Worldbuilding: Agriculture in an Early-Medieval World

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich to readers is the presence of agriculture as part of the background of life.

The scenery, the customs and traditions, the way of life – all were portrayed so well that it felt like reading about a real time and place.” 

Helen Hollick, Discovering Diamonds review of Empire’s Daughter

This, in some version, is one of the most frequent comments – or compliments – about my books. How did you build such a real world? people ask.  There are a lot of facets to this, but the one I’ll look at today is the role of agriculture in creating an early-medieval setting.

I have an advantage over many writers: I grew up in a rural setting, did agricultural work from the time I was thirteen, come from a long line of agricultural workers, and have two degrees in the subject. And landscape history – which is inextricably tied into land use and agriculture – is a major hobby of mine. Nonetheless, it’s not what you know as much as how you use it, really.

Let’s look at animal agriculture first. Early medieval Europe, which my world parallels, had horses and cows, sheep and goats, and pigs*. Empire’s Daughter opens in a fishing village, but one that also farms. Geographically, it’s set somewhere equivalent to perhaps northern Wales – in my mind, it’s the landscape of Anglesey. Thin soils, rocky heathland in places; deeper soils in others. So it can support some grain crops, and some animal agriculture.

Lives revolve around animals: lambing, shearing, slaughter, as well as the cycle of planting and harvest. Fences are important, tough wattle fencing to keep animals out of gardens. Children are employed to scare birds, watch sheep, keep the goats away from crops.

One of the reasons I think my world feels rich is this is present as part of the background of life. For example, in a scene where a council of landholders have met for political reasons, other conversations still happen. The country’s been raided badly by a Viking-like people, and it’s just beginning to recover. Political decisions about leadership need to be made, but so do more mundane choices – and this young landholder, his father dead in the battles – turns to an older man for advice:

“Sorley,” he said when I sat down. “Should I put the meadows along the water to the plough, if I can find seed? They’ve been grazed, but we’ll not have sheep in numbers for a few years yet.”

“If those meadows are like the Ti’ach’s, they’re wet,” I said. “Better leave them to the sheep, and plough better drained land, if you can.” He’d be late getting the barley in, but it needed only three months to be ready to harvest.

Empire’s Reckoning

It’s two short paragraphs – but it brings the real, daily concerns of people to life.

Knowing how people and animals lived together also adds authenticity to a story. In many cases, it was in one building, either separated by a rough wall, or with the animals on ground level and people living above them. Cattle produce an enormous amount of heat, and this arrangement allowed for the animal’s heat to benefit people – and it also meant the people were right there in case of a predator attack. In this scene the character has begged shelter at a peasant cottage: 

She led me to the half of the bothy the animals occupied, the milk cow and the pigs, if they had them. Although this should be slaughter month, so the pigs might already be ham and bacon, hanging in flitches above the hearth. The byre was empty, as I had expected; what animals they had would be out foraging, but it was dry, and the reed bedding tolerably clean.

I settled into a corner, spreading my tattered blanket, which served as my cloak, out flat. I wished the cow had been indoors; her warmth would have been welcome.

Empire’s Reckoning

Here the rhythms of the agricultural year are shown to be important without bringing undue emphasis to them, and the living conditions of the people.

I could find other examples: how sheep are hefted to a hillside (hefting is a learned behaviour passed from ewe to lamb that limits where sheep will wander); how sheep and cattle were moved to market; the low value of the coarse wool of the upland sheep.  None of these get more than a mention here and there, or at most a couple of paragraphs, but they serve to create a solid agricultural basis to a world that depended on it. (Which, of course, we still all do, but most of us are so distanced from it, we forget.) In many ways, this is the equivalent of, in a contemporary urban novel, of stopping at Starbucks, or debating sushi or pizza for dinner: the details that reinforce the common rituals and experiences of our lives. In another post, I’ll look at the crops of medieval Europe and how they too influenced both daily life, and my books.

