For thirty years the Jotun orcs occupied the Mournwold. During that time they brought in families of thralls to work the land abandoned by Marcher yeomen killed in the invasion or fled north to avoid the Jotun yoke. When the Jotun retreated, driven west by the might of Imperial troops, some of those thralls chose to remain behind. They abide still in the Mournwold, stubbornly refusing to quit their farms, and creating a political headache for the rest of the Marches.
For three decades, those Marchers who were forced to become thralls have worked alongside the orc thralls that the invaders brought with them. 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. In some places that bond has grown surprisingly strong; they are not friends, by any stretch, what they are, however, is neighbours.
The first thralls accompanied the Jotun armies when they invaded the Mournwold in 349YE. As the orcs consolidated their hold on the territory, more thralls were brought through the grim forests of Liathaven to work the fields and mines of the newly-conquered Mourn. Older thralls still remember the trip through the dark forest with dread, and pass on stories of the oppressive woodland and the fearful twin threats of the Navarr and the Vallorn. Over the next five years, the thralls were either given custody of existing Marcher farms or mines whose human inhabitants either would not or could not continue to work them for their new orc overlords, or established new homesteads of their own. The only parts of the Mournwold without thrall settlers were the deep woods of Alderley, and the Imperial-held region of Greensward.
For the next three decades or so the thralls lived and worked in the Mournwold. They raised families here, and worked alongside the human thralls - those Marchers who had chosen not to leave their homes and instead accept the rulership of the Jotun.
Very little changed for the thralls in the last thirty years of recent history; not until the Imperial liberation of the territory began after the Autumn Equinox 379YE. The war raged back and forth across the Mourn for over a year, until some of the most terrible battles in recent Imperial history, when the Imperial host laid a trap for the Jotun armies in the Greensward. Terrible curses wrought by Imperial magicians brought plagues and death to the battlefield, but they also accounted for a sixth of the remaining population of the territory as a whole. Tens of thousands died. The Jotun and the people of the Mourn alike were completely unprepared for the magic unleashed by the Imperials. The thralls suffered along with their Marcher neighbours and every family, every community lost people. The old and young suffered especially; many respected elders and countless children were taken by the curses.
Jotun morale was broken - but so was that of the human inhabitants of the Mourn. The Summer solstice saw the Empire make significant gains in the Mournwold, but for all that they were gaining territory, they had lost the support of the people who lived there. The Jotun retreated west into Liathaven, leaving token forces to defend the Tribute and the castle at Hillstop. They evacuated as many thralls - humans as well as orcs - as they could, but many chose to remain behind preferring to stubbornly cling to their land rather than flee. Reluctantly the Jotun allowed them to stay, forced to accept that they could no longer protect them from Imperial magic.
While the Mournwold was officially imperial again by the start of the Autumn Equinox 381YE, the people of the Mournwold - including for the time being a great many orc thralls - were not shy about expressing their unhappiness to the rest of the Empire. Thirty years of working alongside each other, strengthened by the shared horror of the Scouring of the Mourn by Imperial magic, had left many human Marchers and orc thralls feeling a deeper connection to each other than to the people of their respective nations.
During the liberation of the Mourn, many human yeofolk offered sanctuary to their orc neighbours. Once the dust had settled it was clear that there was a significant orc population left in the Mournwold, who laid claim to some of the best farmland. The Imperial Senate made special provision to support the thralls while deliberations over their fate continued, culminating in the Winter 381YE decision to recognise them as foreigners rather than barbarians. Then in Spring 382YE the Imperial Synod sent two priests - Sister Meredith of the Marches and Bloodcrow Losak of the Imperial Orcs - to encourage the thralls to embrace the Way, albeit with mixed results.
As on the Autumn Equinox 382YE, the situation in the Mournwold appears stable. The Mournwold thralls live alongside their Marcher neighbours, and while they remain foreigners rather than Imperial citizens and their presence is not universally accepted, there is no open conflict between the two groups.
Culture and Customs
The thralls of the Mournwold are descended from the Jotun, but in the three decades they have lived in the Mournwold they have absorbed many Marcher traditions. They are primarily located in Green March and Southmoor but there are settlements of orcs in every region except Alderley. Marchers find the people here surprisingly familiar - it is not hard to imagine that they have lived their entire lives next to the Marcher folk - they are much alike in mindset and lifestyle. They are a hard-working, industrious people, passionate about their livelihood and their lands. Some even enjoy playing foot the ball with their neighbours.
The thralls have a strong community spirit, even more pronounced than that of their human neighbours. The natural orc urge towards gregariousness makes communal living the norm, with all the orcs of a given farm or village operating as a large extended family even when no blood ties exist between them. They regularly come together to undertake group projects - raising a barn, tending the fields, repairing fences - with surprisingly little need for organisation. Every thrall seems to know what needs doing and gets on with it. Their capacity to cooperate on tasks is impressive and occasionally a little eerie to onlookers.
