The Kingdom of Tokavsk, Session 6: From an Unsent Letter of a Southern Ambassador to his King

The air here is made of cold.  It breathes with the land and seeps into your bones, and when you take off your furs after being outside the beads of your fingers are yellow-white.  You have to learn to move with the cold lest it takes you, the locals say as they shudder behind layers thinner than my own.  As I write this, warmth and color have returned to my fingers, but they do not have full feeling yet.  I pray that is soon restored.  I know not how they survive in this eternal winter, the people of Tokavsk.  I know not how I will.

Their language and customs flow with the cold.  They have a saying here that he who nurtures winter’s chill will come to find spring in the snow.  This aphorism, I believe, combined with their strange affinity for those lumbering beasts, are what keep them same amidst the bitter winds that strip the tree of their color and the sky of its light.  A gruff courtier poorly learned in Artrudian [the writer’s presumed native tongue] explained this to me in broken lurches of language, but I gathered what I could in knowledge and pieced together what became my interpretation of the sentence above.  I began to observe in the nightly feasts the king held in a dark wooden room to celebrate the first week of my tenure an atmosphere of tenuous warmth clinging to the roast meats on the odd round plates and the braziers on the walls.  Wavering and yellow, it trickled across the dishes with names I know not made from roots and spices that sit pale on the tongue.  There was a hearth cut into the wall on each end of the room lined with stone, as even they know wood loves to burn.  Wood and scraps of food and bone served as fuel for the flames.  This peculiar ritual I learned was called ilskat, the burning of life.

I have already written you about the nature of these feasts, so I will spare you the details a second time.  Rather, I will focus on a particular custom that I should like to emulate.  The men here cover their faces in animal fat, which they say staves off the worst of the cold.  It is an old hunters’ tradition.  I am not sure if this method has credence, but the tenderness of my nose, ears, and cheeks each time I venture beyond the walls is sufficient to compel me to try.  I aim to ask a fellow named Vasel tomorrow through my interpreter.  Vasel is quick to ensure my needs are met.

The Kingdom of Tokavsk, Session 5: The Golden Hawk, Part II

The chief returned to his people and told them they were to go west, as he had received a vision1

The people understood he was leading them to a better future and followed him without complaint.  They gathered what few things they had and set out west through the forest that day and set off just before the sun dipped behind the trees.  For many days they traveled, guided only by the direction of the sun and the silhouette of a hawk that always flew just on the edge of their sightline.  Some said it was gold, others bronze; one said the hawk was as black as night.  The only certainty of the hawk was that it was present no matter the hour.

 

One night after a long day of travel, the chief had a dream.  In it, a golden hawk emerged from a liquid moon framed by a sky sark and silent as waves.  He saw tongues of smoke rise from the hawk’s plumage and heard a muted roil as though he was underwater.  He looked at the bird again and realized it was the same Hawk who had given him his mission.  Upon making this discovery, the Hawk spoke to the chief inside his mind:  “Remember you must die in order to save your people.”  Then the Hawk vanished, and the chief woke up.

 

The chief continued on his journey without fearing the Hawk’s warning.  He felt invigorated by his purpose and was eager to share his newfound hope with his people.  But by and by, the chief noticed his body was growing weaker.  It was gradual at first, feeling tired earlier in the day and moving more slowly than he had before, but then his weakness grew.  He became thin and pale and had to be supported lest he get left behind.  He rapidly developed a cough that nothing could remedy.  The people feared for his life and their own futures, as the chief was young and had no heir.  The chief told them not to be afraid, for his fate was to be different than theirs, but there would be a paradise for them all in the end.

 

The people came to a place where the trees thinned and a cold stream cut through the land like a liquid knife.  Low hills sloped from the banks, and snow drifted from the trees in showers of light.  By now, the chief was so weak that he was bedridden and only opened his eyes to say all would be alright.  When the people approached the river, he stirred, a smile upon his bloodless lips.  “We are here,” he rasped, and breathed his last.  They buried him below a pine, and as they were digging someone pointed to something across the river.  There, nestled amidst the newly disturbed snow and the immortal firs, was an old building atop which perched a golden hawk.

 

  1. The meaning of this word is unclear; it is an archaic term that appears to have meant “dream,” “vision,” and “sight” depending on the context. It refers to both literal and figurative seeing, which makes its translation rather difficult.

