aptitudes. The Aashta and Torrn clans of the Shadow Marches were already renowned hunters before they developed the Mark of Finding . On Aerenal, the Elorrenthi and Thuranni had served as phiarlans (essentially, traveling bards) for tens of thousands of years before appearance of the Mark of Shadows. In a few cases—scribing, shadows—the marked families already had close ties. But more often than not, the families had no ties; and even if they shared a broad occupation, they might approach it in different ways. Looking at the Mark of Making, the Vown family were wealthy and respected artisans even before they developed the dragonmark. But the Jurans were a rootless family of itinerant tinkers with little wealth or influence. The Mark of Making was a boon to the traveling Jurans, allowing them to mend broken things with a touch; but they were still on a very different path from the wealthy Vowns.
Over the course of generations, early dragonmarked barons were able to confirm that the child of two parents who bore the same dragonmark was more likely to develop that mark, and this drew the families together. Other dragonmarked opportunists saw the benefit of uniting those that carried the marks—of consolidating this power behind a single house. But this idea wasn’t universally or immediately accepted. In the Shadow Marches, the Torrn and Aashta clans were bitter rivals, in part due to their respective ties to the Gatekeepers and the Cults of the Dragon Below. Other families simply didn’t recognize the value of unity; it took the efforts of the young House Sivis and House Cannith to convince the bearers of the other marks to follow their example and to join together. Many of the things now seen as standard practices of the houses are traditions developed by House Sivis and incorporated into the foundation of the Twelve.
So now, let’s come back to the original question and take a look at the young House Deneith. We’ve never mentioned any of its families by name. Dragonmarked contains a seeming internal contradiction in canon. The introduction clearly talks about the Sentinel families and notes that these families were deadly rivals. On the other hand, the Deneith chapter says the following:
House Deneith was founded centuries ago from a family of warlords… The skill of Deneith warlords in battle was already well known, and when the mark appeared in their bloodline, it only added to their fearsome reputation. For over four hundred years, they ruled over the area near modern-day Karrlakton. Then war and a cycle of famine weakened the Deneith leadership and allowed rival factions to challenge it… Legends tell of how the leaders of House Deneith pledged themselves to Karrn even before he began his quest for power, though their reasons for doing so have been lost to time.
I didn’t write this section, so I can’t speak to the intention behind it. But there’s a very simple way to reconcile the apparent contradiction. The introduction says that there were multiple Sentinel families, and that some fought alongside Karrn while others fought against him. The Deneith chapter specifically talks about Deneith warlords and how they allied with Karrn. The logical answer is that DENEITH is the name of ONE of the Sentinel families—the family that was established in the region of Karrlakton. But there were other Sentinel families near what is now Korth, Vedakyr, Vulyar. And note that the chapter text above doesn’t claim that these Deneith ruled what is now KARRNATH; they only ruled the region around KARRLAKTON. So they were never more than local warlords. Following “war and a cycle of famine” they lost that concrete position and ultimately allied with Karrn. How I’M going to interpret that is that for a time they were warlords, but after their downfall they became mercenaries. Because even though they allied with Karrn and he was victorious, they didn’t become Karrnathi warlords.
So how I see it is this. Deneith was a powerful family with a strong martial tradition that ruled the region around Karrlakton. However, they were better soldiers than rulers. They weren’t great at managing peasants or handling famines, and they were forced to abandon Karrlakton following famine and rebellion. However, the core of the family remained intact as a remarkable mercenary company, their skills enhanced by the Mark of Sentinel. They were rivals with a number of other Sentinel families; every warlord wanted their own “Sentinel Guard.” In allying with Karrn, Deneith wasn’t seeking land; they sought dominance over the other Sentinel families that served Karrn’s enemies. And as Karrn united the warlords under his rule, the Sentinel families were forced to submit and serve with the Deneith Blademark—forming the foundation of the house as it exists to day. Integration with the Twelve restored a little more sense of balance between the families of the house, but it nonetheless bears the name of Karrn’s victorious allies.
Consider also the symbol of the house: the three-headed chimera. To me it makes sense that this represents the fact that there are three major families within the house, each of which identifies with one of the beasts. Deneith is the Dragon, the heart of the house, and has its roots in Karrlakton. The other two heads were its ancestral rivals; I’ll say that the Lion was based in what is now Rekkenmark, while the Ram was based in Vedykar—so the house seal is also a sort of marp of the house roots on the map, with the lion in the west, the dragon in the center, and the Ram in the east. Having said that, there are certainly lesser families within the house—just as Tharashk has three major families (Torrn, Aashta, and Velderan) but additional lesser families. And again, these Sentinel families are now all united—but looking to the seal, the Deneith dragon is definitely the first among equals.
Which brings us to the second part of the question. Is Karrnath’s culture actually Deneith culture? Yes and no. Deneith never ruled Karrnath, it simply dominated the area around Karrlakton… and they were deposed two centuries before Karrn the Conqueror established Karrnath itself. I think there’s no question that Deneith is strongly defined by its Karrnathi roots, but I think that they were shaped by proto-Karrn culture as opposed to concretely defining it. And I do think that even before the reign of Karrn they had chosen the path of the mercenary over that of the landed warlord. It could well be that in establishing the Korth Edicts, Galifar ir’Wynarn (who was himself a Karrn, don’t forget!) was inspired by the existing relationship between the Karrnathi warlords and House Deneith—that he essentially said “What if you were all like Deneith—mercenaries who provide a service rather than nobles and landowners?“
So I do think that Deneith is proud of its ancient roots and its ties to Karrnathi history. But I also think that Deneith has its own unique culture—something that has evolved tied to its centuries of service as the house of mercenaries and trusted enforcers of the law.
I’ll answer additional questions about the Dragonmarked Houses later in the week. Thanks to Alex and the rest of my Patreon backers, who keep this blog going!