Tuesday Tidbit: Contracting a Marriage

Tarno and his Father-in-Law to Be visit the notary.

Two eight-days later, Tarno and Dor Erbstman met at the office of the traveling notary mage. She had rented a small corner of the city council’s hall, and sat surrounded by ledgers, hinged boxes, and stacks of blank parchment and paper. Bottles of ink and a row of pens waited at her left elbow. A fat candle of sealing wax burned on it’s own small, portable table, out of the way of the papers and of drafts. One of the city watch stood in the corner of the room, in part to keep an eye on the people come and go, and in part to discourage the overly frustrated and anyone who thought to steal the notary’s fee. The line moved steadily. Most people brought contracts, sales pages, or documents that only needed a witness and notary seal. Unlike some, this notary did not hear disputes or law cases concerning falsified documents. Three of the temples had truth-priests who had read the law and acted as law-givers.

Tarno had written the marriage contract in his best hand. The notary would read it aloud, copy it onto proper parchment, and both men would sign and make their marks. Then the notary would sign and seal it. Some of the merchants had magic-touched seals and used those on documents as well, but such remained uncommon in Halfeld Fluss.

” . . . Too many lambs,” a man in good but old clothes ahead of Tarno complained. “T’will drive down the price next spring as well as now, mark my words.”

His companion folded his arms. “Neh, ‘Tis a sign of  hard times t’ come, schaef droppin’ so many. Not many will over-live the winter. Yoorst gave ‘t beast sense we don’ have.”

“Price’ll be low een so, come next market,” the first man grumbled.

Tarno looked to Goodman Erbstman. The farmer shrugged. “Radmar turns th’ wheel. More than that, no man can say.”

“Aye that.”

The two men ahead of Tarno got a sales contract confirmed. The grumbling farmer had contracted to the butcher for six gelded male schaef, two years of age, in fat. The pair presented torn copies of the contract. The notary matched the edges. “Goodman Meisser, were the schaef as contracted?

The butcher nodded. “Aye, Yoorst as my witness, the schaef met contract.”

The woman pointed the end of her pen at the farmer. “Goodman Speicher, did you receive one silver or the trade token value of one silver in exchange?”

“Aye, Yoorst as my witness, Meisser paid in full. Trade token.”

The woman set the halves of the contract on her table. She stamped the center, across the tear, then each half, and signed it. “Contract is met, contract is complete,” she called, then returned the halves to the owners. Should anyone ask about the meat, Meisser could show the proof that he’d bought the animals and that they met quality standards.

The farmer and butcher departed, and Tarno approached the notary’s table. She seemed off-balance, as if the legs on her seat were too short on one side. No, he realized when she reached for a piece of parchment, she tilted to one side. Had she been born so, or was it an injury? It mattered not. Tarno inclined toward her and set the contract on the table.

She started to read it, then looked up. “Tarno Halson?”


“And Dor Erbstman?”

Dor nodded. “Aye. I am not fully lettered.”

“Ah.” She took a sip from the tankard set well away from the inks, and read. “Dor Erbstman gives his daughter Urla to be wed to Tarno Halson. She brings her bridal portion and no dowry, and makes no claim on the Erbstman property aside from the daughter’s share.” The notary looked at Dor, eyebrows raised.

He nodded again. “That’s what we agreed to, aye.”

The notary blinked gray eyes, then resumed reading. “Tarno Halson takes Urla Dordatter Erbstman as wife without dower or property claim. He will provide for, shelter, and protect Urla during his life, and leaves her a full widow’s portion, should he die first.” Again the notary paused. “I see no fertility penalty.”

“I have two sons by my late wife,” Tarno said. “More will be welcome, but I see no reason for a fertility penalty.”

The notary nodded and quickly copied out the simple contract. Without property or children specified, the document wasn’t as complicated as some Tarno had seen. She stopped and asked, “Tarno, will your sons retain their portion should you have children of Urla?”


Goodman Erbstman said, “Yes. It’s wrong to favor new children over old.” He sounded very, very certain, and Tarno glanced over. The sturdy man scowled, frowning so deeply that the ends of his mouth seemed to reach the end of his chin.

“I will include that in this, Goodman Erbstman, Master Tarno, so that none will protest.” The notary added the needed words. “Do either of you know of any pending claims against the wedding?”

Tarno took a long breath. “Goodman Fuchsban might protest, but I did not speak with or contract his daughter, and many have heard me say that I do not wish to marry her.”

“The temples of Gember and Donwah have read the handfasting notice aloud three Eighth-Days in a row, and none have spoken against the match,” Dor reported. “Nor has any man approached me with an objection.”

“Good.” She finished writing the contract in a fair hand, then drew two lines across the bottom of the sheet of parchment. She stood, limped out from behind her table, and pointed to Tarno. She called, “Does anyone know this man?”  

A passing woman called back, “Aye. Master Tarno Halson, of the salters, father of Kyle and Donton, Maarsdam witness my words.”

“Thank you, and Maarsdam prosper your trade.” The notary gestured to Dor and called again, “Does anyone know this man?”

Two men waiting in line waved their hands. “Aye. He be Dor Erbstman, farmer on the South Road, Gember my witness,” one of the pair called. “His aunt be my mother-in-law.”

“Gember bless your household, thank you.” The notary limped back to her chair and sat with a soft thud. One hip sat higher than the other, which explained her lean. She presented the men with a dipped pen, first Dor, then Tarno. Dor made his mark, a schaef in profile and the letters D and E. Tarno signed his full name and drew a salt paddle. The notary closed her eyes and Tarno saw a little shimmer around her seal as she touched it to a piece of ink-soaked cloth, then pressed it against the parchment. Beside that she dripped wax, and stamped once more.

The men each gave the notary a half silver ring. She handed the contract to Dor. “Upon final handfasting, give this to the proper temple to hold. Maarsdam bless your trade.”

“Maarsdam prosper you,” Tarno replied, as did Dor. Dor studied the contract, nodded, and rolled it, tying it with a bit of twine. The men touched palms and went their ways, making space for the next pair. Tarno heard barely-muffled sighs from both the notary and the watchman both as Master Hammersmith and an irate-looking goodwife marched up the two steps and into the doorway. Tarno and Dor made themselves small and eased out of the way.

“Ye know that I am not a law-speaker,” Tarno heard the notary say from behind him.

Dor shook his head. “Some people choose not to listen.”

“Aye.” Dor stopped to talk to his cousin-by-marriage and Tarno went about his own business.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

State of the Author, September ’21

Short version: less frazzled than last week.

Longer version:

The short story for the next Tales Around the Supper Table anthology is done. I’m going to give it another once-over, now that it has “rested,” and send it off to the editor. That collection should be *taps wood* out later this fall.

I got the draft of White Gold and Empire done last weekend. It needs major revision before it goes to the alpha readers, mostly to get the “voice” unified across the book. Keep in mind, I started it in the fall of ’19, then set it aside, so it needs to be smoothed out, and one big plot thread tucked away.

I have the plot for another Merchant book sketched out. I’m going to work on it for NaNoWriMo (November). The tentative title is City, Priest, and Empire, and it is set at the end of the Great Cold. It appears that I can’t really do a good Merchant world book unless I am immersed in Central Europe stuff, either being there or doing a lot of heavy research for something else. *shrug* #WriterWorldProblems

The stories for Familiar Paths are well underway, and I hope to have those done by the end of October, for a December release.

I know how the next Elect story will go, it is a matter of clearing space in my head to work on it, now that the reference book I needed has arrived. The main character is Paulus, and the female lead doesn’t have a name yet. She’s an environmental science major with more Grand Plans than sense, at least until reality, ahem, bites.

Day Job is rather calm for the moment this term, as usually happens. Spring is when things tend to go rodeo.

Tuesday Tidbit: Feasting and Spice Tails

Tarno had to pay for the tails. Now we see why the tails are so popular. Among other things.

Tarno broke ice off the water in the bucket the next morning before pouring it into a pot to warm beside the fire. The farmers and butchers would be busy the next few days if the cold held, slaughtering the schaef and great-haulers, cattle and other animals they did not plan to keep over the winter. Yet another reason for the Scavenger’s feast to mark the beginning of preparation for the long, hard cold.

The boys trotted far more eagerly as they returned to the old market. When the other temples moved south to the new market and the younger parts of the city, the Scavenger had kept His domain in the north, aloof but also close to the butchers’ quarter. As they entered the square, they found long tables filling the space. The remains of the bonfires had been moved away, the coals and part-burned wood saved for the use of the priests or of those in need of fuel. Enormous platters of black sausages, dark bread, chilled root-vegetable pickles, and of course the stacks of spice rats filled the centers of the tables. A priest or priestess guarded each of the heaps of treats, staves at the ready to discourage the over-eager. Judging by the unhappy expressions on some of the boys and a few adults, the priests had already thumped a few hands or heads—hands of the children, heads of the adults. Even the Scavenger-born had to wait their turn on this day. Small plates, now almost empty, sat along the edges of the market square. The rats had already taken their turn. They were permitted to help themselves, unlike the people.

