Chilled to the bone
He fit the arrow to the bow. Taking care not to be heard he slowly breathed in and then quickly exhaled, two short sharp blasts of air through the wooden lure. The target moved, intrigued by the sound it swam slowly towards his hide. He gave another call, then a third, as he stretched the bow back.
Then from the south came the sound of voices. The bird took flight instantly, startled. He cursed silently, his morning wasted. He stood up to look for the source of the new sound, intending to give whoever it was a piece of his mind. But his jaw dropped in astonishment at the sight that greeted his eyes.
Row upon row of humans, clad in armour and wielding weapons were marching through the shallow waters. Three Hands ducked back down, hoping desperately that they hadn't seen him. Questions raced through his thoughts - who were they? - what were they doing here? - had they seen him?
He fought down the urge to panic - panic would see him dead before he got two paces. These must be Imperial soldiers! The only people in the world the Druj feared. If they were here - they must be intending to kill everyone. His only hope was to stay perfectly still and hope that he was no more visible to the soldiers than he had been to the duck.
The voices were silent now. Nothing to say. Nothing to do but hide. If they passed him by he would have a chance to warn the others to flee.
Dawnish and Varushkan armies have successfully invaded Ossium in the Mallum, the first expansion of the Empire's borders in decades. They have won a great battle on the Ghalath Fields, against a force many times their number, but these were farmers and labourers pressed into service by the Druj rather than warriors. Thus far there has been little sign of the Druj armies - or any significant number of their elite troops, their chikad, their hupul, and others. All the evidence appears to be that the Empire's attack has taken the Druj completely by surprise - and the victories reflect that.
Imperial forces are slowly spreading out across the territory as they assume military and political control of the settlements and people here. The work is made more dangerous by the lack of any maps or knowledge of the local area. It doesn't slow the advance, you can charge into the dark as easily as the light, but it does make it more challenging. Crucially it means that even though the Empire have captured a swathe of the territory, there remain large problems with working out what exactly they have conquered.
Still there are some clear victories that have been achieved - and that brings some useful opportunities.
The Crawling Depths
One invaluable prize has already fallen into Dawnish hands - the Crawling Depths. This is a vast mithril mine that lies below the crudely defended town of Lomaa. The town is apparently the clan seat of the Bone Serpent clan. Their symbol, a white snake, has been painted on the sides of buildings in many of the settlements, as a visible mark of their ownership of the land and the people who dwell here. The mark is literally on people; in some cases the Empire find orcs and humans in pens who have the symbol tatooed into their skin. For the most part though people wear plain green sashes hanging from rough rope belts with a crude white snake daubed on it.
The mine itself is a testament to the Druj cruelty, to their embrace of fear and misery. At first commanders assume the name is just typical Druj melodramatics, everything they control has to be turned into some over-wrought symbol of oppression - but they soon discover that the name is literal. This is not a mine in the sense that any Imperial citizen would understand, and no Imperial miner would deign to work it.
Rather than take the time to cut out wide shafts, supported by thick timbers, the Druj have cut hundreds of twisting passages deep underground that stretch for miles in some cases, but are rarely tall enough for a man or woman to rise from their hands and knees. There are long stretches where the passages are so narrow that it is impossible to turn around. Only where the mithril deposits are found is any serious excavation attempted - and then only enough to get the precious metal. There is little attempt to shore up workings, and safety is clearly not a consideration for anyone. The skilled folk of Moresvah who examine the mines are unimpressed with the crude Druj approach. "You can only carry out mining like this if you have absolutely no concern of any kind for the well being of those who work here," as Vitalia Camorovic Pravin puts it.
Tragically the mines are not just a way to work mithril, but a prison for those forced to toil here. The earliest galleries - long since played out - have been converted into rough living quarters. Behind the thick iron bars placed over the passageways that lead to them the Empire discover some five hundred slaves permanently penned here. The Druj forced them to work with a crude system of incentives - any slave could leave the pens at any time - to be allowed to crawl into the depths. They could remain there as long as they chose; when they returned they would be returned to the pens with the others but given food dependent on the amount of mithril they handed over.
