Born For and Born To in the Merchant World

This is a repost from 2021, because of Day Job duties. New material resumes tomorrow. A quick reminder, Saxo Birdson is born for Yoorst, born to either Korvaal or the Scavenger.

Tycho Gaalnar Rhonarida was born for Maarsdam. He came from a merchant family, and Maarsdam is their patron deity. He was going to be a merchant of some kind. But he was born to Donwah, because of the day and time of his birth. In fact, as readers know, he was born under three of Donwah’s signs, and that completely overshadowed Maarsdam’s role. Tycho repels magic, because Donwah’s influence is so strong.

In the world of the Merchant books, a person is born for the patron deity of their family, generally related to trade or location. So a farming family’s children will probably be born for Yoorst of the Beasts, Gember of the Grain, or Korvaal of the Orchards (and other domesticated woodlands). Merchant families generally incline toward Maarsdam or, in some cases, Radmar of the Wheel, who oversees change and opportunity. [Cue “O Fortuna”]. Woodworkers and builders would go to Korvaal, or perhaps, if they are charcoal makers or work finding raw timber, Valdher of the Forests. Trappers and others of the fringes and frontiers incline toward Valdher or the Scavenger. Miners? Scavenger.

Families choose a child’s “born for” patron. The date and time of the child’s birth determines “born to,” unless something very unusual happens and a deity gives an unmistakable sign of patronage. So, a child of the Five Free Cities might be thought to be born to Yoorst, until a freak blizzard hits just before the child’s birth, and then fades away after the delivery. The family would likely declare the child as born to Sneelah, goddess of the north. (At the time of the main-series Merchant books, the Great Northern Emperors are almost all born to and for Sneelah, except for a few who are born for Sneelah, born to the Scavenger.) Aedelbert, the protagonist of Miners and Empire was the first child in a very long time born to the Scavenger, and his family considered this very inauspicious. Those who have read the story know why, and how their attitude shaped his life.

Having the same born for and born to patron means that the individual will be strongly influenced by that god. Or so popular belief has it. The priests will all swear up and down that there is nothing in that combination that predestines anyone to a career or a path in life. As the Scavenger-born frequently grumble, “Your patron is not an excuse.” Just because a man is born to and for the Scavenger doesn’t mean he must be a thief or beggar. However, his skills and temperament might incline him (or her) to work as a miner, stone-cutter, or the like. A woman born to Gember may never learn to bake well, no matter how hard she tries. But popular belief often treats born-for and born-to as a sort of horoscope. Families consider the combination when they look at possible marriage partners, although it is more of a sign of probable compatibility than a requirement. Jens Saxklar, one of the miners, was for Valdher and born to the Scavenger. His coworkers feel that explains his odd habit of wandering and his strange ways. He’s a good miner, one of the best, and works very hard, but he’s exceedingly off-kilter for a miner. That has to be Valdher’s influence.

There are cases when deities do take a strong interest in their born-to followers. Readers have seen the Scavenger at work, a rather uncomfortable presence in a person’s life. In Tycho’s case, his inability to handle anything touched with magic becomes a life-saving asset, although he’d just as soon never, ever have been involved in that sort of thing. The Great Northern Emperor, born to and for Sneelah, is also her priest, and she will overshadow him, just as other gods speak through their priests. No one is happy when the various deities feel the need to make their presence felt, even if it is “just” an overlarge rat staring down the trail at someone. Very overlarge rat.

Alas for me, I was jumped by a story set just after the end of the Great Cold. Part of the conflict between the main character and the emperor centers on their patrons. The protagonist was born for Maarsdam, born to Valdher. The emperor was born to and for Sneelah. Both are determined men, both think they know best how to go about resettling the new lands. But what Valdher wants and what Sneelah demands conflict mightily. [Merchant, Priest, and Empire, and yes, there will be a corrected edition in the next few months.]


The Stillness In-between

This is a wandering, rambling I have no idea quite what. You’ve been warned. 🙂

Pauses are important. They give you time to breathe, to regroup. They can be physical, mental, or just a chance to breathe before the next phrase begins. Some pauses feel endless, building tension that aches for release. Others pass too quickly, barely time for a hesitation before life races on.

