Cities of Stromnoha

Meška's map of Caerlean

Cornfēower – ‘four-tipped’. Named for its position on the borders of four counties, Cornfēower was founded by Aubridd I in 275 as a royal hunting lodge. This has since evolved into the present palace and Royal Park, mainly thanks to the love and attention showered upon it by Mairead, youngest daughter of Angwyn III. With the cost indulged by her adoring father, Mairead tripled the amount of rooms, decking them all in the finest gilt carvings and plush furnishings. She had hot and cold plumbing installed throughout the palace, right down to the servants’ quarters; the walls were lined with exquisite and enormous tapestries. Even the ceilings were not free of ornament – a number of them were decorated with minute squares of coloured glass, creating vast scenes of liquid beauty.

Outside, the splendour goes on. Knot gardens filled with sweet-smelling herbs; sunken gardens of creeping moss and fern, and fountain gardens containing statues of gods and royalty alike. Mazes, an orangery and orchard; there is even a man-made waterfall which keeps the ice house beneath chilled. Unsurprisingly, Cornfēower remains a favourite retreat of royals, with the palace still owned by descendants of Mairead.

Druyppe – ‘oak uplands’. The city of Druyppe is set atop a ridge overlooking the River Test, as well as the massive valley of oak trees that encircle the county of Stromnoha as a whole. This natural advantage in height – plus easy access to a major waterway – made the city a prized location in terms of defence, and a royal castle was first built there in 220 by Snaid of the Sea-Folk. Since peace has now been largely established throughout Caerlean, the fortress has since fallen into disrepair, and where the keep once sat, a temple dedicated to Govannan has instead been constructed. In honour of the God of Smiths, Druyppe is a centre of metalwork, and many apprentice artisans travel to the city to learn their trade.

A large number of country houses, built out of moonstone and kingstone, sit alongside the riverbank. Their wealthy owners are also in possession of the small sailing ships that line the river, these vessels designed for speed and pleasure rather than any commercial or defensive purpose. At this part in its course, the Test begins to broaden and become shallower; by the time it reaches the capital, the river is a slow-moving, vast ribbon of silvery brilliance.

Uffeld – ‘chalk fields’. Uffeld is where the oak trees of Stromnoha fall away, to be replaced by mile after mile of rolling weald. With the urbanity of Stromnoha to its north and west, and the mysteriously empty expanse of Sučovȉk to the east, Uffeld is both ancient and modern, town and country blending seamlessly. The chalk massif that runs down to the city is alive with Coppertailed and Chalkhill Blue butterflies, blue-tufted wrens that are no bigger than a child’s hand, and the numerous wild flowers that grow in the fine, crumbly soil – Lady’s Bedstraw, Bee Orchid, Crimson Pinwheel, their names almost as appealing as the flowers themselves.

Cutting through the knee-high banks of red reed and golden gorse are several paths, one of which lays claim to being the oldest road in Caerlean, leading out of East Kwiat and into the city of Stromnoha. This track of baked earth is said to date some five centuries before the time of Eublad, the first recognised king of Caerlean, and has been trodden into perpetuity by generations of man and horse.

The city itself grew out of a small settlement on this ancient track. As it is but a couple of days’ ride to the capital, a large number of coaching inns can be found within Uffeld, their names both bizarre and suggestive: The Cold Bath, Lady’s Delight, The Three Fools, to name but a handful.

Celliwic – ‘the wood’. Originally a royal hunting lodge established by Aubridd I and after whom his youngest son was named, the relative smallness of Celliwic belies its importance. Really, it is little more than a village, but the quietude and privacy it enjoys has seen it informally dubbed the ‘nursery of royals’. Since the very first Prince Celliwic was born in 267, incumbent queens have often chosen to retire to this comfortable country palace for their confinement – in the year 493 alone, three princesses of the blood royal were born within its walls. Mairead, Armorel and Magaleon (daughter and grand-daughters of Angwyn III and Queen Armorel) would later take opposing sides in the Battle of the Lions; however, they grew up as close as sisters, their childhood spent beneath the wide-spreading boughs of the oak, hornbeam and beech that grow in the great park. A rose garden and yew-hedge maze complete the bucolic scene.

