Monday Miscellany

Well, Noble, Priest, and Empire is off to the editor. I hope to have it back in late June, for a July release. I may price it a little higher than the others, $5.95 US, because of the length. Or I might keep it at $4.95.

I am 30K words into Overly Familiar, and have a bit of P-Familiar done. That will be the end of the main Familiar Tales series. Things will shift over to the Familiar Generations as the “youngsters” move into the limelight.

If all goes well, two more Familiars sets will go into print format by the end of summer.

I’m currently reading part of C. V. Walters, Alien Brides romance series. The stories are steamier than I usually prefer, but I really like how she takes some of the least-positive paranormal romance (PNR) tropes, flips them so that there’s a reason for the characters to do things other than “holding the idiot ball”, and makes fun stories out of it.

On a completely different note, I’m also working my way through Poland: The First Thousand Years. It is a political and intellectual history of Poland. It is very well written. I”m also nibbling on a history of the Butte mine disaster of the 1910s. Nibbling because reading about mine fires and the aftermath is not pleasant. It’s a very good book, just on a hard topic. There are a few other histories I’m gnawing away at as well.

Womanly Women in Fiction II: Krimhilde, Lelia, and Others

The last post looked at my early female characters: Rada Ni Drako, Elizabeth von Sarmas, Auriga Bernardi-Prananda, and a character in a story I’ve pretty much given up on, unless it gets worked into a prehistory of the Familiars world. Now let’s move to some more recent creations.

Those of you who have read Language of the Land know that it is a semi-dystopia, set in a world where women dominate religion and society. It is a hard-core matriarchy, with not-so-great consequences for men and women both. I based the female villains on people I’d crossed paths with, plus took characteristics I’d observed in bad female leaders/bosses and turned that up to about ten-and-a-half. Eleven wasn’t needed. As it turns out, I underestimated how ferocious some women can be when given a cause to promote. So those are my “please don’t be like this.” The women wear skirts, but otherwise seem determined to behave even worse than men in the same positions.

So, what about strong female protagonists in the Merchant books? There are no female point-of-view characters. White Gold of Empire started from a woman’s PoV, because I decided that we needed to see the world from a different perspective. My muse refused. There are lots of female characters, none of whom really “buck the patriarchy” because, well, there’s room for them, just as there was in Europe during a similar time period and place. Some are more positive than others, but the Merchant world is one where women have multiple physical disadvantages, and know it. There are a few exceptions, like the senior washerwoman in Rhonari and some others, but everyone knows they are exceptions. Halwende Valke’s wife has a strong personality of her own, and will serve as his second-in-command and good right hand, but she doesn’t try to take over. In fact, she will hear some law cases that are too delicate and sensitive for Halwende (or any man) to properly adjudicate. She doesn’t want to govern the Valke lands on her own, or to explore and claim, either. She likes being warm, dry, safe, and with a roof over her head and servants to take care of her. Her task is to be a helpmeet, and to have kids, at least three sons and some daughters (heir, spare, spare spare, plus girls for alliances.)

So, Morgana, Krimhilde, Lelia, Dumitra’s mother, Arthur’s elder sister, Mistress Cimbrissa . . . Note that all the ladies are competent in their various fields. Even Lelia, who seems dependent on her husband for survival (ignore the royalty and patent income) and Dumitra (who do you thinks runs the herb business?) are highly skilled in their mundane jobs. Lelia Chan Lestrang defers to André in many things, but not all of them. She dresses in a feminine manner because her mother was a New Woman!!!!! feminist* when she wasn’t social-climbing, so Lelia is going to be outwardly obedient, modest, domestic-minded, maternal, and so on. While listening to dark music, fighting monsters, shooting her revolver, and ignoring or working around André’s complaints about fuzzy food (only cheese, and she trims off the fuzz. Sheesh!) Lelia needs structure. She can live without it, but she doesn’t thrive well in chaos. That way leads to chemical escapes. Order and structure are strength for her, and so André being LDS, and Arthur being a bit of a patriarch** are good. She is another helpmeet, and her being Victorian in her speech and dress is her way of rebelling.

Arthur’s brother runs the Clan. He gives the orders, and even Arthur thinks at least twice about challenging Skender. Their older sister, however, doesn’t hesitate to tell Skender when he’s being less than sensible. In detail. With illustrations. She can get away with it because she’s older, and because she has strong magic of her own sort. Dumitra’s mother, an herbalist, will tell Arthur and Skender when they push things too far, and will give the younger Hunters the rough side of her tongue if they are stupid. They take it, because they respect her skill and no one but no one wants to tick-off a healer. The men also know who does the bulk of food preservation and preparation work. Cimbrissa is more reticent than Arthur’s sisters are, but she has no patience for wilful folly. They are strong women because of their skills and because they have shown good judgement in the past. In an odd way, Lelia fits in well, even if she doesn’t realize it and feels awkward and in a bit of awe at the skills of the Clan women.

Dolores Lee was a paralegal, but prefers working with her hands and supports Patrick when she’s not trying to pull him down from the clouded world of pure academics and thaumatological theory (he needs to eat sometime). Mallory Jones is a computer sys-admin, who happens to occasionally bring a very, very large skunk to work. Morgana was a technical writer and planned to raise a family, but she and her husband never had children despite multiple attempts. They took in his nephew instead, for Family Reasons. Barbara works for her husband’s logging business, and they are married and will have children. All have skills and talents, all are individual personalities, and all work hard. They really are strong women. That’s what makes them interesting characters to read about.

Good female characters are complicated, not caricatures of whatever the current trend is. Even Victorian and Edwardian women got fed-up with reading about passive shrinking violets who clung to their men for everything, and that’s when passive shrinking violets were “supposed” to be the ideal. Supposedly, that is, according to later generations. If you are having trouble with creating a multi-sided female character, you could do worse than to find some character creation sheets for table-top role-playing-games and look at categories, strengths, and weaknesses. Toss the dice and see what they give you to work with. You might decide that “low intuition, high charisma” won’t work for your character, but as an exercise in writing a character sketch, it’s a very helpful way to do it.

A strong female character is a women/female who is her own person, who is not perfect, who has valuable skills even if they are “only” supporting and succoring her husband and sons, and who stands up for what she feels is right. She can be a hero or villain. She’s NOT a dude in a wig, or a caricature of this month/week/hour’s definition of Strong Woman.

So go forth and write, those who are so inclined!

*Mrs. Smith-Rogers was whatever would get her prestige and luxury and social status, at least by the time her daughter was aware of what was going on.

**Note, however, that Arthur is not the least bit sexist. He expects everyone to jump when he gives the order. And assumes that both males and females will do as told. That’s a bit less patriarch than imperious and willing to enforce his will with fists and blades if it comes to that, because if he’s giving orders, it’s an emergency, or someone is his lawful subordinate.

Tuesday Tidbit: Along the Big River

Halwende continues his exploration, somewhat warily. [Note: This will be the last excerpt from this book that I post.]

Just after dawn Halwende, Magnus, and one of the younger men started north, walking between the river and the forest. Kal and the other hunter moved south, not as far, while the youngest man stayed with Ulber and the beasts, just in case. Eigris flew over, traveling to the south, and other birds. The water seemed lower than the day before, although Halwende didn’t care to get close and measure. The river bent to the north, a good sign, and they moved at a good pace over the firm, grassy ground. The land to the north opened up, and the hills they’d seen the day before retreated from the river’s valley. “Better for a settlement,” Magnus observed when they paused to look around. The wind blew from the north, heavy with river and mud and wet.

Halwende started to answer, then froze. Green swept down on him, a curtain. He went to one knee. “Lady of the Wild, what is Your will?”

Continue. This I give you, this and to the north and east. Cross the river. I lift my hand from this land. As before, he saw Her in Her glory walking east and north, followed by a green mist that faded from the forest and beasts. Some beasts strode with Her, leaving the land to men and Yoorst’s creatures. Your treasure waits here, something lost and waiting, come.

“Keep going, upriver,” Halwende managed. “We keep going.” He concentrated on breathing, feeling the dampness working through the fabric of his trews. After a dozen breaths the tiredness receded, and he got to his feet.

“Donwah be praised,” the young hunter gasped as they passed a thick stand of wet-footed grey-needle trees. A ford awaited them. Bare stone emerged from the soil. The grey and black-flecked rock led down into the river. The water seemed slower and shallower, almost pooling downstream of the ford before rushing on. The land around the ford sloped less, too, flatter and easier to approach and retreat.

Indeed, they could cross, although they used ropes and went with great care, tapping the stone ahead of them with their staves. A thin fringe of trees screened the river  on the north side, then opened into a natural meadow as large as the cleared area around Valke keep. A wild ovstrala spooked and disappeared into the far tree line, thudding into the woods. “We keep the beasts on the south side, m’lord,” Magnus said. His tone suggested that only a true fool would do otherwise.

“Aye. I have no desire to see if the story is true about our beasts calling wild beasts to them.” Waking up in the middle of an ovstrala herd . . . never ended well. Not for the subject of the story at least. “I don’t care to be remembered as Halwende the Flat.”

