On the Desert Peoples and Their Culture
Rufus Talright, Royal Scribe of Vandregon
Written before the Fall of the May’Kar Dominion
The deserts that lay to the north of the territories occupied by the May’Kar Dominion contain a great number of peoples, all ostensibly loyal to the May´Kar theocracy and pledged to the open arts of the land. While these peoples vary in number and population, of particular interest are the Kae-rim nomads, known amongst themselves as “The People of the Four Gods”. Within this codex, I will attempt to record my experiences traveling with them in order to report back to the Court as to the role they play in May’Kar, along with their suitability for eventual conscription into Vandregon military due to their extensive knowledge of the deserts that cover much of May’Kar.
To begin, an important distinction must be made; while the people of May’Kar consider the Kae-rim to be a part of their nation, they consider themselves outsiders in the land, pointing out that they rarely enter the cities excepting trade purposes. Rather, they are entirely nomadic, always traveling according to a complicated system of religious tradition, survival techniques, and other elements I was unable to understand fully. While they pay tax to the May’Kar, it seems to be with great reluctance, and their full numbers are somewhat unknown. When pressed for the information, they will merely state that there are “enough to wander freely”, showing the reluctance they seem to have for giving exact information to outsiders.
My guide and companion was an older man, known as Khalan am-Redha cul-Nulpum ór-Bhalan Neftis, who served as an informal trader and liaison between the nomadic tribes and the more civilized peoples of May’Kar. His name serves as an excellent introduction to the first element of the culture which needs to be explained; their naming traditions and the use in identifying the peoples.
The first name, Khalan, is his given name, used in casual conversation. All the other names have particular meanings; when first meeting a Kae-rim, they will give their entire name and expect you to do the same, conveying all of the information needed to understand where they have come from. The second name, explained to me as a “path name” refers to the job he holds in their society; as near as I can determine, “Redha” means ‘merchant’ or ‘tradesman’. There are various prefixes with numerous shades of meaning; the “am” prefix indicates that he is experienced in this craft, and is frequently relied on by the tribes he works with to travel into the cities and act as a sort of cultural interpreter.
The next name can be considered one of the most important; it indicates the particular tribe and caste to which he belongs. Their religion, while quite complex and seemingly nonsensical at points, refers to four gods who are simultaneously the world, the creators of the world, great heroes, and the founders of the four main ‘clans’ which make up these peoples. While a full discussion of their religion would be impractical here, a reader must be familiar with the idea that he is from a tribe dedicated to or personally worships the god Al-Nulpun, identified with the element of air. The prefix ‘cul’ indicates that he is not a priest nor particularly observant in his worship, although he showed no difficulty in cursing frequently while journeying with me. Mixed-descent or mixed-worship is fairly common; Kae-rim will often have up to four names here, with the order varying according to some schema I was unable to fully grasp.
The final two names are fairly simple; the first, ór-Bhalan, indicates the particular tribe he associates with, and the second, Neftis, is the name of his father. It is also telling that he was never married (or as close as these odd peoples get to marriage); were that the case, he would have a second name following his paternal name. Lineage is traced along gender lines; the males have their father’s name, and the women their mother’s. In the case of bastards, then they simply end the name one step early or give “Altena”, which seems to mean “unknown”.
This name is only his given name, used during introductions and in minor matters. His full name, as far as I can gather, consists of his entire ancestry, alongside several notable deeds and other nicknames that he has picked up in his life. It would be laborious to record the entirety of it, as it is rare that an outsider such as myself is able to hear their entire name. Suffice to say, they consider names to be an important part of a person’s identity and history, and for one raised in the culture, hearing the full name of a person would allow them to know every important detail of their life.
My guide was quite friendly in explaining most of the aspects of their culture, seemingly enjoying my confusion at what (to him) were absolutely basic concepts of family and life. I originally met him in the city of Saresh, whose beauty is striking even to one who does not follow their particular faith. He had heard that I was looking for a guide among these nomads, and offered his services in exchange for nothing more than stories, which I gave him in ready supply.
I was quite lucky in finding him; not one in twenty Kae-rim speak the trade tongue, preferring to use their native language due to their lack of contact with many outsiders. He acted as an interpreter for me throughout my travels, and seemed to enjoy my bafflement at the layers of protocol demanded whenever we met with a new tribe, crossed certain borders, or passed some landmark which was visible only to these people.