Despite the similarities, there are parts of their life which are still clearly foreign in nature. The most striking difference between the thralls and the Marchers is that these people seem innately peaceful. They possess no weapons beyond tools of agriculture and appear to have forsworn violence in some way. Visitors who spend time among the orcs report that it is easy to forget you are not talking to a Marcher when conversing with them. While a number of Jotun thralls blame the Empire for the curses that killed so many, the memory of that deed has been tempered by the aid that helped them survive the winter. When Imperial Priests who served as the primary emissaries of the Empire to the thrall communities brought news that the Mournwold thralls had been recognised as foreigners, granting them the same legal protections that their Marcher neighbours enjoy it was particularly well received. It was clear that many here were expecting to be forced off their land; the guarantee that this would not take place brought a great sense of relief.
The other obvious difference is the Jotun tradition of the Choice. On coming of age, every thrall is expected to make the Choice - to continue to live as a thrall like their parents or to become Jotun and join a warband. Obviously, with the thralls cut off from the Jotun this is creating a significant problem. Not every young orc maturing in the Marches is suited to life as a farmer. There is some concern in the Mournwold orc community about what to do with those young orcs who are drawn to the warrior life. If they lived among the Jotun, these youths would take the Choice and leave home to become warriors. At the moment there is no avenue for them to take the Choice without returning to Jotun land - a daunting proposition for the orcs living in the Mournwold cut off as they are from any connection to their former nation.
More than anything else it appears that the Mournwold thralls wish to be left alone to work their farms, raise their families, and trade with their neighbours. The Senate motion of Winter 381YE declared them to be foreigners, making it legal for them to live within the bounds of the Empire and for Imperial citizens to deal with them. As long as they respect Imperial law, they are protected by it.
This has caused some dissatisfaction in some parts of the Marches; the land claimed by the Jotun thralls is some of the richest in the Mournwold. At the end of the day, some voices grumble, they are still orc invaders.
The Mournwold orc thralls consist of a number of settlements and farmsteads scattered across the entire Mournwold - there are even a few settlers in the Greensward these days. They are mostly concentrated in Green March, Southmoor (especially around the rebuilt settlement of Sarcombe, and Chalkdowns. While they have no formal leaders, three orcs appear to be respected by the majority of their people and serve as unofficial representatives between the thralls and their Imperial neighbours: aged matriarch Hamma the Lame of Eversweet Orchard; Casta the Black of the Circle of the Steel King who is believed to be one of the most accomplished of the thrall ritual magicians; Hap the Soft of Golden Hoof Farm who takes in orphans both orc and human and trains them as shepherds; and the timber merchant Sigdór who lives on the edge of the Greensward and is understood to be some kind of expert on the thrall religion.
Note everyone in the Marches, or even the Mournwold, is happy with the current situation. While the outspoken opposition to the orc presence by folk like the people of Whittle is unsurprising, there are a number of voices in the wider Marches questioning why orcs are being allowed to occupy land that by rights belongs to honest Marcher folk. Indeed there has been some conflict between Marchers whose families fled the Mournwold during the Jotun occupation and the thralls who now occupy the land they abandoned - although for the most part it seems that the human citizens of the Mourn would rather have orcs for neighbours than people who fled into exile.
Some moderate voices have welcomed recent proposals by the civil service to build a road or a canal through the Mournwold, improving the ability of northern Marchers to visit the south and learn more about the thralls (and vice versa) - although It is impossible to predict what effect easier contact between northern Marchers and ex-Jotun Thralls might have.
As with all the orcs the Empire has encountered, the Jotun honour their ancestors and believe that their aid is necessary to cross the Howling Abyss that waits beyond death. The thralls are no exception. Unlike the Jotun, however, the thralls seem to keep their revered ancestors at arm's length. There are some reports of small stone idols believed to represent the spirit of Raðljóst, but these seem to be keepsakes rather than objects of veneration. Unlike the orcs the Empire is familiar with, the thralls do not seek to attract the attention of their ancestors; indeed they seem to view the prospect of hearing their ancestors with some trepidation.
There are no priest as such among the Mournwold thralls. Important spiritual matters were traditionally tended to by the ghodi, who are all Jotun. The thralls grudgingly acknowledge that some older thralls are seen as being wiser than others, and looked to for advice on matters of honourable living that are not important enough to trouble the ghodi with, but these orcs have no formal title that sets them apart from their neighbours. With the Jotun gone, these orc elders are increasingly called on to fill the void left by the absence of the godhi.
After the Winter Solstice 381YE, the Synod dispatched priests under the guidance of Sister Meredith of the Marches and Bloodcrow Losak of the Imperial Orcs to spread awareness of the Way among the thralls. The initial reception was quite positive. The orcs have lived alongside the people of the Mourn for many years and some of them have attended Marcher congregations from time-to-time for various reasons. Others have held conversations with the Marchers about their faith. As a result they are surprisingly well-informed - they don't know a great deal about the virtues - but they know of them.
