Archive for The Queen of Mastakara

The Queen of Mastakara Chapter 2

Posted in Unpublished Works in Progress with tags , on April 14, 2008 by craigherbertson

In which Granville Adventures from the White Castle with Rod and Line

Granville looked above his head to where the ramparts of castle Leath soared to the sky. His view was obscured by the roots and branches of an oak laden with spring leaves. The old oak offered a protection from the elements and more importantly from the castle guard. He had already been crouching for at least half an hour, which for a boy of fifteen might as well have been a lifetime. But old Manders simply would not move.

It had already taken twenty minutes to negotiate the dank steps of the castle ‘scape a journey impeded by the lack of a torch. That the ‘scape should only be used in times of dire emergency, siege and fire and suchlike, was of secondary importance to Granville. Of greater importance was the sap that rose in his blood, the chilled air, the brisk morning and the glimmering of a rising sun. The previous night’s storm had not disturbed him in the least, even though it had doubtless disturbed most of the castle’s inhabitants. He was wide-awake, fresh and vigorous and he intended to be ‘way across the plain of Leath and north beyond the White Cliffs to the dunes and low forest where the Gorge Bendure waters spilled like a shivering necklace through green pines. There were fish to be caught and Granville was the one to be doing the catching. His friend Arnot waited by the old mill a league from the old oak – or at least he might wait a little longer.

Granville crouched, his knees aching, the stiff wooden rod, disguised as a branch thrust out before him. Two years had passed since a lucky blow had ended warring for the Lord Compesta. In that time the muscles of Granville’s arms had swollen with constant practice until they sprung from his slim body like embellishments on armour; they were rigid now and decorated only with goose pimples gifted by the predawn chill. He would have cursed under his breath but Manders although old, was not deaf and of all Lady Leath’s veterans the one most likely to hear an unusual noise and the most likely to beat the head of its maker.

Granville had often exchanged blows on the practice field with the old serjeant and he had no desire to annoy him now. What could the old dog find so interesting? This northern side of the White Castle looked only to friendly land. The sea side to the west was the spot for the eyes to search. Perhaps he was watching the distant kiting of the eagles or the hawks on the bank of hills leading to Gorge Bendure.

The prospect for escape was grim and Granville had almost decided to give up, weighing only the evil that he would have to crawl back through the enlarged rabbit warren at the root of the old oak and this might make too much noise; when a shout broke the morning tranquillity. For one awful second Granville assumed that he had been caught and a series of images that ranged from an arrow through the eye to a chastening speech from his mother seared his mind.

However, he was fortunate. The call was from the keep: Mander’s relief or a friend shouting him away from the wall. The old serjeant’s shadow disappeared and in the same instant, throwing all caution aside, Granville entered the water with the speed and litheness of an otter. Rod bitten between his teeth. he was under the water and across the thirty feet of moat in a few moments.

At the far side there was a culvert, which through experience he had learned, stretched a full twenty feet under water before coming into a small chamber. Here he emerged chattering with cold. There were implements for making fire, a torch and kindling but he ignored them knowing his way like bat. A full hundred feet the tunnel stretched beyond the chamber but he had used it so often that he could count the cobwebs on his face as he ran. Here the tunnel ended, blocked by a rock. When this was pushed aside, the morning light splayed through the branches of the thick brambles and he was a safe as a rabbit in a warren. The dank gully where the brambles flourished appeared impassable from the outside and it was difficult to negotiate in the final egress. Here next to the low wall, which led to Hafvers, farm, the nearest to Castle Leath, the ‘scape finally spewed out into the open.

With a sigh of relief Granville pulled his rod out after him. He looked west and east to see if anyone was around, and then began to climb the low hillock. Because of the castle watch, he had decided to follow the small burn that led by a circuitous route to Bendure and the Gorge Bendure waters. The quickest and easiest path was by the sand dunes where he could run over the penumbra of the dunes where the sharp pointed sand sedge grew with its creeping root stock. The grass grew on the leeward side of the dunes holding the dunes together and it was easy to take the little paths there; easier because Granville was unlikely to run into anyone who he did not want to meet and there were a number of people falling into this category.

As he dipped and ducked along the burn avoiding Hafver’s line of vision (Hafver had been warned several times to question Granville and report back to Lady Leath), he thought for a few seconds on his decision to vacate the castle for the morning.

His mother had been threatening some sort of ceremonial meeting. An official or an ambassador or some other stuffed shirt was visiting from abroad. Visitors were rare at the White Castle but they were without exception tedious. Granville would be expected to participate in meaningless rituals, wear clothes that itched or worse, armour that weighed him down. There would be food to eat but food that grew cold as ceremonial observations were made on it and the goodness of the universe in its provision. In short, he would be bored senseless and the only solution for his young blood was to sneak away in search of a particular old adversary – the large brown trout whose haunting of the Great pool of the Gorge Bendure waters was a byword amongst the local fishermen.