Featured image: Limbourg brothers/Public domain

* The sheep are coarse-wooled, darker than you might expect. The pigs aren’t likely pink, and they’re running loose, foraging; taller, razor-backed, bristly and dangerous. The cattle might be white, and fierce; castrated males are used as draught animals. You plough with oxen, not horses, in most cases. And the horses are ponies, shaggy and tough.

A Changed World

It became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions.

A year plus 10 days ago, I was in Rome, experiencing the feel of the city and visiting locations that would be settings in Empire’s Heir: the Imperial Palace, the Baths of Caracalla, others. The virus was a problem further north in Italy, but I had no worries about going to Rome. The world changed rapidly after that – we flew home to Canada from England a month later from an eerily empty airport, on a half-full flight, to restrictions that have fluctuated in gravity, but never gone away.

I hadn’t started Empire’s Heir yet: I had a general idea of the story, but little else. After I started writing it, it became quickly evident there were themes of loss and uncertainty I hadn’t planned, of separation and restrictions, and the meaning of space as something both necessary and isolating.

In my first trilogy, Empire’s Legacy, we were introduced to my protagonist Lena. Eighteen, facing war and hardships, she remains remarkably resilient – although not unscarred – throughout the three books. At the beginning of Empire’s Heir, she is forty. Mourning the sudden death of her third, unexpected child, she’s trying to make sense of her life.  Events set in motion at the birth of her oldest child, Gwenna, are shaping affairs both political and personal. She’s floundering, trying to reclaim some control of her own destiny – and she’s lost some of the resilience she had as a younger woman.

Cillian, thirty-three when we first meet him in Empire’s Hostage, is fifty-three. In a 7th century world, he’s far from young, and he’s coming to terms with the restrictions and losses of age.

I was growing old, and age brought loss, of things small and great: the acuity of hearing, the rapidity of thought… I had thought I accepted this decline; that my injuries had taught me to live with things lost.

The subplot of trying to live with loss, to rebuild lives shaken by uncertainty and unexpected change and its aftershocks, runs through the story, shaping it as I write. I can immerse myself in history and my faux-7th-century world. But the real world intrudes, influences, insists on inclusion, if in subtle and hidden ways; some, I may not even realize. Is this the book I would have written had there been no pandemic?  I doubt it.

Featured Image: The Aurelian Walls, Rome: Lalupa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just How Accurate is that Historical Drama? The Borgias

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Neil Jordan’s The Borgias, especially Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander and Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia. This isn’t a period I know much about, and so it was instructive in the general history of the time and place, if not the details.

But how well does it really reflect the time period?  To answer that question, I turned to Anthony R. Wildman, author of The Diplomat of Florence, a novel of Machiavelli.  Machiavelli’s life intersected with the Borgias, and like most people, I knew little about him except his reputation and that he wrote a book called The Prince. So when I had a chance to review Wildman’s novel for Helen Hollick’s historical fiction website Discovering Diamonds, I jumped at it. 

Here’s what Tony Wildman had to say about The Borgias:

In 2011 the world was treated to not one but two versions of the story of the Borgia family presented in the form of a TV series. Probably the most famous and immediately recognisable was the Showcase series, which starred Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, pope Alexander VI. It certainly had the superior budget, was lavish and beautiful looking, and fulfilled the key criteria of being an entertaining retelling of the story.

But for my money, the lesser known French-German-Czech version called Borgia: Faith and Fear was more interesting, and marginally more historically accurate (though that should not be the prime criteria for judging what is, after all, a work of fiction). Where Showtime gave us a version that was consistent with modern sensibilities, the European series felt much more historical.

Renaissance Italy was by our standards extraordinary cruel, violent, and cynical. Assassination, whether by the knife or poison, was a routine tool of statecraft; power was everything, and those who possessed it could do the most outrageous things with impunity; supposedly celibate cardinals and popes had mistresses and children who they openly acknowledged and used for the extension of their own power; political alliances were abandoned without a moment’s regret; and women were for the most part powerless chattels who had no expectation of ever being allowed to choose their own husband. In this world, the Borgias were perhaps a little more extreme than their rivals and enemies, but only a little more; indeed, much of their reputation for depravity was manufactured by their successors in power, who were themselves just as guilty of the sins of simony and treachery. And that is where Borgia: Faith and Fear is more faithful to the times.

