Friday, May 14, 2010
The Borean Tundra: Part 2
Fear stared at me through Johan’s eyes, his gnarled hands gripped tight around a pitchfork, its sharpened points inches from my throat. He cast a quick glance to the towers of Valiance Keep to the south before looking at me again.
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Corestiam. It’s not my way to greet strangers so rudely, but we’ve no choice but to be careful.”
“I understand,” I said, hoping to calm him down.
Cold ocean winds swept through the blackened shells of burned farms as Johan watched me, his arms tensed. A wrong move on my part, and he’d run me through.
Three more figures appeared at the top of the hill carrying hammers and clubs. They looked to be of the same type as Johan, young farmers fearing for their lives and souls.
“Johan, who is this?”
“He says he’s Talus Corestiam, that he just came in from Valiance Keep!” called back Johan.
“Let him in.”
“Just like that?” A look of incredulity crossed Johan’s gaunt face, his once full cheeks hanging as if deflated.
“We saw him coming up the beach from Valiance Keep. All the cultists there are dead or with the rest of their kind. Besides, if he is a cultist, Kastoor’s sure to take care of him.”
“All right.” Johan looked to me and nodded. “Again, begging your pardon. Normally we’re polite folk.”
“You needn’t apologize.”
The three other farmers approached me, more relaxed than Johan though still visibly cautious. They seemed to defer to the man in the center, a short but muscular human with a wispy red beard.
“Welcome to Farshire! Here, the promise of Northrend is offered to Stormwind’s doughty sons and daughters.” He gave a bitter little laugh and offered his hand. “My name’s Erton Hereford, acting mayor of Farshire.”
“I’m honored. I didn’t know things were still so bad here.”
“It’s a lot better than it was, believe me. More to the point, what do you want here? We’ve very little to offer anyone right now.”
“I’m collecting information on Northrend for my employers in Kul Tiras. I suspected I wasn’t getting the full story from the people in Valiance Keep, so I thought I’d take a look for myself.”
“I see,” said Erton, apparently impressed. “You missed most of the fun, but there’s still plenty to do. What are they saying about us in Valiance?”
“Simply that Farshire was attacked by the Cult of the Damned.”
“Oh, an attack? I guess that’s accurate enough, except we didn’t realize we were being attacked until it was too late. I really can’t stay and talk, but I’ll take you to the town hall. Someone there can help you.”
Erton guided me to a narrow and steep-roofed building at the top of a rocky hill. Crude barricades block the road, each one guarded by worn and wary peasant archers. A narrow path leads to a lighthouse perched on a windy promontory. Stunted turnips and wheat grow in the hardscrabble dirt fields around the town hall. I was surprised to see harvest golems roaming these fields, like the ones I’d seen in Westfall so long ago. I shuddered at the memory.
The inside of the town hall was almost totally empty, all the furniture long since chopped up for use in the barricades. Cold air wafts through the wooden walls, unadorned by paint or tapestries.
Erton greeted a scrawny middle-aged woman who sat cross-legged on the floor, knitting by the sun’s light streaming through gaps in the ceiling.
“We have guests, dear! Please show Talus here some Elwynn hospitality. Talus, this is my wife, Indrea.”
“We’ve got company? Here? I’m afraid there’s not much in the way of hospitality I can offer.”
“I actually just wanted some information. I’m a mage, so I can create my own food and drink.”
“He works for someone in Kul Tiras. I need to get back to the front.”
Erton turned and left, leaving me in the drafty hallway.
“So what do you need to know, Brother Talus?”
“That’s what Brother Kastoor calls the menfolk. The ladies go by sister. Most of us kind of like it, so we’re starting to do the same.”
“Who is Brother Kastoor?”
“A draenic priest. Anchorite, he calls himself. Farshire wouldn’t be here without him.”
“Exactly what happened in Farshire?”
She looked up from her knitting with eyes dry and red, the telltale signs of sleeplessness.
“Erton and I used to be tenant farmers down in Elwynn River Valley, tilling the fields all day for a few scant coppers. When we heard about the homestead deals up in Northrend we jumped at the chance, risks be damned. The soil here’s cold and rocky, but you can coax growth from it if you’re tough enough. Hard to do, but it was our land and we’d stand by it, no matter what the Scourge had to say.”
“Were you attacked often?”
“Sure, by those spider things. Ugly as sin they were. The soldiers in Valiance helped us through at first, at least until the keep got surrounded. Still, we held our own. Most of the undead didn’t come up this way, no reason to since Valiance gets all its food from ships.
“Then one night we see these lights leaking out of the Tanner homestead. Everyone had the good sense to stay back, except Hanford who tried to get a better look. This thing, like a wave of blackness, hit poor Hanford and killed him then and there.
“That’s when the door blew open and Isrin Tanner came out, in robes bloody from head to toe, his new wife’s corpse walking beside him. Right after that, we saw those awful lights start glowing all through Farshire. The Toyles, the Prestons, the Balmores, a dozen other families wiped out.”
“Isrin Tanner was a cultist?”
“That he was. He sailed up here with the rest of us, I remember talking to him in Stormwind Harbor. Married a sweet girl on the way up, talked about starting a family. Turned out he just wanted more minions!” She almost shouted the last sentence, her prematurely aged face red with anger.
“And the others?”
“Some turned out to be cultists, others were turned by death wizards who snuck in on their own. Before we knew it half of Farshire was undead, ghouls and corpse-men bearing down on us from all sides, gutting people and raising them as horrors. All we could do was hunker down around the lighthouse, and pray.”
“Valiance couldn’t help?”
“From up here it looked like the entire beach was moving, there were so many spider-things on it. I’ll tell it plainly; we were doomed. This horrible rotting smell soaked the air, so bad we could barely breath anymore. We heard the cultists saying their evil prayers out in the distance, calling in more Scourge.
“Outsiders came by to help us, though they’d usually only do it in return for money or for ownership of our land! Not that it mattered, they all got killed. Until Brother Kastoor.”
“But the Cult of the Damned is still out there?”
