“So tell me about Amandon,” said Cob as they walked. “Since it seems like we’re gonna be trekkin’ through it for a while.”
At his side, Fiora shrugged slightly, her chainmail giving a muffled jingle beneath her travel-dress. “Well, what do you want to know? I’ve already told you about the Trifold, and you’ve met the draft-hogs—I hear you don’t have those in the west…”
“I mean like…the land. The people. Never been here before, y’know, so I kinda wanted an idea of what I’m gettin’ into.”
“Isn’t it a bit late for that? You’re already in it.”
He gave her a flat sidelong look, and she grinned in response. “I’m just foxing you, sorry. Um. Well, the land isn’t what it used to be. I know a lot of history, actually, more than most people because the temple kept all the records that otherwise would’ve gotten burned decades ago when the Empire took over—“
“All right then, history,” said Cob, restraining a sigh.
Fiora looked forward, eyes distant. “Well, back in the deep history… You need to understand that Amandon has always been the center of everything. We may be a quiet people who’d rather keep to ourselves, but things always happen here. Probably because Amandon is made up of the flattest land in the east—all the plains and low hills—and so whenever there’s some kind of war, it always occurs here, where warring is easiest. It’s been so since the days of the beastfolk tribes, though back then we were actually two places: Anan province and Koron province, one covering the north and the other the south.
“Anan province stretched west-east from Cantorin to Silverton, and then south to around Nissaton. Koron was all the land south of that, down to the Atharenix Sea, and included a lot of the land that’s now Haaraka—since it’s expanded greatly from its creation. Most of Koron was bird-folk, I’m told. Land-Striders and Shore-Striders, plus hares and hillcats. Up north in Anan we were more adapted to the rivers and lakes, so most of us were Swimming Paws with some bearkin and Burrowers.”
“Well, those are the tribe names. Keynakin’s people, Garto’s people, back before those two spirits died. You know what a garto is now, right? A wild one I mean, not the little domestic flutterbutts. And a keyna is a cranky little digging mammal with a strong bite. I don’t know if you have them in the west.”
Cob nodded slightly, not sure he would ever get used to people being related to wildlife. “So you were tribes. Then what?”
“Well, technically we were tribes back before we were provinces. I just wanted to make sure you knew that we were kind of divided into our areas even then. But after the Guardian and Ravager chased the wraiths to the sea and accidentally created Haaraka, the ogres that had been in the spirits’ army decided they liked it here and that they would stay. And conquer.
“There were a lot of them, and more kept coming in, even though it was a long long trek for them. I guess things were awful for them in the south and too dry in the west, and our lakes and rivers were just perfect for their ends. Now, we had fought tribal skirmishes before, but never faced a coordinated foe like the ogres, and since Keynakin and Garto had both been slain in the clash with the wraiths, most of our people were traumatized at the outset. The cats fought and were driven east; the bears fought and were driven northwest; and everyone else kind of succumbed to ogrish rule.
“That lasted for centuries. I know you had a vision in Cantorin, of our ogrish past, and from reading about it I can’t say that it was all bad. They were very…civilized in their way. They liked their comforts and their amusements. But they were bigger than us, stronger, hungrier, and so they kept our people as slaves—everyone in the flatlands, basically, from the whole of Amandon to the lower and flatter parts of Darronwy and Trivestes north of our border. Meanwhile they were harried constantly by the bears and the cats and the Trivestean eagles, and of course the wraiths in the Mist Forest, so there was always some kind of strife, some reason for them to be antsy and cruel.
“And then Brigydde was born here, in slavery. The main goddess of the Trifold. She was a human then, a mixed-blood tribeswoman, and– Well, I don’t want to start proselytizing about it, because really we’re not allowed to; Brigydde doesn’t like us to convert by words, only by actions. But suffice to say that her life and death provoked the human rebellion that broke the ogrish empire and drove them into the frozen north.
“After that, we all sort of resettled into tribal life, except everyone had been forced to mingle during the ogres’ rule so that none of us were pure-blooded tribesfolk anymore, and many of us had split from worshiping the spirits to worship Brigydde and the other godly powers. Still, we were mostly ruled by shaman-chiefs, and for a while there was a lot of warring as tribes reformed and claimed territory and kicked out people who we thought didn’t belong. It was a nasty part of our history and what drove a lot of the new Trifolders into the west, rather than risking death at the hands of the spiritist fanatics.
