The Curse of the Bear

“Please, Spot,” Sigge begged. She held the leather harness out to the ornery goat, who stomped and screamed and snorted in response. He lowered his shaggy head, his horns looking all the more cruel for his refusal. The harness belonged to the small goat cart Sigge’s adopted mother Hedvig had always kept for her trips into town, and she needed to go to town one last time.

“Keep your filthy hands off me! You probably killed her yourself!” Spot reared back, and Sigge dove to dodge the blow.

“Spot!” she cried. Tears tore her voice to shreds, but she refused to shed any of them. She rose to her feet, wiping mud and muck from her own golden fur. “You know I would never hurt her. Never.”

 “I know no such thing,” Spot replied.

 Sigge was beginning to wish Hedvig had taken Ryker’s offer to castrate the cantankerous imp when she had delivered his daughter’s third son. I would have killed you long before I ever laid a finger on her, Sigge thought.

Bargaining would have to work, because Sigge had found Hedvig dead that morning, and Sigge needed to get her to the grove. “This one last time. Not for me, Spot, but for her. She deserves to be burned properly, and she deserves to have her ashes spread in the grove. I need – Hedvig needs your help.”

Sigge herself had only been to the grove once, though she hadn’t passed the stone gate. It was called The Grove of Amund, and it was beautiful. It was a hillock, wreathed by hazel and birch, oak and spruce, pine and rowan, but crowned by a great yew tree. The great Amund planted his staff there beyond which he would let no frost ogre step, and never one did. After his death, his staff could not be moved and grew into that great yew. Those who worshiped Amund like Hedvig had their ashes spread upon the hill.

“After that, I’ll take off the harness,” Sigge promised, “and you’ll be free to go as you want. This one last thing, Spot, and you will never see or hear from me again.” She stopped herself from swearing to it. Spot would never take her word for anything.

“The instant we get there, you cut me loose from that harness, and I go on my merry way?”

Sigge nodded, feeling the relief sag her shoulders. “The very instant. You don’t even have to wait to see that I actually burn her on the pyre.”

“Oh, no, Abomination,” Spot said, hopping closer. He poked a sharp cloven hoof into her gut. He meant it to be vicious, but Sigge barely felt it through her thick fur. “I will be making sure you do not disgrace dear Hedvig’s memory. She was a good woman, and she deserved better than you.”

The sky had darkened by the time Sigge had gotten close to town where the grove grew, though few would venture out into the woods at night. Maybe they would see the pyre from the walls, but she doubted any would come to see what had set the fire, not until morning. There were too many stories of man-eating monsters and dread demons to stir even the stoutest heart. There were more than a few missing people to go along with those tales. Sigge, to her relief, could finish this in peace.

Or so she thought.

A stone glanced off her shoulder as she came to the ancient archway that marked the entrance to the grove.

“Ow!” Sigge shouted. “Who threw that? I’m only here to burn my dead.” It hadn’t hurt, but she often found if she played weak that people were not as frightened of her golden fur, great height, massive paws, and heavy claws. She looked nearly like a bear with a human face, and most were frightened when first they saw Sigge.

“Your kind are not welcome here,” a voice from the gloom shook through the trees. It was a moist voice, soft and old like midnight shadows or soil in springtime.

Sigge hadn’t heard voices like that before. She glanced at Spot, who chewed his cud unhelpfully. “My kind? You mean mortals?”

“No, like you!” another voice said. This was light and subtle, like a soft breeze or a death rattle. “Cursed!” It was coming from high above her.

“I know I’m cursed,” Sigge said quickly. “But, I – there’s no one else to burn her. She was very old and very kind, and she kept to the old ways more faithfully than anyone else. She deserves to be burnt here.”

“Be gone!” the first voice boomed, the earth beneath Sigge’s feet rumbling in time. “You shall not set foot in this sacred place!” This voice was against the collapsed wall, close to the ground.

“Defiler!” the second voice wailed. It had moved much closer, bending toward her. The air sizzled as it spoke. “You shall not sully this place any longer!”

Spot’s ears twitched frantically to catch the voices as they moved. “I told you you couldn’t come here,” he warned, stamping a foot.

“You never did!” Sigge cried in reply. “Please, great gods, I am your loyal servant! She was your loyal servant! I won’t defile anything!”

The world stopped shaking, the wind stopped blowing, and, silence reigned. For a moment, Sigge believed that she had imagined the whole thing. But, Spot stood beside her trembling, the only thing keeping him from bolting was the harness on his back.

Then, just as suddenly, by her ear, “You already have, by merely being–”

Sigge shrieked and flailed at the noise. She struck something, her palm making a slapping noise as it connected with flesh, followed by a soft thud of weight hitting grass.

“Hey! Now, that’s just rude!” the first voice shouted.

“You’re not supposed to hit!” the second voice chimed in.

Sigge pulled her hands to her chest, looking back and forth from the two beings now visible to her. One lay prostrate on the ground, the other came bounding from the shadow to stand over it. Both sounded so much more juvenile now. Not scary, not powerful, just young and headstrong. They looked it, too, if one could look past the shocking appearance of demons. The two were small, the size of children, with dark fur and glowing yellow eyes. They had claws on their hands and feet and long tails. One was holding its cheek where Sigge had struck it, the other stood facing Sigge with its hands on its hips sticking out its startlingly pink tongue.

“You’re just children,” Sigge exclaimed.

“We are not!”

“We’re the guardians of this place!”

“You can’t come here!”

Hedvig had told Sigge of these creatures. Like many demons and monsters, they moved into sacred places, but these didn’t desecrate them. They protected the abandoned ones from graverobbers or even other demons. They were tricksters, of some kind, and used all sorts of pranks to keep people away. It made Sigge sad to know they had come to the grove, for it meant that it had been abandoned by the town. They were abandoning the old ways.

“You’re just children,” Sigge whispered again, almost too surprised to believe it herself.

“We are not!” shouted the one who sat on the ground. It pouted, its lower lip trembling as tears glistened in its eyes. Sigge felt guilty; she could forget how strong she was.

Sigge scratched the fur at her collarbone, uncertain of how to proceed. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said. Her voice sounded as squeezed and desperate as she felt. She winced at the sound of it.

“You shouldn’t just go flinging your arms about,” the one on the ground said. “You’re really big.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Listen–”

Spot kicked the cart hard enough to make it bounce and stomped the ground. “Get it on with, Fuzzy. Let me go before these two dimwits kill you.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming, give me a moment.” Spot was impatient, and Sigge had to move quickly to avoid his horns and his teeth. When she was done, he walked calmly into the grove and promptly shat on the grass. The two demons didn’t seem to notice.

Sigge shook the feeling of disgust away. “I am sorry I hurt you,” she began again. “I didn’t mean to. I thought you were much bigger than you are, and I was frightened. Please, I didn’t mean any harm.”

“Mean to or not, you did.” The one she’d hit still pouted as it climbed to its feet, but the pink bloom on its cheek had already faded away.

Sigge tried to smile. “I am sorry,” she said. “My name is Sigge. What’s yours?”

The two looked surprised, and then suspicious. They glanced at each other, perhaps sharing a language of glances to which Sigge wasn’t privy. “You want to know our names?” the one who hadn’t been hit asked.

This time, Sigge smiled genuinely. “Of course! I want something to call you – not your true names, but something to call you,” Sigge said quickly, remembering how protective all manner of spirits were about their names. Hedvig had told her that one could control creatures with their true names. Spot, who had been named Koenig, insisted on being called Spot instead so that Hedvig and Sigge couldn’t control him. “Just something I can call you while we talk.”

The two exchanged glances again, as if they had never heard of such a thing. They whispered together again, waving arms and pointing fingers mostly at Sigge. Curiosity got the better of them, though, and the one who had been hit said tentatively, “I’m Boo.”

“You can call me Hush,” the other said quickly. “Those aren’t our real names, mind you. Just what you can call us.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Boo and Hush,” Sigge said, curtsying as best she could. She was a gangly, awkward thing. Big, with long arms and strong legs, and never acquainted with anything like courtly manners, but she tried.

Boo’s cheeks colored, and Hush’s eyes widened, and the corners of its mouth turned down. “And you, Sigge,” Boo said finally.

They stood in silence. Boo rubbed its fingers together, trying to find a comfortable way to hold its hands. Hush scuffed the ground in uncomfortable circles. Sigge smoothed the fur at belly and then her arms, trying to think of something to say. It was clear that Boo and Hush wouldn’t break the silence. They watched at her, perhaps curious, perhaps appalled.

“This all started out badly,” Sigge said finally. “I didn’t mean to… show up unannounced. I hadn’t realized this sacred place had been reclaimed. The woman whose body lies there in that cart is Hedvig. She kept faithfully to Amund. She needs this grove so that she may have a proper funeral. That’s all I ask. It’s not for me; it’s for her.”

Boo rubbed its hands over its ears sheepishly, looking away, and Hush opened its mouth and closed it several times before finding its voice. “It’s not… We would be happy to allow her funerary rites…  She’s allowed to come into the grove. The problem is you.”