“Some might be hiding in the mine. Brother Kastoor’s purging it, but he’s being careful; he doesn’t want a single person to die if he can help it.”
“Admirable. May I meet him?”
“Oh, certainly. He’s not like some Stormwind lord, where you have to make an appointment a month in advance,” she laughed. “Brother Kastoor would love to see you, I’m sure.”
“Also, do you have any idea how many cultists came in from Stormwind?”
“No. But we know Isrin wasn’t the only one. We thought they were regular folks like us, and somehow they turned out to be necromancers. Light only knows how many are still there in the old country.”
“Has Stormwind been warned?”
“We told General Arlos at Valiance, and he said he’d tell the king. That’s all we can do.”
To its adherents, the Cult of the Damned has always promised a life free of iniquity and cruelty, one where all stand equal. This ideology attracted the bitter and dispossessed of old Lordaeron, as well as a handful of utopians. In its early days, the cult claimed to follow the Light.
If the cult had attracted so many in the prosperity of Lordaeron, how many more might it find in war-torn Stormwind? Admittedly, hardship can sometimes strengthen the soul; I doubt the militias of Westfall and Redridge would put much stock in the cult’s promises. But there are others who might join simply for a want of other options, like refugees and former Defias rebels.
Most alarming of all is the possibility that Stormwind itself is compromised. Popular imagination associates the cult with the poor, but many wealthy and educated individuals joined its ranks in the early days, attracted by its message of justice. Cultists might well walk the corridors of Stormwind’s royal palace, waiting for the time to strike. They are skilled necromancers, able to raise the dead at a moment’s notice.
If Stormwind is so compromised, who is to say that other nations are immune? Cultists may wait in Khaz Modan, Orgrimmar, and Kezan. It is not clear how much of the cult’s power is drawn from the Lich King. Should the Scourge fall, these clandestine necromancers may be able to create a new one in the world’s population centers. Then again, the cult in Stormwind might have only a minimal presence. Certainly they can no longer proselytize openly, probably working through intermediaries and front groups. However, the nations of the world must be careful in handling this.
I left the dreary town hall, walking out to the rocky fields where the harvest golems work. Dispensers in bladed hands open up to release seeds, and the bulky constructs reach down to cover them with the cold earth. A young man barely out of adolescence stood near the field, sharpening a severed golem hand on a whetstone. He looked up at me, his expression haunted and wary.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It’s no trouble, brother. What’s your name? I’m Darlow.”
“Talus. If I might ask, why do you use harvest golems?”
“We can’t work the fields, not while the cultists are still out there. Harvest golems aren’t actually that good; they keep breaking down and they go as slow as tar. But there aren’t many of us left, so they still cover our needs.”
“How did you get them?”
“A Valiance trader sold them to us. I think he got them from goblins or gnomes or something. He overcharged us too.”
“Given Farshire’s importance, I figured you’d get a discount.”
“Nope. Nobody in Valiance Keep did anything. Right now, they’re more important to us than we are to them. If we die, they can just ship up some more colonists.”
“The harvest golems are safe, right? I heard that the ones in Westfall had been sabotaged—”
“Please don’t start on that, Brother Talus. Look, if they were going to go crazy on us, they’d have done it already. They’re slow and stupid, not dangerous.”
“Sorry. Who owns this field?”
“This is Erton’s, though he’s sharing it with us for the time being. My father used to have his own field, but the undead came and poisoned it, so I have to use this one.”
“You intend to reclaim your land?”
“Oh, you better believe it! Right kindly of Erton to let so many folks use his plot, but we came here to get our own. My father died to defend his land. Once we clear out the last of the deaders, I’m going to set out a new plot of land for me, my mother, and my sister. I’ll ask Brother Kastoor to bless it for us.”
The beloved Kastoor returned later in the day, accompanied by five militia troopers. Big even for a draenei, Kastoor had adopted a ragtag set of human clothes altered to fit his frame. Kastoor’s charisma was apparent at first glance, his broad features radiating a purposeful strength. He smiled when he saw me.
“Ah, you must be Brother Talus! Sister Indrea told me that you had just come to Farshire. Would you consider joining our community? I will warn you, it is a hard and very dangerous life, yet the spiritual rewards can be great.”
“The land is another reward, I gather.”
“Yes, that is very important to the people here.”
I told him of my largely fictitious reasons for being in Farshire. He folded his massive arms as I spoke, and nodded his bald head.
“I will say that I am glad to know this nation, Kul Tiras, is taking interest in Farshire. I am not very familiar with human politics outside of Stormwind.”
“Kul Tiras is a maritime nation.”
“But what is the dominant belief in Kul Tiras?”
“The Light,” I said, not sure entirely what he meant.
“Ah, of course. The Most Holy Light that binds us together, and inspires us to help our fellows. Look around you, Brother Talus. Why do you think a human would wish to live in this place?”
“The promise of land.”
“And why would they go so far and risk so much to get this barren land?”
“Land translates to security, wealth, and even influence.”
“This it does.” His demeanor became grave. “My human brothers and sisters have told me of their homeland. It is a brutal place, where they break their bodies to fulfill the greed of a few. How is such a societal arrangement in accordance with the Most Holy Light?”
“Humans must make exceptions in order to survive. We do not have the same sense of unity seen in the draenei, or the material advantages.”
“Brother Talus, my friends have suffered much. I do not see why that must be. They know no other way, and I am hoping you can explain more.”
“That matter is a complicated one, I am afraid.”
“Why must it be complicated? All things are clear in the Infinitely Holy Light.”
He sounded like almost like a hurt and frustrated child, confronted with some troubling fact he could not understand. From his perspective, the hierarchical and individualistic nature of human society must seem quite frightening.
The truth ultimately boils down to the fact that humans are different from draenei. I tried to explain this as best I could, yet my arguments faltered under the weight of their own complexities. I had to explain the historical context of modern human societies, as well as what I knew of human desire, selfishness, creativity, and motivation.
“Surely you were informed of this before you left the Exodar,” I said.
