I got delayed on rules content by Father’s Day festivities, so this week some more setting background: this time from my Beyond the Wall campaign.
The Hedge has loomed outside of town for as long as anyone can remember. The old folks tell stories passed down from their own grandparents of a time when the land to the south was a vast kingdom, not an impenetrable forest of thorns. But those are just faerie stories. The vast wall of brambles extends as far as anyone from town has traveled to the east and to the west, and all along its borders are villages, like yours, that make their living from the imposing boundary.
Thorns as big as a hand grow from vines as thick as an arm, twisted together so that even a small man can’t crawl very far (and the children that try… they mostly come back with bad cuts and a new appreciation for the warnings of their elders). Fire can gain no purchase on the living wall, and the thick vines are difficult to clear cut. Those that have tried to cut a swath into the borders find their work vanished overnight. The vines don’t seem to want to grow further afield, but they can move remarkably quickly to seal up holes.
There are many uses for flame-retardant plants with large cutting thorns. Many villagers carefully harvest the vine as their profession. The larger thorns become knives and stakes while the smaller become needles and nails. The bark of the vines can be made into clothing and tarps that resist water and fire. The meat of the vines makes baskets and, if sliced thinly enough, can even be woven into fabric. You never eat it though; even the desperately hungry never make that mistake twice, after the terrible cramps and nightmares visited upon those who try.
A fieldstone wall travels the length of the boundary, a stone’s throw clear cut between wall and Hedge. It’s as high as a tall man’s head with a strong gate at each village so the workers can get to their task by day. But, by night, the gate remains closed and, if they can be spared, watchers squint into the gloom. For, sometimes, things emerge from the darkness of the Hedge. Often, it’s just a hungry wolf or other predator, easily deterred by the wall. But sometimes it’s a malformed monster of vaguely human shape, with the hands and feet to climb. The field and the wall hopefully give the village time to ready itself, archers time to loose, before such a beast makes its way into the town for its inevitably sinister purposes.
None know how these creatures navigate the tangle that is impenetrable to men, or from whence they come. But the workers of late have claimed that the Hedge is thinning, even receding. Is this an opportunity to finally find and destroy the nests of these fearful beasts… or will it unleash them when previously only their most nimble could escape?
The elders caution prudence, and to not hare off after rumors and supposition, but the brave youths of the town sense danger and adventure in the offing…
The Empire and the Empire
“Now let me tell you first what I know for a fact,” the Witch said, the tapped keg of Imperial Ale putting her in a storytelling mood but fixing her attention on where it came from, “or at least near to a fact. I had it from my grandmother, who had it from hers, that the Hedge had stood as long as anyone remembered. I know you children are thinking it: even things I remember firsthand seem pretty old to you, so my own twice-great grandmother must have come from ancient times indeed.
“It’s true enough, I’m nearing the end of my days, and women in my family aren’t known to start bearing as soon as they can. I’d place my grandmother’s childhood at over a century ago, and her own grandmother’s at near to two. Back then, we weren’t exactly a literate folk. I know the Baron’s made an effort to see that all of you know your letters and the value of record-keeping, so you might be surprised at how little was written down back in those days. I just want to head off any complaints that nobody wrote down the exact dates the Hedge sprung up. Suffice it to say, if you believe the faeries, there was good reason for everyone to be distracted.
“Now, the fae are well known to speak only truth. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t shifty little buggers, loathe to part with actual information without firm repayment. And they often tell things in a way that seems straight while you’re hearing it, and it’s only later that you realize words might have had different meanings, and two sentences seemed like cause and effect but might have been completely unrelated. So when I tell you I’ve assembled this story from years of talking to the sidhe that are old enough to remember it, I don’t want you to think that I believe it’s completely true. Even I could have been misled by their tricks.