The new-to-me conductor uses pauses – rests and caesura – in fascinating ways. I’d not noticed it before, because I’d been on the audience side, listening to compositions that are either not familiar, or that are so familiar the orchestra is sort of locked into a certain style. With this big choral and orchestra thing, Maestro had some flexibility and I knew the music well.

Tension. The focus, which fit the composition, was on building and holding tension, establishing and continuing a mood of dread and relentless Fate. So pauses before resolutions, holding the moment longer than the listener expects, stopping time and forbidding completion, then abrupt release. It was very disconcerting the first few times, for both chorus and orchestra. We too want to resolve the chord, the moment. We want to return to auditory harmony. We know what’s coming next, and please, Maestro, let us get there! No, hold for an extra half second, sustain the waiting, then launch into the next passage, driving and harsh. And it creates drama, and passion, and beauty.

I think, perhaps, that sometimes writers and composers forget that it is the hesitations, the stretching of tension, the desire for resolution are necessary for a satisfying story or song. [And not just as a vocalist, brass, or woodwind player who does need to breathe every so often!] I’ve read technically brilliant short stories with amazing use of language that went thud. There were no pauses, no tension built, nothing hung in the balance. There was no growth because the words never stopped flowing to allow for that. The reader never got a pause to savor anything.

In writing we talk about the need for down-moments after action scenes. Let the character recuperate and rest. Let the reader catch her breath and relax, mentally shift gears perhaps before the next plunge. It builds excitement and tension, keeps interest. YOu also need pauses to increase tension. The character listens and hears—nothing. Or a different character does not reply to a question or compliment. Why? What is wrong? Where is the signal, the call to action? When will the waiting end? And then after the action peaks and the evil forces are defeated—a pause. A breath, time to rest, to consider what happened, to resolve the smaller matters, to return to as much of a normal world as the character can. Without that denouement, a story goes splat. “It just stopped!” We need a return to stillness, to calm.

I suspect one reason people in general are snappish and twitchy is because we have inadvertently developed into a society without caesura. Stuff never stops. TV, media, texts, emails, everything demands attention. Lights burn 24/7. There are very few spaces in between. Think about the political “season.” It now seems to start two days after the last election. Or sports. In some cases, relationships. We are expected to race from one to the next to the next, without time to stop. Or we are supposed to provide constant feedback and assurances. There’s no time to pause. Either boredom sets in, or we break from the constant stimulation and sound. There are no rests. Or so it seems.

Perhaps it’s just an introvert’s take on a world that seems aimed at extroverts and the mildly hyperactive, people who love constant stimulation and encouragement.

Sumptuary Laws, Clothing, and Signals

Over at AccordingToHoyt, someone mentioned sumptuary laws and how some people still consider those to be a good thing. The goal was to tell at a glance what someone’s social and economic status was, and where they were supposed to fit into society. What you could wear depended on your income and your job. Servants were not allowed to look like their masters, journeymen had to wear something different from their employers, and if you had less than a certain income, you could not wear certain fabrics or furs. Officially, this was to prevent people from “wasting their substance” on luxury clothing. In reality? It was usually about enforcing status. The world was visual, and what you saw was very important. Sort of like the later plaint of a man writing to the Times of London. It seemed that with the rise of the steel-boned corset, the price for the garments dropped a great deal. Now this man could no longer tell at a glance who was a lower- or middle-class woman and who was a woman of “quality!” Something Must Be Done!

Too, clothing cost a lot of money in terms of percentage of income. A woman’s dress might be intended to last her lifetime and beyond. Even into the early 1800s, in Brandenburg, one of the most important items in a woman’s will would be her “dress of honor,” which was passed from mother to daughter and taken in or let out as needed. She wore it first after her wedding, and then at festivals and important occasions. One dress, meant to last multiple lifetimes. Ordinary clothes often began as someone else’s and were handed down to servants or “the poor.” Shirts, chemises, shifts, and other things worn next to the skin got washed on occasion, but not the outer dress, coat, robe and so on. Keep in mind that fabrics were heavier than they are today, so they were more durable and really would last a lifetime. Even so, new clothing cost more than most people could easily afford. You saved up for a new (or new-to-you) garment.