They set about blazing marks on the trees and looking for stones for cairns. Rocks proved to be hard to find, until Magnus went a little farther to the west and discovered several mounds and a wet, boggy area with rocky soil around it. They carried rocks to where rocks ought to be, and Halwende made notes. He’d sketch and write out their claim later. They worked until the sun stood one hand above the trees at the north side of the meadow as seen from the south, then hurried back to where the wagon and others waited for them. The river had fallen lower, and they saw more debris caught among the trees. And a few animals, too, including three laupen. The stench of the fast-rotting beasts hurried the men’s steps.

They feasted on more cervi, sweet-root, and some crack-shell nuts that Kal had found. “No sign of the wood-carver that left ’em, yer grace. Bird forgot he’d cached ’em, like as not.”

Mouth full, Halwende just nodded his acknowledgement. That night, after he made some notes by firelight and sketched out their way and the river’s bends, he watched the stars. The red eye of the Great Vulpe glowered down at him. He rested his head on his interlaced fingers and stared back. A few dark shapes flitted overhead, darting and diving on quiet or silent wings. Far in the distance, something bellowed defiance, or perhaps indigestion. The faintest hint of a howl reached his ears, or did it? Even falling, the river’s mutter and rush hid much that moved in the night. The Great Vulpe eased to the west, making way for the Tower and Plow. Who named the stars? How long ago? Did the gods teach us the names, as they taught us how to find our way by the stars and sun? What treasure did we find? No gold or silver, not laying on the ground for any to gather. No coins glittering in the water, either, or growing on a tree. He smiled, then yawned. Where had that story come from, and how strong would be the branches of a tree that bore gold leaves? Sleep came before he had an answer.

#

“A what?” Halwende asked, blinking. He sat back in the chair at the portable camp table and tried to corral his thoughts. “A marriage proposal waits for me at Valke keep?” He didn’t recognize the man, but that didn’t mean much. The chamberlain or Lother could have hired him, or he could be a trader’s courier, come to Valbaum on other business and bringing messages with his trade.

Halwende sat outside the site of his new keep, working on his notes by the last light of the sun and a small lamp. He’d heard disputes that day, and had watched the men measuring out ground for a new stronghold inside the walls of Valbaum. Supper should be ready soon. He’d go south the next day, weather permitting.

The courier offered him a sealed message. “Yes, your grace. And a portrait. Lord Adalbert of Crosstrees seeks a husband for his second daughter, Aedit. Rumor has it that he needs land, not silver, your grace.” A knowing look crossed the man’s narrow face, and he lowered his voice. “He has too many schaef for his land, and four daughters by his first wife, two sons by the second.”

Oh dear, yes, land is far more important. Where is Crosstrees? Well, Aglak Rothbard has the final say, blast it. “Thank you. As soon as I finish here, another two days or so, I will return to the keep and consider the offer.”

The messenger shifted from foot to foot, then glanced over his shoulder. “Ah, your grace, there is another message.”

Something about the man— Halwende eased his knife from its sheath on his upper leg, out of sight. He leaned forward, as if eager for the news, but still relaxed. “And it is?”

The man lunged forward, a blade also in hand. Halwende flipped the table’s top at him, then followed it. The light wood caught the assassin’s legs, slowing him. Halwende’s greater weight followed, smashing the stranger to the ground. “Who sent you?” Halwende demanded, his won blade on the man’s throat.

The attacker snarled, then shoved himself against the blade, cutting his own throat. Halwende rolled clear of the blood that sprayed up, cursing as he did. That brought men into the room.

“My lord!”

“I’m fine. He’s dead, or will be, Scavenger take him, laupen gnaw his bones.” Had the blood gotten on his notes? No, and the lamp had gone out when it hit the ground, as it should have. Halwende got to his feet, then wiped the knife on the leg of his trews and sheathed it. He’d clean it properly later. He drew a little magic from inside himself and cast it at the message the man had brought. Nothing. Even so, he used only two fingers when he picked it up off the ground and studied the seal. It looked like an imperial seal, blue with a silvery sheen to it. “Move clear,” he ordered. He set the message back onto the ground, made a sort-of blade of the magic, and used that to break the seal. Nothing, the pages popped open without anything more happening. He panted, as tired as if he’d run after cervi for an afternoon. “I’m fine,” he repeated. Someone righted both table and chair, and he sat once more. “Need food.”

“Had a wrist sheath,” one of the arms-men said. He pointed to the dead man’s right hand and wrist, now bared to the light.

“Search him but be wary for surprises. And call the Scavenger’s voice, please.”

The message . . . As he waited, he read it. Then he ate, and read the message again. “How kind of you,” he snarled well under his breath. Stop. He’s not standing in the way of a marriage, so long as it is to one of those three. One of whom is what’s-her-name of Crosstrees. Aedit. And now I have land to spare.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: Heir and Travel

Halwende is commanded north. His followers politely disagree.

Winter and spring passed before Valdher next gave Her sign. Halwende had just finished leading Eighth-Day worship. He waited until all the others departed, then stepped into the tiring room and removed his robes. That done, he returned to the chapel to snuff the candles on the altar. The flames bowed to Valdher’s statue, then bowed again. He went to one knee, head down, as rustling filled the air.

Look north, my pathfinder, north and east. Treasure awaits my servant.

“Thank You, Lady of the Forest. Thank You for Your grace and gifts.” He bowed until his forehead touched his knee. The sound faded, but he remained low until the tears prickling his eyes passed. A sense of pure relief filled him, and he sat on the floor, head in hands. “Thank You.” The walls of Valke keep had grown close, too close, this winter. Too many people, yet not the right people. He wanted— He caught the thought, stopped it, and rose to his feet. He bowed to Valdher and retreated with haste before something happened. He did not want to know what She would do if he entertained that sort of vision in Her chapel.

The next day he called the senior servants, including Master Lothar and the new chief hunter, Januz. They all gathered in the receiving hall. Many had worried expressions, and they talked quietly, glancing toward him from time to time. Halwende took a long breath, then said, “I will be brief. Valdher has sent a sign. I am to go north and east. I do not know how far.” Not that far, like as not, because She would not lift Her protection from the mountains, and Sneelah’s domain remained closer in the east than the west.

Murmurs and more frowns greeted his words. Master Lothar folded his arms. “Your grace, you need an heir. You should not be leaving these lands without an heir and someone to guard and care for them.”

That he had not been expecting! He bristled. Yes, and I need new boots, too, and I know which will arrive faster, unless there’s truth in the story about an elch bringing one of my ancestors to his parents. Then he caught himself. I’m the last Valke male, and I have duties to my people. Which include not throwing them to the laupen if I die. Not that he was going to die—he knew better than to be stupid.

He took another breath of the cool, smoke-touched air of the room. “I do need an heir. And unless you know of an eligible daughter who is not already betrothed, vowed to the gods, or prohibited by closeness of blood, I cannot wed between now and the next naming of daughters.” He’d asked, very, very carefully, about one candidate over the winter, and his majesty had replied with clarity and firmness.

Head shakes greeted his words, and more murmurs.

He managed a faint smile. “And before anyone inquires, no, I am most certainly not going to inquire about Duke Wilteer’s cousin.”

Relief greeted his words, and a few knowing nudges and smiles, along with coughing from one of the steward’s assistants. I’m sure she has many virtues. Somewhere. Probably hidden in the bottom of the jakes. If a quarter of the rumors were true, she’d seduced most of the manservants on her father’s estate, and a few others as well. And bragged about it. No. He’d prefer not to be cuckold before the seal even set on his marriage contract, thank you!

An eight-day later, he set out with two hunters and three teamsters. They’d take some supplies to the northern settlement and see how things progressed, collect Magnus and Kal, and then a smaller group would move north and east. The sun felt kind as they walked. Only normal forest sounds surrounded them, and the woods seemed healthy. Januz and his men had taken a larger number of cervi than usual over the winter, with Valdher’s blessing, and the lower plants and bushes throve. A few hare had been seen, and one or two other southern animals. Things did indeed warm, or so the animals suggested.

The group traveled quickly on the dry, improved road. Instead of a narrow track, a wider, cleared path now led north from the older Valke lands. A logway allowed safer passage through the marsh, and he saw signs of schaef and ovsta flocks having passed through. The logway appeared sound, although he never quite trusted them. The water was supposed to protect the logs, not rot them, but still . . . He didn’t like the road to sag under his feet.

Magnus greeted him at the gate of the new settlement north of the stony ridge. “Welcome to Valbaum, yer grace,” he called. “You just missed the excitement, yer grace.”

Halwende clasped the older man’s forearm. “Wild ovstrala? And I give you leave to use my lesser title.” Magnus had earned that right.

Magnus smiled, a lopsided smile. “Nae that. Digger-foot wandered into the shearin’ line.” Halwende felt his eyes bulging. The hunter’s smile spread wider. “Come see, yer gr— m’lord.”

