The Major Themes of Blackfen
As with any urban center, a number of major themes dominate the political and social landscape of Blackfen, which are constantly fed by the gossiping of the city's folk and on which nearly everyone has an opinion, whether rightly or wrongly. Not all of these are necessarily as widely known or talked about as others and some have little or no real impact on the majority of people's lives, but all play a role in helping mold the psyche of the population and are a part of what sets Blackfen apart.
Many of these themes are developed further in other sections of Blackfen's description and some are central to the development of the city. Others are merely touched upon and left for your imagination to develop further. Whether fully developed or otherwise, they all offer good potential for however you wish to use them and help make Blackfen the vibrant and colorful city that it is.
The Defense of Blackfen
Not surprisingly, the defense of Blackfen dominates the political landscape of the city and is a constant source of gossip and worry for the populace. The war with Zykerathox makes for daily - indeed hourly - news, as fact and rumor merge into an indistinguishable reality that has a massive impact on the people of the city. Rumor of imminent invasion and attack are constant and play on the nerves and minds of everyone, including those in authority whose job it is to make sure the city is in a constant state of readiness and to know the facts from the fiction. Being nestled at the base of The Silver Hills is both a blessing and a curse, with the combination of the hills, swamps and Black Lake all offering excellent natural defenses, but also the source of many threats - and not all of them associated with the war against Zykerathox. Giants, ogres and humanoids make constant raids against the outlying farms and communities and even occasionally the city itself, and the land is filled with brigands and the victims of the Black Undeath of Zykerathox, who wander the lands as zombies. As such, the defense of the city is the number one priority of both the state and the general population.
The Silver Hills are not only home to a number of dwarf settlements, who have good relations with the people of Blackfen and who sometimes work together against the common enemy, but also to a large number of humanoids who have either made their homes amongst the rugged landscape or have been posted there as part of Zykerathox's ongoing war with Karnish. In particular, orcs, goblins, and even dog soldiers are all common enough and are a constant problem. Many of the various tribes spend much of their time fighting amongst themselves and their raids against the humans are generally chaotic, bloody and brief, but those under the control of Kamlak, Zykerathox's general in charge of the war against Karnish, are much more disciplined and their raids more co-ordinated and deadly. Giants, though not common, occasionally rampage drunkenly through The Silver Hills, often after a coming together of their clans. Rumor often circulates that the giants have made a deal with Zykerathox and are preparing to attack Blackfen, but the giants' allegiance is more often with Hith and the authorities have heard of several occasions when they have in fact made war against the forces of Zykerathox. Ogres are also a problem in The Silver Hills and while many have been recruited into the ranks of Zykerathox's armies, they usually wind up in war with Hith, where they are more needed. Unlike giants, ogres tend not to band together in large numbers and are usually found in small family units. They are ferocious creatures and when a family of ogres locates itself near Blackfen or the outlying regions the authorities are forced to send out soldiers to deal with them.
As part of the defense of Blackfen, the Watchers of the South - an organization set up several hundred years ago, but which has become largely independent since the rise of Zykerathox - keep a constant vigil over the lands which border with The Fallen Lands and liaise with the dwarves to gather as much information as they can. Being located on the east of the river, in what is technically enemy territory, Blackfen has become something of a base of operations for the Watchers of the South, usually giving the city authorities early warnings of impending threats, allowing them time to prepare their defenses and muster their forces.
Unfortunately, keeping watch over the lizardfolk that dwell in the swamps that surround Black Lake is not so easy and while relations with the strange creatures have eased since the arrival of a common enemy, tensions and conflict are still common enough, especially with attacks against the shipping making its way to and from Ghendenbur and Southport. The exact numbers that live in these parts is not known, but is thought to be high. As such, few vessels traverse the waters either unarmed or without armed escort, with not even the fastest vessels being safe. The presence of these creatures is a constant talking point amongst the city's folk, especially after news of attacks, and persistent rumors that these creatures are in league with Zykerathox or Hith are common.
As well as lizardfolk, the swamps and bogs that consume much of the area, especially around Black Lake, are home to all manner of foul creatures. In particular, Kirn Swamp surrounds much of the lake and is treacherous and inhospitable. Billet Bog, situated a mile or so north of Blackfen, is also a fetid, dangerous swamp. They are both home to considerable numbers of lizardfolk, but also to far more foul and fearsome creatures. The swamps and bogs, however, due to their very nature, offer much protection as invading armies are forced to avoid them and must pass through channels more easily defended.
The Black Undeath of Zykerathox
It is widely believed, though not completely certain, that the plague is transmitted directly from one person to another and although common myth suggests that the contact must be direct (touch, biting, scratching, and so forth) those studying the disease know that indirect physical transmission (touching somewhere an infected person has previously touched) and airborne transmission are also ways this foul disease spreads. There is nothing natural about it, having come from Zykerathox or one of his foul minions (no one knows for sure) after Hith challenged Zykerathox in Arrasia and he was forced to concentrate his armies in Vidor to ward off the threat. After a brief period of respite, the plague ripped through the western Karnish empire and much of it fell after the population was depleted and then forced to fight the undead - once their friends and family - who rose from their deathbeds to walk the world. Only after a co-ordinated effort against the plague by the Karn authorities was the spread slowed, though not halted.