The other reason this bubbled to mind was a controversy at a local college over something related to clothing and lack-there-of. Clothing was, and is, also a sign or rebellion, especially dressing as someone you are not. Men wearing women’s clothes could be very threatening. “The War of the Women” in France was waged by vigilantes and shepherds, men who wore dresses and kerchiefs and attacked government attempts to limit traditional uses of forest and mountain land in the Pyrenees and surrounding areas in the early 1800s. Men dressed as women would also be part of the raucous charivari or “shivaree” that showed social disapproval of marriages and certain other behaviors. Men in women’s clothes were a threat, when they were not an object of derision (more often symbolic than actual). Modern drag follows this pattern, with men imitating and now grotesquely exaggerating certain aspects of what was traditionally considered female – clothing, cosmetics, behaviors.

Today we can afford to own clothing that suits our personality as well as our status. Very wealthy people “dress down” to show that they have so much they can afford to look like slobs, or as if they don’t care about clothing. Sub-cultures have their own styles, such as punk, goth, western, urban or hip-hop (there can be a difference between the two), biker/MC, hippie-style counter-culture, and so on. There are certain expectations that remain, and within those groups, pushing the limits can lead to harsh reactions. Employers still require employees to maintain a certain standard for safety (no loose, floppy clothes or hair around moving machinery) or cleanliness (overalls, protective jackets). Other places want to project a sense of professionalism – would you want to be represented in court by a lawyer who shows up in a sundress or a Hawiian shirt? The judge wouldn’t allow that individual into the courtroom. Oops.

“Do what you want!” Within limits. And still, despite sumptuary laws, society still puts limits in place. Certain styles, certain rebellions, are often limited in place and time. Breaking those limits signals deliberate rebellion, and raises questions as to motives and goals.

Revisiting Music: Adiemus

I was reading a semi-recent issue of a heavy-metal music magazine (interviews with Floor Jansen and Tuomas Holopainen) and for some reason, the very not-rock group Adiemus floated out of the depths of my memory. It was actually a project of the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, and became a surprise sensation after part of one song was used in an airline ad and a car commercial.

I have the cassette somewhere, but didn’t feel like digging for it, so I went to the Tube of You.

Yes, it is still a cross between pop, New Age, and classical. That might be why the interviews brought it to memory, since they were discussing symphonic metal, which combines heavy metal and classical instrumentation. Adiemus was also good for “music without understandable lyrics” when I wanted something melodic but that faded into the background when I was writing or being brain dead (as happened once a week while I was in grad school. I’d lay on the floor with my headphones on and just listen and let my brain disengage.)

Adiemus uses vocals and orchestra to paint sound pictures. Think of it as Impressionist music. The voices don’t sing actual Latin, or they repeat a Latin word or phrase, but for sound reasons. It’s meaningless. The voices are “untrained,” because that’s what the composer wanted. It’s not bad, but not opera or another specific style. It works, at least for these recordings. There’s a lot of layering of voices, up to 40 layers, plus strings, woodwinds, some brass, and percussion. The songs range from driving “tribal”-type pieces with fast tempos to slower, very meditative compositions. They flow into each other.

It’s not to everyone’s taste. I have to be in a mood for Adiemus and stuff like it. But it’s not bad, and it works as background when I need something between me and house sounds that doesn’t have a specific flavor or reason for listening.

It Takes Moisture to Make Moisture

That’s the worst part of a drought, aside from the grinding duration. You know that you have to have rain to get rain, and without more moisture, nothing will happen.