“At the end of it, the tribe in control of the most territory was Reteh, the catfolk. They claimed the entirety of the south—the whole Wrecking Shore, everything—and raided north constantly into Burrower territory. Persecuted everyone. And unlike most people at that time, skinchangers or otherwise, they didn’t bother to look human; they kept their furry bodies and fanged faces even when they were among everyone else. Trying to make sure everyone considered them special.”
“Bitter,” Cob said, eyeing her. “Not cat-blooded, huh.”
Fiora grimaced and shrugged shortly. “I’m mostly of Keynakin’s folk, I admit. We didn’t like those smarmy bastards, cat-faced or otherwise. But, well, they got around, so probably everyone in Amandon has a bit of Reteh blood in them now.
“But that’s getting ahead of myself. So we were bickering tribes for a long time. The entire east was, actually, from the Corvish mountains to the Garnets. Every tribe out for themselves, pulling down all evidence of being ruled by the ogres and doing everything we possibly could to not get along, not deal with each other, not be reminded that once we’d stood shoulder-to-shoulder and overthrown our tusked masters.
“Somewhere in there, though, our humanization started to get the better of us. Some of the tribes started cross-marrying, and initially it was strongly resisted—doomed love affairs to fill a thousand books—but as time went on, we found all our chiefs’ lines bound by blood or alliance. We started building our own cities and trade-hubs and started mingling more, until finally, despite continued tribal skirmishes and incessant bitching, the chiefs decided to create a Chieftains’ Council.
“Over another decade or so, that turned into an advisors’ council, with one chief chosen ever few years to serve as High Chief. And when the Eagle Tribe of Trivestes and the Wolves of Riddian and the Bears and Owls in Darronwy—none of which were called those things then, mind you—finally decided that they wanted more from us than just targets to raid, we magnanimously let them have seats on the council as long as they agreed to stand by all the laws we had drawn up amongst ourselves.
“Thus started what outsiders would mistakenly call the Ruenwyn Empire. There was never an Emperor, only a High Chief—though as time went on, we changed chiefs less and less often, and some of them, if they were particularly good at their job, ruled for the rest of their lives. When we started dealing with the external empires like Altaera and Yezadra, we let them call our leader a King or Emperor, and started using those words too—his or her children were princes and princesses, et cetera, even though there was no line of succession like you’d see in an actual dynasty.
“And we were divided into provinces, which is where we eventually got Anan and Koron, and thus the name Amandon.”
Fiora paused to take a breath, and Cob said, in the brief moment he had, “So you jus’ picked your Emperor. No one fought over it?”
The girl snorted. “Are you kidding? They fought constantly. Within tribes, between tribes, among self-declared ‘lords’ and ‘nobles’…it was a miserable mess whenever someone wasn’t happy with the succession or some new law or, well, pretty much anything. There was always a coup or countercoup or invasion or uprising going on somewhere. But we stayed united as Ruenwyn for over a thousand years, trading power from Chief to Chief and from province to province in accordance with the will of the council.
“Eventually, though, Ruenwyn fell to Altaera, and with it fell the spiritist regime. My faith followed the invasion in, though we weren’t a part of it; we wanted to ameliorate what we knew was going to be terrible devastation, because by that time the Altaerans and Ruens hated each other with such a passion that they were both determined to drive the other from existence. The Altaerans had a great advantage in that they had embraced the practice of arcane magic while the Ruens strongly reviled it; there were so few Ruenic mages, and the Silent Circle was based in Altaera at that time, that it was easy for the Altaerans to imprison, bribe or murder all Ruen-blooded magi before they began their assault. With priests and mages as well as spiritists on their side, the Altaerans crushed the Ruenic spiritists and did their best to murder their way across the east.
“The Trifold, as I said, followed the invasion but did not assist it. We helped the Ruens instead, even though they had exiled us to the west. Mind you, there were still some pockets of Trifolder worship within the Ruenic empire, and those fought at their people’s sides, but the other Trifolders were westerners who had just come to make sure things didn’t get as horrible as they, unfortunately, eventually did.
“Anyway, Ruenwyn was shattered but not conquered, because though the Altaerans wanted to kill everyone in the east, they became victims of civil war in their own land and had to withdraw their troops. They left behind outposts, regents, priests, and an unfortunate number of blond babies, as well as the total disruption of the previous social and political order.