In the American series, we are invited to be shocked at the way the Borgias behave, mostly by means of setting up the Borgias’ principal enemy, cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, as a ‘good guy’ who is constantly outraged by the behaviour of his nemesis. But in the European version, we are spared any of that moralising, and the bad behaviour (some of it very bad) is presented almost without comment. As a result, you feel as though you are watching real, actual 15th century people, and that is quite a trick for anyone to pull off, on the screen or on paper.

You can check out Anthony Wildman’s books on his website. Many thanks to Tony for this article!

The Drove Dogs

“Nell. Go home.” She stood, the breeze ruffling her black and white coat. “Home,” I said again.

We halted at mid-day for a little food. The pony, which carried my shearer’s tools and our other supplies, browsed for grass. We sat on stones that marked the meeting place of the track from the torp we had left this morning and a broad valley running roughly north to south. We’d come up this valley, a week or so earlier.

I unwrapped the offal I’d boiled the night before and tipped it onto the ground, giving the dog permission to eat. She swallowed the meal before looking up at me for its next command. “Down,” I told her. “It’s time,” I said to Bjørn.

He nodded, and crouched to hug the dog, his arms circling its throat. He would miss her, I knew, but we couldn’t take her with us.

When he had let the dog go, I spoke. “Nell. Go home.” She stood, the breeze ruffling her black and white coat. “Home,” I said again. She turned and began to trot north, along the valley floor and the ancient droveway, the wide paths along which sheep and cattle had been moved for generations beyond count.

Bjørn watched her for a minute, his eyes dry. “Will she really find her way home?” he asked. “It’s a long way.”

“She’s done it several times,” I told him. “That’s why Harr Dugar chose her to accompany us. The torps will feed her, don’t worry.” I pulled up the pony’s head. “Do you want to ride?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Many years ago, long before I envisioned the world I write about in my Empire series – an analogue of Britain and northern Europe after the decline of Rome – I read a book called The Drove Roads of Scotland, by A.R.B. Haldane. (Landscape history, if you’re new to my blog, is an avocation of mine.)  I don’t remember a lot of it, but in a footnote, he made this observation:

‘Some years ago the late Miss Stewart Mackenzie of Brahan, Ross-shire, informed a friend that in the course of journeys by coach in the late autumn from Brahan to the South during her childhood about the year 1840 she used frequently to see collie dogs making their way north unaccompanied. On inquiring of her parents why these dogs were alone, [she] was informed that these were dogs belonging to drovers who had taken cattle to England and that when the droving was finished the drovers returned by boat to Scotland. To save the trouble and expense of their transport, the dogs were turned loose to find their own way north. It was explained that the dogs followed the route taken on the southward journey being fed at Inns or farms where the drove had ‘stanced’ and that in the following year when the drovers were again on the way south, they paid for the food given to the dogs…’

That passage stayed in my mind, in part because I immediately associated it with a classic book of my childhood, Lassie Come-Home, by Erik Knight, in which a collie, sold from necessity and taken to a remote part of Scotland, still finds her way home. Written in 1940, it predates Haldane’s book. Had Knight heard stories of the drove collies?  Perhaps; I can’t prove it: in fact, I can’t prove this story of the drove dogs sent home by themselves at all. Every source I’ve found simply links back to Haldane’s footnote.

But it’s a good story, one that fit into Empire’s Reckoning (even though it’s set a thousand or so years earlier), because my main character was travelling south with a sheepdog in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer. But that’s not what he really is, and so the borrowed dog will need to be sent home. Does she make it?  Here’s a tiny excerpt from the work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir, set four years later.

