Escape: A Short Story

So many people! In the fifteen years and more since the Marai had taken me and Niav, Eluf had kept me on his farmstead, several days inland and many hours’ ride from the next settlement.

This vignette was my response to a challenge from one of my writers’ groups: write a piece about hope. For those of you who have read the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, this narrator will be familiar: Jordis, who was at the Ti’ach when Lena was sent there in Empire’s Hostage. If you haven’t read Book III, Empire’s Exile, this will give away some of the plot, and it also hints at events in the upcoming release, Empire’s Reckoning. But if you’ve read the trilogy, or you don’t mind knowing a little of what happens, read on!

Escape

By Marian L Thorpe

© 2020

So many people!  In the fifteen years and more since the Marai had taken me and Niav, Eluf had kept me on his farmstead, several days inland and many hours’ ride from the next settlement. Once Niav had died, her babe with her, there was no-one to speak to, not in my language. And Eluf forbade me teach it to Elsë, the daughter I bore him.

But now Elsë was adult, by the Marai way of reckoning, and betrothed to a fish merchant’s son, and we were here at the coastal steading for the celebration. I had a new dress, just the one, and new shoes and a new light shawl. Elsë had several dresses, and fine silver bracelets and a brooch, part of her bride-price. With the ceremony done, the drinking had begun, and Eluf had not noticed – or not cared – when I left his side to wander around the hall.

One or two women spoke to me: captive I may be, but I was also Elsë’s mother, and Eluf’s wife. That I was – or had been – the lady Jordis of Eganstorp – mattered not at all to them. Likely they didn’t know. I made polite conversation, talking of the lavishness of the feast and the decoration of the hall, and the advantageous marriage my daughter was making. I was fluent in their language: had been, even before the Marai had come, and so some, perhaps, had no idea I was Linrathan-born.

I inclined my head to the last group of women, making my excuses. “My throat is dry,” I told them, turning toward the long table where the ale jugs were. As I accepted a cup from the serving girl, a snatch of a tune floated above the voices: not from the musicians, but from the man close by. He was humming.

The words came to me unsought: War in winter brings sorrow soaring…I knew the poem, and I knew the tune. The poem was Halmar’s, but the tune—the tune was Sorley’s. My classmate, my friend, all those long years ago under Dagney’s tutelage. A Linrathan tune.

I took a step sideways. The man – he was young, eighteen, perhaps – glanced at me. “War in winter,” I murmured, in Linrathan. “I know the tune.”

His eyes widened, momentarily, surprise quickly mastered. He turned, bowed, took my arm. “The hall is warm,” he said. “Would you like an escort, my lady?” Loud enough for the serving girl to hear, and in her language: a polite exchange, and a courtesy offered to an older woman.

“I would,” I said.  Others walked in the cool evening air, the salt smell of the sea sharpening the air, and the slap of waves muffling words spoken low. When he judged we could not be overheard, he stopped.

“How do you know the tune?”  

“It’s Sorley’s. Sorley of Gundarstorp’s. We were learning together, before the Marai. Why do you know it?”

“He was my tutor for a winter. I am Dugi, heir to Dugarstorp. But who are you?”

I told him. In the light of the long summer evening I saw his jaw tighten. “We thought you dead,” he said.

“As you can see, I am not. It is my daughter who has been betrothed tonight. Why are you here?”

“We trade in fish with the merchants here. I arrived yesterday and was invited to the celebration.” The northern landholders had always traded with the Marai, and many had sided with them in the war. I had no idea which side this man’s father had supported.

“When was Sorley your tutor?” I asked, as casually as I could.

“A decade past, now.” He grinned. “That song was one of the first he taught us.”

I bit back the impulse to ask what Sorley was doing now; if he knew who at my school had lived or died. “Were you pleased when Ruar married Helvi?” I asked. That piece of news had reached our remote farm, the marriage of the Earl Olavi’s daughter to the leader of Linrathe. The bride-price she had taken south half a dozen years past was the return of Sorham, the northern province, to Linrathe: the dowry and the alliance not popular among a faction of Marai men.

“I was,” he said evenly. “My father, too.” It was the answer I’d needed. Or was it? He traded with this steading…but I would never have this chance again. I took a breath.

“Can you take us home, Lord Dugar?”

He chewed his lip. “Us?” he said. “Both of you?”

“Yes. I will not leave Elsë.”

He shook his head. “She is Marai. It’s a good marriage. I can’t risk the trading.”

I closed my eyes. Part of my heart knew he was right: Elsë had no objection to this marriage, not that she had voiced to me. She would be gone from my life, either way. But still…

Dugi glanced up at the first stars. “The night is fair,” he said. “About midnight, I’m going to worry if my boat is tied well enough and go to the jetty to check. And I might take her out, to clear my head. I do that, sometimes.” Louder, and not in our common language, he added, “Shall we return to the hall, my lady?”

Eluf hadn’t noticed I’d gone; he was too far into the ale. I filled his cup, just to be seen and perhaps remembered, before going to my daughter. Tonight had been only the start of the celebrations: the wedding was in three days. I fussed over Elsë, tucking her hair into its pins. “I will miss you,” I whispered to her. Tears stung my eyes.