The entire settlement of Celliwic falls under the royal estate, with leasehold farms, forests and all manner of agricultural activities managed on their behalf. A temple of Cernunnos, the great father of the woodlands, sits alongside the palace, with herds of his sacred deer allowed to roam free amongst the circlet of oak trees that make up this holy place.

Stromnoha – ‘foot of the tree’. Capital city of Caerlean. Your first view of the city will be when you are still over one hundred miles away. As you ride deeper into the heart of Stromnoha, the oak forests that encircle the central county gradually melt into chalk downs, and it is from atop these downs that the first sight of the broad, yet compact, city emerges. If you are on a high enough scarp, you can see over the twenty feet wide and fifty feet tall stone wall – constructed under the orders of an aged and increasingly paranoid Adair II – and be able to note many interesting points. The city is divided into three sectors: commercial, residential and the royal estate, these areas divided by the Old Uffeld Road and the two great rivers of the south and east, the Test and Itchen. Adair’s Wall is guarded by numerous watch towers, and only seven gateways allow entry into the city.

Gatehouses of Stromnoha:

Angate – supposedly named after an ancient ruler of Caerlean, King Anfortas

Arthgate – the gate of the Arthraigh (the permanent guardians of Caerlean’s temples)

Austgate – the east gate

Bridgate – the bridge gate

Burhgate – the fort gate

Ealdgate – the old gate

Porthgate – named after Porthynys Castle

The residential region sits to the south-east, the commercial sector takes up nearly the entire western wing, while Porthynys Castle and the royal estate lies to the north, separated from the other two by the converged Rivers Test and Itchen.

The residential area of Stromnoha is surprisingly small. It is expensive to live in the capital, and therefore the housing tends to be occupied by politicians, noble families, quasi and semi-royals, well-to-do financiers, and the odd rich merchant. Scattered amongst the houses are the public Gardens, named after four of Caerlean’s greatest monarchs – Gwythyr, Adair (I), Leonis (I) and Angwyn (III). The gardens are a pleasant distraction for the wealthy citizens, containing boating lakes, glasshouses spilling over with exotic flowers and footpaths lined with oak and beech.

In three of the Gardens, temples can be found dedicated to Morríghan, Máthair and Olwen (the Crone, the Mother and the Maiden). Adair’s Garden contains the temple of Olwen, carpeted in a sea of delicate stitchwort and periwinkles, and encircled by a mixture of cherry trees and elders. These two tree species represent Olwen’s gift of spiritual rebirth (the sweet-scented cherry), tempered by that of her lover Ankou, God of Death (the heavy-bowed elder). Adair ordered the temple to be built in memory of his wife, Queen Aisling, and it remains a small, intimate space often frequented by musicians, poets and people of a spiritual nature.

The temple of Máthair is the largest and oldest, and can be found in Gwythyr’s Garden, which itself is located atop the green hill called Zelénei. Elm is the tree of the Mother, and at the centre of this temple grows a Weeping Wych-Elm – a specimen nearly six hundred years old, planted by Gwythyr’s wife, Lady Eoswift. With age, the tree has become grotesquely twisted; like many an elderly gentleman who has drunk too many toasts and eaten too many good meals, its massive girth now exceeds its ever-decreasing height. A beautifully-tended rose garden borders the fan-like branches of the elm, the golden roses of Máthair signifying her supreme majesty.

Morríghan’s temple sits within Leonis’s Garden, although the structure was constructed some three centuries before the reign of that king. In keeping with Morríghan’s vengeful nature, her temple is a dark, sinister place, surrounded by thickets of blackthorn. The wicked thorns are said to be the goddess’s fingernails, catching viciously at the skin of any who stray too close, whilst its bitter berries are symbolic of her infertile seed. In winter, the bare bones of the grove stand stark against the landscape, with crows, ravens and jackdaws being the only birds willing to roost amidst the twisty branches. A king of the First House was murdered as he left the temple one night, and it remains a site generally avoided by the public.

