In this installment of Tough Traveling, I’ll be talking a bit about a culture that has had a lot of impact on the main setting of my story — but all externally. What trope is this? It’s the Northern Barbarians!
Northern Barbarians dwell in the snowy part behind the northern Mountain range. They are very barbarous and tend to kill strangers on sight. This is because the males spend their time in longhouses honing their fighting skills. It is not certain what the females do. Northern barbarians do not feel the cold. They wear only a fur loincloth and copper wristguards. Their real clothing is their Weapons. But they are not stupid savages, only savages. They use skis and sledges for getting around in the snow and this, given the state of Transport generally, must be the equivalent of having invented the wheel. When Tourists visit here, they are advised to defeat all barbarians who attack them. Then the barbarians will respect them: it is the only language they understand. The Tourists must then go on to prove the Shaman a fraud. After this, the Chieftain will offer the Tour anything it needs. See also Barbarian Hordes.
So. What happens when the northern barbarians aren’t human?
Well, that’s actually only the least of the relevant questions. Because what if they aren’t savages at all? What if their cold-tolerant, sledge-dragging, shaman-following selves aren’t a bunch of credulous, violent hicks but a fully functioning society that doesn’t like its autonomy being threatened by its psychotic southern neighbor?
The territory in question is a rough anocracy called Krovichanka, situated just north of the Risen Phoenix Empire’s eastern heartlands and extending west to the Rift, where it borders the Empire’s rival state of Gejara. Its population consists largely of ogres and ogre-bloods — the descendants of the original empire-builders of the central lands, the Ghesh-Ruen.
Driven up from the deep south by volcanic activity and lizardfolk raids millennia ago, the Ghesh-Ruen spread into these lands at the behest of the Guardian and Ravager, who had been waging war against the wraiths and needed the support of a solidly militant group rather than the scattered and fractious beast-folk tribes that had previously ruled the area. While the ogres were technically beast-folk, they had chosen (along with their spirit Oega) to no longer skinchange, and instead were the first to settle into villages and cities and learn to farm, to utilize technology — to become civilized. They brought those ideas and their own relatively-advanced weaponry to bear on the wraith problem, and for their efforts they were rewarded with a thousand-year reign over much of the known world.
Inevitably, things fell apart. The ogres lost their western territories first, to the birth of the Trifold religion and the rapid growth of the human population; the ogres in those lands were driven north past the Pinch into what is now Gejara. Five hundred years later, a similar fall occurred in the east, where the Risen Phoenix Empire is now, and the ogrish survivors fled into the tundra and taiga of Krovichanka to try to rebuild their civilization.
It has been three thousand years since, but while the Gejaran ogres and ogre-bloods have flourished, the Krovichankans have not. Some of this is due to the terrain and the weather: life is simply harder in Krovichanka, with a pitiful growing season, brutal winters, limited resources and little external aid. The rest is a matter of culture.
While the Gejaran ogre-bloods migrated en masse, made immediate pacts with their human neighbors and integrated swiftly into preexisting towns and cities, the Krovichankans trickled northward in dribs and drabs as they were exiled from the Heartlands. Detached from each other, with no particular leaders, they fell prey to the elements and already-established skinchanger- and human hunter-gatherer communities, thus setting up the hostilities that plague the Krovichankan territory to this day. Even when the ogres started to band together, they did so purely to overpower their foes, which led to much internal strife as every hotheaded warrior demanded that his (or her) way be followed and pike the opinions of the others.
The ogrish ranks were thus thinned regularly by war (both internal and external), by weather and crop failure, by disease and stubbornness. It took ages for them to adapt to an omnivorous diet; previously herbivores in lands where farming was easy and forage plentiful, they starved by the thousands when none of their old crops would grow. Some learned to appease the plant-spirits enough to keep their traditional ways, but the majority now hunt and fish and sometimes eat their enemies. It’s the way of the world.
They tried to build cities, but the ground was too soft for stone, the weather too wretched, the constant demand for basic supplies too imposing to build any sort of complex society. And so every attempt at modernity fractured, and the Krovichankans got used to living in their roving bands and small settlements, scuffling or trading with their neighbors, fighting over who got to be Warlord or who got a better share of the spoils or who simply got fed tonight.
And for a while the Heartlands left them to it. Krovichankan raiders would come down from the north regularly to aggress against the citizens of the Heartlands border kingdoms, but they would always be pushed back because they were never very organized or well-supplied or even determined; they were always the starving ones, the desperate ones, and the moment the Heartlanders put up more of a fight than a tundra snowbeast, they turned tail.
But then came the Risen Phoenix Empire, and the game changed for everyone in the north.
Civilized Gejara and rough Krovichanka had not been friends before then, no matter that they shared a great deal of ogrish heritage. Gejara had become deeply arcane-minded, with even its full-ogre citizens using arcane paraphernalia though they were not capable of wielding magic themselves. Krovichanka, on the other hand, was still deeply shamanic and hateful of anything with the tang of wraith-powers on it — particularly magic — and had always refused that kind of aid from its wealthy neighbor.
When the Risen Phoenix Empire began coalescing, though, its armies began a great push into Krovichanka, driving the roving tribes away from its border and destroying every ogrish settlement it could find. The push went all the way to the Volske-Jek foothills, and the ripple-effect of all the fleeing tribes went all the way to the Rift. A coalition of Krovichankan warlords and shamans was formed within months, creating the most communal government the territory had ever had, and this coalition reached out to the Gejarans with a desperate plea for aid.
In the hundred-plus years since, Gejara has been waging a proxy war with the Risen Phoenix Empire through the people of Krovichanka, financing and feeding and equipping the tribes, training shamans, loaning mages, and generally doing all it can to keep the Empire from steamrolling the north. The border is constantly in flux, walls built only to fall (or subside into the swampy earth), outposts swiftly burned, armies lost to blizzards or the Winter Graces as often as to actual conflict.
No one is happy with the situation — except perhaps Gejara, which hides behind a shield of diplomacy and distance.
To get back to the entry, though:
Dwelling in the snowy land beyond the mountains? Check.
Tend to kill strangers on sight? If you look like an Imperial, check.
Honing fighting skills? Check — male and female! There is little gender disparity, and though females are slightly more likely to become shamans than men, you will still find both on each side. Likewise, though some tribes have a governmental segregation where the females rule the females and the males rule the males, this does not extend into a segregation of military versus civilian roles.
Wearing almost nothing? No. That’s silly. They wear quite a lot, thank you (and everyone is happier for it).
Sledges and skis? No one wants to risk an ogre on skis.
A language of violence? Yes…but try not to fight with them if you’re not one of them, or else every Krovichankan within contact distance will come to stomp you into the taiga. Violence only equals respect if you already belong.
Prove the shaman a fraud? Bad idea, because he or she is most definitely not.
As a final thingie, here is an ogre-blood (and friend) I drew ages and ages ago — maybe when I was a teen! I know so because it’s been approximately that long since I had pointy-eared elf-types in my world.