“I was. However, hearing the truth of the matter from these humans provoked a strong emotional reaction in me. It is not right for humans to suffer so.”
“Are there other draenei here?”
“I came to Farshire with two others, who both died fighting the Scourge. You may be aware that it is dangerous for draenei to be isolated, as that allows selfish and unstable tendencies to manifest.”
“I know this.”
“However, I was able to find a new purpose within the Farshire community. I am blessed to be able to help the people here.”
“They seem to look up to you.”
“I think you may be interpreting what you see through a human standpoint. I have stressed many times that I am not particularly important, and that it is only as a group that we are strong.”
“Nonetheless, they do admire you.”
“I have not done enough to warrant admiration. Farshire, on the other hand, is worth praising as a strong community. I hope to make it an example to Valiance Keep, and from there to Stormwind.”
“So as to help human society better follow with the dictates of the Most Holy Light.”
“Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but did not the people of Farshire come here for land?”
“Yes, we established that.”
“Don’t you think they would want to keep it?”
“Yes, and I will not stop them. My goal is simply to build a stronger sense of community in Farshire, and the best way to do that is to defend it against the Scourge. This effort has succeeded, thanks to the faith and hard work of my brothers and sisters here.”
“So you are willing to make a compromise?”
“Please, Brother Talus. I am not what you would call a fanatic. I cannot dictate the community’s standards. I have made the truth known to them, but there is no point in forcing the matter, especially when Farshire’s survival is still uncertain. All I can do is act in accordance to the Most Holy Light, and in so doing show the power of faith and unity. In the end, their joy is my joy, as the Infinitely Holy Light says.”
From the time I have spent in the Exodar and other draenic population centers, I know that they regard their own society as the ideal for all others to follow. Certainly their society is the closest thing I have seen to perfection—though only by draenic standards. I have long wondered how the draenei would react as they spent more time interacting with the other Alliance races, and Kastoor provides an interesting example.
While disturbed by the greed and selfishness he hears about in human lands, he understands that the humans must survive before they do anything else. What he may not understand is that the humans in Farshire may have exhibited such outstanding unity in order to defend their private property. Selfishness is an intrinsically human motivation, and many great things have come from it. So have many terrible things. At any rate, I do not believe it will ever go away.
I do wonder how well his message might be received in Stormwind. The kingdom is, with some justification, famed for its relative social mobility. However, there are many tenant farmers and poor miners with few realistic hopes of ever rising from their stations. The egalitarian ethos of draenic ideology might be very appealing to these unfortunates. If taught, will they express these ideals with draenic benevolence, or with human violence?
The Transborea is one of the great deserts of the world, a unforgiving expanse of snow and ice stretching across the northeastern Borean Tundra. Only the hardiest creatures make their homes in such a place, and many of them have been sickened and killed by Scourge poisons. Soon, the white hills of the Transborea may be just as lifeless as they appear.
This icy wasteland rubs shoulders with the even stranger environment of the Geyser Fields. A deep basin almost the size of Westfall, this is where the tectonic chaos of the Borean Tundra had created a steamy and rock-strewn wasteland. Between these disparate landscapes lies the verdant strand of the Flood Plains.
Currents of geothermal heat warm the earth in the Flood Plains, melting the snow and feeding the leagues of stunted grass that cover the landscape. Natural basalt spires, worn down by millennia of floods and fierce winds, stand like aged sentinels. Reindeer herds roam the lonely wilderness, stopping to graze and drink at the hot springs found throughout the scrubby flats. The warm waters are home to all manner of fishes and amphibians, many species unique to their pools.
Not all of the springs are conducive to life. Some boil with underground heat, and strange minerals taint others. A few even host powerful geysers that can spray scalding water up to a hundred feet in the air. Guided by instinct, the reindeer stick to the pools that contain water that is safe to drink. The taunka natives have relied on the wisdom of these animals for generations.
The gorlocs occupy the top link of the local food chain. Resembling bipedal toads with disturbingly large teeth, these curious creatures often hide among stones at the edges of the pools. There, they wait for reindeer to go to the pool and drink their fill. As the reindeer leave, two or three gorlocs will hop out from the rocks and take down a straggler. During lean times, the gorlocs eat the fish and frogs native to the springs.
Not much research has been done on the gorlocs. A gnome in Valiance Keep told me that many believe them to be related to murlocs, but I cannot say I see any resemblance between the two species. For reasons that remain obscure, the gorlocs lay their eggs around the geysers every spring and fall. The local heat may act as an incubator, though no one really knows for sure. Hatchery springs are best avoided, as the gorlocs are quick to attack trespassers. Vibrating gorloc cries ring out through the Flood Plains, audible miles away from the source.
I was passing through the Flood Plains to reach the tuskarr villages of the Transborea. These peaceable fishermen and whalers have lived along Northrend’s southern coast for centuries. Decimated by the Scourge and other hostile forces, the surviving tuskarr face a long struggle for survival.
The Flood Plains make an abrupt transition to the Transborea, heralded by patches of slushy snow on the grass. The isolated drifts soon coalesce into a snowy desert that reflects the wan northern sun, a landscape of eerie brilliance. Black basalt pillars contrast with the snow’s gleaming whiteness, frost coating their edges.
Two days of travel brought me back to the Borean Tundra’s frozen coastline, a jagged rock face thrusting up from a narrow strand. Unceasing winds scour the icy stones, whipping up the sea spray as white-flecked waves crash on the treacherous shore.
I fought my way north through ankle-deep snow for another day until I finally saw whispers of smoke rising from the north. A little more progress rewarded me with the sight of a tuskarr village. Tuskarr architecture is immediately distinct, their simple homes of bone and hide fashioned into the shapes of whales and other sea creatures. Blue and bulbous they sit on the shore, totemic symbols of that most important of animals. Tusks flank mouth-like openings, and act as branching tails at the backs.
Resembling anthropoid walruses, the tuskarr look almost comical with their stout and paunchy physiques. Yet their layers of natural fat provide insulation from the cold, allowing them to comfortably go about in temperatures lethal to unprotected humans. I’ve also heard that the blubber acts as a surprisingly effective natural armor.
