The Coming of the Darkness
Oh, Medeina! With our song, we mourn you. Tall as the spruce, lithe as the willow. Child of spring and mother of summer, our shadows danced with yours in the high meadows as we wove our dreams into reality with the vines of your hair. When you were with us, our voices echoed, our eyes saw beyond the horizon, and our very word called forth the spirits of the trees. The world is colder without you.
– Bridgit’s Dirge
While many commonfolk know little of ancient history, few in the Thornwood don’t know the tale of Bridgit and her brother Innis and the death of the Goddess, Mediena, the Great Mother. House Innis was once led by the immortal twins, Bridgit and Innis. Bridgit was dark haired and ruddy, her voice like a spark, with a bow that sang like a lark; while Innis was fair haired and quiet, his sword as fast and silent as a wolf in the woods. Innis had long since put away his blade and, with only the strength of his will, built Innisfree out of the living wood of the forest, nurturing and growing the very trees into shapes that could house all the children of Mediena. Bridgit, meanwhile, worked with the Woodswards, great warriors and woodsmen, to protect and guide the people.
Then came the Darkest Night. Armed with knife and torch, they took those faithful to the Old Gods, the priests, the draíochta, and their supporters. They also took the books, scrolls, relics, and artifacts of the faith. Oh, how much old knowledge was lost as draíochta groves were put to the torch! Many were killed, burned for crimes imagined by their murderers, others were taken to camps where they were imprisoned and held in deplorable conditions unfit for even animals. Most died in those camps, tortured to death by wicked captors or neglected to the point they starved to death. In the days that follow, Thornwood comes under attack from the forces of those who wished to see the Old Gods destroyed. House Richter and House Hale, whose names are still cursed by all who love a life free of tyranny and murder. They came with iron, steel, and cannon, cutting down trees and burning the forest before them. Beset on all sides, the Woodfolk fight valiantly but cannot hold back the tide of foes. When they reach the sacred grove, the twins Innis and Bridgit join the fight themselves, killing hundreds of soldiers before Innis himself is slain, said to have been pierced by a dozen arrows. Bridgit is forced to retreat, the warriors of the wood are forced to watch in despair as their most sacred relic, the Athan, is burned to the ground and Mediena herself drawn forth as the mighty tree is consumed. The eldritch cannons of House Richter pierce her immortal body over and over. It was said that the cannonade lasts for almost half an hour during which the Great Mother did not fight back, but merely wept and sobbed with pain. And as her tears flowed down her cheeks and so too did all the forest seem to cry out with her in a chorus of despair. From miles around the birds and beasts of the woods wailed and the trees shook as if by invisible hands. There was nothing left of Mediena. House Richter earned the title that many Woodfolk call them to this day – Godkillers.
Stay hidden, stay safe. Just leaves among the branches, wind among the grass.
With the fall of Mediena and the death of Innis, Bridgit sank into solitude. In the Eternal Grove, surrounded by her most loyal followers, the great immortal slowly becomes entombed within the tree at its heart and as magic withers and fades from the world, the great heroes of old are fade into myth and legend. In its moment of greatest weakness, the Thornwood is plundered and House Bannon’s troops occupy the once sacred lands for over a hundred and fifty years in a time known as the Bitter Harvest. The people of Thornwood found themselves bereft of their homes and goods, and even their daughters and wives were given to the occupiers to take as their own. To this day, the people of the Thornwood bear the scars of those dark times and while the land has grown strong again, they have not forgotten the horrors visited upon them.
The Age of Kings
Though the affairs beyond the wood matter little to most in the Northern Marches, the bard’s songs speak of a Queen who took the throne of Arnesse after a mighty struggle with her siblings. Her name was Queen Eleanor Bannon and she would take as husband, a man known to be her half-brother. Though to some in the Kingdom this seemed shocking, the Woodfolk were little surprised; they were already well acquainted with the travesties and atrocities that the Bannon was capable of.