“You, go into the village and deliver what needs delivering.” Halwende waved the teamsters and wagons ahead, then followed Magnus around the gate. The wood of the wall gleamed raw and light brown. It would weather to grey. Stone. I want stone here. I want to stay here, in my city. Valbaum is mine, not my father’s. Magnus disappeared around a corner, and Halwende slowed a little before turning. “By Valdher’s antlers what the blazes?”

Magnus laughed. “That’s what the schaef-herds said too, m’lord, but a little less kindly.” An enormous white lump lay near the schaef pens. The schaef had been moved, and four men worked to skin the lump. “Same feet’s the one we killed back before his old grace’s passing, m’lord, but white, with different fur, and a longer face. Bigger eyes, too. This one, though, well . . .” He pointed to the head, now separated from the rest of the body. Halwende went closer and looked

“That explains it, perhaps.” The eyes had clouded, part-blinding the beast, whatever it was. Digger-foot indeed! He squatted down and studied the upturned front claws and paw pads. He picked up the foot. It was heavy, a good five pfund at least, plus the leg attached to it. He shifted his balance, bent closer, and sniffed the not-dirt still caught in the claws. A faint whiff of rotting meat reached his nose. He sniffed the fur. “Either this stepped in a dead beast, or it tore into something dead and ate part of it.” He liked the softness of the fur, but who could tan such a thing? Well, someone would try if he offered enough coin. He set the paw down and stood.

Magnus, arms folded, nodded. “M’lord, we think, that is, me an’ the other hunters here, that it also eats the dead when it can. The teeth.” He used a stick and pried open the beast’s jaws. Black lips parted to reveal both biting teeth and flat, chewing teeth. “Like an ovstrala, but the front can bite and tear like a man or a laupen or other meat-eater. That reminds me, m’lord.” He met Halwende’s eyes. “We’ve heard vulpen, off in the distance, this winter and early spring. Saw some tracks, nothing more.”

That gave him pause. Halwende looked down at the white thing again, then back to Magnus. “In that case, we’re going to take extra einar spears, and have someone with a strung bow at all times.” Kill one of the dark, oily, slender laupen and the rest of the pack would turn on the dead one, or they fled. Vulpen, like the war dogs of legend but larger, would try to avenge their fallen comrade. Or so he’d been warned. They no longer came so far south except in the heart of winter, and even that had not happened since he’d been a child.

“Aye, m’lord. And we keep a fire all night, bright fire.” Magnus glanced to the north, and what lay beyond it. “I trust the Lady of the Wilds, yer grace, but not some of Her creatures.”

I’d trust vulpen more than some men, but vulpen just want to eat me. “No argument here. There’s some truth in the story about the priest who got eaten by einar.” Not much, and certainly not in the version he’d heard from a drunk arms-man many years ago, but some truth. None of the gods had much patience for the willfully foolish.

Two days later, they crossed the hills to the north of the valley. Halwende went ahead with Kal, then stopped in a small clearing inside a stand of wild castana trees. He took a deep breath, then another, and slipped into the same attentive place as when he prepared for worship. After some time, he did not know how long, darker green than what lay around him appeared in his vision. North and east, pathfinder. North and east, trust me. What you see now is not for you, not yet. You may hunt and gather as you pass,  but nothing more.

He came to himself, then sat in the damp duff with a soft thud. “Thank You, great Lady, for Your will. Blessed be Valdher, Lady of the Wilds and all that dwells therein.” Halwende rested elbows on knees and cradled his head, waiting for the exhaustion and headache to pass.

“Yer grace?” Kal sounded concerned. Something . . .

Halwende got his legs under him and stood, then leaned on a tree until the land returned to level. “We keep moving. We can hunt here, and gather nuts and the like, and deadfalls, but nothing more. Valdher has not lifted Her protection from this valley yet.”

“Yes, yer grace.” Kal nodded, alert, looking at the dappled green-gold light and shadows around them.

They returned to the others. “Keep going north and east. This isn’t ours yet.”

Another day passed before Valdher lifted Her hand. Halwende reverted to hunter and scout, thinking of nothing save what he saw and heard. The ovstrala moved reluctantly, perhaps unhappy to be away from Korval and Yoorst’s domains. Or perhaps they were just ovstrala and had minds of their own. The air cooled, and rain passed in the night, light but chilly.

“Too many cervi,” Magnus said, poking the thread-grass and sweet black-leaf with his staff. The plants should have been knee high, not ankle high at most. He used the other end of his slick-worn staff to tap a branch, the end frayed and chewed. “They’re eatin’ themselves into hunger.”

“Why?” Halwende stared down the animal path ahead of them, then back at Magnus. “Where are the laupen and other hunting beasts? Did they all move north, leaving only the cervi?” He almost wanted to ask, but the Lady’s answer might not ease his worries, if She answered.

Magnus shrugged. “Maybe the white digger-foot ate the eaters?” He grinned. “Or sat on them.”

Both men chuckled, then continued down the trail. If I were a valke in truth, I could fly up over the trees and see what lies ahead of us. And starve to death if the mice and other small game fail, or freeze to death, or be smashed by a storm wind. Some of the books hinted that strong, very strong, magic workers had been able to change men into beasts, before and during the Great Cold. Wulfhilde had said that even the Scavenger’s Son she’d spoken with had been unsure if any truth lay behind the tales. I do not care to find out. Halwende moved silently, listening between steps, relaxed but wary.

They heard the river before they saw it. “That sounds big, m’lord,” Kal observed.

“Aye.” They went slowly. The trees thinned, and stopped. “Donwah of the Waters that’s huge!” A fast-running river easily as big as the Moahne appeared before them. A river in flood, Halwende realized, since it lapped the base of still-green trees. The land sloped down toward the stream. Flood-borne mud turned the water the brown of eich-tanned leather. “It was higher,” he said, pointing with his own staff to the line of flood-litter and drying mud upslope of the current edge of water.

“Not a good place for a port city, yer grace,” Ulber said that night as they camped. The teamster had just finished securing the ovstrala for the night. Kal had shot a cervi, and they ate from the beast. More meat cooked in a pot for the morning. Halwende had found sweet-root where the river had retreated, and those, baked in the edge of the fire, spared their road bread. “Not with the water comin’ so high. We need a ferry.”

“Ye don’ wan’ t’ swim yon creek?” the youngest hunter asked with a wink.

The older men snorted, and Kal said, “I don’t want to smell wet ovstrala for the next eight-day.”

“That too,” Ulber growled. “Two’s not enough, not to swim. Water’s too fast, and we can’t see the far bank clear, ye ken? Slow bank, like so,” he held one hand at a low angle. “That they could do, mayhap, if older animals go first. If it be steep, a fast bank?” The hand tipped up. “Nae. Won’t even try it. Wet grass’s slick, too. No, that’s a ferry crossin’, not a ford, not now.”

“No, and the valley’s too narrow,” Halwende said. He’d been chewing on the idea along with the cervi slices. “We go east, upstream. See what lies there. The beasts can rest tomorrow while we scout and see what the river’s doing.” Something about the river bothered him. It’s just a big, flooded river. Why does it make my skin crawl? Is it because flowing water breaks magic? No, that doesn’t fit. Other flowing water hadn’t given him the same sense of dread.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: When Duke and Emperor Collide

Halwende and his liege do not agree on some matters. The results are . . . interesting. They have just finished a casual, friendly, supper.

Aglak and Dangé stood. Halwende and Lothar copied them. Servants took away the table and chairs. Aglak turned toward the dais, and something shifted in the air around them. Halwende went to one knee as the emperor climbed the low step and turned to face them. Gernot too stood, moving so that he loomed at the emperor’s right hand. Man and beast seemed to be of one nature. Sneelah moves through Lord Gernot. That . . . now I understand that account in Maltaria’s book.

“The new valley, northernmost. A pfalz will be built in the north-west portion, and will be stocked appropriately. No such places exist north of Half-stream, and one needs to. One league in all directions is to be imperial land.”

Halwende started to protest, then caught himself as he felt green eyes staring at him. That is not right. How can he—? Very easily. He counted to ten once more. “Yes, imperial majesty.”

 “And you are not marrying Malita of Kamsicht.”

Halwende gaped with shock, staring at the emperor. “What— Why not, imperial majesty?” Bride-price has been paid, dower contracts signed, he can’t break it, not without cause.

“We are tired of dealing with too-powerful nobles and with those who seek to reduce the power of nobles thought to be too powerful.” Cold filled the emperor’s voice, and a low growl vibrated from the cat at his side. “Malita’s hand will go to the second son of Lord Orba, and he will take the lands when Kamsicht dies. There are reasons for our decision.”

Before he could stop himself, Halwende blurted, “And who will I marry, then?”

“Someone else.” A push of magic came with the words. Halwende knocked it back at the emperor. “What did you?” Anger filled the cold voice, anger and surprise.

Halwende glared at the man. “I kept you from hurting my arms master, sir. He has no part in this.”

Gernot’s ears went flat. The emperor’s eyes narrowed, just like the cat, and Aglak hissed, “You dabble in forbidden magic.”

Green filled Halwende’s vision. “It is not forbidden to defend against an unjust attack, sister,” his voice said, sharp like the crack of a limb breaking off a dead tree. “You forget yourself, Aglak.” 

