Mere paragraphs from the end, and Middler’s Pride is bloody stuck.
It seems every story’s got to have franchise potential or it’s not worth the investment. Diana Wynne Jones proved that writers can set multiple stories in the same universe and reuse characters without creating some sort of epic story arc. House of Many Ways, for instance, is the third book of the so-called Howl trilogy; Howl and Sophie are only in it as 2nd and 3rd string characters, but they do serve the plot, and readers get to see what their favorite leads from Howl’s Moving Castle are up to. Jones didn’t force Castle in the Air or House of Many Ways to have direct plot ties to Howl’s plot arc, but did maintain the characters’ presence in their established universe. I suppose that’s the sort of thing I’d like to do: I don’t want the stories to be some stiff jumpsuit of a uniform, nor a bloated mumu. I want a smart-looking ensemble, something worth stepping out in together, but can also be appreciated as individual pieces.
So, how to do it?
Protagonist Gwen’s one of four Shield Maiden recruits. I suppose that number sounds absurdly small for military training, but I didn’t feel comfortable wielding a massive cast of extras about in every scene. Four recruits allowed me to develop their pasts in order to understand their motivations in the present and therefore discover potential stories in their futures. I could give each girl a turn at center stage with four stories: Gwen the middler first, followed by passionate Wynne, then circus runaway Elle, and ending with orphan Tegan.
But my protagonists aren’t the problem. It’s the second-stringers getting my goat and letting him have a go at the laundry. Who do I need in the next story, and who could wait? Do I pull a Return of the Jedi and throw a big party with the whole cast as an Ewok band jams in the background? Ewok music’s great and all, but it just didn’t make sense for everyone Gwen’s ever known to show up outside this other little village after Gwen and Company kill the monster. Between the characters I created and the others given to me by Michael Dellert, creator of the Matter of Manred universe, that would be, like, at least two dozen characters being shoved onto the story’s stage at the same time before the curtain falls. I mean, does it make sense having old Cranog the jeweler showing up, or the suitor’s fly-swallowing mom? No.
And besides, none of them are Ewok-sized.
Pish and spit. Let the characters justify their final appearances.
Terrwyn, Gwen’s mentor, had to come back, because I’m sure she would have beaten the crap out of me if I said otherwise.
“Leave it to you to create the messiest cures.” Terrwyn’s pipe-embers glowed as she sucked in air. The linden leaf smoke almost put Gwen to sleep on Terrwyn’s shoulder, but she knew better than to give into sleep. “Sleep on the horse, wake on the ground.” Terrwyn would ensure that saying to be truth.
Terrwyn hates to miss a fight…but she has to miss this one since it’s the recruits’ fight, not hers…hmmm. The village chief, Murchadh, would have seen all the fires Elle sets to trap the monster. Woedin, the medic from Gwen’s home, was already at that village, but she likely left ahead of other help, like Terrwyn and…Terrwyn’s husband Cinaedh? He barely says boo in the early chapters. But he’s another healthy soldier, and he might be useful later. So, assuming these two come as quickly as they can, it’d make sense they ride with Chief Murchadh and Woedin to the fires. They just don’t get there in time to help, which fits my story fine.
While I planned on Gwen’s father, the one she’s been seeking approval from all along, to come to the village so they could have a moment, it hit me that Gwen’s stepmother Saffir deserved some say, too. Gwen had always seen the woman as silent, cold, and favoring her birth-daughter, while in reality Saffir had been too intimidated by Gwen to initiate a connection. They had a great scene before Gwen left for training where Saffir shares this with her. If Saffir doesn’t show up, she’d be a total hypocrite.
Tegan followed Woedin straight back into the largest tent—the medicinal tent, apparently. Two fires on either side boiled water and herbs. A number sat near those fires, coughing, but talking, too. A ghost fluttered out, eyes wide and fixed upon the horses. “Where’s Gwen?” Her voice sounded desperate, tired…and familiar?
Gwen walked round to give Terrwyn room to dismount, and stared. “Saffir?”
“Oh, thank the gods.” She ran right through horse manure, splattering an already soiled red dress, to take Gwen by both hands, which, say, weren’t shaking yet. Maybe because there were no signs of needles anywhere… “That cart rolled in, and once Aberfa told the Millers and the Millers told us your message, your father bolted to the King’s Seat for aid. Woedin nearly emptied her stores, we scoured the larders.