At the appointed time, the priests blessed the food. First the Scavenger-born, most looking very sleepy from their all-night vigil, took food. Then those born to Donwah, then everyone else, from oldest to youngest. As platters emptied, priests-in-training and acolytes replaced them with freshly-filled trays. Tarno made certain that Kyle and Donton took some of everything, even the black-root pickles that they did not care for at all, and then moved well away from the spice rats. He did not trust Kyle to resist the urge to try to steal one of the huge, sweet, rat-shaped loaves. Tarno stood between the boys and the tables, ready to intercept either one.

“Hai, Master Tarno,” Hildi said, coming to stand beside them. “I see that the rats have proper tails this year.”

“Aye. If any are nibbled, ’tis none of my doing.” He glanced at the boys, both working on the chewy bread and heavy blood sausage. Kyle had gobbled the black-root first to get it over with. Donton ate around it, for now. “Nor my sons.”

Hildi chuckled and nodded. “Aye.” She leaned closer and whispered behind her hand, “Rumor has it that a would-be toll claimant will be workin’ off her fine scrubbin’ floors for the main temple and the temple in the new market.”

Tarno hissed a little as he inhaled between his teeth. Whoever she was, she must have failed badly, or have been warned away twice and still persisted. Fool and twice a fool, to steal from the Scavenger on His feast! “I hope she learned her lesson, if the rumor proves true.”

“Indeed.” Even the Scavenger-born who lived by theft and deception left their patron’s goods alone. Hildi leaned away, then rose on her toes, trying to see something or someone. “He’d best not think to approach Master Schae—”

An angry man’s voice rose over the murmur of chewing and quiet conversation. “—An’ that’s why I claim a hearin’ now and here!”

The two salters exchanged tired looks. Clang! The sound of the Scavenger’s Son’s black-iron staff on stone cut off the flow of words. “A poor decision,” Tarno said, then took another bite of bread and sausage.

Hildi nodded her agreement and strolled into the crowd, easing between clusters of people.

Kyle swallowed his mouth-full and looked up at his father. “Father, what did that sound mean?”

It meant that someone would be paying a forfeit to the temple, at the very least. Tarno weighed his words carefully. He did not want to speak falsehoods. “The Scavenger’s Son will not hear the man’s petition, Kyle. He, the Son, made sparks on the stone with his staff instead of speaking. That told the watch to order the petitioner to either honor the feast properly, or to depart to his home and return at a better time.” Tarno watched the little swirl of motion over that direction. “The only time a temple will hear a petition on the day of a great feast is if it is a life-or-death matter, and I have never heard of such here. It may have happened, and might yet happen, but I have never heard of one.”

“You speak correctly, Master Tarno,” a woman said from behind him. He and the boys bowed to one of Gember’s priestesses. The brown-clad woman nodded, acknowledging the honor. “Continue eating, please. The last great feast petition happened not long after the construction of the first water gate on the mill run across the Joss, on Gember’s great feast, over a hundred years ago.” She smiled at the boys, then leaned forward and studied Donton’s remaining bread. “I take it that black-root pickle is not your favorite?”

The poor boy turned as red as a winter-crisp apple’s skin. “N-, n-, no, ma’am.”

“Most boys grow into the flavor,” she assured him. He started eating it, for once not making noises or complaining. After he finished, the priestess raised her right hand a little and curved two fingers into Gember’s sheaf. “May the Lady of Grain’s gift bring you strength.”

“Thanks to the Lady of grain,” Tarno and the boys murmured, bowing again. The priestess continued on her way, and the boys looked up at their father, then cast longing looks toward the well-guarded trays of spice rats.

“Yes, you may go get in—” They raced off to get into line before he could finish speaking.

“We did that, once.” Cila’s man, Marskil, said with a chuckle. He nodded to the right. Tarno saw Cila trying to guide their three toward the proper line. A long, thin leather strap connected the straps on the toddle-baby’s bumper to her mother’s heavy leather belt.

“Is Jemma trying to sneak away already?” Tarno inquired of his youngest niece.

Marskil folded his arms and shook his head. “She had a spell during the summer fever, acted as if she might be god-touched. Rella’s healer-priest recommended the bumper and strap, should she have more attacks.” He smiled. “Thanks be, she’s been spared so far, but we thought it would be a good protection today in the crowd, should someone knock her while Cila looked away.”

Ah. That made very good sense indeed! Tarno locked the idea into his memory for when he and Urla had children, should they be so blessed.

Acolytes of all the temples had removed the mostly empty trays of other things by now, leaving only the heaps of golden-brown, rat-shaped loaves. The Scavenger’s Son handed his iron staff to one of the other priests and lifted up a loaf. The tail flopped and Tarno smiled. No one could fault him if their rat lacked sufficient tail! Everyone bowed, shifting out of the way as the priest carried the rat to the far corner of the square. He set the loaf onto the ground in the shadows beside the temple, then returned to take his place beside the center table. Clang! He tapped the stone with his staff.

The other priests handed their staves to the youngest adult Scavenger-born. The children and others formed mostly-orderly lines. The priests gave each family a spice rat. As long as Tarno’s two spread hands were wide, the loaves resembled rats seen from the side, with spice-root tails, and candied gold nuts in the center of each ear. For once no one complained or tried to get a second rat. Tarno suspected that the earlier disturbance had dampened desire. Kyle and Donton brought the rat to him and held it up. He took it and—reluctantly—turned it so they could pluck off the ears. The ears really were the best part. He would divide the tail between the boys when they got home. Spice root on its own did not agree with him any longer, alas. He enjoyed the flavor, but not the upset stomach.

Those who wished could now depart. As tired as he felt, Tarno opted to start for the house. Even the bright sun could not banish the hard cold or soften the edges on the wind. Would this indeed be a hard winter? They had been fortunate the last three, but Radmar turned His wheel for all things.

After the boys fell asleep that evening, Tarno broke the front paws off the now-headless rat and savored the burst of heat from the bits of candied sea-orange rind. He banked the fire and crawled into bed himself, almost as tired as his sons.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: The Scavenger’s Feast

In which Tarno and the boys attend the vigil before the feast. NOTE: Yes, this is a slightly different version of the story than is told in Miners and Empire.

Of all the gods, only the Scavenger’s feast fell on the night and the following day, rather than from dawn to dusk. For once the watch turned blind eyes to people in the streets after dark, because the Scavenger commanded it. Tarno banked his fire carefully indeed, then led the boys out of the salters’ district and up to the main temple, in the far northern part of the city, near the old market. Bitter cold air oozed between the houses and warehouses, making Tarno glad that he’d found heavy things for the boys. They’d likely crowd the bonfire even so, but at least they wouldn’t risk losing a finger or ear.

“I don’t like it,” a thin voice said ahead of them. The shapeless bundle of woman waved at the air. “Too cold, too early.”

“Green winter, full graves. White winter, hungry graves,” the equally well-wrapped man beside her recited. “Cold kills the bugs and weeds.”

“And schaef, and fowl, and great haulers,” she declared. “And men.”

And drove up the price of wood, Tarno sighed. Already rumors came in from outside the walls about fuel wood growing dear. “Some say ’tis because the Great Northern Emperor visited th’ land, and the cold stayed after him,” a hide seller from the east had told Rand Graber. “His goddess wants the snow and cold back, so she can extend her domain. I don’ hold to such, but some do, and seek more and more wood to hold against the winter.”

That had led to much talk and market gossip until Rella’s Daughter had explained. “Yes, the Great Northern Emperor is also a priest of Sneelah, goddess of the  Cold and Ice. She is also a goddess of battle magic. Battle magic is banned, and for good cause.” The Daughter had pointed with her staff to the painting on the side of Waldher’s new chapel, the painting showing the strange beasts that had appeared in the years after the southern king poisoned the magic workers. “War magic does that to beast, land, and man. After the Great Cold, some men twisted magic to bad uses, and the first emperors had to stop them before the land itself twisted. No battle magic, no shaping beasts or plants. Healing that which ails, yes, but no beast-mage can, oh, make a blue schaef.”

“What about a well behaved great-hauler?” someone in the crowd had called.

“Like as not it will be smart, too, Per, and then where will ye be?” A second voice demanded.

Master Weisblat, the head of the tanners, had offered, “He’ll have his accounts in order for the first time in years, but th’ bird will refuse to pull and will join the scribes, like as not.”

After the laughter died away, Rella’s Daughter had said, “Sneelah’s time is not come. Winters will be hard or easy as they are, not because the Great Cold returns.” Something in her eyes and voice had told Tarno that she spoke as more than just priestess, and he had bowed. The question had not arisen again.

Now, two eight-days later, people flowed into the old market. Not everyone, because some preferred to make their devotions by day, or they feared the cold because of age or illness. Young children and nursing mothers too were exempt from the night worship. Tarno kept one hand on Donton. The boy did not care for crowds or night, and if he began to fear overmuch, Tarno would take him home and pay the forfeit. The stars above seemed to glare down, as hard and cold as the stones under Tarno’s boot soles. Everyone breathed smoke, or so it seemed.

Tap, tap, tap. Metal rang on stone. Tap Tap TAP! Thrice more metal struck stone as the gathered priests of the dark god banged the butts of their staffs against the steps of the old temple. The dark shapes loomed in the cold, flanked by two rats, each the size of a large man. “All hail the Scavenger, lord of the darkness.”

