The Summer Heroes
The Penwith Islands are an archipelago off the western coast of the continent of Orem. The largest island itself is called “Penwith”, though inhabitants of the continent often refer to the entire chain as Penwith, without making a distinction.
Penwith itself is a sizable island home to a diverse topography and temperate climate. Numerous smaller islands dot the sea around Penwith, some of them inhabited, some of them not. The smallest of the islands is a group of four off the eastern coast, known simply as “the Sand-Spits”, as they are little more than a cluster of tiny, sandy islands whose shapes shift with the tides.
The passage from Penwith to the mainland is easy, as the channel between them is safe, and two small islands sit in the middle of it. Most shipping to and from Penwith passes through these islands, as two huge stone towers sit atop them. The towers and islands are referred to simply as the Light-Bearers, and their origin is unknown. The Light-Bearers are staffed by the Keepers of the Way, an order of priests renowned for their political neutrality and service to seafarers in need.
The island of Penwith is home to three major city-states: Brightwater, Aeren, and Gelden. To the north of the island, across a small channel from Gelden, is the island of Jund. The largest island in the Penwithan chain, apart from Penwith itself, is Liria, located to the far northeast from Jund. To the south of Penwith is the island of Starll, and still further south are the Saltstones.
To the Resettling and the Age of Kingdoms
The entire Penwithan chain was once a part of Orem, but an event remembered only as “The Cataclysm” shattered the western part of the continent, sinking and destroying much of it, and leaving the Penwith Islands in its wake. Speculation as to the cause of the Cataclysm is varied, but records past a certain point in history are unreliable, at best, and scholars have occasionally questioned the entire event, wondering if it was just an ancient explanation for Penwith’s geography.
For most of its early history, Penwith was lightly populated and largely untroubled by outside forces. Trading networks between the scattered villages of the island centered around the small towns that dotted the countryside, as did most of the political power. The light population of the island, however, resulted in very few skirmishes over resources, and very few of the mayors of the towns ever made pretensions to nobility. Religious devotion on the island has always been high, probably because of seeming omnipresence of the sea-goddess’ domain, which resulted in an unusually high number of temples and monasteries (primarily devoted to the god of light, the goddess of the sea, and the goddess of the harvest).
During this time, a small elven empire developed on the island of Liria. Although it never expanded much beyond the area immediately surrounding Liria, the Empire was very advanced for its time, and was in many ways a beacon of civilization for the region. Many hundreds of years before the arrival of the Sorian Empire on Penwith, the Lirian Empire was overrun by an enormous invasion of hobgoblins. The cause of this invasion—and the origins of the hobgoblins themselves—remains unclear, not least because of the peculiar unity of the hobgoblins’ purpose. The political fracturing of Liria that was underway at the time left the elves divided and unaware of the true danger the hobgoblins posed until it was too late.
No one ventures very close to Liria anymore, but the splendid cities crafted by the elves are no longer visible from the sea. It is rumored that a small group of elves may yet survive, clinging to life—and the remnants of their culture—on a series of tiny islands to the extreme northeast of Liria, but the viciousness of the hobgoblins—despite their disunity since the invasion—discourages travel to Liria by even the most weathered of seamen.
The fall of Liria resulted in a massive influx of elven refugees to Penwith, which was previously populated mostly by humans. This is now known to historians as The Resettling, and had the effect of raising the technological and cultural capacity of the Penwithan people, as well as helping the first few Penwithan city-states to coalesce around more sophisticated political cores.
Almost all of the extant noble families in Penwith have elvish blood at some point in their family trees, and most of the current noble families (as well as all of the families that died out for one reason or another) trace their foundation back to the time of the Resettling. This significant intermingling of human and elven heritage and blood—at all levels of society—has also helped to create a culture among the Penwithan islanders that is very tolerant of most races.
