Before the demise of the Lloroi Empire, the most sacred ceremonies of the imperial cult were conducted in the slender pyramids called the Temple of Hyyx where the Sun God Taquamenau was worshiped in the avatar of a Sky Dragon. For centuries the noble Lloroi sent their offerings unfailingly, until the several main temples of the god Taquamenau all equalled the Imperial Palace in rich- ness of decoration.
Although the Emperors trusted in the Sun God, a deity whom they credited with giving them the whole of the Minarian continent, they did not fail to maintain an elite unit of bodyguards \u2013 the Order of the Hippogriff.
All warriors in imperial service aspired to be recruited into the Imperial body - guard, though very few warriors achieved the coveted appointment. In truth, few men could meet the tests of prowess, wit, and courage required, nor could every candidate master the hippogriff \u2013 that strange offspring of horses and griffins created by the magic and science of the Lloroi. The other flying beast, the majestic horse-eagle known as the pegasus, was reserved for Lloroi of the highest rank. The griffin-horse, being fiercer and more obstinate than any pegasus, was considered less prestigious.
A hundred worthy candidates per annum might be taken into the training pro- gram of the Order of the Hippogriff, but only a tiny minority achieved induction. The recruits who came forward were of necessity well-versed in arms and had also demonstrated grace, wit, initiative, and courage, but still the emperors demanded more from a knight of the Order. They not only had to be trained in the protocol of the court, but also be capable of drawing intuitive guidance from a mystical source that wizards referred to as the "Flow."
A knight who had mastered the Flow stood out amongst warriors. A weapon knocked from his hand he could instantly recover by an act of levitation and he was trained to prevent blood from flowing even from apparently-fatal wounds. The Flow was, therefore, nothing less than the mysterious power that wizards habitually tapped into to realize their own spells. But unlike the lesser types of wizards, the knights had to make the Flow their second nature and yet eschew vulgar conjuring. The emperors already had enough wizards in tow, and usual - ly considered them unreliable and eccentric.
As time passed, the ranks of the Order were increased, up to the point that no more acceptable applicants could be found. Increasingly, the emperors grew to depend upon the knightly order as the imperial state sank into corruption and decadence. Special missions were increasingly delegated to the Hippogriff Troop and sometimes it assumed on the role of the emperor's personal police force.
Commando-type exploits were the principal assignments of the Troop, though in extreme emergencies the Order might be placed in the line of battle. During the war with the Scarlet Witch King, for instance, the Troop led the host in scores of battles and was, consequently, reduced to a shell of itself by that pro- longed conflict's end. Casualties eventually led to their relegation to the reserve, causing the knights to miss the final battles against the Scarlet Witch
King before the Tower of Zards, the accursed fortress which he had raised as his last and greatest stronghold. The credit for this climactic victory went to the bold Sir Morholt.
But the jealous emperor denied the worthy Morholt his due and so in vengeance the man stole the "One Hundred and Nine Lenses" from the inner sanctum of Hyyx. If the renegade had meant to demonstrate his courage and audacity, he achieved his end by this sacrilege. And he also displayed his cunning by elud- ing capture for nearly three years of dogged pursuit by imperial agents. In des - peration, the Emperor sent the Order of the Hippogriff in search of the criminal. The Flow eventually led the Troop to their quarry, who declined to do injury to the admired knights and surrendered peaceably.
These forthright fighting men rose above the corruption of their times, little understanding the malaise which was by then in possession of the Lloroi Empire and its institutions. The reasons are a matter of speculation. To defeat the Scarlet Witch King, the imperial wizards had worked many a desperate and deadly spell, and black sorcery was blamed for spreading the spirit of corrup- tion. The signs of decline were many. Taxes were raised astronomically, not to help the people recover from ruinous war, but to buy more power for office-hold- ers, and to personally enrich the corrupt. Those who decried this imperial greed were themselves called "greedy," so much had the very speech of the Empire lost true meaning.