“All hail the Scavenger,” the crowd called in return.

“All hail the Scavenger, lord of the land-hidden.”

“All hail the Scavenger.”

A cold voice chanted, “All hail the Scavenger, lord of death.”

“All hail the Scavenger.”

“All hail the Scavenger, lord of what remains,” a priestess sang.

“All hail the Scavenger.”

The priests turned as one and marched into the open temple doors. The Scavenger-born followed first, then those who could fit into the temple. Everyone else gathered around the fires now burning in the market, close enough to hear the priest and priestess who remained on the steps. The fires’ light made the rat statues seem to move, bending and nodding as the wind stirred the flames.

The priest intoned, “After the Great Ice retreated, only barren land and water remained. Dust covered what was not marsh or lake or river. Of life, no sign remained, for the beasts of the cold had left, but nothing could feed or shelter the beasts of the south. And so the gods took counsel.”

The priestess raised her staff in both hands over her head. “They divided the world and blessed it, Gember and Korvaal, Yoorst and Rella, Radmar and Maarsdam, Waldher and Donwah, and the lesser gods of city and village. Only the Scavenger did not speak, for he had been forgotten. His sister, Donwah of the Waters, found him in the dark, secret places and told him of the other gods’ choices. Great was His anger, but only for the time of the beat of a heart. Then He smiled.”

“Truly, sister, we have the better part.” The priest raised his hands and staff as well. “‘For we have all that is hidden, yours in the waters and mine in all that lies under the land and in the night.’ Only slowly did the younger gods realize their error, that they had chosen the lesser part. For this reason the Scavenger is the great lord, the lord of the hidden, the lord of the broken places, of the secret deeps and all that from them comes. All praise to the Scavenger!”

“All praise to the Scavenger!” The crowd’s words echoed off the walls of the temple and the bonfires seemed to bow to the rats. The rats nodded, accepting the homage, or did they? Tarno shivered. Donwah guarded the mysteries of the waters, but her brother guarded the greatest mysteries of all.

The priestess lowered her arms. “Do not fear the Scavenger, lord of the darkness. Darkness is the time of rest and growing, of prayer and sleep. No man can work without rest, no beast labor all day and all night. Sleep is the gift of the Scavenger as salt is the gift of Donwah and the Scavenger.” She waited.

“All praise to the Scavenger.”

“It is right to give thanks, and praise, to aid the lost, to grant mercy to the dying stranger, to bring gifts of the soil to the light that they may bless man and beast,” the priest chanted. “Do not fear the Scavenger, but go carefully, mindful of his depths.”

“All praise to the Scavenger,” the chilly worshippers replied.

Tarno eased the boys closer to one of the fires, one in a less crowded corner. The Rella-born minding the fire nodded to them as she eased a log into the orange and red flames. Tarno watched carefully, lest either boy get too close and start to scorch his clothes. It happened every year, and he did not care to be this year’s warning. Donton clung to his hand as Kyle eased as close as was safe to the snapping heap of logs and coals. As soon as both stopped shivering and relaxed, Tarno took Kyle’s hand and they returned to the crowd.

The priest’s breath steamed as it came from the shadows under his hood. “Together, Donwah and the Scavenger blessed the Joss Valley with salt. Donwah’s waters enter Her brother’s lands and gather His salt, bringing it to the light. Without Her, men must dig for salt. Without the Scavenger, only the salt of Donwah’s seas would touch the land.”

Tarno made a face in the darkness. He’d eaten bread with raw sea salt as part of his apprenticeship. Ugh. It made the crudest of spring salts taste like pure honey in comparison. “All hail the Scavenger,” he called with the others.

“Oh lord of the hidden, lord of darkness, Scavenger of that which remains, hear our prayer,” the priestess chanted. “Show mercy on us when we forget Your honor, mercy when we fail to return Your portion to You.”

The listeners chorused, “Forgive us, great Scavenger.”

“Lord of that which lies below, hear our prayer, oh Lord of the secret places. Grant us Your gifts of salt and metals, of clay and stones of honor, that we may use them to Your honor and glory.”

“Scavenger, hear our prayer.”

The priestess’ voice sounded dead as she intoned, “Lord of the final secret, have mercy on us as we show mercy to the lost, to the stranger, to those who die far from home.”

“Have mercy on us, great Scavenger.”

Tarno led the boys twice more to the fire before the litany and worship drew to a close. Those not born to the Scavenger could leave and return for the feast after the rise of the sun, as could those with young children. Donton counted, so Tarno left a gift in the box at the edge of the old market, received a blessing, and herded the boys all the way to the south end of Halfeld Flus. Chilled to their bones, the boys climbed into the big bed with him, shivering until they finally slept.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: A Witnessed Betrothal

In which a trip to market is followed by . . . in-laws-to-be.

“Father?” Donton sounded worried. Tarno picked him up and held him on his lap where he sat by the fire early the next morning.


“Will we still be your sons if Mistress Urla has boys?”

Tarno held him closer. “Yes, you will. You and Kyle are my first children, and you will be first in my heart. I will talk to Mistress Urla about that, and will make certain that it is in our marriage contract.” All children, if they were blessed with more, would get a share of his movable estate, but Kyle and Donton would get a larger portion, as his oldest sons. If they lived longer than he did.

Kyle leaned against him. “Tad says that the children of a second wife get more of their father’s care, and estate.”

“Tad speaks true, if the marriage contract says so, or the father acts unjustly. Raadmar turns the wheel, and Donwah washes away the wealth of a man who favors his new children in that way.” Unless there was good reason, like Rand Graber’s father disinheriting and then disowning his oldest son and bodily throwing him outside of the city walls entirely. The young man had not survived long after being declared outside of the law. None of the salters would speak of what had caused so drastic an act. Tarno had a few ideas, starting with abusing blood kin and getting worse from there.

“Now. I need to visit the market, and you need to do your chores.” Kyle straightened up, and Donton slid off Tarno’s lap, landing with a firm thud. “Donton, please don’t be outgrowin’ your clothes before I come home.”

Donton smiled, showing all his teeth. He trotted after his older brother, both aiming for the back garden. Tarno smiled. He half-recalled having as much energy as the boys, perhaps. He put on his shoes and left the house, walking quickly up the street. Women swept their door-steps and the bit of street before their houses, or hurried out with baskets and bags in arms. The women of the salters district tended to be up with their men and worked just as hard. But then did most all women. Tarno dodged an overladen apprentice and did not lift a loaf off of the nearly overflowing mound. He considered it, but doing so before asking a young woman born for Gember to confirm her desire to wed? He was many things, but not that foolish!

Tarno purchased sweet buns and two large loaves of fine bread, then returned to the house. The boys had finished most of their work. “No, not yet,” he warned Kyle when the boy started easing toward the bread basket. “When Goodman Erbstman and his family arrive, then you may have a bun. Now you need to go help Aunt Cila bring the other things from her house to ours.” He’d bought the food and she had cooked it, since he lacked the skills for festival fare, and the boys . . . They tried, Gember and Yoorst knew, tried very hard. Effort did not always balance a lack of experience and age, however.

As he had hoped, Tarno met Goodman Erbstman, his lady wife, Urla, and Hepsha as they entered the great market square. “We have business,” Erbstman said. “Urla, go with Master Tarno on yer business, and meet us in the market hall, clothworkers’ end.”

“Market hall, yes, sir,” Urla said. She wore the same skirt and blouse as before, with a heavy, green and brown plaid shawl on her shoulders. Her braid hung down her back, loose but out of the way as befitted a young unmarried woman. Tarno gestured, and allowed her to lead the way to Donwah’s temple in the salters district. When they reached the small temple, he opened the door for her. She hesitated, giving him a puzzled look, then entered ahead of him. Was she used to following her father and mother? She curtsied low to the Goddess as he bowed.

A rustling sound came from the half-hidden doorway leading to the priests’ chambers. A veiled form moved, cleaning along the far wall of the temple, watching them without obviously watching them, and easing closer. Tarno nodded to himself, and turned to Urla.

His heart beat sped, as if he cut wood or stirred too-thick brine. “Mistress Urla, Donwah as witness, do you of your own free will agree to marry me?” If she said no . . .

She tipped her head a little to the right, as if considering him and his words. “Yes, Master Tarno. Donwah as my witness, I agree to marry you of my own free will. I have heard naught against you or your sons, and my father and mother have not pushed me toward marriage.” Her lips curved up into a small smile. “If anything, they have urged caution, and said that should I feel compelled to break the betrothal, they will not hold it against me.”

He did not sag with relief. Nor did he act surprised or excited. Instead he smiled in turn and nodded. “Thank you, Mistress Urla. I would not and will not marry a woman against her will.” Some couples did wed against the will, and some of those eventually grew to love each other, but most shared grudging respect and a marriage bed, nothing more.

A woman spoke from behind him, her voice low and flowing. “So sworn and witnessed, and it shall be made known, Mistress Urla Erbstman and Master Tarno Halson.” He turned, moved to stand beside Urla, and bowed. The priestess raised her broom-free hand in blessing. “Go with the blessing of the Lady of the Waters, and return after the Scavenger’s feast to be handfast.” As she spoke, Tarno swallowed hard. Fine blue, white, and silver embroidery and needlework decorated her robe and the edges of her veil. No ordinary priestess but Donwah’s Daughter herself had witnessed their words. He bowed again. When he looked up from the smooth stone floor, the Daughter had disappeared into the shadows. The loud gulp at his left suggested that Urla shared his surprise. Neither one spoke until they had honored the goddess once more and departed, each leaving a small gift.