A pulsing ball of blue white formed over Aglak’s left hand. “I am the elder, sister, and battle magic is mine.” The words hissed, the sound of icy-snow on a bitter wind.

Halwende rose to his feet and spread his hands. A wall, woven of green and brown like wattle for building, appeared before him and Lothar. Valdher waited, silent, watching Aglak.

“Outside,” the emperor snapped. “We take this out, where none may be injured.”

Valdher’s presence left Halwende’s mind. He bowed. None save me. You think. “Agreed, sir.” Aglak descended the dais and stormed past Halwende. Lord Gernot remained where he stood. That could be good, or bad. Halwende followed into the night.

Something, or Someone must have warned the others, because no one appeared in the darkness. Were they all hiding? If so, they were wise. Aglak stomped north a few paces more, spun, and faced Halwende. Halwende stood, waiting. He wouldn’t attack. Fire, in a camp in the woods? I’m not stu— He ducked under a blast of power. Right, brat. He wasn’t as strong as Aglak, but he could be sneaky.

Halwende gathered power into his hand and threw it low, aiming for Aglak’s shins. Before Aglak could deflect it, Halwende twisted the magic into a rope, wrapped it around his opponent, and pulled.

It almost worked. Aglak lost balance, then caught himself and retaliated with stones that appeared out of the air. Halwende made a shell, like a spearman’s shield, and knocked the rocks to the side. They melted into the ground. He panted, head starting to ache.

An enormous white shape bounded into the space between them and hissed. Gernot glared from one to another, tail lashing the night, claws out, ears so flat as to be invisible. Halwende backed away one step, then another, hands in the open. Pain pulsed through his head.

Aglak looked no better, what could be seen in the darkness. “Blast it, Valke.” The words dragged with exhaustion. “I can’t best you without killing you.”

“Call it a draw, imperial majesty.” Halwende wheezed a little. “Before our patrons make both of our headaches worse, sir.”

MrooOOOOOOOwwww! Gernot’s yowl sent Halwende to his knees. Pain shot through his head like a crossbow bolt that dragged lightning with it. Hhhssssssssssss.

“A draw. You are dismissed,” Aglak grated. “Cat, stop tha— Oof!”

Halwende glanced up just long enough to see the emperor flat on his back, a very, very large feline nose to nose with him, paws on shoulders.

Scavenger, please, come for me and end my pain, please? Master Lothar helped Halwende to his feet, and all but dragged him into his tent. Then exhaustion and pain erased the world.

“M’lord,” the arms master informed him the next morning. “You are a fool, sir.”

Arm across his eyes, still flat on his back, Halwende concentrated on breathing as quietly as possible. Magic was worse than the worst hangover he’d ever had to date. Valdher had no need to strike him. If she did, it would be a mercy, which probably explained why She stayed Her hand.

“His majesty, or so servant rumor has it, remains abed as well.”

Heh. Serves him— Pain spiked, then faded, and thought fled. Only when the sun reached mid-day could Halwende even sit up. He drank three tankards of ache-bark tea, wished he hadn’t, and ached.

Not until that evening did an imperial messenger present Halwende with written orders. After the courier departed, Halwende broke the blue seal and opened the parchment. “We are dismissed, with the same orders as were given last night.” Fury flared, the headache followed, and Halwende sat firmly on the ground. He rested his head in his hands. “Tomorrow. We depart tomorrow. His majesty will send food and drink for us tonight, as he is doing with the remaining members of Duke Wilteer’s party.” There has to be a better way to fight with magic. Or perhaps not. I want to go north, away from all this, away from Aglak Rothbard and his furry friend. Please Lady, call me away, please.

The return journey passed quietly, aside from rain that pelted them for the last few leagues of the journey. The cold wind was not sufficient to clear the air of the scent of wet ovstrala. Perhaps Yoorst too wished to show His displeasure with Halwende’s folly. If so, it worked. Halwende hid in the keep for the next two eight-days, doing nothing magical, leading worship when appropriate, seeing to ducal business, and nursing his anger.

Some day, Aglak, you will go too far. I hope I live to see that day, because I will laugh and enjoy every moment of it. He stared to the north, watching low, snow-heavy clouds flowing down over the hills and bringing winter with them. Some day.

(C) Alma T. C. Boykin 2022 All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday Tidbit: Imperial Justice

Halwende gets what he asked for. Sort of.

As the sun touched the tips of the western trees, Halwende and Master Lothar approached the main tent. The door opened, and Halwende blinked. A door? He and Lothar bowed and entered. Lamps and mage-lights illuminated the interior. Aglak Rothbard, northern emperor, sat waiting for them. Halwende bowed once more, and Lothar bent the knee. The emperor gestured to their left. Halwende eased to the side, clearing the entry, and turned slightly so that he could see both emperor and door. The large, green-eyed white cat sat beside Rothbard. It yawned, flashing teeth as long as Halwende’s hunting knife.

Ruthard Wilteer entered, glanced left and right, and bowed. His arms master, a younger man taller than Master Lothar and more muscular than Halwende, followed, along with a skinny man in forester’s garb. Ruthard reminded Halwende of a schaef, with sleepy eyes and a placid, droopy expression. His bark brown beard and mustache drooped as well, carefully trimmed and combed to do just that. Halwende preferred to bare his face, except in midwinter. Ruthard opened his mouth, then closed it and moved to the right without waiting for the emperor’s gesture. The emperor raised his eyebrows but said nothing. The silence stretched. The cat washed one enormous paw, revealing claws that seemed as long as Halwende’s pointer finger.

“Duke Valke, your hunting master?” the emperor inquired at last.

Halwende bowed a hand-width. “I serve as my own hunting master for now, your majesty. Master Pol suffers from joint-twist and can no longer serve.” He’d been bed-ridden since mid-summer, crippled with knees that refused to bear his weight. Halwende gestured with his right hand. “As priest of Valdher, one of my duties is to oversee that the hunters take due and proper care and honor, so I see no conflict at this time, your majesty.”

“Ah.” The emperor sat back in his chair. “That does seem to be a fortuitous combination of duties.”

Ruthard turned to Halwende. The older man scowled. “You are a priest as well as noble?”

How does he not know? Or is this something more? “Yes. Valdher marked me for Her service one year ago and more. Her signs were confirmed by priests of Gember, Valdher, the Scavenger, Yoorst, Rella, and Marsdaam’s Son.”

The scowl under the mustache turned into a smile, a cold smile. “Ah. Then you are not duke at all, but priest, and there is no Valke lord.”

Do not take the bait. Do not walk into the snare. He heard Lothar growling behind him. One, two, three, four. After ten he said, “Other clergy see no difficulty with my dual service.”

An even colder voice inquired, “Ruthard, what say you to a lord who is also a Son?” The words flowed as smoothly as polished ice and just as hard.

“I say, your majesty, that Sneelah’s Son has duties that do not and cannot interfere with his service as ruling monarch. Unlike a lower-ranked noble who must see to his people as well as to the game and forests on his lands.” Ruthard’s words flowed as well, full of confidence and sincerity.

Power began to move around them, like a cool breeze on a warm autumn day, like the soft touch of a cat’s paw, testing. Halwende breathed deep, forced his shoulders and hands to relax just as he would in preparation for worship, or when he began to draw the bow.

“We called you, Valke and Wilteer, to confirm Valke’s title as ruling duke of the Valke lands, and to confirm permission to move settlement north, into lands released by Valdher and Sneelah.” Something in the emperor’s voice and posture gave Halwende pause, and he listened hard. “We also have heard concerns from other nobles, and from priests and common folk, about the . . .” The pause stretched once more. “Let us say, the strife between your houses.”

Neither noble spoke. This is good, perhaps. Lothar shifted his weight but did not otherwise move. Ruthard’s forester and arms master both alternated watching Halwende and watching their master. Do they not trust us? Why not? Magic moved around the tent, and the cat yawned, then sat up and stared at him. He inclined slightly to Sneelah’s living symbol.

The emperor turned to Halwende. “What say you of the strife, Duke Halwende?”

“It goes back to before my birth, your majesty, if I understand correctly. The Valke records say that the dispute goes back to my father’s father’s youth, when his father and the then lord Wilteer quarreled over the precise location of the border of our lands,” he gestured to Ruthard, “and over an einar.”

The emperor’s eyebrows rose. “An einar?”

He had to smile despite the grave nature of the tale. “Yes, your majesty. The einar, according to Valke records, had caused mischief on our side of the border, and was pursued and killed just inside the disputed border. The then hunting master for then Duke Wilteer claimed that the Valke men stole game. Again, your majesty, according to story, the Valke men demanded at least the head and tail, to mount as a warning to other einar to leave the crop lands alone.” I have never heard of that working, but I wasn’t there and I’m not going to ask the Lady of the Wilds about it.

Aglak Rothbard covered his mouth with one blue-gloved hand, as if hiding a smile. “Ahem. That is indeed an interesting story, Duke Halwende.” The hand lowered. “What say your accounts, Duke Ruthard?”

