Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Candleheart Boy

[I realise it's been a while since I last posted a proper story.  Regular readers (what's an over-optimistic plural among friends?) will be glad to know that I haven't been wasting my time and have in fact managed to track down some further letters from Otherwhile's least intellectually able ambassador, Lemnick of Carysfort, to the King of Shende.  I've no doubt you're as eager to learn what he has to say as am I, so let's to it (skipping over the two preliminary pages which are occupied chiefly with various praises of Shende's "most Munificent and Sagacious of Rulers".]

'... I was, as your High Wondrance1 will doubtless have Anticipated, most especially gratified by the interest Your Serenissitude2 shewed3 in the little Otherwan Tales I was able to most humbly impart in my previous missives ... [omitted here several paragraphs of rather oleaginous humility] ... As a Result I have been pleased to take the liberty of seeking out further such Stories and Yarns whilst residing in this land.  In this regard I have been most grateful for the assistance of my good friend Lyre Merrum, who directed me to one Granddam Tetch, his childhood Nurse.  This good lady, though somewhat wandering of Mind and, as it proved when I sate myself too close, of hand, has proved to be a very Fount of Tales, the first of which I will take the great Honour of imparting forthwith.

'Long ago and far from here, there lived a woman who had lost a daughter to war, a son to the Murrain, three children yet to famine and ill-fortune and beside all a husband to a high cliff path and a misplaced step.  And so the woman was left all alone with a crumbling house and a barren strip of land and an aged goat to tend.  And in her loneliness the woman craved a child as winter trees crave the summer's sun.

One spring day the woman was making her way to market when she came upon a walnut-faced man seated cross-legged against the bole of an old oak, carving away at a fallen branch.  So intent upon his task was the man's expression and so eager was his working that the woman stopped to watch him, utterly entranced.  And as she watched, and as the day moved from morning towards afternoon and into dusk, she saw emerging from the branch the shape of a small boy, perfect in every detail.  To the woman's surprise, the old man did not cease his sculpting when the wooden boy was formed. Instead he began to carve deep into the child's breast, making a deep hollow where his heart would have been. And then, just as the sun was readying itself to slip beneath the horizon, the old man reached into the pouch that lay beside his tools and withdrew a small, red candle, such as the woman had never seen before, which he placed inside the hollow.

And now the old man set about making a fire, turning to the kindling that lay ready beside him and bringing it into flame with steel and flint.  Now all this while the woman had not moved a step nor breathed a sigh, and yet, as the flame licked up from the fire and as she saw the deep red glow in the wooden boy's cheeks and the upward tilt to his lips and the trusting look in his eyes, she found a small, soft moan emerging from her lips.  At this sound, the man turned his face from from the fire and his small, dark eyes looked up at the woman.

Without saying anything, the man shuffled up from his place on the ground and carried the wooden boy to the woman and placed it in her arms.

"But", said the woman.

"Yours", said the man, "The child for which you wished".

The woman looked down at the lifeless lump of wood, confused.  And then a smile cracked the walnut shell of the old man's face and a spark lit in the depths of his eye.

"Fear not", he said, "for long ago I was taught a little of the Absented's word and I shall speak it to the boy".

And then he picked up a spill of wood from the fire and lit the candle that lay where the wooden boy's heart should have been.  And at the same time he brought his lips to the wooden boy's ear and whispered something.  And then the wind sighed and the leaves of the old oak shivered and the flame of the boy's candle heart flickered.  And then the boy opened his eyes.

"Mother", he said, looking up into the woman's eyes, which were wide and filled with tears.

"Child", she said and took the boy's hand in her own.

And then the wind stirred once more and the flame of the boy's candle heart flickered a moment and the boy trembled.

"The candle will not burn down", said the old man, "but the flame must be kept alive.  For, if it were to fail ..." And then he shook his head and looked down towards the ground.

The woman nodded and held the boy tight to her, shielding him from the wind.  And when she looked up from him, she and the boy were alone and the old man had disappeared into the gathering dark.  So the woman took the candleheart boy home.

That was a long and windless summer, such as the world used to have when it was still young, full of blue skies and bright suns and the sound of laughter.  And much of that laughter came from the candleheart boy and his mother, who found great joy in each other and, in doing so, found great joy in themselves.

Autumn came, as it almost always does, and loosed summer's grip upon the world.  Apples ripened, geese returned to the skies and fields, leaves began to redden and golden and brown.  And with it all came a new coolness in the air, so that the woman began to feel the first hint of chill in her bones and she called to the candleheart boy and sent him out into the forest to gather wood for the fire.  And so he set off amongst the trees, the candle that was his heart burning brightly, and began to gather up what he could from the forest floor, not stopping to thank the oaks and beech and hornbeam and ash for their bounty.

The boy spent much of the afternoon at his task and as he worked he whistled and skipped and told stories to himself and took no notice of the whispering in the trees as the wind began to rise, nor of the light touch of the first raindrops upon the autumn leaves, so that by the time he did look up the wind had risen high and the rain was falling fast.  And whether it was the wind, or the rain, or simply the strangeness of them to a child who had known only the calm warmth of a long, still summer, something there was that set the flame of the boy's candle heart flickering and sent him running home, his bundle of twigs and sticks from the forest floor quite forgotten.

Now when the woman saw him, his red cheeks pale, his lips turned down and his eyes full of fear, it was as if a wintry hand had reached deep within her and then tightened.  And when she saw how the candle that was her wooden boy's heart flickered and trembled, she was taken with a fear as deep as any know.

And now the woman took up the candleheart boy and sat him on her knee and cradled his wooden head in her hand and let the warmth of her own arms and body take the chill from his heart.  And as they sat, she saw the flame within the wooden boy's chest become still and bright once more and knew that all was as it should be.  And yet, the memory of fear's cold touch would not leave her, as how could it leave one who had lost so many in her time.  So it was that all that winter she kept her candleheart boy within the walls of her small home, safe from wind and rain and cold, while she trudged out into the forest for her wood. And for all the hardness of her work, she was happy and - safe within the walls of the woman's little hut - the candleheart boy was happy too.

And then the spring came and the sound of birds in the bright blue sky and the shimmering laughter of children playing on the green grass and the flame of the boy's candle heart leapt at the sound and he turned to the woman saying, "Mother, may I go out?"

And at this the woman said, "No".  For still the memory of her fear would not leave her so that when she thought of her smiling wooden boy going out into the world she pictured to herself a thousand-thousand dangers and saw in her mind the dimming of the candle's flame.  And for these reasons she kept the boy inside her home, where he worked and played as best he could, all the while keeping an eye upon the little window that looked out on sun and sky.

And now the woman saw a thing she had no wish to see, for even as the summer sun waxed stronger each day, so the flame of her boy's candle heart began to wane, its flame growing pale, its heat growing less.

"Get away from that window, good my child", she said, fearing that it was the sweet breeze that so troubled her wooden son's heart.  And then she drew up the shutters and blocked out the world, so that it could not harm her candleheart boy.  Yet each day her child grew paler and his flame darkened yet further.

"Does the breeze trouble you still?" she asked the candleheart boy, watching the flickering flame within him.

"I know only that my heart is troubled and grows weak", he said.

And now the old woman took up the little oaken chest that was all she had of her long-dead husband and took out from it all that was inside and told the candleheart boy to lie within.

"This will keep you safe", she said and at this the wooden child smiled and the woman kissed him and she closed up the lid of the chest and there the boy stayed, safe from all the world.  Each day the woman would sit by the chest and press her lips to the lock and ask how the candleheart boy fared and each day the boy would tell her he fared well.  But when she placed her eye to the lock she could see that the wooden child's candle heart was growing dimmer and she shivered and pulled her shawl close round her for the room felt suddenly cold.

At last there came a day when the little flame within the chest was so dim that the woman feared it would soon fade altogether.  Desperate, she ran from her home and set to digging a deep pit, into which she placed the chest that held the candleheart boy.

"Now, sweet dove, now will you be safe", she called to the child, her lips pressed to the lock of the chest.  And then she turned away and began to shovel the earth back into the pit, so that it might keep her child safe.  And when her work was done, she brought out the little three-legged stool from her hut and placed it by the mound that was the candleheart boy's new home and sat down.  And there, so they say, she stayed, sure at last that no harm could come to one she loved as the skies love the swallows.

What became of the woman, no one has ever told me, though there came a day when she sat no more by her child's home, just as sure as it is that The Absented has left us.  And what of the boy? Many years later, on a bright spring day, or so I've heard it said, a tiny green shoot emerged from the mound where the boy once lay buried.  And as the days and weeks and months went by the tiny shoot became a seedling and then a sapling and then a young tree, green-leafed and straight-limbed.  And more, they say, the very next year, that young tree produced a blossom that was scented like summer and which, when touched with flame would burn long and bright, banishing the darkness and bringing a little warmth to the heart.  And that, good Lyre, is the tale of the Candleheart Boy and that, good Lyre, is the tale of how the Candleblossom tree was born.'

