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The Nomad Plains: Wanderers in a Strange Land

The Nomad Plains are a wildland of bluffs, grasses, griffons, and stranger creatures. The people who live there are as unique as the land and the fauna.

Physical Geography

The geography of the area known as the Nomad Plains is rather simple. Aside for a forested region along the Silkurt bay, the region is almost a homogeneous savannah grassland, sometimes of rolling hills, with a few scattered pockets of trees.

The northern forest, called simply the Treeland by the natives, is a relatively temperate forest is less heavily peopled than other parts of the plains, but as the locals are nomadic, and there are resources in the forest, there is usually some presence there. The forest is fertile with a large diversity in flora and fauna, including game fowl and a variety of edible roots that keep for lengthy periods of time.

The plains are generally dry, but are good ground for raising several hardy grains that the nomads live on. Several of these plants look like grasses, but have hidden kernels inside. One type, the oarth, can be eaten raw, and is the primary staple food of the region. The oarth has a very tough, fibrous stalk and leaf which are used as textiles and rope.

Wild oarth produces the strongest fibers, and thus the natives do not raise it. In fact, it is often necessary to take measures that slow the spread of oarth so that other crops can be raised.

The natives of the plains divide the region into seven "lands," each of which has a resource it produces: livestock, crops, and so forth – Treeland, for example, is where lumber and some foods are gathered.

The other six lands are Shevnu (livestock, primarily Hegs – see below) to the west of Treeland; Arklon, (other livestock, such as fowl and the snake-like Quet-ku) south of treeland along the Gaolv river; and four crop producing lands: Quenar and Belqu on the west, Denla filling a huge expanse of the south, and Pyj, at the south of the Gaolv. In thei local tongue, “Gaolv” means “ghost” or “darkling,” sometimes even demon. Jun-Gaolv is the word they use for the ocean, which implies an even darker and greater power. Whether this is why the nomads are not sea or river-farers, or the other way around, is a subject for debate.

These lands surround a central territory called Queni, or “the home.” Queni is located atop a broad mesa, from which one can see for miles {look up normal sight distance}. The mesa’s top itself is roughly 20 miles in diameter. Queni is where the locals gather annually in the winter.

In the center of Queni is a the largest artificial structure known to humans: a humongous step pyramid that is surely thousands of years old. Some scholars speculate that the trolls or the giants built it, much like the ruins in Bregtoran. Whoever and however the pyramid was built, however, it is clear it was built for inhabitants of human size. All the ceilings and doorways within the pyramid are roughly 8-10 feet high.

The nomads appear to use very little of the pyramid, but neither do they allow outsiders to visit. Little is known how they use this building, though it is clear that much of its use is for religious worship and ceremonies. At the very top of the pyramid there is an observatory that allows for very detailed astronomical and meteorological observation: There are portals for viewing solstices and equinoxes, new moons, eclipses, and so forth. The carvings throughout this observatory, what little has been copied and studied shows a very detailed knowledge of these sciences.

The Nomads

The roughly 200,000 people who live on the plains do not dwell in cities. As the name of this land implies, they are entirely nomadic. Despite their nomadic lifestyle, the natives, who refer to themselves as talka (literally "wanderers"), have an advanced and complex culture. In addition, they are not simply hunter-gatherers. Their social system revolves around allowing wandering while still having reliable food sources.

During the winter, the talka, every last one, gather to Queni. For several months they worship, observe the solstice (the primary holy day), redistribute resources, and mingle with the other tribes — each tribe effectively disbanding. Tribes remaining even the appearance of coherency during the winter is discouraged culturally. The holy men and tribal leaders spend almost all the winter within the labyrinthine pyramid, taking care of government and spiritual matters.

As the spring nears, the people re-divide into tribes. While there is little ceremony involved in diving into the tribes, each family or single adult must get permission from the tribal leader – called a Talkiin to join the tribe. This makes sure the Talkiin knows who is in his group and what they’re needs are. The talka believe in caring for all their people, so very few people are actually refused permission — even if they incapable of doing a fair share of work. However, the Talkiins keep in contact with each other, and if a tribe has enough people to fulfill their work load while others lack, the Talkiin will refuse permission. The other usual circumstance for rejection is when a Talkiin sees that many of the petitioners have been in his tribe for multiple years.

Neither of these situations occur frequently, however. The cultural mindset of the talka encourages them to switch often. Their philosophies, religion, and lifestyle are about flux and change. Just as they do not have a permanent residence, neither do they expect to be permanent associates with most of the people they meet. It is considered lazy to try to stay in the same tribe, or to move to a tribe with the same group of people outside of the immediate family.

Small family groups, however, generally remain together. A husband and wife will stay together for the rest of their lives. The talka are strictly monogamous, and a window or widower will never re-marry. The symbolism of the marriage is that it should be the one stable concept in a person’s life. The dedication to the marriage then should be unwavering. The spouse and family are the highest priority, the talka only after that. Remarriage is seen as a betrayal of that foundation.

Young children stay with their parents. They are considered minors until they can climb the ladders into their homes. Then they are in an adolescent status (kinth, the talka call it) until, independent of their parents, they have been in a tribe to each land in the region. Generally this can be done by the time they are 15 or 16 years of age. After this, they are free to marry and are given full rights and responsibilities of any adult.

The most remarkable feature of talka life, however, is the heg. Hegs are enormous, feathered domesticated beasts. They stand on four, thick elephantine legs, also covered with a thick layer of feathers that hide a band of spurs around near the feet. They have long, thick, clubbed tails and short beaks filled with hundreds of small, flat teeth. Their backs are board and flat, and the shell-like skin is covered with a thick layer of small, soft feathers. Along the sides of their bodies run three rows of spikes which form a circle around the back. The top-most row is the largest and run roughly horizontal. The bottom-most row points downward about 45 degrees from the top row. The middle row is at the midpoint between the others in both size and angle.

The talka build housing on the backs of these beasts. A dome framework is bound to the spikes and is covered with material made from skins or oarth textiles. Usually ten to twelve people live on a single heg – a combination of families, kinth, and single adults. Ladders hang from the spikes to allow residence to climb into and out from their home. Cooking is not done in the home, for fear of harming the beasts. A draft is allowed through the spikes in warm weather, but in colder times this gap is covered by furs and carpets.

The talka ride hegs whenever they travel, and sleep in their heg-tents at night. The hegs bear them from Queni to the outlying lands in early spring. They also carry the talka from location to location within the lands, since they do not take up residence in any specific location. Instead, they wander throughout the land, usually in groups of two or three hegs to tend the fields or livestock in the territory.

Hegs move slow, to conserve energy — it’s difficult to keep an animal of their size fed as it is. Thus the talka keep a very small heard of horses for the Talkiins to use. The Talkiin of a tribe is expected to travel quickly from location to location within the land to ensure all the groups within the tribe have their needs met.

There are two great natural dangers on the plains. The first is the quetzl – a feathered, flying, venomous serpent. Quetzls, like most serpents, would rather leave humans alone, but can be surprised. When a quetzl is unable to flee, it’s first reaction is to bite. Quetzls can be found individually or in nests of several dozen. The venom of a quetzl is so dangerous that even a heg can be killed if it accidentally steps into a nest. Fortunately, hegs seem to instinctively know how to avoid the nests, and when traveling someone is usually on the ground in front to look out for this danger. Hegs, in addition to being so large, live for hundreds of years, and breed rarely.

The other danger is more frequently encountered. The plains support a large number of griffons. A single leonogriff or hippogriff is hardly a match for a heg, but the lupogriff (half wolf, half eagle), unknown in other areas, hunt in large packs. Before the heg was domesticated, the lupogriff was a natural predator. A single heg can feed a pack for weeks before it’s too rotted to eat. And, naturally, even a single griffon can cause damage to a heard of cattle or sheep. Thus the talka are zealous in watching for and griffons.

Griffon feathers and hides, however, are used extensively in talka dress and decoration. Rank and social standing is communicated through elaborate headdresses made with griffon feathers.

Talka are of the plains-type. It is possible there are exceptions (most likely a forest, or possibly a hill type), but none are documented. It is theorized that this is because the Treeland is the least popular tribal area.

Government and Military

The talka have no military as such. They are willing traders with any spare they have. But while oarth is a versatile and strong textile, it is not considered elegant or comfortable in the rest of the world. Ropes and canvases might be made with it, but they can usually be manufactured at less cost than importation. Thus the talka have little worry of invasion. Every individual is trained with the spear and the bow from a young age, however, if only to defend against griffons.

Nomads in the Eyes of Others

The greater part of the world sees the Nomads as curiosities at best. Many, like the religious leaders of Parthann and Tyleria, have branded them as heretics. They are universally seen as throwbacks to a more primitive time.

The talka are not well known in the world because of their insular culture. There is very little trust of outsiders. Thus knowledge of their daily life is sparse, and even less is known about their religious life. This has given them a reputation for dishonesty. In the areas even less familiar with them, they also have a reputation for being thieves.

The talka are semi-patriarchal, in that the father or husband is the head of an individual family, but their family groups feel no tie to their grandparents, though great affection is common. There is a Conqu who leads a group of 2-4 hegs, but his responsibility is only to schedule work and supervise. Real political leadership does not exist beneath the Talkiin level, though the Talkiin will usually have several lieutenants of unofficial rank to aid him. There are seven Talkiins at any time (one for each tribe/land).

Life on the plains is hard, and so the talka respect the aged who survive more than five decades with great reverence. When in Queni, a council of all talka over the age of fifty meets in the pyramid and make any decisions that need to be made about distributing the goods and assigning new Talkiins. They are also the religious leaders. All talkiins and elders can perform religious rites and worship.