Incredibly none of these slaves have ever seen the light of day. Never seen the sky, or felt the rain on their face. They were born in the mines - and none have ever possessed the slightest hope that they would ever leave. They are aware of the sky - but it has a mythical quality to them - a place akin to a heaven to which they go when they die. They have some learning, they have developed their own tiny community - any with the strength and will for it bring back food for the others, but they have a physician and his apprentice who tend to the wounded, a teacher who looks after the children while their parents hunt for mithril and tries to teach them simple lessons.
Freeing the slaves is a difficult thing for many. Soldiers who fought in the Reikos campaign have seen slaves before, but few people have ever seen another living being reduced to such a pitiable state. It is sobering to see grown people cowering from the light of day, desperately shielding their eyes from the sun, knowing that they have never seen this before in their entire life.
With the occupants of the mine freed, the skilled engineers of Moresvah are able to take a proper look at the Crawling Depths and it is clear that it has huge potential. They estimate it can produce 28 wains of mithril a season but only if it is completely overhauled. It would need a Senate commission, requiring a truly massive investment to bring the mine into a fit state to be used by free people. In all it would cost 300 thrones and take two seasons to complete (although mining could continue while the work was underway). Until those improvements are complete, the mine will produce only half the normal output. The only alternative would be to continue using the mine on the current basis, but nobody has the stomach to even suggest that; the Empire are not the Druj.
Representatives of the the Malinov, the Sloev and the Pravin families of Moresvah accompanying the Golden Axe are keen to offer their assistance in working the newly captured mithril mine, so it can begin producing immediately, albeit at the lower rate. The Imperial Senate can allocate the Crawling Depths as either Imperial or National at any point.
If they allocate the mine as a national position, they would need to choose an Imperial nation to take custody of it for the time being. This does not tie the hands of the Senate however. Once the territory were conquered and assigned, the mine would automatically become the legal responsibility of whichever territory Ossium is chosen to when the territory is added to the Empire.
Civil Service Summary
- The Crawling Depths is mithril bourse resource that produces 14 wains of mithril a season
- The Empire can use a Senate motion to commission the mines to be upgraded; this would cost 300 thrones and take two seasons
- Once upgraded output would double to 28 wains of mithril a season
- The Imperial Senate can allocate the Depths as Imperial or national
The Bitter Vats
The Crawling Depths are easily the most valuable resource that Imperial forces have managed to capture, and that makes it easy to overlook other gains. However in the centre of Lomaa is a great hall crafted from thick weirwood timbers. So much of the Druj construction is impoverished and slovenly that this building immediately stands out as something of interest.
Once the town is firmly under the control of Imperial forces, Dawnish and Varushkan commanders are able to take the time to investigate the structure. There are several deadly traps laid throughout the building, mostly poisons of one kind or another, designed to attack the unwary. The traps are cunning and well hidden, It's clear that the owners did not set these up just before they fled, they have been part of the protection guarding the building for some time.
Once the lethal mechanisms have been disarmed, the Empire are able to establish that the Bitter Vats are a truly remarkably structure, a massive herb garden on a scale rarely seen in the Empire. If this were a purely Imperial herb garden, it would produce around 32 herbs, given the incredible level of investment that has been put into it.
Of course this isn't an Imperial resource, it's a Druj workshop for a skilled apothecary. At the one end of the great hall is a series of great steel vats surrounded by ceramic vessels and pipes. The vats echo with a bitter stench that burns the nostrils of any who examine them, a residue of the caustic materials boiled down here. The vats are examined by a pair of skilled Dawnish apothecaries and they confirm that the vats could easily be returned to operation and that if that happened then they would produce a regular supply of deadly poisons. In effect the hall has been sacrificed some of the production of regular herbs - to focus on producing the kind of lethal venoms that have taken so many Imperial lives on the battlefield.
It's not just the herbs, there are extensive personal quarters here that are easily the most luxurious thing yet encountered in the Mallum. Large personal rooms, studies, and a small library (sadly stripped of its tomes). Whoever operated the Bitter Vats was clearly a wealthy and powerful Druj.
As a personal resource, the Bitter Vats are a spoil of war that will need to be distributed by the Military Council. They may choose to do that immediately - or to wait until the territory is assigned.
