Tuesday, 4 March 2014
The drums beat.
Above the mountains the air hung heavy, charged with electricity. The storm clouds stacked high above the south and eastern ridges slowly rolling over the vast valley, charcoal towers lit by internal lightning, the twilight dimmed to a harsh white light swiftly fading. The mountains formed a high, elliptical wall, sheltering the wide and rolling valley within. The distant northern point was pierced by the great river Vorath, which escaped its deeply carven bed in a myriad of waterfalls and smaller tributaries, before wending its way through the centre of the broad fields, until passing through the southern point, eventually thundering its way into the Sea of Sorrows.
This was the valley of the broken Farrahnaan Empire, now more commonly known as the Grain Bin. It’s entirety taken up with intensely farmed fields, even the mountain’s feet terraced to yield. Instead of grain the valley held people, soldiers, a vast army camped amidst the stubbly fields. The harvest gone, sold, and sent to the Empire. Rations packed securely in long winding rows of carts, corrals of mules, the cavalry’s horses near by. For every armoured, scarred soldier there was a meagerly outfitted slave. Some corralled like the cattle, others bustling through the hordes.
All seemed infected by the frenzy of the approaching storm, whose chill breezes broke through the humidity to pass over clammy skin. All across the fields tents were being taken down, their canvas snapping as if they struggled to escape, supplies being securely fastened and checked once more, soldiers checking weapons and armour. The hissing multitude of whetstones adding tension to the distant rumbles of thunder, to the drums. Fires spotted the terrain, ruddy glows belching smoke, over them hung iron pots full of uncommonly good stew. The last meal.
The storm clouds rolled inland, closing over the eastern ridge of mountains, creating a roof over the valley. The underside traced in the orange of the fires, the black bodies with theirs flashing blue entrails pressing down, adding an ionised tang to the ripe air. The eastern ridge was punctured by three passes, the central pass leading to Merida proper. The gateway to the broken Empire. Here the last vestiges of power still clung, the faded line of Emperors still dwelt, though their reaches only extended to the valley and the wealth they wrung out of it. Their one time glory was evident in the palace that spanned the Farrahnaan Pass.
Inverted and heptahedral the seat of Farrah hung suspended within the natural fissure between the two mountains that created the pass. Four of its sides ended in points driven into the very sides of the mountain, a third of their total height. The apex of the palace buried in the earth at the very centre of the pass, two roads leading around it a sharp angles. From this apex the building grew floor by floor, each taking up a greater area than the last, and all ringed in lavish balconies. The top floor was roofed by the very sky itself, around it’s edges broad steps led up to columned walkways offering views of the mountains and valley, and of Merida. In it’s very centre a great raised bed of stone, on which was carved and painted a map of what was once the Farrahnaan Empire and surrounding lands. The map itself was exquisitely to scale, and highly detailed, it would take thirty men to circle it. It was the last pride of the old days and was maintained, even the bodies of water kept filled to the correct level, the pond like seas kept free of plants and fish, the ancient mechanism still kept the rivers flowing. It was here that Teza of Farrah, the last son, stood and betrayed his people.
He had been born into generations of resentment, of loss. Always reminded of what was, surrounded by faded glories and the legends of his bloodlines, knowing that his family were now little better than merchants. Wealth they still had, but only a remnant of power. Upon the map lay newer marks, river beds, even scars where hills and mountain tops had been removed, scars from the time of Lightnings, when the Stars Fell and the Empire was broken. It’s people scattered to join the mass migration that followed that time as people desperately sought some safe place. Always that reminder of what was, and what is. But he would change that, he would win back some glory! Once more Farrah would be powerful, and his name would shine with that renewed glory… even if he had to bow to a different power to achieve it.
Once more and Empire would reign, and even if he was not the Emperor at least his family would rule the lands what were once theirs. It was a compromise that weighed heavily on his pride, yet not nearly as much as his desire for greatness, for power. And so he found himself here, thunder thrumming through his heart and the glow of the lightning reflecting in his black eyes, staring across at Alas, the General of the Black Dogs, the Emperor’s Personal Guard and Primary Army. The man to whom seven eighths of the masses below answered, the man who would lead this campaign to victory. And upon whose word Teza’s reward would lay.
He was a giant of a man, unusual for an Imperialist, the ruddy paleness of his skin suggested origins from an unknown place, but his dark eyes and hair were typical. His hair was shorn short to his scalp, strange to Teza, leaving a surprisingly handsome face bare, the cheekbones standing out. Thick eyelashes framing those dark eyes, which watched everything with a certain quite calm. He had a powerful thickly muscled frame, not a scrap of fat left, yet moved with a sense of controlled grace. When he spoke it was in a clear, quiet way, giving respect without ever submitting. He never showed any inflection of emotion, his face unreadable.
Not at all what Teza had expected, yet watching Alas in control had made him respect him, and he was told that the soldiers spoke of him with fear, pride and an almost worship. There were rumours that all of the Black Dogs were slaves, but nobody ever asked them, and he was willing to let it go.
Around the map stood his own nobles, and captains, and the leaders of the Imperialist Legions. All knew the plan, how the campaign would go, but Alas had called them to gather for one last meeting before they used the coming storm and night’s darkness to hide their attack. Using a pointer he gestured to Farranaan Pass.
“ Here, we stand, the greatest army the Empire has ever amassed. We will conquer these lands for the Emperor’s glory, as he wills it. I will lead the Black Dogs through here, the Secondary shall sweep forth from the pass of Vorath’s Way, the Tertiary from the Gommoran Pass. The Gommorans are an unsurety, though unlikely to defend Merida. A garrison must swiftly be formed here. Each army shall fracture and sweep outward. There are four Great Families, twelve lesser holdings. These will be subdued by dusk tomorrow-”
Teza spat and interrupted.
