A Great Birthing

Mere glimpses of the spiritual beliefs held by the peoples of the North-lands appear in Troll-magic. Lorelin attends a dance in the chapel in her village. So we know the Silmarish have chapels. Kellor mentions Thiyaude when he curses! And Helaina prays to Teyo in her moment of extremity.

You might think that I cobbled together these references as I wrote my story. That’s a strategy that works for many writers. Called just-in-time creation, it even works for me – some of the time! More often, I do my world building first, creating the foundations and important details before I embark on storytelling. I thought you might enjoy reading my notes on North-lander myths, legends, and religion. We’ll start with their creation story.

golden yang of flower petals, blue yin of vine-strewn ocean

Consciousness Awakes and Elaborates
It was dark. She could touch nothing around her, see nothing, hear nothing. For a moment she felt fear. Then she felt her strength. And rested her consciousness anchored within her strength. As she meditated on her strength and the nothingness in which she existed, she realized that she herself was not empty. She was strong and full of life and richness and love and beauty. She contemplated her bounty joyfully. And then she contemplated the nothingness joyfully. How beautifully paired were her fecundity and the emptiness of the nothingness. She meditated more on this trinity: herself, her bounty, and the emptiness. And as she contemplated her great birthing ahead, she knew it would take all of her strength and skill to accomplish. And maybe more. The first of her birthings must be a helper.

But there need be no hurry. Joy and wonder inspired her devotion. She would engage bliss.

Borne on the tide of her rapture, she flowed through her experience, tasting being and gathering readiness. And then she was ready.

She touched her strength and heaved. Let this be. Let this become. Let this come. Ah!

One small portion of her bounty had parted from her and become Other, wholly itself, beaming and lovely. Thee art wanderer, sweet child, the mother whispered. Named Falnon or Faran or Fallon.

The scent of petals that would become roses kissed the mother.

Happy laughter bloomed. I shall travel far and far, but first I shall attend you.

The daughter bent her own strength toward her mother’s advancing labor. Together they danced within the awe of being, and when the moment was ripe, they strove. Ah!

Another portion of the mother’s fullness reached autonomy and became the hand-maiden Nissa. Thee art grace and litheness and ease, my daughter. Welcome.

Movement, rather than sound, heralded Nissa’s entrance: the play of a fountain, the flow of a river, the surge of a sea. Wherever there is doing, there shall I be. Creation and intercourse and exertion be mine. How is it, Mother, that I came not first?

Each of thee is first with me. ‘Tis the mystery of mysteries. Be thee content.

And they were.

Strength and integrity came next, amidst sensations of pleasure. I am Bree, she announced herself.

Five more coalesced, each in her own characteristic way: a sense of buoyancy; a vast bounty, great as the mother’s own; generosity; the gavotte of intellect; and quiet wisdom.

Last of all came light, so brilliant it might have blinded, and yet they could see one another: fair sisters, each blessed with unique beauty.

Now, my children, now. The greater labor summons me. Let us begin.

And so the vast reaches of space and time came forth to be populated by firmness and fluidity and living creatures, each as separate and amazing as the hand-maidens. With intricacy and forethought, the world was born. With abandon and ecstasy, it emerged. With gratitude, it was celebrated.

All is well, Sias proclaimed.Small white chapel at the water's edge


Belief and Practice in Silmaren
The story above is the mythos of Silmaren. As recounted, Sias awakens and births her nine hand-maidens. They, in turn, support her as she creates the universe with all its wonders and wondrous denizens.

In Silmaren, worship focuses on helping one another the way the hand-maidens helped Sias, the great mother. Each month, for nine months, the rituals of a different handmaiden come to the forefront. Sermons emphasize her attributes. The three months of summer are sacred to Sias herself.

Regular services are held in small chapels. They consist of spoken prayer, sung prayer, songs of celebration, the ritual consumption of food, and rituals of light, fire, and water. There is a regular rest day each week.

In addition to the chapels, small shrines abound, each dedicated to a specific hand-maiden. Religious orders focus primarily on healing and scholarly knowledge.


