Unfinished Smuggler's History of River's Rest
An Unfinished Smuggler’s History of River's Rest is an Official GemStone IV Document, and it is protected from editing.
An Unfinished Smuggler’s History of River's Rest
I was once a man without memory, cast against the sands of a Selanthian beach either through Niima's benevolence, or because her father would not tolerate my presence in his deep, dark depths. For nearly two years, like a fisherman, I cast a net for memories, for those things which had made me what I am and changed me from what I was. I have opted never to suffer such an experience again, and so, I place quill to parchment and record what I know now and what I knew once before . This is my history. This is a smuggler's history. This is a history of the town of River's Rest.
There are few who live in Fairport who do not know of the Red Hats. A brotherhood of smugglers that runs the length of the Empire etched into its harbors and ports like the brine of the sea. It was of my study of them, as a young noble, that I first heard the name of River's Rest. The tales told to a youth in a dimly lit and laughter-filled wharf tavern spoke of it as the origin of the brotherhood, a town that had been humbled by a great fall, not even a shell of its past magnificence, and risen, if even briefly, as a safe haven to smugglers and, later, pirates. Thus, when I fled my duty in life and sought a new future, I went to River's Rest.
For the right amount of silver, about anyone can find passage on a small cutter to the island set in the mouth of the Tempest, and for a bit more, they can land at the docks of the Warren. It is a hidden and often intentionally forgotten district of the island town, located behind a great wall of blackberry brambles. As I learned later, it was not always called the Warren, nor had it been sequestered away from the rest of the town by the brambles; both of these had developed over time. Once it had been a favored wharf area for a city that fell to ruin, and remnants of such are still visible; that is, those remnants that have not been carried away for use for building material. As such, the area made an ideal location for later sailors to rest their vessels and so it has been ever since.
The jumbled, crowded buildings are a product of the brambles and a calamity that occurred almost a century ago, when a fire destroyed nearly all of the structures. When the "River Rats," as those who live there call themselves, rebuilt, they scavenged for any building material quickly at hand, and the result was a process of design and construction as haphazard as the many tongues you might hear spoken within them. Halfling residents built halfling buildings, elven residents opted for elven styles, and so on; and many more incorporated elements from their neighbors, creating a polyglot of architecture. If one is pressed to describe the Warren, one can only call it something wonderful and free, reflecting the spirit of its inhabitants.
Only a few streets bisect the Warren, and of them, only one leads to the tunnels under the island, leaving only the 'North Fork' of the Tempest River as a means to arrive and depart. They are named for those individuals or families who have by sheer will of presence imprinted themselves upon the Warren, or in one case, of past military adventures. One particular stretch of street is of some importance, a place where before even the oldest inhabitant can recall, violence and honor have been used to judge the claims of those who believe themselves wronged.
It is a place where elders of the Five Houses, presently the most powerful families of the Warren, offer their wisdom and judgment. It is not so much a place of duel, as nearly ritual combat. Deaths are rare, though humiliations may be often, and it is of either party's own volition to accept such challenges of combat. It is there that justice has a home.
Now I return to the Five Houses, the families that control most of the smuggling that goes on within the Warren. It would be simple and wrong to say that they are all smugglers, for the differences between families are far more delicate and upon them balances the very power of control over the Warren, and perhaps, the town itself. To understand these families, I must mention briefly the past of the town, of pirates, and of the Smugglers War.
While smugglers have long called the island of River's Rest home, the island was once magnificently a haven of pirates of such repute that their ghosts still haunt the seas, if not in form, then in the minds of its sailors. Ketain of the Scars, Gaspard, Oteska, and the Reiver Shepherd are but a few of the names, though among the most notable, of the pirates who claimed a home on the island or nearby. Their day is remembered as the Grand Era of Piracy, but before them, there were the smugglers. The smugglers, whom no age is given, were among the first to resettle the island after its fall into troll-infested wilderness. Over the centuries they have abided, becoming like the reeds upon the banks of the Tempest, something unchanging, steadfast in their presence.