“ The Great Family, here outside my pass, they are treacherous, but brave. I advise you show no mercy to these, kill them all, except the daughter. She will be mine. In fact, do it with all the Great Families, mayhap keep one alive, a small hope. Fear will spread ahead of us, we can offer to let the Families live, if they surrender.”
Alas calmly regarded him. “You believe such terror will work? The command on high is for a swift beginning.”
“Oh yes, the Meridans love their Families.”
“So be it. We strike swiftly, and deadly. The Great Families are to be eliminated in the first offensives, save one to be held ransom, a possible heir. Any who fight are to be killed. Of the survivors a third are to be put in chains and sent to the slave block, the rest will be offered a choice. Death, slavery or indenture. Those who choose indenture are to be placed under an overseer and supplemented with our own slaves to work the land. Any produce is to be seized, tallied and sent to the Empire, save what is needed to survive the winter. Each holding will be made secure, a squadron, or garrison left as necessary. I want our backs protected.”
His pointer swept to the north to the point where impassable mountains of Alhion separated the cultured world from the North, from the Empire, across the top of the Sea of Sorrows, into Merida, curling around the pasture lands of the Ceurans, separating the rolling lands of Merida from the North. The pointer rested near where the jagged mountains joined the pastureland.
“Here will the Eagles Legion descend, from the secret way through the mountains. The Ceuran are a ferocious people, the Emperor is not interested in their lands but knows them for the deadly warriors they are. The Legion will march through their lands, burning their Trees and taking what horseflesh is in reach. They will not veer from their path. A sally to show the Empire’s might, to damage their defences, but not a war that will linger. If they are wise they will pay heed. To the Vorath they will march. Here, the river runs wide and there is a good ford. A garrison will be established. The Eagles Legion will merge with our own, providing a relief, and the means to push further. By spring I want the locals subdued, fields cleared and ready for planting. There will be no rest, no succour. We push, we push hard. We have the element of surprise. We take it and we deliver them a great blow before they have time to gather. Clear?”
A grizzled, hook nosed captain grunted, his fist tight around the hilt of his sword.
“What of the other Great Families? Shall the manoeuvre on the first offensives hold?”
“ If they fight, they die. Let it be known that if they surrender they will be allowed to live, in servitude to the Empire. My Lord Teza, do you agree?”
Teza lifted his eyes from the map, from the lands that should have been his. The first rains began to fall, lightnings flashed over head as the storm finally broke above the valley. It felt, finally, as if he could breath easy again.
“ Oh yes, it is done.”
Saturday, 22 February 2014
The last couple of years have seen an increase in discussion regarding diversity in the genre community, from heroes other than straight white males to visibility of women authors. Yesterdays article "Women's fantasy fiction: join the quest for a world unknown to bookstores" in the Gaurdian highlights some of the inherent misogyny at work, references the Twitter side of the discussion (which prompted the article, in part, to some criticism of the said paper's representation)...and the comments are full of wonderful recommendations (always a bonus as usually such articles call the tiresome trolls out of the woodwork to rave about biological imperatives and washing up). There have also been a number of reading challenges asking folks to take a good hard look at their own habits, how they may be influenced by marketing and SWM dominated fandom chat...and amend by purposefully countering the lack of representation. This has sparked quite the furor on certain blogs and comments sections, nigh on screaming rage at the audacity of these uppity femmes demanding attention. Which really only goes to highlight the necessity for such a discussion.
So I thought I'd have a quick tally. I've roughly broken down by genre. Women (W), men (M), unknown (U) and co-authored by both men and women (B). The figures are number of books: number of authors.
W- 23: 5
M- 44: 28
W- 74: 12
M- 13: 8
B- 4: 1
W- 196: 58
M- 116: 57
U- 1: 1
B- 5: 2
These are the books immediately visible on my bookshelves, not including those lent out, lost under the bed, borrowed, non-fiction and other myriad reasons for not being available for counting.
An even parity between gendered authors is nearly achieved, with a slightly more women authors which increases greatly when viewing total books. I seem to be a third more likely to read a book written by a woman.
However, let me add some context. I'm poor, and whilst I'm far more likely to buy books than, say, clothes or other such items, my purchases are dictated by price to a certain extent. Most books are bought from cheap shops such as the Works, or charity shops, online promotions and auction sites. I usually reserve full price purchases for favoured authors or books I've heard a lot of good things about and have been tempted by for awhile. These are nearly always women (based on story attraction, gender noted due to above).
In fact up until about five years ago nearly all my books were written by women. Gifts of books tend to be written by men (giftee's shopping influenced by known genre preference and marketing visibility?), and if I like them I will be more likely to read more of the same author, or authors who have been favourably compared. And most comparisons are to men authors. This time also saw more of my time spent online in reading/writing communities where there is more recommendations of men authors.
Do I begrudge? Yes, of course. I'm a woman and a writer and when my publication time comes I want equal visibility and oportunity to my fellow men writers. As a reader I want to have the best books pushed under my nose, not limited by ridiculous and harmful traditions.
But this is changing in light of critique, and now my wishlist is very much dominated by women. Again. :D
So how falls your parity?
The Oculus was astir with rumour, eddies of curiosity stirring through the gently mingling throngs of nobles occupying the vast space. Vents and doors had been wedged open to coax any stray zephyrs to cool the humid summer heat, shafts of golden sunlight piercing the cool recesses, in which gauzy draped women lounged in padded couches. Demure servants at hand to offer refreshment, and dandies posing nearby. The lulling notes of harps mingled with the burbling fountains in the Gardens beyond to create a veil of confidence over the murmur of conversation.
