From a post to Baen's Bar Snerker's Only dated October 14, 2006:

Coursers and the Fall of Kontovar

    OK, about the coursers and how they came to be. I'm afraid that to explain exactly how that happened is going to require some additional background on exactly how the Empire of Ottovar fell. I know you're all going to be terribly disappointed to have to wade through all of this extraneous information.

    Way back, a long, long time ago, during the Wizard Wars which led to the Fall of Kontovar….

    The Fall of Kontovar didn't happen overnight. In fact, it took a long time.

    Essentially, the Crown of Ottovar, perhaps the most important of the heirlooms of the House of Ottovar, was successfully stolen during the reign of the next to last Emperor of the Empire of Ottovar. That gentleman's elder son was the last Emperor, who became known to history as Toren Swordarm, among other titles.*

    The Crown of Ottovar was not simply the imperial diadem. It was also a very powerful scrying device, which was capable of detecting any act of dark sorcery anywhere in the environs of any land or territory claimed or ruled over by the House of Ottovar. Ottovar himself had created the Crown in order to help him enforce the Strictures. Basically, the Crown could not detect past acts of black sorcery, but only those which were committed while the rightful ruler (or his heir) was actually wearing the Crown. During Ottovar's lifetime, that was most of the time.

    There were, however, certain unfortunate side effects, or perhaps it would be better to say secondary powers, wrapped up in the Crown. Specifically, it also allowed its wearer to read minds. In fact, it was so good at reading minds that only an extraordinarily powerful wizard who concentrated very hard could stop it from reading the minds of everyone in his vicinity. During Ottovar's reign, this wasn't a huge problem for two reasons. First, Ottovar was precisely that sort of extraordinarily powerful wizard and found little difficulty in… restraining the Crown's secondary attributes. Second, the Wizard Wars had been so hideous that no one who had survived them or seen their immediate aftermath was going to complain about anything that was designed to keep them from happening again.

    The Empire of Ottovar lasted a long time, however, and not all of his descendents were "extraordinarily powerful wizards." Moreover, the immediate memories of the Wizard Wars began to fade, as such memories will. People began to feel much more uncomfortable around the Emperor, knowing that he would basically be unable to prevent himself from reading their innermost thoughts. The Ottovarans themselves became uncomfortable with the degree to which this intruded upon the privacy of those about them, and many of them found the prospect of reading someone else's mind and emotions… distasteful, at best, and physically painful, at worst.

    Because of this, the Crown was worn less and less frequently. It tended to be worn on state occasions, or when dealing with a foreign ambassador, or when the Emperor was hearing testimony in his role as the chief magistrate of the Empire, or similar occasions. It was worn at these times because it was the emblem of the Emperor's power and authority and because there was an additional justification on this sort of an occasion for the potential intrusion into the minds of those about the Emperor. Unfortunately, because it was possible to know in advance when those "official" occasions were going to occur, it was also possible for someone dabbling in black sorcery to arrange to not actually be casting any spells or sacrificing any children at that particular time.

    For several hundred years, the Emperor continued to don the Crown at irregular, unannounced intervals in order to carry out a quick scan of the Empire for potential black sorcery. During this period, however, the Council of Ottovar was busy devising increasingly sophisticated "spellware" to scan for acts of black sorcery without using the Crown. The spells got better and better, which justified the Emperor in wearing the Crown less and less often, and, of course, there was always the pressure of the concern about the privacy of his subjects. In particular, there was the problem that wearing the Crown meant that the people whose privacy you were going to be busiest invading were the very people who worked for you on a day-to-day basis and whose loyalty was most important, which, in turn, made stepping on their feelings both more of an unfair violation and a potentially alienating activity.

    Eventually, Ottovar's descendents decided that the Council of Ottovar's scrying spells had gotten good enough that it was only necessary to wear the Crown perhaps once or twice in a year.

    Unlike the Crown, which which no practitioner of black magic had ever been able to evade or work around, the Council of Ottovar's scrying spells were vulnerable to countermeasures, but the Council spent a lot of time watching for any evidence that the scrying spells had been "hacked" or that anyone had managed to devise a way to reliably evade them. By the time Wencit of Rûm became the leader of the Council of Ottovar, the Crown of Ottovar had not been worn more than a half-dozen times in the preceding two centuries.

