Realm of the Mountain Elves (book)
The Mountain Elves are a mysterious people. This stems in part from their tendency never to leave their domain, and in part from their characteristically secretive and private natures. Although others may have different views, I have written this in the hope that sharing the perspective of my family will result in a better understanding of Mountain Elf culture and an increased respect for our Queen and customs. -F.V.
Regarding the Queen
Any discussion of Mountain Elf culture must begin with a few words on the Queen. For thousands of years, Her Majesty Queen Morganae Sunderstone has been a constant. During this time, she has created a culture of absolute loyalty through rather interesting means. The Mountain Elves have a natural penchant for intrigue, and this may be seen in no greater measure than among their own Court. The Queen's retainers and liege aristocracy constantly vie for favor, usually at the expense of their peers. Those who demonstrate their loyalty through service may be richly rewarded, and those who fail to do so are severely punished. Entire families have been elevated to the nobility for continued service to the Queen. By the same token, bloodlines have been destroyed, literally and figuratively, for their shortcomings. The highest-ranking nobles -- members of the Queen's own extended family -- are not immune to her displeasure, although they seem to be less susceptible to some of the harsher punishments. However, the veracity of this could only be judged by an insider of the Court, and it is nigh impossible to find any willing to speak of it. Regardless, it is of the utmost importance to evince the highest level of respect for the Queen at all times.
When approaching the Queen in her domain, it is customary for males to drop to one knee and cast the eyes downward, at least momentarily, before rising once again. Females wearing gowns or dresses perform a formal curtsy which finishes with the arms outstretched and the body gracefully bowed from the waist, and likewise cast the eyes downward. The movement is reminiscent of a swan, which is coincidentally Her Majesty's personal symbol. Females in trousers or similar garments may choose to imitate the males in their display of reverence. After the initial gesture, averting one's gaze is not required, though many lower-ranking nobles and nearly all commoners will do so. On the occasions when the Queen is traveling outside her realm, the formalities are relaxed slightly. In these instances, a deep bow or curtsy will suffice. When addressing her, the standard forms for addressing royalty are appropriate. "Your Majesty" is the most typical honorific. It is generally considered best to speak when spoken to, and not before. Anything else may be met with varying levels of tolerance, with unsavory results not uncommon.
Like many other cultures, Mountain Elf society may be compared to a pyramid. At the pinnacle is Her Majesty the Queen, from whom all rights, powers, and privileges stem. Her word is law, and Her will is unquestioned. Below the Queen rank members of the royal family -- Her Majesty's sons and daughters. Next is a stratum of hereditary aristocrats. Their titles translate to Lords and Ladies of the Mountain, or simply Mountain Lords and Ladies. They may also receive honorary titles such as Lord or Lady Consul, Defender of Elamiri, and Sheriff of the Southern Watch, among others. Honorary titles are granted for life, but are held at the Queen's pleasure, and often entail a certain set of duties. Some can be held by many Lords or Ladies at once, whereas others may only be held by one at any given time. All the Lords and Ladies are supposedly equal in status, but there is wide variance in the power, influence, and wealth held by each noble house. Below these are subjects of the Queen who have been raised to the nobility for life, meaning the rank is not hereditary. Their titles might be loosely translated as Barons and Baronesses of the Mountain, obviously with a very different social position than the Baron of Therengia. Of course, the dignity of baron or baroness is also held at the pleasure of the Queen. Only very rarely will a life-noble be awarded an honorary title in addition to the barony. After the barons stand the commons. Under the law, all commoners are equal to one another, though differences in wealth and status are readily apparent to any observer.
Mountain Elf Fashion
Unlike their Elothean neighbors, Mountain Elves generally dress in an understated manner. Whether or not this somewhat somber fashion is a result of emulation of the Queen (and perhaps another attempt to garner favor) is subject to debate. Neutral tones such as white, black, and shades of grey are common. Colors are not absent from the palette, though they are often muted. Fine woolens, velvet, leathers, and various silks are mainstay fabrics in the Mountain Elf mode of dress. Of course, commoners elect to wear the less rich materials, whereas the nobility clad themselves impeccably in expensive, if austere raiment. Tall boots are fashionable for those from any walk of life, with styles ranging up to the thigh for men, and the hip for women.
Mountain Elves seem to prefer the complex beauty of intricately worked precious metals over the dazzle of gems. There are many master smiths and metalworkers among the Mountain folk, and their craft appears not only in the armor and weaponry of Elamiri, but also in the jewelry and embellishments of refined society. Speak to these craftsmen, and they will tell you with a smirk and a lift of the chin that their work exceeds that of any Dwarven smith. Silver, gold, and platinum are not limited to jewelry, but may also be incorporated into the very clothing of those who have enough coin. Adornments of baser alloys such as bronze and steel are more affordable for a wider segment of society. Thread-of-gold or -silver embroidery may also be seen, with complex geometric patterns and highly stylized nature themes being most prevalent.
