For my dear friend, Wonder
Travel, my friends, takes many forms. Our feet may take us for miles and miles. Or we may ask a beast of burden to pull our cart, or bear our weight, thereby altering not only our speed, but our perspective on the land around us by insulating ourselves in the comfort of the wagon or raising us to the height of the saddle. Or we may allow the mighty or the placid waterways to guide us gently to their own destinations, even if they do not match our own exactly.
I, myself, prefer to travel by foot, as I am not a man in a hurry. I begrudge not my peers who choose the other modes, but I will say that the long, slow toil of a journey on foot brings rewards beyond compare. Seeing the world and its wonders at eye level has given me experiences and perspectives I could not find anywhere else.
I hope to share those experiences, that perspective, with you, friend. For not all people have the pleasure of travel. The humble farmer can go years at a time, spending untold hours mending tools and minding fields, unable to leave the land alone without someone else to watch it. A King’s agent may find themselves sent far afield, but are just as likely to find their duties anchor them in one place in perpetuity. If I can share a glimpse of life on the road with them, I will. I must!
And for those of you with the opportunity: I wish to entice you to don the boots and take to the roads. I hope to provide some guidance to keep you safe on the dangerous and wild paths, and to bathe in the riches of the Gods’ world.
Traveling is dangerous.
It is known that the wilderness is not as safe or easy as the comfort of hearth and home. The rigors of travel may cause injury, far from rest and treatment. The buildings and neighbors that normally surround us are not at hand to shield us from the whims of fate or the fangs of predators. If we are to be travelers with any sort of longevity, we must exercise care and vigilance.
Never travel alone where it can be avoided.
Nobody who wishes to live longer than for the a week travels alone. The emissaries of kings are sent with entourages. Merchants travel in bands with mercenary escorts. Even warriors take the road in cohorts. Humble travelers would be wise to find one of the aforementioned groups to travel with.
The lone traveler is left in an unenviable position. They will be lucky to survive a week-long journey, to escape the great beasts of whatever clime they find themselves in, the bandits, or the wights. A month-long journey alone should be considered, practically, impossible.
It is said that during the height of the Ivian League, any man or woman with healthy legs could travel from Hyngvar Rock to the last waycastle on the steppe unmolested. It is said that maps of the League marked not just the cities and towns whose allegiance belonged to the League, but shaded the entire land with color, as if it were fully controlled, administered, and protected by the league’s legions. If such a thing were true, it would be incredible. But, regardless, this is not the case anywhere in the world now, even in the Sleeping Empire.
There are innumerable places one may find themselves, and to try to catalog them all would obviously be quite impossible. But it is possible to describe in brief the sorts of things one might encounter.
The Old Forest is perhaps a misleading name. A traveler in these realms may expect to find a wide assortment of geographies, from the scrublands to the east to the high seaside ridges in the north and the colossal Antillayan Range in the south. Primordial forests and deep marshes and lush river valleys and rolling hills may all be found here, as well as rocky expanses and arid plains. But if you walk far enough from all of these places, you will find yourself amongst the ancient trees. And so, we might consider this all one great plain dominated by the trees, who have deigned to allow some exceptional terrain in their midst.
The Kingdom of Anteianum, in the heart of the Old Forest, is where yours truly calls home. It is one of the traditionally considered Seven Kingdoms of Men, home to people of all shapes and sizes but founded and constituted by mostly humans.
The humans of the Seven Kingdoms settle mostly in their modestly-sized cities and hinterlands. Farming hamlets cluster together, usually no more than a day’s journey from each other and a few days’ journey from the nearest town or city. A Shire may occasionally be found amongst these hamlets—far enough for seclusion and to separate the crops, but close enough for mutual aid. These little rings of civilization are separated by wide swathes of wilderness—sometimes run through with roads (especially where the roads of the Old League may still be found, even if half buried), sometimes marked by a recently passing company or army, and sometimes utterly unmarked.
They are an abundantly multilingual bunch. The common language of the south, that any man or woman may be expected to speak, is Orsinic, the language of the steppe, as the nomadic Orcs have historically facilitated so much of the exchange (of people, things, and ideas) in the Kingdoms. But there are three other languages that may be commonly encountered on a journey through the Kingdoms: Nirthyn, the ancient language of Hyngvaryr; Carthian, found in the south and east; and Bryn, the native tongue of Bryniach. The Shire folk, naturally, speak their ancient language, but also often the language of their neighbors and a smattering of Orsinic.
