Gingerune

I go and tell Liz that if she would post more This World excerpts on her blog, I would oblige by conjuring up more of my political story for her to read. And then I promptly lose all inspiration for it. (This is not to say that nothing will come of the promise of more excerpts.) Abigail mentioned that, when we were little, I was always the one to come up with the hare-brained and wild stories that we would act out. I realize that I still do that, but you and I aren't romping across the lawn with wooden swords on wooden horses.

So here I am, still coming up with stories for you to enjoy (hopefully). In keeping with my pathetically aggravating nature I have an excerpt for you which will plunk you smack-dab into the plot. I hope you brought a life-jacket. I hope you brought popcorn. I hope you left the rotten tomatoes at home. Here is a piece of a rapidly Hydra-fying fantasy that came calling upon me under the name of -

Gingerune

With one hand under the lip of stone, body pressed to the towering rock to keep myself from being caught by the wind and hurled off into the dusky owl-light far below, dashed against the crumbling heaps of Funderburk Keep—with one hand under the lip of stone and my breath caught in my chest, I slid my forward foot after Rowena’s heels, closer and closer toward the yawning black hole. It was the worse for Maslin, I thought grimly. His enormous bulk with its raven-wings of black coat snapping treacherously around him, was barely able to get purchase on the narrow rocky ledge.

“Sooth!” gasped Rowena, after starting and catching herself again. Her husky laughter rang on the wind. “The Grimouder were thin folk!”

Maslin had positioned himself on the ledge, squatted by the hole while we inched toward him. With the wild tiger-slashed horizon behind him, he looked like a gargoyle. Chancy stray threads of light flashed in his spectacles at us. “Oh yes,” he said. “The Grimouder, the Dark Elf Folk, they were a lithe and tall people.” The lenses flashed up at me. “You have that of them.”

The wind rushed by us and I did not hear the thing that Rowena said back to him, so soft she said it. Then she was by him, perched with her legs dangling into the empty hole, and I was gripping the stone beside her, on my feet as yet. The hole was very black, as if the midnight bred from there and issued out at the height of darkness into the sky. I looked away, fetching a daring glance back over my shoulder.

The view was splendid. We were skirting the very highest of the Keep’s outbuildings, and the rearing spine of Funderburk stretched curving like the mossy sickle moon away from us, far reaching into the distance where, in the mingling darknesses, it ran up against the flat-topped bulk of Rilyfell that blocked much of the far horizon. The real moon, but a golden plover’s feather as it came down to its last showing of the month, hung above the fell in a rippled sea-sky of lavender and andalusite hue. And below all that, far below, below wind and thought where only the darkness moved, was the ruins of the Keep, its terraced slopes and weed-rank training grounds, its broken roads still decorated with the mangled triumphs of its conquests. The ravens were going to roost down there. The fox was calling to its mate. The royal dark was pulling up her mantle on the scene, and I turned with the last light of evening back to the hole at my feet.

Rowena was looking expectantly up at me. “Mauna?”

“Let Maslin go in first,” I said archly. “He has, after all, been down this snake’s hole before.”

Maslin ruffled raven-like. “Very well. Just give me a moment to strike the light and then hand down Winny after me.”

Rowena pulled her shoulder close to her cheek, looking surreptitiously down at Maslin’s work to make a light. She was one to learn the trick of things quickly, and she watched shrewdly as the alchemist chalked around his flake of tourmaline the horned figure of Mercury and the sharp angles of the fire. There was a little spurt of noise from him like a cough, an upward jerk of his hand as he dropped the lit match upon the combination, and in a moment a blaze of silver light had nearly blinded us.

I crushed my eyes shut against the wild spangles of light on my vision. Over the roar of the wind I heard Rowena ask, “Was there a possibility that we did not want people to know of us up here, and is there a possibility that anyone does not know now?”

“I am very sorry about that,” said Maslin. I opened my battered eyes to find him scooping the light into his hands. “I forgot about the contrast.”

“I hope that is all you have forgot,” I said. The success of our endeavour was rapidly diminishing in my mind. “Are there any creatures down below that you might need to remember?”

