The Slavards are made up of multiple related tribes who inhabit the northern and northeastern parts of the known world. This is a harsh and hardy people, accustomed to hard labor, eager to write glorious sagas, and always ready for a good fight, a good feast, and a voyage by sail or by sleigh.
The Slavards are coarse, simple people, not picky when it comes to clothing or food and certainly not effusive when it comes to emotions. Young Slavard men are tall, muscular, and wide of shoulders, while in old age they become quite bearlike. Their women are also strong of build, but with striking figures and beautiful, charming faces. Slavards are fair of hair, skin, and eyes and easily burned by the sun. Many of them have red hair, which is considered the light of Svefnii's forge. Redheads are given special treatment, as they are considered to be people predestined to perform important (though not always good) deeds. Redheads hold positions of authority and are feared and respected. When they speak, people listen, and so a good number of them become priests or prophets.
The Slavards once considered dark hair and dark eyes to be unseemly. Dark features were the marks of slaves and foreigners. But times have changed, and over the past centuries, the Slavards have lived as neighbors and subjects of the Empire – and so a good number of Slavards now have dark hair themselves. Brunettes no longer have to expect suspicious glances as they walk the streets of Slavard settlements. However, fair or red tones remain central to the Slavard concept of beauty.
Girls and young women from the north do not cover their heads, but they always braid their hair. Married women are expected to cover their hair, or at least tie it up with a ribbon. There is no standard hair custom for Slavard men, though, so many different styles exist: Some grow their hair halfway down their backs and braid it, while others shave their heads or give themselves a bowl cut. A man's beard, though, is an essential part of his appearance. Shaving one's beard off is not forbidden, but every Slavard, even those born in the time of the Empire, knows that a beardless man is hardly a man.
Marks and mutilations received in battle are marks of pride and are often displayed in full view. Slavard men boast of their scars and missing fingers and hands. They never wear patches or bandannas over missing eyes. Scars are pleasing to Svefnii, after all, for injuries are a sacrifice he delights in. Scars, especially old, faded scars, are often highlighted with special tattoos. When a Slavard is missing an ear, he often shaves half his head so that his hair will not obscure the scar.
Clothing and Architecture
Slavards dress simply and practically. The most common dress for men is spacious leather or homespun woolen pants and a shirt, with a jacket sewn of two skins and/or a hooded fur cloak over top during the cold season. Slavard men wear knitted stockings or leggings made of fabric strips, tanned leather boots, shoes of tree bark, and fur caps on their heads. When working, they wear aprons of fabric or leather. The belt is the most important – and often the most valuable – item in any self-respecting Slavard's wardrobe. Purses, wallets, keys, knives, adornments, charms, and weapons are all attached to the belt. For this reason, belts are not made cheaply. They are crafted of good, thick skin, reinforced with metal rivets or fasteners, and fitted with sturdy buckles. It is an unbearable humiliation for a Slavard to have his belt taken from him.
Slavard women wear full-length dresses, fastened at the neck with bone or amber buckles. Over top, they wear tunics made of two rectangular lengths of fabric joint at the shoulders by leather buckles (for poorer women) or brooches (for richer women). Women who work around the home wear, in addition to belts, chains fastened to their clothing by buckles or brooches. These chains are fitted with small bark boxes for holding needles, knives, keys, and other small items.
The farther south a Slavard lives, the more his wealth and social status will be reflected by the way he dresses. Rich and famous Slavards from Imperial cities often wear silk and cloth brocaded with gold or silver thread, two-colored cloth jackets similarly brocaded, and cloaks embroidered with exquisite needlework. But Slavards from the North primarily view such countrymen with contempt, men and women "dressed up like girls going to the fair."
The northern priests of the Lei Sisters, called Leiwargs, wear two-toned black and white loose-fitting garments during their rituals. Both of these colors are used to symbolize death. White is the color of the Iceeyed's hair and eyes, and black is the color of her sister's cloak. The pagan, ancient beliefs of the Slavards center on death, and the Slavard priests are guides into its world – living servants, in a sense, of the Lei Sisters. Most pagan rituals include sacrifices, and once a sacrifice is complete, the priest generally dips his finger in the split blood of the victim and with it draws a scarlet sickle on his chest. Warriors setting off for a battle that will be especially hard – or that all know will be a fatal defeat – also wear the Sisters' scythes, painted on their foreheads and faces in blood.
What the people of other nations express with their dress, the Slavards express with tattoos. Tattoos are an indispensable part of every northerner's life. A Slavard's tattoos tell you what lineage he belongs to, what vows he has taken, how many victories he has won, what honors belong to his ancestors, and what honors belong to him. Or, to the contrary, a man's tattoos mark him as an oathbreaker, a traitor, a coward, or a deserter. Such people are branded with special tattoos (assuming the Jarl allows them to live, of course).
