Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

Banner of the Hawk 36

Thus the boy, who as son of a serf had been nobody, gained status and lost freedom. And the girl, who had been of the village, lost freedom and gained a husband. For her mother, it was half joy and half sadness; for her father it was disappointment tinged with relief. When a man has several daughters, there never seem to be enough husbands to go around.

That ended the formula, but Marquart continued, addressing Urel with words he wanted all those assembled to hear.

“Urel, today you are a man. Today, you gained the axe, and with it, land and family and a future. Guard yourself against foolishness. Even a warden set over you can find himself beyond the axe.”

The crowd fell silent. Beyond the axe. It was a place no one went by choice. To leave behind the Lord’s axe, and the fealty it symbolized, and become one of the hungry hunters of the high hills — it was done only in the final desperation of starvation. It was outlawry of the most unforgiving type.

By his words, Marquart had reminded them all of Dutta’s execution, and of Jor’s outlawing. More than that, he had declared that Jor, the warden who had tried to become Lord, was now lower than a serf.

# # #

Dymal was waiting for Marquart when he returned to the manorhouse after walking his fields with Urel. Marquart dismounted, surprised, and was surprised again when he realized that the priest was alone.

“I did not expect to see you here,” he said. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing immediate, but we have things to discuss. I came to you.”

Marquart paused in thought, then said, “I appreciate that. You oppose me?”

“Opposed you. In the matter of the village taxes. I was wrong.”

“Because I won?”

Dymal shrugged. “In a sense, because you won. If you had not had the strength to collect the taxes, you would not have deserved the taxes — and I would have been right. But it is more than that. I should not have misjudged your capacity. In that, I was very wrong.”


For a moment, Dymal did not reply.  He wanted to shout, “Why did you kill Dutta? You could have punished him with a loss of some of his lands. You could have exiled him. Why did you kill him?”

He did not say any of those things, because they would have only widened the rift he was trying to close. Instead he said, “Today we worked together, each doing his own part for the people for whom we are both, in our own way, responsible.”


“We are not friends. I doubt we ever will be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together.”

“And from me you want . . .?”

“Nothing. I was the one who was wrong, so the reparations are mine to make. I came to tell you that I no longer oppose you.”

“You offer — allegiance?”

“No. My fealty is to the menhir and to the Damesept. I offer to stay out of your way as much as my position and my conscience allow.”

“And in return?”

“I ask that you listen with an open mind to what I am about to say.”

Marquart laughed. “As I am half convinced of your sincerity, my mind is half open. Will that be enough?”

“Your son is of extraordinary power. His ai is like a furnace, burning. Do you know this?”

“I am listening.” more Monday


507. Sita as Symbol

Be warned: this post is about symbols, double entendre, hidden meanings, fecundity, and has a few references to the religions of India.

Over in Serial today, Marquart is engaged in a symbolic exchange. He gives three gifts, and a young man and his wife give a pledge of lifelong loyalty. When the ceremony is over . . .

. . . the boy, who as son of a serf had been nobody, gained status and lost freedom. And the girl, who had been of the village, lost freedom and gained a husband.

That insert is the first sentence in tomorrow’s post. Things don’t always come out even when you serialize something that was written as a whole.

All this is nothing new to fiction, or life. It closely resembles a young man becoming a squire, or a successful warrior being knighted. There is an exchange — fealty for security in the master’s service — and there is both a gain and a loss as someone passes from one status to another.

The thing that makes Marquart’s exchange a bit different is that the young actors in the drama are lowly. You might call them peasants or serfs, which are technically not the same thing, but which share being low on the scale of status.

I go low all the time. I grew up on a farm, wading through cow manure. At school I used a slide rule (google it) but at home I used a shovel. I feel comfortable with lowly folks; with working folks. Even though Tidac is a god, he doesn’t know it and ends up being raised . . . Oops, I nearly let a spoiler slip there!

The girl receives an iron pot, and Marquart says:

May your hearth be always warm, and the pot and your belly always full.

The audience laughs. Marquart could have said that differently — more coarsely — but that would have been offensive. As it is, “the girl blushed and the villagers giggled”. Unmarried, in a culture like this one, the girl was a danger and was in danger. Once married, pregnancy becomes appropriate, and even desired. The “full belly” refers to hunger satisfied and pregnancy.

