A few years back, I was challenged to take on a Young Adult series featuring teenage girls endeavoring to become Shield Maidens in the fantasy land of Idana. It took about a year to complete the first installment, Middler’s Pride. Oh yeah, pride’s a big deal in that story: self-centered Meredydd has to learn stop seeing herself as a legend and work with others as a team in order to defeat a nasty dark sorcerer. (Friendship is magic, you know.) When Middler’s Pride became a serialized novel on Channillo. I began work on the next volume, Beauty’s Price. As I once blogged:
Wynne has motives wholly unlike Mer’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates.
While Meredydd came from a mix of the flawed and firey heroines in Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novels, Wynne came from a newer love in my library: Jane Austen.
Yes, yes, I know Austen’s a classic, but I hadn’t read her until the last few years. Yes, I’m a horrible person. 🙂
The Bennets of Pride and Prejudice were a wonderful source of inspiration for Wynne’s family. They are…well. I think I’ll let Wynne describe them herself. There’s a lot to be learned of a character when one asks her to dig deep into her own home and heart. For this month’s free fiction, I’d love to share this excerpt of a long’n’lovely dialogue Narrator Me had with Wynne. She introduces us to her four sisters, the love of her life, and the rich, handsome gentleman whose arrival heralds unnerving changes to Wynne’s world.
NARRATOR ME: How would you describe yourself?
WYNNE: I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live near us. My mother is also of a business, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.
We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways to be pleasing to the heart.
Your parents sound like long-term planners. Well, it can’t be easy raising five daughters, especially if they’re all like you.
Like me? My apologies, but that is a viewpoint in need of swift correction. Let us leave the kitchens and walk around the house—I avoid using the proper rooms as much as possible. Now, look over the fence as we move past the house for Traders Street. You can see my family there, in the courtyard inside the fence. My mother often instructs that it is good business to be on display, so there my sisters sit, poised for admiration. Some hours they sit so still I wonder if I live inside a tapestry woven by the gods.
Every one of them aspires to be the idyllic wife: clean, soft, and beautiful. Almedha strums a lyre. Cordelia weaves flower chains because their colors shine against her chestnut hair. Isolda prefers her needle, giving a fairy’s kiss to kerchiefs and cloaks. Morwenna strums another lyre, for she copies Almedha in all manners.
Among these four you will not find a single thought that did not first come from Mother. She dictates who sits where, for the sunlight best compliments Cordelia, while cloudy days give Isolda’s eyes a unique glow.
I must tell you, for I must tell someone lest my mouth be overwhelmed with vitriol. I find this all to be the purest of poppycock.
So, not exactly friends with your sisters.
Myself? I must say no. I am as civil as I must be, but I find the constant speak of suitors and wealth more than tiresome. What good is wealth to a man who squanders it, or even worse, hordes it from all but himself? Such men are not fit to be husbands or fathers, yet my sisters always watch the travelers for lords, chiefs, and merchants. If one has fur about his collar, he is worth a careful gaze. If one has a gold chain around his neck, he is worth a smile. If one travels with more than three servants, he is worth The Shy Drop Introduction. If one has a herald, a private cart, and a squadron of guards, he is worth The Sly Accident Introduction.
Oh, Mother has created several strategies to initiate interaction with a potential husband, and we each of us have been tested and tested late into the night to ensure their success when the time is right.
Do you have any friends around here?
Only the River Galene.
To be seen with others in town is to bring scandal and shame upon my family. I have not yet discerned how such scandal would come about, as many of the farmers and artisans have always been kind in their greetings to me in the market. They always offer compliments to my family, inquire of their health. Yet when I linger to watch the leather’s tooling, or the forge’s fire-storm, I am deeply chastised and kept in the fence for days afterward. How are such friendships scandalous? “Their hands are coarse and they live in dirt,” Mother says. “They know nothing of the finer things in life, as well they shouldn’t. But no daughter of mine’s going to know anything else, I’ll make certain of that, won’t I, Master Adwr?”