“You see,” Boo added quickly, “you’re cursed. I mean, I’m sure it’s not your fault, the curse and all. And it’s nothing personal, it’s just that… well, look at yourself! You’re an abomination.”

“Told you,” Spot said from where he lay in the lush grass. He chewed it occasionally, entirely too pleased with himself.

“If there were anyone else – children, grandchildren, a kindly neighbor–-anyone else who could bring her in here, we’d-–it’d be fine. We wouldn’t interfere-”

“We’d hide away so no one could see us and be frightened away!”

“But, we just can’t let you in.”

“You could… I mean, if you burnt her body elsewhere, maybe you could sort of… toss her ashes over the wall?”

Sigge bowed her head. Failed. At the last, she had failed Hedvig. She couldn’t seek out any of the other villagers. They’d chase her away before she could even ask. If they found out Hedvig was dead, they’d think she killed her. Cursed. Forever. Failed. Failed. Failed.

No.

“There has to be a way,” Sigge said, whether out of determination or desperation she couldn’t be sure. “There has to be a way to lift the curse. There has to be a way to let me in.”

Hush and Boo exchanged glances again. Hush nodded, but Boo shook its head frantically.

“Well, there may be…” Hush began.

“No!” Boo said quickly. “Not that! That’s impossible!”

“Do you know Dagne’s Spring?”

Sigge shook her head slowly.

Hush grinned, sharp teeth glistening in the fading light. It sat itself cross-legged, floating a hand’s breadth off the ground, hands at its knees, chest puffed out.

“When the great and noble Von was cursed by the wicked Ulfric so that he brought winter wherever he stepped, Kelda drew her own daughter, Dagne, from the earth and married her to Von. Where she emerged is called Dagne’s Spring. And Dagne, she’s also known as Curse-Breaker. Dagne broke the curse of the Eternal Winter in this land. She brought back spring and warmth and happiness as a marriage gift to Von.”

Sigge’s breath caught in her throat. Blood pooled to her ears as her heart seemed to stop. For a moment, Sigge thought she was dying. No, no, no. Don’t let it be true. Let this be a lie. I can’t take the hope of it.

“Dagne’s Spring,” Hush went on, “is not far from here. Bubbles up from the ground in a cave. It’s got all sorts of magical powers. It can cure people – and lift curses, I’m sure. You could bathe in it.”

“Is that all?” Sigge asked. It’s too good to be true, she told herself. Oh, please let it be true.

Boo pushed Hush aside, giving its sibling a harsh glare. “There’s a problem. It’s been polluted, so it doesn’t have any power left to it. It’s impossible. You might as well give up now.”

“It’s not impossible. Just very, very unlikely. The desecration can be undone.”

“How?” Sigge asked. The chance to lift the curse. The chance to be normal. The chance to walk among people without hisses and boos and rock thrown. She had never known such a thing.

“There’s a monster,” Boo began, its tone quiet and formidable.

“The villagers have been dumping their trash in the cave for years,” Hush interrupted. “That’s what started the whole thing. It polluted the spring, and to monsters, well, there’s no place better than a desecrated spring. So, before any kind of our kind could go in and protect it–”

“A monster moved in. Big, huge, hairy, long teeth and sharp claws–”

“It hasn’t got teeth or claws. It’s got mandibles and pincers.”

“And relentless. Ruthless. Incorrigible.”

“That is not the word you’re looking for.”

“What do you know?”

The two dissolved into bickering, but Sigge didn’t hear them. Just as quickly as she had been given hope, it had been ripped away, and she felt all the more hollow for it. Failed, cursed and failed. Worst of all, she had failed Hedvig, but even as she thought of it, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for herself. A giant monster, a polluted spring, and no chance to lift the curse.

“Sigge, you can do it!” one of the demon children called as she began to walk away. Sigge turned back. Hush had pinned Boo and was reaching out to Sigge. “You can do it. You can overcome the monster and clean up that cave, and if you do, you won’t be cursed anymore. In fact–”

“Don’t do it, Hush, that’s not fair!”

Hush pointed a long, clawed finger at Sigge. “You must do it. It is your quest to defeat that monster and reclaim the spring for yourself and your ancestors and your children to come.” Hush looked pleased with itself, smiling smugly at Sigge, though she did not understand the significance.

“Oooh,” Boo moaned. “Now you’ve gone and done it. It wasn’t my fault, Sigge, remember that. It wasn’t my fault.”

Spot laughed, hopping toward Sigge. “Serves you right, Abomination. And I hope it kills you, too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course, you don’t, you fool!”

“You have to do it now,” Hush said, a smirk playing on its lips. “You can’t not go and defeat the monster. It’s your quest. You have to. That’s the rule.”

