Hello, my fellow creatives! March is a finicky time in the Midwest. Spring teases us with snow and ice one day and warmer, green days the next. We require snow pants and boots in the morning, but by the afternoon we’re running around without any winter gear at all. I’ve used music to escape the icy mud only to find myself lost in another time, another place…
Sadly, that different time and place was not a crime scene on a riverboat in 1930s Egypt. Our babysitter backed out, so Bo and I were unable to see the new Branagh adaptation which I wanted to include in my analysis of Death on the Nile.
No, I actually found myself going back in time to my early days here as a blogger. Back in 2016 (around 200 posts ago?! Zounds!), I was just finishing up my rough draft of Middler’s Pride, the first of a Young Adult fantasy series set in another realm. The second book, Beauty’s Price, featured characters based heavily on the Bennet sisters, so revisiting this music…rewatching the film—rereading the story…it got me re-evaluating projects past and present.
Many of us work as well as write. When I taught part-time, I managed to have time for writing and publishing while bringing in a little income. Teaching in higher education full-time, though, eats a lot of time, and teaching online means one is never really separated from students or the work. I discussed this struggle in 2021, and that struggle has never subsided. The goals I set for myself were not reached. Sure, I got a short story published in an online magazine, but that wasn’t the same as self-publishing my novel in 2020. We so often beat ourselves up for these misses.
But putting oneself down is not going to lift oneself up. Quite the opposite.
So, I’m putting 2021 down as a year I published SOMEthing. Still a win. 2022? I will still publish SOMEthing. I’ve got a short story I’m proud to query. And listening to Pride and Prejudice has me thinking of my Shield Maidens and wondering…
Perhaps the Princeborns are just going to have to have a break this year. Perhaps Idana is where I need to be.
I have one novel down, a second partially done. Notes on the third, and the fourth…well that one’s in the “I kinda know what I want” stage. Middler’s Pride was in the online reading library Chanillo for a while and had gotten some strong input on the free writing forum Wattpad, so I’m hopeful that a little revision could go a long way in getting Meredydd back to the virtual bookshelves.
I could even share my character brainstorming for her here with you, which would allow time writing blog posts to convert into time with the story. I could re-share some of my old posts, such as the music that inspired my worldbuilding, analyses of the craft that went into the stories to see what has changed, what has not…hmmm…
Remember back when authors could just worry about telling good stories and someone else handled the other stuff? Anybody remember that?
We all fight like hell to get our stories to others. When my first novel was picked up by a small publisher, I was ecstatic to have the help, but the majority of the marketing was done by me. The time it takes to market, to query, to network, to gather reviews, to format the book, to design the cover…it’s basically a full-time job on top of writing on top of whatever we do to actually earn the money to keep writing. All too often, it’s the actual storytelling that keeps ending up on the backburner in order to prioritize everything else. And it sucks. A lot.
Isn’t the point of writing to WRITE?!
Now folks can say that this is what Fiverr is for, and hire people to do the little stuff so you can focus on the big stuff. That’s all well and good when you can afford the help, but many of us are on tight budgets as it is. Sure, I’ll save up to use Fiverr for a kickin’ book cover, but I can’t hire someone to market for me. Few of us can. That’s why we’re blogging here and sharing pieces of ourselves on social media. Some folks manage to balance TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Lord knows what else. We’re guest posting and reviewing and collaborating and virtual touring and all the things to connect with one more writer, one more reader. Those who can balance all this, you are AMAZING. Those who are struggling, you are also AMAZING. Why?
Because we all struggle finding that balance and working out what methods fit us and which don’t. I enjoy connecting with fellow creatives here on WordPress. I enjoy sharing things on Twitter. Once in a while I get to Instagram. But don’t ask me about TikTok or those other things. Fellow indie author Anne Clare made an important point she learned that when it comes to the author’s platform, it’s far better to do a little bit well than a lot badly. Considering time and energy here, I am taking that lesson to heart. That’s why you don’t see me on Facebook anymore, and rarely on Instagram.
Which brings us to my experimental venture of 2020…
After nearly a year of posting weekly podcasts for Story Cuppings, I wanted to share a couple of takeaways here. This podcast was to “force” me to read more, which it has, but to also reach new readers, which it hasn’t. For those of you who have listened, thank you for always sharing your thoughts and encouragement! I know not everyone has time for this sort of thing, and that is completely acceptable. For those who comment, thank you for sharing your reading journeys with me as well! It’s just that hope to connect with the crowd that does have time for podcasts has not gone the way I hoped, and that got me wondering why. Two major answers come to mind:
I’m not consistent with the material I read.
The podcast title.
I like focusing on first chapters of novels. I stand by that concept. After all, how often are we told as writers that we have to hook readers in the first few pages or we lose them? So focusing on the story and craft in those opening pages is still worthwhile to me. Plenty of other folks do book reviews and book podcasts on the whole story. To me, the first few pages can be incredibly instructive. Plus, it allows the podcasts to be kept reasonably short–mine average between 16-22 minutes–so producing them does not take long.
But I DO need to be more consistent with what I’m reading. I’ve read old things, genre-specific things, indie things, and now library things. Out of all the things, the library-related podcasts have gotten the most reaction, so I think I will just stick with what I find on the New Release shelf. It makes me pick stories that are already in the public eye, and it makes me try genres and authors I’d have never considered before.
Next, the title just doesn’t relay the podcast’s premise well. I thought it did, but upon reflection, who knows what a cupping is? I had to look it up. It sounded novel (pun intended) because the term is used for tasting coffees, and plenty of folks had wine/book themes. Why not a coffee/book theme? But after nearly a year of not hooking listeners from beyond my current community, it’s time to change the title. Just as a book’s title needs to hook readers, so does a podcast title need to hook listeners. The title needs to be crystal clear in relaying the podcast’s intent, soooo let’s try this title out and see how it goes over:
Well, what do you think? I’d love your input! You have been such kind souls and dear supports these seven years. 250-some blog posts later, you are still here with me, sharing these writing wins and woes. You’ve seen me through parenting adventures awful and amazing. Your support is a foundation in my world, and for that, my dearest friends, I cannot thank you enough.
And let us hear from you now, my creative kindreds! Are you reviving old projects, or revealing new untold worlds never explored by your characters? Are you giving yourself time to recollect and refresh, or perhaps a moment to reflect on what deserves a revisit…or a respite?
Here’s to a splendid spring for all of us. To a beautiful year for all of us. To brighter, better days for all.
Good morning to you, one and all, on this Happy New Year’s Day!
After spending most of December digging my way out of a mountain of grading (finishing Christmas Eve of all days), I awarded myself a chance to visit your online studios to balance with the lack of physical travel here. Everyone chose to come to our house for Christmas instead–in spurts–which meant my three young Bs reveled in FIVE Christmases. Bo did his darndest to keep the house clean while I did my darndest not to give everyone food poisoning for the holidays. (Thank God for slow cookers.)
We. Are. Tired.
But we are also healthy, warm, and safe, all blessings to be thankful for.
With the departure of Christmases and the arrival of snow, I returned to my writing goals from this past summer with fresh perspective. With better understanding of the time involved for both the boys’ schooling as well as my own, I brainstormed a writing to-do list for the next five months of 2021.
Academic article. Not a creative endeavor, but still a writing task worth the mention. A colleague and I had presented for a literacy conference in summer and hoped to utilize our research for an educator’s textbook this winter, but the project fell through. Still, it would do our professional development good to submit our work as an article for a journal, and it would be nice to let the educators I interviewed that their lessons learned would be shared with others somehow. This is priority work to be completed before Easter.
Fallen Princeborn 3. Finish the novel’s outline, especially regarding a major character’s transformation. My hope is to have a draft completed by the end of 2021 or early 2022, so having an outline done before summer will make drafting much easier.
Author Platform. I like my website, and don’t intend on changing its format any time soon. It’s just a matter of staying on course with bi-monthly posting. Facebook, however, is another matter. It just isn’t my bag as an author, and I’m hoping I can lose it and still utilize Instagram for a live feed idea that’s been buzzing in my brain for a while. It all depends on schools opening and the twins returning to the classroom…
Middler’s Pride. God-willing, I’d like to revise, expand, and publish this on Amazon before 2021 ends, so I need to be finished with revisions before the children’s summer break.
What Happened When GrandmotherFailed to Die. Our recent snowstorms have carried my thoughts to this story often. I’d like to get back to it, if only for brief intervals, to see if its cast can survive one night in the Crow’s Nest.
If 2020 taught us anything–apart from WASH YOUR F’ING HANDS–it’s that we must be flexible to survive. Sure, thriving would be great, but let’s just work on surviving right now. I sound like a broken record, I’m sure, speaking of goals so often and surviving the writing life. But adapting to an ever-changing environment–especially one with a pandemic involved–requires a fluidity that stubborn minds like mine struggle to keep. Writing it out helps me find hope in the plan, and so perhaps reading this helps inspire you be okay with trading the grandiose plans for small-scale goals like these.
It also helps to work with old stories, plots the imagination has walked many times and won’t stumble upon too often when drafting time appears. Starting a new story with all-new worldbuilding, characters, and so on would be certain overload at this point. I suppose that’s one reason I have the Grandmother novella on the to-do list–it’s a one-off I’d like to see done so my imagination can stamp FINISHED on it and re-distribute those energies elsewhere. If you have any tips on keeping old stories fresh until you can return to them, I’d love to hear it in the comments below! Or, you’ve perhaps talked about this already on your own sites. If so, please share the links with me so I can check them out. Many thanks!
As I spent Christmas weekend reading your poems, stories, analyses, and updates, a anxious niggle started to grow in my mind. What if my next term of 150 students would drive me into another hiatus? I’d hate to get lost in yet another realm of static and monotony without connection to the kindred spirits who bring creative joy to my life. Such connections are what keep us alight and alive, are they not?
I was reminded of this, all too deeply, just before Christmas.
The phone rang in the morning just as Biff and Bash were logging onto their chrome books for lessons. I hate answering the phone. I hate trying to keep the boys in line while talking on the phone, my attention always split and missing important points and then feeling a fool for having to ask those points be repeated, thus prolonging the phone call and keeping the boys in line and sounding like a witch when a child inevitably brings a cup of juice/cocoa/water too close to the computer and practically spills it everywhere while the speaker on the phone must rehash the call’s purpose AGAIN thus prolonging the bloody phone call more and the vicious cycle goes on and JUST DON’T CALL ME IN THE MORNING EVER.
The area code for the phone number, though…it looked old and familiar. This person did not live around here, or in Wisconsin at all. Yet I…I knew there was something familiar, something homey about it…but what?
I answered. “Hello?”
“Jean?” The voice creaked with age. “It’s Ed. Ed Smith, your neighbor from Escanaba.”
Recognition shocked me. Ed and his wife had looked 100 when Bo and I lived in a remodeled (and possibly haunted) bakery up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan ten years ago. “Ed! Hello, my goodness, it’s lovely to hear from you!” My mouth was full of bubbly incoherent greetings. Heaven knows what Ed made of them.
“I wanted to call and say thank you for the Christmas card. Gosh, your kids are looking so big. Quite a handful, I bet.”
Biff and Bash’s fight over who got the Snoopy Halloween pencil for the math lesson was loud enough to be heard across the street, let alone the phone, so I just laughed and said, “Every day is an adventure. How’s Molly?”
“Oh. Well…” Papers shuffled near him. He grunted–I imagined he had found a place to sit in their little living room of green chairs and giant crocheted doilies. “Well she still has Alzheimer’s pretty bad. She lives in the nursing home, you know the one down T__ Street. Been there three years now.”
“Mom, Bash won’t give me the pencil!”
“Biff is teasing me!”
I held the phone away from my face long enough to give a low, heavily enunciated command: “Work it out. NOW.” I went to my room and closed the door, mentally running through Christmas cards of the past. Did they ever mention Molly having Alzheimer’s? Did they ever send one to mention it? I couldn’t remember, damn my memory…I said something about proximity, that it was good he was still nearby to see her.
“Oh yes. Harder now, though, with the snow.” A faint tapping on his end–drumming his fingers, perhaps. “Still can’t go in, so I stand by her window. Plows don’t always get the sidewalks, and my cane, can’t always navigate.
“Calling gets, oh, a few minutes talking. She’ll remember enough to chide me for somethin’,” he said with a chuckle. “But she can’t grip the phone much, see, so most of the time I’m just sayin’ her name while she tries to pick it up. Nurse usually comes in around then and we can’t talk much longer.”
