The New Old Religions, and why they aren’t “fake”

I was watching this the other day:

I have a weakness for this stuff, for a variety of reasons, and I have watched this before, but something really struck me pretty hard this time around.

They spend a lot of time complaining in a very academic, very superior “reasonable” tone about the modern practitioners/adherents/believers who have put together some rituals that echo what little we know about what the pagans of ancient Britain and northern Europe may have believed, along with a lot of things that someone around 100 years or so ago made up.

Now there are two problems with this stance. One is that they actually refer to these modern rites as “bogus”, which is pretty arrogant, considering that archaeology cannot tell us very much about what the people commonly called “the Celts” (a misnomer if there ever was one) believed and even less about what things they did to express those beliefs.

The second is that with that very little, and having accused others of making things up with flimsy evidence, they proceeded to say with complete certainty a large number of things about what the evidence they do have means, as if there were absolutely no question about their suppositions.

Now this second one is comprised mainly of the one that most archaeologists parrot – it’s about burial customs, and about the purpose of interring the dead with objects of wealth.

The idea is that these are things that are meant for the dead person to use in the afterlife, and while this *might* be true (certainly with the Egyptians, that is definitely what they were doing) there’s absolutely no reason to assume that every culture that buries their loved ones with a collection of stuff did it because they thought the dead might actually use those things.

A lot of so-called “Celtic” beliefs include those of reincarnation, and a belief like that surely raises a question about why – if the person was coming back to this world – why they would need any material objects after death.

It’s just as possible that, like today, when relatives of the deceased decide to tuck in a stuffed animal or doll into the coffin of a child, or make sure the rosary they always used, or Grandpa’s corncob pipe, or that poetry book they carried around all the way through college makes its way into the grave as well, that they were merely making a grief statement about love and endings.

In the case of those really rich burials, well, “The dead don’t bury themselves”, as one of my profs used to say. Those burials are a statement about the community and its collective wealth and power, and there’s not really anything to suggest that there was more to it than that.

Even the evidence of feasting equipment and food remains might not be anything more than a demonstrable brag to themselves and any out-of-towners who were there about how rich they were, because they could waste all that food and drink and silver platters et cetera, burying it in the ground forever.

The other thing about these accusations of made-up rituals is that first of all – all rituals are made up, at some point. All of them. They are things that we create for ourselves.

And humans tend to see the same kinds of patterns in the world, and make the same kinds of connections, over and over again. Sure: different cultures see different patterns, different connections, to some extent, but there’s a huge amount of overlap in how we express our awareness of those things.

So, given that modern believers in what can loosely be called paganism have access to a lot of the same information as archaeologists and historians do, what they create is at least as valid as the stories academics make up.

And possibly more so, because rituals and rites have the meanings we give them, not the reverse. It’s the belief and the trust in those actions that give the actions power, not the other way around.

Anyway, if you are Wiccan or whatever and someone starts mocking you for doing things that some dude in the 1800s created to give homage to the power of the earth and form to what is in your heart, ignore them.

They just have a different mythology than you do.

“English is so hard” is just a humble-brag and it needs to stop.

(A colonist’s perspective)

You’ve all seen the memes. The endless lists of English words that are spelled the same way but pronounced utterly differently, and the accompanying assumption that this is what makes English the hardest language of all.

I don’t personally think that English is all that hard. I mean, just try cracking the inflection code for Mandarin sometime, and then ask yourself why learning that read (reed) and read (red) is such an enormous obstacle for understanding how English operates. Spend an afternoon with the Cyrillic alphabet, and then go back and reconcile yourself to the fact that there are, in fact, linguistically logical reasons why enough and through don’t work the same way, even if you don’t know what those reasons are.

Just listen to one of the Khoisan “click” languages for five minutes, and think about learning that.

Or, to get closer to home, contemplate the fact that “je suis” – as every high school kid in French class knows – means “I am”…but, as most will never find out, “je suis” also means “I follow”, and it’s both spelled and pronounced exactly the same way.

Because none of those oh-so-hilarious posts on Facebook really have anything to do with how hard English is. All languages are filled, to one extent or another, with anomalies and hard-to-grasp rules as well as pronunciation tricks, and pick-ups from other languages that seem illogical and incomprehensible.

That’s how languages are.

The reason these posts really exist is so that native English speakers can point out to the rest of the world how superior they are to everyone else. A way for even the most clueless wonder anywhere in North America or the UK to feel like a genius without even having to try.

It’s a subtle way to say that having learnt English as a child, it is obvious that a fluent English speaker is more intelligent than speakers of other languages are. It’s a way to imply that other languages are less complex, and therefore less precise, or adaptive, or expressive. A nice way to call those other languages the primitive grunts of Neanderthals, by comparison, without being, you know, impolite about it.

Can’t grasp how English works? That’s why we’re the ruling class, assholes: we learned it without effort at age two, and there you are, still struggling to form reasonably grammatical sentences. If you were smart, you’d have learned English by now, and without that funny accent, too.

That’s what these memes really are: humble-brags, plain and simple, and it would be nice if people could just stop pointing out that they know exactly how their language works despite those ridiculously un-phonetic tumbles over the rocks of lexicography and syntax, as if this were some kind of unique achievement in history.