A sinking feeling settled on Sigge, even as Hush celebrated. She wondered if she had been saddled with another curse.

~~~

Sigge rubbed a new bruise on her side. She had expected the shouting, the cursing, the spitting; the villagers had done that and worse before. She would have expected rocks thrown at her, too. What she hadn’t expected was a pig-nosed boy with a pitchfork trying to skewer her through the ribs. That was new. They were getting younger and more vicious.

Still, she had hoped that morning for help with the monster not out of loyalty to her, but for the villagers’ own sakes. This was their spring, and this monster was polluting it. They hadn’t been willing to help; they hadn’t even been willing to listen. Instead, they shouted and jeered and spat, and one man with a boil on his neck had shouted, “Go yourself. At least we’ll be rid of one monster!” That was when the boy had tried to stab her. That was when Sigge had run.

Now, the cave opened in the earth before her, a hole with little warning other than the few boulders that formed its upper lip. It was a giant maw large enough to swallow a grown man, and it yawned into the depths as if it was waiting for its next victim to stumble by. Vines hung from the rocks above, dripping like spittle into the ominous gloaming below. Sigge had never been so frightened of one of Kelda’s springs.

While Hedvig had been partial to Amund, Sigge was fond of the mysterious Kelda. There weren’t many stories of her, but Sigge knew of her springs. Kelda was a frost ogre and looked at the worlds of gods and mortals with disgust and loathing. She froze all the water she found, drawing it into the earth so it would not be polluted by mortal touch, and she walked the world, killing any who would try to steal it back.

One day, she came across a hobbled boy and his old goat. Fearing that she would eat the goat, the boy stood up against Kelda. “This goat has given my family milk and kids every year since I was born. She has served us well, and I won’t have harm come to such a noble creature,” the boy declared.

Kelda was so moved that she drew the waters back up from the earth. She healed the boys hobble from her spring and told him to tell the rest of the mortal world that her springs would heal the sick and wounded, as disease and deformation were punishments from the gods that she would gladly foil. The boy grew into the hero Von.

Sigge peered over the lip of the cave. She could just see the brittle morning light glinting off the water’s surface. But for the wind blowing ripples, she saw no movement. She hefted a tree branch large enough to be a club and steeled herself to leap into the spring. Her chest constricted, her mouth went, and her stomach roiled. Sigge took a deep breath and glanced up into the clouds.  “Gods, I know you don’t favor abominations, but please watch over me as I try to kill a monster with a stick.”

Into the darkness she plunged.

She splashed into icy water that reached mid-thigh. Slick mud lined the bottom, oozing between her toes but offering no footholds. From what little she could see of the rest of the cave, it just got deeper from there.

Reflected light danced off the walls and ceiling of the cave but did little to illuminate it. A prickling in her fur told Sigge that there was something watching in the gloom, even if she couldn’t hear any breathing or feel any movement in the water. Sigge swallowed back a sudden wave of nausea.

Carefully, she felt the floor of the cave. It sloped down toward the darkness. Lose my footing, and I’ll be done. Sigge was certain, even as strong as she was, that it was stronger. If it dragged her down, there would be no hope at all. Great gods, what have I gotten myself into? She could feel her blood seeping from her limbs as any hope of survival withered. Why did I do this? Why did I agree to this?

Sigge tightened her grip on the makeshift club as she remembered. For Hedvig, the only person who has ever been kind to me.

Still, Sigge had no intention of calling out to the monster who watched her, which left her no course of action but to shiver in the icy water and hope the monster died of boredom. Once more, Sigge begged for the mercy of the gods in her doomed misadventure.

“Sister,” came the answer, but the smoothness of the voice, the rasping of a blade being drawn from its scabbard, was certainly not that of one of her gods, “why have you come to my den?”

The voice echoed all around her, petrifying her in her spot.

“Sister, have you come to drown your prey in my spring? Will you–” a scoff “–lure men from their wives to devour them here? Or will you snatch for children that play nearby?”

Sigge shook her head, trying to clear the voice out, but it stayed, rushing down her spine and freezing her blood. She prayed again, begging any god, her own or one entirely unknown to her, to save her.

“Answer me, sister.” Sigge heard movement in the water, the gentle lapping of a snake gliding over a river. “I did not invite you here, but if you will agree to bring your victims to me first, perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

Sigge couldn’t find her voice. Her throat and mouth were dry, and she could hear herself shaking violently.

“Answer me, sister.” It was a whisper now, and it spoke in the language of the dead.

I’m not your sister.

“I’m not your sister,” Sigge heard herself say.

“What is that? Not my sister? Accursed and vile, but not my sister?” The laugh that followed was a winter gale.

Sigge gritted her teeth. This damned thing thought she was damned as well. A sudden rush of heat burst from the center of her chest and boiled up into her head. Sigge decided that if she was going to die, she was at least going to make sure this thing knew she was no monster.

“I am no sister of yours, monster,” Sigge growled. The ferocity surprised even her, and hearing it echo back to her made her feel braver.

The creature emerged into the light and the feeling immediately disappeared. It was monstrous. The creature towered over her, swaying gently like a snake preparing to strike, but it was armored in scales like a beetle. Its mouth was great pincers, and Sigge couldn’t see eyes, but they bore into her all the same. It looked like flowing ice, reflecting light and gloom from its body.

“If not a sister, then a victim.” It lunged, its huge body moving with a speed Sigge could barely see.

Sigge leapt away, went underwater, and scrambled to her feet. She sputtered water as she tasted air. The club was right beside her. She reached for it. Something struck her across the back, and she was underwater again. She struggled but couldn’t find the surface. She lashed out. Her throat and chest burned for air.

Her hand scraped something. The cave wall. Sigge used it to stand. She retched and gasped for air. Water blinded her. Sigge dug at her eyes with the heel of her hand. She opened them to see the monster curling back up to strike again.

The club! The crystalline monster coiled as tightly as possible. Sigge ducked under the water, and the creature struck the wall of the cave an instant later. Sigge pushed off the wall, away. Her chest scraped the floor below and when she surfaced, she was belly deep in water. She was away from the light. The club! The club!

“Damned, stupid beast!” the monster shouted as it started to draw back again. It had been stunned. It was disoriented.

Where is the damned club?

“Abomination! I will send you back to the hell from which you sprang!” There, near its head.

If Sigge could reach it, she might have a chance. Sigge dove. Hurry, hurry, before it can strike.

Just as Sigge’s hand grasped the log, a coil wrapped around her chest and squeezed. “A mortal?” the monster cried with delight. “A cursed mortal! How wonderful to taste.”

Sigge squirmed, one arm was free. With all her might, she slammed the log down across the monster’s back. Sigge watched in horror as the log crumbled against the unblemished scales. The monster laughed.

“Struggle, please, struggle,” the monster said. “The sorrow when you die will be even more delicious. Nothing is more disappointing than resignation.”

The realization dawned on Sigge as the splinters washed from her hand. She had come here to die, and there would be no one to burn Hedvig. Nor herself.

“Poor little Abomination. I will remember you fondly.” The monster squeezed. Sigge cried out in pain. Her ribs strained; she could feel her organs pressing into each other.

“I can’t–” Sigge gasped for breath, but the creature squeezed tighter. Desperate, she tried to push the coil away. No way out. No way out. She dragged her claws over the scales.

“Linger, Abomination. Fight, you may yet–” The creature howled as Sigge’s claws caught a joint in the armor and pulled it away. It dropped her, writhing, spilling silver blood into the water. Sigge bumped the bottom, and before she could rise, another coil crashed into her.

She slammed her fist against the coil. It rose and came down again, impossibly fast in the water. Sigge felt her rib crack and screamed. Water gushed into her mouth and down her throat. Drowning, drowning, Sigge kicked wildly, hoping for purchase.

The coil pressed against her belly, pinning her to the floor of the cave, pressing her into the sucking mud. It pressed the air out of her, and in one burning, rushing gasp, water rushed in. All was in blackness. Desperate, Sigge dragged her claws across the scales. She felt her claw stick in another joint and pressed. Her claws plunged into emptiness below. Silver darkness clouded her eyes. She didn’t stop until the weight was lifted.

Sigge’s head broke the surface. She opened her mouth, but a wave slammed into her, throwing her back. She hit something hard, but this time when she gasped, she got air. She vomited water.

She was slammed back against the cave wall. She screamed, agonizing white-hot pain searing throughout her entire body.

“I have never met such a determined beast,” the monster hissed. Sigge felt its icy breath against her face, freezing water in her fur. “But I will never be defeated by a mortal, and though you are a hideous abomination, you are mortal.”

Sigge blinked, but she couldn’t open one eye as blood poured into it. She saw red. She hadn’t realized she was bleeding.

The monster’s face was inches from hers. Its pincers twitched, touching her face, yanking out golden strands of fur. Its breath was ragged, though not as ragged as hers. She may have been bleeding, but oily silver puddles pooled on the waters’ surface. The monster was bleeding more.

The monster pressed her harder and Sigge gasped in pain.

It could probably afford to lose more blood.

“You are an abomination, hated by gods and mortals and demons, and you have dared to come to my den to fight me? You should have died in your mother’s womb! But I will give you one final chance.” The created breathed ice in her face. Sigge opened her eyes. She could see the black slits gleaming beneath the pincers. They rippled like water, hypnotically.

“You need not go back to the mortals,” it whispered. “You may stay. Hunt the mortals. Bring them to me. And you may live.”

She was strong, her claws were sharp, she was determined, but the scales covering the monster’s body were unbreakable. However. She had gotten beneath them. And beneath the scales, there was nothing but shadow and ice and nothingness.

Sigge took a deep, ragged breath, ignoring the pain from her crushed ribs, then slashed the monster’s eyes.

The creature reared back, dropping Sigge into the water again. She only had to get under the scales. So she dug her feet into the mud, bared her claws, and caught at the monster’s scales as it dove, its long body gliding past.

Her claws caught, nearly ripping out at the root. She heard the creature scream, but she pressed her heels into the mud and hauled back. The creature writhed and shrieked, but Sigge held on. With all her strength, she pulled, her muscles straining, her joints creaked, but she held.

“I am no monster!” she cried and hauled back once more. There was a tearing sound, and the scale came lose in Sigge’s hands. Oily, silver blood poured over her hands, soaking into her fur, flooding the cavern around her.

The monster shrieked, its scream echoing through the cavern, piercing through the cloud of Sigge’s own confusion. The water around her boiled with the monster’s thrashing, pounding against her, driving her down. She half-crawled, half-swam until she was in the light again. The water stilled. Sigge wiped blood and water from the fur around her eyes.

The monster’s breath came ragged as its thrashing slowed. It twitched and stopped, merely floating on the water’s surface. The wounds Sigge had managed to inflict were widening as the scales crumbled away, “I never,” the monster gasped, “thought I would die at the hands of an,” it trembled, “abomination.”

Sigge watched it dissolve into the hollow of its body. “I’m not an abomination.”

The monster sighed one last time. Its body shattered like a mirror and melted away in the water of the spring. Sigge felt cold to her very core. She had had enough of the spring’s water for a lifetime, no matter how sacred.

~~~

Sigge had hoped that defeating the monster would burn the fur away. It had been an arduous fight. She could taste blood with each breath, and every movement sent pain radiating from her ribs. She was victorious all the same.

But, defeating the monster did nothing.

Sigge had hoped that dragging the trash from the cave would shed the fur from her skin. Hour after hour, she dove into the darkness to find another piece of broken pottery or another discarded farm tool. Hour after hour, the sky grew dark while the water grew clearer. She worked until couldn’t feel her limbs.

But, cleaning the spring did nothing.

Sigge had hoped bathing in the spring would wash the fur away. She shivered to her bones, sitting in the shallows, swimming in the depths, pouring handful after handful of water over her head. She bathed herself until her skin wrinkled and her fur matted with ice.

But, bathing in the spring did nothing.

As she emerged from the cave, she found the sky had turned dark, and she had missed an entire day. Exhaustion filled her limbs as darkness filled her eyes, and Sigge couldn’t bring herself to move. She lay down and prayed that she would wake the following morning naked of fur.

But, morning brought nothing.

The dawn burned the sky crimson, waking Sigge from a dreamless sleep, bathing her in a cold, watery light that would never penetrate the thick fur still covering her body. With it, she gave up hope.

Sigge stretched aching muscles and rubbed aching limbs and found that her fur was still wet. She got to her feet, stomach rumbling, joints shaking, and skin pimpling, to make her way back so she could finally put all this business and Hedvig to rest.

“When this is done, I’m just going home. Spot can go wherever he damn well pleases, but if he comes back with me, I’ll roast him for dinner.”

Thinking of delicious, juicy roast goat made her mouth water and her stomach cramp, and she decided, out of desperation, to ask the townspeople for some kindness and some breakfast. Sigge took a deep breath. This will all be done soon. Then she could hide away from the world forever.

By the time Sigge had made it back to the village the sun had nearly dried out her fur. She looked every bit like she had battled a monster, and she felt an inkling of pride at it.

That feeling ended abruptly as a stone sailed past her head, rustling the fur at her temple. That was nearly a damn fine shot, Sigge thought. Damn cheeky, too, for what I’ve just done for these people.

She glared at the children who huddled behind a fallen stone wall, where a black-haired boy huddled behind the rest. He was the thrower. She spat, and they scattered. Their cries that they too would be cursed gave her a perverse sort of satisfaction.

As she moved toward the village green, Sigge could feel their eyes on her, burning through her golden fur. She could feel the tension of anxiety as mothers hid their children behind their skirts. Men ceased their idle chatter and clenched their jaws and their fists, as children pointed and gaped. Signs of warding were made. Her very presence – her very existence – was a threat to them; she could bring down the wrath of the gods. Sigge didn’t have to look into the eyes to see the same horror she had always seen.

More than all that, though, she could feel the ache in her muscles from the fight, the pain in her broken ribs, the chill from her damp fur, the bruise from the jab of a pitchfork in her side, and Sigge felt anger.

They didn’t fear her, she knew; they feared her curse. Well, if they can’t forgive me for the curse, they will fear me for it.

She stepped onto the cool grass of the village green, where the villagers punished their criminals, held their festivals, and fed their livestock. She turned to face the gathered crowd – some had rocks, some had clubs, some had pitchforks and hoes, all were ready to chase her out of town. Or kill her. Their gods, she thought, are bloodthirsty gods.

She cast a glance over the crowd, an imperious crook to her neck she hadn’t realized she had adopted. No real weapons among them. These villagers have no teeth. Sigge found herself musing. She opened and closed her fists, feeling the claws that she had been born with, comfortable and comforting against her palm. She had teeth as well.

She cleared her throat, surprised at herself for not feeling the panic she had felt so many times. Perhaps she was just too tired.

“Yesterday,” she began, taken aback by the booming sound of her voice. The villagers were startled; she could see blood draining from their faces. She could smell the sweat in their pores. “I came to you asking for help. The spring, Dagne’s Spring, had been defiled. A demon monster had taken residence, and the village had done nothing about it.

“Yesterday, I came to you asking for help killing the demon monster and saving the spring. Yesterday, you spat at me and ran me out of town.”

They watched her with wide eyes and gaping mouths. You’ll catch flies, she thought, but she saw they were listening intently – were they afraid? It confused her but delighted her as well.

“I killed the monster. I nearly died for my trouble, but the monster is dead now and the spring is restored.

“I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want you to accept me as your neighbor, I don’t want you to reward me, and I certainly don’t want you thinking of me as your hero. I didn’t do it for you. I did it so that I could give Hedvig a proper funeral. I only ask for two thing – that you give me something to eat. I have no strength left to finish the funeral rites. And then I ask that you leave me alone.”

It was a reasonable request. It wasn’t asking much. They could oblige her and wash their hands of her forever. It was what they had always wanted of her, after all, to be free of her. She had not expected that they didn’t want her to be the one to want it.

“Hedvig’s dead!”

“Murdered!”

“Monster!”

“Fiend!”

“No!” Sigge shouted, a growl shredding her voice. Fear clenched her heart, but anger burned it away just as quickly. “I would never hurt Hedvig!”

“How could you? She was kind to you!” wailed a woman with freckles across her chest and knotted gray hair. Sigge recognized her mangled hand. Hedvig had saved it from being cut off when her cow crushed it. Sigge had had to set the hand under Hedvig’s guidance since Hedvig’s own hands were riddled with arthritis. Ana – that was her name – had blamed Sigge when the hand never healed completely, even as Hedvig said it never would.

“And since she was the only person who had ever been kind to me, why would I ever hurt her, Ana?” she snapped, letting the emphasis hang in the air like a threat. Ana’s face turned as gray as her hair.

A sharp pain shot through her body, blossoming from her back, and Sigge lashed out. She caught the prong of a pitchfork. There at the handle was the boy who had jabbed her before with his pig-nose and his beady eyes. Sigge watched the glee drain away from his face as she held the pitchfork. He desperately pulled away, but she was stronger. Swine,” she growled.

She yanked the pitchfork out of his hands and sent him sprawling at her feet. Sigge spun the pitchfork, striking him across the fat of his backside with an audible thwack as he tried to stand. The boy sobbed in pain, but Sigge sneered at him. She hadn’t struck him with her full strength; the tears were more from fear than from pain, and Sigge was disgusted by it.

“Now listen!” Sigge roared, her voice spreading out over the crowd like thunder over the mountains. “I have done nothing to you, you ungrateful fools! I have never raised my voice, I have never raised my hand, and I have certainly never raised any curse against you! The only person who has ever suffered from this curse has been me, since the day I was born, because you – you monsters have treated me like some sort of – of abomination.

“This is the way I was born! The only curse I have ever suffered under is you! I have helped deliver your babies, and cure your sick, and heal your hurt, and all I have gotten in return are curses and bruises, and I am saying enough!

“I am a healer! I am a goodwitch! I am Hedvig’s heir! I slayed the demon monster of Dagne’s Spring with my bare hands, and I alone restored it to its former glory! I am Sigge the Golden! I am Sigge the Bear! And, if I must, I will make sure you understand exactly what that means.”

Sigge thrust the pitchfork to its handle into the ground. The crowd split before her as she stalked out, every man, woman, and child eager to get out of her way. Sigge snatched a meat pie set aside on a barrel and glared about her to see if anyone would challenge her. No one did.