The King and Queen had passed by not so long ago, to the Little Council Chamber, at their heels the Lord General Karse clanked, coiffed hair and armour gleaming. The High Priestess Vervain, and Anise her consort followed. She serenely gliding, her sleeveless white gown fluttering, the jewellery of her prestigious rank warmly glowing in various golds. He stalking at her side, muscled chest bare, oak green kilt tied about his waist, garlands in his hair. A closed court was announced by Navew, the whipcord thin Keeper of the Seal, his ever present harried expression in place as he struck the beaten bronze gong once.
In their wake the nobles had flown, Tomas caught up with them. As he surveyed the hall he felt bemusement at the peculiarities of Danuans. Rather than be perturbed by such an unexpected meeting, a meeting of the most powerful people in this court, indeed this country, they treated it as an impromptu fete. Whiling away the time with refreshments and delicacies, whilst they gossiped about the cause for the meeting. All Houses currently at court were represented, none would be seen to be behind the times. Nor miss out an opportunity to test out the balance of a rivals perspective, or a possible alliance.
The general consensus was that it must be about the Empire. The solidly built veterans of Arabis House, of course, thought perhaps the King had finally decided to crush Gommor. Or at least hopefully declaimed such views, blue tendrils of smoking herbs drifting past hard, penetrating dark eyes. Lord Caderos of House Twining Ivy listened but kept his own council. Captain Madder gruffly nodding, his eyes scanning the room, knights young and old at their backs. At their feet crouched Caderos’ hunting cat, seemingly cast in shadow, yellow eyes gleaming as it playfully swiped at the scabbard of a reluctant young knight.
With amusement Tomas noted the presence of the head of House Dahlia languishing near by, looking resplendent in scarlet silk with ebony hair coiled about her head, casting sultry, and speculative, glances at those who waited attendance on her. Dracaena’s gaze shifted occasionally to the infamous and single Lord Knight Caderos. It was well known her eldest daughter was ripe for marriage, the hot house blooms of House Dahlia had a reputation for exotic beauty, and a sly wit at trading.
Her nubile consort was engaged in a heated discussion with the Mullein of Sea Holly House about the possibility of, and competition, in trading Sanguine. The wily old sea dog kept his composure and held out his reluctance on giving the Empire a toehold in Danua.
Passing them by Tomas paused in an errant beam of light to take up a glass of elderflower cordial, its sweet coolness easing the tension in his head and eyes, most likely from too long reading into the night. Dawn had caught him unawares, again. His moment of peace was burst with a hearty booming chuckle. Situated in a broad band of sunlight lounged Houses Helianthus and Yarrow. The Lord Coleus of House Yarrow was wiping the mirth from his rotund cheeks, grey speckled curls awry. His sun haired brother Cleome, the Head of House Helianthus, grinning with a mischievous humour. Their wives reclined near by, Lady Dianthus Head of Yarrow and Lady Artemisia, with raised eyebrows and identical expressions that seemed to acknowledge that it seemed their husbands would never escape boyhood. Tomas hid a smile as he meandered past hearing snippets of conversation centred on the harvest to come, and the expectations of the sister’s new breed of apple and the quality of cider it would make.
Seeking the coolness of the shadows Tomas drifted toward the third and final grouping of Houses. Of these he felt compelled to watch. He rather suspected there was much of the old blood in these houses, betrayed by a certain wildness in their beauty, and it reminded him of days long gone, of another place he once hoped would be his home.
In the soft, stirring shade dwelled a member of House Foxglove, soft brown hair hanging loose about his shoulders, green eyes coldly watching the ladies with whom he stood , and yet at a remove. A man entering his late twenties, as of yet unmarried, his House known for their steadfastness to the Crown and Rose. Lord Aruncus and Lady Astilbe, the Heads of Iris House, sat side by side. Dusky brown and silver hair mingling, identical blue eyes that held a feral humour. Their fingertips stained with the muted hues of the rainbow, evidence of their skill and trade with dyes. They worried that whatever the council was about it would cause more levies on the land, yet their expressions gave the impression that they secretly found it all very amusing.
Listening politely and offering reassurances were House Water Lilly. The whole clan held an ethereal beauty, long golden hair, pale blue and green eyes, gentle flush of pink on cheeks and lips, puddles of watermarked silk in blues around them. Their faces held expressions of wide eyed innocence and good faith, as the Lord Shastra, a remarkable tall and svelte man, maintained that nothing could tarnish the grace of Danua. When his lady smiled there was a subtly to it that suggested nothing would dare to tarnish that grace.
The garrulous old man that was the Head of Gentian House ambled up to them, his bald pate glistening with sweat, velvet jacket rumpled. He grabbed a handful of canapés from a near by attendant, somehow managing to put them all into his nearly toothless mouth, and whilst chewing set about his discourse.
“ Now, now young Sirs, Ladies. There’s no fret to be having now. We’ll do what we always do, lead him on by the apron strings, we’ll take, and smile, and do what’s best for us because that what they want really, isn’t it? A chance at us? At this? That’s why our King married that boy’s mother, now she wasn’t too bad, a fine Lady, a tragedy that was. That must have stuck in the old buzzards craw now, hey? But time flows on, he’ll do us proud and we’ll do what we’ve always done. Apron strings!”
And so saying he veered off, trailing behind an unaware attendant carrying goblets of chilled wine. Tomas watched his retreating, age stooped back and wondered if there was any sense in the old coot’s words. Tomas wasn’t so sure the power and might of the Empire could be so easily dismissed, but he had a point in that Danua had done very well in keeping it at a peaceful arms length throughout the centuries. His form was slowly swallowed into the milling masses. The lesser houses and nobles flowing from group to group, in hopes of attaching themselves to a greater power, or perhaps already in the service of one. The young forming smaller groups attempting to imitate their elders, or using it as a chance to escape to the gardens and summer sunshine. And of course the endless flow of attendants and servants. All but Thistle House were represented, and it was said that the Head of that House was infirm and his Heir newly married and expecting a child. If the news was truly of importance it was timed remarkably well. With the summer solstice a short time away it was nearly a full court, the Houses gathering for the celebrations before going home for Harvest. Indeed, maximum impact.
Tomas thought back through his letters and the gossip the children had brought. Of Danuan Court only the normal gossip; who was allied to whom, who had taken a secret lover, what challenges had been issued and met, the latest fashions and intrigues. A whole host of fanciful, daring, and sordid tales. Nothing out of the ordinary. Merida was calm, the usual abundance at harvest expected, the plans for the Embassy going ahead for the Empire’s toehold there. Of the Emperor continued debate on his search for a wife, and as ever, pervading everything else, the delicious wonder and mystery. Sanguine. Perhaps the Emperor was pushing his offer of alliance….
With a soft sigh the door to the Little Council Chamber opened, the King strolling through talking quietly, the Queen on his arm laughing at some jest and waving a dismissive hand. At their entrance a hush spread out around them, like a pebble dropped into a lake before, as one, they rose to intercept them. Lord General Karse followed, a stiff expression on his face and a white knuckled grip on the hilt of his sword, he veered off making a beeline for Captain Madder and the Knights.
The King raised his hand to forestall any onslaught, then deftly caught up two glasses of cordial. Passing one to his Queen, he raised his own.
“ I see I am blessed with the company of my gracious Court, is there a special occasion, or have you merely gathered to make free in the sunshine? To summer and happiness!”
The gathered nobles hurriedly joined in the toast, the gathered force loosening up slightly, once drinks had been downed. The Head of Arabis House stepped forward.
“So what of the meeting sire? What news?”
“News, Andro? Very little I’m afraid, other than over zealous young courtiers. Nothing Navew could not handle on his own! Some showy affair in Kaelistra that has set tongues wagging. No doubt you’ll hear all the details soon enough.”
At which Arabis gave a gruff nod. Navew edged forward looking a little wide eyed as he caught sight of the Mistress of the House, who it was said actually had more power than the King inside the Palace walls, and also happened to be his wife.
“ My King, if you will excuse me? I have plenty to be getting on with, couriers to speak to, not to mention the outrageous prices of manure I intend to refuse to pay, and of course Privet will….ahem. Yes, good day!”
“ I think I may go sit and talk for awhile, husband.”
“Of course, my lady wife.”
With a tender parting kiss the Queen was soon welcomed with open arms and settled into a couch with the ladies Dianthus and Artemisia, both of whom had young children. The sound of feminine mirth and exasperation soon filled the air around them.
Across the way the Dracaena had intercepted the Lord General Karse, an elegant hand poised on his arm, and an immaculate eyebrow raised in invitation.
“Karse, darling, are sure we’re not to have hordes of ravaging Gommorans or Imperialist descend on us? It would be a terribly frightful way to end a party that’s just getting started, don’t you think? Do tell!”
“Oh have no fear, my dear lady, it seems it’s all a matter of gossip. That young Emperor seems to have felt a bit bad about that massacre he orchestrated a few months back. So he’s given a gift to the poor, a statue of that bloody Goddess of theirs. The height of two men and made of Sanguine they say. Set up in the razed ground and supposed to offer protection. Bit late for that, I think. Mmm?”
“ Sanguine! But that must be worth a fortune! Surely it’s merely plated, but even so…what does it do? How do they say it?” She wafted a hand. “Charged! What has it been charged with?”
“Well, my lady, that part was rather vague. Protection for the innocent, and to bring criminals to their feet is what was said. Now as to how? Charges, I don’t know, not so fancy as that light Salvias had.”
The young Lord of House Foxglove had taken aside the King engaging him in muted conversation for a moment, a resolute expression on his face, before Coleus, Cleome and Lord Gentian descended upon them, followed by a host of lesser nobles. As the vision of the King was faded beneath a swirling tide of silk and gauze, Tomas noticed that the Vervain and Anise had passed unnoticed through the crowds to join Iris and Water Lily Houses.
“ Times are once more changing”
“ What will become of us now?”
“ A new power has been born, squalling onto the earth”
“ With life, comes death”
“ And out of darkness, comes light.”
Friday, 14 February 2014
Meradith stretched upon the grass, soft spikes cushioning her pleasantly aching body, vision narrowed to the swaying tips of green peppered with tufted seed heads. One particularly rotund one gave up its burden with a shiver and she watched the soft white umbrellas drift away across the periwinkle blue sky. It was vast and void of any clouds, the golden sunlight setting the blue hue ablaze. She almost fancied that if she lost touch of the earth she would fall endlessly into that abyss.
Sometimes she felt like that when she gazed into Cerid’s eyes, but they were dark, not blue. If ever she did succumb to that urge she didn’t think it would be as pleasant as falling through the sky, in those depths there was knowledge and secrets and sorrow. Betimes she thought she must have lived a hard life, typical of any peasant women, but then she would look at her more closely and know there was far more to her than that. She would catch a glimmer of her true nature, but as yet she had been too afraid to ask.
