- Mar 3, 2012
The People of the Forest
Travelers in the Forest|Taiga by Ville Assinen
Travelers in the Forest|Taiga by Ville Assinen
It begun almost 20 years ago....
750 AD - The taiga outside the villages of the Merya Tribe
Five young men moved through the dark forest in single file. The largest man broke trail through the early autumn snow blanketing the forest floor, the rest following in his footsteps. They were seeking the lair of the king of the forest.
When the old High Chief had died, the tribes came together to elect a new High Chief. The old chief had outlived his sons and had no grandsons, so the seat was thrown open for all able bodied men of the five tribes of Merya.
Each of the five tribes had provided a candidate, and they had all been sent on a hunt to find the spirit of Otso the Great Bear, to demonstrate their prowess in the hunt and put their fitness to rule to the judgment of the gods. Kardaz was chosen by the Merya tribe based on his skill in the competitions and his success at hunting, fishing, and trapping as well as his apparent calm in emergencies, not realizing the calm was more being rooted in terror rather than calmly assessing a problem.
As the hunting party moved through the forest, Kardaz had lagged behind, not wanting to be the first to stumble on the forest spirit. A hand signal up ahead had indicated they had found their prey and the hunters surged forward, none noticing Karzad trailing behind. Ahma of the Bezichy had been the first into the clearing and bravely charged the beast with his spear, only to see it violently swatted aside, and then he was caught in a crushing embrace, his shouts of defiance cut off as the king of the forest's jaws closed on his skull.
Viryas of the Torzhok and Kako of the Uglich rushed in, attacking from two sides. The bear hurtled the body of Ahma into Viryas and then spun and charged Kako. Kako's spear drove into the bear’s chest, holding it back for a second before the haft splintered and the bear was upon him, one swipe of its paw crushing his skull and tearing away his scalp. As Viryas crawled out from under Ahma’s corpse, Nuyat of the Yaroslavl and finally Kardaz entered the clearing. Kardaz froze for a second taking in the carnage, then turned to see Nuyat looking at him. Kardaz shifted his spear and then forced himself to advance into the clearing, “Stay together” he said, planning to keep Nuyat between him and the bear as long as possible.
The bear hadn’t noticed them yet as it continued to maul the dying Kako. Viryas staggered to his feet and then began casting about, looking for the spear that he had dropped when the corpse had struck him. The bear finally noticed Nuyat and Kardaz and moved toward them, but their two spear points jabbed at his nose and eyes causing the bear to retreat. The snapping of a twig as Viryas pulled his spear from the underbrush drew everyone’s attention, and the bear charged Viryas. Nuyat and Kardaz gave chase, yelling out warnings, but they didn’t have the bear’s speed. The bear hit Viryas before he could set his spear and caught his shoulder in its jaws and began flinging him about like a child’s doll. But Nuyat’s spear driven into his haunch caused the bear to release Viryas and his body flew into a nearby pine tree and he fell to the ground stunned.
The bear spun about so quickly Nuyat’s spear was torn from his grasp. The bear sprang at his tormentor and bore the Yaroslavl warrior to the ground, its claws ripping into his belly. The jaws followed and began tearing out Nuyat’s stomach and intestines. Kardaz scrambled backwards, looking on in horror, making no move to come to Nuyat’s aid as he screamed in agony. He stood there for a few moments rooted in terror. He thought about running away, but feared that as soon as he moved the bear would see him and run him down. His only chance to survive was to kill it while it was focused on eating the other man alive. He wished he had his bow, but the diviners had insisted that the candidates only carry spears, so the bear spirit could see them up close in order to judge them. Growing up he had excelled at in spear throwing competitions, but had never used the skill much against live targets that might attack him if he missed. He preferred being a trapper, setting snares and deadfalls, where the prey was usually already dead when you returned to check your traps.
But his fear of death now overruled his fear of failure. There was no time to waste or think about it anymore. He took 3 running steps toward the bear and launched the spear. It flew straight and true and pierced the bear’s side behind its left shoulder and drove straight through the ribs and into the heart. Kardaz stumbled forward a few more steps and then fell to his knees in the snow. The dead bear collapsed onto Nuyat’s body. Nuyat had stopped screaming, but Kardaz wasn’t sure if he wanted to see if he was dead or alive.
Then a weak voice called out, “Nice throw.” Kardaz turned and saw Viryas struggling to pull himself up with his good arm, the other hang limp at his side, soaked in blood from the wound in his shoulder.
“I missed what happened after I saw you two charging the guardian, then it tossed me away. But I woke up in time to see you kill it.”
Kardaz ran over to him and helped him up by his good arm. “We need to check on Nuyat.”
He helped Viryas over to the bodies and they saw the wreck that had been made of Nuyat’s torso. He was past saving. Kardaz bound up Viryas' shoulder and then skinned the bear and cut off it's head. Then the two of them made their way back to the tribal gathering.
The shaman and diviners of the five tribes led a peijaiset ceremony to honor the guardian spirit of the forest that had been brought down and thank it for helping them choose their future leader. The guardian's skull was hung from a tree at the edge of the clearing and gifts and offerings were placed around it. The bodies of the three fallen warriors were buried at the base of the tree with all honors. And then, before the spirit of Otso, with Viryas’ endorsement, Kardaz was elected the new High Chief of all the Merya tribes.
For the next 20 years Kardaz had ruled the Merya tribes in peace and avoided any full scale wars. There had been raids of course, but his War Chief and Marshal, Vechkas, had lead those while Kardaz had ruled from his longhouse in Merya; dealing with traders coming up the Volga, organizing the hunts, and managing the internal squabbles of the tribes. The raids had been kept small enough to not antagonize their neighbors, while still showing that the Merya tribes were strong, not to be trifled with. So Kardaz had taken a wife and started a family and his people had enjoyed a quiet life of peace and prosperity.
But times were changing and his people were beginning to worry that Kardaz was not the man to lead them as threats grew all around them. The Slavic tribes, mainly the Ilmenians, were raiding more, pushing east, driven by the growing strength of the Christians in the west. The Khazar nomads were attacking their fellow Mordvins in the east, taking land and slaughtering followers of Ukko, Akka and the other Suomenusko gods. To the north, their Finnish neighbors and fellow Suomenusko faithful were under attack by Norse invaders.
The Meryans were beginning to feel that they needed a warrior to lead them in these troubling times. Kardaz needed to take drastic action to address their fears.