Once a year, when the wide plains of Naezshan Zhunith are still fresh from rains, the barely-opened geraniums are trampled by thousands upon thousands of feet. Most are hoofed, belonging to horses, sheep, cattle and goats being herded from the corners of the entire continent of Nybelmar. Following and leading their flocks, or with other wares to sell, or simply for the spectacle, are hundreds of other feet, hailing from tribes and races even more diverse. They have come, sometimes hundreds of miles, to the Seven Bright Days’ festival (HarkorPrathronyeh, lit. “roadsmeet” from plainsdwarf Thergerim), the largest herders market in Nybelmar, and also proverbially a place for showing off the beauty of one’s nation. There is a good reason that the Anpagans call it “the goatherd’s fashion week”, but the apparent shallowness of the celebration doesn’t take away from the sheer spectacle.
The Seven Bright Days takes place once a year, over the first week of
Rising Sun, in the north-eastern
Zhunite plains of Naezshan Zhunith.
The precise location is one known to almost every tribe, and is in any case easy
to find, as the vast herds and flocks that travel there have worn great tracks
through the plains from all directions. Near the centre of the Naezshan Zhunith,
where the plains are wide and uninterrupted and the grazing is good, the many
roads start to converge, flowing together like rivers until there are only
three, from the west, northeast and south-east.
The western road is known as the orange road, for the pottery carts and cattle that make up most of the traffic, coming from Zhunite states and the famous ceramics-producing village of Serekeye. This road splits not far from the area though, the main road heading south through the mountains to Zhun proper, the other continuing east to Orcal, though few of the Orcal “Black orcs” attend the Seven Bright Days in person, preferring to rely on traders passing through their lands on their way south from the Drifting Woods. The two eastern roads come from north and south of the Zsharkanian range respectively. The north-eastern road is known as the blue road, as it tends to be mainly travelled by traders and merchants bringing rare fabrics, glasses, porcelain and other exotic items from the forests and elven races in the North-west of Nybelmar. The south-eastern road is by far the greatest, and the most laden with livestock, of many breeds coming from the great Korweyn plains, as well as the various kingdoms surrounding the empire, and even as far afield as the Moon Hills. This great highway is named for the clouds of dust that rise from it, stirred by the thousands of hooves as they travel to the Seven Bright days. It is known as the yellow road.
The festival itself is the size of a small town, and marked by a ring of great stone cairns, the stones of which are inscribed with the names of tribes, states, and races that have passed that way, from the names of individual herders on their first trip to the great festival, to the crests of great nations. It has long been the right of anyone to leave their mark on the stones, and new cairns are erected every year for that purpose. The boundary, known as the cairnwall, forms a great loose pen and partial walls facing out in every direction, by which herders can guide their animals in and keep them from wandering too far, though it is not uncommon for smaller herders to stay outside the walls, knowing it will be crowded within, and not wanting to run the risk of not being able to find grazing for their livestock. The area itself, annually refreshed with the dung of livestock from across the continent, is extraordinarily resilient to the wear of so many hooves and mouths, and some herders avow that it is well worth the trip purely for the good it does their livestock to feed so well for a week.
Events. Day one: Arrival. Anyone who has witnessed the Seven Bright Days will avow that it is a unique event, a spectacle in itself for the sheer scale of it. The first day of the festival, and generally several days beforehand, is taken up with the arrival of thousands of head of cattle, sheep, horses and goats, and vast trains of merchants’ wagons. The livestock throw up storms of dust that make the sunset spectacular, and breathing difficult – almost everyone arriving will wear a scarf over their face, giving the few strals of road leading up to the meeting place the nickname “bandit’s walk.” The bleating and bellowing and whinnying of animals and the shouting of herders is deafening as different flocks and herds are sorted from each other, while elsewhere groups of cattle walk off on their own in search of grazing spots.
