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Pale Bark Wood, a Northern Forest

05 Feb 2015, 21:46

So apparently I'm on a bit of a geographic design binge. This is another area/people description designed for the 3e map. This particular forest patch is designed to represent the spot of woodland on the map furthest from Grieve is you go straight north. While this patch appears quite small in map terms, note that is actual size it is almost 20,000 square miles, or roughly the size of Costa Rica.

Comments, as always, are welcomed and appreciated.

Pale Bark Wood, a Northern Forest

The Pale Bark Wood is an evergreen forest that exists in the shadow of the southern spur of the Northpoint Mountains, on the eastern edge of the Whitescrub Tundra. It is the northernmost forest of its region, past this point tundra, whether lowland or alpine, extends all the way to the borders of the Wyld and the Elemental Pole of Air. It is a deeply isolated place, being hundreds of miles from any ocean and curled against the mountains.

The forest is quite large and generally contiguous, though on the western and northern rims it thins out into patches of smaller trees clustered around sheltered locations and eventually fades into the tundra in a fairly gradual gradient. The eastern edge rises briefly into the mountains before quickly stopping a few hundred feet above the tundra below. The southern edge is the most solid, lining one side of a meltwater river that proceeds toward the sea. This river valley is the remnant of a vast glacier movement that carved an opening in the Northpoint Mountains between the higher northern peaks and the lesser hills to the immediate south. Soil differences allow trees to grow on the northern bank but do not permit them on the southern.

Flora and Fauna
This is northern taiga, with well-spaced evergreens the only occupants. This forest in particular has an unusual composition, hosting only a handful of species with white and silver bark. Though they are completely natural plants, not Wyld touched, no other shades are found here. Most of these trees are only found in alpine areas elsewhere. Their ability to grow in this somewhat lower-elevation environment is unusual and points to the probability of an artificial origin.

The short summers allow all varieties of herbs and flowers to grow, briefly, in the patches between the trees. Again color coordination shows. While there are patches of flowers of all types, having clearly arrived on the wind from elsewhere, the landscape hosts primarily white flowers, mostly asters, and they are by far the most dominant.

Most of the forest is quite ordinary, but there is a peculiar species, or perhaps cultivar, of bush know as white yew that is found along the forest floor. This grows in dense bushes, never rising more than waist high and with bright white chalk-colored bark. The needles of this bush are deeply silver shaded, and appear to gleam when wet. These are most common along the edge of streams, bogs, lakes, and other sources of water.

Very few of these forest plants produce anything edible to humans. The exceptions are certain herbal roots, cone seeds, the fruity seed casings of the yew, as well as certain mushrooms.

Animal populations are typical of northern taiga, with an abundance of small mammals and, in the summer, birds, and an absence of scaled and wet-skinned creatures. The ponds and rivers are very cold but host cold-tolerant fish in modest numbers. There are few large animals, given the extreme temperatures in winter, but the forest does host a modest population of mastodons, with a handful of herds prowling the landscape, browsing and keeping the trees widely spaced. While small predators abound, the lead predators are giant short-faced bears that hunt the young mastodons. The extensive cavern systems harbor large numbers of shard bats, which prey on a variety of insects and small game.

In the eastern portion of the forest, among the mountains, small troupes of Yeti can be found on the heights. These prey on mastodons, should they have the opportunity, or people, in addition to taking smaller game.

Landscape Features
The Pale Bark Wood is mostly uniform, with few openly visible large-scale oddities. The streams, rivers, and lakes run southwest through the expanse and are mostly relatively small. There are differences underground. The forest hosts three significant cave systems, one in the west and two further east, closer to the mountains. These are extensive, stretching for many miles of twisting, narrow passages and large darkened chambers. Two of the systems contain passages to the true under-realm, but these are presently blocked off.

