if you want
another man’s life or land.
for the lazy wolf.
No battle’s won in bed.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
Njordr is the harsh, unforgiving land of endless snow and forests that extends from the Sea of Coils north of Rogalia and Northwest of Gotha, into the farthest, coldest reaches of the world, where no man can tread. Peopled by ancient clans of warriors and poets, the North is a place of constant war and ancient memories.
The Njords are a cautious and pragmatic people, but they are also proud. Perhaps more than any other human culture, they take every care to remember their stories and their past. In these times, this may prove to be their most valuable trait, for Njordr is a land divided, a land transformed. Long ago the Njords dwelt in the warm south, but their lands now are all craggy mountain, icy fjord and shrouded isles. They are said to be the hardest of all men, the fiercest of all warriors, and as zealous of cause and creed as their Gothic cousins who once drove them from those lands.
Njordr today is a land torn by cultural upheaval. After a brief period of unity under a Njordic king, the country has become divided. In the South, the converts to the Church of Holy Benalus, adapting to the embrace of Gothic innovations, mechanism, religion and support. In the North, holdouts who cling ever harder to the Old Ways, rejecting help from anyone else, and doing whatever they must to prove the superiority and independence of their fierce warrior heritage.
THE SAGA OF THE NORTHMEN
all men are mortal.
Words of praise
will never perish
nor a noble name.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
In ancient times, the Njord culture and the Gothic peoples shared a common land and common tongues. The ancient tribes of the Age of Heroes, such as the Sweona, the Gödi, the Frisi, the Fenri, the Vangandr occupied the land today called northern Gotha, the land itself named after the Gödi who were foremost of that age. Unlike many other peoples of the world, the Njordic clans did not have a strong military of their own. Instead, they valued writing, metallurgy, mathematics, and philosophy. They created great city-states, such as Verna, Hacona, Fenristadt, and Morgstadt, some of the largest communities in the ancient world, and important features in the landscape of the endless wars of that age.
The largest city-states, such as Fenristadt, were even in those by-gone times large and powerful cities of many thousands. Fenristadt, the home of the Gödi clan, was fed by leagues-long aqueducts from the high mountains in its early age, until Njordic civil engineering progressed to the point to divert the river Fenrisulven, and a dozen years later, the river Vargen until it straddled both rivers to take advantage of the commerce. Great monuments and statuary, honoring the patron God of their city, Jorg, the Wolf-Mother, were erected throughout the city, where they still stand today. In matters of military the wealthy Njordic peoples preferred to hire mercenaries from the southern tribes to fight their battles, though armed with Njordic iron, clothed in iron-ring warshirts, born from the forges of their cities. This was a significant advantage in the Age of Heroes, when most significant warfare was waged with weapons of bronze, and armor was of wicker or leather. When the wars were won, like nearly all peoples of that age, they took slaves from the conquered and added them to their nations as laborers, servants and soldiers.
So it was that when Benalus, King of Lethia, returned from his long Exile, the world erupted into war. By the time that his war had concluded, all of the Njordic states save Hacona had been conquered, their capitols sacked, and the surviving Njordic peoples had been driven out of their lands, and past Sea of Coils. A hero of that age called Sorma Dogheart led the people away, into the North, and into a new life.
In the far North, the Njordic tribes tried to adapt to their new lands. Their faculty with precision tools and mathematics made it possible for them to create sea-worthy vessels to carry them across the sea and avoid their pursuers. When they reached the unclaimed lands of frost and snow that would be their place of exile, many of their practical arts were of great use in the first generations for creating architectural techniques that would not rot in the deep wet, ways to guide heated geysers from deep in the fjords into underground pipes to harness their heat for the newly building fortresses. However, as time went on, these techniques proved less and less valuable compared to the need to train children in the ways of survival, war, and the icy north. The skills of the South faded into memory and the infrastructure it made became wonders of a past age, as the old masters died, and the clans fell to war among one another, hoping to survive just one more winter by burning the wood from the fortress of their neighbor. Already wars had begun, clan against clan, though not to the scale that would come.
As the men explored the North, they also found many other dangers lurking in those lands. The old people of those lands, though hoary and ancient even in those days, became curious of the new people in their hills and dales. For time immemorial they had warred amongst their own kin, enslaving tribes of orc to fight amongst themselves. The Jötunn, gigantic man-like creatures, slow to act, slow to breed and get, and long of life, wandered the land with their great herds of mammoth and aurochs, taking whatever green would grow on those wind-blasted rocks, and so needed great swaths of space. Their hunger was never satisfied, and they would carry off humans to eat, or eat pieces of them on the spot and carry off their dangling corpses to thicken their stews with the bones. The Njords, newcomers to that land, had been attacked many times by bands of Orc. Those who marched to the coldest places that managed to return came with stories of stranger horrors – weird, cold-hearted men riding huge black mares that feared not the cold, who would flay a man for enjoyment. Even great black or white dragons had been seen in the high mountains, nesting in crevasses and upon cliffs. The terrible north had many dangers, and the foreigners’ prospects did not look favorable.
It was then that the Njords were contacted by the giants. One giant, called Lodi Oskramr, offered to help the fledgling Njord people. The wisest lawgiver of the Njords, Folkvid Crowseye, had learned to speak the giant’s tongue passing well, and was able to understand the giant well enough to understand the giant’s offer to help the small people survive in this land. The Njords convened a council, and after deliberating, many clans accepted the offer. Lodi showed the men the way to “Mørktrygg”, a mansion once occupied by another giant, but now empty and wind-swept. The Njords used the enormous hall for a home, and Lodi brought for them many stones and trees from the high mountains with which they could build the things they needed. Those that refused continued to eek out their life in the wilds.
Be your friend’s
Return gift for gift.
with laughter again
but betrayal with treachery.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
As time went on, the Njords became more and more dependent upon Lodi, and then his brood, for within a decade he had shown to have a daughter, Griđ, and others followed. When Lodi Oskramr demanded that the Njords serve him in killing a rival Jötunn brood in exchange for his help, the Njordic peoples that owed him their survival in the harsh transitional times swore an oath to fulfill their debt. However, it was no small feat, as just as in the Gothic lands of their people’s origin, orc roamed everywhere and it seemed that the giants had been using them in much the same way Lodi had the Northmen. Mankind, however, proved mightier than the Orc, and while less adapted to the cold, and physically weaker, were wily and clever, and defeated the Orc, driving them to the mountains and making vulnerable the Jötunn masters who yoked them. The first giants died by Northman axe and hammer in those days, and it was there that the troubles began in earnest.
Lodi, demonstrating his new weapon against the other Jötunn, and their superiority over the traditional shock troop for their wars, immediately became engaged in wars against all of the other giants. The humans, however, were the real target and the real prize, and Mørktrygg was attacked relentlessly by giants and their Orc, the people being killed, or carried off for food, or some rumors said, to breeding pits so that the other giants could have men of their own. Unwittingly throwing their fate in with Lodi Oskramr, the Northmen had no choice but to fight on his behalf until the wars were over. All of the other giants were either killed or driven to swear oaths to Lodi Oskramr, and he and his brood were able to reign supreme over the North, and made his claim over the Njords more obvious.
What followed then was an age of division and war, and the start of Northern raiding. The Northmen, now quite separated into clans that served individual Jötunn as their favorite thralls, the Orc now discarded and sent back to the hinterlands of the North, grew hardy and strong in the North, but now that Giants knew of mankind, their greed for treasure and man-flesh had been stoked. As well, the Njordic wilds had never been plentiful, and farming was very difficult. In order to survive and to pay tribute to the giants who enslaved them, the Njords took to boat and ship once again, raiding and reaving along the Rogalian and Gothic coasts, even going as far as the Dunnick Isles for plunder and thralls of their own to take back to the North. Some old reports even suggest Northmen may have traveled as far as Hestalia and even Sha’ra on occasion in search of flesh and treasure, but if this happened, it was infrequent. The Njord tribes, in order to bolster their numbers for wars against other clans, and since they had become so adept at capture and slavery, also kept thralls for themselves, and the slaving culture of the South began to rekindle in the North.
As the century after the Giant Wars pushed on, the Njords had begun to reestablish some of their original cultural practices and worship of the gods and spirits they took with them from the South, as well as some new traditions begun in the North, although much of the finer arts in mathematics and philosophy had been degraded by history and a perceived lack of value by this time. The Njord’s new life as raiders, slavers, survivalists, ritualists and poets had begun to resettle into a comfortable rhythm, although they still resented the harsh use and ultimate authority of the Jötunn.
It was clear that the rest of the world was at war as well, and they suffered some attacks by blood-drinking monsters, as well as sorcerers, cabalists, deathless monsters, and of course, dragons which continued to haunt the high and low places of the fjords and vales, but few except the rare dragons that seemed native to the area ever made much of a threat to their new homeland. The Njords began to enjoy prosperity under their Jötunn lords, being granted their own autonomy and lands, given titles like Jarl to the mightiest of the giant’s servants – many of which were the direct brood of Lodi himself, who had become proliferate.
Drunk was I then, I was over drunk
in that crafty Jötunn’s court.
But best is an ale feast when man is able
to call back his wits at once.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
In time, the balance of power subtly shifted, and the Njords, now fully adapted to the climate, the needs and the terrors of their new land, began to take the upper hand over their overlords. One by one the Njords began to topple their old masters, until finally, a cadre of heroes broke into the frozen hold of Lodi Osrkramr himself, hoary and ancient now, and banished the King of the Giants into the mud and ice of history.
The liberation of Njordr seemed less an epic war and more a time that had come. The giants and their age simply seemed a bygone thing, a time whose era had passed, and the disposal of Giantkind seemed more ceremonial than a true war for freedom. After it had happened, the Northmen lived much as they had before they had done so – divided across the North, clans loosely following one hero or another, intermittently making war upon one another and raiding the lands to the South. This continued for several hundred years, until the coming of the Emperor.
Emperor Reinhard von Herkheist, in Lion Age 491, made the first expeditions into the Northlands to put to heel the raiders who had been attacking the coasts for centuries. It as the first major attempt at an offensive into the North, and it fared fairly disastrously. Several other attempts were made over the next few years, both by the knight’s sword and missionary’s gospel, but the North seemed resistant to all such overtures. At first the clans did not worry about the Throne, but as it began to become clear that, while expensive in both blood and treasure to the invaders from the South, their numbers and resources were all but inexhaustible compared to those of the Northmen, It would be slow, but if the Throne wished it, the fate of the Njords would be as inescapable as the winter cold.
The elders of the Clans would meet to speak on the issue, but no consensus was ever reached about how to proceed, and without a unified idea of who and what the invaders to the South were and how to treat them, they remained divided. Some clans and individual branded men, heroes with a name worth following by others, would even unite with the Throne to work against their rivals. More and more the Throne played into the politics of the land, and more and more their White Benalus competed with Red Stilvskar for the hearts of their people, and even within a clan cousin would fight cousin as their loyalties began to divide.
The unwise man
is awake all night
worries over and again.
When morning rises
he is restless still,
his burden as before.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
In Lion Age 554, the Jarl of the Bearhide Clan, Konrad Vargorson, called Konrad Bearmantle, called the Allthing, a meeting of all Njordic Clans and peoples to decide the course for an issue that affects all of them, only called in the most serious of cases. The Njords argued about the way forward for weeks, and it seemed that there would be no final conclusion. Konrad Bearmantle, in an unconventional use of the ancient Njordic tradition, challenged every other Jarl to a duel in single combat before the Old Gods. Getting them to accept this was no small challenge in its own, but ultimately, each accepted, and each man lost in turn, being offered the ceremonial mercy that allowed Bearmantle to demand any task or action from each. From each he took the leadership of their Clan, and, before the Allthing, Konrad Bearmantle declared himself King of the Northmen, Konrad Bearking.