Like the tides that have ebbed and flowed across the shores, it would be impossible to write of the complete history of the smugglers. Many have come, many have left, but at some unknown point houses began to emerge: families who rose with great pride to prominence amongst the smuggling community, and to whom smuggling became more than just simple criminal enterprise. To these families, it became something of honor, a profession in which one's strongly held belief in freedom was expressed through one's trade--freedom from the laws of man or elf to go where one wished and to buy and sell what one desired. Smuggling became an immutable right.
As such, the smugglers developed a code of honor, known only as the Code, for it would be pretentious to name it anything else than what it was. It is or was unwritten, but here now I record at least some of the Code so that I might remember if I am to forget again my life.
1. One does not take what another has rightfully claimed.
2. The dead are sacrosanct, as are all things related to the dead.
3. An Oath is unbreakable if made under the Code.
4. One does not steal, for that is a pirate's trade.
5. One does not seek to ruin others; there is always profit for all.
6. All have a right to redress before the Houses and so abide by their law.
7. One must support and aid the other, when not harmful to one's self.
8. Those who cannot obey the Code are dead to those who do.
This code, which is far more intricate than the eight rules I have listed above, is what bound the smugglers together for centuries and into the present. It has shaped their views on life, and children today, born of smugglers, seem to emerge from the womb with it instilled within their hearts. As important as it is to the smugglers, one must earn the right to be governed by it naturally, by following it. For the baker and the healer, it is not applied, lest they seek to follow it themselves. Never have I seen a more pitiful creature than a smuggler who could not keep to the Code and was left a wasteful man, ignored by all, to eventually wander away from the Warren to a fate unknown.
Thus, the great houses were formed under the Code and in turn formed the Code. Most of those families are now gone. Their legacies have been to be forgotten or absorbed into the remaining houses, and in one instance, ruined from such a height of prominence that none yet dare disturb their shattered home, upon the street that bears their name. While some simply faded away with the fading of leadership or will, others were destroyed by accident and by man, and by the latter, I mean pirates. The Smuggler War that followed the Great Cataclysm was not one of set battles, but of subtle assassinations and skirmishes fought in the shadows of the Warren, the darkness of the island's tunnels, and in distant drop spots. Its scars lingered on to the present day, perhaps to heal or be torn asunder once again.
The war came about by the rising of the Tempest Falls, denying the pirates who sailed the river access to the hinterland. Refused such income, the pirates turned to the other illicit trade of River's Rest: smuggling. For centuries, pirates and smugglers had coexisted uneasily upon our island, but each sought only what each sought, and never what the other had. When this changed, it disrupted the balance that the smugglers had established, and a way of life that had brought success and fortune to generations was disrupted. Pirates, by their very nature, take what is not theirs, and so now they took what had belonged to the smugglers, and war ensued. The pirates violated the Code, for they had their own code, perhaps an older one, and as such their actions were insulting to the very heart of honor to the smugglers. Like light reflected on river waters, the violence came in brief bursts, but the water flowed, and soon it was over.
In the wake of the war, only two of the great smuggling families remained, House Lefante and House Rewyn. Lefante had been established many centuries ago by an elf, disenchanted by Chaston's Edict, and now that elf's grandson is the head of the family. He is known simply as Lefante, and he has had the inhuman privilege to watch his own descendants come of age, the fruit of a marriage many decades ago. Of these there are two who are the light of his eyes, one whom I led to his death and the other whose heart I tore asunder. Of her I will write no more, for perhaps if I were to lose my mind again, it might be better for her that she can finally forget this boy from Fairport who has forgotten her. A close friend of hers, and once of mine, was of the House Rewyn.
Rewyn was established by a shipwrecked sailor, who claimed that the Mother had saved him as he lay dying on the black sands to the north of town. Ever since, it has been custom for Rewyn to send a daughter to serve as a priestess for Aeia, and the Rewyns have always been known as the family closest to the island of River's Rest. Perhaps it is the way of life, then, to mirror such beautiful things with ugliness. For all the houses that once existed and now still do, all were finer, grander than the houses that by force have joined Lefante and Rewyn at the council table. Of this, I speak of the Pirate Houses, the three who balance the two, and help to keep the Warren in a period of uneasy stalemate that has lingered ever since the end of the Smugglers War.