He swung a leg into the hole and looked up at me, pensive. In the magic light his face was ghostly pale. “Not that I know of, but if I think of something, I will be sure to tell you before it has killed me.”

I pursed my lips and did not reply, but watched as he yanked both coattails over the hole’s edge and began to swing himself down into the dark. Once he had got inside and was clinging to the rocky edge, he let go of the handful of light and we watched as it fell, straight as if on a plumb-bob’s line, down, down, down into the dark: a slender thread of light. With a thoughtful grunt, Maslin started after it. Rowena waited a few moments, then called down,

“I’m coming down after you. Mind that I can stand on your shoulders.” Maslin called back up, but I could not hear what he said. Rowena tossed back her hair and looked up at me. The night was complete: I could barely see the pale blur of her face. “I am going down. You are coming after me?”

“Of course. Be sure of your footing.”

She hefted her skirts into the hole and swung from handhold to handhold with nimble grace. With the thread-light on her face I could see her for a distance as she descended. Below her, I could see the wavering pale blot that was the top of Maslin’s head.

Then it was my turn. I slid down onto my knees, breathing the damp, unused scents that wafted up the hole. The light was waiting. Maslin and Rowena were waiting. But for a moment I knelt there in the windy outer darkness, alone on the fellside, strangely revelling in the lonesomeness. I stared, not out into the dark, but down that snake’s hole, and though I did not feel fear, I felt, inexplicable and loathsome, a sense of homecoming wash over me.

I swung a leg over and gripped at the hole’s uneven side with my toe. There was ample purchase: it seemed the shaft had been designed to take climbers, so that even with my skirts and the wild shadows that they cast I felt no hindrance. Looking down, it seemed as if the hole dropped into hell, but it was only a short time of climbing before my foot felt for purchase, jammed against a wide flat floor, and I stumbled unexpectedly back into Maslin’s waiting arms. I jerked away and righted myself, blinking against the pressing black.

“Shahou!” breathed Rowena. She drew her hands up and down her arms and listened to the taffeta-like rustle of it whistle around us. “We walk among the dead here.”

Maslin balled up the light and held it above his head. “Yes, there is that. Dead folk, dead deeds, dead memories…”

My daughter lifted her head, bird-like, and smiled a cunning smile. “Drift autumnal from the boughs of trees.”

“You know that song.” The alchemist looked unabashedly pleased.

Impatient, I gathered up my skirts and pressed between him and the wall, determined to follow the onward passage. “I sang it to her. Where does this lead?”

“Not—oh, not the way we want,” said Maslin, plucking hastily at my sleeve.

My annoyance was supreme, but better sense soothed the discomfort. It was quite likely that whatever lay down the passage before me was not meant to be unearthed after all these years, and might do us more harm than good. What evil wyrd, I wondered, turning back to Maslin’s gentle coaxing, lay on this wretched place? My better sense was careless of the knowing, but another part of me, that part which ran deep and red within me, wanted to know.

We went down the passage after Maslin’s leading, took a broken stair by virtue of his light, and entered into a low doorway, down yet another flight of steps, and so over the rotted remains of a door into a low, long chamber. By the silver-blue light Rowena and I stood and looked round on deserted table, on deserted chair—all heavily and beautifully carved—on empty candle-stands thick with the run-off of their last candles, on shelves which clustered thickly against all walls and the contents that clustered thickly on their slats. Everything was thrown about as if the Macabre Hunt had just torn by, and Morpheus, trotting in its wake, had cast his veil of gloom over the scene.

“See here,” said Rowena gently, touching at my shoulder. “We are not alone.”

Maslin and I swung round rather hastily. She was holding out her hand as if to introduce someone, but he was only a pain-crumpled skeleton in a sorry heap of bones near the door. The weapon was still lodged in his chest: I dared to bend and set my fingers over the sword’s hilt and draw it forth. I could not be sure of its colour in Maslin’s light, which drained all colour out of even Rowena’s hair, but I fancied it to be of silver hue, its hilt bound in what appeared to be blue metal, so that I thought the colour was truly green. Tiny clusterings of gems sparkled off the pommel and cross-pieces.

