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Philomaera: A Tale of the Goating

Prologue:

There is a common misconception, among more "civilized" folk, that all halflings look the same. Like most prejudicial notions, this idea is based more in ignorance than in fact, but it does contain one small shred of truth. The halflings view themselves as an extended family, and each halfling is bound in a web of relationship that extends in concentric rings from the immediate and extended family to the shire, tribe, and Trine. All is shared within the family, between families in the shire, between shires in the tribe, and between tribes within the Trinity of TrueFolk. To those outside a particular circle, those within may look alike because of cultural markers such as the style of hair, clothing, and speech. Within these groups, however, each individual has a name, a character, an identity all their own.

* Readers not of the TrueFolk will accept my apology for the rusticity of the translation. The original halfling name for the ritual derives from an ancient Brughan dialect verb, meaning something like "the giving of a goat." Among the goat-herders, the word has gathered a constellation of meanings centered around coming of age: measuring, recognition, and naming.

% The Brughan goat is a small animal with gently curving horns on a tiny head, and a coat of long, curly wool. These goats produce a milk that is rich with nutrients and thick with cream, making it an ideal base for cheese. The meat of the goat is delicious and nutritious, but eaten on rare occasions because the milk and wool are more valued. The wool is sheared twice yearly and spun into marvelously soft yarn. The wool has beautiful natural hues of white, silver, and black-which are preferred by the Brughans. Their Malghavan cousins dye the wool all the colors of the rainbow, and the wool holds the colors fast. Brughan goat wool is renowned for its resistance to moisture and its ability to provide warmth in all weathers.

@ In such a case, the halfling is said to have "kept the kid." Some rare Brughans bond so closely with their goats that they become vegetarian and refuse to wear the traditional Brughan goat-skin leather garb, instead adopting the grain-based diet and linen clothing of their Malghavan cousins. While rarely entrusted with positions of military or civil authority, such halflings play an important role in the spiritual life of the community, which recognizes in their choice an expression of profound truth about the interrelatedness of all life.

Everyone knows of the TrueFolk's deep respect for family, but you might not be aware that absolutely no respect or cultural authority derives from ancestry. Much might be expected from the daughter of a skilled hunter or the son of a powerful wizard, but until such promise flowers into performance all judgment is reserved. Over the years, various groups within the TrueFolk have developed rites of passage that help to identify individuals according to their unique traits. In goat-herding families of the Brughan tribe, one such rite is called "The Goating."*

This ritual, which can last from a few short hours to an entire lifetime, is simple in form but complex in meaning. A child approaching adolescence is given by the tribe the gift of a recently-weaned goat. According to ancient tradition, the child receives no direction whatsoever as to the nature of the ritual. Instead, the gift comes with a question: "So, child. What shall you do with your goat?" In that question lies a test of character. Over the years, the Brughans have become adept at reading character into the fate of a goat. An impatient child might order their goat cooked right away, or made into soft kid gloves. A careless child might allow it to wander away, or be killed by a marauding pack of hounds. Most of the children, however, take the goat as a serious responsibility. They raise it to full growth over the course of a year or two, harvesting the milk and sheering the long, soft coat in season. Over time, most of the children fulfill the purpose of the ritual: they recognize their responsibility to the goat, but also to their tribe; they bond with their goat, but they also understand its utility.%

The ritual ends when the child, recognizing their fulfillment of the charge, returns the goat to the tribe. At that time, the village elders supervising the ritual will order the goat slaughtered, its hide cured and its meat shared among the tribe. The child is invited to take part in the slaughter, and here again is a test of character. Many a doughty halfling warrior took his first swing with a claidhmore in killing his goat, or young wizard cast her first bolt with deadly intent. More commonly, perhaps, the goat is slaughtered with a single arrow directed straight into the heart. It is not unheard of for more sensitive halflings to refuse to take part in the slaughterBor even to retain possession of the goat until it (or its owner) dies of natural causes.@ No stigma whatsoever attaches to those who make such a decision; the Brughans nod soberly, appraisingly, and act according to the child's directions. When the goat is dead, whether by accident or intent, the initiate is marked with the animal's blood and addressed not with "child" but by name. This simple ceremony, recognizing the death of the child in the death of the goat, marks the Brughan as an adult member of the tribe.

For ever after, the members of the tribe will use The Goating as a means of identifying character: "Lost his goat in a flood, that one," an old uncle will say, or more approvingly perhaps: "Handaxe to the head! She brained it with a single blow." Bear in mind that these discussions are not idle gossip, but almost sacred statements on the individual's relationship to tribal values. According to strictly reinforced practice, The Goating is never mentioned in front of children, lest their experience be ruined; a halfling's results are also never mentioned in front of that individual, unless they should introduce the topic themselves.

