The Well of Souls
The three largest settlements in the Vast are the cities of Ravens Bluff, Tantras, and Calaunt. It is worth noting that most rural folk in the Vast view Tantras as a “god-ridden” place of “suspicious, unfriendly folk,” (thanks to the many worshipers of Torm who reside there) and consider Calaunt as an openly evil, sinister place: a den of thieves, dominated by arrogant idiots. Anyone acting in an arrogant, dangerously silly or foolish manner may be called a “Calaunt-head,” or told “oh, go back to Calaunt.” Many of these same rural folk view Ravens Bluff as a colorful, dangerous place of chaotic intrigue. Some of them even call it “the Mad City.” These views are hardly surprising, given the judgment of the prominent sage Elminster of Shadowdale, who recently commented that the cities of the Vast “aren’t exactly stable and easy-going places to dwell, now, are they?”
The countryside in general consists of rolling farmland, the fields being used for all manner of crops suitable to the climate and for grazing. Low stone rubble walls divide the fields; where a farm fronts on roads, these have often been encouraged to grow into wild hedges. Woodlots have been left here and there among the farms, although these are small in both area and tree-height; they have grown from the scrub left behind by orc treecutters centuries ago. Small brooks and streams are plentiful, but these seldom join up into the large, named rivers; instead, they tend to drain into pools and thence by underground ways seep down towards the sea. Some spring up again later and repeat the process. This crazy jigsaw of a water table is due to the broken, tilted layers of rock that underlie the deep soil of the Vast; dwarves say that it looks like a vast cauldron of ice chunks was stirred and then allowed to freeze with the ice sticking up at odd angles. Sinkholes, caves, and rifts are plentiful but very small; local farm children can often hide from visitors in an “empty field” by using small stone nooks and tiny sinkhole pockets that only someone intimately familiar with the ground would find. Many farmers hide their wealth in such holes, while others build privies over them.
Where the farms end, the forest proper begins, broken by occasional stone outcrops as the foothills rise up into the mountains. Like the woods and copses dividing the farmlands below, these trees are largely regrowth sprung up from saplings left behind by orc treecutters long ago. The local druids carefully tend this second-growth forest and have encouraged some sylvan creatures to relocate there from older, more distant forests.
Boar, deer, and black-masked bear roam the forests of the Vast and can be found, well roasted, on local inn tables. The Vast is known around the Inner Sea for its succulent roast stag, the meat being of the highest quality and size. Traditionally, this dish is served on large platters, the first bearing the full rack of antlers to the tables, surrounded by sweetmeats and choice cuts.
Hunters say that game has remained surprisingly plentiful over the years. Most sages specializing in such things believe that the High Country has acted as a sort of protected breeding-ground over the years, and only the rich food offered by farm plantings tempts the choice game down into the farmlands, where the woodlots and wilder groves offer shelter between feasts.
Most hunting is done in the scattered woods, either by a few archers on foot or by four or more stout men armed with spears, daggers, and clubs, hunting with the aid of trained dogs. The first method requires more skill and delivers game in better condition. Hunting in the foothills and on the wooded mountain flanks has always been a more dangerous game, undertaken only by large, well-armed bands, as wolves, orcs, brigands, and monstrous creatures have frequently attacked overbold hunters in the hills. More worrisome still, strange and dangerous creatures have begun to appear neat the fey, mist-cloaked marshes of the Flooded Forest on the northern edge of the Vast. Giant owlbears, stirges, and other, rarer creatures that local hunters have never seen before and for which they have no names have increasingly been encountered by the unlucky. Hunting near Ylraphon is now done in large, well-armed bands, who never camp overnight in the woods if they can help it but return by torchlight with ready swords.
Folk in the Vast tend to keep to themselves and see themselves as one with the land they inhabit, loyal only to their local village or community. The countryside is beautiful but dangerous, and from their earliest days humans in the rural Vast go armed. Even the youngest child allowed out of its mother’s reach will have a sling and a belt-knife. Most folk in the Vast are contented with their homes and their lot in life but are always eager to hear news of the wider Realms “outside.” Such news gives them much entertainment, and they also enjoy ballads – even ballads they’ve heard a hundred times before.
Local bards of distinction are few, but many bards who wander Cormyr, Sembia, the Dales, and the Vast prefer the eastern side of the Reach above all else. “They treat you as a friend, as an honored guest, and as someone deserving good coin and the best food,” said one. “Whenever I come into an inn, even if there be five or six harpers already gathered, smiles light up the faces of folk there, and they call out to me as if I were an old friend. Soon, I am. I’ll keep walking those roads until I’m too old to walk anywhere.” Wandering minstrels often to be met in the Vast include the sharp-tongued and keen-witted Nalabar of Selgaunt, the jovial and well-loved “Happy” Mamblat of Hillsfar, and the beautiful half-elf lady Sshansalue Wonderharp.
Several unique local festivals are celebrated throughout the Vast. These tend to be more energetically celebrated in the country and paid less attention in the cities.
• The Arming (On the fourth day of Tarsakh) commemorates the rise of the farmers and merchants together to defeat raids from the mountains south of Ravens Bluff, orc raids along the North Road, and brigand and pirate attacks throughout the Vast. On this day militias are mustered and inspected, well-polished weapons are proudly worn, and youths of both sexes are given gifts of weapons or armor in coming-of-age ceremonies, in token of their now being old enough to join the local adults in defending their farms and villages. Weaponry contests draw spectators and challengers from miles around, followed by feasts where the ballads are sung, local troupes act out famous duels and battles, and many a tale of deeds of valor is told and retold.
• The Plowing (6th Mirtul) is the traditional day when the ground is broken for planting all over the Vast. Neighbors often work together, with local teams traveling about to break ground for the entire community. Casks of beer aged winterlong are opened at sundown for an evening feast. The free plowing continues for up to four days, until each farmer in the neighborhood has at least one field ready for sowing.