Civil Service Summary
- The Bitter Vats are a spoil of war - they are considered to be a level 10 herb garden that has been diversified in a unique fashion
- The Vats produce 6 true vervain, 2 cerulean mazzarine, 4 bladeroot, 2 Imperial roseweald and 2 marrowort each season
- The Vats also produce 4 doses of Oil of Blackthorn each season
- As with any spoil of war, the Vats will need to be assigned by the Military Council, and replace the recipient's existing personal resource.
- If the region of Ghalath Fields were reconquered by the Druj, control of the Bitter Vats would be lost.
The Sand Fishers
Ossium is home to many different groups of inhabitants, predominantly orcs, but also some humans. Without maps it is hard for the conquerors to assess things thoroughly but they have managed to identify what appear to be the two largest distinct groups that they have encounter so far. One of those, an orc clan who call themselves the Sand Fishers, were the first people the Empire met when invaded the Bittershore.
At first the Sand Fishers seem a fairly peaceful folk. They possess few weapons, only the odd bow and long knives that they use for hunting, fishing, and defence. Later it becomes clear that the Druj do not permit them anything more than this. Sand Fishers who show an inclination for battle, are conscripted into the Druj armies, and given weapons and armour by them. They return only occasionally to their homes, to see their families, but they rarely stay for long. Only a pitiful few ever return for good from the Druj armies, and only when they are no longer able to fight.
The Fishers are not wealthy and their lives are simple and spent mostly labouring to gather food. The majority of them live by fishing, catching fish, crabs, and eels from the shallow waters of the Semmerlak. They don't even have proper boats, though they do possess some rafts and coracles for moving around in shallow marsh areas while hunting eels. A few of them use small hunting bows to catch ducks, and other fowl from the edge of the lake but their arrows use bone and flint points rather than steel.
The Sand Fishers are a subject clan of the Bone Snakes, the biggest most powerful Druj clan in this area. The Bone Snakes force them to turn over every morsel they can spare to their overlords, they are permitted to keep almost nothing for themselves. In some ways their life is not that different to one of slavery, although they wear no chains. They can come and go as they please, but Sand Fishers who do not work hard to fill their quotas face punishment and summary execution if they do not change. In effect these people are owned by the Bone Snakes - a definition they don't argue with at all. The symbols of the Bone Snakes are painted everywhere in the Bitter Shore - as a clear sign that these lands are owned by them. Every member of the clan wears a strip of cheap material painted with the symbol of the Bone Snakes to make the same point.
When asked why they don't just leave - the Sand Fishers shrug and ask where would they go? The Semmerlak is a dangerous lake, prone to violent storms and the river that runs through it is turbulent and difficult to navigate. Any attempt to flee down river would just see them captured and killed by the Druj - or swept out to sea and drowned. So what else can they do? Travel north along the coast to face death at the hands of the Imperials who live there? Or find a way to cross the lake so that they can be slain by whatever Imperial clan claims those lands? There is no hope in them - no hope that they could ever improve their circumstances - so they simply endure it. What other choice do they have?
Any hope of resistance against the Druj is utterly futile. It is not just that the Druj are vastly more powerful - and that they punish any rebellion with unimaginable cruelty. But worse, they believe that they need the Druj to protect them from the Empire. The Sand Fishers firmly believe that without the Druj, the Empire will simply sweep into the Mallum, kill everyone who resists and force everyone who does not resist to flee. The Druj have told them what happened in the Barrens - how the Black Wind, the Vendarri and the others declared themselves independent. So the Druj left them to their own devices - and then the Empire attempted to kill them all and take their lands. It only stopped when the Barrens tribes were forced to beg the Druj to come back to save them them from being wiped out.
Their own history is no different. According to verbal stories they have passed down, the Sand Fishers were once a major clan who controlled the lands all round the Semmerlak. They were attacked and conquered by the Empire four centuries ago, and forced to flee. The only Sand Fishers who survived were those under the protection of the Druj. Now their clan languishes in service to the Druj - and even their own ancestors have turned against them. The only life these people have, the only way they know how to survive, is to endure the rule of the Druj.
All-in-all it is somewhat depressing talking to the Sand Fishers. Their complete lack of hope does not fire the spirit of any who talk to them. Their inability to imagine or comprehend that their situation could improve makes it harder to have much sympathy for them. Most Imperials who speak to them try to persuade them that the Druj are defeated and not coming back - and that the Empire has no intention of taking these people's lands.