    This proved to be… unfortunate.

    Unbeknownst to the Council of Ottovar's membership, a group of powerful wand wizards who everybody thought were practitioners of white magic, strictly in accordance with the Strictures of Ottovar, had actually discovered techniques for evading the Council's scrying spells. In computerese terms, they had invaded the system and buried back doors throughout the critical programs without being detected. (One reason they'd been able to do this was that they managed to get one of their number elected to the Council itself, which gave him the necessary access.)

    No one on the Council realized what had happened, and the Bad Guys™ preceded very carefully to prevent the Council from tumbling to what was going on. Nonetheless, when Wencit became a serious contender for the Council's leadership, they had been violating the Strictures for decades -- in fact, for well over a century -- and they had been making plans for what would happen when their violations were finally discovered. The fact that Wencit's reputation preceded him -- he'd been around for the better part of three hundred years before he became the leader of the Council -- warned the Bad Guys™ that they'd better batten down the hatches. One of the reasons for Wencit's election to head the Council was that he had been pounding the drum trying to warn his fellow practitioners that their scrying spells might not be quite as effective as they thought they were and that Bad Things were about to happen. In a way, he was Winston Churchill and his immediate predecessor was, at best, Neville Chamberlain.

    Having recognized that Wencit was going to make testing the efficacy of the Council's scrying spells (the thoroughness and reliability of those spells was an article of faith with his predecessors), the nascent Carnadosans knew that their relative immunity to detection was definitely going to come to an end. They also knew that the Crown of Ottovar, all by itself, would unerringly pinpoint who they were, where they were, and what they were doing if the Emperor was warned about their existence and started wearing it again. Unfortunately for the Good Guys™, Toren's father had reposed his complete faith and confidence in Wencit's predecessors. Even though Wencit had been arguing very forcefully that it was far past time to reinforce the security around the Gryphon Palace in Trôfrôlantha, as well as reconsidering the scrying spells' effectiveness, nothing had been done. Or, at least, nothing effective had been done, and when it became evident that Wencit was going to win the election, the Carnadosans struck, stealing the Crown of Ottovar.

    For various reasons -- most of them having to do with the prospective life spans of anyone involved -- actually destroying the Crown of Ottovar wasn't really a very attractive option. So they opted for hiding it someplace that even Wencit wasn't going to be able to find.

    So, of course, the situation which evolved was that Wencit found that the Council's supposedly infallible scrying spells actually leaked like sieves. And, equally of course, the Crown wasn't available to replace them.

    The good news (such as it was, and what there was of it) was that Wencit had obviously already realized what was going to happen. He'd already worked up a completely new set of scrying spells, which were rapidly put into place. Unfortunately, while he'd been working up the new scrying spells, the other side had been working up counter spells, and a very sophisticated, very complicated battle of glamours and counter-glamours broke out. Eventually, very slowly, Wencit's spells won out, but they were never as effective as the Crown would have been; they were always subject to being overpowered/evaded in specific instances; and they were, quite simply, too little, too late.

    By the time Wencit and the revamped Council of Ottovar were actually ready for the Wizard Wars, they'd already lost them. It wasn't Wencit's fault. In fact, if not for him, Kontovar almost certainly would have fallen decades [note to the elasticity of the noun "decades"] before it actually did. Toren's father, for all of his tragic error in having trusted the Wencit's predecessors, was an intelligent and gutsy man. When he recognized what was happening, he mobilized and attempted a decapitating stroke which almost worked. "Almost," wasn't good enough, since the other side had been carefully planning and assembling its own forces much longer than he had. Basically, he had to strike while his mobilization was incomplete, which meant that although he still had the greater potential strength, the strength he could actually bring to bear in the available time window was actually inferior to that of his opposition, and he lost heavily in the ensuing campaign.