Marquart says the right words at the right time. The moment is ritualized, and ritual makes the unsayable, sayable.

The iron post was given to the wife from the hands of a female servant. No man touches it.

The plow shear is given to the man. The girl touches the package, but the man opens it. More symbolism. Later, when the man receives the axe, she does not touch it at all.

After giving the plow shear, Marquart says:

Urel, plow deep and often, so that your seed may be sewn, and your harvest may be bountiful.

“The villagers and serf alike howled with laughter.” Double entendre rears its lovely head. Yes, Marquart is telling the serf to be a farmer, but he is also commending him to the marriage bed. And everyone present knows it.

If he had said the same thing baldly, everyone would have been offended at his lack of tact. They would also have missed a chance to be in on this great joke that they all got to share.

It resembles the rules of cussing. Every time I hear someone casually saying f**k, I think, “What a waste.” A good cuss word has to be saved for the appropriate occasion, and delivered with perfect timing. Throwing it around like an ordinary word wastes it. If you say f**k every time you bump your knee, what is left to say when you drop an anvil on your foot?

Double entendre is fun. Sometimes kids don’t get that. They think their elders are afraid to use plain language, but it’s all a game. If you don’t follow the rules, the game is no fun.

By the way, I didn’t think up that bit with the plow shear. In some South Asian languages, the word for the act of plowing is the same word used for the act of intercourse. A professor in one of my anthropology classes told us that, but then he added, “Just because the word is the same, doesn’t mean that when a farmer says, ‘I’m going out to plow my field,’ he is really saying ‘I’m going out to commit ritual intercourse with the earth’. He just means that he is going out to plow.”

I don’t think my prof was being entirely honest. I think he was wanting to keep a class full of post-adolescents under control. In fact, that farmer would be saying both, simultaneously, and enjoying the double entendre.

One last note. In the Ramayana, the god Ram’s wife is the goddess Sita, and the word sita also means furrow.

Banner of the Hawk 35

The Lord’s party paraded the main street of the menhir village, as custom required. The villagers came out to wave and palm their foreheads, moves which Marquart acknowledged in passing. There were resentments for the building of the dam, for the taxes Marquart was once again collecting, and for the heavy surcharge Marquart had demanded before he set his stonewrights to opening a channel through to fallen rocks. But resentment of the powerful is the nature of the world, and it makes no more sense to be angry with one’s Lord than to curse the Weathermistress. Lords and weather do not listen to complaints, so it is bootless to make them.

At the temple of the menhir, Dymal and his priests joined the procession. Despite their civility, Marquart did not trust Dymal, and Dymal reciprocated in full.

The combined party wound their way westward a mile to a secluded bower of early blossoming kearblossom, which was set aside for marriage ceremonies among the serfs. The bride had woven the cloth and sewn the clothing for herself and her husband-to-be. He was dressed in a plain tunic and loinwrap, new wool, never worn before. She wore what had been a simple shift of newly woven wool, but her mother, aunts, sisters and female cousins had taken turns through the winter embroidering it with bright colors. She wore a circlet of kearblossoms in her hair.

The ceremony was long and tedious. Dymal performed it, not as a priest of the menhir, which only dealt with the dead, but as a priest of Hea Santala who provided meaning and comfort for the living.

There was a key moment of gift giving. As the man and his new wife knelt, Marquart stepped forward followed by servants carrying heavy items wrapped in precious cotton cloth. Normally, Marquart would have stood alone, but he chose to have Tidac at his side. He gestured, and a female servant passed over a package, which the new wife accepted with a shy bobbing of her head and quickly opened. It was an iron pot. 

There was no surprise in that. The three gifts were always the same.

The wife spoke a few, shy words of thanks, and Marquart answered with the formula, “May your hearth be always warm, and the pot and your belly always full.” Then the girl blushed and the villagers giggled at the double entendre.

Marquart gestured again, and an ancient servant came staggering up under the load of the heaviest package, which he placed between man and wife. The wife touched the package and the man opened it. It was the plowshear Branbourn had been forging.

Marquart said, “Urel, plow deep and often, so that your seed may be sewn, and your harvest may be bountiful.”

Villagers and serfs alike howled with laughter. The double meanings of plow and furrow were particular favorites.