Memories of my own grandmother and her last year of life plagued by severe dementia fogged this avenue of talk. I couldn’t go down this way. I would only cry, and this man did not need to hear more sorrow. So I asked about their children and grandchildren, and he explained how they visit once a week to help around the house and visit.
Not that he wanted the help, mind. “I’m doin’ just fine, I tell them, but they keep coming in and muddlin’ up my order of things.” He sighed. “Nice, though, having the company.” He grunted again–standing up?–and I heard more paper rustling. “Yup, I was reading through all the cards, and saw your kids growin’ so old. I can’t write that good, see, but thought hey, maybe those numbers in Molly’s book are still good. And here we are!” He chuckled again, though I wouldn’t say for good humor. No, this felt more like his way of sharing relief. “Got, let’s see…Bo’s number here, and this other one. Bo’s dad, I think. They still good, too?”
He read them to me. I concurred about Bo, and explained Bo’s father passing some time ago. It was not something Bo wanted to write in that year’s Christmas card.
“Well, I best not be keepin’ you. You’ve got your hands full.”
I could not bear for this conversation to end on death. “We’re doing our best with what we can. Just like you and Molly, right? Any special Christmas plans?”
“That’s right.” A little clanging–coat hangers. “All this talk on vaccines for the nursing homes, sure hope they get it here soon. It’d be nice starting the new year holding Moll’s hand again. I,” he paused, “I haven’t been able to hold her hand since March.”
I was a mess again of garbled encouragements and holiday wishes until he clicked off. And I cried.
Such a little thing, holding another’s hand. Yet not a little thing.
Not at all.
Our old friends, our old loved ones–they need to know they have not been shut away no matter what restrictions the world places upon us. Let this New Year be a time to re-connect with those you’ve not spoken to in a year or ten. Let them know they matter in your world.
Just as you, each and every one of you, matter in mine.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends. Here’s to a promising New Year of hope and light for us all.
Mama Robin calls as morning’s dew captures light … Never mind writing haiku without coffee is hard.
‘Tis July first! The year is officially halfway over, and with all that’s happened in the world, I know many would prefer to wash their hands of 2020 and be done with it.
But then there are folks like me, who see a half-year of potential rather than a full year wasted. Lamenting opportunities lost only breeds bitterness and anger. Now is the time to grow onward and upward with whatever we have.
Even if all we have is a page of fantastical hopes.
Fellow Young Adult author K.M. Allen posted a couple articles recently about her own struggles with time management during the lockdown life and balancing the writing we do for our platforms vs. the writing we do for, you know, storytelling and whatnot. (Allen used a much better term–“The Art of Authoring.”) Her posts got me thinking about my writing mindset, and how I’ve tended to lump aaaaaaaaall the writing together into this single act. Writing a blogpost? Still writing. Writing notes on history? Still writing. Writing an actual honest-and-true story? Still writing.
Were my extra teaching jobs and graduate school work still a part of my life, this kind of writing would be enough. Heck, I’d be ecstatic if I found time to blog while writing term papers. But these extra factors are not a part of my life right now. Sure, University work still is–I even presented on nonfiction writing at the Lit Fest earlier this month. While researching I stumbled across a Writer’s Digest article called “The 9-Minute Novelist,” and that got me thinking…
Why not me, too?
I know I’ve bemoaned my struggle with time before–when my kids were toddlers, when they attended school but only part-time, when everyone’s home on summer break, etc etc etc. When lockdown life began, I thought for sure I could do do a little, just a little, writing. But too often I allowed blogging, researching, plotting, and those other -ings replace the actual DRAFT-ing that needed to happen.
With the coming school year’s attendance procedures impossible to predict, parents like myself have to be prepared for more of “School at Home” while also working in or out of the home. (And of course, just as I type this, Bash has come into the room. “What is it, dude? I’m trying to work,” I say. “But I wanna be by you,” he says with the smallest possible voice, and moves all my materials to snuggle up by me. Oh, little kiddo.)
Some days the kids are great at occupying themselves, and other days not. Parent-Writers, we know setting aside “hours” to write, even once a week, just isn’t realistic. Heck, I’m amazed when the kids leave me be for twenty minutes in a row.
And that’s the key here: working with the minimum amount of time, not the maximum. Let’s consider what non-kid stuff requires our attention in the day, and where we can find those nine–or ten–minutes to write.
Risky thing, setting aside an hour. Either a movie better be on that ALL the kids will watch, or someone else needs to be in the house with the kids. My online classes are an hour long in the evenings when Bo is home. If I do a movie during the day, that is my one chance at an hour block. This time’s usually needed for grading, a task that I can safely break from and start back on when kids intervene. Writing-wise? That hour better be had outside of the house.
(Aaaand now Biff is in the room, poking Bash with his toes. “Why don’t you two read something?” *Two pairs of eyes continue staring off into space as toes continue poking legs*)
Done right, half an hour can be a very productive time. One can write proposals for a conference, respond to a few students, or catch up on the late grading. As a writer, thirty minutes is perfect for looking through research, scoping out potential publishers, or drafting.
(Aaaaand now Blondie pokes her head in with a page she just has to read from Dogman: For Whom the Ball Rolls. “Yes, kiddo, thank you. Now go and occupy YOURSELVES. I am not here to entertain you!” Three bodies sluff off, complete with drooping shoulders and groans of “I’m too tired to build Lego.”)
This is probably where one can feel the sprint effect–that is, there’s not a minute to waste. Good! Too often I fall down the social media hole with Twitter or YouTube. We must make every minute of that twenty count, be it drafting, editing, grading, or…gasp…exercising.
Again, being realistic with myself. I know I won’t set aside an hour for it, not even half. Twenty…yeah, I could swing that, if the mood strikes. Plus I can drag the little “what are you doing nooooow?” buckos right along with me. Win-win.
Okay, THIS has to be the golden number for one who’s got kids and job AND writing in life. Even my attention-lovers can be occupied by books, drawing, or Snoopy Monopoly for ten minutes.
So many lovely moments can be made in just ten minutes: reading a story aloud to kids. Drafting dialogue. Answering student questions. Editing a scene. Playing catch outside. Prepping for class. Networking on social media. Writing a Goodreads review.
Maybe it hurts a little inside to think I’m only spending ten minutes with my kids/story? I can’t do that! They deserve better! We need to remember this important point.
The day is no mere ten minutes.
I’m usually up from roughly 4:30am to 9:30pm. Want to guess how many minutes there are in seventeen hours? 1,020 minutes. Or, 102 slots of Ten Minutes.
You are not giving your kids 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. You are not giving your writing 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. Don’t beat yourself up over organizing your time. If you don’t organize your time, then you will always feel like something is being set aside for the sake of the other, and that fear will lead to nothing but bitterness, anger, and the Dark Side.
Nothing has to be sacrificed here. Honest and for true. You just need to jigger those expectations over what you want to do and when. Take me, eager to publish the sequel to Fallen Princeborn: Stolen before 2020 ends. If I set aside 10 minutes to edit every day, I can make that goal. I want to expand and re-publish Middler’s Pride, too. 10 minutes a day can get me there. I’d LOVE to get “Hungry Mother” in an online magazine, finish the novella What Happened After Grandmother Failed to Die, work on the OTHER Princeborn novella I’ve sketched out–
And I can do all those things. I will do all those things. And you can, too.
Ten minutes at a time.
STAY TUNED NEXT FORTNIGHT!
Yup, two weeks. Part of this “jiggering” of expectations means blogging can’t overwhelm the story-writing. I’m going to follow K.M. Allen’s idea of blogging every other week, scheduling my own posts for the first and fifteenth of every month.Thank you all so much for your patience, kindness, and encouragement, and I hope you’ll be back when I share the interviews, analyses, music, and doodles waiting in the wings!
…just in time for our Christmas church service, no less! At least Blondie’s ready and raring to recite Luke 2 and sing oodles of carols.
But enough whinging over fevers.
Firstly, I wanted to thank you for supporting me through what’s been a very bumpy year. My publisher discontinued my series, which meant I had to pull my free short stories Tales of the River Vine and overhaul my platform. You held me up when I felt like the game was over, and you encouraged me to write on and fight on.
So I did, and got a novella published in the process.
It seems so bloody easy to walk away. To give up the battle because the world says we’re just not good enough. I’ve seen these faces of defeat in many classrooms over the past few months: eight-year-olds who still cannot connect letters to sounds. Twelve-year-olds who’d rather throw books than read them out loud. Eighteen-year-olds who’ve never learned to use an index, let alone critically dissect a few textbook paragraphs. And the teachers? The teachers will move them onward and outward whether the students are ready or not.
We live in illiterate times, my friends. You may know proficiency rates are low where you live, but do you know how low? I learned last week that in the public schools of Wisconsin’s capital, only 36.6% tested proficient in reading.
Think about that for a second.
Only three in ten can read at grade level. And that’s just the basic stuff without all the critical thinking skills to go with it. These kids are graduating high school without the skills to read literature appropriate to any profession, let alone write a resumé. They’re simply dumped into the workforce and expected to survive.
Not for lack of trying, mind. Teachers in Madison, Wisconsin, and anywhere are in a terrible place. When I see what they’re up against, I can’t help but think of World War 1: embedded in trenches dug by faulty philosophy, living with almost no resources, struggling through the barbed wire that is parental criticism with little support from administration, their very livelihood determined by the results of tests created without their input.
This Christmas, let’s tell our kids stories by the light of the Christmas tree. Let’s enchant them, spook them, tickle them. Let’s engage them with characters and places realer than real. Whether it’s a story about Christmas or a story to love all year long, it is time to give the sweet gift of story…with cookies. Never forget the cookies!
From our sniffly house to yours, may you have a most blessed Christmas and an adventurous new year!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
It’s so exciting to see my author interviews fill up for 2020! I can’t wait to share these wonderful writers with you. I also got an early Christmas present of music I MUST share with you next month. First, however, we need to discuss a serious writer’s problem, one which has gotten lots, and lots, and LOTS of press lately.
Oh yes. Next week, we are going to a galaxy far, far away to discuss what went wrong with Disney’s sequel trilogy…and no, I’m not just going to bash Rian Johnson and/or JJ Abrams for a thousand words.
From White Witches to innocent-looking aunties, you’ll find a wealth of discussion on villains in books, graphic novels, and more. I was honored to contribute this year with an analysis of Black Maria. Do check out the series–every article’s a feast for the mind and imagination!
Now, back to that first chapter. The plowman’s ushering Chloe Watchman and her family out of their car and into the Crow’s Nest. We’ve some other family to look out for besides this frightening “mother” figure: two brothers, Sal and Reg. Let’s see if we meet them today.
Writing Music: Philip Glass, Notes on a Scandal
Harsh white light from somewhere overhead switched on, turning the plowman’s skin the color of bone. “I’ll help you unload, get us all in faster….unless you’d rather stay here.”
Chloe’s mother exhaled an icy breath onto her window, erasing the outside–and the plowman– from her sight. “I’d prefer it,” she said flatly.
“Ang.” Chloe’s father shook his head as he stepped out of the car. He held a hand out to the plowman over the windshield. “Sorry, it’s been a long road. Thomas Watchman, Angela’s husband.”
The plowman removed his cowboy hat and held it to his chest. “Sumac, Sir, at your service,” he said with a little bow and a strong handshake. Very strong. Her father had the biggest hands Chloe ever knew, but this plowman’s were just as big, with hairy blonde knuckles that practicallyl turned his hands into paws. No wonder he had no gloves on.
Chloe slid out of the backseat into the snow, quietly watching as the two men gripped hands over the station wagon, smiling fine while also tugging like they wanted to pull the other over the car. Snow was spilling over the tops of her boots and melting down to her heels. Her black pantyhose should have been wool and denim jeans, but she just had to look professional like her momma by wearing a skirt. Not that her momma was any sort of professional right now, her dad acting like he’s got to prove himself to some white man again…
“Help would be great.” Chloe wraps up her books in the blanket and presses the bundle close to her chest. “Thanks.” She turns around.
And finds another Chloe staring right back at her: a black girl tall enough to make small white boys nervous. Hair speckled white with snow like her Aunt Tic’s. Headband’s askew. Hat made in home ec. Navy wool coat rescued from a Sear’s discard bin by her father, carefully repaired by her mother. Her classmates didn’t act like they knew, but Chloe could feel her mother’s stitches itch on her skin, scraping her up, marking her as cheap, unworthy
Get outta our school
You don’t belong here
Nothing but a low-life n—
“Still can’t get over these windows.” Sumac towered over Chloe, the frozen locks of his hair brushing snow off his own shoulders and onto hers. He had their only two suitcases–Chloe’s dad must be working on getting her mom out of the car. “Every time I drive here, I think another car’s playing chicken with me.”