When Sigge took her first bite on the way back up the mountain to the sacred grove, she could have sworn she had never tasted anything so sweet.

~~~

Sigge felt better than she had in the whole of her life. She felt free, unburdened, and, perhaps even in control. And she certainly was not going to allow those two little demons Boo and Hush to change that for her. They had been building a pyre, Sigge saw, or at least Boo had, for it was still piling twigs atop the oversized mound as she approached.

“You’re back!” Boo exclaimed as she strode up. “Did you do it? Did you defeat that monster?”

“No good,” Hush replied. “Look, still covered in fur.”

“Once an abomination, always an abomination,” Spot declared. Sigge wondered how long Boo and Hush were going to put up with him. Boo, irritably, snapped a pebble at his flank, hitting with an audible clap. Spot screamed and hopped away.

Not long, apparently.

“I did kill that monster. I cleaned that spring. I took more than one bath in that spring, too,” Sigge replied. “I nearly drowned in it.”

“Too bad,” Hush said, lounging in the abandoned goat cart. “It was a long shot. I mean, if anything could break a curse like that, it would be a dunking in that spring, but looks like you’re stuck with it.”

Boo looked like it was about to cry. “But… that monster’s gone. We won’t have to–”

Hush threw a pine cone at Boo, but Boo leapt onto a tree branch and hissed at Hush like a cat. Hush hissed back. “That’s none of her business.”

“It is so!”

“No, it is not!”

“What’s not my business?”

“We were supposed to chase that monster out of the spring,” Boo blurted out, only to be beaned by another pine cone.

We have the grove to guard. We were allowing Sigge to deal with the spring so that she could break her curse.” Hush turned back to Sigge, flashing a row of pointed teeth at her, but the way it bit its lip told Sigge it was nervous. “You know, gods are all about heroic deeds and that, so, I figured, that’s the most heroic deed we have at hand, why not try that?

“Too bad, gods are fickle and all. Looks like you’ll–”

“I don’t care,” Sigge said, crossing her arms across her chest. “I am going to finish giving Hedvig her rites, and then I am going to go home, and you, little one, are not going to stop me.”

Sigge stepped into the sacred grove and was pleased, relieved really, to find that lightning didn’t strike, fire didn’t leap from the ground, pits didn’t open. Nothing happened. She smiled to herself. I knew it.

“You can’t do that!” Hush started to object, but Sigge turned around in a flash, towering over the tiny demon.

“And who’s going to stop me?” she asked. “You? I killed your monster, and either you let me burn Hedvig’s body or your taking a dunking in that spring and see how well it treats a demon like you.

“I don’t care what anyone thinks, god, demon, or otherwise. I am blessed to be the way I am, and nothing and no one is going to stop me now.”

Hush stuck out its bottom lip, glaring up at Sigge. They were just children, she thought to herself. And just like children, they needed to be taught how to behave.

“Now, go gather some of those dried leaves so that I can light the pyre and be done with it.”

Hush hesitated, a defiant glare in its eyes, but Sigge returned it with a force that even the obstinate little demon couldn’t stand against it. Hush bowed its head and scuffed its feet as it took its time gathering leaves. Sigge smiled again.

I’m sorry it took so long, Sigge thought as it hefted Hedvig’s body onto the pyre Boo had built. Everything is taken care of now.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Writing is like Cooking

I like food and I like food analogies. So, here’s a good one.

To put it otherwise: once you got the basics about making sure vegetables are tasty, meat is cooked, and seasoning can be fun, you’re good with experimenting.

Baking, on the other hand, is a chemical process that can easily be thrown off if you mess with the ratios, so don’t experiment unless you’re experienced.

Bread-making is an esoteric process control by ancient chaos gods, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, if you experiment you may end up summoning the Devourer of Worlds.

People think that writing is like bread-making: pray to the gods and maybe sacrifice a goat beforehand, and there’s no guarantee of success.

However, I would argue that writing is more like cooking: once you’ve got a few elements under your belt, you can experiment to create something knew. Sometimes, it’s awful, mostly, it’s pretty good, and occasionally, you’ve created the next worldwide food craze.

So, what are the elements of good writing? I’d say there are seven.

Setting

Setting is where the story takes place. It can be as specific or as vague as you want so long as it provides the arena in which the story can unfold. Maybe it’s “Somewhere in the desert at night” or it’s “October 16th, 1972 in the bedroom Helen had shared with her husband for fifty years, in the house on Mulberry Street in the small town of Haven, New Hampshire.”

The setting is kind of like your cooking vessel. It provides the environment in which the story can happen. It can set the mood and be a touchstone to help orient (or disorient) the reader.

Certain vessels are better suited to certain cooking types – and certain settings are better suited to particular stories – but I can tell you from experience, you can still saute onions in the bottom of a stock pot if you don’t have a saute pan.

Theme

When you’re cooking, you really need a fat to grease the vessel. It makes sure nothing sticks, makes the good you’re cooking tastier, and adds satiety to your meal. You might be able to go without when cooking, but it really improves your food.

Similarly, a theme is sort of the background “thing” that your story is actually about. It’s “what’s at stake.” It’s the story you’re trying to tell outside of the plot.

Try to write down what your story is about. Not a summary of the plot, but what it’s really about. That’s the theme. For example, on Monday 7/14/19 I’ll be posting a short story called “The Curse of the Bear.” I love that story, and what it’s about is “You can’t overcome the pressures of society until you can accept yourself as you are.” That’s the butter. Or olive oil. Or whatever.

Now, look, you can go without a real theme. Just like you can just boil chicken and steam broccoli, but you’re not going to get a very tasty meal.

Conflict

Conflict is the heat. If you’re going to cook something, you have to apply to heat to it. Or, in the case of ceviche, acid. But sushi doesn’t need cooking. Neither does salad. How does conflict apply to stories here? Shut up, the analogy isn’t perfect, besides, sushi rice isn’t raw and please don’t slap raw meat onto your salad. Also, roasted nuts and seeds are far tastier on a salad than raw ones, so try it.

Anyway, conflict is the heat. It’s what keeps your readers hooked. It creates tension and anxiety. Conflict is what has to be resolved in order to have a plot.

Incidental Comics has the best example, frankly.

Characters

Here we get to the meat and potatoes.

Characters are the food you’re cooking. They’re the ones getting cooked by the conflict and they’re the ones being processed through the plot.

Now, all characters are going to have certain qualities: history, motivations, personality, and development. You have the protagonist and most of the time you have an antagonist, but maybe not, unless Nature or Self become a separate character in those conflicts.

You can have a lot of characters or only two, or maybe only one. And different characters are suited to different conflicts. Just as a tough piece of meat does better with a long, low heat, a character with a lot of issues is going to do better in a conflict of Person vs Self.

Plot

Plot is the process of cooking. Okay, this is where the metaphor gets really iffy.

There are certain steps you have to take when cooking, and they have to be taken in a certain order. You can mess things around sometimes, but, there are certain ways you cook that will get you to a particular dish. For example, if you’re going to make gumbo, first you need to make a roux.

Now, Christopher Booker argued there were nine basic plots, but only seven were worthwhile. This is a really good article about it if you want to read it, but briefly, they are:

Overcoming the Monster (eg, the movie Fern Gully)

Rags to Riches (eg, Cinderella)

Quest (eg, Odyssey)

Voyage and Return (eg, The Road to El Dorado)

Comedy (eg, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Tragedy (eg, Medea)

Rebirth (eg, Beauty and the Beast)

Mystery (eg, literally anything by Agatha Christie)

Rebellion against the One (eg, The Giver, or really any dystopian fiction)

Pacing

Each food you cook is going to take a different cooking time. Potatoes take longer than spinach. A thick pot roast is going to take longer than scallopini chicken.

Your story is going to require careful pacing in order to get a good meal out of it. Or… something like that.

Pacing is where you build and relieve tension. A story that goes by too quickly exhausts a reader, but one that goes by too slowly bores them. Pacing also allows you to give the reader a break. Maybe you need to give the reader a laugh after so much emotional anguish. Does it break pacing? No, it creates it.

Point of View

Finally, POV is the seasoning. Now, don’t act like I’m just throwing this in here because the metaphor is getting away from me.

Let me tell you a story: my brother-in-law grew up without eating any seasoning. His mother never used any seasoning whatsoever when cooking. Mashed potatoes? They were were boiled and mashed, and that was it. If you wanted salt or pepper on it, you could add it at the table.

My sister moved in with them while they were looking for a place to live, and BIL started taking over cooking. His parents so enjoyed his cooking that they begged my sister and him to stay even after they purchased their home.

You need to season your food when you cook, of you’re going to have a very sad meal. If you don’t have the right POV, you’re going to have a very confused story.

Now, you can have multiple POV characters, you can have first, second, or third person (limited, multiple, or omniscient). You could have past, present, or future tense going on. You could have an unreliable narrator.

If you’re going to make a great curry, you need like a million different herbs and spices, but all you need for a good steak is salt and pepper. If you’re telling a simple, linear story, you may only want a single, first person POV. If you’re telling a complex story with a ton of actors, you may want multiple first person POVs, or omniscient third person, or multiple third person.

Having the right POV only improves a story.

So what are you supposed to do with all of this?

Every story needs every element listed above. That’s that.

But, not every scene needs every element.

I saw a tweet this week which is why I’m writing this article at all. The original tweet asked if the author should cut a chapter that didn’t drive the plot. A lot of the responses were they, indeed, they should. If it doesn’t drive the plot, cut it without mercy. (and I’m sorry, I can’t find the tweet.)

I argued otherwise. I argued that as long as the scene does at least two of the seven above (establish setting or POV, set pacing, create conflict, develop character, enhance theme, or drive plot), it’s worth keeping.

A story that only has scenes that drives plot screws with pacing. A story with scenes that only develop characters has no real plot. A mess of POV creates a disaster, but without characters development or conflict, no one will care.

A well-crafted story, like a well-crafted meal, has every element, at least once, in the process.

Good luck, my friends, and just keep writing.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Maybe I’m in Over my Head