From the Age of Kingdoms to the Era of Empire
The influx of elven refugees during The Resettling changed the political and cultural environment of Penwith considerably. Though by no means totally uncivilized before, the elves brought a great deal of advanced technology and culture to the Penwith people and caused a massive leap forward in terms of social progression.
The elves settled mostly in seven different towns: Saltstone, Starll, Aeren, Jund, Gelden, Tintern, and Brightwater. Not coincidentally, these towns became the core of the first seven city-states and, later, kingdoms of Penwith. About a hundred years after The Resettling, Brightwater crowned its first king, and the other city-states quickly followed suit, thus giving rise to the name the Age of Kingdoms. Brightwater’s calendar dates from this event, which is referred to as Year One (Brightwater Reckoning). This calendar has since become standard across Penwith.
Saltstone, Starll, and Brightwater became the most powerful of the six kingdoms, though none of the six was ever powerful enough to conquer any of the others. The political deadlock (some would say a deadlock orchestrated to keep the peace) was broken twenty years before the arrival of the Empire, so the kingdoms enjoyed about four hundred years of relative, uneasy peace and growth.
Brightwater, however, began to eclipse the other kingdoms in prominence. Because of its position on the western edge of the island, Brightwater was and is the recipient of a great deal of the sea-traffic from Orem, as it is situated directly east of the Light-Bearers. In the year 404 BR, the half-elven Queen Auria ascended to the throne of Brightwater. In the same year, an enormous silver vein was discovered in a hill outside the city. The Brightwater Crown quickly laid claim to the discovery, which was seen as a sign of favor from the gods. By 414, Brightwater had been transformed by the money from the silver mine: roads were paved, temples, schools, hospitals, and libraries were built, the docks were expanded, and Brightwater’s navy and army multiplied many times over. An enormous, fortified complex (the “Silver Palace”) was built over the mine to ensure the Crown’s perpetual control of it.
In 414 BR, Queen Auria convened The Great Council of Penwith, a meeting of the six kingdoms, in Brightwater. By this point, Brightwater’s prosperity had spilled over to the rest of Penwith, and Auria—noted for her benevolence (for she could afford to be)—was popular across the island. The Great Council named Auria the Overqueen and gave her the title Safeguard of the Seas. Though largely autonomous in practice, Auria now exercised suzerainty over all six kingdoms.
For 19 years, Auria ruled over Brightwater and—at least technically—a peaceful Penwith. Unfortunately, the prosperity of the Penwith people caught the notice of the Sorian Empire. Ruled from the distant, glittering capital of Soren, the Sorian Empire had, by 433 BR, expanded to cover vast amounts of Orem.
In 434 BR, the Sorian Empire sailed an enormous fleet to Penwith and landed a massive army on its shores. Unwilling to sacrifice her people in what appeared to be a totally unwinnable war, Auria stood her forces down and met the commander of the Sorian forces, General Tortos, at the steps of the Silver Palace. There, Auria announced her abdication as Overqueen and placed her silver crown at General Tortos’ feet.
The kingdoms of Starll and Saltstone, unwilling to accept foreign domination, erupted in rebellion when the news of Auria’s surrender reached them. Tortos’ vengeance was devastating, and the Scourge of Penwith lasted from 434 to 435 BR. The Scourge laid waste to the island, and the cities of Starll and Saltstone were totally destroyed, as was the sacred city Tintern. After the horrors of Imperial reprisal, the Penwith people capitulated. At the end of 435 BR, Queen Auria was taken, in silver chains, to the steps of the Silver Palace, and executed.
The Era of Empire
Fully incorporated as an Imperial province in 436 BR, Penwith slowly recovered from the Scourge. The level of prosperity achieved under Auria took years to return to, partially because the silver mines of Brightwater were annexed to the Empire, and the revenues from them used to support the Imperial administration of the province (based in Brightwater).
Eventually, Penwith began to enjoy the benefits of Imperial incorporation: trade with the rest of the Empire increased significantly; a large, permanent network of roads was built to connect the cities and towns of the island over land; standardization of the coinage of the island increased trade (the Imperial ducat was now used everywhere); the increase of inter-imperial trade led to a greater influx of non-human and non-elven species; and far more sophisticated and advanced methods of practicing magic were introduced.