It was a strange relationship, theirs. Meradith felt safe in her presence. Almost she could feel herself growing, her mind expanding. That morning Cerid had met her in the rowan copse just before dawn, sunlight merely a pale grey breath on the horizon, an they had walked deep into the woods in silence. Before Cerid had taught her how to listen, to recognize the sounds of the animals, to know the difference between the sound of a branch falling to that of one being trod upon. The tramp and skitterings of various animals, and the calls of birds. In times of silence she was told to listen. But that morning had been different, once they set out they soon settled into a comfortable rhythm, the dawn chorus started up in earnest and Meredith listened. She lost track of time, and gradually it seemed to her that she could hear something other, the trees gentle sighs, the creep of vines, the small movements of the little plants as their flowers turned to face the rising sun. The brighter it got, the louder it became, as if the forest had become one entity crying out in welcome to the dawning sun. She felt herself an abnormality at first, then the more she listened the more she felt…accepted.
Unwittingly she had stopped, lost in contemplation. Inside she felt as if she too was unfolding, turning to greet the sun.
After some time she came back to herself, it was full morning and the forest had settled into its usual self. Cerid was sitting patiently nearby, watching her. Meradith blinked and took a breath to apologize but Cerid smiled serenely, and she knew she had pleased her. This then must be what she wanted her to do when she listened.
The rest of their time together went much as it usually did, Cerid taught her the names of the various plants, and their uses, pointing out many that they had already seen in different stages over the months. Currently she was teaching her the best times to harvest, how to store the herbs once picked. That day Cerid had led her to a wounded badger, who seemed not at all bothered by their presence, and showed her how to poultice a wound. The various different types, each aimed to combat different things. For the badger they used one aimed to fight infection and seal the wound as soon as possible. Cerid had told her that soon when she would harvest, she must try to be in the state of listening.
Even now she felt that state just at her finger tips.
She smiled as that shout broke the peace, calling for her to return, sitting up she looked across the meadow. In the middle a silken pavilion, cream and maroon, had been set up. Ringed about with liveried guards, the lush green forest in the background. She had barely seen her mother lately, what with her own studies and her mother looking after the twins. She knew it was much the same for Llew and his father. Hence today. Their highnesses had decided to have a family picnic, had chosen a glorious summer day. Meradith made her way through the vivid haze, toward them.
Inside little Dittander sat amidst a pile of cushions, waving his plump fists and smiling beatifically at her entrance, two tiny little teeth sitting in that gummy smile. She couldn’t help but laugh.
“Merrrrr” He burbled happily.
Sitting down she looked to see where Dittany was. Although twins it seemed they each wanted completely different things. When the were newborns they had done everything together, learning to sit up at the same time. They had all loved to watch them roll on round bottoms, holding onto one another for balance. But there the similarities had ended, soon Dittander started to speak, surprising everyone with “mama”, now he had all the families names. Dittany showed no signs of talking, but had quickly learned how to move. Soon enough she was crawling everywhere, coming back to Dittander to touch him, and then escaping once again.
Llew was piling soft tasselled cushions in her way, creating mountains for her to scramble up and roll down, his face flushed and laughing as he thrust his hair away from his face. The king sat with Dittander, both clapping at their romping. Her mother sat a little back from the them, a tired, content look in her eyes. She plucked juicy strawberries from a bowl of beaten gold and sipped chilled white wine. She looked to Meradith and beckoned her to sit by her feet.
“I swear you grow an inch a day, my love. How are you faring?”
“I’m well mama.”
“We have heard good reports from Tomas. He says you are attentive and intelligent, an apt pupil. I’m proud of you, but you must take cares to be more ladylike. There are fairies in your hair!”
So saying she plucked them up, and gently blew them out of the tent, her slim face limned in light, glowing strands of hair gently framing her face. To Meradith she seemed so beautiful, so elegant, her words stung even more. She would never be as graceful as her mother. Her mother turned back to the tent with a smile for her, it helped to calm the resentments.
King Gaillardia swung Dittander up into the air, causing a torrent of giggles and screeches before depositing him in Meradith’s lap.
“It’s a pity the same could not be said for you, Llew. Tomas says that you are more than able, but less than willing. Still. This is the last warning you will get, I want to see improvements.”
“But Papa! I am improving, Captain Madder says….”
“ I know what Captain Madder says, but that is not the subject under question, is it?”
“Good, I’m glad you understand. I have heard of your skills, son. Shall we put them to the test? It’s a fine day, you can show me the new thrust you were talking of.”
Llew ran out to get the practise swords, King Gaillardia strolling after him a proud look upon his face. Her mother laughingly gathered up Dittany, who had already started to crawl after them, and they both carried the babies outside. Already Llew had got the servants to clear an area, and was now limbering up, regaling his father with some lengthy story of his practise lessons. Soon enough they were both ready and facing one another, the servants stood around to enjoy the show, and to offer refreshments if necessary. Llew looked tiny next to his father. Although tall for his age and wiry, he barely came up to his chest and looked like a twig next to a tree. They had only just tested one another’s guarde, before pausing so the king could adjust Llew’s grip with some advice on what oils to use on the sword, and balms on the hand. Meradith lost interest and let her attention wander. Which was soon taken by the sight of a rider coming over a hill and heading toward them a fast clip. The rider wore the House colours of a royal messenger, it must be important to interrupt the picnic. With much muttering the gathered party watched the rider bearing down on them. King Gaillardia walked from Llew to stand next to her mother and await the messenger.
“My King! My Queen!”