Angry brown eyes glowered at Halwende. “Our accounts say that the Valke people claimed land a league into Wilteer borders, borders sealed by His Majesty Thorkil Gunnarson, Second of that name, and that they killed an einar boar that lived under the protection of Valdher Herself.” He clenched his fists. “They also say that the then Duke Valke took the honor of the niece of the heir of the Ruthard lands.”

Do not answer. Breathe, do not answer. He shook with rage and bit his tongue to stay silent. The growl behind him warned of looming trouble. He made the hand-sign for “stand down,” but did not look to see of Master Lothar obeyed the order. Halwende kept his attention on the emperor. The cat—Lord Gernot—stood. Halwende eased back a half-pace. That’s a huge cat. A huge, unhappy cat. The large ears tipped back, and the tail slapped back and forth.

“And that loss of honor justified Wilteer men setting an ambush for Valke men, including the then heir, Edwacer?” The emperor stood, but did not leave the small platform holding the imperial seat.

Duke Ruthard took a long, loud breath. “I do not know who set the ambush, your majesty. It is unfortunate that Duke Hal lost a second son to the forest, but perhaps the Lady of the Wilds had been offended, since both young men died in Her domain, and then she claimed the third son, one whom all know as a kin-slayer.”

Only Master Lothar’s hand on his shoulder kept him from replying. Crimson replaced blue and silver in his vision, and he fought for control, fists clenched. Damn you, I told Otto not to push it, I asked him not to push it. Otto forced me to fight him! I did not kill Edwacer, I tried to help him. I was too young to stop the changed laupen that killed my oldest brother. Lady of the Forest, what could I have done?

Dark green replaced red, and he went to one knee. Nothing. You could do nothing. Hold your peace, my pathfinder. Halwende remained on his knee. He shook too hard to do otherwise. If he looked up, he would attack Ruthard. Pain in his hands, blood in his mouth, he fought for control.

“No,” an icy, silken voice, half male, half female, whispered. Lothar too went to one knee, based on the rustling and gulp. “No,” the voice continued. “You did not know, but you encouraged others to act, let it be known that you would not be displeased should Lord Edwacer and his younger half-brother be killed. Nor did you protest when the offer of herding changed beasts toward Valke lands came to you, Ruthard Wilteer. Nor did you object to your men attempting to remove blazes and cairns from lands not yours.”

Halwende shook, but for a different reason as the air in the tent chilled.

“What say you, Ruthard?”

Halwende heard a cough, then, “Show me the killers, your majesty, and they are yours for justice. I committed no crime. Moving stones on unclaimed land, removing false boundary marks, those are no crimes.”  Fear wafted through the cold tent, fear and something else, something like animal musk. “Valdher took Valke’s sons as punishment for impiety, for taking the honor of my elder cousin.”

A rustle like paper or parchment. “You blame Valdher for your own deeds? We have your words, in your own hand, Ruthard Wilteer. What say you?”

 Don’t look, don’t move.

Ruthard’s words sped faster and faster, rising in pitch to a near shriek. “I did no wrong! The Valke men started the dispute, and I seek only what is mine, mine and my son and our cla—”

Thud, thud, crunch! Wet, tearing sound followed ripping cloth and a strangled mewling noise.

Halwende closed his eyes. He didn’t need to see to know what transpired. He heard the sound of a man losing the contents of his stomach, and another babbling for mercy and forgiveness. “Great imperial majesty, I swear, I did not want to kill the boy, I feared what my lord would do to me if I failed, imperial majesty, mercy, I beg mercy, forgive, please I didn’t want to kill, I didn’t—”

“Quiet.” The soft roar stilled all sounds save that of tearing flesh. “Enough, Gernot. That is sufficient mess for one season.” The emperor sounded tired. “And you will ruin your meal along with ours.”

“Mragh!” a deep feline voice protested, but the sound stopped. “Mrow.” Heavy steps moved away from that end of the tent.

I will never, ever lie to the emperor. Never. I’d rather a wild ovstrala sat on me than be eaten by a cat.

The emperor took a long breath. “Duke Halwende, you and your arms master are dismissed until supper.”

“Thank you, imperial majesty.” Halwende stood, bowed to the throne, and caught a glimpse of the crimson-splashed cat licking his fur clean.  That was nothing compared to the remains of Ruthard Wilteer, and the still-prostrate forms of his hunt master and master of arms. The cat had ripped out Ruthard’s throat, along with his guts and a few other things. Crimson and pink covered the floor of the tent. Ruthard’s dead eyes stared up, his face a mask of horror and shock. Halwende swallowed hard, tried to not to breathe, and fled. He’d seen dead men before. This . . . Later. Go.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

A Noble’s Task

Tycho Rhonarida and the other merchants of the Five Free Cities consider hereditary nobles to be somewhere between an active threat (the Count of Harnancourd) and moderately useful (the Count of Milunis). Most nobles seem to fall on the less-than-positive end of the spectrum for the businessmen of the north. The residents of the mining city consider the local lord to be an active menace, a reputation that he strives to live down to. But that’s several hundred years from when Halwende lives and governs. In Halwende’s world, nobles are still warriors, defenders of the people against the forces of nature and of men, and judges. Or they are supposed to be.

During the Great Cold, a feudal system became entrenched in society. The use of battle magic, the hard conditions, and other stresses led to the need for protectors, people who could keep a group together and defend it from predators (animal, human, and “don’t ask, just kill it!”) The priests acted as adjudicators and cultural keepers, but they needed other people to deal with many threats. Out of the fighting among nobles and the efforts of the priests and others came the role of emperor. He is the ultimate arbiter between nobles, above their fights, and the Son of the strongest deity*. The emperor also, with the support of the clergy, ended up as the strongest user of battle magic.

Battle magic is aggressive magic that serves no other purpose but war. Throwing fireballs, causing earthquakes, creating warped creatures to attack other people and their livestock, corrupting land so it can’t be farmed or grazed . . . Those are among the kinds of magic that only a few people have the innate ability to use. The Great Northern Emperor is one. Halwende Valke is another. Both had to work with priests, in Halwende’s case of Valdher and the Scavenger, to learn what is allowed, what is forbidden, and what the limits are. In Halwende’s case, one limit is that he can only draw from himself for strength. The emperor can draw from others, if they give him permission to do so.

To further complicate things, both Halwende and Aglak are priests, of Valdher and Sneelah respectively. The gods can and do work through their priests, leaving the individual very tired. So Halwende in particular has a duty to provide counsel, aid, naming rituals, blessings, weddings, and death ceremonies as well as leading worship if a more senior priest of Valdher is not present. He walks an odd balance between clergy and nobility. Not everyone agrees that he should be both. His having battle magic is also seen by some as a sign of being a potential problem. Aglak Rothbard, the emperor, keeps a close eye on Halwende, or would like to. He also needs Halwende in the north while the emperor deals with some other matters.

While the emperor is in the south, everyone acknowledges his power (or else) and the nobles stay within limits (most of the time.) After the emperor moves to the far north, well, over a few hundred years, things change until by Tycho’s time, the emperor is a legend who also collects taxes. Until he returns.

*Or at least the most ferocious while the cold lasted. Sneelah is one of the elder three, with Donwah and the Scavenger.

Tuesday Tidbit: Imperial Summons

Perhaps the neighbor strife ends. Or perhaps not . . .

Later that day, Halwende met with Master Lothar. “. . . They couldn’t cut it down, m’lord, but not for lack of effort.” The arms master smiled, a mean, unkind smile. Halwende smiled as well. “All th’ marks are still there and all th’ blazes save those two. One cairn pulled down, and one half-pulled.” He coughed and smiled again. “Seems like that group found some wild ovstrala on their way south with the cold.”

Halwende chuckled. “That would explain the worn tracks.” Wild ovstrala out-massed their domesticated cousins by at least twice, and were set in their ways. Anyone who tried to build or camp on their travel paths or their bedding grounds learned not to do that. Or got to explain his folly to the Scavenger instead of to Valdher. “So the damaged cairns are on the western edge of the northern land.”

“Aye. And the part-cut blaze tree is on the western border.” He scowled. “Ruthard Wilteer’s not giving up.”

“No.” Halwende took a sip from his tankard of small-beer. “No, his son was pushing my late cousin to fight me in his majesty’s court. And Ruthard detained Mardaam’s Son for at least two eight-days, although I’m not going to fight over that, since there were trade disputes and other things that needed the attention of one of Marsdaam’s speakers.” Now, why Ruthard refused to have a full-time priest of the Great Traveler on Wilteer lands, well, Halwende had some thoughts that did not need to be voiced aloud. Should I say something? Yes, because if I don’t, we’re going to have someone move on his own and then real trouble will come crashing down on our heads. Starting with my head. “Master Lothar, I was told that we must not act against Ruthard, not yet. Justice is coming, and soon, and Ruthard will do something to bring it onto himself.”

The older man scowled. “Why said, m’lord? His majesty?”

