The Player King

The Maze at ChatsworthSwift footsteps crunching on gravel, she arrived at yet another four-way intersection between tall privet hedges. The corners had been shaved to resemble medieval towers, crenelations and all.

“Damn neo-Rens!”

She barely paused before diving into the left passage, snagging the cap sleeve of her dress on the foliage when she cut the corner too fine, feeling the scratch of the twigs across her collar bone.

There was no time for this, no time for being lost in a lantern-illuminated, neo-Renaissance maze at night, no time before – before what?

The memory was false. Sam was sure of it, damn all! Somebody’d hacked her chip to plant it. She’d never entered that dark-paneled room with its somber oil portraits. But it existed. She was sure of that too.

The maze hedges turned sharp right, then left, and opened onto a small garden. Three children, tricked out in fancy neo-Ren dress, clustered around a jester. He juggled a trio of glass spheres, lit from within, tossing them high into the air and then apparently pulling one out of the littlest girl’s ear. She giggled.

Garden Maze

Sam checked her headlong rush. The scent of roses lay heavy here, so pungent she could taste their sweetness. Too strong, the same perfume choking that damnable room she’d never seen and now saw so vividly. Where young Nick stood flanked by a player king and his advisor, terrified white face staring up through lying memory and begging for rescue.

“The key to the maze, tell me it!” Sam demanded of the jester.

He gazed at her a moment, permitted one corner of his mouth to turn upward, then gracefully caught all three of his glass orbs. “Your invitation will instruct you, milady.” He bowed, an eyebrow lifted. Did she really look so disheveled? She’d doffed her costume to resume her modern shift the instant that constructed memory rose in her mind’s eye and sent her haring from the party-congested mansion to the maze.

“The key, you!”

“A transponder in the wax seal may be set to guide you to the exit, the entrance, or any of sixteen pleasure destinations between.” Behind the jester’s formality, he mocked her.

Sam tore open her clutch purse.

Maze Garden

For more story openings, see:
Fate’s Door
Tally the Betrayals
Popcorn Kittens

 

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Why Did the Three Goats Cross the River?

When I started writing Crossing the Naiad, I knew that Kimmer’s goats weren’t as healthy as they ought to be. The rural people of Silmaren wouldn’t have access to the vitamin and mineral supplements that modern day herders do or even that wealthier farmers in my North-lands possess.

Curious GoatsI also knew that sometimes the plants growing in pasture aren’t the right ones to ensure the animals grazing there receive all the nutrients they need.

Thus Kimmer would need to take the family goats to better pasturage to improve their health.

Once away from the familiar environs of home, she encounters a perilous remnant from the ancient past and the story unfolds.

So far, so good.

But, while some writers could take the narrative from there, I’m not one of them! I needed to know what the missing nutrient was, what symptoms it might cause, and what plant could remedy the problem.

So I started digging.

And came up with a promising candidate right away: copper.

Craigieburn Valley, Canterbury, New ZealandAnemia, weak bones (particularly in the young), poor wound healing, and frequent infections are all symptoms of copper deficiency. That sounded plenty “dowly” enough – as Kimmer calls it – to me.

There are several circumstances that can cause lack of copper in pasturage.

Peaty and acid soils are deficient in copper, especially moorland soils. If you’ve got heather, wild bilberries, birch, rowan and pine growing on your land, then it is moorland and the soil simply hasn’t got much copper in it. Thus the plants lack it as well.

Silmaren doesn’t have much heather, but all the other plants on that list are common. Bingo!

Interestingly, lime soils also cause copper deficiency, but not because the soil lacks the mineral. Lime soils increase the bio-availabilty of molybdenum several fold. And high levels of molybdenum interfere with the utilization of copper in the body. I doubt this is the issue in Silmaren, however.

Acid rainfall could be the culprit. Silmaren has newly entered the age of steam, and produces steam largely by the burning of coal. The city of Andamn is a major mining center, and Kimmer’s hamlet – while rural – lies close enough to feel the effects of pollution. Acid rain possesses a heavy sulphur content. High sulphur levels in herbage suppress the uptake of copper from the soil. Voila! Copper-poor plants.

Finally, the mix of plants in the pasture may simply be one that doesn’t feature copper. Most wild grasses are poor in copper. And that is what Kimmer and, indeed all of her neighbors, must contend with. They depend largely on the bounty of nature. What grows is what they have.

Cocksfoot, a wild grassRed clover and yarrow are rich in copper, but the meadows of their hamlet lack these plants. Wild grasses and more wild grasses were nature’s gift.