Every once in a while there comes an extraordinary child whose Goating becomes legendary, a story passed from village to village and even across the Trine. Such stories sometimes pass into myth, where they make fast in the mind of the halflings the most valued characteristics of their race. This is one such story.

Philomaera: A Tale of the Goating

The decades after the close of the Horse Wars were a dark age for the Brughan halflings. The sickness and death of the ponies, their burial and burning, brought feelings of anguish, helplessness, and despair. No longer could the Brughans range at will, and in those years the tribe clustered its villages close around the lake Khesta 'Dahl. A great depression fell over the tribe, as they struggled to come to terms with the cultural changes necessitated by the loss of their beloved steeds.

As the years passed, the Brughans came to rely ever more strongly on fishing as the basis of their domestic economy. Fish was an important food, whether broiled on the open flame or cooked into hearty stews. But with guidance from their Malghavan cousins, the Brughans learned to dry the fish and grind them into meal that was used to fertilize the thin and rocky soil around the lake. That land was planted in corn, which supplemented the diet not only of the halflings but also of their herds. The goats were an important source not only of meat, but more importantly of milk, cheese, soap, and wonderfully soft wool.

Perhaps in response to the additional pressures put on the fishery, Khesta 'Dahl slowly began to yield fewer and fewer fish to the hooks of the Brughan sailors. As the supply of fish began to dwindle, harsh after-effects were felt throughout the Brughan food chain as the supply of fertilizer, then corn, waned in response. During fateful meetings at the annual Trine, the Brughans-too heartsick to contemplate leaving their ancestral region and naively trusting the lake to replenish its stock-declined the aid offered by their Mhoragian and Malghavan cousins.

In one of the smaller villages nestled against the lakeshore lived a family of three: a humble cleric of Charl and his wife, a wizard of moderate talent, and their daughter, Philomaera. These Brughans were descended from great horsemen, and the families in their village once kept great herds of sheep and goats, which ranged through the forests and plains of the Brughan homelands. With the loss of the ponies, the village settled near the 'Sister of the Mists,' and began to make the transition to a more settled lifestyle. A lover of the lake and its volatile storms, the cleric petitioned his god to intervene and send more fish to the needy folk. But his prayers went unanswered...if not unheard.

Meanwhile, life went on more or less as usual. The young mother raised her daughter in the way of the Brugha: encouraging curiosity and courage, decisiveness and determination, through games and chores and little lessons of every kind. Philomaera was developing into a delightful little girl. She had a quiet peace about her, patience, and a physical grace found in very few children of any race. She was quick of mind, asking interminable questions about the world around her which-according to the ancient halfling tradition-her parents answered with no attempt to shield the child from life's harsh truths. Philomaera was in her fifth year when the Brughans entered the starving time.

Facing the prospect of famine, the elders of the village made a difficult decision, ordering the slaughter of the goat herds. With the meat preserved and that food source assured, the corn used for fodder and the fish used for fertilizer would remain in the communal larders. The elders hoped this plan will get them through the lean months of Fall and Winter, until Spring would restore the fishery. Before that plan was put into effect, the elders decided that those children nearing the age of their Goating would receive their gifts early-lest the goats be unavailable in the given time.

Philomaera was helping her mother cook when the old aunts came to the door. Bent low over the cooking pot, she stirred another hot pepper into the powerfully spicy Ragalatan chowder-so named that the tears it produces might remind the Brughans of a terrible massacre they suffered at the hands of the Ardenai elves. She looked up with delight as she heard the voices at the ger's door, only to correct her expression to neutral when she saw a look of dismay on her mother's face.

"Come here, child," said her mother through clenched teeth. "Your aunts have a surprise for you." Among the Brughans, the same sex siblings of the grandparents are responsible for a child's education, but Philomaera was unused to lessons coming at dinnertime. Nevertheless, she stopped stirring the chowder, put down the ladle, and joined her mother at the door. One of her aunts was holding the tether of a small goat, just past the time of its weaning, that was chewing gently on the hem of her cloak. Noticing the sober and watchful expression on the aunts' faces, Philomaera sensed that this was a moment of some import-though she had no idea what was happening. She stepped up to the aunt and was handed the tether. As she grabbed it, the aunts intoned together: "So, child. What shall you do with your goat?"

Philomaera started at the ritual words, but then looked calmly from the aunts to the goat. It seemed to notice her regard, and it rubbed itself against the tiny girl's side as if mooching an affectionate pat on the head. Philomaera smiled at this, but continued to think of a response, sensing instinctively that much depended on her answer. In time, she looked up at her aunts with an expression of eager delight.

"I have no brother or sister. I would like her to be my little sister."

The old aunts nodded, as if this were no uncommon thing. "And so she is, child. Has your new sister a name?"

Philomaera looked at her goat as if expecting an answer, then shook her head at her aunt. "I assume she does, but she hasn't shared it with me yet. I will just call her 'sister' for now."