A pair of colossal yellowed tusks form a gateway to the village. Between the tusks hangs a stone disc carved with auspicious symbols and suspended on thick ropes. Squat tuskarr heads looked up from their labors at my arrival, and only then did I see the ruined outlying huts, their walls torn and supports shattered.
A pair of tuskarr clad in hides ran forward with barbed harpoons at the ready, their thick feet astonishingly nimble on the snow. I almost laughed at the sight, their thick and bristling moustaches flapping up and down as they ran. I restrained myself, knowing that I underestimated the tuskarr at my own peril.
The bigger of the two came to a stop at the gate, and motioned for his fellow to do the same. He flashed me a look that might have been apologetic. His harpoon still trained at my chest (and given the prodigious tuskarr strength, I’ve little doubt he could have killed me in one hit), he made a rumbling sound somewhere between a bark and a howl.
Another tuskarr emerged from a partially collapsed hut, swirling tattoos decorating his gray skin. He waved a stubby arm and shouted to the warriors, who lowered their weapons and offered slight bows.
“Welcome to Unu’pe!” called the newcomer, speaking Orcish with just the bare trace of an accent. He spoke as he walked towards me. “We apologize for the hostile reception—it is not our way to point harpoons at those who bring good food and good stories—but times have been uneasy. I am Inquanok, a shaman. I take it you are of the Horde?”
“Correct, of the Forsaken, to be specific.”
“A few Forsaken have visited. We know that you are not the Scourge, but Miknuk and Atinook wanted me to confirm this.”
“No harm done, the Scourge demands caution. How does Unu’pe fare?” I asked, looking again at the ruined buildings.
“We’ve often battled against the armies of the Cold One, whom you call the Lich King. But we shall face them as always with full bellies and smiling faces! Please, come into Unu’pe. The Horde is a good friend to the tuskarr people.”
I followed Inquanok past the hollowed huts and down an icy path, all the way to the snowbound beach where much of the village stands. Kayaks bob in the icy waves, tethered to poles of bone. A dead whale lay on the beach, tuskarr hunters merrily singing rough-voiced chants as they carved huge chunks of meat from its corpse. Dozens of tuskarr stood around the whale, joining the hunters’ song.
“Even in these dark times, the ocean is generous,” remarked Inquanok.
Tuskarr are not the only inhabitants of Unu’pe. I saw a mixed collection of Horde and Alliance races throughout the village, all of them formidably well-armed. A few mingled with the tuskarr, joining them in their celebration of the hunt, though others huddled in faction-specific groups at the edges of Unu’pe, their eyes to the sea.
“You seem to have many visitors.”
“More than ever before! Know that on the first three days, the food of Unu’pe is your food as well. After that, however, you must provide for yourself and the village if you wish to stay.”
“I will be able to take care of my own needs, though I am not sure if I can provide for the village. I’ve never fished or hunted in my entire life.”
“Ah, of course. We often forget that the southern people do not hunt as much.”
“I’d be more than willing to learn the basics, though I do not intend to stay long.”
“A good attitude! Cheerful and full of hope! Though we tuskarr are trained in such matters from birth. Still, many of the visitors here contribute in other ways.”
He said those last words with a tremor of dread, and I saw him cast a quick glance to a quartet of humans and dwarves seated around a campfire, their weapons on display.
“What troubles your village?”
“We call them the tiun’ak, though the humans call them kvaldir. It is best not to discuss such matters in the open. The outdoors is a place for cheerful talk.”
“May I ask why?”
“To show sorrow and fear is to show weakness, and the spirits love nothing more than to inflict miseries on those weaker than them. Better to be happy! Since the beginning of time itself, we tuskarr have lived merry lives on these deadly shores. The spirits know they cannot weaken our resolve, so they make no special attempt to do so.”
“Are there any times where it is acceptable to show sadness?”
“A tuskarr cannot help being sad if another dies. Our ancestors provide special places for us to mourn, where the spirits will not see. Forgive me, but Miknuk and Atinook need my help in guarding the edge of Unu’pe. Go wherever you please; our village is as yours, and we’re all very happy with the latest hunt!” he said, pointing at the dead whale. Inquanok chortled and slapped his paunch, promising to return at sundown.
Much like the taunka, the tuskarr believe the spirits of nature to be harsh and vindictive. While the taunka actively fight back against these spirits, considering the battle a cultural perogative, the tuskarr avoid them with a show of good cheer. This comparatively passive attitude may reflect the fact that the ocean is a more reliable food source than are the herd or game animals on which the taunka depend.
I approached the crowd surrounding the carcass, foreign voices awkwardly joining with the harsh strains of tuskarr song. Blood stained the snow as tuskarr butchers separated flesh from fat, the red gore covering their bodies a strange contrast with their happy faces. I stood next to a young orc dressed in furs, who grinned when he saw me. He held a half-full bowl of tea in one gnarled hand.
“These tuskarr are fine hunters!” he exclaimed, before humming along with the crowd.
I felt something tug at my coat sleeve, and looked down to see a tuskarr holding a beautifully carved bone kettle. Spirals of steam wafted out from the opening, and small soapstone bowls hung from hide thongs on the tuskarr’s vest. He took one of these bowls and pantomimed a pouring gesture with the kettle.
I smiled and nodded, hoping it would be read as acceptance. Sure enough, the tuskarr poured me a bowl of piping hot tea. I took it and smiled in way of thanks. The tuskarr bowed and went to one of his fellows. That little gesture was all it took to make me feel more at home in Unu’pe than I had in Warsong Hold.
“Friendly, too!” remarked the orc. “My name is Morrag. I came here to learn about ways of the ocean hunt. So far they have me spearing fish, but Nichinuk says I’ll soon be ready for a whale hunt!”
“They let visitors do that?”