Unusual features do exist, however, for those who seek them. Each of the species of tree present in the forest has a specific tree amongst their number that is known as the Ancient Seed. These are individual specimens that hold the title of oldest tree in the forest – for their species – and all date back to the immediate aftermath of the Primordial War, when they were planted deliberately. These trees are not particularly massive, growing very slowly, but they are gnarled, scarred, and possess much character. They are perpetually surrounded by a veritable horde of seedlings and saplings, even though these never grow tall enough to challenge them. These trees are scattered throughout the forest.

Many portions of the forest are marked by vast fire scars, where terrible blazes have raged through the years. Though they recover quickly, the woods in these areas are marked by openness and very young trees.

Eerily, this forest is transected in several places by stone walls, miles in length. These barriers are of modest height, never more than the height of a man and often half-sunken, and exquisitely engineered using a mortar-less technique. These show great age and are often smashed apart, overgrown by vegetation, or otherwise damaged by the weight of years, but they remain largely intact when not sunken completely underground. It is estimated that the walls were originally extensive, and formed a complete design only visible from high above, but no more than one mile in six is now above ground. White yew tends to grow well near these walls, especially when there is water nearby.

Demenses and Manses
This vast forest contains a number of confluxes of the dragon lines, including at least one below ground. They are generally not obvious. Only two have been capped.

This wood-aspected patch of forest lies near the center of Pale Bark Wood. Here, in an expanse covering roughly a dozen acres, the needles on all trees thicken into a woody texture and have the strength of bark. They also take on the white and silver shades of the branches they sprout from. Pine cones that sprout here reverse consistency, and become rubbery and chewy, with a fruity taste and sweet, sugary flavor.

This demense is claimed by the King of the Wood who claims dominion over Pale Bark Wood, and the area is thick with elementals.

Ivory Grove
The power of essence flows strong through the earth here, and it gathers in the only feature to occupy this long ago fire scar, the bones of dead mastodons. This mastodon graveyard, utilized for many centuries, turns the bones of those who die there to ivory. After this they embed in the ground and begin to grow as bushy trees. At this point the several acre territory is filled with the trees, and with smashed remains of them from when mastodon visitors plow through. Many tons of ivory lie ground up in the soil below.

This grove is considered sacred to mastodon gods and is always watched. Thieves are treated with considerable prejudice.

Phases in Shadow
This manse is a stone tower constructed on a small island in the middle of a lake in the northern forest. The tower is perfectly circular and has three floors. The hearthroom is the top flour, which has a ring about the top that is glass filled with iron designs. These catch and block moonlight in such a way so that a shadow of Luna’s current phase is always present in the center of the room.

This manse is attuned to Luna and a veil cloaks it, rendering it very difficult to see within or to monitor activity at the location. The location is only irregularly occupied, but dark whispers speak of its master.

Pale Bark Forest is the home of the Ynd, a small tribe of people who claim this vast landscape as their home, and who treasure it deeply. They have occupied it since before memory, and trace their genealogy extensively. Though few in number, only roughly one thousand souls; the presence of the Ynd is noticeable to anyone who spends much time in the interior of the forest.

The Ynd are a nomadic people within their forest, living lives as hunters, gatherers, and trappers and moving about in small bands. They also cultivate mushrooms, using stacked logs and mastodon bones as a substrate. The fungus keeps well if dried and forms a substantial part of the winter food supply. Ynd are skilled woodsmen and cache supplies in a great many hidden places throughout the forest so they have food for the long winters.

Ynd bands are rarely more than a few dozen individuals in size, but they move about in well-established patterns following the myriad stone wall fragments crisscrossing their homelands. This allows the bands to meet regularly to exchange news, hold ceremonies, and exchange members. All Ynd consider themselves one tribe and members change bands regularly in family group exchanges.

These bands also cycle through special responsibilities, such as maintaining their hidden cavern manse, trapping shard bats when they emerge, and mining iron in the mountain foothills and bogs. In this way the critical supplies – metals and skins primarily – are distributed throughout the population.

