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The Epic of Karolan

The World of Our Story

The homeland of most of the characters, Karolan lies between the great mountains to the south, the unpeopled forests to the north, the realm of Norkath to the east, and the realm of Cembar to the west (see the map for more detail). The people, known collectively as the Karolans, generally revere the king, who has power to call together the Army of All Karolan, levy taxes, and choose his own successor. However, the Karolans have a long history of passionate desire for freedom, and the kings have usually respected this. Taxes are low, the legal code is simple, and service in the Army of All Karolan is voluntary. Most of the population of Karolan are free peasants or merchants, but knights who dwell in castles have small feudal holdings peopled by serfs. The serfs are generally well treated, and can appeal to the king against their feudal overlord if necessary.

The Knights of Karolan: The Knights of Karolan are a well-trained military aristocracy. Some of them control strategically placed castles throughout the land, and are called by the names of their fortresses: for example, the lord of Castle Metherka is called Sir Metherka, whatever his given name. Knights derive their wealth partly from their feudal holdings, but more from royal gifts after heroic military service, and, in some cases, from commercial investments. They are expected by the king to maintain themselves, their grown sons, and a small household army in excellent training for war. Knights that do not have their own castles sometimes join the households of those that do. If a castle-holding knight dies without a male heir, the king generally awards his castle to a knight who is currently without one.

Knights must solemnly pledge themselves to obey the ancient Code of the Knights of Karolan, a set of far-reaching promises of chivalry, heroism, moral purity, and obedience to the king. Many times this Code has come to be ignored by a majority of the knights, but this has always been reversed eventually: the decreased honor paid them by the populace has inspired the knights to renewed reverence for their Code, or else a new king has arisen and demanded their return to loyal obedience.

Young men who aspire to knighthood must be rigorously trained from the age of ten, and knighted by the king himself after an all-night prayer vigil, even if they are heirs to a hereditary title. Men of any prior station who display exceptional courage, strength, and character in time of battle can be knighted on the battlefield by the king. This is called a field-knighting. It is very rare, and is the only instance where both the years of training and the prayer-vigil are dispensed with. Knights created on the field of battle are held in awe because of the heroic deeds required to attain this honor.

Nirolad the Great: The spirit of Karolan is strongly influenced by the partially mythologized history of Nirolad the Great, a king who ruled several centuries before the time of our story. When told that the wild Zarnith barbarians were coming from the great desert south of the mountains, with an overwhelming force against which resistance was futile, Nirolad nonetheless gathered an army and went out to fight them. He never had to, because Dradrag the Zarnith warlord attempted to lead his men into Karolan by crossing the great mountains. Neither their own fierce determination nor the fear of punishment by Dradrag sufficed to get the Zarnith warriors over the impassible mountains, though thousands died in the attempt. Nirolad's army returned to Karolan without battle, rejoicing alike that their courage was proven, and that Karolan need never again fear attack from the south: the mountains were an impenetrable shield. The Karolans identified their own courage with the unconquerable stone of their mountains. In all the years following Nirolad's reign they were never subjugated by a foreign army, though sometimes they drove out invading forces with fearful cost, after the enemy had maintained control over large portions of territory for many months.

It was also Nirolad who, in later years long after the Zarnith had gone back to their own land, welcomed travelers from a distant land who brought word of a new religion. Karolan already had traditional gods and supernatural stories, of course, but Nirolad listened to the newcomers with interest. They brought word of dead men raised to life and incurable sicknesses cured in broad daylight, before many witnesses, at a time and place well known and recorded. There was one central figure in their stories, from whom all the miracles came, who was eventually killed by the leaders in the land because his influence with the people frightened them. He was dead three days, and then came alive again — by his own power. He claimed by his death to have brought about peace between humanity and one mighty God, the creator of all. He claimed to be lord and healer of all who would accept his message and entrust themselves to him. The stories seemed akin in some ways to the stories of the ancient gods of Karolan, but somehow more real — as though the old stories had been dim guesses at the truth that was now revealed. After many months of pondering, and after reading a large set of books that they had brought, Nirolad called all Karolan together and announced that he was converting to the new religion of the travelers. He talked long before a huge host of people, explaining his reasons. In the end, much of Karolan was converted to that faith, the stories of the old gods perished, and the Books of the Travelers, as they were called, were widely known and honored in the land.

More is known of Nirolad, which is forgotten by those who only revere him as a mythological hero. It is remembered by scholars, however, including the Knights of Karolan. Dradrag the Zarnith warlord did not return home after his disastrous defeat by the Mountains of Karolan. Instead, he led his still-formidable host west, to where the mountain shield ended, and invaded the land of Cembar. The king of Cembar appealed to Nirolad for help, but Nirolad would not risk the annihilation of his army to protect any land but his own. Cembar was brutally overrun. For months the Zarnith raped, burned, and pillaged. They hunted and killed the survivors for sport. Nirolad did nothing, simply hoping the Zarnith would not sweep east into Karolan. They did not. At last they simply took all the Cembaran plunder they could carry, and returned to their own land, away beyond the edge of knowledge in the extreme south. Nirolad's decision not to intervene was understandable, if hardly heroic — but when the surviving remnant of Cembar began to rebuild, they pledged themselves to hate Karolan and all its people forever.