“So long as the visitor proves himself first. I wouldn’t be the first orc to be honored in such a way. The ocean is everything to the tuskarr. It’s so generous that they believe a man who cannot catch anything must be cursed and wicked to be so denied.”
“Would I be expected to catch anything as a visitor?”
“No, those rules only apply to tuskarr. Traditionally, visitors of any race are supposed to bring fish as a gift, but they’ve suspended this rule since they need outside help and they’re getting more visitors than ever before. Still, now that you know, you should make the effort.”
Morrag explained more about the Horde’s interest in the tuskarr. Tuskarr culture displays many of the values admired in Thrall’s Horde: courage, shamanism, and respect for the ancestors. Though relatively few in number, they are formidable warriors and hunters who occupy valuable coastal land. Some in the Horde even considered making them full-fledged members.
This proved impossible. The tuskarr have very little interest in engaging with the world beyond their shores. Membership in the Horde carries ancillary costs, of which the tuskarr are apparently aware. Negotiations with the race as a whole can be difficult, as there is no unified ruling body. Each village is essentially sovereign, though they do help each other in time of need. However, this aid stems more from a shared culture than from any political union.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the tuskarr have long enjoyed positive relationships with various human groups. I learned about this from a Lordaeronian woman named Letense.
Wrapped from head to toe in furs and hides, Letense hardly looked Lordaeronian. Dark eyes studied me from a broad face made rough and tan by years of exposure to the harsh climate. A head of pale blonde hair was all that remained from her old life, hanging from her scalp in limp strands.
“I first saw the tuskarr when a storm dashed my father’s fishing boat on a tiny rocky island near the coast. I still remember the bosun’s brains dashed out across the rocks, me screaming and crying while father pulled me from the wreck. We sheltered in a cave for the next few days, and even then I saw the fear on his face. He had his catch, but no fresh water.
“We were near death when the tuskarr came, a day after the long storm’s end. I saw them and couldn’t believe that they’d brave the fierce northern waters in such tiny boats, kayaks they’re called, made of wood and hide. My father fell to his knees and said a prayer of thanks when he saw them. I was a little frightened by the sounds of their voices, like angry dogs I thought, but didn’t show it. They shared their water with us, and summoned more kayaks from Unu’pe so that we could be taken there.
“You can’t imagine how strange and wonderful it was for me, a girl of nine, to be put among these tough and happy people. My father spoke a bit of Tuskarr, and they knew he was a good person by how many fish he’d caught. That’s why they treated me so well. The elder’s wife adored me, and I remember watching her stitching a thick fur coat for me in that bright hut of hide and bone, so much warmer than my father’s ship.
“I lived there for a year, the tuskarr girls teaching me how to set traps and which berries and herbs were good to eat. I didn’t want to go back to Lordaeron, but my father flagged down another human vessel and brought me along. I promised myself I’d return, and eventually I did.”
“When did you return?” I asked.
“During the Third War. Living dead—looking a bit like you—swarmed our village. I escaped with Hendrin and Lylus—my husband and son—and joined some other refugees on the north coast. We knew the undead infested every rotten inch of the kingdom, and that to go south was suicide. We found another old fisherman who knew the way to the tuskarr, and bribed our way on board.”
“You’ve lived here ever since?”
“With Lylus. Hendrin died in the first winter, as did most of the crew. Each tuskarr village now has a few humans living in it, raising their families. Very few, mind you, probably less than 50 total; most never made the journey, and most who did died.”
“Your father was not the first fishing captain to know about the tuskarr, I take it.”
“Lordaeronian fishermen sailed up to Northrend for centuries, offering the tuskarr tools in return for rights to their fishing grounds. They respected us for going so far, and were honored to see their fisheries so desired.”
“How does Lylus cope with growing up here?”
“He doesn’t remember Lordaeron, and I haven’t told him much. This place is better anyway. It’s hard for him; he can’t endure the cold the way his playmates can. But he knows how to fish, and he’s already good at it. I hear there’s some human girls his age in Mo’aki, to the east, so who knows? Maybe he’ll raise children of his own here someday.”
“Has he seen Valiance?”
She gave a rueful smile.
“Yes, and he finds it interesting and frightening at the same time. Most of the survivors fled there; I do not think this life agrees with most Lordaeronians. They carried the wounds of the past, and still wept for what they lost. The tuskarr think sadness makes people weak, and I agree. I hope that Lylus stays here, but we shall see.”
I think that the human population living in tuskarr lands is simply too small and scattered to create a viable, long-term community. Letense’s story did reveal the cordial history between Lordaeron and the tuskarr.
These human expatriates do not feel much loyalty to the Alliance, nor are they numerous enough to be significant in tuskarr politics. However, the tuskarr feel too close to the Alliance to join their sworn enemies. It remains to be seen how long they can safely practice this neutrality.
The tuskarr have also dealt with the Kirovi, the humans of Northrend. When the Kirovi warlord Nevaksander broke the power of the magnataurs at the Battle of the Bloody Snows, the tuskarr lent aid to his cause. Nevaksander dreamed of uniting Northrend, but none of the non-human races showed interest in this, and the tuskarr were no exception. They simply saw no reason to involve themselves in the world beyond their lands with the magnataur threat gone. Kirovi and tuskarr mostly stayed away from each other, aside from limited trade. There are no records of conflict between the two.
Hospitality is a premier virtue in tuskarr culture, so they feel obliged to act as good hosts. Dealing with so many disparate visitors can be a strain, even if said visitors help defend the village. Because the tuskarr are loathe to complain, their true attitude remains obscure. In addition to outlanders, the villages most also cope with tuskarr refugees from neighboring towns, though they are not seen as a burden. Tuskarr settlements traditionally help each other in times of need.
I spoke with a tuskarr named Tarralikitak, Unu’pe’s snow-walker. A snow-walker is a tuskarr who goes from village to village carrying gifts from his hometown. When he stops in a settlement, he offers these gifts (most typically carved bone ornaments, though gold and other precious metals have become common in recent years) in exchange for stories, which he will eventually retell when he gets back home.