The Ynd spend most of their time ranging out in small foraging parties from temporary camps centered on a viable cache location and any permanent – generally meaning stone – dwellings they construct, most commonly a kitchen or smithy. The rest of their dwellings are temporary structures of branches, brush, tanned mastodon hides, and in the winter, snow. There is generally a dug-out central fire pit in all dwellings. During the winter these fires are burned constantly, but the Ynd are a cold-tolerant folk and can survive in low temperatures without a fire using canny survival strategies.

The Ynd are an ancient people, long resident in their forest. Obsessed with their own genealogy, they can trace back their ancestors exhaustively via oral recitation, reaching over an expanse of time that delves into the First Age, though the Ynd myths do not name it as such. It appears that during that period this location was a vast garden sculpted by one of the Chosen of Luna as some sort of aesthetic monument and experiment in controlled geomantic orientation. The Ynd are descended from the people who kept and maintained the garden in those days.

Myths suggest that this area transitioned through the Usurpation without combat, but it changed dramatically regardless. Without active maintenance by the exalted, the carefully managed landscape buckled and shifted, especially when the climate cooled dramatically as the Shogunate was unable to maintain the borders of Creation. The most obviously visible result of this change is the sinking of many of the remarkable stone walls into the earth.

Once easily sustained by the plants of the garden, the forbearers of the Ynd immediately struggled with food requirements. This gradually dissipated as they were supplied with sustenance by the Shogunate from the pasturelands to their west and north in return for timber, furs, and iron – all products they produce to this day. During that time the Ynd were settled, living in small villages with log houses. These are generally gone, but Shogunate-era artifacts remain in the hidden underground temples of the Ynd in mines and caverns.

The generally peaceful and modestly comfortable Ynd lifestyle was shattered by the events of the Contagion. Their numbers cratered and the Fair Folk armies cut through the survivors. Only by sheltering in the caverns, where the invaders did not bother to follow, did a handful survive. In some ways the population loses were a blessing, for without external support the forest could harbor only a relatively small number of people at low density.

Current Ynd society developed gradually, as the population increased slowly following the Contagion’s end. Initially living in villages, they soon discovered the land could not support any significant numbers in one place, and that in order to survive – and to keep up a healthy population, movement was necessary. This mobile lifestyle also helped the Ynd evade oppression by the King of the Wood who claimed the forest and demanded considerable wealth. Dispersion also prevented much interference in their lives by the Fair Folk.

Finding the local gods oppressive – in the case of Kings of the Wood – or standoffish – in the case of the Ancient Seeds and Mastodons, and already focused on genealogy, the Ynd transitioned into ancestor worship by the end of the first post-Contagion century. This practice has gradually come to dominate almost all aspects of Ynd religion and the patterns of the dead are highly important to the living. However the mobile lifestyle of the Ynd prevents their ghosts – largely confined to a few small sacred burial sites – from exerting day to day dominance.

Dispersion and survival are highly linked among the Ynd. When faced with threats in their history, including Fair Folk attacks, slave-seeking elementals, reindeer herder raids, or nephwrack dogma they vanish into the depths of their forests. Ghostly, they can strike back from anywhere and are almost impossible to isolate or entrap.

In recent times, as populations continue to recover in the surrounding tundra, the Ynd have begun to build cautious trade links with the pastoral cultures of the Whitescrub Tundra. With ready access to timber, forest herbs, and a steady supply of iron, they have valuable goods to exchange. These meetings are furtive and tightly controlled. The Ynd cultivate an air of mystery and hide their true numbers and resources.

Through these tentative trading links the Ynd have hinted at greater resources. As the entire population has knowledge of mining, they have an eye for value, and they have located many deposits of jade, of all varieties save red, with blue and green being the most common. These veins of material are known, but currently idle, as the Ynd lack the capabilities and refined tools necessary to extract and process jade. Rumors of this jade supply are slowly spreading, and are almost certain to attract attention to the Ynd soon enough, possibly attention they do not want.

Social Structure
The society of these hunter-gatherers is divided into small bands composed of interchangeable family units. Families consist of a single adult couple and children not yet young enough to be married – generally those under the age of sixteen. Bands are composed of several families, with the precise number depending on how many children are involved, but never more than forty people at once.

