In the beginning, there was Horse and Bull.
Horse and Bull save us from night everlasting and ice eternal.
From ice, night, and nothingness, Horse was spun, and Horse’s hooves ignited the stars. From the fire in Horse’s heart Bull was born, and in the plenitude of his might, Bull gored Horse. From Horse’s blood gods were created, from Horse’s life gods drew their power, and in the fullness of time, the gods killed Bull. From Bull’s blood men were born, and from Bull’s spirit fyhis was given them.
Life from death. Death from life. The goddesses of each are twins, never parted.
I’m lying, of course. In the beginning there was this harassed, tired, ill young mother, in a mid century house in Columbia, South Carolina.
Okay, I do realize that as far as great trials go, this wasn’t one of the massive ones, but we were young and very, very, very broke. How broke? So broke that we lived off rice and those humongous frozen vegetable packs from the discount clubs. Why yes, we did gain a ton of weight. BUT it was cheap. After older son started eating human food (or actually stopped nursing, since he nursed for almost a year and a half) sometimes we bought meat, and cooked it with the vegetables, then gave the meat to the kid and ate the vegetables. (The things we do for love.) And the house we were renting (because we were still paying the mortgage on the house a hundred miles a way, where there were no jobs) was cute, and on a lake, but it had no air conditioning. In Columbia, in SC. Where in summer sometimes when we woke up it was 104 degrees, and so humid that shoes mildewed in the closet. On top of that, the landlord had told us he’d install a vent for the dryer…. but he didn’t, and clothes mildewed on the line too. This while I had a kid on cloth diapers. A lot of cloth diapers. What else? Oh, yeah. My husband was working at a minimum 16 hours a day. Sometimes, he worked so many hours, he would come home, shave, shower, dress in clean clothes and go back to work. We only had one car (okay, technically we had two, but also non-technically my car died on the move over and then never started again. We sold it for scrap.) Which my husband had to drive. I didn’t know anyone. All my friends were over an hour away. And I was recovering from pre-eclampsia. Which I didn’t fully do until I finished nursing.
So, not the end of the world. Nowhere near the end of the world. But hardship. Enough hardship that after a year and a bit we snapped and decided to look for a job in Colorado. Otherwise things were never going to change.
Anyway, this is by the way of explaining why my mind snapped. Or something.
First of all, I didn’t have money to submit short stories, let alone novels. Yeah, in the bad old days, you needed to send it in by snailmail. Not to mention we needed to print it. And I didn’t own a printer that printed stuff publishers would accept. (Yeah, I used to think their refusal to read stuff printed by dot matrix was because they were snobs. In fact, the truth is that now that I’m older, I realize no one could read that spidery, barely gray printing.) Also money for paper might have been thin. Okay, was thin. I mean, for heaven’s sake, we couldn’t afford food.
For the last seven years I had been writing. Weirdly, I’d already written what would be my first published short story and my second published story. But I hadn’t managed to get more than standard rejections. (Well, not since the first story I ever sent out, which got me a really encouraging rejection and a free copy of the magazine, so I could maybe write what they published. Which at the time I couldn’t do anymore than I could grow wings, because I had absolutely no control over what I wrote or why.)
And I’d been working in one universe for all that time. The first novel was the first thing I wrote in English, the one that caused my husband to say “you are a writer, and you should write.” But …. but the rejections were standard or — I don’t remember — weird.
However that year, with everything else going on, I finally stopped thinking it was the way I was telling that story and wondering if it was the story itself. And decided to maybe tell a different story.
Now WHY it was a story set in an unspecified pre-Greek past, or why it involved animal sacrifice, only the insanity of that young woman short on sleep, high on way too much heat and humidity, and completely deprived of adult company can say. I think there is something to that. To something that comes out of a time of desperation and suffering. Of reaching for something else.
I wrote the book, then called mirror play. If I write it again — I probably will, provided I live long enough and 2020 doesn’t go on forever — the first book will probably be called Horse’s Hooves. It did, a year later, win me second place in a Writers’ Contest, which was my road to finding other writers and a writers’ group, which eventually helped me figure out the road to publication.
But the book itself never sold, possibly because it was six hundred and … some? words. I don’t remember the exact length now, but when I printed it out to review, we called it The doorstop.
And no, the suggestion someone gave me that I make it 100k words didn’t help. Although it did make it resemble a surrealist masterpiece, so there’s that.
However, I must say that writing in another universe, which I had to create, and which hadn’t been with me since the mists of early puberty taught me much. Enough that the next sf/f novel I wrote (but not published. That took way longer) was … Darkship Thieves.
The weird thing is not all the missteps that happened on the road to publication — I made every possible mistake. Twice. Sometimes in ways no one else had invented. I’m creative that way — the weird thing was that some months ago, when I got an invitation to a sword and sandal anthology, that story was still there, in my head, now in full panoply, extending to three books.