    He still managed to pretty much stabilize the situation, with the Ottovarans still controlling just under half (by area) of the original Empire and the other half held by the Carnadosans. The good news was that he held most of the major seaports, that the Navy remained loyal to him, and that the vast majority of the dwarves couldn't stand the Carnadosans. That meant he had the best artisans, engineers, and mechanics on his side, and that he held a decided advantage in terms of what you might call the "industrial infrastructure" of Kontovar plus enjoying the peripheral mobility advantage of the Navy's amphibious capability. The bad news was that the Carnadosans controlled something like seventy percent of the Empire's total population, and that unlike the Ottovarans, they saw absolutely no reason not to use magic to force grow additional slaves. Nor did they see any reason not to release demons, devils, etc., etc., which rather tended, as one might have guessed, to offset the advantage of the dwarves' mechanical ingenuity.

    Despite that, there was a pretty fair chance that the Ottovarans, building on the platform he'd managed to put in place and with the support of the Council of Ottovar, might still have pulled it out. During the life span of Toren's father, the Wizard Wars were basically an insurrection, a rebellion against the legitimate authority of the Crown, and in addition to any other advantages, the Crown had the incredible prestige of the Ottovaran Dynasty behind. This was a very, very significant moral weapon.

    Unfortunately, Toren had a younger brother.

    Wencit warned Toren's father and Toren himself that the younger brother, Herrick, was potentially a huge threat to the Throne. The old Emperor didn't want to hear it, as much as he'd come to trust Wencit. And Wencit, when pressed on the matter, was forced to admit that Herrick's threat potential was just that: a potential threat which might never materialize, although he emphasized that it was far more likely that Herrick would become a mortal danger to Kontovar than that he would not.

    Things were a bit complicated by the fact that Toren loved Herrick. For that matter, Wencit loved Herrick, who was a charming, intelligent, sensitive, personable sort of guy. There was also the minor problem that Toren didn't really want to be Emperor. Given his druthers, he would undoubtedly have become a poet or scholar and left the business of ruling the Empire and -- especially! -- fighting a war to someone he felt was better suited to the task.

    Unhappily for Toren, the only other candidate for the job was Herrick, and much as Toren loved Herrick, he was not blind to the fact that underneath his charm, intelligence, and sensitivity, Herrick had some major character flaws. What brought this forcibly to Toren's attention were Herrick's efforts to convince their father to name Herrick as his heir, passing over Toren, and to convince Toren to voluntarily step aside in Herrick's favor. When the old Emperor proved unreceptive to the notion, and when Toren regretfully told Herrick that it was his [Toren's] job to assume the Crown, Herrick attempted to poison Toren in a plot which was foiled only by Wencit's intervention.

    That minor faux pas on Herrick's part convinced both Toren and their father that however badly Herrick might want the job, he probably shouldn't be allowed to take it. At which point Herrick fled Trôfrôlantha and went over to the other side, turning what had been an obvious rebellion/insurrection into a dynastic civil war, thus fracturing many of the bonds of loyalty which had been helping Toren's father to hold things together. Oh, I almost forgot to mention. In the process of departing from Trôfrôlantha, Herrick managed to murder his father in a way which could be twisted around to implicate Toren. Herrick's official position was that in fact Toren, impatient for the Crown, had murdered their father to seize it and attempted to murder Herrick because Herrick had discovered his plans, although -- alas -- too late to save the old Emperor's life from his murderous older son. Herrick had managed to escape from Toren's assassination plot, but the fact that Toren had laid his plans so well and that his seizure of power was virtually certain to succeed, left the murdered Emperor's younger son no choice but to flee to the camp of the enemy to preserve his own life. There, some of the leaders of the rebellion, tired of a war which had already dragged on so long and which they, of course, had never wanted in the first place pledged their reborn loyalty to the House of Ottovar… in the form of Herrick of Ottovar.

    All of this, of course, was the most arrant nonsense and was so recognized by the Council of Ottovar and the majority of those who had remained loyal to the Ottovarans from the beginning. Unfortunately, a minority of those who had remained loyal chose (for a combination of reasons) to accept Herrick's version of events, at least initially. Some of those who accepted them had already decided that the House of Ottovar was going down, however long the ultimate shipwreck might be delayed, and that it would be a good thing to get into bed with the side which was obviously going to win in the end. Others legitimately believed that Herrick (who was, let us all remember, charming, intelligent, sensitive, and personable) was telling the truth… and most of them wound up dead before they ever learned the error of their ways.

