Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Goats Who Stare for Men.

"I send Hhicza with you for fourteen stalks, a good deal for a friend. What? You sail against the wind, through the Pinholes? Twenty-eight stalks, and not a grain less!"
- Tal ad-an-Perap, a savvy priest-herder known for his somewhat questionable credentials.

"You'd think with such a pampered lifestyle, they'd at least taste a little better cooked. Worst thing I ever got tried as a heretic for."
- A tattooed and prodigiously paunched man standing about ten feet behind me as I write this. Name unknown, and not about to be asked for.

For some reason which eludes my understanding, I have the thought of the maritime traditions of Nambar stuck in my head- right in between the splitting headache and the worry that this breakfast might have been spat in. At least the hunk of cheese I was given seems to be from a goat, rather than the pig dairy "delicacies" which we are treated to back up in the higher tiers of Deneroth.

Goats, as the case happens to be, also occupy a long and storied place in the history of Nambarish seamanship.

While not often considered the proudest of animals in our reckoning, goats are highly prized and symbolic in Nambar. Owing I think to the pastoral traditions of the inland folk who would eventually join with their coastal kin to form something of a (relatively) unified people, goats have ritual importance imbued with the memory of practical considerations. While they themselves might not be considered very clean, they are the cleaners of society by having such a hardy constitution and adventurous appetite. Of course the stories of goats eating one's entire pouch of tin coins for dinner are fancy, but they do help to keep the streets of towns and cities clear of refuse. They also serve as apotropaic protectors, either as a whole or in pieces, and it is frequent that those with a stronger belief in magic will keep around a lucky goat, or an amulet made from the bones of one. The unusual pupil of a goat eye is likewise imbued with power, being just unnerving enough to cause the Evil Eye to blink and avert from its target out of discomfort. Because of this, goats are associated with more than a few protective deities, and may be sacrificed or sacrificed to. More mundanely, they also serve as very effective producers of milk, fur, and meat.

All of those are reasons to bring a goat along on an uncertain voyage where supplies may run low or the waves of an angered deity might rise up high. But far more fascinating is the goat to which no harm is ever, under any circumstances, permitted. These are the Mir u'Yam, or Goats of the Sea in our language.

No voyage into uncertain waters out of red-shored Nambar is considered complete without a dedicated, multi-functional sea-goat. They tend to be specially bred and trained from a young age to be obedient, patient, observant, and above all, stately in demeanor. The responsibility of breeding them tends to fall to the devotees of one of the associated deities, such as the blue-bearded and resplendently robed figure of Hhuuzt, who also brand their goats or dye patches of hair--such as the chin--a deep blue.

Once introduced to the appropriate vessel, a sea goat's first duty is to calmly and smoothly guide the rest of the voyage's goats up the ramp and into the holding pen where they are to remain until the ship's return to port. For reasons not entirely known to outsiders, the Mir u'Yam have a particularly pacifying effect on other, less well-bred livestock. After this, and once the ship has properly departed, a crewman hefts the Mir up on his back in a specially-designed harness, which allows him to ascend the rigging of the ship's (usually solitary) mast up to its highest point.

There, the goat is placed in a small, cage-like nest which gives it a full, uninterrupted view of the sea in every direction. Provisioned with fodder and water, the goat stands placid yet alert as a lookout. Thanks to the wide vision of goats, they may see a very broad swath of the horizon at once, and have to only turn their heads a bit. Thanks to the training of their breeders, they are not utterly and totally bored to death by the job of being lookout. It is given periodic exercise breaks down on deck, both otherwise its voyage is solitary and high-altitude.

In the event that something interrupts the wine-dark waves around the ship, the Mir u'Yam produces a trained series of bleats with particular intonation conveying different messages of direction and distance. Typically, one bleat refers to sighted land, two bleats refers to another ship, and three indicates that something other has been sighted. The ocean accessible from Nambar, truthfully or not, is believed to be filled with all manner of terrifying monsters, and those daring yet superstitious types who make up the ranks of their seafarers like to have some advance warning on when they should arm themselves with lacquered bows and toggle-spears. It is said that particularly brave and battle-hearted sea-goats even adorned the masts of the long warships which sailed into battle against the Gertish proxies of the Third Trade War.¹

When at last a ship returns safely to portage, the Mir is brought down from the mast for the last time, and kissed between the lozenge-shaped eyes by every member of the crew out of gratitude, captain included. Then it leads what remains of the supply flock ashore, depending on how many needed to be eaten or sacrificed to appropriate spirits. Finally, it is either returned to its previous handlers, or given over to a comparable group for safekeeping in the new location. Rented sea goats can come at considerable expense, however, so most find their way back to their priest-herders.

In the event of the premature death of a sea goat, whether by incident or natural causes, many sailors might fall victim to utter despair at this absolute omen of impending doom. But others, at least frequently enough that anecdotal evidence of it exists in amusing tales all across Nambar and beyond, might take a more self-determined approach. More than once, the careful eye of a priest has found that a very different goat from the one they sent off has returned to them, done up in a rough approximation of the proper branding and regalia of a Mir u'Yam. As for how the ships continue to navigate without a sea goat, I presume that no decent crew would ever let their own skills as lookouts atrophy completely.

Perhaps we should consider painting one of our own mules in lucky colors before resuming our travels today.

¹ While I don't currently have access to a verifiable source on this subject, I am quite confident that the above is correct, given that I have previously studied the events and effects of the Third Trade War, specifically in the context of how it led to the creation of Hylek's Hundreds. In lieu of a better citation, I can at least provide evidence that the occurrence is well-known enough to have become a popular subject of literature, resulting in it having been featured in the second half of Tirti Naorut's Twenty Children's Bedtime Stories from the Occident, 231 A.R. ²

² What? There's nothing wrong with carrying around a token from one's childhood. And it's as lavishly illustrated as any old codex in the library, I can say that with confidence!

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