Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 2

Whew! I seem to have created a really mean character. I didn’t realize just how mean she was until I typed the longhand draft into a computer file. When I finished, I wondered if I should maybe keep this lady under wraps!

I will tell you that I cheated while writing her scene.

Instead of putting myself in Zelle’s shoes, I put myself in the place of her victims and then had Zelle say things that would hurt me most.

Guess it worked! Because I cringed while typing.

So what have I been up to? Why the nasty character? What’s going on?

For those of you who missed last week’s post: I’ve been working my way through Lawrence Block’s awesome “seminar in a book,” Write for Your Life.

In the chapter “Your Most Unforgettable Characters,” Block assigns two writing exercises. The first, in which one creates a character, I shared last week. Check it out here, if you wish.

The second exercise goes as follows:

• Take a walk or do something similar that refreshes you and clears your mind.

• Then come home and sit as though you were going to meditate—comfortably. (I think comfortably is the key here.)

• For 10 or 15 minutes, envision your character going through an ordinary day. What do they eat, wear, do?

• Then grab pen and paper (or your computer keyboard) and write about the character for 15 minutes.

This writing can take any form that appeals to you. It might be a story, a letter from the character, a letter to the character, a poem, a scene fragment, whatever.

Don’t worry about style. Turn off the critical voice who likes to squelch you when you’re writing.

I felt drawn to writing a scene. I considered writing the arrival of the foreign caravan, but didn’t quite feel the pull.

I contemplated writing of an interaction between Zelle and the crone mage, in which Zelle was being her covertly annoying self and also struggling against her growing affection for the old woman.

That possibility did draw me. It still does, actually. But it felt more demanding than I was ready for. If I were to write the novel in which Zelle would appear, then I’d write this scene. For a writing exercise, I wanted something more straight forward.

I decided to write a scene in which Zelle ensures that someone is annoyed and discommoded.

To prepare, I made a list of things that I would find annoying. Here it is:

    item lost
    item misplaced
    item damaged
    reporting someone’s gossip to another
    food mis-flavored
    tripping hazard
    bed short sheeted
    locked out
    sent on false errand or to carry a false message
    instructions wrong
    supplies low or gone
    sink dirty
    dishes dirty
    picture crooked
    sandal strap broken
    talking behind someone’s back

The list inspired me, and I said to myself: “I think I will show her dirtying the washbasin of the crone mage, and then steering a novice to where she’ll overhear people discussing her unfavorably.”

Once I started writing, it got darker than that. Zelle is mean! Take a look at the scene as it evolved.

To Bruise the Soul

Zelle untwisted a kink in the topmost of the gold chains holding her vest closed and shook the cuffs of her bloused pants to a more graceful position on her ankles. She checked that her tail of red hair, falling from her crown to drift forward of her left shoulder, lay untangled.

Then, tray in hand, she breezed into the sleeping chamber allotted to the two junior-most of the crone mage’s handmaidens.

The youngest of the pair, Gasha, just fifteen, sprawled on the salt-silk banquette where she took her rest. Her vest and pants were rumpled. She lay scowling down at her toes.

“You’d think the crone mage might let me at least apply some healing salts to my own face. It’s not fair that any girl in the community, if her mother be provident, can have clear skin. While I go around with a face like a pox victim.”

Gasha was indeed much troubled with adolescent acne. Which would serve Zelle’s current purpose well. Adolescent vanity was exactly what she intended to trigger.

The dark-haired girl to whom Gasha spoke turned away from the chest into which she’d been stowing folded shifts of bright pattern. “You know you aren’t skilled enough yet to practice healing magery on anyone, let alone on yourself, which is far more demanding than casting on someone else.”

Miyla was two years older than Gasha and known for her serene demeanor. Zelle doubted the girl was so serene beneath that surface appearance however.

Gasha rolled onto her side to meet Miyla’s gaze, her jaw abruptly pugnacious. “Don’t you wish you could use magery on yourself?” Gasha demanded. “If your cheekbones were higher and your chin squarer, you could be the most beautiful girl in the domicile! In the community!”

This was true. Miyla’s eyes were an amazing ice-blue with a surprising intensity beneath dramatic brows like dashes of ink. Her nose was short and straight, her lips beautifully formed. But the excessive flatness of her cheeks and her receding chin removed all possibility of loveliness. Zelle suspected Miyla would have handled ordinary plainness much better than the potential for extraordinary beauty scuttled by a few problematic features.

Miyla’s mouth thinned. “Shut up!” she snapped.

Her lips parted to recriminate further, but then she noticed Zelle’s arrival, and her angry eyes went flat. She curtsied, murmuring, “Salt mother.”

Gasha’s sulks disappeared, too, and she lurched off the banquette to her feet to echo Miyla’s knee dip. “Salt mother!” she gasped.

Zelle ignored the girls’ discomfiture, handing a crystal vial from her tray to Gasha. “Here you go. The crone mage has approved your request.”

The vial contained the very mage-infused salts the girl had been complaining of. Her request had been approved with no resistance once Zelle conveyed it. But Zelle had delayed such conveyance for six moons. She’d needed Gasha feeling discontented and rebellious.

“Oh!” exclaimed Gasha. “Thank you! I thought—I thought—”

Zelle smiled. “You thought the crone mage desired your humiliation.”

“Oh, no!” protested Gasha. “I was humiliated. I am humiliated—”

“Don’t be,” said Zelle, and then added, her tone light, “Such a shame that your skin is not clear like Seliya’s. But no matter. These salts will take care of it, and when they are gone, you shall have more.”

Gasha’s delight fell from her expression. She looked confused, trying to reconcile her pleasure in receiving her desire with the pain of the gratuitous reminder that her acne was severe, while the newest of the crone mage’s handmaidens—Seliya—possessed naturally flawless skin.

Zelle concealed her inner amusement and turned away from Gasha, focusing instead on Miyla, who stood nervously twisting her fingers together.

“I accidentally overheard you talking with the herbalist yesterday, and I think the wish you expressed to her is reasonable.” It hadn’t been a wish. Zelle was well aware it had been an expression of frustration.

But hearing the girl’s frustration had inspired this entire scheme in Zelle’s imagination. Now that she was putting her plans in play, it was working beautifully, judging by the tension in the room.

She took up the stack of face veils from her tray, handing them to Miyla. “I think that you are quite right that if you assume the zavoj of an ascetic, you’ll gain a more favorable response from the people around you. If all they can see are your eyes . . .” Zelle trailed off, smiling kindly.

Miyla’s expression congealed. She looked a though she’d been punched in the stomach, but she accepted the face veils.

“I shouldn’t be surprised if strangers imagined you to be as beautiful as Seliya, and even your friends will forget in time that you aren’t.”

Miyla curtsied. “Salt mother,” she whispered, not meaning the respect the courtesy conveyed, but not withholding it either.

“Salt mother,” echoed Gasha.

Zelle breezed out as she had breezed in.

The next step was to fetch Seliya. She’d have the girl wait in the corridor outside Gasha’s and Miyla’s chamber, ready to accompany Zelle on an errand to a ague-stricken household on the edge of the community.

Seliya was wonderfully uncertain of herself, trying to fit in, trying to make friends. She should get an earful, listening to Gasha’s and Miyla’s verbal storms in the aftermath of Zelle’s provocation.

Zelle nodded.

While Seliya listened and grew even more lonely and unhappy, Zelle would have just enough time to weaken the buckle strap on the crone mother’s favorite sandals—it would break on her next sojourn outside the domicile. She could also pour dirtied water into the crone’s washbasin. The chamber maid should have just finished cleaning the crone’s water closet.

Zelle repressed a sigh of satisfaction. People were so simple-minded. They always assumed others meant well. Zelle never did. It was delicious.

*     *     *

For the first character assignment (that produced Zelle), see:
Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 1

For more flash fiction, see:
Ribbon of Earth’s Tears
Mother’s Gift



Read-Only Beauty

Read-Only Beauty started as an assignment in a writing workshop on how to develop ideas for stories. I wrote a story opening inspired by three words chosen at random from a dictionary: read-only-memory, number cruncher, derelict.

The assignment was limited to 500 words, but I couldn’t bear to stop there! I turned in the required word count, but kept writing to finish a piece of flash fiction, included in its entirety below.

photo by MyheimuUzuri woke as from a nightmare, suddenly, horrifically, slamming down on the platform from on high, arching to sitting so fast it gave her whiplash. Her throat was too dry to loose the scream. She swallowed down bitter bile, blinking. It was too soon, too soon, and all wrong.

Someone whimpered. It was her. “Stop, stop it,” she whispered.

Her tongue felt stiff inside her mouth, and the light hurt her eyes, indirect, but gleaming from polished white panels. She swung her feet to the floor. Fine flakes of charred dust, like black sand, gritted between her bare soles and the white floor. She stared bewildered at the silvery gown draped over her bony knees, fluttering down to the brown skin of her slender ankles. She inhaled, painfully. What had burned to produce that acrid scent? And why? And where were . . . ?

There should be people around her, steadying her, here in the stasis room. Where were they?