Karolan's immediate neighbor to the east, Norkath is bounded on the north by the vast reaches of uninhabited forest, just as is Karolan: As one travels north in the northernmost provinces of both nations, the land becomes less and less populated until it fades into true wilderness. Although the great mountains that guard Karolan continue east of the border, they do not form the southern boundary of Norkath as they do of Karolan. They decrease in height to the east. The first pass is at Luciyr, in the extreme southeast corner of Karolan itself. A much easier way through the mountains is found considerably farther east, at Drantar's Gap in central southern Norkath. The easy passage through the mountains at Drantar's Gap has allowed the people of Norkath, collectively known as Norkaths, to populate an area south of the mountains, both east and west of Drantar's Gap. This southern transmontane province of Norkath is fertile and well-populated, unlike the land south of Karolan, where the uninhabitable desert begins right at the mountains' feet. Farther south, however, even Norkath fades into the true desert that forms its southern boundary.

Karolan and Norkath share the same language with only slight differences in dialect and accent. They have historically shared similar governmental organizations, but the people of Norkath do not have the same tradition of liberty, so the king tends to wield more power. The army of Norkath is gathered by conscription, enforced by fines or other punishment. The knights of Norkath are a larger, less elite body than the Knights of Karolan. A small minority of them hold castles in the same manner as the Knights of Karolan, and these tend to act as military commanders over the others. The majority are little more than a moderately trained heavy cavalry. Collectively, however, they greatly outnumber the Knights of Karolan, and constitute a force to be reckoned with in pitched battle.

Monks in Norkath: Norkath appears to have been converted to the faith taught in the Books of the Travelers sometime after the reign of Nirolad in Karolan. Probably the new faith was brought by Karolan missionaries, but it remained less widespread and influential in Norkath than in Karolan. However, a tradition of monastaries developed in Norkath, which Karolan did not share. The monks live simply and communally, but are not sequestered from the communities they seek to influence. They appear to preserve the religion of the travelers with integrity and purity, and they labor to teach it in their surrounding communities. Norkath monks are admired for their charity, humility, and wisdom. They are exempt from military conscription, but have often followed the armies of Norkath with supplies and medical care for the wounded. They traditionally sing while walking in groups for charitable purposes, a habit which is much-loved by the Norkath populace. They have the best developed tradition of musical excellence in Norkath or Karolan, and many of the melodies used even for secular songs in the two countries originate with them.

Selgomae: The history of Norkath and Karolan is a patchwork of wartime and peacetime. Intervals of amicable peace could last decades, but so could periods of intermittent war punctuated only by short and hostile truces. Neither nation has been consistently ascendent, or consistently more justified in its wars than the other. The Norkath-Karolan war which the Norkaths remember most proudly was the war of Selgomae.

Selgomae was the daughter of one of the most important knights in Norkath. Poets of Norkath wrote of her that none more beautiful had ever been born — that one look in her face could drive men mad. She had many suitors, and rejected them all, explaining to each why she thought him unworthy. Some called her proud, but others felt that, indeed, she saw the hearts of men clearly, named their flaws rightly, and turned away from them with good reason.

In the time of Selgomae the king of Karolan was named Garthan, who in later years was termed Garthan the Vulture. Garthan was a clever man, who used the rich treasury of Aaronkal to bribe many knights and warriors, until he had a large force who pledged unquestioned loyalty to him alone. He gained the submission of others through fear, once he was strong. He was a lustful and cruel man, and he used his army, and the fear of it, to obtain for himself any woman in Karolan he desired. Those who resisted, he killed with their families. Those who submitted were often never seen again, so it is likely that he killed them as well, when he tired of them. When Selgomae was in her thirtieth year, Garthan came on a visit of state to Mengak the king of Norkath, with whom he was then at peace. As the kings feasted together in the royal Norkath citadel of Guldorak, Selgomae put on her finest clothes and sought an audience with them.

Garthan immediately desired her, and she spoke to him with kindness and admiration that she did not feel — and then turned and vanished in the night. Garthan sent messages asking for her hand, and she refused him. He returned to his own land and called for the muster of the Army of All Karolan. Selgomae spoke to King Mengak. She went through all the provinces stirring up the knights in their castles and the peasants at their taverns with words of the vileness of Garthan. She it was who first called him Vulture.

At last Garthan brought his army to the Norkath border. Mengak came with his army to meet him, but before battle was joined, he sent a messenger to Garthan to ask why he had broken the peace. Garthan explained that he would return without battle if Selgomae were brought to him. Then Mengak spoke as Selgomae had requested: he said Selgomae, knowing her danger, had fled to Karolan — and it was true.