I turned and handed it to Maslin. “Rum luck it was that bound this sword with metal and not sharkskin, else it would have long rotted away by now.”

Maslin took it gingerly and turned it over, peering anxiously at it with his light. It struck me then that the sword might have been enchanted, for up here in the wilds of the Grimouderland any and all enchantments might abide. I shuddered to think that I had touched the sword without thinking first.

Rowena pressed close and looked over the bulk of Maslin’s arm. Her fingers reached out to dance lightly on the weapon’s blade as she might play her harpsichord. “I don’t know much about the sword,” she murmured, “but it looks rather blithe for a man’s bludgeon.”

I looked back at the bones. Who had he been, and what had he done? What knight or nightcraft had turned this room upside down and killed this man, and turned his Keep into a dwelling place for jackals? And why, I wondered with a sudden fierce pity, did I care?

Behind me, I heard Maslin swear, soft and beautiful. “This isn’t Grimouder. The Grimouder were over-fond of the patterned, watered steel. This is Pyrn-make, and very fine Pyrn-make at that.” He gazed with owlish eyes on the dead man. “The Pyrn won the taking of Funderburk Keep. Why would they have left such a pretty thing behind?”

Rowena broke off and began moving among the scattered articles of the room. She had got a bit of Maslin’s light, and with her free hand she was casting it over the tumbled sheaves of paper and books that lay roundabout. “They might not have,” she ventured. “Perhaps the dead is a Pyrnman, and a Grimouder killed him. If you have suddenly lost your weapon in a fight, the other man has a sword that you can use.”

I laughed somewhat callously.

Maslin ranged up alongside my daughter and began picking with her through the books. “Sometimes,” he said, “the things that come out of your mouth chill me.”

She purred soothingly and told him that she was a good girl and did not mean it. The gentle, condescending tones of Maslin’s conversation rumbled their echoes in the room as I began to walk the length of it, running my fingers over the cracked bindings of the tomes. How long had it been since the Grimouder had sat in this chamber and read their histories and lore? Nigh on thirty-four or thirty-five years, I reckoned. A new, dangerous thought pricked at my consciousness: had my own father stood here, looking round at the silent chaos, smarting for his people and plotting his revenge? I had always hated the thought of him and the thing that he had done to my mother, but I had never understood his reasons until now. Unwanted pity, which I beat back as fiercely as I could, struggled to rise inside me. Maslin had once asked me the name of my house, and I had not known it. I still did not know it by anything Maslin might call empirical, but the old blood in me woke to the Funderburk dominion with a sense of kinship so that I knew, without a doubt, that this empty shell of a kingdom was the mighty house from whose decrepit fall I had come down.

And so I felt my pity.

My eye fell on a little table in a secluded part of the room. The table was of fine make and had somehow escaped unscathed whatever tumult had happened in the room. There was a single letter on it and a dead candle, and something about its furtiveness called out to me. I glided up to it and turned it gingerly into the light to read the writing there.

But I was disappointed. The writing was so faded as to be nearly silver, and my touch on the parchment cracked it into shards. A stab of helpless fury lanced through me, but I quelled it to lean forward and carefully manoeuvre the broken pieces of paper into line again. The light was horrid, the writing was almost invisible, but with a steady eye and concentration, shutting out entirely the talk of the other two, I made out a seal imprinted at the top of the letter. Two figures stood rampant, and a little smudged, around an object that looked pathetically like a cooked egg. My heartbeat quickened: could it be the poppy? Two rampant figures of men, a single poppy bloom… I held my hands like an enchanter over the letter, wishing I had the power to magic it whole once more.

Biting my lip, I cast a glance over my shoulder. Rowena was on tiptoe, pointing to a high bookshelf while Maslin stood precariously on an old chair, trying to reach what she indicated. For some reason I loathed asking, but it was worth the try.

“Maslin.”