“Are all the windows like this?” Chloe took a step back to take in the Crow’s Nest.
Two bright lamps stood upon either side of a massive door etched with…something. The snow stuck to much of it, but Chloe could see curves and grooves in the way the snow was shaded by the lamps. No light could be seen in any of the dozen windows staring down at her: not on the first floor, second floor, or attic. Only the flickering reflections of the door’s lamps and snow, like muted static on a television.
The roof itself was steep and lined with little spears–all but the center, where a circular shape remained blurred and secret in the night snow. The house itself was all large red bricks and cement, complete with cement scrolling rails up the wide, icy stairs to the front door.
The opening front door.
Even from the bottom of the stairs, Chloe could feel a wave of warmth spilling down the stairs. There was light, normal light inside, and what looked like carpets, and a staircase, and then a man’s shape. A man with combed black hair, narrow eyes, glasses, sweater. He staggered onto the front step, gaping at Chloe. “Angela?” With a jump he was off the stairs and in the snow, arms so tight around Chloe she lost her breath.
Word Count: 643 Total Count: 3270
Hmmm. I’m feeling like Chloe’s a bit too passive for own good these past few scenes, but then again, the current circumstances are out of her control. I’ll try to make her more active in the scenes ahead.
Like what you see so far? I’ve got books to share with you, too! Click here to learn more about my YA Fantasy novel, my serial fantasy on Channillo, and my fantasy western novella.
Good morning, lovely readers!What follows is a continuation of my previous three installments of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we walk with Wynne as she evades Prydwen, The Man of the Golden Hound Crest, and learn that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for her love, the smithy’s son Morthwyl.
Is that when you decided to join the Shield Maidens?
The Shield Maidens? Oh, Galene, if I had thought of them sooner… yet I was not of age, and the King’s Stronghold seemed to only make use of men, at least in Cairbail. But King’s presence or not, Trade is Law, be it done with the crown’s blessing, or not.
For the next three years, life in Cairbail flowed with the Gasirad: it sparkled with life, it stunk with decay. It all depended on where you stood: more traders came up the river and King’s Road, more business done. Father was elated, of course, which put Mother into her happy hysterics. But for whatever these traders brought into Cairbail, very little was left. And very few held to the King’s Road long after. Some of Caddock’s men were on the road one dawn as they veered off onto the small rutted road towards Morthwyl’s village. What use do farmers have for weapons and powders?
I, too, saw them from the oak where Morthwyl and I often hid. The ground had stopped feeling safe the moment Prydwen rode into our world. In the heat of summer, with the leaves at their proudest size and the bees endless in their own sweet industry near us, we felt safe.
Oh, those were the happiest hours! Morthwyl leaned against the trunk, and I against he, my head upon his shoulder, his scent filling the very air I breathed. Our fingers entwined, we would say nothing at all, our lips dancing as our feet yearned to do along Gasirad’s shores.
It was such a moment when we heard the whining of old wagon wheels, crude humor, the splash of wine, and the countless yips and cries of dogs. We dared not move the branches for a look, as the oak grew close to the road. But we could hear as they approach, hear the words, “What in blazing Hifrea a lone man’s needin’ so many bloody dogs is a mystery, make no mistake.”
“Shut yer gob, the money’s good.”
“Aye, the money, but what’s one lone man doing, asking a professional breeder such as myself, to bring not just one breed, but FIVE? And FIVE of each breed? It’s off the nut queer, it is. And ruins my offerings to many good clients for summer hunting.”
“Yer getting paid twice what any nobleman can give you. Now shut it, we don’t stay on the road long. There’s a marker somewhere round heres.”
Their noise only just started to fade when Morthwyl whispered to me, “That’s the fifth wagon I’ve heard talk like that.”
“No, but always five of something: knives, pottery, glass, furs, chairs. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
My heart lurched as we clung to one another, for we both thought the same: my sisters and I. The five of us, a collection.
That afternoon I accompanied Tarren from Little Innean back to Cairbail with my pretense: some repaired girdles for Heledd, Ysball, and myself. I refused to wear the new ones Prydwen had bought for the five of us, all “fine leather” and “stitching done with a fairy’s hand.” Fairy, my eye. The girdles all portrayed golden hounds, and those girdles were nothing more than brands to mark us for his own. Poor Congol! He sobbed on the open street when he saw his chances with Isolda really were over.
While Tarren and I were not quite friends, our similar ages allowed for easy conversation on our journey. When we approached the last hill before Cairbail, I turned to give the forest a smile farewell, and froze.
“Did you forget something?” Tarren asked me as she searched for what I saw.
Upon a speckled grey steed sat one of those guards, the grey ones heavy with death about their hands and faces, staring at us.
“Those men of that merchant’s give me the frights,” Tarren said, shuddering. “They look like rocks dressed in clothes.”
I nodded, and wondered how much truth lay in those words.
“Isn’t that merchant fellow courting all of your sisters, and even you?”
And would you know…this was a strange sensation, but once I did it, I knew what I had done: I sneered. My heart kicked my chest. All I wanted was on the other side of that….thing. That thing, and that man, IF you can call him that, which he represented. That man who dared show up, insist he know my family, lay claim to us as if we’re some sort of lost property, and then, then, stand aghast when he hears a girl is not to be won over by money or status. The impudence! The garishness! The audacity! It all churned and bubbled into a terrific bile in my mouth, and I spat it all out, far louder than was polite to Tarren, but I didn’t care, I wanted it out: “He can have the pick of my sisters or all of them, but not me. Never me.”
Weren’t other people thrown off by how he wanted to marry all five of you? You were what, fifteen by then? That’s still more kid then woman, for goodness’ sake.
Goodness had nothing to do with it. Marriage is a business more than anything else in Idana: one marries, and money is exchanged. One marries, and money awaits for your offspring. One strives to marry above station, but not too above, that’s just as scandalous and unseemly. And while polygamy didn’t happen often outside of the aristocracy, it still happened.
Tarren thought it a bit odd, to be sure, especially when it seemed far easier to simply take me on as some sort of handmaiden. “Surely five dowries amounts to a king’s ransom. I can’t imagine how your parents or that merchant are affording all this.” I liked how Tarren always referred to Prydwen as “that merchant.” Many in Cairbail did, too, because he so very rarely showed his face. Lord Murdach has even given Father a bit of grief for sending his daughters off rather than make more sensible marriages within Cairbail. But once my sisters knew they wouldn’t have to smell the tannery all their lives, why should they bother with the likes of our townspeople?
Of course Sage Forga insisted he knew the truth. He insisted yet again as Tarren and I came to Market Street. “A new river will flow in Galene, Mistress Wynne, mark my words,” he called from his window box of herbs. The apple of his throat jumped with nervous delight. “Yes indeed, told Lord Murdach just this morn of my latest vision.” Tarren rolled her eyes as she went on towards Aedh for leather scraps. I, being the object spoken to, could not roll my eyes, let alone step away. Oh gods, send a storm upon us to close those shutters and his mouth! “I see…” His eyelids fluttered, and his hands spread before his cheeks. He rather had the look of a fish when he envisioned past visions. “I see a river of gold flowing in a crimson sunset. I see your suitor, an enchanted prince from a far-off land, who wants to love all. A new age comes for Cairbail, for aaaaall the land that is,” his hands whirled closed, “Idana.”
I considered his popping eyes, brown teeth, and sweaty face, and thought him to spend far, far too much time in the smoke of his pipe weed. “Time will reveal all, Master Forga,” I said with as much civility as could be mustered. “Good day.” I curtsied and turned to leave.
Prydwen stood but a few feet away. Where in all blessed Idana did he come from? Yet there he stood, flesh, velvet, and all, one leg bent as he flourished one side of his cloak to bow from the waist down. “My lady. Summer blesses your spirit once again. The air of wildflower and honey suits you.”
Surely, surely he spoke as he did because he knew. He knew of the tree. He knew I continued to see my Morthwyl despite my family’s schemes. Yes, I could see it in his chest, barely moving beneath that golden hound, eyes warm and bright like candles: small flames, but even the smallest flames can burn far and deep.
“I’ve come to inquire after your mother’s health, as I cannot help but do. A meager excuse to see you and your sisters, but,” he held his orange jeweled hand open to me, “I simply cannot help myself.”
He stood without steed, servant, or guard. He carried no money, no goods. Perhaps he needed none, for what he carried was deadliest of all: knowledge.
I swallowed my fear, and all my words. Of what could I accuse him? All would say he was merely protecting one of his…brides. Oh, disgusting word! To spit upon his face and run!
“Master Prydwen, what a most marvelous surprise!” Never had I been more thankful for Sage Forga than in that moment, especially when he burst from his door in a strange mix of sliding on a horse pat and bowing at the waist while still trying to draw smoke from his pipe. “I simply must speak with you soon. Such omens fly above me and crawl beneath my feet that point to you, and only you, Noble Sire!”
“Let me not detain you from a conference of such importance, Master Forga.” I curtsied to him and walked around Prydwen without so much as a goodbye. Enough of his gem-stoned wooing and endless compliments. Enough of his golden hounds and gifts. I cared not that I left his hand shaking in the air. Sage Forga is not easily deterred, especially when he is full of visions that require a bit of gold to complete.
I nearly collided with Aedh’s precious mule as I moved with all civil haste to Caddock’s warehouse. Even at 15, I still met Caddock for my lessons. Though Mother thought my skills proficient, Father noted Caddock also a fine teacher in the ways of goods keeping. She’ll be such a help to Prydwen that way, my dear wife.
Ugh. Oh ugh, these are the moments I nearly lose myself…a moment while my stomach calms….please, sit with me here, Adyna’s neighbor Niall always has some ol and wine on hand. Some cheese dipped in batter sounds wonderful, thank you.
Sounds like Sage Forga knows how to butter up the money. I’m guessing that Lord Murdach, being the guy in charge of a town, didn’t like being showed up by some outsider.
You use words strangely, but…if I understand you, yes. As performers need to share the stage without dominating one another, so Cairbail felt a stage, and Prydwen an actor who had walked through the audience and onto the boards without permission. “What’s a man like that doing here?” I heard Lord Murdach say as a dagger whistled and thunk a far box of what I hoped to be fruits, beans, anything not alive. “Don’t get me wrong, Caddock, I enjoy an upturn in business as much as any man—”
“But the upturn came a bit quick.” Caddock’s voice was low, clear, and disquieting.
“Precisely. A little black market makes no mind, but he has gods-know-how-many barges and wagons coming up from the ocean filled with gods-know-what because he’s duped the inspectors into thinking it’s all just typical animal feed and livestock. You tell me who needs five oxen and doesn’t farm!” The next dagger struck but a few feet in front of my nose as I stood, still out of site in this labyrinth of crates and sacks. “He’s got something going on, but everyone’s too keen for his coin to care. It’s only my title, my seat, my life on the line with his business.”
“I fully share in your skepticism, Sir.”
“Good. And good on you for not storing his goings-on here. He’s got boxes of all sorts tucked into every other warehouse in town. Don’t like it. Not one bit.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
I came into view, then, halting their dialogue. Caddock’s gaze was angry but distant, while Lord Murdach looked like a mad bear, with froth about his lips and hair barely braided back from his gargantuan frame. “Ah, daughter of Master Adwr, yes?” I curtsied and greeted as manners dictated. “You’re a big favorite of Master Prydwen, you and your whole family. Gods know your father’s holdings have nearly quadrupled these past three years, your sisters donned in velvet and pearls every day.”
Caddock snorted. “You see velvet and pearls on this one?”
“No…no, you have a point there, my friend, I don’t. Look up, girl.” Lord Murdach studied my roughspun cloak and shawls and cold eyes. “You don’t seem too taken with the man.”
I curtsied again, my breath slight puffs in the air. “I find him generous with words and coin, yet miserly with motive.”
“Motive. Yes. Yes, girl, that is the crux. And the sage is useless, of course, fopping over himself to bring more good news of Cairbail’s future thanks to Golden Prydwen. I wonder if the King’s Stronghold would have another sage untainted by this…whoever he is…” Lord Murdach mumbled himself out the warehouse and into the street.
