So I saw The Croods
the other day, and it reminded me of a little novelette I wrote when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old (during my "obsessed with prehistory" phase). I tore apart my desk looking for my old notebooks, but I wasn't able to find the finished story. I did
, however, find a whole folder full of chapter drafts and concept notes.
The plot itself was pretty prosaic (middle school wasn't exactly the height of my compositional glory
), but I was struck by how damn creative
I was when it came to imagining the world and culture of the characters. I've always had a huge boner for anthropology, so even as a young'un I devoted a disproportionate amount of time to describing the societal customs of fictional people
I was so impressed by my own nerdiness that I decided to give a special gift to my past self – concept sketches of the main characters!
*wipes away tear* I'm so good to me
For anyone who's interested, I'm including a TL;DR section explaining a bit more about the setting – an ice-age-esque world ruled by superstition, populated by megafauna, and replete with magic that isn't really magic at all. Read on if you're so inclined!
__________________________________________________________________The People of the Woodlands and the People of the Steppe
The story takes place at the intersection of two major landscapes: a forested mountain region, and the adjoining expanse of steppe (think arid prairie). Two separate confederations of tribes occupy the two areas. The People of the Woodlands are a semi-sedentary collection of villages who enjoy access to a veritable smorgasbord of resources: plenty of food, water, minerals, trade routes, you name it. The People of the Steppe consist mostly of nomadic hunter-gatherers and herders who eke out a bleaker existence from the challenging terrain. Although the two groups share many of the same beliefs and even the same language, their customs and appearances differ enough to cause conflict.
In the past, whenever things got particularly rough out on the prairie (i.e. famine, drought, trade disruption, whatever), the People of the Steppe would swoop down on the Woodlands to steal supplies and take captives. Hardened by their difficult lifestyle and aided by their ferocious domesticate, the saber-tooth dog, the People of the Steppe historically had the advantage despite their inferior numbers. Even though there have been no raids in years, the People of the Woodlands still fear their neighbors. To them, Steppe people represent savagery, dark magic, and strength at its cruelest. Men and women from the Steppe occasionally show up and demand goods or even wives and husbands (the harsher conditions of the prairie mean that the population is smaller, and as a result they're always in need of more warm bodies
), and the Woodlands folks are so afraid of reprisal that they just comply without protest.
Sah (the protagonist) and Bidki are sisters from a village in the forested mountain region, while Aiden and his pet saber-tooth dog Cannavar come from the Steppe. This is the starting point for the shitty plot, which I will explicate further in just a moment. Talent as “Magic” - Superstition and Religious Belief
But first...hocus-pocus! The people in the story make no distinction between the natural and the supernatural; what we would today call “skills” or “talents” are, to them, magical gifts. Someone with a lovely singing voice would be said to have song magic, for example, while a good hunter would have hunting magic. A person with a knack for making tasty meals would have food magic, an individual with a talent for fighting or warfare would have killing magic, and so on and so forth, for pretty much any conceivable ability.
People consider their magics to be a core part of their identities and talk about them in much the same way that modern day people brag about their careers. The community holds these “magics” in high esteem, and society rewards those individuals who display an inordinate number of them and/or who possess the ones that are in high demand (like healing, for instance). This emphasis on talent leads to a hierarchy based on merit – people who are born awesome or who develop their abilities through hard work have an opportunity for social advancement. However, permanent advancements often cannot be completed alone, meaning that family groups rise or fall together based on the collective achievements of their members. Basically, if you've got one derpy loser in the family, it drags everyone down
Also, because a person's sex does not determine his or her talents, division of labor is not based on gender. This is especially true among the people of the steppe; the folks living in the woodlands occasionally “encourage” certain magics in girls and others in boys, but there is effectively no barrier stopping either sex from participating in their field of interest.
The characters' patchwork clothing is also related to this overarching mythology. Members of both the woodland and steppe tribes believe that animals have their own forms of magic, and that by wearing the skins of these animals, humans are able to “absorb” some of their protective qualities. Stronger creatures are generally preferable, but also harder to get – so in a pinch, mimicry will suffice. Aiden, for example, is wearing a saber-tooth dog pelt around his waist. The girls, who do not live on the steppe and thus do not have access to saber-tooth dogs, still have bits of striped hide incorporated into their outfits – but it's not the genuine article. The cloth is designed to simulate
the appearance (and the useful properties) of the real deal. In other words, Sah and Bidki are wearing knock-offs, while Aiden has the designer brand
The patchwork clothing also functions as a status conveyor. Obviously in ancient times textiles were more difficult to produce than they are today, meaning that only those individuals with access to considerable resources would be able to afford lots of different types of fabric. This holds true in the world of the story, where people show off their affluence by wearing clothing made from as many materials as possible. Poor folks might have outfits made from only two or three different kinds of animal hides, whereas rich people could be expected to don the garment equivalent of a mosaic. Based on their clothing, Bidki and Sah could probably best be described as “middle class”, whereas Aiden would rank slightly higher on the social scale. When Sah and Bidki Met Aiden and Cannavar
Ah, right, the characters. Sah is a born problem solver who approaches life as through it were a series of puzzles that need to be worked out. This mindset has bolstered her ability to think flexibly and to craft novel approaches to difficult situations. During one particularly lean winter as a child, for example, Sah noticed the graceful, brutal efficiency of falcons and hawks on the hunt, and she thought, “why aren't we making use of that?” That spring, she climbed some trees, raided a couple of nests, raised the chicks herself, devised a way to train them, and then put them to work chasing small game...basically, she invented the sport of falconry in one fell swoop, if you'll pardon the pun.