A Cautionary Tale for Writers

So another writer to writer brouhaha blew up all over the internetz this week.

You can read about it here:

But basically, neither side comes off looking that great.

Mind you, I’m more on Larson’s side than Dorland’s, because frankly, anyone who puts that much effort into making sure the entire planet knows she donated a kidney is kind of suspect to begin with.

Larson did borrow a lot of Dorland’s letter – which Dorland wrote to the eventual recipient of her kidney, an unknown person for her, and then POSTED that letter on a private FB page she set up so all her friends could admire the fuck out of her for being so generous and all.

Larson also admitted in private emails that surfaced later that she did try to change the wording of that letter, but found it expressed so well her fictional character’s mindset and values that she couldn’t really use anything but Dorland’s own words.

(And those private email discussions are pretty mean…but understandable. People often have these private conversations with others that slag off someone they aren’t willing to insult in person, and given Dorland’s subsequent  behavior, it’s understandable that Larson didn’t feel able to be honest with Dorland.)

But the real takeaway that Dorland either completely missed or got so well that a pit bull attack was her only option, is that Larson’s story is, in many ways,  about “white saviors” and virtue signaling, and is a kind of morality tale for “liberals” who can’t stop making every story be about them.

Dorland was so in love with her own heroic sacrifice that for her, the letter constituted some kind of literary oevre.

There also seems to be a lot of jealousy involved – Larson seemed to have gotten to where Dorland thought Dorland should be, and I strongly suspect that if Larson had been so much less successful in her local writing community and completely unknown as a writer anywhere, Dorland might not even have noticed that this “art friend” hadn’t heaped adulation on that kidney website.

Look – if you know any writers, sooner or later, one of them might steal something you said over coffee or on Twitter, and forget to credit you in the dedication. If you’re a writer, you’re probably going to do that to someone, if you haven’t already.

One paragraph out of a letter you post on the internet to demonstrate your saintly qualities is not, in my opinion, plagiarism. Larson pointed out fairly early on that these letters to recipients mostly run on similar lines, and I can believe that, because most people can’t write an original sentence to save Lassie or the kid down the well.

(That’s why they aren’t writers, and you are.)

And what Larson did with Dorland’s story is what Hollywood does ALL THE FREAKING TIME. They’ll see a story in the news, do a little digging, and then, if the person doesn’t want their tragedy or triumph represented on screen, or the studio doesn’t want to pay the money being asked, the screenwriters just change whatever they want to about the details, make up new names and set it in a different town, and Bingo! Whole new movie.

The producers will even admit freely that the movie was “inspired by” whatever, and I can’t remember anyone ever going to court over it, much less being successful.

So let this be a lesson to you.

First of all, writer or not, don’t be so in love with your own generosity that you set up the rest of the world as either your worshippers or your enemies.

Second of all, remember that you don’t own any single experience, and that writers will use whatever crosses their path if they want to.

Thirdly? Nobody comes off well in these things, so don’t escalate it to the general population without expecting to ruin your own reputation into the bargain.

Deal with it.

At some point, we colonials need to stop saying “I didn’t know…”

Orange Shirt Day has been a thing for nearly a decade, which means awareness was happening AT LEAST five years before that – because building a movement based on awareness takes time.

If you are more than 20 years old – you’ve known for some time that things were terrible and continuously so.

Stop with the excuses, and deflections, and take responsibility for what happened in the (not so long ago) past, and DO BETTER.

.99 cent Sale!

Chapter One

The silence was vast, broken only by the sporadic sobbing breaths of the woman crouched over that little, twisted body.

I watched the villagers with interest. As neighbours, they were usually a dull lot, but their reactions to this tragedy needed comprehension. The corpse was not pretty, and they were doing their level best not to look too closely. One of the women was kneeling beside the child’s mother, trying to offer comfort.

Her heart wasn’t in it, though. Even from a distance, her tense shoulders and shadowed eyes shouted soundlessly what every one of them was thinking.

“Thank the Goddess, it wasn’t one of mine!”

I understood that. You couldn’t blame them, it might easily have been one of theirs, after all. It already had been and likely would be again, if someone didn’t do something soon.

They were grateful when Eardith arrived, brisk and business-like, but with that rough sympathy they understood. She was strong, opinionated, stern and forthright, all qualities that would have given her nothing but trouble in a larger, more sophisticated place. People in those places are accustomed to having their priests excuse their little transgressions quietly. Eardith’s advice and solace tended to come with a bracing dose of sarcasm and common sense.

I had shared her cottage peaceably for nearly three years. She didn’t pry, she didn’t gossip, and, luckily for me, she never refused to assist anyone in need.

She looked at me over the mother’s bowed head, and I just nodded. Yes, it was pretty much the same as the other ones. No, I had no idea how to prevent it.

Lord Owain and his forester Joss came around the side of the village’s only inn, looking grim. Owain went straight to the women by the little corpse, resting a hand on the mother’s shoulder in helpless sympathy.

“Something,” said Eardith, “will have to be done.”

