Women’s Wednesdays: Conductors

via A Mighty Girl

Holy gorgeous! It’s awesome seeing images of women with this kind of real intensity. Also lady-tuxedos. I really wish I ever had an excuse to wear one. From left to right, top to bottom. Anu Tali, co-founder of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra; Joana Carniero, principal conductor of the Orquestra Sinfonica Portuguesa; JoAnn Falleta; Hann-na Chang; Sarah Ioannides, the first female music director for the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra; Barbara Hannigar, operatic singer and conductor; Shi-Yeon Sung, associate conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic; Susanna Malkki, who recently debuted with the New York Philharmonic; and Marin Alsop, the first female conductor to direct the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms concert.

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Seven

            They were a matched set now, Aldous moving east from the city in the wake of Cressus and Vana, and Weiss moving east from the village in the wake of his own credulousness. On horseback, Aldous was making better time than Weiss, but they had to swing far to the north to get around the bog that had almost swallowed up Weiss, and so for the remainder of the night the distance between them was not much closed.
            By dawn, though, Weiss was stumbling again, slow and weary and weighted, and Cressus and Aldous switched horses so that Aldous with her slight form could give Cressus’ mount a respite. They reached the first near the tenth bell and it was there, tied to a tree, that they found Terrick and heard his story. Weiss, travelling in the company of a Thron woman. Terrick was given a horse, and Aldous rode with Cressus. She could feel the anger crackling through his skin. It was whirring and buzzing against her chest, and she liked that, though it frightened her too. Weiss, Weiss, what are you doing?
            At about midday, as Aldous was sharing dustbread and a flask of whiskey with Cressus, his electric anger suddenly hardened into glass before her eyes. She followed his gaze and saw two women travelling along the road out from the village. One of the women wore the simple belted tunic and linen headscarf of a farm worker, but the other was a Thron. You could see it even at that distance. Long black braid down her back, skin even darker than the tanned skin of the village woman. She wore a strange, loose-draped dress of deep coppery-gold, and she was leading a village woman away from her home. Aldous barely had time to register all this when Cressus and Vana wordlessly kicked the horses into a gallop. Aldous was clinging to Cressus’ back but she could feel everything in him flowing forward, reaching furiously for the Thron and her victim, and she thought in surprise that if she fell off the horse now, Cressus would likely not even notice.
            Despite the bright midday sun, everything felt strangely cold and crystalline. Vana was low on the neck of her horse, a black river with her black hair and black tunic and black knifebelt. Cressus was a mountain, an icy height, craggy and howling with wind. Aldous shrank back into herself. They were riding to kill.
            The pair saw them dawn the road and ran, although there was nowhere to go. They ran as animals run, zigzagging wide-eyed through the scrubby grass at the roadside, and Vana and Cressus without speaking herded them towards the gully of a mountain stream that crossed under the road ahead. When they had their quarry at the edge, they both suddenly slowed to a crawl, pulling up the horses and dismounting with a menacing, leisurely grace.
            “Hello,” drawled Vana, thumbing her knives.
            Cressus’ boots crushed through the grass, and the Thron stepped to face him. She held a wooden staff and braced it towards Cressus, but Aldous thought, “Cressus will snap that like a twig,” and so he did, darting forward with unexpected speed, wrenching the staff away, and casually breaking it in two across his knee. He tossed it into the gully and said lightly, “I’m going to enjoy this.”
            The Thron woman moved quickly, slipping in front of the village woman, and barring out her arms as if she could somehow protect the woman from Vana’s knives and Cressus’ bearlike arms.
            “Oh, don’t worry, we won’t kill you quite yet,” said Vana. Kill them? thought Aldous, a twist of horror contracting across her belly, and she made a half-hopeless gesture. Vana looked pointedly at Cressus and jerked her head back towards Aldous.
“Aldous,” murmured Cressus gently, coming over to her side. His breath danced over her neck as he bent very close to her ear. “Aldous, please keep quiet,” he begged. Vana’s back darted tongues of black, disapproving fire. Aldous’ eyes were wide as a child, and she had them locked onto Cressus’. She was holding onto him, the warm, rough skin puckered around his eyes, the set of his shoulders. “I will be quiet,” she said. She did not feel sorry—yet.
#
            He was under the shadow of the mountains now.
“Caethron.” Weiss said it aloud, feeling the urgency and weight of it as Mare had said it before she parted from him. The gate. The safehouse. Carved into the very mountain, it was a way between where no pursuer could follow, and yet it seemed to Weiss that, wretched as he was, it might also be a bar for him. He kept strictly to the path on the map. The few travellers he met, he did not even acknowledge. He kept his head down, and his feet somehow moving, one before the other, and he was under the shadow of the mountains now.
When he came to the steps up to the gate, broad, shallow steps roughly cut into the mountainside, he looked foolishly up at the gate, and down at his map, and up again, and down again. The plains and Aiken where he had lived all his life were behind him, but with an effort he managed not to look back at it, and he breathed deeply and started up the steps.
He did not look back when he heard the dull thunder of horses’ hooves, the commotion of following that rummaged along the trail behind him, did not even look back when two strange voices, one of a woman and one a deep, booming man’s voice, called his name, growing in strength as the horses neared, telling him to stop.
The gate between the mountains was before him, and Weiss said, “Caethron,” in quiet wonder, and he raised his hand in a fist to knock.
A small door slid to, opening a window in the stone gate, and a face hovered in the opening. It was the face of a man about forty years old, slender and lucid, and it’s owner asked gravely who was there, and whence he came, and what did he want at Caethron.
“I am Weiss, of Aiken, looking for passage to Jesh’s Land and to Elionae’s City beyond that. I was sent by one called Mare to find refuge here—if you are willing to let me in.”
There were footfalls on the steps behind him but Weiss didn’t turn; the urgency in the eyes of the man behind the gate was enough for him, and his hands reaching out to pull Weiss in as he swung the gate open. Weiss stumbled into the courtyard as the man slammed the gate shut behind him, and the great iron bar of it fell with a knell of strength. On the other side of the gate, the great man and the woman in black shouted their fury into echoes of the mountain.
#
Back at the mouth of the pass, Aldous paced nervously between the two women bound back-to-back on the ground, and the horse tied to a tree. Her hands fluttered through the air, through echoes of Cressus snapping the wooden staff like a twig, his warm skin, of Weiss grave and determined out on the fields, the courage in the eyes of the Thron woman at her feet, the grey bank of a thousand thousand days of her life in Aiken, and she found herself torn down the middle, crying silently.

