All across the northern coasts of Ancalia and Lom, fearful eyes watch the seas for the coming of the dread black ships of the Ulstangers. The grim, pale warriors of the islands sail forth in ships crewed by dead men, prows lit by the lanterns of their witch-queens and helmed by hands hungry for the plunder of the coasts. They are not content to merely take the goods of those they slay, but also carry off their corpses to serve as unliving bondsmen and slave women.
The Ulstangers are a savage people, scratching out a bleak existence on their cold isles through sorcery and brutal piracy. They are ruled by pitiless witch-queens, each island under the subjection of a cold mistress of necromancy. Men are forbidden to study their secrets, and are instead sent out to reave the coasts and die in battle. Those who perish gloriously are permitted a quiet grave, while those who die abed or shamefully are raised to toil for their heirs.
The great majority of labor in the skerries is performed by draugrs, the walking dead beckoned up by the witch-queens and their priestesses. Cold concubines sit motionless while war-marked laborers hew wood and tend meager fields. Draugr are kept cold to retard decay, though the brief warm weather of a northern summer inevitably rots a few of them to uselessness, forcing a fresh batch of corpses to be brought home. Draugr are greater undead and are not entirely mindless; most retain some agonized consciousness and memory, and most can perform simple tasks under the instruction of Ulstang thrall-drivers. A few are even fit for fighting, and are often swathed in heavy armor and armed with massive weapons, the better to take advantage of their supernatural strength.
Witch-queens measure their status by the number of living and draugr they command and the richness of their cold palaces. They do not love each other, but the great necromantic rituals they work require the cooperation of several adepts, and so they cannot afford to quash all potential usurpers. Instead, they fight through treachery, misdirection, and the arranged misfortune of each others’ servants. Every Ulstanger girl dreams of being called to a witch-queen’s service as an acolyte priestess, though few who are summoned survive long enough to supplant their deathless mistress.
Most Ulstangers know nothing but their own bleak lives in the skerries, but some are quietly seduced by other ideas. Not every slave is killed before being brought back to the skerries, and some of these bondsmen and women fill the heads of impressionable Ulstangers with images of warmer and better lands. It takes courage to flee the jealous rule of the witch-queens or slip away from a raiding expedition, but the Ulstangs have never been strangers to courage–only to mercy.
Many nations have considered invading the skerries at one time or another, but the united witch-queens and their black-prowed ships would be certain to crush any ordinary invasion. Only the work of several nations acting in concert with some great maritime power would have any hope of scouring the isles clean of the Ulstangers. For now, the landsmen endure the depredations of the raiders and their sorcery-blessed reaving as a matter of necessity.
Ulstangers favor furs and leathers, or stolen finery when sitting in their cold feast-halls. The draugr wear nothing but rags, if that. The living favor perfumes and scents to ameliorate the stench of their dead servants, and both men and women are fastidious in their appearance. Finely-braided beards and women’s hair done up in coils and locks are further evidence that a body is still among the living.