A Brief History of the Knights of the Hart (Part 1)
Well after the Great Kingdom had reached its maximum extent and begun to wane, Stinvri, the heredity Viceroy of the Ferrond, declared his independence from the Malachite Throne and wrested control of the Marklands from distant Rauxes. In CY 256 he passed control of the region to his son, crowned as King Thrommel I. At the time, the survival of the independent state seemed unlikely.
Removed from the Aerdian Empire by fiat, the local lords vied for power and fought over resources and borders. The Raoin Church and her allied nobles pressed for the independence of the Voll. The easternmost lands (the Lands of the Shield) were largely controlled by the remnants of Aerdian Army Commanders and military veterans who had been granted small fiefs as pensions. Their loyalty to the new state was uncertain, and they could easily have rejoined the Great Kingdom had it suited their shifting interests. More than a century of nomad raids had reduced the northern lands (or Northern Reaches) to a ragtag collection of petty holdings run by warlords. They considered the change in government as merely the replacement of one distant figurehead for another, with little effect on their daily struggle for existence. The Viceroyalty had laid claim to the entire Vesve Forest, but in truth the Aerdi knew mostly its eastern borders and had never mapped its full extent. The Lord of the Elves had acknowledged the suzerainty of the Viceroy, but had paid little tribute.
Thrommel and the Outer Territories
King Thrommel was practical enough to realize that spending resources and men to assert control of his outer dependencies would likely lead to the implosion of his realm – he had to free them to leave himself with the core of a viable kingdom. In truth he was no imperialist; he actually believed in freedom and self-determination for each of these disparate peoples. But Thrommel was also wise enough to know that if granted their freedom too quickly, the dependencies would themselves devolve into internal struggles and fall, or worse, come under the control of his rivals. Unless they had strong and cohesive governments themselves, they would easily be overcome by nomad, Baklunish, or humanoid invasions, or else reabsorbed into the seething Aerdy Empire. Thrommel spent his reign resolving local disputes and consolidating regional governments, preparing them for the transition to independence.
The elves were the first to be granted their liberty. Those elven nobles who knew Thrommel personally still honor his name. The Voll was next. The King officially legitimized the authority of the Archcleric of Rao, and then defined Veluna as the land of all the nobles who would subsequently pledge fealty to the Holy Father. The Viscounty of Verbobonc, where the newer faith of St. Cuthbert was in ascendancy, refused to subjugate itself to the dictates of the Archcleric. Instead it petitioned for independence in its own right. The petition was granted several years later after the Viscount successfully repelled an incursion of humanoids from the Gnarley Forest while skillfully balancing human and demi-human concerns.
Independence in the east, where Thrommel was less sure of loyalty, took longer. Since his family had long been allied with the Heironeoun church, Thrommel gave generously to priests working in the east. His goal was to create enough faithful lords in the region that he could safely trust the lands with their independence. The lords east of the Ritensa slowly came under the sway of the Great Axe. The Heironeoun faith became common among the heretofore faithless, and even found converts among those who had followed Hextor and Pholtus. One of the last acts of Thrommel’s reign was to quit his claim to the Lands of the Shield.
The northlands (east of the Veng, north of the Whyestil) never were formally granted their independence. Then again, the majority of petty rulers there never swore fealty to Thrommel to begin with. Their divided nature convinced Thrommel that they were not ready for self-governance yet, and he treated the lands like protectorates, over the frequent objections of their rulers.
The Founding of the Order of the Hart
Half a century after independence, the heirs of Thrommel faced many of the same problems as their progenitor. The Great Kingdom had withdrawn to the east but remained a threat. Incursions by Baklunish, humanoids, and northern nomads were constant. The borders of Furyondy, Veluna, and the Shield Lands were for the most part resolved, but internal feuds among lords were frequent. A succession of Kings struggled to create a unified nation out of their fractious subjects. Indeed, internal plots and conflicts seemed the greater threat, for they magnified the danger of the external enemies. United, the lands could repulse any foreign invader, but the lands were far from united. No few lords had designs on the throne themselves, and they lay in wait for the house of Thrommel to weaken when facing foreign foes.