Ynd society stresses survival and reproduction, because of the harsh demands of their environment. Their bands are led by the eldest, who must be sound of mind and body and able to travel unaided. The Ynd practice euthanasia on those elders who cannot so cope, with children or other descendants asked to do the deed. Bands are otherwise very egalitarian, with men and women both undertaking similar duties in gathering, trapping, childcare, and other forms of labor.

Moving regularly from place to place, Ynd have few personal possessions, mostly high value metal tools, ceremonial objects, personal clothing – boots, gloves, and hats are particularly important – and their weapons. Other items tend to be stored with their food caches and used by the next group to come along. Truly valuable items, including Shogunate Era artifacts, are stored in sacred cavern spaces.

The only people to stand apart from the normal Ynd way of life are the shamans, a specialized group of individuals who stand very far aside indeed. Among the Ynd the shaman is an intermediary between the people and both the spirit world and the underworld, oftentimes to the point of outright possession by their ancestors. Shamans do not travel with Ynd bands, but live in fixed locations of sacred significance, usually small raised hillocks surrounded by vast bogs.

Though shamans are feared and not approached idly, the travel patterns of the bands are timed to intersect with the locations of shamans, and spiritual consultation is never that far away. Many elders are taught to utilize very simple thaumaturgy for the purpose of sending ancestral ghosts to call out a shaman’s aid if necessary. Overall these spiritual leaders manage to spend the majority of their time surrounded by their fellows, providing them with essential tools.

The Ynd population, small as it is, has not produced a dragon-blooded in over a century and a half. Their last was killed by the King of the Wood as a teen, considered a threat. Their society has no real method for handling dragon-blooded.

The Ynd word for the Pale Bark Forest traces its etymology to Old Realm, and can be roughly reconstituted as ‘God’s Pure Garden.’ Their own title, Ynd, seems to be a perversion of ‘groundskeeper.’ In this mindset they believe the Pale Bark Forest is theirs and no one else is welcome.

That is not to say that visitors are not permitted, only that they are limited and strictly monitored. A new arrival who seeks out the Ynd may travel in their company for a season or so, never left alone and not permitted to visit anywhere the Ynd are unwilling to reveal. They will eventually face requests to leave, at first politely, then fiercely, and then weapons will be raised with murderous intent.

Anyone entering the forest with intent to settle is asked once to leave, and if they do not do so, will face continuous attempts at assassination. Actual invaders, while rare, will be permitted to force entry, but will subsequently face an almost constant guerilla assault. Though few in number, the Ynd are capable of a very lethal campaign of stealthy harassment, as they are both wood-wise and comparably well-armed when opposed by typical tundra cultures. Additionally, the Pale Bark Forest is not easily able to sustain concentrated populations in any form, so that any sort of conventional military force will face an acute supply situation in short order.

Outside of their forest, the Ynd are much more accommodating, and can even be said to be curious about other peoples. They are quite open to trade, providing it takes place at the posts along the Ridgeripple River that forms the forest’s southern border. During these meetings the Ynd often share their oral sagas with others, drinking up the tales of other cultures and seeking to memorize them in turn.

However, anything beyond this limited fraternization is not permitted. The Ynd do not leave their forest – not that they have many opportunities, often spending years well within the borders. Should one of the Ynd chose to move beyond the forest boundaries for any other reason than a brief trading engagement or a mission of great import, they will be considered an outsider and never permitted to return. As the Whitescrub Tundra pastoralists are not particularly welcoming to Ynd outcasts, this sort of event is very rare, a dissatisfied Ynd is much more likely to attempt to live as a hermit within the forest – marginally doable in some places – than travel elsewhere.

Sexual Politics
The Ynd are a patrilineal, heritage-obsessed society, and this strongly influences the role of men and women in their society. Though extremely egalitarian in day-to-day life, with men and women sharing duties evenly, their world within the tents is tightly structured and considerably more repressive.