Luckily the wild grass named cocksfoot does have copper. It’s been overgrazed in the pastures close to home, but thrives in more distant grasslands. That is what Kimmer seeks.

Once I’d researched that much I felt confidant enough to proceed with my story.

As is usual for many writers, most of my research never appears directly on the page.

In Crossing the Naiad, all of the above generated:

Mama said the goats were dowly because they needed copper salts. A spell of cropping the cocksfoot in the foothills beyond the river would put them right.

And it seemed she was correct.

web imageIf every three sentences in my stories demanded this kind of research, I’d not be happy. But that’s not the case. The preparations for Naiad required that I know a little bit about goat nutrition and that I devise the the history of the naiad whose will Kimmer crosses. That sufficed for generating the confidence I need for storytelling.

I always do some research. And I always do some pre-planning. After that, the story takes over.

Kay Nielsen

Kay Nielsen rejuvenated my writing career.

How? It was his illustrations for East of the Sun and West of the Moon that did the deed.

I’ve told the story of how I discovered my creative process in an earlier post. Strangely, I’d engaged in my creative process for decades without recognizing it for what it was. Which meant that when I attempted to make the switch from one type of creativity (game design and graphic design) to another (narrative fiction), I didn’t know how to go about it. I tripped and fell.

Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer sorted out my thinking. Ready to give my old ways a new try, I needed inspiration.

"And flitted as far as they could..."Kay Nielsen’s illustration in the title story of East of the Sun – captioned “And flitted as far as they could from the Castle that lay East of the Sun and West of the Moon” – came to mind almost the instant I began the meditation that kicks off most of my writing.

Now, I adore that painting, but I resisted it as the inspiration for my tale. Why? Mainly because I thought one of the quirkier works in the collection might make a more unusual starting point. And unusual appeals to me.

Fortunately my inner storyteller refused to budge. The story of the lassie carried away by a white bear is a great one, and Nielsen’s illustrations for it – both black & white line drawings and color paintings – utterly beguiled my imagination.

As I mused, my North-lands were born along with cursed Prince Kellor, half crazy in the darkness during the night when he regains his man’s form. That first scene – Kellor struggling to think clearly – almost wrote itself. And you know the rest: I completed and published Troll-magic.

Then I wrote about Sarvet, a character with one small walk-on part in the second-to-last chapter of Troll-magic. And then I wrote another story about the Hammarleedings, Sarvet’s mountain people. I suspect I’ll be writing stories in my North-lands for a long time. All because of Kay Nielsen.

As well as being the creative inspiration behind my fantasy world, his work also appears on my web sites and graces the covers of three of my books. I stand on the shoulders of a titan.

So I want to tell you a little about him.

First, his name. As an English speaker, I would naturally pronounce Kay to rhyme with weigh or inveigh or, more simply, may. And I would be wrong. It’s pronounced “Kie,” rhyming with pie or vie. (Yes, I’ve always liked rhyming games. :D ) Nielsen is more straightforward. “Neelsun.”

Illustration by Kay Nielsen for "The Widow's Son"So, Kay Rasmus Nielsen was Danish, born in Copenhagen in 1886. His parents were actors, his mother a very famous one and his father the director of the Dagmar Theater. He studied art in Paris, then lived in London, where he received a commission from a British publisher to illustrate a collection of fairy tales.

No, this wasn’t East of the Sun, the collection of Norse folk tales. Titled In Powder and Crinoline, it included more continental stories such as “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Nielsen’s illustrations featured courtiers garbed in sweeping ball gowns and cavalier coats along with towering white wigs. Cool stuff! I’m thinking I might try to acquire a copy.

The commission for East of the Sun came the next year, to be released in 1914. Both books utilized the new four-color process of printing to wonderful results. The previous method – three-color process – tended to produce darker colors that looked dirty and muddy. Kay Nielsen’s color plates possess clear, true tints from light to dark.

Of course, these commissions weren’t the whole of his professional life. He created scenes from the life of Joan of Arc, he painted landscapes in Dover, he traveled to New York for an exhibition of his work. He painted stage scenery for the Royal Danish Theater.

In 1924, he returned to book illustration with color plates and monotones for Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm.

In 1939, he worked in Hollywood, eventually landing a job with Disney! I’d no idea, back in my childhood when I read and re-read East of the Sun, that the illustrator of those marvelous old-fashioned pictures was involved in something so modern as the movies. The “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences in Fantasia were his work. He grew famous in the biz for all the concept artwork he did for Disney films.

