The Grasslands of Hylach is a hundred-stral wide expanse of lush, rolling grass which is found in the Santharian province of Manthria, between the village of Courtford and the hamlet of Erthaers. It is called simply “the Grass” by the horse breeders of Courtford, who use it as pasture and stable for their herds. It is also the site of the horse fair where most of the Courtfordian animals are bought and sold.
Image description. The view looking up to the Grasslands from Courtford at dawn. Picture drawn by Ingeborg.
one ascends the path to the top of the cliff above
the homely bustle of the village recedes and one is left with a sense of great
space, brought about by the vista of a wide plain of lush, green grass that
bows in the wind like waves across a pond,
stretching to the horizon, accompanied by the sound of the
wind from over the grass. The gentle yet
persistent breeze snatches the sounds of the village below and replaces them
with a soft sighing. Sometimes the sounds of horses neighing or people shouting
can be heard within the wind, but they are
always faint as if carried from far away.
Whether they climb the path from the north or the south end of the village, travellers from Courtford will always see mountains in the distance. There are no trees here to obscure the view of the mountains on the horizons due to the shallow soil and dry climate. The only exceptions are on the very edges of the plain, where the foothills of the mountains begin and the soil deepens. If you look to your right hand side as you walk off the Courtford road and out on to the Grasslands you can see in the distance the weathered Quenshuran Mountains hunched above the plain on the northern edge of the Grass. To the left, in the south, the sharp Sentinels thrust blue above the distant horizon. To walk from one set of mountains to the other takes four hard days, more if the traveller is unused to a harsh pace, or is already weary. From Courtford to Erthaers, the small hamlet on the opposite side of the grass, takes a little less than three days’ walk. But of course, not many ever walk on these lands: rather, they ride.
Location. The Grasslands sit in northern Manthria in the Kingdom of Santharia. They are bounded to the southwest by the Northern Mithrun Trail and to the north by the part of the Rimmerins Ring called the Quenshuran Mountains and, to the east more, the Antilion Creek. At the southernmost point of the Grasslands, the Sentinels stand guard over the Upper Mashdai River. As far as habitations, to the northeast of the Grasslands is the prosperous village of Courtford; to the southwest is the hamlet of Erthaers. The Silverrock Warden stands tall over the plain beneath the Quenshuran Mountains, and shades the small wood below it, here on the northwest edge of the Grass.
People. The Grasslands
of Hylach are home to the many fine horses
horse merchants. They are bred, trained and
sold here under the care of the gruff and somewhat enigmatic horseherds, each of
whom is charged with twenty or so of the beasts. The living arrangements for the
horses and the herders may seem strange to
those who did not grow up with them as have the
Courtfordians. Dotted across the grasslands are many large, wooden, barnlike
structures. Their high roofs shelter the herders and, when the weather is cold
or otherwise inclement, also their equine
charges. There are no stalls or rooms in the barns, except for that wall which
partitions off the privy from the main area as their one concession to privacy.
The herders sleep rough on the ground, or at most on a pile of hay, amid the
horses, it having been found that beds and
horses alike are quickly damaged when many
horses are in the same room as the
furniture. The obvious solution has been proposed to the herders – that of
making a separate room for the beds – but the herders are a traditional breed,
and so the most common response to this suggestion is a hard stare which tells
the inquirer that they are the abnormal one and that they should keep their
bizarre ideas to themselves henceforth.
The herders wouldn’t be called that if they did not herd; every three weeks they move their stock to another place so as not to over-graze any one area. The fifty or so summer shelters are spread out over the middle and on the far side of the Grass, closer to Erthaers or either of the mountain ranges than to Courtford. As they move their stock from place to place the herders will often spend some nights out in the open, sleeping under the stars. They carry with them – making use of pack horses – nearly everything they need, including a month’s worth of dry food. Some fresh food can be foraged from the land, and some of the shelters have small fenced gardens; it is also common for herders to buy food and other supplies from Erthaers when they are near the hamlet, but most perishable goods are brought to the herders by riders from the fair, which serves as a base of operations for those involved in this industry.
The fair is a large, sprawling complex of buildings and pens which is built about three hours’ ride into the Grassland from Courtford; it lies to the west and slightly north of the village. It houses up to fifty people, but is only ever this full at the times when the markets are open for business and the latest contingent of young people are in residence also. The ground around the pens is bare and generally either dusty or muddy. The areas around the buildings are paved in deference to the dignity of visitors who come to buy or to look, as are the paths to the stands which overlook the selling pens.
