Ölnezea She is called in the First Speech: the rocks and mountains of the earth are Her bones, the soil Her flesh, the waters of the earth Her blood, and the air Her breath; the fires in the deep roots of the mountains and the ocean floor are the warmth of Her Body, and all the plants that grow upon the earth are Her Raiment.
This is the Second Shoya.
– From the Tristaf Dhama’uh
From the Frozen Sea in the far north, to the huge roasting desert of southern Fomadol, from the forgotten western continent of Magh’ûlla to the vast and populous Oighelen Empire in the east, Ölnezea is a world of contrasts and complexities. At its exact geographical centre lies the Vale of Bushendanar, home to the Most Ancient Order of Bards and Heralds; here all things are in balance, each of the eight material elements present in equal measure. The further from Bushendanar one travels, the more each element predominates, in its proper direction, until one approaches the margins of the Inner World: it is hottest in the great desert adjacent to the land of elemental fire, towards the province of elemental water an infinite ocean opens before the traveller, towards the domain of elemental wood the trees of the great forest crowd closer together until there is no gap between them or sky above them, and so on.
Most of Ölnezea’s people live on the shores of the Walled Ocean, or in the densely populated empire that occupies eastern Oighahar, but none of its lands is truly uninhabited. Twenty-eight kindreds of women and men, whose origins are told in the ancient book called the Tristaf Dhama’uh, have founded many domains in all the countries of the world; some have become sundered from their kin in speech and customs, while others have remembered their history in songs and books; some have prospered and grown powerful, while others have fallen into poverty or dwindled in numbers. They are divided into three great kindreds: the Aknegah and the Voishandi, known collectively as the Ubra’inda, or ‘exiles’, who dominated the world for millennia; and the more numerous Sela’inda, the ‘latecomers’, whose power has waxed as the Ubra’inda have dwindled. For more than five-and-a-half millennia since the First Day, women and men have spread across the Body of Ölnezea, leading their brief lives, loving, fighting, seeking wealth, glory or wisdom, and returning to the Mother in Her soil.
The island continent of Magh’ulla was once shared between various Voishandi peoples, the sorcerous Shallu, who built a great empire there, and the powerful, monstrous creatures known as the Mebhu. The Shallu hatched a plan to drive out and destroy the Mebhu, but in its moment of fruition the Duke of the Mebhu cursed the very land, so that any who trod it would become forgetful, even of their own speech and understanding. Only one was spared as witness to the curse, a Suitenda diplomat at the Shallu court, who was able to return to her own land and bring news of the curse to the world outside. Civilisation withered overnight, although the curse did not affect those born in Magh’ulla after it was cast, unless they should leave its shores; in this way the survivors developed their own speech and culture, although they have still not discovered the secrets of working metal or building with stone. In time the curse has faded, and brief visits may be made to Magh’ulla, although its ill-effects may take time to become apparent, and it is still very perilous. In the south the Nether Isles were unaffected by the curse, and a remnant of the old Shallu realm still survives there.
The Crescent Isles are all that remains of the Island of Neltata, the birthplace of the human race; the islands are the peaks of Neltata’s eastern mountain range, and they are mostly inhabited by remnant populations of the Voishandi peoples, who once dominated the inner world, but who have dwindled in numbers and power. The northernmost of the Crescent Isles was an island even before Neltata sank; it is called Trets-Asul, and it is where the dragons sleep away the years, few of them having stirred since the First Day. Just to the south of Trets-Asul is the island of Davu-Asul, surrounded by magical mists; this is the last dwelling place in the Inner World of the dabhu, the servitors of the gods, and it is so perilous that of those men or women that have ventured there, only three are known to have returned.
In the north of the Angry Ocean lies the cold and rocky Morjundar Archipelago, consisting of four main islands and many smaller ones. The islands were settled long ago by the Janji people, who live by fishing, raiding, and trading their exceptionally well crafted steel weapons and tools; although barren, the archipelago is mineral rich, and the Janji have a rich material culture. They are brave and hardy seafarers, although their ships are small, and inferior to the caravels and schooners that ply the southern oceans.