1. Whether "Wondrance" is part of an official title or Lemnick is making up honorifics as he goes along is, frankly, anyone's guess here
2. No, scratch that, he clearly *is* making these things up as he goes along
3. Yes, he really did spell "showed" like that.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Birthday

Today is Robert Louis Stevenson's birthday, or at least it would have been were he alive, or, rather, it wouldn't have been because, marvellously, he gave his birthday away to a girl called Annie Idle who was very unhappy at having her birthday on Christmas Day.

RLS is at least partially responsible for the existence of Otherwhile Tales.  You can't read Kidnapped or Treasure Island or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a child (or adult) without getting a taste for tales of mystery and adventure and if I can manage to get one-thousandth of the thrills of any of those books into The Heart of the World, I'll be very satisfied indeed.

As well as raising a glass to the great Robert Louis, you might also want to pop here to download three of his tales for free, courtesy of The Association for Scottish Literary Studies.  Go on, it'll be worth it.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Brief Hiatus

If you've been checking in here and wondering where the hell I've got to, well you're probably a Ukrainian spambot.  But, on the off-chance that you are human, I'll apologise for my absence.  I've been off sketching out the novel that Otherwhile Tales is meant to be the background for, working on a sitcom script and writing on "The Furchester" a new programme from CBeebies and Sesame Workshop, set in a monster hotel and featuring furry favourites Elmo and Cookie Monster among its cast.  There was also a bit of Grand Theft Auto V and a holiday in there somewhere too.  All of which amounts to busy, busy, busy.  In any event, normal service will be resumed ... I'm just not 100% sure when.  But do check by now and again.  At some point in the not-too-distant future, Otherwhile Tales should be providing a welcoming home to The Candle-Heart Boy and perhaps even to the sad story of Vyolla Who Sings; I'm keen to know how they turn out and I hope you  are too.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Ten fantastical authors you may never have thought of reading, Part II

This seems a good time for the second part of my list of slightly out-of-the-way fantastical authors well-deserving of a read.  So, let's have a look:

Angela Carter

A lover, reinterpreter and subverter of fairytales as well as a novelist, Angela Carter conjured the worlds of her stories - be they Victorian circuses, golden-era Hollywood, or a South American city under attack by reality-distorting machines - in an enthusiastic whirl of words and images destined to occupy the reader's mind for a very long time indeed.  Nights at The Circus alone contains more striking images than can be found in most authors' lifetime output (I defy anyone who has read it not to go into a reverie at just a mention of the tiger waltz or the clowns and the blizzard) .  Even in her works' darkest moments there is something joyous in her willingness, eagerness, to bring together plot and signs and symbols, peppering the whole with nods and allusions to the vast world of myth, legend, folktale and literary tradition.  Carter's writing is the kind that will sweep you off your feet and carry you to distant shores, where all the colour is Technicolor and everything shimmers as if in a dream.

MR James

MR James's tales may reek of the donnish scents of tweed and pipe tobacco but, nonetheless, they remain today some of the most unsettling ghost stories ever penned.  Where other writers seek to frighten you with gory detail, James prefers to evoke the same uneasy feeling you might get while walking along a quiet road in unfamiliar countryside just as night has fallen.  His is the world of things that hover just at the edge of vision, of muffled sounds in the half-distance. Someone - their identity seems to be lost somewhere in the nether reaches of the internet - once said that "In Poe, you reach for your bedside lamp at night and it isn't there; in James, you reach out and something in the dark hands it to you".  I'd add that you will never see the hand but you may feel the lightest brush of sparse and wiry hair, or smell something that's not quite bitter almonds and not quite sulphur.  In any event, you won't be putting your hands above the bed covers again all night.

Lord Dunsany

I only discovered the work of Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, fairly recently, though I first came across his name many years ago in Michael Moorcock's excellent history of literary fantasy Wizardry and Wild Romance.  His creations may often, as Moorcock says, be slight but they are told with great charm and humour and, best of all, frequently come at their subjects from surprising angles or arrive in altogether unexpected places.  He will tell you tales of anything from vanishing cities to scoundrelly chess-players to dream-wreathed journeys to distant lands.  And beyond all that, anyone who can come up with a story titled Why The Milkman Shudders When He Perceives The Dawn deserves a great deal of indulgence on the reader's part.

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino, like so many of the other authors I've listed , was a lover of folktales, going so far as to become Italy's Grimm by compiling a superb volume of native fairy stories.  It was a grounding that informed his deceptively simple, always multi-layered works, novels such as If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies being formed from what could be separate tales but, taken together, form extraordinary narrative mechanisms, bright jewels spinning around each other, linked by a glittering web of spun gold. Entering the first chapter of a Calvino book is a dangerous thing, what seems like a shallow, pellucid pool soon turns out to be much deeper than at first thought and filled with strange currents.

GK Chesterton

After all the other writers I've mentioned in this and the previous instalment, GK Chesterton might seem an odd figure with whom to finish.  His aged Billy Bunter appearance, habit of getting lost and firing off telegrams to his wife such as "Am in Wolverhampton where ought I to be?" and constant ribbing of his great friend and ideological opponent George Bernard Shaw's "progressivism" seem unlikely ingredients with which to make a fantastical author.  But Chesterton's fascination with the nebulous and the numinous (raised as a Unitarian he converted to Catholicism in his late forties) combined with a furious energy (he wrote 80 books, 200 short stories, thousands of essays, several plays and a lot of, not terribly good, poetry) to produce a writer of startling imagination and a wonderful subverter of conventions.  In The Napoleon of Notting Hill the newly-elected king divides a future London up into a series of city states for a joke and provides the spark for the city's transformation into a place where people live out their lives as if they were minor characters in Arthurian legend or The Thousand and One Nights.  In  The Man Who Was Thursday a poet is recruited into a secret anti-anarchist force, only to find that all its members, bar one, are actually fellow anti-anarchists.  In The Club of Queer Trades he creates a series of anti-detective stories which manage both to fit the mould of the Sherlock Holmes tales perfectly and smash that same mould into pieces.  A writer who constantly reiterates the need for imagination in our approach to reality as well as fantasy, Chesterton needs to be read now more than ever.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Theft of The Heart of The World, Part V

[To read the story from the beginning, start here.  For those wishing to skip ahead, Arbor Vulpa - a thief of great skill and no little renown - is engaged in what he hopes will be The Greatest Theft in All The World.  To this end, he has scaled The Tower of The Heart atop The Palace of Daysthe tallest tower in the city of Farla, and broken in.    

Now I could tell you more about the many days that Arbor spent in the tower but, frankly, I want to know if Arbor is going to succeed in his theft or not and I'm pretty sure Arbor feels the same, so I hope you won't mind if I skip ahead, scurrying around the pitfalls, leaping over the spinning blades, picking the intricate locks and otherwise avoiding the many tricks and traps that Arbor himself had to conquer.

With that in mind, let's see how he's getting on, shall we?]

Arbor Vulpa put a hand against the beaten copper that panelled the wall and took a deep breath.  At his feet were spread out what few tools he had left: one good lockpick, one bent one, a little red powder, a few petals of candleblossom and a phial of Night ... though what use that would be he had little idea.  As for himself, his clothes at least were largely intact; his body too would hold for the moment: only one arm was broken and the combination of an improvised sling and a dose of duskweed was doing much to lessen the pain.  He had most of his hair, though much of it was singed.  His right ankle, though twisted, could be walked upon and might survive a brief burst of speed if absolutely necessary. All in all, he felt, things could be much worse, though, admittedly, many of the ways in which those things could be worse would involve him being dead.

As to his plan, it was tattered and bedraggled.  Despite all his years of scheming and study, the Tower of The Heart had proved far stranger than ever he could have imagined.  That he had proved equal to the challenges it set was as much a matter of pure luck as it was of skill.  Some might have said his survival showed he was destined to succeed but Arbor knew better: a man's destiny is liable to be stolen from him by a thing as small as a missing horseshoe nail or a flea bite or one sip too many from the flask.  For some reason Arbor found the thought oddly satisfying, though the satisfaction wasn't to last: it was as he completed it that he noticed the blood pooling near the soft-tipped toe of his boot.  He also noticed that there was a lot of it and it was his.

Whether the cause had been his close encounter with the flayworms or the uncomfortably rapid descent down the mountainside - he wondered again how it could possibly have come to be in the tower - or the springing of some silent trap, Arbor did not know.  All he could be sure of was that time and his failing body were suddenly against him.  The thought spurred him to improvise a tourniquet.  He needed to find his prize soon.

