Isak pounded the last wooden beam into place, straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and wondered not for the first time how he had ended up here.
‘Here’ in this case was the ruins of Gardmore Village. Perhaps ‘ruins’ was too strong a word; it had been several months since the Winterguard had forced the orcs from Gardmore Abbey and during that time a concerted effort at rebuilding the place had manifested with many live-able homes already erected and in use. The damage done to Gardmore by orcs and time was immense, however, and the full restoration of the place was still far off.
Isak sat down and took a swig from his waterskin, the autumn sunlight reflecting off his sweat-covered tanned skin. He reflected for the hundredth time that swinging his falchion was far preferable to swinging the sledgehammer he had been conscripted into doing, but there was still a shortage of manpower, and it would be unreasonable for someone with Isak‘s physical gifts to not do most of the heavy lifting, as it were. Still, Isak wouldn’t complain, not when he considered the work Odus had to do, what with all the political maneuvering the bard was engaged in these days.
Isak looked around at his fellow labourers, only a few of them native Nyrondese. That had been Odus‘ idea. The major northern city of Nyrond was Midmeadow, and Odus had made that city a priority stop on his sojourn. Midmeadow could charitably be described as a powderkeg one match away from exploding.
Midmeadow was once a beautiful city. Built largely of Gamboge and Phostwood woods, elven architects had a major hand in its design and even many commoners’ houses were pleasant to the eye. Richer residences are often works of art, with cross gabbling, complex roof thatching and even leaded arched windows. The richest mansion houses, with stone great halls and oriel blocks of intricate workmanship, were a delight to behold.
Since the Greyhawk Wars, however, times have changed in Midmeadow. The 12,000 people who live there are close to anarchy. The local administrator, Sir Sermend Mastersein, is a cowering and feeble man. Midmeadow’s old ruler was slain by Stonefist men in the grueling Phostwood campaigns, and Sermend was a disastrous choice by King Archbold as a successor. The man hides when hard decisions have to be made. When the townspeople riot he orders his 600 militia to secure important public buildings, including his home and the homes of his cronies, while the streets are abandoned to the rioters.
And the people of Midmeadow have much to riot about. While they go hungry, local produce, and even Gamboge produce sold on at a profit, is shipped north to the Theocracy of Pale for badly needed revenues. The wagon trains are defended by heavy militia escorts, but that hasn’t stopped them being raided by large gangs of peasants. Midmeadow itself suffered a plague of arson attacks early in the year, culminating in the looting and sack of a major part of the richer merchants’ homes on the north side of town. Worse, the rioters are learning that Sermend simply doesn’t use force against them, so they are gaining the taste for riot and mayhem. To add to the city’s woes, there was an outbreak of plague earlier in the year.
Many decent folk, even those who are poor, are appalled at rioters who may have a genuine grievance but who have begun to sack and pillage for more than they need. Hence, the Valorous League of Blindness has begun to gain adherents in Midmeadow and the lands around. This has resulted in some interesting, and sometimes bizarre, events. Phalanxes of Pholtus-revering flagellants stand along the border with the Pale, delivering their solemn renditions of “O Blinding Light” to all Nyrondese who approach. Processions of Pholtus’s pilgrims trek through the streets of Midmeadow, demanding extreme penalties for rioters. They offer their help to the militias, who regard them as yet another problem they’d rather avoid, so the men of Pholtus stand watch over many buildings by night as vigilantes.
A pitched battle between these people and the unruly elements in Midmeadow is only a matter of time and Grishken, leader of the League in Midmeadow, is urging his followers to prepare for a day of reckoning against the “fiend worshipers”, as he labels all who don’t see eye to eye with him. Just to make matters still worse, some northern Nyrondese have even taken to the placation of evil deities, notably Incabulos, since outbreaks of disease are not rare among underfed folk. The Valorous League of Blindness recently uncovered a shrine to the foul god of disease and death, and as noted earlier have used this as an excuse for a frenzy of “fiend hunting”. Add to this some 2,000 half-starving and wretched souls in shanty camps around the city walls, and it became obvious that having another outpost between Midmeadow and the Pale, Gardmore Abbey, would help deflate the situation.
But who would help build it?
Odus had spent the intervening months travelling about Northern Nyrond, trying to get a feel how a revitalized Gardmore Abbey would help the northern lands of Nyrond. This territory contains the great Gamboge Forest, the highly dangerous northwest frontier with Iuz across the Artonsamay and the remnants of the Fists in the Nutherwood, and the two major cities of Woodwych and Borneven.
What Odus saw was that these are terribly troubled lands. They contain bandits, goblinoids, rebellious zealots, and worse. In these lands, ordinary people are close to riot and open rebellion in many places.
