by Matt Appleby
A most useful guidebook for anyone looking to visit the Holy Realm of Freiberg.
|Author's Note: the prompts for this month centre around rules and regulations, specifically law enforcement and magic. Hopefully my guide is a little more direct about these than it was for the last two prompts. But I guess you'll be the judge of that.
The Iron Guard (part one)
Most nations in the known world have followed the elven style of law enforcement, with each community appointing its own sheriff – or sometimes sheriffs, if their jurisdiction is large enough – who then directs investigations, arrests and sentences depending on current needs. But in Freiberg, as with so many other things, the situation is different: there is one single organisation, its hundreds of members spread across the land, all operating according to a common code of conduct. This organisation is the Iron Guard, and it is not to be trifled with.
I only directly encountered the Iron Guard on two occasions. Neither one was an experience that I care to repeat.
The first time was fairly early in my travels. I was spending a few weeks in Waldheim, observing how such a massive fortress is maintained day-to-day. Guests are not normally allowed, but I had recently met him on a trip to Immenhausen, where I managed to befriend him over a few games of chess. Being one of the traditional elven pursuits, I am of course familiar with its subtleties, and the commander hired me to teach him what I knew. Which I did fairly well, if I do say so myself.
But I digress. Waldheim sits on the eastern wall of a great valley, called either Merinchal or Hadamar depending on who you ask, and on the west is the city of Le Monastier, with the kindgom of Epernay beyond. The orcs and the humans have been enemies for centuries. No one really knows who started it, or what the first battles were fought over. By now it does not matter. The conflict has become a routine, of sorts. The two nations glower at each other from across the valley, and every few decades, one will choose to launch an attack on the other. But Waldheim and Le Monastier have each been built too big, and even if one of them is taken, the besieging army will be too exhausted to conduct more than few token raids before retreating. Ultimately, little is achieved beyond throwing away countless lives, and the dead simply become martyrs to inspire the next, inevitably doomed attempt.
That is the status quo in Waldheim. The orcs view being a soldier much like they do all other professions, in that those who are deemed suitable are trained for it from an early age. So you would expect the fortress' garrison to be fanatically loyal, raised to give their lives for their homeland without a second thought. And mostly you would be right.
I was surprised as anyone, therefore, when I heard about the deserter. Given all the above, you wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible. But apparently it happens from time to time. Sometimes a man is subjected to more war than he can take, or maybe he should never have been chosen for the task in the first place. In this case, the deserter never said, and it would've done him no good either way.
He didn't get very far. The Iron Guard sent five agents after him, and they caught up after only a few hours. He was dragged back to Waldheim in chains, led up to a platform outside the gates, and then the commander beheaded him without a word. I watched it happen from my quarters. The deserter did not meet his end with grace, but I suspect neither would I, under the circumstances.
He was very young, barely a man at all. It still feels like such a waste. But Freiberg law does not look kindly upon deserters, and the Iron Guard does not allow compromise.
The Iron Guard (part two)
(This entire section is missing. Luckily, fragments of another manuscript were recently purchased by Ein Hatseva University, and the relevant pages were among them. They have been reproduced here with the faculty's most gracious permission.
It is also worth noting that this section is a very rare record of the Artist's Society in their pre-revolutionary period. For that reason alone, what follows is worthy of special attention.)
The city of Hohenstein has a mixed reputation amongst orc society. On the one hand, as the central hub of all trade in the country, it enjoys the prestige that comes with being fabulously wealthy. But on the other hand, the continual mix of people has created an entirely unique culture, one that is often at odds with the traditions of Freiberg as a whole.
Personally, I found the city and its people to be incredibly welcoming, and a proud home for ideas and practises not accepted elsewhere. In the time I spent walking those streets I learned a great many things I never expected to. Not all of it I approved of, but that's a subject for another time.
One of the more interesting experiences was with a group simply calling itself 'The Artist's Society'. Orc art has a long and distinguished history, with a great many works of superlative craftsmanship – Kunigunde's masterwork Cycle of Time, to pick an example, is perhaps one of the finest sculptures to be found anywhere in the world – but one aspect it does not possess is innovation. Fashions change, of course, much like they do anywhere, but a painter working today is still likely to produce material recognisable to a painter working centuries ago. The classical elven forms are very similar, in that respect.
The Artist's Society, however, could not be more different. They are dedicated to creating new techniques, and obsessively hoard any foreign influences that they can find. Human, elven, dwarven, it does not matter: if it is sufficiently different from the orc ways, then it has their interest. As a visiting elf, they were quick to invite me to a meeting, and on the whole, I have to say I was pleased with what I found there. The quality varies greatly, that is true, but they are combining styles from across the world in ways you will never see elsewhere. Some of it was beautiful, some of its was confusing, some of it I can only describe as blasphemous, but everything was remarkable in at least some fashion.