The resolution of disputes is one of the most unique facets of Mountain Elf culture and tradition. Rather than airing conflicts publicly before the court of a noble or the sovereign, as is the custom in other lands, matters are often resolved in a private duel. Once a challenge has been issued, there is no recourse to the court of the local aristocrat. Officially sanctioned, dueling is not the province of the nobility alone, but the privilege of any subject of the Queen, regardless of station in life. A commoner may even elect to challenge an aristocrat. However, in practice, this rarely occurs. Individuals of noble birth obviously have much more access to training in magic and weapons, rendering a commoner's challenge of an aristocrat an exercise in futility or a creative suicide, depending on the perspective. Tangentially, dueling seems to have influenced other aspects of Mountain Elf society, including fashion. Many choose to wear clothing specifically designed to allow ease of movement and quick footwork, and some tailors focus their entire careers on this niche.
The conventions surrounding the duel itself are similar to those found in other lands. Depending on the gravity of the matter or the depth of the insult, a challenger will choose one of three escalating degrees of severity. In a duel "Aldi Crauya", the combatants will fight until the first blood is shed. The first wound can often be quite a serious one, and so an Empath will usually be on hand to assist, by mutual arrangement of the parties. A duel "Aldi Sarien Howpa" only ends when one or both combatants can no longer fight. This degree is obviously a very dangerous one. By arrangement of the parties, an Empath may be available at a prescribed distance, ranging from quite near to very distant. The pain suffered en route to the healer is considered a part of the duel. Dying is an acknowledged risk. Finally, a duel "Aldi Oluma" is fought to the death. Displays of mercy are few and far between in duels of this degree.
A challenge can be issued by letter or in person. When the challenge is received, an individual may of course decline. This serves as an acknowledgement that the matter will be resolved in favor of the challenger, without bloodshed. However, declining a duel is considered to be a mark of extreme cowardice. Mountain Elf custom dictates that the individual who has been challenged receives the privilege of choosing the rules of engagement. This includes the weapon set, whether magic will be involved, and the time and place of the duel. Most often, a very loose set of rules will be chosen, leaving both combatants free to press any advantage they have with spell or steel. As previously noted, the presence or absence of Empaths is left to mutual agreement. If no agreement can be reached, the default rule prohibits a healer. Nevertheless, death is far less common than one may be led to believe. Most duels occur among the nobility, and the vast majority of those are fought "Aldi Crauya". Oftentimes, the parties will have reached an accord on the matter in question before the duel ever takes place. It is quite common for the combatants to arrive at the duel and unsheathe blades. The party in whose favor the matter has been decided will then inflict a small cut on the other duelist, so that honor may be satisfied. The combatants, or their survivors, are honor-bound to abide by the results of the duel. Those who attempt to thwart the system are subject to unspeakable punishments. Thus, in great measure, the peace is kept.
Visiting a Mountain Elf Home
When a guest enters a Mountain Elf home, it is customary for the host or hostess to offer a drink. It makes no difference if the guest was expected or unexpected, as long as he is not unwelcome. In the wealthier homes, wine or tea should be offered, while in the poorer homes, only tea or fresh spring water is generally available. If the guest has any manners at all, he or she should accept the drink, offering a toast to Her Majesty as well as the host. A favorite starts, "To Her Majesty the Queen, may She reign forever." To this would be added something like, "And may your line be unbroken", implying the health and prosperity of the host's family. Less polite parties may say, "Here's to spilling Dwarven blood" or simply, "Dwarves' blood", before drinking. This toast is very old, hearkening back to the earliest history of the Mountain Elves.
After the traditional quaffing of drink, the host should present the guest a thick cloth dampened with warm water, perhaps scented with floral essences. The guest will always wash his hands, and if he has just arrived from a journey or engaged in combat, it is also appropriate to clean the face with the cloth. At this point, if the guest has brought a gift for the host, it is time to present it. The question of whether or not to bring a gift will be dictated by the level of formality between the parties. Old friends need not bring a gift for every visit. However, for those who do not know each other well, or where a difference in social strata ensures permanent formality, a gift is always polite and necessary.
There are two types of gift. One is simply characterized by the expense incurred in procuring it. A noble lord or lady visiting his vassal's home may appropriately bring a relatively expensive gift that would never do if he were visiting an equal. This does not work in the opposite situation. It is not polite for the vassal to expend a great deal of coin on a gift for his lord. This is considered rather vulgar, and a mark of bad manners. This brings us to the second type of gift, which is proper for any and all parties, regardless of familiarity or social stratum. These are characterized by the thought that goes into them, the special skills required to craft them, or sheer rarity. Actual cost is irrelevant. An intricately folded piece of origami, or a rare flower from Aesry Surlaenis'a would be examples. In the instance of a lord and his vassal, the vassal might bring something he made himself, such as a piece of furniture or a sample of his crop.
When the time comes to say farewell, and if all the formalities are being observed, then the host should offer bread to the guest. Nowadays it may be any amount, ranging from an entire loaf to a mere mouthful. In the distant past, more than just bread was included. In offering the food, the host should say, "May this bread sustain you", to which the courteous guest will respond, "And may the Queen grace this house with Her favor." A final cup, always filled with spring water, is then brought out and offered to the departing guest. Drinking can be a test of will and trust, for this has often been the poisoned cup that destroyed an unwitting enemy. Hence the roughly translated couplet, "In water drawn from honest well / Does oft a black intention dwell."