“Yes, Mistress Ffanci,” says Father, who thusly returns to his sums and calendars.
So here I must be, the fifth maiden of the set, situated upon the left with Cordelia to mirror Morwenna and Isolda, for it is Almedha’s turn in the center today. The flowers in Cordelia’s hair still sparkle with morning dew. Almedha takes lead with a new ballad filled with sweet romance. Morwenna quickly finds the harmony, but knows she is not allowed to sing louder than the eldest. Isolda hums and sews in rhythm. I hold the flute to my lips and fill it with sound, but not life. There is no life in such art.
The way you’re glaring at that fence, I’m betting you’ve found life somewhere. You did something incredible, and you found it.
What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.
Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in town were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children immersed in adventures and warfare, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Galene. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the town’s borders without escort or knowledge of the land, to walk northward through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town I have never seen. I felt so very brave that day, so brave that without any word of introduction or family name, I walked up to the first child I saw and said, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance, though much of my body was dirtied with mud, petals, and sweat.
He seemed only to notice my eyes, this reed of a boy, for he never looked away when he said, “Loads.”
“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, except “Wh-what about adventures by the river Galene? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.
The boy’s smile reminded me of the Galene in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”
“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”
That may not seem very incredible to you, embarking on a game with another child. But to me, that day marked the first day I knew life instead of merely living.
Compared to sitting inside a fence on display all day, that is incredible. Would you consider this moment the turning point of your life, or is that something else?
Did I not already share this with you?
Well, I may not have shared all.
Harvest time always promises many caravans both on river and road. At this time, I was too young to be put before the eye of suitors, so my absence was never noted. I trust you to assume I took full advantage of this throughout the year, but especially every harvest.
Galene wears many crowns, if you have a care to look. In spring, she carries stars upon her head, and in summer, ribbons of light. In winter the ice thins and folds into jewelry so delicate I never dare breathe upon it.
But in fall, she moves as fire. I dipped my hands often into that crimson glow. The current felt as fingers around mine, even changing course to pull me northward.
I moved through the dark forest with people-stones. That sounds silly, I grant you, but I remember that particular day the stones looked, yes, like people: heads, necks, shoulders. Whenever sunlight cast its shadows, I felt sure I saw the markings of faces upon them.
No, I did not tarry to investigate. That was one adventure I could not bear to do alone.
No. I must not dwell on what has happened. What is done is done.
Do you wish to see the rocks? I cannot promise they will be there.
You smile at me as if I jest. No, Idana has no giants, not that I have seen. But I have never seen the ocean, either, yet I have no doubt about its presence. Nor do I doubt mountains touch the sky to the north. So it is with giants, thundering their way through lands past the river Galene. Oh, what a world there must be beyond this place! But dark and nasty things have found my country of Idana to their liking, so here they come to make tanneries filled with carcasses and animal piss, and…
You can see it, and smell it still. Look behind us now. Just past the town, to the south, there. Where Galene struggles for breath as they spill all manners of disgusting filth into her for the sake of industry.
My father is proud of that tannery. Mother, too. I am told I will grow accustomed to the smell in time. I often reply that the day I grow accustomed to the smell of piss and death is the day my soul dies.
I am told husbands aren’t looking for souls. And that is that.
Look no more to that wretched tannery. S-stay close to me, and to the river, please. Especially if we are to meet another.
Your boy, the friend? Nudge nudge?
Why do you wink at me so? Cease such actions, and pay heed to Galene, if you please.
And besides, he only comes south with his village’s weekly market cart.
You know, I get a feeling you don’t want to talk about the real turning point very much.
Oh, but I do, I do. There are simply so many turns to this point, you see. The day wound about me so tightly my soul nearly burst free of my chest, and I thought I had fallen into underworld of Hifrea.
I spoke already of the people-stones, that I did not want to look at them alone, did I not? I came to the village, and to Morthwyl–yes, the boy, the friend. My friend, my boy.