There had never before been a King of the Northmen, but the Bearking defeated all the Jarls before the Old Gods, and so all knew he had their blessing. It was, then, with some surprise, that no sooner had he donned the ashsteel torc of Kingship that he opened communication with the Emperor and the Throne, and declared peace with the southerners, declaring to his people that Njordr and the Throne were one, and that a new age had begun. For the remainder of his life, he worked with the Emperor, then Soren von Herkheist, and the two men worked as rapidly as possible to bring what prosperity the Throne could bring to the North, while for the remainder of his days the Bearking dealt with both the elation and rage of his people. Some felt betrayed, while others understood. Some were unsure, but then grew to enjoy the assistance of the Throne, converting to the new ways, while others felt initially optimistic but soon found the religion of Benalus, or the domination of Gothic noblemen to be unbearable.
When the Bearking died in Lion Age 568, much of his work fell apart, and he had no successor to carry on a Kingship, though the title of King of the Northmen was officially passed by the Emperor to a Gothic nobleman of House Einsland. The North fell into significant disarray, and the fate of the North, partially Throne and partially not, remains uncertain.
Go you must.
No guest shall stay
in one place for ever.
Love will be lost
if you sit too long
at a friend’s fire.
– The sayings of Aufvaldr
THE NJORDIC PEOPLE
The Njords are a proud people, and proud to be proud. In their ancient days in the South, they ruled as a superior power an enormous proportion of the world, and through technique and wisdom, not force of arms. Many outsiders would say that their culture from then til now has become unrecognizably different, trading the stylus for the axe, the city for the wild, but in all the fundamental ways, they are the same. What brought the ancient Njords to the pinnacle of power is what has brought the Njords to where they are now – the ability to communicate, cooperate, share ideas, lead by merit and ultimately, adapt themselves and teach their children whatever skills they needed as a people to survive and to thrive, no matter the circumstance.
There are essentially three classes within Njordic culture – thralls, karls, and the Branded.
Thralls are people that have been driven into slavery by raiding the southern lands of the Throne or taken as part of an internal feud or war within Njordr. Thralls have no rights at all, and are not free to leave their owner’s lands. They are frequently used for war and battle, driven forward early to test and probe defenses, or to tire out opponents before karls come in to finish the work. When not in wartime, thralls serve around the village or estates of less nomadic bands of Njords. Thralls only have legal presence in the form of property, and a Njord who kills another man’s thralls (while not as part of a war against him) must pay a fine in gold. It is possible to become released from thralldom through extraordinary circumstances at the judgment of the man who owns the thrall. This circumstance almost always coincides with the thrall becoming branded simultaneously, and it could be said that the one circumstance creates the other in no particular order. The children of thralls are also born thralls, into the ownership of their parent’s owner.
Karls are the ordinary Njords who are not thralls and have yet to earn a name for themselves, but otherwise are the brave, tenacious stock of the north. When one speaks of Njords or Northmen, they are often speaking of the karls who serve in the armies and bands, raiding or defending their families from other karls lead by other men. Not all, or even most karls ever truly earn a great name for themselves, but some few do.
Earning a name for oneself is an informal and organic process, though it does have a specific rite of passage associated with it. Attempts to force the process invariably fail, and sometimes lead to tragic or embarrassing names. The idea of “named men” itself, while the term is used concretely in conversation, carries with it no formal privilege at all, but tremendous informal privilege. Men of the North are said to “follow a name,” not a man, and the saying holds true.
Once a man has proved himself exceptional in some way, denoted by earning a nickname or loose title, the name he has earned can be sealed with the branding. someone who already has their brand can brand the name into the new hero in Njordic runic letters. This is generally performed as part of a celebration after a great battle or some other deed, accompanied by great amounts of alcohol and excess, though sometimes it is during a far more somber or serious occasion. The brand is usually placed on somewhere easy to display if wanted, such as the forearm, the shoulder, or the upper chest, and can be shown if proof of one’s identity is needed. It’s very unlikely someone would brand someone else’s name into their body as part of a ruse, so this is quite credible, especially when identifying the dead for the creation of runestones.
Men with great names command respect proportional to the greatness of those names, and most any Njord one meets will know those names thanks to the efforts of the Skálds. The branded are invariably the ones who move Njordic society, respected or feared for their past deeds, and carrying with them the momentum of their already mighty stories. That momentum means that great stories are told through them moving forward, the weight and force of their existing deeds making the next great deeds more and more likely until they are truly legendary. The Northmen crave that for themselves, so they follow these branded men, fighting beside them to earn their own names, their own legends.
Njords share their culture with one another primarily through story. An entire class of wanderer-poet-heroes called Skálds undertake this duty, and tell stories of heroes, thegns and jarls – especially those that employ them. Although a few have brought back a small harp or lyre from Rogalia or Dunland in raids, Skálds do not usually use any instruments, instead singing their poems from mighty throats, trained over their years to have enormous power and voice. Skáldic tales convey the culture of the Njords across time and lineage, and it is considered a dire misfortune apt to bring forth the Night upon any who would harm a Skáld unwarranted, and thus they can travel from clan to clan sharing stories and collecting stories.
Outside of broad culture, the actual education of children falls to the women. By the age of fifteen, a boy must be fit enough in combat, sailing and singing to join a raiding party, and a girl must be fit enough to fight and defend the hold while the men are raiding, dress wounds, and manage a household. Because the men are often out raiding, it falls to the women to train all of these skills, and as such they must be versed in all of them, including combat. While men are generally considered more proficient in combat due to their lifestyle of warfare, the basics are taught by mothers and sisters, and only as the boys get older do the fathers and uncles take the boys and turn them into men of the battlefield.
The role of men and women is in some ways more distinct in the North, and in other ways less so. The roles of women and men in Njordic society have a clear and agreed upon dividing line – the dwelling door. Any event that happens overall within the dwelling, such as the raising of children, the finances, the decisions of import to be discussed in private, and the overall care-taking of the lifestyle, are handled by the woman. Women are also strongly associated with magic, and those mysteries are seen as the domain of the woman. A woman is forbidden from being a judge, a legal witness, or a Jarl.
A Njordic woman is by law the only one who can make a divorce declaration, which is often extremely financially and practically difficult for the husband. Unwanted physical attention is forbidden by law, and men who do such are fined in gold for small offenses, fined in blood for larger ones. It is considered unmanly and shameful in the extreme for a man to harm a woman. If a husband were to slap a wife in a rage, she is considered within her rights to declare herself divorced, or even at some future moment refuse him aid at a moment of need and cause him to die in revenge.
For all of the ways the role of the woman in Njordic society is distinct, they are identical in their guiding virtues. They are to be fierce, strong-willed, clever and capable. Above all else, however, their chief role in Njordic society is that of inciter. Across all of the sagas, the classic scene depicting women is the goading scene, wherein the woman pushes her husband or other men to act when they would otherwise stand by passively during events. She calls out for satisfaction of her family’s honor, for the aggressive attack of an enemy, or to end a threat. Where there might be forgiveness, or at least a willingness to let some past event be past, the woman puts such idea into frame as shameful complacency, declaring the men weak if they allow heaped insult to go unanswered. “Cold is the counsel of women,” it is often said.
All of this applies only to Njordic women. Historically, women from other cultures, that is to say cultures who are mostly seen as places from which to raid slaves and treasure, are seen as possessions just the same as the men they take as thralls, and are used as such. Njordic women, even thralls, are given every respect and courtesy, but women of other lands are given no such protection.
Women do not ordinarily earn names or brands the way men do. It is seen as something that they simply have no need to aspire to, and most women embrace their role as that of a counterpart to their husband rather than the direct actor in the world. However, there are some women who do strive to earn a name, and those who succeed earn one all the mightier for it. Due to their uncommon achievement, branded women are given great renown and authority, seen somewhere between good luck and semi-divine, depending which clan you ask. It is thought that for the remainder of their life they hold the reigns of their fate and the fate of others, and that once they die, they will go on existing as a sort of ancestral ghost called the Dis (Disir plural, for they are almost always in the company of their kind when thought to be encountered) that watches over the clan and visits wickedness upon its enemies. The term “branded men,” when it is used, also refers equally to women with a great name, and women themselves will simply refer to themselves as “branded men” rather than “branded women” or any other variant.
Njor, the tongue of the northmen, is linguistically similar to Gothic, but has evolved and diverged over the centuries of separation, especially as Aldersabin, which shares no root, has added its own grammar and vocabulary in Gotha. The Njordic alphabet is runic, and there is a saga called the Dvurgursagan that tells the tale of how it was taught to mankind by the Dwarves in the Northern mountains in the old South during the Age of Heroes. The Dvurgursagan indicates that the language is replete with hidden power, and the wise men and sages of the Northmen study the legends to gain that power. Like elsewhere, most of the population is not literate, however, those who are are literate in the runes of the Northmen are seen as possessing a sort of mystical lore, and this often falls to the females to know and teach to one another.
Because only roughly half of the country was fully annexed by the Throne during the reign of the Bearking, the northern half of the country, called the Rime Lands, and the southern half, now sometimes called the Cold Throne, are culturally very different places with very different forms of government and people. There is no official dividing line between these two places – on paper, the Throne owns all of Njordr and those in the Rime Lands are rebellious subjects to be brought into compliance, not a new country still awaiting conquest. In practice, the line between the two is much more blurry, and any given Njord, depending on their geography and disposition, might fall anywhere on the spectrum.
Praise day at even,
a wife when dead,
a weapon when tried,
a maid when married,
ice when ’tis crossed,
and ale when ’tis drunk.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
The North, the Rime Lands, exists much as it always has since the first days that the Northmen put boot to land across the Sea of Coils. When the clans first began to come into their own power under the reign of Lodi Oskramr, or his rival giants, they developed some of the laws, customs and titles that they still use today. While it is true that the Njords of the South also follow many of these traditions, much has been changed while the Northern Clans, now usually referred to as the Rime Clans, have not only clung hard to ancient ways, but done so in recent decades with a will and a purpose to differentiate themselves from the southerners that they consider traitors to their own people.
A kind word need not cost much,
The price of praise can be cheap:
With half a loaf and an empty cup
I found myself a friend.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
The usual structure of Njordic people since their arrival in the North is that of bands of 50 to 100 people that exist semi-nomadically across a wide range of land. Poor access to farming influenced the Njords to rely more on herding and seasonal hunting than any sort of intensive agriculture. Bands are associated with a Clan of Njords, of which all trace their lineage back to a single semi-mythic ancestor, such as Sorma Dogheart, Jördurmund Stormhammer, or Surak Bearhide. Within each Band, the greatest among their branded will be the thegn, and the others will defer to them in all matters of import.
These bands are usually a small collection of the branded and their families, thralls and households. Often the branded, and the thegn, whomever they agree amongst themselves (or decide by Challenge) is the leader, are the center of the small community. When some crisis or issue requires a greater force or resources than the single band and its heroes can bring to bear, the thegn will go to the Jarl of his Clan.
The Clan is a collection of all of the bands that trace their lineage to a specific hero of old. These heroes and figures are people, sometimes arguably fictional people, who have great names about them and whose legends are told and retold, often growing in the telling over the ages. Some of these are heroes who made the crossing from the main continent in ancient times. Some of these are the figures who carved out the first holds of mankind in the North, while others are the ones who bent the knee to Lodi Oskramr, or killed the lords of giantkind. Clans come and go as the ages wear on, and wives are married into other clans with some regularity, allowing for mixing of the Clans over time.