Tarno cleared his throat. “The Market Hall, Mistress Urla?”

She nodded. “Yes, sir. The clothworkers’ end.” That would be the end to the south, away from the salters’ stall. She followed behind him at his left hand. When they married she’d shift to the right as befitted the honor of a matron. A few carts and wagons trundled up the street, despite the earliness of the day, but not as many as in mid-summer or at the quarter-year market. The later sunrise and gate-opening, plus harvest, made this one of the quieter market dates. A chill breeze brushed the back of his neck, easing under his bound-back hair to find the gap between hair and collar.

Trrwiss! Clatterclatterclatter! Tarno lunged back, grabbed Urla’s shoulder, and pulled her toward the right side of the road. She caught her skirts in both hands and walked very fast, as did everyone else. “Loose cart! Clear the way!” A two-bird cart clattered toward them, great haulers hissing and calling as they jogged.

The birds’ crests remained up a finger or two. They had not panicked—yet. Three men ran after the cart. A loose guide rope flapped in the wind of the birds’ passing, the likely cause of the run. Men and women snatched up children and goods and made themselves thin against the walls and in doorways. No one ran or yelled, lest the birds panic and turn a run-away into a disaster. The light weight, ocher-red cart seemed to dance behind the grey-brown birds as it hit worn or proud places on the road.

Two baskets and a bundle of something bounced out of the cart, landing hard on the stones of the road. A chorus of groans rose from onlookers as the contents of great hauler eggs whitened both basket and ground. The day-worker beside Tarno spat, then murmured, “Ah, Yoorst and Korvaal heard but did nae understan’. Tis’ th’ wrong yolk for m’ needs.” The big man slapped his worn and oft-mended shoulder yoke. Tarno bit his tongue to keep from chuckling, and Urla covered her mouth with one hand. He could see laughter in her eyes even so. Only after birds and owners had passed well down the way did people begin moving away from shelter.

A woman in much-patched skirt and blouse stopped in the road and crouched, resting one hand on the bundle. “I speak for Goodman Algam and watch until he returns.” Tarno and at least three others called back—quietly—and vouched for her claim. No one would bother the goods until their owner returned. Not that anyone with sense wanted to deal with the mess of broken great hauler eggs.

“I hope they stop before they reach the river,” Urla ventured as the road widened into the market square.

“Yoorst willing, they should. There’s a hard bend in the way where the old wall once stood, and most birds slow there.” They couldn’t see that the road turned. Perhaps that was why the houses had built there, as a precaution against runaways? Tarno had never considered the idea. The road just bent and that was all.

He and Urla stayed close to the eastern side of the market, where the shops and inns stood, along with a very small chapel for the Scavenger. Priests only stood duty there on market days, to confirm or deny claims of Scavenger’s Toll. Indeed, a black shadow moved in the morning shadow, and a staff-butt clicked against the threshold stone just after Tarno and Urla passed. Tarno looked as far to the south as he could see, then to the north, searching for more great haulers. The way seemed safe, and he stepped into the open.

Voices rose from the short row of booths marking the pottery and metal workers section of the market. Then a loud voice indeed bellowed, “And I say quiet!” Tarno ducked despite being nowhere near the market master. The men and women closest to him flinched as well, and two women made the Horns in the direction of the trouble. “I care not who began th’ strife, it ends now or ye’ll both feel my staff on yer backs.” The very stones seemed to shiver at the roar, and those not doing business made haste to depart, lest they attract Master Richten’s attention. Tarno glanced to Urla. She didn’t quite tip-toe, but moved with great care indeed. They crept into the protection of the shadows at the end of the market hall.

“. . . And that’s why nae man of good sense does trade with him, lessen they have nae choice,” one of the cloth-sellers informed a stranger. “He’s a gifted potter, but will nae let go of a slight lessen th’ Scavenger an’ Waldher themselves give t’ command.”

That explained the problem, and Master Richten’s wrath. He’d cautioned that craftsman before, and the potters’ confraternity had warned the man as well. The stubborn fool might have his table overturned and his sales space closed this day. Tarno heard tongue clucking and saw several people making the Horns. Did they fear Radmar or the market master more? Not a good question to ask. Radmar likely turned His wheel faster than the market master forgot stupidity or bad dealings.

Goodman Erbstman stood back as his wife finished her bargain. “I call fair dealin’,” the yarn-buyer called. Three people repeated his words, and he and Goodwife Erbstman touched palms on the agreement. The yarn-buyer handed the matron four market tokens. That made good sense, and gave her more value for her yarn than pure coin would. Silver for trade, gold for ornament, and market tokens for food, or so the proverb went. But not for taxes, which had occasioned much grumbling in the confraternity’s last business council.

“If you have finished your trade, I offer you hospitality,” Tarno told Dor Erbstman.

“Thank you, Master Tarno. We are finished, and a bite to break our fast would be welcome indeed.” The farmer smiled a little as several people slowed their steps, looking more closely at the family and their host. For a single man to offer hospitality to those outside his family or confraternity meant only one thing, and word of the betrothal would spread as fast as if sprinting great haulers carried it.

“Please, this way.” Tarno gestured to the south, and the family followed. They collected their sturdy, two-bird wagon and the group made their way to the salters’ quarter. Hepsha handled the lead rope, talking to the birds in a soft voice. The female nodded and stepped quietly, as if she understood the young woman’s request. “She truly is blessed,” Tarno observed.

Her father made Yoorst’s sign. “Aye, Master Tarno. The gods take and give, and perhaps gave more than they took.” A simple second daughter without dowry would never find a good man, like as not. A simple woman with a beast-handler’s touch and gentle way, on the other hand, brought more than a dowry with her.

Once they reached the salters’ district, Tarno showed Hepsha where to leave the wagon. “The way is too small, and the birds might feel confined,” he said, speaking clearly. She turned and murmured to the lead female, then guided the pair and wagon to the proper place. Tarno pumped water for the birds himself. Yoorst favored those who favored His creatures, after all. And Hepsha seemed to be a mistress of her craft in her own right. The birds had not startled or called as they passed the remains of basket and eggs in the road, unlike another passing team.

“This way, please,” Tarno said, guiding them to his house. The men and women out in the street watched without watching, and he imagined that he could feel the rush of air from wagging tongues. Well, who didn’t know that he sought a wife for his household?

The door to his house opened, and Kyle appeared. The boy held out a plate of bread. “Be you welcome, Goodman, goodwife, young mistresses,” he said. Cila must have reminded him of the proper words. The smell of good food flowed out around Kyle.

“Thank you for the welcome, and for the bread. Truly, Gember blesses those who feed the traveler.” Goodman Erbstman took a piece of bread and passed it to his wife, who in turn passed it to Urla. When all four had pieces, they ate, then entered the house. Tarno came last and closed the door.

Indeed, Cila stood beside the hearth. Tarno gestured to her. “My sister, Cila, married to Kalman. Cila Halsdatter, Dor Erbstman, his lady, Mistress Urla, and Mistress Hepsha.”

Cila dipped in a small curtsey. “Be welcome to this house and household, Goodman Erbstman.” She gestured to the food arrayed on the table. “Please, take and eat.”

“Thank you for the food and the welcome,” Erbstman said. He found a plate and began serving himself, followed by his wife. Tarno recognized Cila’s dishes and spoons in with his own. All could eat. Tarno let the boys get food before he did. They had worked hard the past few days.

Cila departed. She had her children to see to, and her husband. Donwah willing, Tarno would not need her help after today. Urla sat quietly, taking in the house and the furnishings as she ate. Kyle and Donton had set out the cooking gear and best linens for the visitors to see and use, along with the spice boxes and salt-barrel. The salt-box sat on the table, its polished dark red wood gleaming. Two lamps also shone, and Tarno sensed Cila’s hand in that. Not only would it reveal more of the inside of the house for his potential in-laws’ inspection, but it showed his prosperity. As cheap as great hauler oil was this season, it did not mean as much as wax candles would have, but those would be prideful. And expensive, and he did not care to spend funds he would need come spring.

Indeed, after he finished eating, Dor stood and studied Tarno’s table and benches, chair, bed, and other goods. He looked at the boys’ loft but did not venture up the ladder. His wife did, then returned and gave a satisfied nod. It passed her scrutiny. Donton showed the Erbstmans the back garden, including the night-soil bucket. Well, town people dealt with night-soil differently than did those living outside the walls.

Dor came back into the house. He too appeared satisfied with everything. “So, Tarno, what date are you considering for the handfasting?”

“The Eighth-Day eve after the Scavenger’s feast, Dor. The priest of Donwah said it was an auspicious day, and that no other couple had spoken for the date yet.” That it allowed time for any serious protests to be verified passed without mention.

“Good. We will have brought the out-flocks back to the home farm and have separated the weaned lambs from their dams. Grain harvest will be over as well.” He extended his right hand and they shook.

