Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Ten

            The way out of Caethron ran south, through the mountains. Heavy crags walled it on on either side, so that the way was clear and narrow, for which Weiss was glad. “No chance of going astray,” he nodded to himself as he set off, armed with a stout staff from Seto and a packet of dense, fragrant oilcakes from Ovesa. He felt he had had straying enough these last days for one man’s lifetime.
            Weiss’s rest had done him good, and he made good time through the mountain range, travelling steadily, reading his book by firelight in the evenings, downing a few birds by sling, singing half-remembered snatches of songs Ovesa had sung. It was not till he came through the foothills on the third day that his strength began to flag again. He had always been a man used to the outdoors, but the mountains were not like the marshy plains, and the rations were thin, and it seemed with each step, his Deedsweight dug a little deeper into his shoulders. It was a tongue of despair, lapping away at his resolve, and against it warred the map Mare had given him, for every step took him closer to the place marked in gold letters: Jesh’s Land, and beneath, the name Salavus. So courage and weariness tugged at him from both sides for a day and a night, and then, late in the morning, nearly on level ground now, the narrow path opened quite suddenly into a wide valley.
*
            In a threadbare brown robe, side-by-side with Arris and Mare, Aldous washed her clothes in the basin behind Hallan’s house. It was not a task she was accustomed to—her aunt and uncle had kept servants enough for that sort of work. She tried to copy Arris’ expert scrubbing with only mild success, but accepted it as her best effort in the end, and wrung out her clothes and spread them to dry on the grass alongside Mare and Arris’ when they were satisfied with their own work.
            Perhaps it’s for the best, a sly thought crept through her head. They might still smell of him.
            Cressus! The thought of him still needled at her. These were the clothes she had taken off with him, hesitant at first but then hungry. The rumpled clothes she had put on the next morning in the peace of his empty chambers.  Smoke, hyssop, metal, and leather. She had ridden in the night close against him, and now this wall between them forever.  Surely she could hold onto the smell of him, only, without shame?
            “Your way lies on ahead,” said Hallan, as they broke their bread at noonday. “Down through the village to the Interpreter’s house. And beyond that—to Jesh’s Land. I cannot take you there, not today. With the Blind Eye hanging around somewhere outside the gate, I’ve got to stay close to hand to open it for any travellers in a hurry. But you’ll find the way clear enough: down into the valley and at the south end of the village, a long house with many windows.”
“I will stay too,” said Mare. “For I’ve a wound to the shoulder that could use more rest, and after that—“ she looked at the Gate through the window. “There are many more who need to hear the words of life,” she finished softly.
Aldous suspected that Arris was no more pleased than she was at the prospect of making traveling companions for one another. The same destination they might have, but Arris was a villager, a laborer, terse, strong, uneducated, a woman of action. Aldous was a city-dweller, a scholar, a thinker, a fine lady from the Queen’s Quarter. They would have been ill-at-ease with one another even had Arris not mistrusted Aldous.
Still, they set out, back in their own garments (still slightly damp) but with a few provisions from Hallan to bolster their meager supplies: dried meat, dust-bread, slings for hunting which Aldous could only hope Arris knew how to use. Aldous had tried to return Hallan his book, but he pressed it back to her.
“Keep it,” he smiled, “and read it daily for the courage and grace it will speak to your heart.”
So Aldous tucked it into the pouch at her belt, and followed Arris down the winding path from the Gate to the village. There were trees here and there, scraggly poor things but still bigger than what grew on the marshes. Sheep bleated. Aldous tried not to let her breathing get too ragged, but Arris set a pretty hard pace. Sweat stung at Aldous’ eyes and she kept them trained down, focusing on the next step only: down, down, down. It could not be too far. It was a short way to the village. Just a little ways through the little village and they’d be at this Interpreter’s house and she could rest. Down, down, down—and then she was stopped short by slamming into Arris’ back.