The people who inhabit the Grasslands are mostly from Courtford originally, although some have come from other places; Centoraurian men are the most common other tribe. Unlike their village-living peers, the horseherds tend to be quiet and if not quite surly then at least very reserved, particularly to outsiders. The exception to this rule is, of course, the young people who are serving their traditional season on the grass. Many of these are as garrulous as you please, despite the frowns at these occasions from the vocational herders.
There are up to fifty herders at any one time, although the number is usually closer to thirty except in those years when the horses' fecundity has outperformed the sales of horses, leaving the herders with more horses to watch over. Most herders work alone and care for around twenty horses each, although some travel in pairs and combine their herds in to one herd of approximately forty steeds. For most it is a lonely year, and sometimes hazardous. Help is as far away as the next fast-rider and so many of the people are strong in their faiths. Arvins and Foiros are well respected here, and every hut's well is a shrine to Baveras, who is often petitioned by lone herders to keep them safe.
In the spring of each year it is tradition that all those young people ("youngies" as the herders call them) from Courtford who have come to maturity over the preceding year make the climb up to the Grass and serve about six months - from Awakening Earth to Sleeping Dreameress - on the Grass. Their season begins with a month or more working at the fair, cleaning up the grounds and readying the place for the first markets of the season. This can take a long time indeed, and many young people gripe about the lack of glamour associated with the work they are put to! It is in this phase especially when relationships blossom away from the watchful eyes of parents.
The griping ends quickly when the first horses are brought in for the fair and the 'youngies' learn to groom, feed and care for horses and are instilled with the unspoken code of the Grass: horses come first. Those who show an aptitude for working with the horses and are thought to have the temperament for it are sent out with a herder for a variable amount of time, often around three months. These are the ones who will likely grow in to the life and become herders themselves in the next spring. Those not chosen still have many tasks to perform, although needless to say some youngies are more useful than others. Some will stay at the fair, cooking, cleaning and looking after administrative chores, while others go out on the Grass as fast-riders to carry provisions and messages to the herders. In the later months most of the youngies help those who live at the fair to harvest grass for hay, storing it in the winter barns for when the herders come back to the fair.
In winter the herders move closer to the fair where hot meals can be cooked for them every night and hay and water for the horses is in good supply and close to hand. Most will sleep in the shelters with their charges but most will also ride in to the fair of an evening to swap stories of the summer over a mug of ale and to hear the others' tales of their season. Whilst these gatherings are not at all rowdy or exuberant, they nevertheless have a homely atmosphere of quiet cameraderie, or of quiet amusement when they discuss the youngies with whom they have had contact that year.
Coat of Arms/Sign. While the Grasslands themselves don’t have a coat of arms, the people who live there are bound to the town of Courtford and so use their coat of arms to embellish their formal documents and tack. This is a round shield depicting a golden horse rampant, facing left, on a green field.
Climate. The climate on the Grass can be harsh as there is little natural shelter to protect against the elements. The wind is a constant feature, as is the lack of moisture - only rarely does it rain on the Grasslands. So unsurprisingly, spring is a dry, windy season. Molten Ice sees frosts become less frequent and the winds, whilst still sharp, are no longer bitingly cold. Awakening Earth brings budding flowers amid the grass and new shoots growing. The grass gets far lusher and greener than it has been over the winter and the wells in the huts are refreshed, ready for the first herders' return.
From then on, the temperature increases until it peaks in Burning Heavens. The wind - calmer at this time of year - brings little relief as it seems as hot as still air. The grasses are green and beautiful, basking in the heat. About this time some of the wells begin to get a little muddy as the water below ground is absorbed by the plants on the Grassland. This time of year is when the risk of fire is the greatest. The herders are very aware of this and take the appropriate precautions but travellers not from the area and the "youngies" from the village periodically cause great fires to sweep across the plains, burning grass and hut, horse and human.
Autumn has no dead leaves on the Grass, as there are no trees from which they might fall. Instead it is a season of heavy seed-heads and waving pollen-spikes which bow on their tall stalks or burst, allowing the cool, strong autumn winds to carry the seeds to new areas in which to germinate come spring. In Passing Clouds the grasslands grow pale as some of the grass dies off and much of the remaining varieties lose their colour, bleaching to a light herne green or a soft viperene sand. The winds are moist and so the frosts return, biting the softer plants and icing over the blades of grass. In winter the infrequent rain is frozen into snow. This is not usually a problem for the herds, as it is very uncommon for there to be enough snow that the horses cannot still graze. Still, a certain amount of hay is made by the cautious horse traders to ensure an uninterrupted supply of feed over the cold months.