Long ago now have the pirates moored their great seafaring vessels, exchanging them for the cutters and sleek coastal craft more adept at slipping unnoticed in the night. Perhaps the worse are the Fell. The Fell are where the dredges of the River Rat community flee to, those who seek company amongst those who care as little for themselves as they do for others. The worst atrocities are spoken of them, a house that is restrained not by will, but by disorganization. It is lead by a council, made of those who have killed their predecessors to earn the right to sit their stead. If there is justice beyond the Gate of Ebon, they shall have a place reserved for them, and it will not be pleasant. Of slightly better reputation are the DeRichters. By far the most organized, they are led by Valons DeRichter, who has fully inherited all the trickery, cunning, and lethal viciousness of his pirate ancestors. It is the most powerful of the pirate houses, that most capable of exerting its will upon others. It was the first of the pirate families to turn upon the smugglers and should never be trusted completely.
The Wimpletons are the last of the pirate families that I will speak of. Legend speaks of the Wimpletons as Paradis halflings who went to sea, sailed to the edge of the world, and lost a part of their souls to what they saw there on the edge of the ether. Many have mocked this house and become the victim of such horrible means as to enter into local legend for the shock of its severity and cruelty. For all that the Wimpletons are vicious, they are perhaps the most honorable of the pirate families, if such an adjective can be honestly applied to these clans. They might stab you in the back, but at least they will let you know in advance their plan to do so.
Thus the three and the two make five, the houses which might be deemed the powers of the Warren. For all who walk its streets, most have pledged their allegiance to one house or another, and the rest, mercenary like or new to the ways of this world, follow a destiny led by silvers. The future of the Warrens lies in the future of these houses, whoever is able to grasp the reins of leadership and cast their vision upon the smuggling world.
Now that I have written of the Warren, its people and the houses that rule it, I now turn to the history of the land and waters of River's Rest, which I greedily sought upon my first arrival and hope to reacquaint myself with now upon my second.
It was among the first things I saw, as I arrived so many years ago, perched on the western most tip of the island, overlooking the bay. A vast monolith of stone, referred to as "The Eye" by the locals, and more formally as the "Stone Eye." Little of the building could I at first learn from those I spoke with, most suggesting I speak with the odd creation that stands proudly behind a bar within. Byron is his name, and of him, he told me that the original owner, if such a building can be owned, was known as Myron. Myron had stood amongst the Council of Mages back in the time of the fall of the Kingdom of Elanith. In fact, the mongrel kobold claimed direct ownership, placing either upon himself or his master, a considerable number of years lived. I knew neither of which I could trust, so continued further investigation of the stone building. It was a process of many years, but not unsuccessful, either. For it was on the roof of the building, the last inch of stone that I had not yet scoured, that I found the answer to the origin of the Stone Eye.
Etched carefully upon the roof of the Stone Eye I discovered the remnant of what appeared to be an astrolabe. Broken shafts of imflass extended from slots in the stone roof among intricate carvings that I found familiar to the night sky and often used by smugglers for guidance. Along the edge of the astrolabe, I discovered these words that I have yet to decipher, " Scēewian pae sterroan and hit cnaewe se garsecs and saes." Would I wish that I could report the origin and use of the massive building, but as I closely inspected the astronomical carvings I realized that they and the words that accompanied them, cut upon even older markings. Those who had used this great stone edifice had simply borrowed it from another time, as we do this day.