Small stone kirk on a hill

The beliefs of Silmaren adhere most closely to those of the original primitive tribes of the North-lands. Other cultures feature elaborations of this basic creation myth. The Fiorin people believe Sias birthed her daughter Ionan, the muse of wisdom, first. And that Ionan alone supported the mother in her great labor. Sias loves this daughter so much that she gave Ionan the universe to preside over and care for.

In Fiorish, small stone kirks house services to Ionan, and the lay sisters of Ionan are healers.


Church by night

In Erice, it is Theon and Ionog, brother-sister twins, who are born first. They support Sias, preside over her creation, and care for it.

Temples or fanes are dedicated to twin worship. Trade guilds include a religious dimension and are regarded as religious bodies as much as institutions of production and commerce.


Cathedral of Auberon

In Auberon, Teyo the son, devoted to logic and language, arrives to mediate absolutely between the mother (origin) and her offspring (other). The matriarchal beliefs were transformed completely into patriarchal ways of understanding the world.

Two hundred years ago (in the timeline of Troll-magic), the saint and martyr Jaen Rougepied was born. Her witness re-introduced the importance of intuition and receptiveness to the population. Her life saw great upheaval and turmoil, and wrought great change.

In “modern” Auberon, Jaen Rougepied is regarded as Teyo’s vicar on earth. She was sent by Teyo to return the people of Auberon from the legalism into which they had strayed back toward a religion of relationship. They believe that Jaen sits at Teyo’s right hand, actively relating mortal to deity and deity to mortal.

Monasteries, hospitals, and churches proclaim the glory of Teyo and his hand-maiden Jaen Rougepied. Big cities feature cathedrals.


Cathedral of Pavelle

Teyo goes by the name Thiyaude in Pavelle. The Pavanese never fell into the legalism that beset the Auberese, and though they revere Jaen Rougepied, they do not worship her. Their religious rituals feature much grandeur, including rich feasts, expensive perfumes, and elaborate chants.

Pavelle’s religious institutions include chapels, churches, guilds, and cathedrals.



shuttered window in a hill town


In the Empire of Giralliya, they say the narratives beloved by the cultures of their neighbors are metaphorically correct, but that the most enlightened belivers prefer a less personified account.

The First Principle, that of Change, is always a triad composed of Fullness, Emptiness, and Creator or Doer. The Second Principle, that of Stability, is a quadrine composed of Fullness, Emptiness, Creator, and Perceiver.

Giralliyans remark that there are undoubtably religious peoples somewhere in the world who personify Emptiness, although the believers of the North-lands avoid this.

Antiphoners, trained in both religion and magic, live and practice in retreat centers. The local populace regularly visits these centers for meditation instruction, personal support, and practice of the posture sequences that are part of Giralliyan worship and pursuit of health.

For more about North-lander lore, see:
Silmarish Magic
North-lands Magic
Blood Falchion



Cover Creation: Perilous Chance

Clary is the great grand-daughter of a rofane of Auberon, and her papa is a renowned sculptor. The family could live more ostentatiously than they do, but their values are bohemian rather than those of status. Their cottage is merely roomy and comfortable. In my mind’s eye, I envision it looking a little like the photo below.

photo of thatched cottage


I found images that reminded me a little of Clary and her sister Elspeth, and I initially envisioned creating a cover featuring the girls and their home. (If the girl in the garden were Clary, her hair would need to be worn loose, and she’d soften her still “posing for a portrait” stance. But Elspeth’s double is very like her.)

vintage photo of flower girl

vintage postcard of little girl

Intuition counseled me to try a different tack. The magnificent and dangerous creature that is the heart of Perilous Chance summoned my focus, and I searched for images of fierce, winged, fantastical beasts.


The Dreamstime web site of stock photography features some amazing art (drawings and photos) available for very reasonable prices. I’ve used them to supply works for many of my covers, and they came through again this time.

Bas relief gryphon with background

I’d love to know the location where “Griffon 01” by Henner Damke was photographed. Is it beside the formidable gate to a medieval castle? Or gracing the edge of a Renaissance fresco? Damke does not say, and I can only guess. It’s described as a “reconstructed relief” and listed under the category of arts & architecture.


For my cover, I clipped the gryphon out from its plain backdrop.