Odus spent as much time amongst the common people as he did amongst the rulers of the various cities and villages. What he noticed was Northern folk in Nyrond are tougher than most, more stubborn and independent, and many speak the Old Oeridian tongue still. They trust their families and close friends, and few other people. Many have been robbed by bandits, and to have tax-gathering militias coming round on top of that is simply too much for them. As such, Odus discovered there have been tax riots in the northern lands, especially around Midmeadow, and peasant vigilante gangs with primitive polearms, clubs and knives seemed likely to turn out to greet any stranger until they are certain of their intentions.
As a visitor to northern villages and hamlets, Odus was treated with suspicion, though he didn’t take it personally. In several places, it was demanded of him that he lay down arms to a sergeant-at-arms if he stayed for even a night. When he managed to find a hostel willing to accommodate him, he often found himself locked in for the night. His coins didn’t mean very much in the countryside; much of the trade in these lands, outside of the cities, is on a barter basis only.
Living among the people here in these lands are 10,000 or so Tenhas who fled to northern Nyrond during the wars. They mostly live in the cities, increasing the burdens on the rulers there. Most Nyrondese are hostile to the Tenhas, who they perceive as lazy, indolent, feckless people with an unpleasantly arrogant nature. The Tenhas, save for those with real skills, have been unable to find work since Nyrondese discriminate against them, and any northern community of significant size has an enclave of these wretched people. The Tenhas have little choice but to beg, steal, forage and scavenge. Many turn to debauchery, drink, or prostitution to try to stay alive. Some have become wild zealots of the Valorous League of Blindness; others have turned, in their bitterness, to furtive, secret worship of evil and nameless things. In addition to all the other troubles of these lands, Nyrondese and Tenha mobs have been known to fight pitched battles, and Tenha bandits have raided northern farmsteads.
Therefore, when Odus first proposed his plan to accelerate the reconstruction of the Abbey by having the workforce made up mostly of Tenha refugees, the rest of the Winterguard were hesitant to say the least. Odus was adamant, however, and managed to convince his fellows even without the use of magic.
“It accomplishes so many things at once. It puts an end to the conflict between native Nyrondese and the refugees; it provides a home for refugees that is not encroaching on existing settlements, since Gardmore has been inactive in that capacity for almost 200 years, it gives the refugees something to do other than get into trouble and if some Nyrond folk decide to join in, even better. Nothing brings people together than building something together.”
Garrick furrowed his brow. “Do they not expect to get paid for their labour? We have no money for that.” The swordmage himself had already donated the vast majority of his own wealth to the Abbey’s restoration, and while there were still some treasures being unearthed from what the orcs left behind, he didn’t really think it would be enough.
Odus smiled. “Eventually, yes, they need to get paid in coin. Initially, they get paid in barter…they get to build their own homes here, raw materials provided. No taxes on the homes for a full year, what’s more. We’ll call it the First Citizen’s Decree; anyone, Tenha war refugee, Nyrondese tax refugee, war-displaced gnomes from the Flinty Hills, anyone who decides to make their home in Gardmore Village doesn’t pay taxes on the home for a year.”
Garrick mulled over the idea. “That’s a lot of tax monies the throne is not getting, if your idea catches on. In fact, the more popular your idea, the less popular we become to the powers-that-be. How do you plan to deal with that? Charm?”
“You say that as though I couldn’t,” responded Odus, feigning insult.
Garrick waited with his arms crossed.
“It’s not so much of a loss; the tax can only be levied on a completed home, and most homes in the village won’t be done in a year. We will cover the rest.”
“Certainly. We have the Rakers to the north, the Bone March to the east, the former Bandit Kingdoms to the west… every day we are not out adventuring and liberating gold from some evil villain is a day with money left on the table. It’s incredibly wasteful, really.”
“I think it’s a great plan,” volunteered Isak.
“Of course you do,” remarked Garrick sarcastically. “Still, it might work… and I suppose we are going a little stir crazy around here, action-wise. Hmmm….”
“See? I knew you’d come around!” exclaimed Odus, putting an end to the debate.
“Wait! Wait, just a second. We can’t just accept anybody… no, no Odus, don’t interrupt, we just can’t. You said yourself there were fiend worshippers amongst many of the Tenhas. We just cleansed the Abbey of a stain of evil; I don’t want to undo the work Sir Oakley died accomplishing.”
“They’re not dye-in-the wool worshippers of dark things, Garrick,” began Odus. “They started appeasing dark powers because they were without hope… we give them hope, and you don’t have to worry about any fiend-worshipping, I promise you.”
“Yes?” the other three responded, all in unison.
“When you say the raw materials will be provided free of charge, how did you plan to accomplish that?”
TO BE CONTINUED