Lady Leath would be angry but she had learned long ago that Granville had a mind of his own. The guard would not be set on his trail as it had in the first few of his escapades. Pigeons would be flighted out, one or two, to the keepers and perhaps to the lighthouse but there would be little fuss and only a mild beating on his return, more for forms sake than to inflict hurt.

Granville grinned as he ran; white teeth glinting like the stars in his deep blue eyes. It was only at times like this that he felt truly alive. Early morning, before the world waked and early evening when the sun was going down. If he could have articulated it, he would have said that he was a child of twilight and gloaming, a gray child who had no place in the bustle of the day.

Granville was still grinning when he came to the end of the low hillocks where the burn deepened and widened. Here it was bridged by Hafver’s old stone bridge. It was called after Hafvers because it was on his land but the architect, unlike mad Hafvers, had been dead for over five hundred years and remained unknown. The bridge, a masterpiece, vaulted high above the stream. It was not wide because it was defendable but higher than it need be; the stone quarried from some distant and forgotten mine. On this side, Granville could see through its arch to where the dunes began some leagues away. The river bent back on itself below the bridge and weaved away to the north but here it appeared as though its natural path should lead out towards the dunes rather than the White Castle.

It was an illusion, which Granville had little time to think about. Even as he had reached the end of the hillocks, with the big grin painted on his face, the artist was wiping it away.

A column of some twenty armed men was silhouetted against the sun, spears like silver birch pointing to the sky, the foremost holding aloft a fluttering pennant. In the midst of the company a sedan chair carried by four giant men had stopped at the arch of the bridge.

In an instant Granville had thought that the enemies of Leath had returned. Visions of war and fear and excitement held his body in a paralysis. He could only think of the body of Lord Compesta falling towards him, one eye staring in final resignation the other bloodied and crushed by the force of the blow that he, Granville had dealt. It was the one shocking image of war that he had never been able to relinquish although other sights smells and sounds had been as bad. Perhaps it was always the same with the first great opponent that fell before your weaponry. Whatever the reason, the chilling vision rose whenever he was threatened.

Granville stopped dead in his tracks and then slowly withdrew behind the edge of a thicket of brambles. From here however, it was impossible to observe the colouring of the riders such was the strength of the sunlight.

Granville cursed under his breath, looking for a way to reach the underside of the bridge when a sudden shout held him. As before, he assumed he had been seen but instead, by some lucky chance, he saw the captain of the guard point and gesticulate towards the sea. In a single moment of decision Granville ran forward stealthily and in a few more moments had gained the underside of the bridge. He leaned his rod against the lichened stones of the arch and began to slowly climb.

Halfway up Granville rejected his initial idea of viewing the riders from the wall of the bridge. He had thought he could be quick enough to catch them still looking at the sea but there was shouting and ordering and clamour as the riders got into order. Before it was too late, he dropped under the confusion of noise and hit the ground. He waited a little and then crept up the banks of the river towards the low wall of the bridge. The riders were heading towards the White Castle and so he hoped they would not look back.

The captain was way beyond him and the whole cavalcade had quickly formed into a column, the sedan with its colourful curtains and giant perspiring men seemed to have been left behind, the horses breaking out into a trot. The captain and his second, to Granville’s amazement, broke into a gallop towards the castle. For a second it appeared like some bizarre suicidal mission, and then he saw the colours.

They were friendly soldiers and in that same second Granville realized that the unknown in the sedan must be the formal visitor. Even as he was asking himself the question as to why the riders should be in such a hurry the sedan halted and the curtain was swiftly pushed aside.

A head, old, capped in black and with eyes that seemed to mock the sunlight fixed on his own twin orbs.

Granville felt like he had been glued to the air. He was unable to move. They eyes looked him up and down and then, as slowly as it had been quick, the curtains closed behind the head and the sedan began to move.

More terrified than he had been in his life, Granville rolled down until his shoulders hit the waters of the burn. Forgetting his rod and everything else, he ran shouting towards the dunes, uncaring if the world saw him as long as he could get away from those dark eyes and unaware that other eyes were gazing at his every movement.

Somewhere at the penumbra of the stilling waters of Gorge Bendure, where the cuticle of foam banked on to the sill before the drop, the old trout flicked its ragged tail and waited.

The Queen of Mastakara – Chapter 1

Posted in Unpublished Works in Progress with tags , , , , on April 14, 2008 by craigherbertson

In which are introduced the Land of Leath, the Lady Leath and her three sons

The village of Leath was located on the wide plain of Great Leath. In summer, the plain was a golden meadow. Its unique yellow flowers spread like a vast blanket to the foothills in the north and to the south, where the flowers gave place to coarse sea-grass near the white sands of the Mouth of Leath.