The leader of each Clan is called the Jarl, and he is the mightiest of all the names amongst all the bands that hold to that Clan. This title is not tied to lineage, the greatest name amongst them is the Jarl, and if there is a question of what man can claim such, a challenge is used to resolve the matter. The son of a Jarl does occasionally become the next Jarl, but this is by virtue of his greatness (assisted along by his access to advantages provided by a powerful father and family), not strictly due to who his father was before him.
The Jarl is the highest position of authority in the Old Ways of the Northmen, and still is in the Rime Lands. When some crisis or foe greater even than the level of a Clan threatens the people of Njordr, the Allthing is called, a meeting of the Clans to decide a course of action. Since the Jarls are roughly equal in power, different only in their actual practical might and resources, but identical in their theoretical rank, no Jarl may directly gainsay another, so debate and discussion is held until a unanimous (or close enough that the greater faction can force the lesser into compliance with subtle or overt threat) decision can be reached, or until such a unanimous position can be forced by way of the Rite of the Challenge.
The Challenge, performed often at the Allthing, or its smaller one-clan variant, Thing, is a sacred test undergone in the view of the Old Gods of the North. The Challenge is usually a duel to the death, but is not always, though it must be some form of direct competition and it must involve the traditional values and virtues of the Northmen, such as bravery, prowess, strength, cunning or endurance, and the Challenge can never be trivial. Only dire matters are important enough to call the attention of the Old Gods, and anything that does not meet their standards can cast terror and misfortune upon all involved. Likewise, the challenge must be of a serious or even deadly nature, lest the Old Gods be insulted by the lack of care. The Challenge is presided over by a wise man of the Old Gods, whenever possible, though Challenges do happen over more personal and spontaneous matters, like who will be thegn of a band, or even just to find the true justice between two feuding brothers. The Challenge is sometimes offered as a way to prevent war – to settle a dispute between rivals with just one man dying instead of many. Whether it is dishonorable to refuse the Challenge is up to the circumstance and what is at stake.
The winner of the Challenge may call for the death of the one he defeated, or he may choose to spare him and demand some specific deed before the Old Gods and all assembled. If the winner chooses this deed, it is to spit in the eye of the terrible Old Gods of the North to refuse it, and they are considered doomed. Refusals are all but unheard of, as it also means that the winner can simply take the loser’s life instead.
The South of Njordr, called the Cold Throne has, even in such a short time, been almost completely converted to the worship of Benalus and to uphold the ideals of the Throne of God on Earth. When the Bearking worked with the Emperor to bring Njordr into the Throne, there was a period of 14 years when the Throne and Njordr cooperated, more or less, and despite some level of backlash and some level of acceptance from his people, the Bearking was able to usher in a number of technological improvements and, generally speaking, increase the basic quality of life in the South. When the Emperor arrived, he brought machinery, roads, farming techniques, and Benalus, while the Church worked diligently in that window of time to synthesize traditional Njordic values and sensibilities with Gothic and Throne ones. For most of the people of Southern Njordr, the advantages far outweighed the struggle with adjustment, but certainly many found the new law completely unacceptable, and moved North to join the Rime Clans.
Because the Cold Throne is indeed the Throne, it is subject to all of its laws, and some of its customs, sharing an ancestry with Njordic customs, have begun to intermingle and reunite. In the Cold Throne, karls and branded alike are subjects to the Throne’s nobles that have been installed to rule over the Njordic populace. One of the most bedrock laws of the Throne’s legal structure forbids the ownership of slaves, as slavery was the subject of Benalus’ war against the rest of the world in his time, and the Njords were no different then or now.
The Freeing of Thralls was a controversial moment that put to the test the goodwill and respect that the Bearking had won himself at his crowning at the Allthing. Many of the names among his supporters had done so because he had bested all of the other Jarls before the Old Gods in the Challenge, and so clearly had their favor, but who with the favor of the Old Gods would set free all of the thralls, one of the Njords’ oldest customs? Needless to say, however, for every name that turned their back on him, dozens or hundreds of slaves became free men with gratitude in their hearts, and these meanest of men became some of his most fervent supporters and some of the most zealous converts to the religion of Benalus, called White Benalus in the North.
When the Emperor took control of Njordr, a new caste of nobility was necessary in order to rule over this untamed land. Because the Njords do not naturally create cities, all new land had to be cleared, made ready for farming, tracked with roads and the Emperor’s justice had to be enforced upon a people who had never known it. Even the most willing of Njordic converts had never been made to bow before anyone, had never used minted coin to share commerce at a marketplace, had never known and lived alongside men and women from other Clans in the same settlements and cities before. As Emperor Soren von Herkheist was preparing to proceed alongside Konrad Bearking into the next phase of the North’s Annexation, the Bearking suddenly died. His death came at an unexpected time, for his health was still with him. Records say a sickness overtook him in haste, accompanied by bleeding from the throat and nose, and while some whispered of assassination, others whispered of divine retribution, while still others were certain that his health had been failing for some time. The Emperor had to fill these positions, but as few noblemen would take up such a grim task, a task so obviously ready for failure given the Bearking’s death, the Emperor appointed his enemies rather than his allies to the posts. Only one nobleman offered himself and his house to be moved to Njordr to see it brought into the Throne in proper, Graf Einslan of Gotha – the rest were proffered up against the ice and snow of the edge of the world to do their duty for God, Prophet, and Throne.
In the current age, discarded, exiled or forgotten, guarding the gates of Njordr has been turned into a chore that is given to those that cannot be punished. Instead, they are awarded the honor of protecting the Throne from barbarian raids. What order that can be imposed by these errant nobles is incomplete. Lacking loyalty and obedience, cruelty and fear is often implemented in its stead. Grim mockeries of Imperial rule are exhibited in the flickering halls of these cold-hearted lords.
BANDS, CLANS, AND BRANDS IN THE COLD THRONE
For the most part, the band structure of traditional Njordic life has all but vanished in the new South, replaced with town and village life in permanent settlements. Several great townships have grown out of the tiny clutches of mud huts and temporary dwellings that marked those tumultuous first years after Annexation, and scenes of life in the Cold Throne are very much like scenes one might see in the northernmost parts of Gotha. Differences certainly remain, however.
The idea of Clan remains strong, though it has undergone a fusion with the ideals of Knighthood and Nobility that are upheld in the rest of the Throne. Some of the early clans to demonstrate loyalty to the new Markgrafschaften were upraised into new Throne nobility by way of formal Knighthood. This distinction was met with mixed appreciation, with some branded seeing it as one more procedural formality, and others recognizing it as the sacred charge of their conversion to White Benalus and liberation from the demon gods of the Old North. Those new Knight families which proved themselves went on to become greater noble lines in time, until their modern representation, the Earl.
The Rank of Earl, a slightly Gothic lilt on the traditional title of Jarl, has come to represent the class of powerful noble houses that have risen up from the Njordic heredity rather than the imposed rule of the Markgrafs. Seen as the ultimate in kneeling traitors by the Rime Clans, they are nevertheless the vested champions of the Throne regarding the Njordic peoples, and are seen by those who watch from Fenristadt and Lethia as perhaps the future of Njordr, once the matter of its final settling is dispensed with. These Earls and their households act in an intercessionary role with the more powerful Markgrafs that they answer to, and ultimately, the imposed King of Njordr sitting in Vißvind.
In counterpoint to the tendency to homogenize their culture with the Gothic influences of the Throne, the Njords of the Cold Throne make certain to celebrate their Clan heritage very strongly. Festivals, meetings, banners and other physical representations are all used to denote areas that are heavily tied ethnically to a certain original Clan. Even though it was rarely an explicit tradition before the Annexation, Njords of the South have developed a culture of tattooing their hands, arms or even faces with stylized symbols of their Clan, such as a bear’s paw overlaying their hand, or marks around the eyes to make the face more suggest a raven’s. Given the state of living peacefully amongst other clans in the new townships, such visual displays have become more necessary than they were in the distant past.
In towns, sports and games have taken on new weight, as those who play them compete for the honor of their clan. Sport such as boulder lifting, wrestling, prize dueling and other games of physical might are popular, but equally valued are games of cunning, such as bragð, in which two opponents are blindfolded and given a wolloping sack in one hand, and told to place the other on a felled log – neither contestant may remove their hand from the log, and the first person to find their opponent and smack them with their sack, one swing per turn, (amidst feints, fakes, traps and tricks meant to throw them off guard or force their foe to waste their swing), is victorious. Board games of strategy are also popular to demonstrate the skill of the mind, and a famous Njordic war game called sjøslag, which involves maneuvering ships in a naval battle, in which each action taken constricts your options for several turns ahead, is very popular amongst the nobility. Lastly, drinking games are always popular amongst both sexes. Victory in these games is how many young Njords of the Cold Throne now earn their names.
Names in the new North still come the old way – battle and conquest, as often as otherwise. In that regard, though the causes and banners have changed, the concept of Njords killing Njords to create their legend is still as healthy as it ever was. The names themselves sometimes now take on a distinctly Throne tell, however, such as Thulga Godsword, Korro Angelblood, Ginza Remulthian, and so on. Since a whole new avenue of fame has opened up, the return to artisinal techniques and the development of new innovations and technologies, or even the simple accumulation of great amounts of wealth through things like commerce – not to mention the opportunities to reign terror upon others that the desperation of urban life can bring – a new class of “city names” has also begun to appear, with names like Rollo Goldenhand, Timon the Quil, and Fulgi Alleyshadow.
The man who stands at a strange threshold,
Should be cautious before he cross it,
Glance this way and that:
Who knows beforehand what foes may sit
Awaiting him in the hall?
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
The most serious of all current concerns is the settlement of the destiny of Njordr. The Rime clans, though having no clear leaders amongst them, have proved thus far impossible to successfully attack in the icy lands that they inhabit. Even the most successful attacks by Markgrafs looking to prove a point against the rebels have been extremely expensive undertakings and have proved difficult to sustain after the fact. Most footholds in the Rime Lands are weakened first by the weather and then finished off by the clansmen themselves, ultimately gaining little and costing much. With that said, the Rime Clans themselves seem to lack the offensive power to bring meaningful harm to the Cold Throne or to the rest of the Throne at large with their raiding and reaving along coasts and outposts. While it does provide them with much needed supplies such as grains and metals that they cannot easily produce so far North, in comparison to the resources of the Emperor, such losses are an embarrassment at the worst.
Ancillary to this more primary expression, the battle for the soul of the Njordic people is still at hand. While normally the Church can all but totally eliminate all contact with heretical views and witches, carefully curating their message over generations to their flock in order to create the mightiest spiritual virtue, the normal strategies for such things have really no application in Njordr. It is all but impossible to keep the Njords from having contact with at least the occasional die hard believer in the Old Gods and their ways. Even if in the Cold Throne such people are a small minority, they hold an allure and influence out of proportion with their numbers, for no matter what some might say, the matter of full conversion to the Benalian Faith is nowhere near settled. While the decades stretch on since the Annexation and a new generation of Njords are born into the Benalian Faith and the story of the Benalian Njords deepens, so too, while the North remains divided and the Rime Clans unconquered, do doubts begin to fester even among the faithful, and the situation becomes more complex every year. If the Bearking conquered the Jarls with the blessings of the Old Gods, might that mean that the Old Gods encourage us to accept Benalus and the Throne as well? These questions and more the clergy must work diligently to address from their wintery pulpits, calling prayer and convocation against the chill wind blowing from the North.
