This large, fortified town is sometimes called "the Throat of Talduth Vale." It earned this name because it stands on the Sheep Road linking the Borders with the Shaar fringes that Vale farmers use as grazing land -- and because it forms a bottleneck for travelers. The countryside around Emrys is typical of the upland Vale (the less lush, more rolling part of Talduth Vale that lies along the Landrise where the lower lands of the Border Kingdoms become the high plateau of the Shaar). Small farms that raise sheep and root crops are laid out in a crazy-quilt of wandering lanes and irregularly-shaped fields separated by high fieldstone walls, with thorn trees and a few felsul standing where walls meet.
Dominated by the massive and severe battlements of central Emrystarl's Keep, Emrys occupies a hill at the south end of cold, deep Emrysar Lake. Treacherous bogs drain into the lake from the north and stretch to the Dragonback, a long, sharp, distant ridge. Travelers going east or west must trek most of the way to Oeble to pass these natural barriers if they want to avoid Emrys. Most don't bother.
Taldans come to Emrys for protection in time of war (extensive underground caverns under Emrystarl's Keep contain armories and a stream of sweet water), for selling sheep and wool to outlanders in the Bawling Market (named for the din made by penned sheep), and for supplies (Emrys is Talduth Vale's main source of ironmongery, livestock feed, pottery, and large gear such as wagons). The town is prosperous. Well-stocked shops offer reasonable prices, and folk are always eager to buy.
Defended by two concentric walls, Emrys is only a little more than a mile in length and roughly half that in width, cloaking the slopes of the oval hill crowned by the keep. It is a crowded place of cobbled streets, no trees, and tall, narrow, steep-roofed shops with rental living-quarters rising four floors or more above the selling floors. Cellars below house "candle-shops" -- small chambers where skilled workers repair or alter shoes, garments, or small items by candlelight. New wares are never sold in candleshops.
There are only two open spaces within the town walls -- the Broad and the Bawling Market. The Broad, used for parking caravan-wagons and assembling their harness-teams, lies between the outer and inner town walls on the town's southeastern edge. The Market is the always-bustling local meeting place, a ragged oval perhaps a quarter of a mile long, bounded on the west by the frowning keep walls and on the east by the Church of All Souls, a temple of six sanctuaries open to all faiths (Chauntea, Lathander, Tempus, and Tymora predominate).
Lodgings in Emrys tend to be noisy, cramped, and expensive. Stabling and even hitching fees are higher than accommodation, so many caravan merchants pay four to six silvers a wagon to camp in one of the nearby fields. From these, they trudge into town through one of three gates -- the Vigilant Gate (on the south), Vale Gate (northeast), and Sundown Gate (west). A fourth gate, Sunshadow (on the southeast), was blocked up after folk took to arriving and departing from the Broad without stopping for inspection and taxation by the Eagles of Emrys. These town guards collect levies of one silver piece per handcart or 'man-drag' litter, two silvers per palanquin or two-wheeled cart, and three silvers per wagon. Many visiting merchants still defiantly consider the Broad to be a "free merchant stand" territory where town laws can be ignored, but the Eagles (and their masters) disagree.
Emrystarl's Keep is an ancient, human-built fortress from the times of Glendarl, a sorcerous realm that preceded the yuan-ti rule of Sselempurrt, the dwarven and human trading post of Brokaun, and, most recently, the human land of Thuntar (now flourishing far to the west, halfway across the Border Kingdoms).
No one alive remembers who Emrystarl was, though folk share a vague impression of a mighty warrior who died in his keep old, well-respected, and undefeated -- leaving behind, of course, a treasure hoard that no one's ever found (yet). Tales are told of the old lord's phantom walking in the secret passages that honeycomb the keep walls ("By the Old Lord's Ghost" is a local oath), but greed-besotted adventurers are warned that (to the best of anyone's knowledge) every 'secret' passage in the keep has been found and thoroughly explored. A silent apparition of a helmed, fully-armored warrior has been seen from time to time stalking the passages, and legends tell of its chilling, insistent touch awakening certain young men and maids and leading them to weapons, maps, or missions that need doing. Most Emryans, however, scoff at the notion that Emrystarl still walks among them.
Emrys is ruled by a council of six hereditary Grand Merchant Dukes and a citizen-elected Imperial Overduke. These counselors consider themselves the equals of the rulers of any great realm.
A flogging in the keep's cellar awaits any visitor who belittles the power or status of these seven rulers. They swagger about Emrys or the Vale within sight of the town daily (cynical Taldans say this is because their real power only extends as far as they can see from inside the town, and they know it). The Dukes want no one but themselves to have importance or influence in Emrys, so resident adventurers and prominent merchants are few. Emryan wizards and priests of any standing are unknown. In the daylit hours, there's always at least one Duke (or his personal equerry) on careful watch in the Broad for challenges to the dignity or authority of the Dukes or the law of Emrys.
