With this curiosity explained and my young peers at least partly satisfied with the answers, we continue onward. All around us, mounds of fresh snow are heaped at the sides of the roads by diligent locals with shovels. It all melts rapidly, but this way most of the water is diverted into the long, narrow trenches which line most of the major avenues, rather than making an unwieldy mess of mud out of the lightly paved causeways. We pass by one of the destinations of several such ditches as our caravan lumbers forward, and several of the draft animals are drawn aside so that they may briefly drink from the small step cistern, as many others are. It is as we watch this that the wind shifts to blow from behind us, and the smell of beast is suddenly overpowered. Several of us cough from the acrid smoke, far more potent than that coming from any chimney or fire pit, and we all twist around to behold the large, diffuse cloud of smoke rising up in the north, beyond the grey mass of the True City.
Ciudo mistakes the smoke for a conflagration at first, fearing that the timber buildings of the northern end of the False City are somehow on fire. But Hraela speaks up, stating that she knows the reason for the smoke, and jogging my memory of Gertisch traditions in the process.
The smoke comes from just beyond the edge of the city, you see. The northern quarter is most heavily populated by those of Gertisch descent, who typically set up camp there, close to the roads which connect Deneroth to the low-lying plains, rivers, and drowned coasts of their homeland. As such, cultural practices of those esteemed, rindy river peoples are strongest on the north side.¹ One such seasonal ritual is one of great excitement and leisure for the entire community, generally taking place sometime before or after the hibernal solstice, depending on local tradition. I speak of course of the Burning of the Children.
I will give my readers the opportunity to collect themselves and reread that last line now.
Don't worry. Contrary to popular belief, they are not real children, although their likeness can come unnervingly close at times.
It would be more accurate to say that it is the Burning of the Effigies of the Children, but that just doesn't roll off the tongue as easily, nor does the average Ersuut speaker have the glottal fortitude to properly inflect the original Gertisch name for the holiday.
In the mythology of the northerners, winter is personified as a haggard old man, bald and bedecked in the knotted ropes of a hundred sunken river pirate vessels. It is his cold and impassive hatred for all people, especially children who have the youth he envies, which brings the bitterness of winter. In the wake of his ropes, ice creeps up the rivers as he walks along the surface of each, capsizing any boats or rafts he comes across and freezing off the toes of fishwives. The only thing which can quell his cold anger is the smell and sound of a child wreathed in bedazzling flames, which soothes him and gives him ghosts to tie up in his ropes, drag away, and finally gnaw upon during the long warm months in which he sleeps. To sacrifice a child in such a way is to spare the world a long and brutal winter, and the more youths are immolated in this fashion, the faster and more magnificently spring will arrive.
By this point, Ciudo is pale with horror and Sarq seems to be on the verge of violent sickness, though that may be due to the dubious quality of the meat on a spit he bought from a vendor not long ago.
Hraela only smiles in recollection of her own childhood memories.
Understandably, the Gertisch do not actually like to sacrifice their children, nor the children of their enemies, though that is another common legend attached to the old ways of the archetypal bandy-legged river pirates of their past. Instead, the tribes take advantage of the poor sight and general stupidity of Old Man Winter, and instead construct a facsimile of the child to be "sacrificed".
I must agree with her that the Burning of the Children is quite a clever development in mythology, when you take into account how poorly other groups of people tend to respond to human sacrifice, or human sacrifice for reasons different than their own. Each effigy is a creation of carved and polished wood, sometimes painted and decorated with expensive cloth, and nested in a "throne" of wicker which keeps the figure in place when it is erected atop several poles. The effigy itself is rarely taller than four and a half feet, but the poles can add another five or six. At least one child is crafted by every family involved in the celebration- to contribute nothing is to flirt with disaster and bad luck for the rest of the year, or perhaps even the loss of a child due to the lingering magic of Winter. There is however no upward limit on the number a family can burn, assuming they have the children to copy. Particularly large and wealthy clans thus often furnish the Burning Field with dozens of effigies in a display that is sure to make them the envy of their neighbors for months to come.
This attention to detail is because each effigy is meant to resemble a specific child in features and proportions as close as humanly possible, in order to deceive Old Man Winter. Given the renowned skill of Getisch woodworkers, these lacquered clones can be uncanny indeed. The child who is represented in effigy is considered to be a hero of the whole village, and to gain a great boon of good luck. Any siblings who don't get their own double made, but who help in decorating their "chosen" family member is said to gain a bit of that luck for the next year as well. Then, once all families have come together on the appointed day and raised their progeny high into the air, they light them one by one.
The strictest interpretation of tradition calls for each child to scream as if in pain, in order to make as convincing a display as possible for Old Man Winter, but generally it is acceptable for them to simply hoop and holler, or even cheer and laugh among their friends, trying to see who can be the loudest and most "appetizing". They are not discouraged from losing their voices during this event, because it is vital that no child makes a sound until they are certain that Old Man Winter will have eaten his fill of smoking ghosts. Generally during this grace period, the children are entertained with gifts and toys given to them by their parents, said to be looted from the sooty remains of "those who were taken". it is a joyous occasion, meant to reinforce a child's belief in helping the community, as well as exalting their efforts in doing so.
Of course no child can "live the dream" for their entire lives as our friend puts it, and before long they begin to ask why none of their gifts are burned, or who they're taken from if everyone uses an effigy. Eventually every Gertisch parent takes their child aside and gently breaks it to them that there probably is no Old Man Winter. Better to be told sooner, as she puts it, for it is even worse to come to the realization that one year, a child is a child no more, and will no longer stave Winter off as well as they used to.
Now Hraela is wistful, and will speak no more of the heartbreak she felt when she discovered that it was her father who made those howls and dragging sounds across their rooftop every year.
¹ Of course it must be noted that the proud old tradition of Gertisch alehouses can be attested to as far south as the edges of Deneroth and beyond, even in these disjointed days.