Not only were the politics of the Lloroi venal, but most imperial governors cheat- ed and stole whenever they could. The ghost of Chaos was in the air and the imperial bureaucracy turned its back on time-honored traditions in seeking to achieve frivolous innovations. Religion was derided on high, while vicious and degrading practices were held up as respectable. Some laws went beyond all understanding. Landholders, for example, were forbidden to drain swamps, with the inevitable result that many strains of swamp fever became epidemic and swept away thousands of lives.
Even the common man grew indifferent to traditional values in the Last Days and devoted himself to folly and excess. Terrible was his abuse of distilled spir - its, hallucinogenic herbs, and the deadly black lotus. The effect of degenerate practices was enormous, but those who enforced the law protected the evildo- er from the indignation of honest men, instead of the other way around.
Yet most people were actually not corrupt; they simply had no leadership and had lost the courage of their convictions. They lived quietly in virtue while the world collapsed around them. The Order of the Hippogriff must be counted as one of this type, faithfully obeying the Emperor long after the throne had ceased to deserve their respect.
As it happened, the Great Cataclysm struck the world some half-century sub- sequent to the fall of the Scarlet Witch King. The sublime Emperor was one of millions to perish as his palace and the peninsula on which it stood crumbled into the sea. All across Minaria the earth groaned and buckled. Faithfully, some of the Order of the Hippogriff were on hand to rescue High Priest Wynbiigo from the doomed city of Niiawee and bear him back to the Temple at Hyyx.
These were dark days. Central order had collapsed overnight. The knights themselves could do no more than keep order in the vicinity of Hyyx. They expected that the wise Wynbiigo would guide them, but he was slowly dying of remorse for the collapse of the world he knew. Before his final passing, the high priest invoked a blessing upon the warriors of Hyyx. They would never lack for dedicated heirs, he declared, whom would carry on their fathers' glorious tradi - tion. Neither would the flock of hippogriffs fail to meet the needs of the knights. Seemingly the priest's words flew straight to heaven, because in the thirteen centuries since the old man's dying all that he promised has come to pass.
During the dark centuries following the Cataclysm, the worship of the Sun God was forgotten in Minaria. Even the people of the South Plains, who held onto more civilization than men elsewhere, rejected Taquamenau in favor of local cults. The knights of the Order have, therefore, become the god's last congre- gation.
History is indebted to the Order of the Hippogriff. The journals and chronicles of these warriors constitute a priceless record, since so much elsewhere was lost. In those early days even Adeese was a small city that had little in the way of a scholarly tradition. What centers of learning remained after the worst upheavals suffered as deserts spread across large regions and settled commu- nities were driven into the wilderness to scavenge for the wherewithal of sur- vival. The children of such persons came into the world as true barbarians.
Bereft of a purpose by events, the knights at first dedicated their swords to the protection of the Lloroi who survived. But the Lloroi genius had been exhaust- ed even prior to the fall and they became little more than hanger-ons about the knights with nothing to contribute. Those who had once conquered a world became, and still remain, scattered communities dwelling in regions dominated by younger and more vigorous people.
As other refugees gathered around the knights, a town came to be in the shad- ow of the Sun Temple. It might have become a city, except that water was not sufficient thereabout to support a large population. While chaos reined else- where, the knights maintained local order.
The years passing, the sons of the knights learned to be warriors and their sis - ters prepared themselves to become the wives and mothers of knights. Interestingly, it was the women who tended the hippogriff calves until their tem- pers grew in proportion to their size, forcing trained men to take over.
A hippogriff created to be a creature of war is not an easy beast to master. Hippogriffs must be gentled from birth and a trainer works closely with whatev - er young knight is selected for a particular future mount, the complete process taking years. Adolescent Hippogriffs must be trained with clipped wings lest they fly away. Hoods both blindfold the mammal-birds and constrain their dead- ly beaks during early training sessions. The knight learns to ride the hippogriff- in-training on the ground at first, at which time he guides the creature both by rein and voice, acclimating the steed to the work of bearing a warrior in patrol and battle by degrees.