Caddock waited until the mumbling fell into the ebb and flow of street noise before speaking once more. “Have a care, Wynne. That sort of man’s not to be antagonized.”
I settled onto my favorite seat, the old barrel saved for apple cores and fruit skins. “I wasn’t rude to Lord Murdach.”
“I do not speak of Lord Murdach.”
“Why do you stare so? I care nothing for his intentions, I have been clear on the subject, I will not accept gifts from a man and lead him on as Mother instructs. That is rude, and selfish, and—”
“Wynne!” He shot my name like an arrow and silenced me. Caddock muzzled himself with his own hands, breathing heavily, the muscles of his neck tight as a growling guard hound…at last he sat next to me and unloosed his tongue. “A man like that does not hear ‘no.’ Only ‘you haven’t won me yet.’ I know his kind, Wynne. Men who insist on more than one wife wield an entirely different sort of greed. Your sisters may be cloth-eared, empty-headed ninnies, but they’re beautiful, and that’s a man who clearly likes his beautiful things.”
“Why do you think I dress as I do? To prove I’m not beautiful.”
“But…but I don’t want to. I just…I already…” I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket to catch the tears before they blot my face and betray my feelings to outside eyes. But I had forgotten what was wrapped in the linen: my iron orpine fell softly into my lap.
Caddock, of course, snatched it from the air before it hit the sawdust on the floor. “You’ve already given your heart, haven’t you, Wynne?” I opened my mouth to beg him, to unleash words of mercy and hope secrecy, but he raised his hand to silence me. And, with his head close for secrets as when we shared our love of the river Galene, he laughed. “Good. Now I know your family hasn’t a hope of influencing you down the years.” Caddock whistled as he delicately traced the leaves. “Your boy has skill, impressive skill.”
Pleasure filled me, for Caddock’s compliments do not come easily. I knew my Morthwyl could amaze others! “The smithy’s son in Little Innean, Morthwyl.”
“That’s a fair walk north. What brought you two together?”
I had to laugh. “Galene. She led me to him, actually.”
“The goddess holds you highly, Wynne, make no mistake.” He placed the orpine back in my hand and folded my fingers down upon it. “This promises a fine future for you both, if you could…one moment.” Caddock ran out. How strange the warehouse felt in his absence! No longer a sanctuary, but a maze of shadows and sharp corners I could never navigate were Prydwen’s men to follow…Thank the gods Caddock returned before my fears could grow any darker. “Can you visit the boy today?” He moved with a skittish urgency, pulling charts and maps from a chest precariously balanced on rotting crates.
“I was just there, but yes, I think so. If we’re not to dine with him again. Heledd’s not complained, at least.”
“Good.” He unrolled a large map, nearly torn apart in three places, littered with notes and arrows and scrawls. Idana, our country, looked a child’s mess. “Then let us hope the river goddess’ watch is vigilant.” His finger followed the river north, past Cairbail, the King’s Stronghold, and into forests far from the northern towns. “I’ve a barge to leave before daybreak tomorrow. Get the smithy’s son and yourself ready to be on it.”
My heart felt as a falcon loosed from its hood. Was it possible? Could I really escape Hafren and all its scheming souls? But I paused. Morthwyl loved his family, all kind, gentle people who did depend on him. “How far north would it take us?”
“As far north as I pay them. Till Galene’s beginnings, if possible.” Caddock breathed deep. “He won’t let you marry your boy, nor will your family. And he wants you for something, Wynne. He doesn’t have his ‘men,’ whatever those creatures are, following your sisters. Just you.”
“Because I’ve yet to agree to the marriage.”
Caddock looked up with an expression I will never forget: the paleness of his skin beneath his hair, the slight tremble of his chin, the way his voice fell to a whisper.
Caddock was afraid. Very afraid.
“No, it’s more than that. I’ve heard your father boast of meeting Prydwen the same day the river saved you, of how Prydwen looks just like his son. I, too, met Prydwen years ago, when I was but five, and Heledd seven. Galene bid us hide and be silent for not one but three days. It was torture to lay among the rocks and briars, but in those days a strange merchant bearing a golden hound upon his chest and a caged wagon of slaves interrogated my town for what he called ‘friends of the goddess.’ It took threat of the King’s Company to drive him out. That’s no son, Wynne. That is the same Prydwen.”
However, as book reviewer and author S.J. Higbeehas often noted, many authors and/or publishers feel compelled to stick waaaaaaaaaaaay too much information into the book blurb. (Click here for just one of MANY reviews where Sarah touches on the problem of chatty blurbs.) Where is the line between too much information and too little? We want to give readers a taste of the story inside, but we don’t want to ruin their appetites. We want to engage readers without killing all the story’s surprises or subverting all the expectations.
Which got me to thinking about M*A*S*H. Yes, the TV show.
I never watched M*A*S*H as a kid, nor did I know about the original book on which the film and television series are based. I only knew that whenever the theme song started playing on the TV, I went off and did something else.
Just listen to that mellow song played alongside these doctors and nurses treating soldiers near enemy lines. The show’s opener had the look and feel of some medical drama, the last sort of show Little Me would want to watch.
Then I learned after marrying Bo that this show was a comedy. A COMEDY?! How the heck is someone supposed to catch the comedy vibes from that opener? The melody’s a sad one; heck, the original song’s called “Suicide is Painless.” We see no happy or positive expressions on people’s faces, only the urgency of aiding the wounded. There is absolutely nothing present in this theme to tell one that they’re about to watch a comedy. Imagine if a book tried to pull this same stunt with their cover art and blurb. How do you think the ever-watchful Goodreads community would respond?
As writers, we need that blurb to give readers a genuine sense of the story-world they’re about to enter. Usually just a few elements of the genre are enough to tell readers, this is what you’re in for. If you dig X, then you’ll love this.
Since television themes are always held to a similar degree of requirement (unless it’s M*A*S*H, apparently), let’s use a few more for examples: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Dragnet.
Not one of these theme songs is all that long, but we get enough out of the music to know the genre of each show: the twang of the western guitar, the dissonance of an eerie suspense-filled horror, the stalwart drums of justice. With just a few seconds, these themes accurately and concisely provide the audience a sense of the stories that will accompany the themes.
Now I’m not saying that chattiness is always bad. Heavens, Rod Serling’s speech for Twilight Zone’s theme is iconic. Then you have shows like Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team, which just so happen to be Bo’s and my favorite TV shows from childhood. Both are spot-on with their carefree guitar and military snare, and both directly address the audience with the premise of the show (only the A-Team don’t need no Waylon Jennings to sing because they got Mr. T, fool!). These themes are slightly over a minute long, but they don’t overwhelm the audience with information. We only get what we need: Protagonists and Problems. It’s up to us to stay tuned for more.
So what happens when that blurb of a theme does give us more?
This is where I think we enter the “chatty” territory, the “too much” territory. Allow me to force more of my 80s upbringing on you for examples.
Okay, I’ll let the monotonous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sung over and over in the background slide because it’s like a companion to the drums. But do we really need to hear the traits of every main character in the opening of EVERY episode? She-Ra and Masters of the Universe did that, too, always breaking down every damn character so you would know just who the good guys and bad guys are, and who knows the secret identity stuff and who doesn’t, because apparently you, you snot-faced lump of Cheetos-dusted child, are too dumb to catch on to any of this when watching the show.
And I think this is what really gets to me about those chatty blurbs on books today. It’s like the publisher/writer thinks they have to talk down to the reader to ensure they understand the story’s premise and conflict. Sure, no one wants the reader to feel confused, but the consequence of over-talking is that we make the reader feel inferior.
Yes, there are some that like having all the dots connected for them, but not this gal, not this gal’s kids, and I have a feeling that you don’t dig being babied, either. Plus, it says something about us as writers when we don’t trust our own storytelling skills to adequately show readers who’s who and what’s what inside the story itself.
There simply comes a time when all we can–all we should–give readers are duct tape, a lemon, and a broken magnifying glass. If they’re intrigued with the few pieces you leave for them to find, then you can bet your MacGyver-lovin’ boots they’re comin’ into the book for more.
Anyone else have a favorite television theme to share? I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in Hawaii Five-0, but I just couldn’t make it work, dammit.
What follows is a continuation of my previous two installments of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we learn more about The Man of the Golden Hound Crest and his dangerous power over Wynne’s household.
What would you consider to be your worst defeat?
An easy choice. You may disagree with me later on, but I promise you, here lies the root of all present sorrows.
But I cannot speak of it in the open….surely not in my home. It is midday, is it not? Then the water mill is no option. Wild Buddug meets her sweetheart there for the next few hours, and one accidental intrusion is quite enough for me, thank you.
Caddock’s warehouse will be filled with loud talk and eyes far keener for lifeless goods to protect—or steal, depending on how you see it. Let us leave the market and follow this alley, here, the one where someone carried their slaughtered pig too close to the wall. The blood has gone dark, but is still there, you see it? A curious stripe against the daub. Normally animals do not walk this way, as it is too narrow for even three people to walk together, and the roofs nearly touch over head—it feels close, does it not? Like a chest left open by chance, and by equal chance will be slammed shut upon you. It is a dare to walk this way, and a relief when the walk is done. But this alley takes us from Market Street straight to Stock Street, where Lord Murchad built his warehouses. This is not a place to come friendless, I promise you, and while it is indeed highly questionable for a young woman to be roving about where thieves and murderers and the occasional honest man make their living, I have earned my immunity through Caddock’s friendship. No one here, of good or evil, crosses Caddock.
Through the front door, are you mad? That, that wretched man, his, his eyes follow us even now. No no, come around, where the cart horses graze. The parked carts make this pasture an ever-changing labyrinth, and there, see it? Galene flows nearby to keep us company. Let us use this covered cart with mud still wet upon its wheels. Yes, I know, it is the smallest of group, but it is also the least likely to be called upon in the near future.
Now, you spoke of defeats. Mine comes from no battle. The battle never had a chance to begin.
It took place not long after the Man of the Golden Hound Crest had found Morthwyl and me among the orpines. I did not dare walk north for the next few days, not even with the Galene strong and silent by my side. I feared beheadings, I feared death on the cusp of tasting life upon the lips of my Morthwyl.
Thank the gods for Market Day! I sat without complaint among my sisters in the garden, eyes fixed upon the road beyond the fence. My notes were soft and rarely in harmony, but I received no chastisement, as all my present kin were just as keen to watch the arrivals. Two large barges had arrived, and Father paraded proudly with their owners past our home and on toward the market. Furs and velvet, perfumes and fruits—bah! Mud clings to silk as well as homespun, I voiced with low, harsh notes upon my flute. When the last of Cairbail’s barge-oxen carried what appeared to be a dead stone monster with a horn upon his snout, I saw them: Morthwyl walking obediently behind his father and elder brother. Their smithy cart was compact and efficient, requiring but a few loads of firewood throughout the market hours to fuel the forge. That would be Morthwyl’s duty: he would move down Farmer’s Alley to the town’s edge where farmers often left cords of wood for convenience. They knew him, liked him for his father’s skill, would offer him a chance to sit, eat a bit of sops, and I would be there waiting…My flute sung as the skylark from me, eager to hear Morthwyl’s whistle in return.
But then bells jangled out of my sight, their harmonies discordant.
I caught back my breath and fixed my eyes upon Almedha as though awaiting some cue to play anew. Oh, Morthwyl, did he follow you all the way here? Has he spoken to you? Oh to hear your thoughts and know your safety! But I dared not look. I listened instead, and knew by the rhythms of their footfalls that they moved without haste. Nor did their cart house whinny in complaint. If she, an old thing, was at ease, then it was quite likely The Man of the Golden Hound Crest merely walked behind, please Galene he only walks behind…
The Man called his beast to hold before our gate.
The stallion loosed dark clouds from his nostrils. I thought of forge smoke, full of embers that burn the unthoughtful, how the sunlight upon the golden hound would surely burn the eyes of my sisters and turn them blind to all but wealth.
Cordelia audibly gasped and broke her flower wreath. Morwenna dropped her lyre and whimpered as she threw herself to the ground and fumbled herself into a new, ladylike position on the grass.
The Man dismounted, not once minding mud upon his black polished leather or his scarlet cloak. Sunlight fell upon his ringed hands as he gathered up the reins…
And my sisters’ Contest of Sly Accidents began.
First Isolda. She filled the air with a scream and cried, “My finger, surely the needle has pierced my bone!”
Next came Morwenna, who stumbled up from the grass and fell again. “Oh sisters, my ankle, surely it is broken!”