    Strategically, Herrick's desertion to the other side offered the Carnadosans an opening. They took it. By the time the House of Ottovar's remaining adherents fully realized what was happening and managed to extirpate the various traitors, spell-controlled slaves, security breaches, etc., stemming from Herrick's actions, they had lost a fatal amount of ground. As a result, Toren Swordarm knew from the moment that he assumed the Throne that he was going to be the last Emperor of Kontovar.

    Toren's overriding objective was never the winning of the war, which would be impossible unless the Council of Ottovar were prepared to release the wizards still loyal to the House of Ottovar from the Strictures… in which case there wouldn't have been any point in fighting the war, since the Good Guys™ would have become the Bad Guys™. Toren's objective was to save what he could from the wreck of Kontovar, which was why it became his primary strategy to hold the seaports to the very end. His entire purpose was to organize a withdrawal to Norfressa in as orderly a fashion as possible under the command of his most trusted vassal (and friend) Duke Kormak of the Crystal Cave dwarves.

    That was what he did for the next several decades [note once again the magnificent ambiguity of "decades"] during which he won battle after battle over increasingly numerically superior foes. The Council of Ottovar fought desperately to hold a shield against the arcane attacks of the Carnadosans, which sucked off more and more of the Council's energy from any sort of offensive action. And just to make things even better, it turned out that Herrick was a wild wizard.

    Fortunately, Herrick's wild wizardry was never fully awakened. It turned out that if a man who had the potential for wild wizardry was willing to sell his soul to Carnadosa, she could open his wild magic "channels" without the sort of personally traumatic event Wencit has described to Bahzell and Brandark. (Mind you, it wasn't a pleasant process for Herrick even with Carnadosa letting him cut corners, but it could be done, and in a relatively short period of time.) On the other hand, Herrick's "channels" would never be as deep, as powerful, as what would have happened had his wild wizardry been awakened "naturally." Thus, even though he was at least several centuries younger than Wencit, and so (theoretically) a more powerful wild wizard, he was never actually able to match Wencit's power. Nor, obviously, had he been given anything like as long to learn to master the techniques of wand wizardry. Which meant he never dared to face Wencit directly.

    In the end, Toren and his forces were simply overwhelmed. In the final battle, Toren and Herrick faced one another directly in hand-to-hand combat. Ultimately, Toren could not possibly have won the fight, since he was effectively the last member of his last army still on his feet. In the event, the battle between them -- which involved another artifact of the House of Ottovar [tum, te, tum, te, tum] -- not only dropped both of them but killed almost every man (and creature) of the army Herrick had brought to the ball, as well. Unfortunately, the Carnadosans still had several armies left, and Toren's had been the last army the Good Guys™ had.

    So, after the last battle, Wencit -- as he and Toren had already discussed -- strafed Kontovar.

    The total duration of the Wizard Wars isn't something I'm prepared to nail down for you guys at this point. Partly that's because I want to leave myself a little wiggle room, and partly that's because I'm supposed to be doing a short story set in Orfressa (as soon as I can squeeze it into my copious free time), and at the moment I'm toying with the notion of telling the story of Toren Swordarm in at least abbreviated form.

    However, one of the reasons I've gone into all of this in the degree of detail I already have is that you need to be aware that the Fall was a slow, agonizing thing, not a sudden, abrupt decapitation. During the Wizard Wars, there was a lot of sorcery being used on both sides. The Carnadosans, with no limitations on their actions because of their rejection of the Strictures and no limitations on their ambitions because they had fallen to the Dark, used the art far more recklessly and indiscriminately than the Council of Ottovar ever did. They used sorcery to enslave their tools, to summon demons and devils, to destroy city walls and even entire cities, to modify and twist their various servants. They were utterly unconcerned with the consequences of their actions for anyone besides themselves, which is why they made changes so recklessly in the hradani. They saw the hradani not as fellow members of the Races of Man, but solely and simply as tools, as things to be used and discarded at a whim.