At first the thralls seemed to show an earnest and genuine interest in the virtues, but as the priests tried to explain more about the Way and the doctrines of the faithful, they inevitably began to lose their audience. The most common response was that the thralls became angry with tempers running short. Violence was rare - the orcs are after all deeply peaceful by nature - but priests visiting the Mournwold reported entire crowds turning hostile.
Many found the situation frustrating. The orcs appeared genuinely interested in the virtues, and there was optimism that they could be converted to the Way, but something was holding them back. Indeed, some aspect of the sermons caused a deep and profound agitation among these people. Rather than engaging with the virtues, the thralls passionately rejected them.
Over the six months since, the gist of the orc problem with the Way has begun to percolate through the Mournwold. The key problem appears to be the idea that "only human souls reincarnate." To the surprise of most priests, and in contradiction of the Doctrines of the Way, the thralls of the Mournwold seem to believe that they, too, reincarnate. The details of this belief are not common knowledge - the thralls are reticent to speak of it - but it appears to present an insurmountable obstacle to the thrall acceptance of the Way.
Awareness of this belief is not widespread in the Empire at this time, largely restricted to those who have a particular interest in the thralls. Sister Meredith and Bloodcrow Losak - the priests who made the initial approach to the thralls and who hosted the thrall representative Sigdór when he visited Anvil - are said to know more specific details.
Thralls do not fight. This is perhaps the best-known distinction of Jotun society. The Jotun fight, and protect the thralls. The thralls work, and offer up tithes to the Jotun. No thrall will raise a weapon, even in their own defence. Their commitment to non-violent lives does not make them any less stubborn than their human neighbours - but they invariably employ methods of peaceful resistance. Indeed during recent problems with the Feni, the thralls quietly surrendered a portion of their harvest to the raiders rather than try to resist them.
Like all orcs however, the Mournwold thralls still feel an urge to fight, or at least to engage in physical conflict. There are several customs among the thralls designed to help them sublimate their violent urges into their work - allowing hard physical labour to serve as an outlet for their aggression. They also appear to relish participation in full-contact team sports. A few still play a traditional Jotun game involving hooked sticks and a hard wooden ball, but the game has largely been supplanted by participation in the Marcher sport of foot-the-ball.
The orc thralls have very few magicians among their number. They overwhelmingly focus their magic on healing, with only a handful capable of purifying sickness and poison, restoring crippled limbs, or mending broken tools.
There are a few ritual magicians among the Mournwold thralls, but their capabilities are unclear. Practicing ritual magic is seen as a worthy endeavour for a thrall, on par with farming, but most of those thralls who served as personal spellcasters to Jotun jarls retreated alongside their masters. Those few covens of thralls who remained are believed to be practitioners primarily of Spring and Autumn rituals of use to farmers and miners. Their magical abilities are constrained by their limited access to crystal mana and relatively small numbers, but it is well known that the thralls are just as capable of, and enthusiastic about, enchanting their farms as their human neighbours.
There are also a handful of specialist magicians among them who combine the use of rituals such as Fan the Flame of New Life and Midwife's Recourse with training in the physick's art. These healers are well respected, and often serve as community leaders.
Mournwold Thralls in Play
- The Mournwold thralls are not available to player characters.
Any Imperial character is free to create stories of interactions with the Mournwold thralls if they wish, as long as they bear certain considerations in mind.
The thralls live in the Mournwold, and they have not spread beyond that territory. They are predominantly farmers, although some have embraced the mining lifestyle. They are almost without exception committed pacifists. They retreat or hide from any confrontation more deadly than a brawl or game of foot-the-ball. None of them own or will wield any weapons or armour. Their beliefs teach them that if they do fight after having chosen the life of the thrall, they will be consumed by the Howling Abyss on their deaths.
They tend to be guarded but cautiously friendly to folk of the Marches, and carefully deferential to Imperial Orcs. With representatives of other nations, they are reticent and uncooperative, preferring to have as little as possible to do with them. It is possible that over time this reticence may break down - a handful of Marcher thralls have visited Tassato in the last year for example - but for now they prefer to keep other Imperials at arm's length. They abide by Imperial law as they understand it, but possess the same stubborn attachment to their land as their Marcher neighbours giving trespassers short shrift.
They struggle to reconcile the Way with their own beliefs about reincarnation, but they are by no means hostile to the Virtues. In particular, they easily recognise the value of Prosperity, Loyalty, and Pride and see no conflict between these virtues and the reverence of their ancestors. Their attitudes to the Virtues have been shaped primarily by thirty years of exposure to their Marcher neighbours.
They still respect the Jotun, but they accept that their former rulers look askance at their decision to stay in the Mournwold. Their relationship is best described as "complicated".
Winds of Fortune
- Watered with fears Spring 381
- All along the watchtower Summer 381
- House of earth Winter 381YE
- Fight Spring 382YE
- Talk softly Summer 382YE
- In the end everything collides Autumn 382YE
- Between peace and hate Winter 382YE
- Music of a distant drum Spring 383YE
- Heart of gold Summer 383YE
- In the flat field Autumn 383YE