Up From the Mud
Between themselves, the kings of Solevon hold two-thirds of the continent under their rule. Near to the centers of power, the monarchs provide safety and security for their subjects, noble and common. Farther out, in the borderlands between kingdoms and beyond, however, only the largest of threats merit attention from the major powers. The closest these areas come to having official recourse for everyday dangers is a local free order. These groups copy the structure of a knightly or clerical order, with rank-and-file command structures, swearing in members via sacred oaths and bearing special insignia, though they do not owe their ultimate allegiance to any higher authority. Rather, they hew to a specific mandate: one free order may swear itself to the protection of travelers along a road between kingdoms while another might patrol the edge of a great haunted forest so the horrific things dwelling within can’t spill out and trouble nearby towns and farmsteads.
Their lack of a formal patron can be a double-edged sword. While a free order need not worry about meddling orders from on high or becoming embroiled in a political struggle unrelated to their core mandate, they similarly lack anyone to vouch for them should their purpose or their methods be called into question; the difference between a free order and a mercenary company or even a band of criminals often rests in the eye of the beholder.
Well-established and reputable free orders play an important role in The Custom, the unwritten laws that bind even enemy kingdoms together. A free order whose mandate is respected by two opposing monarchs can mediate between the two, while one that’s seen as taking sides in a dispute can quickly lose its reputation.
Fallen Free Orders
Ironically, history is littered with examples of free orders who slid from their original mandates into mercenary contracting or large-scale organized thuggery specifically due to a loss of public esteem and trust. The Pegasus Company, as an example, originally served a mandate to protect bridges and fords everywhere on the continent, keeping them free of sabotage, arranging for their repair and preventing toll-gangs from installing themselves at a pass. However, during a skirmish between the kings of Balos and Chritain, members of Pegasus Company intervened to stop a retreating Chritene army from felling a bridge they had just used to vacate the theater of battle. The Balosi followed over the bridge and crushed the routing Chritene. Though they had lost the battle and shortly after, the war, the Chritene pursued an aggressive campaign of slandering Pegasus’ leadership, claiming that they had taken part in the war and had unduly aided the Balosi. Rumors flew about other bridges and passes that Pegasus was not guarding as they should. Before long, locals chafed at the sight of the Pegasus crest and refused their help in watching over bridges. Cut off from funding and provisioning they were accustomed to and facing desertion, Pegasus took the last step willingly, accepting a chest of coins to break a siege around the city-state of Plurrh. Today, they remain as one of the most established mercenary companies in existence, despite their inception from the simple idea that bridges ought be safe to travel upon.