How Arbor got through the next few rooms he never knew.  His memories of those minutes were like those of a drowning man: of light and sudden darkness, of gasps for air and deep silences and of the desperate struggle against panic.  And then, at the end, there was a tall-ceilinged room bathed in a cool, clear light that, it seemed to Arbor, should have carried the scent of mint. The room was free of ornament, its walls and floor bare stone.  Its only feature was the canopied altar, a thing of thin columns and intricate fretwork, at the centre of which a gem the size of a man's clenched fist hovered, giving out a deep red light and making every hair on Arbor's body rise.  He had come at last into the presence of The Heart of The World.

Arbor studied his surroundings with all the care to be expected from a student of the Afarese academy but could find no hint of any trap or deadfall, no sign of poison, nothing to sound the alarm.  There was only Arbor and The Heart.  Almost unconsciously, he found his hand creeping forward towards the gem, whose colour now was sliding from red into purple, its light dimming.  His fingers had almost touched the stone's flawless surface when a voice that was deep and cold and dead as stone sounded in his head.

"Who then is the ruler of Otherwhile?"

So that was it.  The final test.  It was a simple enough question, with a simple enough answer.  Even now, down below in the palace, one of the three Queens of Day would be taking her place on the Mountainsbreath Throne, ready to go about the business of Morn or Noon or Dusk, just as she and her sisters had, so they said, for over six hundred years.

But these things, Arbor knew, were never so simple.  The question was undoubtedly a riddle.  He had a deep urge to spit.  Riddles, he felt, were the creations of unhealthy minds, the kind that might decide that Time or Fate or Fear or Hope was the true ruler of a nation. Then again, perhaps this riddle had been set as a trap for the oh-so-cunning and the answer truly was the Queens of Day.   Or, yet again, perhaps the mind behind the riddle was the sort of tedious pedant who wished to know exactly which of the three royal rears was perched on the throne at this precise moment.  Or perhaps ...

The urge to spit came again but Arbor found he lacked the strength.  Truly, he had lost much blood.  He needed to answer the riddle soon.

And it was then that he thought back to the last of the three things and one thing that the dark stranger had told him in the forest all those hours or days before.  "There are times", the man had said, "when the most important thing in all the world is to know exactly who one is and what one is about.  I believe you may live to see such a time".

Arbor was filled with the absolute certainty that this was just such a time.  Who then, was he?  He had been a beggar and a prisoner and a pupil and a thief.  He had juggled before peasants and walked side-by-side with scholars.  He had dwelt in palaces and hovels and in high castles and in ditches.  He had been rich and had been poor and had been quick and had been foolish; perhaps he had been most foolish of all when he had first entered The Tower of The Heart intent on completing this, the greatest theft in all the world.  But what would be the greatest theft?  The Heart of the World was a great prize but was it truly the greater than all others?

And it was then that Arbor knew who he was and what the answer to the riddle must be.

He reached out his hand towards the gem, this time feeling a burning heat against his hand.

"Who then is the ruler of Otherwhile?"  The cold, dead voice sounded again and as it sounded Arbor wrapped his hand around the stone and cried out two words.

"I am".

And, as he said it, light burst from within The Tower of The Heart and, below in The Palace of Days, three royal voices joined in a single scream and, in that same moment, Arbor Vulpa completed the greatest theft Otherwhile has ever seen or will see, for in that moment he stole not a gem, but something much, much more.  That was the moment in which Arbor Vulpa the thief became Arbor Vulpa the king, for that - as we all well know - was the moment in which he stole Otherwhile itself.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Ten fantastical authors you may never have thought of reading, Part I

I increasingly distrust the terms "science fiction" and "fantasy" because so many people, particularly those who rarely, if ever, read anything in either genre, tend to see them as being narrow and rigid categories, as a way of excluding books from consideration rather than bringing them into the fold.  The truth, of course, is that there are untold numbers of writers out there (including many literary and even Nobel-winning authors) whose works flirt on the edges of SF and/or fantasy or flit between the two and untold more writers whose writings, while fitting into neither genre, have the same spirit of adventure and enquiry that informs the best work in both.  As a result, I've started to prefer the term "fantastical writing" which seems to cover much of the non-realist fiction I like best.

So, what exactly do I mean by "fantastical writing"?  As it turns out, it's extremely hard to define.  For me it's writing that succeeds in combining a sense of the unheimlich (somehow a much more precise word than eerie or uncanny) and of the wondrous, the sort of writing that can leave one at once both open-jawed at an idea whilst at same time feeling a shiver down one's spine.  It's writing that is informed by the spirit of fairy tale, taking us to a place that, wherever it might be set, runs according to rules slightly different from our own.  It's also writing which, at the top of its game, manages to amaze and unsettle even as it echoes to the sound of gentle laughter.  It's writing that... No, let's face it, this really isn't getting me very far at all.  Instead of continuing my attempt to ham-fistedly flail a definition together, why don't I just list some authors I think fit the "fantastical category" nicely and leave you to work out the definition from there?  It's in no way an exclusive list, in general I've tried to look at authors more firmly lodged in the "literary" than the more general "fantasy"/"sci-fi" camps, partly because I'm dreadfully pretentious but also because wonderful writers like Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Michael Moorcock et al appear on plenty of lists already.

So, with the preamble out of the way, let's get on with the first part of the list.

Angélica Gorodischer

You may not have heard of Angélica Gorodischer but if you haven't you really shouldn't blame yourself.  Until very recently only one of her books had been translated into English but what a book it is: Kalpa Imperial is a series of tales drawn from the story of a great empire, mixing fairy tale, political satire and history all told in the style of a marketplace storyteller.  Together they form a subtle exploration of the uses and abuses of power and the whole has a great sense of movement, carrying the reader through the book on a great river of story.  Unconvinced?  How about if I tell you the book's translator was Ursula Le Guin?

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse is a writer who flits in and out of popularity.  Outside of Germany, his reputation only really began to grow in the 60s, when novels about identity and self-discovery such as Siddhartha and Steppenwolf seemed a perfect fit for the hippie counterculture.  But many hippies signed up for the flirtation with eastern culture, drug-taking and uncomplicated sex present in those books and failed to take in the deep moral seriousness with which they were written.  The Glass Bead Game, which explores the conflict between the life of the mind and the life of the world remains an astounding achievement (and has been echoed in Iain M Banks's The Player of Games and Neal Stephenson's Anathem, among others).  Best of all though, are Hesse's fairy tales, which use the form pioneered by the likes of Perrault and the Grimms to explore the mystical and romantic themes so close to Hesse's heart.  Martin Amis once accused Hesse of "impregnable humourlessness" but then no-one listens to Mart any more, do they?

Karel Čapek

The brilliant, humane Karel Čapek is a slightly odd inclusion in this list, not because he lacked any sense of wonder but because, far from his writing being unheimlich, he somehow managed to make the most extraordinary ideas - the enslavement of a newly-discovered race of humanoid newts, a scientist's new power source creating little bits of the essence of god, a robot uprising, a man who meets multiple aspects of his own self - seem absolutely real, playing them out with total conviction amid a cast of characters at once as comical and as true to life as you could wish to find.  His books are suffused with a deep understanding both of mankind's follies and of its potential.  His satires in particular, while as clear-sighted and unsparing of human foibles as anything in Swift, are filled with a sense of gentle laughter.  In the 1920s, Capek was one of the world's most famous writers, his books translated into multiple languages, plays like RUR and The Insect Play appearing in productions on Broadway (Spencer Tracy played one of the robots in the former) and London's West End and The Makropulos Affair going on to form the basis of Janacek's celebrated opera.  Now he is best known for having invented the word "robot", a term in fact coined by his brother Josef.  Do your best to help put that right: go away and read War with The Newts or The Absolute at Large.

Jorge Luis Borges

Ah, Borges, creator of a world of labyrinths, mirrors and doubles within doubles, where everything and nothing is exactly what it seems.  The magic realist's magic realist, his work manages to combine philosophy and adventure, reality and fantasy and is so wide-ranging it is easier to give examples than to describe.  How about The Library of Babel, a universe which is itself an infinite library, whose books and scrolls contain every possible ordering of its letters, spaces and punctuation marks and thus must contain, besides an infinite amount of gibberish, every coherent book that had been written or will be written?  Or how about The Secret Miracle in which a man standing before a firing squad finds himself given a subjective year in which to complete his unfinished play before the bullet hits?  Or Funes, The Memorious, the story of a man plagued by the fact he remembers everything he has ever witnessed in absolute detail? Or ... but no, there are too many tales to mention and every last one is worth your time.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Krzhizhanovsky is yet another writer whom it's hard to pigeonhole, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is often compared to Borges. Combining Gogol, Chesterton, Poe and RL Stevenson, he managed to come up with a style all his own.  This is a man who will tell you the story of a nationwide craze inspired by a man's attempt to bite his own elbow, of the decision by a pianist's fingers to run off and find a life of their own, of a lover who spies, while looking into the eyes of his beloved, a tiny man looking back at him.  Krzhizhanovsky is one of those writers whose lack of success during his own lifetime (his archive was only unearthed in the 1970s, two-and-a-half decades after his death) seems to have freed his imagination.  Reading him is endlessly rewarding.