A quick review of rainmaking in this part of the world might be in order. We don’t have any large bodies of water to contribute moisture to the atmosphere, so it has to come up from the Gulf or over from the Pacific and Gulf of Baja. The winds bring it up the plains or over the mountains, giving us humidity. That, combined with lifting from local heat (summer popcorn showers) or a cold front or low pressure system (regional rains or giganormous thunderstorm outbreaks), causes the moisture to rise, condense, and fall back down as rain or snow. If the low-level air is too dry, the rain evaporates before it can reach the ground. We call that virga. It looks like nice rain on the radar. The radar lies.

Once the air and ground start getting dry, local evaporation fades out. There’s nothing to evaporate, so the low-level humidity gets lower and lower. Without humidity, you can have lots of lift (thermals, dust-devils) but nothing to condense into clouds. Or you get mid-level moisture, where the rain falls and evaporates before reaching the ground. That is exceedingly frustrating to watch. The rain’s falling, and stopping a thousand feet above the withering grasses and cracked ground. Almost as frustrating is when there’s low-level humidity, but high pressure settles in over the area. The hi has sinking air, and that flattens out any thermals or other lift. So again, the moisture doesn’t go up to cool and condense. High pressure is hot (or arctic cold), sticky, and calm. So wind turbines are also useless. The world sits and bakes.

Droughty weather wears on the people and the land. There’s nothing you can do, no clouds to seed. The water holes slowly dry and the ground cracks. Plants wither, cattle and sheep shrink and pant in the heat. Or they nibble the dry, dead grasses and loiter near water, eating the plants to the ground. People get snappish after long enough. Drought is depressing. Big storms hit and run, leaving people with a mess to clean up. Drought just grinds you down day after week after month after year. The dust is a gritty icing on a bitter cake.

Without humidity and moisture on the ground, you can’t do much. It takes a series of storms and a change in the weather pattern to start rain falling again. The rain wets the ground and the humidity goes up. More rain reaches the ground, and more, and more. Right now, perhaps, we are easing out of a drought that’s been lingering for three years now. We’re starting to get a few showers each week. Not all the area gets rain, and the dust is still moving, but it’s a long-hoped-for sign that low and mid-level moisture are returning, pumped in from the south and west. Perhaps, maybe, it might be the start of a wetter or just average phase, when we get heavy storms in spring and fall, showers in summer, and snow in winter.

It takes rain to make rain.

Hawks Dancing and Other Signs of Spring

I had a brain fog that needed to be cleared, so I glanced at some e-mails, then took a walk. A thick, medium overcast meant that I didn’t need more than the usual hat and long sleeves. As I started off down the block, I heard a loud but unusual bird call, and a dove flew down from the neighbor’s tree. Except doves don’t glide, then soar up like that. And they are not large and brown. And doves most certainly do not go “ka ka ka ka” when they call.

Sharp-shinned hawk. Probably female, based on the size of what crossed the road and settled with graceful ease onto a branch of the neighbor’s tree across the road. When I glanced back to look at it, it took to the air once more and joined a second hawk circling and turning against the grey overcast. I suspect we will have a little hawk soon, and fewer song birds and grackles. (Indeed, the next day a hawk was perched on the bird bath chanting, “here, dovie, dovie, dovie.”)

Some flowers have begun to bloom. Cool-season grasses are going strong, and brown lawns have turned more-or-less green. The roses are starting to put out new leaves, aside from the two that are deader than door-nails. Tulip buds are beginning to swell, and the daffodils and hyacinths are showing forth in purple and white. The wisterias, forsythias, and redbuds are still sleeping. They’ve been burned in the past. Do you move the leaves and other mulch so that the shoots can get sun and air, and to tidy up the place? or do you leave them for insulation, because the last freeze isn’t for three weeks?

Days grow longer. Two minutes per day, the sunrise eases back on the clock. Sunset delays more and more, encouraging after-supper strolls and park activities. The sunny patch in south-facing rooms grows smaller and smaller, to the frustration of Athena T. Cat, who wants her heater back right now. The sun in the morning makes driving due east a hazard, and indeed, we’ve had our annual “pedestrian in the morning dark” accident. Puffy white clouds and spring showers visit, replacing the high, milky skies of winter. It can still freeze, or snow, but the odds grow less and less. Orion has passed the zenith of the sky and has begun to stagger, driven into the western sea by the Scorpion.