"He too saw the image in the water..."Sadly, all the beauty and genius of his work did not secure honor and security for his old age. His illustrative style fell out of fashion, and he died in poverty in 1957. He deserved far better. He delighted my childhood, as I imagine he did for many who read the books he illustrated or saw the movies he influenced. He sparked my own creativity. I see him as one of the greats of history.

Live long in our admiration of your art, Kay Nielsen!

 

A Healthy Breakfast

I like sharing what I’ve learned about nutrition in the last decade. Many of my old ideas about healthy eating have been overturned, and I figure that others may be in the same boat I was: following governmental recommendations that are incorrect. So I try to spread the word about these politically correct, but inaccurate myths.

Most of my nutrition posts are some combination of general information plus recipes.

But last fall, I had an idea for another way to share about food. Menus!

Not fancy, cookbooky menus that I (for one) plan to prepare and then never do. No. Menus of what I actually eat.

So this is the first of my menu posts. Breakfast.

lacto-fermented watermelon pickles, berries and cream, boiled eggs and butter, ground sausage

What do I eat for breakfast? It’s pretty standard. I like variation in my lunches. And I want even more variation for my dinners. But, for breakfast, I am content to eat the same thing, day after day. Good thing! If I had to wrack my brain for multiple breakfast ideas, I’d…I don’t know what I’d do, actually. It would be a pain!

So here’s my breakfast menu:
• a lacto-fermented food
• berries and cream
• boiled eggs and ground sausage

In the photo above, the lacto-fermented food is watermelon pickles, and the berries are raspberries. Those specifics do change as the seasons pass and as I finish various jars of lacto-ferments. Sauerkraut, beet kvass, strawberries, blueberries, etc. have been known to make their appearance in my first meal of the day.

So that’s what I eat for breakfast. But why do I eat these items?

Ah! You knew I’d get to the why of it, didn’t you? :D

breakfast picklesLet’s tackle the easiest dish first: the lacto-fermented one.

Lacto-fermented foods have all those beautiful lactobacilli and enzymes in them. The enzymes mean I digest my food more thoroughly and easily. My body need not make as many of its own enzymes from scratch and I absorb more of the vitamins and minerals present in the food. Plus there are more vitamins and minerals in lacto-fermented food than in merely raw or cooked food.

Serious students of nutrition speculate that the centenarians who once were so numerous in the mountain communities of Russia’s Caucasus owed their healthy longevity, in part, to the many lacto-fermented foods they ate with every meal. I’d certainly like some of that healthy longevity! Plus, lacto-fermented foods taste good!

If you’d like to learn more about lacto-fermented foods, read Amazing Lactobacilli (an earlier post on my blog).

What about the berries and cream?

raspberries and creamThe berries are also easy to explain. Article after article appears in health newsletters, nutrition blogs, and the health section of newspapers explaining that the phytochemicals in berries – the natural compounds that give them their deep color – help our bodies fight cancer, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Sign me up!

The cream is trickier to explain. Our current culture is convinced that saturated fat is bad for us. So convinced that we’re loading up on polyunsaturated fat to a degree that our ancestors never did. And for which our bodies are not designed. Saturated fats are a critical component of our brains and the myelin sheath that covers our nerves. It’s also a critical component of the hormones and enzymes that carry messages throughout the human body and do the brunt of the work that keeps our bodies functioning.

Bottom line: fat does not cause cardiovascular disease. The weight gain and inflammation resulting from heavy grain and carb consumption causes cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats are essential to good health. Thus, I eat cream from grass-fed cows!

That’s a pretty controversial statement these days, so I urge you not to take my word for it. (Or anyone else’s.) Read up about the topic. Read books that challenge your beliefs. Read Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Sally Fallon and Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. I’ve blogged about both these books in Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My! and Test first, then conclude! Then decide for yourself.

So what about eggs with butter and sausage?

boiled eggs and ground sausage for breakfastBefore the egg scare back in the 1970′s, eggs were regarded as close to the parfect food because they contain amino acids (the building block of protein) in exactly the proportion that the human body needs to build muscle and other tissues. Then scientists realized that eggs have a lot of cholesterol. Oh, no! Cholesterol is found in arterial plaque! It must be bad!

