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Snow-unicorn Riders - Culture
Written By: Ellen Million (Writer), Amelia Margetts (Research), Elizabeth Barrette (Research), Nicole Robertson (Editor)
A description of the practices and beliefs of the people who live in the northern-most reaches of Torn World.

Table of Contents:

Location: The Northerners, or snow-unicorn riders, live in the area furthest north on Torn World. The climate is harsh, with very long, dark winters and short, frenzied summers. The forest is mostly taiga, with mixed birch and spruce trees. In low areas, there are marshy wetlands, in high areas, open alpine tundra. A few sheltered areas have hardy apples and other fruit. The area is ringed to the south by high mountains. To the north, a large, dangerous sea opens onto the Torn World ocean.

You can read about their seasons (it's not ALL winter), and the Waters of the North. Major landmarks of the north include Akovu's Crown, the Great Northern Gate, Smokewater Valley and The Folded City, as well as the three villages of Itrelir, Itakith and Itadesh.


Each village of the snow-unicorn riders has a collaborative council of Elders who set policy and judge any misdeeds. For the most part, the villagers know their jobs and do them, knowing full well that not to work can mean starvation or extreme discomfort. There are no particular special considerations given to the council, so it is largely staffed with those who may be too old to do much physical labor, or who have been injured, but who still wish to be useful. A younger or whole member would be met with distrust, since clearly they have uses outside of the council.

The council rules by consensus. They solicit information from pertinent experts, make persuasive arguments, and try to reach decisions that are beneficial to the village as a whole. There are very rare cases where consensus of the group cannot be reached, and a vote of the entire tribe may be called, but this hardly ever happens.

They are responsible for many day-to-day decisions, including when the people move to summer camps, management of the game and wildlife, when new buildings are required and where they should be built. Anyone is encouraged to approach any of the council individually or collectively to ask their advice on personal matters.


Most people declare themselves as domestic or ranger when they graduate from their age-set and are accepted as adults. Many do not specify an occupation beyond that, though a preference for a particular craft or task may develop. Some, however, do declare a profession, and focus their training on particular needs of the village.

Domestics are the people (men or women) who stay close to the village and attend to the cooking, cleaning and preserving of food, as well as the raising of children and crafting of houses, clothing, tools, and musical instruments. They may do close-range gathering, within a day's travel of the village or summer camp.

Rangers are the hunters, trappers, and keepers of the snow-unicorns, who require a great deal of territory to feed. They are so called because they range outside of the immediate village territory.

Elders, whether on the council of elders or not, are respected. Some tasks, such as archivist and story-teller, are more acceptable of someone who is not able-bodied, and many people 'retire' to such positions.

In general, people do what they are best suited for, and may change occupations as they choose, or even fill two or more occupations at once, which is highly respected. They are all expected to pitch in when work requires extra hands, such as during salmon runs or lifting new walls.

Moving between villages to enhance training (and inter-village cooperation) is expected if you specialize in a craft.

Village Layout:

There is little privacy in a village - the houses are round, sunk low into the ground, and are shared spaces.

In the sleeping houses (which are not solely for sleeping!), large bunks (suitable for two-three people comfortably) ring a central area where socializing, music, eating and various tasks occur. A very large central column holds up the roof beams and is hollow, for the passage of the fire smoke. A fire pit provides heat and a place for the storage of a perpetual stew pot. Eating is not an "event" or done in meals, as it is elsewhere on Torn World; it is something that you do when hungry, from the available food. There would not be enough utensils for everyone to eat at once, though a handful of people may eat together socially. Feasts are an exception to this, and are usually made from finger-ready foods.

The sleeping houses are organized by who best fits together. One house is generally for rowdier unattached young folks, one for older, quieter types. One is allotted for infants and one for older children. There will be 12 to 25 of these houses in a village, sleeping 30-60 people in one house. The lack of privacy means that hours of quiet must be respected, and that there are no real secrets about who is sharing whose bunk. Anyone may enter any house, but generally, a bunk is a place of privacy. If someone is uncomfortable in their house, they will go looking for an empty bunk or try to exchange for one.

The house of the council is set up in the same fashion, but considerably larger, with room for basically all of the tribe to gather, and no sleeping bunks.

A few crafthouses with appropriate ventilation are also available for creating larger/stinkier things (like leather tanning, boiling herbs for medicines, etc.).

The Northerners are very hygienic, and believe in bathing as often as possible. However, water is a precious commodity during the long winters, so they are very sparing with its use. To this end, they use a sauna system. Each village has several sauna structures, which range between small and intimate (just 3-6 people) to larger and more communal (as many as a dozen people). A person strips down in the outer, heated entry-way, and enters naked (nudity among either gender is casual and socially acceptable). Water put on hot rocks by the fire fills the room with steam. The person relaxes in the steam as long as they are comfortable in the heat (usually 20 minutes - 1 hour) and then washes briskly in warm water (usually helpfully poured by another sauna user) with an exfoliate, dries off outside in the cooler antechamber, and then dresses with fresh underclothing.

Underclothing - two pieces that cover from ankle to wrist - is of a stretchy, knit material, and is commonly held. Fresh undergarments are stacked by size outside of a sauna and dirties are left to be washed.


Motherhood is not only respected, it is revered. The title of childbearer comes with great honor, and is bestowed after the fifth live birth. However, it is exceedingly unlucky to mention the fact of pregnancy or to bring attention to it, due in no small part to an alarming rate of miscarriage and pregnancy complication. A pregnant woman wears a special cage-style bead on her necklace to display her state, and may receive extra rations in times of food shortage, but it would never be mentioned aloud, nor would she give thanks for such extras.

After a birth, she is showered in loving gestures and gifts like berries, fine furs for her bed, extra food, poems, and affectionate touches.

Babies are raised in a common infant house, by domestics called raisers. A mother may choose to join this house while her baby is growing up, or may leave them to people who are more suited to the task, with no stigma. Many mothers choose something between, nursing and visiting with their infant, but continuing to live in another house. Fathers are as welcome to participate in raising their offspring as the mother is, though they are generally less likely to.

At the age of between 4 and 6, every infant is put into an age-set of 7-10 children and graduated from the infant house to the child house. This age-set will train and grow together as children until they pass a series of 3 tests (a summer test, a winter test and a surprise mock-survival test) at the time of puberty, which includes being able to recognize what is edible, preserve meat, sew, read and write, and perform several basic physical feats, such as firing an arrow (accuracy requirements are pretty lax), sharpening a blade, skinning an animal and starting a fire (with tools). They must also be able to name all of their 'complicated cousins' - anyone close enough in their family tree that they should not be intimate with them. At this point, they may take an occupation, have sex, visit Smokewater Village, take a bunk in any available house, and be counted in a village vote.

Necklaces and Sexual Interaction:

Every Northerner wears a choker-style necklace with distinct segments of leather and beads that shows their profession, honors, children and sexual availability.

Genealogy is tracked very closely. The worst insult you can give a woman is to call her "one who wouldn't know the father of her own child." With no reliable method of testing for paternity, the solution to keeping track of this is to restrict any given woman to having sex with one and only one man between her menstrual cycles.

Because there is no real privacy in the villages, there is no easy way to stay secretive about who is having sex with whom; on the contrary, a woman will wear that information around her neck. If there is a blank loop of leather across the center of her necklace, the woman is available. If a bead rests there, it will be representative of the man to whom she has "given her month." She may only sleep with him once, or spend that entire month sharing a bunk with him. It is not considered rude to flirt with a claimed woman, and it is not uncommon for a woman to promise months in advance to men who are able to gain her favor.

For men, there is no such limitation. He only shows a woman's bead on his necklace if he wishes to be exclusive, which is neither required nor expected from most women. It would be very rude for a woman to flirt with a man wearing another woman's bead.

If a woman is not interested in any man, whether in mourning, or simply not interested in fending off advances, she will tie a knot in the center of her necklace where the bead would otherwise be. It is inconsiderate to flirt with a woman wearing a knot.

A necklace will also tell you how many children a woman has had, or a man has fathered, and what their job in the village is, which village they consider home, and what age-set they were a part of. Read more about them here.