Though an individual herder will rarely take more than perhaps twenty head of the best livestock, as the distance makes larger numbers impractical, together the flocks mass into a sea of sweating, dusty animals, and a herder’s first priority on arriving is to sort his or her animals from everyone else’s, and find an area where they can rest and graze to revive themselves after what might be journey of hundreds of strals. The mosoly herder Anton Hyntra described a typical first day of the festival for a herder like himself:
don’t take many, because there’s nothing so temperamental as a mosoly out
of the woods, and they might fetch a pretty price outside of the home
country but that’s no good if we lose half a flock trying to get them
here. The best ewes and a few good rams are enough, often as not, though,
and they’re big strong things we take, so they generally make the trip
alright. Still, it’s a hell of a relief to meet up with the other herders
at the bandit’s walk, and see the cairnwalls through the dust ahead. One
of the perks of herding mosoly is that everyone can see you must have been
on the road for weeks, so they make way a bit, and there’s not so much
pushing and shoving with the nag-sellers and cattle-hawkers. Usually we
set up a pen just inside the cairnwall, it’s important to keep the herd
penned in or they try and pick fights with anything going past. I once saw
one of my best ewes chase a stallion till it bolted off into the plains –
would have gone strals if there hadn’t been a group of
Kavogerim goatherds with
havach-ox to head it off.
Days two to four: Trading, trials and tricks with
When the great flocks have been sequestered in their pens, and the camps of
herders, traders and other travellers have settled down, people quickly get down
to the business of, well business. Trading goes on throughout the Seven Bright
Days, but the first two or three days are the busiest time, when livestock and
livestock products are traded in vast quantities. Herders display their stock by
herding them into the central pen at the very heart of the festival ground,
forming a series of processions. The animals will be cleaned, clipped and
bedecked in the colours of the tribe which bred them, in order to give the best
possible effect, and this makes these processions a sight to see, especially
given the exotic nature of some of the breeds. A visitor to the festival can see
anything from the strange green mosoly sheep of the Moon Hills, to the
magnificent Jerrahn crested horses bred by the
Kassites. A perennial attraction are
the karnarma sheep, with their dirt-packed fleeces growing small gardens of dust
orchids and bright Zhun geraniums. Also worth seeing are the immense
havach-ox mounts of
lizard-goats from the Orcal lands, and fearsome-looking
skaurgere riders in warrior’s armour.
It’s not only herders who take the opportunity to trade with people from across the continent – the festival is also thronged with wool-sellers, tanners, tailors, potters and other merchants selling all manner of goods, though most typically they are in some way related to clothing, armour and other apparel.
It is this focus which gives the Seven Bright Days its reputation for showing-off, or at least providing the best opportunity on the plains for showing-off. Ornate armour, riding-tack and leatherwork from the Korweynite empire, and Aca-Santerra are sold side by side with rare feathers, scents and dyes from the forests of the “Vikh and Gondolwenmith. And as well as the beautiful Gondolsilk, even occasional pieces of rare, Krean spilk are more likely to show up for sale here than anywhere else outside of that secretive tribe’s territory. Bone, horn and tooth ornaments from the Kavogerim and the Doimo nomads, and precious metals and stones from the Orcal empire and the territories of the Murmillion people are all bought and sold, and used by artisans to create fantastic jewellery and ornamentation. Wealthy aristocrats seeking unique garments to wear to weddings and similar celebrations come to the Seven Bright Days, knowing that it is there that the greatest tailors and artificers accumulate, as well as the finest quality raw materials.
Augmenting the business of buying and selling, the afternoons of each day are usually set aside for contests and shows of skill from herders; there are sheep trials, where shepherds and their dogs compete to corral a small flock, usually of karnarma sheep or milch goats (much harder to herd than sheep, and considered a far more challenging trial) around a series of obstacles with the least mistakes and quickest time. Also popular are displays of trick riding and horseback acrobatics, sheep-shearing contests, bull-leaping and cattle wrangling. There are less well-known, but just as fascinating and fiercely contested events to judge the best karnarma-back garden and most beautiful horse. And in less reputable corners great sums are wagered on lizard-goat fights – a sport much like cock-fighting, save that the larger size and greater natural ferocity of Orcal lizard-goats makes the sport all the bloodier.
