- Andrew M. Trauger
Just What Are Freeblades Anyway?
Ask a hundred people that question, and you're likely to get a hundred answers. Some call them mercenaries, out solely for financial gain. Some call them vagabonds or outlaws due to the frequency with which they break long-standing laws and ordinances. To the scoffers, they are "penny paladins" or "strawswords." To many others, they're heroes and an endless source of epics tales, inspiring songs, and quite a number of morality tales and hilarious jokes that never get old.
The history of freeblading in Arelatha goes back several centuries, when there was little organization to the continent beyond the Cers and the central kingdoms of Kedeth and Lothania. Vast swaths of intermediate countryside lay untamed and dangerous. The two kingdoms desired safe travel and trade with the lakeside cities, and they wanted to expand their territories. Standing armies were needed for defense and were largely ill-suited to exploratory ventures of conquest. Besides, dragonkin were everywhere.
Brave souls, unchained and eager to tackle the wilds, soon learned that there were two considerable benefits to clearing uncivilized lands: fame and fortune, the twin beacons of countless adventurers. Hiring these folks was essentially a no-cost endeavor for the kingdoms, as the expeditioners assumed both the risk and the reward. Thus, these "free blades" struck out into the lands teeming with dragonkin, slaying monsters, discovering treasures, and clearing lands for a growing civilization.
Roughly a hundred years ago, freeblading opportunities slowed to a crawl as nation-building thrived in earnest. Except for the Frozen Pinnacles to the north, the towering Dragoncrests to the west, the sweltering Audric Jungle to the south or the endless Cobalt Expanse to the east, there was little remaining to explore. The two primary kingdoms of Kedeth and Lothania eventually banned freeblading altogether in favor of regular militaries, and soon all the smaller nations, fiefdoms, and duchies followed suit.
This all changed with the Wars of Attrition, a ten-year continental conflict that destroyed armies, ruined lands, imploded economies, and provided opportunity for the Nephreqin to reshape the map. With literally every nation--those who remained--in full retreat to repair and rebuild, there was no one to perform the regular patrols and maintain the peace. Villages and farming communities were particularly hard hit by banditry and a resurging population of dragonkin. It soon became obvious that the "free blades" were needed. Laws were rewritten in most nations to give them license once again, albeit in a "controlled" manner.
Now there were rules.
Several enterprising companies arose in the days following the Wars of Attrition, organizing freeblade comissions and brokering the needs of nations with the hunger for adventure. With this new structure, some have wondered whether freeblading might become a more permanent, low-cost fixture of law-enforcement, particularly in rural areas where uniformed soldiers are loath to go.
The typical freeblade team has a spokesman, someone who can interact with dignitaries, militia, and common folk, and who can manage the disparate and competing egos that frequently make up the group. Strength and bravado are priorities, as are cunning and wit. Someone who can guide the group through uncharted land, twisting caverns, or narrow mountain passes is essential. Arcane firepower is a frequent need. And, of course, no freeblade will last long without divine intervention.
Ex-soldiers are common, as are cassocks from the various religious sects. Arcanists are expensive to hire, but almost certainly prove worthwhile. "Reformed" cutpurses are handy in the cities, and reeves are essential in the open lands. A songsage will often accompany a particularly famous freeblading team, serving as chronicler of their exploits and fireside entertainment. Various others might become involved with freeblading--savages, savants, ascetics--but their nature rarely allows them to commit to the team.
Regardless of their makeup, two things are true about freeblades: 1) they are either filthy, stinking rich or utterly destitute, and 2) they are both incredibly lethal and (usually) your greatest friends.