The Man led his beast to our fence and tied the reins to a post.
“Sisters, my week’s work will surely be ruined by the blood. Please, help me!”
“But my ankle!”
Cordelia clung to her broken flowers as her eyes searched for the pruning knife to slice a bit of flesh . Scoff all you want, but I would put it past no sister to cut off a hand for the sake of a wealthy suitor’s attention.
“I am sure to faint upon this sight of such bloodshed. Will someone not catch me lest I fall?”
“If only some kind-hearted soul could carry me to my room!”
“What in Hifrea is all this?” Mother burst forth through the door. I found myself watching the cake crumbs leap from one neckfold to another and down to her chest. “You know how noise up…sets….me.” Mother lost all control of her jaw, letting it hang complete open as The Man stood at our gate’s door, one fist upon his hip while the other swept the air before him.
“Madame, is this the most excellent house of Master Adwr, Trader Extraordinaire?”
How his golden chest did glitter, and his hair did shine! Almedha moved towards the gate as if in a dream. Isolda’s finger bled freely upon her skirt, and Morwenna’s ankle miraculously healed as she stood to move but a step closer to him.
“Y-yes, why, yes, yes it is, Good, Gentle, Sweet Sire,” Mother hopped down and to the side in such a bow no body her age could possibly fulfill without the utmost willpower.
I see your face. What was I doing in that moment?
The same as this moment: sitting.
Hush, someone’s coming…
Who’s out there, Caddock?
Thank the gods, His eyes haven’t come round yet…no, not Caddock, or his men. I tell you, I do not fear the men who work here. No, it is…there is always one of his…no. I cannot call them men. I’ll call them followers. There’s always one of them skulking about Cairbail. They never fraternize in the market, or drink by the docks with the other free men. They only move, listen, observe, and vanish. Life dims in their presence and closes in upon itself as a flower in night’s chill.
Did I close up when The Man of the Golden Hound Crest came through our gate? No. I changed nothing with his arrival. I did not stand, or even cease to play. What did I matter? I was not of marital age, and clearly, all my sisters were more than willing to meet whatever he envisioned as an ideal wife.
How foolish I was.
“Madame, I must confess to you that I committed a great sin against your husband.” His face contorted into such pain and sorrow that my mother looked ready to hold him to her bosom and weep upon his hair.
“Oh Sire, surely no such sin exists, but merely a misunderstanding to be easily expunged.” She curtsied, arms open for her own unique business. “I am Mistress Ffanci, wife to Master Adwr, and can speak with confidence on his behalf that the only sin in business is the unpaid service. And surely, Sire, you are one who would never commit such a sin.”
His face altered again, this time to ecstasy. I did not like how his face changed so quickly, like an actor with a table of masks at his side. “Ah, Madame, you flatter me. I am but a simple businessman, no different than your husband, and nowhere near as blessed as he with beauties to call my own.” His eyes shone with as much gold as the rest of him, and when they fell upon Almedha, I heard Morwenna moan in envy.
“A man of, business?” Mother blinked away her tears of elation. I could see her mouth turn about the word “business” as one tests a bit of fruit to see if it is spoiled. Would Mother’s talent for scrutiny save us? Surely she could see that no mere trader amasses such wealth, let alone parades it without reason. “Wynne, cease that infernal noise at once in the presence of such company.”
I did so with eyes down. “Yes, Mother,” I spoke hoarsely, and coughed. No one wants to admire a sick girl.
“Ah.” His boots approached the hem of my skirt. His gaze burned as summer’s sun upon my hair. “A lovely name for a lovely face.”
Isolda gasped. Cordelia whined, “But what about—”
“Sssss!” Mother’s dress blew closer, and I could see her hands shaking as they lay folded against her girdle. “You, you know my daughter? Then I must apologize for Wynne’s rudeness, as she said nothing of—”
“Dear Madame, lay no blame upon the child.” He bowed low enough to grace Mother’s hand. I liked not ring that sparkled on his ear. “My guards found her in the forest, and surely frightened the memory from her head. They are forever armed with the most terrible looks upon their faces.” He politely put his lips to her hand, then turned to me with a smile.
He said nothing of Morthwyl.
His words were enough for Mother. She laughed with total ease, and said, “May I present the older daughters of Master Adwr to you?” My sisters formed a curved line next to me and curtsied in due course with their names and smiles. But the look of him, the way he never spoke of the boy I was with, never uttered Morthwyl’s name, of which I had no doubt he knew…I felt as though he already had a trap set for him, for us, and with one false step we would all be ensnared.
“Surely, Sire, we can speak more of business, sins, and beauty this evening with Master Adwr. Would you care to dine with us?”
He joyfully accepted, and departed with just as much ceremony and wistful gazes as his arrival.
Almedha promptly clocked my ear. “You might have said!”
“I didn’t!” I spat back. “I’m not old enough, and please, please think: is it not strange he never shared his name?”
“You wanted him all for yourself!” Isolda hissed.
“Because you,” Cordelia said with a swift kick to my leg, “were supposed to tell us.”
“He never spoke it!”
None of them believed me.
Please tell me you ran off for, like, the next several days. This guy just screams “bad news.”
No, he never screamed “bad news.” If he had, even Mother might have noticed and reconsidered a more intimate acquaintance. I doubt my sisters would have minded, though…
No no, I meant…oh, forget it. I’m assuming he didn’t forget the dinner date.
If only he had!
Never has my house been in such an uproar. No other suitor existed accept Sire. That is how my sisters referred to him in their rush from room to room, harassing Heledd and Ysball as they purred, whined, hissed.
“That’s my girdle, Morwenna!”
“But who will braid my hair? Mother, my hair will be dreadful for Sire and he’ll never look upon me again and I’ll simply die!”
“Isolda, please, pleeease take it in another inch, I can hold my breath!”
“Where is my brooch? This old thing must be yours, Wynne.”
“Now girls, as an army prepares together to conquer a new land, so must we all work together,” Mother called from the living room, finger ever ready to pinpoint a command. “Isolda, surely you have some ribbon we can work round Almedha to tighten the dress without alteration. Cordelia, go to Heledd, your hair must, be, perfect. Morwenna, give Cordelia back her girdle and polish both lyres. Cordelia, make a crown for Morwenna’s hair, then yours. Wynne…” Mother’s finger froze right between my eyes. I watched her nose pinch, her lips twist.
“Help in the kitchen?”
Mother snorted. “You would like that, wouldn’t you? To live in the dirt and dust as a servant. Off to your room! Morwenna, give her your second-best dress.”
I heard her still as I changed: “Master Adwr, at last! You simply must hurry, we are all on the cusp of disaster!”
“Oh my, don’t tell me Morwenna’s lyre strings have broken at last? That would certainly be a disaster.”
“Don’t you dare joke, Master Adwr! A trader bearing the crest of a golden hound, yes a golden hound, such detail, such perfection in the stitches, a businessman of such wealth that any king would envy him has come to this very house, and complimented your daughters, and will return to dine in our house tonight! And all this would be for naught had he not sinned against you in some fashion. How could you not tell me such a merchant was in your acquaintance?”
“Madame Ffanci, I am most certain I know not of such a man.”
“Then what can he possibly mean that he has sinned against you, a fellow businessman?”
“My dear lady, I have not the faintest idea upon the matter. Perhaps it is he who altered the prices with The Yoruach as his wealth seems capable of dictating the ebb and flow of currency across several countries.”
“Oh but it is, Master Adwr. And that he should know Wynne, of all our daughters, and she says nothing of him! I swear, my husband, that the child surely is a changeling. She could not possibly be of my womb.”
Morwenna harrumphed in agreement as she polished her lyre with smooth, precise strokes. “None of us would have kept such a secret.”
“You’re…” I squeezed myself into the pale blue, pretending it the river Galene, but failing. The Galene would never choke the life from me like this tortuous device. “…welcome to him.” Delicate stitches depicting baby’s breath wrapped around the collar and cuffs. I could only hope they would be white still at dinner’s end.
Morwenna narrowed her eyes skeptically to me as she tossed her oldest girdle across the room. “I know what you’re doing, Mistress Hard-to-Get.”
“Morwenna, I’m twelve. He can’t marry me. I don’t want to marry him. Insult me all you wish at dinner. Mock me, make light of my inadequacies.” I felt the girdle press hard against my hips. Did my sisters ever eat? “I had no desire for his acquaintance before and still don’t.”
“Likely story.” Morwenna’s glare would not waiver, not even as I left the room.
Oh, how I yearned to sit at river’s shore and lay all these troubles among Galene’s stones! She’d whisk them away on her current to join with the toxins that wretched tannery dumped. But no, all I could do was sit in the garden, mindlessly fingering a hollow song upon my flute.
Chirps and squeals and bickering continued to fall from every window of the house. In time Father stepped out, his eyes squinted in concentration as he blinked once, twice, upon my countenance. “Wynne, your mother has told me quite a story. Is it true, what the other females in this house say about this phantom Sire?”
I lay my flute upon my lap. “It is.” I wanted to speak more, but feared what words would carry into the house.
Father sat beside me. “You think nothing of his wealth and manners?”
“I think them dramatic. As an actor for the theater.”
“Ah,” Father stroked his naked chin. “You think him a charlatan.”
“No. I…” How could I explain my fear without sharing the woods, sharing Morthwyl? More than anything, Morthwyl needed to be safe, and I could not trust my parents, who speak their thoughts with no consideration or restraint. “I do not doubt his wealth. But I do doubt his nature.”
“Were I only to know of your Mother’s words, I would be in complete agreement with you,” he said with a tired smile.
Oh, heart, still, be at peace! Do not quake the baby’s breath upon my chest. “You know more?”
Father nodded as he prepared his pipe. “A servant boy bearing a golden hound upon his chest approached me in the market today. He thanked me on behalf of his master for your mother’s gracious invitation and insisted to supply the meal since, as he said, his master’s home was not yet ready to entertain guests.”
“What a curious insistence,” I said, pondering how on earth the servant could know Father, let alone the sense of transporting a nobelman’s meal through the forest to our house. “And rude. If our means are too meager for his taste, he need not have accepted Mother’s offer.”
“I, too, have wondered this.” Father patted my hand and almost smiled, but a shriek from Almedha over a broken ribbon and a cry from Mother of “Master Adwr, make sense of this chaos if you please!” interrupted him. “I am quite certain, Wynne, that your sisters and mother are the silliest women in all of Idana.”
We shared a smile before he left. If that was what this Sire wanted, a silly woman who happily swooned at the sight of coin, then he was welcome to any sister. I would not swoon. I would not be silly. In fact, I would be so disastrously dull that all would think me doomed to live my years as an old maid.
I’d like to think this all went to plan, and that you succeeded, buuuuut then we wouldn’t be here talking.
Indeed, we would not.
Oh it began not unlike I imagined: refreshments in the garden while Mother called upon us to perform both individually and as a group. He bowed and applauded, provided every imaginable courtesy in his manner, and yet one thing remained absent: his name.
His servants also attended all in the garden and in the kitchen. Heledd and Ysball were more or less shooed out of the house to make room for his five servants, boys all Almedha’s height, all of wooden pallor and demeanor. They never smiled, they never joked. They merely blinked their green eyes and answered yes or no. Were they all of a family? Their features never changed from lad to lad, as though all came from the same womb at once. So very strange! My curiosity welled beyond control, and I felt compelled to create a test for them. After one song, I turned to the servant nearest me and asked him what he thought of our harmonies. He twitched his mouth, coughed, and said “Yes.”
“Yes, they are in need of improvement, or yes, they meet your ear pleasingly?”
“Wynne, do not tire the servants with your pointless talk,” Mother spoke through grated teeth. “I do apologize, Sire. Our youngest is not nearly so polished as the others, whom you can see are all well and healthy, with proper hips and quiet manners.”
“They are each as delicate and rich as a king’s rose,” he spoke with a swooped into a stand. “I see by my servant that dinner awaits us. Shall we?”
Such bows and curtsies and pleas for the other to go first—it is a miracle any of us entered the house before midnight!
His servants dizzied me with their slow, eternal loops around the table, the meat of freshly slaughtered pigs and chickens upon their platters, forks for all to use at their leisure. Olives, dates, strange fruits, cakes filled with honey, berries, mincemeat. I ate little, though my stomach grumbled for more.