“One must always walk the wastes with care, but no amount of care seems to be enough these days. Now, I do enjoy a good challenge; nothing like fighting my way through a wild storm, or evading the wolves of the plains. But now there is much worse,” he said, keeping his voice cheerful.
“Are you still able to perform your duties?”
“Not as much. Kaskala is the only nearby tuskarr town that still stands, and even that is in danger from the... I believe the humans call them kvaldir.”
“I’ve heard of them.”
“They are treacherous warriors who sail out from the mists to reave and kill. No one knows what they truly want. Kaskala has suffered dozens of raids, though they still stand against the enemy. Let no one underestimate the ferocity of a well-fed tuskarr!” he laughed. If his mirth was forced, I could not tell.
“Did the kvaldir destroy many other villages?”
“Most of the tuskarr abandoned the villages before the kvaldir destroyed them. They live here or in Kaskala now, doing their bit for the community. A fine arrangement, and we’ve all made good friends through it.”
The entirety of Unu’pe indulged in a raw feast that night, all of the village’s many families gathering in and around the shaman’s fish-shaped hut. Larger than the others, it acts as both the village commons and as Inquanok’s less than private residence. Happy tuskarr chewed uncooked whale meat and organs, the hunters at the center of this joyous circle.
Not all of the foreigners found the raw meat to their liking. Though Morrag and the other orcs enjoyed the bloody whale-flesh, some of the humans insisted on cooking it. Their tiny campfire made slow progress, and I saw Letense cast them a withering look.
I sat down with Inquanok’s family, consisting of himself, his wife, Niquoni, and their three children. They occupied a cozy place towards the back of the communal feasting hall, suffused with light and heat from the blazing fire at the center. The tuskarr word for home is the same as their word for hearth, for the two things are one and the same in their culture.
A burning hearth represents continuity with the ancestors. Each family home has its own fire, never meant to be completely extinguished. Younger children are often responsible for feeding the flames, using driftwood, damp grass, and sometimes charcoal from the surface deposits sometimes found in the Borean Tundra. These fires are actually smaller than one might expect. Thanks to the tuskarr race’s natural hardiness and their well-insulated huts, small fires prove sufficient to meet their needs.
From Inquanok, I learned the importance of family in tuskarr culture. As many as three generations can live under the same roof, though in practice this is rare; accidents claim the lives of most tuskarr before they can become grandparents. Bloodlines are matrilineal and women possess almost total control of a family’s domestic sphere. The men represent the family’s public face in interactions with its neighbors.
Marriage ceremonies do not exist per se. Traditionally, a young tuskarr man will simply declare his intentions to his beloved and her family. To prepare, he will try to catch as many fishes as possible so as to prove his righteousness, skill, and wealth to the potential bride. If her family accepts, they are married without any real fuss. Divorce, though not common, is also done quite simply. This usually occurs if the couple decides they are incompatible, or if one is found lacking in some way. No stigma is associated with separation. Children always stay with the mother, though contact with the father is frequent due to the community’s small size.
Responsibility for fishing and whaling falls on the father, who acts as the family’s material caregiver. Should a father die (sadly, not an infrequent occurrence), this responsibility falls to his next youngest brother, or eldest if the deceased was the youngest. In cases where there are no surviving siblings, a village chief or shaman shoulders the burden. The widow is expected to remarry as soon as possible. This is generally done quickly, even if the widow is old. Tuskarr hold the elderly in great regard, and older women are considered desirable. Though her new spouse will likely outlive her, it will not be difficult for him to find a new wife.
A rapid pattering of hand drums pounded out in the vastness of Inquanok’s hut as the feast came to a close, interspersed by the whine of bone flutes. Settling into quiet, all the tuskarr watched as Inquanok stood up and hustled to a low platform at the end of the room, seeming to bound from one leg to another. Positioning himself between two whale-tallow lanterns hanging from wooden stands, Inquanok took a deep breath. I waited, expectant to see the tribe’s age-old songs or stories performed by the shaman.
Grunting in Tuskarr, Inquanok made a face and pulled his moustache, turning around as if confused. Every tuskarr in the room roared with laughter, the sound almost deafening. Inquanok turned to the audience, feigning surprise. Reaching into his vest he took out a soapstone fish and puffed out his chest, resulting in even more laughter. Pretending to ignore it, Inquanok held the fish high, singing off-key voice as he paced on the stage to the audience’s delight.
Inquanok continued to entertain the village for some time before inviting another tuskarr on stage to perform. Both of the tuskarr donned masks of carved bone, the newcomer adding a crude hat made of woven grass. In these guises they played out a sort of ritual comedy routine, the very air seeming to shake with mirth.
Inquanok later explained some of the details to me. Tuskarr comedy both parodies and reinforces existing social mores. The routines rely on stock characters that are instantly identifiable in any settlement; the routine I saw involved Inquanok playing a generous host (typically called the hwequaan, or fat man) and the other tuskarr as a guest (the quekag, or fool) who did not know when it was appropriate to leave. These are just a few of the characters in the repertoire.
Like other people, the tuskarr possess their share of heroic legends. But these are rarely told straight. Storytellers take great delight in incorporating comedic archetypes into these stories in new and unusual ways. Ironically, while the humorous routines rarely change, the most important legends undergo constant metamorphosis and experimentation. The storyteller can often gain renown for displaying a particular mastery with certain characters. Inquanok’s specialty is the pequat, or mourner, a perpetually sad and greedy tuskarr who is invariably ridiculed for his attitude.
Inquanok’s performance ended on a more serious (though still happy) note as he sang a dirge-like tune for the ancestors. The other tuskarr joined him, the gruff sounds of their throats echoing up and down the icy shores. They filtered out when he finished, headed to their family huts. After he explained the rituals and entertainment, Inquanok invited me to spend the night.
I slept on a sealskin rug near the fire, dimmed to a smoldering red glow in the northern night. Waves and wind smashed themselves on the rocks, unable to penetrate the warm heart of Inquanok’s home. For all the terror of recent years the tuskarr appear strong and hopeful. Perhaps with reason, I thought, considering that the major Scourge bases in the Borean Tundra lie abandoned, leaving only a few deathless armies to trouble the natives.