Aldous snapped her head up and there, blocking their path, was Vana, and a strange grey-faced figure. Nay, even Vana was strange and grey-faced.
“Hello, Aldous,” she said with menacing cheer. Aldous whipped her eyes to Vana’s knife belt, but there were no knives. Vana’s hands danced around at her sides; thin and bony, they seemed, and grey, and with the nails sharpened to a point.
“Vana?” Aldous voice was heavy and uncertain, and Vana grinned wolfishly and nodded.
“Vana and not Vana,” she answered. “When Cressus proved too soft for the task of halting you, I took things, as is always best, into my own hands. Perhaps you did not know of the lore—a little place near to that thrice-cursed Gate where the Soul-Eaters make their home?”
Aldous had heard stories of the Soul-Eaters, silly tales told late at night in the dark among youths, stories for the superstitious. Arris had evidently heard them too, for her stony determination evaporated suddenly into a childish shriek. She scrambled backwards, stumbling against Aldous, who fell in turn. The Soul-Eaters were at them in an instant
“Sometimes,” whispered Vana, bending over Aldous almost tenderly, “even the Blind Eye isn’t enough. One can always upgrade one’s membership, and fortunately—“ Vana opened her mouth wide to a gush of cold air, revealing a mouthful of grey serrated teeth—“the Soul-Eaters are welcoming to ambitious women such as myself.”
“Your ears, your ears, cover your ears,” shouted Arris, who had a bony he-Soul-Eater hanging over her. Aldous snapped her arms up to cover her ears, and as she shut out Vana’s voice, her mind seemed suddenly clearer, and Vana less terrible.
Still, Vana only smirked, and, clasping Aldous’s wrists, gave a mighty yank.
“Come now, Aldous,” she said. “You were never lacking ambition yourself.”
Was that true? Had Aldous been ambitious or only aimless? She couldn’t remember now. Your ears, cover your ears, she remembered, and dutifully put her hands back up. Vana pulled them away again. Aldous felt more and more wooly.
“Join us,” coaxed Vana. “You weren’t really going to go all this way, leaving everything behind, fighting through hardship and enemies and cold, not when what you want could be yours if you’d only stop fighting…”
Aldous shook her head, slow and confused. She made to put her hands up, but Vana pushed them down again triumphantly. She knew she was winning—
but Aldous’s hand danced across the book tucked in at her waist—
#
The valley beneath Weiss was slant-lit by the sun, and it might have been a place of beauty, but its serenity was marred by two blemishes: a great torture-tree splayed out on the near slope with gears and barbs coiling across its blood-blacked wood, and at the bottom in the gully, the gaping mouth of an open tomb.
A shudder ran over Weiss, but it was not a shudder of horror only, for he knew this place—he had read, and re-read the portion of his book concerning Salavus. Jesh’s suffering, Jesh’s shame, taken not for his own crime, but for the legal debts of anyone, man, woman or child, who would surrender their guilt to him. The agony, the rending of bonds, the cruel bloody torture-tree claiming him as a just punishment. And then, the burial, the closing of a purely legal transaction, the mouth of the tomb sealed over. And next— no wonder Weiss shuddered!—that insatiable mouth burst and toothless, the light breaking slanted across the valley, Jesh himself, alive again and triumphant, the way to Elionae’s city opened, the toothless tomb, aye, the tamed tree!
The tremor that shook Weiss was not horror only, but wonder, and grief, and a curious feeling like a child meeting suddenly in the flesh those characters that had peopled the legends and stories he heard around the fire all his life. It was real! It was his! And Weiss felt a sudden wrench as the legal rectitude of his Deedsweight bit deep as knives into his shoulders, for the cords were drying and shrinking like sinew in the sun. They tightened until he thought he could not bear it, till almost they were ready to draw blood, and then, breathlessly, they gave a mighty twang and—let go.
The shot-grey capsule slithered out from beneath Weiss’s tunic and crashed into the rocky ground at his feet. Weiss skipped back to avoid it and it leapt off, thrumming off rock and hurtling over turf, end over end, down, down, and down, until with a great leap it cleared the slope and plunged headlong into the open mouth of the tomb.