Njords tend to be taller and wider than people from other regions of the Throne. Their hair ranges from dark to fair, with fair colored hair, wheat in color, or even white as the driven snow, being much more common here than any other region of the Throne, yet still far from dominant overall. Men almost always wear beards – a necessity of the chill weather – however, the length of beard is a currently changing trend. The traditional karl’s beard is fairly long, perhaps 4 inches from the chin, which is longer than an average Gothic man’s beard by a fair amount. Since the Annexation, somewhat out of cultural trends from the South, and a general notion that things from the greater Throne are newer, better, greater than old things, the southern Njords have taken to trimming their beards closer, just to the jawline – more the suggestion of a beard than a real warrior’s beard. Conversely, the Rime Clans have taken to growing their beards out longer than ever, oiling and braiding them into plaits and adorning them with bronze, iron, or precious metal rings.
Overall, Njords tend to be larger than other people, but there are some instances of extremely large men and women in Njordr. Called “Jötunnsblut,” these individuals are usually one or two heads above all others, thickly muscled and very tough. Those with the Jötunnsblut have enormous appetites, not just for food and drink, but also for song, wine and carnal pleasure, and they are said to be descended from the old giants. Whether this is true is an unknown, and they are uncommon enough that no one can think of a reliable story of two of them coupling and siring a child, and whether that child was also heir to the Jötunnsblut, but if the rumor were true, there have been whispers within the Church that such a thing would be an unholy adulteration of human purity, and at least one mad priest has made an attempt at slaying all of them he could find – though his ambitions were cut short soon after.
Njordic food is very inventive at remaining nutriotius and good tasting with very few resources and few ingredients. Since the overall lack of food is one of the primary contributors to the culture of Njordr, its need for raiding, its focus on survivalism and endurance, and the overall character of Njordr and its people, food and how it is treated holds an important role in society as a symbol of wealth or an indication that the Old Gods have been temporarily appeased. Offerings of food in traditional religious ceremonies are the most sacred thing that can be sacrificed except the blood and life of a man.
The traditional fare of Njordr is eked out from foraging and hunting in the majority, and mostly revolves around the sea. Fishing is by far the largest source of meat, and Njordic fishermen will hunt whales when they can find them, often by driving them onto a beach in whole pods and killing them with knives and spears. Since food must last for as long as possible whenever possible, preservation methods including salting, freezing, smoking, drying, and fermenting are all used on fish and any other meat, and many recipes call for meats that have been preserved in some specific fashion. Milk, when it can be had from goats and the rarer aurochs, is never used for drinking, seen instead as a raw material to make cheese. Cheeses form a panoply of options in the Njordic diet, and are included in nearly any meal.
As with other things, there is a stark difference in the modern Njordr in the diets of the Southern and Northern peoples. This is due to the ability for the Cold Throne to import goods from the rest of the Throne. While they still value and have a taste for the traditional fare of their culture, Njords are willing to pay (with newly minted metal currency) for exotic goods from Hestralia, Cappacionne, or even Sha’ra.
Common Fruits: various foraged berries, crabapple
Common Vegetables: Seaweed, mushroom, turnip, carrots
Common Meats: beached or hunted whales, fish (dried, fresh or fermented), shellfish, duck eggs, aurochs meat
Common Dairy: butter, a variety of salted and unsalted cheeses
Common Recipes: Pancake with berries, honey glazed root vegetables, pickled shark, aurochs stew with beer, honeywine
Being the most northerly inhabited part if the known world, Njordr is above all characterized by its cold climate. After a certain geographical point, usually historically thought of as the roughly horizontally flowing river Kaltlina, the land becomes extremely difficult to inhabit, rivaled perhaps by nowhere else in the known world, except perhaps the deepest Shariqyn deserts or the badlands beyond human settlements. It is there that the Rime Clans make their home, at least politically, though the truth might be closer to that sympathy for the Rime Clan ideology generally increases as one moves Northward, and that those who live above that line are the most fervent of those beliefs. Even they, however, make sure to raid as frequently as possible to the South, and spend as much time in habitable land as they can before retreating to their more or less untouchable strongholds beyond the river.
Njordr also boasts some impressive mountain ranges that begin rather immediately a short distance from most of the coasts. This makes the choice to live either by the coast or somewhere else even more stark, and further decreases the amount of arable land to be used for traditional farming methods. Beyond the Kaltlina, there are flat tundras that extend for great distances, and only a few brave Njords have traversed deeply into them and returned – returned with strange tales, and nightmares.
PLANTS AND RESOURCES
Nearly everywhere, regardless of altitude or distance Northward in Njordr, there are trees. Great, thick and ancient trees with strong evergreen bows that hold whole hills of snow in their branches. These mighty old sentinels are rich, strong and flexible wood can be used readily for cabins, ships, tools, and many other tasks, and they produce a thick tarry resin that can be used to waterproof ship hulls and as a (admittedly harsh-tasting, yet edible) preservative for food. For all the culture of scarcity in Njordr, the trees are a thing of abundance, and as such, they are not usually thought of as associated with the vengeful Old Gods, except Vecatra.
One rare and precious commodity is a special form of iron that is found in swamps and bogs, called bog iron. It can be detected, especially in areas that have seen much battle or tragedy, as a black and greasy oil that develops on the surface of scummy water. It is known that one may wade into the bog, saying obsequious prayers to the Old Gods as one does, and find deposits of this wicked black metal. It is thought that objects, especially weapons, made from bog iron, are holy to the Old Gods, and are fated to be used in great ways, by great names. Swords or axes of bog iron feature prominently in sagas as the tool that enacts fate, and their appearance in a story is always a way for the Skálds to clue in their audience that something profound is coming.
GEOGRAPHIC EFFECTS ON CULTURE
Njordr is characterized by its coastlines, and historically most of the human settlement has been along its many coasts. Access to the sea, which means access to fishing as well as raiding the coasts of other lands like Rogalia and Gotha, have been able to foster the best access to resources, and thus able to support the largest Clans over the generations. This, in turn, has lead to associations with the seas and those who master it as respected branded men of authority, and so over time has turned naval lifestyle into something romantic for the Njords.
Certainly the largest effect of the geography is the need for raiding that the scarcity of the land engenders, and the cultural fixation on toughness, wherewithal, endurance and personal strength. These qualities, and a disincentive toward external mercy for the “other” that might complicate a raiding party’s ability to raid for resources necessary to provide for their young, have created the Njords that the world has come to identify with the men of the Northlands. Every time a Northman leaves to raid some distant coast, he knows that the fate of his clan, his family, his infant son, hang on his successes. He is saving his family with every swing of the axe, securing his return with every throw of a torch upon thatched roof. The cold created the Northmen, but it is folly to think they have no warmth within them.
HAZARDS OF TRAVEL
Due to the warlike nature of the various clans and bands, traveling is always a less than perfectly safe enterprise. One of the first things that any travelers will be asked when encountering another group will relate to which side of the conflict they stand upon. Sometimes, this is obvious – such as if the other party is sporting Gothic forged metal armor, or flying hide flags depicting the symbols for Ormhildr or other Old Gods upon them, even on occasion a recently sacrificed human being flying there with the banner – in these cases a handy lie will serve a traveler well. The general form of the hail between parties is the question of “Old or New”.
Many parties, foreign and Njord alike, are unprepared for exactly how harsh the weather can truly be. There is a latitude at which the skin freezes and breaks. There is a degree of northerly pursuit in which the heart is frozen and the man simply dies. Many an expedition has vanished into the North above the Kaltlina, never to return.
There are some that say that it isn’t just the weather that kills them, though. Stories abound of nastier, more directed deaths than the cold. The great black or white dragons of the old legends have all vanished, but the occasional story of those travelers who need to go past the land of roads and paths brings a story of that one last remaining dragon found in seen old cave or high place, though this hasn’t been proven to anyone’s satisfaction. Besides that, horror tales of black-clad knights that range on huge horses in the cold have made their way into circulation from several sources, though details on what or who those terrible spectres could be are all confused and in disagreement. Some say they are a lost tribe of Northman, the hardest of all the clans sworn straight to Sveas the Frost Taker alone, and unharmed by the cold. Others say they are wicked elves who hunt mankind for sport, traveled all the way from their homeland in the far East of Sha’ra to hunt the most dangerous kind of manfolk. Still others, these in comment from the new Gothic visitors and settlers claim a familiarity with these sorts of lonely evils – The Abyssal Knights of Lazarolth, perhaps – it could be that there is some terrible enclave of heretics up North away from the prying eyes of the Church and her Inquisition.
There is a perception that the North is relatively wild compared to other environments in the Throne, especially Gotha where the power of Empire resides, but this is actually not as true as one might imagine. In fact, Gotha has every bit as much wild territory as Njordr and more by total area, owing to its enormous size, but the intense cold most of the year means that the incentive to fund some expensive expedition into the wilderness in search of treasure or resources is a risky venture indeed, with money best spent elsewhere. Because of this, there are many areas where those few travelers who do venture forth return with tales of relic monsters that are rarely heard about in the South. Stories of trolls and ogres, goblins and a kind of monstrous wolf called Wargs by the Northmen. These seem to be similar to the Dire Wolves that are sometimes seen in the forests of southern Gotha in the summers, but whereas Dire Wolves are usually found alone, or leading packs of normal wolves, Wargs are often found as entire packs of large, ferocious and cunning wolves. Some have reported them having strange, perhaps magical qualities, such as being able to move from place to place without stepping in between, or having plants and light die away as they approach, or even night falling all around them as they hunt, provoking other Night Malefic horrors to appear.
NJORDIC PEOPLE IN OTHER COUNTRIES
For most of recorded history, Njordic peoples in other lands outside of the far North meant only one thing – raiders. The vast majority of the understanding of the Northmen in every other land comes from this perception, and it is difficult to overstate the effect that has on the cultural relationships between they and anywhere else in the Throne they may travel. Since before the Throne, before the Lion Age and before the Church, the Northmen have been seen only as an adversary, a hated alien foe who exist only to murder, ravage, steal and burn. The dreaded sight of longboats landing in a lightly defended area meant simply that you were dead, or else a slave, if you could not kill these monstrous people and drive them from your shore. As one might expect, even the idea of these evil men and women joining the Throne has been utterly rejected by many, especially those of the Rogalian coast-lands and those in the Northern areas of Gotha.
With all of that said, the Church has been preparing the way for the eventual Annexation of Njordr for over a century, since the time of Reinhardt von Herkheist and his first probing forays into the North that ended so poorly. Stories of Njordic heroism and strength have made their way into circulation, emphasizing the virtues where possible of the Northern peoples, and above all, trying to teach people to think of them as just that, peoples. An effort has been made to show the Northmen not as solely raiders and killers, but as a people enslaved by cruel gods and cruel circumstances. This has been at least moderately effective, effective enough that humanitarian efforts so many decades later when the Bearking united the clans were able to move underway and generous souls invited Njord travelers into their homes who wished to escape the cycles of death and misery that their land provoked.
In the wake of Annexation, Njordic people have been seen in other lands far more often than before, but this time not as raiders, but as traders, pilgrims, or simply those wishing to start a new life in the fertile green lands they had always dreamed about, happy just to be peasants under a powerful Lord of the Throne and work the land for its bounty, rather than fighting clan against clan for an eternity over terrible land. This practice has been ironically most successful in the two places where Njords have been most historically feared and hated – Rogalia and Gotha. The first because new peasants, especially those who know their way around a battlefield, are a welcome reinforcement from a purely military standpoint against their neighbors, though this has risks of its own. A Rogalian Count could throw open their gates to Njordic immigration, but they risk revolt if they mistreat their new peasants because they remain well-armed and organized in their original clans and bands, but with none of the ingrained fear and mistrust of other Houses that true-born Rogalians have. One Count is as good as another, and if your Count Bradford seems unreasonable, yet too strong to knock over like you would a wicked Jarl, why not simply talk to the next Count over who is offering better treatment? Wise Counts spice their militaries with a few branded here and there so that their soldiers can benefit from their experience, but don’t take in whole bands at a time.