The Kingdom of Tokavsk, Session 4: The Golden Hawk, Part I

The following is a myth of how the Kingdom of Tokavsk was founded.  The text has been translated and supplemented with footnotes to clarify certain phrases for modern readers.

A hundred generations after the Melting of the Sun1, there lived a young chief.  He assumed power in the midst of a famine that had stricken the tribe.  Having lost his father to the famine, he was determined to find a steady food source and save his people.  Now the chief was a very devout man, and he lit his torch and bowed to the trees2 every morn and night.  One night, as he was beseeching the Great Sky, he heard a hawk call from outside his dwelling.  Afraid to break his prayer, he continued with the mantra, only to be interrupted by the hawk again.  He resumed once more, and a third time the hawk called.  Sensing this was more than the caws of a wild bird, the chief rose and set out into the forest in the direction he had heard the cry.

 

He soon came to the cusp of the woods, where the firs abruptly ended and snowy hills rolled outward into the great beyond.  He had never traveled far beyond the trees, but he was unafraid and had faith in his heart.  The clouds above him gathered dark and gray, but before long a soft glow formed from behind them.  A soft wind blew from the south, and thusly the clouds parted to reveal an infinitely gray sky and down swooped the Hawk.  He had the body the size of a tree and wings winder than ten men, and his feathers, beak, and claws were of solid gold.  His eyes gleamed as burnished gems, and his formed gleamed like a sheet of stars.  He floated high above the chief’s head, not needing to alight for the winds that heeded his call.  “Chief,” boomed the Hawk in a voice a hundred times deeper than the lowest voice of a man, a hundred times louder than tumbling walls of snow.  “Heed my call.”  “I hear you,” responded the chief.  “You are to lead your people west,” said the Hawk.  “There, you will find an abandoned settlement upon a river.  This is to be your new home.  Stay there, and your people will never go hungry.”  The chief, understanding the Hawk was a manifestation of the gods3, promised to lead his people there with his life.  “Be warned,” said the Hawk, “for a life-swearing can never be broken.  Your life is now tied to the finding of this new home, and upon its discovery so shall your life end.”  “I am not afraid,” the chief replied.  And the Hawk stretched upward into the clouds and became the orb in the sky.

 

  1. The ancient Tokavskan creation story describes the world as having been formed from a great celestial cataclysm. This resulted in parts of stars and planets dripping (in some versions, “weeping”) downward to form the ground, water, trees, and snow.  The entrails of the Sun formed light by which to see and the first living beings, hence why the dripping, or melting, of the Sun was considered the most important.
  2. Referring to ancient customs of the Tokavskan folk religion. A torch or branch was lit outside every home to welcome benevolent spirits and signal faithfulness; similarly, bowing to the trees was a way to pay homage to nature and perhaps to spirits or ancestors.
  3. The early Tokavskan religion did not have a pantheon in the traditional sense. They were monotheistic in that they believed in one God, yet they also believed in spirits both good and evil that could control nature and fate.  The use of “gods” here may be an error in translation.

The Kingdom of Tokavsk, Session 3: The Ceremony of a Hundred Blades

The Ceremony of a Hundred Blades, the competition through which an heir is selected, is a ritual as old as Tokavsk itself.  Tradition states that the Ceremony arose as a way to ensure that the future of the land was placed in the hands of the most capable ruler, as the Zheren believe being born of a great leader does not automatically make one a great leader themselves; rather, they must prove they are worthy to be the heir and guide Tokavsk toward her destiny.

 

An excerpt from the Decree of the Ceremony of a Hundred Blades reads as follows:

 

By the Decree of His Royal Highness Berin of House Saskat, the Selection of an Heir shall not be Based on one’s Father but by his Merit, Charm, Intellect, and Strength, by the Character of his Blood, and by his Ability to Retain his Innermost Self in the Face of the Impossible.  He shall be the Utmost Leader, not conniving or weak but affirming and always planning for the Future.  He shall be a Warrior in peace of violence, a Negotiator in periods of peace, but he shall not favor one extreme or the other lest the Balance of the Kingdom be upended.  He shall be Stalwart in Times of Strife but honest and intentional, though he need not have all his intentions be known.  He shall rely upon himself to make the best decisions, but he shall not be opposed to advice lest he become obstinate.  He shall be mindful of the human propensity to err, able to make timely decisions yet not rush into decisions; deliberate but not such as to become absorbed within his own mind; insightful and introspective yet not overly withdrawn, though he knows when to speak up and when to be silent….  [The text goes into greater detail about the traits necessary for the King of Tokavsk, but for the purposes of this excerpt we are omitting the less important details.]

