JESTER'S SHADOWS OVER ISTIVIN
March of Sterich
Sterich is a land rescued from nonhuman occupation only to find itself embroiled in struggles between returning nobles. The boundaries of the reclaimed territory generally extend from the western banks of the Javan River to the east, through the lowlands of the Stark Mounds, down to the [[Davish River]] and around, in the south, to the Jotens (where fighting continues). The mountain lake, the source of the Javan River, remains a hive of evil activity, and the villages and mines nearby are completely abandoned. The distant western Crystalmists were once the home of several competing clans of [[mountain dwarves]]. When the nonhumans invaded in 584 CY, many clans withdrew into their strongholds, while others fled the hills to warn their human allies. Since the nation has been reclaimed, five different clan holds have failed to send representatives to the court in Istivin. Most Sterish fear the worst, though hardy exiled dwarven lords (often at odds with each other) are organizing several bands of adventurers for reclamation missions.
Sterich claims no notable woodlands within its borders, and has had to conduct considerable trade with Keoland and Gran March for lumber to rebuild fallen towns and villages. The most heavily defended portions of the reclaimed lands are perhaps the passes of the Stark Mounds, which offer a relatively safe route of passage for logging missions to the [[Oytwood]. The military of Sterich, though blooded badly in the reclamation campaigns, has emerged as a well trained force with a handful of canny generals experienced in battling (and beating) nonhumans. A strong contingent of 1,500 halberdiers forms the heart of this force, which is supplemented by light infantry and renowned light cavalry. Unfortunately, the military’s division of power declares that most units are under the control of a lord. Since the lords are now squabbling among themselves for regained land, soldiers once united against a common enemy have turned upon each other.
History: Settled in as a client state of Keoland by relatives of the Grand Duke of Geoff, Sterich was founded as an earldom with the primary purpose of creating a stable political power with easy access to the mines of the surrounding hills and mountains. For centuries, the nation’s nobles grew rich from trade that in turn attracted more nobles (often with paid-for, meaningless titles). The adventurer Fenwick Astakane of Skipperton noted, in his Travels (375 CY), that Sterich was “a hive of low nobility, with titled aristocrats as common as pigs, such that an ordinary serf gains political clout because his labor is in high demand.” True, serfs endured as miserable a life in Sterich as in anywhere in the Flanaess, but the general tone and the underlying truth of the matter dictated Sterich’s reputation for generations. In recent years, Sterich had grown distant from the Keoish crown, and had been allowed, in most cases, to care for its own affairs. King Skotti had for years treated the earl of Sterich, the proud Querchard, more as a favored relative than a vassal. The two often spent holidays in each others’ capitals, visits celebrated with much more vigor in Istivin than in Niole Dra.
Perhaps because king and earl shared such strong bonds of friendship, it came as a surprise to most Sterish folk in 584 when, with ranger reports of looming nonhuman activity in the western mountains, King Skotti failed to send any troops to Sterich’s defense. In truth, the king had long despaired over Sterich’s virtual independence (a relic from the reigns of his predecessors), and implored his friend to swear fealty to Keoland, conceding much of the mine take to Niole Dra. Querchard refused.
The earldom paid in blood. Within a score of weeks, uncounted legions of nonhumans, seemingly led by powerful giants, surged from mountain strongholds, quickly overwhelming Sterich’s petty baronies. Istivin was abandoned within days of the first attacks. Most other towns were put to the torch; stragglers were butchered and cooked on flames fueled by whole villages and towns. Many Sterish followed their earl to Keoland. Others, angered by the lack of Keoish action (but oblivious to Skotti’s opportunistic offer) fled to the Duchy of Ulek or Gran March. In the latter, many joined the nascent Knights of Dispatch and planned the recapture of their lands. Regardless of where the Sterish fled, most believed the occupation to be but a brief era in the history of their great nation. In early 585 CY, King Skotti (perhaps realizing the terrible cost of his opportunism) promoted the exiled Querchard to the rank of marquis. Reasoning that a semi-independent subject state added more coin to the treasury than a wasteland controlled by ogres and gnolls, the king of Keoland promised rich rewards for each recaptured barony, and mustered troops in the city of Flen, intent to recapture lost lands. These soldiers were joined by mercenaries and knights, all of whom hungered for a decisive victory in a decade that had provided so many grim defeats.
The first gains came in late 585 CY, when the Keoish force freed the town of Fitela from a fierce enclave of orcs and their kin. Much to the surprise of those who had fought inconclusive battles in Geoff, the armies discovered few giants in Sterich. Interrogations revealed, however, that the occupying forces were loosely aligned under the banner of one King Galmoor, reputedly a powerful giant in residence in Istivin. As the armies marched west to the capital, past depressing smudges of ash and ruin that had once been villages, all prepared themselves for the worst.
When finally the army gained Istivin, in Readying 586 CY, no trace remained of King Galmoor, or indeed of any destruction after the initial raids of 584. In striking contrast to all other liberated towns, which had been destroyed, most buildings in Istivin remained in perfect repair.
Patchwall 587 CY, saw the liberation of all the cities of the heartlands, providing the army with a stable base from which to mount village-by-village attacks upon the nonhuman holdings to the west. By Coldeven 588, the whole of civilized Sterich had been reclaimed.
Still, something was not right in Istivin. Though most citizens noticed few differences, the city’s buildings seemed to cast longer shadows than before the war. Men in taverns seemed more likely to raise a fist in anger. A rash of mysterious fires consumed the homes of several important clerics. Iconic statuary on the walls of the temple of Pelor broke away, crushing children at play in the temple yards. More than a few speculated in private that it seemed that the taint of war had brought a touch of the Abyss to Istivin.
Nights now find the streets of Istivin nearly empty, even of city guards. Those brave souls who dare the darkness do so in great haste, running from place to place with weapons drawn. Many have disappeared in the city at night. The most famous victim is Querchard, marquis of Sterich.
The march is now controlled by Marchioness Resbin Dren Emondav, a dark-skinned, large-framed woman who took her husband’s role upon his disappearance in 590 CY. The marchioness is reclusive, emerging from Krelont Keep only to announce new laws intended to shield the citizenry from the chaos outside the city walls and protect themselves from each other.
Beyond Istivin, supernatural terrors are few. Mundane problems exist in abundance. Though King Skotti’s promise of wealth for each freed barony enticed many minor nobles to take up arms against Sterich’s oppressors, it also quelled a dangerous greed in the populace. This has resulted in several legal (and sometimes physical) battles with multiple claimants to the same property. As the marchioness rightly supposes and Skotti fears, many of the contesting nobles are not nobles at all, but opportunistic con artists hoping to carve land and a rich reward from the misfortunes of a largely deceased aristocracy. In some cases, evil men have harbored designs upon still-living nobles; assassination is now relatively common throughout the countryside. While for a brief period in 588 CY it looked as though Sterich had rebounded from invasion, the country remains threatened by its internal disorder.