Out of breath the rider bowed from the saddle and passed the King a sealed missive, the wax still tacky. The King quickly broke the seal and scanned the contents, he murmured something to her mother, who replied in undertones before turning back to the messenger and handing him his signet ring.
“Tell Navew to call the Closed Council, the Queen and I shall attend anon.”
With a final brisk bow the messenger wheeled his mount sharply and cantered back towards the castle. Soon enough the King and Queen were surrounded by their personal staff, whilst the other servants bustled about taking down the pavilion. A nursemaid came and took Dittander from Meradith’s arms, and it seemed to her that the absence of his warmth felt very much like her mother leaving again. She stole a look at Llew who was staring after his father with the look of a hungry puppy. Catching her looking he made a rude gesture.
The King and Queen had already mounted up, bridles gleaming against prize horseflesh and velvet. Her mother was giving orders to the nursemaids, a slight frown marring her beauty. The King looked to their children, his eyes gone dark with his mood.
“I am sorry this as been cut short, Llew, we shall finish our bout another day. Jessamine and I will ride ahead, you both shall return with the others…this will make more sense later. Knowing court gossips, not as later as I would like…but still. Adieu.”
And with that they were gone, the family day out over. Llew looked furious, at being left out no doubt. At least his father had bothered to say goodbye, her mother had only been concerned with the babies, as usual. She bit her lip as guilt flashed through her.
Sunday, 2 February 2014
Of Bloody Reflections...
Chapter Six *
There is also a post which dips into a writer's peculiarities of process and contains a few character sketches and poorly drawn maps for OBR. Map & Mural anchor me... contains a painted map & geolist of the Danuan Houses.
Diary of Darkness*
A dark tale emerges from the pages of a diary. A slanted take on urbanised supernatural horror.
Have you got Talent, World?
A story that just slid out of my unconscious one night. Fame and religion vie before global conflict.
The Ghosts & Graffiti of the Red Mount Chapel
Free form ghost stories & photography. Graffiti dating from 1725-1958
Llew and Gos had been heading to the throne room, to join the feast and dance, but they had got distracted along the way.
Already they had run riot through the crowds outside, watching the entertainment; fire breathers, jugglers, those who imitated still life, unfreezing at odd moments to startle those nearby. They had unmercifully tried to get one to move for some while, before giving up in pursuit of more lively activities. They had also managed to sneak more wine than their parents would have allowed, had they known. Llew felt flushed and giddy, unable to fight his grin or his happiness. He and Gos had managed to collect quite a few other boys during their wanderings. Some were already pages, and had been telling them all sorts of tales about what was to come. Llew couldn’t wait.
What had distracted them was a dance troupe, set to either side of the grand entryway to the throne room, whose vast doors were thrown wide open, revealing glimpses of the sumptuous ball within. But none of the boys really paid attention to that. Their attention was securely fastened on the dancers. Wearing nothing but loin clothes and glittering body oil.
The dance troupe was not made up of Danuans, though no one was sure where they originated from. Maybe Merida, they were a mixed enough bunch. Their skin ran from milk pale to a rich brown, hair from golden to black. They all had a certain similarity though, all muscled, lithe, all with hair to their waists, including the men. Most were of a height, though two women, light and dark, were tiny and delicate. They had been limbering up when the boys ambled up, getting into their starting positions. Soon a crowd had gathered.
A deep thrumming started up. It surprised Llew, whose eyes tore from supple flesh to find their musicians sitting along the wall. He hadn’t even noticed them. The dancers began their dance, slowly circling one another, extending legs and arms in unison. They were graceful, true, but this was nothing new. Llew didn’t know where to put his eyes, everywhere there were mostly naked men and women. He had never seen a woman’s form with so little clothes, he was suddenly grateful for the flush the wine had given him, that hid his embarrassment and confusion. Some of the older boys didn’t look confused at all. They openly stared, elbowing one another and grinning.
“That’s the firmest pair of peaches I’ve ever seen…” He overheard one whisper to another. Peaches?
The tempo rose to become something faster, deeper. The dancers spun away from one another, holding their pose, leaving the men lonely. Who then began to writhe to this new tempo, flinging their bodies into the air only to twist about, landing spry on their feet. With a start Llew realized they were imitating a fight, graceful kicks arching over one another’s heads, coming close together to grapple, entwining with one another. Seeming to tie their bodies into knots, only to come loose. They peeled off to tie themselves to a woman waiting, mirroring. The women pulled themselves free, and the men rejoined their fight. The women began to twist their bodies, raising a leg high above themselves, to settle gracefully over their shoulder, arms spread, weaving, they began to rotate. They men peeled off again, to touch another pair, leaving the petite ones still. These pounced into the air, landing on their hands, balancing on the tips of their fingers of one hand, the other hovering above the floor. They used their legs to dance, bringing them down level with their hips, spreading wide, to curve gracefully up again. Llew had never seen anything like it, he didn’t even know it was possible to do such things with your body. Surely it wasn’t supposed to bend like that?
At once the two remaining women leapt upon the shoulders of the men, rolling their bodies out until they were doing handstands. The men grasped the women’s wrists thrusting them into the air, then throwing them back. Each was caught by a pair of women, who caught their ankles, the men reaching for them again. As the drums grew insistent the petite women seemed to cartwheel, flip and pounce across the other dancers, never once touching ground. Caught in a clash of cymbals, they were grasped wrist and ankle, thrown high into the air. Falling, they were snatched again.. With each throw the petite women spun, twirled in the air, as each apex got higher and higher, they began to cross one another, spinning many times, throwing out their limbs to form graceful shapes. When the arc reached a height Llew would have thought impossible they began to hold on to one another, forming shapes together, letting go and falling into the arms of their waiting companions. On one such fall it seemed that they were dropped, disappearing from view. The crowd gasped, crying out into the silence that lurched.