I have mixed feelings. I don’t care for spring and summer as much as I do fall and winter. Yet this year, people seem more eager for spring than they were in the past. Is it the odd weather of winter that’s pushing them? It it the growing hope that perhaps we might ease out of the drought and this year will be better? The signs seem to indicate that La Niña is fading and a neutral to damp season might be in the offing. Is it a longing for new life and the promise of a better year? Or just the desire for something that’s different from the cold brown-ness that is winter on the High Plains?

All I do know is that it is spring, and the cat is shedding like a maniac. As usual. Both coats. All over me.


Oops, He Made Eye Contact

There we were, standing on the choral risers, waiting for our cue. All of a sudden the brass blasted the rest of the orchestra, and those of us in the sonic path, with a lot more sound than they’d used on the previous run through. The conductor waved everyone to a halt. Once our hearing had recovered, he said, “Sorry, that was my fault. I made eye contact.” Laughter ensued as he continued, “I know better. Never make eye contact with the brass. They think it means ‘play louder’.” Several of the people in question nodded gleeful agreement.

I’ve been singing under a spate of new conductors recently. There have been retirements, contract conclusions, surprise complications (someone was double-booked so a replacement was recommended and hired) and so on. It’s always a bit stressful until you see how someone conducts. Does she use an American or European down-beat? Big gestures or small ones? Minimalist (“I keep time and give a few cues, you do your homework.”) or a maximalist (“I will show everything. And you will follow.” [Occasionally said with a German or Hungarian accent.]) In this case, I’d been able to watch from the audience side a few times, so I got a sense of his general style. That helps. Semi-minimalist, low key but intense focus. And American downbeat, which the choir is used to, although we can read both.

The first rehearsal went the way they usually do, “Down choir, this is piano. Down orchestra, DOWN!” “Quiet but more energy, please. You are supposed to be scary.” “My tempo please.” “Strings, what if you [arcane technical string thing]?” “I may regret this, but more percussion and more soprano, please.”

Your pretty usual rehearsal, in other words, aside from the accidental alarm (painful and loud) that went off briefly while the soprano soloist was singing. So there we were on the risers, minding our own business and listening to the strings and the basso soloist being quietly profundo, when clang! The percussionists looked innocent. The woodwinds and choir looked at the brass. The horns looked at the tuba. The tuba player looked at the floor, found the piece that had dropped off his instrument, and put it back in place.

St. Anthony’s Fire and a Problem of Bureaucracy

In August of 1951, in the French village of Pont-Sant-Esprit, bakers received several loads of flour. It had a greyish cast, and smelled a little off. The government depot in charge of distribution ordered them to use it anyway. By August 11, customers complained of feeling ill after eating the bread, and other bakers reported trouble getting their dough to behave properly. Multiple complaints about the flour fell on deaf ears, even though, as it later proved, more bakers in other villages complained about the products of that one specific mill. On August 17, the first local people began to suffer hallucinations. Their feet burned as if they walked on coals. Physicians had no idea what was wrong, until someone realized: St. Anthony’s Fire had struck for the first time in hundreds of years.

Ergot poisoning, or St. Anthony’s Fire, was a disease that afflicted people who ate wheat or rye contaminated by the fungus ergot. In mild cases, people get queasy, sweat a lot, have low blood pressure and a weak pulse, feel elated or giddy despite their illness, and smell like dead mice or other unpleasant things. Severe cases include terrifying nightmare hallucinations that include compulsions, terrible burning pain and swelling in the extremeties, and nerve damage or gangrene. People may kill themselves trying to escape what chases them, or die of other causes. In the French case, four people died and three hundred fell very ill.

In Schwabische Hall, I saw a painting of St. Anthony that showed people approaching him for aid with flaming feet. I’d never seen that in art before, and have not seen it since. The museum did not allow photography and did not sell postcards with that painting on them, alas.