Marquart then described the land he had set aside for them. Before the day was over, he would walk the boundaries of that land with Urel, and the newlyweds would sleep together tonight in a temporary house of straw and blossoming vines that their relatives had built this morning on their new property.

Marquart gestured a third time and a powerful youth brought up the last wrapped parcel. This one the wife did not touch. Urel opened it and passed the cloth to his wife, then gripping the axe, rose to his feet. He knelt again directly in front of Marquart and raised the axe for him to touch. Marquart said, “This axe I give you to clear your land, to cut your firewood, to defend your family and yourself, and to carry in my service.”

Urel repeated, “This axe I accept to clear my land, to cut my firewood, to to defend my family, and I will carry it in your service. Our lives are yours.” more tomorrow

Banner of the Hawk 34


Tidac quickly grew tired of Branbourn’s forge. He liked it when Branbourn talked to him, and he liked it when he made swords. There was fascination in the steel when a weapon was the result. Branbourn had communicated that feeling to him, but it fitted his natural thinking so well that he didn’t know the thoughts were not entirely his own.

Today Branbourn was working on a plowshear, so Tidac left.

He spent an hour in the stables watching the workers mend the complex slopesaddles. He knew every part of their construction by heart. He had the head-knowledge to repair the saddles himself, but no one would trust his young hands to the task. Not yet anyway. Clevis had taught him all about saddles and bridles and lead lines, and about special shoes for cold weather, or mud, or combat. Everything Clevis said went into Tidac’s head and stayed there, a happy pile of brightly colored facts not particularly well tied together by theory. That would come later. Clevis was a clever teacher. He never said anything dull and he never let Tidac know that he was being taught.

The sun was shining and it was spring, so not even the tack room could keep him indoors for long. Soon he was at the corral, turning aside from his father and Clevis when he saw them in conversation. She was there too, that shadowy woman that no one but Tidac knew existed. He could sense her presence, but could not quite see her. No one had ever admitted to seeing her, so he kept knowledge of her to himself. As with all other things, he followed the rule Marquart had taught him: “Listen, boy, and don’t talk. Know everything that those around you know, and a bit more, and don’t tell any one of them what you know. Not even me.”

The shadowy one was always with his father, and there were times that Tidac saw him talking with her, although never when Tidac was near enough to overhear. Marquart had never mentioned her to Tidac, or to anyone else while Tidac was listening, so the boy assumed that Marquart was following his own advice. 

Tidac found a place where he could slip between the corral bars. He had taken some stale bread from the kitchens and it didn’t take Mani, the alpha male kakai, long to find where Tidac was hidden in the bushes. Tidac stood and fed him, then stroked his long front legs. The kakai’s head was far above him and out of reach except when he occasionally leaned down to nuzzle the boy.

So went the afternoon. Tidac was content. His nature was quiet, his father’s training had made him almost silent, and there was nothing he really wanted — only a vague discontentment that danced within him. When he looked about and saw the aura of his fellow’s ais dancing about them, he knew that he was the only one to see them. He wanted to ask what the flames that encircled every head meant, but he had been taught silence. Besides, he was reasonably certain that no one else knew the answer anyway.

He wanted to talk to someone who saw what he saw, and ask what it all meant. But he doubted there was such a person, anyway.

He was not lonely. But that was only because he did not know his soul was empty. He had never seen a soul that was filled.

# # #

Two days later, at midmorning, Marquart, Tidac, Clevis and a contingent of servants left the manorhouse.  It had rained for two days, but now the sun was out and the steaming, fast greening fields were auspicious omens of fecundity for a wedding. more tomorrow

506. The Great American Read

The Great American Read or
What is that book doing on the list,
and where is my favorite?

If you want to start a fight, make a list of great books, then step back while every reader on Earth disagrees with you.

When the Great American Read was announced, I couldn’t wait to see the list. I love lists of great books. It turned out, however, that these weren’t great books, but favorite books. That is a major distinction. Great books or influential books would include the Koran, The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, and a raft of works everybody has heard of, but few have read. That list would not include Fifty Shades of Grey or The Martian.

It reminded me of a collection called Best Remembered Poems which included a selection of Purple Cow poems but did not contain Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. Popularity and quality are different categories.

As I worked my way deeper into the GAR, I found that the original list of 100 came from a group of readers carefully selected for diversity. That’s all very twenty-first century, but it is likely to find oddball books as well as good ones.

