The Marches hearth magic
In the world of Empire, formal magic is the application of learning and willpower to create supernatural effects. There is another form of magic, however which does not require the user to be a magician. Hearth magic employs the innate natural magic of the world to produce subtle but significant effects in much the same way that a compass needle always points true north. The magic is not based on the abilities of a magician, but relies on the innate mystical properties of the world. Hearth magic is usually subtle rather than potent, and where formal magic is predictable and reliable, hearth magic is none of these things.
While the principles that underlie hearth magic are common throughout the world, in the Marches, there are certain specific practices, customs, or traditions that draw on the power of the world's innate magic. Often these proud customs are nothing more than traditions - but sometimes their practice taps into some facet of the world resulting in a truly magical effect.
You can learn more about hearth magic, what it is and how it works, here.
Most Marchers carry a straw dolly or poppet, made at the time of harvest to bring good luck and ward off evil omens. These intricately twisted and knotted effigies of crop stalks, rushes, twine or wool traditionally bind the vitality of the fields and pasture and grant that vigour to the bearer. Folk rarely agree on the best way to make a poppet. Some believe that the power of a poppet derives from its appearance - so the most effective are those fashioned into the crude shape of a person. Others argue that their strength comes from the natural vitality of the land, harnessed and harvested by mortal hands. Thus any shape can be used provided it is constructed from the healthiest produce available. Regardless, their use is ubiquitous throughout the Marches as a way to grant health and protect against sickness. Expectant mothers carry poppets to ensure a healthy birth, children are shown how to make one as soon as they are old enough, and landskeepers often employ them in magic that binds or shares vitality or strength.
The same hearth magic is used in the traditional practice of keeping a sheaf of corn near the hearth, where it serves to capture the vigour of the fields and bring them into their home. Farms that don't grow corn or similar crops will often use a tun of cider, or lay a new fleece in front of the fire. Even aldermen observe this tradition where they can, taking produce from their gardens or window boxes and placing the best of them at the centre of their home.
When the season turns, many poppets and wheatsheafs are laid in the fields and ploughed back into the earth, or more often ceremonially burned, to ensure a bountiful harvest for the following year.
Poppets in Play
Making a poppet or straw doll a part of your character's costume is a simple way to call out your Marcher heritage. Poppets are ideally made out of the produce from your character's fields or garden, which is why they are commonly made of crop stalks, rushes, twine, flax or similar but there is nothing to stop you making a poppet out of cloth (if you are a weaver) or twigs (if your character owns an orchard). The important element is the idea of taking some of the boundless health of the harvest, shaping it, and using it to bring good health and protect from sickness.
Burning your poppet is another way to call out this hearth magic in play - especially if it is done with a little ceremony. Gathering your friends and family together to share food and drink and burn your poppets can be a good way to mark the end of the first event of the year.
Poppets are not the only form this hearth magic can take. With a little preparation you can make a wheatsheaf by tying twine around a bundle of stalks, prepare a small barrel of cider, or even lay out a sheepskin fleece. Regardless of how you evoke the hearth magic, something like this can make a great piece of set dressing at the heart of any Marcher camp.
Food and Drink
Food plays an important role in Marcher hearth magic and culture. Many important bargains are sealed with a meal, and it's common practice for everyone who works a farm to break bread together at the end of the day. It plays a central role in celebrations, especially births, weddings, and funerals, and is also an important part of community festivals such as the Autumn Wassail. Those who eat together find it easier to work together, and there are plenty of accounts of ill fortune and sickness befalling those who transgress against people they have eaten alongside, or whose hospitality they have abused.
The best way to make a deal in the Marches is to make it while eating and drinking. Whether it be a shared feast, a companionable pint, a plate of simple stew, or provisions for the road, agreements made during a meal carry the weight of hearth magic and every Marcher knows it is unwise to welch on such accords. Gifts of food and drink are common in the Marches. When freely given, they can bring health and good fortune to the recipient. One popular tradition is to give something prepared in ones own kitchen as a present to newlyweds, or to people moving into a new home. In all cases, the best gifts are those one has cooked, brewed, or harvested oneself - food purchased from others rarely brings any magical benefits.
The hearth magic of food does not only apply to dealings with mortals. There are accounts of bargains made over food with heralds and other creatures from the magical realms. In some cases, lesser heralds agree to help a farmer by tending fields or shepherding flocks, sometimes even working alongside the mortal yeomen in some fashion. In almost every case, these creatures require payment in the form of food and drink - a bowl of stew in the corner of the northernmost field or a pitcher of cider lowered into a well every full moon. In return the well might never run dry, or a garrulous servant of Ephisis might join the yeomen in gathering the harvest. There are also tales of the misfortune that befalls if these deals are broken; a field may become full of stones, the well water tainted and brackish, or the scythes in the barn warp and rust overnight as the angry herald turns on their host with the support of the powerful hearth magic.
Food and drink in play
Eating and drinking together can create a bond that helps people work together and build communities; a flip side to this is that you can feel free to be a little more suspicious of people who you haven't broken bread with. Food and drink are often employed in magic, especially in night magic, and a coven might recognise this by beginning each ritual with a ceremonial sharing of bread and water. Taking the time to offer food or drink before, during, or after a negotiation adds weight and significance to that negotiation, and you may want to claim that an agreement made after sharing a meal is more binding than one #sealed with a contract or recorded in a #ledger. The fuller the table, the cooler the effect, but you can evoke this hearth magic just by sharing something as simple as a loaf of bread, a pitcher of water, or even a plate of biscuits.