Bjørn’s gaze swept the room, stopping at Druise. “Bjørn,” Sorley said, as the two men regarded each other, “if you for a moment doubt Druisius’s loyalty, I’ll regret having sent the dog back north, and not you.”

A bark of laughter. “I was pleased when you wrote to tell me she was safely home,” he said. “It still surprises me that a sheepdog can do that journey across all that wild land on its own.”

Empire’s Heir

And if you know of any reliable sources other than Haldane for this practice, please let me know!

The Archive, by Dan Fitzgerald: The Maer Cycle (#2)

Feathered dragons!

Published: December 4, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Age Group: Adult

Pages: 306


In Hollow Road (book 1), three companions discovered the monsters of legend were all too real…

Rumors among the Maer tell of an underground library called the Archive, which houses a wealth of knowledge and terrible magics that could be used to start the biggest war seen since the Great Betrayal. A mixed group of humans and Maer set off on an historic quest to find the Archive and protect it from those who would use it to destroy everything they hold dear. As the cold of winter bears down upon them, they trek through forbidding mountains beset by dangers they could have never imagined. They follow a set of ancient clues deep into the Silver Hills, forging surprising alliances and making new enemies.

The humans and Maer are linked by more than their quest to find the Archive and stop an insidious war. A mystical surrogacy may bridge the gap between two peoples, and many hearts entwine as their adventure hurtles toward its bloody conclusion.


In The Archive, Dan Fitzgerald returns to some of the same themes as in Hollow Road, Book I of The Maer Cycle: the building of alliances through communication and a defense against a mutual enemy; the importance of shared language and history; the understanding that arises from seeing past external differences to find common humanity.

The human protagonists from Hollow Road: Sinnie, Finn, and Carl, along with Maer companions, including Finn’s lover Fabaris, are seeking The Archive, a legendary repository of the written history of the Maer. Believed to lie deep in the mountains, finding it entails more than one danger. Among those dangers are the Wild, or Free, Maer: clans who have remained living outside of the settled Maer community. Enemies of both the Maer and humans, they will need to be convinced – by diplomacy or a show of force – that these strangers are not there to destroy or assimilate them, but for a greater cause, one that is as important to the Free Maer, too.

The world Fitzgerald has created is expanded in The Archive; the reader learns more about its history, its geography, and its cultures, while still leaving us with tantalizingly unanswered questions to draw us into the next book. It, like its predecessor, is a quiet book, primarily character-driven. There is plenty of conflict, but not often the sort that needs weapons to solve, although battle will play an important role.

Relationships develop further in this book, both friendships and sexual relationships (of many kinds, all seamlessly fitting into the story and the world), and with those relationships characters too are deepened and developed, increasing the stakes and the emotional impact of events. One of my small niggles with the story came here: in furthering Finn and Carl’s relationships, Sinnie seemed to be neglected – or perhaps my sense of her as a little on the sidelines is purposeful.

Once or twice specific word choices jarred me out of the pre-industrial world Fitzgerald’s characters inhabit, but overall the writing is smooth and effective; the plot and action well-paced, and the characters compelling. Oh, and did I say there are dragons? Feathered dragons! Strongly recommended for readers who want more from a fantasy world than battles, blood and beer.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08M68H1HQ

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55780840-the-archive

Giveaway!

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e832e98855/?

About the Author

Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music. 

His debut fantasy novel Hollow Road, the first book in The Maer Cycle trilogy, was published in September by Shadow Spark Publishing. The Archive comes out on December 4, and the trilogy concludes with The Place Below in March 2021.

Books and merchandise are available at https://shadowsparkpub.com/dan-fitzgerald.

Find out more about Dan and his books at http://www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.  

Author Links

Website: http://www.danfitzwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/danfitzwrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danfitzwrites

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/danfitzwrites

Sorry? Not sorry.

I love this season.

I haven’t been blogging much recently, and I’m not apologetic. It’s October, my favourite month. So instead of sitting at my desk, or even going out for an hour on my bike, I’ve been hiking – and hiking takes longer. Sometimes half a day, sometimes more, depending on how far I drive to get there.