The Corrij Road runs alongside the River Itchen, from the drawbridge outside Porthynys Castle to Austgate. With its riverside views and location immediately opposite the castle grounds, it is a favourite site of the rich and regal, and the most prestigious townhouses can be found here. On the occasion of their marriages, the four daughters of Leonis I were each gifted their own palace along the Corrij, their doting father picking up the cost. These magnificent houses were passed on to their issue, with expensive alterations made every generation – ever-larger and more airy halls, intimate solars and lavish bedchambers; even that most sophisticated of inventions, the close-stool, or closet chamber.

The commerce of Stromnoha is what makes it so successful. Anything and everything can be found in the lively markets; it is as if a spider has sat over the city to weave her web, the delicate thread transmuting into streets both wide and astonishingly straight (to build a straight road is no mean feat). The markets each have their own traditional areas of trading: wine, fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and spices can be brought north of the Eald Road; the meat and fish markets sit to the south, whilst across the Itchen is where all the non-edible goods are traded – grain and livestock, textiles, metalwork, timber and rushes, and even more specialist products.

Over in the spice and herb markets, cosmetics, salves and all manner of medicines can be purchased from the apothecaries. Gold and silversmiths operate alongside dyers and wax merchants; furriers and sellers of leatherware ply their trades next to glassmakers and brewers of ale. Exotic fruits are imported from Krílovoće, grain from Nočovȉk and Sučovȉk, while raw timber travels down the River Test from the counties of Korenina and Slanína. Slanína, along with Ovce, also carries wool to Stromnoha’s markets, and Zemědobar produces most of the beets and vegetables sold there.

Although Kwiat was the birthplace of the forefathers of the First Royal House, it was soon recognised that, in order to govern the country as a whole, a more central seat of power was needed. It is Stromnoha’s centrality – sat in the cradle of the two most important rivers of Caerlean, and with its protective belt of oak trees a shield against would-be invaders – that has made it so important. Porthynys Castle is the main residence of the king and his family; it is also where his government meets. This political supremacy, along with the trade and economic links, makes Stromnoha a ‘country within a country’, with its oaken roots fixed firmly in two rivers.

The royal estate is enclosed by Adair’s Wall and looks out on the rivers Test and Itchen. For security reasons, only one gatehouse gives access to the grounds, although there are rumours of a number of secret escape routes through the dense forest to the east of the castle, known only to members of the royal family.

Between the eastern forest and the castle, gardens of every variety can be found. There are the beautiful Lily and Rose Gardens of Queen Mairead, consort of Adair II; the Knot Gardens laid down by Auwode, son of Gwythyr, for his thirteen children from three marriages to play amongst; the now-deserted (and some say, haunted) Lake Gardens where Adair I’s tragic wife, Queen Aisling, was mortally wounded by a crazed nobleman. Perhaps most touching is the Sea Orchard, planted by Angwyn III in an attempt to recreate the childhood home of his wife, Armorel of Krílovoće. Her birthplace of Afbeck was – and still is – a land famous for its apple orchards, the trees having evolved to grow in sandy, saltwater-infused soil. Fifty barge-loads of sand were used to create the unique soilscape, and over one hundred varieties of apple, plum, pear and cherry saplings were imported from Krílovoće. The orchard has a magical quality to it – somewhere you might expect fairies to flit between the heavy-hanging boughs of blossom, where every step sends up a cloud of perfume from the herbs planted underfoot: thyme, sweet-mint and water-mint, pennyroyal and toadflax. Angwyn and Armorel are buried in a small, intimate chapel set within the orchard, their bronze effigies holding hands as they lay side-by-side. The resting places of other royals can be found scattered throughout the castle grounds, according to their families’ wishes; not all kings and queens lie in the gloomy vaults that stretch beneath the castle.

Outside of the city walls, a fluid and ever-changing population come and go. These are the traders, travellers, pilgrims, painters and musicians – people who only come to the capital for a few days at a time during the month, or those who make even less frequent journeys. They can be country-folk who have made a special trip in order to buy some luxury that can only be found in the great city. Or they could be itinerant merchants whose line of business will not stretch to a regular residence in the costly capital and so they have to make a living travelling around the country – sellers of specialist powders and potions, books, exotic foodstuffs that are rare even in the city of Stromnoha.