It is this accomplishment – her aptly-named “falcon magic” – that earns her the most respect, although it's really just an outgrowth of her solution magic. Sah's elder sister Bidki is one of those warm, compassionate individuals that it's literally impossible
not to like. She possesses plant magic and is adept at crafting herbal remedies, and at the beginning of the story she's happily betrothed to the dude she's been in love with since childhood *collective “awwww”*
Aaaand now for the crappy plot,
which is kind of a cross between an ethnography, a survival manual, and a cheesy romance novel, lol *Ahem* Everything's going great for Sah, Bidki, and their extended kin group, until one day a boy and his dog show up at their encampment...and by a boy and his dog, I mean a scarily silent young man with a skull mask and a HUGE predatory canine with teeth like friggin steak knives.
All the boy has to do is point
toward the two sisters, and in an instant the horrified parents know that he means to have one of them as his wife. To the girls, it's like something out of a nightmare – their whole lives they've heard horror stories of the men and women who were forced to marry pillagers from the Steppe. It's worse for Bidki, however, because custom dictates that the elder sister must marry first, and that means she's the one up to bat for team Life Ruiner. As soon as the boy leaves, Bidki retires to her tent, physically sickened by anxiety and heartbreak. Basically, the family is up shit creek without a paddle, because they literally
believe that this boy (like all Steppe people) possesses destructive magic that he will unleash if he is not pacified – powers that would not only bring disaster down on their family, but on the entire settlement as well. In other words, as responsible citizens it is their duty
to fork over a daughter and preserve the greater good.
Seeing her sister's misery, Sah quickly comes to the conclusion that she
should be the one to “take one for the team”, not Bidki. Solution-oriented as ever, Sah sneaks out and follows the boy's tracks to his makeshift camp in the forest. She sends her falcon ahead to distract the dog, then waltzes right out of the trees and confronts the guy, who is so taken aback that he nearly trips over his own fire pit. Sah launches straight into negotiations, appealing to his emotional side by explaining Bidki's predicament, then appealing to his practical side by listing all her potential assets as a wife. He's like, “Um...hi? I'm Aiden? Derp” and she's like “kcool we'll discuss this arrangement further tomorrow.”
Long story short, they meet again, and Aiden turns out to be kind of a silly sweetheart who is all-too-relieved to not have to play the role of villainous wife-stealer. Aiden tells Sah that conditions on the prairie are so difficult that Steppe people have no choice but to prey upon Woodland settlements. He also sheepishly admits that his people do not possess extra-destructive magic of any kind, but rather rely on their fearsome reputations to get what they want/need. By his own admission, Aiden is not exactly an “intimidating” person (even his giant fangèd dog is a total pushover), so he compensates by wearing a scary skull mask and keeping his mouth shut whenever possible. Anyway, he and Sah hit it off right away, and they concoct a scheme to preserve his barbaric reputation and paint Sah as a tragic heroine. They stage this whole public spectacle where he threatens the lives of everyone in the village, and Sah pretends to offer herself up like a sheep for slaughter, thereby ensuring that she (and by extension, her family) receive plenty of “martyr street cred”.
Sah doesn't want Bidki to feel guilty, however, so she lets her sister in on the truth before she leaves for good. She vows, rather grandiosely, to “fix the Steppe” and then return with Aiden someday.
It's a 3+ week journey back to Aiden's family settlement out on the Steppe, and on the way Sah learns a lot about her new husband-to-be (his parents need to perform a marriage ritual before it can be official). Like all Steppe people, Aiden possesses creature magic and has a deep bond with his pet/pack animal/life companion Cannavar. Aiden's magic involves tool-making and handicrafts, but he's always lived in the shadow of his older brother and sister, who made advantageous marriages and possess powerful hunting and navigation magic. Even his younger sister enjoys a higher status in the family group because she possesses “vision magic”...what we would today call epilepsy. Sah is eager to meet everyone and prove her usefulness, but when the two of them finally arrive at the encampment, things take a dark turn.
Aiden's relatives are nowhere to found. All of their stuff is right where they left it, but the entire extended family is simply gone
– vanished without a trace. To make matters worse, winter is fast approaching, and snowstorms on the Steppe are always brutal. With no kinship network to rely on for sustenance and protection, Aiden and Sah's chances for survival suddenly look very bleak. Will the young couple be able to fend for themselves during the winter? Will they ever find out what happened to Aiden's family? What exactly are the issues plaguing the Steppe, and will Sah be able to solve any of them? And most importantly, just how awkward can things get when you're living in a cave with an extremely likeable guy you're technically
not married to yet?
Unfortunately I don't know the precise answers to these questions, because the notes I found only outline the beginning and middle of the story, and I simply cannot
remember how it all turns out (I did write this thing over a decade ago, after all). So, looks like the story ends on a cliffhanger...for now. Sorry!
Anyway, thanks a million to anyone who managed to slog through this whole thing. I'm heartily impressed by your commitment to reading my dribble. You have earned my undying affection and admiration.