Unfortunately for myself, my visit to the Society was ended by an Iron Guard raid. I'd never been in any kind of legal trouble before that, or since for that matter, so I must say it came as something of a shock. The Iron Guard were not gentle. They destroyed many of the artworks, and beat everyone who did not surrender quickly enough. Even I left the meeting hall with a broken wrist. I mean, me of all people! Attacked like I was some common criminal!
My apologies. I still get angry thinking about that, even after all these years.
Mercifully, the raid was the extent of our mistreatment by the Guard. I feared being thrown into a dungeon, or yet worse, but we were merely let go the following morning. The captain spoke to me for a few moments on the way out, though otherwise there was no comment at all. I found the captain to be a very polite, civilised individual, all things considered. If we'd met under better circumstances, I think I would've liked him. I still don't understand how that works.
I learned much later that such raids were an occupational hazard for the Society. Their activities are perfectly legal, they meet openly and display their work without shame. Nevertheless, there are always some in positions of power, both locally and in the wider country, who do not approve of their non-traditional outlook, and occasionally the Guard are sent in to make this displeasure clear. The idea is that the Society will eventually tire of such treatment and disband. I have it on good authority that this will not happen anytime soon.
Towards the end of my time in Freiberg, I spent a few months in Mavrothalassa, recuperating after a misadventure that I have no desire to document at this stage. Whilst there, I met an elderly orc scholar named Bertram, who had some very interesting theories to share.
(There has been much speculation over the years as to what Spyridon's 'misadventure' involved. It is likely that the story appears in one of the book's numerous missing chapters, but even if this is true, there is nothing in the fragments we have to hint as to what happened. The leading theory is that it concerned the Artist's Society's early acts of violence, given the time period and his already-stated connection to the group. However, there is no solid evidence either way.)
Bertram had been studying the magic arts for most of his life. He is hardly alone in that regard, of course. People of all races have sought to unlock the secrets of the arcane since the very dawn of civilisation. Some have even claimed to find a solution. Bertram, in my own humble opinion, was one of the most plausible.
First, some context. Not everyone has studied magic that closely, after all.
This world is filled with mysteries, both wondrous and horrifying, that the natural sciences cannot explain. The Red Diamond pendant of Old Chalandar, which can turn its wielder invisible; the Hydra herds in Petralona's deep forests, that only grow stronger as they are attacked; the notorious Duke Balestrand, the vampire lord of the northern tundra, with his retinue of corpses restored to shambling un-life...even alchemy, one of the most rigorous of scientific disciplines, routinely creates potions with effects that their ingredients should not be able to produce. And these are merely the first examples I pulled out of my hat. I could probably go on forever.
The point is, magical creatures and artefacts are everywhere. However, except for a few incredibly rare, near-mythic individuals, magic is not something that can actually be practised. There are no books of spells you can learn from, despite what numerous charlatans might tell you. You can create a staff that projects fire, but you cannot project that fire from your own hands. Magic seems to be immutable in that respect, if in no other.
Magic is simply...in the air. Something either has a magical effect or it does not. But what is it, exactly? What is this force that allows for the impossible? Where does it come from? How does it work? Many have sought the answer, but none have found it.
Which is where we come back to the old scholar Bertrand. His theory was that magic, in that sense that we understand it, does not actually exist. Yes, this confused me too. But his explanation eventually made some sense. As he put it, there are numerous observable laws in nature: if an object is not supported, it will fall; if a fire is not kept hot, it will cool; if a machine is not maintained, it will deteriorate and collapse. But even with these laws, there are exceptions: the Schwebbens spend their lives floating above the ground, without even wings to hold themselves aloft; the great fire of Almagor's famed Red Hole burns for all eternity, despite no fuel having ever been added; the abandoned colonies of Old Chalandar are filled with traps and automaton guardians, continuing to function over the centuries even as the buildings themselves fall into ruin.
(The Red Hole was determined in the 4e540s to have a natural explanation, being a partly-exposed coal seam that was ignited by a lightning strike. But otherwise, Spyridon's point stands.)
Magic, Bertrand concluded, is not actually an independent force, like wind or sound or all the others we have identified. Rather, it is simply a catch-all term for a variety of phenomena, a convenient way of describing the inevitable exceptions to every rule. As to why these exceptions exist, that was something he could not explain, but he felt that there was no more point to asking that question than asking why there are stars in the sky. They do not exist to serve us, after all. It isn't as if they are obliged to have a reason.
Truthfully, I have no idea if he was right. He was able to provide little evidence for his theories. No one ever is, not when it comes to magic. But I still feel that his logic was sound.
(Bertrand's ideas are very similar to the currently accepted principles of magic, as outlined in Marin Travert's 4e319 treatise Gia Mageia. If Spyridon's testimony is accurate, and despite his tendency towards exaggeration there is no reason to assume otherwise, then the discoveries recounted pre-date Travert's masterwork by over four centuries. A significant development, to say the least.)