I paused. So if Saffir’s here, and Gwen’s father the Lord Aillil is coming, then the bratty siblings Nutty and Muirgurgle have to show up. But then, what about Gwen’s friend Aberfa? Those two always supported one another, and she wouldn’t have wanted to leave Gwen hanging…
Part of Middler’s Pride dealt with Gwen’s ability to connect and trust in others. She’s just made new friends with the other recruits. Aberfa shouldn’t be forgotten, but she wouldn’t serve the story’s themes showing up here; plus, as a deaf-mute, too few people would be able to communicate with her to justify her presence at the village. So Aberfa must stay behind, just not forgotten. Saffir was in the opportune place to explain that.
Your father thought I should stay behind, but I argued the Millers can help lead the planting with Aberfa to watch their children. ‘No daughter of mine’s going to be left stranded in a land of death,’ I told him, and he did his, well, you know, that look of his when his mind’s made up. But mine was, too.” Saffir’s hold tightened, and Gwen could feel her calluses, cuts, and few bandages.
There! Now I had Aberfa dealt with. Saffir also seemed the best way to take care of Gwen’s siblings.
“Woedin wouldn’t let us in at first because the plague was, well, you saw, it’s on everything. So I thought, well, one can’t clean stables with horses in it. So everyone’s out for a scrubbing. It’s been hard work, but good work. Not that your siblings agree.” Gwen followed Saffir’s look off to one edge of the campground, where a grimacing Nutty stirred fabric in a lye tub. Beyond her burned a terrific fire, too great for cooking: Muirgurgle, face hidden behind his elbow, throwing what must have been clothes and wood beyond saving.
Gwen snorted. “I’d expect no less.”
Whew! So, Gwen’s family has more or less made its curtain call: Saffir’s supported, Nutty and Muirgurgle don’t get to be snobs. But it wasn’t time for the father Lord Aillil yet. He had taken off for Droma’s capitol for help…which, UGH, means I need to pull at least one person with a name from that one scene where Gwen was given her enchanted sword. Hmph. Not the king, this isn’t, like, country-threatening…well it could have been, but Lord Aillil wouldn’t have known to say that when he got help. Aha! Why not the king’s brother? Lord Lorcan leads the Company of the Shield, and I had earlier established he knew Terrwyn and Gwen’s father.
But they can’t show up yet because I’ve still got unfinished business from Act II, like Captain Vala. She was too sick to ride out, fine. But earlier in the story she told Gwen she hated Terrwyn’s guts. Why? Well it sounded good at the time, but now that Terrwyn’s in the same space, those two have to have some sort of meeting. Time to dig up a rough’n’ready song, one with guttural voices, drink, and the rhythm of pounding boots, and get to work:
“That’ll do, Gwenwledyr.” Thunk. Terrwyn elbowed Gwen, winked, and walked towards a fire where the gizzards lounged with bandages about their necks. No drunken laughter, but they did talk, and chuckle, and drink steaming cups with the sharp smell of colewort and willow-herb. Gods know when they last cleaned out their toxins, especially the one strewn across a bench, snoring as a saw in fresh lumber. Terrwyn paused to knock her pipe clean against the snorer’s boot. The gizzard didn’t stir. Hold on…that mass of hair…Captain Vala!
“Wait, Terrwyn!” But too late.
Everyone got a lesson in cursing that night, including Saffir, who blushed and gave Gwen a wide-eyed look. “Well. I hope Shield Maidens aren’t expected to sacrifice their manners.”
Terrwyn cackled. “Any proper soldier knows better than to lay across another’s seat in the waking hours, your ladyship. Eh, Vala?” She peered over her shoulder.
Captain Vala’s hand slapped the bench and pulled her upright. “Terrwyn, you vindictive, self-righteous piece of—“
“Catha’s mercy, is that you, Vala?” Cinaedh’s ears glinted in the firelight as he jiggled towards them.
Never has a tree moved so quickly. Up, tall, straight, fingers running through hair to make it, erm, less of a nest, Gwen supposed. “Cinaedh!” The exclamation came out soft and bewildered.
Terrywn caught Gwen’s gawk. She turned her pipe’s bit towards Gwen’s face and motioned it upward. Gwen’s mouth clicked shut. “Captain Vala, have you met the wife of Lord Aillil the Courageous?”