Well, no. It took a while, but eventually the researchers realized that unless you have a particular unusual syndrome, cholesterol that you eat does not become plaque in your arteries. Instead, it’s an essential ingredient for the cell walls of the cells that make up your body, as well as a building block for critical hormones, bile acids, and vitamin D. In other words, we need that cholesterol! And the protein profile is close to perfect. Time to rehabilitate the egg.

For the butter, my notes on cream above apply.

And the sausage?

Our human bodies assemble and use nearly 50,000 proteins to make our organs, nerves, muscles and other tissues. Plus enzymes and antibodies are formed of proteins. Proteins are essential to life. And animal protein – meat and eggs – is our only source of complete protein.

Masai youths Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania.Our hunter gatherer ancestors ate a diet largely composed of meat and fat. Vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts were additions to their diet, not the bulk of it. They had excellent bone structure, heavy musculature, and teeth unmarred by any cavities. They were healthy.

Looking at more modern populations, the Russians of the Caucasus again show up as long-lived people eating lots of fatty meats and whole milk foods. In studies of Soviet Georgia, those who ate the most meat and fat lived the longest. The denizens of Vilacabamba, Ecuador – also famous for longevity – consume whole milk and fatty pork. And the Masai of the 1930′s – with a diet of meat, milk, and blood – were nearly disease-free.

With meat, we also get back to fats. Yes, the protein is essential, but the fat is equally important. In order to assimilate vitamins A, D, E, K and certain minerals – calcium, iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium – we need fat.

For more about the benefits of meat, read Pasture Perfect. I’ve blogged about this book as well in Grass Green. :D

One cool bit of trivia about pork: the fat in pork is 45% monounsaturated fat, 11% polyunsaturated fat, and 39% saturated fat. I believe saturated fat to be good for me, but there’s not as much of it in bacon as you might think!

And there you have it: the full rationale behind my breakfast. One more extra benefit: I don’t get hungry for 6 hours after eating it.

For your convenience, I’ll list the links I mentioned in the body of this post:
Amazing Lactobacilli
Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My!
Test first, then conclude!
Grass Green

 

The Troll’s Belt in Paperback!

Another paper release to announce: The Troll’s Belt is now available as a trade paperback. I’m thrilled!

Portrait of Brys in front of Ryndal's hillcot

Young Brys Arnsson digs himself into trouble.

Bad trouble.

Tricked by a troll in J.M. Ney-Grimm’s richly imagined North-lands, Brys must dig himself and his best friend back out of danger. But that requires courage . . . and self-honesty. Traits Brys lacks at depth.

A twist on a classic, The Troll’s Belt builds from humor-threaded conflict to white-knuckle suspense.

The Troll’s Belt as a trade paperback:
5″x 8″ trim size • 102 pages
ISBN-10: 0615896294
ISBN-13: 978-0615896298
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES I B&N I CreateSpace

The Troll’s Belt continues to be available as an ebook:
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES
B&N I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords

The following review has been on Goodreads for quite a while, but it’s so glowing I can’t resist excerpting it here. :D

“The writing style is fantastic. It’s somehow youthful (as it’s through the eyes of a twelve year old) and mature at the same time. Normally, it would be a challenge to discuss…responsibility, loyalty and forgiveness with such a young “voice,” but Ney-Grimm does so easily. The result is a thought provoking tale… Heartily recommended, and it’s made me look forward to reading more of her work!”

 

Crossing the Naiad in Paperback!

Designing the front covers for my paperbacks is easy. I want them to match the ebook editions, so a little adjustment to allow for the difference in size – thumbnail ebook versus X” by Y” trade paperback – and it’s good.

Front cover images of a naiad underwater

Designing the back cover is fun! It’s like an art puzzle. How do I take the visual theme of the front cover and continue it on the back in a way that will work? Satisfying to work on the puzzle. Even more satisfying to solve it.

Designing the interiors involves similar pleasures of visual ingenuity and creativity.

All the design work is play for me.

Then comes the hard part!

I upload the files to CreateSpace. I look at the digital proof online. It looks good. I order the physical proof. The margins on the cover are different than those I’ve specified in my files. I make a guess as to what CreateSpace will do at their end.

(They’re not organized in such a way that I can talk with the technician who actually does the work of converting my files for the print-on-demand printing machine.)

I upload the files again. This time, the margins are correct, but the title on the spine has slipped and is lopsided. I make more guesses about the best adjustments to make. I upload the file again and order yet another proof.

The cover is perfect! Yay! But as I flip through the interior – the interior that has been proofread umpteen million times – I spot a typo. It’s in the copyright statement about fair use. I grit my teeth and decide to live with it. Then I spot another typo. Grr! This one is in the body of the story. No, I can’t live with it. I correct the files again. This time, the proof copy is perfect.