 

 

 

 

 

“Woman of Aiken,” said the Thron woman, her voice an arrow cutting clear and straight through the mountain air, “why do you weep?”

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Six

Chapter Four

“Mare!” Aldous jerked awake, startled to find herself in an unfamiliar place. It took her a few moments to place herself, the strange bed with its strange smell. But Cressus asleep beside her felt anything but strange. She watched him in the half-light, steadying her thoughts. It had been an unsettling dream. Weiss, falling down a steep slope on a backdrop of fire, and it had been her hands that pushed him down, and yet as he fell, instead of the dark, angry red swallowing him, golden light swept up from the valley and welcomed him. She had tried to call after him, but she felt her feet planted, her back suddenly bowed by the weight that she had borne on her back since the day she was born. No words had come.

            “Just a dream,” she told herself, but she was worried about Weiss. Cressus had promised that Terrick would talk Weiss home, but after all, the Blind Eye was known for their kills, not their diplomacy.
            Aldous’ stirring woke Cressus, slowly, and he cupped her face in his broad hand, and said, “It’s early.”
            “I had a dream,” she said.
            “Tell me,” he said, and as he lay on his back, listening in that deep way no one ever had before, Aldous told him.
            “It is not your hands hurting Weiss,” said Cressus when she was done. “You’re trying to help him.”
            Aldous nodded and tried not to wonder if it were true.
            “Who is Mare?” added Cressus after a moment.
            “I don’t know,” she replied. “It was just what he said as he was falling.”
#
            She came running up the path, breathing hard, her face set, her red dress a banner. She clutched a staff of wood as she ran.
            “You shall not have him!” she cried, and Terrick spun to face her. The triumph that died on his face at her cry flared up again when he saw her slight figure. Even to Weiss, her long black braid tossed by her steps looked ridiculously childlike as she ran, but her dress was a banner, her mouth, her eyes, and he struggled up the slope even as the weeds and saplings he tried to anchor himself with came up by the roots in his hands.
            “Mare!” he said, but she did not slow or look at him. She sprang at Terrick with the staff already a blur. Terrick whipped a short sword out of a sheath at his thigh and Weiss’s world seemed to distill down to the racket of wood against metal. His Deedsweight pulled him down and pulled him down but he pulled up to level ground and felt for his own long knife when the sound changed to that of wood against flesh and bone, a dull thud, and Terrick fell. Weiss was in time to put the knife at his throat as Mare kicked away his sword. With her staff braced against his chest she said again, with a fierce joy, “You shall not have him.”
            “Check his arm,” she told Weiss, nodding at Terrick’s left arm, and Weiss pushed up the sleeve to reveal a blind eye slashed top to bottom picked out in black ink on the skin of his forearm.
            “Oh,” said Weiss in a small voice, and then he was angry.
            “What is this place?” he demanded of Terrick, but it was Mare who answered.
            “Tirsin,” she said. “Oh, Weiss, I told you to make for the pass in the mountains; how came you to be here?” Her face was no longer a banner, but a cold rain.
            “He told me it was a safe way,” said Weiss. He was afraid again, suddenly; he knew not why, but that there was something dark and brooding lurking in the fire beyond the mountain.
            “A safe way? Tirsin? There is naught but death here!”
            “Aye, death and woe aplenty,” sneered Terrick suddenly. “But I’d ha’ brought you back to your sister safe and sound alright if not for this bloody Thron’s interference. It’s only them that won’t see reason nor surrender in a fight that I give to the Lady,” and he cast a significant backwards glance towards the fiery mountaintop.
            “’The Lady’? I don’t understand.”
            “Let us deal with this man first,” said Mare, “and get away from Her, and then I will tell you.”
#
            “She is old, very old,” said Mare, “and very hungry.” Terrick was tied to a tree. Mare had explained conscientiously that he would not be left there long—the Blind Eye would be sure to follow his trail when he did not return to the city. “So he won’t,” she had said, “die of exposure or hunger here.” Weiss would’ve muttered something to the effect of ‘better if he did’ but Mare’s voice leaned shame on his.
            Now, looking back to the mountain, Mare told him of Tirsin, the name of the mountain and the name of she who lived inside the mountain, which in the old tongue meant ‘Weight’. She was a dragon of the old kind, wingless and blind, stirring up the stones, humming with fire. An open maw, waiting for souls to stumble in, or be stumbled. All this Mare explained in a few vivid strokes that left Weiss breathless with his narrow escape, and trembling with his weariness.
            “But how did you find me?” he asked then.
            “Though Aiken may be full of people who wish you off your path,” said Mare, “Elionae’s wish is for you to go on, and he is not easily gainsaid. I chanced to see you as I was leaving the village, up on the ridge as you followed that man.” And ran all the way up, thought Weiss, disgusted with himself. He was weary and weak, but Mare had seemed strong before. Now she, too, walked with a leaden step, and there was a long, shallow cut along her arm. She would not let Weiss look at it.
            “The Blind Eye are tailing us now. I have one more village to go to, and I cannot stop. When I am safe in the stronghold they will treat it; it isn’t deep. As for you, make all speed for the pass, and beyond it—“ she pointed to his map markedly, that, he supposed, he might not yet again part from the way—“Caethron.”
#
            Aldous passed the afternoon peacefully in Cressus’ room at the Ravenshead Inn. The noises of the Racketeer’s Quarter—horses, bartering, coming-and-goings—were very different from the noises of the Queen’s Quarter where Aldous lived, where quiet murmurs prevailed, punctuated only by the marching boots of the Geridspolice.
            She had spent the afternoon copying leaflets for Cressus in her precise, sloping hand. It pleased her that there was something she could do for him, so much so that she did not take much notice of the words she was copying. Precise, sloping hateful words about the Throns, precise, sloping sneers at the Queen, at the police for their lack of action. She savoured the rhythm of the quill and the ink and the scratch on the paper, and as dusk began to settle, Cressus came in and kissed her shoulder. He pulled her upright as she turned to kiss his mouth, and for a moment she was lost in that tangle, but then he said abruptly,
            “Terrick hasn’t returned.”
            “Weiss wouldn’t…” she said at once, and then stopped because she didn’t, after all, really know what Weiss would or wouldn’t do. Brother and stranger. “So what happens next?” she said instead.
            “Vana and I will go find him and see what’s happened.”
“Why Vana?” It had come out as more of a whine than she’d intended, but she didn’t trust Vana.
            “Because if Weiss did overpower Terrick, he may not have been alone. I’ll be with her,” said Cressus, lifting Aldous’ chin to meet her eyes. “I won’t let her hurt him.”
            “Very well,” replied Aldous. His eyes on hers had bloomed a sudden purpose in her chest. “But I will be with you as well.”