Saffir gave a small curtsy, but Gwen could see she was trying just as hard not to smile as the captain remained dumbfounded before the rolling hill that was Cinaedh. “You…you weren’t…but in service…”
The bench protested loudly when Cinaedh settled in. “Ah, life’s given me much to enjoy: good wife, good master, good friends.” His hand moved from Terrwyn, to Saffir, and to Gwen before settling on his belly. “And good food, plainly!” His laugh spread among all around that fire except Captain Vala, whose fingers gave up trying to de-nestify her hair. “The Shield’s been kind to all your limbs, I see. Terrwyn can’t say the same, you know.”
Captain Vala staggered off. The gizzards let loose a load of questions, but Gwen didn’t feel like listening. She could only see that old tree fall by another fire, trying to make sense of old memories and new sights. Bloody hard, breaking the past’s hold on the present.
The exchange goes a bit longer than I intended, but my gut tells me this is the way to go. Captain Vala needs a decent curtain call, considering she was their trainer and may not be coming back in the other books. Plus I like how Gwen actually connects, if only for a moment, with someone she used to hold in contempt.
The other recruits also must have their moments, of course, and they’ll have the last scene to themselves, too–if I can ever get it worked out. Wynne’s the trouble. She’s the prime lead in the next book, so I’m trying to drop little bits of her life without making a huge fuss about it. It’s especially challenging because she’s the most ordinary one of the group: Tegan’s got some magickal abilities, Elle’s got fire-breathing skills from the circus, and Gwen got a commission from the river goddess, her gifted magickal sword, yadda yadda yadda. Wynne’s just…there. And there is a reason for her being there, despite not really being able to kick any sort of ass, and it’s that reason that starts the second story. Therefore, I can’t give the reason yet. GAH!
Well, I’ll get there. In the meantime, we’ve got one last major curtain-call moment to do: Lord Aillil, Gwen’s father. The only blood-family that she knows of, a man who denied her affection and attention over the years, who was ready to marry her off to the first halfway decent suitor he could get a hold of.
Who, in the few moments they had together in the story’s first act, does act in love for his daughter. He just doesn’t have a clue how to show it, and she was too full of hurt and pride to really see when he tried.
When it’s time for Lord Aillil to arrive with the king’s brother and reinforcements, I know The Bootleggers are not the right music for the moment. The moment Lord Aillil and Gwen come together: that’s a homecoming.
Wynne broke the silence. “Anyone else hear horses?”
Soon everyone did, and saw the torches, too: half a dozen, led by a silver blaze who could barely stop before the Chief Murchadh’s granddaughter ran into the road AGAIN. Maybe that manor’s fence wasn’t just about the Cat Man’s plague…
“Lord Lorcan!” Chief Murchadh whipped up the child with one hand as he held the other to the King’s brother during dismount. “Hail and welcome. We’re meager, but healing. And Lord Aillil—“ he held out his hand.
It was not taken.
Lord Aillil had that blasted look again of having his mind made up, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else get in his way. He butted shoulders with the king’s brother, ignored the chief, lifted a child out of his way so he could step round the snakeskin, ignoring that of course, tuning out soldiers and peasants saying hail and other nice things while his son and daughter whined about work and past Terrwyn and past Saffir and stopped inches before Gwen’s feet.
His face was lined with age and dirt. Eyes red from travel. Hair falling from braids. He looked at Gwen, searched her face. Ye gods, what did I do now? He opened his mouth. Closed it.
And hugged Gwen so tight he lifted her from the ground.
End scene. Not book, but scene.
I’m on the last few pages of Gwen’s story now, with these four Shield Maiden recruits set apart from everyone, waiting to come before Captain Vala and the king’s brother to hear whether or not they’ve passed boot camp. It’s a tricky bit because I want to touch a little on their backstories without bogging down what’s quintessentially a wrap-up scene. Plus, I need to bring back things that were mentioned in Middler’s Pride, like the warring Khaibe tribe that’s killed loved ones of Tegan and Gwen, and the Torq of Gasirad, something Wynne desperately wants. Plus plus, because obviously there’s not enough going on, I do want my Return of the Jedi moment with the, well, Jedi returning: of Gwen looking off and seeing the goddess Gasirad in the distance…with company. It’ll promise a new adventure while also quietly completing Gwen’s transformation, making way for another girl’s story. This closing can’t dwell too long on any one detail; after getting her pride crushed, meeting a goddess, killing a giant snake, and facing a magickal foe from her childhood, Gwen’s too tired to dwell on anything for very long. Time to let the spotlight drift as Gwen settles into her new self and locate our next hero: a beautiful daughter of a merchant who, by all accounts, should not have bothered with this dirty business of becoming a Shield Maiden.
Time to find out what Wynne fights for…and if she’s already lost.