[For Part II of this list, see here]

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

How Jevra Avn Soll Came to The City of Veresh, Part II

[For Part I, see here]

And then, having sipped at last from the cup from which he never drinks and tasted for the first time in many years the bitter sweetness of the black wine of Shende, Jevra Avn Soll will replace his cup and only then, hidden still within the darkest and coldest corner of the Inn of the Fallen Star, will he continue his tale.

'The guardian who came at my call was little more than a child, her face rounded and lacking the definition that comes with age, her small, slim frame made yet smaller by the vastness of the gates that separated us.  She wore robes whiter even than the sands that surround the city and unmarked by the slightest mote of dust and her eyes were the green of polished malachite.  Unspeaking, she stretched out a hand towards me.  I understood this to be a command to display the mark I had obtained from the stranger in the inn and reached into my sabretache, withdrawing at last the single pink petal that was the summons to Veresh.  I held it up towards her, miraculously unblemished and cradled in my palm.  On seeing it she nodded solemnly and touched a hand to the gates, which swung back smooth as stalking cats even as the little petal in my hand withered in an instant into nothingness.  It seemed that the stranger had not played me false: the way to the City of Veresh lay open before me at last.

And so it was that I entered that forbidden city, my little guide stepping before me with a steady precision, careful always as to where she placed her feet, much as a deer will step as it moves through forest grass.  From the gates we moved into a high-roofed tunnel, carved from the red rock of the mountain and lit by oil lamps whose wicks were candleblossom and whose clear and steady light was reflected by the polished stone of the mountain, bathing the tunnel and all that passed through it in a deep red glow.  We moved onward in silence, while all the while I tried to control the excitement that bubbled within me at the thought of what I should see when at last we had passed beyond the tunnel's walls.

I was to be disappointed: for, at the tunnel's end, I found myself in a long, open-roofed corridor off which led many doors.  I must have sighed, for my little guide stopped her stately progress and turned to me, a questioning look on her face.

"I had hoped to see fabled Veresh", I explained, "not mere walls".  It was, I concede, a little brusque of me, but my journey to this place had been one of many years and no little sacrifice.  I felt I deserved more.

My guide's face showed no sign of emotion.  Instead, to my surprise (I confess I had thought her mute), she answered me, in a voice that was high and an accent I could have mistaken for my own.

"It is the custom of the City that all who come here should first be brought before the Khedive or, if they be summoned by her, before the Mistress of The White Veil.  Only then are they suffered to move about as they may, for, as you know, the city is forbidden and its sights are not surrendered at once".

I was  not greatly perturbed by my guide's words, having anticipated just such a condition and having, as a result, used all that I had learned of the City to construct what I deemed an excellent tale to justify my attendance.  It was, I knew, a risk but the success of my venture had been at hazard from the moment I took the golden sandbird from the ill-favoured stranger in the inn and agreed to pay his price.  Despite my self-reassurance in this matter, some disappointment must have shown on my face, for my guide was swift to give me comfort.

"Fear not, Jevra Avn Soll, for you may ask of me what you will and I will describe to you all that you are yet to walk among".

And so we walked along the corridor and I asked much and she answered more.  As, beyond a door of dearwood, I heard  many-voiced laughter, it was explained that I was passing the Gardens of the Nine Maidens, wherein are grown the purple-petalled flowers whose scent inspires mirth and strange dreams.  When, beyond a many-spangled door, I heard the stepping of a multitude of feet, I learned that we were passing the Street of The Starwatchers, who march always in step, their eyes trained ever upon the sky.  And it was by calling on my guide to explain to me the source of each sound we passed, that I learned of the River of The Thousand Mouths and of Hati's Academy and of the Alley of the Jewelburners and the Aulah of the Second Khediva wherein she and her successors kept their lovers and of so many other wonders that lie within the City of Veresh, all of which only increased my longing to see them for myself.   And all the while, it never once occurred to me to ask how my guide had come to know my name.

And then we came to a door magnificent in both its size and construction, being crafted from bronze and from jewels and from the wood of trees and the shells of creatures both known and unknown to me.  And at this door my little guide stepped softly to one side and spoke a single word, at which the door swung open before me and I came at last into the Court of the Khedive.

The room was small and bare of ornament, its sole significant feature the thick-legged, rush-seated stool that stood upon a low dais at its centre; it's simplicity would have shocked me had I not been already amazed at the figure who sat upon the stool: it was the very same stranger with the twisted lip and the heavy hand and the scar running the length of his naked arm who had come to me in the Inn of the Fallen Star and had offered me the golden sandbird and the petal which would grant me entrance to Veresh.

"And so you have come to this Forbidden City".  There was a sadness in his voice as he said it, as if each word held within it the spirit of a sigh.

"I have", I replied, seeking to cloak my confusion in the simplicity of my response.

"I am surprised", continued the man I could now only presume was the Khedive himself, "I had thought the price would be too great even for you".

At this I could contain myself no longer.  "But your price was paid, sure enough", I said.

The Khedive shook his head.  "No, Jevra Avn Soll, it was not", he said, "For did I not demand of you that which you prize most highly?"

This angered me and my reply was hot, "And did I not render to you the red rubies that are called Eyes of  Lem, which were all of value that were left to me in the world?"

The Khedive stepped down from his stool and came towards me.  "These?" he said, opening up that great hand of his once more and showing me the very same jewels I had given him.  "No, Jevra Avn Soll", he continued, "these are not the price I sought.  And that, I must tell you, is an error I must correct".  And that he did.

When at length my price was paid and the Khedive quit me, my little guide returned to me and I, who had hungered so long to see the sights of Veresh, was led at last through all its wonders: through the Aulah of the Second Khediva to the River of The Thousand Mouths, from the Alley of The Jewelburners to the Gardens of The Nine Maidens, from Hati's Academy to the Street of The Starwatchers and to so many, many wonders beside.  And in each case she was careful to describe to me in the finest detail all that was to be seen and all the delights it brought to the hungry eye.  And then, her promise to me fulfilled, she brought me to the gates and caused them to be closed between us, letting me know that they would forever be barred against me.

And so it was that I turned away from Veresh and made my way back to Otherwhile and to Farla and to this  darkest and coldest corner of the Inn of the Fallen Star and here I have been ever since.'

And then Jevra Avn Soll will fall silent and stare once more into the cup of black liquid from which he has drunk but once.  And, though he be concealed in the dark, should you look deep into that cup, you will see reflected in the black surface of the wine of Shende the face of Jevra Avn Soll, who sought to see all the world and more and travelled even to the forbidden City of Veresh, and you will see that his face is old and much lined and that, where his eyes once were, there lie instead the red, red rubies that were once called The Eyes of Lem.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

How Jevra Avn Soll Came to The City of Veresh, Part I

His name is Jevra Avn Soll and he is to be found in the Inn of the Fallen Star, nestled always in the darkest and coldest corner, where he sits before a jug of black liquid, from which he never drinks.  They say he will tell your fortune for the price of a song and your future for the price of a thought but tell him your dearest wish or darkest love and he will tell you the story of how he entered the City of Veresh and what he saw there and of how he will never look upon it again.  And this is the tale that he tells:

'The City of Veresh, as you will know, is forbidden to all outsiders; all, that is, save those rare among the rare who are called to attend the court of the Khedive by the golden sandbirds that carry the city's messages or those, rarer still, summoned by the Lady of the White Veil.  To all others the merest glimpse of the city, carved as it is from the stone of a red mountain nestled within the white sands of Afar, is forbidden on pain of pain.