The men did standing somersaults, they women folding out from one another, like an exotic flower, holding one another out so it seemed they floated, only anchored to the ground by two feet. The men knelt by those feet, gripping and lifting them, extending one leg in smooth line behind them as the did so.
There was a pause, then the crowd erupted in cheers, Llew and the boys heartily joining in, pumping their fists. A crowd had gathered from the ball, the nobles had dropped their polite façade and were heartily cheering. He could see his father holding Jessamine close, laughter lighting up their faces, he could see Meredith clapping and grinning, the scarecrow with a hand on her shoulder, smilingly saying something to her. She turned with a surprised look on her face and they engaged in a rapid conversation as the cheers died off. They were both gesturing at the dancers, and she looked at them with a considering look. His father beckoned the dancers to him, his words lost in the babble of voices. But he seemed to be praising them, he removed his own brooch, dark gold and garnets, presenting it to one of them. They all sunk into graceful bows, lowering themselves almost to the floor. Llew thought they were certainly worthy of such an honour. He hoped they would winter here.
A cool hand settled on his shoulder. He turned to find the Ambassador at his side. Ambassador Salvias of the Empire. He had seen him at the formal introduction in the throne room earlier, before the festival truly began. He cut a powerful figure, and seemed much more interesting than the previous ambassador. That one had been an old prig, but when the old Emperor died last year, the new Emperor had appointed Salvias.
His medium height, so typical of noble Imperialists, did not diminish the power he exuded. He was dressed in the latest fashions, a deep blue silk so fine it was almost transparent, cut close to his body, fitting perfectly. Over than an even deeper blue jacket, short, sleeveless, the shoulders rising to form squared horns. The trousers revealed a cloth-of-silver lining where they were creased above low heeled shoes, not boots, of some animal skin. Black and white striped leather, fur peeking out from the seems. He wore heavy platinum cuffs, chased with the angular patterns typical of the Empire, and a long platinum chain, at the end of which swung a large deep red jewel. So dark, but in its depths there seemed to be a flickering, pulsing warmth. Llew drew is breath in sharply, could this be Sanguine? Fabled treasure of the Empire? He had heard rumours that negotiations for trade of the precious substance had been happening, but so far his father had not talked much of it. He was entranced by its beauty.
“A pretty bunch indeed, more than I had expected to find here. They are almost good enough for the court of his most illustrious Emperor. Mmm, my Prince? I might ask of their company later tonight.”
Llew looked at him, unsure of how to react, did he mean…to lay with? He felt heat creeping up his face, but forced a polite expression.
“ I am hoping they shall stay the winter here, I would like to be able to watch them again.”
The Ambassador laughed, a rich slithering sound, putting his hand once more upon Llew’s shoulder.
“ Yes I did notice how enthralled were you and your little friends were. I cannot fault you, they have skills to charm any man.”
This time Llew was almost sure he wasn’t just talking about their dancing, ambassador Salvias’ smile had a note of something wicked in it. Is his how men would talk to one another? This shifting innuendo? He was used to word games at court, it was a popular past time, but he had never heard it used in such a way. He glanced over at the other boys, they had moved away some to give him privacy. Gos was watching him out of the corner of his eye, Llew supposed that they were impressed by the fact that the Ambassador was treating him like a man, like a friend, laughing at his jokes. He turned back to the Ambassador, a smile upon his face.
“Ah, Ambassador Salvias, if it is charms you are after, Danua has much to offer. Shall we go speak with my father? Perhaps you could take the opportunity to look closer at our skilled dancers? Then to the feast table I think. ”
Ambassador Salvias laughed once more, Llew was pleased that he was happy with his hospitality.
“For one so young you do have a fine wit. But I always say it is good to start young, such innocence beckons like the Honeysnares, yes?”
Llew didn’t understand that last at all, but thought it best just to smile and lead his guest forward. Llew hated admitting to ignorance. He left the boys behind. He could always find them later to brag about his new friend.
“My prince, do call me Salvias, it would honour me.” The ambassador murmured as they made their way through the throngs of laughing Danuans.
As Tomas entered his rooms dawn was tingeing grey at the windows, hanging sharp and cold on the brisk breeze. He went to one such window, opening it wide. There was still the odd trill of laughter, tired in the morning light, as some lingered before seeking their beds.
He looked about himself taking note of the furnishings. This was to be his new home, he supposed. King Gaillardia had given him a suite of rooms, a parlour large enough to hold a seating area about a hearth, a study area complete with an antique desk and bookshelves, and a much rougher work bench as requested. Though he must ask for more bookshelves, he doubted he could even put up what he had brought in those provided. And he kew he would inevitably collect more curiosities during his stay. A small eating table and chairs stood on a raised dais, framed by stained glass doors which led to his personal balcony. He smiled to himself, it was too large a space to be called a balcony, but he supposed balcony would do.
Two doors led from the parlour, one leading to the privy and wash room, where he even had his own copper tub. The other led to the bedroom and that enormous bed, big enough for four people, surely. Though it had been many years since he had had company of such a nature. The rooms seemed far too large for him, empty and echoing. He sighed, he had been on the road so long it would be good to rest his weary bones.