Blackfen has felt the full force of the plague on two occasions, which swept through the city in the early days of the war, and though the spread of the disease has been held in check in recent years, sporadic cases are a constant threat to the community, both in the city itself and the outlying regions. The threat from the Black Undeath is a very real one and the fear of it is palpable. Talk of the plague is common, constantly on the tips of everyone's tongues, and the slightest sniffle or cough the cause for vicious rumors and constant gossip amongst the locals.
The Black Undeath is lethal. No one who has contracted it is known to have survived, except in their undead state. The plague gets its name from the way the color of the skin changes to a lifeless dark gray, worsening by the day, until the skin is stretched so tight the victims look dead long before they actually are, with bulging eyes and the lips pulled back to reveal rotten teeth, exposed by the retreating gums, and foul breath, the victim coughing and wheezing as they struggle for breathe. The skin at fist begins to peel and soon foul black blotches appear, bringing with an appalling stench as if the very flesh is rotting. Finally, the head swells up and their faces take on horrid, contorted appeals, until the victim can take no more, their bodies exhausted and filled with pain, and they die. Usually within a matter of hours - though occasionally it may take longer and, more rarely, quicker - the gaunt, bulbous-eyed body stirs and rises as a foul undead creature. The whole process usually takes around 3 to 6 days.
The Quarantine Law introduced throughout Karnish and its empire - that is, what remained of it - helped to slow the tide of this deadly disease. The law states that all suspected cases must be reported and those confirmed with the illness are placed in Quarantine. On their death they are drawn and quartered and their remains burnt until only ashes remain. The ashes are then buried out of the city. Anyone suspected of having the plague must have a cross marked on the door of their house to notify others of possible contagion and marked houses are usually boarded up to stop the spread of the plague. The bodies of all the dead - regardless of the reason for the death are placed in designated areas, known locally as death dumps, which are constantly manned by the authorities. Bodies are quickly removed and cremated.
The fear caused by the early spread of the plague, which saw most people affected in some form or another, if not directly then indirectly, has ensured that the Quarantine Law has proved largely successful, with most people doing what is required of them. However, there are always cases, whether accidental or on purpose, where the quarantine is not observed and the Black Undeath allowed to go unchecked, giving rise to mini-outbreaks and the quarantine of parts of the city. The control of the plague has proved far more difficult to manage in the outlying communities, where the power of the authorities is less, and several communities have been wiped out, replaced with the walking dead until dealt with by soldiers.
The Fandorians, dedicated to furthering the cause of Fandor and Karnish, are the oldest surviving order in Blackfen, even predating Blackfen itself, and exert a significant influence over the people and the city. The Honorable Magistrate Divine has sat on the City Council since its inception and carries a double weighted vote, the same as the First Member of the Council. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a constant power struggle exists between the Church and its supporters and the political authorities, as both try to push through the policies that they believe will best benefit the people of Blackfen (and, of course, themselves).
Bitter struggles between the Church and the Council on taxation, social welfare, crime, military expenditure and the use (and misuse) of public funds are constant themes and the bickering can on occasions break down into serious public conflict as they try to impose their own ideologies over the Council. Tension over the defense of the city is especially common, with the Fandorians believing that a more positive approach should be taken against their enemy, Zykerathox.
On constant debate since the coming of war has been the need for a new city wall that encompasses all of the people of Blackfen, rather than just those lucky enough to be located inside the existing palisade. The Council argues that the funds needed for such a project are simply not available as the constant need to defend the city and the outlying regions means there is no money to spare. The Fandorians, on the other hand, argue that the cost of defending the city would be dramatically reduced with the building of a wall, which would then release more funds to be used in the war against Zykerathox. Reflecting these opposing views, the people of Blackfen are likewise split in their opinion (which is generally along the divide of those who live inside the palisade and those who do not!).
The Hirgot - Vendire Feud
Blackfen is home to a number of prominent and powerful aristocratic families, some of whom can even trace their roots as far back to the time of Lord Whillis. Their influence over affairs in Blackfen is considerable and the families constantly struggle between themselves to enhance their power, wealth and reputation. Not surprisingly, rivalry between the families is common and can often break out into bitter, and occasionally bloody, disputes. These conflicts, however, pale when compared to the hatred held between the Hirgot and Vendire families, a hatred that stretches back over 250 years and which still burns as brightly now as it did all that time ago.
As with many things, the history of the enmity between the two families began with a tragic love story, between the 17-year old daughter of Darios and Clartha Hirgot, the beautful Jana Hirgot, and the heir to the Vendire estate, Bren Vendire.
The story goes that Bren discovered that Jana was also the lover of his twin brother, Artur, and that in a fit of rage he murdered her with a dagger. An alternative story says that, in fact, Bren was betrayed by his brother, who did indeed love Jana, but whose advances she rejected. Artur, enraged, pretended to be Bren and murdered Jana himself. The truth, of course, is lost to time, but either way, the Hirgots were heartbroken and swore their revenge on the Vendires. Bren was found hanging from a tree on Hanging Hill several weeks later and within the year the entire Vendire family, with the sole exception of Artur, had died in mysterious circumstances. Artur secured the future of the Vendire name and hatred between the two families remains to this day.