 

To determine the perfect Heir, all able Members of the Noble Houses ages 18 to 36 upon the Date Marked upon the Decree shall be Summoned to Wolf Court to Participate on the Ceremony of a Hundred Blades.  Upon a Pilgrimage that is to begin as soon as the Candidates are able to set out, the Preparations are to begin….  [The description of the preparations for the Ceremony are vague and convoluted, and we feel that they are not relevant here.  Furthermore, the mechanics of the Ceremony are not to be known beyond the Architects of the Ceremony and much of the directions are forbidden].

 

The First Test is the Test of Merit, in which the Moral Character of the Candidates is put to the Blade.  This is to expose the irredeemably immoral; the would-be Tyrants; and the weak-willed, all of whom could lead to the end of Tokavsk.  The Test shall present a moral quandary that can only be answered by the Pure of Heart; or rather, by those not so morally corrupt as to be lost.  Those who fail to answer the riddle shall be Eliminated and shall not participate in the Evening Feast.

 

The Second Test is the Test of Charm, in which the Outward Persona of the Candidates is put to the Blade.  Nervousness, fearfulness, weakness of character, and indecisiveness shall be exposed, and as such the Integrity of Tokavsk will be Preserved.  The Test shall consist of Displays of Charm in a social situation that can only be passed by those with a Commanding Persona.  Those who fail to assert themselves shall be Eliminated and shall not participate in the Evening Feast.

 

The Third Test is a Test of Intellect, in which the Problem-Solving Abilities of the Candidates are put to the Blade.  The Literacy, Strategy, Wit, and Conviction of the Candidates will be Analyzed, and those who are Weak-Minded shall be exposed, preserving the Integrity of Tokavsk such that she cannot be taken advantage of.  Those who fail the Exam shall be Eliminated and shall not participate in the Evening Feast.

 

The Fourth Test is a Test of Strength, in which the physical Integrity of the Candidates is put to the Blade.  The Candidates of Poor Health, Slowness, and Weakness shall be exposed, preserving the Future of the Houses and of Tokavsk.  It is from this Test that the Heir shall be Designated and the Future of Tokavsk secured.  Those who fail the Exam shall be Eliminated and shall not participate in the Evening Feast.

 

This Decree was issued by His Royal Highness Berin Saskat on the 11th of April on the One Thousand Tenth Year in the Razan Age.

 

Scholars’ Note:  It has long been suspected by those in the upper circles that the Fourth Test results in the deaths of some of its participants, but this has yet to be confirmed by official sources.  Many claim that the Candidates who do not return are exiled or executed, while others say they have heard from their noble charges tales of Candidates starving or freezing to death if they were not slain.  However, many of these claims are unverified or are written up as the ravings of exhausted nobles furious they failed the Ceremony.

The Kingdom of Tokavsk, Session 2: From the Encyclopedia of the Lands and Peoples of Helya, Part II

When all was said and done, the provinces to the west of Stav and Kuznetsk became the fledgling nation of Tokavsk.  The sparse population was largely oblivious that their nationality had just changed, as most at the time were peasants who only cared of obtaining their next meal; indeed, much of Tokavsk’s rural population today still lives in this manner.  Yet they had a shared ethnic identity that in principle bound them together.  In reality, 75% of the population was Zheren.  The other 25%, concentrated in the eastern regions of the new country, were a mixture of Stavs, Uzhreks, and Kurstukanians.  They had no say in the war, and many were adamantly opposed to it.  Many were compelled to leave, causing an inundation of refugees in the truncated western edge of Kurstukania.  Those who stayed did so either because they had lands in the case of the few Kurstukanian nobles or because they did not have the means to emigrate.  Some chose to embrace their newfound independence or to exploit it, and as such there was a second diaspora of these peoples toward Tokavsk’s largest city, Orod.  Still more settled along the southern hills.  Tokavsk, a lowland nation, was not easy to defend except by sea.  Her new king saw this as an immediate problem, but there was little he could do without inciting another war.  Besides, there were laws to be established, a government to be defined, and a national identity to be created.  A military was to be assembled, but fortifying her borders would have to wait.  At first, the economy struggled; there were few among the burgeoning elite who knew how to run finances, and those who did were familiar only with the Kurstukanian system.  As such, they used Kurstukania as a model.  Diplomatic ties were established with nations to the west and south, and old trade routes with Kurstukania were maintained.