Then I thought about suitable backgrounds. Roiling water? Stormy sky? Hmmm. What about a flower-strewn tapestry? The people of Auberon in my North-lands use tapestries The hunt of the unicorn, tapestry #6extensively in the interiors of their homes. Something resembling the real world Hunt of the Unicorn would be perfect. I found something very nice, although I cannot place here the exact image I selected, because I did not (in the end) buy it and use it. Instead I’ll feature the Hunt of the Unicorn, which is similar.


As I hoped, the bas relief gryphon looked very nice against the dark tapestry. I flipped the image to follow the natural path of the human eye from left to right. After experimenting with title placement, I extended the gryphon’s top wing feather. And I turned the beast gold. Looking good!


I placed translucent shadows at the very top and bottom of the art to spotlight the gryphon and serve as a dark ground for the cover text elements. Then I typed in my title, the title tag line (something wondrous this way comes), my byline, and the author tag line. I liked it. But, but, but. Something wasn’t quite right. The cover was beautiful and evoked the right feeling, but it implied that the story was historical fiction, not fantasy. Perilous Chance is fantasy, and I needed a cover that read as fantasy.


Maybe white water would be more suitable. Or . . . no! My winged beast is a creature of the sky. The middle part of my brainstorming had generated the right choice. photo of orange cloudsTime to go sky-hunting! A lightning bolt slicing orange clouds caught my attention, and I tried it. (Again, I can’t show you the cover with that precise image, but I can depict something very similar.)


Chance_cover_lrg_webBut – yet again! – but, but, but!

That still was not right. Back to the search for the right image. This time I found it: lightning sizzling through a cobalt sky. Perfect! Especially since the cobalt-white streak of electrical energy mirrors the magical powers wielded by my fabulous creature. I hope you agree!

For readers whose interest was piqued by this sneak preview of Clary, Elspeth, and the magnificent creature they confront, Perilous Chance is available in electronic bookstores.

Amazon I B&N I Diesel I iTunes
Kobo I Smashwords

More posts about book covers:
Cover Copy Primer
Building Star-drake’s Cover
Choosing a Tagline Font

More about Perilous Chance:
Justice in Auberon
Clary’s Cottage
Notes on Chance
Not Monday, But Lundy



The Suppressed Verses

Selection from Kay Nielsen illustrationMandine de la Royaume has pulled off an almost impossible feat: suppressing the utterance of part of a curse. Curses require the channeling of a substantial torrent of power, more than the safe magic of the North-lands — patterning — permits. A curse is incantatio, and its casting causes the curser to become a troll.

Mandine had been a troll for decades before her troll-disease stole her sanity, and her skill as an incantatrice has only grown. Her curse is potent, but even potent curses have loopholes. Hers is no exception. Nornally these loopholes must be specified in the doggerel poetry that comprises the waste (in addition to searing orange light) accompanying incantatio. The latter half of Mandine’s curse was swallowed by her will and her strength. Her cursee, Prince Kellor, must seek his freedom by guess, since he has heard no more than a snippet of the conditions for his release.

If you have not read Troll-magic, read no further in this blog post! Spoilers follow. But do come back after you finish the novel. How Kellor seeks his solution is fully explored in his tale, but the suppressed verses themselves do not appear. Kellor’s courage and ingenuity are much more relevant to the story than the arcane magic that creates his challenge. Thus the appearance of the swallowed stanzas here in my blog: a treat for the loremasters and aficionados of appendices among us!

A bear no more, speak the last words that are thine.
Bid thy maiden farewell, she has cause to repine.
When an hour is done, search the sky for my sign:
My chariot arrives, thy will now is mine.

The maiden has failed, thy will’s bound to my need.
Can the curse be unraveled, the prisoners freed?
Seek the ways out of bondage, take heart and take heed:
My throat strangles freedom, swallows all in greed.
Yet a path lies open, awaits song and deed.

Excavate and reveal the corpse without breath,
Merely wood carved in likeness of chilly death.
Bring the children before their mother’s gagged wrath.
They call, “Mama!” She speaks and leaves the Lainkath.
Her escape heals her mate, pacing his split path.
Sundered soul and flesh rejoin in this aftermath.

