There are all kinds of clothing in the Middle Kingdoms, in all kinds of styles and forms, from the ubiqitous smocks, tunics, gowns and breeches that people don for work or casual wear, to the surcoats, doublets, jerkins and tabards worn for ceremony or as livery demonstrating affiliation to one or another ruling or governing house of the Four Kingdoms. But from west to east and from the southern Highpeaks to the Sea, there is probably only one item of clothing—native to the kingdom of Darthen—that, by itself, and worn by the right person, in the right (or wrong) place, could be used to start a war.
Its history goes back at least a millennium and a half, and possibly more like two, to the first sporadic migrations that accompanied the early resurgence of humanity after the Worldwinning and the destruction of the Dark. There are several conflicting narratives surrounding the timing of the migrations that brought the ancestors of the Darthenes north of the Peaks and up the course of the Stel and beyond it to the valleys of the upper Darst. But all these agree that one of the earliest migrations—if not the earliest—was the one led by the clans that later became recognized as the tai-Éarnësti and tai-Ealórsti, spearheaded by the twin brothers who would later become the first Lord of the Brightwood and the first Lord of Darthen.
The origin of the white outer garment that over time became the livery of the Brightwood is still disputed, but a commonly accepted legend is that it was meant to recall either the snows of the Highpeak passes through which the migrating clans journeyed, or the furs of a (now-extinct) icebear that frequented those regions and which occurs in many legends about the two brothers. Evidence surrounding the icebears (and their furs) has always been scanty, but there’s far more evidence to buttress the theory that linen was one of the first crops cultivated in the riverine country south of the central Brightwood, and the livery growing out of the nascent linen trade quickly became associated with the Wood and its lordship.
With the passage of centuries, the usage of the Wood’s white garb gradually altered. Eventually—possibly because it required significantly less fabric than the cloak, and was less expensive to make and easier to maintain—it was the tabard or surcoat form of “the Whites”, augmented with the Phoenix-in-Flames charge of the tai-Ealórsti, that became the right of citizens of the Wood in military service to wear. Use of the cloak (originally charged with the Phoenix, but eventually relapsing to its uncharged form) gradually became reserved to the Lords’ line of the Brightwood. Later still, when the Darthene Throne bestowed immediacy on the Wood as Darthen’s first (and still its only) independent principality, the then-Lady of the Brightwood returned the gesture by granting to the Throne and its chosen knights the right to wear the White Cloak of the new Princely house as a badge of honor and a reminder of their two Houses’ long and loyal association.
This tradition has remained unchanged for all the centuries since, as has the Cloak itself. It is a standard campaigner’s cloak, hooded, and so cut as to allow it to be worn so that the device on the bearer’s surcoat can be clearly viewed. It is always woven of heavy linen from one of three farms in the Morithla flax-growing region south of Delann-in-the-Brightwood. Woven into the Cloak’s border is a triptych verse from the ancient Lay of the Brethren, the epic poem that tells of the deeds of Éarn and Éalor. If damaged, only weavers in the Brightwood are allowed to mend the WhiteCloak. Except in life-or-death circumstances, only the one to whom the Cloak is awarded may wear it, and even then only on the business of the Sovereign or at events where they are acting (formally or informally) as the Throne’s representative. And tradition requires that on their death, the awardee must be wrapped in it before being laid on the pyre, so that they may receive their due of fire and earth together.
In modern usage (meaning traditions current during the period covered by the present Tale of the Five trilogy and the novellas and novels of the Tales of the Five prose miniseries), eligibility for the WhiteCloak* is extremely limited. The Darthene monarch may bestow it on knights of their personal household, or on Darthene subjects who distinguish themselves by valor in battle or other service to the Throne (though a council of civil and military advisors routinely sit in judgment on these endowments when the monarch or their heirs have been personally involved in the incidents in question).
There have been some half a hundred cases or so over the centuries of a person both being entitled to the Cloak by birth (as a relative of the Wood’s ruling line) and an awardee due to services done for the Throne. In the period we’re discussing, one of these is the younger son of the Lord of the Brightwood, the present Prince-Elect. Having attended the Battle of Lidika (against invading Ladha/”Reaver” forces in the late 2800s) as part of the Brightwood levies, Herewiss was adjudged as likely to have saved the life of the (then) Throne Princess of Darthen, Eftgan, by purposely getting between her and a Reaver crossbow about to be fired at her, and taking the bolt himself.
When the award came up for consideration by the adjudicating panel (due to a member of the royal family having been involved), there was some politically-motivated resistance to the grant of the honor because of the potential awardee being descended from the ruling Line already and “hardly needing it”, and also because Herewiss was (if distantly) related to the present sovereign, so that the award might have subjected the Throne to suspicions of nepotism. This objection, though, was finally overcome by the most senior adjudicator pointing out that the young man (by his own testimony and that of an examining Rodmistress) had no idea who the muddy woman he was saving was, and his valor therefore should be seen as counting for more, not less.
Mention is made twice in The Door Into Sunset of Herewiss wearing the WhiteCloak: once when appearing in Darthis at the Forging of the Queen’s Gold, and once when riding into Prydon to take up his pre-War secondment to the Darthene embassy. Both times when he wears it he does so over the Brightwood surcoat, suggesting that he is functioning under the rules of an established “chain of command”, equipped with previous instructions from the Sovereign and carrying out her orders.
There is, however, another mode in which it can be worn (assuming one can justify such an action after the fact to the monarch, and to the demigod whom she embodies). To wear the WhiteCloak-of-award over naked armor, “unmitigated,” is meant to suggest to onlookers that one is acting as the Darthene monarch. To do so in Darthene territory is to command instant obedience. But to do so in other rulers’ realms is politically extremely perilous. To wear it into another royal sovereign’s very court is an indicator of some deadly serious business afoot. And when you happen to be married to that sovereign… the implications become even more dire. Are you there to support him… or to overthrow him?
The illustration above deals with preparation for such an event that occurs during the forthcoming Tales of the Five #3: The Librarian.
*There are two forms of the word in use: one older, one a newer elision of the original. The newer form is the one usually used for the more formal version of the Cloak that lies in the gift of the Darthene Throne.