The city of Greatpine is remarkable upon the highly divided isle for a several reasons. Firstly, elves and man live side by side in this city with almost perfect peace. This is resultant of the second unique feature of the city: the Greatpine itself. Rising 700 feet tall, with boughs spreading over the city like some strange ceiling, the Greatpine is called the king of trees. The elves of the city make their homes within its boughs, while the humans live below between its roots. A series of ingenious elevators constantly move between the layers of the city, serving as a link between man and elf.
At the base of the tree's trunk is Castle Greatpine, home of House Ostengard, the Dukes of Caldor. The castle was built centuries ago, and the tree has grown much since then. The castle is now as much a part of the Greatpine as the Greatpine is a part of the city. House Ostengard, in turn, is as much a part of the castle as the castle is a part of the tree. They have come to echo the stark power of the walls and roots. Huge in size, these men are noted for their honor and strength. On the other hand, they are also known for their stubbornness and lack of tact. Like the tree, they have grown into the very stone of the castle. It is hard to imagine such a place without the Ostengards and their patriarch, Duke Rutgar.
Once a month, the Duke opens the doors of the castle to any commonfolk who have grievances or come seeking counsel or favor. From the lowest beggar to the highest noble, any may seek council with Rutgar, and he will pass his judgement as law. Men will travel for days just for the chance to line up before the doors of Greatpine Keep. Each prays that they are lucky enough to see the Duke, and pray harder still that he acts in their favor.
And so we find Kurz Lum and Trotter, having arrived to Greatpine at noon on the day that Rutgar opens his doors. In despair, they look upon the line before them, wending from the doors of the keep, around the courtyard several times and finally through the gates of the castle walls. Before them are perhaps 400 men and women seeking counsel, and behind yet more still. They arrived too late, and at the rate that the line moves, they know the Duke will not see them and they will have to wait another month.
"Perhaps we can seek private audience with the Duke?" Trotter says, tugging on his goatee.
Kurz frowns. "The Duke will not see nameless adventurers without a guild. No, we must see him today."
"What then? It is hardly possible to break in," Trotter gestures at the guards.
Dressed in shining platemail, their helms bearing no gaps for eyes or mouth, yet clearly able to see, the Royal Guard of House Ostengard wear the black tabards of the house. Red birds fly across these tabards, and their shields bear the same sigil. At their hips hang swords that glow with magic. Upon the walls, more common guards march, but two of the royal guards stand at the foot of the gate, and two more before the doors. Whatever strange magics give them sight are probably enough to prevent a common thief from sneaking near.
"And breaking in would serve no purpose," says Kurz. He scratches his chin. They pass beneath the gate and stand in the courtyard proper as the line moves. Several long minutes pass as the pair look around, trying to find a suitable solution.
Suddenly, an elderly merchant comes from inside the castle, looking very upset. Behind him, a young man walks out, looking pleased. At their heels is a massive man in the same armor as the guards. He does not wear a helm, and so his curly black beard falls across the tabard on his chest. He has the look of a hardened warrior, as much tree and stone as flesh and blood. His thick brows and broad nose look almost dwarven, but he stands seven feet tall.
Kurz nudges Trotter with an elbow. He has some knowledge of nobility and their lines, and he can recognize an Ostengard anywhere. "That is an Ostengard, perhaps the Dukes nephew or cousin," he says. "He bears the red stripes of command upon his pauldron. If there is anyone who can get us in to see the duke, it is him."
"We can hardly get his attention from here," Trotter says. "Look at all these people. Hear all this noise? Look, he's already leading the next ones in."
"Do you doubt the power of my voice?" Kurz arches an eyebrow. He takes a deep breath and begins speaking, his voice ringing across the courtyard. "Commander, wait! We have traveled many days to see the duke with noble purpose! So long to be turned away so soon! Will you not speak with us?"
As though compelled by some strange power, the Commander pivots on his heels. His eyes narrow as he sees Kurz within the crowd, and he stomps down the stairs, a path opening before him. He stands above the pair of adventurers, a dark shadow in his eyes.
"Are you placing some sort of spellweave upon me?" he says, his voice a cold rumble of grating stone. Up close, he appears even larger than before, his chest and shoulders as broad as any man they had ever seen, his arms as thick as some men's legs.
Kurz swallows. "No, my lord. We wished only to speak with you. My name is Kurz Lum, and this is my companion, Trotter. We have traveled long and hard to speak with the duke for truly good reasons."
"What reasons be those?" The Commander asks.
"We wish to start a guild to help the sick and weary and grant them sanctuary and defense," Kurz says. "We wish to unite all of Cindar beneath a single banner of peace and trust."