The shelf broke and quietly deposited its heavy contents into Maslin’s arms. He staggered, but managed to keep himself from falling by that uncanny grace which dogged his immense frame. His spectacles flashed over the tops of the books at me. “Did you find something?”

I dug my nails into my palms. “I think so, but I have need of that craft of yours. The paper has fallen to pieces.”

“Oh, papers,” said Maslin cheerily. He dumped his armload of books onto a table—which sagged beneath the weight—and lurched down off the chair to come striding up the room’s length to join me. The light which came with him sharpened all the shadows and came to rest, though I did not want it to, on my right shoulder as if it were a friendly bird. He did it, I was sure, to annoy me.

He pointed to the litter on the table. “Is this it?”

I nodded. “Before you do anything, tell me if you recognize the seal at the top.”

Maslin took off his spectacles and lifted the edge of his coat to rub them off, all the while gazing squintingly at me, as if he were not altogether pleased, as if he knew how much it galled me to ask him to use his alchemy for my sake. I hated it when he took off his spectacles. Somehow his otherwise jovial demeanour always came off with them, and he was something to be reckoned with underneath.

He put the spectacles back on and bent with Rowena over the parchment. I brushed the light off my shoulder and stood well back so as not to cast a shadow over them, watching his face keenly to see what he thought. His inexpressive brows hunched over his eyes; his forefinger picked carefully at the parchment. He uttered a single thoughtful grunt.

Rowena looked up at him, then slid her glance my way. A flicker of a frown passed over her face. “Two men and a flower…?”

I lifted my head in half a nod.

“If I am not—” began Maslin, but he broke off and dug in his pocket for his chalk. “I beg your pardon, this might take a few minutes.”

Rowena and I drew back to give him room. Presently he was seated in a chair, hunched over the table, busily scribbling white equations on the wood with the remains of the letter caught in a chalk circle that was nearly complete. We knew better than to disrupt him when he was doing his mathematics. In a husky whisper, Rowena said in my ear, “I can well understand a Pyrnish sword, for Funderburk was razed by the Pyrns. But the two men and the flower are the symbol of the Pyrn government—what would it be doing here?”

“Diplomacy,” I whispered back. “One doesn’t just start a war. One does a lot of talking first.”

“Still,” she said, drawing her arms around herself, even as I stood, and turning her eye on Maslin’s work, “there is an uncanniness that I do not like about it.”

No, nor did I. Perhaps it was the darker blood in us that felt there was a link in this broken piece of letter, even as I had felt its inexplicable importance calling out to me. I gave a foreboding shiver. “There is a curious wyrd about this place,” I confessed to her, “and I feel as if I am woven into it.”

She did not answer, but the quick, kingfisher look that she gave me told me that she felt the weaving too.

“And that is a two,” said Maslin, “not a seven.” He looked up at me, but as though he saw through me. “I don’t know why I am trying this under a dead alder-moon. Well,” he shoved back his chair and rose. “Here I go.” And, with a flourish, he closed the circle.

There was an angry yellow flash of light, much less than the blue gleam that had caught us unawares on the rocky ledge of the mountain, and a bad scent of burnt metal. When the light had cleared and I was able to breathe again I saw that Maslin’s craft had worked: the letter lay whole on the tabletop, as if it had been made yesterday.

Maslin picked it up. “I’m afraid I don’t have any atrament to bring out the writing.” With a sudden awkward hesitation, he held the parchment out to me. “Perhaps you had better look at it.”

I frowned at him, but took the letter all the same. That horrid feeling of familiarity once more overcame me as I held the paper in my hands and gazed hard at the silvery lines of writing. For a few moments it was very quiet in the room, the quiet hanging as if on a trembling thread. Both were waiting anxiously for my verdict.

I began to read aloud as the letters took shape under my eye with painful slowness. “It begins with a complex greeting. ‘To His Necromantick Person Roland, Grimouder-Lord of the House of Funderberk, greetings on this most auspishus day the New Moon of Midsummer.’ La da da, la da da… Here: ‘To which point I am come, that our days are finished together. I cannot hope to hide from you the deep distress that our courtship has caused me, nor can I hyde the relief I will feel when I have sygned this letter and delivered it to your door. For your hospitalie I muster as much gratitude as a I can, however I must return to my city on the morrow. For a man of your standing I am sure the blow will be easily endured. Poste Script: At your earliest convenynce, please return to me the turqyose ring I gifted you. Regards—‘ ” the words suddenly choked in my throat “ ‘—Anehawk, Rammerowt Queen of Pyrn.’ ”

The stillness of the room was stifling. I saw embarrassment on the faces of the other two, for the letter was cold as only a woman could be cold, disregarding the cutting edge of her words.

“It seems to me,” said Rowena quietly, “that she meant for it to sound that way.”

Maslin shivered visibly and took the letter back. “I should hate to have been Roland. Poor fellow.”

Yes, poor fellow. I watch the parchment be taken from my hand as if I were senseless, feeling detached from everything. What must it have been like to read those words for the first time, to have been played with in the name of courtship and then discarded? The pity struggled for supremacy again. Little wonder he so violently reacted. Anehawk my mother had asked for the temper of the Grimouder to come down upon her head. I could not condone him, but at last I understood.

Rowena set her hand upon my arm, drawing my gaze back to her. “Mauna?” The searching question was in her eyes.

“Anehawk.” I felt the name on my tongue. “I want to see her. I want to tell her she was a fool.” I raised my chin and looked Maslin squarely in the face. “I want to look at her and make her tell me that she was wrong, that angering the Grimouder was wrong, that hurling thousands of Pyrnmen at the gates of Funderburk was wrong. She has lived too long unchecked by her past. I am her past. I want her to know.”

Rowena, in her little way of telling me, slipped her hand in mine and we were one in this thing. There remained only Maslin, staring down bemusedly at me, expressionless, the letter hanging from his hand. At last he stirred, owl-like, with a rustling sigh. He put the letter down on the table and, absentmindedly taking off his spectacles again, tucked the Pyrnish sword under his coat.

“Well, Gingerune,” he murmured, fixing me with his naked eyes turned silver in the light. “It appears we must seek an audience with the Rammerowt Queen.”

4 ripostes:

  1. *is silent in wonder*



    *comes back several hours later*
    It's beautiful. I don't know how your writing does this to me, but I begin to understand what penslaying means, and can only say thank you for sharing this magic.

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  2. Good stuff - deeply personal yet with the first rising strains of epic. But when will wizards learn that lighting up the tops of mountains is a bad way to stay incognito?

    Also, in your opening description I at first read it as "Hydra-frying." Sounds tasty.

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  3. I imagine fried hydra would taste a lot like eels. And I don't imagine eels would be very tasty any way they are cooked. All the more for you, then.

    "Deeply personal with the rising strains of an epic" is enormous encouragement. That's exactly what I wanted to capture/stab/pin down. (Exacting the perfect prose out of the ether is a very violent business.) Gingerune, if nothing else, is proving to be a good exercise in writing a detailed and engrossing piece from the first person. But it has also thus far been enjoyable. It is in that in-between stage in which something could come of it, or it could be merely another little yarn that comes out of my brain. It hasn't yet solidified into either.

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  4. "Exacting the perfect prose out of the ether is a very violent business." - This is quite true. I know you enjoy your instruments, blunt or otherwise, but I prefer the alchemical process, requiring equal parts aqua regia and barrel proof straight Kentucky bourbon (just don't get them confused and don't EVER mix them). Still violent, but it's mostly internal.

    I tend to generate and then abandon ideas with quite an alarming alacrity, so I can sympathize with your current plight. The problem with most of those germs of inchoate epic is that their compulsion stems solely from the air of shadowy mystique, and the business of actually crafting said epic is predicated solely on dispelling said mystique. It's one thing to write a gripping introduction by alluding to half-forgotten secrets and lurking disaster, but to create and sustain a world and a narrative which explains those secrets and realistically averts (or doesn't) that disaster is another altogether. Tolkien and Herbert and Sturgeon do it seemingly effortlessly, but I suspect the real problem is that I simply don't have their patience.

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