The similarities of the Kae-rim and the people of May’Kar are striking; both exist in desert cultures, both follow a religion that places aesthetics first, and both are a fairly non-violent people with a deep religious background. However, the Kae-rim seem to find the May’Kar tendency to build cities and act as trade centers as somewhat amusing; I was assured by Khalan that the muttering and laughter I heard many times at their camps was not directed at me, but rather at the tendency of people like me to build cities in the desert when it was clear that they were destined to wander. Overall, this strikes me as evidence of a more primitive people; after all, why would they choose to wander when the oases were perfect for the building of cities and the unity of their people?
As I have mentioned, their religion is quite complex and adhered to with various degrees of success by the members of these tribes. Of particular interest is their priesthood; rather than being an individual, the priest is composed of a pair, both dedicated to two of their four gods and forming a complete ‘circle’, if you will. This bonding seems to act as an odd form of marriage without gender discrimination; the first tribe I met with was ruled over by a pair of stern men with long, graying beards, the next by a young couple that reminded me of a pair of newly-wed farmers. They act as a pair in all things, and seem to believe that unity is the most important aspect of worshiping their gods.
While Khalan was open with their history on many levels, he studiously avoided any mention of the period between the origin of these tribes and their now somewhat-unified state. When pressed, he would mention that these were ‘broken times’ and speak no further. It is my opinion that, at one point, they warred with one another, leading to a great deal of bloodshed and the reduction of a much larger group of people into the small, scattered tribes. It is also possible that some elements of the May’Kar culture come from the remnants of these tribes; as mentioned before, the similarities are striking, and I would not be surprised to hear that they come from some common origin in the past.
They have a number of odd prohibitions and are a highly superstitious people; an hour does not go by without at least one prayer and any number of curses, cryptic mutterings, or odd hand signs. They appear to be frightened, or at least suspicious, of any number of demons and other spirits that they claim haunt the deserts and must be appeased through offerings. Incense is commonly burned to ward off spirits, and it is rare for any group to make camp without selecting some particular incense or scent according to a pattern I was unable to grasp.
The foremost of their laws, however, is an absolute prohibition against violence against a living creature in any form. No meat was offered to me while traveling with them, and they seemed to find the idea absolutely abhorrent when I questioned why. Khalan explained to me that, in one of their holy books (of which there are apparently four), it was explained that all living things are sacred, and so the flesh of animals cannot be eaten, for it requires violence, which by its nature destroys unity. The explanation seemed somewhat lacking, so I assume that it ties back into the portion of their history they refused to talk about.
This non-violence is apparent in their dealings with the people of May’Kar and the occasional contact they have with Vandregon; they simply refuse to fight. If they notice an armed force approaching, they simply leave according to the star maps and routes that are an essential part of their lives. If they are captured, they put up no fight and allow themselves to be tied up, surrendering all weapons and greeting their captors with what seems like absolute hospitality. On one occasion, the tribe I was traveling with was ambushed by a group of brigands; they simply handed over all the coin the bandits were able to locate and continued on, confident that their gods will provide. It is quite odd, and seems an impossible way to survive.
You may have noticed that I mentioned these people keep weapons; for a non-violent people, this is quite odd. However, their religion has another tenant; the undead are anathema to them, and they will travel far out of their way to exterminate them with a zeal that is almost frightening. They eschew armor when fighting, and it is quite a sight to watch the warriors of a tribe (usually in worship of their goddess of Fire) attack any undead that they come across. I am uncertain how this belief arose, but I will detail their usefulness in the war effort in a moment.
Their wanderings, seemingly random, often bring them into contact with the undead, and a week seldom passes without two or three skirmishes. While the May’Kar forces that serve with us assist greatly in dealing with the undead thread, these nomads might prove a valuable resource, should they be persuaded to join. So far, they have scrupulously avoided joining the armies of May’Kar, claiming that the tax they pay is enough for their freedom. I have my suspicions as to their loyalty, and in the event that the Court decides the conquest of May’Kar is possible, hiring these people as guides would serve us well.
For weapons, they favor simple slings, small knives, and the occasional curved sword. It is clear that weapons are chosen more for their utility and ease of travel than for their power, and they are clearly a people who are not used to waging full-scale war. Most conflicts seem to center around single duels, where a warrior will approach and swiftly deal with a single undead foe. They frequently practice these skills in mock combat with one another, and are excellent shots with the sling. I do not know whether they make their weapons or trade for them; I would wager on the latter, as they showed me no evidence of any permanent settlements. For this reason, they would make poor conscripts in the war, due to their lack of training in appropriate formations and absolute prohibition against violence.