She could remember the hood coming down, her sight dimming, the surgical unit approaching her head. But not here. It was in a hospice suite. And then nothing. What was she doing in this stasis chamber?

Abruptly, she stood. Ran out through the open doorway and along a curving hall. The black cinders scritched under her swift steps. Faint metallic taps sounded from her knees banging her gown, its fabric slightly stiff, slightly silken. The white panels of the walls blurred, but not with speed. Her memory didn’t hold them, couldn’t hold them.

Where am I? Where am I?

She stopped. Came to herself before an aquarium. Bright golden fishes swam behind the expanse of glass, so calm, so peaceful. The water filter hummed softly, bubbles murmuring as they ascended from its conch-shell housing. A vivid blue beta darted through the school of goldfish. Uzuri’s gaze fell to the white pebbles lining the tank’s bottom. A fine black ash speckled their pale smoothness.

Oh, god! Oh, god! That fine ash meant something dreadful. She knew it was so.

She ran again.

The grand foyer was still beautiful. Green, twining vines climbed the white support girders. The air smelled fresher. Mosaic murals showed scenes of far-off earth – the sun-drenched isle of Mykonos dreaming amidst ocean, its canopied market, its ruined temples. Uzuri waded in the foyer reflecting pool. The water was cool, chilling her calves. Flat coins pressed the balls of her feet. Coins and the grit of ashes. She fled, splashing down amidst the money, scrambling up, hair dripping and skin slick, her gown still strangely dry.

What had happened? Oh, what?

The Calaeno II was an outpost, so far from 16 Tauri that the blue-white primary burned as merely one star amidst many. Uzuri remembered arriving at the station, watching the revolving spokes within its wheel flash past the star field, wondering if she would see the spectral effects her hypothesis proposed for her observations of the Melotte 22 Open Cluster. She’d been excited, her first trip out from the mother planet, her first posting out of university. She remembered. She remembered that. But . . . what came after?

The hood came down. Her vision dimmed. The surgical unit approached. Oh, god!

She was standing in front of a wall monitor, gesturing with one hand: page down, page down, page down. The records flickered by.

Patient: Uzuri Beleza. Human female. Standard mods: joint enhancement, collagen longevity, memory capacity.


Diagnosis: Memory circuit malfunction. Read-only, functional. Read-and-write, inoperative.


A sprawling and obscure circuitry diagram.


Treatment plan: Stasis, followed by surgical replacement when supply ship arrives with microcircuit #THC313.


Treatment administered: Stasis initiated, 8*6*2787

Flick, flick.

File Accessed: 11*6*2791 user UBeleza
File Accessed: 11*7*2791 user UBeleza
File Accessed: 11*8*2791 user UBeleza
File Accessed: 11*9*2791 user UBeleza

She sank to her knees, cinders grinding between bone and floor tile, denting the skin, ashy gray with dryness and unattractive. She bent. Her tears fell, flushing her dry knees to rich brown with their wetness. Oh, god, oh, god! Please help me, please help.

The hood descended. Her eyes grew blind. The surgical unit approached.

She fled down corridors of unformed memory. What has happened? What’s wrong? Where am I?

She stood in the observation lounge. Gritty cinders rendered the plush matting uncomfortable, the chairs and divans, likewise. She reached out to touch the transparent wall before her, spread her fingers against the clear ceram-glass. The vast dark of night cloaked infinity, a well down which Calaeno II – and Uzuri – fell endlessly. The stars wheeled, a begemmed veil of blue and white and red sparks, unwinking save for the Crab pulsar, throbbing violet near the center of rotation. Beautiful. It was beautiful. But, oh! She needed more.

The hood came down. Her blindness commenced. The surgery began.

When had beauty proffered succor?

She was running, seeking someone, seeking help.

Another monitor confronted her gaze. With images out of nightmare. Was it this from which she’d woken?

Flick, flick.

There was fire without flames. Incandescent. A sea of plasma. How was it that the water never boiled, the leaves of the grape ivy did not char?

The fire glowed, then ebbed. And there were ashes, everywhere ashes, falling through the air, falling to lie on the water and sink, falling to coat the floors. “My people, oh, my people,” she whispered. They were ash, only ash, and would never live again.

The hood. The blindness. The approach.

How much time passed between that moment of read-only memory and the next? It was blank, and blank again.

She stood watching stars. The pulsar winked within night’s robe. A streak of silver rent its breast. And her eyes were dry, so dry. She was scared.

* * *

For more flash fiction, see:
Mother’s Gift
The Old Armory: Blood Falchion
The Old Armory: Hunting Wild



Mother’s Gift

Henri-François Riesener - Mother and Her Daughter - WGA19477

With Mother’s Day approaching, this piece of flash fiction seems appropriate.

* * *

Mother: Kaitlin?

Mother: Kaitlin?

Daughter: I don’t want to talk about it. Genevieve!

Mother: Mm. I think it’s good to go over these things as you get older, sweetie.

Daughter: Look. I already know that the sperm comes from the man. And the egg from the woman. And together they make a baby. I get it.

Mother: I know you know the facts, honey.

Mother: Maybe now isn’t a good time. But, really, there’s never a good time, is there? We’re home. Dinner’s over. We’re private in your bedroom. Let’s talk!

Daughter: Oh, god! You never give up!

Mother: Language, Kaitlin.

Daughter: Genevieve.

Mother: I don’t mind, if you need to leave “Mom” behind for a while.

Daughter: Yeah, well. I hope you consider years a while.

Mother: Kaitlin, what’s wrong?

Mother: Oh, sweetie! I’m so sorry!

Daughter: Chloe says you aren’t my mom! Not really. That Elena Johnson’s my real mom. Except she isn’t! She doesn’t even know me!

Mother: Sh. Sh. It’s okay. I promise it’s okay.

Daughter: It isn’t okay! How is it okay? How can it possibly be okay?

Daughter: I’m not okay.

Mother: What did you tell Chloe?

Daughter: That you chose to have a baby. Not Elena. That you chose Elena. You and Daddy. That you chose, so you’re my mom.

Mother: But Chloe doesn’t see it that way?

Daughter: She says the egg was Elena’s egg. Not yours. So Elena’s my mom.

Daughter: But she isn’t! She isn’t! I won’t have her!

Mother: Sh. Sh. It’s okay. It’s okay.

Daughter: You keep saying that.

Mother: What do you think, Kaitlin? Is Chloe right?

Daughter: I hate her!

Mother: Oh, honey. Your best friend?

Daughter: Yeah, okay.

Mother: So?

Daughter: I know why she said that.

Mother: Really? Can you tell me? Or is it a secret?

Daughter: I don’t care if it’s a secret, blast her!

Daughter: You won’t tell anyone, will you?

Mother: No. I won’t.

Daughter: She just found out. That she’s a sperm bank baby. Or, as she says, that her dad’s not her dad.

Mother: Ouch.

Daughter: Yeah. Her mom and dad decided to keep it a secret. Some secret.

Mother: So, is Chloe right?

Daughter: No. No, she isn’t right. Mom.

Mother: I love you, sweetie.

Daughter: Mom?

Mother: Yes?

Daughter: I’m so glad you told me before I even knew what it meant. That I’ve always known. Thank you.

* * *

For more flash fiction, see:
Read-Only Beauty
The Old Armory: Blood Falchion
The Old Armory: Hunting Wild

* * *

I wrote “Mother’s Gift” for a writers’ workshop. The assignment possessed stringent guidelines!

• a parent and a child are talking about “the facts of life”
• my job: tell a story using their dialog
• no dialog tags, no “stage business,” and no setting allowed – only the words spoken
• the reader should learn the characters’ names through their dialog
• the reader must be able to discern who is the parent, who is the child, and the age (roughly) of the child
• no more than 2 pages

In the original assignment, the characters received merely the labels “A” and “B.” That seemed too austere for a blog post, so I adjusted accordingly.

My writing teachers spoke highly of my work. And it pleases me that I managed to layer two supporting stories in with the main narrative. Three stories in one!

I hope you enjoyed it. 😀



The Old Armory, Part II

Part I is here, if you missed it.

Castel Baloron was once  the fortress Castellum Balazoron. It would become Chapel Balarn, and then the Belarno Armory. But that time was not yet, and the falchion hidden in the well of its outer bailey would surface first.

Hunting Wild

The pennants snapped, bright in the stiff breeze. The stones of Castel Baloron were old, worn, but the stands, pavilions, and royal box – draped in scarlet silk – shone vivid and new, erected two weeks ago for the the tourney.

Tulliya bounced and cheered, waving her handkercher over her head.

“Did you see? Did you see him?” she demanded of her companion, a fosterling one year younger than herself. “His footwork was perfect! Amias never even saw that backhand blow til it connected!”

“What do you know of backhand blows and footwork?” retorted Quilleya. Then she grinned. “He is good, isn’t he?”

Tulliya returned her attention to the lists. “I’ve watched the squires in the tilting yard,” she replied, eyes on the two young men finishing their bout. Both stripped off their gauntlets to shake hands, then doffed their helmets to exchange the ritual peace kisses on either cheek, indicating their good will. The jousts were tests of skill, not occasions to form enmity. Here at the tirocinium, an exercise for the newly knighted, it was particularly important that contestants follow the correct forms.