Very weirdly the editor didn’t want a rewrite of the three volumes, which will probably end up at around 600k words, again. Which now I think about it is a good thing, because…. well, you know…. it might have taken a little longer than the week I had to write it. So I had to concentrate on one of the episodes, and give a lot of the past history and foreshadow the future to make it work.
Unfortunately, the d*mn thing, instead of being appeased by short (yeah, sometimes they are. Often for years) woke up and is HUNGRY for words.
So if you read the short story in When Valor Must Hold, I hope you liked it because at some point I’m going to put that trilogy out.
Oh, here’s the beginning of the story:
The stranger came into Denre on a windy, wintry afternoon, with the dark grey clouds above rent and driven by an angry wind. The sun that now and then pierced through had a drowned quality, that made the scene look like something misremembered, something lost in the mists of time and never fully captured in painting or poem or ballad.
The city, as he saw it, from the beach, standing next to the pounding grey-green waves, had that quality too: the steep-roofed buildings overtopping the stone wall bleached by encroaching salt.
As he looked, for a moment, the sun gilded the roof of the Lord’s house, and a smile twisted the man’s lips in something not at all denoting of pleasure. “Denre beloved of Horse,” he said, as though reciting something learned in childhood. “Sweet Denre by the the Sea.”
Where he stood, he could have chosen to take the gently curving way from the beach up to the city’s main gates, the way taken by merchants and visitors who arrived by sea. He looked at it a long while, but then continued, instead, by the sea shore, his bare feet digging into the cold, wet sand.
To be fair, he did not look like the kind of man who should enter a city – no matter how prosperous – by the main gate. Though he held his sandals in his hand, they were the kind any fisherman might wear. And though a cloak draped around his head and shoulders, falling in negligent folds to his ankles, it was a dark and dingy garment, rent at the bottom in a way that denoted much wear or hard times.
Had anyone been watching, they might have been struck by the fact that though he moved like an old man, his face, now and then semi-uncovered by the wind was that of a young man, either in his thirties, or in his twenties, if he’d lived a hard life.
He stopped where there were marks of boats that had rested on the sand and been pushed out to sea, and shaded his eyes with his free hand, looking out at the water, as though wondering who’d take sail boats out in such weather.
Then he continued walking, till he came to the rough steps carved up the side of the cliff. They’d been there from time immemorial and had once admitted menials to the confines of Denre House. Since the fall of the family, they were used for peddlers and low-status visitors to enter the city, without going via the main gates and inviting question about their business and why they were there.
Judging by his clothing and the labored, slow way the man climbed, it was entirely possible that he was there to become a beggar. Which meant that had any inhabitant seen him, he’d likely have laughed and said good luck finding a stray crumb of bread in Denre these days.
But there was no one at all on the beach, or the stairs, or even keeping token guard on the arched opening in the walls above.
So he walked up the steps unmolested. When he was halfway up, rain erupted out of nowhere, wind driven, lashing at him and soaking his wrap.
The Temple of Horse had seen better days. It had once been the centerpiece of the city of Denre, back when the House of Denre had been the second in the kingdom of Areva, its Lord important, and revered, and the town itself a center of trade with Susapeta.
A vast building of stone covered with a facing of marble, it boasted a colonnaded portico, which led to a sacrificial chamber also covered in marble and ornamented in polished brass. The altar was vast, circular, up a set of steps.
None of it had collapsed, and there was nothing at all a casual visitor could have pointed at to indicate disrepair or neglect. It was more like the people who were supposed to shine the brasses and scrub the marble. Also the braziers burning around the altar must have been fed with inferior fuel, as their flames wavered and flickered, more blue than bright.
The two priests and one acolyte laboring at the altar also looked like they’d seen better day. The men were too gaunt, their hair white, and the boy was too thin, looking nervy, his black hair caught back in a straggly pony tail, his tunic much mended and looking in dire need of a wash.
As for the colt lying on the altar, two problems would strike anyone familiar with the rites of Horse. The first was that the animal wasn’t flawless, but a scrawny creature, looking like it had some disease of the skin. And the second was that they had drugged the animal. This was obvious by the way it lay sideways on the marble altar, unable even to lift its head, though it attempted several times.
Even so, they had tied its forelegs and back legs with sturdy ropes, and the older man, the principal prince of Horse, Akakis, kept saying “mind the legs” to the acolite as, his own hands trembling, he poured the sweet wine over the stone blade.
A poor sacrifice, and he knew it too, this wild colt, caught outside the city, without its dam. It would probably have died anyway, without being dragged to the temple for sacrifice.