I click the approve button at CreateSpace.

And three days later, my book is available for purchase on Amazon! As several more weeks go by, my book makes its way into the extended distribution system. Eventually it will appear in such bookstores as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon and Fishpond in Australia!

Now, that makes it all worthwhile. But you can see why I’m pretty thrilled when I make it all the way through the gauntlet of CreateSpace.

Recently, a spate of my books has passed through that treacherous channel. Today I’m pleased to announce the release of Crossing the Naiad in paper.

Front and back book covers depicting a naiad underwater

Its truth forgotten in the mists of time, the old bridge harbors a lethal secret. Neither marble statues awakened for battle nor an ancient roadbed grown hungry, something darker and more primal haunts the stones and the wild river below.

Kimmer knows the stories, but she doesn’t know why the crumbling span feels so fraught with menace. Her way home lies across the ruin. Dare she take it? Or will horror from the lost past rise up to claim her, when she does?

Crossing the Naiad as a trade paperback:
5″x 8″ trim size • 46 pages
ISBN-10: 061589058X
ISBN-13: 978-0615890586
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES I CreateSpace

Crossing the Naiad continues to be available as an ebook:
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES
B&N I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords

Just a few weeks ago, Crossing the Naiad received a very positive review on Goodreads!

“A quick, refreshing piece of literature. Like a cool sip of water after a grueling endurance marathon . . . It’s swift and concise, but the prose is eloquent and deft, to the point, yet gracefully articulate . . . again I am enthralled with the completeness of the picture the author is painting. The world comes to life . . .”

 

Livli’s Gift in Paperback!

After printing umpteen million proof copies – okay, I’m exaggerating! it just seemed like that many – CreateSpace has finally disgorged an edition that looks the way I want it to! Livli’s Gift is now available in paperback. I’m thrilled!

Livli paperback photo 3853

Livli heals challenging injuries among the pilgrims to Kaunis-spa. Its magical hot spring gives her an edge, but Livli achieves spectacular cures mainly because she refuses to fail.

A pioneer, she hopes to match her new ways for banishing hurt with new ways of living.

But the sisters of Kaunis-lodge fear rapid change. What precious things might they lose while tossing old inconveniences?

Livli pushes forward the new, and one influential foe pushes back. Kaunis-home will keep its revered traditions, even if Livli loses almost everything.

Everything . . . and the one thing she absolutely cannot lose.

Livli seeks an answer in the oldest lore of her people, something so ancient, it′s new. But mere resolve against failure meets an immovable counter force this time. Victory requires more.

Must surrender spell defeat? Or could letting go harness real power?

Livli’s Gift as a trade paperback:
6″x 9″ trim size • 212 pages
ISBN-10: 0615743080
ISBN-13: 978-0615743080
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I B&N I CreateSpace

Livli’s Gift continues to be available as an ebook:
Amazon.com I Amazon UK I Amazon DE I Amazon ES
B&N I Diesel I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords

Update: A lovely review appeared on Goodreads over the weekend, so lovely that I can’t resist sharing it!

“I have never read a novel that made me feel so good. Mrs Ney-Grimm, you absolutely BLEW MY MIND! . . . It was so unique, so original . . . Usually I blast through the pages of a book that I love, but Livli’s Gift made me want to go as slow as possible, absorbing every moment of bliss.” – Goodreads review

 

Draco the Dragon

Several constellations receive mention in my novella, Devouring Light. Cygnus the Swan soars across the eighth sphere. The Great Bear lumbers along its vast curve. And, embracing the freedom of fiction, I created a few constellations unknown to Earth’s history: the Simiae and the Winged Bulls.

But one constellation alone features prominently in my story: Draco.

Blue Dragon Tattoo

Older by far than the planetary spirits, Draco is a wily, jaded creature who’s forgotten the pleasures of living in his neck of the universe. His capricious response to his boredom pushes first Mercurio, and then Haden, toward action that summons catastrophe.

Of course, many an ancient legend about the dragon preceded my own Devouring Light.

According to the ancient Greeks, a dragon named Ladon guarded the garden of Hera, queen of the gods. Within Hera’s garden grew a grove of trees with golden apples that bestowed immortality upon their eater. Nymphs – the Hesperides – tended the garden and occasionally stole the apples. Ladon was given the task of preventing such theft, whether by the nymphs or by other intruders.