Their language is not especially complex, and I was able to understand several basic concepts by the time my travels had finished. Khalan proved an excellent teacher, willing to put up with my mistakes and frequently laughing heartily when I said something foolish. It is highly inflected, with words changing meaning depending on what word it follows. Some concepts, however, are somewhat simple; here is their method of counting;
Ai – 1
Aim – 2
Baht – 3
Bhora – 4
Klim – 5
Sen – 6
Fa – 7
Far – 8
Vhu – 9
Ai-teem – 10
Ai-teem-ai – 11
Aim-teem – 20
Aim-teem-ai – 21 . . . and so forth.
I have begun to compile a dictionary of simple phrases, useful for the most basic of communication with these peoples, and am hoping to put it to paper before my death. Their writing system (odd, given that they are nomadic) is as complicated as their language, with the importance of the text being given by the color of the ink it is written in along with the type of quill used. Khalan, when writing out the contract by which I was to retain him, utilized a feather of some strange bird; it was nearly two feet in length, and he wrote it in golden ink. This, he assured me, was to allow those who read the texts later in life to understand that it was a binding agreement between two men of great status; I believed that he was merely attempting to impress me. Their ink coding seems to be as follows;
Black: Routine writings necessary for trade, simple letters
Blue: Stories, poems, tales
Red: Warnings, important calls to other tribes, recipes
Gold: Binding contracts, marriage, important rituals
When I asked what ink their holy texts (which I was never allowed to actually see) were written in, Khalan quickly changed the subject. He seemed reticent to discuss the texts, which apparently contain some element of prophecy from their gods and are considered to be the most important of writing. His hesitance for the discussion of the texts themselves was especially odd considering the number of quotations he (and other tribe members) would take from it; I cannot recall a conversation that did not involve at least one quotation from their holy books.
I have mentioned their hospitality before; of particular note are their beverages, which are quite fine. They have an interesting variant of bean-brew, which they refer to as “Khoefi” and treat as absolutely sacred. Indeed, the preparation is always overseen by a priest-pair, who usually perform the ritual with great solemnity, muttering prayers at each step. The beans are first ground into an incredibly fine powder in an implement similar to a mortar and pestle. Then, they are placed in a peculiarly-shaped copper vessel, along with several spices which I was told were “necessary”. Then, while muttering prayers, the khoefi is headed in such a way as to develop an oddly foamy texture on the top. It is then given to the drinker with the grounds still in it; after drinking, they are expected to pour the grounds out and interpret a fortune from it.
This beverage is universally offered to anyone they meet while roaming the deserts, and while they will accept payment, it is never expected. They also brew a number of warm beverages from the harvested leaves of plants, and have a strangely descriptive vocabulary regarding the varieties. I myself tried over twelve different strains of this ‘thé’ and could hardly tell the difference, but they ascribed much medical benefit to it.
As mentioned previously, they eschew the consumption of any meat products, which is odd for a desert culture. Instead, they subside on a variety of foraged plant materials, along with grains and dried beans which they carry with them. Their cuisine is surprisingly flavorful despite the lack of meat; dishes are heavily spiced (likely to avoid excess monotony), and frequently consist of the rice-grain, topped with whatever vegetables or fruits they have available. They occasionally bake bread, usually after trading for some grain in a permanent settlement.
Children and the appointed representative are the only ones who tend to enter towns or permanent settlements; I cannot say if this is a general religious prohibition, or an aspect of their cultural nomadism that presents itself in a fear of ‘settled’ places. Khalan was not helpful here; he merely said that “these cities are not our cities” and spoke no further. It is entirely possible that there are permanent settlements of these nomads, in deliberately harsh environs as to keep them safe from invaders, but I was never taken to any, and great care was taken to avoid bringing it up around me.
For trade, they generally used Vandregon silver, but preferred barter. Of particular note is their pottery; this is apparently a major art for them, and it is ascribed certain ritualistic elements with regards to the sculpting, drying, and firing. They only make pottery at certain times which are reckoned by the stars, and an entire tribe will stop for nearly a week to complete this work. Other handwork of note consists of beaded garments, small pieces of portable jewelry, and cloth. They do not work stone, at least while wandering.