Same-sex relationships are accepted as quite normal and carry no stigma. However, the limited gene pool of the Northerners is a matter of some concern, and it is expected that even those villagers who are not particularly interested in the opposite sex will contribute genetically and attempt to procreate. Individuals who are interested in same-sex (or no sex!) relationships are encouraged to take a 'duty month' in order to increase genetic diversity.


As the culture who has traveled the least through time since the Upheaval, the snow-unicorn riders speak the language most similar to the original base language. It is a full-sounding and slightly sing-songy language, with many long vowels and words with sharp consonants. They speak it fast, and will casually skip some syllables in familiar settings, if the meter is more rhythmic that way. It is interesting to note that the Snow-Unicorn riders do not use any words when they sing - they use voices more like instruments, exploring the range of sounds they can make without adding lyrics.

Because none of their songs contain lyrics and thus cannot be used to tell stories, Northerners consider singing and storytelling to be two separate arts. Those who practice the latter art seriously do not declare storyteller as a profession; they are chosen by the tribe to perform this function and wear special "furshirts" to indicate their status. The underlayer of this "furshirt" is made of coarsely-woven cloth, with many short tufts of fur knotted into it, similar to a latch hook rug. The main material is snow-unicorn fur, but scattered throughout are tufts of fur from all the other animals found in the north. Making such a garment is very laborious, and it cannot be bought or traded. Instead, it is a gift from the tribe's crafters to signify their recognition of a new storyteller. In fact, the garment is so tightly associated with this social role that a common metaphor for "storyteller" is "furshirt."

Poetry is also found in the Northern culture and these works are either declaimed or chanted. Some rely on rhyme, but most use alliteration or other poetic techniques.

The various villages are in close contact and frequently exchange citizens, so there is little language drift between them.

The Northerners also use a very basic long-distance sign language that involves arm gestures and postures to communicate between travelers. Body language in general tends to be expressive, and the close-knit society is very touch-happy, especially when compared to the southern Empire. Hugs and squeezes are common among even casual acquaintances, and close friends frequently cuddle and kiss, without indicating a sexual relationship.

Writing, Education, and Art:

The snow-unicorn riders educate their young in the written language of the civilization that existed before the Upheaval. They retain some of the survivors' original documents and faithfully copy them as part of the process of learning to write. They have preserved some very sophisticated scientific theories in this manner, although some of them (atom principles, string theory and the like) have taken on mystic proportions and are no longer understood. They do understand geometry, physics, thermodynamics, and basic calculus, follow the principles of things like planetary interactions, and understand the moon/tide interactions.

They are very strict about what may be written and what may not; this is partly for conservation of materials and partly for separation of subject. Fiction, folk tales, and philosophy are subject to oral repetition only and they expect these things to change over time and from storyteller to storyteller. Non-fiction, historical events, and records, however, are always meticulously written out.

Northerners use a substitute for paper made from the thin, layered bark of the birch tree. Those who are learning to write practice on raw birch bark. Permanent records, however, are written on a thick, fibrous parchment processed from this same natural material and their ink comes from a variety of distilled plant juices. Everberry is one permanent ink source.

Several important Northern folk tales are also illustrated by tearing paper or bread. Tearing is an important act in their culture and very distinct from cutting; anything that can be torn rather than cut should be torn. This is partly due to the fact that they have few metal tools and the sharp edges and points of tools made from softer materials require much more upkeep. So in the Northern view, paper should never be cut with a tool, only torn.

Trade and Travel:

The snow-unicorn riders have no contact with any other cultures, but there are three distinct villages within their territory. These villages don't really see themselves as independent, and there are large yearly exchanges of population and goods. It is not uncommon for 50 or more people to switch places. This is more common of the young, and particularly encouraged of young teens who have passed their tests, to experience variety and learn under new teachers. This can also be used as a coping method by someone who has lost a close friend recently and wants a change of scene, or has experienced a falling out with someone in their own village. Some people just like a change of pace, and there are some individuals who like to pack up and move to the next village every year or every few years for variety.