Even after it is broken, none but a hippogriff's accustomed rider dares to mount the high-spirited and suspicious beast. A stranger will be tossed and bucked and, more likely than not, be set upon by beak and talon should he survive his initial fall. Balkiness is especially common should the rider take a passenger \u2013 which he avoids doing except in extreme cases of life or death, such as the res - cue of some helpless victim from danger upon the ground. Usually a passen- ger rides upon the pillion built into the back of the saddle, lest the hippogriff sud- denly turn its head and bite its unwelcome guest.
If a knight's mount is killed or permanently disabled, the warrior may not get air - borne again for a long time. Taming a new hippogriff is time-consuming and rel - atively few knights keep a second beast readied and trained, as the flock is not exceptionally large. To lose a mount is second in disgrace only to the loss of honor. Therefore the knight cares for his beast well. Interestingly, these can- tankerous flyers must themselves hold some kernel of affection for their mas - ters, since it has often been observed that a fallen knight is protected by a defi - ant hippogriff who seeks to keep enemies \u2013 and, alas, sometimes rescuers also \u2013 at bay.
Over the centuries, the knights have consistently organized their community on the standard of a military order. Even civilians under their protection maintain a role of support for the system.
As for the knights' personal code, courage is the paramount virtue expected, as is honor and veracity. The warrior is sworn to protect anyone who asks his pro- tection. Women are by tradition not permitted to serve in arms, but the knights are well-schooled in courtesy and are proud to champion the weaker sex. Off the field of combat, each knight is the head of his own household, to which he, ideally, acts as a wise and fair judge and administrator.
Organizationally, the senior knights elect one of their own number as Marshal of the Hippogriffs and he serves as their military leader. The affairs of the temple, town, and protected area around it come under the jurisdiction of the Order's chamberlain. He does not have to be a knight, but is often an ex-knight, one either old or disabled. Both the marshal and the chamberlain hold office for five years and custom does not permit either to succeed himself. Designates are also elected to assist these leaders, so that a replacement is available immedi - ately should death or disability unexpectedly remove a marshal or chamberlain.
During the first centuries A.C. the knights acted as the garrison of a beleaguered desert redoubt. In their scant leisure hours they dedicated themselves to the mastery of the Flow. Some knights achieved a great command of it \u2013 so great,
in fact, that the best of them can be indistinguishable from magicians. Ebersolt, marshal at the time of this writing, is an exemplary war-leader but, nonetheless, he is also a healer of no mean accomplishment.
In late years the knights fly off to war when a worthy cause arises, but more often they go knight errant, performing individual feats of daring wherever the Flow leads them. As if guided by fate, they often arrive at a place just in time to do battle, or be called upon to give justice to a village ground down by a rapa- cious baron, bandits, evil witches, or rampaging beasts. Little wonder that the Order's fame is great and their deeds are sung of near and far.
Long ago Wynbiigo promised that the Order would never perish. Alas, all things pass away and, someday, the knights shall do so also. But yet we think that there can be but few persons in Minaria today who dislike the knights so much that they would wish them to depart from a land where they have acquitted themselves so well for so such an amazingly-long time.
O, sleep thee, my laddie, thy lord was a knight,
Thy mother a lady both kindly and bright;
The deserts and wastes that around us we see,
Dream not of the monster, the hippogriff beast,
Which carried thy father north, south, west, and east.
His bow it was bended, his sabre dyed red
While you and thy mama slept soundly in bed.
Much of the wasteland around Minaria is thinly-populated by nomadic people, usually inconsequential when the fates of nations hang in the balance. Among human nomads the Vah-Ka-Ka are the most important.
The Vah-Ka-Ka is a harsh desert, drier than the Banished Lands to the north. The nomads have few neighbors other than the doughty Trolls of the Vale and the repulsive Ghouls who inhabit the Tomb of Olde. It is noteworthy that man is able to dwell at the heart of a waste that even non-humans avoid.
The oases of the Vah-Ka-Ka Desert are few and changeable. It is unwise to attempt its crossing without a local guide to show the way to water. Alas, many a Vah-Ka-Ka tribesman will take a traveler not to water but into ambush by his bandit kin.