“All of Ruenwyn—including all of Anan and Koron—broke into tiny political entities then. Chiefs, baronets, regents, governors, mayors, brigand leaders, high priests, prophets, refugee lords… Hundreds if not thousands of strongmen each trying to carve out a piece of security and profit in the ruined lands. It was worst here, because in Amandon is where Ruenwyn’s armies had their last stand, where their backs were broken, where the people were chased from the land wholesale and driven into the forests, to the Trivestean plateaus, to the mountains and the sea. No stone stood on stone by the time the Altaerans had finished with Amandon, and when they withdrew, all the refugees and guerrillas flooded back in to resection the entire territory.
“The squabbling might have gone on forever if not for the slow advance of the Phoenix Empire. It was strange… Like a creeping fungus, it overtook the lands to the north, city by city and castle by castle turning from resistance to pledging fealty to the self-styled Emperor in Daecia City. There were assassinations here, I know. Protests, real attempts at resistance—only there seemed to be nothing to resist. The Phoenix Empire never sent armies against us, only diplomats, and one by one our petty lords all succumbed to the lure of the Empire.
“And the internal warfare ebbed as our men were drafted into the Imperial Armies, and cities were rebuilt, trade routes reopened. Life became…quieter. Routine. Most people converted to the Light, as much because it promised unity—a future without tribal war—as because they had lost faith in the spirits. We turned this part of the Heartlands into the bread-basket of the east, and we became prosperous, peaceful, contented.
“Then came the Fire Season, when the south burned. Almost the entirety of what once had been Koron province. All those people flooded into the Anan province cities, and when we thought we’d be overwhelmed by refugees, the Daecians opened their gates—which was unusual, as travel to and from the Imperial Province had always been highly restricted. Many refugees chose to travel there, and none ever returned.
“Now, here we are.”
Cob nodded slowly, frowning. “…Lot of history to digest.”
“Mm. I wouldn’t have rambled that much, except I think maybe you didn’t know any of that,” said Fiora, glancing up at him speculatively. “You being a westerner and… Well. Army-educated.”
Grimacing, Cob just shrugged.
“So, anyway, these days we’re mostly farmers. Merchants,” Fiora continued before things could get awkward. “We don’t fight much amongst ourselves, but almost all our men do a stint in the Army. Used to be they just drafted every man between sixteen and forty, but now it’s between fourteen and fifty-five, I think. If they go any further, I don’t know what will happen. Only the mages get out of military duty—oh, and the nobles, and the few men whose work is vital to the economy. Us women do most of the work now, even though we’re not allowed to own property, which is a throwback to the stupid tribal laws. Lots of women band together as ‘wives’ of the few economically-vital men just so they don’t have to worry about being unhomed, or join the Trifold. If they don’t, they can get taken as camp-followers for the Armies or else are contracted to the nobles to work their land or in their shops until they find a man to support them. It’s teeth-grindingly awful, which is why I’m happy to be a Trifolder even if they do too much talking and not enough acting.
“It’s sort of annoying that we don’t even have a king. Riddian has a king. Wyndon has a king, and it’s not even a province, it’s a protectorate. Even Averogne has a Duke—though I have no idea why. But we have a Lord Regent selected for us; we don’t even get a choice. We used to have a choice!”
“Maybe it’d be better not t’ know that,” said Cob.
Fiora shot him a narrow look. “Better not to know that we were free people once? Certainly there was incessant struggle, but at least that was for internal superiority. Now we herd hogs and grow grain while our men die on the other side of the Rift for no good reason, and we get a regent placed above us to dance whenever the Emperor tugs his puppet-strings. I know we can’t ever break away from the Empire; as a land and as a people, we’re far too valuable a resource to ever be released. But all we can do now is talk behind our hands about what we wish we could do, and try to make the best of things. It makes me so angry.”
Cob sighed through his teeth, then reluctantly reached out to pat the girl’s shoulder. She shot him a dubious look, but after a moment the tension on her face relaxed and she let her stiff posture ease.
“I know it’s no better for anyone else,” she said glumly. “But it does seem like…if you don’t know everything that’s come before, it doesn’t feel so bad. But we know—the Trifold knows, I know. And so we feel the shackles on this land keenly, as gilded as they may be. Since the Fire Season, I think everyone feels that way now, at least in the backs of their minds, but the rest of Amandon tries to ignore it, tries to make those thoughts fade. We have to keep them alive, otherwise we’ll just sink into this coddling control and never rise.
“Some day… Some day we’ll show the Empire what it means to be Anan.”