Amias stooped for his gauntlets and helm, limped toward his pavilion. Maximo slung an arm about his defeated opponent’s shoulders, shoring him up. Evidently the two were friends, not merely civil in the aftermath of victory and defeat.

I don’t know all his entire circle anymore. She’d used to, before his father, the Cavalier Pellucon, sent him to Castel Graezon for fostering and training. Before her father, Warder of Baloron, sent her to the Princess Aeliyana as maid-in-waiting. It’s a good thing, she decided. He used to be grubby and annoying. And I was . . . equally grubby and . . . equally annoying. She smothered a grin.

Maximo had delivered Amias to his men-at-arms. Now he approached the royal box and bowed.

“Your Highness” – that was to the Princess Aeliyana – “my Ladies” – another bow to the matrons- and maids-in-waiting – “my victory is yours.” He smiled directly at Tulliya. “May I claim my guerdon?”

Her spirits recovered. She bounced again, once, then quelled herself. She felt a grown lady, bestowing her handkercher after a champion had jousted for her. Better act like one.

Max received his guerdon becomingly, no hints of their childhood association lessening Tulliya’s dignity, and retired with another bow.

His was the last bout of the tirocinium. There would be an interval before all the knights gathered for the melee. The tiros needed rest and refreshment. The spectators did too.

Tulliya craned her neck, looking for the kitchen churls. It was her job – and Quilleya’s – to carry the covered platters up to the royal box. Ah! They were just emerging through the barbican from the inner court. She rose to her feet, nudged Quilleya, and descended the stairs at the back of the box. Some moments later, she ferried a tureen of vongola bisque, a compote of orange marmelade dumplings, and a flagon of chilled wine upward. Lady Juneya wanted bisque only, Lady Varice the dumplings, and Lady Corenna wanted some of everything.

The princess declined all but wine. Her hand trembled receiving the chalice. Tulliya glanced upward in surprise, met the royal gaze. Aeliyana smiled, gracious even in worry, but the line between her brows deepened. What concerned her? Tulliya dipped a curtsey.

“My thanks, child. Truly I have little hunger. Perhaps I’ll desire more when I sup this eve.”

Except she wouldn’t. Her Highness had displayed little appetite for near on a month. Tulliya shivered, remembering her own source of worry, wondering why her fear – yes, it was fear, not worry – and that of the princess ran in parallel.

It’s our king.

On the thought, trumpets blared. Tulliya started, nearly spilling the wine.

“Best put the flagon aside, child.”

Tulliya nodded.

“It will be well.”

Except it wouldn’t.

The chief herald was speaking, his voice projecting above the sussuration of the breeze. “His Majesty, King Xavo of Istria, Lord of Ebior, Caliana, and Nathiar, Cavalier of the Order of the Clepsydra, declares he shall meet Lord Rollo, High Gravine of Eirdry, in the test of the joust. May the stouter champion prevail!”

Another blast from the trumpets.

A knight on a black horse – the massive stallion, Morke – rode from behind the most magnificent pavilion.

Tulliya couldn’t see his face at this distance. Could not have seen it, even were she closer, since the visor of his dark helm was down. She didn’t want to see his face. The memory of it as he received the lost falchion from her hand troubled her still. Turned her worry to fear.

Like all the youngsters growing up in Castel Baloron, she had explored every cranny of her home. The kitchen stores were forbidden, but harmless; the deep stores, taboo and more dangerous. The tunnel below the old bailey well where the spring emerged from the hillside, beyond prohibition, forgotten.

Most memories from Tulliya’s fifth year were blurry now in her thirteenth; that of her first passage up the dark tunnel behind the spring remained clear. Dared by Max – today’s champion, childhood’s best friend – she’d scrabbled under the earthen arch in spite of her fears. I’m big! I’m brave! she’d insisted to herself. She hadn’t been big. Many children of Baloron never risked the underearth challenge. Those who did were nine, more often ten. But Tulliya hated being the littlest, the most timid, the one causing her older companions to exercise prudence. This would show them!

The pebbles of the underground stream bed dug into the soles of her feet, and the chill of the shallow water numbed her toes. The rough surface of the ceiling sloped down, scraping her back, forcing her to bend, to crouch, to curl enough that she caught her balance with her hands in the wet. The light faded swiftly. Had she gone far enough? She paused, eyes adjusting. The glimmering ripples of the spring’s source cast dim flickers against the rocks pressing her down. I can see. She hesitated a moment, then moved forward, picking her way. One foot, one hand, the other foot. The roof lowered again, and her knee splashed down. This is enough, she decided. Could she turn? Or must she back out?

Yes, back out.

She pushed with her left hand, felt pointed impact on her head, found herself sprawled in the water.


Her eyes stung. She blinked away tears. I’m big! I’m brave!

She pulled her legs under her, kneeling, waiting for the sparkles that confused her vision to fade. They didn’t. Silver scintillas turned bronze, turned gold. Something ahead glittered and shed light. She crouched lower, creeping forward to see more. What was this strangeness? There, where the water grew abruptly deeper, a marvel gleamed below the surface, embedded in the wall of the well shaft: a mosaic of turquoise and bronze and the green of old, old copper depicting a blade. She reached for it, drew back. Rust appeared on the edges of the blade, dark and crusted brown, flushing swiftly to scarlet, then dimming to blood red. Its glow blackened, twisted her fingers into curled claws. Tulliya screamed.

“No!” she cried and scrabbled backward, turning the moment the tunnel permitted it, floundering wildly through the pools edging the stream and out into daylight.

Max scooped her out of the spring, guilt writ large on his boy’s face, frantic hands gentled by his affection for her. “What happened? What happened?” he gasped.

She never told him.

If only I’d never told anyone. She shivered despite the warmth of the afternoon, struggling to leave her memories behind, to regain today and the tourney.

If only Quilleya hadn’t boasted about the magical tanager, an artifact her family sequestered in their home, the Castel Riquesa. If only Tulliya hadn’t revisited her little girl wish to be bigger, better, braver.

But I did. I did. And disaster loomed because of her. All because of her.

Tulliya’s gaze locked onto the scabbard at the king’s belt: metal with the patina of copper verdigris, set with onyx, traced by bronze filigree. Beautiful, were it not for the miasma of dread exuding from the weapon.

The trumpets blared again as a chestnut stallion – shining gold in the sunlight – entered the field. The knight mounted on the steed wore silver armor chased with gold. This was Lord Rollo, nephew and heir to Sevran, king of neighboring Eirdry, and beloved by him.

The clash between the dark knight and the bright should have been thrilling: the power of their striding mounts, lances shattering against shields, the athletic leap of the riders from their saddles, the flash of blades drawn from scabbards.

It was thrilling to the crowd in the stands, to the armsmen and lords before the pavilions, to the ladies in the royal box. Tulleya bit her lip, forced her hands away from her face, back to her sides. What do I fear? She hardly knew, but this was wrong, horribly wrong. She glanced upward at the lady next to her. Oh, I didn’t know. How had she come to stand at the princess’ elbow? Aeliyana’s face looked as strained as Tulliya’s felt. She senses it too. But what is it?

Both combatants had doffed their great helms, trusting the cervellieres – steel skullcaps – worn underneath. King Xavo’s falchion showed a ribbon of blood. Was Lord Rollo injured? He’d dropped his shield, but wielded his bastard sword with conviction, catching the falchion on its crossguard, jabbing the weak points of Xavo’s armor with its point. His wound, if he had one, never slowed him. Yet the king’s blows were heavy, propelled by the weight of his falchion’s massive blade.

Aeliyana gasped. Tulliya glanced up again. Aeliyana’s eyes were wide, trembling fingers touched her mouth. Tulliya looked back to the joust as the crowd groaned.

Lord Rollo was down, sprawled in the dust, blood leaking from his lips.

“Dost thee yield?” bellowed Xavo.

Blessed Cathal! Did he not see that his foe could not answer?

“Yield, I adjure thee!”

Merciful Eoin! He did not see.

“Must I call thee dastard?” He brandished his falchion at the fallen knight’s throat.

Tulliya flinched.

Then the cirurgiens were there, clustering around Lord Rollo, restraining the lords who had surged onto the field, pacifying the king.

“Your Majesty, he is fallen.”

“Your Majesty, he lacks voice.”

“Your Majesty, let us minister to him.”

The king’s face darkened. “He cowers whilst thee make his excuses!”

Princess Aeliyana touched Tulliya’s shoulder. “Bide. Keep my ladies with you.”

She hurried to the box stairs, flowed down the steep flight in a smooth rush, and came to her brother’s side.

Tulliya found herself unable to stem the maids and matrons in their own rush for the exit and followed the princess perforce, borne on the tide of women. She arrived at her patroness’ elbow just as Aeliyana curtsied and spoke. “Your Majesty, victory crowns thee. Wilt thee not take refreshment before the melee?”

His reddened falchion was not yet sheathed.

Tulliya held her breath. Would he . . . ?

The king whirled, narrowly missed Lady Varice with his blade, and strode for his pavilion.

The gathered lords accompanied their ruler, the cirurgiens renewed their attentions to Lord Rollo, and Aeliyana knelt to add her prayers to their efforts. “Horned Eoin, may your sacrifice make his unnecessary. May your spilt blood restore his. May your hunt chase his death from the world this time.”

Tulliya’s own knees gave way, but she was not praying, not yet. This time had been so like the other: King Xavo wroth, the falchion’s blade bare, and witnesses clustered close. If only I’d said that I could not. That I was faint. That the treasure was gone.

Could one say no to a king?

But he’d been so different when he asked her; before she’d fetched the falchion from its grave. He’d played Blind Man’s Buff with the fosterlings, volunteering as the blind man. He’d read to them in the evenings. And overruled the stablemaster who insisted that girls must use sidesaddles. He’d been . . . kind. Safe. Trustworthy.

When the story of her young exploit in the spring-tunnel passed from Quilleya to Jenifry to Lady Corenna to the princess and, at last, to the king, Tulliya had blushed, but gotten over her embarrassment.

When he knelt before her and begged the boon of her courage and chivalry, she’d left both fear and regret for her lack of discretion behind in her wish to please him.

When she placed the falchion in his hands – herself wet and muddy and shaken a second time – and saw him draw the weapon, she knew she’d made a very great mistake.

She’d emerged from the tunnel, carefully not looking at her own hands. His face held only encouragement, approval, and hope.

“Well done, child,” he told her. “I stand in thy debt.”

Then his hand circled the grips. She’d never seen fear in his eyes before. Not when he faced down the wild aurochs charging Lady Juneya, not when he scooped young Tito from the top of his plunge off the battlements, not even when Romulo surprised a bitter scorpion in his riding boots. Action married to cool aplomb, that was all.

When the falchion met his full grasp, fear passed through terror to something else on his face, another expression unknown to Tulliya’s experience of her sovereign. Could it be . . . horror? Surely not.

Then, with blade free of its scabbard, rage took him.

The lords and their armsmen scattered as the king cut the air in brutal strokes. Trying the weapon’s balance? Xavo’s hound – his favorite bitch, mother to the royal hunting pack and old in her devotion – wasn’t fast enough.

It was terrifying to witness: faithful Matroniya whimpering as her blood soaked the dust while her master hacked the air and ignored her pain. Lord Pellucon dispatched the hound from her misery after Xavo whirled toward the bastion and strode away.

Tulliya shuddered.

I won’t think of it. Not an instant past the moment in the well shaft when her own fingers touched the falchion’s grips. When pain bloomed deep in her joints. When worse . . . had not happened. It didn’t happen, she didn’t say. None of it.

If only she’d dropped the blade down into the darkness below the deepest water in the well. Down, far down, where none could fetch it up to the light of the sky. Or would the king merely have urged her to forsake air, lungs bursting, in a dive toward madness.

The frantic voices of the cirurgiens recalled Tulliya to the present.

“Your Highness, no! His blood is tainted. Do not!”

Princess Aeliyana bent to give the kiss of life, blowing the breath of her breast through the slack lips of the fallen.

Lady Corenna’s words were calmer. “Princess, Lord Rollo is dead.”

Aeliyana raised her head.

“This fault is mine.” Guilt haunted her eyes. “Had I but closed my throat, Lord Rollo would live.”

Tulliya started. But it is my doing, my boasting, my journey under the earth. How could it be hers?

“Our sovereign wielded the blade that slew, not thee, Princess.”

If Princess Aeliyana were innocent, was Tulliya?

I don’t care if I’m innocent or not. I just wish this had never happened.

The cirurgiens summoned the churls with their litter. Aeliyana’s ladies were urging the princess to her bower. Quilleya clutched Tulliya’s hands, weeping. There could be no recalling of words or deeds or events. Only the preparations for Lord Rollo’s funeral rites remained.

These proved fraught with fraternal strife.

Princess Aeliyana retired, and the tournament’s royal box went empty. But Xavo ordered the melee – the final contest of the festival, in which all those entered in the lists fought together against one another – to proceed. Every knight who faced the king and his falchion received serious wounds, but none were slain outright. Most were fit to attend the evening’s banquet, a celebration which Aeliyana also disdained.

Xavo chided his sister when he came to her chambers. He had bathed and changed his garb, but a sense of impending violence cloaked him. Tulliya slipped from Aeliyana’s side to hide behind a tapestry.

Despite his disapproval, the king’s voice was mild, albeit formal. “Thee wouldst scorn thy guests? ‘Tis the lady’s courtesy to preside over her board.”

Aeliyana gazed at him, saying nothing. Her eyes were cold.

“My lords must sup.”

Still nothing from his sister.

“I shall don umbrous mourning and require my lords to do likewise.” Was the king pleading?

It pierced the princess’ chill reserve. Aeliyana bent, covering her face with her hands.

The king’s brow darkened. Would he strike her?

Then his eyes softened. “Dear heart, forgive me.” He knelt to raise her, encircling her shoulders in gentle embrace. His words paralleled this tender intimacy. “All shall be ordered as you wish. Instruct me.”

“Grief is my feast,” choked Aeliyana, and she clung to him. He held her, his face echoing her sorrow.

Tulliya bit one knuckle. Would this, could this, prove Xavo’s redemption? He looked so sad. Almost she crept to his side, forsaking her shelter. No. Her comfort would be intrusion only. His sister’s must suffice. And if it did not? Tulliya stood still.

Xavo released Aeliyana to her backless chair, steadying her a moment, restoring her arms to the armrests. “Tell me,” he urged.

“I would have Lord Rollo’s last rite conducted in the manner of the Gedier,” answered his sister. “He professed the cervine faith.”

Xavo drew back. “The Creed of the Horned One was never reinstated!”

“Many profess it nonetheless.”

“The royal house must not be amongst their number!”

“The royal house might be first amongst their number.”

“Blood and violence birthed the Gedier. Blood and violence shadowed all their long history. And blood and violence brought them down. Their reinstatement would be an evil act.”

Aeliyana bit her lip and looked down. Did she perceive more violence in her brother than in the old religion?

“I spoke my vows on Cemmunnos’ Eve this winter last.”

Xavo whitened.

“You didn’t!” he whispered.

“The renewed deor-faith is different,” insisted Aeliyana. “Cathal’s tale of self-sacrifice and redemption holds our hearts. Bellam’s votary of power and death, not at all; ’tis considered heresy.”

Xavo’s mouth tightened. “The roots of the Gedier beliefs won’t vanish for your entreaty, dear sister. They are there. They are strong. They but wait for opportunity. Forsake your vows, I beg you.”

“Never.” Some of the king’s steel rang in her voice. Tulliya shrank against the stone wall beyond the tapestry, shivering at its cool smoothness. Was Xavo an outward manifestation of ferocity, Aeliyana an inward one?

“To please me?”

Aeliyana’s nostrils pinched, and her lips straightened. Not the right plea.

Xavo’s temporary tenderness transformed into coercion. “I forbid you to profess your faith!” Courtly language, left behind in intimacy, remained absent in his anger.

“You are too late!” She gave him back defiance for his constraint. “I have forsaken my birth name. I am Aoife!”

The king’s eyes blazed. “I declare you in contempt of your sovereign’s will.” He swallowed, reclaimed courtly diction. “Thee art treasonous!”

The princess stood, gathering formality herself. “Dost thee declare the Eirdrian tradition of beheading sororal claimants to the throne less violent than Bellam’s transformations of shadow into light?” she flung at him.

Xavo’s fingers touched the pommel of his falchion, a black opal entire, with the shadow of some green stone behind it. Tulliya held her breath. Then the king’s hand fell to his side, and he turned, but did not storm away.

Tulliya breathed again.

Xavo stood silent a time, then spoke, his back still turned. “Sister, there is reason and quietude in the contemplation of balance. Our Istrian pensare – pursuit of serenity, courage, and wisdom – stems only from love. Canst thee not embrace it once more? The perils of a personal deity – tribalism, zealousness, fanaticism – are real.” Was that anguish in his voice?

The princess reseated herself. “My courage and hope never burgeoned so strong from mere meditation. Love of the Horned One hath made me brave; contemplation of balance dost not infuse my timidity with valor. I shall not forswear myself.”

Xavo turned around. “So be it.”

“Lord Rollo?”

“Shall receive rites of transformation and passage in the traditions of wisdom.”

“And myself?”

Now the king did stride away. Pausing under the archway between the antechamber and the bower, he declared over one shoulder, “Aoife . . . thee shalt go to the tower and the blade.”

Aoife lifted her chin.

The king passed out of her chambers, his tread swift on the stairs.

Lord Ezek and Lord Merral took the princess to Tower Nuvolat, the tallest on the curtain wall of the outer bailey, and locked her in the Queen’s Solar. Aeliyana – Aoife – was no queen, merely a princess, sister to the king, but the solar was the customary repository for any royal prisoner. It acquired its name when Xavo’s great grandfather locked his consort away there for life. She’d conspired with his enemies to take the Istrian throne for herself.