East of sun shall maiden seek, and west of moon,
Cair Seila, lost palace, the site of my tomb.
To Cymbre she shall give three gifts, ask three boons:
Gold apple, awareness, heart of choice in life’s loom;
Gold carding comb, sorting — order prevents ruin;
Gold spindle for spinning, shaping her life’s doom.
For each gift: one visit, dawn to stroke of noon,
Chances to preserve thee from thy fate as groom.

Wedding pomp and splendor fling chapel doors wide:
The maid plays music, thee walks toward Cymbre’s side.
Tears drown the player’s cheeks, loss and sorrow’s tide.
She cedes all claim on thee, weeping beyond pride.
Hears thee speak thy vows to take Cymbre as bride,
To love the troll-daughter, as her husband to bide.

Cymbre speaks her vows: no words thee looked to hear,
No promise of love, no oath to hold thee dear.
Unforeseen reprieve! She breaks the bonds of fear,
Not spouse, not betrothed, mere brother free and clear.
Saved by her gift along with all thee name peer.
No prisoners remain: Mandine’s curse barren, sere!

For the spoken verses, see Mandine’s Curse.



Mandine’s Curse

Kay Nielsen illustration from East of the Sun and West of the MoonMagic is perilous in the North-lands. Draw too much power through your radices, and you have left the safe byways of energea. You are using incantatio and have embarked on the road to troll-disease. It’s a fine line to walk, especially if performed under stress!

Mandine, the troll-witch in my novel Troll-magic, has crossed that line. And she has lost her sanity. As her cruel plans come adrift, she resorts to a curse to achieve her victory. A curse is the most extreme form of incantatio, requiring tremendous power. As in most incantatic magic, the better part is wasted, vented as acrid light and doggerel poetry. The greater flow of energy results in a greater flow of waste as well: thus the lengthier verse below.

The stanzas of Mandine’s curse appear in Troll-magic as fragments. I present them here in their entirety. If you haven’t yet read Troll-magic (what are you waiting for? go read it!) you may wish to skip this blog post. (Grin!) It reveals few details, but it does outline the extent of the hero’s challenge.

I curse thee now: take the beast’s shape!
Wild fur so white;
Ebon eyes, keen sight;
Razor claws, such might;
Fanged jaws, iron bite.
North-bear by day, yet a man by night.
Labyrinthine thrall, just one veiled escape.

Not ’til a maiden shall freely chose
To share thy bed with never a ruse,
One year and a day. No time to lose,
Thee must wake each morn to rise and woo.

Spiral out the curse to light and hold
Thy friends, my foes, who thwarted me of old.

Lock motherly healer in Lainkath deep,
Silently serving on quiet feet,
Voicelessly present, the halls to keep,
Hidden from sight, mere breezes to greet.

Graveside be false flesh, corpse unbreathing,
Simulacrum pure, truth concealing,
Buried in state, her children weeping.

Split fatherly patterner, flesh from soul,
To wander pale, ghostly garbed, unwhole;
His flesh to pace Mandine’s north atoll,
His soul to walk his own homely hall.

Yet if the maiden who shares thy days
Should leave the task but done partway,
Or if she who bides thy sheets by night
Should see thy man form in some strange light,
Then thy doom be surely sealed; thy fate:
A bear no more, but Cymbre’s mate.

Curses are comprehensive in nature and include any loopholes or escape routes in their descriptions. This is inconvenient, to say the least, for the curser, but handy for the accursed. Mandine’s curse is no different. However, she managed to achieve something unusual through sheer determination: silencing the utterance of the verses describing the loopholes in her curse. Kellor (her cursee) has never heard them. Next week, you may read the suppressed verses here!



Bazinthiad, a Quick Tour

Bazinthiad occupies a low peak on the coast of the Bay of Istria. The original settlement hugged the shore of an inland lake, but the building of aqueducts from the Delkan Hills to the northwest permitted the expansion of the small trading post on the Marcehaven Harbor, a natural anchorage along the bay. Recently, the invention of steam engines facilitates pumping lake water into the city supply channels. The increased reserves are encouraging new building beyond the old city walls.

