Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Excerpt: Shadow Fall

From the third book of the Umbrel Chronicles of Evandar, a work in progress:
“The letter spoke of her coming death but I refused to believe it. It said that you, the son of Agathe would have seen one of the many faces of evil. I assumed that meant the war and perhaps a glimpse of Askemb. You speak of this 'veiled one' with fear in your voice. Agathe's line is not known for fearing shadows,” Abelard said slowly, “Does this 'veiled one' still walk among the living? What manner of man is he?”
Some of the knot that coiled in Douglas's guts eased as he realized that Abelard believed him. When Abelard posed his question regarding the Veiled One, Douglas's guts knotted up again. He could nearly see the woman's near perfect face and snow white skin. The mercenary shuddered despite himself as he tried to put the memory of her cold, cold eyes out of his mind.
“She is dead, at least in body,” Douglas said quietly, reluctant to speak about her for fear of that cold creature's specter drawing near to him, “When Askemb put the head of Erian into her hands, she burst into flame. I want to say that lightning struck her but it was so sudden that I can not be sure. The woman was some kind of witch. Osric, Morguthu's white priest, came out of the fens of the Darklands with her at his side when he had gone into that cursed place alone except for his guide. The guide did not come back.”
Douglas ran his hands over his forearms, suddenly feeling chilled. “Many a man died for her blood magic,” he said, “Others said they deserted but I know differently. I saw one night when she took a man into her tent. At dawn, he did not emerge. I had men keeping watch on that tent through the night. That man vanished.”
As Douglas spoke, Abelard's expression became less guarded and he began to nod slightly. “You are truly the man that her Ladyship wrote of. You marched with the enemy, but were not truly of his number,” Abelard said after a few minutes of silence. Abelard leaned slightly to the right and made a come hither gesture.
Douglas turned to find Alcuin entering in the room. He had a small wrapped parcel in his hand. “Queen Asriel sent this,” Abelard explained, “She said that you would have need of it. It was a strange thing for her to send. Before Alcuin gives it to you, though, tell me who sent you and what became of the Little Queen? It has been long since I have been at court. The last I saw the girl, she was but a babe in arms.”
“The Forest-father sent us and she is under his care,” Cynehilde answered and Abelard gave her a wry look. Something akin to distaste flickered over the man's features before he sighed. Cynehilde felt her chest tighten and then anger flooded through her veins at the thought that this doddering old man would scorn the former prince of Tarsus and the reason why Dragonwood was beginning to keep some measure of law. “The High King thought him more then suitable,” Cynehilde started and Abelard lifted a hand with another sigh.
“What is done is done. I will trust that the High King and his Queen were wise in this matter as they had been in others. The Usurper will not think to look for the Little Queen in the wood. He will search all of Dakon-bar, but the deep wood keeps her secrets,” Abelard said, sounding exhausted. He gestured that Alcuin give Douglas the wrapped item.
The big man took it in his hands and turned it over. The leather wrapping seemed hastily done. For a moment, Douglas questioned if the object had been opened. Abelard said, “If you would be so kind as to open it here. The Queen's letter was specific and said that only you were to open it.”
Douglas unwrapped the item and then dropped it to the ground with a gasp of surprise. The broad steel arrowhead that he had affixed to his arrows clattered at his feet. He stepped back, his eyes wide with horror. The startled man dropped the bit of leather that had been wrapped about it and as it fell a narrow ribbon of parchment fluttered free. His arrowheads were unique for they all had a maker's mark upon them. It was something that he insisted upon.
Winking up at him from the ground was the arrow with the bindrune that served as the maker's mark for the last blacksmith he saw. There was no way that she could have sent him that or have known who had made his arrowheads unless some form of magic was involved. Abelard and his man looked at Douglas in confusion as Cynehilde stooped and picked up the bit of parchment.
She looked at it and recognized Asriel's hasty handwriting. Cynehilde gave a silent prayer of gratitude that Asriel had insisted upon her learning to read with her entry into her service. In a low voice, Cynehilde read the dead woman's words. “Blood magic wrought my death. Blood magic shall avenge it. Your arrows shall fly ever true, by my blood,” she said.
Abelard and Alcuin looked at each other in askance. Douglas knelt and cautiously picked up the arrowhead. As his fingertips touched the wedge shaped piece of metal, an electric thrill ran up his arm. Douglas carefully turned it over in his hand. He tried to figure out what was different about this arrowhead compared to the others. Then he realized that the maker's mark was filled in with something, not merely blackened with grime. Asriel's words haunted him.
“Heart's blood,” he murmured. Cynehilde looked at him with a look of compassion. He looked over at Cynehilde. “What do I do with it?” he said, confusion and discomfort plain on his face. Cynehilde sighed and shrugged, at a loss for what to do as well.
“Wear it,” Abelard said firmly, “It was not long ago that huntsmen wore talismans. These tattoos are only half of what the huntsmen wore in my day. Each huntsman also wore a talisman of his first kill.” Douglas looked down at the arrowhead resting in the palm of his right hand. He thought about his father and the bear claw that he wore on a thong until his dying day. Douglas assumed that it was like the scars, a token of a hunt that nearly killed the tough old man.
“This was not my first kill,” Douglas said after an uncomfortable silence.
“It is in the service of the Stag,” said Cynehilde and everyone in the room looked at her. She set a hand on Douglas's arm. “You served as Kaileth's hand,” she explained, “It was not the Stag you freed but rather a hind. And in doing so, you allowed the fawn to reach safety.” Douglas thought about arguing with Cynehilde's interpretation of events but the weight of the arrowhead in his palm made him reconsider.
“Wear it?” Douglas mused. Abelard tapped his chin and made a thoughtful noise. Douglas looked over. Abelard made his way up out of his seat and over to Douglas. He looked down at the arrowhead in the man's hand.
“A man I know owes me a favor. He can make you something to hold it. It will take a day or two,” Abelard said, “When he is finished, I will send you into Ranyth myself. As a messenger of mine to the High Priestess of Roen. When you reach her, tell her everything that has happened. She was her Ladyship's foster-mother many years ago. If any can give you proper advice on how to proceed, it will be her.”
Douglas looked down at the arrowhead in his hand. A part of him questioned the wisdom of handing the artifact off. The old man patted the red haired one on the shoulder with his free hand. “Listen to me, lad,” he said, “I will see to it that this comes back to your hands. I swear it by the Stag's blood and breath. When Alcuin comes for you again, it will be ready. No mere pouch will be fitting for this relic.”
Reluctantly, Douglas handed the arrowhead over. Abelard took it with a solemn expression. “Lady Theodonia said that her husband's hand would bring something from the dead but I never expected this,” he said quietly. At the mention of the legendary High Priestess of Kaileth, Douglas looked to Abelard in curiosity. “Lady Theodonia, on the day that Erian was wedded to Asriel spoke a prophecy. It had three parts. The first was that Evandar would fall when the Hero's star set. The second part was that Kaileth would bring to the living the relic of the dead. The third was that the first to die at the hands of the true enemy would be the Lady and Lord of Forest Hold.”
“Forest Hold has no lord,” Cynehilde said firmly, “We are a free people.” Abelard nodded and tottered his way back to his chair. As he sat down, he looked at Cynehilde. He thought about how young she and Douglas seemed. Suddenly, Abelard felt his age and he couldn't help but feel dread that the coming year was to be his last.
Bereft of heirs or kinsmen, Abelard had only his household of servants. He looked at Douglas and realized that if he had taken the prospect of his own mortality more seriously when he was younger, he would have quite likely had a son the same age as the man standing before him. Abelard sighed heavily with regret.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Flora et Fauna: Fireweed