Oddly enough, they keep pack animals while traveling, although they refuse to eat the meat from even a creature which died of natural causes. Horses, camels, sheep, and goats are common; one tribe I encountered seemed focused on the art of herding goats, and was likely the source of much of the garments of these people. Should an animal die, there are a large number of death preparations; firstly, they place the animal on a high bluff or cliff directly catching the rays of the sun. Incense is burned, prayers are spoken, and the beast is marked with certain signs and symbols, likely to ward off the demons that these people fear so greatly. Later, when only bones remain, they will mark the bones with certain signs and bury them within the sand; I had the opportunity to witness this several times while traveling with them, and was impressed that they would spend so much time caring for what amounted to a pack beast.
Dogs are sacred to these people; again, odd considering their lack of eating meat. They use them to assist in herding, as watch animals, and simply for companionship. Certain elements of their religion seem to indicate that they identify these animals with their gods, adding to my confusion regarding their worship. All of these dogs are trained to hunt for themselves, and frequently wander off during the twilight hours, catching rabbits and other vermin in the desert. This does not seem to bother the Kae-Rim; Khalan explained that “animals have their instincts, while the people have their beliefs”. Any animals which were caught were brought back to camp, where they were given the same burial rites as any other animal. Quite a curious sight.
The hierarchy of these tribes is a confusing subject; I was unable to grasp it at any point. Apparently, each person is born under a certain star sign (of which there are hundreds), and an innumerable number of events is used to determine the leadership of a certain tribe. Exchanges of power are bloodless, arbitrary, and nonsensical to an outsider; apparently, signs in the stars dictate who should lead. I can honestly say that there are no permanent leaders aside from their gods, and that the idea that they would follow a king is completely foreign to them. This may explain their reticence to be considered a part of the May’Kar Dominion; they are unable to recognize a leader who has not been suggested by the stars.
Their navigation and wanderings, as mentioned before, are based entirely off of the stars and certain portents in the desert. It is a bizarre system, but it works quite well for those who understand it. Khalan attempted to explain it to me, but it seeming consisted of a mix of prophecy (again from one of their unseen holy books), star navigation (based off of innumerable maps painted upon cloth and only readable by someone trained in doing so – believe me, I tried quite hard), environmental signs, objects they encountered, and the current needs of the tribe.
Of particular interest to the Court would be their ability to locate water and food in the desert; I cannot begin to explain how foolish they made the armies of Vandregon look when they wandered, apparently aimlessly and without direction, into hidden oasis after hidden oasis, stockpiles of dried grains and spices, and other useful resources in the apparently trackless desert. This is entirely normal to them; it seems impossible that a desert culture would be able to do this, but Khalan explained to me that “the providence of the desert was there for those who listened,” making it seem like another aspect of their religion.
I will now attempt to explain their religion in as much detail as I was able to piece together. I must admit that it seems nonsensical; at times, I believed Khalan to be making up stories in order to fool me, and deliberately deceiving me to prevent me from understanding their beliefs. Nevertheless, here are the details I was able to gather.
As their name for themselves expresses, they worship four gods, associated with the classical elements. There is an order to these elements; Ul-Weithe is the goddess of the earth and the first, Al-Khara is the god of water and the second, Al-Nulpun is the god of the air and the third, and Ul-Brana is the goddess of fire and the fourth. These gods are presented as the forces themselves that founded the world; they often referred to the ground itself as Ul-Weithe, and spoke reverentially to their fires as though it was their goddess Ul-Brana. They are both considered to be ‘married pairs’ – Ul-Weithe to Al-Khara and Al-Nulpun to Ul-Brana.
This interpretation notwithstanding, they also refer to them as specific personages, the founders of their tribes. There are any number of stories about how the kindness of Ul-Weithe helped her children through difficult times, and how Al-Nulpun wandered about, telling stories to children and remembering all that is said. They seem to be legendary heroes in that right; many great deeds are ascribed to them, and any unusual formation in the desert is described in terms of the deeds of one or more of these gods.
At this point, I can say that I have a theory; they originally existed as a desert people who worshiped a great number of gods, fighting each other. Each of these figures was a major hero in the legend of their past, and their deeds were eventually mingled with those of the previous gods (possibly shamanistic elemental worship, common in primitive groups). These heroes were the uniting forces behind these tribes; those who settled down eventually became the precursors to the May’Kar, and those who wandered continued muddling their legends until they reached their current state. It would explain the similarities between their culture and that of the May’Kar, their abhorrence of violence, and the sheer amount of ritual necessary for everyday life.
Their ‘holy books’ are likely nothing more than a complex oral tradition; while they can write, they likely prefer to continue telling their stories and allowing their legends to evolve. I would not be surprised if my visit was eventually elevated into a legend relating to Khalan; he certainly learned a great number of stories from me.