The language, as foreign as it appears, I believed to be some dialect of Kannalan, or perhaps, the ancestor of the language that once was the common tongue of Elanith. Nonetheless, it harkened back to a time before the Kingdom of Elanith, before the Kannalan Empire. I had noticed the language elsewhere, upon the winged throne that is located not far from the Marsh Keep, but those words were no more translatable. Had I left my investigation at this point, then the origin of the words and those who had written them would have remained a mystery. I refused to do so. I had neither the learning nor the knowledge to solve this question, but there had at least once existed a body of men and women who had. Thus my search for answers sent me to the Citadel.
It was my belief, and remains so, that the Council of Mages, for as corrupt as they became with power and their own safety, were the wisest to have ever graced these Torren lands. Through my own endeavors, I had discovered a hidden wing of the Citadel, which until the arrival of two members of the Hall of Mages, had stayed hidden for countless centuries. The more recent story of their quest for knowledge, which resulted in the renewed haunting of the Citadel, I will leave to others to tell. My own discovery, thankfully, did not trigger the magic that their questing did. However, it was in the hidden wing that I discovered a sheaf of papers. Perhaps because the papers were imbued by some purposeful magic, or perhaps because they had simply absorbed the vast magic that inhabits the Citadel, the papers were in pristine condition despite dating from the time of the Mages.
They were written in the Kannalan tongue, but one that I was familiar with from my days as a student in my father's house, and so I learned at least one part of the story that had nearly been forgotten but for the relics of that earlier age that still remain.
It had begun as a kingdom that became something little known in Elanthia, a rulership of the people. The Kingdom, as I will refer to it, for the Mages left me no name by which to call it, was situated by what today we call Maelstrom Bay. A drawing indicated that any ruins that remained of the Kingdom are now likely located beneath the waves of the sea. For the waters of the world, as amazing as it seems, have risen and consumed the land that was once were its shores and hidden many things from our present age. There may yet remain other ruins, but they too, are for now hidden from our sight, if not by the sea, then by ignorance. The Kingdom arose and prospered in a time often given as one which belonged to the Empire of the Elves and it claimed it did so by the grace of an Arkati. What myth the Mages managed to uncover of the Kingdom's rise, claimed that an Arkati, the god's name now lost, raised the primitive humans of the area to guard over a prison of something great and terrible. It was something from an earlier time, the myth spoke, of when the Gods themselves sought safety on the moons in the sky.
The Arkati, in its wisdom, believed that only a safe and successful people would have the power and justness needed to guard the prison. Thus the Arkati hid the presence of the Kingdom from the elves, for the rulers of the continent would not have tolerated its presence in an age when they enslaved humans. Under such protection, the Kingdom grew and prospered. Yet, it suffered the failings and follies of humans, the nature of which will never change.
For as the Kingdom gained further wealth and power, its rulers began to fall victim, as rulers do, to corruption of the soul and spirit. They built monuments to themselves and claimed vast forests as their own preserves. Over these forests, they selected hunters and huntresses, who became their wardens in charge of the wild and the game. In time, these wardens took on the role as generals or commanders of the armies of the Kingdom and body guards to its rulers. Under the belief that all successful empires and kingdoms possessed, and still possess, the rulers of the Kingdom arrogantly believed that their rule be the most just, and sought to extend it over the nearby people and races. Armies were went forth and conquered, resources that belonged to others were taken under a banner of Liabo's support. After all, did the Kingdom not arise but under the blessing of an Arkati? It was a blessing that did not include terror, war, and conquest, and for their actions, the veil of protection that had ensured the Kingdom's prosperity disappeared, never to return.
In its brashness, the Kingdom, which had successfully fought the elves upon the fields of battle, thought nothing of this loss. This period after the veil, the Mages believed, lasted just over half a thousand years. It was enough time for humans to see a Kingdom as ageless, even if longer lived races, such as the elves, saw it as something far more ephemeral.
The Kingdom was at its peak, perhaps its greatest ruler, a King fearless in battle and wise in law, reigned uncontested. For a wife, he took a beautiful but petty woman. She had not always suffered the poison of jealousy, but it was born out of a fear of love lost. If the Queen were to lose the heart of her King, it would be to the King's Huntress, a woman of lesser beauty, but who enjoyed the confidence of the King she loyally served. The Queen knew the King would never cast the huntress aside, for the huntress had won many a campaign and possessed the bond of friendship with the King that can only be forged at the side of an ally in battle. Had law allowed, perhaps the King would have chosen the huntress to be his queen, but this was not the way then, as it is not the way now.