It should be noted here that, seven hundred years after her inception, the borders of Tokavsk remain largely unchanged.  This is due to several factors:  one, the Tokavskan army has never had the military prowess to successfully conquer its neighbors for much of its history; two, vigilant mapmaking and the preservation of the original treaty with Kurstukania meant its borders could be restored with full confidence both times it was reconquered; and three, it has done well to not create animosity with other nations.  This does not mean Tokavsk is a peace-loving or genial state; rather, it means that war is frequently not in its best interest.  With little wealth to begin with, it is not viable for Tokavsk to wage extensive campaigns.  Furthermore, there is often internal turmoil preventing the noble houses of Tokavsk from uniting under one cause.  The structure of the Tokavskan government practically encourages lords to be at odds with one another.  Its monarchy is not strictly hereditary, meaning the power does not reside within a single family, but it is not elective like in the southern archipelago of Tarsinia.  When a king names his successor, he is not allowed to make the choice himself.  According to Zheren custom, this produces bias, and it means the best candidate is being denied the opportunity to rule.  The founders devised a system they believed would promote stability in Tokavsk, but to many modern scholars the system promotes anything but.

The Kingdom of Tokavsk, Session 1: From The Encyclopedia of the Lands and Peoples of Helya, Part I

The kingdom of Tokavsk is a midsized state located along the northern edge of the continent Helya.  Situated between Strazhov to the west and Kurstukania to the east, Tokavsk is largely regarded as a buffer between the wild empires of the northeast and the stiff, elitist peoples of the northwest.  Northern Helya’s ethnic groups are similar to one another, but the local belief that the west represents order and the east represents chaos has led to clear delineations among the population based on geographical location.  As Tokavsk is roughly centered along the northern coast, it is regarded by its neighbors as the equilibrium of order and chaos.

Tokavsk’s origins have been reduced to legend, but a few suppositions can be made based on historical documents.  First, Tokavsk was first mentioned in a census by the long-since fallen Bhrezhen Empire in 106 RA (Razan Age).  It was described as “A region surrounding the trading outpost of Orod that the locals referred to as Tokavsk, or ‘Place of the Firs’” (The Sixth Census of the Divine Domain of Bhrezhen).  Little else is said detailing the milieu of early Tokavsk.  In 504 RA, 84 years after the Bhrezhen Empire’s collapse, a veken (wandering monk) wrote of “A strange principality situated betwixt the Fractured Lands [of Northeast Helya, a swath of warring factions which were slowly being absorbed into Kurstukania] and the realms of Strazhov and Norvatsk.  Its people ascribe runes on their cloaks and bodies, on the surfaces of their huts made from skins, and on the ground.  They understood the trees and how they breathed, something they claimed I as a foreigner would never understand.”  Indeed, there is evidence of early Tokavskans having an affinity for rune magic; several sources document instances of Tokavskans healing each other and sick animals with one rune and summoning winds and driving snows with another.  Many of these are thought to be tales conjured to make Tokavskans appear backwards and savage, and almost no one doubts that the magics described within are untrue or at least greatly exaggerated.  The point of divergence—when Tokavskans became known as a distinct group within the Roskavan cultures—is unknown, but it seems to have occurred between the first and second surviving records describing Tokavsk.  Certainly, the Tokavskan culture was defined long before it grew into a state.  Subsequent records reveal interactions between members of the court of Strazhov and a man by the name of Berin Saskat, who is accredited with the founding of the Kingdom of Tokavsk.  It was clear that at that point the Tokavskans, as they were called by foreigners (the Tokavskans then and still do refer to themselves as the Zheren, and henceforth that term shall be used out of respect for the Zheren people and to distinguish between the ethnicity and the state), were already a well-established minority within the Kurstukanian empire.  They were poor trappers and hunters, regarded as primitive by the ethnic majority in Kurstukania, and had very little rights.  They could not own land, vote, or marry an ethnic Kurstukanian.  Conversely, the powers that be largely left the Zheren alone in what would become a grave blunder.  This gave rise to a solidification in ethnic identity, which in turn inspired some radicals into revolution.  The initial rebellion had little popular support, and indeed it went largely unnoticed even by the Kurstukanian military stationed out west.  But the overthrow of a local nobleman sparked outrage in western Kurstukania, setting in motion a chain of violent events that would lead to the Tokavskan War of Independence in 1001 RA.