Fireweed's name is derived from the colors its fronds turn when the season turns dry and the warming effect that those powdered fronds have upon the body. Fireweed grows in rocky ground and in wastelands. It can be found at higher altitudes, but generally grows to its full height (approximately six feet) in the warmth of lower altitudes. Fireweed's leaves are lacey fronds that extend off of a central rib in a rosette pattern.

Immature plants have fronds that are approximately three inches long and an inch wide at most. Mature plants that are approximately three years old bear fronds that are six inches long and two inches wide. The central vein of the frond is pithy, like the central stalk of the plant. Mature fireweed has tiny orange blossoms on the ends of the central veins of the fronds during the summer. Late summer/early autumn, the orange blossoms are replaced by orange fruit that are approximately the same size as the blossoms (approximately the size of a small pea).

The fruit of Fireweed is coated with a waxy resin. It is inedible to humans, though birds seem to favor it. Fireweed fruit's juice is toxic and mildly corrosive. Its effect upon the body mimics that of an excessively high fever even as it causes renal failure. A single Fireweed fruit makes an average man extremely ill but recovery is possible. Two to three Fireweed fruit are lethal, difference being in how quickly renal failure progresses.

Fireweed stems and frond veins are useful as tinder when the plant has died, giving this plant its other name 'tinder wort'. The root structure is highly matted and strongly encourages nitrogen fixing. Farmers will allow Fireweed to grow in fallow fields, taking care to cut down the plant before it matures and bears fruit. High altitude Fireweed will tend to be shorter in the mature plant, standing on average approximately three feet high. If the conditions are particularly hostile, mature Fireweed can be found standing at a foot high.

In mid-summer, Fireweed's fronds will turn a range of red colors. At the darkest, it will be a rust color. At the lightest, it will be a brilliant primary red color. Fireweed that is used for medicinal purpose is collected while the red color. The flower bud will remain green on mature plants. Immature Fireweed does not blossom.

To use Fireweed fronds, one cuts them during the driest portion of the day. The fronds are cut off of the central stem, with care being taken to avoid getting the sap (which has the same toxic and corrosive qualities as the juice of the fruit) on oneself. The fronds are dried flat and then stripped along the central vein. They are then powdered and added to alcoholic beverages for consumption. Fireweed fronds are at times added to poultices after being mixed with alcohol, as the alcohol activates the chemicals within the Fireweed. Fireweed used externally will produce an effect similar to the application of capsaicin.

An alcoholic beverage that is produced in the mountains of Tarsus uses a small portion of Fireweed for its distinctive burning sensation. It is known as Fire Witch's Kiss or Witch's Kiss. It is used as a restorative and is much like whiskey, though the burning sensation is more pronounced. Witch's Kiss is rarely seen outside of the mountains of Tarsus. It is rumored that a similar brew can be found in the mountains of Ranyth.