The aunts nodded and then turned to Philomaera's mother, who was standing stiffly to one side. "We give you joy, niece, on the addition to your family. Please let us know when we are needed again." With a last smile at Philomaera and her sister, the aunts took their leave.

While Philomaera showed her sister around the ger, her parents engaged in a brief debate.

"Are they mad? She's far too young for this!"

"That's true, dear. But we must trust the elders to have considered that fact. If she does not get her goat now, then when? The famine could last for years. I am more concerned about her choice, frankly."

"What of it? I always wanted another child."

"Hmph. But did you want another mouth to feed as we enter a starving time? There's little enough food in the ger as it was."

"Well, that point is moot. We have a new daughter, and until the child decides otherwise her sister shares all that we have."

Neither parent was happy, but soon Philomaera completed her tour and announced that she and her sister were ready for dinner whenever her parents were. Composing themselves, they smiled at their daughters and sat down for their first meal as a complete family.

In the months that followed, Philomaera blossomed in her role as elder sister. Her parents noted with some amusement that, rather than learning the ways of Brugha from the goat, Philomaera was teaching the goat to be Brughan. She brought the goat to the lakeshore, and taught her about storms and tides. She showed her sister how to bait a hook, and let her eat the fish that she caught. She showed the goat how to string a bow, notch an arrow, and aim-but she declared her sister too young to try shooting herself. Most importantly, she described for her sister the herds of Brughan saddle ponies that once roamed the plains around Khesta 'Dahl. As the food allotted to the family continued to diminish, the goat sometimes bleat with hunger. Philomaera would sit her sister down and patiently repeat the lessons she herself had recently learned: "The fish are disappearing, sister, and we haven't as much to eat. But you must be strong, and you must endure. Leave the whining for babies and elves, and in time the fish will return."

Summer passed into fall, and Philomaera turned six years old. On her birthday, the extended family gathered for a meal of corn cake and thin fish stew. Philomaera was presented with silver hoop earrings, a traditional sign of approaching womanhood. On the occasion, Philomaera asked for some time alone with her aunts.

"Yes, child? What can we do for you?"

Philomaera looked up at the aunts, her expression curious but guarded, as if she were afraid of what she might learn. "I want to know about the goats. I see fewer and fewer each day. Are they dying, like the ponies?"

The younger of the aunts nodded, saying, "That is a fine question to ask, child. The goats are not sick, but many have been killed. We haven't enough food for the winter, you see, and while their meat can be preserved, we can no longer afford to feed them. You will have noticed that your mother made a great deal of cheese so we have that, too, in reserve."

Philomaera nodded, approving the logic. The old aunts looked over at Philomaera's sister, who was resting her head in her halfling mother's lap, and smiled. "Your little sister seems quite happy, child. You are taking very good care of her, we see."

Philomaera beamed, and assured her aunts that her sister was taking very good care of her, too. "Did you see my new shawl? Sister gave the wool to mother, and mother crocheted this for me!"

The aunts smiled approvingly at the girl, seeing that she saw no threat to her goat--which according to tribal law was no longer a goat, but of Brugha. Rubbing the girl's curly red head, each aunt spoke in turn, "All joy and blessing to you, on this your special day."

Winter entered the region, and a terrible winter indeed. A windless cold settled over the lake, which froze so thick that ice fishing became nearly impossible. Meals became more and more meager, as the cold and dark days dragged along. Philomaera made it through the hungry days and cold nights by cuddling with her sister, sharing their warmth and their suffering as sisters should. From time to time, one of the elders in the village would leave their ger, saying only, "I may be gone for some time," and disappear into the night. While the Brughans understood the sacrifice they were making, no funerals were held until Spring.

Late in February, on a bitterly cold afternoon, Philomaera asked her mother to call the old aunts.

"In this weather, child? It's not fit for trolls out there!"

"It's terribly important, mother. I must speak with them about my sister."

Philomaera's mother glanced over at her husband, who looked up from his scroll with surprise. Both parents had long assumed their daughter would keep her kid, as who could imagine an alternative in her case? More curious than concerned, the cleric bundled into his leathers and fur and went out to summon the elders. When the aunts arrived, Philomaera bowed in formal welcome. With no expression of surprise, the aunts bowed in return, saying "What may we do for you, child?"

Philomaera invited her aunts to sit by the ackra, as she gathered her thoughts and her courage. "I have a question for you, Aunts. I know I can trust you to tell me the truth, though I am rather afraid to know it." The girl's lip quivered, until she bit down on it to steel her nerves. "My uncle walked out into the night," she said, "and I don't think that he will return...?"

The aunts nodded, looking sympathetically at the cleric, whose father's father had made the ultimate sacrifice a week earlier. "That is true, child. He won't return. In a starving time, halflings will die. Sometimes, an elder halfling walks out to meet death, rather than allowing it into the ger, where it may claim someone less fit."