Secretly she had gone through Karolan, hiding her beauty sometimes, at others showing herself so as to capture men's hearts, at all times putting forth all her wisdom to find those with courage and will to oppose Garthan's evil. So it was that when Garthan turned back from the Norkath border to scour every part of his own land for Selgomae, he found her at the head of an army of his own knights and people that she had gathered against him. Selgomae's army of Karolans attacked Garthan's army, though they were greatly outnumbered. At the same time, King Mengak of Norkath led his army across the Karolan border to assail Garthan from the rear.

It was a fierce and bloody fight. The rebel army that Selgomae had gathered was routed, and she fled on a fast horse to circle the battle and join the Norkath host. But even the army of King Mengak seemed unable to stand against Garthan. When they were wavering, and seemed near to panic and defeat, Selgomae herself took a sword and rode to the front, splendidly dressed, without armor. She drove straight for Garthan himself, and killed three of his warriors before she was wounded and unhorsed. She fought wildly on foot, resisting all attempts to take her alive, until she was hewn down and trampled on the bloody grass. Then the wrath of Norkath rose like a fire, and Mengak's army fought until the Karolans broke and fled for Aaronkal. Mengak gave chase, but Garthan was too far ahead, and gained the castle — only to find it held against him.

Prince Corzogad, the son and heir of Garthan, had for long been sickened by his father's evil, but had not had courage to stand against it. He heard of Selgomae's rebellion too late to join it, but when the rebels were routed, he gathered some of them and rode to Aaronkal. So it was that when Garthan came there ahead of his fleeing army, Corzogad his son killed him on the steps of the great gate.

Corzogad and Mengak made peace, and they pardoned all who had fought with Garthan. But Garthan himself they hung by his feet from the top of a great pine. "Let the Vulture be eaten by vultures," said Mengak. Corzogad asked for Selgomae's body to be buried with great honor at Aaronkal, but the Norkaths would not hear of it. She was borne back to Norkath in state and buried at Guldorak in a tomb to rival those of kings.

Karolan's immediate neighbor on the west, Cembar is bounded on the north by forest wilderness in the same manner as Karolan and Norkath, and on the south by the westward continuation of the great mountains, and by the desert. The mountains drop in height as one goes west into Cembar, becoming only a line of low hills by central southern Cembar. However, the land south of the hills becomes uninhabitable desert almost immediately, so even though the ridge is easy to cross, it remains the effective southern border of Cembar.

The people of Cembar, known collectively as Cembarans, speak a language of very different origin from that of Karolan and Norkath. It is almost impossible for Karolans or Norkaths to learn to speak it fluently, without an obvious accent. The Cembarans have made use of this fact in practicing their ancient hatred against Karolan — born of Nirolad the Great's refusal to aid them against the Zarnith. It is a law in Cembar that any person of Karolan venturing within the borders may be taken as a slave by whoever finds him. Since foreigners cannot learn to speak the Cembaran language without an accent, Karolans are easily identified and captured. Thousands of Karolans are held as slaves in Cembar. Some are treated well enough, but neither law nor custom exists to restrain the brutality of masters who are inclined toward it.

Cembar has a powerful king, and, unlike Karolan and Norkath, a large standing army. The army is paid by the king, who, thanks to heavy taxes on the large merchant class, generally has more money at his disposal than the kings of Karolan or Norkath. Cembar has no knights, but does have a landowning aristocracy largely composed of wealthy merchants. Many of these are engaged in the slave trade, which is responsible for a large fraction of the Cembaran wealth.

Slave traders employ soldiers who, in time of peace, have little occupation. These are sent on raids to capture slaves from other realms in the far west — or perhaps even farther afield. There are rumors that the slave traders of Cembar have crossed the northern wastes to distant kingdoms of perpetual cold, and are familiar with wild desert tribes far south of their own land. The full extent of their journeys is not known, but it is likely that the people of Cembar have a considerably wider knowledge of geography than those of Norkath and Karolan. It is certain that foreigners from distant lands are more often present in Cembar than in Karolan or Norkath. Many are brought there as slaves, but some also come as wealthy slave-buyers.

Cembaran slave raids have been practiced against Karolan itself in times of upheaval when Karolan was believed to be weak. However, Cembar is generally cautious in its dealings with its eastern neighbor, believing Karolan to be, under normal conditions, considerably more powerful militarily. This is probably correct, since the Karolans are a more warlike people, and the volunteer Army of All Karolan generally exceeds the standing army of Cembar considerably in numbers. Nonetheless, the policy of capture and life-long slavery for any Karolans who wander into Cembar has continued relentlessly for centuries. From time to time, kings of Karolan have debated all out war with Cembar over the enslavement of their people. Unwillingness to start a brutal, costly war, combined in some cases with guilt over Nirolad's old abandonment, has prevented this so far.

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