The huge continent of Fomadol is settled in the western coasts and jungles by the many tribes and clans of the Buni and Mutse peoples, few of whom live in large, organised kingdoms, or possess an elaborate material culture, although there are significant exceptions. The dry desert regions of the interior are dominated by the Kraikh and Ducahan peoples, whose ancient kingdoms are beginning to crumble and decline, as did the great Ivintu realm of Satintar before them, whose scattered remnants dot the landscape with ruins; the Mutse kingdoms of the interior have grown in influence as the Kraikh and Ducahan realms have dwindled. The great highland plains to the north of Lake Manitep are dominated by horse nomads of Kraikh, Mutse and Beredu origin. Throughout Fomadol, remote and isolated regions are home to scattered tribes of the ugly and beast-like Shayal. Lake Manitep is at the northern limit of Ducaha, and from the great port city of Aminza on its southern shore many ships and boats sail down the mighty River Gilos to trade with Megano, the powerful city-state that dominates Rogadol.
The Spice Isles, off the southwestern coast of Fomadol, are dominated by trade with the powerful nations of Rogadol, around the Western Walled Ocean. Although they are nominally still under their own sovereign rule, this is largely a strategic device of the northern traders designed to avoid a war over ownership of the islands; while the tribal chiefs grow extremely rich on the trade in spices, and depend on the colonial powers to reinforce their authority, the ordinary people of the islands are worked to exhaustion to feed Rogadol’s inexhaustible appetite for their fabulously valuable exports. Piracy is rife along the trade routes linking the Spice Isles to the Walled Ocean.
The region of Rogadol, named for the Roganid people who constitute the majority population, straddles both coasts of the Western Walled Ocean. Although it is divided into many small states, it is the economic powerhouse of the world, dominated by the interests of the powerful and populous city-state of Megano, a vast, seething metropolis known as the World’s Market. In the west of the region are the Beredu Temple Cities, last remnant of the powerful Kingdom of Beredn, which was destroyed by the now long vanished Kraikh Empire. Elsewhere there are both Roganid and Kraikh countries, and many in which the populations are mixed; the Kraikh people predominate more to the east, although the island of Morkhan Elaif, from which their Empire was ruled, has been uninhabited since its fall, infested by ghosts and evil spirits. Cultural traditions inherited from the Imperial era ensure that the states of this region remain relatively small, although they may accrue great military and economic power, and their rulers style themselves dukes, counts, barons or princes, rather than kings. The result of this mosaic of polities is a constant frenzy of diplomatic intrigue and localised wars, providing many lucrative opportunities for spies, assassins and mercenaries. The narrow passage that connects the Walled Ocean to the Angry Ocean is named the Straits of Sheltay, for the city that guards it; Sheltay is the last city of the Suitenda, whose Baisurti Empire dominated the region for three thousand years.
The Southern Walled Ocean is dominated by the navies of the Shinsi, an ancient Voishandi people whose kingdom is the sole surviving state from the earliest years of recorded history; no seafaring people has ever matched the Shinsi as sailors or shipbuilders, and they have the additional advantage of exceptionally light and strong timber, rope and sailcloth that is only produced in Shinsinti. Shinsinti is, however, uninterested in expansion or economic growth, and exploits its power only to maintain stability in the region. The Shinsi are renowned for their refined culture and elaborate formal customs. To the south and east of Shinsinti, the coast of Oighahar is divided between a number of vigorous and prosperous Mutse kingdoms, and an outcrop of the Oighelen Empire. To the west, the coast of Fomadol is home to a number of Ducahan kingdoms, the small Mutse realm of Udang, and the ancestral Kraikh homeland of Jekheif, while further to the south are several colonies of Rogadol’s more expansionist countries. In the far south of the Walled Ocean, Shinsi naval dominance is superseded by the powerful Shallu kingdom of Híghunîl, although Shinsi vessels are always free to travel as they please, and maintain regular routes around Híghunîl to the Dark Ocean. The territories of the far south, and particularly the three large islands of Ughellé, Man’ulla and Ongata, are great producers of opium and culinary spices; the region is known for fierce commercial competition, and not a little smuggling and piracy, although the Shinsi and Shallu navies keep that to a minimum.