 

 

 

 

 

Weiss stood for a long moment with his own mouth wide open, and tears standing in his eyes. Then, he staggered and dropped down to the grass, staring at the valley spread before him, weeping and laughing and saying over and over, “Thanks be!” and “Jesh, Jesh, Jesh,” and marvelling at the lightness with which he drew breath and the freedom with which he could move himself, and the extraordinary gladness which bloomed across his body at the absence for the first time in his life of the pressing presence of his deeds. It was the first rain lashing down into a land that had always been dry, and dusty, and without life.
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Writing: Conventicle, Chapter Eight

Weiss found himself waking from a long, dreamless sleep, into slanting sunlight in an unfamiliar room. His muddy clothes were heaped upon the floor, strange and foreign amids the clean linen sheets, the tall arching windows, the fluttering white drapes, and the smooth white stone floor. Cool mountain air drifted in the windows, but Weiss was more interested in the smells drifting in through the bedchamber’s door: rich, meaty, hearty smells that set his stomach rumbling with an urgency that brooked no argument.
He dressed himself in a brown robe that hung beside the bed, and despite feeling rather awkward in its loose folds, he made his way out into the hall.
“Good morning, traveller,” said the man from the gate last night, who was stirring pottage over a cheerful fire in the common room. He rose to press Weiss’ hand sincerely, introducing himself as Hallan, and then gestured him to a place at the table and served him: pottage with red beans and mutton, thick slices of bread, cheese, and then cream and berries, and steaming tea. Weiss ate and ate, until looking down at his place he was suddenly quite ashamed of how much of this good man’s food he had eaten and what poor company he had been throughout.
“Nay, nay,” said Hallan mildly when Weiss apologized. “There’s few come through here that aren’t in need of a good sleep and a better meal, but you looked more in need of them than most.” He nodded in the direction of a large mirror that hung to the left of the table and Weiss, giving his reflection the attention that had previously been fully taken up with food, was shocked at how gaunt and dirty he looked.
“I wonder you were willing to put me in one of your beds in this state,” he said, shaking his head.
“Sheets wash clean,” shrugged Hallan. “And I keep the beds for travellers. Now tell me, Weiss, how came you here? Who sent you? And what became of you on the way, that you were so worn and dirty?”
So Weiss began at the beginning, meeting Mare on the plains, his struggle in the marsh, how Signa turned back. The man and the mountain and the flight from the Blind Eye.
Hallan listened silently, sympathy dancing across his face as Weiss spoke, but he interrupted once to ask, “Where is Mare now? I’d have expected her to reach Caethron by now.”
“She said she had one more village to visit,” said Weiss. A little knot of worry danced into the air off Hallan’s brow, and Weiss swallowed it, and would nurse it for all the rest of the morning and evening.
“Well, the way you’ve come by has been the death of many, and it will be the death of many more,” said Hallan soberly when Weiss finished his tale. “Thanks be to Elionae that you have come so far in one piece.”
“I should never have done if not for Mare,” said Weiss. “And I was so witless every step of the way, forgetting the map, falling for tricks, that I am ashamed to even stand talking here. And yet—“ he looked ‘round at Hallan earnestly—“I could not be gladder to be here.”
“Your shame need not weigh you down,” said Hallan. “Here there is no reproach. Only help.”
Together, they passed the afternoon in extraordinary peacefulness, drawing water from a mountain stream to warm for a bath for Weiss, and then to wash his clothes. Standing in his room as he readied himself to dress in his sun-dried breeches, jerkin, and cloak, Weiss ran his palm along the strict cording of the Deedsweight where it cut into the skin of his shoulder. Unbreakable. Everyone had always said so. Just something to live with. And beyond through the wide stone arch of window, Caethron lay in the valley, a little cluster of white stone houses, small amidst the crags and grasses, and it was hope. Weiss squared his shoulders, and it was as if his heart was running, sprinting and leaping through the open window, down, down the rocky slope, to the village, and to what was beyond it, to the way that would lead him—must lead him, for what else was there?—to the Breaker of the Unbreakable Cord.