Strictly monogamous, every one of the Ynd enters into an arranged marriage as a sign that they have come of age – usually around the age of sixteen. Neither the couple nor their parents have much influence over the matches. Possible matches are determined by the elders, who compare bloodlines in a complex effort to prevent inbreeding, and taken to a shaman. The shaman then consults with the revered ancestors and the marriage is decided. There is some lead time to this process, roughly averaging a year, but not too much, as the life of the Ynd includes much disease and violence and having to re-chart a possible match is considered an ill-omen.

Numerous children are not merely expected, they are considered a duty. Many will die young or have accidents, and even with aggressive child-bearing the Ynd population grows almost infinitesimally slowly. Should one part of a union perish remarriage is mandated, unless the survivor is above the age of forty, is which case this is waived. Children, both male and female, take part of their father’s name as their own, leading to a cascade effect across generations that aids in the tracing of lineage.

Women are not powerless in this. In public wives are equal to their husbands in the same fashion as everyone else, and if the wife is elder, informally superior. Despite this, the need to continually produce children provides considerable leverage to the husband, and male decision making tends to dominate the process. Though physical abuse is condemned – life is already too hard for such indulgences – many Ynd women are subject to severe emotional abuse at the hands of their husbands, and large numbers of Ynd marriages are extremely unhappy.

The relief for this is a tacit permissiveness to sex outside of marriage – so long as it is with someone from another wandering band during periodic meetings. Sex with hermits, shamans, and unmarried adults, old and young, is also accepted, all based on the absolute prohibition that any such dalliance produces a child. Many Ynd conduct complex timing and herbal regimes to permit torrid affairs and liaisons that everyone is fully aware occur but never mention. Similar affairs are conducted with forest spirits and elementals, potentially preferably, as these assignations carry the least social stigma among the Ynd, though there are potentially the usual complications.

Conception outside of marriage is punished harshly, with forced abortions being the least of the stigma. Anyone violating marital laws in this way is stripped of their name in the lineage, removing the protection of the ancestors from the individual. Any further children produced will be given to another family and take their name. Any child who is actually born of infidelity is consigned to death by exposure, occasionally god-blooded or elemental-blooded children are born to or claimed by their supernatural parent. These individuals are not considered Ynd and are not welcome in Pale Bark Forest.

Shamans, as typical, stand outside this repressive compulsory monogamy. Shamans cannot marry and though they may have numerous lovers, the only children they are allowed are those born of the seed of their ghostly ancestors.

Law and Order
Ynd society is informal and extremely close knit. Crime is quite rare, as they have few personal possessions, little utility of wealth, and very few means to conceal violence amongst each other. In addition, Ynd who come to hate each other can, generally, simply join differing bands and avoid contact. The exception is violence between husband and wife. However, physical altercations are not tolerated, while emotional abuse reigns unchecked.

Violent acts, when they do occur, are brought before the shaman, who calls upon the ancestors for judgment. Such judgments are almost always extremely harsh. The dead have little mercy for the living. Many criminals who have engaged in crimes of passion – murder or attempted murder most often – simply flee and try to live in the forest as hermits. Winter generally kills these in a handful of years in any case, but even if it does not, action is almost never taken. The expulsion from the community of the Ynd is considered sufficient punishment.

While it is impossible to be a godless people in Creation, the Ynd come surprisingly close. They do not worship the local gods and provide a bare minimum of offerings to them, generally merely enough to avoid being attacked outright. The same is true of elementals, including the violent Spruce King of the Wood, who claims the forest as his own from his throne in Barkleaf. These offerings mostly take the form of small carvings in bark or compositions woven of reeds and needles.

The Ynd reserve their true worship for their ancestors, to whom they are deeply devoted. This ancestor cult is extremely strong, with the prayers of the Ynd, channeled through endless retellings of genealogical lists and heroic tales, empowering a veritable legion of ghosts. These elder Ynd, some of whom are many centuries ancient, with a handful that predate the Contagion, are in many ways the true masters of the society.