Day five: Races. By day five, the bulk of the livestock trading is done, and there is time for yet more showing off, though of a less sartorial nature. Horse racing is the most keenly followed, and traders with pockets full from their business over the past few days often bet great sums on the outcome of races. The course is a circuit of the cairnwall, and riders from many different tribes race at breakneck speeds round the outside of the wall, with thoroughbred Jerrahn stallions in full racing-tack competing against kiang donkeys, mongrel draft-ponies, and even the occasional skaurgere; the definition of “horse” being loose in these races. Unlikely as it seems, even with such disparity of competitor the winner of these races are by no means a foregone conclusion – the press of bodies is such an obstacle that it is anyone’s guess which rider and mount will be nimble, cut-throat or strong enough to get ahead and stay ahead.
There are also cattle races, and even sheep and goat races where the jockeys are mostly children. The bigger races can be very dangerous, as the press to keep close to the cairnwall can be fierce, and there is a notorious lack of rules. That said, serious injuries and deaths are generally rare, and if a jockey is known to have intentionally injured another jockey or their mount, they can expect to be treated very coldly for the rest of the Seven Bright Days, and if the crime is serious enough, they may be forced to award compensation, possibly even including their own mount, to the injured party.
Prizes for the winners of races are usually in the form of belt-buckles, which can be worn either on the bridles or on the jockey’s clothing. Famous riders are easily spotted at the festival by the rows of buckles that adorn themselves and their mounts, giving rise to the saying “he/she has won his/her armour”, meaning that a person has built a formidable reputation, much as a jockey builds themselves a collection of buckles until they clink like a warrior in armour.
Day six: The back-walking, presentation of the year’s dress. The penultimate day of the festival marks its peak, and only the most desperate trader will try to do any business today, as all eyes are on the back-walking contest. This sport is only practised during the Seven Bright Days, and notoriously dangerous to all involved, but that doesn’t seem to dim its attraction in the slightest. The rules of the game are simple: throughout the vast herds assembled within the cairnwall (smaller and more temperamental breeds are usually moved outside the wall for this event, for reasons which will become clear), brightly coloured pennants are attached to the backs of a few choice animals, spread as widely through the herds as possible. The competitors assemble in the central pen, which for once will be clear of animals, and from there must race each other, travelling only on the backs of livestock without once letting their feet touch the ground, to collect as many pennants as possible and return to the central pen. The one who collects the most pennants, or, in the event of a tie, the one who returns most quickly, is the winner. The crowds gathered to watch serve as unofficial referees, and are guaranteed to spot if any of the competitors should touch the ground. They also serve the vital role of retrieving those who do fall, hopefully before they are trampled to death.
It is, as will be clear, a highly dangerous event – many herders train their stock not to mind back-walking, and even use them to practise on for the contest itself. But even the most placid beast is liable to become nervous and restive with several people racing at breakneck speeds over its back. Usually the competitors are restricted to the youngest, fittest individuals, and this is one contest in which girls have an equal footing to boys, as it was reputedly a young girl who won the first contest, and many a herder’s daughter is encouraged to try her hand at back-walking. This is an event steeped in tradition, and serves as a symbol of the sheer scale of the festival, since the very possibility of this contest demonstrates that you can race from one end of the plain to the other across the backs of the livestock.
The prize is no less symbolic, and has become one of the most yearned-for items in all the plains of Nybelmar. Known as the Year’s dress, it is a garment made collectively by the best artisans at the festival, and it incorporates as many different materials as possible into a thing of wondrous beauty and complexity. Usually taking the form of a robe, so as to suit both girls and boys, it is different every year, made with cooperation and improvisation by tailors, amanters, jewellers, metalworkers and leatherworkers from all corners of the continent. The winner of a recent contest described her prize thusly:
long gown, brushes the floor when I walk. The hem is zaniskari hide,
treated to be as tough as rock, and it leaves swirling patterns in the
dust behind me, wiping out my footsteps so you’d think nothing more than a
lisdra snake had passed by. The - the skirt bit - see here? It’s
Gondolsilk, dyed with
Murmillion purple and this dark blue that I think comes from the
drifting woods, and padded on the inside with quwish down and
Anpagan perfumes. The inside
lining is mosoly wool, warm as anything, look, and green!