#
“They will find us, I know they will.” Aldous said it quietly, into the scrub grass, so neither the Thron nor the farm worker could hear. She knew she ought to sleep; it was still a few hours before day and she could use the rest for the journey ahead. The mountains were cold, though, and her heart was colder with fear. Vana and Cressus would’ve gone back by now, to the spot where they had left her guarding the prisoners, and they would’ve seen her treachery, and they would be hunting. Cressus, she thought, might give her mercy, but Vana would not be reined in, not after this. And when she thought of Cressus’ fierce glee, breaking the staff and binding the women and pounding away after Weiss, she was not even sure he would give her mercy. She shook like a leaf as she lay wrapped in her cloak, and not only for the chill of the ground.
Yet she had not been able to say no. Mare—that was the Thron—had asked her why she wept, and a thousand thousand grey days had tumbled open and left Aldous’ heart bare. It was like a blind creature from a cave, white-eyed and feeble, that husk of a heart, but Mare had spoken balm to it. “Why stay here,” she had asked, “to steep in such misery for the rest of your days?”
Aldous had cried. By the Queen, she had cried harder than she could ever remember crying, till her cheeks throbbed and the skin around her eyes was dappled red and her nose ran like a neglected child’s, and Mare had lain patiently on the cold ground until the storm was passed and Aldous was ready to saw the ropes loose and help Mare and Arris, the villager, to their feet.
Her cave-creature heart had held onto Cressus. It was still holding onto him, truth be told. Amid the roil of fear and hope, there was a little warm nucleus of memory, his skin against hers, their lamplit tenderness—it was clutched against her as close as his real body had been, where no one could touch it. Yet she had betrayed him. He would despise her.
Dawn came, greying then gilding the sky, and Arris stirred, and woke, and began building a fire while Mare slipped off into the brush to gather food. Aldous felt she should help, but she didn’t know the first thing about building a fire nor foraging, so she sat awkwardly off to the side instead.
“Come get warm,” said Arris at last, tersely. She was older than Aldous, her skin lined and tan from her work in the sun in a way that made Aldous’ own pale skin look almost babylike. She had kept aloof from Aldous so far, which, considering that Aldous had been her jailer not twelve hours ago, was fair. But now, as she fed the fire with chips of dung from her pack, Arris made a space for Aldous, who came forward gratefully to warm her cold-clumsy hands.
“He was quite a man,” said Arris without introduction, and it was a question.
“I did not know he could be cruel like that,” said Aldous plaintively, beseechingly. Arris looked back at her with steady eyes, unyielding, and Aldous’ voice dropped into a murmur: “He was so very kind to me,” she said.
“And now what?” said Arris. “Will he still be kind?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Aldous watched the flames leaping up, the ash dancing across the cool white gold of the sky. “Vana would happily kill us all, no doubt.”
“Vana would,” agreed Arris. “And what of the man they went after?”
“My brother,” said Aldous, her heart soft and sick suddenly. “I don’t know. Vana wasn’t sure they’d be in time to catch him at the gate. I can only hope. I expect they’d kill him after what he’s done—they were only going to keep him alive for my sake.”
“They were not in time,” said Mare, coming up behind them. “I do not think they could’ve been, for I saw the purpose in his eyes when last I was with him, and he would’ve moved sure and fast. And I do not believe Elionae would let him die so near the haven.”
“What could Elionae do?” asked Aldous, half-hopeful, half-suspicious.
“His hand is in all, though we may not see it,” said Mare. “Hallan was keeping the gate and he would’ve seen Weiss in safely. I just do not think they were in time.”
She was comforting, her smile, her hands, her voice, in a way that was peculiar for the youngest of the group. Mare looked closer Weiss’ age, perhaps twenty-four, and yet Aldous at twenty-eight and Arris, who must be into her thirties, were drawing from her, turning their faces to her as new seedlings follow the sun.
Mare spread a leather roll before the fire, in which was dried meat, and dustbread. Beside it she deposited cress, and breadroot, and mushrooms, nuts, and a handful of round blue-black berries Aldous didn’t recognize.
“Eat well, sisters,” she said, “We’ve a race ahead of us before we’re safe in Caethron.”