By the time the family departed, all had been agreed to. Tarno felt as if he had set down an over-loaded shoulder yoke as the weight left his shoulders. He and the boys would need to strew the floor with rushes for the winter, but nothing more until after Scavenger’s feast.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: Life Continues

A betrothal does not end the daily round of work and paperwork.

The next two days found Tarno cutting the last of the old wood for the salt works. The new logs had at least a month to go before they could cut the driest, and then it would dry for the rest of winter and part of spring. The boys helped, Donton carrying water and food to those splitting the logs, and Kyle carrying the split wood into the wood house. On the third day, Tarno visited the small temple of Donwah closest to the salters’ confraternity building.

The priest-in-training met him when he entered the sanctuary and bowed to the goddess. “Greetings and welcome,” the young woman said.

“My thanks for the welcome. I am Tarno Halson, and I ask to speak with a priest concerning a handfasting date.”

“One moment, of your courtesy,” she murmured, then disappeared into the deep shadows of the cool, damp-smelling temple. A scent like running water, not moist soil or a flooded building, filled the air. Before Tarno could follow that line of thought too far, a tall, slender figure in a flowing blue cloak over shirt and trousers appeared. The veiled priest carried a book. Tarno bowed to him.

“You seek a handfast date, Tarno Halson?”

“Yes, sir, if the Lady of Waters wills. The Eighth Day eve following the Scavenger’s feast. My betrothed is born for Gember, born to Donwah. She has accepted my offer, as have her parents.”

Tarno felt the priest studying him, even though the half-veil hid his eyes. “And have you asked her of her own will, without family?”

“No, sir. I planned to do so here,” he nodded down, “at the next market day. Should she agree again, her family will visit my home.”

“What say the other salters?”

Tarno spread his hands. “Master Schaefer has heard no objections. No one has an unpledged daughter of proper age, and none of the widows whom I could marry wish to marry. The others are too close kin.”

The priest nodded. “Good. I relieves me that you have done the needed diligence. I’m sure someone will object. However, unless a surprise kinship appears, the temple should have no objections.” He set the book down on a small table and opened it, skimming to the women’s register. “Her name?”

“Urla Erbstman, daughter of Dor.”

The crooked finger ran down the page until it stopped beside the family name. The priest studied the entry. “You share no kindred. They came to the valley three generations ago and have not married within the walls.” He straightened up. “The Eighth Day eve following the Scavenger’s feast is auspicious, and we have no additional rituals scheduled for that day. Provided she agrees, of her own will and desire, then we will put you on the marriage list.”

“Thank you, sir.” He hadn’t recalled any kin connections to the Erbstmans, but surprises had arisen in the past. Thus the need to check with the temple records. No man could marry closer than three degrees, and for good reasons.

The priest closed the book and raised his hand, making the sign for the waves of the goddess. “Go with Donwah’s blessing, and I will inform my brothers and sisters that you will need a neutral observer come the next market day.”

Tarno bowed to the priest. “All praise to Donwah, Lady of the Waters.” When he straightened up, priest and book had both vanished. Tarno left a small offering in the box and retreated to the warmth of the sunbaked square.

He waited until color returned to the world, then strode to the wooden post where the Council and Market Master Richten posted important notices. One of the white-smiths read off the latest announcement to those gathered around. “Goodman Karlo is fined a quarter silver for not abiding by fire-cover hours. Goodwife Fuchsban is fined a silver ring for breach-of-the-peace and is under ban and supervision until the day after the next market day.” The smith stopped and shook his head as the listeners murmured and grumbled. At least two coins or market tokens changed hands. “I thought it would be until the Scavenger’s feast,” the grey-capped smith complained. “I owe Lukus a half ring.”

“May be that the council thought to go light, since she’s under renewed temple ban until Gember’s harvest feast,” one of the listeners false-whispered. The scrawny man raised one twisted, withered arm. “I wager Raadmar will restore me arm to youth and strength afore Goodwife Fuchsban abides in quiet peace with a tranquil heart.” Tarno was not the only man to make god-sign or the Horns to ward off ill fortune. Raadmar turned the wheel at His will, and no man knew if he would rise or fall.

“To wager on a sure thing is no wager,” a passing day-worker called from under his bundle of sticks and roofing reeds. The others chuckled or grumbled.

The white-smith returned to his reading. “Last notice – the Temple of Gember will tolerate no samplin’ from the ovens or coolin’ racks inside the courtyard walls.” He turned and looked at the men and women, a sly smile on his face. “Now what grown man would be doin’ that, I ask ye?”

Knowing laughter filled the chilly air, and not a few winks and nudges passed among the men. Mistress Wilburga, who led the washer women, planted one strong fist on her very large hip and frowned mightily from under her spotless white head-cover. “Halfeld Flus don’ have na’ grown man fast enow t’ lift the goddess’ loaves. Iffin’ th’ boss cooper don’ wan’ his brat t’ feel the dough-paddle again, he’d best watch him during fire-cover hours.” She stomped off, her clogs clattering out a warning to anyone who thought to get in her way. Several porters glanced toward the sound and dodged behind great hauler carts and passing wagons. No man crossed the washer women twice. Tarno had seen them lift a full wash-trough and dump it, water, clothes, and all, on two strangers who thought to get fresh with one of the women and steal some of the clothes. He’d heard stories about a man beat to death with laundry bats for tryin’ to have his way with Wilburga many years ago.

Once the clump of listeners dispersed to go about their business, Tarno read the rest of the notices. Indeed, Mistress Fuchsban had to remain within the walls of her home for two more eight-days. Would she learn to keep a civil tongue, or would she emerge with renewed fire and spite? Her husband should have done a better job of restraining her, and her parents too. “Bend the twig and the tree will curve,” he muttered under his breath. He’d be wise to avoid that street, and the woodworkers neighborhood in general, until he wed.


The day before the next market day turned clear and cold after almost an eight-day of mist and teasing flakes of snow that sifted down from the low clouds. Tarno’s sister, Cila, and one of her sisters-in-law helped Tarno, Kyle, and Donton clean the house from roof-beam to threshold. The boys hung all the bedding and household linens out to air, those that had not been washed the day before and hung on separate drying lines. “Has the confraternity said aught yet?” Cila asked as she scrubbed the floor. Tarno and Kyle had carried most of the movable furnishings out into the street, where Donton kept watch.

“No, although two people pressed Rand about Widow Inver.” Tarno had heard about that in two-beers-worth of detail. “She refuses to wed unless there is god-sign. Thus far no one has seen any that Raadmar’s priests will accept.” He thought she was foolish to refuse every suit and offer, but he preferred not to tempt Raadmar with impiety, either.

Cila sat up on her heels and shook the wood and husk floor-brush at him. “Were I her, I would do the like. Were I her, Inver would have died years before he did, or I would have fled to the temple and demanded separation with penalty. That man—” The heat in her voice could have cooked every dish at the Confraternity’s annual banquet on Donwah’s winter feast. Tarno stared at his sister, eyes as wide as he could open them. He’d never heard her speak so!

She returned to scrubbing. “You ne’er saw the bruises, the burns he gave her when he drank too much. And when he thought she served him poorly. Why do ye think she bore no childer? His fist and foot saw to that.”

“Why’d she nae speak?”

“Would ye have taken her word on her word alone?” If Cila scrubbed any harder, she’d wear a hole in the wooden floor. “When did he allow her to speak with others alone?”

Tarno opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I do nae recall.”

“Because he ne’er did. He and his brother both. She feared them too much to flee to a temple.” Cila sat back on her heels, then stood. “Tis one thing to raise hand and voice. Another to scar and render a man or woman barren.”

He swallowed against his gorge. He’d never raised a hand against Annaka, although he’d raised his voice a time or two.

“I was called to witness as a married woman of good repute when she claimed the full estate instead of just the widow’s share. A priestess of Gember, one of the Scavenger, and three matrons saw the marks — scars, bruises, a burn not yet healed, and that nearly an eight-day after Inver’s death! She got full estate, and a ban against her in-laws. My man and two of the watch warned the in-laws not to approach her.” Cila reached for the pail of rinse water. Tarno jumped clear as she dashed it against the floor, then chased it out the back door with an old twig broom. “Were I her, I’d nae wed again.”

Neither would he. All the more reason to be patient with Urla, should the marriage go as hoped. He fetched more water before she asked. When he came back, she smiled and rested one damp hand on his bare arm. “Tarno, I know ye ne’er laid a hand on Annaka, may the gods give her rest. But you are not as many men. Inver was not as most, either. Goodman Erbstman’s been asking, on the quiet, about ye and t’ boys. He’s been told true. I hope Urla agrees, for her sake and for yours.”

“Father, where’s the ash bucket?” Kyle called from the back door. “Goodman Seife’s askin’.”

“Here.” Tarno hurried out with the covered leather buckets full of wood ash for the soap-maker. By the time the watchmen called for the hour of covering fires, the house looked far better. Tarno decided not to place rushes down, not yet, not until Erbstman could see for himself the state of the house.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Thursday Teaser: Noble and Empire

This ambushed me last week. No, I was not planning on returning to the Merchant world again so soon . . . This happens a hundred years or so after the end of the Great Cold.