I often don’t drive far. My city is blessed with good hiking trails, both in it and close by. We’re a ground-water-dependent community, and the aquifers in the limestone bedrock are protected. So lots of naturalized parkland, and lots of trails. Two days ago I hiked for nearly three hours, through old cedar forest, regrowth deciduous, and open, regenerating pasture – and I didn’t leave the city.

Spending time on Guelph's trails more important than ever - GuelphToday.com
Preservation Park

Some days, I don’t drive at all. I just walk 10 minutes to the university arboretum across the road, and from its own loops of trails I can connect onto the river trails, and go either west or east. One way takes me into the city (and the BEST ice cream shop); the other takes me away from houses and roads and alongside limestone cliffs. It depends on my mood (and my craving for ice cream.)

Cliffs along the Guelph Radial Trail. Photo: Emily S Damstra
Guelph Radial Trail

Other days I have a wish for less familiar trails, and I drive to somewhere new, or less visited. My hiking boots and pole live in the car now.

Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, grass, outdoor and nature
Pinehurst Lake

I love this season. The colours are beautiful, there are no mosquitoes or deerfly, and the air is cool. Winter will be here far too soon. I’ll blog more then. In fact, I’m only writing this post because it’s raining!

Writing, Full Time…a Day in the Life.

11:30: Shouldn’t I have a shower today?

6:30:  Wake up, hoping the plot problem’s solved itself overnight. It hasn’t.

6:45:  Make coffee.  Nothing happens without coffee. Feed the cat.

7:00:  Sit at desk. Remove cat from keyboard.

7:15:  Check social media. Attempt to refrain from checking sales stats. Fail. Sigh today. (Cheered yesterday.)

7:45:  Stop procrastinating. Check e-mail for business-related items. Answer 5 emails. Remove cat from in front of computer screen.

8:30:  Look at whiteboard. Realize with horror there are three deadlines looming.

8:45:  Finish community newsletter column.

9:15:  Finish drafting the promotional ‘blurb’ for another author’s book.  More coffee.

9:30: Write and schedule social media promos for the next week.

10:15: Becoming one with desk chair. Go for a walk and think about (a) the book review due and (b) the knotty plot point. Apologize to neighbours whom you’ve ignored because you’re deep in thought.

11:30: Shouldn’t I have a shower today?

12:00:  Food might help. And more coffee.

12:30: Check social media. Type one-handed because cat is insisting on cuddles.

1:00:  Solve some problems for the community newsletter. Apologize to a contributor whose article had a typo.

1:30: Begin the book review.

1:35: Clean up cat’s hairball. Return to book review.

2:30:  Ask writer friends via DMs about the plot point. Much discussion….not all on topic.

3:30:  Break time. Discuss plot point with husband…or whoever this man I live with is.

4:00: Dear gods, is that the time?  Open WIP document.

5:30:  Cat is being very loud. Oh. She’s hungry. Oh. Dinner. Good: it’s husband’s turn to cook. Pour wine.

6:00:  Eat. 

6:30: Clean up. Write a grocery list. Return to desk. Read what I wrote in the WIP. Sigh.

7:30: Couch and tv time. Watch with half an eye. Make hopefully relevant comments to husband about what’s happening on-screen. Write ideas in notebook with the other eye-and-a-half.

10:00: Return to keyboard. Write for a bit.

11:00: Pour scotch. Look at whiteboard of writing/marketing/editorial tasks. Swear. Feed cat.  Pour more scotch to counteract too much coffee. Go to bed, plot point still unsolved.

Hero’s Journeys and Ritual Landscapes #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

The most effective hero’s journey stories use landscape as an important part of the journey

“Ritual landscape” is a term coined by archaeologists originally to refer to the concentration of ceremonial sites of Neolithic and Bronze Age people in one geographic area. Stonehenge, with expansive earthworks extending out from the central henge for at least 6 km, is probably the best known English example. In recent years the term has been extended to refer to later periods, and I have argued in papers for landscape archaeology courses that it can be used as a basis to examine how even the landscape of a stately home can be structured to create a sense of awe and ceremony, with the house taking the place of the central temple. But here, I’d like to think about the purposes of a ritual landscape, and how they might align with the concept of the hero’s journey in fiction.