 

 

 

 

 

            And so it was that she found herself on horseback, with a black cloak and knife in her belt, riding between Vana and Cressus out into the marshes that rustled their dark secrets under the arch of the stars.

Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Five

            A hundred years, a thousand, who knew anymore? Weiss had been struggling through the mud for more lifetimes than he could count when he bit down on the notion that he would not get out. Every step he took towards the mountains shaved away a little more of his strength, and behind him the leaden Deedsweight sheared off great sheets of it. It was full dark now, with only the feeble light of a crescent moon above, and over and over Weiss lost his footing, fell, tore himself loose from the clutch of the muck and clambered upright. Sometimes he fell again on his very next step, and the clinging weight of the mud that coated cloak and boots and jerkin and all added its strength to the weariness and darkness and Deedsweight in trying to put him under the mud for good.
            At last he found himself on a hummock and could not go on. He lay still, eyes closed, his feet still soaking in the slough, bowed under a despair so strong he could not even weep. He only opened his lips to whisper, “Elionae…” He felt he had no right to ask for help, even to say that name, but help came nonetheless, for after a few long and silent minutes, a light bobbed into his view.
            “Here!” cried Weiss, not caring if it was Aldous, Signa, even the Geridspolice—any face would’ve been welcome. “Help me, please! Help me!”
            “Weiss?” said a voice, and Weiss’s veins lit up with gold, for it was Mare. He scrambled to his feet, splashing water about him as he headed for the light. When he came to her, she grasped his arm and pulled, and he came loose from the mud with a sick squelch, stepping up onto the broad flat stone on which she stood. He only stood for a moment before he felt his knees buckling and he lowered himself quickly to sit at her feet.
            “How did you come to be so lost?” she said, crouching beside him. From a pouch at her hip, she pulled out a strip of sweet-spiced dried meat and he ate gratefully.
            “By following your directions,” said Weiss, less crossly than he would’ve if he had’ve been speaking to somewhere other than Mare.
            “But did you not look for the steps? They’re marked on your map. There is little enough influence we have out here but Elionae sends workers out to keep the way clear when it is possible.” She lifted her lantern and Weiss saw in the flickering light that there was indeed a path, large stones at intervals to make a bridge through the mire.
            “I forgot to pay mind to the map,” he confessed. “There was another with me but he turned back at the marsh, and I went on without stopping to mark my way.”
            He was ashamed of himself, but she said only, “Well, you are not the first, and you will not be the last to lose his way in this place.”
            He gathered up his strength with the help of a little wine from a flask she carried, and they went on together, slowly and painfully, as the mud dried on his clothes and the stars tracked across the sky.
            “How came you to be here?” he asked as they journeyed.
            “I had meant to carry on into the city, but it seems there is a price on my head in Aiken now. Word got out that I had convinced you to leave, and you know that is against the rules.” She spoke seriously but not as if she were frightened. “My Gathering decided it was best for me to make myself scarce before the Geridspolice—or worse—came hunting for me. I am to stop in one or two villages and then wait at the safehouse for my Gathering to meet with me on the other side of the pass.”
            “Then we can journey together?” said Weiss with a leap of hope in his heart. And then, suddenly—“’Word got out’ about me? What does that mean?”
            “You should know better than I, should you not? Who knows that you have left, and why you have?”
            “Signa,” said Weiss slowly, moving around the outside of what he knew to be true, “and a sailor who I roughed up the night I left, and… Aldous.”
            “And I am right in thinking that you suspect Aldous.” It was not a question.
            “My sister,” said Weiss. “But who would she tell? She came after me herself, with Signa. She has no friends. She was worried I would disgrace her; she takes great pride in her undissenting reputation.”
