All along the watchtower
"Well if that's how you see it, them's your choices, Mournwolder! Suck it up!" Jasna pushed her seat back, as she shouted at the local sat opposite her. His reaction startled her. He started laughing. Bitter, hollow laughter.
"Oh really schlacta? Don't you know our history? There's never just two choices." He leaned in, his face angry and intimidating.
"We're Marchers... when our backs are to the wall, and some arrogant prick is trying to tell us how important it is that we toe the line and do as we're told ... we march."And at that he stood up, threw a handful of coins on the table, and walked out of the tavern."
For thirty years much of the Mournwold has languished under Jotun control. A handful of villages held out along with Overton in Greensward, but for many the Empire became a distant memory. As the seasons turned a generation were born knowing nothing but Jotun dominion. Now at last a great host of Imperial armies has entered the Mourn. But the Empire's magic designed to bleed the Jotun has claimed many innocent lives. With the destruction wrought by their magic it seems certain that the Empire will defeat the Jotun - what is less certain is how they will claim victory.
Imperial generals have been meticulous in issuing orders to their troops instructing them to avoid any civilian casualties, but while their concern is worthy the instructions are unnecessary. Imperial armies are made up of professional soldiers, drilled and disciplined; not some ravening fire destroying everything in their path. Imperial officers strive to ensure the minimum civilian casualties from their actions unless they are specifically ordered to by their generals. Ironically the Jotun fight in a very similar style. The deaths of countless Mournwold civilians have not happened as the result of soldiers run amok at any point - they happened when the Imperial magicians explicitly summoned magic to bring death to everyone in the territory. The legacy of this act lingers in the grim demeanour of every yeoman the Imperial armies encounter.
Now that act has been complemented by the actions of the Iron Helms as their pursue their merciless onslaught against the Jotun, using any tactics necessary to break their enemies' spirit. This strategy is succeeding - the Jotun are falling back in terror. General Akstis Eigulys of the Iron Helms has given clear orders that his troops are only to slaughter the Jotun warriors in this way - no civilians are assaulted, they are allowed to pass unhindered. No Mournwold or orc civilian (of which there are many) have been harmed - but for the actions of the Iron Helms to work they have to be visible to everyone. Perhaps if this order had not come a season after the Empire used magic to kill a sixth of the population of the Mournwold things might have been different. But with that recent deed still fresh in their memory, many Mournwolders are watching the cruelty of the Iron Helms and thinking about what that means for them should the General issue fresh orders next season.
The situation in the Mournwold is dire. Imperial soldiers are now openly shunned, or driven away with rough music. This is not what most Marchers had in mind when they set out to free the Mourn. The Jotun are clearly on the back foot, but the mood of the Mourn grows darker with every passing season. The Empire has just put out one fire in the north, it will need to find a way back from this abyss if it is to avoid starting many more.
At present the situation is so complicated that the civil service are unable to identify a single clear action that the Empire could take to redress the situation. Instead they have identified a number of different approaches the Empire might consider, all of which would have some effect if they could be done - but not enough by themselves. But if the Empire pursued most of the options identified at this stage, it would at least be enough to get prominent Mournworlders to talk to them about the problem.
What categorically will not work at this stage is words. The Way teaches that there is no virtue in words - only in actions. There is nothing people can say to the people of the Mournwold at this time that is going to change this situation - but the right actions might be sufficient to start addressing the problem.
He pulled out the folded parchment, and silently read it for the third time, his lips moving slowly as he read.
"our Empire has begun to lose ... it is not too late ... uplift the spirit ... I do not believe that the children of the Jotun are ‘monsters’, to be thus scourged ... It is only with your will and when we act together - in inspiration and benevolence - that we shall ultimately prevail."
He scratched at a scab of bark on his cheek, sighed, folded the letter carefully and put it away again.
Landry and Becks turned up together, as was their wont. There was the usual slightly stilted exchange of pleasantries and small talk.
"Do you want the good news or the bad news," she began. Pleasantries were over. Shem stood up and joined her by the old stone.
"I like to start with the good news," he said.
"Well there isn't any." she snapped. "Tell him, Landry."
"I spoke to a tinker at the market," Landry chimed in. "The problem with the regio? It's not just us. Oliver Ashill says it's up his way too, says everyone is asking about it. She said it's the same in Madeiras as well. And Becks spoke..."