Culture

The talka culture revolves around impermanence and transition. It is believed that this stems from their ancient nomadic roots. It is not known why they refused to give up their nomadic tendencies, but their religion, lifestyle, and philosophies are tied into this idea of change. There are only two permanent things in talka life: Queni, and one’s spouse.

There are very few prayers or observances in the nomads’ daily religion. Rather, they have an outlook. They speak respectfully of angels and the faerie (which are more often seen, if not actually more populous on the plains) and honor their work. They believe that the world must change for Az-Mozeth to claim the world (one of their beliefs is that he will come at the pyramid in Queni), and thus they make no attachment to anything in it.

Because of this outlook, the one thing they do consider permanent, the marriage bond, is deeply sacred. All marriages are conducted during the winter and are permanent. In talka culture here are no allowances for divorce, polygamy, or re-marriage after a spouse dies. The husband is called quext, the wife quezti. Both words come from the word identifying a sort of obelisk the talka construct to memorialize events and mark territory. Once a talka is married, his life is entirely centered on that relationship.

Talka marry at the first or second winter gathering after they have become adults (which could be as young as 13 or 14, depending on when the child learns to climb the hegs’ rope ladders). Some young people spend more than a year in a land before going to the next, but it is unheard of for an unmarried adult to be over the age of 18.

Because they are so focused on the transitory nature of life, the talka have no fear of death. Nor do they honor it. Occassionally a quext will be erected for the dead, but there is little ceremony for the dead, and almost no mourning.

The talka dress simply, in robes or loin cloths made of oarth textile. Sandals and headdresses are made from the skins of quetzls or griffons. The primary personal decoration, however, is body painting. The paints are fairly permanent, in that they don’t wash off with water. However, they will fade after a few weeks. Most talka will redo their body paint (or have someone do it for them) when the paint fades. Colors include ochre, brown, and crimson, and the dyes are made from the plants the talka grow as well as quetzl blood and venom. Most body paint designs are highly abstract. Swirls are popular patterns. Many talka, both men and women, shave their head to provide more space for paints.

The Griffon Hunters

The talka never leave the plains.

"Never" is a strong word, but it is almost entirely true. Occasionally a nomad will cross the Gaolv river, or venture into Parthann for a short time, but there is no record of any nomad who has actually left the plains to live elsewhere. Banishment is not a punishment the talka use (in fact, there are few people who are punished in anyway) and the nomads tend to work together in their society very well.

In a few extreme cases, there have been talka who have felt they did not fit into society. Instead of leaving, however, these talka become griffon hunters. They spend their life killing griffons by themselves until they die in the attempt. These individuals still return to Questi in the winter, bringing back any trophies or resources they managed to gain during the year. They do not live on hegs, however, so they do not carry much.

Talka leisure is difficult to define because, like their lives, it is constantly in flux. The talka are naturally physical people, relying on subsistence living in the wild as they do. And much of their leisure involves wrestling and boxing style sports. The rules are constantly changing, and must be defined at the beginning of each game. This tends to be the case with any competitive endeavor on the Nomad Plains.

However, talka are also artistic. As mentioned before, they make quexts to memorialize certain grand events. Just because life is always changing does not mean they do not remember it. Most quexts are very small, other than the ones that demark territories. The black marble that is found under Questi is the most common material for quext making.

A more common art form is tent painting. Both the insides and outsides of a heg-tent will be painted. However, like the body paints, it is not permanent (though it does last much longer) and the same dome will be painted many times before the material must be replaced.

By far the most popular art in the Nomad Plains is sand "painting." On the rare occasion that a talka has a day of leisure, he will make grand designs using the patterns and colors in the sand and dirt. Some of these pictures are narrative, some representative, but most often they are abstract and symbolic.

Second only to sand painting is weaving. However, artistic talka weaving never has a practical purpose. It is done using elaborate patterns of grasses and trains.

Atypically for nomadic peoples, the talka have very advanced knowledge and practice in several of the sciences. Most notable among these are astronomy and agriculture.

The talka are experts in animal husbandry, and have produced excellent breeds of cattle and sheep. These animals are hardy and large. Their flavor is not enjoyed by other cultures, however. The talka overcome the flavor by spicing them heavily.

In addition, the nomads have produced several new breeds of grains. One of the early concerns was overcoming the weed-like vitality of the oarth plant. Early in their history other crops were constantly overgrown by oarth. While this did not generally supply a survival problem, the talka dedicated efforts to overcoming it. They have successfully managed to breed oarth that is slightly less rapacious and forms of wheat and corn that resist being overcome by oarth.

Talka crops and farming methods need little attention. Most of their fields require only a few days of care every few weeks. This was a deliberate innovation of the talka to support their nomadic lifestyle.

As was said before, the talka are advanced astronomers. A common saying is that change is inevitable, but change can be predicted. Not even the philosophers of Parthann can more accurately predict celestial phenomena. The talka combine astronomy and astrology, and their tribe divisions and marriages are dictated by the stars. Their knowledge of the sky also extends to meteorology, and by the age of four or five, most talka children can predict the next day or two of weather.