Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

The Gods of Wind and Air 5

3.

A man takes up a burden
       when he takes a wife to heart.
He takes another burden
       when he calls a man a friend.

Between that pair of burdens
       a man may well be torn.

He had not told the whole truth to his wife. He would hunt because their lives depended on it. But he had an additional debt now, to the priest who had given him food. It was no small gift, and therefore no small debt.

Pellan littered the trail behind him with curses. If he had only killed the priest before he could perform an act of mercy, he would not have this new burden. A starving wife and child were burden enough.

The day had advanced. The sun was nearing zenith, but no more visible that it had been earlier in the morning. The wind had increased. The clouds were gathering, rolling above his head  and now the snow had begun to fall.

No deer appeared as Pellan slogged on, hunting on his way back to the place he had met the priest. There he found footprints and followed them, moving fast because the snowfall was wiping them out, but still looking for animals as he went.

Damned priest. Why couldn’t he just stay safe and warm in his temple until the storm passed, Pellan grumbled to himself as he moved up the stream. He knew that if Taipai had stayed by his fire, his wife and child would not have food now, but he was too hungry to be reasonable.

The priest had moved far and fast. Pellan realized that he must be in pretty good physical shape, for somebody who spent his days in prayer. Of course, not being hungry made the difference.

The afternoon came in like nightfall, and the snow increased. Probably the priest didn’t need any help from Pellan. Not that that made any difference.

Pellan found the place where Taipai had left the streambed and had scrambled up into the forest. HIs path had gained altitude. Pellan could occasionally see bare hilltops through the thinning trees. Then he saw the priest.

There was a rounded boulder, about the height of a man and perhaps thirty feet across. Taipai had broken off the limb of an evergreen, and had used it as a broom to clear snow from one face of the boulder. Now he lay in an odd posture, knees against the base of the rock and sprawled forward so that his whole body was in contact with it.    More Wednesday.

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615. Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Last night (August 2nd) I watched American Masters: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. I was not looking forward to it, since PBS screws up so many of its programs. The advertisements didn’t help. They emphasized that “before Hogwarts there was Earthsea”, as if her work didn’t mean anything until Harry Potter imitated it.

It turned out to be an excellent program, balanced, praising her for her excellence and her importance to other authors like China Miéville and Neil Gaiman, but not suggesting that she single handedly made science fiction and fantasy great again.

I was afraid they would take the path of overreach — PBS tends to do that — but the presentation was closer to flawless as any one of us has a right to expect.

During the first twenty years of Le Guin’s career, I read her novels as they appeared. By the second half of her career, I had moved on to other things. After this presentation, I clearly have some catching up to do.

If Ursula K. Le Guin is someone you have only heard of, or perhaps planned to read someday, you should not miss the opportunity to view this presentation before it disappears back into the PBS vaults.

The Gods of Wind and Air 4

“And your wife and child are starving as well?”

Pellan gave no answer.

Taipai went on, “Well, of course they are. If you take me to them, I will do what I can.”

Pellan shook his head. Taipai waited. The one leather of bitter melon could not have satisfied the man, but he did not ask for another, though he could easily have taken them all. Taipai considered his stance, his obvious emaciation, and the fact that he was almost shaking with fatigue. He said, “You don’t trust me?”

“In fact, I do. But not with the lives of my wife and child.”

“They need food. I have food and you could take it. Why don’t you?”

“You gave me food when I was hungry. I cannot rob you now.”

Taipai understood. He said, “Every man has a wall he will not crawl over. It is a puzzle you cannot solve, but I can.” He held out the sack again and said, “I give you all of it. Take it to your family.”

The priest turned his back on Pellan and his spear, and began picking his way up the frozen waterway. Pellan clutched the sack to his chest and watched him out of sight.

The way back to his hartwa was short enough, and made lighter by the food in his belly. He gave a leather to his wife to chew on, took up his axe, and went out for wood. It took some time, since he had long since harvested all the nearby down wood. He returned and built up a fire. His wife held out a piece of bitter melon and he took it. Even though he wanted to give it all to his wife and child, he had to keep up his own strength for the hunt.

This bag of food would have kept the priest fed for a day. It might keep Pellan and his family alive for a week, but it would not last until snow melt.

It was a reprieve, not salvation.

Pellan dozed by the fire, warm for the first time in days. His wife chewed the melon, softening it with the juices of her mouth, and pressed the result into the mouth of her child. He was too young for solid food, but until her milk returned, it was all she had to give him.

An hour passed. Pellan woke with a start, and began to gather up his axe and spear. His wife watched him, cradling the infant to her empty breasts. He said, “I must go out again to hunt. I will return.”