"Euan Blackswan says it's everywhere," Becks interrupted. "Whole empire. Not a single coven can draw on a single Spring regio.""Oh." Shem said. He knew he wasn't really adding much to the conversation but he just felt so ... hollow. Cold to his stomach. Empty. All that work... for nothing...
Several landskeepers from the neighbouring territories have come over the border to try and talk to the Mournwolders - to try to convince them that the incident with the winter and spring curses at the start of the year were an aberration and that those responsible have been punished. Copies of Empress Lisabetta's address to the Empire were distributed.
Eventually they begin to put together a plan. Rivers of Life is a potent Spring ritual that could be used to help the Mourn. It's not going to bring back any of the dead of course, but it protects against Rivers Run Red, it would give succour to people in the territory and to make them feel safer. Of course a few of the landskeepers realize such a decision might not suit the wishes of the Military Council, but the Empress has been emphatic about reducing casualties - this would be something the Empire could actually do to reduce the amount of killing in the Mournwold.
The Mournwolders have almost nothing - there are few magicians of any worth and little mana to perform the ritual. But they figure if they can convince the Conclave with some kind of declaration or something - then maybe they can get the Conclave to cast the ritual for them. It wouldn't solve the problem - but it would be a start. Half a plan!
And then word comes down that the Empire has lost the ability to perform powerful Spring rituals... which has largely stymied the plan. It is clear is that substantive actions taken to reduce the number of casualties on all sides would influence how those who live here view what is happening. But how that might be achieved is no longer clear.
The monks and friars of the Marches condemn the lack of Vigilance shown in not facing the threats posed by cursing the Mourn. We condemn the lack of Loyalty shown to the 250,000 Marchers left there. The Urizen General has been rebuked by the Synod. The Warmage has lost his seat over this. Those responsible shall be held to account.Marcher National Assembly, Spring Equinox 381YE, Martin Orchard, Upheld 46 - 0
The Marcher National Assembly have taken actions to ensure that the people of the Mournwold are aware that as a result of thousands of Marcher citizens being killed with magical curses, the Urizen General has been rebuked and the Warmage has lost their seat. The statement is largely falling deaf ears at the moment - but from all the dark talk about a wicker man, it is clear that little short of summary execution or voluntary immolation would mollify their anger. Still, a few people are able to at least make the case that the Empire has demonstrated a change of heart.
Unfortunately these advocates for the Empire are forced to eat their own words when news arrives that the Imperial Conclave has added another potent Spring curse to Imperial lore. It is hard to make a case that anyone regrets the use of Spring curses on the Mournwold when the Empire is busily adding yet more rituals of this kind to lore. And the timing is particularly unhelpful. In other nations magicians are studying the ritual and wondering how they might use it on their enemies... but the response of the few Mournwolders who can do magic is to study the ritual to see how they might best protect themselves against it.
People have queried if a ritual might be removed from Imperial lore before now. In theory there is no legal mechanism by which such a thing might be accomplish, but Harry Archer, an enterprising thresher from Mitwold has come up with an option. The Imperial Conclave can interdict a ritual text - and they can give instruction for the thing they interdict to be destroyed. This declaration is usually applied to an item - or a small class of items - but Harry points out that in theory the Conclave might choose to interdict every single known copy of a ritual text - giving orders for them to be destroyed. If that were done - then the effect would be identical to if the ritual had never been added to lore.
The thresher has spoken to the civil service and they have confirmed that while there is no fundamental constitutional bar to this approach, it is not consistent with the current law. While interdicted magic items or materials should be handed in promptly to the civil service this explicitly does not apply to interdicted rituals, which are simply illegal to perform. Magistrates advise that a change to the law would be required to create a new Conclave power to accomplish this. They argue that it would be appropriate to create a new power and they warn it would be expensive - they calculate it would cost 25 thrones per named ritual to seek out and destroy every copy of each of those ritual texts in the Empire. It has been impishly suggested that this power could be called a Declaration of Remorse.
It would be incredibly expensive to remove Rivers Run Red from Imperial Lore but it would be a clear step to demonstrate to the folk of the Mourn that the Empire regretted the decision to use that ritual. It would need to be done alongside removing Mountain Remembers its Youth though - leaving one or the other rituals in Imperial lore would achieve nothing. If these rituals are removed it would not prevent anyone who has mastered the ritual from continuing to cast it but it will no longer be available to learn without a ritual text.