Henrik fought even as he felt his magic buckling, collapsing. The shield failed and with it, his strength. He fell to his knees, then rolled onto his flank. Slsss a blade left the sheath. Footsteps creaked on the hard-frozen snow. He’d escaped the Scavenger’s call before, but no longer. So be it. Sneelah, through Her speaker Rohdbard, had won.

“Enough,” three voices called, speaking as one. “Enough, sister,” Donwah’s priestess repeated.

“You triumph. Let him live.” The Scavenger’s Son, refusing to claim a life?

A gloved hand jerked Henrik’s head back by the hair, baring his throat. “Full victory and justice,” the icy voice, devoid of the last trace of Rohdbard’s own speech, demanded. “Nothing less.” Cold steel, cold as the grave, colder than the snow and ice of the North, crossed his throat. Pain filled his skull to the breaking point and past. Henrik heard his own voice, felt his throat tear as he screamed, heard another echo the cry. Blackness swept the world, and he knew nothing more.


His muscles refused to obey. He tried to open his eyes, but something held them closed. Soft footsteps came from somewhere to his left. The tiny sound sent daggers through his skull. His stomach churned and nausea swept over him, then ebbed like the grey waters of the northern sea.

“My lord, please.” He was no one’s lord, not now. No man ruled save the Scavenger, not here. Something, someone lifted his shoulders, warm hands supported his head, then lowered him down, but not flat. A half-familiar voice repeated, “My lord, please, if you do not drink, you will die.”

How could he die twice? But no man nor woman knew what lay in the Scavenger’s lands, not truly, not even the miners. Warm metal touched his lips, and he drank. He tasted meat and an herb. Another touch, and he drank again. The sickness in his guts faded. After the meat, a bitter, thick herbal tea touched his tongue. Then darkness once more, soft blessed darkness, free from failure, free from pain. Blessed be the Scavenger, the final healer, the One who ended all pain.

When Henrik next woke, he clenched his fist, then relaxed. The pain in his head flowed away as he forced the muscles to release their hold. He kept his eyes closed. He sensed no light, so why bother? Instead he listened. The chamber sounded small. The dead sound of hangings around the bed or walls . . . No. The faint ring and echo suggested bare walls and a stone or hard wooden floor. Steps approached. Wood, not tile or stone, or so he guessed. Not a prison cell, then, not that it mattered.

Aedit. Where was she? Had the emperor, Sneelah, broken her as well? Please, Valdher, Rella, please may she be safe and whole. She had no part in his battle. But Sneelah . . . Valdher bore Gember’s sweetness and Rella’s mercy compared to Sneelah. Please, he’d suffer all the pains of the world if only Aedit might be spared.

“My lord, I am touching your head to remove the bandages on your eyes,” a man murmured, so quiet as to be almost unheard. Thus warned, Henrik remained still and did not flinch. The heavy pressure on his eyes eased, but he kept them closed. A damp cloth wiped his eyes, then his forehead as well. “My lord, the room is dark. There is a closed horn-lantern, but not where you will see it easily if you open your eyes. The healer-priestess says that it will be another day before you can tolerate more light than that.”

“Aedit?” Henrik whispered, all the sound his abused throat could produce.

“Is well, and will reach Valbaum tomorrow, should all go as it has.” The man hesitated, then repeated “She is well, and in good health, my lord.”

“Thank you.” Thank You, Lady of the wild lands, Lady of light, thank You for Your mercy.

He heard the sound of pouring, and steps coming closer once more. “My lord, Teo and I will help you sit. Then you need to drink, please. It will give you strength, and was sent by the temple.”

Thus warned, Henrik tried to sit. He managed it, almost. Had the servants not caught him, he would have fallen back. His muscles obeyed, but reluctantly. He kept his eyes closed and drank. It tasted as bad as he’d anticipated, and his stomach rebelled, then subsided. “Had it been sweet, I would have thought poison,” Henrik muttered.

A soft chuckle greeted his words. “Aye, my lord. The healers swear that the foulness is not so bad. They tell rank falsehoods.” More pouring, this thicker, perhaps. “This is meat and gold-grain, to rebuild your strength.”

Henrik slept again after he ate. When next he woke, he opened his eyes. A trace of light spilled from the shielded lantern in the corner of the chamber. Pain built behind his eyes until he closed them again, pain like when he stared at bright sun on snow at noon. What had Rodhdbard done to him? After the pain ebbed, Henrik tried again. If he squinted and looked elsewhere, he could see bed posts, a table, and two stools. Patterns stood out against the stark white of the wall. Patterns? Painted borders and a design, but of what he could not tell. Where was he? Not any of his palaces. Bors had said that Aedit traveled to Valbaum, the ducal seat. But where was he? Cold grew in his gut. Not dead, not with Aedit, not at the emperor’s current residence, so where had he been taken?

“My lord.” Teo looked at the floor when Henrik asked. “My lord, you are in the hunting lodge in the Snowcrest Hills, near the source spring of the Maerla. Valdher’s Daughter will tell you more, my lord.”

“The emperor’s hunting lodge.” His voice sounded dead to his ears. A prisoner, then.

The door opened and a tall woman in green and brown swept in. She carried a black staff topped with a raabvogel. “No, Duke Henrik. Yours now. The lodge and the hills are yours. You may go anywhere in the hills, but not cross the Maerla or the road to the village. All others are free to come and go.”

“And Aedit, honored sister?”

The priestess shook her head, her large, dark brown eyes tired. “May pass freely between the cities you created, but may not come here. Our sister struck a hard bargain for your and her lives, Henrik.”

He closed his eyes. He should hate the northern Lady, goddess of the snow and ice. He felt nothing. “So be it, honored sister. If that was the price for my bride’s life so be it.”

“Hers and yours, noble brother.”

He’d rather be dead. Henrik bit his tongue, stopping the words. Sixty years had taught him that much — arguing with the Lady of the wild lands never ended well for him. Priest he might be, Hand of the Lady, but he could not challenge Her decisions and go unscathed. “So be it. May I write to Aedit?”

“Yes.” Valdher’s Daughter frowned. “She is regent for the Emperor, until an heir is brought forward. You no longer have any role, Henrik.” He heard disappointment in her voice. “His imperial Majesty . . . may find that decision to be one of his poorer ones, or he may not.”

Without a strong hand and sword arm, one that could move quickly to stop trouble or provide aid when problems arose, Rohdbard would find that the north did not remain as calm or prosperous as before. Henrik could not find it in himself to enjoy the prospect. “Indeed.” In truth, he felt nothing. “Honored sister, why do I feel no feelings?”

“Ah.” She came closer and whispered, “Sneelah stripped you of all magic that comes not from the hand of the Wild Lady, brother. We, your brothers and sisters, fear that She took more than just magic, but we do not know and will not ask, lest it rekindle Her fury.”

He closed his eyes. “Thank you. I had feared other injury.”

“So did we, noble brother. So did we.” He heard her steps grow quieter then fade away entirely. Darkness eased closer, and he embraced it. Perhaps in dreams he might see Aedit once more.

An eight-day later, he stood on the terrace beside the hunting lodge, staring out at the meadow and forest beyond. Warm and cool evening breezes blew together, tugging his cloak’s hem and brushing his forelock into his eyes. He ignored it. Four eight-days had passed since his confrontation with Rohdbard, and spring crept north, even here. Snow still held the peaks of the hills, but here, the south-facing meadow and grounds around the stout lodge bore a lush cover of green grass. White and delicate pink flowers dotted the verdure. Ovstra grazed out of sight, resting after bringing supplies. Others could come and go. He could not. He clenched his right hand as he looked down at his boots, then up once more.

The light still brought pain to his eyes, but not so much as before. Sneelah had marked him well. He remained numb, almost entirely without anger or joy, sorrow or regret. Perhaps being denied Aedit was a mercy of a sort. For him, not for her. She had reached Valbaum without encountering trouble beyond the usual. He gave thanks, had given thanks. He needed to resume his priestly duties. Valdher had little patience for those who failed to do Her proper honor.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved,

Tuesday Tidbit: Meeting Her Family

Tarno and the boys meet Urla’s family and inspect the farm.

They stopped at a way well. Tarno left a small offering, then pulled up water for the boys to drink. Then he slaked his own thirst before replacing the bucket and the cup. He saw the next landmark, the cluster of stones, and led his sons onto a very narrow path to a gate. A woman fed the yard fowl, and Tarno called, “Greetings to the farm.”

“Greetings to the road.” The young woman came to the gate, trailed by several birds. She stopped, turned back, and scattered the rest of the grain and bread scraps before approaching the gate once more.

“My name is Tarno Halson. Goodman Erbstman invited me and my sons to come after harvest and to pay our respects to his land and to his household.”

The sweet-faced young woman blinked soft brown eyes at him, nodded once, and hurried to the house. She returned with a well-fed matron. The older woman smiled at the girl and patted her shoulder. “Yes, Hepsha, your father invited Master Halson to visit. Thank you. You did right.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Hepsha said. Her words sounded strained and harsh.

“Please see if there are any new eggs.”

“Yes, Mother.” Hepsha bobbed a little and hurried away.

Her mother watched for a moment, then turned back to Tarno and the boys. She opened the gate with a strong, broad hand. “Enter and be welcome, Master Halson. Goodman Erbstman said that you might call.”