A golden sandbird of Veresh
I have, I confess, a harsh affliction: a sight forbidden gnaws at me.  There is no wall but I would know what lies behind it, no mountain but I would look down upon the world from its summit.  To see is to know, for sight bears no rumours.  For many years I crossed the globe -  travelling from Shende to Zo and from Khartiss to Worlwiy, permitting nor land nor sea nor weather nor even the Murrain to  bar my path - seeing all that could be seen.  I stood upon the Forbidden Wall and walked in the Lost Forests, I travelled even to the Chamber of the Sixth in lonely Tahrtrahzee and obtained there two of the red rubies that are called the Eyes of Lem as a mark of all that I had seen, but always there was one place that was barred from my vision and that was the City of Veresh, without sight of which I could never feel whole.  For a year and a year and a day beyond that I camped in the white sands at the foot of the mountain and went each day to stand at the city's gates, begging, cajoling, offering great treasures and threatening great crimes, all in the hope of being permitted to enter in at last, but never were my calls answered, my pleas heard or my threats heeded.

At last I had no choice but to return to Otherwhile and to this city of Farla, and here I fell into deep depression, my only comfort the black wine of Shende.  I, who love the light so much, closed my eyes and thought of Veresh and let the world step on around me in the giddy dance of drink.

And then one day, as I called for my third cup, a stranger with a twisted lip and a great scar running the length of his naked arm came and sat before me and favoured me with the sight of his rot-blackened teeth.

"I have that which you seek", he said, "and you will pay me for it well".

I waved him away with an unsteady hand, thinking only of Veresh and of the black wine, but the fellow would not move.  Rather, he raised his heavy, closed fist and placed it on the table before me and stared deep into my eyes.  I could not hold his gaze but turned away and called once more for my cup, reasoning that if this man were intent on coming to blows with me, for some reason I knew not, I would feel less pain the more I had drunk.

The stranger did not move to strike, instead letting his lips part further, revealing yet more black teeth.  "All know that the City of Veresh is forbidden, that only those who have been summoned may enter, yet they say you have stood for a year and a year and a day beyond that at the gates where no man may stand uncalled and that in that time you have whispered and railed and pleaded and cursed and all in the hopes of seeing what lies within".

My cup had come at last and I swigged from it deeply.  All that the stranger said was common knowledge and why he chose to remind me of it I neither knew nor cared.

"I say again", he continued, "I have what you seek, though you must pay a very great price for it".

And then he opened that heavy hand of his a little and I saw within it the flittering form of a golden sandbird, bearing in its claw the single pink petal that is the summons from the Khedive to attend his court.  In an instant I was sober.

"With this you may enter Veresh unmolested", the stranger went on, "though what I ask in return is that which, among all you possess, you prize most highly".

So intent was I upon the little bird in the stranger's hand that I gave his question little thought.  In truth, I had few possessions left to me, having expended much of my fortune in my travels and more still as I stood before the gates of Veresh.  Without a moment's thought, I withdrew from my pouch the last things I held of any value: the two rubies that had once adorned the statue of Many-Eyed Lem.

The stranger looked down at the two red jewels surprised, as a man may look when offered the answer to a question he has not asked, then he nodded and took them up.  A moment more and the bird was in my hand, its black eyes staring up at me, and the stranger was gone.  A moment after that, my breath almost frozen in my chest, I was reaching down to extract the single pink petal from the little creature's claw.  I had my summons at last.

Within weeks I was once more at the wide gates that bar the entrance to Veresh, the city that lies within the red mountain that stands in the white desert of Afar, awaiting I knew not what'.

And there Jevra Avn Sol will pause his tale and take up his cup of black wine and raise it to you, and then he will lean back further into the darkness of the darkest and coldest corner of the Inn of the Fallen Star and then, at last, he will drink.

[And that feels like a good time to end the tale for the moment.  To find out what Jevra Avn Sol discovered within the walls of the forbidden City of Veresh head along to Part II here.]

Monday, 12 August 2013

Three Acts to Rule Them All: How the Hero's Journey Saved Aristotle's Cat.

As I've mentioned before, the ultimate purpose of Otherwhile Tales is to act as a sort of research centre for my ongoing project, a novel of fantastical adventure called (tentatively) The Heart of the World.  Writing this kind of book inevitably results in people bringing up Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, in which he laid out the structure of departure, initiation and return common to many myths, a structure usually referred to as "the hero's journey".

This in turn tends to bring up the way that Campbell's analysis has been brought to bear on Hollywood-style screenwriting by authors such as Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey and the late Blake Snyder in his various Save the Cat books.  It's at this point that things tend to turn negative, with blame being heaped on Snyder (who, being dead, is in no position to answer back) for every half-witted tent-pole flop Hollywood pumps out (while usually failing to credit him for the many successes that follow his model).  One of the more recent examples of the attacks on Snyder is this article from Slate, an article which has been linked to with approval by writers including Graham Linehan (who is, let's be clear about this, one of the funniest writers out there and can play structure like Paul McCartney can play bass1).   All of which can't help but feel unfair: of course slavishly following a formula is dangerous but Snyder is just the latest in a long line of writing gurus, all making remarkably similar points.  I could try to blog about this in more detail but handily, it's already been done very thoroughly by JJ Patrow, whose analysis can be found here on The Bitter Script Reader's excellent site, so, if you're interested, why not head on over there right now?

1. Obviously, no post-sixties reference to Macca will ever be remotely cool but this is meant as a huge compliment, as anyone who's ever listened to the bassline on, say, Getting Better must surely understand.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Next week

Rather a long time ago I promised you more details on forbidden Veresh, where Mistress Cats has her Academy of Thievery.  Next week I'm planning to make good on my promise, with the tale of how Jevra Avn Sol came to visit that strange city lodged within the red mountain in the midst of the white sands of Afar and of what happened to him while he was there.  With any luck it will be as fun to read as it has been so far to write.

I'm also conscious that I've left poor old Arbor Vulpa stuck in the Tower of the Heart for quite a few weeks now, despite his heroic escape from the spider spindles, so I suspect it's soon going to be time to let him complete the greatest theft in all the world ... or fail in the attempt.  Beyond that, well, there's still a lot of Otherwhile yet to explore and I also need to have a witter about how magic these days seems a lot less magical than it once did.  In any event, there should be plenty more coming up over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Time to check the Pasture

I've spent much of the last few days in the mysterious Media City, off in ancient Salford, doing what they call "proper work".  This hasn't given me much time to see to Otherwhile.  As a result, I've decided to let another story have a trot around the Pasture for Elderly Tales.  Head over there right now to find one of the very first Otherwhile-ish tales I ever wrote, penned whilst under the influence of Oscar Wilde (to whom I suspect I owe a large apology).  It's called "The Heartless Automaton" and you can find it here.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Ye Gods!

Religion has an odd place in fantastical writing.  In the real world, religion is a thing of huge importance.  Whether you are a theist, an agnostic or an atheist, religion has shaped your culture and every culture with which you will ever come into contact.  Whatever else it may or may not be, religion has for thousands of years been the vector for much of humanity's thought about the very fundamentals of its existence: why are we here?; how are we here?; what is the nature of good and of evil?; is it okay for me to bash that bloke over the head because he doesn't believe what I believe and, if it isn't, can I at least be very rude about him behind his back?  Religion has founded hospitals, created universities and erected vast numbers of extraordinary buildings.  It's played its part, both good and bad, in everything from wars to science.  Its tenets have guided and misguided our laws.  Religion is so fundamental to our existence that it is one of the three things, alongside sex and politics, that the English were encouraged never to discuss (this was particularly inconvenient during the Noughties, when a preponderance of good weather left the subject of how much your house had increased in value as the only reliable topic of conversation at godawful middle-class dinner parties up and down the country).

What religion rarely is, in the real world, is black and white.  Whatever the reality or otherwise of the God or Gods, His, Her or Their words must necessarily be interpreted by human beings and no two human beings have ever interpreted anything in precisely the same way (a fact which goes some way to explain why I've somehow managed to acquire six different recordings of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite).  Most Christians seem happy to agree that the Christian God is all-loving but dig down deeper as to whether that love is of the "It's a big old world, let's all try to rub along together as best we can; come on, guys, group hug" kind or the "I'm doing this for your own good and it's going to hurt me a lot more than it will hurt you" kind and you're liable to produce a punch-up.  Whatever religion may tell us about religion, it tells us an awful lot more about ourselves.

In fantastical worlds, on the other hand, religion often comes, if it comes at all, after everything else (even in the case of someone like C.S. Lewis, with the consciously religiously-allegorical Narnia tales, it still seems to have taken second place to a certain stiff-corduroy-trousered Oxford donnishness and distrust of people in possession of ovaries); authors, who have to do things like earn money, are unlikely to have time to put together fantastical versions of, say, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Talmud or the works of St Augustine, let alone all of them, and certainly don't have the time to think about the vast number of commentaries those texts have themselves produced.

Even when a god or gods do appear, they tend to fit the Homeric mould: cast as gigantic replicas of humanity, awesome in their power but recognisable in their flaws, more like heroes from a tent-pole Hollywood summer blockbuster than embodiments of the ineffable.  These are dei who can be relied on to emerge from their machines ready to smite this, blow up that and then take on the form of a swan to have sex with her, rather than the more distant, far-less-knowable beings found in most world religions.