Still, many have visited the natives of the dry lands and have come back to tell the tale. Dohosan of Chumani traded with the nomads over a period of five years and has written his story of the hard life of the desert in his memoir, Sand in the Wind.
Dohosan found the Vah-Ka-Ka tribe to be a people just coming out of a period of eclipse caused by years of drought and by the fierce repression of the Shucassamites who customarily make reprisals for robberies committed along its Old Road of Caravans, the link between the main part of the kingdom and the port of Zefnar.
In times of national vigor, Shucassam has kept the Vah-Ka-Ka confined in their deserts, unless they drift into Shucassam as individuals or small groups as men- dicants to the great cities. But in late years Shucassam has suffered reverses, expensive military commitments and losses to Pon, Rombune, and the Southern Barbarians. Their patrol along the Old Road of Caravans thinned and the tribesmen were quick to take advantage, raiding caravans and also the pil - grims on their way to the holy site of the Obelisk, where the gods speak to men in their dreams. Thus at this moment in time the nomads are enjoying a higher degree of prosperity than usual.
Not many years ago a disaster occurred along the caravan trail. Under threat of a likely sack by Rombune, the governor of Zefnar attempted to transport a vast treasure trove east for safekeeping, not only royal property, but also the for- tunes of private individuals as well, including some valuable magical artifacts. Bad luck dogged the caravan in the form of attacks by Vah-Ka-Ka raiders and persistent sandstorms which drove the expedition off course. What happened afterwards is a mystery. Perhaps the caravan was overcome by a storm; per- haps it got lost and perished from want of water; possibly some even more frightening fate overtook it. Even the tribesmen do not claim to know the exact nature of its end.
They do know the general area were it perished. Some nomads fear to go there, but many dare to scavenge the ground for treasure. Unfortunately, the caravan perished in a place where the shifting of the sand is very frequent and extreme. That acquisitive tribesmen should be afraid of the Buried Caravan seems strange, but a story is told of a warrior who brought home a strange idol found in the sand. That night cries were heard coming from his tent and though it took but a minute for the first of his neighbors to reach the tent, the warrior was gone, along with his wife, children, and house servants, all of whom had been sleeping within. The frightened barbarians touched nothing but left the tent standing undisturbed as they fled to a new poldi.
Poverty has caused many of the young male Vah-Ka-Kans to seek their fortune as mercenary soldiers. They have been found in many bands recruited in the South, but usually are unhappy away from familiar customs and faces. Of late the population of the tribesman has grown great enough to make a mercenary band consisting solely of Vah-Ka-Kans. Interestingly, the Vah-Ka-Kans, usual - ly so courageous, fear the sea and avoid sea travel as much as possible. This avoidance has practical reasons, at least for the mercenary troop; their camels are too troublesome to be carried by transport and leaving these trained drom- edaries behind would severely reduce the effectiveness of the band.
As warriors the Vah-Ka-Ka are tough and clever fighters. Their greatest skill is robbery, for their camels are swift and the tribesmen know where the Vah-Ka- Ka hides its water better than any pursuer from the outside. This talent for crime gives the tribes a bad reputation, but Dohsan describes the suffering of women and children in bad years and does not wonder that responsible providers are driven to banditry.
The Vah-Ka-Kans are physically small. They must wear robes over all their body for protection against the sun. The scarcity of vegetation hardly permits more than the husbanding of camels, donkeys, and goats, and not many of these. When the human population is large, many nomads are driven by hunger to live as beggars or thieves in the Banished Lands, Shucassam, or Rombune. The children of these wretches eventually meld into the foreign pop- ulations, since few who have not been reared in the Vah-Ka-Ka would care to live there.
The Vah-Ka-Ka consider themselves one people, but are divided themselves into subtribes, each with it own clans, lineages, and extended families. All the subtribes claim pure descent from Eizit, legendary ancestor of the region. But the different subtribes are at continual odds and raid one another for livestock. Unlike the Ludmillyans of the Barbarian Frontier, the Vah-Ka-Ka do not sequester their women and the poverty has prevented the formation of the seraglio system. With women available and few men able to support more than one, the have no special woman-stealing custom as the Southern Barbarians do. Nonetheless, Vah-Ka-Ka raiders will take slaves wherever they can do so conveniently and sell them in the nearest towns \u2013 most often Freeport where few questions are asked.
