(Part #49) : The Road to Khôltar, Part 2
Besides the three sites mentioned in my last column, a great number of nameless, tumbled, and overgrown cairns lie along the eastern verges of the Way, all along its length. Many see frequent service as tombs: When anything not wanted for stewpots (such as one's trading partner) dies, the corpse is often laid down beside a cairn stone, and the stone rolled over onto the remains. This typically uncovers an older burial, but does cut down on how many vultures and carrion-eaters are attracted to the travelers who still survive and desire to continue their journey unmolested.
The western side of the Way has a much larger, ever-present landmark: the Forest of Amtar (called "Amlar" by some folk of Dambrath). Though it was once far larger, the Amtar is still a vast and wild place inhabited by many creatures today. In fact, I believe there must be several active portals or deepspawn or both in its heart to account for the abundant life constantly prowling and warring therein.
The southern and western Amtar are a battleground between the Trunadar elves of the forest, the gnolls of the Gate of Iron Fangs (who recently returned in force to reclaim their ruined city, probably by means of a portal somewhere in its vast and shattered halls), and the Dambraii dusk elves. So fierce is their strife (for decades the Dambraii hunted the Trunadar for sport) that they seldom have time or attention for preying upon caravans using the Way.
Although warlike tribes of the Shaar have on many occasions swept down on caravans traversing the Way, doing much bloody slaughter, the chief daily perils to travelers these days are most likely to come from the Forest. There are even guides (who conduct riders having no heavy trade goods who can pack all on mules) who travel between Delzimmer and Khôltar well east of the Way, using its distant stones only as markers to stay on course so as to avoid the watching eyes and fangs of the forest.
I know of at least two flourishing brigand bands who dwell in the eastern fringes of the Amtar: the Raunstrar and the Maurvurr. The Raunstrar is an all-female human and half-elven group whose members sell their favors to encamped caravans and trade fabrics and assorted goods with them (typically loot from earlier plunderings). They size up the caravans while they do so for covert sneak thefts or open attacks later along the route. The Maurvurr is a band of wizards and sorcerers of several races. They are only interested in plundering spellbooks, magic items, and substances useful in alchemy and magic.
Other brigands (notably a strong band of orcs and an adventuring band known as Dracil's Raiders) were formerly dominant in caravan plundering, but these have been slaughtered or scattered and now survive (if at all) only as desperate remnants.
Aside from the Landrise itself, the eastern Amtar is dotted with ancient, overgrown stone ruins (the cities of earlier peoples, at least one giant race among them), and broken by many small, breakneck cliffs and gulleys, all of them overgrown by the lush trees. The Amtar boasts stinking black soil overlaid by a foot or more of wet, rotting leaves in most places; an abundance of snakes; and vines, vines everywhere in a vast and endless webwork of choking creepers that drape all living things in a spiderweblike network. Assassin vines, ropers and even some of the nasty little things called chokers (obviously adapted to life aboveground) are all too plentiful in this gloom, and some of them watch the few forest trails just as avidly as other Amtar predators watch the Traders' Way.
That's not to say that traffic on the Way is sparse. Far from it: There's safety in numbers, and in the ability to move fast and have lots of outriders armed with lances, javelins, darts, and crossbows (hand crossbows in particular). Save in the off season, it's not uncommon to look around at any point along the Way during daylight hours and see three caravans (and as many small bands of riders) within view. At peak periods, there's not enough camping room, and the spillover must go up onto the Shaar. (It's generally suicidal to camp on the verges of the Amtar.) Wise spillover campers don't build fires or show lights to attract the nomads. Knife fights and raids in the dark between encamped travelers aren't unknown, and the Amlar brigands I mentioned earlier often instigate or take full advantage of these.
In general, harsh weather off the desert and water shortages are the main concerns of large caravans using this stretch of the Way. Only smaller bands need fear brigands and monsters very much. In hard seasons on the Shaar, of course, the nomads grow desperate, and then no one within their reach is safe.
Now that I've shared all the cheery news, 'tis time -- well, in my next missive -- to warn ye of what awaits in Khôltar. Eartheart is a firmly ruled stone fortress of dwarf temples and trade halls, wherein all other races are tolerated but strictly policed, and we'll do what most caravans do: camp outside its walls for a night, paying to use its pumps to water ourselves and our beasts. Then we'll head on to the Iron City of Khôltar.
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