The Long March to Dunmar

Everyone knows of Dunmar, the town of crazy people in the mountains to the east of Arbordan. Mothers are often known to threaten their children with exile to Dunmar, where there is no shard and none have crystals for light or cooking or any of the countless things normal people use without thinking every day. Even the elves of Thanendrell, who live in relative isolation in their Forest, benefit greatly from the goods available at Arbordan.

Folks in Dunmar are outcasts and exiles. They are forbidden to enter the cities, and they are far from the warmth of the shards. They make do as the ancients once did, with crude fires and torches for light, practicing their superstitious rites and worshiping their ancient Gods. It is this practice of bowing to make-believe deities that caused these people to be excluded from polite society. Everyone knows life is hard in Dunmar, but not a year goes by that a few folks in Arbordan don’t get caught worshipping and get themselves thrown out, or even self-exile as a matter of some unfathomable principle.

There are many tears as the long train of wagons and walking children and adults makes its way from the East Gate at the foot of Wake Hill. Distraught parents bid farewell to their children without even the comfort of a handsome pay-out from the Counselor. There are simply too many chosen for the parents to be compensated in the traditional way. The weather has taken a foul turn this morning, with cold, drizzly rain and no promise of the warming sun.

In total, 1,062 children, along with around two hundred adults, make up the procession. The wild places between cities in Ember are not safe, but a train of this size should be secure enough. To be sure, each of the adults is armed with a bolt-gun and plenty of charges. Thirty-one wagons carry food and supplies for the journey to Dunmar and back. You hear the adults talk about an eight-day walk, but judging by the way everything takes forever to do, you suspect it will be longer than that.

The caravan’s routine is simple and quickly learned. There is hot food every morning, early afternoon and at dark. The meals start out fairly good, but after two days you’re down to all the beans and hard tack bread  you can eat, with a bit of jerked beef thrown in for variety. There are canvas tents for sleeping in, but they don’t stop the mosquitos from getting inside and you’re soon itchy and tired and at least mildly miserable. Still, it all seems like a grand adventure, in spite of your trepidation at having to go to a place that you’ve heard used as a curse your entire young life.

The road is good, and the master of the train pushes past dusk on the second day. An hour later, you arrive in Galton Ferry. The town has no shield wall, and certainly no dome, but it has thick walls of stone a good thirty feet high, with equally bulky towers. These primitive defenses don’t seem quite so silly when seen up close.

The town’s two Inns wouldn’t hold a fraction of your procession, so everyone pitches tents inside the walls. The next day, they start sending wagons across the ferry to the east side of the Ubathor River. It takes the whole day to get everyone across, and you wind up pitching camp not far past the other side, much to the discontent of the grown-ups.

Late on the afternoon of day six, a small band of large creatures is seen gathered on a hill. They wave clubs and make a savage and frightening sound toward you. They look fearsomely powerful, and you worry that they’ll come after the caravan, but they don’t. There are whispers among the children of ogres and giants, with some even going so far as to say they heard from someone who heard from someone that the creatures were titans. But you estimate they could not have been nearly that large, and you settle in your own mind that they were just ogres. Bad enough, that, but manageable.

Soon after, the road fades and the caravan turns north, into the mountains. To the west is the familiar Ironscar range, called Durrin Daigar by the dwarves. To the north and east are the Su’bord Highlands, the great mountains that dominate the central-north reaches of Ember, while to the south is the high country known as the South Table. Your path takes you steadily higher in elevation, although you remain at the lowest part of a long valley, hard by a fast-moving river flowing south called the Silverbelly. The frequent tributaries make for hard going for the wagons, though they aren’t much more than streams. The air seems thinner up here, and certainly colder.

Finally, on the morning of the thirteenth day,  you leave the wagons behind and begin ascending a steep track. The path is somewhat narrow and the going is slow. Late in the afternoon, seven or eight men appear on horses upon a ridge north of and above the path. One sounds a horn that seems alarmingly loud in the relative quiet of the mountains. They ride down and confer for a time with the adults, then ride alongside with the train. It is not until the next morning on the 25th of Gennos that the town of Dunmar comes in to view.

Dunmar seems at once forbidding and picturesque. The buildings are solid… framed from great, hewn beams of wood with heavy plaster between to seal out the weather. There is some thatch, but most roofs are covered in stone shingles. Smoke rises from dozens upon dozens of chimneys, and a continuous throng of busy people bustle about, leading horses or mules, even oxen, or hauling packages. Everyone seems occupied although you receive plenty of curious stares, and nobody seems particularly crazy.