The latter case, Gotha, sees many Njords immigrating successfully for different reasons. First, those Njords who choose to leave Njordr in the first place are generally those who want to find a new way, a new life, and those are the ones best receptive to conversion to the faith of Holy Benalus and the Church. Many of these foreigners find fortress monasteries to live at and study their new faith with an intensity and zeal that rivals or even exceeds Gothic attitudes. Others find a peaceful life in the Throne’s interior to their liking, and still others simply wander the Throne, looking to experience the gigantic world that they are suddenly free to travel as citizens.
It is these last that are often seen in the other corners of the Throne, like Dunland, Hestralia or Capacionne. Some leave Njordr by ship and find work as a sailor in a Hestrali merchant fleet, using their longboat skills to prowl trade routes for profit instead of thralls. Others simply want to kill somewhere or something novel, joining military platoons on some border as a mercenary, fighting for Rogalian Counts or in Capacian border patrols or selling experience slaying Orc in the far frontier. There have even, strange as it may seem, been reports of Branded Men of the Rime Clans fighting for the Shariqyn in the desert, looking to do some damage to Throne interests in a novel way, or trying to make friends who hate the Empire as much as they do.
The Njordic traditional art forms center around that thing that is dearest in the hearts of the Njordic people – history. Forms of art often center around some form of record keeping and the will to make that record as beautiful as possible, or to make sure that the events that it memorializes are never forgotten by time. To this end, some of the most iconic pieces of Njordic art are the Runestones. Runestones are slabs, stones or menhirs that are emblazoned or carved with runes, the language of the North since ancient times.
A runestone, intended as a permanent monument to be left at the site of something worth remembering, usually contains the name and some brief description to identify the one who made or had it made, as well as the names and deeds that are to be recorded. These runestones are left for all manner of informative purposes, but are chiefly left as grave markers or the at the sites of great battles. In a given region, there is often one chief runestone at some central location like a town or an ancestral barrow, and this stone will serve as a reference to all other runestones in the area. Since many runestones are left at remote locations like mountaintops or caves, or wherever the heroic deed in question took place, it can often be difficult or dangerous to find the runestone itself. For this reason, and so that such sites are not lost to memory, when a runestone is created, it is essentially registered on the great menhir with some small description of where it is and what it is so it can be found later.
Skálds will often stay in a certain village for a season as a central base, taking day trips out to find each of the runestones in the area as recorded on the great runestone menhir in order to learn each story and turn them all into tales to be sung by the fire in the hall of some great name. In recent times, Benalian priests have begun to do the same, in order to better understand the people through their stories and heroes, and to make apt reference to those great legends in relation to their own scripture, drawing comparisons to Dumal or Benalus to assist them in conversions or convocation. Priests will often take a rubbing or draw a reference copy of a runestone when they find it, and then compile them into books and send those books to Lethia with their own notes, should some misfortune befall them in the North. These books are then given and distributed to the next generation of Priests, and the work continues.
Some Clergy have noted the cultural feature of the Skálds as a centerpiece of cultural learning, treatments of morality, and stories of religious action. Realizing the similarity to the role that Benalian priests now struggle to fulfill, the Church has reached out to try to woo these master performers to their side, to tell their stories, just as they do and have done for whichever Jarl or thegn has provided for them in centuries past. There have been a few who have thought to make their own legend by being the Skáld that cracked the problem. Still, the quantity of those who are willing to take up that challenge have been underwhelming, and so there has been an answer in a new Order of Njordic Melandahim priests who make it their mission to travel Njordr in search of the Runestones and become the Skálds of the Church.
Branded men are always entitled to a runestone when they die. Great names indeed are also traditionally given a barrow mound to help mark their burial. These mounds often hold the remains of a thegn and his band if they all died together or in the same area. The task of gathering the remains of a band, or at least its named men, falls to the wise women who know the secret burial rites of Sveas, and the talespinners who know the secrets of Aufvaldr. They will lead small groups of people to gather up the dead, take their notorious belongings such as their shield and sword, perhaps their helm or drinking horn, or other personal effects, and supervise the raising of a barrow for their interment. A runestone will be carved and detailed while the work is underway, and blessings begged for from the Old Gods to protect the place from evils. Indeed, such places are rumored to be haunted by the named dead, and even defended by them. Great names withstand death – else what is the point of a name and the runestone? – and these draugr remember all the skills and might of their living selves as they defend their own remains and personal treasures from those who would damage their legend. It’s thought by some that if the corpse of a branded man is rising to slay those who would rob the tombs, it is the corpse alone acting as a servant to its original owner, while the spirit of the man or woman is elsewhere or in the afterlife in celebration.
Runestones are sometimes taken from their original location for various reasons, some baleful, and some with good intention. There are times when some natural hazard such as a flood or a curse will endanger the land itself, and the runestone will be moved somewhere safe for its protection, presumably with the intent to return it at some later time. The central runestone that catalogues the others often has several other runestones leaning next to it, or even seated in an alcove or stone table. In some cases this is because there is a fear that a rival clan will smash the stone in order to drive the legend of their enemy into the dust. This is considered to be an unholy act, but the sad truth is that unholy acts are just as good as righteous ones when it comes to making your name – perhaps better. In some recent cases, priests have taken old runestones explicitly to destroy them, as a way to begin the erosion of the so-called Old Ways of Njordr, but this practice has been shown to be problematic and has been forbidden by Lethia, at least officially.
It is fortunate
to be favored
with praise and popularity.
It is dire luck
to be dependent
on the feelings of your fellow man.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
The art of the saga originates from Njordr, and it is perhaps the most well-known form of Njordic art outside of the runestones. Sagas are long, partially poetic, partially prosaic, partially historical, partially fictitious retellings of stories and ancient deeds. Some sagas take a few minutes to perform, but the more well known ones take many hours, and in some cases, even several days. These last are usually only recited at great holidays and celebrations, or at the Allthing, though this gets started a few days before the official start date while the early arrivals continue to wait on the coming of the more distant or more slow-moving clans to arrive.
Sagas are more than history, and more than stories; they form the backbone of Njord culture in a fundamental way. They tell the Njords who they are, who they are supposed to be, and how to do it. There are many trials and tests that are derived from the sagas, and doing those tests aligns your story with the story of some ancient hero like Jördurmund Stormhammer or Kark Ironblood. While it takes more than just emulating an old story or acting out a simulated adventure to make a name for yourself, a Northman might enact some deed at a key moment in his story – perhaps before an important battle he will drive a runed nail through his own hand like in the Saga of Tori White-Eyes, or on the eve of his wedding he might climb to the top of a great crag and call down the thunder to strike him dead if his choice be false like Horma the Crow. When their own story is being told around the fire, the parallels scarcely need to be drawn when a man’s companions mention that a groom “went up the mountain to find the storm,” before the day. These trials and rites of passage that a Njord can opt into are in some ways a special advantage that Njords possess over other cultures. Few others in the Throne can know the security that having a clearly defined identity gives a person, to know exactly what is expected of a man or woman who wants to do well, to be great, and to be remembered. All the worse, then, considering the identity crisis that so characterizes Njordr now.
Another form of art that originates in Njordr is formal debate. Like their cousins in Gotha, Njordic tradition demands that major decisions that affect many be decided by casting votes. Just as the position of Emperor of the Throne is to this day decided by election, Njords hold the Thing and the Allthing to decide the way to proceed. During these events, clans and bands will bring forth their thegns and other names to speak on behalf of their cause or position. Destinies ride on the outcomes of these events, and so every care is taken in the process. So that there remains order in the proceedings, certain rules are followed called Talt, which outline the expectations of behavior. Mastering these rules to produce a persuasive argument is considered to be one of the fine arts of Njordic culture, and masters, on and beyond earning great names for victory at such events, are revered and valued as much as any battlefield hero for their ability to prevail at such meetings. As well, Lawgivers, part of whose duty is to recite the Talt at the start of proceedings at such events, are also greatly admired for their part in the ritualized combat of words and ideas.
Ships are in many ways the symbol of Njordic presence in the world, for it is by the ships that land the Northern raiders on distant shores that most of the world has had any historical contact with the Northerners. The longboats of the Njords are often decorated in beautiful and intricate designs, especially the prow of the vessel, which are traditionally decorated with figureheads resembling warriors or the ancient dragons of the ice. It is considered unthinkably dangerous to design a prow in the likeness of Ormhildr, the Tideserpent, for any depictions of the Old Gods in any physical form is forbidden, as it is thought to bring their attention and thus their wrath.
Like runestones, scrimshaws, carved tusks or bones, usually from whales, are carved for record-keeping, and also as a form of blessing using the runes to enact hopes and curses. In opposition to runestones, which are usually designed to be left at a specific site, scrimshaws are instead carried with the scrimshander who makes them or given to others. These bone charms are sewn into clothes, worn on leather cords, or otherwise kept about the person, and are said to be excellent vessels to carry the magical nature of the runes, and to make real the magic that is hewn into them by an expert scrimshander or Aufvaldr-wise talespinner.
The Church’s influence can be seen more and more in the physical and spoken arts of the Njords. Beginning with items of reference to the Throne and its Church, it is now not uncommon to see blessings spelled out in runic verse, or depictions of lions carved upon a runestone. Even the Skálds, those inviolate poet-priests of the Old Gods, learn the stories of Benalian Njords and their deeds, and even the story of a cruel Markgraf or mighty Earl and the stories that are relevant to everyone’s interests and are demanded around the hearthfire. Most tellingly, one of the Sagas most often requested is Epicus, the verses from the Testimonium which tell the story of Benalus.
While most musical tradition in Njordr is unaccompanied spoken song, there are a few noteworthy instruments that are in use that are Njordic in origin. The bukkahorn is a kind of 9-holed flute of carved rams horn. Found and used on the precious herding hills that crop up near the even more precious coastlines, its original use was for warning other herdsmen of attack or danger. Herding lends itself well to long periods of lonely waiting, however, and herdsmen have used the bukkahorn to great effect as a simple musical instrument for pleasure for many centuries. As music carries quite well in the high places of Njordr, it is not uncommon in some parts to hear the calming music of a bukkahorn echoing off the fjords for many leagues, or even to have several herdsmen performing together over great distances with these horns as part of a long-range duet or concert as a form of affable conversation to pass the time and give pleasure to others, as well as to brag and compete in skill. The best of these even account very well for the effect of echo and delay of sound, weaving their music to best make use of and account for those special circumstances. Masters in a friendly competition of such things are a memorable, and uniquely Njordic, experience often spoken of in other lands.
The Njordic kantele is a sort of 5 string psaltery or zither, essentially a straight board with a notch or hole taken out of one side and five to six strings of gut stretched across, and it is usually used by venerable old Skálds who time has finally taken the power of their voice to carry across great distances and masses. Most Skálds, after a lifetime of practice and mastery, keep their powerful throats and lungs well into their old age, but it is considered a sign of a worthy journey reaching its end when the Skáld takes up the kantele and begins to learn its secrets. Because of this, a Skáld with a kantele is perhaps one of those most respected men you will find anywhere in the North, for he is truly a master of his art. The kantele is often used by old Skálds to accompany young ones, having the youth sing a saga while the elder accompanies it. This relationship is traditional for old Skálds to pass on their lore to a new generation, and most young Skálds seek far and wide to learn from a master playing a kantele.