The Queen was resigned to the presence of the huntress, prepared to sadly live away the days until she believed her husband's heart no longer her own. Then, by chance, she became aware of the huntress' Second. More precisely, she learned of the Second's envy and ambition for the position of the King's Huntress. A deal was struck. The Second would frame her commander for a crime that demanded exile and certain death to a fiery land located through a now lost enchanted gate and in exchange, she would have for that which she yearned. The chosen crime was one of trespass of the sacred. Under penalty of exile, none were allowed entrance to the chamber in which the portal to the prison, which had been guarded by the Kingdom since its earliest days, was located. Never had any ventured near it, lest for the punishment and more for fear of what terrifying unknown remained locked away beyond the portal.
In this chamber there, in addition to the portal, was placed a holy blade, gifted to the rulers of the Kingdom. A gift, it was claimed, from the Arkati for protection from that which was imprisoned and said to be of such power that it could slay an immortal. By ancient decree none but the King or Queen could enter this chamber, though none ever had, and then only for the purpose to insure that the prison held.
The location of the chamber remained a mystery even to the mages. They had searched long and far for it, over land and beneath the sea, for they were ever drawn to it as a possible source of great power, something that in time they increasingly hungered for, and a craving that eventually robbed them of their humanity. It was to this place that the huntress ventured, under word from her trusted Second that the King was within and in danger. The huntress went without hesitation or fear, for above all things she believed in duty and loyalty. Her liege was in danger and she was to be at his side. Yet when she arrived she found the chamber empty, the blade gone and, a moment later, discovery by the Queen's Guard of her trespass.
For all that the King loved his huntress, he was bound by the law old and ancient, and sent her away into exile. The huntress, ever faithful, did not contest what she knew to be true of her actions, and could not yet comprehend that her Second had so betrayed her. The Queen, for her part, knew that once a traitor then forever a traitor, and cast the Second into the dungeons beneath the castle to be forgotten by the living. The King, without his friend, commander, and confidant, lost something on the day he ordered her exile. His heart grew cold and from that point on, he ceased to be the great King he had been and became one as petty and cruel as his wife. He ceased to love his Queen, his land, and his people. The Queen, by her own action, had lost that which she had cherished most, and too, lost what remained good in her heart.
Years passed and the people of the Kingdom began to suffer. The huntress' exile was but the first of the many that followed. The people grew discontent, among them former soldiers of the huntress, and the people began to form groups in rebellion to the King's rule. They sought to undermine the King, and all whom might claim future ownership of the title, and took to wearing masks crafted to resemble the faces of cats when active under the cover of night, and upon being hunted, sought refuge and safety in the web of sea caves beneath the land. It was in such a cavern that one night, from the deserts surely, and possibly from the grave, the huntress returned. The rebels became her followers and to her they gave command of their rebellion. The huntress mourned for the King for she saw that the man she had followed, loved and served, and had forgiven for adhering to the law was dead. In his place ruled a tyrant.
A plan was formed, one by which the Kingdom would be freed and the tyrant King overthrown. Through the caves, the huntress and her followers would storm the castle, slay the King and all who claimed their blood more noble than others. Upon the fateful night, the huntress and the rebels, garbed in the feline masks, stormed the castle. The caves by chance or design exited into the dungeons, and so the attackers discovered the Second, who had long languished in her prison. So it was that the Queen was proven correct, once a traitor always a traitor. After the surprise and shock of the huntress' survival wore off, the Second told her former commander the Queen's role in the exile and vanished into the corridors of the dungeon. It was then for the first time that the huntress allowed entry into her heart of anything but the most virtuous values. In the dark depths of the castle's dungeons, the huntress swore revenge against the Queen.