"His reasons are his and not mine," Trotter scowls.
"Humph," the Commander growls. "And what have you done that makes you think you are so worthy? Words are wind, but actions are steel and stone."
"I once served Duchess Elenia by healing her daughter of some strange sickness," Kurz replies.
"Not the sort of action I meant, but a noble one nonetheless," the Commander turns his gaze upon Trotter. "And you, tiny one?"
"I once helped the Dwarves near Hade hunt down a marauding troll, saving any number of soldiers and good men," Trotter mumbles.
"I couldn't care less for Dwarves or their problems," the Commander says. "The war isn't so far gone."
"I am sorry for my companion's lack of tact," Kurz says quickly. "But I assure you that he is worthy. I will vouch for his actions."
The Commander scowls, but shrugs. "You seem like better folk than most who come here. Follow me."
The Commander leads them past a series of scowling people, who watch with distaste as the pair are placed at the head of the line. Kurz, noting their looks, turns with a broad smile. "Hear me, people! Do not begrudge us! We seek only to serve you!"
While a few stop mumbling, most continue in anger. Trotter rolls his eyes at Kurz. "People don't always need preaching at."
"People don't always need stories of death," Kurz replies.
"I have saved many lives with a few deaths."
"Yet the deaths are still upon your tiny hands," Kurz looks at Trotter's bow in distaste and the pair fall into silence. This is not the first time they have had this argument.
A few minutes later, the Commander returns, a tired looking old man at his side. The old man wrings his cap in distress.
"It looks like the duke does not always grant the boons asked for," Kurz says.
"Best tread carefully, preacher," Trotter replies.
"Come then, heroes," the Commander says. "This way to the duke."
The pair are led into the castle. A flight of stairs rises before them, carpeted in thick moss. Vines and roots grow up through the stone of the building, acting as pillars and arches and granting the building a cave-like feel. There are three landings as the ascend the stairs, with doors on either side hung with curtains of leaves. Reaching the top of the stairs, a massive throne room rolls out before them. Guards ring the darkened edges of the room, and at the far end there is a raised dais. Above the dais are two great, stained glass windows depicting robins in flight. However, the stained glass is shadowed by thick vines which trace its edges. So dark is it here that guards to either side of the dais hold torches on long staves.
The throne is an edifice of steel, stone and wood, draped in leaves and moss. A Royal Guard stands to either side. The man seated upon it is ancient, easily into his nineties and probably older. However, he still has the hulking size, broad nose and long beard of an Ostengard. He still wears plate armor, cloaked in bear pelts. He has lost his hair, and his eyes are the milky colour of the blind or near-blind, but he holds himself with a regal bearing that reveals the noble man beneath the wrinkled flesh. One of the Royal Guard leans over and whispers in his ear, revealing the arrival of the next petitioners.
"Who comes before me and what quarrel have they?" His voice is surprisingly deep and robust, like his relative nearby.
"We have no quarrel with you, my lord," says Kurz.
"I asked not your quarrel with me but with each other," the Duke speaks.
"We have none," Kurz glances at Trotter. "We come asking you a favour. For some time, my companion and I have traveled together. We have helped many, and understand the need for the guilds to serve the people. However, there is no guild for our purpose. And so we wish to start one, to heal and protect and offer sanctuary to people in need. To gather adventurers with like minds to unite the Duchies and form a frontline against evil. But to do so, we need land. And so we come to you, seeking a land-loan, so that we may build a guild hall and begin our quest of helping the people of this land."
"Do you always speak the ear off of Dukes, or is this new?" the Duke asks. He shakes his head. "I cannot give you a land-loan. Every day, more people come to the isle, seeking succor from the mainland's terrors. The only thing they all have in common is the need for land. Land is valuable, more valuable than gold or silks or spices. I cannot simply give you land on trust. You must purchase it."
"What is your price, my lord?" asks Kurz.
"I understand adventurers are not always in a strong position monetarily," the Duke replies. "But there are other ways to pay. Like with service. I know of an old watchpost, to the south near Orn. It will serve your purposes. I will grant it to you, if you can do something in Orn for me."
"What is it, Lord Rutgar?" Trotter asks.
"My cousin, Markot, is governor in Orn, studying the ancient Imperial structure there. He has sent me many reports over the past months of strange happenings. They appear to be superstition, but they become more worrying daily. I fear someone may be playing on the superstitions of the folk there to hide dreadful business. People have gone missing. If you can find out what is going on there and put a stop to it, I will grant you use of the old watchpost for your guildhall."
Trotter and Kurz look at one another. "That is a fair price, my lord," Kurz finally says.
"Good," the Duke replies. "My clerk will write up the paperwork. Now out with you."