The Imperial Pivot sits atop Bazinthiad’s mountain with other important civic buildings nearby. The steep slopes to the south feature terraced townhouses where dwell wealthy citizens and those prominent in government. The mansions of the nobility lie on the gentler western incline. Merchant homes and warehouses cluster near the harbor.

The older parts of city spread across the northern skirts of the Mount Epiyrus where the road from Lake Arghed debouches.

Fallon (1) Fallon is a handmaiden of the Divine Mother, Sias. She embodies the longing that urges wanderers to seek the road or the high seas. A colossal gilded statue of Fallon in her sailing regalia punctuates the high western point of land at the harbor entrance. She steers a ship’s wheel with her right hand while holding aloft a ship’s lantern in the left. The lantern – fueled still by old-fashioned lamp oil – functions as a beacon by night and in bad weather.

map of the capital of GiralliyaZele (2) Zele is the handmaiden of Sias dedicated to light and clear speaking. Her portrait – another gilded statue on a towering pedestal – graces the low eastern point of land enclosing the harbor. She brandishes her traditional blazing star, a confection of crystal with a burning gas jet at its center that stays alight day and night.

Beacon Hill (3) The western point of land rises nearly fifty feet above sea level, and its shoreline features vertical cliffs surmounted by the walls of an old fortification. Cannons have long since replaced the trebuchets that originally defended the harbor, but the guns see more ceremonial salutes than real warfare. Beacon Hill is a popular destination for runners and picnickers.

Leyjono Island (4) Once part of the harbor fortifications, the island is now a city park reached by regular ferry service. Upon their arrival in Bazinthiad, Helaina’s children visited the golden monkeys housed in the park.

Linnanousi Museum (5) A natural history museum displaying artifacts from ancient tribal peoples, geological specimens, and trilobyte fossils. It’s newest exhibit features the dinosaur skeleton that Lorelin wished to show to Bazel.

The Liyzapella (6) The park immediately adjacent to the Imperial Pivot. Gabris of Troll-magic first sets eyes on the emmissaries from Elamerony as these flamboyantly garbed folk ascend the last stairway up from the Liyzapella.

The Imperial Pivot (7) The seat of Giralliya’s government. It houses chambers for the empire’s three legislative bodies and office space for the exemplars, the paucitors, and the princes and kings. The imperial ministers have their headquarters, along with work space for their larger staffs, in neighboring buildings.

Empyrean Palace (8) City residence for Emperador Zaiger.

Lantern Park (9) Bazinthiad’s botanic society tries out their proven new finds from the plant world here in spectacular flower displays. The park acquired its name when it became the first public space lit by gas lanterns instead of oil lamps.

Nousiyan Library (10) A city library specializing in musical scores. Lorelin especially appreciates the collection.

The Old Armory (11) Headquarters for the Sentinel Watch (the military arm of the Ministry of Incantors). In Troll-magic, Gabris and Panos organized the experimental healing of Mabiogia in the gymnasium space (previously a chapel) of the armory. Blood Falchion and Hunting Wild transpire in the fortification 2000 years and 1200 years respectively before the time of Troll-magic.

Newcastel (12) Ancient by the time of the events in Troll-magic, Newcastel (Castel Zaphiron) was commissioned by King Xavo of Hunting Wild.

Custom House (13) Caravans of mussel shells, silk, and dried lavender buds once arrived at the city’s east gate. The pack animals were stabled at Custom House while the trade goods were unloaded. More varied stuffs arrive there now via a spur to the rail line. The terrain did not permit the routing of the line into the city, so wagons transfer the goods from the rail station to Custom House.

Navellysmote (14) Ancient seat to a line of disloyal lords, the Navellysmote became an imperial possession used in defense of the Marcehaven Harbor. It currently serves as a museum featuring artifacts from the era of sea battles between sailing ships.

Quay House (15) A vast indoor market that rents goods stalls to seafaring merchants. A smaller area on a partial second floor houses a captains’ club and posh bed chambers to accommodate both ship’s officers and the merchants themselves.

Institute of Medicinal Flora (16) A college of scholars investigating all facets of the realm of medicinal healing. Helaina purchases a student’s membership upon her arrival in Bazinthiad.