“And that tapestry there?” Mother spoke and chewed all at once, firing bits of sinew in every direction. “Isolda’s at the age of ten. Ten, I tell you! Such a gift, we knew it the moment she touched a needle. But no one can fill a house with music as our sweet Almedha, and such a head for figures! Young Garnoc, who just took up his uncle’s shipping company, has been wooing Almedha for months, I think so his cloth-eared fool of a manager doesn’t burn through all his funds!”
“I’m quite proficient with numbers, as well,” Cordelia bowed her head, nearly knocking the cake platter from the lad’s hands. “I’ve studied with Father for many years, and I’m quite good with recording all the goods of a household.”
“But I’ve the best hips for bearing children,” Morwenna nearly stood up next to me, but Father coughed her back down. Gods know how far Morwenna would have gone then and there to prove this trait. “Mother says so, and our mother does know best.”
The Man leaned back in his chair, sipping little, eating less. “Every beauty here, absolutely ripe with talent. Madame, you are most blessed indeed! And yet, I have heard little said of your youngest.” He pointed his cup at me.
The silence was not only pregnant—I am certain it gave birth.
Mother chewed with a look I could only describe as consternation. “Well she’s not afraid of getting dirty—”
“There there, my dear, you’ve said quite enough about tapestries and hips to fill all our daughters’ minds for several lifetimes.” Father cleaned his fingers upon the table cloth and studied his wine. “Wynne is not like her sisters, nor is she of age.”
The Man watched Father’s face. “Do you mean to say your daughter is without talent?”
Father watched back. “Hardly. But since she fell into the Galene eleven years ago, she has had more sense than any other female of this house. If I’d known a few minutes of Galene’s waters in the lungs improved the mind, I would have thrown in the lot.” He passed about his cup as if to toast. He received gasps in return, including from me.
“Master Adwr, mind your tongue!” Mother laughed with daggers in her eyes. “My husband, he has such a humor.”
I dug through as much memory as I could, but I could not, with all my strength, find a moment of water filling my lungs. “You never told me I fell into the river.”
Father did not look at me or any of us. Something had dawned in his mind and caused him to smile. “But you were there. At last, I—” he set down his wine and looked upon The Man with new eyes. “I do know you, my humblest apologies. But it has been those eleven years, has it not, since I last saw you?”
By the Galene, never did I think I would see his perfect face crack! It lasted but a moment, but that moment portrayed fear, even some anger. The Man, whoever he was, knew vulnerability. Oh he covered all well with a smile and a laugh, but I have never forgotten that one moment where all looked ready to crumble. “And that is my sin, Master Adwr. To have lost contact with you since taking over my father’s business. I owed you a proper meeting when he died on a trip to the coast, but alas, my mourning threw all proprieties asunder.”
“Ah, that is all long, long ago. Surely you’re your father’s son. I cannot think of a clearer mirror than your face.”
He bowed in gratitude. Cordelia tackled the opportunity to speak. “But why was he present for Wynne’s drowning, Father?”
“She didn’t drown, Cordelia, lest we’ve been raising a ghost these eleven years. No, in that time you all often accompanied me along the Galene whenever I journeyed to the King’s Stronghold. Wynne was never one to enjoy the silks and spices, and often tired Heledd out as she explored the river, even talking to it. And one day, the day I was doing business with Master Prydwen, this Sire’s father,” he pauses to toast The Man, “we all heard Heledd scream for help. We run over, and what do we see? Little Wynne climbing up onto the opposite shore.” Father chuckled as my sisters oohed and tisked at my daring infantile impertinence—clearly, I was doomed from little on. Mother chewed through another cake with impatience. “Strangest thing. And you’d think that sort of experience would keep a child away from water. Just the opposite with little Wynne.”
“Perfect for a charwoman,” Isolda said with a glare before poking her tongue with an empty fork.
I was beginning to regret my request to Morwenna for a banquet of insults. I wanted only to sit by the Galene and think, and speak, and understand. “I see no need to pretend I’m better than I am.”
“No, you choose to pretend you’re worse, and I frankly find that just as distasteful.” Mother licked her fingers and patted his shoulder. “She’s far too much growing up to do, but no doubt she’d be a fine assistant to any one of her sisters in the house of Prydwen.”
The Man held his cup out, and a lad who carried meat a moment ago now held the pitcher of wine. “Your daughters inspire tears, Madame. Not only are they beautiful, but they are talented and humble as well. I must confess that I, too, yearn to have such a family about my table, to come home to music and beauty every evening as you do, Master Adwr.”
Father waved the wine lad aside. “You feel yourself ready for children, Son of Prydwen?”
The Man twitched, just as he had when I was fool enough to mention I had sisters. “Just, Prydwen.” His face fled into a smile. “I carry my father’s name. For the business, you understand.”
Father squinted a moment, then shrugged. “Of course. So, you think yourself ready for family?”
The easy manner returned. “Yes, I do. My manor is so very lonely with only servants and guards to talk to. But with the right companionship,” he raised his glass to Almedha, to Isolda, “life could be very,” to Cordelia, “very,” to Morwenna, “exciting.” To me.
I knew, in that moment, he had plans for us. And I wanted to be as far from those plans as possible.
I welcome any and all thoughts on Wynne, her family, Prydwen–any thoughts at all, really. Reader input rocks!
What follows is a continuation of last month’s installment of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we learn of her town, her love for music, and a unique friendship that brings light in an otherwise dark life.
Good thing you didn’t vomit on that snob of a rich trader.
Really? I rather wish I had.
I am not strong, you know. Not like Morthwyl and his family, who haul as many plants, logs, and rocks as any oxen.
I am not creative, like the artisans who take bits of hide, metal, and clay and transform them into tools or art.
I am not intelligent, like the farmers who read the whims of soil and air with ease.
What I am, truly, is afraid. I see my family, and I dread that in but a few years time all love of Galene and Morthwyl will be slashed and burned to make room for wealth, comfort, status.
I am afraid of losing my Morthwyl.
I am afraid of losing my freedom.
What meager virtue in my possession can possibly protect us?
Hey, don’t focus on your fears. Focus on the better things. Here, is there something you enjoy doing? Apart from visiting Galene and Morthwyl, I mean.
This will sound foolish, I’m sure, but I rather enjoy music. Not the music of my sisters, which is always some tragic, romantic ballad. No, I mean the music of the land, and of Galene. Even the silence of the world moves in a harmony, when one sits. Here, let us rest beneath the cottonwood.
You may cease your curious glances to my back. No, it is no staff, but a flute. I am not supposed to travel about with it, but I like to show my gratitude to kind passers-by with a brief song.
I remember the moment: my fourth birthday. Almedha had just come of marrying age, and my sisters were already learning music, art, and domestic pleasures. Now it was my turn to become yet another cog amidst the turning wheels of Mother’s industry.
“Now, dear,” Mother licked her thumb and ticked the air. “You’ve one, two sisters on the lyre, so I’m sorry, Wynne, but it simply is not to be for you. And truly, if not for Morwenna’s obsession with Almedha, I’d not have her on the strings, either. Don’t gawp, Morwenna, that’s a commoner’s face, and we are not common.”
Cordelia arranged an armful of spring blossoms in a pitcher yet again. It seemed the Irises were giving her more trouble than one thought possible of flowers. “What of the garden, Mother? I would love a pair of hands willing to cut and prune for me.”
Even then, I noticed it: she wanted “a pair of hands,” not “another pair of hands.” Cordelia’s hands entered the home every evening without a single smudge of dirt. If only our gardener did not worship her so!
“Don’t be silly, Cordelia,” Mother’s eyes bulged a bit more than usual at any idea which began outside her own mind. She shook her hand at the maid for wine as though a fly circled her wimple. “Wynne hasn’t the sense for sharp objects, and she comes home soiled enough as it is.”
Cordelia’s head drooped like the beleaguered irises. “Yes of course, Mother.”
“Can you imagine the laundress? She’d have fits until Hifrea’s Coming if Wynne were in the mud every day!”
“How silly of me, Mother.”
“Now that’s the first word of sense from you all day.”
I took care to sit my straightest with hands primly folded, even as my feet dangled…and I thought what a peculiar sensation it is, to be without ground under one’s feet. Would one’s whole body feel this way were it to dangle? Oh dear, that would mean a noose, wouldn’t it? What a strange feeling for one’s body to know just before death…
“Wynne are you listening?“
“Yes, Mother.” It rarely felt safe to speak truth in my house.
“Oh, whatever shall I do?” Mother’s head often rolled about when she began another fretting spell, as I called them. All was lost, and we daughters were hopeless…until things fell in line with her plans, and then suddenly all turns promising again. It felt as though we were a ship on the ocean, and there was no telling when another storm would hit us. Surely nothing else could compare, what with the slaving crew, the bossing captain, the waves crashing about, and lots of lightning, and wind, and—
Yes, my young self decided. Even the smells of the tannery fit the stories of life a’sea that Caddock told after lessons along Galen’s shore. “I’m listening, Mother.”
“Listening! You! Hmph! Isolde, bring me that blanket you finished trimming, my frail constitution simply cannot withstand this offense. You missed a corner, dear. No, no matter.” Isolda moved always with her head down so that firelight would better capture the tears eternally jeweled at the corners of her eyes. “You are a young woman of style and grace, Wynne. It’s time you showed it.”
“I’m four years old today.” Our housekeeper Heledd and the maid Ysball had said happy birthday to me, so surely other grown-ups thought this worth noting.
Mother nodded. “Exactly. You’re not a child.”
Father looked up from his desk of records for the first time since dinner. “Perhaps the art of a needle is just the thing to keep her attention, my dear.”
“No, no, her fingers are too fat and her lap too thin. And what’s more she’ll never hem straight with such posture.”
Almedha paused in the cleaning of her lyre. “May I make a suggestion, Mother?” Her voice was the softest, and therefore the sweetest. She always sang in the garden during the larger market days and festivals, and if she could sing louder than a cricket, Mother was sure she’d win the first heart of the merchant who heard her.
Mother waved her handkerchief at Almedha, a signal to go on.
“I was thinking of the minstrels who came for Beltane Fair. They had a fiddle, a cwidder, a recorder, and a flute. Perhaps—”
“Aha! Just my thinking, Almedha. Oh Master Adwr, have we not a most excellent firstborn?”
“Indeed we do, Madame Ffanci.” Our parents shared a doting look upon Almedha, who positively glowed.
“If only her chest would come along properly. She hasn’t the look of one who can mother…” Mother had a knack for dowsing kind thoughts. “Ah, but there are wet nurses, I suppose.”
My sisters immediately took to studying their own fronts while my eyes watched my feet dangle and pondered the words “wet nurse”: what a silly idea! Why should someone soak themselves before healing the sick? Wouldn’t the water ruin poultices, or make a mess of the bandages? Not to mention the nurse would catch cold in any wind, and shivering makes dressing a wound nigh impossible—
“Mo-ther, Mo-ther, Wynne can’t bother to be bo-thered!” Morwenna chanted as she plucked two of her lyre strings.
“Morwenna, by the gods, stop that noise! Oh, oh, oh!” Mother’s eyes closed, and the expected streams of tears quickly took course down her pinched cheek bones. A pool soon formed in the folds of her wimple. “We’ll be penniless paupers all thanks to our common, ungrateful children, Master Adwr!”
Father rolled his eyes until they settled on me. “Nonsense. No girl in Idana can possibly match the beauty of our daughters, Madame Ffanci. Wynne is old enough to learn a skill to keep her out of the dirt.” The final word filled his mouth with distaste, as though the sight of my spattered dress and boots were enough to make him ill. “I believe Garnoc has acquired some fresh rosewood. I’ll commission a flute to be made for Wynne in honor of her birthday.”
The wailing “Oh!” tumbled back down Mother’s throat and bubbled up anew as an “Oh!” of ecstasy. “Oh Master Adwr, how intelligently thought! A flute will call attention to Cordelia’s voice, and will harmonize both Almedha and Morwenna’s lyres beautifully. Perfection, my husband, perfection!”
“But who is to teach Wynne?” Cordelia gently spread the iris petals about the table with one hand while holding the pitcher of broken flower stems in the other. “Mistress Carryl only knows the lyre.”
“I’m sure Heledd will know someone,” said Father.
“Hopefully not too low,” added Mother. “I won’t have any tinkers speaking with my children.”
So that is how this flute came to be in my possession.
Am I upset with the choice made for me? Hardly. There is no defeating my mother in battle, especially when I learn my teacher is to be Caddock, who traveled with minstrels before settling in our town, Cairbail. It was a sure scandal that I had to take lessons at a warehouse rather than in our house, but I promised never to sully my tongue or ears with common food or language.