There are, of course, very many exceptions to the above and I would hope that Otherwhile might be among them.  I want the world of Otherwhile to have a living, breathing feel and to do that its societies need to be informed, at least in part, by some kind of religion. But, due to the problems outlined above, I wanted to work with a religion that was slimmed-down, whilst at the same time affording interesting ideas for me to play with as author.  Given the way different cultures have differed and divided themselves by their beliefs, it seemed a fun idea for Otherwhile to have a single god for the whole world and then see how the different inhabitants could divide themselves despite belief in the same Creator.

To an extent this is an experiment we've already seen carried out in reality: followers of the three Abrahamic religions have had a tendency to see eye-to-eye only when they're fighting hand-to-hand.  To make things more interesting (for the author, at least), I've taken steps to make conflict even more difficult.  The god of Otherwhile is the kind of god Enlightenment deists would almost certainly have whole-heartedly embraced: It created the universe and then left; It has no desire to interfere in humanity's destiny and will not do so; It is eternally unreachable. What's more, this god has gone even further and made sure that every last one of the creatures in the universe it created knows that the god exists, that it created the universe, and that it has now left and won't ever be returning.  It's not for no reason that the god is known all across Otherwhile as 'The Absented'.

And yet and yet, for all The Absented's efforts, humanity's deep spirit of enquiry and seemingly eternal desire for conflict won't easily be denied.  Their god may have done everything in Its power to discourage any sort of worship but that won't put Its people off.  That's where groups like The Veils (whom you may have met in The Coming of The Murrain) come from: they insist on believing that it is each human's duty to give meaning to its life, a meaning which they (or at least, most of them) find in ministering to the sick and poor.  They wear cloth around their head as a form of symbolic blinding (they can, in fact, see through the cloth) in order to show that, despite the quasi-religious nature of many of their teachings, they are not seeking the Absented.

And Otherwhile, of course, will contain several groupings like The Veils, some quasi-religious, some philosophical, some a combination of both.  And then, of course, there will be atheists even in the face of certain knowledge of The Absented's existence, because some people are just bloody-minded.

How much of all this will make its presence felt in Otherwhile I don't yet know (although The Veils have already succeeded in making their way in and I do know a non-conformist firebrand from their order will certainly have a role to play), especially given that the book I'm working towards is supposed to be an old-fashioned adventure yarn rather than a Glass-Bead-Game-style quasi-philosophical text (which would be a rather out of my league), but it's another piece of background from which to pluck ideas and it's very reassuring to know it's there when I need it.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

A Little More about The Murrain

[I thought readers of The Coming of The Murrain (not to mention anyone else who likes to pop into Otherwhile now and again) might be interested to learn a little more about that dread disease.  Luckily, I happened upon the following entry from an Otherwan Medical Encyclopedia, which I understand will be written some day.]

The Murrain  is the name commonly given to the devastating plague which swept across the globe during the latter years of the reign of Sombred IV and came to visit and revisit Otherwhile itself many times over the next forty years.

The disease was extraordinarily virulent and inevitably deadly, striking down somewhere between one third and one half of Otherwhile's population and wreaking social and economic havoc across the known world.

The precise incubation period of the disease is unclear.  Close examination of accounts originating from Otherwhile to distant Afar to the long-off Plains of Osta would suggest it could be several weeks from someone having contact with an infected person to themselves showing symptoms.  These symptoms inevitably began with a mild fever and lightheadedness, moving on to coughing, perhaps with blood in the saliva; from this point, death ensued within fewer than twenty-four hours.

Death, however, was not the worst part of the Murrain.  In every case, save where steps had been taken to restrain the corpse, within at most two days from the time of death the deceased's body would rise up from its rest and resume the form of its habitual activities; that is the body would go through the motions that it followed as matters of routine during its lifetime.  Thus a blacksmith would take up his hammer and beat the anvil as if making a horse's shoe; a tailor would tap away at the leather upon his last, a shopkeeper stand at his stall.  And yet, in all this, it would be clear that any conscious thought was absent: there might be no iron upon the blacksmith's anvil and no fire in his grate, the tailor would not think to select the leather for the last, the merchant would bargain for no goods.

This animate yet unliving state would typically last for anything up to a week, with some, doubtful, accounts suggesting a Murrain-stricken corpse might walk for as much as two months after death.  These walking corpses posed no great physical danger to those about them but were a source of deep psychological distress, distress which came on top of what might be termed the ordinary horrors of such a devastating plague.  It is perhaps little wonder that the coming of the Murrain was a time of crisis for many, producing a sudden religious mania in some, quite contrary to the teaching of The Absented.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Coming of the Murrain

Forral leaned back in his chair.  Opposite him the tribesman was sweating, despite the cold.  Forral deemed it a tribute to his own skill.

"But such a price!", the man began, mopping his brow with the sleeve of his buryat, "An insult!  I could not think ..."  His words were swallowed by a sudden bout of coughing.

Forral took advantage of the tribesman's infirmity.  "You could, Siymow.  In fact, you are thinking of it even now, for all your bluster".  He watched the look of puzzlement flicker over Siymow's face and felt a little cat purr of amusement.  For years the Tribes of the Plains of Osta had demanded obeisance from all who traded with them and, alongside that obeisance, they had demanded the highest prices for their goods.  But, as Forral and Siymow both knew, years wear one into another and each year is different from the last.  This was a year of change.

Forral waited for Siymow to compose himself and prepare to speak again, then cut across him just as he began.  "They say the Tribes are leaving the plains".  He said it casually, in the spirit of enquiry, but, just as Forral had expected, Siymow was too experienced a negotiator to be drawn out so easily.

Forral ticked off a few more moments in his head, then spoke again, this time his voice more confidential.  "They say they're leaving quickly".

And it was true: there had been rumours for months now, running here and there through the port like a child chasing after a hare; rumours of disease, of deaths around the campfires and within the gers, rumours of ... but no, Forral would not credit such a thing.  And now it was said that the Tribes were fleeing the Plains, seeking to escape whatever pestilence had come upon them.  Whatever the worth of such claims, Forral knew one thing to be true and that was that men like Siymow, men who had once been happy to laugh at the merchants from the East, had discovered a sudden humility.

"No Siymow", Forral continued at last, "you are not the first to set your path towards this house today and I doubt you will be the last.  The very best I could offer you is ..." And then he offered Siymow one-twelfth part of the worth of his goods, the opening gambit in what he was assured would be a pleasurable negotiation.  What he did not expect was for his offer to be accepted readily, eagerly, and yet that is what Siymow did.  As Forral joined his hands with the tribesman to seal the bargain, he took the opportunity to look deep into the his eyes.  There could be no doubt of what he saw within them: it was fear, as deep and dark and cold as the nights upon the Plains themselves.  Later, as Siymow hurried back to his camp on his hump-backed mount, Forral remembered that fear and looked about him, as if trying to spy out its source.  Then he shivered and turned back towards the merchant house, taking the opportunity to distract himself by exchanging some words with the guard who stood coughing beside the door.  "You should speak with one of the Veils; their cures can be trusted, I am sure", he said.    Despite the advice, the guard was still coughing outside the tent when the time came for Forral to retire.

The next morning, the guard was dead.

Servants were sent for and despatched.  An officiant from the morthouse was dragged from his work, the body taken away.  In two days time, Forral would be expected to light the man's pyre and make the sending speech.  He would also be expected to pay for it. He grumbled at Fate for Its thoughtlessness and at the guard for a lack of devotion to his duty.  In this last, Forral was mistaken: the next morning, when Forral stepped out of his front door, there was the guard standing at his post; no light shone in his eye, no word would pass his lips and he gave no sign of thought or care, yet there he was.

The Veil was at the merchant house within the hour, listening to his tale, scrutinising him despite the cloth bound about her face.  At the end of her examination she spoke, providing the answer to a question Forral had not yet asked.

"Two weeks ago, I was called to visit the tribes.  Death, so they said, had come among them and was visiting women and men and cattle.  And, so they claimed, those Death visited It would not leave as it should, instead choosing to toy with them like a child with a doll, puppeting them through the routines of their lives for hours, for days on end.  I admit, despite my vows, I almost laughed; such tales were, I knew, merely the force of superstition working upon the minds of the tribes but my vows are my vows and I went out among them".

She paused for a moment, examining a memory with her mind's eye.