I started The Blackwells because I thought it was going to be an easy story I could write. I had developed a short outline that I should have stuck to. However, I wasn’t satisfied with that outline even when I began. And that outline has changed significantly along the way.

What I’m saying is I’m sort of out of my depth here.

I really should have written at least a first draft of The Blackwells before I started posting it on my blog.

So, I’m going to put that on hiatus for now.

I still intend to post original work every Monday and articles every Thursday. However, Monday posts will be short stories I have actually cleaned up and edited.

I’m not giving up on The Blackwells. The goal is to write a few drafts and get it polished up before I start posting it again.

This blog is a learning process to help me become a better writer. I want to thank you all for your support so far. I’m going to do better for you.

The Blackwells – Othorion gets a Letter

Othorion waited patiently behind two other lieutenants, who chatted anxiously between them. The shorter, a red-haired, narrow-shouldered elf, had taken off her gloves and was biting her nails. Her companion, a pale elf with a slight limp and a ragged scar from the side of his mouth down his chin, leaned over her.

“Only three captaincies available this time,” he whispered to his nervous friend. “And look how many lieutenants are already in this room? How absurd is all this?”

The shorter lieutenant pulled her hands away from her mouth long enough to whisper, “Very,” before she went back to biting her nails. She made a face, saw she was bleeding from one of her fingers, and clenched her hand into a fist, fingertip pressed against her palm. “But our captains wouldn’t have put us up if they didn’t think we could do it.” Her words were more confident than her tone.

“I think mine just wants to get rid of me.”

They stood in line in the Martial Commons, a brutal, squat, square building of gray stone that seemed to have emerged like a wart among the far finer, more elegant face of eastern Heliohart. There was a Martial Commons in most of the Empire of Faydark’s cities to coordinate the Emperor’s Children, that is, the army and the navy. Othorion had seen a number of the Martial Commonses in different cities, and Heliohart’s might be the ugliest. It had been built nearly two hundred years ago when Faydark pushed for a consolidation of power. Rumors held that each of the Martial Commons were connected by some magically-powered device that allow immediate transportation from one building to another, and that were all of these devices initiated at once, the entirety of the Empire could be transported, though exactly where the theories didn’t agree.

Heliohart was a landlocked principality, so the army generally used the Martial Commons as a sort of gathering place, but today the navy had taken over it over, as lieutenants waited to learn the exact date and times of their written and oral exams for captaincy. Even with just the elves in Heliohart’s Commons, the likelihood of getting a captaincy was one in twenty. Throughout the Emperor’s Navy, the likelihood was easily one in one hundred.

Othorion smirked to himself briefly. It wasn’t that Othorion was so smugly certain of his inevitable success in gaining one of the three captaincies available when dozens or even hundreds of other lieutenants were vying for the same position. He would never be so foolish as to think that.

No, Othorion was only certain that he would do the best he could and that everything else was out of his hands.

He blinked.

Of all his siblings, he was probably the one who worried the least. Upon their mother’s death, Ynaselle had taken it on herself to be their father’s housekeeper and even the family’s liaison and ambassador. She had always worried about her siblings, but not she was downright anxious. Vithian was constantly concerned about what others thought of him, always ambitious, always afraid of failure or even the perception of failure. Jaonos, well, he pretended he had no concerns, but Othorion saw how shadows passed over his face when he thought no one was watching. Perhaps Jaonos had shared his concerns with Vithian, with whom he had always been close, but Othorion doubted it. Vithian would have said something by now. Vithian could never keep a secret.

Othorion didn’t worry even though he had every reason to do so. A life at sea was dangerous. If disease took hold in one crewmember, the entire ship could fall. Malnutrition was a constant threat. Fire and drowning were, of course, too. And even though months could go without any confrontation, confrontations could easily end in blood and death.

Othorion never worried about that. Certainly, after brushes with death, Othorion was nearly prostrate, overcome with nausea and the echoes of the fear as it drained out of him. When he rose every morning, knowing that it could easily end in disease, hunger, or death, though, he didn’t worry.

Three other lieutenants passed him, walking out of the Commons. One recognized him and touched center of her forehead and nodded. A human habit. Othorion touched his lips as the trio passed. He was plain elf but for having one blue eye and one yellow eye. They had met when Othorion had originally joined, and this elf had been the recruiter who guided him.

“I’ll have to leave tomorrow if I’m to make it to the written exams in time,” another of the trio was complaining as they left. “Why would they hold an exam in Furosia?”

“What happens if I just don’t go to the exams?” Another asked.

“You’ll be arrested for dereliction of duty,” the heterochromatic elf said. Othorion wasn’t certain whether he was joking or not.

The line moved forward, and Othorion was fourth in line.

He supposed the reason he didn’t worry as much as his siblings was because he was more thoroughly himself then they were. How odd, he considered. For the first few years of his life, he had been raised as a daughter. He had changed everything about himself after only a year at The Tressera School with Ynaselle. It had taken him years to be willing to wear something other than black or gray again, despite his father and brothers regularly choosing jewel-toned hues. Although, he mused, he still tended to prefer to wear his black and white navy uniform than more fashionable civilian clothing. He had kept his hair short, even has the fashion moved toward long hair for all elves. He changed his name.

Once he was thoroughly himself, thoroughly Othorion, he never doubted himself again.

Jaonos wasn’t himself, as the blood heir of the Blackwells. He wasn’t dutiful, ambitious, or even particularly clever. He worried, Othorion was certain, because he would never be the Lord Blackwell he knew he needed to be, because he would be happiest if he were allowed to live his life without any responsibility.

Years before, Othorion had seen a seaside village in which a particular class of dwarves lived with seemingly no occupation. They would fish until they had some fish, climb a coconut palm until they had a coconut, and spent the rest of the day sleeping in their canoes, or upon the beach or on the docks. If a boat needed fixing, they would fix it. If they had no fish, they’d roast a pig. But they seemed utterly determined to do as little work as possible, and perfectly happy to satisfy only their most basic needs. It was almost a religious sect Fasriel had told him; they believed that life was meant to be enjoyed and that any work beyond the bare necessity was an affront to one god or another, Othorion couldn’t remember which. Jaonos, he thought, would have been happy among them.

Vithian, on the other hand, made a terrible priest. He was too ambitious, too involved in the material world. He had no room in his mind for the spiritual when he could instead learn about what was happening in this city or that Court or this other part of the world. He was more interested in sports or politics than in anything religious. He might, Othorion realized, even be an atheist. That wouldn’t preclude him from being a priest, but it certainly didn’t help.

And then Ynaselle. Ynaselle was too clever. She wanted too much to do something useful, to be something useful. Yet, she had consigned herself to a life where she would be little more than a lord’s spouse, her responsibilities and occupation totally dependent on that lord. Or, gods forbid, she would be a Lady of the Chamber, her occupation almost exclusively limited to producing the next generation of Blackwells. Their mother had been a perfect Lady Blackwell, and Ynaselle had aspired to be the same, though she would never be happy as such.

Othorion pitied his siblings. He could live as himself, while his siblings found themselves pinned into lives they would never enjoy. He didn’t miss the irony of that. He wondered if there were anything he could do to help them.

“Excuse me,” an elf behind him said, touching his shoulder. “Are you in the line?”

Othorion pulled himself from his revelry to see that the line had moved on without him. It was his turn. “My apologies,” he said, hurrying forward.

Othorion had already been told, of course, but the Emperor’s Children tended to make changes without notifying those affected, so he checked to be certain.

There had been a change, he saw.

He was surprised to see a line struck through Rothniel and the word Heliohart written in tight, blocky handwriting. The times had been changed as well. The written exam was three days sooner on the first day of the exams, the 7th of Rammas, and four days after Ynaselle’s dinner. His verbal exam was listed as the last day of the exams. Othorion frowned, then straightened. There was no time written for his verbal exam. His stomach turned as he stepped back. Something very serious had changed.

Othorion turned on his heel and hurried out the door. A sudden and powerful urge to get to the safety of home washed over him. Perhaps not even returning to the house his father kept in Heliohart was safe enough. Perhaps returning to Blackwell and Pheasant’s Cross was the only place he would be truly safe. He hurried down the stairs.

“Lieutenant!”

Othorion paused at the bottom of the steps. He was suddenly reminded of a story from another Court, he didn’t remember which, of some Lord’s child accused of mutiny hiding out in their family home. She had argued that each the ancestral home of princes and lords were technically nations in and of themselves and not even the Emperor could trespass there. Othorion brushed the thought away. There were so many lieutenants, it didn’t have to be him.

Othorion felt an icy touch at his spine as he turned back toward the Commons.

The heterochromatic elf stood at the top of the stairs, watching him. His blue and yellow eyes were now heavily lidded, nearly black in the shadow of his brow. His face carefully neutral. He wore a smile like a mask, and Othorion noticed that he did not wear the pearl and iridium tiara of navy lieutenants, but the plain bronze band inlaid with five ruby chips worn by military police.

“Almost missed you,” he said. He walked leisurely down the steps, once more touching the center of his forehead.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Othorion said, not feeling that way at all. He touched his lips once more in greeting.

“I knew I had recognized you, though I wasn’t certain you were Lieutenant Blackwell. You’ve grown since I saw you when you first signed on to the navy.”

He stood nearly a head taller than Othorion, though Othorion was rather short. When he reached the same step as Othorion, he pulled a letter from within the hem of his coat. It was sealed with yellow wax and the seal of Faydark.

“I’m glad to see you’re sitting for your captaincy exams. I’m always happy to see the elves I recruited excel. Best of luck.” He bobbed his head as Othorion took the letter and then continued down the stairs.

Once he had passed, Othorion opened the letter. He felt his heart sink as he read it.