“Thank you, Goodwife. May Gember and Yoorst prosper your household.” Tarno gently urged the boys in through the gate. Goodwife Erbstman closed it behind them. “My sons Kyle, and Donton.” The boys bowed to the farm wife. Like her daughter, she wore plain but very well made clothes dyed nut-hull brown and protected by a light-brown work apron. A bit of cream-colored embroidery decorated the throat of her blouse and the bottom of the apron.

The boys stared, peering left and right as they followed Goodwife Erbstman into the low, well-built, grey stone and wood house. The boys had never been to a farm before, Tarno remembered. The inside of the house gleamed, clean and neat, and smelled of baking and sweet-leaf. Like his own home, a few plain, high-quality furnishings stood here and there, including two high-backed settles framing the fireplace. A spinning basket and distaff had been tucked into a corner, under a small shrine to Gember. The window shutters stood open, allowing light and air into the home. An embroidery frame and stool sat beside the window, taking advantage of the light.

“Goodman Erbstman comes soon, Master Tarno,” the farm wife said. “He checks on the new schaef pen. Urla is hanging braids of onions in the loft.” The young woman herself appeared before he had time to speak, climbing down the ladder from the second level, balancing a large basket on her head and steadying it with one hand.  Her clothes appeared plainer than what she’d worn on market day, but no less well-made or clean, allowing for work dirt. Urla moved a little higher on Tarno’s mental list.

However, proprieties came first. “Please do not let my sons and I interfere with your work,” he assured the women.

“No, no, sir, please, sit and take a bite of food and drink. You and your sons have come from the road, and the way is long.” As Goodwife Erbstman spoke, she and Urla spread a tight-woven brown schaef-wool cloth on the table in the eating corner. Urla disappeared for a moment, returning with a tray laden with a jug and three cups, two smaller, one larger. She set those on the table and poured, then moved clear as her mother brought bread, salt, and two small containers of fruit spread or potted meat. “I apologize, Master Tarno, young sirs, for the lack of hospitality.”

“No, please, Goodwife, this is plenty and more than plenty.” The formal words came easily still, despite how long it had been since he’d called on a stranger, or had strangers cross his own threshold. “We do not want to cause you trouble or shortage.”

“It is no trouble to care for the traveler on the road, Master Tarno, and the gods repay all who serve.” The older woman beamed as Tarno served the boys, then touched his piece of bread to the salt and ate. The bread tasted very good, with a firm crust but soft, dense inside. No half-measures here!

The door thumped open, and Goodman Erbstman clomped in. He removed his clogs and slid his feet into house shoes. Tarno stood and bowed to him. “Greetings, sir. May Yoorst and Gember bless your household.”

“Greetings, Master Tarno, and may Donwah grant ye grace.” The farmer rinsed his hands, dried them on the cloth presented by Urla, and said. “Thank ye for making the journey. I fear we are not as wealthy as the folk of the town.”

Tarno nodded gravely. The solid furnishings, the metal pots and pewter platter gleaming above the hearth, the neatly made clothes, and round faces of the women all testified to the household’s prosperity. Granted, everyone waxed fat in the fall, almost, but this was a well-run farm overseen by skilled women. No home or business could do well if the women failed at their tasks, no matter how skilled and hard-working the men or fertile the soil. “True wealth comes from the hand of the farm owner and his lady, not from goods, and this household is rich indeed.”

After the boys had eaten most of the bread and sampled the potted schaef, Tarno and Goodman Erbstman stepped outside to look at the farm. The boys rested on the benches beside the table. That it would allow them to meet Urla and the return passed without mention. The schaef pen closest to the house and barn looked solid and well made, with square stone posts supporting wooden cross-beams. The barn boasted stone lower walls and a wooden upper storey, with a good wooden-plank roof. Several great haulers trilled and muttered to themselves in their pen. Hepsha moved among them, checking their legs and adding water to their trough. “She has a gift,” her father said, nodding toward the girl. “The gods took her voice and some wit, but gave her good hands and beast-mindedness.”

Tarno nodded in turn. “Some would say that being beast-minded and of good heart is worth more than the richest dower silver.” He did not smell more waste and rot than he’d expected, and the tidy, brown-black manure pile suggested that Dor Erbstman cared properly for both the land and his beasts.

“Aye.” They inspected the large garden, gazed at the wood lot, and went out to a pasture. “See yon field, the one in fallow?”

Tarno studied the large field. Brown and grey stone walls and a half-hedge surrounded it.  Slender, weedy green and brown grew from the ground. “Aye.” The soft, cool wind sweeping up the gentle hill rustled the weeds.

The farmer sighed. “I have claim to it by marriage. But my cousin-in-law has claim by birth-right, or so he says. I want to work it, or rent the ground out and use the income for dower. He wants to sell it outright for silver and buy more great haulers.” Erbstman shrugged broad shoulders. “The law-speaker says that we have equal claim, although there is some question about my cousin’s proof of our grand-sire’s ownership. The priests are studying the matter.” He sighed, “God time and man time flow not the same.”

“Aye that.” Truth be told, that it wasn’t a blood-feud, and that the temples had already taken interest, eased Tarno’s worries. Neither side wanted true trouble, and had contracted to abide by the will of the gods. That spoke well for all parties involved. “Say any aught about a town-man joining the family?”

Erbstman laughed. “Nae, although one third-cousin says she will nae speak with me should I permit such a thing. She has not spoken with me for a score of years, and none worry overmuch about her opinions.”

Since he had an uncle just like that, Tarno chuckled as well. His mother’s older half-brother still resented that she had not married the head of the salters’ confraternity, even though the man had not been head of the confraternity at the time! Since her sire had been a tanner, marrying across the trades should have been a greater concern, but no.

By the time the men finished looking at the barn, Tarno had almost made up his mind. Dor Erbstman ran a good farm, had a practical view of the world, and raised daughters who worked hard and well. That alone moved Urla far past Chlomila Fuchsban. However . . . “Goodman Erbstman, what says Urla and your good wife about the match?”

“They favor the match. I have no sons living, and a nephew will inherit the farm, aside from the widow’s portion and the daughter-share.” The farmer’s bushy eyebrows rose. “My nephew and his father have made it clear that they do not need more women in their households.” The eyebrows sank again.

Tarno caught his meaning and nodded. The daughters would be cast out, to be blunt. Tarno did not approve, but such was the law unless the rest of the family spoke as one against it.

Erbstman added, “Master Krimburn what owns the Shorn Schaef has asked about Hepsha for his youngest son. The son is kindly and sees to the beasts.”

“It sounds like a good match, should all agree.” Relief indeed, because the inn had a lot of animals pass through, and she’d be a good fit. The young man— He was as the gods had made him, and according to market talk, his brothers made certain that he had a place and a task that suited his simple nature. The family would be kind to Hepsha, and Urla’s husband would not be asked to take Hepsha in as well.

They returned to the house. The smell of food greeted them, as did Donton. “Making butter is hard, Father.” He waved at the churn, a keg on rockers. “Mistress Urla let me help.”

That, and the savory meal, decided Tarno. He’d need to talk with Urla herself, probably at Donwah’s temple on the next market day, to confirm her agreement, but everything spoke favorably of her and her family. After eating, Tarno said, “Goodman Erbstman, Goodwife Erbstman, I invite Mistress Urla to join my household as wife.”

The farmer turned to Urla. “What say you?”

She kept her eyes on the floor. “I have neither heard nor seen ought ill-favored in Master Tarno or his sons, father. I agree.”

Tarno removed the bride silver from his purse. Urla would return it to him when they were hand-fasted in the temple before witnesses. Until then it served as an initial pledge until he and her father had a marriage contract drawn up. Urla would comport herself as a married woman, and he would do likewise, not that he had sought any woman’s bed since Annaka’s death. “Mistress Urla, take this coin as my pledge that I can support you as befits an honorable wife.” He offered her the ancient, small coin.

Urla met his eyes and took the coin. In turn she handed him an embroidered cloth. “I take this coin in pledge. Master Tarno, take this sash as my pledge that I can support your household and sons as befits an honorable craftsman.”

The words weren’t quite right, but they would serve. “I take this sash in pledge,” he said. Urla’s parents both smiled.

Goodman Erbstman raised his right hand and made Yoorst’s sign. “I give you my blessing, Tarno, Urla, and witness these pledges. Should you marry, my blessing follows you past the threshold.”

Tarno bowed to the man. “I thank you for the blessing.” He straightened up and pushed Kyle and Donton toward Urla. “Mistress Urla, behold your sons-to-be. Donton, Kyle, behold your mother-to-be.” He’d already talked to them about remarrying, and had assured them that he would not treat them differently. Nor would he forget Annaka, their mother.

Urla smiled, green eyes warm and kind. “Donton, Kyle, I pledge to care for you as a mother should, as best I can.”

That was all he could ask. After a few more formalities, including tentatively setting the wedding date for the Eight Day eve following the Scavenger’s feast and all present drinking a cup to the gods, Tarno and the boys took their leave. They had to get back before the gates closed, since he did not care to strain the Erbstman’s hospitality. It would also prevent talk.

The guard at the gate chuckled as he waved them through just as the sun touched the western horizon. “I see ye found a way to quiet boys.”