The Garden of the Hesperides by Frederic LeightonDespite Ladon’s watchful ferocity, two renowned trespassers managed to steal apples. Eris, the goddess of discord, inscribed her stolen fruit with the phrase “to the most beautiful.” When she rolled the apple into a wedding (from which she had been excluded), she started the Trojan Wars.

Hercules was the other interloper. Of the twelve labors given him, the eleventh was the theft from Hera’s grove. He didn’t attempt the feat himself. Instead he offered Atlas a break from holding up the world, if Atlas were do the deed. Atlas possessed the advantage of being the father of the Hesperides, and he liked the idea of a rest for his shoulders. In fact, he liked it so much that he refused to exchange the stolen apples for the world. He didn’t want it back.

Hercules agreed to take Atlas’ place permanently, so long as he could first rearrange his cloak. Naturally, once Atlas again bore the world on his own shoulders, Hercules did not keep his promise. Not much honor amongst those Greek gods and heroes!

In one version of the myth, Ladon is rewarded for his long vigil by being enthroned in the sky as a constellation. Certainly, the two constellations – Draco and Hercules – are near one another in the heavens.

The ancient Romans told a different tale about the dragon. Draco was one of the Titans, monsters who fought the Olympian gods for dominion over the earth. The war was grievous and long. In the final battle, when the Olympians prevailed, the goddess Minerva confronted Draco. She won and tossed the defeated dragon into the sky. Frozen by the cold northern Celestial Pole, he stayed there for eternity.

In addition to its mythological importance, Draco also possesses elements of interest to astronomy.

The star Thuban – head of the serpent – shines within Draco. It’s a blue-white giant and occupied the position of pole star from 3942 BC to 1793 BC. The ancient Egyptians noted this and built their pyramids with one side facing north and an entrance there that permitted Thuban to be seen within. Because the Earth wobbles on its axis – a cycle that takes 26,000 years – Thuban will become the pole star again in 21,000 AD.

Cat's Eye NebulaThe Cat’s Eye Nebula is located in Draco. It possesses one of the most complex shapes ever seen through the Hubble Space Telescope. Created 1,000 years ago by an exploding star, the nebula features knots, jets, bubbles, and arc-like structures.

The quasar Q1634+706 also inhabits Draco. 12.9 billion light years away, it’s so bright that it’s the most distant object that can yet be seen through an amateur telescope.

And, finally, Draco hosts the meteor shower known as the February Eta Draconids.

On the cultural side of things, I am not the only artist inspired by Draco.

The film Dragonheart presents the constellation as a heaven to which the spirit of any dragon ascends after death, if it has upheld an ancient dragonish oath to guard mankind. The Russian chess master master Fyodo Dus-Chotimirsky named the chess opening of the Sicilian Defense the Dragon Variation, after the constellation. And J.K. Rowling named her antagonist, Draco Malfoy, in the Harry Potter series after the starry Draco.

For more fun trivia behind Devouring Light, see:
What Do Celestials Wear?
The Oort Cloud
The Graces

 

Gongs

Gong au Palais Royal de BruxellesWhen I wrote the story Resonant Bronze, I needed to know more about gongs.

The type of gong most familiar to Westerners is the bullseye gong or tam-tam. A tam-tam is made of brass (copper and zinc) or bronze (copper and tin). It’s nearly flat with a very shallow curve. And the rim is turned to be perpendicular to the gong’s surface.

Tam-tams yield a crashing sound when hit. They were originally used in China to signal the peasants working in the fields. They could be heard up to 50 miles away!

But the gong featured in Resonant Bronze is not a tam-tam. It’s a nipple gong.

Nipple gongs possess a central raised boss that is often formed of a different metal than the rest of the gong.

Such is exactly the case for the gong in Resonant Bronze. Its central boss is made of meteoric iron, while the rest of its wide circle is formed of arsenical bronze (copper and arsenic). Thus its silvery color.

Nipple gongs have a clearer, more resonant tone than tam-tams, with less “shimmer.” Small nipple gongs are often suspended horizontally (rather than vertically) and played together as you might play a xylophone.

The gong in Resonant Bronze is large – roughly 3 feet in diameter – and hangs vertically.

One of the most interesting things I learned in the course of my research involves the unique forging properties of bronze.

Most metals – copper, steel, silver, brass, etc. – when heated and slowly cooled to room temperature in still air become more ductile, more workable at cold temperatures, and less prone to internal stresses. This is called annealing.