He was to be taken into custody after his written exam. There would be a trial to determine the truth of Reconna’s charges. Othorion swallowed. Perhaps his siblings didn’t need his help as much as he needed theirs.

Othorion crushed the letter in his hands. He decided he wouldn’t tell them. They had their own concerns.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Write What You Know

When I was in 1st grade, my teacher had us make a little 12-page book using cardboard, paper, and duct tape, and we each wrote our own little story in it. That was when I realized I wanted to be a writer.

By the time I was 10, I was writing novels – none were very good, but boy-howdy could I pump out a word count! It was then that a teacher gave me advice that I think all of us have heard: write what you know.

Even then, I knew that wouldn’t work: what the hell does a 10 year old know?

I feel that advice is a little misplaced, though.

I like fiction. I like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. And, as you may have noticed from other posts on this blog, that’s what I write (shut up, I did write those words). And a lot of what I read (and write) doesn’t take place in any real universe. So, here’s the question: how can I know anything about a world that doesn’t exist?

I want to re-think the Write What You Know advice.

Write What You Invent

The great thing about the fantasy/scifi/horror genres is that you don’t have to know anything; you can invent it. All of Narnia is made up – C.S. Lewis famously included a lamppost in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to prove to Tolkien that, yeah, you totally could include that in a fantasy story because you can just make it up!

Tolkien, obviously, took it the other way. Entirely. He created a vast and intricate world, with centuries of history and just… multiple languages. I’ll never get over that.

Absurdist literature works this way, too. All of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is the greatest modern example of absurdist literature out there, and if you haven’t read it, seriously do. Does any of it make sense? Not really. Is it still wonderful? Absolutely.

However, I think it’s worth noting that, even when you make it all up, there does have to be a central string that holds it all together.

The greatest fantasy/scifi/horror stories take place in a world with an internal logic. It doesn’t have to make sense (see Lemony Snicket) outside of its world, but it does have to make sense within it. And the story you’re trying to tell has to make sense in the world you’re telling it in.

Tolkien was telling an epic story about the struggle of good and evil, and how that struggle is not always as simple as it seems it should be – we need a vast, intensely detailed universe to tell this story.

Lewis was retelling Christianity in Narnia. Like Tolkien’s, these stories are also about the struggle between good and evil, but the lines are obvious and it’s obvious whose going to win. Narnia is an allegory; it has to be told in a world where heavy symbolism can exist side by side.

Snicket, on the other hand, is telling the story about how “good” and “bad” may not be good divisions at all and that part of growing up is navigating a world that may not always make sense. An absurd world allows Snicket to examine these themes through many lenses.

If you’re going to make it up, be prepared to dive deep down into that.

Write What You Research

Or maybe it’s research what you write, but I wanted to keep the format.

Anyway, part of the great thing about writing is it can be what you want. But, let’s admit, if you’re not writing in the fantasy/scifi/horror genre, you can’t always just make it up.

If you’re writing a historical fiction, you’re going to want to be well-versed in whatever historical fiction you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a real world setting, you might want to brush up on what that place (and the culture where that place is) is like, you know, where things are and what it looks like. That sort of thing. Words.

Bernard Cornwell pumps out historical fiction all the time. His The Saxon Stories are somewhat fictionalized story of one of Cornwell’s paternal ancestors. A great deal of the story is made up. The protagonist is fictional, but based off a real person. Many of the characters in the book existed, but they’re actual character is shifted to fit Cornwell’s own imagination, and Cornwell’s played with the actual historical timeline.

But what no one complains about is how it is historically inaccurate. The series is amazing, well-researched and incredibly immersive.

Alternatively, you have his book Stonehenge. Stonehenge is nearly entirely made up. We have no idea why people built Stonehenge, but Cornwell writes one possible explanation while creating an immersive world using research he’s done on what we know about the people of that age.

Important Note

You may also choose to write a character or characters who are a different race, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or so many other qualities. I would encourage it: the value in creating characters who are not like you both give people who they are like a chance to see people like themselves (representation matters, yo), but also helps teach others to empathize with them.

But, do you research. Talk to people. Ask questions, LISTEN. Read up on people’s lived experiences. Make use of sensitivities readers. They’ll help you understand things you may never have before, pointing out areas you need to research more, and creating characters that are multidimensional and far more real.

Research is also a shockingly good place to find inspiration. Learning more about the characters you’re writing and the places where they live can create new avenues of storytelling you’ve never thought of before.

Write What You Learn

Writing is a great learning process.

I mean, not just the mechanics of POV, pacing, etc. Those are all important, and everything you write will help you teach that, too.

No, I mean, think about your WIP. What are you trying to say with it?

So, some of the best advice I ever got was to tell your story in a single sentence. Not a synopsis. But a summary.

In my first article, I described a story I had spent years writing about a girl who had been kidnapped by fairies as a child. It was a fantasy story, but it dealt with a lot of the psychological scarring she had experienced after losing her family and being told for so long that what she thought had happened hadn’t.

But, the story was about how sometimes, the only person you can save is yourself.

Ultimately, when I was writing the story, that was what I was exploring. That was what I was trying to learn.

The project I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo (can’t start preparing too early, right?) is about how growing up is as much about what you leave behind as what you take with you.

You may not know what you’re trying to learn as you’re writing. Sometimes, you have to get it out on paper. You may have to go through a couple of drafts.

Ultimately, though, when you’re writing, you’re trying to say something. You’re trying to explain something. There’s something you’re trying to learn and that you’re trying to teach.

That’s what you need to write about.

Conclusion

Write what you know is fine advice, but I don’t think that’s what it really is trying to tell you.

Write what you invent, what you research, what you learn. Or rather, know what you write. Even if you know it because you made it up, researched it, or learned it as you write.

Whatever you do, just keep writing.

The Blackwells – The Brephochae

“I don’t think I’m so naïve,” she said to herself. Vithian and Jaonos always called her naïve; it had always galled her.

The last time Vithian had returned to Pheasant’s Cross from sequester, Ynaselle had found him and Jaonos sitting up late one night by the fire. Vithian had moved a chair close to Jaonos’s so that their heads were close together. Each held a drink in their hands, and they whispered conspiratorially to each other.

Ynaselle interrupted them, asking what they could find so secretive. And Vithian had told her. One priest – Vithian would not name who – was a counselor. He would listen to the confessions and guilty concerns of all those that would come to him, and then he would gossip with other priests and postulants about what he had been told.

This counselor had an elf – a fourth or fifth child of some merchant – who had come to him with a problem. This elf had been smuggling Saprexun silk into the Court of the Oak and Birch.

“One night he meets his mistress, as they have always done, but she’s distraught,” Vithian said, a grin spreading across his face. “You see, her family sells silk in the Court – legally – and they’ve been having some issues. People didn’t want their silk when they could get Saprexun silk under the table, and she feared her family might be ruined.

“Well, our smuggler also has a bad habit of drinking out of his senses, so he tells her not to be concerned. He was the smuggle selling the Saprexun silk, and when they married, he would be rich. So, what do you suppose she did?”

Vithian paused, as if waiting for an answer. Ynaselle glanced to Jaonos, who sat back in his chair, his drink up to his lips. He watched her glassily and smiled.

“She blackmailed him!” Vithian exclaimed. “You see, she was already married – our smuggler knew this – and she had no intention of seeking an annulment. Why not take the money now?

“Now, that wasn’t the end of his issues. He had hired a caravaner to transport the silk from Saprexus, and this caravaner had had some terrible luck. News had spread about silk and other, shall we say, secret goods, making their way to the Faydark Empire, and brigands were scattered along the highway. The caravaner needed to hire more security, which meant he needed more gold from our smuggler.”

Vithian stood and poured himself another drink. “Jaonos?” Jaonos waved away to offer of another drink. He was already well sauced as it was, Ynaselle saw. Vithian held a glass toward Ynaselle, who shook her head.

“And that wasn’t the end of our smuggler’s troubles. He had a friend amongst the inspectors in the Court, who would just stamp whatever the silk was hidden in through. This friend was being transferred though, and our smuggler would need even more gold so he could bribe another official.

“He went to his lenders for assistance in all of these new costs, and, they were not patient nor particularly generous. Needless to say, our smuggler was in some terrible trouble. So, he sought out help from our counselor friend. What do you suppose the counselor told him to do?” Vithian had asked.

“Turn himself in, I hope,” Ynaselle said. Vithian and Jaonos both laughed at her appalled expression.

“Oh, poor sweet Yna,” Jaonos said. He shifted slightly, moving in his chair like he were floating in it rather than sitting.

Vithian continued. “Our smuggler had never actually seen his lender – I suppose I should have said so sooner – but it made it difficult for our smuggler, because if he didn’t know who his lender was, well, he had nothing over them. So, the counselor told the smuggler to bring his lender, to the sequester. The two would do the whole both drinking from the same cup so no one was poisoned thing and discuss their problems through the veil that the counselor normally sat behind.

“Obviously, the elf couldn’t get any quarter from his lender, and both left angry and bitter. But the elf woke the next day to find that his mouth was purple. What surprised him, though, was that, when he entered the exchange, he found the mother of his mistress. Her mouth was also purple.”

“She was the lender,” Ynaselle said.

Vithian spread his hands before him. “They had both drunk from the same cup.”

“The counselor had put ink into the wine?”

“Well, how else was the lender to be revealed?

