How and where and when did the Forgotten Realms start? What's at the heart of Ed Greenwood's creation, and how does the Grand Master of the Realms use his own world when he runs D&D adventures for the players in his campaign? "Forging the Forgotten Realms" is a weekly feature wherein Ed answers all those questions and more.
f old, most of Faerûn knew the land of Amn as a gilded place of obscene wealth won through mercantile success. In the words of the sage Rauthelaur of Beregost, Amn was "a golden octopus whose tentacles spread across the known world, coiled and clutching—and the tips of those tentacles sucked coins out of everywhere they could, all the time, to feed its never-satisfied lust for spending."
More recently, rising Sembia became known as "the Land of Fat Rich Merchants" among those who disliked its hauteur and pushy trade dealings. Amn deserved the title more and earlier—so much so that at the time of Sembia's most noticeable rise, in the mid 1300s, Amn had already begun to sink into decadence, its most wealthy and powerful pursuing all manner of jaded diversions.
One of Amn's foremost, unofficially ruling merchant families went as far as to leave the country, abandoning their position atop the heap of wildly spending "greatsacks" (the local equivalent at the time for the modern real-world North American term of "moneybags"). Overnight they became "not spoken of," except as an oblique warning of losing one's senses; an Amnian who thinks a fellow Amnian is headed off the rails into insanity or foolhardy behavior may tell them "not to so swiftly embrace the Cleft Coin." That Amnian would be referencing the badge used by the Melander family, formerly of Athkatla: the infamous Fallen Family.
From their own point of view, the Melanders of Athkatla didn't fall at all; they abandoned the folly of ostentatious spending and lavish pretense that was coming to dominate Amn, and scattered across Faerûn to take up new lives of vastly greater power, privacy, and personal freedom. They became hidden powers in many city-states around the Realms, and in most cases still are today. Nowadays, they happily meddle in local politics, covertly hire adventurers to achieve by theft and violence the deeds they need done swiftly and surely outside local laws, and await a call for assistance that they know will never come—debt that Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun didn't live to call in.
The Rise of House Melander
The Melanders began as sailmakers and fisherfolk based in Athkatla, and became ship owners when those who'd hired them to "rerig" (that is, provide new sails and rigging for ships, mainly cogs that carried bulk cargoes among Amn, Tethyr, Baldur's Gate, Waterdeep, and ports around The Shining Sea) were unable to pay the agreed-upon prices for the Melanders' work.
The Melanders didn't become ship captains, but instead earned fees from leasing their growing fleet of ships to others. Soon the Melanders fished no more, but spent much of their time repairing and refitting ships for themselves and for clients. They kept a low profile for some generations, as unremarkable members of the hard-working "shopkeepers" class who kept daily life in Amn operating, the bustling "pillars that underlie our glittering heights" (as the sage Lamaerlus of Athkatla put it, writing in 1299 DR).
Throughout this time (the early 1200s DR), the Melanders invested their profits in buildings all over Athkatla, and in good farmland strategically located along trade-roads throughout the rest of Amn, becoming the sort of landlord that doesn't care what tenants do with properties, provided they pay their rents promptly and in full. (There's a family story, told by one Melander to another but rarely shared more widely, of an inn in eastern Amn catching the eye of a traveling Melander. He tried to buy it—only to discover that the family already owned it.)
By the time the Melanders decided—and it was a conscious decision—to "join the ranks of the glittering" (a line from a favorite, oft-performed play in Amn, The Golden Victories of Aerurthann Mhalphondur), they were among the wealthiest families in Athkatla.
The patriarch and matriarch of the Melanders at that time, Novroan and Laelrya, decided the family was ready to withstand reprisals from those they would supplant or best, and needed the influence being known and seen to be incredibly rich spenders would win them in Amnian society, to make deals that would make them even richer, and raise their status higher and faster.
Novroan, Laelrya, and Novroan's four younger brothers all unanimously agreed to "come out of the vault" and become "goldcloaks," and they guessed right. Surging onto the scene made them influential overnight, and involved them in scores of deals that made them stupendously wealthy, very quickly. These deals included wharf extensions, new multi-floored dockside warehouses being erected to replace old barnlike storage, bridge-building that enabled the levying of bridge tolls on new and better rural Amnian roads that everyone wanted to use, and partnering with many ambitious small entrepreneurs to make their ambitions reality—in return for half-shares in their financial success.
The coins, gems, and tradebars all poured in, and the Melanders became one of the foremost families of Athkatla—making themselves more than a few enemies in the process, of course.
A Deadly Feud
Many of the advances the Melanders made in warehouse redevelopment and in partnering with small entrepreneurs cut into business that had been dominated in Athkatla for decades by the Etheileon (pronounced "Eth-EEL-ee-awn") family.
Enmity soon grew between the Melanders and the Etheileons, beginning over certain acts of arson and vandalism almost certainly sponsored by the Etheileons, and bolstered by some alleyway skirmishes between hired proxies of both families. The head of the Etheileons, the venerable Vandargaskar, invited Novroan and Laelrya Melander to a feast, but the Melanders saw it as a trap (as it almost certainly was, considering that certain senior Etheileons had personally voyaged to Tharsult, likely to purchase the most exotic of "unfoilable" poisons from far Ulgarth). Although they accepted the invitation, the Melanders failed to show up. Vandargaskar was enraged at this, seeing it as a public slight, and denounced the Melanders publicly as "cheap, coin-grubbing lowlives who fail to understand how true Amnians behave."