Each image depicted in tattoos has a specific meaning. For example, an ax is the mark of a professional warrior. A raven shows that its bearer has competed in the yearly contest of skalds, and the scythe of the Lei Sisters reveals that the warrior has vowed to perish on the field of battle. A gavran tattooed on the chest marks a man out for a sailor who lives by piracy. A gavran tattooed on the back identifies a sailor who lives by trade or fishing. Many Slavards, of course, will have ships displayed on both their chests and their backs. No Slavard would consider getting a tattoo for "beauty's sake." The tattooing process is quite painful, besides being sacred, and it is carried out under the guidance of a special priest, a "master of inks." But each Slavard's life is full of happenings and accomplishments, so by old age, many are covered with blue-green ink from head to toe. The more tattoos a man has, the more authority, wisdom, and experience he is considered to possess, and the more significant his opinion becomes to others, on any subject.
Battle amulets are forged in the shape of various weapons: Axes, hammers, shields, daggers, arrowheads, and spears – made of bone, stone, copper, and wood for ordinary warriors, and made of silver or gold for Jarls and their militiamen. Women often wear pendants depicting household items: Spoons, keys, and combs. The spoon is the symbol of family prosperity. The key indicates family stability, faithfulness, and devotion. Craftsmen prefer more practical amulets, depicting the anvil of Dost, a hammer, or a pail. Fishermen carry amulets shaped as Tolki's tentacle to ward off storms, or as fish to ensure a good catch. Hunters wear boar fangs. Northern pagans often use fragments of bone from their ancestors or defeated enemies (be they humans or dangerous beasts, like bears) as amulets. These include fingerbones, teeth, pieces of a jaw or rib bone, and so on. Those who worship the Sleeper, however, will generally only wear a single amulet of the Sacred Eye.
The Slavards live in long, low-roofed log cabins, with roofs covered in grass or sodden earth. Packed earthen floors, wooden benches for sitting and sleeping, glowing hearths, and sheep and goats sleeping under the roof with their owners during severe frosts – Slavard dwellings can hardly be called places of comfort. Their houses are heated with chimneyless stoves, to make matters worse. Slavards prefer to sleep outside whenever the weather permits. The braces of their doubly-sloped roofs are usually decorated with depictions of animal heads. The shutters on their windows are also covered with stylized carvings depicting waves or plants of the sea. A Slavard's yard is generally enclosed by a fence or palisade wall. Human skulls are often seen hanging over the gates, the skulls of the ancestors of those who now live here, elevated to protect the inhabitants from misfortune, frost, and evildoers.
Slavard weapons and armor
Slavard armament, too, is not known for being intricate or adorned. This people often wears a felted, leather, or quilted jacket lined with metal plates or ring mail, as well as high-top boots, riveted bracers, gauntlets, and an open bevelled helmet with nose guards. Chainmail pieces are rare in the North, normally only worn by Jarls and their militiamen. In the Empire, though, nearly every Slavard, whether he be a professional warrior, a trader, or a craftsman, keeps chainmail at home.
A Slavard's weapon is an indispensable companion. Every Slavard learns to use his weapon from a very young age, until it becomes second nature. There is no such thing as a Slavard unable to wield a weapon. Slavard women, too, are quite skilled with bows and "Ungersverden," literally "young swords," which are large Slavard knives. The most widely used types of weapons include: Axes and pole-axes, short swords (Frossnesangen), bows, short spears, daggers, and sometimes whaling harpoons. Swords are rare weapons in the North and are symbols of might and authority, wielded by Jarls and their militiamen. In the Imperial lands of the South, however, swords are not so revered and are often used by common people. The pagan Slavards also often wield slings, war hammers, and clubs enhanced with bone spikes, bone arrowheads, or even tips of stone. Slavard shields are round and wooden, with large metal bosses in their centers and bright decorations depicting their bearer's heraldic crest, or that of the Jarl.
McTir Arianu, called Red Heather.
The Right Hand of the founder of the ancient First Gottlung Empire, the nameless Sovereign.
No heather but white heather has ever grown on the hills of the North. McTir received his nickname not because he loved flowers but because he made the flowers red as they fed on the blood of his enemies.
But this figure from Slavard history is so ancient, so legendary, that he is little spoken of other than in fairy tales.
The Slavards are sure that the gods spend much of their time among people and are like people in every way, but stronger. Nevertheless, they hold that some heroes from among humans "are strong enough to hold their own with the gods!"
The northerners abbreviate the gods' names, which the Gottlungs consider very disrespectful. For instance, the goddess called Jomfrutotte by the Gottlungs is called simply Jomfru by the northerners.
The gods of the Slavards are adapted from the gods of the Gottlungs.