The River Leath, known to the local folk as ‘The Golden River’ because of the peculiar stones of the riverbed, was cool and lazy at these seasons, but in the autumn and the spring, it would often break its banks and inundate the great plain of Leath. For that reason, and incidental defence, the houses of the scattered small villages and the small farm holds were built either on short but broad oak stilts or raised hummocks.

In winter the river was frozen. Folk would come a long way from the Manor then to compete with the staff or play curling on the broad expanse of frozen water that spread out like a sleeping mirror at the mouth of Leath. The farmers and smallholders would complain that the tourists from Manor ‘borrowed’ too much firewood from the Greater Leath forest that shrouded the Eastern bank of the Golden River all the way from the mouth to the foothills. Worse, the younger men were apt to disfigure the best oaks in search of good branches for the following winter’s weapons. Then the tourists from Manor were quick to point out that they brought business, news and gossip, small trading, poached keefer, rabbits and other game from their eastern land.

The rivalry was mainly friendly but of course, the young lads who competed in the hurling and the roustabout contest of the winter sports would occasionally lose their heads in open violence, more often than not over a pretty lass. The older folk of the rival communities were apt to criticize the violence as barbaric and then reflect with humour on the golden days of their youth and their superiority to today’s champions in both violence and vigour. What with the barbecues, the night fires and the glamour of contest the winter was made all the more bearable.

Folk often said that most of the babies born in the following summer were the result of a hurling contest or a staff fight that continued a little later into the night than the young folk expected and in that folk were mostly correct.

They could not however attribute the birth of Lady Leath’s children to a staff fight. The doings of the White Castle were above farmers’ brawls and Lady Leath herself was beyond any vulgar criticism. She had ruled the Leath estate with a hand not of iron but of lace and such fine filigree that it breathed an innocence and humility that could only command respect.

The white walls of Castle Leath were small, built as it was on the sweeping western hill just at the spur where the white cliffs began and the plain ended; but the walls were strong, compact and had never been breached by foe since the building of the White castle in the year of the Raven. In a similar vein, some of the more vulgar Leathites, those who frequented Black’s tavern, were wont to say that Lady Leath had never been breached since the disappearance of her husband, the lamented Baron Leath, who had not returned after the failed Canope expedition of the Pack war.

Lady Leath had remained inviolate, charming but distant, almost queen-like, never unfriendly but clearly touched by a great sadness. It was not a question of honour. The story of his disappearance was never fully broadcast and Baron Leath was simply never mentioned. His portraits were taken down from the cold hallways and his name, doubtful but not disgraced was buried with his spare armour and weapons in the lumber-rooms and attics. Suitors came and went but Lady Leath, a great beauty – who had once caught the eye of the king but had thrown it back unrepentant – remained as unobtainable as a portrait of Baron Leath. Eventually, it became accepted fact that she would never remarry and the local villagers ever independent in their will, became proudly defensive of the great lady. She became a myth in her own lifetime. Folk were content enough.

The baron, prior to the Pak war, was a powerful if not well liked man. It was partly under his auspices that the Canope expedition had been organised. It was no small undertaking and the part might have made him high amongst the great and wise. He might too have been completely forgotten under the indomitable chill of Lady Leath if he had not left his presence, a constant reminder in the three boys, his sons the last of whom was born without seeing his luckless father.

These boys were the great hope of Leath.

The oldest, Granville had been ten when Baron Leath had ridden out to join the young Prince at Manor. Now at the age of twenty-eight he was in the prime of life, a slim but strong young man who had eyes older than his face. He was known as a shrewd man, a man who knew the forms of life but not its content, a gambler and a drinker and a womanizer but not ruled by any of these vices which were common in any case to the Leathites, and something to respect rather than condemn. He was fond of curling and at the age of sixteen had fought a good bout or so with the staff in the winter competition. He would have won his way through to the later rounds if Lady Leath had not discovered his youthful escapade and had him recalled. The incident was remembered with fondness by local folk and he was forever known as the people’s man.

Granville’s boyhood and youth were times of great promise. There was a certain wildness and keenness about him. He was a great wanderer; forever taking trips as a boy to the Mouth of Leath, hitching rides on the fishermen’s boats to the islands, helping with the long rods, collecting birds’ eggs and hunting the fox and the hare with his favourite dog. Folk said you could hear his whistle from the strand to the Cuff, which was the farthermost island in the chain that swept out to the Southern Sea. He was a likeable young boy, lithe, fleet of foot, and full of fun. His favourite trick was to put a pin in the map and take his knife, his dog and his rod to the water nearest the pin. By the age of ten, he knew the lands of Leath as good as any poacher and the lands beyond as much as any of the traders or hunters. He knew the newts and the frogs, the songbirds and the bright fish, the deer and the red fox.