The women of the Vah-Ka-Ka are not only unsequestered, they are flamboy - antly free, often riding on gazelle hunts and sometimes even on raids. They may hold property and if divorce occurs they are returned to their fathers with their full dowry restored \u2013 though these generally amount to little but a few goats with a camel or two thrown in.
The tribesmen enjoy wearing bright and gaudy clothing, though most have naught but ragged abas of camel or goat hair. If fortune has favored a family, a Vah-Ka-Ka lady may go about in a long dress with rich embroidery, several strands of beads, five or six silver bracelets on each arm, and many rings with jade, onyx, or turquoise settings. These latter may be tied on a string and loped about the head to hold a headdress in place. Out of the sun, men and women dress very lightly and a mere hip-wrap is considered suitable even for enter- taining guests. The tribe has an odd custom, that of offering a host's wives or daughters to friends or favored travelers for the duration of their stay.
But the women must do much more than entertain guests. They are left to deal with everything concerning the tents and household items. They load their pow- erful baggage camels with goat-hair tents, tapestries, rugs, sacks of rice and dates, pots, and clothing. The women's pack train follows just behind the herds and forms the most colorful part of the tribal procession.
As has been said, the Vah-Ka-Ka like color. Women weave the tribal saddle- bags in complex geometric patterns weaving brilliant hues of red, orange, and green, interspliced by strips of white with their special tribal design in black. They have other bags of tanned leather with long tassels.
The bands must frequently migrate in search of grass for their flocks. The youths and young men ride with the herds both as drovers and guards. Each man sports a short bow and a hunting spear with which they protect the herds from beasts and robbers. These same tools are used to commit robbery against others when opportunity allows.
Before sunset the old men select the new campsite. Men hobble their camels and let them wander off to graze, and then make fires and prepare to roast, grind, and serve a bitter herbal drink called keleman. Outsiders find little appeal in this beverage, but the nomads grumble if not able to drink it first thing in the morning and also at supper at night. Dohosan at first disliked the flavor, but got used to it. Unlike wine, keleman did not intoxicate or enervate; instead it put vigor in the limbs and it is a good tonic for one who must work and travel hard.
These overnight camps are called poldi, "places of alighting." When the women come up to them, they guide the baggage camels to the proper spot to unload and then they set up the tents.
In the hour or so before the communal supper, men sip keleman and talk of camels and pastures. An old man may tell a long story about some fight he and some cousins had as a youth with the Shucassamite cavalry. They speak with respect of the lallans who ride in these patrols, citing them as fine riders and gal - lant fighters. Another tells how he once tracked a fulop -- i.e. a giant, flightless bird of the desert with a great, hawk-like beak -- a hundred miles before he caught up with it. Everybody crowds around the speakers, engrossed in stories that thy have all heard many times before.
After supper the youths may gather to drink mint tea while a poet recites the new poems he has recently composed, poetry being much-admired among the Vah- Ka-Ka. Toward midnight men offer large bowls of fresh camel milk to their eld- ers, then to one another. Then families retire to the tents; those unmarried often do not have a small tent of their own, and so they will remain clothed and wrap blankets around themselves against the cold night's rigors.
Vah-Ka-Kan worship is simple; they revere the vegetation goddess and placate the fiery sun god. They also believe in many nature spirits and have a bewil- dering array of taboos. They seek vision, as many desert people do, and a young man approaching coming of age will sometimes seek a new name from the gods. But this is not always the case. Sometimes a father will give his own name to his grown son and choose a new one for himself.
The tribesmen's limited diet is prepared with ingenuity. The Vah-Ka-Ka do not consider meat an everyday need, though they will slaughter a sheep or a young camel in honor of any guest, rich or poor. Generous hospitality up to the limit of
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