            “Nevertheless she must have told someone—and not, I think, just a friend. You and I will not travel together, I think. I must stop in the villages, for I have work to do there, but more to the point, if the Geridspolice find you alone, they will give you mercy, take you back to Aiken, and you might someday be able to slip away again. If they find you in my company, they will execute us both on the spot. We can camp together tonight, our lead is enough to keep us safe ‘til Signa gets back to the city. But tomorrow we had best go on alone.”
            Weiss’s heart dropped its hope and fell like a stone into his feet.
            “But what if they find you alone?” he said.
            “They will execute me, of course,” said Mare, raising her chin to look at him. “But Elionae will take my spirit to his city if they do, and if they do not, then I will go on as I have.” Simple, arrow-straight. It was hard, but it was easy. Weiss bowed his head in a nod.
            “If the Blind Eye find us though…” she shook her head, and then said, “Pray that they do not.”
#
            “You will… rein in Vana?” said Aldous to Cressus. They were in a public house in the Racketeer’s Quarter, and Aldous was worried about it in the back of her mind, for it was not the sort of place an upstanding undissenting would be found hanging about, but in the front of her mind, broad and warm and windblown as the plains, there was only Cressus. They were sat near enough together that she could smell him, a dusty tang of smoke and hyssop and metal and leather. She had known him for not-quite twenty-four hours, but already she was wound into him like a braid. He spoke to her as if he were the first person alive who had ever seen her, and she could feel herself rising to it like cream, bold and level. Though perhaps that was just the alcohol. She’d already drunk much more of it than she was used to.
            “She is busy with another project just at present,” said Cressus. “but anyhow I wouldn’t send her after your brother. Vana never does well with a mission that doesn’t involve putting a knife in someone, preferably a Thron.”
            Aldous flinched inwardly, but it had been twenty-four hours she had known Cressus, and she had already taught herself not to flinch outwardly.
            “So who will you send?” she said. Level. Bold. Broad as plains.
            “Terrick,” he said at once. “He can talk as well as kill, and I think he can put your brother off-course enough that we can convince him to come back.”
            “You don’t know Weiss as I do,” laughed Aldous bitterly.
            “If he’s anything like his sister,” said Cressus, rough heart singing against Aldous’ heart just come out of its cave, “he will show a pleasing steadiness of purpose but will not be able to ignore reason, in the end.”
            “You don’t know Weiss as I do,” said the back of Aldous’ head, but the front of it was broad and windblown and those were the thoughts holding the reins.
            “Should you like to meet Terrick before I send him out?” said Cressus. Their eyes met. That, Aldous thought, was the strength of it, like an undertow. He looked at her and knew that she wanted only to be with him. She looked at him and knew that he only wanted to be with her. She shook her head, and he ducked away to another corner. A few moments after their hushed conversation, a middle-aged man slipped out into the street and there was a sound of horse’s hooves, an urgent clatter across the cobblestones outside. Then Cressus sat down again, just a little nearer than he had been before.
            “Aldous,” he said softly, “will you tell me what it was you were thinking of so wearily while you listened to Slava yesterday evening?”
            They were weaving together like a braid.
#
            Mare was gone before Weiss woke, stiff and sore and cold and filthy by the ashes of last night’s fire. He made a poor breakfast of water and dried meat, helped along by a few roots he knew how to find amongst the reeds. He ate those as he went, moving slowly but as steadily as he could. He was weary, bone-weary, but Mare had said the Blind Eye might be hunting him already. Weiss knew enough about the Blind Eye to be shaken by that thought.
            He tried to read from his book, but mostly the day was just wan gold reeds and wan gold sun and the mountain pass getting closer only in the most reluctant and painstaking fashion.
            At length, though, the ground began to rise, and the shapes of villages rose up amid the foothills. It was the first time in all his life he had been out of the vast carpet of marshes that surrounded Aiken. He was afraid he was rather gawping. The mountains were so astonishingly present.