Halwende shook his head. “The Lady of the Forest. Twice She has spoken. She will give a sign when the time is right, but we need to be patient. Watchful and wary, and we can fight back if they start it,” he added before the arms master could object. “But we can’t start it.”

Lothar turned his head to the side and mouthed rude things, probably about Ruthard’s ancestry and what he could go do with livestock or something similar. “The men won’t like it.”

“I don’t like it. Ruthard’s the reason there’s a burned spot on the floor of the receiving chamber that won’t come out. The magic changed the wood.” Halwende folded his arms as well. “I want to go over and beat the bastard until he has fewer solid bones than does a pear, but I am not going to disobey the Lady. Nor am I going to tolerate any of my men trying to poke Ruthard into acting.”

Lothar didn’t look pleased, but he did unfold his own arms. “That makes sense, m’lord. And that will stick. Priest and duke, they can’t argue with that.”

Halwende smiled and stood. “They will. I’m young, I’m inexperienced, and I should be doing something about the thorn that Ruthard is determined to stick in us. If they want to argue with Valdher, they can do it. If an einar or laupen eats them when they go to the jakes at night, well, we’ll know who won the argument.” He was only half-joking.

A snort. “If an einar eats Mo when he’s staggerin’ to th’ jakes, th’ einar’s not going to last much longer. That much stupidity’s as bad as a crimson-cap pilz.”

Halwende took his turn on the watch the next day, after going through more farm reports and listening to the state of the Valke coffers. Despite the costs of court, they were better off than he’d feared. It would take a lot of coin and goods to settle the northern lands, he mused as he watched the women carrying loads of wet fabric out of the keep and over to the drying bushes and racks. It would be the last big laundry wash until warm weather returned. A few arms-men watched, just in case someone decided that they needed a shirt more than the current owner did. And to keep away animals. They didn’t have any goats, but schaef tended to nibble first and drop dead of poison or stuffed-guts later.

He lifted his gaze from the area around the gate to the road leading to the servants’ hamlet and the farming villages. They were getting into the season when laupen and other things came closer to farms, searching for food. An ovsta cart appeared on the road, coming from the west. Something about it caught his attention. He leaned a little and peered. The cart moved quickly, as if pulled by fresh, well-rested beasts. The pair of ovsta all but gleamed in the late morning sun. How odd. As the cart and the two people with it drew closer, he stared hard. Blue. They wore bright blue, imperial blue. A blue and cream cover concealed the cart’s load. He turned and hurried over to the other man on watch. “Imperial messenger coming. I’ll send up my replacement until I return.”

“Aye, m’lord.”

Halwende clattered down the steps to the watch room. “Imperial messenger coming. Go up and take my place until watch change or I return.”

“Take your watch, aye, yer grace,” the man waiting said, jumping to his feet and getting his weapons and helm. Halwende stowed his own gear and hurried down to be ready when the couriers arrived.

He almost collided with the youngster serving as message carrier for the chamberlain. “Your grace,” pant, pant, “imperial couriers. At the gate.”

“I come.” Halwende stretched his legs and reached the gate just as the cart and couriers emerged into the main courtyard from the shadows of the portal. “Well met and welcome,” Halwende called. “Be welcome in the name of Marsdaam, the Great Traveler, and Valdher, Lady of the Wild Lands.”

A tall, broad-shouldered man in a blue and white tabard bearing the imperial crest called back, “Our thanks for the welcome. May Marsdaam bless those who bless travelers, and Sneelah’s hand rest on these lands only in the proper season.”

Halwende didn’t shiver, but he wanted to. “I offer you drink and rest, you and your beasts.”

The man replied, “Thanks for food, drink, and shelter. We,” he gestured to his companion, “bring news and a message for his grace, Duke Halwende, lord of the Valke lands.”

“I am Halwende.” He slipped his signet ring from his thumb and approached the messenger, hands well clear of his weapons.

The man studied the ring, nodded, and removed a packet of documents and letters from the cart, along with a book-shaped parcel. “His imperial majesty, Aglak Rothbard, sends greetings to Duke Halwende. His majesty wishes to meet with the head of the Valke lands, as well as the head of the Wilteer lands, to discuss certain matters of common interest.”

Halwende fought to keep from smiling. Good! He can solve this mess and smack Ruthard the way he deserves. “Comes his majesty from the, south, or the east? I ask because two gathering places suitable for his majesty’s desires and needs exist, one on the western and southern edge of the Valke lands, on the Wilteer border, and one due south of this keep.”

“From the south and west. The western gathering place.” The second courier nodded his agreement with his taller fellow’s words. “His majesty has discussed matters with Lord Ruthard. Including the northern expansion of settlement, should the Lady of the Wild and the Lady of the North permit.”

Did I hear a warning there? I think I did. Hmm. Halwende slid the thought to the back of his mind, for later consideration. “The western place, yes.”

“Three days from tomorrow,” the smaller courier informed everyone within hearing. “His majesty wishes to speak with your grace, your arms master, and your chief forester.”

“Three days from tomorrow,” Halwende agreed. “I  will be there, with those so named.” He’d also bring supplies, just in case. On impulse, he added, “We come under promise of peace.”

The taller courier gave him a thoughtful look, then nodded. “His majesty will be pleased to hear that. The rumors of fighting concern him. Concern him greatly.”

He should be in the middle of it. He caught the thought before it could reach his face or his tongue. “Please be welcome. Quarters are available here, in the keep, along with stalls for your beasts and guards for your gear.”

“Thank you. It is better if we remain outside the walls, lest questions arise,” the smaller messenger said. “A night guard on our beasts would be welcome, however.”

He’s being very, very careful. Something . . . Halwende inclined his head. “Certainly. I would not cast doubt on his majesty or on his messengers.” He turned to the chamberlain and to the senior beast herder. “Whatever they need, please provide, including portable pens should they desire such.” Ovstrala could be rope-penned at night, if enough beasts traveled together, but ovsta . . . Had minds of their own, alas.

Three days later, Halwende walked alongside an ovstrala wagon, kicking himself for having grumbled about the late-season warmth. A biting north wind hissed through the rapidly-shedding trees, when it didn’t snarl over the grasses and now-empty fields. At least they were almost there, and he could get under shelter soon. What he saw of the land looked good, nothing terribly amiss, but the wind stung.

Only one place on the western edge of the Valke lands could serve as a meeting place. The clearing had been there since the Valke and Wilteer families had come to the area, and before. The meadow’s soil only went elbow-deep, with stone below, or sour clay that might as well be stone and that had proven useless for either pottery or building. Grasses and low herbs grew in the meadow, but nothing more than knee-high. Some said that Valdher had cursed the ground, or perhaps Korval. However, the border between the lands passed through the meadow, and space enough for wagons and people could be found there. It made good sense to meet both Lord Ruthard and his majesty there.

Fine but sturdy, that’s what I need, and Odo just does not understand. Unless he wanted to carry court clothes and then change while in the woods, or wherever his majesty happened to be having court. Halwende smiled a little and shook his head. He’d heard of a few people who would do just that. No, especially not if he had to fight his way out of another ambush. There are times and places for show and finery. This is neither, I do not believe.

As they reentered the forest, Halwende raised his hand for a halt. He undid the strap on his sword and strung his bow, but did not move any arrows from the quiver on his back to the one on his belt. Several of the servants with him and Master Lothar murmured. A glare from the arms master and the lead teamster stilled the muttering. “You can ask a laupen to leave us alone, go ahead and try,” the big ovstrala herder growled. “I’d rather shoot first and then talk.”

“This is the season for laupen and other things to move,” Halwende reminded everyone. “I do not care to explain to the Lady of the Forest why I was foolish enough to get eaten.” Or die of wound fever. She’ll kill me again, then toss me to the Scavenger. He’d rather have Pol and a few other huntsmen with them, but his majesty’s letter had been blunt. Only those called, and a decent number of servants.

They passed without surprise through the forest. Twice Halwende noted signs of possible laupen, and something he did not recognize. He called the others to look at the track, and remember it. It had four long claws on the front feet, two in the back, and ran by bounding, or so the tracks suggested. The beast had moved through recently, and the depth of the marks in the soil gave all of them pause. He moved three arrows into his belt quiver, all with hunting points.

The clearing came into view. He stopped them again, and they secured their weapons and unstrung bows, then moved closer. “Who approaches?” a cold voice called.

“Halwende Valke, his arms-master, and servants,” Halwende called back. He felt magic, not entirely god magic, ahead of them.

The magic shimmered for a moment, then faded. Murmurs rose from behind him. “Advance Halwende Valke, and others.”

As they entered the clearing, Halwende boggled. He’d never seen a traveling tent that large, or so many beasts crammed into the meadow. They’re all ovstrala. No wonder it looks crowded! Blue and white filled the center of the large clearing. Across the grass and plants, he noticed a cluster of brown and black tents, and the Wilteer banner flying. He nodded to himself. The emperor stayed between the two parties, so anyone who wanted to act foolish would have good reason to think again.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: Ashes to Ashes

The ceremony sending Duke Hal on his final journey.