“What I have from them is that the Hedge covers what was once a mighty Empire. Not the one to the north of us; I’ll get to that. But an even mightier one to the south. All the lands we know were merely the most distant fringes of an oversized kingdom with cities a size that we couldn’t even comprehend. They had magics long lost to us, technologies we’re only just beginning to rediscover, and written histories going back generations. But they also had powerful enemies.
“The more mundane of these enemies was what we now think of as the Empire: a rival oversized kingdom to their north. Two growing world powers began to overlap their spheres of influence around here, and began to fight. Though you know it not, many of you probably have blood going back to generals that settled here when they were done fighting, and even today we still sometimes find the detritus of a battlefield when someone goes to plow. What I have from the fae is that the southern Empire defeated the northern one soundly. Defeated them so completely that they are only now, centuries later, beginning to rebuild. I’ll tell you how they disagree in a moment.
“But some enemies bring weapons of magic, not arms. The fae guard closely the secret of who unleashed the Hedge. My suspicion is that they had a hand in it, and don’t want to admit it. They won’t even say why, other than that the Empire angered someone powerfully enough to unleash its doom. The Hedge was planted in the heart of the Empire, and in a single night it grew to encompass countless miles. Who knows how many lives were trapped? Who knows how our own ancestors reacted to their trade partners and lawgivers suddenly disappearing beneath a blanket of thorns? They had more to worry about than writing it all down, clearly. It’s a wonder they held onto what order and culture they did.
“That’s what the fae have told me. What I’ve heard from the folk of the northern Empire I credit less, apologies to those of you that have kin from there. Their tales don’t seem any more consistent than ours. They barely credit a southern Empire at all, and claim they smote it with the Hedge if they do mention it. What I think, and don’t none of you go tattling to Imperial soldiers, is that they’re barely related to the old Empire of the north. From what little I’ve seen of the ruined watchtower nearby, and what I’ve heard of buildings in similar repair, I think the southern Empire ruined the northern one completely, breaking its power all the way back to its core. The Empire of today is like a hermit crab growing into a shell it found on the beach: new folk that found the old ruins a good foothold, and the old Empire a good excuse for trying to enforce their will on those of us whose blood has watered this soil for aeons.
“Now someone get me another mug. Whatever their origins, they make good ale.”
The Forsaken Village
Every generation of parents has tried to keep their own children unaware of the forsaken village, and every generation of children has passed the story amongst themselves. The bravest and most foolhardy want to see the truth of the rumors.
It’s distressingly easy: a few hours walk, an hour or so past the next town to the east, Kyllburg, there is a gap in the Hedge. Most just travel within the cleared space between Hedge and wall, because the Kyllburgers will try to stop you from your exploration. The gap is perhaps a mile wide and almost that as deep, an area where nothing grows, even the thorns. In the center of it all is the ruins of an old village. And there, the dead walk.
Since the parents try not to discuss it at all, for fear their children will venture there, there are nearly as many explanations for the place as there are children in town. There are a few that are the most popular: that it was the site of a titanic and bloody battle between the two old empires, that it was once a great cemetery and the curse of the Hedge set its residents to walking, or that strange dark magics lie hidden under the town for explorers to find.
Whatever the case, none are known to have truly braved more than the fringes of the ruins. During the day, even under the bright sun, skeletal figures go about strange mockeries of village life. Some pantomime their former professions in the foundations of their old workshops. Some till fields in which nothing will ever grow. They move slowly, uncertainly, and will pause in their reenactments to shamble after interlopers.
At night it gets worse. The dead move faster, with more purpose, and their former warriors patrol the town. It’s said that if they get you, you join them forever more. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, these warriors go ranging, attempting to sack the towns they can reach within a night’s travel. Towns like yours.
Strangely, Kyllburg doesn’t seem to have nearly the problems yours does with these raids. They come sparingly, there. And, when asked in whispers when the kids aren’t listening, they don’t seem to have the other problem: sometimes your town’s dead get up of their own accord, and wander off to the forsaken village to join them.