Archaeologists argue that ritual landscapes are in part about places of protection and renewal. Francis Pryor writes:

I sometimes wonder whether ritual landscapes are indeed just a prehistoric phenomenon. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise that the need to travel, discover and re-imagine is part of the human condition. In the Middle Ages people from all walks of life regularly went on pilgrimages and of course they were familiar with what the various places they were travelling through signified. Pilgrimages, just like their pre-Roman antecedents, were never about exploration, de novo. Instead the exploration was personal and introspective.

The hero’s journey is also about pilgrimage:

 the common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.

And at this point, you may well be thinking, OK, but how does this all fit into a blog about tools for writers? Bear with me. Because my point is this: the most effective hero’s journey books, whether they are high fantasy or not, use landscape as an important part of the journey. The ritual landscape becomes infused and integrated into the journey, the pilgrimage, and in is part what helps to transform the ‘hero’. It’s a force in the story, not just a background to the adventure.

The first example that came to mind when as I contemplated this idea is from The Lord of the Rings, as the fellowship travel down the Anduin and pass through the Pillars of the Kings. It is a dangerous place, guarded by the two ancient carved likenesses of two kings:

Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down….even Boromir bowed his head as the boats whirled by, under the enduring shadow of the guardians of Númenor…. “Fear not!” said a strange voice behind him. Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a King returning from exile to his own land.

This is a striking and almost obvious example of the power of landscape, but the concept can also be used more subtly (there are many examples in LOTR: Tolkien understood the power of landscape long before the term ‘ritual landscape’ became an archaeological term – nor was he the first.)

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, in the last volume, Silver on the Tree, she uses ritual landscape as a turning point in the story:

Jane said … “What an enormous lot of flat land there is on the other side of the river. Miles of it, miles and miles, before the mountains start again.” … Will stood up and came quietly forward to stand beside [Bran], looking down at the estuary. He tried to keep the excitement from his voice. “Drowned,” he said. “Lost.” The mountain was very quiet. The skylark had finished its song. Very far away once more they heard gulls faintly crying, out over the sea. Bran stood very still, without turning. “Dear God,” he said. The others scrambled to their feet. Simon said, “The Lost Land?

These are only two many many examples. I use the concept in my own books, both consciously and unconsciously. If you are writing a ‘hero’s journey’ structure, I’d encourage you to seriously consider the idea of how landscape can inform the travel and transformation of your characters. It adds another dimension to the story, one that embeds it further into its time and place, strengthening the connection to your world – whether it is real or imagined – and creating a setting that will resonate in the minds of your readers.  

Featured image: Sí an Bhrú (Newgrange), Ireland. Tjp Finn, CC 4.0 license.

Music’s Memory

Write what you know, right? Then why do I write about music?

Why is music so important in my books?  I’m not a musician; I can’t play an instrument, carry a tune, or even keep time.  Write what you know, right? You wouldn’t think I’d write about music.

But one of the themes of my books is language, and what it can and can’t do: in my protagonist Lena’s words, they are in part

about language, and meaning, and if all concepts were universal, and could be translated. About the gap between intent and comprehension, between what was meant and what was understood, and the assumptions and shared experience encompassed—or not—in any exchange.

Empire’s Exile

Music, in my books, is another form of language, a way to communicate that goes beyond words to invoke memory and emotion. I introduce this in the very first book, Empire’s Daughter, when the character Tice teaches Lena a song about exile and lost love (introducing another major theme of the series).  In book 2, Empire’s Hostage, Lena learns that in Linrathe, the country north of the Wall, song is used to teach history – and more than history, in truth – a sense of national identity.

Song weaves its way through the next book, Empire’s Exile, too: its role in entertainment, in ritual, in status among a group of warriors. It communicates regret, love, loss – and is a vehicle to bring two people together.