In addition, the Slavards are quick to adopt new religious beliefs, since they have no organized church tradition and rarely emphasize higher theology or dogmatics.
The gods original to the Slavards are cruel and impulsive. None of them can be called "good" in the usual sense of the word (as in the Gottlungs' religion).
Svefnii – a great warrior who strives to destroy the world. He collects the soul Sparks of the greatest mortals, and out of them is forging the sword of the next Godernblodbad. The Slavards continually debate the essence of Svefnii the Sleeper.
Gloom – the deity of mean jokes, deception, conniving, and manifestations of traditional feudal "creativity" (such as torture methods). Gloom's mark is a cut mouth, with scars on the cheeks. A slit throat is called "Gloom's smile."
Kalle, called Kallente by the Gottlungs – the goddess of beauty and fertility.
Ama, the Goldeneyed, the Flamehaired (called Amate by the Gottlungs) – the Goddess of the Sun.
"The Sparks of the chosen ones who had beheld the beauty of Amate were locked up in Isenbrusts, magical heavenly pieces of ice. Since then, they have decorated the night sky, as well as the Dark Halls of Velent. These Sparks also adorn the cloak of Velent the Hasty."
Lei, the Dead Maiden Jhode, called Deathbreathing and the Cold One by the Gottlungs and the Iceeyed (though some hold to Frosteyed).
The Elder Lei and the Snowhaired. Her name is Velent. It is she who races through the darkness before dawn on her chariot, bound with the howl of the northern wolves, collecting the flaming sparks of the dead. She is the patroness of killers, the bringer of plagues and fevers, the poisoner of wells. It is her dark cloak, decorated with thousands of Sparks that once belonged to important and honorable mortals, that covers the earth at night.
The Pale Lei Sisters (the Slavards also consider Jomfru, Jhode, and Velent sisters) are the only northern gods that have their own priestly caste, the Leiwargs, whose duties include funeral and burial rites and the caretaking of burial grounds. Sepulchral Hills, the successors of the prehistoric "Houses of Silence," are built like ships in the North, great "stone gavrans." Their sterns always point West, towards the legendary Island called Apple Land.
Runes – the sacred writing system of the Slavards. Runes are the marks Gloom used to try to record the secrets of the mastery of Dost which he spied upon in the Smithy. Runes are inscribed on weapons, amulets, and work implements, carved into thresholds and doorposts, tattooed on flesh, and drawn in the air by those trying to ward off evil omens and feelings of foreboding. Ballads and songs are also written in runes. Usually these inscriptions can only be read by the Skalwarg who wrote them, or by a student of his.
The Northerners' social structure is a direct democracy. On the last evening of the Slavards' year, during the autumn equinox (also known as the Night of Fires), the residents of each village – whether of a tiny town or a large settlement – gather in the Veche (Ting) to elect the elder who will lead the whole village during the coming year. Those with the right to vote include men who have reached the age of fourteen and women who have borne at least one child. A female elder is rarely elected, but it does happen, especially in years of hardship where the men are fighting or leaving for campaigns in distant lands.
Common militia groups are formed by the fighting men of several neighboring settlements, who often share family ties. Members of the militia are recruited when needed. Additional militiamen are not needed during years of peace, so younger men of age who dream of war must either come to terms with the current peace and seek another craft or leave the village in search of someone who needs their fighting skill. Due to the power of lineage in Slavard culture, militia recruits are most often the sons of militiamen. They are trained better than the other men, understand the art of fighting, and already know their fathers' brothers in arms. The militia is supported by the villages and has their protection as its primary mission. Other sources of militia income include: piracy, plundering campaigns, guarding trade caravans, and raiding bandit camps. Loot obtained in battle is divided up as follows: The Jarl takes one tenth, the militiamen who for one reason or another could not fight in the battle take another tenth, and the survivors of the battle evenly divide up what remains.
Once every three years, the militia meet at a Ting and elect a Jarl, a battle leader, from their ranks. On the day of the Ting, after the election result is announced, any candidate has the right to challenge the winner to battle and, in the case of victory, take his place as Jarl. At any other time, challenging a Jarl or disobeying his orders is considered a threat to the entire militia and is punishable by death.
A tribal chief, called a Knez, rules over the militias and Jarls of a tribe. The Knez only truly has power during wartime, whenever war between tribes or large-scale campaigns require many militias to come together. When a Knez dies, the next Knez is elected from among the Jarls. Each Knez is elected for life. Tribes can be at war, at peace, or members of alliances with one another. These diplomatic actions are the responsibilities of the Knezes. Over the past few decades, most of the Knezes have been required to swear oaths as vassals of the Empire. But when the darkness came, these oaths lost their force.