This Queen was a fair and just ruler, but her husband, King Miles, was a despot and disloyal to his wife. He paid for his transgressions and his pride with his life but Eleanor reigned on, in time, finding some solace in the arms of an Aragonese nobleman named Astor. Eleanor Bannon sat upon the throne for almost thirty years, and spent much of that time trying to undo the damage she had done prior to her ascension. While some good was done, it was not enough to return prosperity and peace to the Kingdom. Could a single lifetime wash clean that much blood on someone’s hands? Eleanor bore a son by King Miles, Giles, who would take the throne upon her death. King Giles I is remembered fondly and bitterly in the wood. He continued what his mother had started and returned peace and wealth to the Kingdom of Arnesse. Giles was the first King since the end of the Bitter Harvest to welcome a delegation from Thornwood to Highcourt and extended this gesture by naming a noble of House Innis to the King’s Council. Giles did much to increase administration, trade, and justice within the Kingdom. He empowered the nobles of Arnesse with even more legal authority and while some were fair, it ultimately armed despotic lords with more ability to oppress and abuse their people. Marriage annulments were also made legal, a change that was used half a year later to end his first marriage to Queen Rosalind, the mother of his son, Giles the Younger. Rosalind and her son flee north through the Marches and take succor with House Hale while the King marries his second wife, Elysande of Corveaux, who, a year later, bears him a daughter, Emma. The wood is rarely privy to, or caring of, the treacheries and intrigues of Highcourt, but when the Queen is accused of adultery years later and executed for her supposed crimes, many in the Marches find the allegation exceedingly hard to believe. This is made even more suspicious when he marries the Queen’s cousin, Alice, also of House Corveaux. Queen Alice dies in childbirth a year later, and not a few say that the King was cursed for unkindness to Queen Elysande. Many years pass and the King descends into grief and, some say, madness. He declares that he has received a vision that the Aurorym faith would bring about the end of the Kingdom of Arnesse. King Giles summons advisors to his court, including nobles from House Innis to his court. He seeks counsel. The Lady Maeve Innis is among their number and shortly after her arrival in the capital, the King beings to court her. Shortly after, he passes an edict restricting the practice of religion throughout the Kingdom. In response, unrest about his policies rises in the much of the land. Spread by religious zealots and malcontents within the Midlands and Everfrost, rumors run rampant in the Kingdom, including that the King plans to ban faith entirely and that he is controlled by a witch. Many believe Lady Maeve is in fact the witch. When King Giles I marries Maeve of Innis, many in the wood grew hopeful that House Innis could finally return to a place of prominence in the Kingdom. But it all comes undone when Queen Maeve is announced to be with child in 750. Fear of an Innis heir to the throne fuels the allegations that the King and Queen are both involved in witchcraft. These calls are joined by powerful voices from within the Aurorym faith who say that the King must be removed from power.
In 751 Giles the Younger, son of the King, allies with Houses Blayne and Hale, and marches on Highcourt with a rebel army to seize the throne from his father. King Giles I calls his banners and Innis sends a powerful force south to aid him. Innis soldiers also harass Giles the Younger’s army as it travels and buys more time. Despite countless acts of heroism and valor that day, the rightful king of Arnesse, Giles I is defeated by his son on the battlefield at Lanton. Rumors run wild throughout the Kingdom about the Aurorym faith and how its valiant Vellatora knights carried Giles II to victory almost single- handedly. King Giles I and Queen Maeve are captured, put on trial for witchcraft, and both are burned at the stake for their alleged crimes.
Giles II is crowned King of Arnesse in 752. He promptly cements his alliance with House Blayne by marrying Aline, daughter of Lord Paragon Frederick Blayne.
“We may no longer have our magic, but to this day, the Woodswards keep the woods safe and none dare wander its trails without their permission. Our Guardians still yet read the path of the stars and the stories of the seasons in portents of what is to come and visions of what has happened before. The Draíochta study and cultivate the plants of the forest and the beasts of the field until they understand the path in which a vine will grow or in which a rabbit will run. We have taken the name of our greatest builder, Innis, and we will remain in our forests, building, long after the mayflies and their houses have fallen. Our knowledge is sought after by the other kingdoms and our warriors are without peer.”