"Free us!" Jasper slammed his fist down on the table. "Free us? You stuck up bloody town-boy! You've got some flaming cheek!"
Jenna rocked back in her seat at the fury in the old man's eyes, and the raw passion in his voice.
"You aren't here to free us. You're here to kill Jotun! That's all! It's not about us, it's about you - what you want. We're just another battleground. Our home is just a place where you can kill Jotun."
"That's not..." Jenna shot back but Jasper was not listening.
"Shut ya trap! I've listened to your sanctimonious drivel all night! You cannot say you are here to free us from the yoke of the Jotun when you killed thousands of us. Thousands! And for what? So you could butcher as many orcs as possible. You spent a year telling us it were wrong to Hate the Jotun. You sent that poor Whittler sod to the Labyrinth for it ... and the entire time, the entire time, your only reason for being in the Mourn is because you want to kill the Jotun!"
Jasper hurled his mug against the wall where it shattered. Jenna felt her own wrath rising.
"You'd rather live as a slave then?"
"Seems to me we get to live as a slave whatever happens, all that's changed is that the Jotun never pretended we were anything else!"
Many Mournwolders feel betrayed by the Imperial Synod. After a year of criticizing the people of Whittle for their hatred of the Jotun, culminating in the execution of one of their spiritual leaders, the Empire appears to have demonstrated that they despise the Jotun every bit as much as the Whittle folk. The accusation on many lips is that the Empire is not really here to give the Mourn back to the Mournwolders - they are just here to kill as many Jotun as possible.
At this stage, the Marcher assembly and the rest of the Imperial Synod is going to find it impossible to move the hearts and minds of the people of the Mournwold. Indeed, given the way liao works to amplify situations, creating auras across the Mourn is likely to make the situation worse. Giving an angry population Courage, or making them Ambitious, or Proud... could end very badly. The Hierro clan demonstrated the risks in encouraging people to pursue virtue.
What would help is some concrete gesture that demonstrated that this war was being fought for the benefit of the Marcher people who live in the Mournwold. Something the Empire could do that would show these people that this was about freeing them - not killing Jotun. One way the Empire could do that is to allocate the Singing Caves, the mithril Bourse resource located on the Greensward near Overton, as a national seat rather than an Imperial one. Having one of their own in charge of the mine, rather than have some over-dressed League Prince (everyone seems to agree that the League will own it) would blunt the accusation that this war was only ever about killing the Jotun.
The Senate recently voted to allocate the seat to the Marchers - but the decision was vetoed by The Throne. If the mine is brought back under Imperial control that decision will need to be made again. The Empress has been crystal clear that the Prosperity of the Empire depends on resources like the Singing Caves being Imperial. It remains to be seen if she prefers to go down in history as a prudent ruler in the tradition of Empress Mariika or a benevolent leader like Emperor Frederick.
Land matters above all else to Marchers. They defend what they have to the death - and they expect other Marchers to do the same. The Marcher generals understood that; General Will Talbot of the Drakes understood that. If Imperial strategy in the Mourn had been spearheaded by Marcher generals leading Marcher armies things might have been different. But the folk of the Mournwold watched in disgust over winter as countless Imperial armies gave ground before the Jotun advance. And to prove their point that no true Marcher would have done that... when everyone else was falling back... the Drakes were given orders to hold their ground, to fight for every inch of land. In the view of many here that's not just how Marchers should fight - that's how everyone should fight.
Of course those who study strategy can well understand the value of giving ground. Falling back at the right time can be essential to save an army or to win a campaign in the long run. But the people of the Mournwold don't see it like that - and extolling the virtue of the strategic value of a well-organized retreat just annoys them all the more. If you're not fighting for your land... what in Virtue's name are you fighting for?
Recent actions have led many in the Mourn to question what the Empire is fighting for. So Friar Agnes has proposed a way that the Marchers might show some solidarity with the people of the Mourn and by doing so they can show the Empire what they are fighting for. Having heard that General Talbot was interested in ways to win hearts and minds she has sent a message to his office with a proposal for a mandate that the Marcher National Assembly could pass.
Land matters above all else. Marcher armies should always stand their ground to defend what is theirs. We send X with 25 doses of liao to spread the word that no Marcher army should ever give ground.Synod Mandate
The Marchers are naturally inclined to such a mindset, so it would not take much to convince them of the wisdom of this approach - and once it was agreed there would be no going back. If this mandate were enacted, it would become impossible for any Marcher general to issue the order to give ground to their army.