Imperial progress came at a price, however. Freedoms enjoyed by the Penwithan people, previously, were gone, and in the human-dominated Empire, non-human species were treated as second-class citizens at best. Additionally, worship of Lagren, the god of war, was introduced to the island as the primary—and mandatory—religion, for he was also the chief god of the Empire. The Penwithans continued in their worship of the gods and goddesses of the sun, sea, and harvest, despite the exaltation of the god of war to the principle deity of the realm.
The long history of the intertwining of elven and human bloodlines in Penwith society led to a seemingly-permanently-disdainful Imperial administration, but the distance of the island from Soren itself meant Penwith had a looser yoke than other, closer, provinces.
In 631 BR, the Sorian Empire underwent a massive reorganization under the emperor later known as Krastus the Reformer. By this point, the western half of the Sorian Empire was under massive pressure from an invasion of orcs out of the north, the Imperial administration was corrupt and decaying, and the official racism of the Empire was finally backfiring. Krastus’ reforms were resisted at first, until the fall of two separate provincial capitals to orcish onslaughts. After those defeats, the Sorian nobles capitulated entirely to Krastus’ wishes.
The Reformation of the Empire was at least partially successful, but several Imperial provinces seized the opportunity to rebel. Unable to fend off both the orcs and put down rebellions, Krastus let the provinces go. Though Penwith unity and identity had been greatly increased by the Imperial occupation, the specter of ancient, ruined Liria, as well as the lighter yoke of Imperial authority, resulted in muted feelings of rebellion among the populace.
By 837 BR, the Sorian Empire had managed to stagger through the crisis of the orc invasions, and undergone several other subsequent re-organizations. Despite this, it was riven by years of civil war and strife. An eruption of monstrous invasions caught the Empire unawares, and 837 became known as the Year of Conflagration. Soren itself was sacked, as was the eastern capital of Hyperion, and the collapse of imperial authority across the Empire was almost total.
Seen as an abandonment of the Empire by the god of war, the Penwithan people finally rose up in rebellion. Recalled, at last, in desperation, for the defense of Hyperion, the Imperial garrison in Penwith withdrew precipitously in 837 BR. The Imperial army reached the other side of the channel, departed, and was never heard from again. The Vanished Legion remains the stuff of myth on both sides of the sea.
The speedy and mysterious withdrawal of the Imperial forces left a power vacuum in Penwith, which no one was quite able to fill. Penwith descended into chaos, and the ensuing years are known as The Anarchy of the Islands.
The Anarchy of the Islands lasted from about 837 to 981 BR. Although the cities of Brightwater and Saltstone were able to reconstitute some authority within a decade of the Empire’s departure, the six kingdoms were never re-formed (not least because of the destruction of Tintern and Starll during the Scourge).
Brightwater has limped along since the beginning of the Anarchy, its ruling class locked in a bitter struggle for the Silver Palace and the seemingly-inexhaustible mines beneath it. In the wake of the Empire’s decline, trade to Orem swiftly collapsed, and the prosperity of the island along with it. Brightwater’s rulers have been reluctant to take up the royal mantle, preferring instead to be styled as “the Silver Prince” or “the Silver Princess”. Numerous families have claims to the throne, and several ancient prophecies detailing the rise of one worthy to succeed to Auria’s Throne have gained in popularity of late.
The rest of the island, un-subsidized by the silver mines, diminished considerably, with Brightwater remaining the primary light of civilization in Penwith. Brightwater and Penwith writ large have since begun a steady recovery, with populations and economic activity both on the rise. The official end of the Anarchy is dated to 981 BR; though 981 was the year House Xiri took control of the Silver Palace, it is primarily remembered as the year of the institution of the Republic of the North, which united the cities of Gelden and Jund under an elected government.