Below is a more common painting of St. Anthony, although the style is rather different than most Renaissance paintings. (H. Bosch aside.)

A detail from the “Temptation of St. Anthony” by Mathias Gruenewald, part of the Eisenheim Altarpiece. The little demon in the corner is a victim of severe ergotism and has gangrene.

The bureaucrats in the French government, which oversaw the distribution of flour, refused to take the blame for forcing the bakers to use contaminated flour. Instead they punished the bakers for selling bad bread. The book The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire by John G. Fuller tells the tale. It is an excellent book that uses interviews, accounts written by the people of the time, court and other testimony and a little imagination in places to describe the events. I happened to find a copy as I was cleaning a corner of a bookshelf this past weekend. My parents got it out of curiosity, because medical history fascinates them. I read it as a young teen, and it left an impression. It’s a great read, if depressing because it doesn’t have a happy ending.

That lack is probably where my distrust of bureaucracies came from, even before personal experience confirmed my suspicion that large governmental or corporate entities are not necessarily your friend. Granted, the post-war French government wasn’t exactly in great shape itself, and that year had not been good for wheat in France and surrounding countries because of the wet weather and cool temperatures. Looking back, I can sort of understand why the central flour depot’s managers might have been reluctant to try to see what was going on. The miller and one wheat grower later confessed that they had broken the law by selling and accepting dirty grain that had rye, bugs, and dirt greater than the official limits. But still, there’s a sense in the book that justice was not done for the bakers or their customers.

Some people disagreed that ergot caused the outbreak. Theories range from mercury-treated wheat that should have been used only for seed, other chemicals that were used to bleach the wheat, the US government conducting tests on using LSD as a weapon [who needs the Internet to have a conspiracy theory?], or something else. The symptoms matched ergot, the weather fit ergot, and most people agree that ergot probably was the culprit.

I’d not thought of the book for a very long time, but I still remember the story.

(Interestingly, in Italy, St. Anthony’s Fire is the term for shingles. The emphasis is on the burning pain and risk of infection, not the hallucinations.)

An Homage?

Beast in Black is a European (Finno-German-Greek) group. This was released in 2019. (And yes, it is playing a role in the story I excerpted above.)

Sabaton is, well, Sabaton.

Released in 2016.

There are some musical parallels. Make of it what you will.

Wednesday Wee-bit

This is the opening fragment of the next project. The setting is Medieval France, down in the Vosges Mountains, on the edges of the Holy Roman Empire and what was claimed by the kings in Paris. It was inspired by parts of the song “Blind and Frozen” by Beast in Black.

“All of us, Condessa?” Arnauld had not allowed himself to hope for half a decade and more.

Condessa Leonie d’Vosge inclined her head and spread her arms, graceful and welcoming. “But of course. The land needs defenders, experienced men to protect it.” She gestured to herself with one delicate, brown-gloved hand. “I have reached the end of what can be done without strong arms and steel.”

She spoke only the truth—even powerful magic could only so so much. Arnauld respected her honesty. Behind him, the rest of the Wolf’s Paws murmured. He sensed their approval as well. He glanced to Gaston. The lean Aquitanian nodded and gestured “all agree.”

Arnauld de’Loup bowed. “Then we accept your offer, Condessa. We will stay and defend your lands, per the contract offered.” Food, shelter, arms, permission to wed if any of the local women and their families agreed, it was far better than their last contracts.

“Thank you.” She smiled, a smile that welcomed all. “There are quarters here in the fortress, or you may take up residence in the manor village below. The water supply is better there.” The smile turned a touch weary and wry together. “My honored ancestors trusted perhaps a little overmuch to the saints and Virgin to hear their pleas for rain and snow for the cisterns.”

Arnauld considered. The horses needed more water than did men, and dividing their numbers might be wise. “My lady, we will look at the quarters, and the land, and decide which will better serve.” Gaston nodded, as did the other men. The horses had no preference, yet. Although, given the steepness of the road, they might well voice their opinions in a forceful manner indeed come winter!

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved