Good morning, my friends! As promised, I have a lovely author interview to share with you while I run off into the snow to teach high school calculus (yes, you may giggle). Meet the amazing writer of mystery thriller and dark fantasy, Daniel Kuhnley!
First things first! Tell us a little about yourself please.
Sure. My name is Daniel Kuhnley, pronounced like “coon lee.” I’m a Christian and an author, but I don’t write Christian fiction. I enjoy all sorts of activities, including music, movies, disc golf, working out, programming, and writing. I’ve been married to my wife for 22 years. Wow, it doesn’t seem that long! Just this last weekend my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. That’s quite remarkable in this day and age. There are no children or pets in our household (my wife is allergic to both!) I have three siblings and six nieces and nephews.
What is your favorite childhood book, and how would you say it influenced your own passion for storytelling?
This is a tough question. How far do I go back? Perhaps a few examples would be good. I loved The Monster at the End of This Book, The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, and Where the Wild Things Are when I was young. All three of them have a fantastical and sorta scary story. I think those led me on to books like A Swiftly Tilting Planet. This book opened my eyes to a new world where I could escape from everyday life as I read it. The characters and world and adventure stole my heart and made me want to write stories of my own. There were many other books as well.
I see you enjoy writing in two different genres: mystery thrillers, and dark fantasy. What draws you into these different writing-worlds?
Passion for the genres. I absolutely love Dean Koontz and the thrilling and mysterious books he writes. Old Stephen King ones too, like Cujo and Firestarter. What really drew me into fantasy and wanting to write it was Terry Goodkind’s series, The Sword of Truth. The first book, Wizard’s first Rule blew me away with the characters and depth of story. I’d never really read anything like it before. I knew I had to write character-driven stories like his. So, each genre is a different challenge. With fantasy, you get to create anything you can imagine. Worlds full of unique characters and places. No one can tell you it’s unrealistic. However, mystery thrillers allows me to delve into the human psyche and tell tales of sick and psychotic characters that fill nightmares. It’s fun to imagine how people like that think and what drives them. It’s even more fun to write about flawed heroes and heroines who are trying to stop them.
World-building is often one of the most difficult elements of fantasy writing: how far back should a writer go in creation? How much should be shared with readers, and what can be left in the notebook? What’s safe to rework from reality, and what’s got to be built from scratch? (You don’t have to answer my rambly rhetorical questions , but I am curious about your world-building process in creating Centauria for your Dark Heart Chronicles.)
World-building is a tricky thing. There are so many factors that go into it, and it can be the crowning achievement of a series or its downfall. A robust magic system is a must. It doesn’t need to be overtly complicated, but it should be a reflection and a driving factor of your world and its characters. Whether or not to include a language of your own is also another question to solve. I’ve read many books without one and it takes nothing away from it. I chose to create one for my world just for uniqueness. As far as creation of the world, you can go back as far as you want for its history or treat the moments your characters are living in as its beginning. I know many fantasy authors with tomes of history and backstory on their world and characters and others who have little to none. Personally, I find it far more interesting to understand the history of a world, its cultures, creatures, landscapes, and everything else that is part of its make up. I think if you’ve got some history to your world it creates a depth to it and your characters that you might not otherwise have. The readers will never know and understand everything about the world and its characters. The reason for this is that you never know when you might want to create another series based on some of that information. It could also spoil the mystery of the stories if the reader knows everything about your world and the characters. I’d say 70% of the information gets left in the “notebook.” It can cause issues though, too. Often I’ll be talking to my wife about something that happens to a character in my story and she’ll stop me and ask where that information was relayed to the reader and I’m sitting there thinking it’s somewhere but quickly find out those details are only in my head or “notebook.” As far as what can be reworked from reality vs. what should be built from scratch, that’s entirely up to the author. You want authentic, fresh worlds but readers also expect familiarity. If there’s no familiarity, it can cause the reader to have trouble picturing your world. There are obvious things that cannot be drawn from reality like unicorns, dragons, and other fantastical creatures. The hardest part for me in my world is describing the flora and fauna of the landscapes. I see them in my head, but I’m no expert in what those types of trees and plants are.
So I’m a HUGE fan of writing with music. I’ll even build up playlists to match up with major plot points as I write. What scores/composers would you like to recommend and why?
For me, I MUST listen to music while writing. It keeps my mind focused. However, I cannot write to music with words. I’ve tried and find myself singing along and not writing. As far as recommendations, my absolute favorites are Epic North, Audiomachine, and Brand X Music.
All three of the produce movie trailer and movie score music. Epic North has some great music for writing battle and physical conflict scenes. I’ve got a little over 500 of their songs in a playlist that I keep on repeat. I never get tired of listening to them. I love some of the music from Two Steps from Hell, but it’s difficult sifting through their music because they do have quite a few songs with lyrics. Some of the music I listen to does have chorus chanting but its in Latin, Italian, and other languages I don’t know, so it doesn’t bother me.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Outlining. I pantsed my first book and it took me 12 years from start to publication. With the second book, I pantsed the first half of it and outlined the second half. It took about 14 months from start to publication. Those time frames may seem quite drastic, but I had lots of time where I didn’t write anything. I put the first book away for 7 years after writing the first 70 pages. I loathe outlining, and I’m sure my wife loathes helping me with the process as well, but it’s a necessary evil. After outlining my third book, The Braille Killer, I wrote it in 2 months. That book went from start to publication in 6 months. So, outlining is both my kryptonite and my timeline shortcut.
Your Dark Heart Chronicles tell the tale of three unique characters: a family man, and twins bonded in magic. Do you find it difficult to shift between their points of view? What advice can you share with writers who struggle with writing multiple points of view?
I’ve gone back and forth through many ways of dealing with the character perspective changing over the years. Honestly, it just depends on the day. Sometimes it’s nice to switch between characters when I’m feeling blocked with one character. Other times, when I’m really in the flow of one character, I might just write multiple scenes from their perspective across the entire book. If a writer is struggling with multiple points of view, I suggest they take each character who has a unique POV from their novel and just write their story. Once they do that, weave those stories back together in editing. It sounds daunting, but it’s really not that bad. The most important thing is to get the story down, whatever the means. Piecing it together is far easier (at least for me).
Your mystery thriller The Braille Killer also carries a unique writing challenge: writing from the perspective of another gender. What was the writing logic that led you to share this story in first person from the perspective of Detective Alice instead of, say, Detective Alan?
Well, all of my novels have female POVs, so it wasn’t too difficult writing a novel strictly from a female POV. Stories come to me in a unique way. It always starts with a character’s name, like Alice Bergman. As I thought about her more, what she looked like, how old she was, etc., I began to get an idea of what her story might be. Initially, I never thought she’d be a homicide detective or have the challenges that she did, but it just felt right. Alice could never be an Alan. I have a friend who is blind, so I often talk to her about her challenges and fears, and that led me to Alice’s story.
What would you say has been the most difficult scene to write in your novels and novellas, and how did you overcome that challenge?
For me, there are two things that are difficult. The first is fighting/war scenes. I never served in the military, nor have I studied wars, so writing about them can be challenging. That’s what I’m working through in my current WIP, Rended Souls (Book 3 of The DarkHeart Chronicles). I’m also no fighter, so blocking fight scenes can be tricky. It’s best to literally act them out to get a feel for what makes sense and is physically possible for a given character. The other issue I struggle with, especially as a Christian, is how far to go with language, violence, and sexual encounters. I’ve learned to just write it all out in the first draft, no matter how vulgar, sexual, or violent, and then tone it down (if needed) in the editing phase. Because I’m writing dark fantasy and mystery thrillers about serial killers, my books can be quite violent and bloody at times. There is mild cussing in all of my books as well (depending on the reader’s view of what that means). Although not vulgar and explicit, there is also scenes of sexuality in all my books as well. Humans are…human. It’s difficult to have compelling characters without exposing their flaws as well. No one is perfect, and I hate reading books where all the characters are wooden and sinless.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
To be honest, it goes both ways. There are times where the writing is flowing really well, and I’m excited to get the story down and discover what’s happening with my characters. But then there are the times where I feel writing constipated. The words are in my head, but I can’t seem to push them out no matter how hard I try. This third dark fantasy novel has been that way. I know the story and all the events that must take place, but I’m struggling to get the words out at a decent pace. Sometimes you just have to take a step back and focus on something else for awhile. I’ve done that, and I’ve finally started making progress again.
That’s wonderful news to hear, Daniel, and congratulations on the release of your latest!
An evil dragon. A powerful mage. An ancient realm on the verge of a devastating nightmare…
Nardus is terrified he may have doomed his kingdom. Instead of resurrecting his beloved wife and children, he brought forth a malevolent winged-monster who is advancing on his people with a mind-controlled army. And now his last hope of redemption lies in discovering an age-old magical secret.
Twins Alderan and Aria’s hostile history delivered them to opposite sides of a brewing war. And as Alderan struggles to master his abilities while torn between loyalties, Aria’s growing powers could hold the key to the kingdom’s fate. But faced with an enemy that controls his sister, Alderan has no choice but to outsmart a manipulative wizard and a centuries-old dragon.
As the battle lines are drawn, can Nardus and Alderan claim their rightful place to rescue their world and save Aria from herself?
Rended Souls is the third book in the riveting The Dark Heart Chronicles epic dark fantasy series. If you like dangerous magic, page-turning adventures, and headstrong characters, then you’ll love Daniel Kuhnley’s spellbinding tale.
Buy Rended Souls to enter a clash of conjuring today!
How about we close this chat with some encouragement for those who are participating in National Novel Writing Month? I know I could use all the support I can get. 🙂
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three different years and have yet to “win” it. However, I encourage everyone to think of it as more of a launching point than a “gotta get it all done this month!” panic. Not winning hasn’t stopped me from finishing novels and getting them out to the world. In the last two years, I’ve released 4 novels and two novellas. The key to success is to keep going and finish the job, no matter how long it takes. So many people give up right in the middle. Don’t do that to yourself. Keep pushing forward, and best of luck with NaNoWriMo!
Thanks again for sharing your writing life with us, Daniel! Folks, you can connect with Daniel in all sorts of places. Why not stop by and say hello?
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.
Hello, friends! Yes, I’m leaving you hanging on that prologue. An idea struck me during a rather dull sermon today to leave that moment in time hanging for a spell, and perhaps return to it after we’ve been with our main characters inside the Crow’s Nest.
Writing Music: Nina Simone
Chloe slapped the lock pin down on her passenger door. The cassette of Nina Simone’s hits started its third loop, not that anyone noticed. They were too focused on the curtain of snow, and the man floating in it.
“Your mother say anything about this?” Chloe’s dad asked without looking at her.
Chloe’s mom shook her head. She’d hardly said a word since the phone call that had torn them out of Milwaukee and sent them up…wherever here was.
The man shifted, then fell a few feet to the ground before their headlights. His mouth moved, and it sounded like he was talking, but it was impossible to make it out above the engine and heater of their station-wagon.
Chloe squinted from her mess of blankets and books in the backseat. A truck’s flatbed–that is how the man had been floating. He kicked up snow as he walked to the driver-side window with long, sweeping strides. A man that big, Chloe realized he could kick a mean dent in their car door if he liked. But he only bent forward as if to keep his body away from the door on purpose. “I’m from the Crow’s Nest!” he shouted. “The old lady sent me to keep the road cleared for everyone. You another Perdido?”
“Yeah,” her dad said, keeping the window closed. He wasn’t stupid.
“Thank the Maker!” The man tipped his head back to laugh, revealing a small icicle clinging to the bottom of his close-cut beard. He wiped his nose with big leather gloves and pointed at his truck. “Follow me!” Chloe’s dad nodded, and the man returned to his truck. The snow was so high his trench coat dragged upon it like bridal train.
“Thoughtful of her,” he said to Chloe’s mom.
“Thoughtful?” Chloe’s mom pulled back, disgust all over her face. She leaned against the door, fingers on the handle like she wanted to get out.
Chloe leaned forward and grabbed her mom’s hand for the first time since the phone call. “Mom?”
She blinked, eyes darting as if to rewind the word in her head. Finally, her hand squeezed back, and she sighed. “Sorry, sweetheart. I’m just…I thought I’d never come back here.”
Chloe crooked her head to look outside, hand still tight on her mom’s. Wherever “here” was, Chloe couldn’t tell. The station-wagon followed the truck so closely its brake lights were all they could see—not that the snow helped. It spun in wide ribbons down from the tree branches onto the cars. And the trees, packed so damn tightly together it was impossible to see how this was a road at all.
If Chloe had grown up in a place like this, she wouldn’t be eager to come back, either.
Her father noticed, too. “This is paved, isn’t it, or gravel? Feels like we’re hitting rocks and brush under the snow.”
“Probably are.” Chloe’s mom stared ahead again, her fingernails tapping the door’s armrest with the same steady tick tock of the grandfather clock Chloe’s father had surprised his wife with for her birthday. Three months went into that clock, Chloe distracting her mother with extra trips to the library and college fairs while her father scrounged for parts at clock shops and donation centers. She was so happy when her blindfold came off, always amazed by little pieces of the past Chloe’s dad could bring back to life.
But now, Angela Perdido Watchman’s cheeks were drawn in like she was chewing them from the inside out. Her lips had chapped so that when she pressed them together it looked to Chloe like someone had sewn her mother’s mouth shut. She was always so powerful to Chloe whenever she visited her mom at her campus, addressing white professors as her equal, demanding respect from all her students, not just the colored ones. No one could crack her.
Word Count: 638 Total Count: 2034
We’re getting there! At least, I was until the boys demanded to go outside in the frigid cold to play. Away we go!
Hi, friends! I’m continuing the fairytale backstory today. Of course I realized there was something I wanted to include in yesterday’s submission, soooo I’ll just manage it into this one. That’s the way of NaNoWriMo: always write moving forward. xxxxx
“Good morning,” said the Silver Man with a tip of his tall hat.
Such a strange creature! This man was not like Papa at all. His skin was darker, his voice smooth and fearless. He wore no wool sweater or flannel shirts as they, but a suit much like the fancy men in story books, right down to the shiny shoes. Beneath his long silvery coat was a lining that looked like white fur, but the hair was too long to be fur.
The girl and her brothers clasped hands. The little brother shivered. A crow called from atop the roof of their home, but the children didn’t answer him, either.
The Silver Man tucked his hands into his pockets and took another step away from the forest and closer to their front stoop. “I do hope I have the honor of addressing the children of Master Perdido.”
Black wings flew out of the forest–more crows for the roof just above the children’s heads. When the girl watched them perch, they seemed more like holes in the sky than birds.
It is just Mama and Papa and us, the older brother said, very loud and sure as he gripped his sister’s hand. Are you from beyond the forest?
“Indeed I am.” The Silver Man removed a small bottle from his coat pocket and took a drink. “I come from a land without snow such as this.” He picks up a handful, and tosses it in the air between him and the children.
The snow does not fall. Each flake remains clear and still and perfect before the children’s eyes, blinding them to the Silver Man and the forest behind him. Not even the crow swooping over the their heads as it circles the house can take their eyes away.
The Silver Man begins to speak.
“From beyond the forests and oceans and mountains…” A dot of still snow melts, revealing the Silver Man’s finger. The finger melts snow as it draws little lines, little circles, little arms and legs–
–three. Three little children.
“…I have crossed the world on magical waters to find you.”
A flurry of scratches in the snow surround the drawn children–the eternal forest that, to the girl’s amazement, is not eternal, for the Silver Man’s scratches end—the forest, it must end, too! He sketches lines for rivers, and, and squares for buildings, squashy circles for lakes and bumps for mountains. Snow melts into the ocean and there’s more, there is more to the world, such a world! The girl leans away from her brothers to see the Silver Man draw some buildings and trees, and…another line, circle, arms and legs. Himself, surely.
The world, it had never felt so near…and so achingly far away.
A dark shape melted into the snow map: The Silver Man waved his top hat through the snow, and the snow fell to the ground as normal, boring snow does. He brushed the last flakes from his hat, and replaced it upon his head. “My farm is kissed by the son every day, its air filled with the scents of sweet fruit and flowers. You can run free to play with other children all day, and the fairies will tuck you in to bed at night. That is,” his legs bent and suddenly he was eye to eye with them, “if you wish to go.”
The scent of oranges drifted from his shoulders. The children swooned, their imaginations filled with grass and no trees, with treats and no wool sweaters, with other children waving to them, calling their names, wanting them, them, to come and play–
–until a crow swooped again, knocking his hat off his head. There had to be a dozen crows now, circling the house and cawing, cawing, the noise too loud for dreams and maps and–
“Children!” Their mama stood in the open door, wild-eyed and shaking. “Inside!”
The children ran beneath Mam’s arms, the girl almost caught in the door as Mama swung it shut and brought down the beam to lock it in place. The children clung to the stairwell’s bannister, waiting.
The Silver Man approached the door.
Mama’s chest moved up, down, up down, fast like the bellows when she stokes the kitchen fire. “You can’t have them!” She yelled at the door. “I don’t know where it is! You can find your own demon seed!”
Black shapes whipped by the windows surrounding the door: crows, flying.
The Silver Man left the door.
Crows cried from the rooftop.
Mama’s breath kept heaving hard, so hard, harder than her children. Her skin shone with sweat, her dress sleeves sliced and bloody.
Who is he, Mama? asked the little brother.
All crowing stops.
A cold wind tumbles down the stairs and over the children’s backs. The girl watches a snowflake land upon her older brother’s cheek…followed by a white feather.
The top stair creaks.
Only the girl dares peak over her shoulder to see the Silver Man standing there above them all, brushing snow off his top hat.
“You know I can’t.”
Word Count: 857. Total so far: 1420. Yay!
While I know 50k won’t happen, my goal is to write 500+ words every day through the month of November–enough to have a solid start on my next novella. So, I’ll see you tomorrow! xxxxx
Hi, friends! I wanted to give myself a little warm-up to the main story with a moment in the story’s history. Considering my recent enjoyment of Labyrinth of the Faun, I wanted to take an impromptu stab at the fairy tale structure. Enjoy!
Once upon a time, there was a girl who had two brothers: one elder, and one younger. They lived with their parents in a forest filled with wild things in a vast house built of secrets and fear. No window allowed a view into the house from the outside. The brick walls were so unpleasant no vine wanted to climb them. The house, named Crow’s Nest for reasons which will later be revealed to you, looked out upon the forest with its mirrors eyes as if it loathed its own surroundings, but had nowhere else to go.
It was the perfect place for to live if you were
an explorer, which is just what the girl and her brothers deemed themselves to
Not that they could all explore at once. Being
that rarest of sorts known as sensible children, they knew it best to take
turns with each dangerous task involved with an explore. One was required to
distract the parents, be it helping poorly with chores, hiding the day’s cooking
rations, or—the riskiest option—asking incessant questions about the world beyond
Only the girl dared do this. Why must my hair be black? What are those
things that fly above us without flapping? Angel talks too much, can we eat
him? I want go riding into the forest like Papa does. What are those loud
noises outside the trees? Where does Papa go when he rides on Sean? When can I
read the big papers Papa brings home with the food?
Often the questions would drive the mother to tears in a hand towel, to screams with a spoon, or to both. The girl learned to run and hide in the Crow’s Nest, very well, and very fast.
After the Distractor came the Watcher. This
child must study the witchy trees and starved fingers for any signs of the
Devil’s eyes, for to be caught by the Devil’s servants is certain death. They
do not appear often in the day, but the children have seen them from their
bedroom window when the sun has not yet woken, and the world is violet and
sparkling with frost: small and yellow as the marbles they kept in their
playroom. But those eyes never turned away. Those eyes stared upon their house.
Those eyes stalked the innocent, flying down to strike any helpless rabbit or
mouse foolish enough to cross the bare yard. The children’s book called them “owls,”
but to their parents, they were nothing but servants to the worst Evil.
And no child wanted to be caught by the worst
So the third wore a dark green blanket they
fashioned into a cloak and carried a knife. This was the Insider, crawling
among the trees to carve little arrows near the grass line. Every found hoof
print of Sean’s marked another clue to the living labyrinth around them, another
tree marked to help them uncover the mysteries of distant rumbles and
high-flying creatures, of where food came from, and clothes, and books, and maybe,
just maybe, other children.
Oh, to see other children! The girl and her
brothers often talked late into the night of their dreams of new friends, what
they might look like and the games they could play.
So when the Silver Man emerged from the forest one wintry morning, the children were very curious, indeed.
Word Count: 563. Woohoo!
While I know 50k won’t happen, my goal is to write 500+ words every day through the month of November–enough to have a solid start on my next novella. So, I’ll see you tomorrow! xxxxx
Good morning, fellow creatives! While I frantically put together my analysis of Aunt Maria for Witch Week, please welcome the magical Juli D. Revezzo, author of over a dozen novels of magic and love. Tell us a bit about yourself, please!
Well, House of Dark Envy and Courting the Stationmaster’s Daughter are both set in the 19th century. My Gothic paranormal romance Lady of the Tarot is set in the 18th century and Fifty Measly Bucks, the 17th. I’ve also written in the Medieval periods–and one in World War II. 🙂 What draws me to the Victorian era, though, is… well, actually, I have a degree in Literature and from my early 20s have been reading Victorian lit through the lit of the mid-to-late 20th century ever since. And most of my biggest influences (sans Moorcock) are the writers of that era. I find the 19th century sense of wonder and drive for exploration particularly inspiring, they let their imaginations run wild (whoever thought we might travel faster than a horse?? Our 19th century ancestors, of course!), and that was for the most part, the birth of the fantasy genre, as well as the birth of women’s rights. So it’s a ready made hotbed of conflict.
Your time-travel novella Fifty Measly Bucks features protagonist Denver being caught up in the Salem Witch Trials. What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?
There are none in my novels. Well, no. Not often, I should say. I’ll mention them, but I have a particular aversion to putting words in a real figure’s mouth. I don’t know why; I just always have. So, I write around them. I change names and invent characters to stand in for them. There might be gossip a figure overhears about such and such a real life character, but I always try to corroborate the gossip. If I can’t I don’t use it. The only time I ever have was in House of Dark Envy. My hero corresponds with Tesla (yes, the Tesla) and I struggled with that, until I found the tidbit that said “Tesla wrote hundreds of letters” so….why couldn’t he have correspondence with Felix? 🙂 Fifty Measly Bucks, though, I mentioned the judges and the girls (Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam, Jr.), but extended the period deliberately to push out having to involve the three girls–and made one character a friend of the girls…. I can’t explain much more than that without spoiling it. Everything in the book, though, happens because of that extension.
You recently published the fifth installment to your Antique Magic series, The Dragon’s Seamstress. Congratulations!
Thank you. I hope your readers will
love The Dragon’s Seamstress. It was
a different assignment for Caitlin and Trevor but I couldn’t resist? Who
wouldn’t love having a dragon drop in for help? Its synopsis (because, why not?
;)) is as follows:
Since Caitlin and Trevor vowed to assist the Otherworld and opened their enchanted antique shop, they’ve seen many strange things. But now, someone comes in asking for a mundane item: kitschy “witches” brooms. Has their magical life returned to normal?
As the couple prepares to host a family gathering, fate intervenes and something they’ve never seen before roars into their life: A creature out of Welsh legend and fantasy: A blundering, somewhat underdeveloped dragon—not at all the type of dragon they ever expected to meet.
Forced to undertake his unique challenge, Caitlin and Trevor are perplexed by his demands, but the magical beast is certain they are the only witches who can help him. Doing so might unlock an ancient hidden secret. Refusing might destroy them.
This series has a unique episodic feel thanks to the profession of your protagonists Trevor and Caitlin, married owners of an antique shop that attracts gods, ghosts, and more. Earlier this year I discussed the writer’s problem of writing cliffhangers vs. standalones; do you feel having an episodic series is a strong compromise of giving readers more of the heroes they want without leaving them hanging when a book ends? (Gosh, I hope this question makes sense)
If I understand the question
correctly, yes. Maybe? I do try to tie up the end of each tale. Caitlin always
finds the answer to each client/sellers’ problem/mystery, book to book, but
where the “episode” comes in is that their year progresses–or by
this point, it’s been five years. 🙂 There’s a progression book to book of Trevor
and Caitlin’s ages, their anniversary, the holidays. While there’s also two
characters in school and their education advances, the biggest hold over is the
Curse that hangs over the heads of Trevor’s family. So the question of why did
that thing happen to his brother, sister, and mother casts a long shadow over
the series, despite each wrapped-up happy ending. To my longtime readers, I
know the answer to that question, and yes, you will be getting it soon.
That’s just a long way of saying,
yes having an episodic series is a compromise, but more, I’ve done it because
it felt right to continue following Caitlin’s life, in a linear progression.
But finding where to cut without a cliffhanger is too much of a nuisance, so
I’d rather have a clear end to the manuscript. Otherwise, the five books would
still be in my computer, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
You write fantasy and steampunk as well, such as Watchmaker’s Heart. Do you find yourself doing the same kind of research as you do for historical romances, or do you toss history out the window and write the world as you wish? 🙂
A little bit of both. The thing
about Steampunk is that it’s the aesthetics of our 19th century with the
technology of…well? Star Trek but run on steam. So, as much as you get to
have fun coming up with airships, gaslamps, and steampowered cars and weird
robotic things, Queen Victoria is always in charge (unless there’s been some
coup by we pesky Americans! ;)) and there’s always some 19th century cultural
something or ‘nother going on. So, depending on what that cultural something is
I want to noodle with, I’ll have to delve into the research lake. In Watchmaker’s Heart it was the mechanics
of the underworld, as my hero is an ex-gang member trying to go straight, and I
also had to do a little bit into the workings of the House of Commons for
another character. With House of Dark Envy, again, that was such a time of
technological exploration, and I had a readymade Steampunk feel in the work my
hero (and in real life history of the time Tesla) were doing concerning DC and
AC power, it was easy to just throw in some goggles and arcing magic Tesla
beams. With a book like my faery tale-based/faery godmother story Changeling’s Crown…well, it was a
mixture of faery tale setting and real world setting so that was fun to play
with. Having castles on one hand, and cars and modern ranches and cell phones
on the other. J
And Caitlin even dips into the historical through the Antique Magic series, with the psychic trips the things in her
antique shop sometimes spring on her. So far, she’s been hit with the
prohibition era, the ‘60s, Civil War
battles, (due to a Civil War fort she lives near, and the ghost of Trevor’s
ancestor from the 19th century who lives in their house and *cough*
helps out more often than not), and the most recently, a glimpse of Medieval
Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us, Juli! Let’s wrap up with one last craft question.How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
Critique Partners! In series (like Antique Magic), it gets particularly
sticky, as I try to explain as much as I think necessary, but I have to leave
it up to my critique partners to let me know if more is needed. And even then,
sometimes, we miss. Personally, I see no need to regurgitate the entire story in
all books throughout a series; in
fact, that bugs me to no end when I read other writers doing it. I’ve skipped
more pages, and put more books I read down for that than I have for not understanding something in a series of
which I neglected to read from the beginning.
But editors and cps seem to think differently, so I sometimes have to overcompensate to bring them up to speed. I hope I don’t bore the heck out of my longtime readers when they pick up a #x story, doing a recap, but if so, I hope they’ll forgive me. So, how do I balance it? Very carefully and not without pulling my hair out. 😉 So, The Dragon Seamstress, while it can stand alone, being the fifth time I’ve revisited the couple, is very much part of the series. I hope your readers will enjoy them all.
I’m sure they will, Juli, especially when you share of your novellas for FREE! That’s right, folks–you can get the ebook Caitlin’s Book of Shadows for free right now, at this very moment, instantly, today.
Though their fame became legend, a rumor cropped up about the Fulmer family: Something terrifying stalked Caitlin and her beloved Trevor. Something the bits and pieces she left claimed she had to make sense of. When the curator of their collection finds Caitlin’s long forgotten diary, she wonders will it tell the whole tale? Will it tell why Caitlin seemed so determined to tell the difference between reality and nightmare? Why she thought herself a witch?
What will the holidays hold for Caitlin? Perhaps the answer lies between the lines of her story, one of lessons, struggles, and hopes for each new year.
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!
Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)
So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.
The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)
Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.
But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.
(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)
The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.
Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…
Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.
Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.
In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.
Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.
Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.
It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.
This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”
So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!
The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.
In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”
The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.
The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”
At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.
Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.
All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.
The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.
When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.
You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.
And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.
The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?
If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?
But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.
Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.
Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.
Gah, now I’m just rambling.
I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.
Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.
Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.
Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!
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!
A few years back, I was challenged to take on a Young Adult series featuring teenage girls endeavoring to become Shield Maidens in the fantasy land of Idana. It took about a year to complete the first installment,Middler’s Pride. Oh yeah, pride’s a big deal in that story: self-centered Meredydd has to learn stop seeing herself as a legend and work with others as a team in order to defeat a nasty dark sorcerer. (Friendship is magic, you know.) When Middler’s Pride became a serialized novel on Channillo. I began work on the next volume, Beauty’s Price.As I once blogged:
Wynne has motives wholly unlike Mer’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates.
While Meredydd came from a mix of the flawed and firey heroines in Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novels, Wynne came from a newer love in my library: Jane Austen.
Yes, yes, I know Austen’s a classic, but I hadn’t read her until the last few years. Yes, I’m a horrible person. 🙂
The Bennets of Pride and Prejudice were a wonderful source of inspiration for Wynne’s family. They are…well. I think I’ll let Wynne describe them herself. There’s a lot to be learned of a character when one asks her to dig deep into her own home and heart. For this month’s free fiction, I’d love to share this excerpt of a long’n’lovely dialogue Narrator Me had with Wynne. She introduces us to her four sisters, the love of her life, and the rich, handsome gentleman whose arrival heralds unnerving changes to Wynne’s world.
NARRATOR ME: How would you describe yourself?
WYNNE: I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live near us. My mother is also of a business, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.
We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways to be pleasing to the heart.
Your parents sound like long-term planners. Well, it can’t be easy raising five daughters, especially if they’re all like you.
Like me? My apologies, but that is a viewpoint in need of swift correction. Let us leave the kitchens and walk around the house—I avoid using the proper rooms as much as possible. Now, look over the fence as we move past the house for Traders Street. You can see my family there, in the courtyard inside the fence. My mother often instructs that it is good business to be on display, so there my sisters sit, poised for admiration. Some hours they sit so still I wonder if I live inside a tapestry woven by the gods.
Every one of them aspires to be the idyllic wife: clean, soft, and beautiful. Almedha strums a lyre. Cordelia weaves flower chains because their colors shine against her chestnut hair. Isolda prefers her needle, giving a fairy’s kiss to kerchiefs and cloaks. Morwenna strums another lyre, for she copies Almedha in all manners.
Among these four you will not find a single thought that did not first come from Mother. She dictates who sits where, for the sunlight best compliments Cordelia, while cloudy days give Isolda’s eyes a unique glow.
I must tell you, for I must tell someone lest my mouth be overwhelmed with vitriol. I find this all to be the purest of poppycock.
So, not exactly friends with your sisters.
Myself? I must say no. I am as civil as I must be, but I find the constant speak of suitors and wealth more than tiresome. What good is wealth to a man who squanders it, or even worse, hordes it from all but himself? Such men are not fit to be husbands or fathers, yet my sisters always watch the travelers for lords, chiefs, and merchants. If one has fur about his collar, he is worth a careful gaze. If one has a gold chain around his neck, he is worth a smile. If one travels with more than three servants, he is worth The Shy Drop Introduction. If one has a herald, a private cart, and a squadron of guards, he is worth The Sly Accident Introduction.
Oh, Mother has created several strategies to initiate interaction with a potential husband, and we each of us have been tested and tested late into the night to ensure their success when the time is right.
Do you have any friends around here?
Only the River Galene.
To be seen with others in town is to bring scandal and shame upon my family. I have not yet discerned how such scandal would come about, as many of the farmers and artisans have always been kind in their greetings to me in the market. They always offer compliments to my family, inquire of their health. Yet when I linger to watch the leather’s tooling, or the forge’s fire-storm, I am deeply chastised and kept in the fence for days afterward. How are such friendships scandalous? “Their hands are coarse and they live in dirt,” Mother says. “They know nothing of the finer things in life, as well they shouldn’t. But no daughter of mine’s going to know anything else, I’ll make certain of that, won’t I, Master Adwr?”
“Yes, Mistress Ffanci,” says Father, who thusly returns to his sums and calendars.
So here I must be, the fifth maiden of the set, situated upon the left with Cordelia to mirror Morwenna and Isolda, for it is Almedha’s turn in the center today. The flowers in Cordelia’s hair still sparkle with morning dew. Almedha takes lead with a new ballad filled with sweet romance. Morwenna quickly finds the harmony, but knows she is not allowed to sing louder than the eldest. Isolda hums and sews in rhythm. I hold the flute to my lips and fill it with sound, but not life. There is no life in such art.
The way you’re glaring at that fence, I’m betting you’ve found life somewhere. You did something incredible, and you found it.
What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.
Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in town were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children immersed in adventures and warfare, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Galene. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the town’s borders without escort or knowledge of the land, to walk northward through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town I have never seen. I felt so very brave that day, so brave that without any word of introduction or family name, I walked up to the first child I saw and said, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance, though much of my body was dirtied with mud, petals, and sweat.
He seemed only to notice my eyes, this reed of a boy, for he never looked away when he said, “Loads.”
“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, except “Wh-what about adventures by the river Galene? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.
“Sometimes,” he said.
“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.
The boy’s smile reminded me of the Galene in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”
“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”
That may not seem very incredible to you, embarking on a game with another child. But to me, that day marked the first day I knew life instead of merely living.
Compared to sitting inside a fence on display all day, that is incredible. Would you consider this moment the turning point of your life, or is that something else?
Did I not already share this with you?
Well, I may not have shared all.
Harvest time always promises many caravans both on river and road. At this time, I was too young to be put before the eye of suitors, so my absence was never noted. I trust you to assume I took full advantage of this throughout the year, but especially every harvest.
Galene wears many crowns, if you have a care to look. In spring, she carries stars upon her head, and in summer, ribbons of light. In winter the ice thins and folds into jewelry so delicate I never dare breathe upon it.
But in fall, she moves as fire. I dipped my hands often into that crimson glow. The current felt as fingers around mine, even changing course to pull me northward.
I moved through the dark forest with people-stones. That sounds silly, I grant you, but I remember that particular day the stones looked, yes, like people: heads, necks, shoulders. Whenever sunlight cast its shadows, I felt sure I saw the markings of faces upon them.
No, I did not tarry to investigate. That was one adventure I could not bear to do alone.
No. I must not dwell on what has happened. What is done is done.
Do you wish to see the rocks? I cannot promise they will be there.
You smile at me as if I jest. No, Idana has no giants, not that I have seen. But I have never seen the ocean, either, yet I have no doubt about its presence. Nor do I doubt mountains touch the sky to the north. So it is with giants, thundering their way through lands past the river Galene. Oh, what a world there must be beyond this place! But dark and nasty things have found my country of Idana to their liking, so here they come to make tanneries filled with carcasses and animal piss, and…
You can see it, and smell it still. Look behind us now. Just past the town, to the south, there. Where Galene struggles for breath as they spill all manners of disgusting filth into her for the sake of industry.
My father is proud of that tannery. Mother, too. I am told I will grow accustomed to the smell in time. I often reply that the day I grow accustomed to the smell of piss and death is the day my soul dies.
I am told husbands aren’t looking for souls. And that is that.
Look no more to that wretched tannery. S-stay close to me, and to the river, please. Especially if we are to meet another.
Your boy, the friend? Nudge nudge?
Why do you wink at me so? Cease such actions, and pay heed to Galene, if you please.
And besides, he only comes south with his village’s weekly market cart.
You know, I get a feeling you don’t want to talk about the real turning point very much.
Oh, but I do, I do. There are simply so many turns to this point, you see. The day wound about me so tightly my soul nearly burst free of my chest, and I thought I had fallen into underworld of Hifrea.
I spoke already of the people-stones, that I did not want to look at them alone, did I not? I came to the village, and to Morthwyl–yes, the boy, the friend. My friend, my boy.
Galene had carved a small bay for herself not far from Morthwyl’s family home, where sparks shot into the air and the clangs of his father’s hammer sang while the morning clung to night’s chill. Six years, Morthwyl’s home welcomed me with this song. I grew to love the smell of woodsmoke and iron: simple industry that thrives as it both gives and takes goodness of the earth. These scents hid themselves in Morthwyl’s clothing and hair when he came down to meet me by the bay. Neither of us ever spoke in sight of the house.
In the woods along the Galene, however, Morthwyl’s lips spoke much without speaking: Never had I known someone to smile so. Some smiles promised mischief, some hope. Some a joke, with laughter eager to break through all. Some sadness. In his home, I saw no smiles, but heard many words. None ever seemed to quite translate into a pure, clear truth.
But this is not about Morthwyl’s family, not this day.
Morthwyl’s braids looked fresh, but one lock had broken free, curling round his right eye. His eyes were deep and clear, like the river.
A short walk from the shore was a patch of herbs and flowers different members of the village used. It seemed folks took turns to care for the patch as well as harvest it. Morthwyl knelt in the damp earth and cupped the bud of a tall flower. He looked up at me with such earnestness that I joined him there upon the ground. My instinct was to reach out, to hold, to care for he who had made this world sweet in spite of industry’s poison flooding the land. His cupped hands were spotted by freckles and burn marks from the forge. I studied that which he cupped in his hands. “A thistle, is it not?”
The earnestness spread to his chest, which began to flutter as though he were running. “Orpine.”
“Oh…” Mother spoke of orpines often, often promising we would plant them in our garden to divine who my sisters would marry. The three times she actually did instruct Father to purchase orpine for planting, however, one set grew straight as corn, one grew sick, and one simply died. Not one flower grew to touch another, and therefore promise marriage. Now I sat with one orpine resting upon my arm. Morthwyl released his, and it leaned forward to grace the petals’ tips in the most chaste of kisses.
Then Morthwyl’s hands blossomed with a new gift: two orpines forged of iron. They were but the length of our thumbs, woven round one another, leaves embracing, heads touching intimately.
Oh how my own heart wrapped round us in that moment! I could not breathe or speak. My soul swam through his eyes, feeling them purify me of past sorrow and bitterness. All that remained was joy so very sweet that I brought my lips to his own so that he may taste what happiness felt to me. His fingertips trembled along my cheek as his lips stayed with mine. In my heart, that moment has never ended.