The Melanders countered by putting a story around Athkatla by using hired "whisperers" (rumor spreaders, a profession already well-established when the Melanders had still been catching fish, but much used by them to influence prices and deals during their rise to becoming major city landlords) that there was a deadly feud going on within the Etheileon family, with the younger members pitted against their elders, who (as the fiction concocted by the Melanders went) treated the Etheileon younglings as personal slaves. They then swung into action with adventurers they'd hired in the Tashalar and in Luskan, stalking and slaying one Etheileon after another in the streets, taverns, clubs, and festhalls of Athkatla by night, striking only when they could catch their targets alone.
As the toll mounted, the Melanders loudly and tirelessly promoted their fiction of a feud within the Etheileons, as a cover for their ruthless slayings of one Etheileon after another. The Etheileons tried to fight back by hiring their own assassins, but the Melanders had expected that, considered their own hired adventurers expendable, and happily threw them into battle against anyone seen having any dealings with the handful of surviving Etheileons—who were reduced to staying within the walls of their fortified city mansion, surrounded by a hired garrison. (The Etheileons became and remain few, fearful, and impoverished, as their business dealings faltered or dried up entirely without their oversight.)
Having ruthlessly defeated their rivals, the Melanders were beset by many lesser opponents; having risen to the top in glittering Athkatla—and been successfully portrayed as "grasping upstarts" by the Etheileons in the process—they were now the target of all. Though they more than held their own, they soon tired of the constant hostile attention, and the direction Amnian high society was taking. It was all status and sneering and outspending rivals to maintain high standing. Their lives were increasingly consumed by trivialities they saw no value in, their time becoming ever more precious but filled with undertakings they found ever more empty of meaning. Although the younger Melanders all enjoyed the debauchery and hedonism spending floods of coins can bring, they agreed with their parents that they disliked what their lives were becoming.
In the spring of 1309 DR, the Melanders met in secret at their soaring-spired Athkatlan city mansion. They all disliked what vying for power in Amn was doing to their lives and wanted the freedom to do as they liked, rather than act as Amnian society expected them to—so after much debate, some of it heated but all of it alive with excitement at future prospects, they agreed to leave Amn by year-end. They would scatter across Faerûn and establish new low-profile lives in many city-states, building a trading network between fellow family members.
Enter the Blackstaff
Unknown to the Melanders or anyone else in Athkatla, the Lord Mage of Waterdeep, Khelben "Blackstaff" Arunsun, had for some time taken a keen interest in unfolding Amnian politics. Why? "Follow the coin," as the Blackstaff put it once to his fellow Chosen of Mystra, "and you follow the power. Or at least, where those eager to seize power will head."
So, taking a page from the covert meddlings of his fellow Chosen Elminster, Khelben worked behind the scenes and in various guises to smooth the ways of the younger Melanders, as they settled into various cities in Sembia, into Baldur's Gate, Secomber, Iriaebor, Elversult, Procampur, Lyrabar, and Alaghôn. The elder Melanders he left alone, until they ran afoul of local nobility in Waterdeep and smuggling cabals in Neverwinter, helping them flee the latter (to Waterdeep) and privately triumph over the former—whereupon he revealed himself and exacted a promise to aid him in future, in certain unspecified ways—most likely to involve giving shelter to persons or things and hiding them well. From Laeral and from Elminster, we know that Khelben aided the Melanders not out of any sentiment, but to gain a backup organization of allies across Faerûn that he hoped never to have to use.
In the end, he never had the chance to—for the Melanders had made personal promises to Khelben, not to any heir or successor or person making a claim in Khelben's name.
Khelben did later aid a handful of Melander elders (including Novroan, Laelrya, and Novroan's brother Belrael). When elderly and dying slowly of various diseases, they accepted Khelben's offer of transforming them magically into living spells, to live on as guardians of family treasure vaults, records, and burial crypts—a function they still serve, though the whereabouts of these places, and the precise powers and abilities of the Melander living spells, are family secrets.
The Melanders Today
Most of the Melanders took new names when they left Amn, but retained the use of the "Cleft Coin" family badge (a featureless gold disc with a wedge missing, from the top or "12 o'clock" position over to the "2 o'clock" position) as a recognition symbol for their agents and so they could demonstrate their loyalties to each other.
They have made a lot of coins throughout the 1300s and 1400s by covertly trading in drugs, poisons, fine wines, gems, other luxury goods, and in anything that there's a shortage of in a particular nearby place—and in all of the places they've established themselves, they've gained local influence behind the scenes. They tend to keep to local laws except where it profits them greatly not to do so, and to quietly hire adventurers as muscle whenever they anticipate trouble—and they are all in the business of correctly and keenly anticipating things. This means that even when they remain aloof from local political or trade struggles, they know as much about them as it's possible to learn (and are not above selling what they know to Harpers or most other interested parties).