Through the shamans, universally ghost-blooded children of the ghosts, the dead make their desires known upon their descendants. These desires are generally static. Death does not stop the Ynd from believing they are custodians of a garden with holy purpose, chosen and elite by the will of the incarnae, whom the Ynd acknowledge but do not much worship, considering them overly distant and far too mighty to be troubled. The ghosts are mostly concerned with maintaining the health of the Ynd by keeping them fed, insuring inbreeding does not become a problem, and preventing their descendants from being abused by gods and elementals.

These ghosts are fiercely independent, not bowing to any major underworld power. They are also significantly more informed regarding Creation-wide events than the living Ynd. As such they are currently taking cautious steps to keep their people safe and independent. Looking for an ally to trade jade with for protection is one such strategy currently under careful consideration. They are also encouraging several shamans to undertake attempts to learn considerably more powerful necromancy.

Ynd religious practice is simple. Each person memorizes a listing of their ancestors and recites it during nightly stories, sprinkling in tales of deeds done and struggles vanquished. Burnt offerings are supplied at important moments, such as the establishment and breaking of camp, and any major seasonal harvest, hunt, mining strike, or scavenging episode.

When they die, Ynd are wrapped in their clothes and a mastodon hide, and then brought to a nearby peat bog, where they are interred. This practice is undertaken because burial is impractical in the permafrost touched soils of this forest, and preservation of the body is considered important. Grave goods in the form of jewelry of bone and semiprecious stones, animal skins, carved wood, and wood or bone weapons may be offered, but metal tools are never left with the dead, per a long-standing agreement among the ancestors. In the case of significant warriors, especially those who have killed outsiders, some effort may be taken to provide bone facsimiles of any metal implements they may have possessed.

Shamans experience death somewhat differently. When they die they direct nearby Ynd to take their bodies to sacred cave sites, where they are interred in special underground pools with unusual chemistry that results in nearly perfect preservation of the body. Shamans are buried with their metal tools.

In many cases both the commonly used bog burial sites and the sacred cave sites have become modest shadowlands. The Ynd do not see this as a problem, but they have no desire to interact with their ancestors in a non-ritual fashion, leaving that to the shamans. The shadowlands do provide avenues for ghostly ancestors to directly aid their descendants, if necessary.

The Ynd are a confined population with a small absolute number. Over time this has led to a considerable amount of homogeneity among them. The Ynd are almost universally very pale, with narrow faces and high cheekbones. They have pointed chins and long ears. They are generally short, rarely topping five and a half feet, but thin, as nutrition surpluses are rare. Most are compactly muscled.

Deep red hair, an almost blood-colored shade, predominates among the Ynd, though there is a small sub-population of blondes. This mutation is traced to a single post-Contagion survivor, a mighty warrior named Dornfyn Desscen. Long a powerful ghost this important ancestor who counted almost all Ynd as descendants surrendered to Lethe some centuries ago, but several of his children survive as ghosts.

Unlike most tundra-dwellers, the Ynd do not walk about sheathed in furs. While they use mastodon hides to make their tents and their blankets, their day-ware comes from a considerably more exotic source. In the eastern section of Pale Bark Forest, near the mountains, vast colonies of Shard Bats lair in caves. The Ynd trap these bats in carefully strung nets, systematically culling the population. They tan the wing membranes of the bats into compact but exceedingly well insulated leather garments. One jumpsuit-style piece, hooded, and black, these outfits give them a ghostly, almost supernatural appearance. The process used to make these outfits is a well-kept secret, and the Ynd do not trade them with outsiders.

Preferring to travel light when not moving from camp to camp, the Ynd carry only the tools they need: baskets, picks, knives, and bows.

Shamans are different, surrounded in funerary trappings and painting their pale faces black with dark peat. They wear extensive collections of bone implements and other thaumaturgical talismans. Unlike other Ynd, who consider their bodies chosen and refuse modification, many shamans bear piercings and scarification as a sign of their devotion to the ancestors.

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