The year had been too wet, too cold, the harvest too late, and the wild grasses too, upon which the wild horses fed had barely started to sprout when they had died, yellowing on the field, and turning rank and spongy. The wild horses were starving and either the mare had abandoned her foal to save her own life, or the colt was one of twins, and abandoned as it couldn’t be supported in such cold year.
It mattered not. Akakis knew only that the foal had life. Uncertain, vacillating light, like the sacred fire in the bronze receptacles, but life nevertheless and much needed to bolster the power of his failing fyhis. Their failing fyhis, he corrected. They must make sure all their fyhis were fed, before the battle that was to come.
He closed his eyes, trying to still the trembling in his arms and hands, as the hunger of his symbiont communicated itself along his arms, demanding, craving food.
Go too long without feeding and the fyhis started feeding on the host, creating wraiths. Which was part of the reason they were in the fix they were. All those noblemen cast down, exiled, pushed away from any chance to feed their fyhis. All the men that the mad king had sent from their lands—
He didn’t want to think of them, though they’d been sighted by the patrols of boatmen sailing too close to the coast, trying to spy the oncoming threat. Kyrva… No, he wouldn’t say of Denre, not even in his own thoughts. Kyrva might be the old Lord’s son, but he’d been left behind, raised as one of the urchins of the village, by his old nursemaid. And he was an invaluable scout, fearless. Possessed of a laughing demon, his nursemaid and adoptive mother said, but it was no demon. It was simply that he was much what the old Lord had been before the king’s edicts. He was also, probably, should the new king restore the rights of the dispossessed, the Lord of Denre. The oldest boy, Telbar, had been sold into slavery, and though they’d sent scouts the length of Areva they’d never found it. There was a good chance he was dead. A slave that arbored fyhis was a liability for the host.
The other boy—Akakis opened his eyes briefly, to look at the acolyte, and whisper — “Teryon, mind the legs.”
He recalled the message again that Kyrva … not of Denre had sent, loud and clear, mind to mind, an extravagant waste of fyhis power in these lean times, There is an army of wraiths descending on Denre. They’re being sent forth by the Susapetans to destroy us. To take us, so they can take the land with no battle.
An army of wraiths. If it were an army of mortal men, they’d fight with spears. Even if they had scant warriors and the fishermen had been too hard pressed fishing to make do on the walls. But an army of wraiths must be fought with fyhis. He lifted his knife even higher, and said, quickly, “May Horse accept the life, and return it.”
The knife of polished obsidian flashed in the insufficient light, and slashed at the Horse’s throats. The animal made a week sound, not quite a whinny, and then—
With his fyhis sight, Akakis could see the uncertain light of the colt’s life-force flare above the body, then break free. And he could feel his own fyhis in its normal form, like a tiger made of blue light, reach for it with claw and tooth. He was just telling himself that he must share, he must let the other two—
His hesitation and control delayed his fyhis a few seconds. Which was a few seconds too much. A famished fyhis lept on the altar, his form visible only to those who also bore fyhis symbionts, but since those were all the three present, there was a scream of consternation from the two priests and devotee as the lean, vaccilating fyhis reached with sharp claws for the life…. And took it.
For a second, for just a second, Akakis raised the knife, bristling with anger, and traced the pale link of light between the fyhis and his symbiont.
He’d have sworn they were alone in the temple, he and his brother priest Myriar, and the boy Teryon. But now he saw there was a man well at the back, knitting himself with the shadow of the wall. A man almost-ragged, dressed as a beggar or a supplicant.
Akakis’s voice trembled with frustration and hunger – and where they’d find another horse to sacrifice, he didn’t know – as he said, “you, the stranger! You, fyhis thief! Who are you, and by what right do you steal that which is Horse’s.”
The man had collected the fyhis to himself. The beast was now invisible, but there was something like an outline around the stranger, enough to see that despite his clothes he was well built. And as he stepped forward – though anyone who had seen him earlier would be surprised at the sureness of his step – there was something familiar to his movement.
He pulled down the hood of his cloak, revealing dark, wavy hair pulled back, and the eyes he lifted to the priest were dark intense blue and almond-shaped, a distinctive shape he was used to seeing in the tapestries and frecoes slowly moldering in the house of the Denre Lords.
Of course, it meant nothing. That hair and those eyes which were so distinctive of the house of Denre had been passed, over the three thousand years of the family’s hold on the region to many a byblow. You could see them in many a vendor in the market stalls on trade day,w hich explained why they’d managed to hide Kyrva so neatly of course.
But all the same Akakis voice had a less accusatory tone as he repeated, “Who are you?”
The man cleared his throat, and the first two words came out hoarse, as though he’d been unused to speaking, “I am,” he said. And then his voice gathered strength, as he added, “Telbar of the house of Denre, the house of Horse. None more entitled to the fyhis force than I.”