“Who were you with?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was feeling a little faint, from the crowds, I suppose, and he offered to take me out into the air. I didn’t ask his name.” She nodded and turned back to her new sisters. I wandered away to join another group of women, to talk of trade and fabrics and jewelry, and who would marry whom, this year.

When I judged the time had passed I excused myself, wandering out to the latrines and then beyond, circling down to the water. I took off the new shoes: my feet were used to being bare, and it was quieter. I pulled my shawl up over my light hair, and slipped onto the jetty. I could just see Dugi on his boat.  Eganstorp, where I’d grown up, was a coastal holding. I knew boats. I slid over the gunwales, barely rocking the little craft.

Dugi didn’t look at me. He was humming, the same tune, casually undoing knots and readying the boat to sail. I sat low, hugging my knees. He’d just reached for the oars when I heard running feet. I sat up. Dugi swore, reaching for the jetty with one oar. Elsë ran along the boards, scrambling into the boat.

“I asked who he was,” she gasped, “and I worked it out, when you didn’t come back into the hall. I’m coming too.”

I pulled her to me. There wasn’t time for questions. Dugi swore again. “I’ll pay for this,” he muttered, and pushed the boat away from the jetty. He rowed in silence until we were free of the breakwalls. Then he set the sails, and under the stars and a risen moon he steered us south, to Sorham, to home, to hope.

Of Worlds in Words, part 1

08-Hadrians_Wall-037

The newest review of one of the books in my Empire’s Legacy series says, in part, “I am amazed at the complexity of her world building…. ” It’s a common response from readers and reviewers. Without being too self-congratulatory (and because I am giving a talk on world-building for fantasy writers in the spring), I’m going to do some musing about the subject here.

A little bit of background: the Empire’s Legacy series is set in a world reminiscent of Northern Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire. An analogue world, I call it, full of things that are familiar to anyone who knows even the slightest bit about this period, but not a slavish recreation.

‘You must have done a lot of research’. I hear this quite a bit, too. Well, yes, and no. Full disclosure here: I’m 60. So I’ve had fifty-plus years of reading to assimilate and internalize a lot of information about the history and landscape and culture of Britain, before and after its colonization by Rome, from iron-age culture through to the Viking invasion and beyond. I’ve also walked extensively in the UK,  completely across the country, once (it took me three weeks); I’ve walked on iron-age trackways and on Roman roads, wandered among standing stones,  stood at Hadrian’s Wall on a windy, cold March day to see what it felt like. I know what my character Sorley hears when he misses ‘The scream of gulls over the harbour; the endless sigh of the wind in the grasses, the curlew crying. Waves, always beating, like a heart.’ (That’s from the work-in-progress.) I’ve stood on a beach on the northwestern tip of Scotland, and heard all those things.

Other ‘research’ came from entertainment: from Mary Stewart’s timeless books about Arthur: The Hollow Hills and The Crystal Cave, for their settings; from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantium Mosaic; from books I read as a child, and can’t remember properly; from dozens of Time Team episodes, along with Digging for Britain; and Vikings… I could go on. Tidbits of information, or whole chunks. My husband is used to me scribbling notes.

Some of it was purposeful: on-line courses on the history of Hadrian’s Wall, and the archaeology of Portus, one of Rome’s ports. A course on the history of Europe 400 – 1000 AD (I focused on Viking expansion in Europe, which became important in Empire’s Exile, book III.) Two courses on landscape archaeology, to learn to read the landscape even better – not just for the books, but because it is a private passion. Many many books…the one I am currently reading is Roman Provincial Administration, by John Rogan.

All of this is a long-winded way to say that I believe you need to know the landscape of your fictional world, because landscape shapes culture, and culture shapes characters. If your principal character – as mine is in the work-in-progress – is a young gay musician from a culture where homosexuality is taboo, I have to know not only why that is, but what that looks like in a world of windswept, isolated estates, a hierarchical social structure, and primogeniture in inheritance of land, a world where marriage is to bind neighbours together against a common enemy, join lands, and create children for the good of both families but also the community. Maybe I’m lacking in imagination, but it’s easier for me to learn what I can about the Norse-Gaelic culture of the highlands and islands of Scotland, and then think ‘what if?’ within the basic structure of that culture, than it is for me to create a whole new culture.

My personal belief as a writer is that there are two choices: base your world on a historic one which readers will find at least a little familiar (e.g, The Lord of the Rings – another analogue of northern Europe; The Earthsea Trilogy – based (in memory) on an analogue of the Mediterranean islands) and create a culture that does not align with reality, or create a culture that aligns with reality in its important facets, and place it in an alien setting (e.g. Dune). To do both may overly challenge a reader.

More on this subject in future posts. You’re my test audience; all these thoughts – and your responses – will be winnowed down to a 40-minute talk by the spring. All respectful  comments are welcome!

Hadrian’s Wall photo: Tilman2007 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons