Hi everyone and thanks for reading! An edited edition of Aloren (by E. D. Ebeling) is now available on Amazon. ( amazondotcom/dp/B00L49A48E) It'll be free for a while starting on Sunday June 29.
When I was three, my nurse brought me to see Leode. My fourth brother.
Mother sat in the bed and sang low and loose into his ear. A salt wind came through the window and stung my eyes. I'd wanted a sister. And was determined everyone should know it, so I wailed and fell across the bed.
Nurse picked me up and took me into the corner where a rocking chair collected the last of the sunlight. She sat down and placed me in her lap, her hand over my mouth. We rocked slowly and Mother sang. I was the only one of us who remembered.
"The ice aster throws high her gossamer skirts
On the brow of the Pirnon Mireir.
She laces her slippers and dances a waltz,
And she weaves her a door in the air.
Could she weave herself through, she would find a sweet land
Filled with noon-tides of nectar and cream,
But the door wants a key, and the key will not show
Till she walks neath the water in dream."
The light slid off my lap, and I fell asleep with Mother's dark head in my mind's eye, crowned in the sunset. When I woke she was dead.
When a person's body is tired, my father told us, the body gives up, regardless of what the person wants. So even then I knew it wasn't her fault. But her death shook everything apart.
Norembry was a small country, cut off from fashion trends and political ideology by mountains and sea, and the Lauriad family was bound to Norembry like bittersweet to a hemlock. My parents were bound tighter. The Queen died in childbirth and dragged the King halfway after her.
The King, my father, disappeared westward for long circles of time––in part, I suspect, because Tem and I had the blue eyes of our mother.
A year passed. On an early spring morning he came back to us with a new wife.
I've been told a number of explanations, this the most common: My father was wandering the western mountains, hunting a fox. Some folk say not a fox, but a doe. Others a wolf, or hound. I prefer the fox––a black fox, which was strange enough, and suited her besides.
Father's situation grew significantly stranger when he held the fox at the point of a precipice––his arrow eager and his horse blowing––and she proceeded to speak to him in the most common of the Elde tongues.
"Spare me the arrow, sir," she said. "How will you find your way without a guide?"
Father looked about him, at the dark, misty hills, and saw he was lost. "What would you have me do?" he said.
"Accept my condition. Then I will lead you back."
Father asked what the condition was.
"After I have led you back, you must chop off my head."
He was taken aback. "Seems a wicked thing to do."
"You must. And then you must marry the first woman you see."
He accepted, and followed her through glens and marshes, over canyons churning with meltwater and great, broken stones, until they were out of the wild. The mist pulled back and the sun shone, and the fox lay in front of him, waiting. The King unpacked his little hatchet.
In one blow the job was done. And the fox twisted into a woman: a marvelous lady with a face white and sweet as the flesh of an apple.
That mayn't have been the true version of events, but to be sure Faiorsa was brought home seated behind Father on his bay charger. Temmaec, Mordan, Arin, Leode, and I were spending our last morning in Ellyned, off the coast, when the horn sounded clear as a kittiwake.
We had a first glimpse over the northwest ramparts. But we weren't introduced to the woman until six years later, because we were immediately taken away westward to a big house of wood and stone. I remember the trip. The sky was leaden, and our way hampered by mud. Our caretakers sat stony-faced and silent, packed alongside us, and my legs stuck out over the top of my trunk.
I looked out the carriage at the rising mountains, and listened as Mordan whispered to Tem, "It's because of her."
"Shut it." Tem sounded sick.
"He's putting us away. Or they're going to kill us."
"Shut your mouth, I said."
Father arrived at the house a week later to see if we were unhappy. Unhappy wasn't the word. We were bewildered.
"Did you forget us?" I asked after walking, rather than running, when he called out in the yard.
"Goose." He buried my frown in his jerkin. "How could I forget you when I've been so worried you'd forgotten me?" Something was amiss. He spoke too loudly and his face had all the wrong sort of look.
He needn't have worried, though. We were young and free at last of tedious things like ceremonies and processions, and I forgot about the clear calls of kittiwakes. My brothers and I had glorious fun striking trails through the woods and playing at games of make-believe. Our roles never changed: Leode and Arin were the poor, brave folk enslaved and tortured by saebels at the beginning of time; and the humans, Tem and Mordan, always came at the last hope, pulling the sun behind them and purging the land of the demon saebels cleverly orchestrated and acted out by me, because I was the only girl. We fought battles, too, with pinecones and sticks and clods of dirt that always sent someone running home weeping muddy tears––most often me, because I was the only girl.
Actually, Nilsa was a girl, but this was easy to forget. She had come with the house as keeper and cook, and looked very like the wooden gargoyles leering over the cornice. She had probably hopped off the roof, Mordan said, so we stayed outside most of the time. Hal was often outside too, as he took care of the yard-work.
Hal owned a red fiddle even older than he was, but it sang like an oriole when he held it under his chin. After dinner he played tunes on the lawn, close to the banks of the green Gael so it seemed as though the river was fiddling. We'd begin to clap and I would dance, sometimes with a partner, sometimes without. And when I lost all concentration my feet would catch in the air and float. No one ever told me why. They just did.
My older brothers could do strange things, too. They sometimes made the grass greener or browner when they laughed or yelled. Only Gralde people could make plants bloom or wither just by touching them. But I wasn't old enough, yet. That's what our tutor, Master Tippelain, said.
He came up the road and over the river more than Father did, bringing us metaphysics and history and economics and politics and rumors from the outside world. After a while Tem traded his human hero for a Gralde one in our games. And then he stopped playing with us altogether. Humans were no longer so brave, he said, and he would pointlessly remind us we were all Elde. Gralde––the tallest, most noble kind of Elde. **The Elde (or Elden) are a race of people a bit like humans, except they're smaller and happier, and have longer canines (but they're more closely related to chimps than vampires), and act as though they've each had ten cups of coffee. They can communicate telepathically with animals, but everyone can do that nowadays.**
"The kind who fart in the wind and shit upstream," Mordan would say.
Mordan thought books more interesting than siblings, and Tem thought himself a man grown at twelve, too old for children. I had to make do with Arin and Leode.
Perhaps Arin and I should have been friends. We were similar enough: scheming, stubborn, covered with freckles. But the stubbornness always won out, and it troubled me constantly that I had only brothers.
One autumn, a few days after I turned eight, Father crossed the bridge with Floy set before him on his horse. She was a Rielde girl, with sandy curls, brown eyes, and no parents; they'd been killed by raiders in Lorila.
Floy was the answer to a call for assistance sent out by our grossly overworked housekeeper.
Nilsa didn't get much assistance from Floy. The day after she arrived she was mopping the floor in my room. I crept behind her and flicked soapsuds on her hair.
"Why've you glue on your head?" I asked. "Is your hair falling out?" Then I looked at the ceiling right above her and yelled, "It's not glue. It's sparrow-squat dripping from the garret!" She felt her head and screamed. I tackled her around the waist and threw us onto my big bed, where we jumped and wrestled, mucking up the quilt.
Floy's sensibility gradually broke.
One summer's day Nilsa dyed the boys' stained Jackets brown in a cauldron outside on the lawn. Floy pinched a pan of the dye, and we waited for Leode to have his bath. I dumped the stuff into his tub, telling him it would kill ticks, and when he crawled out his pale skin had turned brown as an oak leaf. Nilsa scrubbed him over and over, until his skin flushed pink under the brown, but the brown didn't come off for weeks. We pretended he was a Virnrayan jungle boy.
That autumn I found a rotting deer's head in the wood, and made senseless by whatever grudge I was nursing, convinced Floy to help me carry it back to the house. We threw it down the well. Everyone got sick, and spent lots of time in the privy, and we had to drink from the river like wildmen.
Boredom and idleness made occasional monsters of all of us, but I suppose the initiation of Floy into our coterie proved too much. Two years later, someone––someone right among us––turned against us.
We'd heard rumors about the new Queen, of course. Adults whispered, never quite softly enough, behind the kitchen door. Ridiculous things. (She'd a magic aumulet that could strike down whole armies, and a pact with the djain, and twenty-five black dragons from her lover in Omben. And an infant son.)
Curiosity drove us to creeping. Mordan caught sight, one midsummer morning, of a strange man closeted in the pantry with Hal. Arin (with the loosest tongue) asked Father later why the man had his cloak and cowl drawn so tight around him on such a summer's day in the warmest corner of the house.
Hal seemed like to throttle the cloaked man in Mordan's retelling. He'd been throwing flatware around. But Arin never listened very closely to Mordan, and only Arin and I were about the house when Hal received his dismissal.
I could have stopped it. But Arin was yelping in the front hall and I didn't want my own knees caned for eavesdropping. So Hal walked down the road between two men in green and grey, and never came back.
I could scarcely eat for a week. And then I mostly forgot about Hal when Biador replaced him as groundskeeper (though I dearly missed the sound of the fiddle).
Arin was bitter about his knees, though. "If they find that man, will they pull his Marionin?" he asked.
"No," said Tem. "Don't say such things."
"What's a Marionin?" I asked Mordan that evening.
He was sitting on the hearth, hair wet, shirt steaming. It had been raining all that day. "Birth flowers. Only Gralde have them."
He didn't say anything else, and I only learned the particulars in a lesson: A Marionin was a flowering physical extension of the spirit. It sprang from the ground whenever a Gralde was born. Nobody knew where.
"Then how does anyone know they have one?" I asked.
"Mothers see them," said Tem.
"Yes." He had on his stern face, and I knew not to bother him further.