Híghunîl is a very large and powerful island kingdom, ruled by the sorcerous and hedonistic Shallu people. It is the longest established of any extant Sela’inda realm, pre-dating the lost Shallu territories of the far west. It is relatively inward looking country, and although it maintains a strong military and diplomatic presence in the region, it has few commercial or strategic interests beyond its own shores. Shallu society is thought cruel and barbarous by many outsiders: it’s true that the power of the nobility is absolute, and the punishments for disobedience harsh, but to the Shallu, other peoples live with an unbearable burden of moralistic constraints on their behaviour. Theirs is a violent society, in which the powerless are exploited without mercy, but it is also a society in which all ranks enjoy greater social and sexual freedoms than elsewhere.
The Oighelen Empire, which occupies the entire eastern seaboard of Oighahar, from the fringes of the Ophidian Forest in the south to the World’s End Mountains on the shores of the Bay of Guiledh, is the most populous and powerful state in the world. For two-and-a-half millennia it has grown and matured, developing into a highly organised, bureaucratic society, every aspect of whose social structure is defined in law. The Empire’s inhabitants are principally Naimini, and almost all of the upper strata of the hierarchy are of that nationality, but there are many other ethnicities within its borders, all of whom are accorded full rights of citizenship. The Gonedin people, for example, were almost completely subsumed within the Empire, and contributed their considerable expertise in horticulture and engineering to make it the prosperous and materially complex place it is today. The Empire is no longer at all expansionist, and has constructed elaborate defenses on most of its borders, including an enormous wall in the north, hundreds of miles long. It is widely supposed that the bureaucracy has become corrupt and inefficient, and that the Empire is ripe for invasion and collapse, but so far no other country has dared to incur its wrath; although many of its legions now exist only in name, its forces still outweigh the entire population of any other single country, and can be delivered rapidly to any point along its frontier, thanks to its advanced and well-maintained transport infrastructure. The Oighelen Empire is a slave-owning society, but those in chattel servitude are well treated and well fed, in contrast to other parts of the world: the majority of slaves are employed in the intensive and scientific agricultural system, which produces enough food to guarantee prosperity for the whole society.
In Western Oighahar, to the west of the mountains and the Gulf of Dorna, there are far fewer people. The south of the region is a thinly settled area, once part of the Baisurti heartland, and later of the Linnadec kingdom of Amnet; as a result of the war that brought down Amnet, these lands were depopulated and made desolate. They are now rolling grasslands, punctuated by marshes, and home to herds of wild horses, which bring the inhabitants what little prosperity they know. Further to the north, the Suluf lands begin: the Suluf are a fierce and warlike people, devoted to their horses, courageous and brutal in the extreme. They are beginning to expand to the south, now that their several kingdoms have been largely united under one High King; they are also engaged in constant skirmishing with their enemies to the north. North of the Suluf lands lie the Three Kingdoms, which are the lands of those Beredu that fled into exile rather than live under the yoke of the Kraikh Empire; the Three Kindgoms are known throughout the world as highly civilised and prosperous places, in which the art of healing has been elevated to new heights. The Beredu heritage is also that of horse nomads, and they are notable warriors, keeping the Suluf at bay for now. In the coastlands of the far north, under the protection of the Beredu, live the Wen-Raimin, the ‘dog people’, who do not ride horses, but hunt by running alongside their beloved hounds with flint-tipped spears.
Beyond the World’s End Mountains is the Frozen North. Just to the north of the mountains is a kingdom of Wen-Raimin that have settled permanently and learned metallurgy and horsemanship, in imitation of their patrons the Beredu. Beyond them is a frozen waste: there are some Janji settlements on the coast, some Wen-Raimin tribes, and also a few clans of Shallu nomads, who chose to come north for reasons best known to themselves. It is rumoured that there are worse things in this inhospitable wilderness as well.
At the extreme edge of the world is the archipelago of Mebhunda-Asul; this is the territory that remains to the monstrous Mebhu, who were destroyed in Magh’ulla and driven from Oighahar millennia ago. Little or nothing is known of them, and it is far from certain that they actually exist. Few would wish to venture here to find out.