Such an action would not solve all the problems in the Mourn. It wouldn't do anything for the Empire's standing here - but it would improve the standing of the Marcher nation in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Mourn. It would demonstrate that the people of Upwold, Mitwold, and Bregasland shared their passion to defend their lands. It would help them view other Marchers as just like them, rather than lumping them in with the rest of the Empire which is what is happening at the moment.
Of course there is a way that the Empire could demonstrate that they shared the concerns of the Mournwold people. The General Assembly could pass a version of the mandate for all Imperial armies. That would require ten times the amount of liao - this change of strategy would be a hard sell in many lands. But giving up the ability for any Imperial army to give ground would prove to the people of the Mournwold that the Empire is here fighting for their land.
"It's just a warning, we're here to look after you." said the schlacta on the doorstep.
"Thank you for your warning." Gwen's voice was frosty enough to wither grass.
He hoped she'd keep her temper under control. He was under no illusion how easily the soldiers could kill her, him, and all three children. Burn the house and the field, Salt the ground. Put their bodies on ... he took a deep shaky breath. He hugged little Beth, her face pale and her eyes brimming with tears. She was being braver than he was. He forced a smile, held her close, whispered how well she was doing. Hugged her tighter.
"We know they're around and they're likely to be desperate. If you see them, let us know. We'll make sure you're safe."
"I will certainly bear that in mind," Gwen's voice was level, but Jim could see her shoulders vibrating with tension. He knew her well enough to know that she was fighting the urge to give the Varushkan captain a piece of her mind. Or show her the back of her hand..
"If that's everything, I have work to be getting on with. Don't let me keep you."
The soldier showed no sign of moving. She took off her oddly shaped helmet, held it in the crook of her arm, wiped the sweat from her scarred face with one thick hand. She was older than he had expected, her long braided hair steel grey.
"Look. These vermin are dangerous. Crafty. You and your family could be in danger. Don't let the stories fool you, they'll fight like cornered rats if their backs are to the wall."
Gwen took a deep, sharp breath in through her nose. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, her words precise.
"We have lived with them for the best part of thirty years - we know exactly what they are like thank you." She picked her words carefully. "Now, shall I get you all an oatcake and a mug of milk? For the road?"
At her words, Jim stopped breathing, his heart pounding. He was proud of his wife's courage, but deathly afraid she might have overstepped the mark. Everything teetered on a knife edge.
The Varushkan captain pressed her lips together tightly and spun on her heel, jamming her helmet back into place. Without another word she strode across the yard, collecting the four soldiers lounging at the gate.
Gwen shut the door, and leant her forehead against it for a moment. Then she moved to the window to watch, making sure the soldiers have left. Once it was clear they were not coming back, she pulled back the homespun rug on the kitchen floor, and lifted the wooden trapdoor beneath. She glared down into the root cellar. A half dozen frightened faces stared back up at her.
"They've gone for now, but they won't go far." she said quietly. "You'll not make it a field's length before they catch you. You're going to have to stay here at least another night, maybe two. So settle in, and keep quiet or paragons preserve me I'll stick you on spikes myself!"
None of the huddled orcs said anything. Hjordgar just nodded his head twice to show he understood. Gwen let the trapdoor drop again.Jim picked Beth up, caught his wife in a tight hug. Beth began to cry silently. Gwen kissed her on the brow. They clung together, not speaking, listening to the column of soldiers outside marching south-west toward the Whatmore place.
The Jotun forced those who served them to toil hard regardless of their race. For three decades, those Marchers who were forced to become thralls have worked alongside the orc thralls that the invaders brought with them. They are not friends, by any stretch, what they are, however, is neighbours. In some places that bond has grown surprisingly strong. Some of these people have more in common, more shared experience of hard work in fields and mines, than they do with the people across the border in Tassato, or Kahraman.
Some of these thralls have fled the Mourn, but most have been trapped, desperately trying to avoid the clashes between the armies. Now that the Empire is on the advance, the Marcher inhabitants are able to return to their farms and look after themselves - but the orc thralls have no lands to go back to and with Imperial armies on the rampage things are becoming increasingly dangerous for them. Their supplies are running low - and winter is coming.
