Borders and Land-Law

By Ed Greenwood

Queen Filfaeril stepped out of the blue mists, blinked at what she beheld before her, and came to a sudden halt. "Lord husband mine -- Az? -- I think you'd better come here. Speedily."

Something in her voice made King Azoun of Cormyr break into a run, drawing his sword as he came.

Filfaeril was standing on a knoll cloaked in lush ankle-deep greensward, grass so perfect it might have been a woven emerald carpet, that fell away from her into a sodden country of limbless dead trees rising up out of standing water, broken in a thousand places by emerald hillocks very much like the one beneath their boots. He glanced quickly behind him, seeing the land rise into towering mountains, and then back at his queen.

She was standing very still, looking down at something just in front of and below her. Azoun made haste to join her and stare at it too: an untidy line of sticks thrust into the ground, and crowned by weathered, mold-covered human skulls. One of them wore a battered, rusty Purple Dragon helm.

Filfaeril looked at him wordlessly.

"A Tun border marker," he explained -- and frowned. "I wonder why Vangey had occasion to come here?"

All across the Realms -- even in wild country humans deem "savage wilderlands" -- laws hold sway. They may not be human laws, or a written code, but someone (or something) makes rules for every stride of earth in all Toril.

Knowing those laws, or who makes them for this stride or that, can be a challenge for any traveler. In most cases, knowing where one land and its laws ends, and another begins, can be just as difficult: Except where relatively stable riverbeds are involved, few borders are as clearly marked as the one Azoun and Filfaeril have just found.

It would take many exhausting years of these columns to even begin to list such laws and unwritten rules, and the listing would be out of date even as it appeared, but some general observations can be made to guide DMs, NPC rulers, "just plain inhabitants," and PC adventurers alike. So in the words of the Lord Mage of Waterdeep, Khelben Arunsun, the Blackstaff himself: "Hearken, and gain wisdom. Perhaps."

Generally speaking, formal land-law exists only in kingdoms and other organized countries. Everywhere else, "might makes right" or "what the local lord or dominant power says, goes."

Due to the sheer weariness of constant enforcement (hunt, fight, and punish, every waking moment, even to address only observed infractions), "my sword is the law" thinking is always tempered by custom.

Here, "custom" means the habits of generations, that build over time into "the way things are done": the expectations of local inhabitants ("You may force us into this or that, self-styled 'lord,' but only so far. My grandsire built yon fence and my daddy expanded it -- tear it down and on their graves I swear I'll tear you down!"); and the unwritten "rules of the road" understood by travelers across the Realms.

Faerûnian rules of the road aren't concerned with traffic. People who move about in Faerûn (caravan merchants, peddlers, pilgrims, and envoys) have over centuries settled some constantly shifting basics of behavior ("things all can count on") that are enforced by priests and by the Heralds. For instance, a fanatical worshiper of Cyric could build or take over an inn and then murder everyone who stops there as homage to the deity (who is among other things the Lord of Murder), but that Cyricist should expect to be slain, once word spreads about what's happening at the inn, by caravans stopping at the inn intending to eliminate the innkeeper -- or to be shunned by travelers, so no one stops at the inn or willingly trades with that particular Cyricist, ever again.

These rules of the road can be reduced to this: You can charge fees for the use of your land, and you can fence off your land and guard it, with notices, prohibiting all or specific uses of it. However, you can't simply butcher, maim, imprison, or rob beings you find on your land. Moreover, you can't flout local customs with regard to buying and selling land, or renting (your land to farmers to till, or stable and paddock-space and room-and-board to travelers).

Some lands and independent cities have a system of written deeds (often kept at local lords' castles or at the nearest temple), some places have a master map on which land ownership is written (and updated), and some have nothing at all beyond "street law" (squatting to claim property, the community driving out undesirables, and local crafters and shopkeepers shunning folk who "don't belong" and "aren't one of us").

Borders between neighbors may be settled through violence, or by means of documents and rules and solemn (church or Herald-witnessed) agreements. Borders between nobility or rulers or countries are always solemnized somehow (usually with agreements or treaties arising out of wars, and enforced by periodic border patrols or even garrisons). Often such borders follow a river (or mountain range, or road) for convenience. Miscreants fleeing across a border can't depend on its protection unless there are patrols or garrisons; otherwise, persons seeking to bring them to justice will simply follow them, ignoring the border.

Generally, an undefended border is, over time, a lost border: Local power will arise and dominate affairs and true rulership will settle in the hands of that power, even if this occurs utterly unofficially.

Some cities and even realms (particularly among the small realms of the Border Kingdoms) cleave to a legal system wherein the ruler owns all land, and everyone else is a tenant. These tenants can be either renters, who can be turned out at the ruler's whim, or inhabitants who live there through some system of "hold," wherein a family or a particular individual has some sort of legal right to reside in specific buildings or on a specific farm or spot, either rights that last for a particular lifetime, or as long as a specific service is performed or a rent is paid (usually annually).

Folk far from home are warned to learn local laws and customs before they pay for or sign anything -- or they may discover they own nothing at all, or have purchased a ruin that obligates them to raise an army or fight a dragon or defend a border whenever a distant ruler (whom they may never have heard of) orders them to do so. As always in the Forgotten Realms: "Adventurers beware."

In our next column we'll meet the Lost Ship. Poor Azoun and Filfaeril.

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