The rapid thuds of heavy feet hitting the hidebound floor returned me to consciousness. A tuskarr stood next to Inquanok’s bed, gesticulating and shouting. Only then did I notice the dampness in the air, my hair plastered to my scalp. Walls of fog put the room out of focus, the hearth’s dying fire visible only as specks of smoldering light.
Inquanok stood up, grabbing the other tuskarr’s shoulders and saying something meant to reassure him. As the messenger left, Inquanok ran over to me.
“Destron! I fear that evil has come to our village. Are you able to fight?”
“Yes. What is this?”
“Mist is the herald of the sea-raiders, whom you call the kvaldir. Fear not! The shamans in Kaskala found ways to dispel this fog, and I will do this. You stand guard on the beach; there are many fine warriors in Unu’pe on this day, and you should look forward to celebrating our victory!”
I followed close as Inquanok fled the hut, losing sight of him almost immediately. Torches flared to life in the darkness, sooty red eyes flying through the mist. Gruff tuskarr war cries resounded as tribal warriors prepared themselves for battle. Surrounded by impenetrable fog, I tried orienting myself by following the torchlight. Yet these motes of flame scattered in all directions, weaving madly in confusion and disappearing into the mists.
I heard nothing of the wind or ocean surf, the beach made silent in the unnatural fog. Unu’pe’s skilled seafarers and anglers found themselves helpless in their own homes, the laws of the coast suddenly meaningless. I took out my compass, cursing as the needle spun madly in place. Around me, the shouts grew louder and more frantic, voices laced in panic.
Something fell behind me and I leapt to the side in blind reaction, hearing a heavy blade slice through the air. I turned around to face my attacker, seeing only the endless fog.
“They’re here!” shouted a tinny human’s voice, both nearby and unimaginably distant.
I backed away, praying my assailant still stood in front of me. A tuskarr chorus shouted commands somewhere to my left, like the baying of a giant hound. Then I heard heavy steps on the snow, and an ear-splitting warcry.
A giant slammed into me as I tried to dodge. I saw an ax head raised high in the mist a moment before I stumbled under my assailant’s feet. An iron-shod boot hit my side as he tripped over me, cursing as he fell. It took me a moment to recognize the curse as an Orcish one.
“Wait!” I called out.
I heard him hit the snow, scraping through the thick slush as he tried to get back up.
“Wait! I’m on your side!”
“What? Blood and thunder! Destron, is that you? Forgive me, please! I thought you were—”
“I’m all right. You’re Morrag?”
“Are the kvaldir here?”
“That’s what the tuskarr said.”
The sounds of fighting drifted through the fog, against what we could not tell. Unu’pe’s defenses spiralled out of control, no one even knowing if the enemy was yet on the shore. Morrag stayed close, scanning the fog.
A current of air suddenly rushed past, hot and damp like an animal’s breath. Shudders ran through the body of mist as it fell apart into pale clots that dissipated in the air. Cold ocean winds again whipped down the icy shores, carrying the sea’s salty tang. In seconds, the light of the wan sun revealed all.
Tuskarr looked around in relief and confusion. My heart sank when I saw a dead hunter, gored by the spear of his neighbor who looked down at the body in horror. No kvaldir roamed the village, the only damage caused by Unu’pe’s own.
Morrag and I weren’t anywhere near the beach, having gone right up to the cliffs lining Unu’pe’s northern edge. Only when we looked to the south did we see six dragon-prowed ships and their webbed orange sails, cutting through the waves at impossible speeds.
“There they are!” yelled Morrag, bounding to the shore.
No oars propelled them and the tattered sails looked ready to fall apart, but the ships moved as swift as any modern vessel. Parasites riddled their water-logged hulls, and verdigris crawled in splotches up and down the copper prows. Only the lanterns of blinding blue light, hanging from the dragons’ jaws, looked new.
Even from a distance these ships carried a dreadful air of antiquity, like long-forgotten relics never meant to again see the light of day. Closer to sea creatures than ships, they radiated the primal brutality of a storm or tidal wave. Hunched green figures swaggered about the decks, raising damp and bearded heads over the rims as the ships streaked closer.
I launched a fireball at the nearest ship, the burning spell smashing through the rotting hull and bursting out the other end. The fireball ripped open a cavernous gap next to the prow, the damage failing to even slightly slow the advance. A cascade of rifle fire echoed as dwarven gunners opened up, the shots tearing into the hulls and never stopping them.
Perhaps a pyroblast was best, I thought, but I no longer had the time to prepare one. Rearing dragon heads with eyes of garnet smashed into the ice floes, a dozen kvaldir howling in bloodlust as they leapt to the shore, ancient weapons in hand. They resembled nautical mockeries of the vrykul, giant humans with skin the color of algae. Kelp strands and sea-worms thrived on their damp bodies and they stared us down through oily blue eyes, their diseased mouths slavering in anticipation.
A second ship landed and disgorged its crew as the tuskarr warriors charged down the beach, fearless even against the kvaldir. Another volley of gunfire cracked, bullets splashing wetly through kvaldir flesh. Most of the bloodless wounds closed in an instant, though I saw one kvaldir lurch and fall to the side. I fired arcane missiles into the berserkers from the second ship, hoping to hurt them in some way. I turned just in time to see a third ship hit the beach, screaming warriors leaping from the deck.
At my bidding came a wave of cold, encrusting their seeping feet in ice. I scrambled up the shore to safety even as unaffected kvaldir ran after me, bellowing in mindless fury. Morrag ran to intercept the nearest kvaldir, the downward strike of his ax cleaving through the invader’s chest and into his belly. Slime poured from the opening, strands of skin wriggling in a futile attempt at healing. Texture melted out from the kvaldir’s face and body as he collapsed into a heap of briny slime.