Tulliya visited Aoife, bringing sweetmeats from the hands of her ladies and restraining her own tears. Crying won’t help her, Tulliya told herself fiercely. She needs help, not weeping. But Tulliya couldn’t think of any help – real help – she could bring. Aoife told her to pray, but how would mere petition achieve anything? Aoife needed deeds, not words.

Then Tulliya did think of something. She persuaded Quilleya to ride out with her on a pleasure jaunt to the ruins of Ysbrydion Hill – the old stone circle that once held dark rituals to Cemmenos – and convinced the stable grooms that two maids needed no escort.

Quilleya complained from the moment Tulliya proposed the expedition all the way down to the stables and out through the gatehouse. “How can you think of pleasure and fun when the princess is sentenced to death? I don’t feel like riding. I never liked it much anyway. Why the ruins? They’re creepy and shivery.” And so on.

Tulliya waited until the Castel Baloron shrank to a dot on the hillside behind them and the dust of the dry grasslands rose beneath their mounts’ hoofs before she confessed their true destination. Quilleya liked that no better.

“Do you want to go to Nuvol-tower yourself?” she protested. “The Gediers’ High Holy Hind lives in seclusion for a reason. You’ll get her tossed in prison along with both of us!”

Tulliya sighed. “She won’t boast of our visit. And we shouldn’t. How will anyone know? The horses?”

Quilleya giggled. “There is that legend of the horse who was really a troll and could speak.”

Tulliya didn’t snort, remembering all Aeliyana’s – Aoife’s – lessons in ladylike behavior. And then she did snort. On horseback with one intimate friend wasn’t court. Surely being ladylike needn’t apply to all the hours between sunup and sundown.

Unfortunately Orloitha’s advice dovetailed with that of the princess: pray!

Resisting the high priestess of the entire Gedier order felt disrespectful, but Tulliya wanted something more than that to carry back to Tower Nuvolat.

“What do you think prayer is for?” asked Orloitha.

Tulliya’s lips parted. Then she stammered, “T-to sh-show obedience and faith?” The apostles of pensare would hate that guess. Did that mean it was right for the Gedier?

Orloitha was shaking her head. “Try it,” she suggested. “You’ll learn.”

“But I want something that I know will work,” insisted Tulliya.

Orloitha’s face turned sad. “Don’t we all, child,” she murmured, “don’t we all.”

Her maidservant pressed chilled grapes upon them as they reclined on the Hind’s brocaded divans. Once the girls were rested, Orloitha spoke a message of encouragement for Aoife. And with that Tulliya had to be content.

So she did pray.

Upon waking, before breaking her fast, at the close of noontide dinner, before she supped, and bending beside her bedtime couch. Sometimes she felt holy, once exalted, often despairing, and most times: nothing at all. How could this help? How could Orloitha be content to recommend nothing else? Was she really just praying there alone in her priory? Or did she organize a daring escape?

Quilleya took to avoiding her friend as the Ladies Varice and Corenna looked askance at Tulliya’s sudden access of religious devotion. The Istrian practice of pensare encouraged inward observance over outward gesture. Excessive prayer was a bad sign, not a good.

Through all the waiting for the day of Aeliana’s – Aoife’s – excution, Xavo kept his court lingering at Castel Baloron. Why did they not return to Cincrestes in the capital?

Then King Sevran’s battalions arrived and spread in a crescent below the curtain walls. Lord Rollo had been beloved by Sevran, more son than nephew and heir, and his death must be punished. Had Xavo known of his neighbor’s march? Baloron was more defensible than Cincrestes.

Surely military necessities might prevent Aoife’s beheading? Tulliya hoped, but no word of such was spoken. Xavo’s battle lord tuned the ballistas, while the armsmen drilled in the bailey and his knights sortied at dawn to trouble Sevran’s forces. With the lake beside their camp, the Eirdrian battalions possessed ample water and game. Sevran could afford to be patient.

Xavo was less fortunate. The sky tumbled with gray clouds, but the winter rains delayed. The cistern under the inner court stayed bone dry, the spring trickling down the slope of the outer bailey slowed, and the well above it grew shallow and murky. The drought was typical of the season; only the lack of access to the lake made it critical. But towers of cumulous built and built above. The deluge would come soon.

Sevran’s trebuchets arrived.

Xavo ordered the cistern filled from the dirty bailey well. From dawn to dusk the castel churls carried buckets to and fro, ceasing only when the massive war machines were positioned for use and reconfigured from traveling compression to siege array. The last bucket carriers scurried for the shelter of the inner walls as the first slung boulder thudded too close beside their water source.

Sevran’s men mined the cliffs of the western lake shore for larger missiles to add to the spiked iron balls brought by the munitions battalion. Bombardment was sporadic, smashing against the curtain walls erratically, bouncing into the dust within the curtain walls less often. The ballistas atop Baloron’s towers answered, and the cries of the wounded went up from both sides.

Atop Tower Nuvolat, the guillotine also went up. Aoife’s execution would go forward according to Xavo’s decree.

Winter′s first storm broke the night before Aoife would be brought to the blade. Rain fell in sheets, filling the cistern to overflowing by midnight and washing the stones of the inner court clean. Sevran′s trebuchets ceased lobbing missiles, their balance knocked awry by the mud. The downpour eased at first light to a spitting drizzle, but lightning still leaped between the roiling masses of cloud overhead.

Orloitha, present as the daughter of Cavalier Iytavo, secured permission to attend Aoife′s last hours. Aoife herself prayed unceasingly, but the Gedier priestess drew forbidden spirals of juniper orange and saffron yellow and knotweed green on the princess′ skin – at temple, throat, wrist, ankle, and instep.

Tulliya, also in attendance, caught her breath. This was ritual color from deepest time. Dark. Unlawful. Perilous. But how could the rite be completed? The tower′s battlements were no windswept hill circled by sacred stones. No dancing celebrants, chanting hart-kin, or taboo sacrifice stood ready.

Tulliya shivered. No sacred sacrifice, but a secular one. Would Aoife′s salvation be worth the resurrection of dread rituals from the past? Could Aoife be saved?

Thunder grumbled, muffled by the screens drawn across the solar′s window arches. What was that murmur behind the sky′s mutter. Gulls blown astray by the winds? The roars of an aurochs stung by a refugee heyghoge? Or the hounds in the mews, weary of neglect and the storm′s tumult?

Orloitha finished her last chalked curves inside Aoife′s elbows. The princess rose from her knees, donned her outer gown and goller, and the Lords Ezek and Merral unlocked the solar doors to escort her upward. Orloitha followed them, gesturing Tulliya to accompany her.

I don′t want to go. I don′t want to see this. I don′t want any part of this. But she climbed the curving flight of stone steps at Orloitha′s side.

Xavo, flanked by Lords Pernice and Lazeylo on his left, and the executioner on his right, awaited them. Lady Varice clipped Aoife′s hair to jaw length, and the Cavalice Beccedona helped her remove her capelet – the goller – with its standing neckband, from her shoulders. The heretic princess knelt on the cushion before the guillotine and bent her head.

Thunder growled again, louder this time. The cries of – what creature was that? hounds surely – clashed with the storm′s voice. But they came from above, not below. Hounds in the sky?

A yet louder barrage of thunder boomed, and a rider galloped from a misting gap between low clouds. A rider amidst hounds. He was larger than Baloron′s gatehouse, terrible in his power, dark against the roiling heavens. Tulliya flinched away, unable to bear sight of him, animal and huge as his steed pounded across shaking, riven air. Nor was she alone in her fear. Xavo himself turned his head down over a shoulder, and the courtiers flung themselves prone. Of all gathered on the stone roof, only Orloitha stood fast, tipping her face up and flinging her arms aloft. “Brenin gwyllt!” – wild lord – “Glanhau y budreddi!” – cleanse this putrescence!

The rider bowed his head, a stag′s head crowned by its weighty rack. Tulliya looked away again. Why do they call him the Horned One? He bears antlers, not horns. Cemmenos′ hounds gave tongue, clamorous and fell. The sky cracked, shaking the tower with a force as great as any trebuchet, and lightning stabbed down. The guillotine splintered, up and not out, spurting like a fountain, leaving Aoife untouched.

Tulliya peeked at the king. He cowered still, but his right hand crept along his thigh, feeling for his weapon. Did he dream of challenging this foe? Battling the Lord of the Wild Hunt in a final, apocolyptic duel? Defeating the Gedier deity? Making Istrian pensare pre-eminent once and for all?

No. Abruptly she knew. His aim was nothing so lofty. The blade to sever his sister′s head from her body was broken. He would wield this blade instead!

Would no one stop him?

Lord Ezek? Cavalice Beccedona? Cemmenos′ High Holy Hind?

The courtiers had scuttled for the trap door. Xavo′s executioner gripped his axe. Orloitha channeled her god′s awe.

In the recent habit of prayer, Tulliya prayed. “Brenin gwyllt! Save her!”

And then she knew. I must save her, if saved she is to be.