What followed was bloodletting. Floor by floor, the huntress led her people, and floor by floor, they left the dead: they few who yet professed loyalty to the King, or the many who answered yes to the question, "Are you noble?" Perhaps the record upon which the Mages relied contained little, or perhaps the Mages sensed something of themselves in the history and had no desire to expand upon it, but the papers said little of when the huntress confronted her former lord. The huntress, armed with a scythe, the common weapon of an army formed from the common blood, killed the King. Or rather, the word used by the Mages in their Kannalan dialect, "hite ripane heahchynig," which loosely translated meant, "she reaped the King." And that is all that is written of the huntress and her King.
The King dead, all that remained was the fulfillment of the huntress' revenge against the Queen. Beside the King's body, she found the Queen, mourning the love lost long ago by her own action and prepared for her fate. By implication, it appears the Queen was present when the King was dead, but this is not written and can only be theorized. The Queen, then, was slain, but before with a last mortal breath spoke of the Second's involvement. The desire for vengeance in the huntress' heart, which would have otherwise disappeared, blossomed. It was a revenge that the huntress would never satisfy, for the Second who had disappeared upon rescue, had returned. She had quickly guessed that the huntress' return must have been predicated upon an act of a god, and sought to drink what she believed to be the huntress' immortal blood. For that purpose, she had retrieved the blessed blade that for so long had resided in the chamber of the Portal, which had disappeared the night of the huntress' exile.
It was this blade that pierced the huntress' heart in the Second's third and final act of betrayal. The huntress, her heart pierced, vanished from sight. The Second, who tasted the blood upon the blade, suffered a terrifying change, and fled into the night never to be seen again. Of both, it seemed that story became myth and myth became legend.
The rebellion had succeeded. The King, the Queen, their issue, and all who claimed kinship, were dead. So too was the huntress. The Kingdom was leaderless. Into this void of leadership, the rebels who had governed themselves by council now chose to govern the Kingdom by council. The people ruled where kings and queens had once, and for the first time in many years the Kingdom again enjoyed prosperity and success. The people lived as never before or since, for in their own hands they held their fates and destinies. No longer were their lives subject to the whims of good or wicked rulers. They knew freedom unlike the countless millions who have lived and died throughout Elanthia in the past and in the present. Each man, each woman, were offered the chance to speak words and to cast a vote for all decisions that might reflect upon their lives. I must admit, at this point in my translation, I was overwhelmed. To claim to be shocked is to understate the sense that filled my heart and cut at my soul. Never had I heard of such an idea before, nor since, and it settled upon me with a truth of burning sincerity. For the first time in my life, it was known to me that there was another way, a better way for the world to exist and organize itself. The skepticisms of my youth had found fertile ground in which to flourish. In excitement, I returned to the papers composed so many years ago.
But then, the grand experiment came to an end, as all great things must. It did not happen suddenly, but over time and gradually. Prosperity created leisure time, and that in turn gave birth to men and women who sought to fill that time with learning. It was curiosity that drove them to explore the prison that the kingdom had for so long guarded, but it was their vanity which led them to open it. It had no true form, that which they unleashed, not one that they could comprehend at least. All that the writings agreed upon were the yellow eyes. It was a corrupter, something that existed to destroy and often by taking what was best in the souls of men and women, and twisting it to into something dark and destructive.
It took the might of these free people to expel it from their lands, and it fled to the unknown lands of the setting sun. However, they were good people and could not rest without shame upon their conscience for what they had released into the world. They felt duty bound to insure that which they had let go should be imprisoned again. For this purpose a great army was assembled, and an even greater armada was built to carry it. The glory of these people then set off for unknown shores and disappeared over the horizon in pursuit. Those who remained set themselves to the task of watching the west for word of victory or for signs that the corrupter and destroyer might return. Children were born, grew old and had children themselves, and yet no true knowledge of the armada was gained. There were some who claimed that a sacrifice of the spirit offered answers, and others who claimed that that any such sacrifice merely offered tantalizing nothings. Generations came and went, and still they watched. They watched the seas as their walls became overgrown with vines and ivy, their towers crumbled to the ground, and that thing which had made them great, their freedom, was forgotten. The votes, the elections, they were at first delayed out of concerns of safety and protection, and then safety and protection were thought more important than those things which they had delayed. And when they finally felt safe, they no longer remembered what it was they had so zealously sought to protect.
