On the Mountain Clans of the Dragonspine and the Keswick Fells

On the Mountain Clans of the Dragonspine and the Keswick Fells – their history and their culture – as set down by Wyndrake Winterheart, of the Noble House of Winterheart, Duke of Keswick and Lord of the Fells

The region is sparsely populated, with vast wilderness, forests, pine-covered hills and snow-capped mountains, speckled with tiny villages and holdfasts. Its climate is cold and harsh in winter and occasionally it will snow in summer.

They say that hard places breed hard folk, and there’s no place so hard as the Dragonspine Mountains, nor folk so hardy as the rugged clans of the fells.

The quarrelsome clans of the rugged northwest are a hardy people who, like other northmen, claim descent from the first clans of Albion and are somewhat archaic in their manners and customs. They have inhabited the mountains in the north-west of the Albion for thousands of years. No one is quite sure how many mountain clans there are, so cautious and withdrawn are they that most will rarely wander down from the fells unless they absolutely need to. There cannot be many, however, as the high fells are not known for their hospitable, life-giving climes.

Their archaic ways lead to the fell folk being seen as primitive by the “lowfolk”, but there is much nobility to be found in the old mountain families.

Perhaps the highest nobility of this auld folk can be found in Clan Winterheart. One of the oldest clans, the chiefs of Clan Winterheart are often sought out by members of other clans to act as advisors and arbiters. Though holding no Albione title, Clan Winterheart is viewed as paramount in the hierarchy of the Dragonspine mountains. Although they do not consider themselves truly highborn, the chiefs of this clan are given the treatment of “Ard” by the fell folk. The “Ard” of Clan Winterheart is considered to be the guides and guardians of the high passes by the nobility of Keswick; an unofficial title, but an important duty which the fell folk take seriously.

Much stock is taken by the fell folk in the keeping of one’s word. There is very little deemed more dishonourable than to break a sworn oath. “Lowland” notions such as chivalry have no following in the high places. Men and women stand on equal footing; indeed, some of the greatest champions have been women, and some of the greatest home-makers men.

Arable land is scarce in the high places. Those who can farm well in such places are held in high regard by the fell folk. Those who can keep bees, higher still, for the focal point of many Dragonspine celebrations and customs are the peculiar, potent spiced meads and ciders which the fell folk produce. Though they receive lowland visitors but seldom, the hospitality of the Dragonspine is legendary. The clans will hold great feasts for their honoured guests, each chief competing with the others to ensure that their clan’s mead recipe flows most fast and most free.

Though the fell folk will keep to the fells for the most part, when the sun begins to thaw the passes into the lowlands, it is not uncommon to see bands of fell folk trading at the markets throughout the Duchy. Of particular note is the fleece, sheared from the hardy Herdwick sheep; it retains heat extremely well, and is some of the softest wool that gold can buy.

The fell folk are intriguing in their peculiar way of governance – each member of a clan has a say in how the clan operates, and the chief takes the views of the clan and expresses them at the mooting of the chiefs. The ultimate decision rests with the “Ard”, but the wishes, views, and fears of all the clans will be taken into consideration.

Among themselves, the clansmen style their leaders as “The [clan name]”; i.e. the chieftain of Clan Winterheart would be known as The Winterheart. This practice extends to other usage; the Duke of Keswick is called “The Keswick” by the clans, and they remain fiercely loyal to whomsoever holds the title. Some scholars believe this tradition descends from the mythical progenitor of the Winterheart line, the ancient Coel Hen (or King Cole, as the Albione children’s rhyme names him) who was known as Coel the Winter Heart.

It is interesting to note that Clan Winterheart claim descent from this figure, but so too did the line of the Imperial Governors of Britannia, the last of which we know sired, or grand-sired, Uther the Great, father to Arthur Pendragon.

Owing to the geographical situation of the clans, even the youngest child is raised as a competent ranger. Men and women alike are taught how to hunt, how to fight, how to farm, and how to forage. It is not unusual for the young of the clans to range the fells for days at a time. With constant threat of attack from the wild things in the mountains, and the dark things underneath them, the fell folk must remain constantly vigilant, ever ready to defend their homes and their lives.

These threats and their own inter-clan feuds have instilled a fierce martial spirit in the fell folk. In battle, clan champions fight with huge two-handed greatswords. The common men sling stones or wield staffs of mountain ash. Talented hunters and warriors, the fell folk have proven notoriously difficult to conquer in the past.

When an outside force attempts the hardy climb into the heights of the Dragonspine, the clans move off into the myriad passes and ways known only to them. In this way they may harry and attack the force, or simply bide their time and wait for the fells to claim their foe. The histories note that Uther, Warlord of Albion, on his quest to conquer all of Albion, rode into the fells to seek out the mountain clans. His purpose was to find out if the clans would stand with him, or stand against him. The tale goes that he came across only one person, a young man who sat on a rock, waiting for him to arrive.

This was Dunmail Winterheart, the Ard of his clan (who should not be confused with the legendary figure of Dunmail the Fell King, a forebear of Dunmail Winterheart, whose deeds are recorded in the poem of the same name and for whom this Dunmail was named).

Dunmail spoke at length with Uther, and after some hours they embraced, and Uther left. No one knows for certain what the men spoke of, but we can presume that Dunmail reminded Uther of the strong bonds of their blood and kinship. It has been suggested that the Winterhearts agreed not to oppose Uther on the condition he left the fells as they were, as Uther’s army never returned to conquer the Dragonspine, and the fellfolk never took up arms against him.

In later years, Dunmail’s son Urien, and his grandson Ywain, would join with Arthur Pendragon in his quest to unify Albion as One Land under One King, and would remain loyal supporters of the Pendragon Throne, and Knights of the Round Table.

Given their home terrain, they have no strong cavalry tradition, though the heavy fellhorses of the Dragonspine are held in high regards across Albion for their hardiness.

Given their high latitude and sparse resources, the clans suffer population strain in the long winters atop the fells. The young are sent to the Winterheart Keep, and old folk often announce that they are “going hunting.” Some are found the next spring; more are never seen again.

Typically, the fell folk inhabit turf-roofed roundhouses. The more prosperous folk, such as the clan chiefs, sometimes dwell in buildings reinforce by stone. It is not unusual to find some folk living in caves in the more rugged valleys, or in crannogs upon the many bodies of water in the Dragonspine.

The fell folk take their faith seriously, and typically follow the White Dragon (as an aspect of the Pendragon). The fell folk have followed the White Dragon since time immemorial. They believe that the White Dragon attached itself to the Pendragon, recognising and confirming the right of Arthur Pendragon to sit as High King of Albion. As such, they are fiercely loyal to the Pendragon family, and to the Pendragon throne.

It is a long held belief amongst the fell folk that the White Dragon sleeps beneath the fells above Wintermere, and this is why the waters do not freeze; this is of course entirely unsupported by evidence.

In a similar tradition to the rest of Albion, fell folk tend to burn their dead on high pyres. Their great ones (champions and great chiefs) remains are then buried in barrows, if it is deemed by a council of the clans that such an honour is appropriate.

Due to the Dragonspine’s vast size and labyrinthine valleys and crags, gathering the full military strength of the fell folk is a difficult process, requiring weeks of travel time and the ability to supply and feed the host even before it sets out. When mustered, however, the fell folk’s skirmishing ability and guerrilla tactics are second-to-none. Their morale is unwavering, and their champions are nigh unstoppable.