Well, that was obvious. It was the third such incident in less than a seven-day. There was a fresh grave already for Briega’s next-to-youngest, and Gair’s daughter was lying ripped and nigh-on bloodless, barely clinging to life. Folk murmured that she was a lucky one, but I wasn’t so sure. If she lived, which seemed unlikely, it would be with a scarred face and a useless leg along with the memory of a savage and horrific attack.

Joss had stopped by Eardith, whispering something swift in her ear. Her reaction was neither helpful nor promising: she merely looked, if it were possible, more shuttered and bleak than ever.

Owain, having nothing he could do for the grieving, began to organize the removal of the body, and issuing orders for caution, patrolling, not letting the youngsters out on their own, all of which had been said from the start. What could you do? A toddler waking in the night and creeping out to use the latrines wasn’t something you could prevent, not really.

Gradually, the crowd dwindled, the women rallying around the bereft parents and bearing them off to the inn, a few of the men coming back with a hurdle to carry the little scrap of dead humanity off to the shrine. In the end, it was only Joss, Owain and Eardith left.

And me. They were all looking at me.

I was, for all intents and purposes, the only armed and mildly dangerous person here, and I filled no identifiable village role. I was easily the most expendable person they knew.

“Wolf scat, up towards the ridge,” Joss said. “Like the others. But there are three, not two, this time.”

Wolves don’t do this, I thought. Wolves don’t walk into a village and wait patiently, night after night, for human prey. But Joss was a woodsman, through and through. He knew as well as I did we were not dealing with ordinary wolves.

Hungry ones might, I supposed, go after a child out alone. But it had been a mild enough winter and an early, pleasant spring. The hills were teeming with game. We had untouched sheep in the pens and unmolested hens in the coops, if it came to that. And the children had not been eaten, merely savaged and left.

A rabid wolf might go after a child. One rabid wolf, maybe, but rabid wolves do not act in groups, and a rabid animal is not usually given to patience or patterns. This was becoming all too predictable.

“Lady Caoimhe?” This was Lord Owain, and I didn’t need for him to spell it out.

“Right.”

I knew what they wanted. There was no good reason I knew of for me not to give it to them.

“Joss, you’ll go with her.” Owain wasn’t very good at giving orders, they always came with the faintest of questioning tones trailing in at the end, but Joss was used to this and just shrugged.

Eardith was already moving off, down towards the path leading to the shrine. I caught Joss’s eye, said “A half-glass, and we can meet at the crossroads,” and trotted after her, catching up as the path led off into the trees.

I didn’t speak. Eardith, if she wanted to tell me anything, would do so in her own time, and I was never one for asking questions, anyway. Instead, I listed in my head the things I needed: hunting spears, my long knives, something to eat in case we were out past midday…

What I liked about Joss mainly was his silence. Occasionally we hunted together, or in high summer, took a little boat out onto the lake and fished. Beyond noting some form of imminent weather change or remarking on tracking potential, we rarely spoke, and that suited me. What happened in the village, the endless litany of who was angry or in love with whom, or who was a lazy sod or a lucky one – I couldn’t see what any of it had to do with me or why I should care. I just lived here, on a probably temporary and barely tolerated scrap of allowance that Eardith’s authority had allotted me.

When I got to the crossroads, where the cart track threading north through Rhwyn met the road west to Davgenny, he was squatting by the evidence the wolves had left behind, but he rose soundlessly and headed to the little trail that veered back into the hills, halting only to wordlessly point out the signs that they had passed here as well.

It looked almost as if the wolves had stopped to have a conference. There were three depressions that spoke of animals sitting for some time, prone and indolent in last year’s dead grass. There were paw-prints that circled, as if at least one of them had paced restlessly, bored by some vulpine debate.

I squinted up into the mountains beyond Rhwyn Vale, where mist still clung to the trees.

There was an overgrown and unused twisty little pass out of Camrhys somewhere above us, theoretically a concern for Lord Owain, but far too small and too treacherous to accommodate more than a really courageous mountain goat or a desperate fugitive with nothing to lose. Owain scarcely heeded it. Certainly there was no organized effort at patrols: he hadn’t the manpower.

If he’d sometimes hinted that my attention there might be welcome if I cared to put the effort in, Eardith had rather discouraged me from venturing into the mountains too much. The pass was of no use to anyone, she said, and a solitary traveller could easily come to grief out there.

The wolves – if wolves they were – disagreed. The signs pointed resolutely eastward and upward out of the valley.

   I Got Rhythm

…or maybe not.

I have remarked before that I don’t give “writing advice” ……….

Except, of course, when I do.

And, just as much ‘of course’, a post came up on FB. and I got this sudden epiphany and, well, here goes.

Someone was asking about comma use in this sort of sentence:

“He had round, blue eyes.”

Did there REALLY need to be a comma between ‘round’ and ‘blue’? (Yes. Of course you need a comma there. This is irrelevant.)

The question got answered…but, as is the way of FaceBook, there was also the one person who said, instead, “I would write it as ‘His round eyes were blue.’ “

(Yes, this is a terrible example, and no, it wasn’t the real example, but never mind. This is also irrelevant.)

That’s when it hit me.

The problem isn’t in either of the examples. Both constructions are equally valid. (They’re terrible, but they’re valid. Let it go. It’s just a construct I‘m using as a jump-off point.)