Of all the problems in the Mourn, this is the only one that can be solved by throwing money at it. But it would take a lot of money... it would need 75 thrones a season to provide enough food to feed the orc thralls until a permanent solution can be found. Doing so would not remove the current antagonism in the Mourn, but it would demonstrate that the Empire was absolutely serious about ensuring that the Jotun thralls were not to be harmed by the war. And that would help improve the standing of the Empire with those Marchers who have worked side by side with the thralls for so long.
People don't do the right thing because they care about others. That is the lie we tell ourselves. The truth is that we do these things to feel better about ourselves. To tell ourselves that we are not monsters. It is only people like us, people who know that they are monsters, who don't have to bother with the games of children. The greatest strength I have is to know myself.Empress Varkula, Letter to Karsk Senator
The situation in the Mournwold is dire - nobody can deny that the territory is dry field awaiting a flame. While there are fifty thousand Imperial troops driving the Jotun before them, nobody is going to take up arms. There will be plenty of shouting and bawling and whining about the price, but people will put up and shut up. But once those armies are sent elsewhere, it is anybodies guess what will happen. Thus many folk are focussed on what can be done to resolve the problem. Some way to sooth angry tempers, to calm frayed nerves, some magic spell to make everyone be happy again. Only a few have had the Courage to point out that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
It's nothing to do with "cruelty" - it's to do with laying down the law. Everyone wants to believe that this war is about freeing the Mournwold, but there is another way to look at it. The Jotun control this land - now the Empire is coming with sword and shield to conquer it. They have done it before - how do people think Holberg ended up part of the Empire? They might have chosen to "join" the League, but they weren't interested in joining anything until the Dawnish armies conquered every piece of land they could see from their mountaintop. Once the writing on the wall was plain for them to see - they found loyalty and joined up.
It's not going to be pleasant - a lot of Marchers are pretty pig-headed. You put a spear to their belly and tell them to decide whether they're for the Empire or the Jotun and some of them are going to be dumb enough to choose a quick trip back to the Labyrinth. But the grim truth is that if the Empire comes in and forces these people to decide where their loyalty lies then plenty of them are going to see which way the wind is blowing. And the ones that don't... the ones that end up dead? Those are the ones that were going to be trouble anyway... The bitter truth that nobody will want to accept is that you can either have this trouble now... when you have fifty thousand Imperial boots on the ground... or you can have it in two years time when the territory is empty, the Jotun are massing and the armies are engaged elsewhere.
Sure, laying down the law will leave a bitter taste that may never wash out. These people are going to be hostile and angry for years to come. But they will do what they are told, they will get their freedom whether they want it or not, the Jotun will be driven out - and the Empire will have the Mourn back. They will have to build some fortifications to make sure nobody rebels... but that's it. If the Empire wants these people to love them... then they're going to have wipe their tears for them. But they don't have to do that. The people in the Mourn are already angry, the Empire might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb as the Marchers say. If the Empire is prepared to settle for obedience then there is a much more effective way to get the job done...
To accomplish this the Imperial Senate could pass legislation authorizing Imperial armies to lay down the law in the Mournwold. An example of a suitable wording to accomplish this might be:
The current opinion of the constitutional court is that a motion drafted in such terms would have constitutional implications and require ratification by The Throne.
If this law is passed by the senate any Imperial general whose army is in the Mournwold this season may choose to issue the order to Lay Down the Law.
- All casualties inflicted by this army are increased by a tenth.
- The ability of this army to conquer territory is decreased by a tenth.
- The army will ruthlessly suppress any dissent in the conquered territory.
If five or more Imperial armies follow this order, then any simmering rebellion in the Mourn will be ended before it can begin. If less than five armies submit this order, then only the regions that those specific armies capture will be conquered and forced to yield. If any Imperial general issues one of these orders then all other options presented here will fail.
If you are playing a character who is from the Mourn, or has family there, then as a PC you are absolutely free to choose your own view of the current conflict that is raging there. Your character should know people who died from the curses enacted over Winter, and if you have been there recently then you should be aware of the anger and resentment that is widespread. But there are Mournwolders on all sides of the arguments - so your character's position is perfectly valid whatever it is.
During the Summer Solstice, the Marcher assembly successfully raised the mandate that Marcher armies would never give ground again. Mel of Mourn took liao to spreadnews of this mandate to the armies and people of the Marches. As a consequence, no Marcher army can ever again take the give ground order.