Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Bleak and Windswept Country - Steppengrad

When I was young and frightened and could not sleep, my grandfather would tell me stories of his youth to soothe my mind and ease my way to slumber. As much as they were stories of his youth—and what a youth my grandfather had—they were also stories of Mother Steppengrad in the days before the coming of the Vještica, before Baba Yaga came and the land wilted away. To see her now, in her anguish, you would not know that once this was a rich and vibrant land. Long ago, before the Great War, Steppengrad was the jewel of Morden. Her rivers teemed with fish, her forests and plains were crowded with beasts and birds, and her fertile fields were the envy of all lesser nations. The people were different then, too. We were stronger, the men handsomer, and the women more lovely. There was wealth and food aplenty, and even the most desperate of our countrymen had at least a goat and a small plot of land; enough to feed his family in even the harshest winter. Now, well, now it is different. Mother Steppengrad is very sick, maybe dying. As long as Baba Yaga still wanders the forests the land suffers and we starve. All is not lost, though. One day this will all be over. One day Baba Yaga and the rest of the Vještica will be driven away. Mother Steppengrad will be made whole, and she will once again be the envy of all the peoples of Morden.

The sprawling, windswept land of Steppengrad is a place of extremes. Once a thriving, wealthy country, Steppengrad lost nearly everything in the great war as the Witches scoured Morden and the Gradnian government stripped the land of its agricultural and natural resources to feed their massive armies. Nestled in the far Northwest of Morden, between the Ash Plains and the Discordian Sea, Steppengrad is at once the poorest and most desperate of the countries of Morden and also the most breathtaking. Everything seems to be built on a larger scale in Steppengrad. Where the massive, dense, and mist-wreathed fir forests don't blot out the sun, the broad and rugged steppe lands stretch from horizon to horizon in a never ending plain. The great, sprawling cities of Mother Steppengrad, now largely abandoned and overgrown, are masterful expressions of the architect and engineer's art. Even through the caked on soot and grime of decades of warfare, one can still occasionally see gold leaf and vibrant colored lacquer peeking out from beneath the filth. Despite all of the losses Steppengrad has suffered over decades of war, her most precious resource still remains in abundance: the indomitable spirit of her people, the proud and brave Gradniki.
Generally tall, dark-eyed, and handsome, the men and women of Steppengrad are a moody, dour, fatalistic people much given to introspection, heavy drinking, and infighting. Even in the golden times, before the return of Baba Yaga and the destruction of the Great War, the Gradniki were known as taciturn and capricious, with moods that changed as quickly as the weather. The other side of this well deserved reputation as grim, unsmiling, hard-eyed people is that the Gradniki can also be incredibly generous, loyal to good friends, and lethal to their enemies. As a people they love to eat and drink—pastimes sadly missed by all in the past few decades—and they boast of rich music, literary, and art traditions that include some of the most famous artists and writers in Morden's long history. Even in this time of grinding poverty and desperate want, the Gradniki are a proud, sometimes haughty people who believe strongly in themselves and the supremacy of their culture. To them, the current troubles are simply a bump in the long road of empire.
Today, gripped by a famine caused both by the privations of war and the terrible workings of Baba Yaga, the fate of Steppengrad hangs in the balance. Not even the wisest seers or the most learned priests can guess what lies ahead for Mother Steppengrad, be it recovery, total annihilation, or something else entirely. Thankfully the Gradniki are a hard people, as hard and unyielding as the land itself, and Steppengrad will survive as long as the Gradniki draw breath.

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