Galene had carved a small bay for herself not far from Morthwyl’s family home, where sparks shot into the air and the clangs of his father’s hammer sang while the morning clung to night’s chill. Six years, Morthwyl’s home welcomed me with this song. I grew to love the smell of woodsmoke and iron: simple industry that thrives as it both gives and takes goodness of the earth. These scents hid themselves in Morthwyl’s clothing and hair when he came down to meet me by the bay. Neither of us ever spoke in sight of the house.
In the woods along the Galene, however, Morthwyl’s lips spoke much without speaking: Never had I known someone to smile so. Some smiles promised mischief, some hope. Some a joke, with laughter eager to break through all. Some sadness. In his home, I saw no smiles, but heard many words. None ever seemed to quite translate into a pure, clear truth.
But this is not about Morthwyl’s family, not this day.
Morthwyl’s braids looked fresh, but one lock had broken free, curling round his right eye. His eyes were deep and clear, like the river.
A short walk from the shore was a patch of herbs and flowers different members of the village used. It seemed folks took turns to care for the patch as well as harvest it. Morthwyl knelt in the damp earth and cupped the bud of a tall flower. He looked up at me with such earnestness that I joined him there upon the ground. My instinct was to reach out, to hold, to care for he who had made this world sweet in spite of industry’s poison flooding the land. His cupped hands were spotted by freckles and burn marks from the forge. I studied that which he cupped in his hands. “A thistle, is it not?”
The earnestness spread to his chest, which began to flutter as though he were running. “Orpine.”
“Oh…” Mother spoke of orpines often, often promising we would plant them in our garden to divine who my sisters would marry. The three times she actually did instruct Father to purchase orpine for planting, however, one set grew straight as corn, one grew sick, and one simply died. Not one flower grew to touch another, and therefore promise marriage. Now I sat with one orpine resting upon my arm. Morthwyl released his, and it leaned forward to grace the petals’ tips in the most chaste of kisses.
Then Morthwyl’s hands blossomed with a new gift: two orpines forged of iron. They were but the length of our thumbs, woven round one another, leaves embracing, heads touching intimately.
Oh how my own heart wrapped round us in that moment! I could not breathe or speak. My soul swam through his eyes, feeling them purify me of past sorrow and bitterness. All that remained was joy so very sweet that I brought my lips to his own so that he may taste what happiness felt to me. His fingertips trembled along my cheek as his lips stayed with mine. In my heart, that moment has never ended.
But somewhere out of sight a branch snapped, pulling me away in fear. Had my father followed me at last? A horse trotted in haste, but not towards us. When a command thundered through the wood, it sounded like some lord demanding his servant. Father had no such depth or power in his commands, so I at last allowed myself to exhale and look again upon my Morthwyl.
A small smile appeared, relieved, and he placed the orpines in my hands. His own long fingers pressed a place in the stems, and I heard a small ting. The orpines came apart. One for each of us.
“Perfect,” I said. For in that moment, it was.
Oh, Wynne. No wonder it’s a turning moment.
I am not finished.
The horse whinnied such that I feared it right behind me. Morthwyl rolled into the garden and kept to his knees, hand round a weed. I uprooted the orpines and held them as children, already doomed to die in my arms. My heart cried out, but I gritted my teeth against the sorrows. No one else would know their love. Better to keep them together in their final moments than transplanted to somewhere far and alien, alone.
The horse jingled into view at full gallop. The rider pulled hard upon the belled reins, halting at garden’s edge. Beast and master shone with golden hounds embroidered upon crimson cloak and covers. Rings of red and orange gems glittered round every gloved finger. Such wealth displayed with such ease and without a single guard felt wrong, very wrong. I took one step back, eager to run, but such impudence would make me memorable, and I did not want whomever hid beneath that hood to remember me. So I curtsied, and kept my eyes to the orpines.