Tarno, Donton draped over one shoulder, smiled. “Aye. Would that it could be done without me workin’ too. Donwah and Scavenger grant ye a quiet night.”

“Your words to the gods’ ears,” came the fervent reply.

Kyle fell asleep as soon as he took off his shoes. Donton roused enough to get up the ladder to the bed and remove his shoes. Tarno stripped off the boys’ trousers and jerkins, then covered them with the blanket. They’d walked farther than he’d planned, but it wouldn’t hurt. They’d sleep quietly. Tarno shook the road dust off their clothes, then hung them to air before seeing to his own clothes and wiping off the dust.

He had nine years on Urla. Not that it mattered, but it mattered. He and Annaka had wed young, causing tongues to wag. They’d wag again. He cared not. Having a wife for his household and a mother for his sons mattered a great deal. He added wood to the fire, enough to feed the coals until dawn, and fell into bed himself. Dragging and sawing wood were not walking.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Saturday Snippet: Walking to the Farm

Tarno takes the boys outside the walls of Halfeld Fluss.

Another Eight Day passed before Tarno and his sons crossed the Joss to go visit the Erbstman farm.  Master Schaefer had heard nothing against the match yet. Tarno took that as a good sign. They needed one. A rock pigeon had seen fit to wedge himself into the chimney and die, blocking it and causing no end of a mess until Tarno and a mason’s apprentice cleared the block and repaired the flue. Goodman Fuchsban had inquired with Rand Graber about Tarno. “If he asks again, I’m going to petition the council for a peace-ban on him,” Graber had grumbled over beer the next noon. “If he thinks we can compel a salter to wed without the girl being pregnant, he’s a fool twice over.”

Fool was the least of words Tarno had for that entire family, but he held his tongue. Even the four wagons of firewood that the salters gave to the market master had not sweetened some of the simmering trouble over wood. Market rumor claimed that some of the wood workers outside Halfeld Fluss wanted to raid the salt works and claim the logs for their own use. Not that the logs would be much good, since they’d all been rejected by builders and craftsmen upstream already. Tarno shrugged and turned his attention back where it needed to be. Kyle had trotted ahead, eager to be out and see something new. Donton hung back a little, glancing at his father. They wore their new-to-them clothes. Tarno carried bride silver in his purse, just in case. The early morning sun cast long shadows indeed as they crossed the river bridge and walked south.

The road crossed over the hills south of the Joss. Wagons trundled past, northbound, and the walkers stayed to the left side, clear of the main way. High clouds softened the sun, and the weather had warmed a little, but not too much. Kyle and Donton stopped and watched women cutting dark yellow straw from a wheat field, gathering it for later use. The wheat had already been brought in and the field gleaned. Schaef would graze in the field later in winter, finishing anything the gleaners had not found and turning the soil a little. The fruit trees had already been cleaned of the road-toll, Tarno noted with a little smile. Anything growing over the road within arm’s reach could be taken without claim of theft. But no pulling the branches lower. And of course wind falls belonged to whoever gathered them, so long as they fell outside the fence, without help. Not that he’d ever helped, as a boy.  In the far distance, they could see the blue wiggle of the Ragged Hills.

“Father, what’s that?” Kyle asked, pointing to a pile of dark brown and black rock that lurked in a pasture to the west. “It looks like a dead house.”

Tarno stopped and studied the pile, and where they perched on the hill with clear views of the Joss valley. He remembered the story, and the boys were old enough. He started walking again and said, “Kyle, those are what remains of the guard post of the Kaltfeld lords. That is why no man has touched the stones.” Otherwise some thrifty farmer or builder would have taken them for his own use.

Kyle and Donton stopped and stared at the dark blocks, then at their father. “Sir, do the stones curst people?” Kyle’s voice shook a little. Well, he’d been at the edge of the crowd when Gember’s Daughter recounted the news striking down the southern king and cursing him.

Tarno flipped one hand from palm up to palm down, averting trouble. “No. Only the gods can curse people and things. The gods punished the Kaltfeld lords and warned people not to use the remains of their buildings for their own gains. Some stones were taken for the new foundation of the Scavenger’s temple, but that’s all.” That men — and some women — of the city had assisted the gods went without saying.”

“What did the lords do, Father?” Donton asked, eyes wide. Tarno considered as he nudged the boys off to the side-path out of the way of a six-bird wagon laden with field stones and grain sacks. The wagon’s axles groaned and protested as the vehicle trundled up the gentle slope. The birds leaned hard against their harness, straining. Tarno frowned to himself. The wagon needed grease, badly needed. Yoorst frowned on those who failed to take proper care of their beasts and ease the birds’ labors. And who assaulted the ears of beast and man! Once the wagon crested the hill and he could hear again, Tarno began. “This is the tale I was told by my father.

“Not long after the end of the Great Cold, but before the emperors departed to the far north, men returned to these lands. They found trees and grass, raw and wild, and strange beasts, the last of the beasts touched by ice and magic. They also found familiar animals — deer and hare, wild schaef and great haulers, cartal and summer leapers and snakes. The Joss flowed then as it does today. The priests pronounced the land good, and after taking proper care, the people cleared land for farms and pastures. But then, as now, not everyone wanted to work for their food and shelter.”

Kyle grinned. “The Scavenger-born?”

“No.” Tarno frowned a little. “Most Scavenger-born work hard indeed. Who digs wells, and mines metal and salt, and cuts and shapes stone, and cares for the dying and dead without families or far from home? Who slaughters animals for meat and hides?”

The boys’ mouths had started to sag open. “But Tad says that thieves and cheats are Scavenger-born, and so are rats,” Kyle protested.

“Tad is part-right. Just as not all born to Gember are farmers, so not all born to the Scavenger are thieves.” Tarno watched a large, white schaef-tail bird flap past, then resumed his tale. It kept the boys from noticing the distance, although Tarno thought he could already see the “kissing trees” Goodman Erbstman had described.

“No, these were groups of people who wanted to steal and hurt instead of working. Since it is hard to plow, plant, or harvest while fighting, some strong men offered to guard the farmers and herders in exchange for food and things. It worked. People kept their crops and livestock, and the strong men became lords who fought off the bandits and sometimes acted as law-keepers as well. In Halfeld Fluss the market-master and town council do that with the priests and law-speaker helping, but some places still have lords.”

Tarno took a deep breath. “Then, as now, the people settling the valley needed salt. Without salt?” He waited.

“Man cannot live,” Donton recited before his older brother could. “Salt savors food, protects meat and hides, purifies glass, draws corruption from the diseased, and binds life to bodies.”

“Very good!” Tarno smiled and patted his younger son’s shoulder. “Very good. Beasts need salt too. When people began cutting trees and gathering nuts in the Joss valley, they saw animal tracks around one of the springs. Lots and lots of tracks. Some animals had even eaten the dirt.”

Kyle made a face.

“Only one thing that’s not beast magic calls that many animals to one place — salt. The women dug out a little around the spring, letting it flow into a second pool, and tasted the water. It tasted of salt and earth, because of the clay.” Some days, after a heavy rain, the water also tasted of rotten egg. That salt went to the tanners and dyers. “Salt comes from both Donwah and the Scavenger, spring salt does, and has a little from both.

“The people prospered, the lords of Kaltfeld kept their bargain, the emperors made certain that justice was done, and all seemed well. But.” Tarno picked his next words with care. The boys were still young. “But the lords stopped doing justice. The bandits had gone away, but the lords kept their armed men and privileges. Then they took more — more meat and flour and leather, more bread and salt, more cloth and fruit. They took labor as well, more than people had agreed to.

“The salters — men and women — had always worked for the lord, not for themselves. When you are older, you’ll learn why. But the lords of Kaltfeld paid less and less while asking more and more. Lord Surlo Kaltfeld claimed the service of the salter women, especially the young women, married or not. To refuse meant getting beaten, or denied food and shelter, or worse.”

Tarno shivered despite the sun’s heat on his shoulders. “Surlo Kaltfeld claimed the labor of a young woman who had been called to be a priestess of Yoorst, once she finished gathering her bridal portion. She went with Lord Kaltfeld’s guards. And did not come back. River men found her body on the next Eighth Day eve. She had been badly hurt before she died.” Tarno took a deep breath. “A storm rose that afternoon, thunder and sky-fire and rain and terrible wind. It lasted well into the hours of darkness. Come the morning, all the lords’ buildings had been damaged or turned into ruins. His goods appeared in front of the temples, and his body . . . He was found dead in the courtyard of his fortress, staring at the sky, burned by sky-fire, with a bundle of ripe grain jammed into his mouth. More fresh cut grain surrounded his head.”

They’d reached the two intertwined trees, so Tarno stopped. He pointed to the smaller path to the right, leading past the trees. “That way.” Once he and the boys crossed the road and started down the narrower path, he said, “The Sons and Daughters of the gods spoke as one. The lord’s goods would go to those in need and those harmed by Surlo Kaltfeld. No one could use the remains of the buildings for his own gain. And the salters would work for ourselves, to prosper or starve on our own labor.” Not quite as simply as that, and the emperor had intervened, but enough for the boys for now.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Born For and Born To in the Merchant World

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.