For a while I have tried to find a way to interestingly lay down background information for a wargaming army and custom setting; I am always interested in the creation of narratives around such games, but too often when creating a background the focus falls simply on inventing past glories on the battlefield. A wargame requires, generally, military characters. I find it increasingly dull to simply write timelines of fictitious battles, and so in writing this – arguably the background to a tabletop army I am currently building and painting – focused more on how its leader, the ruler of a province in a fantasy nation, is perceived by her subjects.
In time, as I play games, I will most likely add lists of accomplishments to the units within the army. Until then, what would matter in a fantasy nation is the leader of men, the person who rides into battle. Establishing them as a ruler, trying to lay down why the army I am devising would fight under the flag it does, is far more interesting than trying to create exaggerated past military glories which are then in turn reduced to nothing by the vagaries of dice rolls.
Winter is settling into its deepest extremities of cold, snow is by now a carpet across the lowlands that burns the eyes as warmthless, bright sun reflects on it. The trees are white-on-black skeletons, leaves long dead, picking up thick layers of snow that turn into icicles in time, lakes and rivers begin to ice over and one can travel a great distance before meeting anyone prepared to leave their town or village’s comforting walls and home fires. Understanding how lonely and silent Anor Cathil becomes during the High Winter is a sobering, uneasy revelation; this is not the usual wintering of the realm, the retiring to safely stockpiled goods and the tavern to warm up with strong spirits, this is the time of year when nobody will leave their home without good reason, when those who do venture out risk their health and lives. Even the Divine’s edicts become hard to enforce, dispensations granted to worship in one’s own home. Some hold vigil through the long nights in private shrines and chapels, surrounding themselves in light to try and burn away the winter darkness all the sooner. They pray for the vulnerable, those who the cold bites most deeply, and for those who may not be so adequately provisioned for this lean time. The most pious will donate their excess to those in need.
And the towns that cannot simply shut down try in their own way to fight off the encroachment of ice. Braziers are lit along the streets, bonfires set to make the plazas and marketplaces bearable. The people wrap up in furs to walk with due haste to their places of business, and some form of curtailed life may proceed. For to assume a province can completely shut itself off from the outside world is absurd; people adapt, and work out how they may get by even in the height of adversity. In the worst winters the bays my freeze over and even the movement of goods by sea cease, but those are rare and unpleasant times that are simply written into notoriety as stories for those who endured to use as nightmares for their children.
Travellers who wish to be with their families will race home before High Winter properly sets in, those on business elsewhere in the realm always awaiting the letter by bird to tell them that the snows are begun in earnest, and then dropping all business to return. Those, that is, who must winter in Cathil. The very richest, or the most able, may travel away from the ice and snow – or prolong their business in the south throughout the winter months. Some of the towns of Osten or Tethis, those Anori of the long autumns that are so mild as to be the High Summer to Cathil’s High Winter, are so renowned for taking in these refugees from snow that the locals see themselves as Cathilan, worshipping in temples built in the northern model and eating food of northern style. In time, in the summers they will still keep this northern mien, until such a moment as the Cathilans are no longer in favour in their courts and then it will be as if they had never taken on such ridiculous affectation.
So that, I hope, explains in some way what High Winter’s onset is like. The dissolution of the world into a white void, the skies either heavy and grey and waiting to add further to the erasure of the land below or blindingly clear and bright, the sun seeming vast in the blue emptiness. The people hiding themselves away and praying for spring’s return. At the end of the Low Winter, we hold our end of year ceremonies; it would be too cold to wait longer. There is a last exuberance, a last hunt before it becomes too cold for animals to venture out, and for those short days, the last of what some would call our autumn, there is a romance to the snow. Picture that scene in the high towers of Velen Cavil, the castle nestled into a mountain where the Earl of Anor Cathil will winter. Winding deep into the stone’s depths are vaults of food and wine. Fires, burning from the wood of maples and oaks felled in the valleys and the fragrant conifers of the mountains, warm its white stone halls and fill the long nights with golden, flickering light. To walk in the winter gardens and see the purple and white carpets that sit like a colourful ocean between stone arches and statues is to experience absolute stillness, the perfect opportunity for a stolen conversation with someone held dear. Imagine what one wears in these dying months of comfort, fur-edged clothes in rich, thick cloth in the blue-and-white colours of the Anor. A hat, made from the fur of some small creature that in life darted up and down the rivers. Jewellery – sapphires, in honour of one’s Earl. Diamonds, too, if one is rich enough.
And, one may turn a corner in the winding colonnades and galleries of Velen Cavil and look out over a courtyard below where all is activity. Blue-cloaked soldiers in silver armour keeping their sword-arms quick and strong through the winter, training. The air misted with the breath of exertation and loud with the sounds of battle. At the centre is the Countess, Callyria, the Winter Lady. See her, understand her, and understand the whole of Anor Cathil. She stands the equal in height of any man serving her, and fights alongside them at the head of the armies of her ancestral home. To watch her wield a lance or sword one would not see a general or hero, some figure of legend who might slay armies alone, but to see the consummate skill of arms that any knight of worth should have. She is not better, not a gleaming demigod in magical armour on the back of a dragon, she is simply the standard to which all knights of Anor Cathil aspire – and only those who reach it may ride alongside her at the charge.
Do not mistake her willingness to fight as a soldier for a lack of nobility. Indeed, do not mistake the knights of Cavil for some rowdy band of freelances who will drink and pillage; in their conduct as in their skill at arms they follow the example of their Countess, and she is a pious woman as anyone who rules one of the six Anori must be. Her interpretation of the Edicts of the Divine is notoriously strict, such that the Divine Law of Cathil has become a term widely known across the Anori to represent strict morality, frugality and honesty. Perhaps this will tilt your understanding of Velen Cavil; it sits upon a treasury of necessities for the High Winter because it shelters those in need. The valley beneath it is home to dozens of hamlets and small farming villages, and those lords of the Vale of Cavil who build their mansions or keeps in the valley do their part to shelter and provide for their people – but many will shelter within the walls of the immense castle halfway up the mountain. It is true to say that from those who do shelter there, some will be taken aside by some knight or other, maybe the Countess herself, and asked if they have considered taking up arms for their Anor. And from there, the cycle which keeps the armies manned continues.
The Earl, her husband, is equally driven by a desire to see the Divine’s will fulfilled; it has always been his wish that the castle be beautiful yet sparse, a restrained, ascetic elegance to aid contemplation. There is little gold; instead, he favours carved stone. Instead of paintings hang tapestries that warm the halls, and the most ornamental of objects all hold some practical use. While the Countess pursues hunting and war, he pursues science and knowledge, recording the stars and the histories of his realm so that all may benefit. He is a keen gardener, always trying to find some way to cheat the High Winter and let beauty and fruitfulness prosper all year round. Under his guidance, farms have prospered as new irrigation systems have kept the fields nourished. He has listened to those who bring new scientific ideas to him and been generous with the treasury to help the people.
I write these praises not exaggerating in the slightest. No demanded loyalty to these lords compels me to write untruths to expand their reputation, no fear of torture or death requires I elide over unfortunate truth. These are not superhuman deeds I describe; they have not earned their glories by their part in myth. Some, less familiar with precisely what the will of the Divine means among the Anori, would call my lords good, as if by comparison their kings were bad. I, having all my life lived by the Edicts, having held the all-night observances and fasted when it was necessary, having on the most terrifying night of my life prayed in preparation for the scalding rite of purification as I wed a man with the grey eyes of a Cathilan, see what the Winter Lady of Anor Cathil does as only what any ruler should hold as the requirement of governance. If one cannot provide, cannot protect, cannot listen, then one cannot rule. She is good to me only in that she has a singular, resolute determination to fulfil her duty to her absolute utmost; but even so, that is a determination one expects of all rulers.