Flora. On the Grasslands of Hylach are found mostly short grasses, although these can grow up to a ped in height. The most common varieties are stalkgrass, strongrass and starstem. Other, less common varieties include alth'ho grass and wean's hair to name but two.
Grass is not the only thing which can be found here. Among the stately stalks also grow herbs like khmeen and yahrle, flowers like the sunflower and tareptail, many varieties of weed and grains of various types. Small bushes like the doch nut can also be found near water sources and in places where the soil is deeper.
Fauna. The horses of Courtford are, of course, the most pertinent animal found upon the Grassland. There are a number of seperate breeds of horse kept by the breeders. The Centoraurian riding horse is the most expensive of the breeds, and is bought mainly by nobility and rich merchants. The Sarvonian heavy horse is the most popular breed kept. They hold the Southern draught horse variety. It is bred for strength and is popular with farmers. Those Sarvonian havies which do not quite reach the strength which is desired by no means go to waste, however; the smaller instances are often bought and used as a cheaper riding horse. The Courtford breeders also keep a small stock of the "Hobbithorse", a draught pony which is often used by human farmers who cannot afford a full-sized animal. Other breeds - the Rusik or the Centoraurian war horse for example - are sometimes available through the breeders of Courtford but they do not keep a steady stock of these.
Of course, horses are not the only animals to be found on the Grass. Wild garthooks and geese live there, as do shir and tareps, as well as crickets, golden seeán and various other beetles and bugs. Also found amid the green blades are wild banegs, goats, sheep and the wolves that prey on them.
Resources. Many small rivulets criss-cross the plain, flowing down from the mountains. These bring life to the Grasslands, and it is near these that small bushes and leafier herbs grow. During high summer, however, these small brooks dry up, in many cases entirely, leaving herders dependent on other sources of water. All the huts have wells, which provide water for both the humans and their charges. Water is given first to the horses and only then, once their troughs have been filed, do the humans drink. It has been said that were the wells to run dry after the horses have taken their share a herder might not notice due to the abundance of alcoholic fluid they seem to have with them at all times, but we assure the reader that this is merely a stereotype and not to be taken seriously.
Food is available for those who know where to look. Small edible plants like the khmeen and wheat grain, and animals like the tarep provide sustenance when, for whatever reason, rations are slow to arrive, or just if the herder wishes to be a litle more proactive in finding his or her dinner. The greatest resources of the Grasslands, however, are its space and the grass itself. Both sustain the horses which provide Courtford with such a thriving livelihood. The grass is also used by the Courtford villagers for thatching the roofs of their homes.
Festivals. The night before the fair first opens for business each year is an occasion for celebration. At noon on that day the Courtfordians leave their work, ascend the road to the Grassland and walk or ride to the fair with their children in tow. Those who are quick or important enough take seats in the stands overlooking the selling pens and those who are neither stand or sit around the railings at the edge of the pens. Then the fair hands bring out a selection of the finest stock, one at a time, and parade them in front of the villagers. In this way, the whole village is kept up to date with the goings-on at the fair in regards to the horses owned. Whether they are new colts or foals, new Centoraurian bloodlines from the north, or - as has happened on at least one occasion - a fair hand jokingly parading his or her new spouse who was met from within another horse-trading community, all the presented beauties are appreciatively 'ooh'-ed and 'ah'-ed at by the Courtfordians. After the event the town is invited to eat and drink with the staff of the fair, usually accompanied by those herders who still have family in the town below, at long tables in the grass behind the fair. The feasting and cameraderie lasts long into the night.
A similar, but less formal thing occurs at the end of the winter when the horseherds return to the Grass with their charges for another season. Most of the herders leave on the same day and somehow, every year, word seems to get back to the village as to when that day will be. Many villagers, especially children, make the trek back up to the Grass with a packed lunch. They then arrange themselves a little further in than the fair so that they can watch as the herders ride past, driving their horses across the Grass and into the blue-hazed distance. Of course, not only children do this; many an astute horsemerchant has realised that this is a good time to get an overall feel for how their herds are doing. This semi-ritual also marks the beginning of the year for the newest batch of young people to begin their time on the Grass, and so it is for many a solemn event as they or their parents wring damp kercheifs and smile bravely at this coming-of-age.
Information provided by Grunok the Exile