Chamber of Exemplars Each canton of Giralliya elects two exemplars to represent their interests within the imperial government. The Thricely Odd Troll tells the story of how Giralliya came to have its Chamber of Exemplars.

Chamber of Princes and Kings The Empire of Giralliya borrows the hierarchal structures of its conquered territories and gives them a role in the imperial government. Each prince or king (or caliph or mogul or rajah) represents the interests of the principality or kingdom from which he or she hails.

Chamber of Paucitors The office of paucitor was created before that of exemplar to balance the overwhelming influence of the conventionally prestigious and powerful. One paucitor from each canton is selected by lot to serve a term of five years. The Emperador may appoint additional paucitors under specific circumstances. The Legend of the Beggar’s Son tells the tale of the first paucitor.

Audience Chamber A grand throne room used more on ceremonial and festive occasions than for governing. The offices of the Pivot occupy the top floor of the same corner tower.

Verging Antechamber In days gone by, the Verger was always an antiphoner. Any petitioners wishing to approach the emperador held his rod of loyalty and repeated an oath of commitment to the wellbeing of the imperium while the Verger scanned their radices and arcs antiphonically. Now the Ministry of Palladia does background checks of all entrants on the petitioners’ list.

The Gallery Tiers of stepped benches accommodate all sixteen ministers plus their adjutants and the envoys from the three legislative chambers when the full imperial cabinet meets.

Russet Library Stocked with scrolls and books of history and governmental precedent often consulted by the emperador. Also used by gatherings smaller than those of the full cabinet. The meeting where the reader meets Gabris in Troll-magic takes place in the Russet Library.

The Pivot The emperador’s executive privilege operates from these precincts. Here Zaiger signs into law the acts proposed by any of the three legislatures and ratified by the Chamber of Exemplars. From the Pivot’s windows, Gabris watches the approach of the Elameronean delegation.

The Sanctum At intervals throughout his day, Zaiger practices the postural sequences beloved by most of the Giralliyan populace. An advanced practitioner, he engages in meditative focus and breath techniques as well. His staff and advisers know not to disturb him during his brief visits within his Sanctum.



Bazinthiad’s Fashions

illustration of woman wearing chemise, vestment, tabard, and surcoatWeather is warm in Bazinthiad (capital city of the Giralliyan Empire), and clothing reflects it.

Summertime gauzes are so sheer as to be translucent, and even winter silks and linens are thin, but a multiplicity of layers preserves modesty.

Next to the skin comes the chemise, a sleeveless shift, usually of a hue that contrasts with the rest of the ensemble. It’s a plain garment, although the sheerer the cloth, the richer the wearer. The illustration at left features a pale yellow chemise.

A vestment lies atop the chemise. Cool weather vestments sport long sleeves, hot weather ones feature short sleeves or none. The neck is often square. The lower hemline and the hems of the sleeves often display white or pale tone-on-tone embroidery. (Our model wears a pale gray vestment.)

Atop the vestment is the tabard, another sleeveless garment that falls to the knee. Its hems nearly always possess ornament; the most stylish feature embroidery across the entire surface. (The vestment at right is soft lilac with modest embroidery along its edges.)

Topmost comes the surcoat, a long robe with long sleeves and a hood. Wintertime surcoats are quilted. Summer ones are sheer. The fabric is rarely ornamented, but the hood characteristically features a complex tassel which indicates the wearer’s ancestry, age, and marital status. (Our model wears a soft slate surcoat with the hood draping down her back.)

Like all peoples of the North-lands, Giralliyans fear trolls and fear to be mistaken for trolls. This bias heavily influences the garb of Bazinthiad’s dwellers. They avoid bright colors, strong contrasts, sequins, seed pearls, and gems. Those are the signifiers of troll-queens and troll-kings.

Muted pastels are chosen for summer clothing, and darker somber hues for winter. Wealth is proclaimed by the sheerness of the fabrics, the fineness of the weave, the amount of embroidery, and the depth of braid or trim on hem edges.

Footwear is always sandals, from simple thongs to elegant dancing soles to boot-like affairs with a complex array of straps.