Bronze does not behave like this when slow cooled. In fact, it becomes excessively brittle and difficult to work.

Bronze must be heated to cherry-red and then quenched in water. This quick cooling makes it so soft that it can then be hammered. Thus a gong is first heated, quenched, and shaped. Then it is heated again and slow-cooled to harden it.

While modern bronze is composed of copper and tin – from 8 to 22 parts of tin for every 78 parts of copper – the ancients used arsenic instead of tin. This resulted in several advantages.

The arsenic acted as an de-oxidizer, causing the extra oxygen sometimes present in liquid copper to evaporate as various arsenous oxides, yielding a more malleable bronze.

The presence of arsenic also produces a greater work hardening of the metal without causing embrittlement. (Especially important for cutting and chopping tools, not as important musical instruments.)

And, finally, the arsenic creates an attractive silver sheen to the metal’s surface.

Arsenic is present in many of the copper ores in the ground, but the ancients also added arsenic themselves.

Unfortunately, arsenic within an alloy also possesses some serious disadvantages. Arsenic vapor attacks the eyes, lungs, and skin of the smith, as well as causing neurological damage that results in weakness in the legs and feet. It is speculated that this fact of neuropathy lies behind the archetype of lame smiths such as the Greek god Hephaestus.

A very large Thai gong at a temple in Roi Et, Isan, ThailandThis is one of those times I was super glad I’d done my research! It would have been so easy to get this wrong. My natural inclination is to research topics I don’t know much about. I just don’t feel comfortable writing my story when there’s an important element in it and I’m ignorant. Of course, it’s not just wanting to get the details right that propels me. I’m also insatiably curious! :D

For more about the facts behind my stories, see:
Origin of Canning
The Accidental Herbalist
Roman Dining

 

The Theft of Odin’s Horse

Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire, England

This story opening was inspired by two photos I took last year. Both appeared on my blog: the tangled garden here, and the soaring tree here.

* * *

All-father above! Why was Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, growing in Loki’s court?

Cissa had walked out to Ithunna’s garden to loll on mounds of feathery periwinkle and savor the light breeze winging up the hillside. Why not? Vanna was busy in the kitchen; they’d gabbed late into the night. Some morning solitude would suit them both.

But lolling and savoring weren’t what she was doing.

She’d strolled through the wild tangle of green, noting sprays of fern, tendrils of ivy, and seated herself against the trunk of a gnarly maple. Its rough bark grated on her skin, left bare by her halter top. Long weedy things tickled the bend of one elbow.

She’d found the perfect vantage: tree at her back, loveliness sloping away before her, cool dappled shade all around. Ah! She inhaled – the start of that savoring – and chuckled. The sweet syrupy aroma of honey melting into butter accorded not at all with her bowery surroundings. Vanna was making granola, and her open kitchen window meant spicy cinnamon and nutmeg overwhelmed the cleaner scents of rain-washed leaves and loamy earth. A clatter of baking sheets interrupted fluting birdcalls and the distant sound of falling water.

It felt comforting, this blend of her kinfolk: Vanna’s domesticity in the home, Ithunna’s love of green and growing things in the outdoors.

I’m lucky in my sisters, my nieces, she mused. Less lucky in . . . but that was a thought for another time. Or was it? Before her and behind her, all was well. But there to her left, where Ithunna’s orchards lapped the stone walls of their nephew’s castle? Was something amiss there?

She’d straightened, not sure why she was worried, then climbed to her feet and let the sensory world fall away. In the space between will and action, the gap between dream and reality, in the magic underlying rock and bone and breath – something was far more than amiss.

Eyes closed, she saw vast limbs stretching beyond the sky, cradling the heaven of Asgard; sensed deep roots burrowing below even the earth’s foundations to sip the springs of fate and wisdom; felt the massive trunk supporting the clement harbors of life where mortal men and women dwelt.

An American Beauty, 1906 postcardBut Yggdrasil grows from the Wells of Urth, not in the trickster’s back bailey!

What had Loki done?

* * *

She’d rushed back to the house to confront Vanna with the dreadful news.

And been inveigled into another of her sister-in-law’s food projects before she found the words – and the opening – to speak of Loki’s perfidy. When she did the modest dining room – sunlit white walls, two windows, oak table and chairs, and nothing else – grew very quiet. Her chair creaked under her as Cissa leaned forward.

“You knew? You knew! That Yggdrasil now grows in Loki’s court?”