Tulliya seemed to move in slow motion, weighted by the terrible glance of the Horned One and the bellowing of his hounds, her hand gelid will pressing cold droplets from dense ice. But she was faster than Xavo. Her fingers slid around the grips ahead of his, snatched the falchion from the scabbard, withdrew it from the king′s closing fist.

Tulliya gasped. Pain bloomed deep in her joints, curling her down to the stones, twisting her clutching fingers awry, dragging her eyelids down over darkening sight.

No! He′ll take it from me in my weakness!

“Fod yn gryf, calon dewr!” – Be strong, brave heart!

The god′s voice was a buffet, stripping her of all strength, and yet . . . stripping her of fear also. So this was the purpose of prayer.

Tulliya stiffened her knees, then bent more deliberately, lowering the falchion toward her heels and flinging it skyward. Up, up, her gaze followed its flight. The Lord of the Hunt reached out his mighty hand, grasped the falchion, strangely larger, and brandished it in appalling strokes. Could a god go mad? As had the king? No, his blows were well placed, his steed and hounds in no danger. He sliced a portal in the sky above his rack and tossed the falchion through it, up again, into vapor and wind.

It was gone.

The hounds belled. The horseman called. And the hunt swept over Tower Nuvolat, pounding through another rent in the violent clouds, hidden by the mists.

Tulliya listened. The wild call of the hounds moved across the sky behind the clouds, punctuated by the cries of the huntsman. Did triumph ring in their fell voices? Distance muted the clamor of the hunt, then silenced it. Tulliya lowered her gaze from the heavens.

Orloitha stood rapt, eyes closed. The executioner gripped his pole axe, mouth open and eyes wide. The only others remaining on the battlement were the princess and the king. Aoife knelt still, but her back was straight and her head erect. Xavo fell to his knees before her, crunching down on the shards of the guillotine, heedless of sharp metal and splinters. His spoke steadily, but tears glided down his lean cheeks. “I am not fit. My deeds prove it. Wilst thee wear my crown, sister?”

She shook her head, smiling.

“I beg thee,” he pressed her.

“‘Twas not thee, brother,” she said, “but the blade. The Wild Lord hath accepted it. Thee art free of its taint.”

He bowed his head. “Canst thee forgive me?” he whispered.

“I have.”

He reached for her, tentatively, then drew her into his embrace when she accepted his touch. This time he did sob. She stroked his hair.

“Ask me a boon!” he commanded, raising his face.

Her voice was tender. “Thee knowest my desire.”

“It is thine,” he declared. “The Gedier shall be received in my court, welcomed by my counselors, and adjudged safe under my law.”

Now tears spangled Aoife′s cheeks. “Blessed be, dear brother. Blessed be.”

“How canst thee forgive me?” His voice broke. “I cannot!”

“I rejoice in thy return,” she answered simply.

The proclamation reinstating the Gedier had to be done all over again in the great hall before the assembled lords and ladies, armsmen, and bishops of the pensare.

The king tacked on an unexpected addendum. “Castel Baloron shall belong to the Gedier order henceforth, theirs to tend and defend, theirs to enjoy and flourish within, theirs to strengthen against the peril sequestered in the sky above Tower Novulat.” Xavo believed the falchion to be neither removed nor destroyed – merely hidden beyond the reach of men and women – and he feared it yet, perhaps wisely. “I give one last decree for Baloron before I cede it,” proclaimed the king. “My faithful Lord Otavo” – Tulliya′s father – “shall choose if he and his heirs shall attend Baloron in perpetuity or gain a new keep under his ward: my new Castel Zaphiron abuilding on the hilltop to be my main stronghold.”

Tulliya held her breath. Which would her sire choose?

“I bide here, my king, in the home of my ancestors, the home of my legacy.”

Oh, relief. Fosterlings rarely returned home again. But I want to know that home is still here.

Xavo turned toward Orloitha. She was garbed in the celebratory robes of the hart-kin and glowed. “I commend him and his to thy respect and affection. I owe his daughter a debt greater than may be repaid. Cherish him and his, I charge thee.”

“I do,” answered the sacred Hind.

The feast following Xavo′s decrees was long and merry, but Tulliya ate sparingly and left the board soon after.

Maximo stopped her as she paced through the archway leading out of the hall. “My lady?”

“My lord?” She was polite in turn, paused, and then reclaimed their childhood intimacy. “Oh, Max, don′t!”


“Yes, please.”

“Will you walk with me?”

She placed her hand on his arm and allowed him to lead her through the guardroom, across the court, through the gatehouse, and down the bailey′s slope to the wellhead. The low stone coping edging the drop was worn, as always, and warm in the sun, but the waters deep down the shaft glimmered faintly silver.

“What troubles you, sweet Tulliya?” he asked her as they stood gazing into the water.

“It has all come right in the end, but so much pain and peril warped the middle.”

He didn’t pretend to misunderstand her. “The falchion was evil,” he agreed.

“And it was all my fault,” she insisted.

“Was it?”

“I wanted to be big and brave when I was little. And again this autumn. Had I been content in myself, the falchion′s evil would have remained safe under earth and water. I loosed it upon the king.”

“He asked it of you.”

“But it was mine to say no.” She knew that now. Even a king might hear no in chosen moments.

“Then how will you bear your failure?” His eyes were kind, his voice warm, as though he saw her lack differently.

“I don′t know.”

“What of this?” he proposed. “Perhaps your opinion might focus not upon your error – a child′s error – but upon the moment of our redemption, when you cast evil into the heavens for divinity to act upon.”

She bridled at being named a child, and yet the justice of his statement calmed her. I am young, she admitted privately. Could she receive comfort from her atonement?

“Xavo has a good bit more to redeem, you know,” Max added.

“But that′s his task. This is mine.”

“Will you try?” Max took her hand.

She raised her chin.

“Really try?” he prodded.

“Yes. I will.” Somehow that promise shifted something. She wasn’t sure what, but she felt . . . clear. Lighter. Happy.

“Truly, I will.”

* * *

Part I, Blood Falchion, is here.
Read-Only Beauty, another flash fiction story, is here.
Mother’s Gift, also flash fiction, is here.



The Old Armory, Part I

The Old Armory in Bazinthiad was originally built as a lord’s keep in the days of Giralliya’s early history. Giralliya as an empire did not yet exist. Three kingdoms that would become its heart – Eirdry, Ennecy, and Istria – comprised the region, and Castellum Balazoron was a minor seat above Lake Argead, guarding the back way into the court of the Istrian king.

Blood Falchion

The lord’s heir, Caelan, was the second to see it.

It arrived amidst a pile of carpets from far Bethpaarean, and Sathon the carpet merchant’s son discovered it when he unpacked the bale and arranged the carpets in his father’s stall in the bailey.

Lord Jekis’ son sought his friend the instant he received word the carpet merchant was passing through Balazoron’s gates. But it was a hike from his high chambers down through the donjon to the courtyard and out the barbican to the bailey. And Caelan suffered palsied limbs, the result of a fever in his infancy. He could not move fast, but he was just fast enough to see the sword – a falchion – a moment after Sathon uncovered it. His in breath hissed.

“What do you see?” he demanded.

Sathon turned in surprise – not that Caelan was there; the boys were always immediate in seeking one another – but in surprise at his friend’s tone: one of warning.

He answered: “The blade is broad and heavy after the nature of a falchion and fashioned of a bronze-hued metal that holds an edge far finer than ordinary metals. I should think it would split the bones of even a blood dragon, and a champion’s armor would part like water beneath its blow.

“Its hilts are fashioned of the same, but encrusted with opal and jade, and the scabbard matches them. The sap of the hevea tree covers the grip. The pommel is an emerald entire.” Sathon paused. “I wish I knew the way to wield a blade.” Envy and longing tinged his words.

“That’s not what I see.” Caelan swallowed. “I see shadow, a roiling darkness threaded by blood and despair.” His whisper strengthened to a command. “Hide it! Now! Or destroy it!”

That might have been the wiser course, but Caelan’s father came to greet the carpet merchant, the two men friends like their sons, and Lord Jekis saw what Sathon had seen: a fair weapon, rich, well made, destined for the hand of a peer. And Jekis was a falchion wielder.

The foreign blade hung from the lord’s belt thereafter, and troubles followed.

The drought gripping the land deepened. Crops withered, wells failed, and wildfires swept through the dried grasses of the hunting veldt. Refugees pleaded entry at Balazoron’s gate every day, and the village on the lake shore below swelled as cousins and cousins of cousins left the parched interior to visit their kin.

Castellum Balazoron had foodstores in depth and an outer bailey made for mock battles. It could accommodate crowds. But the spring there on the hillside faltered, its trickle slowing. And the cistern in the inner bailey dried completely.

Lord Jekis ordered the digging of a new well, upslope from the outflow where the castellum churls filled their buckets. Legend held the heart of the aquifer supplying the spring rose there.

The men used a drill with a hollow bit, manually pumping its long stem, to excavate the well shaft. Deeper and deeper the bit penetrated, but the earth was dry, dry.

Lord Jekis and his sister quarreled. How many newcomers might be permitted through the gates? Should water be hauled from the lake? Could a request for aid be sent to Lord Vidriyo?