"Fit?"

"The death of the old fits the need of the tribe more than the death of the young."

Philomaera nodded, soberly running the idea around her head. "That is just as I thought, Aunts. And it confirms the decision I've made. Sister is going to leave us."

The aunts looked at one another, suppressing a great deal of surprise. Out of sight of their daughter, the cleric and his wife grabbed one another for support. "Leave us, child? Where will she go?"

Philomaera looked sternly at the aunts. "I believe you know what I mean. She must meet death, just as my uncle did."

"But your sister is young, child. Hearty and hale!"

"She is not overly young, in the age of her kind, but that is not really the point. Her death serves the needs of the tribe. She is, as you called it, 'fit.' My sister must die, and her flesh will feed us through the remaining weeks of winter."

The aunts nodded slowly, soberly. "Are you in fact ready to make such a sacrifice, child? You will miss your sister, I think?"

Philomaera nodded and with a thickening voice replied, "Yes. Always. Terribly."

The aunts again nodded gravely. "Child, you were given a goat as the gift of the tribe. Do you wish to return that gift now?"

Philomaera looked stricken and cried out "No! She is my sister, and she is leaving at my request!" Gathering her temper, she turned to her parents and calmly asked, "Father, may I have your knife? And mother, the blue bowl?"

Their heads bowed to avoid expressing their feelings, her father handed the child his ceremonial dagger, the sharpest blade in the home. And her mother arranged a beautiful ceramic bowl at her daughter's feet. Philomaera called her sister over, and pet the goat until it rested its head in her lap. With tears already forming in her eyes, Philomaera made a single, deep, painless cut into the jugular vein of the goat. She watched wordlessly as her sister's life spilled into the basin, where it mingled with her own silent tears. The child continued to stroke her sister's head until the goat gave a single sigh and slipped into the sleep of death.

Philomaera looked up, her face a blank mask wet with tears. Screwing up her courage, she spoke to her aunts, "My sister is gone. But the goat remains, to give food and life to the tribe."

The aunts dipped their fingers into the bowl, and marked three lines on each side of her face. "Philomaera, daughter of Brugha, we thank you and your sister for this sacrifice."

As the women gathered around Philomaera, expressing both sympathy and congratulations on reaching her maturity, it fell to the cleric to gather up the body of the goat. He wrapped it in his best cloak and carried it to the communal larder, where the Brughan quartermaster received it with great solemnity. "It is over then?"

"It is over, and would that it were not yet begun!" As the cleric related events, his anger began to mount. While he was proud of the courage and wisdom his daughter had shown, the sober maturity of her sacrifice, he bitterly resented the circumstances that had brought her to such a moment when she should still be a child, carefree.

When the telling was done, he marched back to the ger and gathered up the bowl of blood and tears. He carried it down to the lake, and strode out onto the frozen waters. High overhead, a storm cloud was gathering to dump yet more snow on the village. He walked until he came to a fisherman's hole that opened onto the lake's cold water. Suppressing his rage, the cleric concentrated on the words and gestures of a commune spell, and with an angry gesture he cast the magic into the clouds.

"Charl," he yelled. "Hear my words, or strike me down!" He raised the basin over his head, crying: "See here the sacrifice of my family! The blood of one daughter, the bitter tears of another. Relieve us of our suffering. Let not these waters flow in vain!"

He poured the briny liquid into the lake, and from far across the water came a tremendous roar of thunder. The cleric bowed his head, knowing that in such weather, thunder could only come from Charl. With his anger now tempered by hope, he returned to the ger and shared the tale with his astounded family.

"Does this mean that Charl will send more fish, father?"

"I hope that he will, Philomaera."

The young woman stood between her father and her mother, hugging each with one arm. "I do believe that he will. If I did not, I would never have sacrificed my sister." Philomaera nodded, her face taking on a fierce look of determination. "Sister knew that we had to endure hardship. To do less than prevail would dishonor her."

The meat of Philomaera's sister helped to sustain the villagers through the remaining weeks of winter, and no more aged halflings had to walk out into the night. Just as Winter turned into Spring, Philomaera and her family welcomed visitors to the village-hearty Mhoragian warriors, each bearing his weight in game brought down from the steppes, and wagoneers from Malghava with deep baskets of grain. These visitors stayed through the Summer, to see the lake teem with life as the fishery returned not only to normal but to record production. When these visitors traveled with the Brughans to the annual Trine, they told everyone they met the wondrous tale of Philomaera and her Goating. The legend spread throughout the Trinity of TrueFolk, and in later years the halflings elected Philomaera Trine Mother for many long years in a row. In that position her wisdom, courage and grace in the face of adversity-her ability to choose the right course of action despite bitter cost-came into play time and again.

 

 

 



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