Morrag roared as he engaged another kvaldir, the distraction giving me the opportunity to strike back. Arcane light burst on the snow, pummeling the half-frozen kvaldir warriors and tearing one to shreds. As the ice shattered they resumed their charge and I slowed them with a second arcane blast, and then a third. Impossibly swift, they jumped out of the way as if forewarned, my attack only managing to fell one more.
My mana ebbing, I used the last of it to steal the heat from the area in front of me, freezing the kvaldir in their tracks. The three nearest me stiffened and fell, the supercooled air turning their insides to ice. I faced three more without the energy for a single spell.
I heard a choking cry and saw Morrag sink to his knees, the stump of his left arm spraying blood. Unbowed even then, he prepared to deliver a final swing as a kvaldir blade crushed his skull.
I ducked as a berserker slashed at my neck and nimbly ran past the warriors farther down the beach. Hurrying to Morrag’s corpse I leaned down and grabbed his ax, its weight awkward in my fragile hands. I stared the kvaldir down as they charged, knowing full well I didn’t stand a chance.
Four enraged tuskarr warriors came to my rescue, wielding cruelly barbed harpoons. I saw one tuskarr stab a kvaldir in the gut and rip the weapon back out, pulling along strings of pulpy slime. The kvaldir died before he had time to scream. The short tuskarr managed to evade many of the kvaldir blows, and the thick layers of flesh and fat softened the ones that came through. Meanwhile, the tuskarr weapons seemed designed to kill the kvaldir with ease. Rather than slicing or puncturing, the barbs on the harpoon shafts tear out the enemy’s innards.
I ran to assist the tuskarr as best I could, putting all my effort in controlling Morrag’s ax. My swings never even came close to hitting, but they distracted the kvaldir as the tuskarr destroyed them.
When it ended I stood in a pile of ooze with three of the tuskarr. One lay dead, and another bled freely from a score of wounds. The ship whose crew we’d killed shivered as if afraid, the ancient wood suddenly peeling away and falling to bits. Seconds later, only a few planks of driftwood remained.
Still the battle continued. I followed the unhurt tuskarr to the nearest skirmish, the injured warrior staying behind with a bow and arrow. Tuskarr and outlander fought side by side, bloodied but standing firm. Doomed to lose, the dwindling kvaldir kept up the fight until the last of them fell to the tuskarr harpoons, and the invading ships tore themselves apart in rapid succession. Their destruction left the ocean placid, as if the attack had never taken place.
The tuskarr raised their arms in celebration, bellowing insults at the disgusting kvaldir remnants. Laughter and rejoicing soon filled the village, even though ten of their number (and three foreigners) had died in the battle. Did I hear strain in their voices as they fought their sadness? Or did I simply imagine it because I expected it?
I talked with one of the gunners, a dwarf named Ulfred. He’d fought the kvaldir before in Kaskala, but knew little about them.
“They’re a riddle, they are,” he sighed.
“Are they undead? Elemental?”
“If anyone knows, they’re not telling us. Every time, an entire fleet lands on the shores and the kvaldir fight to the last. There’s no damned purpose to it. Maybe they’re softening the coasts up for something worse.”
The tuskarr took their dead to a ceremonial structure at the edge of the village. As we’d fought alongside them, Inquanok invited all foreigners to see the dead laid to rest.
Ornaments of soapstone and bone decorate the interiors of tuskarr homes, but the House of Departure (as it is called) is empty save for a great firepit, which the tuskarr filled with driftwood as we entered. Chalk-white ancestral sigils stretch across the walls, protecting the occupants from evil. Every tuskarr in Unu’pe came to give their respects, covering their faces with masks of carved bone, featureless save for the ghostly eye holes. One by one, the tuskarr lay their dead in the center of the firepit. All of Unu’pe sat in expectant silence as Inquanok shook a bone rattle over the corpses, so as to frighten away malign spirits.
When Inquanok set the rattle down, the entire room went mad. Tuskarr shrieked and cried, rolling on the ground or burying their masked faces in the ashes of the pit. Only Inquanok stood still, the rest hurling themselves into paroxysms of grief. It was as if a dam broke, all the unvoiced sorrow suddenly given voice. A troll sitting next to me wailed and beat his chest, sobbing as the emotional storm caught him in its grip. The screams inspired images of Hell, the pain of the damned made manifest. Tears flowed from the eyes of the non-tuskarr, and I lowered my own head, shaking as stricken cries rent the air.
Tuskarr embraced each other with fanatic intensity, their shared emotion strengthening the lamentation. I feared I’d go mad in that place, and felt amazed that they could sustain it for so long. Only when the sunlight from outside began to dim into night did they slow down, going from frenzied sadness to mournful acceptance.
Inquanok began to sing, his deep voice holding a simple up and down meter. He set five bone totems around the pit as he chanted. He walked back to the dais when finished and faced the pit, his arms upraised. Light flashed, followed by heat and smoke as flames poured out from the totems and set the bodies alight. Nearby tuskarr held out their hands, seeking to warm them one last time with the essence of the fallen.
I stayed in the House of Departure through the night, listening to the tuskarr sob behind their masks. Perhaps they cried about other losses in addition to their most recent. Being with them in this time of vulnerability felt almost like a trespass, but I could do nothing more than endure.
My next (and last) day in Unu’pe found me wandering the village in a daze, bemused by the suddenly cheerful tuskarr. They joked and laughed, bearing no sign of the frantic sorrow they welcomed the night before. Even from what I knew about tuskarr beliefs, the rapidity of the change astonished me.
“There is much to be happy for, Destron! We are all still alive, and those who lost their loved ones will find new ones. See it as a time of renewal,” explained Inquanok.
We stood within sight of the House of Departure. A white face emerged from the darkness within, looking out at the village through empty sockets for just a moment before disappearing.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“Some of us are not able to move on so easily,” he said with a disapproving rumble. “We let them continue to grieve if they insist. When they are ready to rejoin us, they may.”
“How long does that usually take?”
“Rarely more than a few days. It is foolish to stay sad for so long. As I’m sure you can tell, this is a very brutal world. We cannot afford to show any weakness.”