"They took me first to a small ger on the edge of their camp.  Two women, one old, one young, sat beside a fire, chewing on leather to soften it.  There was a strange distraction about them.  Instead of the exchanging of stories and the songs summoned unconsciously to the lips that usually accompany such mindless tasks, they worked in near silence, all the while looking over in the direction of a young girl, sat a little way off.  She was no more than five or six years old and she sat in silence, working her jaw, as if in imitation of the women.  I had just begun to ponder this little scene when a man was brought out of the ger to speak to me.  He had tears in his eyes and something else, something wild, too.  He told me his daughter, "the sweet herb that took away life's bitterness", had died the night before.  I laid my hand upon his shoulder and spoke what words of comfort I could, conscious that none could truly ease his grief.  Then I asked him to show me his daughter's body, so that I could see such marks as her illness may have left.  He raised his hand and pointed me to the little girl, seated not so far from her mother and sister, her jaw working away silently at nothing.  And then the tears came to him once more".

The Veil turned her unseen face away from Forral.  "They call it the Murrain.  It takes the lives of men and women and children, then steps a while in their shoes.  It is a new dance for Death and many, oh so many, feet will follow the beat of Death's drum".  Her words ceased.  Until that moment, Forral, who could tell the weight and value of anything at a glance, had not known how heavy silence could be.  The Veil's voice was soft when she continued.  "You would do well to leave this place, Master Forral.  You would do well to leave it soon".

She walked away a little distance, leaving Forral to his thoughts: thoughts which, for the first time in many months, turned away from money and from bargains and the thousand things, big and little, that must be done to trade in this wild place so far from home; now they faced back along the road to Otherwhile, towards his wife and towards his own daughter.  What were the Veil's words about the tribesman's daughter?  "The sweet herb that took away life's bitterness"?  Such was Forral's daughter too.

It was the beggar that decided him.  Forral had noticed her on his first day in the little trade port: a wizened creature, her face crow-touched, as they say: one side neither so fair nor so foul as to attract notice, the other carbuncular and black-stained, the eye altogether closed over.  She had a regular routine, one they told him she had carried on for years, coming past the merchant house at the same time every day, beating a rusty bell with a wooden stick as she called for alms.  Forral had sent one of his burlier servants to encourage her to alter her route; the man had come back to him red-knuckled and confident of his success in his task.  He had been right: the beggar did not pass the merchant house for months.  And then, one day, not long after the death of the guard, there she was again, bell in hand, trudging across the square as she had done so many times before.  Perhaps it was that Forral was still unsettled but there was something about the beggar's actions that enraged him, so that he himself left his counting room and marched out into the square, intent on accosting her.  Striding up to her rapidly from behind, he placed a hand upon her arm and span her round, ready to vent his ire upon her.  Instead, he found himself leaping back, while the beggar fell to the ground, her legs still pacing automatically even as her back struck the cobbles.  It was clear she was dead.

Within a day, Forral was standing in the sterncastle of a cog bound for Afar, watching the port recede.  Beside him stood the Veil, on her way, like him, to Otherwhile.  There had been hard bargaining there and much persuasion but Forral was satisfied that the better of the deal was his.  She would let him defray the cost of her passage, he would have the benefit of her leechcraft.  He did his best not to look at her; like all of her Order she stood very tall, a physical manifestation of her rectitude, to Forral it felt like a rebuke.  Even though he could not see her eyes behind their cloth, he felt sure that they were examining him; he did not like to think of what they saw.  He stared down into the body of the boat, where stood the intricately-woven rugs, warming spices and delicately-wrought trinkets of gold and silver that he had purchased from the tribesmen.  The men and women of his merchant house, meanwhile, remained within the port, carrying out their duties, as yet unaware of Death's new dance.  There was something about that thought that felt to Forral like the chime of a cracked bell as it resonated within him.  He was glad when the sky began to darken: it gave him the excuse he needed to move to the little cabin beneath the sterncastle.  The Veil, meanwhile, did not quit her post.

On the third day, the cog put in to a narrow-harboured settlement to pick up food and fresh water.  Ordinarily Forral would have enjoyed the opportunity for trade but now the lost time filled him only with impatience.  His brief conversations with the Veil had convinced him that Death was dancing at a merry pace and he was eager to outdistance It.  He spoke to the captain again, and found himself offering a handsome reward if the fellow could hasten the voyage.  The captain nodded, gave a tight-faced grin and promised to do all in his power.  Forral was not sure that he trusted him but then he was no longer sure he trusted himself; he felt drained and his mind was clouded; thoughts of the guard and of the beggar and of those men and women of his service that he had left behind at the port pattered through what little sleep he could find.  The journey would be a long one.

It was on the seventh day, a day of little wind and slow travelling, that Forral noticed one of the crewmen sweating at his post despite the cold that had haunted the ship's progress from the day it quit its port.  Forral said nothing, preferring instead to observe the man from a distance as he went about his business.  Why did he take so long at his task?  Why did he stumble?  Was it the force of the waves or something else, something within him, at work?  Was that a cough?  Was that blood?  All these questions circled and recircled through Forral's mind as he watched the sailor.

At length he went to find the Veil, to ask her opinion.

"Is it ... is it the Murrain?"  The words fell from him as he stared into the rumpled blankness that obscured the Veil's face.

"No," she said, "oh no.  A cold perhaps.  Or a chaw of duskweed.  That's all".  And then she took his hand in her own.  "And even if it were the Murrain, which I say again it is not, what could we do?  He has been among us these seven days and among his crewmates for many more.  If he is sick, then so are we all, though we do not know it yet.  Why put on the cloak of concern when its weight can only bow our shoulders?"

She held Farrol's hand a moment more, bringing her cloth-covered face directly before him, keen to impress her point upon him.  Then, with a pat upon his arm, she released and dismissed him.

That night Farrol could not sleep.  He could find no balm in the Veil's words.  As Time trudged deep into the night and then turned at last towards day, Farrol found himself rising from his pallet and stepping out into the body of the cog.  The boat was anchored, the crew asleep, the many-tongued sea licked at the boat's sides, gentle as a ewe with her new-born lamb.  Farrol stepped carefully towards the boat's prow, moving gently over the canvas-draped barrels that stocked its hull. Perhaps he wished to think, perhaps to see the stars, perhaps to find such breeze as he could to cool him, but what he discovered instead was the snoring form of the sickened sailor, lying against the side of the boat, his head and one shoulder collapsed over the strakes.  From his lips a trail of dark green spittle led down towards the water..

Duskweed, then: the Veil had been correct.  And yet Forral did not move.  A man may ail and yet chew duskweed.  A man may chew duskweed to dull the pain of his ailing.  A man may ...

The sailor shifted his position in his sleep.  Forral drew back, as if caught in some unworthy act.  It was time for him to leave now, he knew.  He collected himself, turning his thoughts away from the sailor and towards his own wife and daughter.  He thought of his daughter's smile: there at last was the quiet bower in which to rest his troubled thoughts.  He would do much to preserve that smile.

It was not long later that Forral returned to his pallet.  And now sleep found him almost the instant he lowered his head and he did not dream but once and that dream was a happy one.  About him the ship rolled gently and the waves licked and lapped and there was nothing any more to disturb him.

And yet all was not well upon the cog.

In all, the voyage to Afar took ten days longer than expected.  "A hard enough crossing at any time," the captain explained to Farrol as they watched the unloading, "and harder yet with a man lost".  Farrol nodded at this, giving a look that contained little sympathy.  The captain could not expect his full price, not with so tardy an arrival.  And surely the captain could blame no other than himself; after all, it was he who had hired a man so duskweed drunk that he could walk off the edge of his own boat.

The captain said nothing and accepted such price for the journey as Farrol was kind enough to give him.  He was eager to put off: there were rumours in the market of a sickness, arrived with an earlier boat from the Plains.  For some reason, he forgot to share these tidings with Farrol.

The captain gone, Farrol turned to the Veil, who had stood patiently to one side whilst the negotiation were concluded.  "And so we make our way on", he said.

"No", she replied, "I am afraid I cannot".

Farrol was unused to such blunt refusal and the words to respond came on lame legs, giving the Veil time to continue.

"Those of my order have never claimed and never sought the gift of other sight and yet, I find when I look at you I can perceive the outlines of a future, limned in ashes.  I see hints of accidents and unfortunes befalling those with whom you travel.  It is a long way yet from Afar to Otherwhile and, I confess, I fear to walk such a distance at your side".  So saying, she pressed a pouch of coin into Farrol's hand.  "For your trouble", she said before adding "And have no fear for the captain: I have paid my full share for the voyage".

She walked away, her cloth-bound head held high as ever.  Farrol stood, stunned.  What could the Veil have meant?  What were these accidents and unfortunes?  At length, he found himself spitting into the dirt over which she had passed unsullied.

