Friday, December 23, 2011

Ethnicity in Dark•Heritage, part 3

After a long delay, here's the next part of my DARK•HERITAGE ethnicity series:

• The balshatoi, or Northshoremen, are an ancient ethnic group who live, as their name suggests, mostly on the north shore of the Mezzovian sea.  They are politically subordinate to the terrasans in the empire, but many of them have been highly integrated into the fabric of society, and for the most part, the northern cities--Segrià, Iclezza, and Razina--and all the lands around them, are high in people who claim balshatoi blood.  In the hinterlands, smaller villages, and backcountry, these people live much as their ancestors many generations ago--farmers and villagers with their own customs and their own languages, owing only nominal allegiance to any of the Dukes or Kings of the area--but in the cities and surrounding areas, they are fairly thoroughly "terrasanized."  The balshatoi language is somewhat endangered; few speak it in urban locales except the elderly, and culture, music, cuisine, architecture and fashion are all more recent local developments that are more based on trends from the south than they are backwards looking into their own heritage.  Although the culture of the north shore can be considered a hybrid of sorts between ancient balshatoi and terrasan mores, it's one that owed more to the south than the locals--this is the so-called nordero culture, described in the first part of this series.

Ancient balshatoi building styles
That said, as Terrasa weakens, a nationalist and separatist sentiment has been growing amongst the northern cities.  The norderos--the hybrid northerners--more and more emphasize their links to ancient balshatoi kingdoms and peoples, like Rozovķa, Ryazan, Vuronezh, Pjarmia, and Pezhek.  There have been (some merely half-hearted) efforts to revive the use of the ancient balshatoi language in its many dialects, and architecture based on ancient Rozovķan  or Pezhekan designs are popular (and of course, some older buildings from the Rozovķan or Pezhekan periods still stand.

But mostly, the balshatoi people who remain in their rural fastnesses are somewhat skeptical of the intention of these norderos to embrace them as long-lost brothers, and are even more skeptical of getting caught up in talk of potential wars of seccession or revolution.  The balshatoi life-style today is somewhat free, and many balshatoi men--and even entire families, clans and tribes--wander the wildernesses north of the seashore trading in furs, lumber, game and other commodities.  Their settled kingdoms of the past are often referred to as a weakness and a mistake.  The modern balshatoi has a reputation as a mountain man, plains-rider, and somewhat of a barbarian, albeit one painted in sympathetic "noble savage" undertones.  The reality is that life for most balshatoi wanderers is somewhat harsh, and many of them are little more than mercenaries and outlaws.  Indeed, many of the bandit groups that have cut off Calça from the empire are primarily balshatoi in  make-up, leavened with tribesmen from even further north and other southerners.  In fact, balshatoi as an ethnicity is somewhat dubious--it's more a lifestyle than a genetic heritage in many ways, since it's always been a semi-permeable society that accepted people of any heritage who did not fit into the urban lifestyle of the south, were willing to move into the wilderness, and proved to their collegues that they had something worthwhile to offer to society.  Women in particular have long been multiethnic, many of them captured in slave-raids, but then turned into wives and mothers for the newer generations.

Modern balshatoi camp on the prairie
Most balshatoi have a deeply tanned skin from their time outside, but are naturally fair, and occasionally freckled.  Hair colors range from dark brown to blond and even red, and eye color is brown, green, blue or gray.  They often sport exotically and barbarically shaved patterns in their hair, sporting topknots or simply bald heads, and men often wear big, bushy moustaches.  Balshatoi value their livestock, and the keeping of horses particularly is a notable affectation (as it is to the plains-dwellers further north as well) and one of the most insulting things you can do to a balshatoi is to bring harm to his horse.

• Before the spread of the tolosan ethnicity and their various subsets, the north shore of the Mezzovian Sea was largely populated by balshatoi kingdoms and their peoples.  But they were not indigenous either, although their origins and where they came from are now lost in a maze of legends and half-truths.  One thing that is known for sure is others were here before them, because one such kingdom remains, an island of a largely unmixed ethnicity--insular, xenophobic, and of dark report and reputation amongst the others.  This kingdom, now shrunk from its past glories, at least somewhat, still stands strong and impenetrable eastward of the Razine peninsula, with port cities like Mnar and Mzagi but otherwise surrounded by dark and haunted forests.  It's name is Tarush Noptii, and the ethnicity that populates it are the tarushans.  Dark and sullen, tending towards gracility and shortness, the tarushans speak a language completely unlike any other in the region, and their manner of dress, their cuisine, and their customs and traditions strike the rest of the Mezzovian sea region as exotic and strange, and frankly, often somewhat disturbing or vulgar.  Few peoples of any other ethnicity have traveled in Tarush Noptii, or visited any part of it save the port cities, so the interior of Tarush Noptii is a vast unknown, and few others have any cause or opportunity to interact with tarushans either. 

Tarushan "gypsy" in the woods near Iclezza
The main exception to this is are the refugees who live in small enclaves throughout the region, or who travel Gypsy-like across the landscape.  Speaking in hushed tones about fleeing the darkness of their homeland, these refugee tarushans are even more sullen and close-mouthed than the ones in Mzagi or Mnar, and are infamous for their superstition and fear of witchcraft (which ironically, they are very often suspected of dabbling in.)  It's no secret that Tarush Noptii is ruled openly by a vampiric aristocracy, and groups of tarushans are frequently suspected of being the traveling companions of a vampire in disguise.  They're also frequently suspected of belonging to ghoul cults--grabbing the poor and unmissed from the societies amongst which they live or pass through, and feasting on their flesh in grisly rituals meant to give them the power of their rulers.  Mostly, of course, this is complete nonsense, but it has been true frequently enough that they are rarely welcomed in groups, and frequently tarushans live alone or travel frequently to avoid entanglements with suspicious strangers.

• Northlanders are a group of people that are still mostly unknown to the Mezzovian area, but they live on the outskirts of it, north of the stranzero lands, and in recent years, a few of them have started filtering into the lands of the Three Empires (referring to the lands around the Mezzovian Sea and nearby--where the dominant political groups are still Terrasans, Qizmiri and the remnants of Baal Hamazi.)  In truth, there's a vast population of these poor souls, living as far south as the whispered Cannibal Isle, amongst the Green Mountains and the shores of Tarqan Lake and Lake Hali, and on the plateau of Leng, in the Qashan jungle, and their benighted cities of Alar and Carcosa and possibly even Kadath itself.  It's unclear the extent of their lands, what their political and cultural groupings are amongst themselves, or what their culture and goals are--too few of them come to the land of the Three Empires to get a read on them, although it is certainly possible--maybe even probable--that their own polities are as powerful as any near the Mezzovian Sea.

The few individuals who come out of their Forbidden Lands seem to almost exclusively be cultists on missions of some kind--either sorcerers looking to spawn cult cells outside of their native lands, or divine assassins, pursuing mysterious agendas, but often offering their services to bidders.  While northlanders are not often recognized for what they are, even when they do appear, the reputation of Cannibal Isle, at least, as well as Carcosa, Kadath and other cities in the Forbidden Lands, is a well-known byword for horror and fear; a literal Hell on earth.

Northlanders are physically very distinctive, though.  With pale, almost white eyes, chalky whitish skin that does not tan or burn, a tendency for extreme face piercings and black tattoos, frequent baldness and white hair (although coal-black hair is also common), they look like no other ethnicity in the area, and their original provenance is completely mysterious.

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