– Sir Owyn, Guardian of the Root
The year is 763 and King Giles II has sat on the throne of Arnesse for twelve years. Feelings toward King Giles II are immensely negative. Firstly, because he’s a member of House Bannon and second, because he is seen as almost solely responsible for the very public execution of Lady Maeve Innis, sister of the current Lady Paragon, Bodhmall Innis.
The King has been an immensely polarizing force in Arnesse during his time on the throne. While Giles II is spoken of being an intelligent and visionary ruler, he has done little to outreach to the Woodfolk during his reign. Many who call the Northern Marches home fear the King and the Aurorym faith declaring much of the protectorate to be practitioners of witchcraft and sending an army to the Thornwood to deal with it. As a result, the Thornwood has heavily restricted entry to its borders and has been readying for war since Queen Maeve was murdered. This fear is heightened by the fact that the King is a devout follower of the Aurorym faith, which is immensely unpopular among many Woodfolk and has yet to find any real audience in the Thornwood.
Reports reach the people of the wood that Giles II ruthlessly enforces morality upon the world around him. The pious are rewarded and those who are declared to be profane are punished. These days, the King empowers and trusts only the faithful and the unfaithful are often disregarded or marginalized. Those he deems threats are killed or exiled. The Woodfolk of Thornwood have a position unique among all the peoples of Arnesse. Like the Tarkathi, they are one of the most ancient in Arnesse. This has given them a long and storied identity that while the ways of the past are no longer celebrated in the ways they once were, the traditions of days long past still color and influence many parts of the world with a strange, almost otherworldly mysticism. Of all the people in Arnesse, they are among the most reclusive. It is rare for Woodfolk to venture into other lands without good reason and if they do so, it is often for a specific reason or mission. While they stop just short of being truly xenophobic, they rarely welcome outsiders into their realm and those that do enter are expected to obey the customs and ways of the wood. Those who enter the Thornwood without leave of its rulers are unlikely to make it out alive. There is a saying among some Woodfolk: “The wood cares little for those who live without, but suffers not those who trod carelessly within.” But times are changing faster than the Woodfolk would like. Many have come to realize what happens to those who sit, spectate, and do nothing.
Their people have suffered the humiliation of occupation and the shame of having their way of life torn from under them. While it has made some cautious and shy, it has given them an inner and outer strength that few peoples in Arnesse possess. Already they have seen the death of their beloved Queen Maeve Innis at the hands of a faith that would likely name them witches as well and do the same. Powerful voices have called to protect their homeland at all costs, but most realize it is likely only a matter of time before the torches come once again to burn their homes.
In the Northern Marches, the appetite for seeing the people of the wood return to a place of prominence among the noble houses of Arnesse is growing. Within the last few years, the number of Woodfolk travelling beyond the wood has grown more than in any other time in their history and while they are far from opening their borders and becoming a cosmopolitan society, they have begun to consider that their future likely lies more without than within. Some have even taken action.
A second force drives the Northern Marches and that is the very real and present threat of war with the Dusklands. The forces of House Richter have repeatedly and sometimes even violently invaded the Western Thornwood. They have come seeking lumber, cutting down trees on false pretense that the land is theirs. This has sent House Innis’ Woodswards into direct conflict with the Iron Guard and Richter regulars. The conflict has damaged vast swaths of forest and caused not a few fires. Some who make their homes within the lands of House Brevis have been made homeless by the violence, their villages raided and often burned. Worse yet, the King and the nobles in Highcourt have showed no signs of interest in these events, some even claiming they are not sure any attacks are happening.
These attacks have enraged many within the wood and most Woodfolk are determined to fight off these invaders no matter the cost. The conflict has been going on for months and shows no sign of letting up, running the real risk of the situation growing into a wider regional war between multiple houses. The Woodfolk have no plans to let the Richters repeat the events of all those years ago while they still draw breath.