And then it was time to make haste once more.  For all the captain's forgetfulness, the news of the Murrain's arrival in Afar did not take long to make its way to Farrol's ears.  The disease moved swiftly, yet Farrol was determined to outdistance it.  Soon he would be back in Otherwhile, soon he would take up his wife and his bright-eyed daughter.  Soon they would be on his lands in the Maelwyst Hills, safe and secure and far from Death's dance.

Farrol travelled swift as any man could, brooking no delay on his path.  And, just as the Veil had foretold, many were the ill-fortunes suffered by those who travelled the same path: families running from Death's dance found themselves cheated of their fleet-footed horses; towns that had closed their doors to all as they sought to escape the depradations of the Murrain found their gates flung open by the power of promised moneys; and all the while a different malady haunted those who happened to journey at Farrol's side, so that any man or woman or even child who showed the slightest sign of sickness would suddenly be lost in Afar's endless sands, or in the depths of the Surraft Sea, or in the endless dark of the Silent Forest.  Many, so many, were lost in this way and yet, through it all, Farrol remained strangely unaware, all the force of his intention directed upon his goal.  And all the while, never so far behind him that Farrol could feel secure, tens and then hundreds and then tens of hundreds were linking hands with Death and joining in Its merry dance.

Months had passed by the time he arrived in Otherwhile, the gates at the keep guarding the pass opened by his coin and the mention of his name, just as so many others had been. Within, the Castellan was all eagerness, happy to make exception for so eminent and so generous a merchant, going so far as to give him the use of his own horse, lifting up his wine-bruised face as he handed Farrol the reins with an entreaty that he might remember him to the officials at Court.  Farrol nodded, eager to be off, but the Castellan, as is the way of many a small man entrusted with a task, had one more thing to add.  "If you would do me the signal kindness of being advised by me, I fear hard times are come to the world and such times make for desperate men.  Your honour would do well to seek out companions for the journeying ahead".  At this Farrol looked around.  "Why", he said, "I had no idea I was alone".

Seven days later, just at dusk fall, Farrol entered at last into his demesne, sore and sweating and tired beyond all tiredness.  For all his horse was broken-winded and lamed, for all the aching of his body, he felt something of happiness rise within him, making him feel giddy.  He had travelled almost without pause since passing the borders of his homeland, stopping only at the Merchant House to advise his agents to make grand purchases of myrrh and lavender and such other scents as might be prized in a time of pestilence and to deal with such other such necessary matters.  Now though, he was at home, riding among the trees of his orchard, hearing the sweet-sound of the river, seeing the walls of his manor rising into view.  And then he heard the voice of which he had dreamed so long, his daughter's voice, calling out his name.  He looked up and there she was at her window. waiting for him as she always did: older, yes, but somehow still the same, still safe, secure within her father's lands, far from the ravages of the Murrain.

At last, Farrol could quit his horse and step up to his door, even as it burst open to reveal wife and daughter: the one smiling the nervous, humbled smile that life with Farrol had painted her with for eternity, the other laughing and skipping towards her father just as she had done so many times before, rosy as the apples in the orchard.  And then Farrol was scooping the little bundle that was his daughter and raising her up in the air and then clasping her close to him, this joyous creature to whom he had given life, the one thing in all the world for which he would name no price.

And then Farrol coughed.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Out to Pasture

What with the glorious sunshine, this seemed like a good week to let another of my old tales out into the Pasture for Elderly Stories.  This particular tale is called "The New God" and is even now munching in leisurely fashion at the pasture's lush green grass, while "The Dwarf" and "The City of Bells" come back inside.  To give it a sugarlump or a quick scratch behind the ear, just click here.

Next week, I can promise you the tale of The Murrain and how it came to Otherwhile.  And beyond that, well, we'll have to see.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Theft of The Heart of The World, Part IV: Dark Memories

[It's been an awfully long time since we last saw Arbor Vulpa, The Greatest Thief in All Otherwhile.  That's an omission I'm going to correct by continuing the story of The Theft of The Heart of The World.  Those of you who are new to the story might want to read Part I, Part II and Part III first.  For those of you who can't be bothered with all that, here's a quick summary: Arbor Vulpa has set out to commit The Greatest Theft in The World; to this end he has made his way into The Tower of The Heart within The Palace of Days, where he discovered (much to his surprise) an enormous forest and received advice from a darkly-dressed man more long than tall, after which, he swam deeper into the tower through a water-filled tunnel, from which he emerged into a darkened room.  As to what happened in that room, well, let's find out, shall we?]

It was bad enough that Arbor had been caught but the fact that he had been caught by a vegetable made it all the worse.  Even in the dark, he was sure that the sticky cords pinning his arms to the floor must be the product of a colony of spider spindles.  He could picture the tangles of fungi around about him, grey-white fingers protruding from the earth.  The idea made him think of corpses and graves; he turned his mind around and set it walking rapidly in the opposite direction while, at the same time, his free hand reached cautiously for his blade.

It had been a long time since Arbor had found himself trapped like this.  One of the privileges of his skill was that he had only ever been caught once, and that when he was a child, begging and thieving in Farla's marketplace.  And as for the one who had caught him: Arbor prided himself that she was the one being in all the wandering world whom he could never have evaded.  Even as he lay trapped in the darkness of The Tower of the Heart, even as his hand searched for the blade at his belt, he could recall her sudden grip upon his wrist, firm as fear, and how she had looked down at him with a smile, even as he struggled to get free.

Arbor returned his thoughts to the present.  While his mind had wandered, his hand had found the instrument he needed: a short-bladed, stub-handled dagger.  Moving as slowly as he could, conscious that any vibration might cause the fungus to release more of the silken cords, he brought the blade towards the densest part of the sticky tangle and attempted to cut. The result was, he had to concede, disappointing: the fibres, rather than yielding, instead clung to the blade, so that it cost Arbor some effort to wrench it free. Whoever it was that had stationed the fungi here in the darkness had a turn of mind that he might have found pleasingly devious, if only he hadn't become its victim.  It was time to think again.  He would not panic; inspiration would come, it always did.  And as he waited for it, he would send his thoughts back to the marketplace, and to the woman who smiled down on his struggles.

"Don't be downhearted, young one", she had said, her grip still firm, "none have come so close to picking my purse in more years than you can imagine".  Then she had raised her free hand up to his face, opening it to reveal a small mound of glittering powder in her palm.  It had fascinated him, the specks and sparks of light holding his attention even as the woman had bent down to him and blown the powder into his face.  What had followed, almost instantly, was sleep.  When next he had awoken, he was in the deepest cell in all of Veresh, hundreds of leagues from Farla and utterly alone.

"At least this time I'm at home", he told himself.  The thought was less comforting than he would have liked.  He had escaped the dungeon in Veresh not just through skill and strength but through a child's inability to contemplate defeat.  Here, in this cell within The Tower of The Heart, defeat seemed all too real a possibility.  At least, back in Veresh, there had been light.

And then Arbor remembered the second of the three things and one more thing that the long, dark-dressed man had told him in the forest: "A man who can kindle light in Otherwhile's darkness is liable to go far", he had said, "you'd do well to remember that when the time comes".  Arbor was suddenly sure that the time was now.

Keeping a careful grasp on his blade, Arbor stretched his arm out once more, letting his fingers caress their surroundings light as snowflake-fall.  At first he found only the fleshy digits of the fungus, feeling them tremble even at the whisper of his touch, but further, oh-so-gentle, exploration found his hand touching the stone tiles of the floor.  He kissed his outstretched finger against it for a moment, grateful to fate, then slowly turned the blade in his hand, at the same time raising his free arm as high as he could before plunging it down again with a great roar.

The cry had immediate effect: though he could see nothing, Arbor could feel the air around him fill with the spider spindles' webs.  At the same time, his blade struck the stone tiles, sending up a spray of sparks.  He had read once of how the people of Shende used the silk of the spider spindle to kindle their fires even in the face of that island's eternal rains.  It seemed that Shendefolk were wiser than their reputation suggested: the touch of a single spark was enough to cause the sticky cords to burst into flame as they arced above Arbor's web-wrapped body.  Within a moment, the air was aroar and the room was a ball of white fire.  Within a moment more, the flame was gone and the room was empty, the spider spindles and their webs consumed; only Arbor, his hair singed, his skin red and raw from the brief flame, was left behind.

He coughed and raised himself unsteadily on to all fours.  He had escaped, just as he had done in Veresh, all those years before.  In Veresh, though, he had found the woman waiting for him, wearing that same smile, and she had taken him once more by the wrist and led him away to her home deep within the mountain walls and his life had changed forever.  This time, or so at least he hoped, there would be no-one to greet him as he stepped through the door of his cell.

Arbor made his way on into the darkness.


[To be continued]