My point (I always get there eventually) is that it isn’t a matter of which is grammatically right or wrong. It isn’t even a matter of preference, which the sentence-doctor up there assumed by offering a completely different way of wording the sentence that got rid of the need for any commas at all.

It’s that that sentence, any sentence in a work of prose, is not some kind of lone sentry in the wilderness. It’s never about “what to do in every situation”.

Each of your sentences has to be constructed in relation to every other word that has come before it – and in relation to every word that comes after.

Words have rhythm. Sentences have cadence. A prose work must have an internal sound – as a whole – that pleases the reading ear.

If you decide ahead of time exactly how you write things, and you never vary, you will write books that in poetic terms, are doggerel. They will be on the level of third-grader’s first attempt at rhyming schemes. They will go “bumpety-bump-bump-bumpety-bump-bump-bumpety-bump-bump” over and over until you type “The End” – and your next book will sound exactly the same.

There are lots of books out there that do that, of course.

And people do buy them.

But they’re kind of like potato chips.

Potato chips are nice, for the few minutes that you’re eating them – but they aren’t very good for you, and the feeling of satisfaction never lasts long.

Some of us aspire to something more.

Ed. Note: This was first published here in 2018. I just think that it bears repeating, because people do forget that there are other reasons to revise and edit beyond spelling and grammar.

Casting in Stone teaser/excerpt

Try before you buy!

Chapter One

The silence was vast, broken only by the sporadic sobbing breaths of the woman crouched over that little, twisted body.

I watched the villagers with interest. As neighbours, they were usually a dull lot, but their reactions to this tragedy needed comprehension. The corpse was not pretty, and they were doing their level best not to look too closely. One of the women was kneeling beside the child’s mother, trying to offer comfort.

Her heart wasn’t in it, though. Even from a distance, her tense shoulders and shadowed eyes shouted soundlessly what every one of them was thinking.

“Thank the Goddess, it wasn’t one of mine!”

I understood that. You couldn’t blame them, it might easily have been one of theirs, after all. It already had been and likely would be again, if someone didn’t do something soon.

They were grateful when Eardith arrived, brisk and business-like, but with that rough sympathy they understood. She was strong, opinionated, stern and forthright, all qualities that would have given her nothing but trouble in a larger, more sophisticated place. People in those places are accustomed to having their priests excuse their little transgressions quietly. Eardith’s advice and solace tended to come with a bracing dose of sarcasm and common sense.

I had shared her cottage peaceably for nearly three years. She didn’t pry, she didn’t gossip, and, luckily for me, she never refused to assist anyone in need.

She looked at me over the mother’s bowed head, and I just nodded. Yes, it was pretty much the same as the other ones. No, I had no idea how to prevent it.

Lord Owain and his forester Joss came around the side of the village’s only inn, looking grim. Owain went straight to the women by the little corpse, resting a hand on the mother’s shoulder in helpless sympathy.

“Something,” said Eardith, “will have to be done.”

Well, that was obvious. It was the third such incident in less than a seven-day. There was a fresh grave already for Briega’s next-to-youngest, and Gair’s daughter was lying ripped and nigh-on bloodless, barely clinging to life. Folk murmured that she was a lucky one, but I wasn’t so sure. If she lived, which seemed unlikely, it would be with a scarred face and a useless leg along with the memory of a savage and horrific attack.

Joss had stopped by Eardith, whispering something swift in her ear. Her reaction was neither helpful nor promising: she merely looked, if it were possible, more shuttered and bleak than ever.

Owain, having nothing he could do for the grieving, began to organize the removal of the body, and issuing orders for caution, patrolling, not letting the youngsters out on their own, all of which had been said from the start. What could you do? A toddler waking in the night and creeping out to use the latrines wasn’t something you could prevent, not really.

Gradually, the crowd dwindled, the women rallying around the bereft parents and bearing them off to the inn, a few of the men coming back with a hurdle to carry the little scrap of dead humanity off to the shrine. In the end, it was only Joss, Owain and Eardith left.

And me. They were all looking at me.

I was, for all intents and purposes, the only armed and mildly dangerous person here, and I filled no identifiable village role. I was easily the most expendable person they knew.

“Wolf scat, up towards the ridge,” Joss said. “Like the others. But there are three, not two, this time.”

Wolves don’t do this, I thought. Wolves don’t walk into a village and wait patiently, night after night, for human prey. But Joss was a woodsman, through and through. He knew as well as I did we were not dealing with ordinary wolves.

Hungry ones might, I supposed, go after a child out alone. But it had been a mild enough winter and an early, pleasant spring. The hills were teeming with game. We had untouched sheep in the pens and unmolested hens in the coops, if it came to that. And the children had not been eaten, merely savaged and left.

A rabid wolf might go after a child. One rabid wolf, maybe, but rabid wolves do not act in groups, and a rabid animal is not usually given to patience or patterns. This was becoming all too predictable.

“Lady Caoimhe?” This was Lord Owain, and I didn’t need for him to spell it out.

“Right.”

I knew what they wanted. There was no good reason I knew of for me not to give it to them.

“Joss, you’ll go with her.” Owain wasn’t very good at giving orders, they always came with the faintest of questioning tones trailing in at the end, but Joss was used to this and just shrugged.

Eardith was already moving off, down towards the path leading to the shrine. I caught Joss’s eye, said “A half-glass, and we can meet at the crossroads,” and trotted after her, catching up as the path led off into the trees.

I didn’t speak. Eardith, if she wanted to tell me anything, would do so in her own time, and I was never one for asking questions, anyway. Instead, I listed in my head the things I needed: hunting spears, my long knives, something to eat in case we were out past midday…

What I liked about Joss mainly was his silence. Occasionally we hunted together, or in high summer, took a little boat out onto the lake and fished. Beyond noting some form of imminent weather change or remarking on tracking potential, we rarely spoke, and that suited me. What happened in the village, the endless litany of who was angry or in love with whom, or who was a lazy sod or a lucky one – I couldn’t see what any of it had to do with me or why I should care. I just lived here, on a probably temporary and barely tolerated scrap of allowance that Eardith’s authority had allotted me.

When I got to the crossroads, where the cart track threading north through Rhwyn met the road west to Davgenny, he was squatting by the evidence the wolves had left behind, but he rose soundlessly and headed to the little trail that veered back into the hills, halting only to wordlessly point out the signs that they had passed here as well.

It looked almost as if the wolves had stopped to have a conference. There were three depressions that spoke of animals sitting for some time, prone and indolent in last year’s dead grass. There were paw-prints that circled, as if at least one of them had paced restlessly, bored by some vulpine debate.

I squinted up into the mountains beyond Rhwyn Vale, where mist still clung to the trees.

There was an overgrown and unused twisty little pass out of Camrhys somewhere above us, theoretically a concern for Lord Owain, but far too small and too treacherous to accommodate more than a really courageous mountain goat or a desperate fugitive with nothing to lose. Owain scarcely heeded it. Certainly there was no organized effort at patrols: he hadn’t the manpower.

If he’d sometimes hinted that my attention there might be welcome if I cared to put the effort in, Eardith had rather discouraged me from venturing into the mountains too much. The pass was of no use to anyone, she said, and a solitary traveller could easily come to grief out there.

The wolves – if wolves they were – disagreed. The signs pointed resolutely eastward and upward out of the valley.

Chapter Two

Technically, I was Joss’s overlady.

To be perfectly exact, I was Lord Owain’s overlady, simply because of a thoughtlessly bestowed bride-gift, although Owain had never once given any indication that he was aware of who or what I was. He called me “Lady” out of simple good manners and neither he, his wife nor anyone else in Rhwyn behaved as if I was anything more than a stranger who had stumbled into their midst. Someone Eardith had given sanctuary and a quasi-legitimate place to, for reasons she had not shared. I hadn’t intended this as my destination, and it was a good couple of weeks after I’d arrived that I became aware myself that I owned this valley.

So, when we came to where the wolf signs ran out, still pointing inexorably east up into the heights, and Joss turned to me and asked, diffidently, what we ought to do next, I was mildly surprised. I had expected him to either remain in charge or to abandon me to whatever the wolves had in store. Instead, it seemed as if he expected me to determine his fate, and that was odd.

The kindest thing, I thought, was to send him back. Whatever we were tracking wasn’t ordinary or safe, I was fairly sure of that. But if we were to have any hope of ending this disagreeable interlude, two people likely had a better chance than one.

Hells, if we were to have any chance of picking up their trail out along the rocky terrain ahead, I needed Joss, who had that peculiar intuition that all good woodsmen have, that uncanny ability to out-think any animal and anticipate their actions.

“They’re up there somewhere. With luck, we can find their lair and make an end of it.”

Joss gave me a mildly exasperated look. The wolves would hear and smell us miles before we came across them. I just shrugged. It wasn’t as if there was some better plan in the offing.

A glass or two later, I was beginning to think better of this. We had worked our way out of the thinning trees and traversed an expanse of rocky scrabble only to come up against a sheer drop of a deep gorge that seemed to extend for miles. The only way around appeared to be looping back towards the tree-line and heading further east where the rift veered away from what seemed to be, from this distance, a wooded slope up towards that unusable pass.

When we made it that far, the trees were dark and closely ranked, blotting out almost all of the sunlight, and the silence lay on us, heavy and unsettling. Every footfall echoed. It had been long and long since people had come this way.

There were faint signs that we were on the right track, though. At least there were according to Joss. I had the minimum hunting skills anyone in my position would have had, in that the more obvious evidence was clear to me, and I could move soundlessly enough not to be a hindrance. The tiny changes and infinitesimal clues that Joss relied on were out of my league, though.

At some point well past mid-day, we stopped to pull out packets of bread and cheese and to rest in that oppressive silence. Far off, I could hear the faintest echo of a brook or rivulet tumbling over rocks, but that was all I could hear, beyond our own breathing. No wind stirred the branches overhead, no sunlight filtered through the dim of the shade and no birdsong enlivened the air. It was, as they say, as quiet as the grave, and rather nearly as chilly.

After a bit, we went on, threading our way among the trees in an erratic route governed by those indefinable traces Joss seemed to see, still eastward and more or less upward ever higher towards the slim break between two scarred peaks that signaled what had once been a pass. It had only ever been suitable for smaller pack-trains and roaming bands of less than competent bandits across a now highly contested border. Rock falls had closed this pass long ago, if I remembered correctly; rock falls and laziness on the part of those traders and outlaws who had just moved on to use other passes or given up trying altogether.

Joss stopped so suddenly, I almost walked into him. I had just enough awareness not to grunt out loud in surprise, but peered into the gloom ahead.

There: the slightest moving shadow among deeper shadows. I didn’t dare so much as breathe, mentally cursing at my own unreadiness and reversing my grip on my spear, and then carefully easing back a step as smoothly and quietly as I could. Joss, at least, had not been as careless. His hand slid to the quiver at his hip and slid an arrow out, suddenly nocked and ready in one swift movement.

I felt, rather than heard the beginning of a growl behind me and whirled, crouching instinctively, just as an enormous gray shape hurtled towards me. My spear came up just in time to catch the beast at the shoulder, throwing him off course as the tip glanced away down his side, and the shock of that weight wrenched the shaft from my hands. I heard the whistle of an arrow behind me and then an uncharacteristic curse from Joss and the thunk! as something connected with a tree-trunk.

There was a snarl from the trees, the sound of branches crackling, and then, as suddenly as they had come, they were gone.

Joss was still kneeling, another arrow nocked and ready. I retrieved my spear.

“Well, they aren’t stupid,” I said. Joss shook his head, and rose, still watchful. He seemed angry, although with someone like Joss, it’s hard to tell.

“Is it worth going on?” I asked. “I mean, we won’t be surprising anything now.”

“Den can’t be far off,” he said, finally. “No point in stopping now.”

“Fair enough. But do me a favour? Don’t get hurt. I swear I won’t carry you back down if you do.”

He grinned. “You, neither.”

After a while, it seemed as though the trees began to thin, although we still walked in shadow. The early spring had not penetrated this far and there was a fair bit of snow in patches against the gnarled, exposed tree roots.

We came to a place where the rock began to reassert itself through the soil, great walls of granite where scrubby bushes clung desperately to tiny footholds in the crevices and we passed into a kind of ravine of smooth, grey stone walls reaching up towards the sky and yet there was no more light here than when we had walked among the trees below.

I stopped, frowning. There was something not quite right about this. The rocks were too smooth, too even, there were small stone piles that seemed just a bit too regular, too deliberately placed to be natural, and a sense of vague familiarity was tugging at me, like a housecat begging to be let out to mouse.

For just a moment my vision wavered. Things shivered and blurred at the edges and then, just as suddenly, they stilled, and I caught a strange, fugitive chill of something being about to break, wide and wild.

My hands were moving to my belt and pulling out my long knives without bidding, and they were on us, leaping down from a rocky ledge hidden by a few bits of bush and the shadow of the stony ridge above.

One knife, by some lucky chance, caught the first one perfectly at the heart, but I went down under the weight, losing my breath and precious seconds in the process. There was a roaring in my ears and blood everywhere and I heaved at the wolf carcass, half-crawling and half-rolling out from under, wondering if I was too late for Joss.

He was still standing, though he’d abandoned the bow and was fending off a second huge grey beast with the spear I’d loaned him, his back against the rocks, and blood dripping from his left arm. I tucked my feet under me and lunged toward the wolf, yelling, in the vain hope of distracting it.

The sound and the movement worked, just a little. The wolf slid its gaze just that hair sideways and Joss, Goddess love him, jammed the spear down his gullet. The reacting rage and convulsively renewed attack flung Joss brutally against the rocky ground, but he hung on, somehow keeping the wolf at bay, until the damage caught up to it and it sank, whimpering and gushing blood, onto the ground.

For one long moment, it was as if the world caught its breath, more still than death.

And then I thought of the third wolf and looked up, scanning the rocky walls around us. Behind me, Joss drew a struggling breath, wheezy with the effort and I thought idly he must truly be in some pain or he would have never made a sound.

I was already reaching for his bow and fumbling for an arrow without conscious thought when a vague smudge beside an oddly shaped tumble of rocky scree resolved itself into a massive grey hulk, gathering its force under it, the biggest wolf I had ever seen, or even heard of.

I needed three grains of the glass, but I only had two, I reckoned. Still, I drew my breath and held it, and thought hard about aim.

The wolf was already in motion as my arm pulled back, mid-air and nearly on me when the arrow released.

But that’s the thing about a pointblank shot. Even I could not fail to hit a beast that big, straight on and squarely in its chest.

There is always that moment, when a danger is past, where the world seems a better place than it did before. The miraculous continuance of one’s own life lends a kind of sweetness to the reality, a mix of relief and remembrance, melting into a giddy gladness and a celebratory mood.

Or so I’m told: my own reactions had always been less intense, and infinitely more cautious, but generally, I understood the theory.

This time I felt not even a hint of faint joy in finding myself still on this side of the grave. Nor did Joss, I guessed. He groaned and sagged to the ground, still dripping blood. I retrieved my knife where I’d dropped it in my scrabble for the bow and cut away at my shirt hem to make a clumsy bandage for him, filled with a curious sense of urgency to be gone and far away from this rocky, barren place and these three wolf corpses.

Then I felt it.

The faintest of tremors, just the once.

Imagination? No, there it was again, just the tiniest bit stronger.

Once more, and this time it was a trembling in the ground that I truly felt, as if the rocks were somehow settling deeper into their place, bracing themselves against who knows what.

But that was suddenly the least of my concerns. I could have forgotten that moment. I would have forgotten it.

The wolf I had killed, the big one…shimmered, outlines hazy, and I swear for just a moment I saw a man there, as eerily beautiful as evil ever could be, and his eyes alive and triumphantly malevolent, staring at me as if to memorize my features for some future day…

And then, nothing.

The wind rose and fell again with a tired sigh, and the animal corpses, the rocks and the trees were all once more utterly and completely ordinary, inanimate and without menace.

Joss said nothing, his eyes wide and fixed on me. He watched me bind him up without so much as a word, struggling to his feet to help me collect our bits of scattered gear and then taking the lead in our slow journey back down the hillside.

We didn’t look back at that uncanny place. Our eyes and thoughts were firmly on leaving, eager, the pair of us, to be back in our village. It wasn’t until we’d gained the deeper woods that it occurred to me that the day was nearly spent and that we were too far out to think of safe hearth-sides, warm dinners and mugs of ale just yet.

So we found a spot sheltered by a fallen tree and a bit of stony hillside, and I gathered firewood while Joss rummaged one-handedly in his scrip and produced a bit of dried meat and a few crusts. My contribution was the leather flask of raisin wine I’d absentmindedly packed for midday and then forgotten.

We ate what little we had, and I passed him the flask, all without more than a grunt or two to indicate what needed doing next.

“You’ve nerves, you have,” Joss said suddenly. “You’d not a moment to spare or room to think in – I’d have cut and run, I would.”

It was possibly the longest speech I’d ever heard him volunteer. Blood loss must be making him delirious. I pointed out that I’d not had much choice, and that the closer the wolf was, the better my chances, anyway.

He shook his head.

“And I thought you were for leaving me, if I was hurt,” he said, as if this clinched something.

“Your legs still work. And to be honest, your mother is scarier than any wolf. I didn’t fancy telling her I’d dropped you off as a bad bet.”

***

In the morning, the world seemed a safer, friendlier place. Even a little of the weak, early sun began to make its way through the trees a bit as we stifled the last embers of our fire, gathered our gear and headed at a gentle pace down towards home.

Once there, we were met by the unsurprising news that Gair’s daughter had died in the night.

Our killings were received with some relief, although I felt bound to point out that we could not be absolutely sure all danger was past. There could be more wolves. No one really wanted to think about that, not even Eardith, seemingly, although she coaxed every detail of our encounter from me.

More, in fact: I found myself telling her things I wasn’t aware of at the time.

He had been wearing a long, dark blue tunic with even darker embroidery at the cuffs, the man-wolf. Circles and stars in deep, deep blue, eerily similar to the marking of the soldiers and servants of the royal house of Camrhys.

Possibly, Eardith said, a runaway criminal who made it through the pass. I don’t know why she thought this was reassuring. A man who was a wolf? That sound and vibration? It did not seem to me that anything at all had been resolved, and I could see that beneath her calm, Eardith was puzzled, and wary, too. With no further explanation forthcoming, though, all I could do was to be vigilant.

But the days slipped by and no more signs or calamities occurred. The village rebounded, mourned their dead and buried them, and became occupied with springtime traditions.

There was a festival to plan for, and the first of the traders coming north to look forward to. In the meantime, the village got on with planting crops and gardens, the shearing and the repairs from winter’s depredations on roofs and fences. We fell into the usual seasonal rounds and chores, as familiar and as ordinary as breathing.

I continued to wake before dawn, going out to the back of Eardith’s tiny garden and running through warm-up stretches and pointless sword drills as the sun rose, then chopping the day’s wood and hauling water from the spring. I ate, I cared for the animals, and then, if I wasn’t drafted into some communal chore the villagers needed all hands for, I ran through more pointless drills, cared for my unused weapons, saddled my horse and hunted, or merely walked the woods and meadows aimlessly.

The weather had been variable in the days after the wolves, keeping me close to home. One morning finally brought a light mist and Joss turning up with the offer of a day’s fishing. The thought of something beyond last autumn’s dried meat and wrinkled turnips for supper was irresistible.

It was one of those days. The sun chased away the damp, the fish were co-operative, the company and the exercise of rowing, along with the concentration required, were just enough to still my thoughts. I felt satisfied and calm as I walked back to the cottage, three good trout in my creel, and thinking how pleasant it might be to go on like this forever.

There were two horses tethered on the grassy verge outside Eardith’s cottage, and one of them was a horse I knew.

I ought to have turned south, I thought. I ought to have left that first morning, rainstorm or no, and gone south to Glaice. Better still, I ought to have sold my horse in Dungarrow town and bought passage on some trader ship bound for Fendrais, or Raeth, or Istara, even, and sold my skills to the highest bidder.

Too late for weeping now, I thought, and pushed open the cottage door.

What’s wrong with all of us?

It’s true that social media has made incredibly toxic people way more visible to the world, and given them a platform to spread their nastiness. One cannot deny it.

But for sheer social rudeness, cell phones themselves have created a really amazing deep well of discourtesy.

It’s not just that people now feel enraged when you don’t immediately respond to their message/text/call.

That’s bad enough – instead of being free to ignore a ringing phone, where the caller just shrugs and thinks, “Oh, well, they’re out somewhere.”, the caller feels free to assume they are being insulted on purpose, because you obviously have your phone with you everywhere, in every situation, and are OBLIGED to answer it, regardless of what you might be doing, or feeling, or where you even are.

(And that’s despite everyone hating being in a crowded elevator or a city bus, forced to listen to one side of some relationship breakdown or description of just how drunk some stranger was last night.)

But it goes deeper.

The people – actual, physically there and present people – you are in contact with at any moment are automatically deemed of lesser importance than the random callers.

Hell – the people you invited for supper/the family you claim to adore sitting down with you are often seen as being of no importance at all, compared to the text you just got and simply must instantly respond to.

Instead of being free, we’ve decided to let others control our lives. Instead of choosing our engagement, we’ve relinquished that power to whoever has our number.

And add to this the fact that bluetooth and wireless earphones make it impossible to know if someone really is just standing there or is in a conversation – now one endures glares and terse brush-offs, as if you should psychically know that they are on a call – and that you, as a real person in the flesh should understand that this puts you very low on the pecking order.

Don’t get me wrong: I love many things about my phone. I love that it can direct me to exactly where I need to go. I love the fact that it can show me what’s on sale at Superstore if I forget what the flyer told me about. I adore the fact that when alone in a restaurant, I can fend off unwanted come-ons from intrusive talkers by reading Facebook.

But I miss the days when your boss didn’t expect you to be at their beck and call all week-end, just because they are too lazy to go look something up for themselves. I miss the days when you could avoid someone you didn’t like much just by letting the phone ring.

I love technology.

I hate that it has replaced reality.

**Update: Remember when, if you were on a call, but someone actually in your physical space needed to talk to you, you said to the caller “Hold on a moment,” and then put your hand over the receiver and paid attention to them? And then returned to your call, because usually, the call wasn’t as urgent as a co-worker telling you that something major had changed, or your mom needed you to come into the dining room for supper?

Those days are gone.

Giant Leaps…

Backward.

Frankly, if the USA is “the greatest nation on Earth”, we’re all in a lot of trouble.


Of course, we’re in a lot of trouble anyway. Ten years from now, when even the billionaires can’t find enough food to eat, they might even realize they did this to themselves (they still won’t give a shit about the rest of us).

Meanwhile, Texas can be so proud of themselves for ending reproductive freedom for women in their state and ushering a whole new slate of horrors for their citizens to live with, alongside no heat in increasingly cold winters and no air conditioning during increasingly high summer temperatures, and the lovely spectacle of their children dying at the hands of frustrated white boiz.

I’ve never been so glad to be old, and so much closer to death than birth.

Another Fitness Post

I’ll be completely honest here: my entire adult life has been a tug of war with my weight.

It’s stupid, because I know in my head that the number on the scale does not reflect the level of fitness of my body overall.

But that’s just my head.

My heart says “Lose that 15/20/30 pounds” almost every day, and it sucks.

I’ve never been one for fad diets or “miracle” fixes. I know that the only road to travel is to balance my calories against the amount of physical exertion I can reasonably put my body through.

Covid most assuredly did not help me.

I did it.

You did it.

We all did it: stuck at home with an unending stream of YouTube videos showing us how easy it is to make mouthwatering desserts, artisan bread, and the most delicious pot roast ever known to mankind, and with every retail store except the supermarket closed for months on end, we all caved.

But I’m trying to get back on track. If you are, too, here’s the thing you need to remember.

If it took you six months to gain that weight while losing all your muscle mass, it’s going to take you at least that long to see any real results.

Probably more, because a) you can’t starve and exercise yourself at the level you think you need to: it won’t work and it actually will make it easier to give up, because deprivation and torture just make you sad and depressed and anxious, and that leads, inevitably, to the two things that make it all the harder to get in shape again.

The first is your body freaking out and being hungrier than ever for everything you are denying yourself, as well as more lazy and sluggish and reluctant to perform, and the second is your inner critic telling you what a failure you are and how useless your efforts will ever be.

Take it in small steps.

One thing we have started doing is not putting the whole meal on the table: we dish up in the kitchen and then take the plates into the dining room to eat. That means we have to make a serious and conscious decision to have second helpings. Because of that, we seldom do have those extra helpings, and that means that in addition to not stuffing ourselves, our food bills are shrinking.

I’ve made a commitment to walk for at least one hour three times a week. I can do more, I can walk every damned day if I want to, and I frequently do, but because I set that arbitrary limit, I can miss a day or two, or more, and still not be a “failure”.

Fitness and diet plans need to be realistic. If you haven’t gotten farther than from your car to your office door in a year, you can’t expect to be running marathons by September. If you’ve been binging on chocolate bars every night, you might not want to quit cold turkey: try only eating half the bar.

(Or, as one of my friends did, start storing the bars in the freezer. By the time the thing thaws enough not to chip your teeth, the urge may well have passed. Anyway: it works for her!)

I’m wishing myself luck on this one-more-time effort, and I wish you all luck, too!