Day seven: Feasting and returning home. The seventh
and final day is one of mixed work and relaxation, celebration of a job well
done and sadness at having to part and begin the long trek home. Of course for
many of the more nomadic herders and traders, this is less of a chore and more a
going back to the routine, but for others, it is the beginning of a long and
arduous journey, and a very good excuse for one last feast. Thus when everyone
is packed and ready, a great fire is lit in the central pen and there is
feasting, dance and drink until late in the night. At daybreak the next day, the
three roads once again stream and swarm with thousands of bodies and clouds of
dust, as the Seven Bright Days come to their end. All that is left is a wide
expanse of plains strewn with dung and churned up by hooves- the perfect
ingredients to grow a new, fresh carpet of extra-rich grass for next year in
this otherwise parched plain.
Famous People. The Seven Bright days has reputedly been frequented by all manner of famous names over the years. Many of the winners of the races and the back-walking go on to be famous in their own rights. High ranking officers in the Kassite army often pride themselves on having won their share of Seven Days’ races, and those few who win the back-walking contest more than once (something that has happened only a handful of times, as after winning once most choose never to compete again) are heralded as heroes. The scale of the gathering also provides an invaluable shield for more secretive figures, and the various underhand dealings that go on during the festival have long drawn the attention of famous rogues and villains looking for an easy target, a quick buck, or simply a place to hide. One year, the infamous highwayman Slippery Jack attended the festival in disguise, competed in the big horse race, and won - but was recognized by a Kassite ex-cavalryman in the final stretch. Jack spotted the danger and didn’t bother stopping to pick up his prize, snatching it from the hands of the judge as he galloped past, and not slowing until he had disappeared over the horizon.
Importance. The Seven Bright Days represent a massive trading opportunity for all the herders and travelling merchants of Nybelmar. Even nations that do not actively participate benefit, as goods come to and from the festival by way of traders who have passed through their lands. Trading in animals of different breeds and from different areas keeps healthy mix of blood in the livestock, and helps keep otherwise rare creatures distributed over a wider area, making them less prone to disease or localised hazards. Without the festival it is likely that herders such as the mosoly shepherds of the Moon Hills would fare very badly in times of drought or disease, but by bringing a few of their stock to the festival every year they can make easily enough money to tide them over, by selling either the sheep themselves or their wool, which is hard to obtain outside of Murmillion territories.
By meeting in the centre of the continent, in empty plains, the festival also acts as neutral ground, and tribes and races which might otherwise be at each others’ throats can meet and carry out essential business without fear of violence. Arguably the festival has done a considerable service for Nybelmarian political relations. Quite apart from practical concerns, the Seven Bright Days is the high point of the year for most herders, and a spectacular event for any who witness it.
History/Origin. The story, apocryphal as it may be, goes that about two hundred years ago, two herders, a Kavogerim shepherd and Zhunite cattle-herd, were lost in the Naezshan Zhunith. Fearing that they might wander until they and their livestock died of thirst, they were astonished to meet each other, right in the centre of the plains. Grateful for the company, they spent a night together, exchanged goods, and even managed to work out from which direction they had each come, and where they should be going, by combining their shared reckoning of their journeys. They made a deal to meet next year in the same place, if indeed they found their ways home as they hoped they would, and built a cairn of rocks to mark the place, carving their respective tribe-names onto the topmost stone. They did, of course, return the next year, bringing friends, and so the meeting grew and grew until you could walk for miles on the back of cattle, sheep, horses and goats.
This possibility, remarked upon by a young Kassite girl to a seamstress, started a wager that turned into the dangerous, extraordinary sport of back-walking – a wager which the shepherd girl won, and in doing so demanded as her prize a beautiful dress from the seamstress. The dress, accordingly made not by just her but by whoever had a spare minute and scrap of fabric in the hustle and bustle of the vast festival, was deemed the most beautiful thing in all the plains, and quickly became a dearly loved tradition, as well as a literal proof of the ethic of collaboration that is at the heart of the Seven Bright Days.