She smiled. That smile was always a wonder to him, and the treasure of his heart. She said, “Of course you will. We will wait for you.” If she harbored doubt behind her eyes, she hid it so well that he could not see it.     More Tuesday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 3

2.

When you meet a stranger on the road
       and he wants to call you friend,
look twice to see what blade he bears
       and what he might intend.

Hunger lives within in the bones
       in the valley of the menhir.

Pellan met the priest at the edge of the forest. He seemed to know his destination. He came out of the flat where a stream ran strong in the springtime, and turned up its icy valley.

There he stopped and stared. Pellan stood before him, wearing a cloak roughly sewn from the furs of many species. Some parts of it were old and threadbare; some seemed to be newly attached to replace furs which had rotted away.

The priest remembered an old story of a cloak that had served five generations, old furs falling off, new furs sewn in to replace them, until nothing remained of the original garment. It was told for humor. This cloak looked like the one in that story, but there was no humor in its wearer’s eyes.

Pellan’s face was skull tight. His eyes had retreated into twin caves. His mouth was drawn. He had an axe at his side, and a spear in both hands, pointing toward the priest.

The priest reached inside his cloak and withdrew a sack, extended it toward Pellan, and said, “You are starving. You must eat.”

To be strung out on hunger, and tuned to aggression, then to be met with open kindness was disconcerting. It was like walking down a familiar path in the darkness to find a pit beneath your feet. Pellan didn’t know how to react.

The priest rolled back the lip of the sack to show the food within, and gestured. Against his will, Pellan lowered his spear and reached out for a piece of dried bitter melon. Hot saliva flooded his mouth. The normally flavorless crust of melon tasted better than cakes.

The priest said, “My name is Taipai.”

He has fed me, and he has told me his name, Pellan thought, adding a silent obscenity. I can’t rob him now! And I certainly can’t kill him.

Pellan said, “You know what I am?”

“Of course. But I don’t know who you are.”

“Pellan.”

“And I am a priest of Hea Santala. She makes no differentiation between serfs and masters. Or runaway serfs starving in the hills.”

Pellan made no answer. Even if this Taipai were offering help, there was no help he could give. Taipai waited, then added, “I am responsible for many. Are you responsible for others beyond yourself?”

Pellan did not answer. Taipai pressed the issue. “Do you have a wife? Children?”

“I have a wife, and one child,” he said.      More next Monday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 2

Something moved, far off but heading toward him. Pellan’s eyes followed, hoping for a deer, but finding a man instead. It was not a peasant, in rags. It was not Lord Kafi or any of his followers. This one wore a long cloak of coarse weave, buff in color, warm but plain.

A priest from the menhir then, and of no interest to Pellan. He turned his attention to the edge of the forest, where deer were most likely to appear. Minutes passed, then tens of minutes. There were no deer, but the priest continued to inch his way across the snowy landscape, and he too was bound for the forest’s edge.

How hungry do you have to be for curiosity to die? Hungrier than Pellan, apparently. He grunted in disgust at himself, and moved back under the edge of the trees, then northeastward to intercept the priest.

Deer are meat. Red bears are meat, if you are strong enough to kill one. Squirrels are meat. Krytes, lovely in their purple and gray plumage, are meat. Worms are meat, if you are hungry enough.

Man is meat, for bears and wolves.

Pellan considered the priest, who was not of his caste, and whose gods he no longer worshiped. He would weigh about as much as a deer. If he left the skull and other bones in the woods, by spring it would seem as if the man had met with wolves. The meat he could cut into strips, and dry it over a fire. He could say it was from a deer and his wife would never know.

Hungry men think strange thoughts.

Pellan considered the priest as meat as he ghosted across the snowy land, just under the edge of the forest. Then he grunted, and shook his head. Death is just death. It comes to all. There are some things a man cannot do, just to postpone it.

However, a priest so well provided with a warm cloak would not have left his temple without a sack of food. Dried meat, perhaps. Dried fruits, perhaps. Certainly he would have dried leathers of bitter melon, that staple of winter travel.

Pellan wouldn’t even have to kill the priest, unless he resisted excessively. He could be back with his wife and child in an hour, with some of the afternoon remaining to gather fuel. He could warm the hartwa, give them food, then go out tomorrow to hunt, stronger than he was today.

“Please don’t resist,” Pellan thought, as his fingers brushed the axe that hung beneath his arm. More Thursday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 1

.  .  .  the Weathermistress was cooking up something unpleasant in her cauldron of clouds.
from Valley of the Menhir

When the pot is boiling on the fire
       and cold sits crouching
outside, underneath the trees
       like a hungry beast waiting.

When the howling in the smokehole
       echoes the snuffling at the door,
and the trembling of the walls
       is like the heartbeat of the storm.