But somewhere out of sight a branch snapped, pulling me away in fear. Had my father followed me at last? A horse trotted in haste, but not towards us. When a command thundered through the wood, it sounded like some lord demanding his servant. Father had no such depth or power in his commands, so I at last allowed myself to exhale and look again upon my Morthwyl.
A small smile appeared, relieved, and he placed the orpines in my hands. His own long fingers pressed a place in the stems, and I heard a small ting. The orpines came apart. One for each of us.
“Perfect,” I said. For in that moment, it was.
Oh, Wynne. No wonder it’s a turning moment.
I am not finished.
The horse whinnied such that I feared it right behind me. Morthwyl rolled into the garden and kept to his knees, hand round a weed. I uprooted the orpines and held them as children, already doomed to die in my arms. My heart cried out, but I gritted my teeth against the sorrows. No one else would know their love. Better to keep them together in their final moments than transplanted to somewhere far and alien, alone.
The horse jingled into view at full gallop. The rider pulled hard upon the belled reins, halting at garden’s edge. Beast and master shone with golden hounds embroidered upon crimson cloak and covers. Rings of red and orange gems glittered round every gloved finger. Such wealth displayed with such ease and without a single guard felt wrong, very wrong. I took one step back, eager to run, but such impudence would make me memorable, and I did not want whomever hid beneath that hood to remember me. So I curtsied, and kept my eyes to the orpines.
Morthwyl, too, bowed his head. He spoke with the quiet clarity that I knew only to come when he defended me from the insults of other lads. “My lord, the High King’s Road is far from this place. If you wish I will lead you to it.”
“That will not be necessary, boy.” The rubied hand pulled the hood aside, revealing a face that looked far too young for its voice. His beard was barely grown, and his hair, as golden as his hounds, remained tied back into a single short tail. “Merely exploring the extant of my land. But it appears I have trespassed upon your borders, this village of…”
“Little Innean, my lord.”
“Yes of course.” I could feel his gaze upon us, unrelenting as the sun in the heat of summer. If not for the horse’s content chewing, I would have screamed but to break the silence. “Pray forgive me, but I feel as if I should know you both.” He clicked his tongue, and the horse closed the distance between us. I could see every thread of his hounds, down to the points of their teeth. He had approached me, so there was no choice: I had to look up at his clean, polished face. “Perhaps my business has brought me to this town in the past. My memories are not always my own.” His smile revealed teeth white enough to be pearls.
No lord looked so perfect, not in body or status. He needed to get away, back to his land and away from this village, away from my Morthwyl. “Assuredly not, my lord,” I said. “This is but a small town of farmers and of no consequence to any of your stature.”
The rider smiled warmly as he took in my countenance, orpines and all. “A merchant such as myself trades with all walks, my lady. You, more than the boy, are far more familiar. I am now certain I have met you before.”
No, you are wrong! I wanted cry out, to leap into the Gasirad and beg sanctuary, but my mind, curse it, thought otherwise. “Perhaps you think of my sisters? They meet many who do business with my father, Master Adwr.” Surely he was thinking of them. Let him deal with their Sly Accidents before his horse, forcing him to carry them in all weak and wounded and be compelled to attend them. Let them coo and paw upon his chiseled jaw and ringed fingers. He can have their choice of them, for all I cared.
“Sisters?” He swallowed the word down. My own stomach burned. “How many?” The question came hard and fast. No smile, however warm and easy covered the odd strike that came with such a question.
And what was I to think in such a question? Yes, odd, but there surely could be no harm in it. “I am one of five sisters, my lord.”
Thank the gods for that “Sir.” I allowed myself to turn to the voice and see five large men, all clothed in crimson and golden hounds. Their hair was silver, and their features hard and angled round dull, red eyes. Yet in such mass and strength, their skin looked grey as corpses.
The one who spoke stepped forward and bowed at the waist. “Master, all corners of the border are now marked. Will trespassers be killed, or simply beheaded?”
The rider nodded along. “Yes, we’ll—what?” He cared not what Morthwyl’s reaction to such a question was, which I did see: as stalwart as oak. He would give these strangers nothing. It strengthened me to do the same. “Commander, such jests are wholly inappropriate among such intelligence…and beauty.” His rubied hand let go the reins, and opened its palm to me.
I wanted to cower. I wanted to run. I wanted to do anything, anything but place my hand in his.
But to not would mark me for punishment under his hands. And Morthwyl would not stand for such a thing without a fight, and then they would kill him. If they want to behead mere trespassers, what evils would they unleash for assault?
So I gave him my soiled hand, with my iron orpine hidden safely beneath the stalks of dying ones. His fingers closed fast and tight, and when the thumb stroked away a clump of dirt, I thought certain I would faint, or vomit, or by Galene, both. He brought his face close enough that I felt the chill of his breath, but he did not touch me with his lips. “A young beauty such as yours is to be cared for, my dear, not soiled by labor.” I curtsied to acknowledge, but said nothing. “I must speak to your father on it.”
Oh! “That is not necessary, my lord, it—”
“Tut tut, I insist. Now Commander, let us see if you’ve marked my lands clearly enough for the innocents.” He bowed as he drew his hood forward. “Until we meet again, my lady.” He rode past the five guards. Their eyes stared at us blankly for a moment, and then they turned to march silently into the trees.
Any thoughts, comments? Please share them with my thanks!
I Lang hae thought, my youthfu' friend, A something to have sent you, Tho' it should serve nae ither end Than just a kind memento: But how the subject-theme may gang, Let time and chance determine; Perhaps it may turn out a sang: Perhaps turn out a sermon. - Robert Burns