Severe affronts against these sacred matters earn miscreants a body-brand in the shape of the symbol of the Emryan Dukes (a large gold coin surrounded by a circle of six smaller silver ones) and banishment from the town by being "flogged down the streets without delay." The goods and property of such offenders are forfeit to the 'Ducal Hand.' (In other words, the Dukes take it as their own and fight over the division behind closed doors.)
The Dukes long ago seized the best houses in town for their use. As real estate is in very short supply in Emrys, and therefore overpriced, the ability to hand out residences gives the Dukes real power.
The Dukes, however, have arrived at some painfully blunt understandings with other powerful merchant families in town concerning the inadvisability of future seizures of properties belonging to said families. These days, the Dukes seldom move personally into any newly-seized building.
Only recently, an exile who was forced out one gate doubled back into the city by another gate right after his flogging and poisoned all the bottles in the extensive cellars under what had been, until minutes before, his house. The poisoning caused terrific carnage among the ducal families and their allies and favorites. The incidence of simpler traps built into residences (such as heavy furniture that crashes down to crush anyone sitting in the high seat at table or using the high-poster master bed) has well-nigh evaporated any enthusiasm on the part of the more greedy Dukes for regular acquisitions and house-movings.
The office of Imperial Overduke was charged with giving all Emryans a say in government in order to prevent the hereditary Grand Merchant Dukes from becoming decadent tyrants. In practice, the elevated commoners (who serve a seven-year term) are quickly corrupted by the supposedly subservient Dukes. Those who can't be corrupted are kept senseless with drugged wine and then poisoned, if they prove particularly stubborn, principled, or power-hungry.
The current Overduke, Shryntuth Hammado, is a pleasure-loving former leatherworker who seems lost in the delights and privileges of rule (in his case, these amount to wild, wine-soaked parties in particular).
The six families who supply Emrys with its hereditary Dukes (and true rulers of the town) are the houses of Bulisstan, Dlanivaer, Klornu, Lylitrath, Orglast, and Relantovir.
The Grand Merchant Dukes
The current Dukes are --
- Thalard Bulisstan (NE male Tethyrian human Ftr3; Str 17, Con 17), a grossly fat, malicious glutton who was -- several lifetimes ago, it seems -- a warrior of minor skills.
- Melutho Dlanivaer (CE male Illuskan human Ftr9; Dex 17, Int 17), a dangerous fop who is a skilled actor (especially where deception is concerned) and who misses no detail. He also considers himself the greatest swordsman south of the Flaming Fist's hold and uses poisoned blades and skilled bodyguards to support this fancy. He's always on the watch for traitors and outlanders in town who may intend a threat to the rule of the Dukes.
- Anather Klornu (NE male Tashalan human Clr 10 [Shar]; Int 18, Wis 18), an effeminate, fat, brilliant priest of Shar who holds rites in a cellar at the bottom of Black Pillar Stair. (The pillar stands at the midpoint of the northern edge of the Market, holding up a bridge that crosses over Polduk Alley between two shops. The stair opens up against its northern face.) Klornu schemes tirelessly and subtly (so nothing will be traceable back to him) to eliminate the other Dukes and make Emrys a holy city of Shar-worshippers.
- Irten Lylitrath (LN male Illuskan human Ftr1), a shy, nondescript man with a keen eye, sharp ear, and brilliant memory -- and not much else. He gains self-confidence by following and slavishly obeying Melutho Dlanivaer. He is the least informed, least cruel, and fairest of the Dukes.
- Balos Orglast (CE male Calishite human Ftr7; Str 17, Dex 17), a coarse giant of a man who gets pleasure from hurting others -- people, beasts, hunted animals, horses he rides, and anything else within reach that isn't another Duke. He loves brawls and any chance for "some fun." As a result, he is the most hated and feared Duke among average Emryans. Orglast is an expert in the use of drovers' whips, flails, and hurled chairs and bottles -- empty or full.
- Sargar Relantovir (NE male Tethyrian human Wiz9/Ftr6; Str 16, Dex 17, Int 18], a bearded, elegant, and close-mouthed giant of a man who enjoys acting mysteriously and manipulating folk into furthering his plans and desires. He's Melutho's only open rival at deadliness, wariness, intrigue, and foresight among the Grand Merchant Dukes (none of the Dukes is fully aware of Klornu's capabilities and treacheries). Relantovir poses as a fighting man who fears magic, but is in truth a closet mage. He seizes as many spells and magic items as he can from any wizards who come to town who are foolish enough to eat or drink within reach of his sleep-causing draughts (slumbers he ensures they never awaken from). Relantovir always has magic items on his person to deflect any attack from Melutho, other Dukes, or their agents, and has on occasion been forced to use them. Otherwise, he keeps his mastery of magic as secret as possible.