• Hornmoot (14th Kythorn) is an old, fading holiday. In the days of the dwarven kingdom, it marked the first trading-day of spring between humans and dwarves, when the dwarves emerged from their underground halls at the ending of winter. The dwarves would blow horns in the mountains to signal their coming, and the humans replied with horn-calls of their own in settlements that wanted to trade. Dwarves still come to these moots (and lesser ones held on the fourteenth of each month from Kythorn through Eleint), but each year there are fewer dwarves. Traders come from as far away as Amn to get good axes and swords from the Stout Folk at these moors.
• The Bone Dance (9th Highsun), a hunting-festival hosted by clerics of Malar, involves a nighttime combined pageant and feast held around a bonfire. Magically animated bones of huge stags and other beasts enact stirring hunts, with the very young and very old members in each community taking the parts of the hunters. All the participants consume much food and drink late into the night, rising early the next morning to set forth en masse to track down and slay any local predators or dangerous monsters known to be active in the vicinity.
Temples & Clergy
In common with the agricultural lands nearby (Sembia, Cormyr, and the Dales), the Vast is a place tolerant of many religions. All major human faiths can be found in the Vast, notably those of Eldath, Chauntea, and Torm. The latter came in person to his temple in Tantras during the Time of Troubles, and his avatar’s fall devastated an area north of the city walls, leaving it an area of twisted and tortured rock where no magic works and spellcasters of all races feel sick or faint. Shrines honoring the “travelers’ gods” – Tymora, Tempus, and the newly-restored Waukeen – may be found throughout the region. For example, King’s Reach and High Haspur have shrines dedicated to Tymora, both administered from a small temple in Mulmaster, while Tsurlagol, Calaunt, Tantras, and Ravens Bluff all have temples of Tymora of their own. Waukeen’s temples suffered gradual decline during her imprisonment but seem likely to make a quick recovery following her recent return, in addition, shrines and the occasional temple to other gods can be found across the Vast, most of the temples being within the major cities. One relic of the fallen dwarven realm still to be seen here and there along the North Road are boulders etched with the crossed battle-axes of Clangeddin, Father of Battles-and many local warriors pray to both Clangeddin and Tempus before they go to war in the mountains.
Inns and Roads
According to most travelers, the best inns in the area are not found in the cities or even in the Vast proper but in the wilder stretches of road linking the Vast with neighboring cities. Arguably the finest of these is The Wizard’s Hand in Maskyr’s Eye in the north; close behind come a pair of southern inns: The Worried Wyvern in Sevenecho and The Elf In Armor in High Haspur.
The Hand, some eighty winters old, is named for the vanished wizard Maskyr One-Eye. The Wyvern is comparatively recent, not quite twenty years of age, and dominates the hamlet of Sevenecho (named for the family of the innkeeper), located where the main overland road from Procampur meets the Tsurlagol Road. The Elf in Armor is named after the elven warrior Beluar, who aided the dwarves of Tuir’s fading kingdom in their battles against the orcs. Beluar and his small band of elven riders perished in an orc road-ambush in the mountain pass south of Ravens Bluff, known ever since as Elvenblood Pass. Beluar is buried in Sarbreenar, the hamlet just south of that pass. From his resting-place, the High Trail runs south to High Haspur, where it forks to run southwest to Procampur and southeast towards Tsurlagol and a junction with the main North Road.
Farther north, Beluar’s Hunt and the rival Rolling Heads Inn both commemorate Beluar’s most famous victory over the orcs. Routing the humanoids at Viperstongue Ford (where the Cross Road from Kurth to Hlintar crosses the River Vesper), Beluar’s forces pursued them north into a rugged line of hills southwest of Kurth, and thence north along the road as far as Maskyr’s Eye, where Beluar himself slew the last of the orcs on the road outside the town smithy. The hills west of the road, between Kurth and Maskyr’s Eye, are locally known as “Beluar’s Hunt” and have given their name to one of Kurth’s two inns; the rival Rolling Heads Inn at the other end of town takes its name from the most notable token the routed orcs left behind.
Some travelers mark their progress not by the inns but by landmarks on the roads in between. South of Maskyr’s Eye, the border of the Vast proper is marked by Mount Wolf, towering high above the North Road. Of old, many gray wolves laired near the peak, until local hunters saw them as far too efficient competition for the highly prized stags and greatly reduced their numbers. There are no known passes through the mountains from the Vast to eastern lands, although rumors persist of hidden ways through the peaks from the easternmost reaches of the High Country to Impiltur. This range of peaks that wall in the Vast on the east is sometimes called the Giantspike Mountains.
To the south, the road runs through the market town of Kurth and into Three Trees Pass (named, it is said, by one merchant of Sembia talking to another long ago, when both had explored the dwarven lands in hopes of opening up a trade-route from the dwarven mines to the River Vesper). The mountains on either side of the pass are sometimes called the Troll Mountains, although few trolls are seen there today. They have been almost eradicated by the dwarves who live in mines high above the Pass – once-rich mines that now yield only a little iron and less copper.
South of “the High Reach” (a nickname used to distinguish the town of King’s Reach from “the Reach” or Dragon Reach, the great arm of the Inner Sea that divides the Vast from the Dales), the road leaves the mountains, crossing rolling hill-country. Its southerly route roughly divides the walled farms of the Vast from the High Country, a large expanse of grassy hills and rocky moorland inhabited mainly by shepherds and their flocks. Several small stop-over camps may be found along the North Road as it crosses this tolling open land, each by a pond or stream. At least two of these sites boast inns, The Nine Swords at Swords Pool and The Blue Stallion at Dead Tree Hollow.