“The mother understood that, too, when she saw that him, and told him that she would not be requiring him to make his payments until his smuggling business was back in order.”

“That’s horrid!” Ynaselle declared. “Smuggling, adultery, blackmail, bribery, usury! And they just continued on as they had?”

“Oh, Yna, don’t be so naïve. There isn’t an elf in the Empire who doesn’t break the law when it suits them.”

Ynaselle had turned to Jaonos, who was already half asleep. He motioned with his drink in agreement, sloshing part of the liquor out over his robes. Ynaselle left Jaonos and Vithian laughing, determined to believe that her mother and father would never engage in such activities.

She took a deep breath and shook her head. Perhaps things were not as simple as she had believed, but it unsettled her. Let it be, she said to herself, and continued on to the Brephochae.

The Brephochae towered over the street in glistening glory. Its spiderweb of glass seemed to ensnare a large garden of trees and flowers that grew nowhere else in The Empire. Many were gifts, Ynaselle recalled, from merchants and visiting nobles from elsewhere in the world. The conservatory itself was a miracle of botany. It housed plants that grew in the air and drifted from tree to tree throughout the day, huge carnivorous plants that had to be fed meat regularly, and even a breed of orchids so rare that some believed that the last living ones grew at the Brephochae.

The spiderweb clung to the sides of the white-walled, high-spired living area. Lady Erro would be near the top of one of the spires, where ambassadors from other Courts and even other kingdoms would stay when they visited. The spires were now draped with the banners of the Heliohart and Passerine Courts in celebration of the recent marriage annoucement. Ynaselle couldn’t help but wonder if the Little Prince Lianthorn had been staying at the Brephochae as well. The banners would be salt in his wounds.

Ynaselle entered the Brephochae through its vaulted doors. The interior was as filled with living things as the spiderweb greenhouse. A small river coursed through the floorway where small gold and red fish merrily swam. The carpet was a living moss so thick Ynaselle was always tempted to take her shoes off when she crossed it. Espalier fruit trees lined the walls so that any elf could simply pluck a pear or plum should they wish. Elves sat across the great entry hall in seats made of braided vines or saplings or tree trunks and particularly large, sturdy mushrooms. They sipped teas and spritzers, speaking in low voices. It wasn’t just elves, Ynaselle realized. A small group of humans stood around one large mushroom, somewhat befuddled. They didn’t seem to know what to do with it, while another demonstrated how to balance atop it without tumbling off. He failed, sliding off as soon as he lifted one leg to cross over the other.

A clerk with a high forehead, narrow nose, and yellowish cheeks wove through the crowd, occasionally motioning a servant to take bags to rooms or deliver refreshments. Periodically, he would remove a key from his great ring to give to a servant, then fastidiously place it back on his belt while the servant led the visitor to their rooms.

Ynaselle lifted the skirt of her robes and began to make her way to him. She needn’t have bothered. Almost as soon as she began her way across the room, the clerk turned toward her and was by her elbow in moments.

“Yuven Blackwell, what an honor to have a visit from you today,” the clerk said in a nasal voice. “May I get any refreshments for you?” He seemed to be looking at her through closed eyes, and she wondered how he could navigate the great room without his eyes opened.

“No, please,” Ynaselle said. “I’ve come to visit my friends, the Tarnyns. May I be led to their room?”

The clerk bowed deeply, then waved his hand in no particular direction. A servant wearing the short green and brown robe of the Brephochae uniform appeared, bent at his waste in a permanent bow.

“It would be my pleasure, Yuven Blackwell.” He handed a key to the servant and bowed again. “Should you need anything else, do not hesitate to ask.”

The servant walked through the hall so quickly and smoothly that it seemed like he floated. He dodged around parties without interrupting them as if he were just another part of the room which the guests ignored entirely. He waited for her at the raiser.

The raiser was a crystal compartment, filigreed in gold-leafed steel and carpeted in the same lush moss. Water poured over it from above in a gentle water fall, feeding the small riverlets at its based. The servant opened the door for Ynaselle and the veil of water parted to allow her in.

As soon as the servant stepped in, the raiser rose in an arch over the great hall so that Ynaselle could see the hall in a bird’s eye view.

“Servant,” she said, “is the hall designed after some actual landscape?”

“Yes, Yuven Blackwell,” the servant said. She was surprised by his sonorous voice. It was deeper than she had expected, and she wondered what his singing voice must be like. “It is designed as an exact replica of the river country to the east of the Mural Mountains. The humans there call the land the Dorin Garden, after a local deity. Legend says that those blessed by Dorin will be protected and fed by the rivers, as the rivers will bring them whatever they need.

“The gnomes are the natives of the area, though, but their name for it is yet unknown. If you would like, we can explore the other major halls, all of which are replicas of natural landscapes.”

Ynaselle smiled. “Another time, please.”

The raiser soared up the vaulted ceiling. Floors flashed by, each designed, she imagined, after different locales. The raiser came to a stop at one that looked like a riverbed. Crystal covered a floor made almost entirely of smooth white stones. Water poured over the edge under the crystal, where it would form the waterfall and rivers in the main hall.

The servant stepped out, delicately offering Ynaselle his hand to help her step down. He said no more as he walked her down a hallway of doors to the door that must be the Tarnyns. The servant led her into the antechamber, a small foyer.

It was not carpeted in moss or stones, but in black and orange tiles. The walls were charred wood and lined with beautiful but impersonal paintings. Dark wood tables held blue and white vases of flowers at intervals, while a small sitting space of charred wood and blue cushions huddled in one corner.

The servant entered the main living suite to discreetly announce her presence. She only knew the servant had left when she heard the front door shut again.

Ynaselle sighed. If the servant had reported to Nithnael, Ynaselle expected that she would be made to wait. Rather than taking a seat, Ynaselle began circling the foyer, examining the vases and paintings.

She came to the small table by the door to the living area and saw it held several letters. Ynaselle glanced around to make certain she was alone before she pulled the small pile over so that each address was visible. She recognized many of the names. A tailor, a florist, a lord, which surprised her.

“Do you find my correspondence interesting?”

Ynaselle jumped and spun about, a blush rising in her cheeks. She had not heard Master Tarnyn’s approach. “I’m so sorry!” Ynaselle blurted out. “I hadn’t meant to intrude.”

Master Tarnyn’s face was utterly impassive. With one hand and an economy of movement, he shuffled the pile of letters back into a pristine stack and picked them up. “If you hadn’t meant to intrude, you shouldn’t have gotten caught.”

Ynaselle opened her mouth to apologize once more but stopped. What an odd thing to say. Shouldn’t have gotten caught rather than shouldn’t have snooped. Her brow furrowed briefly in her confusion.

Tarnyn flashed her a secretive smile when he saw she noticed and motioned her to the sitting room. “Unfortunately, you have missed my sisters and Yuven Vetsian. They went out this morning with my wife, so you find me alone today.”

Ynaselle entered the sitting room and took a seat in a small chair. Master Tarnyn did not sit immediately, but instead simply watched her from where he stood. Ynaselle couldn’t read his thoughts on his impassive face. She admired how well he controlled his expressions.

“I had come to invite you and your family to our home for dinner,” Ynaselle said. “I am sorry I have missed them, but I hope that I can leave that invitation with you.”

“Of course,” Master Tarnyn said. He waited a moment as he continued to examine her, meeting her gaze without embarrassment. Usually, to be so closely examined, Ynaselle might feel nervous or upset, but not with Master Tarnyn. She didn’t sense any ill will from him, even if she couldn’t guess his thoughts.

“May I get you anything?” he asked abruptly. “Tea? Spritzer?”

“No, thank you.”

Master Tarnyn plucked a small sprig of rosemary and placed it into a chilled glass. He drizzled a thick, purple syrup over the ice, then poured the sparkling water over it all. Again, Ynaselle was impressed by the economy and efficiency of movement.

When he sat down with glass in hand, Master Tarnyn looked back at Ynaselle. He wasn’t smiling, but there was a slight upturn at the corner of his lips that made Ynaselle a bit more comfortable.

“Did you find my correspondence interesting, Yuven Blackwell?”

“Again, allow me to apologize.”

Master Tarnyn waved his hand. “I’m not upset. I’m curious what you make of what you saw?”

Ynaselle blinked, sitting up just a little straighter. “Well,” she hazarded after a moment, “I can’t make heads or tails of what it is you actually do.”

“Oh?” Master Tarnyn said. He sipped his drink.

“I know something of the Court of the Mirror. The Tarnyns are a well-respected family, but, if you will forgive any impertinence, hardly in the strata that many of your friends seem to be from.”

Master Tarnyn lifted his eyebrows but said nothing. He waited for her to continue.

“The Tarnyns are doctors, lawyers, and perhaps a few have been clerks and secretaries for aristocratic families, but none that would connect them to Lady Erro or Lord Petdove or Lord Zinthyra. And I can’t guess your profession from your correspondence. A tailor, which is hardly unexpected for anyone, a draper. I’m not certain what profession would include letters from a carpenter, a florist, and a silversmith together, though.”

“I am letting a house.”

“But without letters from an estate agent? Or a cabinetmaker?”

“Hmm, perhaps,” Master Tarnyn consented. “What do you make of it, then?”

“That if I want to know what it is you do, I shall have to get to know you better.” Ynaselle smoothed her robe over her knees. “And not get caught again. I hope, then, that you and your family will join us for dinner.”

Master Tarnyn offered her a quick smile and nodded. “Of course.” He sipped his drink and sat further back in his chair. Ynaselle decided she rather liked Master Tarnyn and, if Mistress Tarnyn was anything like her sister Merioleth, would very much like her, too. It was a pity that she rather liked the entire family, except her old friend Nithnael.

“I understand your father is indisposed at the moment. Is he well?”

Ynaselle folded her hands in her lap and nodded. The room suddenly felt a bit colder. “Yes, he is recovering. He shall be well enough for dinner. He is pleased to make a better acquaintance of you and your family.”

“I understand that Alennia made an excellent impression on him.”

Ynaselle could guess that he understood that from Lady Erro, but she smiled and nodded. “On myself as well.”

Master Tarnyn nodded his approval. When he said no more, Ynaselle stood and bobbed a quick bow. “I am disappointed to have missed your sisters, but I shall be happy to see you all at dinner.”

“I look forward to it,” Master Tarnyn replied with his secretive smile.

Ynaselle left curious about her new friends.

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