But privately a few people ask the obvious question. The last time the Empire took land off the orcs they were still considered animals fit only to be slaves. If the Empire conquers Ossium and assigns the territory to belong to one of the human nations of the Empire... what will happen to these people? It might not be legal to force them to flee - even assuming anyone wanted to do that - but then what happens to them if they stay?
For their part, the Sand Fishers seem content enough to simply remain here and continue as they have always done. They are quite content to accept the rule of the Empire, just as they accepted the rule of the Druj. When the idea that the territory might be assigned to a nation they nod their heads with understanding. Apparently things are not that different with the Druj - who carve up territories they conquer between clans. Their assumption is that when the Senate decides who owns the land - then they will be informed - and at that point they will become subject to the rule of whoever the Empire appoints. It seems like the only change they can really imagine happening is to take off their Bone Snake sashes and paint new ones for their new owner.
Of course they won't burn the old sashes unless they're forced to. That would be wasteful - they will need them when the Bone Snakes return and take the lands back.
As well as orc clans subject to Druj rule, Ossium includes at least one large settlement which is predominantly human in nature. Ketsov is a small town, with a population of barely less than ten thousand, but there are considerably more human people living on farms in the countryside surrounding the town. The people appear to be of Varushkan stock, at least they more closely resemble Varushkans than any other Imperial nation. Unlike the impoverished Sand Fishers, the Ketsovs wear vibrantly coloured trousers cut in the traditional Varushkan style. At first they appear to have only minimal belongings, but once it finally becomes clear that the Empire is not planning to raze their settlement and carry off their wealth, then they start more openly wearing their wealth, with some jewellery and clothes made from rich materials.
At first glance Ketsov appears completely different to the villages and hamlets of the Sand Fishers. It is clearly much more wealthy - with buildings built of brick and stone - and protected by a dyke, stone wall, and a pair of fortified gates protecting the roads in and out of the town. It does not escape the notice of the Imperial scouts that there is a huge elaborately painted banner with a white snake hanging from each of the towers, though there is no sign of them by the time Imperial military forces are in a position to liberate the town.
As with the Sand Fishers, the occupants do not put up a fight. A delegation emerges from the town to receive the Empire and welcome them to Ketsov. Their leaders, those who had allied the Ketsovs with the Druj had fled east, taking what wealth they can carry with them. Now that they have gone, the people of Ketsov are cautiously prepared to submit to the Empire's rule, and are keen to express the benefits of cooperation. They claim that their town includes many skilled craftsmen and artisans who able to make items for the new rulers of the land on demand. Although they are at pains to stress that they have no resources of their own - what metals and natural resources they received were meticulously apportioned to them by the Druj.
Many Dawnish and Varushkan soldiers find it easier to talk to the Ketsovs rather than the Sand Fishers. These people clearly have some concept of virtue - they are ambitious, they work hard, they want to better themselves. The only thing that feels strange is the matter-of-fact way that they talk about the Druj, often referring to individual Druj merchants, commanders, and tepel by name. It is clear that the town enjoyed a somewhat privileged status among the Druj. Over many generations, they have honed their skills to make themselves incredibly useful to the Duj, and by such means they have bought themselves a type of freedom that the Sand Fishers seemed to lack. As a result they seem to regard the Druj with a degree of equanimity, their rule is an imposition that these people have learned to accommodate - and even thrive under.
The townspeople are only too happy to share tales of Druj terror - of people flayed alive for crossing the Druj, their bodies hung from posts until the flesh sloughs off their bones. They curse the Druj as brutal conquerors and stress that with no way to defend themselves they had no choice but to submit and cooperate with them. They are at great pains to repeatedly state how pleased they are that the Druj have been driven off and that they have been liberated. And yet... they constantly ask what this means for them, who will rule over the town now and how they will get the materials they need to ply their trade? It is wonderful to be free and all - but without a relationship with their conquerors, without people to buy the weapons and armour they make, how will they avoid being reduced to poverty? These people pride themselves on being skilled people, they have no desire to be reduced to grubbing in the rushes for food like the Sand Fishers.
What comes across more than anything is a very calculating interest to find out what the Empire plans are - whether they intend to press on and conquer the region or simply raid the rich mines and forests of Ossium before returning home?