Just before mid-day by sun, he joined the five other priests at the Scavenger’s temple. Four lifted the bier off the table, using carrying poles that had been added, and carefully carried his grace out to the oil-soaked wood. Several of the men of the keep and the villages helped move the body onto the now head-high pile. The wind had faded away, and a bit of Halwende’s mind gave thanks for the lack of fire danger. The Scavenger’s voice and Marsdaam’s Son stood closest to the wood, then Valdher’s speaker and Rella’s, with Gember’s and Yoorst’s farthest away.

A large group of people from the keep, and the closest villages, had gathered to watch the first part of the rites. Tables laden with food, small-beer, and mild cider waited, the final feast provided by Duke Hal for his people. Halwende had checked the strength of the drinks—not too strong. This wasn’t time for celebration or for fighting, and both came easily with strong drink, even after food.

“A son of Marsdaam, duke of the empire, son of the Valke family, seeks entry to the Scavenger’s lands,” Marsdaam’s Son called. His voice stilled the murmurs and faint weeping, carried over the sounds of the animals in the pastures and paddocks. “Marsdaam releases his child Hal into the care of the Scavenger, if the Scavenger will accept him.”

The cold, deep voice from behind the black hood sent many people to their knees. The priests remained standing, but inclined toward the speaker. “I turn away none from my realm. Not all find rest, but all are welcome.” Halwende shivered. The sun on his shoulders and back was not enough to ease the chill from those words.

The Son turned to Halwende and made a small, half-hidden gesture. Halwende stepped forward and pitched his voice to carry. The sound of wind in the woods surrounded him once more, and a voice spoke through him. “I give wood to send this son of Marsdaam on his way. Freely give, for he gave freely and obeyed My commands and word.” The presence faded, and Halwende returned to his place.

“I give fire to send this son of Marsdaam on his way. Freely give, for he gave freely and cared for those of his people under My light.” Eticho pointed one red-gloved hand at the pile of wood. Power moved, and flame arose from under the body, a pillar within the pile that then spread. As he’d warned, the priest staggered, and Halwende stepped sideways, grabbing Eticho’s arm and steadying him. Neither spoke, and Halwende stayed where he was until he felt the healer-mage stop swaying.

As the flames licked, then caressed the dead man’s burial robe, Halwende felt himself wavering. He caught himself. My father is dead. Duke Hal is dead. I mourned him already, I think. A soft numbness filled Halwende. Later. There would be time later. Now he was not Hal’s son, but Valdher’s voice. The smoke rose straight up. The wood burned easily and burned hot. He sweated under his robes despite the coolness in the air. The strong sun played a role, as did the flames. He’d need to drink a lot come evening.

The priests of Gember and Yoorst inclined to the Scavenger’s voice, then turned and walked to the food. That was the signal for the gathered witnesses, and they retreated to the tables. Halwende heard the blessings, and felt the blessing settle on the food and drink, and on those who had come to pay honor to the late duke. He remained in place, in part to steady Eticho should Rella’s voice have further difficulty. “Back,” Eticho called, but quietly, after the sun had passed almost half-way to the horizon. All four priests stepped back at least ten paces from the fire. The mound trembled, then fell in on itself. The body no longer looked like a body, and it disappeared into the red and gold flames. They surged one more, and three of the arms men used long poles to move the edges of the wood farther into the center, encouraging the fire to keep burning. The smell of roast meat faded, and clean wood and incense spread out from the fire, as was proper.

Just as Rella’s torch touched the western sky, the last flames faded to embers. “Go,” Wulfhilde said, her voice harsh and dry. “Hal has finished his journey, and now resides in the lands of the Scavenger.”

“All hail to the Scavenger, Lord of the Depths,” the priests intoned, along with a few arms men and others who had come for this last bit of the ritual. Two men and a widowed woman, all born to Rella, would stay and ensure that the flames did not spread, and that the fire died properly. Halwende would check the ashes after dawn, gather them, and take them into the forest to return to Valdher’s land.

Halwende stayed close to Eticho until they got to the healer’s chambers. “No fights, no eating unknown plants,” Eticho groaned. “Lady of Fire my witness, I hurt.”

Two of his assistants helped the healer-priest farther into his domain. Halwende staggered to his own quarters, drank far too much of the waiting tea, and removed his robes. Those he managed to drape to air. He pried off his boots and fell onto the bed. He’d eat late—

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Tuesday Tidbit: Duke Hal’s Obsequies – The Vigil

Son, priest, ruler-to-be . . . Halwende faces a challenging duty.

After eating, Halwende drank more warm water with sun-stem in it, then went to the Scavenger’s temple. It sat away from the keep, at the edge of the cleared area reserved for day-work, and the first of the ovsta and cattle pens. The Scavenger’s voice spoke for Yoorst, determining the day of fall slaughter, if no priest of Yoorst happened to be available. It also marked the place where final rites for the dead were conducted. The pile of wood, as high as Halwende’s chin, stood waiting. Oil too had been prepared and yet waited inside the keep. He looked at the mound of wildwood, cut firewood, and other pieces of brush and tree, and nodded. Go in. He can’t yell at you any more. He took a deep breath, turned, and walked to the temple door. It opened. He bowed and stepped inside.

The hard-edged incense he associated with the Scavenger . . . No, a gentler scent met him from the silent darkness. Lamps burned on either side of Duke Hal’s bier. Halwende bowed to the hooded figure standing behind the altar, then approached the body. His father lay with his arms along his side, his body draped with rough black cloth, a thin white veil over his face. He looked— Halwende sought the word. His father looked at peace. He had done his duty, he had died easily, he had paid his debts save one. He could enter the Scavenger’s presence with a quiet spirit, perhaps.

The flames of the lamps swam, and wet trickled down Halwende’s face. Duke Hal—his father—lay dead. Truly dead. Now what? He went to one knee and covered his face with his hands, fighting to control himself. Fear for the future warred with anger at the old duke. “How dare you rest quietly, who never allowed your sons to know quiet? How dare you?” The words hissed out of him, impious and bitter, as bitter as the tears on his face.

“My brother,” a soft voice murmured from the darkness. Fabric rustled, and Halwende lowered his hands. Wulfhilde extended one black-gloved hand. He took it and rose. “Come.” He followed her past the body and the altar, pausing with her to bow to the One for whom she spoke. She pushed open a hidden door and led him into the tiring room. A window allowed the cloud-softened morning light into the chamber. “You cannot repair black vestments with black thread by lamp light,” she told him. “Sit.”

He sat. She sat on the other side of the small table, facing him. “Younger brother.” She said nothing more, but the sympathy and warmth in her voice undid his effort at control, and the tears began once more. He let them flow. A different door opened, and Eticho came in, wearing a darker version of his usual garb. He sat beside Halwende and rested one hand on his shoulder. Neither priest said aught more, but their presence helped. The tears and rough sobs ended. Eticho offered a bit of much-washed cloth. Halwende wiped his eyes and returned the material.

“So,” Wulfhilde began. “Since we are almost all here. In two days, the rites begin when the sun crosses the peak of the sky, so that his grace’s remains will be burned by nightfall.” The two men nodded. “Halwende, you will speak for the Lady of the Forest. You know the proper words?”

He nodded. “Yes, I speak as the Lady, and give permission for the wood that was gathered to be used for the rite, and I bless his grace as appropriate to his sex and station.”

“Good. You will not light the flame.” The black hood turned toward the healer-priest.

“No, that’s my job, and I hope no one needs me afterwards, because I’m going to be flat on my back.” He sighed. “Halwende, remember your headache after throwing fire?”

“Yes.” He winced as a phantom throb bounced through his head.

Eticho nodded. “That’s what I’m going to feel like, since his grace was not born to and born for Rella.” A heavy sigh. “I do not begrudge the gift of Her flame, but I wish I was a fire-priest instead of a healer.”

A quiet snort came from the depths of the hood. “A fire priest in the forest. I’ve heard that song.”

Who hadn’t? Even if no one was supposed to sing songs like that, ones that made fun of the clergy. Well, given the songs making fun of the nobles . . . It was pretty mild, really.

“Roget has the least to do, at least during the main rites,” Wulfhilde continued. “He will bless the breads of the feast, once the flames of the death-fire die. Then what?”

Halwende half-closed his eyes so he could see the page in the book. “I, no, Valdher’s speaker has to ensure that the ashes are cold. The wood ashes, and that all embers have died before the remains are gathered and taken to the place of burial to return to the soil.” Those ashes could not be used for making soap or other things. “And I need to find the proper place today, since we have no place set-aside for the bones and ashes of the family.” Some clans did, but the Valke tended to move every few generations, and had never begun the tradition.

“Yes. And you will need to lead Eighth-Day worship on the Eighth-Day, as Valdher’s speaker.” She patted his hand. “I get to sleep.” A hint of laughter came from the hood, and he imagined her sticking her tongue out at him.

He did not returned the gesture.

Eticho chuckled. “I will be sleeping, whether I want to or not, and I assure you, brother, I will want to. So don’t get bitten by an einar or fall of the wall, or get run over by an ovsta storm until after noon.”

Halwende managed a weak smile. “I will endeavor to stay out of trouble, Master Healer.”

