The Sacred Order of the Standardbearers
At the end of the War of the Talisman, while the Final Battle raged over what would come to be called the Shattered Shore, a large group of Fell fled from the battle, knowing their cause was lost. In their flight they came upon the camp of the united human army. Few had been left to guard the camp, which was populated by soldiers’ families, army support staff, camp followers, and the young boys who bore the armies’ standards.
The Fell attacked without warning and slew the soldiers on guard, who were mostly wounded and aging veterans unprepared for such an assault. What followed should have been a rout, if not for the valiant actions of the young standard-bearers, who wielded their flag-adorned pikes in defense of the various non-combatants from the monstrous onslaught. Though many boys fell, many did not, and for each boy who fell, there was someone to take up their standard and fight on in their place, be it soldier’s wife, an elder child, a cook, groom, or camp follower. The ferocity and tenacity of the defenders more than compensated for their lack of training, and by the end of what would come to be called the Battle of the Baggage Train, more attackers than defenders lay dead, and the remaining Fell retreated into the wilderness.
In the aftermath, the Sacred Order of the Standardbearers formed from the survivors of the battle, including many widows and orphans of soldiers who died in the fight against Umbra. As a result of so many women among the founders, the Standardbearers were the first military order to achieve parity between men and women. Most armies of the time were predominantly male, with few female soldiers and fewer officers, Lien Dela of Voxport being a notable exception.
Though the first duty of this new Order was to act as guardians of the Shattered Shore and the newly formed Palace of Shards, soon the Standardbearers would find their true calling, one to which they remain dedicated to this very day.
The few elves remaining after the war vanished within a decade and the ruins of Lothrae became a site of pilgrimage, as did the Shattered Shore. The old elven trail the Heroes of the Talisman trod from Lothrae to Avrayn-Aroth was soon paved in rough stone as the Pilgrims Road. As the pilgrimage grew more popular, it was decided to construct a series of forts along the Road where pilgrims could rest and resupply, take refuge from danger, and find medical care as needed. The forts became known as waycastles and would be garrisoned by Standardbearers, who would use them as headquarters for regular patrols along the Road. Construction of the waycastles was swift, being completed before the end of the 1st Century.
The Order attempted to remain neutral during the First Canonical War, but when the Vox Imperium annexed the territory encompassing the Pilgrims’ Road and occupied the waycastles, the Standardbearers wound up fighting beside the Al Sahari armies in the service of the Third Saint. By the end of the war, the Standardbearers would retake the Pilgrims Road and conquer the city of St. Aegus, which eventually became the administrative center for the entire Order.
As wealthy pilgrims traveled the Road, they were reluctant to carry their wealth with them, so they would deposit their money with the Order in St. Aegus, receive a guarantee of deposit, and then receive an equivalent amount at the end of their journey, minus various processing fees and any expenses incurred along the Road. As this practice expanded and grew, the Order accumulated a great deal of wealth and inadvertently created a precursor to our modern banking system. Eventually, the Standardbearers began to offer loans and investments from their holdings, and it wasn’t long before the Order became known more for their financial acumen than their prowess in battle. It is believed that this wealth, rather than any spiritual or dogmatic concerns, is what led the Vox Imperium to occupy the waycastles in the first place. Unfortunately, the Imperium was unable to uncover any treasure during their brief occupation and in fact only managed to increase the Standardbearers’ wealth when the Order took control of St. Aegus.
This accumulation of wealth led to the Pilgrim War, which began in WC330 when several waycastle commanders took the titles of Lords and Ladies Standard and occupied the lands around their castles as their own fiefdoms. Pilgrimage ceased during this time, with the Lords and Ladies Standard rejecting their traditional duties and making war on one another, putting any pilgrims in the crossfire. The War was brutal and lasted for over a decade, but by WC345, all waycastles save one were brought back into the Order. The last holdout was referred to as the Forbidden Waycastle and was struck from all maps of the Road.
As a result of the Pilgrim War, and what was seen as the commanders’ abrogation of their sacred duty, all members of the Order were prohibited from owning any personal property beyond their arms and armor, with the wealth of the Order held in common, and salaries paid to officers and soldiers alike. All officers of the Order would serve a single term of duty on the Finance Board, which guaranteed no member, or group of members, would retain control over the Order’s wealth. The Finance Board and its subordinate clerks would eventually split off from the Order to form the Standard Bank, which is the oldest and most powerful bank in existence today. Though they still finance the Order, and retired commanders still sit on their board, the Standard Bank has not been directly affiliated with the Order for well over a hundred years.
When the Second Canonical War broke out in the 5th Century, the Standardbearers fought for neither side, allowing the lands of the Road to become neutral territory. When St. Aegus fell to the forces of Ur-Athaz and their allies, many Standardbearers wanted to fight to regain it, but were held by their oaths to remain on the Road.
Following the end of the Second Canonical War, the reigning Lord Standard of the Forbidden Waycastle allied with the Standardbearers to finally regain control of St. Aegus, leading to a lasting peace between the Lord Standard and the Order. Though still not part of the official waycastles of the Road, the Lord Standard opened the Forbidden Waycastle to pilgrims again, so long as they were willing to pay a toll in exchange for aid, or work off the debt among the waycastle staff. As a result, pilgrims still avoid the Forbidden Waycastle except in times of dire need.
As the popularity of magic has declined in recent times, so too has the allure of pilgrimage. Where once thousands of pilgrims from all walks of life would flood the Road throughout the year, now only the most devout Magi can be found on pilgrimage. As a result, certain creative -some would say drastic- measures have been taken. The city of St. Aegus has reinvented itself as a popular holiday destination, offering restaurants and theaters, along with a collection of gaming houses, bars, and vice dens known as the Pleasure Quarter to its visitors.
The pilgrimage itself is also being rebranded from an arduous trek through the wilderness to prove one’s piety and dedication, to a curated entertainment spectacle where patrons are taken on a luxurious recreation known as ‘The War of the Talisman Experience’. Members of the Order engage in mock battles and performances of the trials the Heroes endured for the entertainment of these new “pilgrims”, with some even dressing in outlandish costumes to play the part of the monstrous Fell of legend.
Though traditional pilgrims, not to mention most members of the Order, are indignant at what they consider blasphemy, the approaching millennial anniversary of the War of the Talisman has inspired renewed fascination with the time period. The new luxury pilgrimage experience has proved very popular, boosting the Order’s flagging fortunes, and silencing all save the most devout critics.