These yearly exchanges usually occur at summer gather sites. Every spring, each of the villages, leaving only a skeleton population behind, scatters to small, temporary camps to gather and harvest during the short, frenetic summer. Most of these gather sites are along rivers with heavy fish runs, but there are a few locations in the hills and near the swamps that specialize in collecting things available only there. Rangers and the council of Elders decide which sites will be used each summer, and which should be allowed to rest.

The summer gathers are usually times of cheerful celebration, with lots of hard work, many exchanges of goods and stories, and a careful duplication of individual records so that all three villages have current weather and genealogy records.

Crime and Punishment:

The council of Elders is creative with their judgments, trying to fit punishment to crime.

Usually, the disapproval of peers is sufficient to get a lazy or rude person back on track, but in severe cases, the council may require the offender to be publicly chastised (a little old lady telling you about scarcity and starvation in front of everyone you know can be pretty degrading), or made to perform particularly undesirable extra duties (waste management, usually).

Particularly childish behavior may be met with being told to sleep in the children's house for a week. Damaging something useful may get you excluded from celebrations. Failure to replace a tool after using it may get it strapped to your back to lug around for a day.

Theft is not really an issue, though there may be problems in times of rationing. At these times, the council controls the food, and theft would be met with more severe shaming, and a restriction of privileges. In particular, a thief would have a difficult time finding sympathy or companionship with anyone else, and the shame may extend into full shunning.

In the case of severe trouble-making and disruption, a village may ask one of their own to leave, and ban them from returning for some period of time. It is very uncommon for a ban to be permanent. The written histories record a single incident of someone being banned from all three villages - the offense was rape and murder - and the sentence was essentially a long, painful death by starvation and exposure. (Stories are still told about the angry ghost of this person.)


The villagers are pragmatic, and not much given to signs and superstitions, but this varies from person to person. Some people believe in ghosts, some do not. They have a variety of stories explaining parts of their environment, but they do not treat these as fact, only entertainment. They do not have a system of deities. The Ancients are not revered, though their knowledge is afforded near-mystic respect. Kladeith, one of the original survivors, is credited with preserving many of their records. "Kladeith knew," and "This Kladeith recorded," often refers to a piece of knowledge that may not be fully understood, but is accepted as fact.

They feel strongly that they are stewards of the land, and responsible for maintaining balance in the ecological world around them. They are proactive in keeping predator and prey cycles dampened, and in cultivating and protecting endangered plants and animals. Some feel this is a near-spiritual duty - others feel this only makes sense in order to keep the land around them healthy enough to continue to provide for their needs.

Due to the Northerners' heightened awareness of temporal effects, they refer to Torn World's three moons as the Past (the larger Trojan moon), the Present (the largest and most noticeable moon), and the Future (the smaller Trojan moon). For more information on these moons, please refer to the article on the astronomy of Torn World.


The snow-unicorn riders' calendar is based on nature but they keep very meticulous weather records, so it is still something numerical. They have six months in each year with each month varying in length. Months in the winter are longer than months in the summer; therefore, each season has basically equivalent sun-time. All dates noted throughout the site have been translated to the Empire calendar.

This article contains extra material for our contributors only!

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  • All Related Articles:

    Animals of the North: An overview of the animals found in (or near) the territory of the snow-unicorn riders.

    Art and Entertainment in the North: Games and crafts of the snow-unicorn riders.

    Creating a Northern Character: What's normal and expected when designing a Northern Character.

    Diseases in the North: Overview: Explore diseases appearing in Northern culture and stories.

    Historical Figures of the North:

    Houses in the North: Northern houses provide communal living space.

    Necklaces: The meanings and construction of the ubiquitous Northern necklaces.

    Northern Body Language: The northern people are very close and expressive with each other, and have both personal body language and a formal long-distance system of communication.

    Northern Foods: An overview of the foods and resources of the North.

    Northern Occupations: An Overview: Northern culture tries to see that every individual has meaningful work to do. Here is an overview of their divisions of occupation.

    Plants of the North: Some of the plants of the North

    Seasons in the North: A look at seasonal changes in the North - particularly dealing with available light and activities.

    Settings in the North:

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