Slavard names have two parts. One part always denotes religious or abstract quality: beauty, defense, good, death, cold, Dost, Lei, and so on. The second part is something material: peace, sword, blood, wolf, heaven, forest, etc. These names are in the language of the North, of course, and sound something like this:
Ideally Slavard names contain a mix of pre-Christian Slavic elements (Jar-, Rati-, Rog-, Drag-, -mir, -slav, -rod and so on) and Scandinavian elements (-vald, -ulv, -grim, Hall-, Var-, Gud-, and so on). This is quite typical but does not need to be met in every case. Minor characters can be given slightly modified Scandinavian names.
These names can be formed with Norwegian, Irish, Icelandic, Finnish, Welsh, and Hungarian elements.
For example: Lauisten Blaidkriegson (Wolf of war, God's hand son)
In addition to their name, all significant northern characters also have a nickname. This nickname is given to indicate specific feats or qualities and is often used like a second name. For example: Yarbrand Suppressor Wolfen, Hallmir Ironvoice, Yorneda the Pallid, etc.
Traditional Slavard greetings, used both by northerners and by those in Imperial lands, include: ‘Good flames’ and ‘Warmth to your fire.’ This phrase is used when meeting friends or strangers on the road, when entering someone else's house, and when approaching someone else's fire. It carries religious significance.
Khoors are never greeted this way. If necessary, they are greeted with a wave of the hand or a nod of the head.
Slavards say farewell in various ways, depending on the social situation and their professions. Sailors say, ‘ull sails!’ or ‘ood seas!’ Warriors say, ‘see you at the Forge’ or ‘much shed, little bled!’ Commoners usually wish each other to ‘eep on shining.’ "Keep shining!’ is a universal farewell. It is also used when speaking with Gottlungs, and even with Khoors. All have the Spark, after all, and all understand the meaning of the phrase.
By the way, the Slavards do not consider it offensive to address someone as ‘Stranger.’ It is simply a statement of fact. When they meet a newcomer, they will call him ‘Stranger’ simply to emphasize that they are not acquainted. If the newcomer has given his name, they will likely use it to address him.
Slavards are not much for forms of etiquette in conversation. They have no rules for how to address others, except one: When addressing a chief, his title of Jarl or Knez must be used. So if a man named Dragnar is Jarl, he is addressed as ‘Dragnar Jarl,’ or just ‘Jarl,’ but never just ‘Dragnar.’
On the other hand, Slavards try to incorporate poetry into their speech, using expressive turns of phrase, so they often use quite unusual language, especially in ceremonial settings:
‘ As a dragon takes wing, as a wind rushes, so did I fly hence, Knez Svantemor, to your hearth which warms these cold lands.’
Ballads and sagas often use similar expressive phrases when warriors speak during a battle. This is simply dramatic artistic hyperbole, of course. In real battles, warriors bark short commands and orders. But later, these words are expanded into exquisite speeches full of metaphors and vivid imagery. Or, this word is entrusted to the Skalwargs who write tales of battles. All are aware of these customs, and none are bothered by them.
– Affirming by negating the opposite:
‘Think not that you can force me…’
‘None can dispute that Svagard Bear Son is a coward and a traitor.’
‘Few can argue that rare is the gavran which can match my Flying Serpent in speed!’
‘It does not seem there is another way to Dunborg besides the Path of the Dead.’
– Anthropomorphized weapons and household items:
‘Hot and harsh is the kiss of my ax, and you are its next love!’
‘The chatter of my blades pleases the ear more than any eloquent speech of man.’
‘None did hear the Jarl's last words but the spear which pierced his heart.’
‘He trusts his hammer more than his brothers.’
– Threats are often made in the third person:
‘An old man should not try to deceive sailors of the sea. Does he think his gray hair can save him from an ax blow?’
‘I'm sure the archer will have time to loosen his bowstring. But wouldn't that earn him a blade in the throat?’
‘The Knez believes he can take our lawful share of the bounty. But the Knez is mistaken.’
– Threats can use the subjunctive mood, as if speaking hypothetically:
‘If I were to shove my sword into your bowels for the words you just spoke, you would, methinks, regret those words and wish you could take them back. So perhaps you should take them back now, while you still can do so of your own free will.’
‘If this courageous and intelligent traveler were to open his bag for us so that we could have some of his things, there would be no need for bloodshed, which would probably not end well for the traveler.’
– Understatement of the seriousness of an event or situation:
‘Our land has been uneasy after the death of the Knez.’
‘Our new Knez has opened many paths of opportunity for skilled warriors. Some lead straight to Ristertverden; others, to the cold embrace of Jhode.’ (regarding a civil war, for example)
‘One unaided cannot think to defeat dozens.’
‘I doubt Orlaf will forgive us for the death of his son.’
‘This gavran isn't quite as sturdy as I hoped.’ (on the deck of a sinking ship)