Religion in Njordr is perhaps the most complicated and important issue that affects Njordic life and culture. Whether Njordr is part of the Throne or not and what that means to the average Njord would be a far simpler matter if not for the question of religion, for the Benalian religion and its mandatory nature as part of the Throne of God on Earth means that not only must the Njords join the political association that is the Throne, but they must also change who they are and who they have always been in order to do so. For some, this is welcome, for the Old Gods are, few would disagree, tyrannical and controlling, and their religion is certainly as much out of fear as out of devotion. The North is a frightful place, and the Old Gods are a mirror to those fears, or perhaps the cause of those fears, depending on how one sees them. Still, it also well understood that life is neither fair or easy no matter which skies you dwell under, and some Njords believe that owning that fact and living that life, accepting that truth and praying to those Gods are the right way to be – not only the right way, but the strong way that makes men mighty and heroic.
THE RIME LANDS
The first and most important aspect of the ceremonies of the Old Gods of the North is the nature of the relationship between god and mortal. In the traditions of the Njords, the Old Gods are venerated and revered, but not worshiped and emulated. There are many ceremonies and rites that are performed in supplication to these divine powers, but the majority of them are rituals of appeasement and abasement, begging the god not to intercede in the world, rather than to do so. The expected nature of the Old Gods is that they are wrathful and cruel, and will take action against those that attract their attention. Their motivation for these actions is their prideful nature, for they wish to (some wise-men even say, they must) enforce the reality of their greatness in order to remain so. It is through this vanity that they may be appeased, for if their gaze falls upon one while they are in the midst of venerating them, they, while not impressed or grateful, will find no reason to actively make that mortal’s life worse, as they are already hard at work doing so. Thus, the standard structure of Njordic ritual involves some form of abasement, the preparation of some kind of offering or sacrifice, followed by calling the attention of the specific Old God in question while the sacrifice is made. This ensures that the god will sweep their gaze over the Njord at the time they are most favorable, or least unfavorable, and then hopefully ignore them for some time after, satisfied enough with what they saw.
The overall result is that the Njords who perform the prescribed rites can expect, if not a happy life by virtue of adhering to these ancient laws and customs, at least a fair life, and can expect not to have some manner of capricious doom pronounced upon them by a hostile divine entity. What remains is an attention to personal virtue and strength, testing their mettle and cunning against other men and the rest of the world’s challenges.
THE OLD GODS
Sveas, Lady of Winter and Death, Frost Taker
Sveas is the personification, or origin of, the winter cold – the endless ice. Her worship always involves sacrifice of life. Of all the Old Gods, Sveas is considered to be the most pitiless and cruel. Sveas presides over the realm of dishonored souls who fail to live a virtuous and brave life. Sveas attempts to seize and enslave all souls that pass through the gates of death, and only mighty souls, thought to be the souls of those with powerful names and legends, can struggle free from her grasp. In death, the soul’s power in form is thought to match the power of their deeds and name, and then to literally do battle with the Goddess of Death and Ice. Those who defeat her – impossible in life but possible in death – are free to lend their might to the cause of the world they favor, moving events of the world of the living. Vengeful Sveas hates those who escape her grasp, and the innumerable souls of the weak and the wretched she uses to her own ends.
Sveas’ holy land is the land of eternal ice that begins somewhere far north of the Kaltlina, where men cannot survive – where nothing can survive. The infamous Dödsökare saga speaks of a place of black ice far north of habitable land, where the glaciers swirl and rise, and a terrible city of the damned is there, hidden from the world, but very much within it, waiting for the day of reckoning of mankind. Even the faithful of the Old Gods usually do not take the Dödsökare saga as legitimate canon, if such a thing exists, but it is very well written and quite evocative in the voice of the right Skáld, and so is still sung and remembered.
Rites of Sveas involve the dead and death, as well as the cold. The informal rites of Sveas, those performed by everyday Njords trying to make their way through their life, such as travelers headed through cold regions, or finding themselves snowed in to somewhere unexpected and having to wait out the winter, offer some form of warm sacrifice to Sveas in order to get mercy or satiate the cruel goddess. Thought to be the surest way to survive misadventure in the ice is to willingly strand a member of the party in the snow with no shelter, letting them slowly freeze and die, their fire slowly fading until nothing is left. Less serious sacrifices involve building a roaring fire and then piling snow upon it until the fuel is too wet to burn, and ultimately until the fire pit is buried completely. The formal rites of Sveas, practiced by her wise women, accept ritual sacrifice in order to invoke the spirits of the dead, protect tombs and other places of death, or to call the ice upon a foe by directing Sveas’ hate toward them at the exclusion of else. Other rumors speak of eating driven snow or ice to freeze the heart and kill the warmth of kindness and guilt. The wise women of Sveas operate in secret covens, and would be driven out of communities for fear of them, if not for the fear itself of their wrath.
The covens of Sveas are not turned to for their assistance; they are instead allowed to act as they please for whatever aims they wish. Most Njords see them during and after great battles, where they appear and supervise the blessings of the burial mounds and barrows, or occasionally in other circumstances, where their presence is thought to portend the doom of the one who sees them – women, young and old, wearing all white in the snow.
Thou should never
Sleep in the arms
of a sorceress
Lest she lock thy limbs
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
Aufvaldr, Story Spinner, Wisdom Bringer, Fire Teacher, Husband to Sveas
Fire is needed by the newcomer
Whose knees are frozen numb;
Meat and clean linen a man needs
Who has fared across the fells,
Water, too, that he may wash before eating,
Handcloth’s and a hearty welcome,
Courteous words, then courteous silence
That he may tell his tale.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
Aufvaldr is the god of stories, wisdom, legends and tales, as well as fire. Thought of as a wise and roguish sorcerer, often disguised as an old man or poor traveler, Aufvaldr is said to have watched the Njords since they first came across the Sea of Coils and made claim of the northlands. He learns the stories of all of the heroes of the Njordic people, and remembers them after they die, after those who knew them have died, acting as living memory and a torch to keep all of the heroes of Njordr alive in the world. Aufvaldr is thought to have taught the Njords how to survive in the cold climates when they arrived, appearing in person as a wise hermit, and giving the first Jarls advice through story and tale. He shows up as a personage in many of the sagas, being present for many momentous events and frequently interfering with their outcomes, especially if slighted in some way by one side.
While Aufvaldr seems to break the idea of the Old Gods as capricious and wrathful, a closer inspection of the sagas shows that not to be the case, for while he does give, he demands respect that is due of his stature – even when those he speaks to have no idea to whom they speak – and punishes those who slight him. While not unheard of, he usually will not punish the offending party at once, instead he will reveal his identity and then depart, leaving some dreadful curse, or simply going to the court of the offender’s enemy and granting some secret piece of information or knowledge so that it may be used to foil or destroy the one who disrespected him. In one of the Sagas, the clever Skurli Storunson, called Skurli the Jailer, tricks his enemy into offending Aufvaldr so that he himself may benefit from the Old God’s wrath. While Aufvaldr appreciates the methods the Jailer uses, he decides to test him further, only to have Skurli be tricked himself by Aufvaldr into cursing his the god, at which point Aufvaldr, perhaps to prove he is the greatest trickster of all, lays both of the sides of the conflict to ruin through the last act of events.
Aufvaldr is the husband of Sveas, although the marriage is loveless. Aufvaldr spends most of his time away from the Ice Goddess, preferring instead to dabble and drink with mankind – join in their fires, seduce their women, and generally get the better of people while enjoying the simplest pleasures of life. Their loveless marriage, the god mentions in jokes, is the cause of her cruelty and vengeful nature.
The wise men of Aufvaldr often dress like how the god is portrayed in the sagas, grey traveling cloak, wide hat and a staff or spear, and join in fires and song just as the god would, taking up songs and learning the tales, offering advice and wooing women. This leads ordinary men to never know whether the real Aufvaldr is present with them, or some old man pretending to be him, or whether that matter at all, in the end. The informal rites of Aufvaldr are invoked by spitting a mouthful of strong alcohol into open flame, which is said to attract the attention of the god, before a story of a hero or branded man is told. This allows Aufvaldr to hear the tale and add it to his collection so that it can be remembered forever, as well as of course inviting the god’s favor or lack of disfavor. Formal rites of Aufvaldr are called before the Thing and Allthing during the reciting of the laws, the Talt, and the Varlog, which are said to be passed down from Aufvaldr in part, or based on his stories or teachings.
Stilvskar, The Slayer, The Hunter, The Killer
Stilvskar, sometimes called Red Stilvskar when contrasted with White Benalus, is the son of Sveas and Aufvaldr. He embodies skill and deadliness, applied wisdom and human cunning. He is the patron of warriors and raiders, and any who would win through being better than the other man, be that through skill of arms, tricky guile, inciting the other to mistake, or any other means not patronized by Ulfrandr.
As the child of both Aufvaldr and Sveas, Stilvskar receives the gifts of both parents – wisdom and death – and is also thought to have both of their caprice, arrogance and cruelty as well. Stilvskar loves to fight, loves to win, loves to show superiority, but superiority that is earned. In the sagas, Stilvskar fights the enemies of the Old Gods such as monsters and foreign gods of other realms, and defends the land (though to be Njordr, but the Sagas never specifically say as such) from all its evils. Stilvskar is often invoked by the Rime Clans in their war against the Throne and Benalus, calling upon his skill at arms in their struggle against Throne knights and nobles, just as they evoke the god to beg that he do battle with the God of the Throne and kill the spirit of Benalus himself. Rites of Stilvskar involve prayers spoken over weapons and tools before use, often bloodying a blade on an animal or even the warrior’s own flesh in a sacrifice to Stilvskar, as well as rites to prevent enemy clans or bands from successfully bringing war against those who pray and sacrifice to Stilvskar. The cult of Stilvskar practice duels where they kill slave gladiators in a fighting pit, or sometimes multiple such gladiators at once to prove their power and skill before the Red God of Battle.
Vecatra, The World
The worship of the Old Gods of the North are actually many worships and many faiths that are often thought of collectively. The cult of Aufvaldr or Sveas or other Old Gods have existed for a long time, some say even before the exodus of the early Njords from the South, and when they left those lands they brought the remnants of those faiths with them, as well as finding new ones in their time in the Northlands. The stories of the Old Gods exist in a shared framework, and the stories and the personages of these gods interact with each other and affect the outcomes of one another. The framework that ties those stories together is Vecatra, certainly an Old God, and just as old as any of the others. Vecatra appears in the stories of the Old Gods, those that center on a different deity entirety, as usually a minor character or only by mention. In this tale Aufvaldr will remark that Vecatra bid him mention some extra piece of news before he left the hall of the Jarl, or Sveas warns an over-brave hero that her power and reach does not end at winter or at ice, that Vecatra will take what she will not, and between the two old hags, they will tear the hero asunder. Some versions of the saga have Vecatra show up to make good on such threats, while others have Vecatra give her blessing to another to do so on her behalf.
Vecatra represents an actual goddess as well as the world itself in which the Old Gods ply their influence over mankind. Some tales have Vecatra very literally just be the land itself, while others have her ruling over all of the Old Gods as the oldest and meanest of them all, and yet others have her serving under Sveas, Aufvaldr or another as part of an agreement or compact between them. Overall, she seems a much more indirect presence in worship and in sagas than the other Old Gods of the North, perhaps because she is somewhat associated with abundance rather than deprivation, and as such, it is out of the ordinary to need to sacrifice to her to ward off her anger and cruelty.