    The Council of Ottovar's members were, by and large, at least as capable and strong as practitioners of the art as any of the Carnadosans. However, they were handicapped by their own adherence to the Strictures. Effectively, they could use their sorcery to defend and protect, but they could use it offensively only under very strictly delimited conditions. Moreover, the Strictures required them to worry about the very consequences which the Carnadosans didn't even consider. Thus it was entirely in character for the Carnadosans to tinker with the hradani as recklessly as they did, while the Council of Ottovar could not have done the same thing.

    What the Council could do was to make beneficial changes. And that, my children, is where the coursers came from.

    Essentially, the coursers are the direct descendents of the war horses bred for the Brothers of the Sword Sir Charrow tells Bahzell about in The War God's Own. I'm not going to tell you whether or not the Sword Brothers were, in fact, an earlier incarnation the Order of Tomanak, as Sir Charrow speculated, but they were definitely a militant order which remained loyal to the House of Ottovar to the very end, and who held the Anvil of Tomanak, which was basically a large promontory of Kontovar which ended up cut off from the main evacuation ports being protected by Toren and the main army. Because of the nature of the Anvil's terrain -- a particularly nasty and impassable mountain range cut across the point at which it joined the mainland of Kontovar -- the Sword Brothers were able to hold out much longer than one might have expected, and they had become very attached to their war horses. Those horses, because of the "adjustments" the Council of Ottovar had made, were much stronger, tougher, smarter, and faster than any other war horses. This was because the Council had managed to provide them with a sort of analogue of the hradani's link to the magic field. Unlike the hradani, however, they never received any of the negative evolutionary changes which the Carnadosans inflicted upon Bahzell's ancestors.

    The Council had never really intended to create what amounted to a sentient species separate from all other horses, but that's what they wound up doing in effect. Not all of the breeding lines set up by the Sword Brothers led to the same conclusion, however. In fact, all present coursers are directly descended from a single stallion in which all of the factors which make a courser came together and were successfully conserved. Because of this, although coursers are cross-fertile with normal horses, most coursers would no more consider mating with a non-courser than most humans would consider mating with a chimpanzee or an orangutan. At the same time, the coursers feel very protective towards their "little cousins."

    The Sword Brothers' membership included members of the noblest Kontovaran houses, including several cadet branches of the House of Ottovar itself. When they found themselves cut off from the main evacuation ports, they had to depend upon their own efforts to get out as many of their own people -- wives, children, dependents, retainers, etc. -- as they could using the limited number of relatively primitive seaports in the Anvil. They managed to get an amazing number of people out, given the circumstances, but the absolute totals were not high.

    The descendents of the Sword Brothers became eventually the Sothoii, whose name (as you may recall) translates as "sons of the fathers." And because of their intense loyalty to their war horses, they got as many of them out as they could, as well.

    The Sothoii war horses, as distinct from the coursers, are descended from what you might think of as the majority of "proto-coursers" who failed to receive and conserve all of the "positive mutations" which went into the present-day coursers. In other words, the war horses of the present-day Sothoii are essentially what the Council of Ottovar set out to create in the first place. They do have a very, very, very weak version of the link to the magic field, but compared to the link of someone like the hradani or the coursers, a Sothoii war horse's link is so relatively faint as to be almost imperceptible even to a trained wizard. It gives them a significant edge over "normal horses" in terms of things like endurance, and they are considerably smarter than those same "normal horses," but their intelligence does not rise to the level of true sentience and they are in no sense the coursers' equals. The fact that they shared common ancestors back in Kontovar is one of the reasons why the coursers think of them as their "little cousins."

    There are other examples of the law of unintended consequences as exemplified by the Wizard Wars littered about Norfressa and Kontovar. The hradani, the coursers, and the halflings are probably the most well known and readily recognizable examples, but there are others. Some of them will be met with in the course of the five-volume (at this point) magnum opus I want to write after I finish the immediate Bahzell novels. Some of them may never turn up in the books, because I may never actually find a good place to stick them in.

    At any rate, here's what probably amounts to rather more information than you expected to get. It certainly more than I intended to give you when I started out on what was supposed to be a "brief" essay.

*For your information, the three main heirlooms [note the use of the qualifying adjective "main"] of the House of Ottovar were:
  1. the Crown of Ottovar.
  2. the Sword of the South.
  3. the Harp of Chesmirsa.

    As to what they do and the other heirlooms of the house… tum, te, tum, te, tum.