Early in the fourth century CY, the King of Furyondy created the Order of the Hart. The title of Knight of the Hart was bestowed in secret on select nobles (and occasionally on wealthy gentlemen) who were deemed loyal to the king. These same nobles were dedicated to serving the king in the preservation of Furyondy, although their services were rendered in secret. The knights moved about the country in ways consistent with their noble lifestyles – hunting, visiting relatives, making pilgrimages, attending market fairs and tournaments. All the while they clandestinely gathered information for the king. The king used their testimony to confirm the veracity of the information supplied to him by official sources whose loyalty was more suspect. This proved a valuable guard against corruption and against those who wished to cover their incompetence with pleasing lies. But the knights were also attentive to non-public information. A noble publicly known to be staunchly loyal to the king would not be privy to the same information as one whose allegiance was in doubt. Thus, by keeping their true loyalties hidden, the knights had better access to rumors and occasional invitations to join in conspiracies. The secret Hart was the king’s eyes and ears in many matters, though very few knew of their existence.
The knights also made reliable assessments of foreign threats facing the realm. When enemies gathered to attack, local nobles and Royal Army garrisons were expected to report the activity accurately to the king so that he could respond by sending an appropriate number of troops to reinforce local soldiers. But proud nobles and ambitious commanders too often downplayed threats, refusing to request assistance in the hope of advancing their own position. Their hubris cost the kingdom unnecessary deaths and defeats. Others greatly exaggerated the enemy’s number, preferring that the king send his own troops rather than order them to risk theirs. These cowards and misers wastefully tied up forces needed elsewhere. On more than one occasion, nobles simply failed to report obvious threats. They were often found to have been bought off; the foreign raiders were allowed free access through their lands to attack their neighboring lords, and the traitorous nobles received a share of the spoils. The Knights of the Hart served as a secret check against all these possibilities. Typically they arrived in a likely area in the guise of a hunting foray and requested the courtesy of being hosted by local lords. Then they disappeared into the bush for days.
Their quarry was not game, however, but accurate assessments of foreign forces. The Order employed a code language replete with hunting metaphors, such as “hunting hart” to refer to checking on foreign troops and “hunting boar” to refer to the search for internal corruption. The king was himself an avid huntsman, and he may have had such allusions in mind when he named the Order.
New Threats, the Order is Revealed
By the second half of the fourth century CY, the nature of the threats facing the realm had shifted. The independence of Nyrond in CY 356 had removed the menace of the Great Kingdom, and with it the possibility of rebellious elements rejoining the Great Kingdom. Through the assiduous actions of two generations of kings and knights, plots had been rooted out, disloyal nobles had been reduced in power, and loyal ones promoted. A national sentiment and identity had been forged. Cooperation now marked most interactions between nobles and monarch, between church and state, and among the four nations of Furyondy, Veluna, the Shield Lands, and Verbobonc. While nobles still vied for power, the kings of Furyondy sat secure on their thrones. They had the overall support of nobles, churches, and populace alike. In the event of foreign invasion, all elements of Furyondy unquestioningly sided with the king. Furyondy had become a true nation.
However, the gains made in internal stability were offset by an increase in external foes. At mid-century, Keoland was an advancing imperialist power. Although occupied by war against the Baklunish from c. CY 350 through CY 360, the Lion Throne still found time to menace Veluna and Verbobonc. Keoland courted the demi-human communities of the Lorridges and Kron Hills, eager to incorporate their mineral resources into its war machine. Although rebuffed from its Baklunish conquests by CY 360, Keoland still held Bissel and the Grand March. It administered these with the militant-religious order of the Knights of the March. Keoland clearly intended to continue its expansion, and Veluna had reason to feel threatened.
In the north, raids from the nomads increased. The petty lords of the Northern Reaches fell, one by one. A half-century of agitation in Nyrond (prior to its independence) drew the attention of the Great Kingdom away from their subjects around the Fellreeve Forest. In response to the nomad raids, these colonies had become armed camps, themselves following a semi-nomadic existence. Without the supervision of the Overking, they increasingly turned to banditry to survive. Their actions threatened the Shield Lands and the petty states that Furyondy still claimed east of the Whyestil.