Jorg, The She-wolf, Mother of Ulfrandr, Daughter of Vecatra
One of the Gods that can certainly be said to have been brought with the Njords from the South is Jorg, the She-Wolf goddess. Jorg, unlike most of the Old Gods, is sometimes said to be encountered in the flesh, especially if a man were to be walking in the deep wilderness. Men have told tales of her appearing, a wolf the size of a great barge or longhall, with some of her children at heel – they merely the size of mere wagons and longships, and will begin to eat any men she finds. Her children will set among them, tearing apart any who didn’t have the good sense to run. Survivors have said that she will speak to some, in the human tongue with a human voice ushering from her enormous jaws, and that she speaks as a mature-voiced woman. Like most of the Old Gods, her role is an antagonist to the aims of mankind, and like any wolf, she culls those who stray far from the herd.
It would not be difficult to think of her as simply a monstrous beast that haunts the land, except for an important distinction. Some few have strode out into the wild with bravery that defies being hunted. Some few have gone there to find her, the legendary patron of the Njords, and ask why she hunts, ask what she wishes, and these souls have returned alive, and with her message – “Go back”.
Jorg is the patron of those who cling to the oldest ways. Some communities have tread out into the woods to live savagely, even by Njordic standards, and reportedly have found favor with her. Some even dress in pelts or go completely naked, and kill those they find in a human culling of their own. Others live in somewhat peaceful congress with the rest of society, but live a humble and simple life of hunting and gathering, not so much different than some of the poorest Njordic bands, except more humbly and in more hermitage. She is said to bless those who live a natural life and eschew the trappings of modern days.
Some have interpreted her command to go back as a mandate to return to the South, perhaps just out of her hunting territory, but moreover, back to Fenristadt, the city that was the home of her cult in ancient days, and even now is the seat of the Emperor and the Throne, the center of all modernity. These voices say that Jorg demands a return and conquest of the Throne and the retaking of their ancestral homelands. Such voices have gained volume in recent years, as the message of the Rime Clans grows louder to throw off the Southern invader.
Ulfrandr, The Wolf Runner, The Wild Man, The Barsark
Ulfrandr is held to be the son of Jorg and an un-named human man. The man is thought to have given up his name, as well as all other traces of his identity and gone into the wild to live as a wolf, or to live as a primeval beast, perhaps in some ultimate dedication to Jorg. Sometimes the Skálds will name this individual, or suggest his true identity to be one of a few perhaps likely names, but there is no one traditional answer. Many Skálds believe he is meant to represent mankind in a general sense, and make no attempt to name him.
This man, however, found Jorg’s favor and laid with her, creating a new sort of man, whom Jorg called Ulfrandr, the Wolf Runner. A perfection of primeval man in all his glories, his strengths and his weaknesses. He is meant to represent all of the inherent strengths of humankind, those things which cannot be taught, cannot be learned, but instead simply are as a consequence of form and physique, of instinct and of rage. The powers most “human” and also most bestial.
Warrior cults to Ulfrandr venerate raw physique, and practice what might be called rituals of fitness. They run barefoot for miles, lift and throw great stones, wrestle, swim, climb, sit beneath icy waterfalls of glacial runoff, then warm themselves with no fire. The things that make a man stronger, or a better warrior that have no place in the world of skill and training belong to Ulfrandr. Cults of Ulfrandr produce the barsark – the pinnacle of human rage and ferocity. These men, if men they can be called, are able to enter a terrible rage, in which the power of Ulfrandr is said to enter them, giving them incredible physical power, but in such a state they wish only for death and murder, to prove their existence over the world and demonstrate their power over life and the world.
Ura, Hearth Mother, The Childbearer
Ura is perhaps the most beloved of the Old Gods, being the guardian of birth and fields, all manner of seeds and growing. Her rites are the rites of plenty, of harvest and of sharing in the good times when there is less reason to kill one’s neighbor for what they own, and no need of toil. The little farming that can survive in the far north thank Ura for their bounty, and those of the poorest means, outcasts with no band or clan, even the hungry of the gutters in the dark shadows of the shining new Njordic towns in the Cold Throne, pray to Ura for relief. She is the patron of the weak, the helpless, but she is not a peaceful God.
Ura, the dreaded Hearth Mother, is considered to be perhaps the most rapacious and demanding of all the Old Gods, even mighty Sveas. She is the arbiter of birth, and without her blessing, still births are the most to be hoped for. Without her blessing, fields fail, animals sicken, the hearth fire dies, and life ends. If Ura is not appeased, all enterprise is fruitless. All hope dies. She holds the keys to birth, and when she is angered, it is the children which die first. No Old God is so feared as Ura.
Ormhildr, The Swirling Serpent, The Sea Killer
Who travels widely needs his wits about him,
The stupid should stay at home:
The ignorant man is often laughed at
When he sits at meat with the sage.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
Ormhildr is considered an Old God perhaps for its sheer power alone. The Tide Serpent, the Swirling Death, the Jaws of the Sea, The Coiling God, these are all names for a monster that no man can face, that nothing can kill. For a sea faring people like the Njords, nautical safety is a paramount concern. Njords learn every technique, every trick of the sea, of navigation and preservation, but there are things that no skill can save you from. There are storms that no ship can survive. When the sea opens up, and the beast comes forth, only prayers might save you then.
Ormhildr is reported to be some manner of dragon or snake that lives beneath the Sea of Coils, so named for the presence of the beast. On clear days it is said to be seen as a long, black trench that winds itself somewhere deep below the waves, hopefully not to surface. Other sailors have reported seeing the beast’s coiling back breaching the water in a roughly circular shape before diving deep back down. It comes with the storms, often as not. It’s not known if the storms call it, or it calls the storms, but storms on the Sea of Coil are said to be a sure sign that it is near. Occasional signs such as these alert the sailors to the presence of Ormhildr, and more importantly, the immediate call for sacrifice.
It is traditional for long voyages (any voyage that attempts to cross the Sea of Coils for raiding or otherwise) to perform a sacrifice one day out to sea. The sacrifice is a human one – a single man is chosen and trussed with a stone. Ritual words are spoken to dedicate the sacrifice to Ormhildr, and the man is cast overboard to sink to the bottom of the sea, and so abate the monster’s hunger. The sacrificial man is chosen by lots. Sacrificing of thralls is not thought to be effective – the selection must be random. All remember the tale of Jarl Torbin Tallsteed who refused at first to participate in the drawing of lots, thinking his status should exempt him. When the great names present forced him to participate, he did so, and fate chose him. Again he refused, ordering his karls to kill any who tried to sacrifice him. Tallsteed killed a man on the spot and cast him down the waves with the sacrifice stone, only to have Ormhildr appear that very night in a terrible storm and rear up, high above the longship. Tallsteed knew what he’d done, then, trying to play the Gods, and so willingly jumped into the waves, for Ormhildr to swallow him on the spot, then vanish again ‘neath the turbulent water.
THRALL OF THE OLD GODS
The worship of the Old Gods is not so much an act of worship as an act of appeasement. It is an acknowledgement that there are powers greater than mankind, and that mankind’s place in the world is submissive to those powers. Despite the message of human supremacy that the Church of Benalus espouses, there are many who, while finding the idea of heroically standing up to impossible odds through the power of your human character attractive, nonetheless find the idea of regular people standing up to and throwing off the yoke of the Old Gods impossible.
Because it is ultimately an act of slavery, not of worship, the Church of Benalus largely considers worship of the Old Gods to be involuntary and not in of itself heretical, per se, but this leniency has its limits. While even though Njords who make sacrifices to the Old Gods of the North are in effect praying for intercession to wicked and demonic powers, they perhaps do not know any better. This tolerance only extends so far, however, now that the Cold Throne is a reality and that people truly do have the option of converting to the one true faith of Holy Benalus and the Lord God, just as many a Njord has. Those who hold out are thought to largely do so more out of fear than evil, yet unconvinced of the power of the “Lion God” and White Benalus, awaiting a demonstration of His power.
For those in the Rime Clans, those who actively repudiate the Lord and his Prophet Benalus, it is perhaps another matter. While the Pontifex and the Inquisition have yet to formally declare them heretics, it seems that day may be soon coming. What difference that will make to the conversion of Njordr and the settling of the North into Throne hands, it is difficult to say with certainty. Some believe that the Inquisition would declare the Rime Clans heretics, but do not do so in favor of losing control of the Cold Throne because of the sympathy many still hold for their northern brethren. Others say that the Church is waiting for some ambitious Markgraf to finally have a truly crushing military victory over the Rime Clans and break their back, forcing them to crawl to the Cold Throne to survive, yet this clearly a sinful thought incompatible with at least public Church policy. The unique relationship between the Njords and their ancient ways, as exemplified in these Thralls of the Old Gods, demonstrates the complexity of the Njordic problem for the Church and Throne.
In the faith of the Njords, the afterlife is not another world – at least if you are lucky. Being taken by Sveas to the world of the weak and dishonored, to be used as her slave and pawn for the rest of time is the fate of those who cannot escape her wicked grasp when she judges them at the gates of death. The sad truth is that most Njords die with no particular name, no particular legend, which means that the majority of Njords finish the stories in the darkness beyond the gates of Sveas’ icy realm.
Those that do defeat Sveas in their trial are believed to endure in the world of the living as bodiless spirits. They might stay with their families, or with their clans, or even haunt their enemies. It is thought that in particular places or moments that strongly call their memory to hand, they are there. Perhaps called by the story, perhaps inspiring the story to be told, but they are there. At those moments, the living can feel what they feel, or what the dead want them to feel. The living can know what the dead would have wanted of them, or what advice they may have offered.
Despite the protest of the Rime Clans, the influence of the Holy Benalian Church has crept into and adulterated the Old Ways already. While officially accepted in neither the Old Ways of the Holy Church, there are some that treat Benalus like He Himself is an Old God of sorts. They make sacrifices of blood and animal flesh to Him, hoping that he will notice their plight and perhaps even make war upon the other Old Gods in whatever spiritual plane they must all occupy. All the while, the same individuals will make similar sacrifices and prayers to the Old Gods, lest they incur their wrath by working against them.
There are some who think of the Old Gods more as stern parents who mean the best for the the Njordic people, or people in general, but wish to harden them through trial while ultimately having their best interest in mind. Such people sacrifice as a well-meaning gift to the Old Gods rather than an offering of abject abasement. While this doesn’t necessarily result in a worse outcome, it is thought of as naive by most, and doesn’t conform with any of the established rites begging the Old Gods to intercede, or not to.
THE COLD THRONE
The Throne has done much to turn the windswept crags of Njordr into something that resembles Throne civilization in a relatively short amount of time. It is testament to the Throne’s commitment to unifying mankind that so many resources have been devoted to the uplifting of the Njordic people and improving their quality of life. Such operations are expensive, but to do so in such a short time is doubly impressive. That said, the rapidity with which the Njords have been technologically advanced means that certain cultural aspects have lagged behind to a degree.
It has, after all, been only about a single generation since the Annexation, and the events of that time and what came after are still living memory for some. The priests that preach from the freshly built cathedrals of Vißvind or Hornsreach are as much still teaching the basics of the religion as anything, unable to yet delve into more subtle commentaries that you might hear in a Gothic or Cappacian sermon.
Priests work with the existing Njord traditions as much as they can where it doesn’t overlap into worship of the Old Gods. They encourage the tradition of earning mighty names, but do so in terms of devotion to the Church and Throne. They point out the long held tradition of taking new Aldersabin names when joining the clergy, and teach the Njords about the Gothic tradition of having two names for such a purpose. A new generation of Njord priests have begun to be trained to administer to their own people, and achieve a sensitivity to Njord issues that the most well meaning priests from the lower Throne cannot achieve. Orthodoxy in the North is a flickering flame that is growing stronger all the time.