Law in the Seven Kingdoms can be said to be administered by the cities. The Kings and Queens are the ultimate arbiters of justice, and all seven exert direct authority over their throne cities. But the particulars of how their justice is extended to other cities is complicated. Some cities are held as baronies, counties, or duchies, and as such their law flows more directly from the local nobility—subject to some level of oversight (or interference, should you see it this way) by the Crown. In the hinterlands and on the road, expect law to be more distant, although decent people do still hew to it when realistic.
The Seven Kings and Queens derive their authority, ultimately, from Ae, the Goddess of Grace. As the Messenger to the Heavens, she crowns the monarchs at the resplendent Solium De, bestowing upon them their mandate and authority. She also offers them counsel, it is said. And it is also said that, while it has been a long time indeed since Ae has raised the sword, she would do so should one of the Monarchs exceed their bounds.
The other principal people to be found in the Old Forest are the Old Folk: the Elves. The Elven tradition is to build villages that hide in the treetops or in the shade of wooded knolls, villages that are nigh impossible to find but in the favorable lighting of a particular time of day and only to the most studious of observers. It is said that the ancient birthplace of the long-lived Elves was a great and primordial world of magic (not hard to believe, given their otherworldly carriage), and that these hideaways bring them closer to that home. Most of these villages will welcome travelers who are sharp enough to find them and willing to respect the sanctity of the places, but be wary—villages that have been wronged in the past sometimes feel little need to treat visitors with any sort of deference.
Travel in the mighty Antillayan Range, south of the Old Forest, is exhausting and dangerous in all of the ways one might expect, and more. The countless mountain passes and waypassages and sprawling underground cities—the old and the new—are claustrophobic, confusing, and unfamiliar. Just as I advise you never to travel alone, I advise you never to brave the mountains without a mountain-dwarf at your side. A dwarf born and raised in the mountainhomes learns an incredible intuition for depth. Just as a man may learn to shoot a bow or hurl a spear with a sort of reflexive accuracy, a mountain-dwarf understands whether a tunnel heads for the surface or for below, and how much farther one might expect to travel before cornering or reaching a destination: a skill that is absolutely necessary in order to survive extended travel in the depths.
The mighty Antillayan Range to the south is home to many of these Dwarves. The stout and hearty folk of the mountains were, millenia ago, said to be created (alongside the Half-folk) to be the servants of a Demon Prince, to mine his gem and ores for eternity. But they threw off their chains, cast down the demon prince, and now have claimed their heritage for their own. The great and storied clans of the Dwarves can all trace their lineages to the original miners of the Antillayan Range, and that range is where many of the clans stayed.
Civilization in the Antillayan Range is quite a bit different than civilization in the Kingdoms. The mountain-homes are grand, impossibly grand, but also very far apart. Rather than a modest city with a sprawling hinterland, the typical settlement is a thoughtfully architected, tightly constructed monument to planning and diligence. Their underground cultivation of crops must be central and efficient: while the mountain clans have made mining into a way of life and thus become exceedingly good at it, it is still a costly endeavor to clear enough stone for the crops needed to feed a city.
And these cities—dizzyingly tall, made rich by the wealth of the deep—are home to the clans. There are dozens of great clans in the Antillayan range, most of them tracing their lineages back to one great figure or another from the Age of Heroes. The greatest of these heroes are those who fought at the Anvil of Dawn. They emerged from the battle with the respect and gratitude of their peers, and were accordingly afforded power within the councils back in the mountainhomes. Power, of course, begets power, and the legacy of these great heroes is that their families, and the bloodlines they issue and relationships they cultivate through marriage and trade, form the cornerstones of society in the mountainhomes.
Law is not thought of in the mountainhomes the same way it is in the Kingdoms. Law is not, as it is in the Kingdoms, an edict that is respected because of the Queen’s authority which is respected because of Ae’s Word. Law in the mountainhomes is perhaps best thought of as a system of honor and respect. The laws of a clan’s home, so long as they are just, are to be respected, and to disrespect them is an slight, to flaunt them an insult. Should you insult your hosts, you may find that they wish to exact punishment, and that your own family would rather you bear that punishment honorably than to deepen the emnity. The effect of this is very similar to law in the kingdoms—if you violate the law, you may find yourself punished—but visitors in the mountainhomes have, at times, described the judgments rendered and edicts issued variously as “capricious,” “lenient,” “passionate,” and “abrupt.” Understanding the nature of these laws, I hope, may help a traveler avert a nasty surprise.
The Dwarves and those who live with them (many humans, halflings, and Orcs do, although the taller folk occasionally find themselves struggling to navigate the alleyways of the dwarf-built cities) speak the ancient language of the Dwarf people. This language is related to that of the Shire, that Dwarves and Shire Halflings find themselves able to conduct business with each other, haltingly, each speaking their own native tongue. The Dwarven merchants who trade the bounties of the mountains with the Kingdoms and the Orc bands have very often mastered those languages, having, in their old age, traded with successive generations of their counterparties.