Wulfhilde sat bolt upright, head turning to the chapel. “My, this changes things,” she whispered.  “Stay here.” She stood and went out into the chapel.

“I hope that doesn’t mean that Duke Hal’s spirit has returned to scold me one last time,” Halwende grumbled, trying to hide a spike of fear.

Eticho snorted. “If he does, our sister will have firm words for him, and will need both of us to deal with whatever is pretending to be his grace.”

Cold chills shook Halwende, and he swallowed hard. That was one thing the priests never, ever discussed outside of their own company, and then behind locked doors.

The door opened, and Halwende and Eticho both stood as a brown clad man in a traveler’s cloak, with a traveler’s staff and hat, ducked into the room ahead of Wulfhilde. The man wore a large rectangular pendant of brown and gold striped cat’s eye, hanging from a heavy gold chain with red and brown enamel. “Well met, brothers,” Marsdaam’s Son said.

The others bowed. “Well met, sir,” Eticho replied. “You come at an auspicious time.”

“Indeed.” The stranger removed his hat and pointed to Halwende. “I know you are in mourning, Duke Halwende, but your men are needed in the west, to watch and guard. Lord Ruthard seeks to make trouble. Don’t go yourself, but warn your men.”

Only being in the Scavenger’s Own house kept Halwende from erupting with rage. Crimson filled his vision.  He— How dare— The twice blasted son of a— One, two, three, four, . . . He got to twenty before he could open his mouth and speak in calm, quiet tones. “I think you, sir, for your counsel, and I go to warn Master Lothar and the others. If you will pardon me sister, brothers?”

Wulfhilde waved at him, then made a shooing motion with her right hand. “Go. Your role tomorrow will not change.”

He bowed and departed by the outer door, the one not into the chapel. He eased past two storage rooms and out a concealed side door. That put him face to face with the wood for the final rites. He drew magic, then stopped himself. No, no anger, not now. This is not the time. And you’ll have to gather more wood. He trotted to the keep, and to Master Lothar’s domain near the weapons’ practice areas. Of all the times to push things . . . Ice replaced fire. He wants me to be foolish, and rash. And then I will join my brothers and parents. Somehow he knew, just knew, what Ruthard hoped would happen. Thank You, Lady of the Forest, Scavenger, for holding me back.

[snip]

That night he put on the robes of Valdher’s speaker, took his priest’s staff, and went to the Scavenger’s temple. Marsdaam’s Son met him on the way, and Halwende bowed. “No, brother, do not bow,” the older man said, voice quiet and rich, a warm medium-deep voice. “We stand as equals this night, hands of the gods alone.”

Halwende still opened the door for the Son, younger for elder. Together they bowed to the Scavenger. The Dark Lord loomed in the flickering lamp light, a shadow clad in darkness, His robes of black concealing face and much else. Black and silver patterns marked the edges of His knee-length cloak, and silver capped the ends of the staff standing at His left hand. He wore black trews tucked into black boots. His right hand rested on the head of a very, very large rat. His left reached forward, palm up, fingers curved in a gesture of welcome, or perhaps of command—come. No man could refuse the Scavenger’s call, no matter how young or brave or wise. Some said that the Scavenger was the fairest of the gods, the most just, for He ignored all rank and station. Even the Northern Emperors passed into His domain.

“Well met, brothers,” a cool voice murmured from the shadows. “By twos we stand vigil, by twos we rest. Gember’s speaker, Rella’s speaker, and Yoorst’s speaker come also. The tiring room is open to all.”

“Our thanks, sister, for the hospitality and welcome,” Marsdaam’s Son replied, equally quiet. “Shall we,” he gestured to Halwende, “begin?”

“Yessssss,” came the cold, sibilant reply. Halwende swallowed and inclined toward the voice, as did Marsdaam’s Son. Heavy, dull steps retreated toward the tiring chamber’s door. The lamp flames bowed to the Scavenger, then straightened.

Halwende bowed as well, then took his place on the left side of the bier. Marsdaam had been Duke Hal’s born-to and born-for patron, so the Great Traveler’s Son stood on the right. Halwende held his staff in front of himself, butt resting on the floor, and shifted to “ready-relaxed” as he would for a long ceremony or court. He gazed down, at the edge of the bier and the floor. Four long, slow breaths, then he opened his mind the way he did if leading worship.

Calm, the watchful calm of a cervi doe alone and safe in the forest, filled him. A soft green bloomed at the edges of his vision, the green of sunlight through leaves in late spring. He contemplated the forest, of life and death and the proper way of things. A great tree died, fell in a storm or burned in a fire, and new life arose from the roots and ashes, fed by the light and water and the life returned to the soil. Hunting animals killed prey animals, then died in their turn, and the eaters of the dead returned the bodies to the soil, renewing the life therein. Birth and death, mating and rest, spring and summer and fall and winter, all passing in their turn, the proper round. As with the forest, so too with men.

The soft scuff of boots on the floor caught his ear, and he slowly emerged from his meditations. He turned his head, with great care, and looked to the sound. A lean man in Gember’s golden brown robes stood waiting. Beside him, an unfamiliar older priestess in Yoorst’s black, brown and cream nodded to Halwende. He turned, bowed to the Scavenger, then stepped back. He cleared space for Yoorst’s voice to take his place. She walked forward, bowed to the Dark Lord, and turned to face the bier. Only then did he follow Marsdaam’s Son to the dim quiet of the tiring room. Herb-laced warm water waited for them, along with light food appropriate for wakefulness. Unlike the others, he and Marsdaam’s Son would stand extra watches until the dawn.

Marsdaam’s Son helped himself then sat. “Sit, brother. Our sister rests, since she has the greater duty tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.” Halwende got a little food and more water, then sat as well. How old was Wulfhilde? Probably not young, but he could be wrong. He’d never know, and it didn’t matter.

The older man studied him. Halwende liked his brown eyes and solid features, and his calloused hands. The priest worked. That was good. Halwende drank some of the herbed water and didn’t make a face. It smelled like sweet spices, but tasted more bitter than sweet. Eticho’s work, I should have suspected. That or just something that simmered too long and went bad, like some fish had to be cooked for hours, or waved over the fire, but nothing in-between.

“Have you ever stood death vigil before?”

Halwende finished his swallow. “No. I only became Valdher’s voice at midsummer, when the former priest died. No one has died yet who was born to Valdher.” He thought about the people he knew. “The senior huntsman, Pol, and I, and one of the maids who works in the kitchen may be the only people born to the Lady of the Forest currently living in the keep or close to the keep.” A number had been born for Valdher, but born to other deities. “We don’t have many Scavenger-born, either.”

The Son frowned, a thoughtful expression rather than with anger. “Interesting. That may explain some things.” He shrugged and drank. “I ask because you seem both comfortable with your duty, and hesitant.” He smiled a little.

Halwende nodded and shrugged in turn. “Meditating on life and death . . .” He turned one hand palm-up in a sort of shrug. “I’m a hunter and forester, or was before my brothers’ deaths. That is all life and death, looking to see that the trees are taken at the best time with minimal waste, if possible, dealing with fires if they endanger farms and villages.” He inhaled. “As a pathfinder, I seem to walk closely with danger and death. But I’ve never stood vigil before, sir. I’m not sure, other than falling asleep or letting my mind wander in, ah, improper directions, how I would go wrong.”

“Those are the main ways. Since no other family members stand vigil, talking or other people sleeping isn’t something you have to worry with.” The Son frowned again. “Have Duke Hal’s brothers and sisters been told?”

Oh dear. This will be— No, be honest. “Sir, messengers were sent. Only Lady Valeria accepted the message, his grace’s youngest sister. The others sent the messengers back with the unopened message.” [snip]

“Hmm.” Neither spoke after that. Halwende concentrated on drinking, then taking care of the used water.

The second vigil passed as the first. The third, however . . . As the lamps burned lower, the green at the edges of his vision spread, filling his eyes with a vision of the forest. A woman in hunting clothes, her face hidden by the hood of her green cloak, waited at the edge of a clearing. A dark, shadowy figure watched as well, half-hidden by an old, fire-blackened tree trunk. Halwende went to one knee, head bowed. The rustling whisper filled his ears. My servant, my pathfinder, patience. Watch and wait. The cervi will come to your hand, and justice come with it.

Lady and forest faded into darkness. Halwende managed to stay on his feet, but he swayed a little, then regained himself. Thank You, Lady of the Forest. Thank You, Scavenger, for Your mercy and guidance. He had no excuse to go seeking revenge, not after that! Yes, and now he had every reason not to court danger, at least not until Valdher gave Her sign. He shook a little, then studied his grace’s body and returned his thoughts to the appropriate meditations.

At first light, Eticho and Wulfhilde took his and the Son’s place. The doors of the small temple opened, and those who wished to could pay honors to Duke Hal before the final rites. Halwende retreated to Valdher’s chapel in the keep. He recited prayers of thanks and honor, and savored the calm and quiet. Then he ate.

(C) Alma T. C. Boykin 2022 All Rights Reserved