Then the gods of wind and air
       demand their portion

1.

Pellan wrapped his furs around his shoulders and touched his wife upon her cheek. The hartwa was dark and cold. The fire was down to embers. The fuel was nearly gone, and it was too late to go for more. He was too weak from hunger, and if he did not hunt now, no amount of fuel would keep them all alive.

He had hunted three times in the last few days, with only a squirrel to show for it. He needed a deer. Nothing smaller would sustain them.

Pellan looked at his son as he lay sleeping next to his wife. The boy was terribly thin. His chest moved as he breathed, and his mouth moved as if suckling. His wife had no more milk for the boy, and would not have it again, not until there was food in her own belly.

He closed the hartwa door tightly behind him.

Outside the sky was gray and smoke-blue with clouds that brushed the treetops. The gods of wind and air had gobbled up the sun. Pellan started down the path to the creek, crossed its frozen surface, and entered the pathless woods beyond. An hour later he topped out on a bluff that overlooked the valley.

There was no sun, but there was a bright spot where the sun hid behind the clouds. There were words to say, gestures to make, that would make the sun appear. That was what the priests said. That was what the old women said. Pellan made no invocations. He had grown too bitter for belief.

He had an iron axe, stolen from his master when he went feral. He had a spear. He had desperation. It would have to be enough.

There were no deer in sight. He stood still, patient as the rocks. He had no energy to waste on wandering through empty woods. He watched. He waited. His belly growled and the valley below misted over, but it was not weather mist, it was in his eyes.

Hartwas, meat sheds, barns, rows of straight-line snowbanks where fences lay overtopped: this was the world he had lived in before hunger and rebellion drove him to the hills. Now he ate his fill in summer and starved in winter. The serfs who lived below never ate their fill. They nearly starved in summer and they nearly starved in winter. But nearly starved is better than truly starved.

He could have raided them, but they were his own people, or had been. He would die before he would steal from his own kind.

That was easy enough to decide — for himself. It was harder to make that same decision for his wife and child.     More Wednesday.

614. Wind and Air

Over in Serial, starting tomorrow, there will be a short story that is technically a prequel to Firedrake and Scourge of Heaven, two novels set in the fantasy World of the Menhir. This short story, The Gods of Wind and Air, offers no insights into the novels. Instead, it exists to tell the story of a serf whose character and philosophy interest me, and to give me a chance to experiment with connecting poetry to prose in a manner new to me.

Short stories come to me rarely. The only other short story from the world of the menhir is set some years after the main action, and can be found in Backstory.

One of the reasons I am offering The Gods of Wind and Air now is that my life is temporarily full of chores. A tree I planted forty years ago has grown into a giant, and now has to be trimmed back one limb at a time, plus lots of watering of other trees and bushes during the long California summer, plus the fact that I am now writing full speed on Dreamsinger. In the next few weeks I may not be able to provide two posts a week, so I am giving you something to tide you over.

                   Now, about the story itself . . .

When Marquart and his little band first entered the Valley of the Menhir, the unseen narrator (me) said:

. . . the Weathermistress was cooking up something unpleasant in her cauldron of clouds.

It is about the only reference to the elder gods in that novel. Unfortunately, that line ended up on the cutting room floor.

The World of the Menhir has always been lousy with god. Most of them are more like Greek demi-gods than like world creators. They live on the ground, brawl and love and hate, and are fairly human except for having Powers. I find them more interesting than omnipotent beings.

First to arrive were the gods of Comai, who entered from another world and dominated the native humans. They were eventually ejected in a string of events too long to even précis. Then came a thousand years without gods.

The events that make up my novels and short stories begin when a new set of gods from yet another world enter the land of the menhir and take up residence, beginning the century long battle between the Damesept and the Remsept. A chunk of that story is found in Banner of the Hawk 1.

Even before the Comanyi arrived, there were home-grown gods like the Weathermistress. The serfs and free foresters still worship them, as well as the Flower of the Waning Day, a trio of Comanyi who helped humans drive out their brother-gods.

Not Pellan, though. He is mad at all the gods, and that is where our story begins — tomorrow in Serial.

Incidentally, if the title sounds familiar, stories called The blank of blank and blank are everywhere. I think they all stem from the classic title The Queen of Air and Darkness which was first a novel by T. H. White, then a novella by Poul Anderson, and recently another novel by Cassandra Clare. It is a title rhythm that sticks in the mind.

Also incidentally, the logo presented at the top of all these posts is a runeboard, which is a means of divination used throughout the World of the Menhir. It doesn’t appear in this short story, but it was the only piece of world-of-the-menhir artwork I had available to me.

Enjoy.