- Last words of Charcoal-Maker Tald, shortly before mounting an impromptu funeral pyre.
In legend, the Longfolk slay indiscriminately, mutilate the corpses, and burn the remains.
In fact, the Longfolk kill cautiously, neutralize the corpses, and purify the remains with fire.
It is with ages of begrudging duty that they fill the sky with arrows at a moment's notice, taking countless lives and making a blight of the land each season. The dead, from smallest rat to largest draft animal or person, is taken in the night past the Axebite, every limb and extremity removed and then bundled together in order to be burned atop a pyre of at least four different species of hardwood. To do differently would be to break the tradition, and to break a Longfolk tradition would be to court with ever-present and looming disaster.
They have been doing this for so long that they would be excused not to remember why they do it, if they didn't live for many centuries on end. In fact, the same Longfolk who carved the warning stones around their lands are the same ones alive today- and they are a rather young generation of them, at that. Once, long ago, when words did not fail them, they did do their best to communicate with the outside world. They were known to send envoys into the lands of the small folk around them, to establish both a rapport and a clear set of guidelines. For it was, and still is, of the utmost importance that no outsider exposes itself to the heart of that forested realm. For their own good, they must be kept out- the only mercy which can be afforded the non-compliant is a swift death.
This is because the Longfolk do not fight to keep the outside world away from the forest. They fight to keep the forest away from the outside world.
A long time ago, before the glaciers receded from Qeshuut or before the mountain named Asha collapsed upon itself in a storm of fire, the people who would become the Longfolk loved their forests. They built their homes around the tall trunks and harvested the fruits of their canopies. Boughs and branches became the spears and bows used to hunt upon the forest floor, and the practice of tree shaping was elevated to an art form. Songs were sung with the names of every plant stepped on underfoot when they traveled.
The end began with a series of blights, spaced far enough apart at first, but increasingly close together and severe, until an entire generation was exposed to worse famine than had been known in ages. Then the bark began to peel away from their tallwoods, revealing discolored and spongy wood beneath which had been rotting in secret all the while. Entire villages became abandoned as the trees they were built around fell away piece by piece until nothing remained but hollowed old trunks sloughing off a continuous shower of decay each. The forest floor was snarled in all of this fallen debris, and the life was choked from the underbrush over time.
When the first strings of animal attacks came, over-hunting and disturbed territories were blamed as the people desperately tried to readjust to their environment. But then the beasts became more daring and ferocious, mauling folk in broad daylight in the middle of camps as foam churned in their mouths and open sores wept upon their backs. Bears and wolves wandered in cannibalistic droves, elks were sighted with gore and viscera adorning their antlers, hinds and rabbits tore the throats from things with fangs which should not have been. The first few purging expeditions met with limited success, pushing the afflicted wildlife back but finding no source for it. For a time, every tribe hoped in silence that this too would pass.
When the trees themselves rose up, they knew that it would never end.
From somewhere deep in the forests, out from the ancient heart which had long been held as sacred, some befoulment for every living thing had sprung forth. It wasn't clear whether it spread through spores, or in the water, or if even the air itself was tainted with some kind of vapor. All that was known was anything afflicted could and would turn eventually, violent and guided by misintent even as its body rapidly decayed into a new source of corruption- a bloated, festering new beachhead in a war which the folk of the forest were losing. For the first time, they turned to the outside world for assistance.
Through their nascent arts of diplomacy, or through theft and deception, they obtained the arts of metallurgy. They had known and used fire, but this new hell called for greater and hotter infernos than they had ever conceived of before. With long-handled axes and saws backed by hedges of cruel-tipped tridents, spears, and man-catchers, the beleaguered survivors turned back inward at last. The groaning of wood and gnashing of teeth was drowned out by the clash of iron and the crackling of flames. The land was hewed, chopped, torn and picked at until nothing remained standing on legs or roots. The first cleansing fire was said to last six hundred nights.
Back and back they pushed the evil presence, paying for every mile with blood, sweat, and the agonized screams of the burning ringing in every pair of ears. They grew controlled and disciplined in their new craft of war, carving swaths through the blasted hinterlands and setting controlled fires which could be shaped as precisely as their old and beloved woodwork once was. For reasons which only the oldest of them know, but which they are loathe to explain, a standstill was finally reached, far beyond the wooded frontier where corruption had not yet taken root.
In their current incarnation, the Longfolk are dour and relentless in their duty. Their arms and legs stretched over time and with each birth, giving greater reach to their long, hacking weapons and longer pull to their meters-high bows with arrows like spears. The ash of a clean fire is the most adornment a typical one of their number wears, caked upon their skin until their long and gaunt bodies look ashen white, grey, or the same bluish color which haunts the dreams of so many homesteaders outside of the Axebite. It is not lost on them that they now resemble the violent and walking trees which they must ruthlessly cull, and some see it as the burden of their sins, heaped up over the ages like so many bodies on a pyre.
The world has gone on without them, leaving little evidence of its former dealings with them save for the moldering archives of a few long-gone kingdoms. The tongues of men changed overnight, it seemed to the Longfolk, until their sparse ventures out into the land beyond the forest were met with babbling gibberish and complete, mutual misunderstanding. But even bereft of allies, they continue their ceaseless vigil within and without, preventing the corruption from breaking out and keeping the hapless children from beyond the woods from becoming carriers of the blight.
If ever a single mote of rot were to escape, they fear what damage it would do.
They fear what measures they would have to take.