But when the Baron left, a darkness fell on him.

Granville’s youth saw a changed temperament. He was still well liked but he saw folks’ pity and his hatred of it began to dominate his open character. He smiled less, was wont to fight to prove himself. Instead of looking out beyond the Leath, he looked in to the dark places in his heart. His eyes betrayed emptiness. Lady Leath expected him to become the baron of the household and at the age of ten, he began to take on these unexpected responsibilities. It cost him his youth. He gained in power but lost in heart.

Still, some echoes of the man he might have become remained in his nature.

He loved horses, became a competent rider; he was accomplished with the sword if not brilliant and had an aptitude for the mace, a difficult and unsubtle instrument in the hands of a fool but a deadly weapon in his strong hands. In the battle of the Manor when the Pak marines had landed on the western shores of the manor under cover of darkness it was Granville and his companion, Arnot who had seen the invading forces first. They were both only thirteen but Granville had the presence of mind to wake the soldiery of the great Castle of Manor while sending Arnot to Leath. In the ensuing night battle, Granville by some chance killed the Lord Compesta with his mace when that tyrant had been edged off his horse by Arnot. The rout had been complete and the slaughter on the beach was terrible. Lord Manor had personally offered the freedom of his household to the two boys.

They never took up his offer. Arnot was wild and lawless and hated any form of authority. Granville remained in his gradually darkening world. Liked but not liking. For some reason, which only Granville knew and maybe not even he, his hatred extended mostly to his younger brother, Barrister. It was the most unlikely hatred of all.

Barrister was unlike Granville in that he was quiet and academic but like him in his physical form. He was of the same stature, middling height unlike their giant of a father. The same jet-black hair and deep blue eyes, but he was stockier and stronger, broader in the face and more powerful of leg and arm. He could never run as fast as his older brother or follow him to the hills at a perpetual trot but he had stamina and strength for wrestling and the Staff. He was less skilful though and less sure. He spent his time buried in the many volumes in the Baron’s library. Folks said he looked for the Baron there although he was less like the Baron in temperament and looks than his brothers. For himself he was content with philosophy and learned occult texts. It was the inner self he sought and that perhaps was the key to it all. His brother hated the inner self because it was a mirror of his own betrayal and maybe he hated his brother because he had the courage to look.

The youngest brother, Macool, had never seen his father. He was well beloved by the whole family but perhaps because they had seen his father, he was left more alone than anyone in the household. Macool was born a dreamer and he was allowed to dream. His dreams he kept to himself but folk noted that his deep blue eyes were looking not at the fields or the hills, the sea or the sand.

They always watched something else.

Fantasy Writing. A Set of Tips and Admonitions to the Unwise. No 1/ Time and Place

Posted in Fantasy Writing with tags , , , , on April 14, 2008 by craigherbertson

I don’t assume to be a great writer. I thought though that I might share some of the experiences I’ve had in writing as it might be of help to others. The most help you are likely to get from me is motivation. I am only writing this short piece to motivate myself to write something more edible. What follows is mostly a series of don’ts learned through bitter experience and a couple of ‘wow, that workeds’.

Everyone says set aside time. I’ve read this myself so many times I keep thinking if I stopped reading it I’d have time to write. Ideally, if you are busy, you should plan to get up that extra hour early. Try to write for two hours straight before breakfast. Or set aside an hour in the evening when the kids have gone to bed. Protect it like a favourite child. Don’t plead; boss everyone around. ‘This is my writing time! Didn’t you listen yesterday. We can do that later. Leave me alone’.

Now comes the confession. I never do any of this, I write on the spur of the moment in between making more coffee, staring out of the window, wishing I’d won the lottery. I’m even writing this because I can’t face the next chapter of the novel.

Don’t despair. There is hope. I discovered a cure: Change of setting.

Easiest thing is to take your laptop – or better still your pen and paper and go to a cafe. If the weather is nice sit outside on a bench. You are stuck there. No way out. In the middle of nowhere. No excuse to make coffee, no family bothering you. The air invigorates your lungs. Writing starts.

Make sure you don’t take a novel with you. The essence is utter boredom with no escape. The beauty of this method is that if you are stopped at some point – say an old friend passes and starts to talk. You put the pen down with an indulgent smile. He twigs –

‘What’s that?’ he says, feigning interest.

‘Oh nothing,’ you reply with a cerebral glance at the four inarticulate sentences you have spilled on to the page.

‘Oh, that!’ Look of wry humility. ‘Well…the new novel.’

See, already you are a writer.