            Weiss was wakened from his watching by a smell of roasting meat that almost bowled him over. A little ways ahead, sitting by a fire lit off to the side of the road, there was a middle-aged man, dressed not quite like a Thron, but certainly not like a man of Aiken.
            The man hailed Weiss. Weiss could feel the plain hunger stamped on his face such that courtesy would’ve demanded nothing less of the man.
            “Hi, traveller!” the man called, “You look as though the road has been less than kind. I’ve taken a rabbit with my sling and would be glad to share in return for company.”
            Weiss sat, rather faster than courtesy demanded, at the fireside, and failed to keep his eyes off the spitted rabbit and on the face of his companion.
            “Eh, never mind the formalities,” laughed the man, when Weiss in his distraction missed the man’s outstretched hand. “I’m Terrick, and you’re hungry. That’ll do well enough.”
            For some blessed minutes, Terrick let Weiss absorb himself in the business of clearing every scrap of meat of the leg of the rabbit.
            “I’m more in your debt than I can say, mate,” sighed Weiss at last.
            “Don’t mention it.” Terrick waved it away airily. “Must be some journey you’ve had. You look as though you’ve been wandering the marshes for weeks! Where are you going that you’ll slog on through such misery?”
            “No greater misery than that I’ve left behind,” said Weiss, suddenly serious. “I am for Jesh’s Land beyond the pass in the mountains. For the joy I am promised ahead, I’d endure more than a rough few nights out on the marshes—for the shedding of this Deedsweight.”
            Terrick seemed surprised.
            “Aye, now. To be rid of a Deedsweight is a joy indeed, but to journey to Jesh’s Land by the pass? Why, the mud and weariness of the marshes is nothing to the hardness of that way! Wild beasts, places of gloom, hunters with spears, and hunger that will make your hunger this day seem child’s play; that’s all you’ll get by that road. I’ve heard many a story of that road in my fifty-odd years, mate, and I tell you whoever counselled you to go by that road as good as sent you to your death.”
            “Nonetheless,” said Weiss stubbornly, “it would take a good many terrors to outweigh the crushing of this Deedsweight.”
            “So be rid of it,” said Terrick. “But not by going to your death. You’ve had a hard journey, but I can show you a quick end to it.” He shook his head in disgust. “What kind of cruelty, to send a man blind into all kinds of peril when there’s a simple remedy right at hand?”
            And so Weiss found himself following Terrick to the village over the rise, where it seemed there was a man, a mage, who had skills to remove Deedsweights and to heal and comfort a battered body, too, which, the further they travelled, the more Weiss felt need for. The muscles in his legs were knotting in protest and his step was leaden.  He was dismayed when they went off the broad track to the village and onto an overgrown trail.
            “Patience, mate,” said Terrick brightly. “’Tis a short way. The mage’s house is just outside the village, ‘round to the north.”
            But as the way grew rougher, Weiss began to doubt. The path was craggy and steep now, and he slipped often on the scree underfoot. Then, very suddenly the path opened to a plateau, and Weiss stumbled back as Terrick suddenly turned on him with a strange light in his eyes. Above the plateau, the eastern side of the mountain was visible, and it was smoking and shining with a dull red glow, and great boulders were breaking loose all the time from the mountainside and hurtling past.
            “What is this place?” cried Weiss. “Where have you taken me?”

 

 

 

 

 

            “Ach, you’re a fool.” Terrick spat on the ground, unshaken by the boiling mountainside that hung above them. “Perhaps now you’ve seen with your own eyes the blackness of the way you’ve chosen, you’ll turn back with me. Indeed, anyone with the wits of a dog would keep away from these paths. But,” and he strode determinedly at Weiss as he spoke, “Mark me, if you won’t see reason, I’ve made well sure to walk you far enough to take the fight out of you, and if I have to bundle you back to your sister by force, well, my horse will take your sorry carcass without complaint. But one way or another, turn back you will—“ and Terrick leapt at Weiss as he backed down the rough trail, and caught him a hard shove directly in the chest that sent him sprawling into the rocky bracken. His Deedsweight pulled him down, and pulled him down.