When talking about your home, it's quite acceptable to weave a story of some sort of magical creature such as the ones mentioned here into your tale. These kinds of minor heralds are not commonplace in the Marches, but some larger or more prosperous farms have one that helps with day-to-day activities, perhaps by preventing sheep straying, or working to til a field in return for the agreed payment of food or drink. These creatures are magical in nature, most are minor heralds of the Autumn realm, and owe fealty to one of the Autumn eternals - most likely Prospero or Ephisis - and are not seen as mysterious or exotic by most Marchers.
Chalk Figures and Standing Stones
The standing stones and chalk figures common throughout the Marches mark the land as the property of humankind. A Marcher who wants to claim an area of wilderness will often begin by placing a standing stone in the middle of the area they plan to claim. This stamps the presence of humans on the rolling fields and hills, yoking the forces of nature, and subjecting them to the authority of mortal hands. Their presence is a crucial part of what makes Marcher lands so fertile.
Part of the power of standing stones and chalk figures is drawn from their resemblance to a person, they stand in for the people who created them and who claim dominion over the land. Most chalk figures are crude images of people, although domesticated animals such as horses, pigs, and hounds are not unknown. Many Marcher stories speak of these figures watching over or guarding the surrounding area, but their hearth magic is one of dominion and control rather than warding.
The biggest stones and figures are often placed in regio, and many are associated with powerful magic. Some are employed by landskeeper circles as the focal point for important rituals, while others serve as the central points of mana sites or regio. Standing stones often feature prominently in local legends, either because they are associated with unpredictable magical occurrences, or because they tend to attract tulpa who live in or near them. Marcher scholars theorise that the tendency for standing stones to attract astronomantic spirits is a consequence of giving human form to tamed magical forces.
Chalk Figures and Standing Stones in Play
Obviously chalk figures and standing stones are hard to phys-rep on the field at Anvil, but a standing stone doesn't have to be a massive and impressive structure to reflect this hearth magic. Anything that shows evidence of human hands is effective, the best structures resemble the rough shape of a person, but even a simple signpost can all stand-in for a standing stone if needed.
Although less common than standing stones, the Marches are well known for their dolmens. At the simplest level a dolmen consists of a trilithon - two vertical stones stood side by side and a third lintel placed across the top to form a gate or passage. Visitors to the Marches often confuse the two, but their hearth magic is very different. Dolmens are linked to the magic of doors, gates and travel, and it is no coincidence that their shape and form mirrors the constellation of the Door.
If the stones are placed wide enough for a person to pass between, then the dolmen is open. Placed in an appropriate regio, such a dolmen makes it easier for the magic of that realm to suffuse the area as well as enabling travel to and from the chamber associated with the regio. On the other hand, if the stones are placed tightly together, so that not even a child could slip between them, then the doorway is closed. These are commonly used to wall off an unwanted regio, making travel more difficult and prevent bothersome creatures or dangerous magic from emerging. A closed dolmen is usually placed at the centre of a regio, but might also be positioned more generally in an attempt to ward an area against malign magic or supernatural intrusion.
Dolmens in Play
As with chalk figures and standing stones it is no easy feat to bring a dolmen to Anvil. However, you can still evoke this hearth magic by paying a little extra attention to doors and gates. Mundane thresholds are just as important as magical ones, even if they are not marked with a dolmen. They're how someone can enter your space through your boundaries so probably deserve protections of their own. Hanging a runestone, a couple of poppets, or other symbolic protection over or near a doorway can draw on a little of the hearth magic that recognises the importance of doors and gates and dolmen.
You don't own it unless you can defend it.Marcher Proverb
Marchers understand the importance of protecting the places that matter to them. You are stronger and more powerful when you are in the place you call home. The Marcher tradition of beating the bounds serves to reinforce this hearth magic by identifying and strengthening the boundaries. One of the first things a Marcher is likely to do when they visit a place is to take the opportunity to wander around its bounds, gaining a sense for the place and reinforcing their connection with its boundaries.
Observing boundaries can be a personal activity, but it is often communal in nature. An entire household will beat the bounds, and all the citizens of a market town come together to mark out the edges of the land claimed by their charter. At the same time, individuals often mark out their own personal domains - the low fence around a herb garden or the environs of a shop or house can have the same significance as the fences and hedges that surround an entire farm.
Marking a boundary confers a degree of magical protection, weakening curses or making it hard for malicious heralds to enter the area. There are occasional stories of creatures of the realms trying to trick an unsuspecting Marcher into inviting them onto their land or into their home, or being unable to use their supernatural abilities against them while they stand on their own soil.
Boundaries in Play
Beating the bounds is a traditional Marcher activity that takes place after the harvest is in. Although the camp at Anvil currently lacks obvious trees and standing stones to hit, people can still gather to walk the bounds of the camp. This is meant to be a time of celebration, so it's appropriate to sing, and play instruments and generally make some noise.
Knowing where your boundaries are can be an important information for a Marcher. When someone enters your camp, or your personal tent, they are coming into a space that you have claimed. Putting up makeshift fences around your group tent, or just marking and area you consider to be yours with a banner or sign of some kind can help reinforce this hearth magic. The more clearly you mark your boundaries, the stronger the effect is likely to be.
Boundaries don't need to make your camp or your tent unwelcoming - quite the contrary - but ensuring everyone knows they are in your space helps underline this hearth magic. Marchers find it easier to relax in places with clearly defined bounds; even if your character is normally dour and grim it can be fun to relax your demeanour when you're in an area you define as "yours". The Marcher camp at Anvil is a good example of a shared space that "belongs" to all the Marchers within it - while individual groups may mark out their own areas the camp as a whole belongs to everyone from the Marches. It can be fun to be a little suspicious of people from other nations when they come into the camp. By the same token, when you visit somewhere that is clearly within someone else's bounds, you can subtly adjust your roleplay to make it clear you feel like a guest - or a trespasser.