A promise I spoke within the house. And you may recall what I said about words I speak in my house.
Here, let’s take a break from the questions. Take us through Cairbail.
Then let me bid you follow, if you please, through the northern farmlands. The reeds are soft with summer, and Galene sings when the sun shines upon her. Listen with me. Does not the water over stones make you think of seasoned lyre strings? I like to sit here, where the tannery does not hurt the water so. The goddess has been kind so far, but I have no doubt a day will come when she finds herself too sickened by Cairbail’s industry, and we will all wake to find our river gone. Never underestimate a goddess—or any girl, I think—of strong mind.
Here the sun dances like my feet. When the sun warms skin, when the bees feast among the blossoms, when the fish leap from water for dragonflies, I forget the grime and odors of town, and turn to kinder, gentler things. When I think on the beautiful, my heart aches to follow the Galene further north where another heart touches mine as the orpines meet with love’s promise.
But alas, my dance must end, for today my father is due to arrive with a caravan, and my mother has stressed all daughters be present for his arrival. Will you walk with me through town? Let us cross these last fertile, rolling slopes, and bid farewell to spring and all its sweetness. Look to the Galene: her happy waters grow stronger crops here. Take care with your feet lest you trample seedlings or droppings. I care not to task Cairbail’s farmers. Visiting caravans are rarely kind to them, and never face punishment for gleaning.
Step this way, please, to the oxen-path. Oh, Galene, you flow as falling stars before Cairbail, yet we send you off soiled and used. Abused, I should say, but a merchant’s daughter is not allowed such thoughts. Trade is life, and industry is trade. At least the tannery is there, a short ways south of town, so the water is not so terrible until Cairbail’s end. Our mill to the north carries waters to the fields, see it? We already passed it some paces ago. Rather hidden by the trees, it is, but if you ignore the farmer yelling at the mule, you can just hear the clack-clack of the buckets tipping.
Cairbail is neither tulmain nor city. There is a street of homes, true, and it connects to the warehouse street, which turns there, sharply, for the ancestral shrine, annoying river and land caravans alike. We must have good pasture for livestock, a stretch of sand for small boats and long docks for bigger barges. Our high street is dedicated to eateries and artisans. We are a perpetual hayloft for travelers, with our own wares barely noticed. Perhaps that is best. Those attracted to our town are not the sort I care to think about.
Mind our rock fences–they are rather low, I’m afraid, just enough to scrape one’s ankle terribly if not careful. Turn here. Market Street may look wide enough for a joust, but that is only because the selling carts have left for the day. They sit in the middle, and the shops remove their shelf-shutters, and this place soon overflows with traveling caravans, farmer’s wares, the tannery’s wares, and tinkers. Even artisans from villages nearby will come once a month before midday to set up near the edge of market for the sake of shadow from the sun.
See how the tracks stay clear of this shop? I am sure you can smell why now. The tanner Congol comes here with his treated hides, as some merchants care more for the materials than finished goods. A whisp of a man, that Congol, from living so much among the dead and putrid substances. Would you believe he has tried courting Isolda not once but thrice? Father would have enjoyed such a commercial alliance, and Mother was willing to push my sister to accept the smells as necessity of industry and status, but then he had to ride to town with his perfect features and glittering rings…
But let me show you further. I must ask of you to not look upon the mule bleating at us. It is an angry, sickly thing, and also the favorite pet of the leather-tooler Aedh. For a man who takes pleasure in snapping necks of rabbits and deer, he can’t bear to see a single child make fun of his four-legged companion. He holds the breadth and strength of an ox, having broken many doorways in anger and drink. I am quite certain if not for his craft Lord Murdach would have found reason to be rid of him long ago.
Ah, the charcoaler’s here, and there the road up to Lord Murdach’s manor. His officers live here, without the shelf-shutters, as they are still open. This is the only corner of Market Street where my sisters will walk alone, as officers of a Lord have been deemed better company. It also helps that chamberlain’s wife Carryl knows the lyre well, and instructs as Mother pays fit.
At last, the kinder side of Market Street. Do you not smell it? Fertile earth, freshly cut greens, squeezed fruits, drying herbs. The farmers live on this side, ready to sell their latest gatherings from plots and fields alike, but only Adyna’s family takes time to clean her door, baskets, and shelf-shutters daily. Where Market Street turns to Traders Street you’ll see a house of a most curious paring: our sage, and our physician. I must confess, I do not trust a sage who foresees the Galenegaining strength from the tannery. He will sit and smoke his pipe idly as citizens come to his wife for aid, and declares he knows precisely what ails them before they speak. Indeed, there was a time last year when he was even correct in his deductions. Truly theirs is a match made by the gods, for he is often sick, so she is bid to tend him, and she is oft in predicted danger when gathering herbs, so he is bid to save her before danger can fully manifest itself. He arrives so early, in fact, that not one of his visions of terror has been ever witnessed by another. But many see the potential of truth in his words, including Mother. Whenever he sees Mother instructing us in posture, he is certain that whatever tea she drank in the last five days will result in a mild illness ranging from headache to runs and another symptom beginning with the letter Tinne…unless, of course, she would be so kind as to accompany him back to his wife’s surgery for examination.
Ah, here we are. Yes, the house with the wooden fence at waist height. Can’t afford to block the view of potential suitors. Just as an artisan proudly displays his wares, my mother makes an exhibition of her children for potential wooing. We’re quite the collection, my sisters and I.
Yes, well, let’s not go back in there just yet. Is there any other sanctuary in Cairbail besides the Galene?
Hmm.Yes, I will concede to one, one I learned at that tender age of 4 with the promise of music lessons, you may recall.
Heledd showed me the swiftest, simplest route from our home to the warehouses. How large they all seemed then! Full of flying feathers, foul jokes, fouler smells. Sacks of drink, of bean, all spilling about helter skelter while men shrieked for other men to be careful, curse you, that’s money you’re losing! The scales tended by guards and men with brows forever set heavily over their faces.
“Never you mind them, little love. Keep to your business, and they keep to theirs.” Heledd carried her buxom figure like a weapon, and it disarmed many. She was but a few years older than Mother, but she moved with as much ease as Almedha, and drew just as many looks.
“What about the slavers?” I could see one in that moment with a beard deep in drink and lips full of talk with a few others. His other hand dangled a collar too big for any dog.
Heledd saw him, too. “Pfft. No one crosses Caddock.” We stopped before the largest, noisiest, oldest warehouse on the street. It needed no windows with the number of loose boards hanging about, the door had surely been kicked in several times. Even its air was different, sweet, but pungent. Why oh why would Lord Murdach put the most valuable spices in this, surely the poorest of warehouses? Even I knew the guard upon the front door looked a waste of a man, and I was but a four-year-old child! “You there,” Heledd bowed forward and knocked upon the man’s head. A fly fuzzed out of his hair, and he grunted angrily until he looked full upon my companion. “Fetch Caddock, if you please. Tell him it’s Heledd.”
He rolled himself up and through the door with a gurgly “Yes’m.” A moment later the door opened, and there stood a tall man of dark hair and eyes. He wore no braids, and kept his beard short—he seemed strangely tidy for a resident of this street, even wiping his hands of dust before greeting Heledd. “Good afternoon, Mistress. I must confess, I thought your message to me a jest. Surely no daughter of that mule-head Adwr—”
“Ahem.” And she nudged me away from her skirt. I gripped my flute like some sort of, oh, almost like a staff, except I knew nothing of weaponry. All that I knew was that it was big, and heavy, and if I swung it with enough force, I would make him hop and holler like a fool.
Caddock narrowed his eyes for a moment in study of me—or perhaps my flute, for it did hide half my face while I shut up the other—before requesting we follow him in.
What a place! I had never seen such the likes of it before. Any journey with Father was to meet caravans on the road, or perhaps at Quinntoryn, the King’s Stronghold. Mother had not wished her daughters sullied by the looks of laborers in the warehouses and along the docks. Perhaps it best, as I was too young to appreciate the dangers a nefarious will can inflict upon others. But my first steps in that warehouse made me feel as though life in a home was a waste. The roof, as tall as clouds! Boxes and chests and sacks filled with things that moved, things that sparkled, things that emanated smells of life, love, hunger, disgust. All the world had been transported here, kept here. And Caddock moved about the sacks with ease, throwing nuts and fruit into one crate where what looked like a hairy child snatched up the food with glee. He plucked an apple for himself from a barrel and bade us follow him around a tower of crates to a small room with a fire, table, and chairs. Two men had their feet upon the table, laughing over something about a pumping fist. One thumb from Caddock, and they left without a word. He sat, then Heledd, but I knew not how to sit without dragging the flute upon the floor, so I remained standing.
A knife appeared, small and slender, in Caddock’s hand. Its point moved swiftly through the apple and cut a thick slice for Heledd. “What’s all this really about?”
Heledd often chewed and spoke at once, like time could never be wasted on one meager task at a time. “She’s a far different sort, make no mistake. Prefers the Galene to her manor house any day, don’t you, little love?”
I nodded and wiped the juice sprayed upon my cheek.
“A river child?” Caddock slowly worked his knife through the fruit’s flesh. “The river’s shore is no source of comfort for town-folk of your stature.”
“That’s not true,” I said with a mighty thud of the flute’s end upon the floor. “Galene’s shown me all sorts of lovely places. You’ve only to listen to her properly, is all.”
The adults shared a look above my head, something warm and pleasing, I could see, as Caddock’s face lost all the study and came over with a smile—a real smile I’d seen other mothers and fathers have for their children. “She speaks to you often, the river goddess?”
Now I narrowed my eyes at him. “It’s not all in my head, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Far from it. Your sisters mock you for this?”
“And her parents.” Heledd rested her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all I can do not to whisk her away from that horrible house.”
Caddock nodded slowly as he popped another slice off and held it to me on knifepoint. “Trade?”
I sat at last, happily munching, as Caddock held the flute to his eyes. “Garnoc knows his craft. A pity Lord Murdach does not commission him to make a few more. The hills of Gleanuaine would welcome such flutes for their shepherds. May I?” Imagine, a man like that asking a little thing like me for permission! Yet he refrained from playing a single note until I bid him play. His fingers explored the flute’s holes, finding their proper homes, and then his eyes closed. His whole face seemed to close as the flute touched his lips, and all expression passed through his breath and into the melody of cottonwood trees and sparrows, of fawns tickling the Galene’s hands as they drink their fill. I laughed and clapped and told him what I saw as he played.
Another look was shared over my head. I feared a joke coming on, but instead Heledd hugged me. “A river child, indeed! So, what say you, Little Brother?”
Little brother! “Have you sisters, too, Heledd?”
“NO, thank the gods, no, child. Caddock and I alone were more trouble than our home could handle, weren’t we?” He laughed and set the flute upon the table, not really looking at me, or his sister, or anyone, it seemed. “And speaking of,” Heledd stood and straightened her shawl, “I best go back to prepare dinner. Have her back by then, or we’ll both of us get another round of poison from Madame Ffanci’s tongue.”
Caddock nodded without looking. I heard Heledd snap “Mind your eyes!” at someone before the door closed. That someone turned the corner: the slaver man.
“Any trouble, Caddock?” He looked at me, his fingers toying with that dreaded collar.
For a heart of courage in that moment! But I am little more than a coward, and remained still, frozen.
Caddock stabbed his apple knife into the table and looked at him. The table apparently received such treatment often. “None. Quite the opposite, actually. This lass is my student, and therefore, under my protection. Is that clear?” A slow, heavy nod came from the slaver, and he shuffled off. “You can breathe now, he’s gone.”
I didn’t know I’d even stopped. “When we’re done, will you please take me home, Sir?”
“And deal with the likes of your parents? Not for three dozen of my sister’s raspberry tarts. No, girl, you’ll walk to and from alone, and you’ll be fine. He’ll tell the others. No one crosses Caddock, and that,” he leaned forward with the flute for me, “includes my friends, and now my pupil. Gods, this is a first.” A smile played upon the corner of his mouth. “You can call me Caddock, if I may call you…”
“Wynne. It’s nice to know the goddess still speaks.” I knew my eyes grew very wide, and I leaned in, too, like we were sharing the most prized of secrets. “We used to talk often, Galene and I. But I stopped listening when arms and coin promised a more adventurous life. I do not regret the adventures, but I do regret losing her ear.” He wrapped my tiny hands around the flute. “And you’ll lose it, too, if you listen to your family. So let’s practice hard, you and I. With a few breaks for air, of course. Out back. By the river.”