Unorthodoxy is perhaps the largest threat to the conversion of the Northmen. Not Heresy, and not the Rime Clans, but the simple unwillingness to fully commit to what, to the Northmen, is wholly alien without adulterating it with ideas that it is incompatible with. Because of the sensitive nature of the conversion and the nearly constant contact that the average Njord has with some incarnation of the Old Ways, be it through some old relative who won’t covert religiously, yet enjoys and supports living in the comfort of the Cold Throne’s hot furnaces and paved roads, or even just simple and innocent misinformation.
One of the largest problems in the Cold Throne’s burgeoning orthodoxy is the treatment of Benalus as a God himself, rather than a mortal man who had the blessing of God, as the orthodox Church teaches it. The Njordic culture fits Benalus easily into the mold of the Old Gods, and cults of Njords who make effigies and enact blood sacrifices to him have sprung up in multiple places. Sacrificing to Benalus to grant him power to fight and kill the Old Gods, or even more worryingly, to beg for his inaction as a bellicose enslaving deity no different from Sveas or Ura, is a constant source of unorthodoxy, even among the truly devout and converted.
Still other strange ideas have sprung up around the idea of the personages of the Church. Sir Peter of Queenswood, a Paladin of the Church crunched boots through the snows of the nascent Cold Throne while the Bearking still lived, and in that time proved himself a hero to the men of the new South through his courage and convictions. A band of branded men befriended him and followed him, and even branded him one of their own. From that band, it was discovered by Sir Peter that one of that band, Tova Grim, was also blessed with the Charismata, the first Njord found by the Church and the first to begin the training and bring the White Lion to Njordr. This story made an excellent saga, however, the Skálds carried the story differently, and a cult of Njords that fight to do great deeds in the name of the Church and Throne has sprung up, because they know from the Grim’s saga that with enough righteous deeds, the Lord will confer the Charismata upon you.
Ask you must
and answer well
to be called clever.
One may know your secret
never a second.
a thousand will know.
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
The Njords have a wide range of folklore, as recorded in the Sagas, usually as a feature, antagonist or danger of other stories. The Njords have always considered themselves alien to the frozen lands of the North, visitors in a strange land just trying to get by, but the entire idea of the Njords as a people suggests that they never made the land “their own”. Instead, the land is owned by the Old Gods and the various other races of the North. In this age, the elder races of Njordr are rarely seen, but the sagas remember them all.
Trolls – Trolls are a monstrous race of green or grey skinned humanoids that are said to live in the wildernesses of Njordr. Though rarely reported seen, they are said to turn to stone when they perish, and many rock formations can be found in vaguely humanoid shapes and are thought to be the corpses of Njordic trolls. Supposedly, these creatures are some kind of Orc, eating the flesh and bones of men. They are even said to practice the same kinds of Orc shamanism and worship of black hellish deities that it is rumored that Orc cry out to, but more modern scholars in the Cold Throne believe that these Njordic trolls are simply Orc themselves, holdovers from the first colonies of Northmen that have yet to be fully driven back behind an Imperial Wall.
Huldra – Huldra are witches and enchantresses that can appear human, but are actually some kind of creature of darkness. Some Skalds tell a story that there is only one Huldra, called Volva Huld, and that she is an ancient witch of terrible power appearing in many places and stories. Whichever the case, Huldra show up in many tales and stories, often as beautiful maidens in some manner of trouble or precarious situations requiring immediate rescue, then showing their gratitude carnally. It is said that if one engages in this kind of sexual contact, the Huldra can pull out the soul, memories, and the likenesses of everyone the victim knew, and appear as those people from then on. The victim sometimes survives the encounter, sometimes does not, but those that claim to have been under the Huldra’s spell return suffering permanent madness.
Dragons – Dragons are part of the earliest history of Njordr, and it is thought by modern scholars that dragons everywhere may have originated in the icy mountain ranges of these lands before the last ones were killed during the Age of Witchkings. Certainly it seems that Quixalialtha, the Dragon Queen, had her roost in the North, though beyond that, what evidence suggests they all come from the Northlands is unclear except to scholars.
Dwarves – Dwarves, though they live far away from mankind in the mountains and underground caverns, make regular contact with humanity in both the Cold Throne and the Rimelands, and have for generations. Even though contact with the Njords is fairly common, the Dwarves are relatively private about their lives and the interior of their world, provoking many rumors about what their lives are like. Dwarves even occasionally have fought alongside Njordic men in their battles, though usually in battles against Jötunn, Orc, or other monstrous beasts, rather than getting themselves involved in interclan struggles among the Njords themselves.
While the Dwarves remain mostly uninvolved in the day to day lives of Northmen, there are some communities where a Dwarven presence is commonplace, even having Dwarven laborers or professionals within walkable range from a village or even the rare Dwarf living within the walls of a village much of the year.
Nattmara – There are stories of individuals occasionally being born with a communion with the Old Gods. Usually the product of some unusual circumstances during midwifery, these children grow up in constant communion with the Gods. It is believed for these children, and later adults, sometimes called Mara, or “Night Mara”, that for every torment and cruelty they inflict upon the people of the North, the pleasure of the Old Gods grows – a living reminder of their yoke of mastery over the people of their icy realm. These people, for they can be either men or women, have a ferocious presence and force of will. They are thought to be both less and more than people, for though they come from ordinary stock, they quickly divorce themselves from their human origins, living in bands of their own, or undergoing special branding rites known only to their kind in the deep places of the wilderness.
Wise Ones – The Wise Ones, or as they are called by the priests of the Cold Throne, “witches”, are those who have transitioned from the cultural adherance to the Old Ways into the secret and deep rites of the Old Gods, delivering their blessings and curses as their hoary caprice demands. If the adherants to the traditions of the Old Ways and the Rimelanders are the lay followers of that religion, the Wise Ones are the priests, taking their dedication to the ancient ways as their entire way of life, and giving themselves in true supplication. Some believe that this, too, is simply the ultimate expression of abasement before the Old Gods, others believe they truly worship them, seeking to emulate their indifference to human feelings and demands of dominance and the abasement of others. Though they may perform the simple rites of any of the Old Gods, Wise Ones always choose one deity that they represent most fully, and perform the most sacred and occult rites of those inhuman presences.
Draugr – Draugr are the risen dead, guarding their own tombs and other sacred burial sites. They retain all their knowledge from life, and even some of their personality. Some stories have them leaving their tombs and venturing forth on quests, even challenging living souls to contests such as rowing or climbing in dangerous areas, killing the person if they fail – or perhaps that is simply how they fail – such a contest. Still, if the living soul can best the Draugr, either in combat, a challenge of might or riddles, they can demand a secret or a piece of treasure from the tomb. Or so the legend goes – few people ever succeed at such challenges, except in the sagas. Since the Draugr are said to retain some of their personality, it is thought as well that they will not harm their friends from their life, or those who are their descendants.
Lindvurm and Kraken – While much of the coast is the most densely inhabited of the Njordic country, the sea is still a mysterious place. One Saga, Eldgammelsaga, gives a story of the origin of the Old Gods, and suggests that all of them came from the sea, either across it, or far below it (the Saga varies slightly in its retellings), and some versions even suggest that the ocean is itself a kind of gateway to or through another place, and it is from this place that the Old Gods come originally, or else from the mysterious and cursed Isle of the Gods, out in the center of the Sea of Coils.
The Sea of Coils, grey and irritable on the best of summer days, and cruel and storm-tossed in the autumns and winters, is a place of mystery and madness, though also the gate to the rest of the world. Within the sea, the greatest threat is of course Ormhildr, the Tide Serpent, but lesser beasts, some say the daughters and sons of the great serpent, also exist. The Kraken, a giant squid-like beast that latches to ships and crushes the hulls or steals people from the decks, or the Lindvurm, a smaller serpents the size of horses or longships. These last are especially dangerous, for they can survive on land, scurrying up out of mud fens and onto land to bite horses or men and drag them back under the water to feast. They even show up ocassionaly in the new sewers of the Throne built southern cities and towns. Their venom, for they have great sacks of the stuff in a gland in the back of their skull, is able to bring down a large pack animal like an aurochs within a few minutes. It has anaesthetic properties, for this is how it immobilizes its prey, and some physickers and apothecaries have begun to experiment with lindvurm venom as a topical drug to treat injuries or help the ailing. The Church has forbidden it until it can be ruled whether the Lindvurm is truly connected to the Old God Ormhildr or simply a beast of the Sea of Coils.
Myling – Myling is the Sacrosanctum Priest classification for a creature resulting from unbaptized infants of the Northlands. When encountered, the Myling will leap onto the back of a passerby and demand to be properly buried in a graveyard. Even if the victim agrees, the creature will grow heavier and larger as they near the graveyard, and if the person is unable to complete the journey and then bury the creature in a grave, it will kill them in a rage. The exact nature of Mylings is curious to the Nuranahim priests that service the Cold Throne, for no sagas mention them, and graveyards are not part of traditional Njordic culture, though the practice has been in place since the Annexation and the founding of the new cities of the South.
Jötunn – It is commonly accepted that the giants of old are all dead now. The Northmen of old made a thorough effort at ridding the land of them, and their great needs for food and enormous size of their mansions make it fairly easy to find them. However, there is still much of Njordr that is essentially unexplored and uninhabited by mankind, either from weather and environs or bands of fearsome Orc that claim the area as their own. Some believe that out there, given up on mankind and back to using their oldest slave armies in Orc kind, the last few Jötunn remain, waiting for a time of revenge, or simply a time when humankind dies or leaves again. It is unknown whether the Jötunn themselves worship, fear, or have any knowledge or opinion at all of the Old Gods of the North. Some of the oldest sagas of the age of Lodi Oskrimr record bits of a tale that Lodi Oskrimr told to his human Jarls, about ancient beings that live in the far reaches under the earth, past the mountain mansions of the Jötunn, below the deepest mines of the Dwarves, and that it was there that true monsters and gods dwell.
The Jötunn’s greatest contribution to Njordic culture remains their ancient, derelict mansions. While the most famous for its role in the sagas, Mørktrygg is not the largest or the only mansion inhabited by Njords. Mørktrygg is the de facto capitol of the Rime Clans, used intermittently by various far North clans and Jarls, and the site of Rimelander Allthings when they occur, but many others exist, dotting the high and low places of the North. Most are in one way or another inaccessible to humans – either built too high on some precarious cliff-side that only a giant could mantle, or behind gates of stone that no human industry could move. They are visible at great distances, however, and intrepid explorers still find their way inside and have pronounced them empty of their previous masters. Still, some of the mansions have great mines, once worked by generations of human slaves, still haunted by the atrocities of being born and dying in the darkness beneath the earth, that no explorer has ever successfully navigated. No one knows how deep the caverns go, or to where. Runestones are posted outside such places, telling the stories of the great names who slew the masters of those halls, and what it cost them to do so, so long ago.
EFFECT ON CULTURE
Still, many of the Njords are fervent in their new faith, or for the younger generations are born into it, and the largest towns and cities all but vibrate with the excitement of the new era. With the Throne comes what would elsewhere be traditional employment, opportunities that the Njordic youth have never known. Young entrepreneurial Northmen have started businesses exporting fish and crabs to Gotha and Rogalia, the first commercial exports that the country has ever seen in its long history.
Fortunate is he who is favored in his lifetime
With praise and words of wisdom:
Evil counsel is often given
By those of evil heart,
– The Sayings of Aufvaldr
RULING HOUSES AND NOBLE BLOOD