Not that I am complaining. If I made a list of my 100 favorite books, no one would else like all of them either. That’s just the nature of the game.

The GAR people ask, “Which book is your favorite?” I read the list and didn’t find my favorites. A Wizard of Earthsea wasn’t there, which was criminal, but not surprising. Kidnapped wasn’t there, nor was anything else by Robert Louis Stevenson. That was surprising. What about Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

As a side note, in 2014 The Guardian did a list of the 100 best novels and Kidnapped came in number 24.

So I looked at the list and started to make notes.

There were 8 books I had read and liked — Tom Sawyer, The Call of the Wild, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dune, The Hunt for Red October, The Lord of the Rings, Siddhartha, and The Sun Also Rises. None of these were my favorites, and only Tom Sawyer and Siddhartha would be runners-up for that title.

I won’t identify those I didn’t read or didn’t like, but . . .

There were 4 I read but didn’t like.
There were 4 I read part way through and tossed.
There were 3 I knew enough about to avoid.
There were 2 I read, but found them to be nothing special.
There were 8 I had not read, but I had read other books by the same author. This included authors I had liked and ones I had disliked.
There were 3 which were on my to-read list. I subsequently read one of these and demoted it to nothing special.

There was also one book — Moby Dick — that I read as a child in an abridged version, and plan to read in its entirety when I have a spare decade.

Looking at my tally, you might think I’m picky. That’s probably true, but there are a thousand books in my read-and-liked category that weren’t on this list. I just don’t seem to read what everybody else reads.

How about you? There is a reply button at the top of the post.


The original question was, what is your favorite. For me, out of this list, it would be The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Lord of the Rings beats it for scope, The Sun Also Rises beats it for gravitas, but it seems to me the only way to choose from such a varied list is to judge a book on how well it does what it sets out to do. For that, TS beats them all.

If I didn’t have to choose from their hundred, I think I would choose The Old Man and the Sea.

Banner of the Hawk 33

After Clevis took his leave, Marquart continued walking, hands clasped behind his back, head slightly forward, face locked in a sour expression. He cursed.

“Does he distress you that much?” Baralia asked.

“You! You have almost cured me of talking to myself.”

“And yet you still do speak aloud when alone. If you did not, I would not hear you. I don’t live inside your head.”

“Aye.” He walked on in silence now.

“You have never told me about him. Your half brother?”


“About whom you don’t want to talk.”


Marquart raised his eyes to the Banner of the Hawk, black on a blue field, that snapped in the spring wind above the manorhouse. His kladak. That personal symbol was also tattooed on his son’s wrist, as his own father’s kladak was tattooed on his. Since his hands were clasped behind him, Baralia did not see when Marquart’s fingers momentarily touched the eagle tattooed on the back of his left wrist.

Among the teniai, that tattoo proclaimed him a legitimate son of his father. There was no such tattoo on the back of Melcer’s wrist, nor would Melcer ever have the privilege of putting his kladak on his own son’s wrist. Melcer was Beshu’s son from an illicit coupling before he gained nobility. Marquart had been born three years later, after Beshu had become teniai and married the daughter of a teniai. It had made all the difference during their childhoods, and when Beshu lost the land Marquart would have inherited, Melcer was there to grind his bootheel into Marquart’s hurt and confusion.

She said, “He will come for you, to destroy you.”

“How do you know that.”

“I could read it it what Clevis said. I could read it it what you did not say. You both know that he will come.”


“Was I wrong when I said that Jor and Dutta would move against you?”

“No. You were not wrong, but I anticipated that myself.”

“Was I wrong when I said Dael would leave?”

If Baralia had had a physical presence, he would have struck her. 

“Did I not tell you that she would betray you?” Baralia persisted.

“Aye,” Marquart growled, “but would she have left, if I had not anticipated betrayal? I sometimes think that my actions fulfilled your prophecy.”

That, Baralia thought, is exactly what I intended. For Marquart’s hearing, she said, “She left because it was in her to leave, and I saw that it must happen. Melcer will come against you because of the hatred that is within him. I see that clearly. He will come, and he will destroy you unless you take action against him first.”

After a long silence, Marquart said, mostly to himself, “If I had not killed Dutta, Dael would not have left.”