And that is how I came to the sanctuary that was Caddock’s warehouse, and how I could move about Hafren’s seediest corners without fear. For a time he was my source of human friendship, but his tales of adventure, of discovered treasures and conquered beasts, made me yearn for adventures of my own, with a friend my own age…
Ever feel like you need to be forgiven for something?
I want to tell you how much I love my family, of the bundle of sticks tied together is never broken by whatever storm or creature befalls upon it. Yet I cannot speak this lie of my own accord, for truly, I do not love them.
This sin is my own, and I must carry it with me always.
Your parents don’t exactly seem to inspire much love, so you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.
No, ’tis true. And I would not wish to be like Adyna, an old maid of forty years who never set foot off her father’s farm. Her name is the joke of many rhymes I hear the farmers’ children chant as they pick weeds and rocks. A child should grow to separate from her parents, just as the maple’s seeds break free and spin themselves high into the wind to land either near or far to grow. I want to grow far. I need to grow far.
But my sisters…how I wish I could carry them on the wind with me!
But you’re not friends. Why should you care?
Because I think that if not for Mother, their souls would have a chance to grow. They stare into the looking glass, insult each other for the merest blemish, stuff their bodices for deceitful chests, all for the sake of Mother’s approval. To them, beauty is everything. No music, no flower, no tapestry compares to the beauty of their forms. If they are not beautiful, then they may as well be dead.
How can one believe such words and yet manage to really live?
Mother said those words once. Oh yes. Not with Father around, for I think that such an extreme declaration would have stirred even him from his inventory for a mild chastisement. Father travels south once a year on the Galene to the ocean’s shore for dealings with the Sea Barons of the Dracicocht Isles. This time of year is always difficult with Mother, for she thrives upon the echo Father gives to her sentiments. Oh, Heledd, does her best, but her common sense flusters Mother more than anything.
The day those words were uttered was…oh, I must have been six years. My flute play was adequate, but not yet proficient, especially as the instrument was still rather big for my small body. Mother wailed in the first week of my tutelage to not “slay doves in the house,” so thanks to music, I had an easy time escaping her sharp tongue for the Galene. Bless her! No one is so patient with a struggling musician as the river goddess. That she did not send a fish to knock my flute in the river gave me hope that I was marked for improvement.
If only my sisters had come with me, I thought as I trumped in through the kitchens. I felt much better in the kitchen with the maids. They always spoke in whispers, like bees buzzing in the meadow, and gave me such sweet smiles. Any child would think herself blessed to have such women for a mother. They smiled upon me that afternoon, and gave me a bit of bread and honey to nibble on when—
“Isolda, this hill is much too steep! Rip this all out and do it again.”
I still remember the look they shared: Wrinkles filled with flour, juice, and grease, their faces were a bit like those painted for plays on festival days. One was stiff and straight like a narrator; the other all grimace. That was Heledd whenever Mother spoke out of sight.
I continued eating. By then, I thought Mother’s criticisms came and went like a certain other bodily function: foul when it comes out, quickly dispersed, and not spoken of in any company.
“Morwenna, what has happened to your face? Dear, if you pull your braids back too tight you’ll look as though a caravan ox has stepped upon it. You’re ridiculously too stretched and pinched for anyone of good class to take notice of you. Go upstairs and do it again, and if you fail again I’ll have Heledd do it properly, and then she’ll rip it out and you will follow her example.”
Heledd tapped my shoulder and waved her finger in front of her lips. I nodded and huddled by the table, eager to stay there for the next several weeks.
“And Cordelia, what on earth are you doing wearing that flower ring in the house? You’ll bring in the bees!”
“Almedha, daughter, help me with your sisters!”
“And where in Hifrea is Heledd? I need my tea, she knows how I can’t live without my afternoon tea lest the headaches come on, not to mention the shakes and the sweating and the—”
“I’ll see to it, Mother.” And there was Almedha, her own braids perfect, bodice unstuffed as her own chest was progressing to Mother’s approval, wrapped with cords for measuring a new dress. “Ah, Wynne, there you are. I didn’t know you were home.”
“She just got in, Mistress Almedha,” Ysball said before any interrogation could start.
Almedha was sixteen then, already full with ideas of running a rich merchant’s household any day now. “You are a lady of the family, Wynne. You should be entering through the front of the house, not the back like a servant.”
I stuffed the last bit of bread in my mouth. “Ah wash pachktizin.” I must confess, this was not very good manners, and not in any way excusable, but by Galene, I was hungry, and, and—I wanted to finish my food, for goodness’ sake!
“Well now that you’re here, I’m sure Mother would want to see you.” And my sister approached to take my arm.
“No she wouldn’t.”
“Wynne! What a thing to say, honestly.” And up I was taken, honey fingers and all, to the parlor where Mother sat surveying Isolda’s stiches and Cordelia’s flower sachets. “Wynne’s just returned from practicing her flute, Mother.”
Mother’s eyes darted round the room to me as a frog who’s found a fly. “Practicing, my foot! She’s gotten into the larder again, eating us out of house and home. No one wants a fat wife, Wynne, remember that.”
No one dared look at Mother’s pear-shaped body squeezed into the chair.
“I just gave the girl a bite as she wasn’t here for lunch, Madame,” Heledd said as she set Mother’s tea firmly—very firmly—upon the table. “Your tea.”
Mother rolled her eyes and drank. “Well you certainly reek of the river. There again?”
I nodded. How did I reek? I was north by the mill, where all the dead animal urine and bile of the tannery didn’t go.
Almedha nudged me. “Speak when spoken to, Wynne.”
“Well? Prove it, then.”
“Oh, child, have a sense. Play me something!”
Mother gargled and croaked, “But of course now, when else?”
“But…” And I held up my fingers, sticking together from the honey bread.
“Do as Mother says!” Almedha hissed. I heard a door open above us—Morwenna must have stepped out. Cordelia paused with her roses, Isolda with her thread.
Couldn’t they see past Mother’s commands? I even held my hands up to Almedha so she could see the honey. “But I’m—”
“Confounded, stupid girl.” Mother banged her tea cup and pried herself free of the chair. “All of you, confounded and stupid. You’re all lucky you’ve got some beauty, otherwise you’d be better off dead.”
“Madame!” Heledd stood in the doorway as Ysball brought the tea in for the rest of us.
Once, just this once, has Heledd openly defied my mother. My sisters stood agape, horrified that one of lower class would be so imprudent. I’m sure Mother thought so, too, but perhaps, and I do hope this to be the case, even Mother realized she had gone too far. Nothing was said by anyone, even Mother, for the rest of the day. The natural order of life within our fence had been utterly upheaved, so much so that Isolda left her sewing in a pile on the floor, Almedha’s lyre went unpolished, Cordelia’s bouquet received no water, and Morwenna’s braids laid against her face half-finished.
I rushed back to the Galene to wash and tell her all that had passed. The current wrapped round my hands and seemed to squeeze an assurance to me: life would get better. Somehow, life would get better. I had only to listen to her, follow her lead northward, beyond Cairbail…
If you didn’t catch the Pride and Prejudice vibes before, I bet you do now! Mrs. Bennet was a HUGE inspiration for Madame Ffanci. I welcome any and all thoughts on Wynne, her family, the setting of Cairbail–any thoughts, at all, really. Reader input rocks!
My name is Christopher Lee and I am the author of Westward, a Channillo exclusive serial release occult fantasy that blends X-Files and the Magnificent Seven.
What made you choose publishing your work as a serial as opposed to a collection/novel?
DAN: I have collections with my publisher GenZ, Lapping Water, Humbled Wise Men Christmas Haikus, and Home other places I’ve yet to see. Channillo has been a good place for projects of mine that I view as smaller endeavors.
CHRIS: For one I love to write as if my story were being presented as a TV show, each chapter I write feels like an episode of a show to me, so it made sense to present it this way. The format of serial publication allows me to work on my story at the same time as I get feedback from readers on previous chapters, etc which in turn helps make the story better down the road.
What benefits have arisen with plot, character development, and/or voice as you write a serial?
DAN: It’s fun to write these poem-letters in “Weathergirl.” I call it soap opera poetry.
CHRIS: It takes a huge load off of the authorś shoulder to know that they don’t have to crank out a huge manuscript in order for readers to access their work. There is a flexibility that I mentioned before that allows the writer to breath, take a step back, and then return to the keyboard recharged and excited to write the next chapter of the story, not to mention it keeps the readers hungry for more.
I concur about that load being shirked off! However, I know one problem I have when posting my own Young Adult Fantasy MIDDLER’S PRIDE is publishing on time.
What challenges have you faced writing serials?
CHRIS: Honestly, I have not faced any, save that classic HIT THE DEADLINE. When I began to write Westward, I had a fully developed story arc with complete show/chapter ideas. This allows me to simply sit down and write the next installment, whereas had I not done so I might have run into an issue of keeping the story straight, so to speak. Ultimately it is all about consistency when running a serial. You need to market it consistently and produce the content on time so that your readers know they can count on you. After all, there is nothing worse than investing time as a reader in a story that dead ends.
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is about a man writing to a news anchor and the reader doesn’t know if he is a deranged fan, or a fan, or her actual lover and I haven’t had any problems developing that. I’m very fortunate.
Now while I myself have never published any poetry, I find it a pleasure to read! It seems to fit well with the serial form. Because I’ve written Middler with the serial publishing platform in mind, I find myself constantly looking for little arcs or episodes to write within the larger novel-arc. How do you feel your writing and/or genre’s been affected by publishing it in a serialized form?
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is weekly so when holidays turn up I like writing themed segments. The arrows on the clock are pointing at me was like a fun dumping ground for unpublished poems and I hope to maybe start another series like that. Venus Fly Trap kept my haiku skills sharp and Little Silver Microphone explores recordings both home and live.
CHRIS: I primarily write in the fantasy genre, which I believe is aided by the format. Fantasy in some ways suffers from the drudgery of 600+ page novels that remain inaccessible to the general public at large. Many consumers of media want smaller bites that they can digest while they ride the bus, an Uber, or just before bed, etc. Just look at Netflix and the advent of binge watching or in this case binge reading.
What do you think draws readers to read serial (non)fiction?
CHRIS: Accessibility and consistent content creation are the two major things for me. One that readers can have an a la carte or buffet experience with different genres, authors, and styles. Two is that there isn’t a huge delay between content dumps from the authors, its the exact opposite of the George R.R. Martin effect, for example waiting for years for a conclusion to the story you as the reader have invested time in.
Do you receive any reader feedback on your writing as it’s posted? What do you do with those reader comments? DAN: Yes, I do. I’ve gotten great feedback that has meant a lot to me. Sometimes I post quotes about my series on the work’s homepage.
CHRIS: If I am being honest, I have not received much in the way of comments via the Channillo platform, but I have been contacted via Twitter, Facebook, and email from readers who have given me some of the most constructive feedback I have gotten to date. It is a really cool experience to have that level of connection with the reader. Usually what I do with said commentary is to implement whatever makes the most sense to the story, all while keeping the core message of the reader close to heart.
What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to give serialization a go?
CHRIS: First and foremost you need to have a fully developed story before you kick the thing off. If you don’t have that, then you run the risk of hitting a dead end that could cause you massive problems. Ultimately a plan will save your booty if you get in a pinch.
DAN: Make sure you do your installments on time with interesting material to help build an audience.
I found this quote published inThe Washington Postback in 2015, and I’d like you to comment on it:
Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. … Yet it requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum — a value that needn’t come at the expense of integrity. –Hillary Kelly, “Bring Back the Serialized Novel”
CHRIS: Kelly makes a great point, though the critics of serialization see it as low art or cheap in quality, I find the process to be far more rigorous. You can simply slap crap together and throw it at the wall and hope that it sticks. In fact, you have to take even more time to craft a tight narrative, then you would in the case of a novel. To run a successful serial you have to keep your readers hooked. In the traditional method, example a fully fledged novel, once they buy your book, the transaction is largely done, you have the readers money, whether or not they come back for subsequent books is altogether another animal. With a serial, you have the flexibility that you don´t have in the traditional sense, and that is the true strength of serialization.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, guys, and good luck building those Channillo stories! You’re reminding me I need to update what’s going on with Meredydd…
In the meantime, check out these authors and other amazing folks at Channillo. You can scope out their amazing store of stories FREE for thirty days. Who knows? Maybe you’d like to write for them, too!