A highly developed, more peaceful society pre-existed this one. Roughly two generations before the start of this story, disease destabilized and then disintegrated key social structures. The resulting power void was filled by local war lords who grabbed power through any means necessary, including violence and forced marriages. This resulted in a large number of rival chiefdoms that, while they traded out of necessity, did not trust each other. Over time, this settled into an uneasy equilibrium.
Epenow’s ancestors were living under a particularly oppressive war lord (in the Nonatum area) when they fled-eventually settling on the island of Noepe. They call themselves Aquinnah, setting up residence on the western side of the island while the people previously there, the Capowak, occupied the eastern areas. The Aquinnah and Capowak didn’t trust each other, but they have enjoyed a generation of relative peace. (Although children on each side are taught not to trust the other). Each group sticks to their side of the island for fishing and farming (three sisters). Each has a managed herd of deer on their side of the island that provides sustenance throughout the winter. The two groups share defensive responsibilities to protect the island from future invaders from the mainland. They’ve repelled several attempts in recent years.
There are a few physical artifacts remaining from before the collapse—clear rock crystal lenses similar to the Visby lenses. However, there is no written history. Instead, history is passed down through oral and dance traditions. [Have Epenow watch this and describe the meaning to the reader.]
Tribal decisions are made by a council that includes political leaders (sachem or squasachem as well as subsachems/sagamore), religious leaders (powwow, medicine man, priests, priestesses), and military leaders (pneise). Epenow is a young pniese candidate, nominated because of his great stature (believed to be touched by Moshup, a giant revered by people of the region). Priests and pniese are (more or less) meritocracies of the high born caste. Political power passes matrilineally, although better qualified heirs of either gender are sometimes chosen over those with a stronger hierarchical claim.
The people of Noepe (both tribes or just one?) have developed a technology (magic) that none of the mainland tribes have. Children gather bat guano from the cliffs and forest nesting sites. The guano is boiled, the solids are filtered out, and the liquid is evaporated to leave white crystals (potassium nitrate). This is combined with freshly render whale oil to produce a gel. The gel is loaded into ‘bags’ from emptied corn husks and a wick made of braided plant fiber soaked in whale oil is inserted. These can be lighted and thrown manually or with a catapult. The pneise use them to defend the island. Priests use smaller versions in some ceremonies.
Society includes two major castes—highborn and lowborn, although there are relative graduations within each and some movement between them. Slaves—those that are owned by others—occupy the lowest position in this schema. One particular subclass of the highborn is marked by traces of natural red and blond streaks in their otherwise dark brown/black hair. For the most part, members of this subclass aren’t considered for societal positions of great import. They are considered to be touched by the great spirit too strongly. They are too close to the spiritual realm and not anchored enough in the physical realm. They are provided for by the tribe, but are treated as a sideshow novelty (very much like how Epenow is treated in London).
Ousa Mequin (the sachem of Patuxet) has expanded control of the inland tribes and now commands tens of thousands of people. He has united them by force, by arranged marriages between the tribes, and by uniting them against a common enemy—the Narragansetts to the southwest—who had been terrorizing the southern Wampanoag (not a contemporary label) tribes.
Noepe had basically just been watching this from their island hideaway. Thus the nearest inland tribes hold them in contempt. Noepe did fight off several Narrangasett raids using their fire bombs.
Ousa Mequin recently claimed the title of Massasoit (Great Sachem). He heard of Noepe’s resistance to the Narrangasett and about their fire bomb technology. He wants to bring them into his Confederacy to fight against the Narragansetts.
He sent a messenger to the island with a tribute of gifts as a way to open discussions. After considering it, the island leadership (both tribes) decided against joining. They are geographically protected and the bat guano is limited. At the same time, the leaders decided to join the two tribes and arranged various marriages between young adults from both, one of these being Epenow and Wanaunca (a fire hair from Capowak).
On the eve of the wedding day, where several of these pairs were set to marry, a Patuxet spy snuck onto the island and littered yellow feathers (Ousa’s namesake) throughout the lanes of every village.