In time, these people vanished. Theirs was a dream finally eroded by the fierce savagery of the trolls and erased by the brutal fierceness of the immortal empire of the Elves. I hope to make alive this dream of freedom, and will restore to River's Rest, the greatness that once was breathed by the people of the sea and of the river. For where the twain meet the world is magic. Anything might be accomplished and once so, by the river and the sea, will spread to touch all men's hearts.
Next, I shall address the coming of the Royal Torren Guard…
Editor's Addendum: Some of the Writings of Casler Huntington
[Note: The following pieces were discovered in Huntington's home in the Warren approximately a year after his death. They appear to be fragments that Huntington was preparing to add to his history, but had not done so before his demise. There is no indication of when they were written. A handwritten note was found secured to the top of them, below it is transcribed.]
"Reminder: Show these to Neyla after we deal with the troll problem tonight."
Situated in a neat valley on the north side of the Tempest Falls is a monastery belonging to the Order of Voln. While the Voln monastery in Fairport is well known, I had not expected to find such an outpost here in River's Rest. I had the honor of being offered a tour of the monastery by a Brother Natthew, a monk originally from Nydds. I was told that the outpost had been established many centuries ago, in the early days of the Kingdom of Torre. Its legendary founder had been a warrior monk, Sister Benesol, though the details of her life are not well known. One story passed down by the monks of River's Rest was that Benesol had possessed an artifact presented to her by Voln, himself. This artifact was supposedly hidden away and the location lost when a fire destroyed the records and the lives of those who knew its hiding place.
Those Beyond the Jungle
In my forays into the jungle, before the problem of G'bruk reared its head, I had discovered the crumbling ruin of a ceremonial eastern gate for East River's Rest. My curiosity was further intrigued as I managed to follow the little remnant of a road that once ran to it and must have constituted one of the main land routes to reach the Rest before its fall. The jungle, along with the Cataclysm, destroyed the feasibility, or rather, the desirability of any to re-establish the road. Nonetheless, I wanted to follow what I could of the old road and set down it.
It was a difficult passage. The thickness and trickery of the jungle combined with mounds of rubble. Some of the rubble seemed to be happenstance, while others appeared to be deliberate. I could not tell when they had been built or by whom. They should have served as a warning to me, for what I finally came upon was unexpected and even terrifying. It was what appeared to be an abandoned village.
The architecture was reminiscent of the ruins of old River's Rest, but it was not in ruin itself, nor had the jungle swallowed it up. The streets appeared empty, but something or someone made a conscious effort to keep them cleared. It was not surprising that I felt as if I were being watched the entire time, but it was worrisome that I could not either evade their gaze or catch my watchers in the act. There, too, was also the smell. It was similar to death, but sweeter and oddly familiar. I could not place it, however.
Much of the day I had wasted in careful travel to the village, and it was not long before I found myself in the town center with the sun setting beyond the Western horizon. The growing darkness only increased the intensity of the feeling I was being watched. Then the sounds began. The crying sound of babes and children, but off. As if in imitation of the wants and needs of young children, the sounds disturbed me greatly. I called out then for the first time, announcing myself, and demanding that those who watched me to reveal themselves. My voice echoed off the walls of the village's buildings and seemed to have pierce some unknown dam of silence, for immediately following came a flood of voices. Again, human-like, but off. There were so many and so sudden, I could hear only snippets, "A real human..." "Not a shade...." "Were they not all dead..." "Let us take him..."
