Being tundra, the ground in Sionad is frozen near to the surface and doesn’t support many trees or areas of permanent agriculture except in very sheltered areas, or in small patches of richer turf near hot springs where volcanic activity has made the soil slightly richer and permafrost hasn’t had the chance to form. Instead, you’re more likely to find mosses and lichens, wiry grasses and some particularly hardy varieties of shallow-rooted bushes over much of the tundra. Throughout the brief summer, much of the permafrost melts to form bogs or shallow temporary streams. In winter, everything is blanketed under at least three feet of snow, and usually much more. The temperature is not much above freezing at any time of year, and though water is plentiful enough, rain is rare.
Permanent settlements are uncommon. When they are built, they’re usually placed around the hot springs, which residents will use for heating and frequently for cooking. The largest of these permanent settlements is Hyoite, but even that has a very small population for most of the year, made up of the old, the ill and injured, children who have not yet reached puberty and women who are either very, very pregnant or nursing a child too small to leave. Only in winter will the fishermen, sealers, whalers, fur trappers, nomadic herders and hunter-gatherers who make up much of the tundra’s population withdraw to permanent dwellings to wait for kinder weather. Some trappers will venture out even in winter – they get their highest quality pelts from thick winter coats – but they do not venture far from the permanent settlements if they can help it; it is very, very easy to wander in circles without knowing it, and a lost person can freeze to death less than three hundred metres from home.
The tundra’s nomadic inhabitants tend to favour tents in a thick, felted material made out of animal skins, which can pack up very quickly, store more then the outside size would suggest and be moved as the herds, the trap lines or the seasonal pickings to be gathered in demand. Wood is a valuable commodity, so most of the support structures for these tents are rigged on bone or, more rarely, on metal frames. The tent will have a small slit in the top for smoke from the fire to escape. The household hearth is usually set up in a lidded bucket they carry with them, which is dug into a shallow hole wherever they stop and is expected to be kept lit – banked low, as embers - at all times. Rough shanties made out of bone and sealskin may also be built in coastal areas, but these are not weatherproof enough to be dwellings and are used as drying sheds for fish.
1. Hyoite People
Since many of the tundra inhabitants are descended from (or are) Connlaothian exiles, light coloured eyes are not uncommon, and some still keep sandy hair. The original inhabitants, however, were much less fair, and it is very, very easy to see the high cheekbones, long legs and darker – anything from dark auburn to black - curls that they’ve donated to the gene pool.
This is at heart a society of rejects, exiles and runaways, thrown together until they’re all one mongrel breed. Many tundra folk have no idea where their grandparents or great grandparents may have come from, or when and how they arrived – that knowledge is long since passed out of living memory for all but the most recent transplants, and most will simply call themselves sionadyaki. A child born on the tundra could appear to be from almost anywhere else in Le’raana, and will almost certainly never know to claim allegiance to any other home…mostly because nowhere else will claim them.
2. Gender and Sexuality
There is no question that men and women are equally capable on the tundra, but adult men and women can sometimes spend very little time together outside of the winter settlements – this is when most children are conceived, and there’s a yearly rash of children born at around the same time each year!
A man could easily spend eight months of the year at sea with the whaling fleet, leave his very pregnant wife behind in the safety of the nearest permanent settlement and come back to a child six months old and a wife he hasn’t seen in that time. Likewise, a woman may leave to follow the trapping lines or go off gathering and leave her injured or ill husband behind to recover, only seeing him the next winter when she (and maybe he, if he healed quickly enough) returns. A child who reaches puberty will be sent to join the parent that matches their biological gender regardless whether or not both parents are together at the time, and may potentially only see the other parent or siblings of the other gender again when they meet up for the winter.
Boys take a variation of their father’s name for a surname (for example, if your father’s name was Dmitri, you might have a surname like Dima, Mitya or Mitru). Girls take a variation of their mother’s name. In this way, lines of descent can sort of be traced.
Because of this frequent separation, same sex encounters are considered perfectly acceptable on the basis that what a same-sex couple does is not ‘real’ sex, or at least not the same kind of sex that a male-female couple would have. No better or worse, but fundamentally different.
A person who showed interest only in their own gender would be expected to fall into heterosexual norms eventually (once they got over their ‘phase’) and considered deeply unusual or strange for not doing so, but there is no stigma attached to two men or two women coming to an arrangement while their heterosexual partners of choice are not available to them. Separation from the opposite sex does not necessarily mean celibacy!
For much of the year, the tundra runs on a very hunter-gatherer focussed economy, trying to stockpile enough to last through a long, cold and effectively stifling winter. Fishing is something everyone does; it takes place both on the coast and in the temporary summer streams created by melting permafrost, and much of the catch may be dried, salted or smoked for later consumption. Likewise, berries and water plants are gathered for as long as they can be found, and moss, seaweed or lichen may be cooked down. Meat and eggs come either from hunting wild animals such as hares or the birds that flock north to feed on the bogs, from following migrating, semi-domesticated reindeer herds or from horses. Horses and reindeer also provide milk, and blood may be siphoned from them without killing them or doing any lasting harm. Bees may be kept around permanent settlements; honey and any fruit gathered (either wild or from whatever stunted little trees have been persuaded to grow in relative shelter) can be used to ferment a kind of seriously alcoholic mead.
Peat is cut from the bogs and dried as a fuel for the fire instead of wood. Dried animal dung is also used. In the coldest part of winter, when it is dark for much of the day, whale or seal oil may be used in lamps to give a cleaner, brighter light.
If a trader comes through, furs, seal and whale oil, amber, obsidian, soapstone, preserved fish bone-art or the thick felt that makes tents may be bartered for extra supplies of non-perishable food, timber, new weapons or metal tools from Connlaoth...anything that cannot be easily obtained on the tundra itself.
There is no official state religion. There is no official state!
Many sionadyaki follow a roughly animistic set of beliefs, mixed with elements of ancestor veneration. You may sometimes hear of another nation’s gods – Ansgar is a common one, due to the Connlaothian influence – being invoked, but it is not the kind of monotheistic god-to-believer set up like Connlaoth would recognise (devout Connlaothians would be appalled!) or like Christianity adheres to in our own world. There are no miracles, no formal services, no church hierarchy, no worship as such.
It’s more of a private, strictly business relationship, where the human asks for something – a good catch, for example, safety overnight in an unfamiliar place, the recovery of a sick loved one – and offers a sacrifice of some kind in exchange. Food, perhaps a treasured item or a share of the first honey produced that year, sometimes blood from a cut on the supplicant’s own body would all be acceptable and common payments. In particularly dire situations, even human sacrifice might be performed…
By far the most important ritual is that performed over the hearth, over the fire that provides warmth and security – if you have no fire, you die.
Similarly, the most important spiritual figures – and the only ones that all sionadyaki hold in common; a reindeer herder would have no use for a god of the sea, a fisherman no use for a hunter’s guide! – are the manaia, supposed to protect you from all evil whether it comes from earth, water or sky. They’re usually depicted in visual shorthand as creatures with a fish-tail, a man’s upper body and a bird’s head; if this design is worked into jewellery (manaia pendants are common gifts for newborn children) it’s usually bent into the shape of a fish hook, a symbol of good fortune and prosperity.