Those Who Defy The Dukes
Despite all the local tales about the corruption, cruelty, and underhandedness of their rulers, most Emryans support the Dukes, crediting their energetic aggressiveness for giving Emrys a (little) international importance, and therefore trading prosperity. Other citizens keep their hatreds of the ducal rule well-hidden and obey the Dukes out of simple fear.
There are a few defiant exceptions, such as the Masked Ladies of the Bronzen Buckler and Butterfly dance and gambling club (whom the Dukes have been told to leave alone or face a general revolt of town merchants, and so content themselves with inspecting the club often and taxing it heavily).
A second is an underground group styling itself "the Riders of the Cracked Cauldron," alluding to the steaming cauldron badge of the onetime ruler of Emrys, the fat, jovial, High Councilor 'Mother' Laddath Hambreth (who died in a Vale hovel after being exiled by the first Merchant Dukes some three hundred winters ago). The Riders play pranks on the Dukes and occasionally threaten something more dangerous. Once, the portcullis of the Vale Gate fell on a horse and knight of the Ducal Bodyguard a bare armlength ahead of two mounted Dukes. Another time, a fire started in the Overduke's feasting hall, and fleeing guests discovered that a wagon just confiscated from a banished merchant was wedged into a bend in the stairs, blocking that way out. Certain visiting merchants covertly support the efforts of the Riders with hope of doing away with the present system of governance in Emrys.
There are also tales of a masked bandit, Creeping Caladyn, who uses a bit of magic and an unmatched knowledge of the secret passages that "everyone knows" link many cellars and shops in hidden ways all over (or rather under) the town. This shadowy figure steals from the Dukes as ruthlessly and as often as they take from everyone else.
Emryan Attractions and Perils
Why travel to Emrys at all? It's a prosperous place where people are always eager to buy. The shops in town are judged by most travelers to be unusually well-stocked for so small a center, and to charge reasonable, though not bargain basement, rates. Like the folk who run them, few are superb or particularly memorable. This allows the wares of a good traveling merchant to shine, and business is usually brisk.
The exceptions to the mediocrity of local establishments are the Old Barrel Run tavern (Fair/Cheap), a dark cellar where locals like to drown their troubles in strong tankards of local brew,and visitors come in search of low-priced ale and relative anonymity when negotiating deals; and the aforementioned Bronzen Buckler and Butterfly dance and gambling club (popular neither for dancing nor gaming, but rather for the company of the Masked Ladies, who, as one outlander merchant put it, "make up for shortfalls in ambience with enthusiasm and a lively sense of fun"). The hushed, isolated stone cellars that make up the private chambers of the Old Butterfly are the best of the very few places in Emrys where business can be discussed in complete privacy.
Nevertheless, patrons of the Butterfly are warned that the Dukes and their agents visit the place often, hoping to overhear things of interest. Delicate negotiations are best conducted at the back of a chamber with a Masked Lady singing a soft ballad between you and the firmly closed door.
From time to time, an exasperated visiting merchant or Taldan farmer from the outlying Vale growls that "the Dukes must go!" No one has yet mustered the necessary force. Would-be conquerors are warned that the Dukes are known to have effective spying and slaying magic items, and they have used them swiftly and mercilessly to quell two revolts and at least four external takeover attempts (that the town in general knows about).
The Dukes also have their private, personal bodyguards. Most of them are never without at least a dozen ready-for-battle fighters and thieves. Add to these their family retainers, house guards, and the Eagles to call upon whenever trouble erupts.
The town guard consists of hired, fairly competent outlander adventurers under the command of officers drawn from the families of the Grand Merchant Dukes. Their ranks, which are riddled with spies for the Dukes, are also in a constant state of rivalry and intrigue engineered by the Dukes to keep the troops from becoming bored or uniting to overthrow the ducal rule. The Eagles patrol throughout Talduth Vale under orders to slay or drive out suspected wizards and priests of more than 4th level or so, wherefore no such persons are known to be resident in Emrys.
There are, however, persistent rumors that a mighty archmage dwells in hiding in Emrys, using the unwitting Dukes as a front to keep order in the town around his hideaway. According to these tales, he occasionally hurls world-rending magics at any wizard brash (and capable) enough to seriously challenge the Dukes. There have been confrontations between Dukes or their agents and traveling mages over the years, and the mages have mysteriously disappeared or moved on without the mayhem and carnage one might expect to befall. The ranks of the vanished are even said to include Zhentarim magelings and Red Wizards. Are they the origin of the phantom apparitions of floating, flying human skulls seen flitting above the Emrysar Bog some nights?
The mysteries at the heart of Emrys remain to be unraveled. What would seem to be a simple thing for wayfaring heroes to untangle persists from year to year.
About the Author
Ed Greenwood is the man who unleashed the Forgotten Realms on an unsuspecting world. He works in libraries, writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, and even romance stories (sometimes all in the same novel), but he is still happiest churning out Realmslore, Realmslore, and more Realmslore. There are still a few rooms in his house with space left to pile up papers in . . .