To the east of the Old Forest, the last of the trees gives way to brush, and finally, the last of the brush will give way to the Thoran Veld, the great green and amber expanse at the heart of the South. It is deceptively dry and, owing to the incredible distances, difficult to traverse. To navigate the Thoran Veld, one must seek the aid of the peerless horsemen who call it home.
Those peerless horsemen are the Orcs of the Thoran Veld. They constitute the greatest force on the southern continent since the fall of the Ivian League. The great bands of orcs ride the Veld, grazing their livestock and perfecting their archery, hunting the fantastic game and the deadly predators of the grasslands. Should you wish to cross the Veld, try to find one of these bands. They are nomads, and many of the erluks (the groups of several dozen up to several hundred who roam together) stop frequently at the trading towns and waycastles of the Kingdoms that border the Veld. Their lifestyle may be strange indeed, but many of the erluks are quite welcoming to settled folk and are happy help travelers across the Veld so long as they promise not to be undue burdens.
The erluks vary widely in character. An erluk might be thought of not as a city, bound by location and fealty, nor a clan, bound by blood and marriage, but as a creed that unites a people. An erluk will have its own riding songs—some familiar to other erluks, but some quite unique. It will have its own values, its own law, and its own legends. I emphasize this not because it is utterly strange—after all, we all know well the differences in the spirit of Orland and the soul of Ferrus—but because the extent of it can be surprising. A hundred-mile leg of journey across the grassland can take on a drastically different character if made with the Hornless Goats as opposed to the Wind-Spirit-Criers.
The orc-bands of the Veld all share a common language, Orsinic, and while they share the language with nearly every other people on the continent, they have elevated its spoken form to an art. Very few know how to read or write—those bands that do possess the knowledge do because they trade often or because previously settled, literate folk have joined their erluk—owing to the lack of need for the skill and the expense of writing materials in a pastoral life. In lieu of that, their spoken stories, and their skills in recalling and improvising from imposingly long sagas, are second to none. I am convinced that the deepest secrets of the history of the South are preserved best not in its crumbling ruins or in a secret wizard’s library, but in the great legends of the riders of the Veld.
The Thoran Veld backs up, in the east, to a ragged ridge of mountains, and beyond that is the Valley of the King. The Valley is the most arid place in the South, a desert so dry that the whirling winds blow loose sand for leagues and leagues without interruption. The vistas are remarkable and the beauty of the Valley unequaled, but the lack of food and water—and the cunning and dangerous creatures that have adapted to locate what little there is—make it challenging indeed to find the splendor.
The Valley is so named because, for as long as anyone can remember (and many elves have long memories indeed), it has been ruled by Deshret-Nemes. He is known as the God-Pharaoh and the Old King. The shining city upon the river, the House of Os-Kedis, is brought life by the annual floods that he ensures, and it is brought justice that he personally administers. Unlike the Seven Kingdoms, there is no delegated authority. Deshret-Nemes sees all that occurs within the valley, and he issues all orders to be carried out within his House.
Deshret-Nemes, his might, and his worship certainly warrant a great amount of awe, if only because the God Deshret-Nemes and the Goddess Ae could not be more different, and have indeed gone to war before, but now they and their people regard each other warmly, at rest. But the people of Os-Kedis are not without their own marvels; their art and architecture being quite fine and exotic to one who calls the Kingdoms home. The House of Os-Kedis may be ruled by the God-Pharaoh, but it is made what it is by its citizens, and the great chronicles of the Old Kingdom and the stories that ever trader tell attest to their wonderful works.
I must confess to a shallow knowledge of the continent to the North and the peoples who live there. I have restless legs and cannot bear to travel long distances by ship, I am afraid. But the tales of the north are amazing to hear, and you may indeed encounter the people who call it home on your travels. There is the Sleeping Empire, whose great cities are spread as wide as all Seven Kingdoms’ amongst all sorts of breathtaking terrain (great granite valleys, mighty rivers, formidable jungles, and icy peaks), ruled by a great Golden Dragon-God, Jin-Mao Huang. He is said to be an honorable, but voracious and wrathful, ruler. There are great highlands in the continent, too; ragged and impassable terrain that is home to the Upland Realms and their varied Monarchs, the oldest and mightiest among them known to all as the Iron Dynasty. There is another smattering of of Dwarven clans, their lineages as old as their Antillayan cousins but their separation long and traditions foreign. And there is surely an endless bounty of mysteries that your author has yet to encounter!