Morthwyl, too, bowed his head. He spoke with the quiet clarity that I knew only to come when he defended me from the insults of other lads. “My lord, the High King’s Road is far from this place. If you wish I will lead you to it.”
“That will not be necessary, boy.” The rubied hand pulled the hood aside, revealing a face that looked far too young for its voice. His beard was barely grown, and his hair, as golden as his hounds, remained tied back into a single short tail. “Merely exploring the extant of my land. But it appears I have trespassed upon your borders, this village of…”
“Little Innean, my lord.”
“Yes of course.” I could feel his gaze upon us, unrelenting as the sun in the heat of summer. If not for the horse’s content chewing, I would have screamed but to break the silence. “Pray forgive me, but I feel as if I should know you both.” He clicked his tongue, and the horse closed the distance between us. I could see every thread of his hounds, down to the points of their teeth. He had approached me, so there was no choice: I had to look up at his clean, polished face. “Perhaps my business has brought me to this town in the past. My memories are not always my own.” His smile revealed teeth white enough to be pearls.
No lord looked so perfect, not in body or status. He needed to get away, back to his land and away from this village, away from my Morthwyl. “Assuredly not, my lord,” I said. “This is but a small town of farmers and of no consequence to any of your stature.”
The rider smiled warmly as he took in my countenance, orpines and all. “A merchant such as myself trades with all walks, my lady. You, more than the boy, are far more familiar. I am now certain I have met you before.”
No, you are wrong! I wanted cry out, to leap into the Gasirad and beg sanctuary, but my mind, curse it, thought otherwise. “Perhaps you think of my sisters? They meet many who do business with my father, Master Adwr.” Surely he was thinking of them. Let him deal with their Sly Accidents before his horse, forcing him to carry them in all weak and wounded and be compelled to attend them. Let them coo and paw upon his chiseled jaw and ringed fingers. He can have their choice of them, for all I cared.
“Sisters?” He swallowed the word down. My own stomach burned. “How many?” The question came hard and fast. No smile, however warm and easy covered the odd strike that came with such a question.
And what was I to think in such a question? Yes, odd, but there surely could be no harm in it. “I am one of five sisters, my lord.”
Thank the gods for that “Sir.” I allowed myself to turn to the voice and see five large men, all clothed in crimson and golden hounds. Their hair was silver, and their features hard and angled round dull, red eyes. Yet in such mass and strength, their skin looked grey as corpses.
The one who spoke stepped forward and bowed at the waist. “Master, all corners of the border are now marked. Will trespassers be killed, or simply beheaded?”
The rider nodded along. “Yes, we’ll—what?” He cared not what Morthwyl’s reaction to such a question was, which I did see: as stalwart as oak. He would give these strangers nothing. It strengthened me to do the same. “Commander, such jests are wholly inappropriate among such intelligence…and beauty.” His rubied hand let go the reins, and opened its palm to me.
I wanted to cower. I wanted to run. I wanted to do anything, anything but place my hand in his.
But to not would mark me for punishment under his hands. And Morthwyl would not stand for such a thing without a fight, and then they would kill him. If they want to behead mere trespassers, what evils would they unleash for assault?
So I gave him my soiled hand, with my iron orpine hidden safely beneath the stalks of dying ones. His fingers closed fast and tight, and when the thumb stroked away a clump of dirt, I thought certain I would faint, or vomit, or by Galene, both. He brought his face close enough that I felt the chill of his breath, but he did not touch me with his lips. “A young beauty such as yours is to be cared for, my dear, not soiled by labor.” I curtsied to acknowledge, but said nothing. “I must speak to your father on it.”
Oh! “That is not necessary, my lord, it—”
“Tut tut, I insist. Now Commander, let us see if you’ve marked my lands clearly enough for the innocents.” He bowed as he drew his hood forward. “Until we meet again, my lady.” He rode past the five guards. Their eyes stared at us blankly for a moment, and then they turned to march silently into the trees.
Any thoughts, comments? Please share them with my thanks!