It was the last that I comprehended and which was followed by the sound of many hooves striking the earth. My initial belief was that I was surrounded by centaurs or men on some form of mount, but this was to be soon dashed. These I could have handled, but I was not prepared for what the light of the rising moon revealed to me. Of all the creations of the Gods in Elanthia, perhaps they were the most wronged in appearance, bearing semblance to a cruel mishmash of goat and man. Hooved feet steadied them, the strange pupil-ed eyes of goats they gazed at me with which were joined by a goat-like muzzle and floppy ears that sprouted from a mass of hair that seemed distinctively human-like. Hands like mine or yours gripped what appeared to be weapons, and coarse pieces of clothing covered their bodies, like afterthoughts to preserving the chasteness of one's appearance.
I was virtually surrounded and not just by warriors, but by creatures of all types, be it from what might be male to what might be considered their young offspring. Escape seemed nearly impossible and so I drew upon one craft of any rat, when outnumbered and underpowered, act the opposite. In the time that the true nature of your circumstances are confirmed, one can usually find a means of escape. And so it was that I stalked toward them, removed an amulet in which a minor flame spell was imbedded and rubbed it, casting forward a ball of flame. The light, it seemed, immediately pained them, many shielding their eyes and stepping away from the source of the irritant. "Explain yourselves, or I shall burn you all to Lornon!" I shouted and quietly admitted that it was well that I did not write for minstrel companies. Fortunately, it seemed that these goat people had not the time to have seen or experienced any acting superior to my own. In the next breathless minutes, I learned of who they were and where pray tell they had come from.
A tall one emerged from them, perhaps a leader, perhaps just one who opted to speak first and related to me the tale of their presence.
The village had been their home for centuries. Long ago, their people had been but one small part of an army which had sought new land in the west. It had descended from the depths of the mountains to the east along with many others, such as trolls, and creatures no longer remembered and no longer feared. Much of the western world had been conquered and a great empire had been overwhelmed. His people had heard that a jewel yet remained to be plundered and taken, of good lands and water which surrounded it. For it was located upon an island, though one guarded by a great fortress. The leaders of his people's army had believed it to be vulnerable and had moved against it. In the process, it had occupied this village, and as the army maneuvered against the defenders, the ancestors of his people had been ordered to remain here in reserve and so they had.
It was to my concealed surprise that those who stood before me, who surrounded me, were a people, monsters perhaps, forgotten by time. Fiercely loyal to the orders of their leaders, they had not dared leave the village even as the hours turned to days, which turned to months, passed. Years became decades, the leader told me, and the young grew old, and the old died. Their numbers decreased, and as the decades became centuries, they realized that to maintain their numbers they would need to expand their population. They turned to the villagers. In my ignorance I had assumed the people of the village slaughtered, but instead I learned they had been merely enslaved. Forced to gather food and eventually, to my growing inner horror, forced to perpetuate the monsters. None but the shades of the former inhabitants remained today, but I saw in the appearances of my potential captors, the truth of their story in the shape of their hands and other all too human features.
Perhaps it was then that they saw in me that which I had seen in them. Before them stood an enemy and perhaps even, breeding stock. They were zealots, a people who still adhered to orders given by those who had long ago died and only slightly more recently, whose bones had surely turned to dust. I sensed in them a hungry desire for reward for the sacrifices, both painful and pleasurable, they had endured to see that order fulfilled and continued. I looked into the eyes, some quite alien and others fearfully similar to my own, and realized that I had but one option left to me. Like a good river rat, I ran.
Focused so intently upon their prize, my abrupt departure caught them by surprise and provided me with just enough distance and time to escape toward the jungle. Never in my life had I heard such a cacophony of animal-like and very human screams. When I wake at night, covered in a cold sweat, it is because such vocalizations of anger, rage, and desire, haunt my dreams. I did not come to a stop until I had reached the relative safety of the jungle and caught the breath I did not know until then I had lost. What was the true origin of these people? Where had they come from precisely? How long would their obedience last before they emerged from the jungles and a thousand years of exile to discover the Rest? These questions I worried upon as I returned to the Warren and the safety it at least allowed me to pretend it possessed.
Published January 22, 2014.