 

 

 

 

 

            Aldous plucked, half-unconsciously, at the black cord of the Deedsweight that cut, taut as a bowstring, the baby-white skin of her shoulder.

Thursdays with Words: April Reading List

I’ve been reading a lot more than I have in I can’t even remember how long (thank-you, Georgia!), so I wanted to sit down and do some reviews of what I’ve read recently. Partly I want to just get it out of my head, and partly I hope you can find something that catches your interest. All links will be through my Amazon Affiliates account*. So, without further ado– what I’ve read this past month (well, six weeks-ish):

How We Learn, Benedict Cary
Steven got me this for Christmas and I loved it. I loved it for me, and I loved it for my children, and I can’t wait to read it again and sit down and write out how these ideas can be applied to homeschooling. It’s basically a series of ‘brain hacks’ to help you retain and memorize information better, solve problems more creatively and efficiently, and generally learn more effectively. I’m probably going to do a longer blog post on it so I’ll leave it at that.

The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett
I read this right after he died. I had always had the impression that Pratchett just wrote kind of goofy fantasy, but I was wrong. Or at least, about this book. But I will definitely want to read more. I found his work a beautiful blend of humour and poignancy, his culture rich and detailed, his MC thoroughly relatable and awesome, and his imagination wonderful. This story made me laugh out loud and it made me think. I was wasting my time not reading him all these years.

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card
I got this because I am working on a fantasy novel; this is also the reason for most of the other books I’ve read this month and most of the books on my to-read list. I’m trying to get a handle on the genre and some of the aspects I am less strong in. I feel myself to be reasonably strong on the mechanics of writing, but this book focuses on aspects specific to speculative fiction– worldbuilding, magic systems, types of stories, and the SFF publishing market. I think it was a good base for me, and serves as a good jumping off point for reading SFF with a watchful eye for the elements that make it good SFF.

The Patternist Series, Octavia Butler
I downloaded the first book (Wild Seed) because Card praised it in the above-mentioned book. Then I tore through it, dowloaded the next book without stopping, and tore through that, and so on ’til I’d read all four. A creative concept and I was very surprised the direction it took. All four books are connected, but in a loose, unexpected manner as they travel from the 1600’s to a post-apocalyptic society. The writing is spare without being unnecessarily so, and the plot is forefront without neglecting the skill and beauty of the language, which I find rare in plot-driven books. Content advisory: there is a lot of sex in these books. It’s not graphic, it’s just ubiquitous. The story features essentially the breeding of a new society and the characters are all part of that so they all just end up having lots of sex. You were warned.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
Read this for book club; it’s been a while since I read older fiction like this and it was a good shake-up for me, I think. Different language, different style conventions, different social mores and overarching values… I was interested in the story but I had a hard time getting away from the constant commentary on what females can and can’t do/feel/think. I read on Collins’ Wikipedia page that “He also wrote penetratingly on the plight of women and on the social and domestic issues of his time,” so maybe I was just too far removed socially from the time of the book to catch on? Maybe he was being ironic? He seemed to spend for more time than necessary pontificating on what women are intrinstically like, and he doesn’t usually decide on the more flattering choices (i.e. weak, emotional, stuff like that). Marian Halcombe is interesting, witty, intelligent, and totally not the love interest in the story, which role is instead fulfilled by her angelic, blonde, and boring-as-heck half-sister Laura. So that annoyed me the whole time.

Update: This was still bugging me so I did a quick Google of “feminism the woman in white wilkie collins” and came up with this blog post which does enlighten me a little. Commentary on unjust marriage laws, strong female character, types. Ok, cool. Still a little annoyed but less so.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson
Read this on the plane back home for Easter (and then all the next day when I was supposed to be actually doing stuff like mothering my children and unpacking). I’m working on writing a fantasy novel so I’m trying to read more in the genre, get a better feel from the sweep of fantasy and hit the big authors in the field. I enjoyed the magic system (Allomancy) in this book, which was intricate, internally consistent, and unique. The characterization and development was decent and the writing also fair to middling, although Sanderson did feel the inexplicable need to use the word ‘maladroitly’ like four times which is totally uncalled for. But (spoiler alert) Jordan used the word ‘rictus’ even more than that in Eye of the World so it was probably a good thing Sanderson was chosen to continue the Wheel of Time series…

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan
For the whole first section of the book I had a very hard time separating my opinion of the elements of this book that have become tropes from my opinion of the actual writing, but as I got deeper into the story, as things got more immersive, I was able to set that aside. The further in I got, the more I admired Jordan’s worldbuilding and creativity. I still don’t find the writing style very much to my taste, and I was annoyed throughout the book about the way he wrote women and the way he wrote male-female relationships (like, everybody had to mention about how they could never understand the other gender), but the story, the scope, the world, the magic, were all beautiful and well-done.

*And hey: if you buy any of these books through my links here, I get money! So, just a thought…