Dominating the north end of town is a very large building made of stone, with many odd towers with steeply-sloped roofs and plenty of crenellations and arrow slits built into the design. It seems older by far than the rest of the town. It is in the wide yard before this building that one of the town folk, a large, black-bearded man directs your escorts to set up your tents. By evening, hot food is served including some odd-tasting meat. It isn’t bad, just strange. Some of the adults go into the large building along with ten or a dozen of the town’s folk. They have not come out by the time you drift off to sleep.

Way too early in the morning, a gruff fellow comes starts banging on tents with a stick and nudging kids with his foot, fairly roughly. “Ay, get up you lot. The Burgher means to ‘ave a word with you welps afore you sleeps the day away. I’s got better to do than play nursemaid for you sucklings, so get up and get your sorry tails out o’ them tents and assemble in the yard! NOW!”

The place erupts like a kicked ant hill, and before long over a thousand ten-year-old children are assembled, some shivering, others trying to show a brave face. It is quite cold, this time of year up in the mountains. The bulky man with the black beard stands in front of the crowd of you, and what looks like half the town or more are standing around behind him. You don’t see any of the caravan escorts.

He gestures  to his right to an elderly man wearing an elaborate hat. The man appears to mumble and wiggle his fingers around for a moment, then falls still and silent.

Black-beard clears his throat. The sound is amazing load and clear, no matter where you stand in the mass of children. “My name is Din Fargas, and I am the Burgher of Dunmar, which is something like the High Counsel of Arbordan, only not nearly so important or wise,” his voice is gruff, but not unkind, and his eyes seem to sparkle as he gazes out over the crowd.

“Those who brought you hear have left, and they won’t be back until we send for them. I do not much intend to send for them for quite a few winters yet. I know this is a bit of a shock to your lowlander sensibilities, but don’t you worry children. You’ll soon learn a thing or two about toughening up.”

“We here in Dunmar are good people, God-fearing people, and we will not mistreat any of the Gods’ creatures, nor be cruel to them. But listen and abide me well. We did not wake yesterday morning intending to have a fair city’s worth of children dropped upon our stoop. We did not toil through the summer to ensure we had enough stores to feed an extra thousand or so hungry mouths. There is a long and hard winter ahead of us, and you children won’t have the luxury of sitting idle through it, or we’ll all starve.  As it is, I expect that some number of you, the weaker ones, along with the older ones among those who were here when you came will not see the spring. I told you that we are not cruel, but nature most assuredly is. She is without pity or remorse, and she culls the weak and gives it no second thought.”

“The cold will kill you hear faster than the lack of food, so our first order of business is to add on to the Academy  there behind you so that you all have a place to be dry and out of the wind, if not all that warm. A word about the Academy children. It has been here many years, though in service only to exiles such as us and the few dozen who abandon the great cities each year. It is a place dedicated to learning the old things, the things that your parents and grandparents long-ago discarded. Things like the art of war, the use of magic, the hunting of beasts and men, and the Old Gods, those who gave men life and helped them thrive and build Ember are spoken of openly here. You have been taught in your schools in Arbordan how the Gods are an ancient superstition practiced only by primitive cultures such as ours and rejected by any thinking person, but you will learn differently here, and there will be no room for doubt among you.”

“The very fact that you are here was a design of the Gods themselves. The great one who appeared before you in Arbordan and made an example of some of your countrymen, Nih’mar, is the Angel of Guydan the All Father. He appeared to us here as well, days now gone by, and bade us make ready for you. He did not have to use his powers to convince us to take him seriously.”

“Let this be your first lesson. The Gods are greater than we can ever be, but they sleep, and sleeping they can but dream of what passes here in Ember.  Their angels are awake, as you witnessed, and carry out Their will while the Gods slumber. While the Gods Themselves may be kind or even benevolent, the Angels are cruel just as nature is cruel, and for much the same reasons. Their duty is to a greater purpose, one which we cannot see or understand, and they let nothing and no-one stand athwart the wishes of their Masters.”

“Speaking of masters, I have gathered here with me those who know best about the things that Nih’mar instructed us to teach you. There are among them men and women of every nation and every skill, trade and profession. They will chose you for your potential, though you will be expected to make many choices of your own accord in seeking your education here.”

Fargas pauses for a minute and his brow furrows.

“I claim no special wisdom, children, but it seems to me that the Gods gather an Army in you, and have brought you here to be trained in what only a scant few in Ember still remember the doing of. They would not raise such an army without need, and I hope that it helps you seek the motivation you require to learn well, for what you learn here will be the difference between your life and death some day not too far down the road. I beg of you… learn well.”

The Burgher introduces you to two men who are an architect and a carpenter, each of whom has a small crowd of men and women with them. They spread out in amongst the children and begin picking out crews to help them in the tasks that will be needed to build sufficient permanent shelter for everyone. It takes over a week of the hardest work of your life, but the last barrack is finished just in time for the first snowfall of a very long winter.


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