They quarreled about Caelan as well. Lady Agace had been as a mother to him since the fever. She looked always to ease her nephew’s shaking, cramping limbs. She summoned masseurs from Cambers, salves from Solmondy, potions of healing from Hamrask and Fresange and northern Tromme.

Now she evolved a scheme to send him to a sacred shrine in Capydaicia to pray healing of the goddess honored there. Lord Jekis fought her.

The words between brother and sister grew bitter, and their love for one another dwindled more swiftly than even the outflow of water from the hillside spring.

Caelan resisted his aunt’s plans for the first time, afraid to leave his elders in the donjon without his youth to stay their tempers.

Lady Agace sent tidings of their plight to Lord Vidriyo, against Jekis’ express command. Vidriyo arrived, but not with aid. He brought an army to advantage himself of their weakness and gain a stronghold for his kinsman.

The villagers fled their homes for Balazoron’s walls, and Lord Vidriyo sent terms for surrender.

Lord Jekis’ wrath mounted into madness. Caelan wondered: “Is he a troll?” Had his father resorted to incantatio in a futile attempt to save Balazoron from drought and warfare?

Jekis still wore the tabard device of his lineage, but his face was strange under his fury and his behavior, stranger. Caelan could not recognize him. Where had the genial man with laughter in his voice and kindness in his hand gone? This one’s visage was hard, his hand equally hard, and the evil falchion hung ever at his hip.

Lady Agace sent a messenger bearing a white flag to Vidriyo waiting amidst his knights. Perhaps she feared the enemy without less than the one rising within.

Caelan’s father declared her traitor and arranged a spectacle to demonstrate his answer to Vidrio’s terms.

Jekis’ sister wore palest yellow – the color of mourning – in protest to Jekis’ decree. But she presented herself at the new wellhead – still dry – as ordered. Her ladies begged her to lock herself in her chambers. Or to bribe the guards at the gate and escape, seeking succor in Vidriyo’s camp. She refused, awaiting Jekis’ will at the wellhead along with her nephew.

Caelan stood fidgeting in increasing dread.

His father arrived mere moments before Vidriyo himself. He – their enemy – expected their surrender. He received Jekis’ defiance.

“Shalt sly myself, my son, my sister, and all within my walls ere I cease,” Balazoron’s lord declared. “But one death is enough. One death shall suffice.”

Lord Vidriyo grinned, expecting Jekis’ men-at-arms to make an attack, here at parley, knowing his own honor guard were too numerous to allow such treachery to succeed.

But Lord Jekis meant otherwise.

“There is a sorcery shalt buy all our freedoms – freedom from drought, freedom from coercion, freedom from enemies.” He glared at Vidriyo. “The blood of a mother shed by a young boy’s hand to wet this dry earth shalt purchase all. Caelan!”

Caelan was startled, and yet not. He’d witnessed his father’s advancing depravity all the half year since the falchion’s advent.

Vidriyo frowned, missing Jekis’ meaning yet again.

Lord Jekis unsheathed his weapon. “Three bloods!” he declared. “Three bloods in all.” He drew his palm across the blade’s razor edge. Then he pressed the grip into Caelan’s hand and passed his son’s other hand, palm down, across that edge for second blood. Released him.

The balance of the falchion weighed far beyond that of any sword or mace. The ballast of a trebuchet, the boulder in a merlon, the tail lash of a blood dragon might weigh like this. Somehow Caelan withstood it. His arm trembled.

The malice of it could not be withstood. It thirsted for blood, for destruction, for death. Its dark, tortured essence threaded tendrils of violence through Caelan’s thoughts. Limbs severed, wounds weeping, screams at echo. Its thrust built in Caelan’s clenching muscles. He stood and shook, feeling it, resisting it. And resisting it, he struck: a lunge in quarte, a fencer’s blow, not a battle-lord’s.

The razor edge grazed Lady Agace’s shoulder, ripping her gown, drawing blood. Caelan hurled the falchion into the ground, down the open well shaft. “Let the bosom of earth take and keep both weapon and blood!” he shouted.

Lord Jekis convulsed and fell writhing. He might have followed the falchion into the rent earth had not his men reached for his cape, so close did he stand to the drop.

Far below in the darkness where no water ran, light blossomed, gold laced with silver, a molten flow that seethed and brightened, then shot skyward, an eye-searing column that might reach the moon, visible in daylight this noon.

Instead, lightning cracked, a whip of brilliance from horizon to horizon, and clouds rushed up over the rim of the earth to hide moon and sun. Another deafening crash and the rain fell, soaking the dry dust, drenching the people gathered, quenching the column sparking from the wellhead.

It was Lord Jekis who made the trip to Zele’s shrine. Healing was granted him, both for the seizures afflicting his body and for the guilt and grief afflicting his mind. But he ceded Balazoron to the Lady Agace. And she wed Vidriyo, who thusly gained a stronghold after all, for himself, not his kinsman.

The well, now tomb to the falchion, brimmed with water, as did the spring down the slope. It was an exceptionally pure liquid with an echo of sweetness that lingered in the mouth after swallowing. And sometimes yielded miracle cures of its own.

Caelan drank of it, and the palsy in his limbs was vanquished. He became a hero, mighty both on the battlefield and in the court of the king, where his wisdom won him lands and influence much greater than the portion accruing to a lord of Castellum Balazoron. And Sathon, the carpet merchant’s son, got his wish: learning skill at arms. He fought as a brother by Caelan’s side, with a spiked morningstar on the field of battle and with clever words in the king’s counsel chamber.

* * *

Part II, Hunting Wild, is here.
Read-Only Beauty, another flash fiction story, is here.
Mother’s Gift, also flash fiction, is here.



The Thricely Odd Troll

Alcea was the Exemplar elected from the canton of Ennecy, and she was a troll. But she was an odd troll. She did not contract her disease reaching greedily for power – the conventional route of an incantatrice. Nor did she sicken in heroic sacrifice to save an endangered child or a dying lover – the well-worn trope for many a ballad. No, nothing so dramatic or poetic as that. Alcea became a troll, because her radices were more weakly anchored than those of most folk. During an ordinary lesson under the auspices of her antiphonic mentor, the energetic strands securing her root radix snapped.

Her teacher was horrified, but there was no mending what was broken. The only question was: with just one radix drifting and the remaining twenty still firm, would she actually contract troll-disease?

She did; the straying root radix, massive in its slow momentum, inexorably dragged first the belly radix off course, and then the plexial radix, until all were awry. Many experts made pilgrimage to Ennecy to study her case, so unusual was it. But the more unusual thing about Alcea, really odd from a historical point of view, was that she was not the only troll in the Chamber of Exemplars. In fact, nearly every Exemplar was a troll.

The minutes recorded from the Chamber sessions paint a very strange picture of that governing body. Yelled taunts and defiance, obscene gesticulation, actual gibbering, and impassioned ranting were commonplace. In a particularly heated debate, one Exemplar went so far as to strangle his opponent. The minutes depose that the mortuary binders were summoned to take charge of the corpse!

Today, in these times of capital punishment for any use of incantatio, we can hardly imagine how such a situation could be permitted, but in truth the Exemplars of the Scaffold Era went wrong in their interpretation of their own early history. The plague that afflicted the Emperadrina Ravessa’s people was conflated with troll-disease. The understanding that Godon’s dawn and dusk postures cured antiphoners of plague was held as evidence that such contortions, performed regularly, might also hold troll-disease at bay. (Of course, they did nothing of the sort.)

Since all Exemplars then were antiphoners, temptation was great. One pioneer used the taboo incantatio to purify an unclean well in one of her constituent villages. Another built a bridge to replace a perilous ford. Others resorted to beguiling incantatio on the populace merely to secure election. Once the rot set in, it set in thoroughly. By Alcea’s time, mere antiphoners were rare; troll-mages were the rule; and helpful law-making from the Chamber of Exemplars, scarce. Godon’s postures did not retard troll-disease as was claimed, nor prevent it as was initially announced.

Now, it might be thought that Alcea was in good company – one troll among many – but her correspondence (all preserved by an industrious niece, the renowned Letitia of the Opal Sceptre) shows that this was not so. Alcea spoke against Tiberio’s Heresy, as she called it, at every chance offered, both in the Chamber itself and outside of it. Unlike the rest of her cohort, she practiced no incantatio, her disease progressed slowly, and she retained her sanity. She did not blame her colleagues for their poor choices, attributing their unwisdom to ignorance and calling for a return to Godon’s orthodoxy.

“Let us, doizennes and damesses, begin again the practice taught by our founder in all its purity. Godon propagated the dawn and dusk sequences, not because they banished plague, but because they induced harmony in the soul.”

Over years, Alcea’s advice grew popular. No doubt her own participation in the disease of trollism, if not in its prologue of power, forestalled conclusion that she stood in judgment over the troll mob. Antiphoners and non-antiphoners alike came to regard her as a wise old grandmother and took heed of her words. Fewer practitioners chose to cross over the line between safe energea and dangerous incantatio, and fewer constituents chose to elect trolls to the Chamber. Before Alcea breathed her last, Tiberio’s Heresy was abandoned, and the Chamber filled entirely by Exemplars of Godon’s Orthodoxy.