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



The Writing of the Belt

The Troll's BeltI had no idea I’d be retelling a renowned folk tale. All I had was the really vivid mind-picture of a wide leather belt, dyed brilliant blue and studded with golden metallic stars, nestling in the reindeer moss of a pine forest. That and the knowledge that a boy would find it.

So, how did I build my story? I almost always start with questions. Who is this boy? Oh, he lives with his father, but there seems to be no mother on the scene, and I have the sense that she’s been absent since he was a baby. Okay. Then how did his father manage? Ah . . . his brother’s wife took care of the boy when he was really little. The two brothers, when they were very young men, purchased a timber claim from Silmaren’s Queen Anora.

My notes show that I digress into examining the nature of the timber claims and fishing claims offered by the crown at this point in the realm’s history. Then I pull myself back to the boy and sketch out a quick account of his childhood. Next my thoughts leap to the skeleton of my story’s plot: the boy finds the belt, he gets in trouble with it, and he only achieves some wisdom in the course of overcoming his trouble.

Hmm. This is the North-lands. If there’s trouble, then of course there’s a troll involved. Surely the belt belongs to this troll. And . . . suddenly, I just know that the troll lives in a rustic cot hollowed from a massive glacial rock.

Naturally, the boy encounters the troll, who wants his belt back. And, oh my, he wants the boy for dinner. Oh! I’m telling Hansel and Gretel. Cool! I think I like it.

copy of actual manuscript notes for The Troll's BeltSo the boy is imprisoned and that mad old troll is going to devour him. Then the boy’s cousin arrives on the scene, and things get even more complicated. Now I need some names. I can’t just keep saying: “the boy” and “the boy’s father” and “the wood-town.” What all do I need? Boy, cousin, father, uncle, aunt, town, troll. This time, for this story, the names just fly into my head without much searching for inspiration.

Then I realize I need to know what the town of Glinhult looks like. At first I think everyone lives in tree houses, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Ah! The older houses are indeed tree houses, remnants from the time when the lumberjacks needed a cheap way to raise their homes off the ground for safety’s sake. Packs of wolves and other predators roam these parts, the wilds of west-lying Gosstrand. Once the work on the timber claim was more advanced and everyone had more money, they could afford to build the more convenient stilt-homes.

So what did Brys’ home look like? I draw a quick floor plan. And make some notes about its idiosyncrasies: the straight door at the bottom of the stairs and the trap at its top. Then I think about what Brys and Jol look like: Brys with shoulder-length red hair; gangly; shorter than his cousin; Jol a bit larger and with long, curly, dark hair pulled back in a horsetail. What chores do the boys do? Suddenly I know that Brys and his father Arn will have an argument about chores. And the specifics of the plot unfold in my mind. I’m there. Time to start writing. On October 20, I begin: “Brys slammed the door behind him and stomped across his room in fury.”

Copy of handwritten list of scenes for storyEach day thereafter I write another installment of the story. Sometimes the scene is so clear, it pours out of my pen (yes, I was writing longhand, ink onto paper) like an enchanted spring welling from sacred ground. Other times I make notes or mini outlines in my margins to get my inner storyteller going: “skip to meeting Jol who is impressed with his daring, but also pretends to object to the tunic borrowing;” or “clasp belt, sudden urgency as body joins mind, leap up, know just what to do.”

On November 4, I write the final words: “’Huh, yourself!’ And Brys aimed a friendly punch at his cousin’s ribs.”

I’d done it! Written the story I would use to test the intricacies of uploading computer files to electronic bookstores. Best to encounter all the error messages and to search for fixes on a short piece of fiction, not a novel!

Of course, I was not finished. I sent the story off to my first reader, who quite liked it. I would work on the cover while she was reading. Then I must make corrections and put the whole package together. Yes, there was work to do. But that moment of triumph at the close of the first draft was special.

Just in case The Troll’s Belt has suddenly catapulted itself onto your must-read list (grin!), here are the links:

Amazon.com I B&N I Diesel I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Sony

For more about the stories behind my stories, see:
Writing Sarvet
Notes on Chance
Dreaming the Star-drake