Triangle of Violence
Blackfen is dominated by three violent criminal gangs who control the black markets of the city and through whom 99% of all organized crime is committed. The Black Bears, the Weston Gang and the South Fen Boys are violent, callous and murderous and are swift in their retribution. A constant power struggle between the three rival gangs - and in particular the Westons and South Fen Boys - is a constant talking point amomgst the people of the city, albeit in hushed tones.
Not surprisingly, Black Lake dominates the lives of the people who live in Blackfen, even those who don't actively make a living on (or below) it. Not only is it the most important factor in the local economy, with fishermen, ferrymen, divers, boatmen and merchants all relying upon it for their livelihoods, but it is also responsible for being home to various unwanted creatures and for the periodic flooding of the city and the port area in Old Palisade Town in particular.
In Blackfen, while the talk of the war may dominate the conversation, conversations about the weather and Black Lake come a close second. Most know at least one person, and usually more, who have fallen victim to the waters of the lake. Many hold it in reverence, many in fear, but all respect it. The city has seen its fair share of tragedies, in the shape of shipwrecks, all too often with all hands lost - either to the unpredictable vagaries of the lake itself, or to the creatures and pirates that are a constant menace both on and below its surface.
Piracy is also a common enough problem on the lake, with attacks regularly made against merchants. As well as many pirates operating for the enemy, some are local gangs - usually one of the three criminal gangs that dominate Blackfen - who smuggle their stolen goods into Blackfen to be sold on the black market. Some even supply weapons and other goods to the denizens of the surrounding swamps.
The pirates tend to make their homes in the swamps and bogs surrounding Black Lake in small ramshackle, chaotic and violent shantytowns, where they are difficult to track down, especially with resources allocated toward the war effort and political will low. Even when such places are located, they are quickly vacated and left as macabre ghost towns, which the swamp slowly reclaims. Many of these ghost shantytowns are dotted around the coastline and are often even more dangerous than when they were populated by the pirates. Many are also wiped out by plague, leaving behind the bizarre sight of zombies in rough maritime clothing, with peg legs and a hook for a hand.
Kirn Swamp and Billet Bog
Much of Black Lake is surrounded by swamp and bogs, which are home to a wide variety of critters, including some particularly vile and wicked ones. Pirates are also common on the swampy coastline, where they are well hidden from the local authorities and their enemies. In particular Kirn Swamp and Billet Bog play a significant role in Blackfen politics as both require a constant vigil to fend off any unwanted guests who many wander too far from their own homes.
Kirn Swamp is a particularly fetid and dangerous swamp and the largest by far of any that surround Black Lake, consuming the entire eastern coastline as well as much of the north. Kirn, a thorp located on the eastern bank of the lake and which acts as a port for those requiring ferrying across it, sits on a small raised peninsula that is squeezed between the lake and the swamp and is one of the few settlements found there.
The swamp is a combination of dense vegetation and standing water and deep and shallow marshland. It is diverse, unpredictable and dangerous, with any travel treacherous and slow. Patches of open water are common and are often covered in deep vegetation that make them almost indistinguishable from the surrounding marsh, making them deadly natural hazards that have been the death of many an unwary or foolish individual. The air is filled with the fetid stench of rotting vegetation and quicksand, mud holes and deep water-filled pits are all common.
Needless to say, the swamp is full of deadly creatures, including large numbers of ferocious giant crocodiles, as well as their ordinary cousins, plus rats and snakes. Hags, hydras, lizardfolk, living molds and oozes, blood sucking birds and bugs, and trolls are all also denizens of the swamp.
Billet Bog is much smaller than Kirn Swamp, though no less hostile or treacherous, with dense marsh and wetland hiding deadly pockets of well-concealed water and killer patches of quicksand. Gort's Punch Bowl, and Billet Crag, both rocky outcrops in an otherwise wet landscape, are two of the more easily identifiable features of the bog and are both considered by the people of Blackfen and the surrounding area to be places filled with evil spirits and creatures.
The Hanging Hill and Gibbet Grove
Both the Hanging Hill and Gibbet Grove are considered by the locals to be places where evil spirits lurk. Hanging Hill especially is spoken of in hushed tones and few go there. Some even claim that the undead remains left behind after a victim of the Black Undeath has died are drawn there. While many dispute this, it is nonetheless true that a large number of zombies are constantly found wandering aimlessly around the hill.
The Hanging Hill has long been a place where criminals have been hung, some from the trees, others from gibbets, their nooses creaking eerily and their heavy, bloated corpses swaying in the wind. Many have come to an untimely death here and not all have been guilty of the crimes they have been condemned for. It is also not unusual for victims to appear here, having fallen prey to their enemies.
Gibbet Grove is where the wood is gathered for the construction of the gibbets and many believe it is now cursed and filled with horror. As with The Hanging Hill, few go there, except for those whose gruesome job it is to construct the gibbets and even they do so in fear and do not pass far inside.