Alcea’s political reign has an odd codicil. Dying at last of troll-disease, the old woman left this earth literally, as well as figuratively. She lay upon a bier in the open air, desiring to witness the setting of the sun one last time. As the flaming daystar touched the horizon, fierce winged horses flew out from the streaming light, took Alcea upon their backs, and bore her away into the sky.

The orthodox example of the governing Chamber of Exemplars spread throughout the land, and Giralliya became a realm largely free of trolls among her citizenry. The Chamber itself accepted fewer and fewer antiphoners until it became wholly the province of legislators without any energea or magic whatsoever at their behest.

* * *

More stories of old Giralliya:
Legend of the Beggar’s Son
Ravessa’s Ride
The Old Armory: Blood Falchion



Ravessa’s Ride

The Exemplars of the Orthodoxy came into being when a plague – the curse of the troll-king Beyhalt – swept the empire of Giralliya. The emperador, then each paucitor, and then each prince and king were stricken, along with many others. The disease was a lingering agony of wasting and fever and delirium. As the months went by and the representatives of government fell, one by one, Giralliya lay rudderless and vulnerable. The emperador’s daughter, on whom the sickness lay more lightly, rose from her bed in a valiant attempt to stand in her father’s stead. Flushed and chilled, Ravessa occupied the imperial pivot, issuing decrees and commanding the heros who arose – briefly, before disease felled them too – to save her people.

But the ninth such to come forward – Eliya – was not struck down. She was an old woman, wizened and wise, the member of an obscure order of antiphoners who practiced an equally obscure posture sequence to greet the sun at dawn and again to dismiss the light at sundown. All of her order remained untouched by Beyhalt’s curse.

Ravessa’s first thought was simply to co-opt these Exemplars of Gebed to hold the vacant posts of the royal and the pauce. Desperate times called for desperate measures. A second thought stayed her impulse.

Dost thy exemplars dwell only within Bazinthiad?” she asked.

As it chanced, they did not. Many small hamlets in the countryside of Cambers sheltered chapters of the sect. The cathedral city in Solmondy, the origin of the order, housed its oldest chapter. And a sprinkling of these unusual antiphoners could be found in all of Giralliya’s other cantons.

Then it was that Ravessa began her great labor for her people and their land.

She went to the ruins of the temple on the sacred isle in Lake Argiyaen and prayed. Her pleas to heaven were answered by three winged horses – fierce and fey and glorious. They bore her on their backs throughout Flaumivar and Lillyoise and Brabante and Belline, and also into Cambers and Solmondy. In each canton, Ravessa addressed any citizenry able to rise from their beds: seek amongst yourselves for an Exemplar of Gebed to care for your interests and beg him or her to stand as prince or paucitor in Bazinthiad that you may not be forgotten.

Thusly was the Chamber of Princes and Kings filled once more; likewise, the Chamber of Paucitors. And when plague at last left the land, Giralliya was a different realm from before. No hamlet or village, no sea port or river port, no cathedral town or capital, no hill or valley where people dwelt was devoid of exemplars, were it only a lone proponent teaching and leading the locals in the postures for dawn and dusk. These sequences of bends and holds and breath control had proved an antidote to Beyhalt’s curse. Those yet well who performed the postures never fell sick with plague; those ailing under plague threw off the illness that gripped them. And without his army of disease – Beyhalt had no other – the troll-king proved easy to defeat.

When Beyhalt lay dead and all Giralliyans rejoiced in their newfound health, the emperador declared that each elected exemplar should keep his or her post, but not as royal or pauce. They would sit in a new chamber, one created especially for them. And they would be chosen, always, by the people of their lands.

The pauce are appointed by lot and by imperial decree. The royal hold power through tradition and inheritance. Let now these exemplars serve at the commons’ choice.”

How they came to earn their later name – the Orthodoxy – is another story, but this tale is almost done. The three pegasi who appeared to fill Ravessa’s need were seen no more, but desperate folk dreamed of them. And the dreams inspired solutions of all magnitudes: healing between feuding parent and child, peace between nation and nation, beauty under an artist’s paint brush, safety from an inventor’s imagination, or tranquility within one conflicted soul. And the citizenry of Giralliya, discovering other posture sequences through the centuries to add to those for sunrise and sunset, became avid contortionists who visited their town retreat centers for daily practice in the conviction that there lay health and harmony and wholeness.

* * *

More stories of old Giralliya:
Legend of the Beggar’s Son
The Thricely Odd Troll
The Old Armory: Blood Falchion



Legend of the Beggar’s Son

Here is a tale of ancient Giralliya for the loremaitresses and loremasters among us.

In the terrifying days of Gohgohl the Relentless, four brothers stood against the troll-mage, not with armies – although they had those – but in all the vulnerability of their royal persons. Each night the sky rippled with hungry curtains of red light, gnawing at the land and all who dwelt upon it. Then it was that the brothers stood guard, weapons raised to the roiling energies above, weaving a gossamer shield to hold descending death at bay.

The eldest was Phillox, King of Istria, and son of Claudeo and Juniya. He bore the mighty axe Vahtayvan, and his antiphonic voice was more powerful than his weapon. It was he, the Imprecator, whose shouts harmonized their defense, each of the four standing on the low ridges some distance from their beleaguered city.

The next younger, full brother to Phillox, was Theon, King of Eirdry. His antiphonic chant bore more subtlety than that of the others, and it was he who sensed the anomalies in the death overhead and moved to counter its sudden jabs downward with the musical enchantments of his chalemel, weapon and instrument both.

Horato, King of Ennecy, and son of Ondreyus and Juniya, was the most enduring of the brothers. On the longest night when ribbons of blue light sparked upward from the river to join the red draperies shifting in the sky, birthing violet waves of unspeakable weight, the brothers folded one by one. Only Horato remained upright, holding off the lethal tide alone. He lasted until dawn and the rising sun brought safety.

Amadeo, full brother to Horato, and merely Lord of Ebior until the day of his ascension, was the nimblest of the four – both in mind and in body – but his contribution seemed the lesser until the dusk when he brought a beggar’s son before Phillox.

“This is Luciyo, born of Cayo, and he is the least and most miserable in all our realm, but he is our salvation. Give him the mantle of Saint Sofiya and let him stand unshielded beneath Gohgohl’s curtain of death. Then shall victory be ours.”

Phillox was astonished. He looked directly at the beggar youth. “You will do this?”

Luciyo nodded.

Now the mantle of Saint Sofiya was sacred to the Istrians. They preserved it on the altar in the inner sanctum of their temple. Thrice yearly those in need made pilgrimage to Bazinthiad to touch the hem of the garment and be healed or inspired or forgiven. Such a treasure could not be lightly risked.

Yet such was the desperation felt by the kings and their subjects that all was done as Amadeo directed. The brothers took their stations as the sky darkened and then filled with perilous crimson light. And Luciyo, the beggar’s son, stood on the temple isle in the center of Lake Argiyad, wearing the ancient cloak of the saint.

Phillox bellowed his commands: Theon, Horato, and Amadeo raised their weapons in synchrony with his, and the transparent gauze of green and silver floated up from them, generating crashing flashes of black and gold where it withstood the crimson writhings.

Phillox shouted again. A gap pierced the enchanted protection and death drifted down, a slow rippling roil of blood and wine, to touch the cloaked man awaiting it. Luciyo lifted his arms palm up, and lifted his face too, as though to embrace what descended to him. The skin of his hands, of his brow, blazed suddenly blue-white. Would he burn, as had the other victims? The sparking fire on his visage and palms spread, enshrouding his entire figure. Then the mantle of Sofiya unfurled itself like a cavalier’s banner in the wind, and the fierce inferno of Luciyo gouted upward like lightning in reverse to stab the sky, bursting asunder the dread red draperies and shattering the glistening sky-ship that was the fortress where Gohgohl dwelt.

Fragments of crystal rained down along with the ash of charred ivory. A vast flock of doves flew out from Sofiya’s mantle, streaming across the sky and sweeping the air clean with their wings. The birds disappeared over the horizon. Then all was silent. The stars shone in the dark velvet of the upper reaches. Victory was theirs. The long defense was done.

Theon, Horato, and Amadeo begged Phillox to remain Imprecator over them all to the end of his days – and then to pass the office on to his first child – while they took up the kingships of Istria, Eirdry, and Ennecy. He agreed only on the condition that they establish the Chamber of Princes and Kings to advise him in his rule. That and one other thing: that Luciyo would become First in a Chamber of Paucitors and elect others to his side.

“For the bounty of the least and most miserable has won this day, and future Imprecators will not always be so lucky as to have a brother Amadeo, who will bring hidden poverty forward to the attention of the mighty!”

Thus were three of the great Giralliyan institutions – Emperador (Imprecator); Princes and Kings; and Paucitors – created. The tale of the fourth – the Exemplars of Orthodoxy – is a tale for another day.

* * *

More stories of old Giralliya:
Ravessa’s Ride
The Thricely Odd Troll
The Old Armory: Blood Falchion