Thus, the main threats facing Furyondy in the latter half of the fourth century were not those of internal security but of foreign invasion. The Furyondy Royal Army was strong, but not large. Its heavy cavalry was formidable, but not swift. The noble units and peasant levies, when called for, could form the greatest army in the region, but they took time to muster. In contrast, the Knights of the March, the nomad horsemen, and the northern bandits could all strike swiftly and without warning. The speed of such mounted forces and the rapacious appetites of the still-threatening humanoids meant that any delay in response to invasion cost the states dearly in lives, livestock, and land. Foes could ride in, round up cattle and slaughter peasants, and race home before the army could be mobilized and long before nobles could be mustered. The king of Furyondy deliberated and decided that the allied nations needed an elite force capable of holding an enemy at bay until a more conventional force could be raised. The king wanted a force of heroes who could move swiftly to intercept any incursion. Even if they could not stop an invasion, they could slow the invaders, harass them, pin them down, and harry them until the regular forces of the state could respond.
The men and women of this order would have to be fearless and staunch in their loyalty to king and country. They would be the allied nations’ first line of defense. If they ran from a foe, even a superior one, the allies would lose the time they needed to marshal their forces. Faced with such a need, the King of Furyondy made a fateful decision—he made the Order of the Hart public. No longer primarily an agency of espionage, he bestowed knighthood in the Order to acknowledge the great prowess, valor, and loyalty of those heroes. By accepting a knighthood, such a hero indicated his or her commitment to serve the allied nations above all else.
The Three Branches of the Hart
The King of Furyondy created two branches of the Order, one for Furyondy and one among the Highfolk. At the same time, he advised the Archcleric on the creation of a third branch to specifically serve Veluna. Verbobonc was too small and lacked the resources to host its own branch; its worthy heroes were asked to join either the Furyondian or Velunese Branch. The Shield Lands, ever the most independent of the large states, eschewed the king’s offer to have him organize and head their branch, and they also refused to have their own heroes accepted into the Furyondy Branch. Instead, they founded their own, local, order of knighthood, that of the Knights of the Shield (also known as the Knights of Holy Shielding).
The Knights of the Shield were overtly a religious order dedicated to Heironeous. In a sense, they were the fruition of Thrommel I’s plans for the region, although they fiercely maintained their independence from Furyondy. The Velunese Branch of the Knights of the Hart was a religious order as well, albeit dedicated to Rao and the authority, both spiritual and temporal, of the Archcleric. In contrast, the Furyondy Branch was secular. Although most members worshiped Heironeous (as did the king), such a faith was not required for membership. Instead, the entrance required only a fierce sense of loyalty to king and the nation. Lastly, the High Forest Branch was neither religious nor broadly secular. Originally, it did not even vow to defend the elven lands the way the other branches served their respective nations. Rather, the High Forest Branch served as an adjunct to the Furyondy Branch—a handful of elves more loyal than most to the King of Furyondy.
The three Branches of the Hart, plus the Knights of the Shield, thenceforth grew and developed. The foes they faced and the people who led their branches would shape their intertwined destinies.
 A Guide to the World of Greyhawk, p. 22.
 “The Knights of the Order of the Hart were founded long ago, during the early time that Furyondy began allowing its vassal states their independence. The exact date of the order’s founding is known to very few, since the order remained secret for decades.” The Marklands, p. 11.
 A Guide to the World of Greyhawk, p. 9.
 “At the peak of this imperialism, Keoland held sway from the Pomarj to the Crystalmist Mountains, while her armies pushed into Ket and threatened Verbobonc and Veluna City (c. 350 – 360 CY)”. A Guide to the World of Greyhawk, p. 27.
 “A Kingdom of great antiquity, Keoland has harbored territorial ambitions regarding its neighbors for centuries. Both Ket and Veluna have had reason to fear Keoland’s armies in the past.” From the Ashes, p. 29.
 “The Bandit Kingdoms are a collection of petty holdings which were founded sometime around 300 – 350 CY.” A Guide to the World of Greyhawk, p. 19.
 “Because these nations are quite decentralized and none maintains any sizable standing military force, each is subject to sudden incursions and threats from neighbors…The Knights of the Hart are therefore sworn to be ready at an instant’s notice to serve as a vanguard.” A Guide to the World of Greyhawk, pp. 79, 80.
 “When the Bandit Kingdoms began to grow powerful, the petty nobles of the north shores of the Nyr Dyv banded together in a mutual protection society…A headquarters was established at Admundfort, and a holy order of religious knights begun.” A Guide to the World of Greyhawk, p. 34.
Originally published on Canonfire! Used with Permission.