But it’s in the two books that the musician Sorley narrates: Oraiáphon and Empire’s Reckoning, that music takes centre stage. Its role in Oraiáphon is pivotal to the story – without giving away the plot, I’ll just say that Oraiáphon is my world’s equivalent of classical mythology’s Orpheus.  

Music is central to Sorley’s identity, and as the author I take advantage of that. Music highlights the differences between him and the two men in his life: with pragmatic Druisius, the instruments they play are similar, but the tunings are different, and to Druisius, all Sorley’s songs are sad. With Cillian, whose use of language is precise and subtle, honed by his years as a diplomat, Sorley’s contrasting use of song to influence through emotion reflects their characters:

“Stories told by you, with all your scáeli’s skills?” Cillian asked. “A tale spun to coerce and convince, my lord Sorley?”

Empire’s Reckoning

Of all the books in the series, Empire’s Reckoning focuses most on the influence and limitations of language: of oaths made and broken, of the power of words spoken and unspoken – and the role of music in conveying what words cannot. That’s why I, a weaver of words, write about music.

You can hear Sorley sing his beautiful Paths Untrodden here.

Purchase links for all my books here.

Want to know more about the world of my books, the real history that informs them, or read vignettes and updates on the work in progress, Empire’s Heir? Sign up for my monthly News from the Empire.

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Ancient Warrior Women Part II: Commanders

Some of Rome’s most formidable enemies were women. Here’s a look at five of them.

Last week I wrote about the archaeological evidence of women warriors in the bronze and iron ages. This week, I’ll take a look at a few of those who not only fought, but led forces against the Roman Empire.

Khawlah bint al-Azwar (بنت الأزور)

A 7th C Arab, Khawlah bint al-Azwar fought alongside her brother during the Siege of Damascus, when the army of the Rashidun Caliphatetook Damascus from the Eastern Roman Empire. When her brother, commanding the troops, was taken prisoner during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uqab (معركة ثنية العقاب‎) by the Byzantine Army, Khawlah bint al-Azwar successfully attacked the Byzantine rear guard with a small group of women. In two other battles against Byzantine forces, she again successfully led others – male and female – against their enemy.

Mavia, (ماوية‎,)

Mavia was ruler of the Tanûkhids in southern Syria in the last half of the 4th century. Riding against Roman rule in Phoenicia and Palestine, she defeated the Roman army several times, until they gave up and signed a truce. She was an able tactician: she and her generals had been studying Roman fighting techniques and tactics for over a hundred years. Her troops were nomadic, using guerilla warfare techniques – notably lancers on horseback – against the Romans. Later, after winning favourable peace terms from Rome, she would send mounted troops to support their fight against the Goths.

Amanirenas 

A leader of the Kush in the last century BCE, Amanirenas led her people against Roman forces in Egypt in 25 BCE, capturing several forts. Ongoing fighting saw the Kushites pushed back, but a treaty signed a few years later saw a portion of lands returned to the Kush, and after that, relations between Rome and the Kush were peaceable. (On a side note, Amanirenas was a kandake, the king’s sister whose son would be the heir. Kandake = candace, and is the origin of the woman’s name.)

Boudicca.

Leader of the Iceni rebellion against Roman rule in Britannia in 60/61 CE, after her lands were confiscated and her daughters raped, Boudicca’s forays against Roman towns and troops were so successful that the Emperor Nero considered withdrawing from Britain altogether. She was eventually defeated by the Roman general Suetonius in 61 CE.

Zenobia

A third-century queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria, Zenobia was regent for her  son  after the death of his father. Under her leadership, most of the Roman East came under her rule, including Egypt. In 272, Zenobia declared her empire free of Rome, made her son Emperor and herself Empress. After considerable conflict, Zenobia was captured; likely she taken to Rome to be part of the Emperor Aurelian’s triumphal procession, but after that her fate is unclear; contemporary sources differ.

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