At first, Baralia’s only goal had been Marquart’s death, to bring about her own release. Yet while she hovered half way between life and death, he was her only link to the sensate world. She could not hate him, nor love him. Her need for release was too great for either emotion to develop fully within her. Yet she could be jealous. 

Baralia flickered. For a heartbeat, she disappeared from Marquart’s perception as she fought to master the burning hatred that the mention of Dael’s name set flaring within her.

“I miss her,” Marquart said. “She filled a part of me that I didn’t even know was empty.”

And then he was alone. 

It startled him; only when she left him did he realize how accustomed he had become to Baralia’s presence. 

For hours Baralia hid from his perceptions, wrestling with her soul, fighting down the volcanic rage that poured out of her at Marquart’s suggestion that he could even begin to know the meaning of loneliness. more tomorrow

Banner of the Hawk 32

“If you hadn’t stopped them, they would have fought to the death that day. What is between those two, anyway?”

“You can guess as well as I can. An elder bastard and a younger legitimate son — how could they not hate each other.”

Conger went back to polishing the jacket. He said, “You aren’t going to tell Marquart you saw him, are you? I wouldn’t.”

“Are you narat? What if I didn’t tell him, and he found out later?”

# # #

An hour later, bathed, rested, and dressed in fresh clothing, Clevis went out again. He could hear the ringing of a hammer at the forge, and turned his feet that direction. Branbourn was there. He looked up from his work, grinned, and offered his wrist in greeting.

Clevis and Branbourn had grown up together. They had parted as young men, then Clevis had not seen him again until five years ago. Now Branbourn ran the armory for Marquart and made swords when time permitted.

“What is that,” Clevis asked, gesturing to the amorphous mass of metal on the anvil.

Branbourn picked it up with tongs and a twist of the wrist. His massive forearms swelled as he transferred the iron back into the fire. He wiped the sweat from his face and chuckled, “Have you been a soldier so long you no longer recognize a plowshear. I know you walked enough miles behind a tichan when we were boys, that you should remember.”

“Maybe I don’t want to remember. Who’s getting married?”

“Don’t know them, myself. A couple of Marquart’s serfs. The ceremony is day after tomorrow.”

Clevis turned his eyes toward the shadows beyond the glow of the forge and said, “Well, boy, don’t you have a smile for me, after all these weeks.”

The boy did smile, but it was fleeting. There was much of Marquart in his son Tidac. Neither was given to expressiveness. 

Marquart had not spent much time with his son since Dael ran away. Clevis and Branbourn were the only ones in the manorhouse who ever had time for him.

Now the child asked, “Where did you go?”

“I went to Renth to get soldiers for your father. Do you know where Renth is?”

The boy shook his head.

Clevis knelt and drew a map in the dirt. “Here is the Inner Kingdom. Here we are, on the south edge of it. Over here to the west are the lands of the Dzikakai. No one knows much about those plains, because the Dzikakai guard them so jealously. Here is the Great Sea. In the middle is the island of Bihag and here, on the other side, are two great cities, Lankarea in the north and Renth in the south. I went to Renth.”

After a minute, the boy said, “Where is the Outer Kingdom.”

Branbourn chuckled and said, “I told you. He only puts on his dull face for the world to look at. The boy has a sharp mind.”

Clevis grunted assent. He had come to the same conclusion himself. “This,” he said, “is the City of Light, the High King’s city. Two generations ago, it was the center of the Inner Kingdom. Since then Limiakos II and III conquered all of the kingdoms around them, so the Inner Kingdom is now the only kingdom.”

The boy smiled and said, “Then the High King is really the Only King.”

Clevis’ and Branbourn’s eyes met over the Tidac’s head, and Branbourn said, “Marquart doesn’t know what he has in this boy.”

“Give him time,” Clevis replied, but he wondered if Marquart would ever realize what a treasure Dael had given him before she fled.

# # #

Clevis found Marquart walking outside the stables, watching the kakai’s frisking in the corral. Marquart greeted him with neutral calm.

Clevis described the soldiers he had brought in, then told of finding Melcer in Renth, holding back no details. He watched the quick anger in Marquart’s eyes turn to guardedness as he hid emotions behind narrowed eyes. When he finished, Marquart thanked him for the information, but there was a brittleness in his voice. Clevis took his leave. more Monday