Vanna was looking at the capped jar of raw milk resting on the oaken boards of the dining room floor. It had been curdling for five days now, separating out into creamy curds floating on thin cloudy-white whey.

“Loki told me.” Vanna’s answer sounded distant.

Loki told you?” Cissa felt breathless. “Loki!”

Vanna bent, lifted the two-quart jar, and placed it on the table. They’d covered the surface with a red oilskin to protect the wood from moisture. Making whey for pickles could get messy.

“He always trusted me more, you know.”

Odin’s beard! Was everything Cissa thought she knew about Vanna wrong?

“But you told someone? You warned someone?”

Vanna arched an eyebrow, easing the cap off the milk jar. The sour smell of the whey rose from the vessel’s mouth. Sunlight sifted through the tree leaves outside the west window, dappling the square glass panes, dappling Vanna herself. Her golden blond hair – twisted up on her head and pinned – glowed. She looked very much herself: goddess of fertility and wife of Uller.

“Did you never think that perhaps the reason Loki is untrustworthy is because no one trusts him?”

Cissa rose abruptly to her feet. “No!”

She turned to pace. The room wasn’t big enough for it. She knocked against the next chair over, caught her elbow on the white cloth blind let down over the south window, and then bumped her hip against the table. The screws holding the legs on squeaked. The whey in the jar sloshed, but the thick curds atop kept it from spilling.

“Loki the abducter! Loki the thief! Or are you going to tell me he never absconded with Daphne to Alfheim? Or clipped Sybil’s tresses?”

The hint of a smile crossed Vanna’s face. She arranged a square of linen in a sieve in a crockery bowl.

“There was rather more to it than that. Both times.”

In one smooth motion, she tipped the jar upside down over the sieve. The curds stuck for a moment in the neck of the jar, then slithered out with a sucking noise. The whey poured after, splashing.

“I think it’s worth giving him a chance.”

Cissa’s breath huffed out. She plopped into the chair beside her, at the table end near the parlor. A cushion tied to the rungs of its back made the seat softer than her earlier perch, plain oak.

“And if you’re wrong? If there are no extenuating circumstances this time?”

Her arms rose almost involuntarily, and her fingers clutched the curls atop her head. It pulled a bit.

“This is Yggdrasil. The world tree. Which has grown in Odin’s court since first its seed sprouted. Its branches are our foundation. Vanna, think!”

“I did think. I have thought. And –”

While she hesitated, Vanna knotted the two opposite corners of the linen cloth, then the other two, and thrust a wooden spoon through the double loop.

You think. If we raise an alarm, a big stink, what will Loki do?”

Cissa grabbed the glass pitcher from her end of the table and pushed it along the oilskin, closer to the bowl.

“The absolute worst he can think of,” she answered slowly.

“And if we give him breathing room?”

Vanna lifted the bundled curds by the spoon. The whey, almost translucent, ran off the bottom of the rounded linen, passing through the sieve and hitting the bowl with a soft drumming rhythm. Its sour smell, a bit like yogurt, but sharper, grew stronger.

Cissa felt her lips straightening. “Perhaps no harm will be done. Perhaps we’ll find out why – oh!” She jerked and bumped the table yet again, with her belly this time, and softer. The table jiggled and squeaked. “Do you suppose Yggdrasil was in danger? Loki is protecting it?”

Vanna lowered the bundle of curds into the pitcher, letting the spoon rest across its wide opening. For the first time in this conversation, her eyes met Vanna’s. They looked sad.

“Now you are more generous than I, little sister.”

Cissa blushed. “But –”

“Loki will make mischief whenever it does not compromise his advantage. And even then, sometimes.”

Vanna carried the pitcher away into the kitchen.

Cissa heard the ice-box door open and close. She reached for the bowl full of whey on the table, lifted the empty sieve out of the liquid, let it drip a bit, and set it down. Wet. That’s why the oilskin. She put the waiting funnel into a clean jar with a narrower mouth and poured. Would it all fit? No, she’d need a second container.

Bunging the cork in to seal this first one, she came to a decision.

Her hands weren’t quite steady.

“I’m not willing to just take Loki on faith. I won’t raise the alarm. But I’m going to ask some questions.”

Vanna reappeared in the kitchen doorway.

Cissa stood, wiped the damp whey bottle with a dish towel, and handed it to her.

Vanna smiled. “Good,” she answered.

* * *

For more story openings, see:
Witch’s Sweet
Fate’s Door
The Green Knight

For the list of stories that began all these story opening posts, see:
Popcorn Kittens