Philomaera: A Tale of the Goating
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,
% 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
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
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
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
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
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."
"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.
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
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
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.