Tomas rummaged in his travel bags, still left by the seating area as he had told the serving lad. He liked to unpack his own things, it was his own ritual he observed wherever he stayed. He enjoyed handling his possessions, enjoyed to slowly establish himself into a place. Maybe vestiges of the territorial instinct? Or maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Ah, this had been what he was looking for. He pulled out a full bottle of Gomorran Brandy, lovingly wiping road dust and lint from its yellow label. Gomorrans may be an insular bunch, and had no doubt had their troubles with Danua, a long and bitter feud, but they did make an excellent brandy. He got a glass from the drinks cabinet, ignoring the bread, fruits and cheeses set out, and took a seat by the hearth. He sunk into its cushioned softness, allowing his back to relax in increments. Taking a sip of the dark brandy, he sighed with contentment.
He thought of the children he would be teaching, they were not entirely what he had expected. They lived up to all he had heard, and he detected that they both had some basis of intellect. For which he was grateful. He’d had scenarios before where he had agreed to teach a noble’s child (for bread and board and an opportunity to examine some fascinating texts about said family’s ancestor’s dealings with the Tuath’an) and had found it impossible. The parents couldn’t understand why their little darling wasn’t improving, and he didn’t have the heart to tell them it was because he was stupid. Luckily the boy had an uncanny affinity with horses, and he had told the parents to encourage this skill. Now they were renowned for the best bred horses, fast and sleek.
The girl, Meradith, he had expected to be reluctant. From all he had heard she was a free spirit. This idea had been confirmed when he found her and her maid obviously getting up to some mischief, the look on her face! She wore her emotions plain to see, chasing one another like clouds scudding over the sun. But she had not rallied against the decision, nor been rude. He had watched her during the night, noting she was a solitary creature, and had a willingness to learn, listening to him, and engaging in lively conversation. If still yet with some immaturity. At odd moments she would gaze upon something and become lost in deep thought.
He conjured the image in his mind’s eye, closing his real ones, and sipping the brandy. A grassy stage had been cleared outside, the priests and priestesses standing on the edge, some in the centre enacting the passing of the Consort from his full bellied Goddess and the priestesses of Life, to his role of Lord of the Underworld and the Priestesses of the Dark. It was when the High Priestess of the Dark had come to stand by the Lords side that Meredith had suddenly sat forward a look passing strange across her face. Intrigued he had puzzled over it since. She must have seen this ritual many times, so what had suddenly caught her interest? As of yet he could not find an answer.
Ah, and the Prince, Llewellyn, Llew. He knew that the boy would be difficult, he was foppish and vain. He had noted the gloating smile that had lit up his face when he thought that Meradith was being chastised, but he had also seen the boy’s grasp of court politics and his pride in his country. Tomas knew it would be struggle to get him to sit for a class, knew the boy was eagerly anticipating becoming a knight. He made a note to himself to tailor his lessons to those desires, a hands on approach. Maybe he could talk to some of the knights to combine history with strategy? Use those oversized maps and markers military men were fond of. They boy had great potential.
He also rather suspected that the boy had taken an instant disliking to him, he didn’t know why. He thought he would have been keen to learn from someone his father held in regard. Perhaps he should have put a little more effort into changing his clothes, he must have looked drab compared to that leech. Salvias had been quick to insinuate himself with the boy, and to feel out ears sympathetic to the Empire’s overtures.
Tomas had heard the rumours of the new Emperor’s wish to take a wife, an alliance bought, and his plans to expand his Empire. He had also heard that one of the reasons for Salvias’ visit was to offer a trade alliance, with the prize of Sanguine. A curious change in attitude; the last Emperor had kept the trade of Sanguine strictly to within the Empire, enriching nobles of his choice, solidifying his power, and concentrating his efforts into the mining of the substance. The Empire itself had not pushed its boundaries for a generation, merely maintaining already established footholds. It seemed this new Emperor, young and arrogant, sought glory, sought to conquer.
And that fabled substance was his lure. Sanguine. It was said to hold wondrous power, power to be manipulated into whatever one wished. Each piece charged with that intent, never to cease, never to expire. Salvias had demonstrated that night, withdrawing a globe from a velvet purse, the size of an apple.
“Charged with the power of the sun” he had smiling said, “with the ability to give off light and heat.”.
He had held out his palm, gently cupping the globe, which began to suffuse the air about it with a rosy glow. The light grew brighter, until it reached a blinding white, the outline of the globe sitting in the centre, a point of dark in that brilliant glare. Salvias abruptly ceased, calling a young beauty from the crowd, bowing over her proffered hand, laying upon it a kiss before gently resting her fingers on the globe. After a moment she gasped.
“It grows warm my Lord! Ohhh, hotter and hotter!”
Salvias had gently removed her hand, informing the crowd that it could grow hot enough to cook with, or with fuel to start a fire. He had then thrown the globe into the air, to pulse and glow in patterns, and with a flourish it had disappeared back into the purse.
Tomas begrudged it was an eye catching demonstration, practical in its purposes too. There was something about it, Sanguine, that caused unease in him. He knew he was not the only one, others in the crowd had repressed a shiver. Meradith had gone pale, abruptly leaving. He didn’t know why it made him uneasy, he knew slave labour was used to produce it, and though he found that despicable it was something more. Something about the Sanguine itself. Why could it only be found in the Empire? How was it empowered? The answers to the nature of Sanguine were closely guarded secrets, the Empire would use it to seduce but they, the Emperor, would retain sole providence.
A thump awoke him, and he realized he must have fallen asleep. His empty glass rolled on the floor. He bent to retrieve it, moaning as his back protested. Would he never learn to go to bed before falling asleep? One night back and already he was exploring the intrigue. Sunlight was streaming through his windows as he made his way to the bedroom, pulling heavy drapes closed against the accursed light. His head started to pound as he climbed between the sheets.