Letters from Armorica: A Brief Visit (20 Juillet 34AF)

First Letter

Dear Journal,

I had a lovely break from my solitude today, for Marc came to visit, and he brought Amelie with him! It was but the briefest of visits—should the Provençese return to Bois-de-Bas they must find Amelie present there, or they will never believe I have run. I quite scolded Marc for his recklessness, smiling all the while. He merely laughed at me. But Amelie and our child-to-be are quite well, and it did my heart good to see them.

They came immediately after divine worship, bringing with them some fresh food (eggs, a jug of milk, and a small cake, for Sonnedi), assured me that I was not forgotten, and then vanished again, having helped me eat the cake.

Marc cast a few longing looks at my sole completed sky-chair, and I could tell that he wished to take it back to Bois-de-Bas with him; it must weigh hard on him being the only means of communication with me on Le Blaireau. But first he must train another to operate the chair he has—and I am of no mind to rid myself of my only way of returning home at need. Still, it is clear that I must finish yet another sky-chair post-haste.

I have been entirely lazy today, at least in the matter of manual labor, for of course it is Sonnedi; and I am still consumed with pondering the design of Le Blaireau. I had to do a few arithmetical exercises to be sure, but now I think I understand.

The reason the great sky-ships do not use formed elements for propulsion in more than the most modest way is simply a matter of scale. The relevant elements in Le Blaireau—the keel, the rudder, the lifting element in the railings, and the small element for moving about the harbor—are all formed as single hardened pieces. This adds greatly to their durability, as the women of Bois-de-Bas can attest of their cookware, but it is difficult to form elements of such size. One former working by himself can only do so much. A team of formers working together can do more—must do more, for the enormous sky-freighters and warships—but working in teams is also difficult, and formers are rare and expensive.

At the same time, the simpler the task, the easier it is; and the lifting element and keel have been designed to be as simple as possible and still perform their functions. Simply put, a single propulsive element capable of moving a sky-freighter at speed would be enormous and enormously expensive. One could do rather better on a sloop such as Le Blaireau, for it is quite small as ships go, but the effort might well still be inordinate.

And then there is the design of the ship to consider. The force of any such propulsive element must be carefully placed, and the structure of the ship designed to transmit that force properly to the ship as a whole. It would be quite useless if the propulsive element was so strong that it ripped itself clear of the ship! A standard sky-ship, on the other hand, makes use of the tried-and-true designs of water-going ships, with their keels and masts and rigging and so forth. The forces are well understood.

And yet…need the propulsive element be formed as a single piece? It seems to me that many small elements working together, perhaps distributed about the vessel, might do very well, and achieve the same force as a single much larger element. Control would be more difficult, and the…collection? Congerie? Yes, the congerie would be more susceptible to damage than a single element. But if the propulsive elements were hardened, and part of the structure of the conveyance, as they are in my sky-chairs…. Truly, I think something might be done.

The classic design’s advantages of strength and durability are undeniably, especially on a long voyage through the Abyss, especially with no former to fix storm damage. But of course I am a former; and for local use—and local defense—it might be possible to build a number of smaller vessels along entirely new lines. Vessels that do not require masts, vessels that are easily hidden, vessels that might give us a fighting chance if Le Maréchel comes calling. Yes, and it might be possible to harden the rest of their members, too.

I must have materials, and I must have help. More, I must have room, and that means a permanent camp, which means that we must dispose of Old Man Blaireau.

I shall certainly complete another sky-chair tomorrow.

____
photo credit: tristanloper 20071011-00268.jpg via photopin (license)

A Bloody Habit, by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson

The cover of Eleanor Bourg Nicholson’s vampire novel led me to expect some kind of late-Victorian Harry-Dresden-meets-Father-Brown mash-up. The truth is considerably less goofy, and far more interesting.

The cover depicts a cheerfully rotund Dominican friar, be-spectacled and be-hatted, carrying a bloody stake and wearing the bloody habit of the cover. This is one Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy, O.P., D.C.L. It seems that in response to an alarming rise in preternatural events, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned his various religious orders to attend to the disposal of the forces of evil. The Order of Preachers was particularly tasked with dealing with the vampiric undead. Why he chose the Dominicans for this particular task, I can’t say; but I’ll note that the Franciscans were given responsibility for werewolves. (I foresee a sequel: The Werewolf of Gubbio.) (Apologies to Ms. Nicholson if I gave the game away.)

However, Fr. Gilroy isn’t the main character. That honor goes to a young man named John Kemp: respectable, agnostic, a plain English solicitor of the old school. As the book begins, early in 1900, Kemp is returning home from handling a piece of legal business in Romania; to pass the time on the train he is reading that recently published novel, Dracula, by one Bram Stoker. Traveling in same compartment with him is Fr. Gilroy, who seems to know far more than he should.

Mr. Kemp is a skeptical man who has mostly rejected his father’s Calvinism and found nothing much with which to replace it. He has a young lady in London with whom he almost has an understanding, and whom he no longer really wishes to wed, but is resigned to the inevitable. (It is the young lady, Adele, who pressed Stoker’s novel upon him.) In proper English fashion he regards Papistry as foolish, superstitious, and genuinely weird, and he has no desire to continue his acquaintance with Fr. Gilroy.

And then things start happening. His sleeping compartment on the train is invaded that night, and his beloved’s favor, a handkerchief, is stolen. And were those fangs he saw? And was the creature truly driven off by Fr. Gilroy’s business card?

He returns to London and things do not improve. His no-longer-so beloved develops anemia. He begins to have a nightmares. His clientele grows increasingly creepy. Violently mauled bodies are found in Hyde Park. And he keeps running into Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy.

This is not a Harry Dresden novel; nor is it a Fr. Brown pastiche, though Fathers Gilroy and Brown would certainly get on well. Rather, it’s an understated and slyly comic tale of late Victorian horror that nicely replicates the feel of Stoker’s Dracula while subverting as many of our expectations (and John Kemp’s!) as possible. The late Victorian prose and dialog is spot on. The horror is in the tale itself; the comedy is mostly in the reader’s head as one responds to things that do not work out as one had expected (or, again, when they do), but it’s there all the same.

A Bloody Habit is a deeply Catholic book; its theory of vampires pays decent lip service to Catholic theology and metaphysics, and its Dominican friars are as cheerfully Dominican as Dominican can be. (I suppose there exist morose Dominican friars, but I’ve not yet met one.) But it isn’t in any way preachy, and though there are many interesting tidbits said in passing, there are no lurking treatises on the theological implications of vampirism. Catholics will get a few chuckles, but I don’t see anything here to put off non-Catholic readers.

In short, I enjoyed reading it; and this despite not having much taste for vampire novels in general. I’d love to see a book in which Fr. Gilroy has to collaborate with his Franciscan opposite numbers. And I confess that I’m extremely curious to know what kinds of supernatural bogeymen the Jesuits and the Carmelites got assigned to deal with. Or the Carthusians. (Yetis, perhaps?) Recommended.

Fair disclosure: I received a pre-release copy of this book from Ignatius Press. That said, I asked for a review copy because I thought I’d like it…and I did. It will be available for sale next month.

Letters from Armorica, 19 Juillet 34AF

Dear Journal,

Old Man Blaireau has paid me several visits today, peering up at me where I sit on the deck. It is an absurdity of my current position that I have found his presence to be a comfort. It is as though I have a large and extremely dangerous pet. I look down at him and smile and call his name; and eventually he slinks off looking for easier prey.

Once I threw him a biscuit but missed my mark, for it fell short and was swept away by the river. Old Man Blaireau did not even deign to look at it but just kept staring at me with his enormous beady little eyes. He is not fond of ship's biscuit, is Old Man Blaireau, which I can well understand. I am not fond of it either, not now that I have made its acquaintance, or I should not have thrown the biscuit over the side.

I completed the first sky-chair this morning—completed it, I say, only insofar as it's possible to use it as a conveyance, for it is no thing of beauty. I fear I shall have take lessons in woodworking from Jacques. Of course I dare not take it anywhere: I cannot return to Bois-de-Bas, and though I am longing to explore the island it is unsafe so long as Old Man Blaireau is on the prowl.

I have the materials to make at least two more chairs, and shall, but this afternoon I have found myself pondering the construction of Le Blaireau, this sloop upon which I find myself, for it is a very different kind of craft than my sky-chairs.

A sky-chair has formed elements that allow it to move in most any direction, as fast or as slowly as the rider wishes. It needs no external motive force. Yet Le Blaireau admits of no such control. It has but four formed elements relating to its motion, only one of which is directly related to propulsion. And in addition to these it has perfectly mundane masts and sails for catching the wind, with all of the cordage and other paraphernalia that such a rig requires. Why so?

The first of the formed elements is a member that rings the deck and provides lift—it might be said to form a portion of the vessel's gunwales or railing. It may be tuned to raise and lower the vessel—but slowly, slowly. It is larger and more sturdy than might seem necessary, but one must consider that the safety of the entire craft hangs upon it in a quite literal sense.

The second is near the stern of the vessel, and provides forward propulsion of a very slow sort—adequate for moving the sloop around a crowded harbor or to a new berthing, but completely unsuitable for practicable travel (as we showed when we used it to pilot Le Blaireau here to my island).

The third is the keel of the vessel, a single piece of hardened wood running from stem to stern. I do not recognize the kind of wood, but I think it must have been something like our Armorican bronzewood: exceptionally strong and sturdy even before being hardened. It isn't tunable, but projects a constant force equally to the right and left. Like the keel of a fishing boat on a lake, it allows the vessel to cut across the wind without being blown off course.

The fourth and last is the rudder, an element very like the keel in construction but mounted by pintles to the stern of the craft. It too projects a constant force to the right and left; and so works with the keel to allow the vessel to be steered.

The basic design was clear to me shortly after I first came on-board—indeed, was necessary for me to understand before ever we could bring her away from Bois-de-Bas. What I have not understood is why? Why not build a sky-sloop—or a sky-ship—as fast and as maneuverable as my sky-chairs? Such a vessel would no longer be at the mercy of the winds; and lacking the complexity of the standing rigging would require a much smaller crew. This would seem a thing of the most desirable, as Amelie would say, whether the vessel was intended for military or mercantile purposes.

It is plain that the creators of this design were mimicking the design and appearance of water craft. Is that all there is to it? This initial design was adequate to the purpose and familiar to the sailors, and so has never been modified?

And yet, our military leaders are not idiots; or even if they are, our mercantile leaders are not—as I have come to know, stupid men do not thrive in trade. If they build the ships as they do, there is a reason for it. Might it be the cost? A more capable vessel would surely be more expensive, and perhaps vastly more so; my father and his fellow masters are surely an exalted and greedy lot. Or perhaps it is not greed, but laziness: forming a more capable vessel would be more work. The shipowners are happy with what they have, and the formers are happy with what they are getting for it, and see no reason to hint of possible improvements or to allow destabilizing innovations to rock the boat, as it were.

And yet greed works both ways. If it is possible to build faster freighters at anything like a reasonable cost, surely some ambitious trader would have prevailed upon the Former's Guild to provide it.

I am missing an essential piece of the puzzle, I can feel it.

The sun is beginning to descend, so I must close. I have found a tangle of netting in the hold, netting tied with ragged pieces of green and brown cloth. I believe it to be intended to be draped over the top of the craft so as it to disguise its appearance from the air. Now that my first chair is complete, I intend to see if I can so drape it; and then, perhaps, I shall sleep more soundly and feel safer on the morrow.

____
Public Domain. WikiMedia Commons.

A Little High Tension: The End is in Sight!

A Little High Tension is the follow-on to Vikings at Dino’s and Very Truly Run After that I’ve been working on for some time now: and I’m glad to say, the end is in sight!

The end of the first draft, that is: and it will be a glorious thing. I write by the seat of my pants, which is to say I pick a starting point and then run with it. At first, I know almost nothing, but I figure things out as I go, and I usually have some notion of the climax long before I get there. With A Little High Tension, though, things have been different. It’s shaping up to be a four-act story; I finished up the third act yesterday, and commented to one of my first readers that now all I needed to do was figure out what happened in the fourth act.

And then I got up this morning, and wrote the next Letter from Armorica and posted it; and then I went to take a shower; and while I was in the shower, the entire fourth act popped into my head.

That’s not quite right. What really happened is a specific idea popped into my head, and then it grew, and linked with other ideas I’d had and not known what to do with, and it all made sense, and it all hangs together, and I’ve written the sequence of events and a few choice lines down; and all I need to do now is write it out. It’s gonna be brilliant!

You notice I haven’t said anything about what the ideas are—that would be fatal.

Looks like maybe it’s time to get started on the next cover illustration.

Letters from Armorica, 18 Juillet 34AF

Dear Journal,

I'm glad I've got you to write in, because otherwise I'd go mad sitting here with no one to talk to. Marc should be here in a few days, but first he needs to finish helping laying a false trail to amuse the Provençese when they come looking for me. I hope he returns safely!

I spent the day on deck, brooding and working on another sky-chair. Brooding, because it rankles to have run, leaving my wife and child-to-be behind. I should be defending them, not they me. I tell myself that I haven't run, precisely, that this is a strategic retreat, and that it ultimately is the best way to keep Amelie and my new home safe. But I hate it, and I am glad I have work to keep me busy.

The new chair will be elegant in its design—I learn more with each chair I build—but crude in its construction, what with Jacques not being here to help. Perhaps he can do some finish work on the mundane portions of the chair sometime later: he could install more comfortable seating, for example. It will still be ugly, for the formed portions of the craft cannot be modified.

Perhaps on my next effort I shall work on just the portions of the chair that requiring proper forming. I could form a kind of skeleton with all the necessaries, complete and able to fly, but otherwise unfinished and then Jacques or another skilled craftsman could complete the body work. Each to his own work! It would require changing my design yet again, in order that the skeleton be complete and self-supporting, but I think it can be done. I shall sleep on it.

So I have not been wasting my time out here in the woods on my sky-island; but I have not been comfortable either. The air is chill and damp, here over the river; and then there is Old Man Blaireau tromping about out there in the woods. He knows I am here, though he can't reach me, and I have seen him on the banks several times. He is every bit as large as I remembered, but gaunt. Whatever he is finding to eat, it isn't enough for him.

I hope he doesn't try to knock down the trees to which the sloop is moored. I don't know how smart grand-blaireaux are, or whether he is likely to notice the mooring lines, but I should hate to be set adrift.

There is a cot of sorts in the captain's cabin, a tiny cubbyhole in no way deserving of such a grand name. I attempted to sleep there last night, but tonight I think I shall bed down here in the galley, where I am currently sitting and writing. There is a wood stove here, for cooking the men's meals, and it is the only source of heat on the entire vessel. Perhaps tonight I shall not shiver all night long.

I worry about using the stove, though, because of the smoke. We moored the sloop here on the sky-island because it had to be hidden: our entire defense is based on leading the Provençese to think that the sloop came and went and is still out there, somewhere, carrying on its mission. (It had to be hidden or destroyed, and it is far too valuable to destroy: it could be a significant asset to Bois-de-Bas in the years to come, once the war is over, and possibly even in the coming months, if we can learn how to fly it well.) It seems unlikely that the Provençese will look for it here, or even pay this island any attention at all.

And yet, any Provençese soldiers who come searching are likely to have a sky-vessel of their own, and if so they can fly at any altitude and on any route they please. If they choose to investigate this island, they must necessarily find me; and if they see a plume of smoke, well. I think I must bank the fire before morning, and let it burn freely only when it is quite dark. And when Marc comes, I shall ask for more blankets and a small whirtle-oil stove. That will be enough for cooking and making coffee, and there will be no tell-tale smoke.

If only I could get off this sloop and search the island! It is made of the same limestone as the land below, and as Marc and I saw on our first visit, the underside is riddled with caves and grottos. Perhaps there is something that, with a little help, might be big enough for the entire sloop, to preserve it from prying eyes. Damn Old Man Blaireau anyway.

____
photo credit: Ken_Mayer Jotul wood stove via photopin (license)

Letters from Armorica, 17 Juillet 34AF

Dear Journal,

As I write I am sitting—with no small degree of bemusement—in the tiny cabin of the Provençese sloop my fellow villagers have christened Le Blaireau. I am perfectly safe—and yet, in some ways I am no less a prisoner than if the Provençese lieutenant had carried me away. I cannot move the sloop, not by myself; I dare not leave it; and I am alone. It is some consolation that this is only for a time, and at least one of my friends will be returning in a day or so.

The bemusement comes from the singularity of my situation. I am on the sloop, as I have said. The sloop is in mid-air, several fathoms above ground level, and moored to two trees on either side of the river. (Should I care to leave the cabin and look over the rail, I should see the water far below, rushing and gurgling in the last of the day's light.) And the river is on the sky-island to the north of Bois-de-Bas.

But I get ahead of myself. When I arose yesterday morning the bodies of the Provençese soldiers had been taken away, I know not where—but Jacques assures me that no one will ever find them. A group of men headed by Onc' Herbert and M. Tremblay were standing looking at the sloop.

I had had a difficult night, worrying and brooding, but I had made up my mind, and soI walked up to Onc' Herbert with as much determination as I could summon. Marc was standing by his side; he greeted me cheerfully: "Good morning, Armand! We need your expertise."

"You need my absence," I said. "It's my fault that the soldiers came to Bois-de-Bas."

Onc' Herbert cocked an eye at me. "Pour quoi?" he said.

"I was indiscreet in my correspondence."

Onc' Herbert blinked, slowly, and then waited, his eye still cocked.

"It's complicated," I said.

Onc' Herbert continued to wait, and I sighed.

"Oh, very well. I'm a former; you all know that. By rights I should have registered with the Armorican branch of the Former's Guild when I arrived in Mont-Havre. I didn't, because I wasn't expecting to work as a former. Now I am, and so I had to do something about that." They all nodded; guilds and their ways were a remote concern to the folk of Bois-de-Bas, but they knew of them. "I wrote to M. Suprenant in Mont-Havre for the direction of the guild house—and he told me that there is no Former's Guild in Mont-Havre. There was one, briefly, but it didn't last."

Onc' Herbert considered that. "Quel est le problème?" he said.

I shook my head. "You don't understand. If there is no Guild in Armorica, then I am the Guild. Me, Armand Tuppenny, I am the Master of the Armorican branch Former's Guild. Or I would be, if I were a master instead of a journeyman."

I looked around the group. A number of eyebrows had gone up, and there was more nodding.

"I'm only a journeyman because I disagreed with my father; by rights I should have been a master several years ago. So I wrote to him, and to another at the Guild in Yorke, asking them to grant me my mastery in absentia. It would have worked. It might still work. I had to take the chance. But I think one of the letters must have gone astray. You saw the look on the lieutenant's face when he learned that there was a former here in Bois-de-Bas."

Onc' Herbert nodded. M. Tremblay said, "What do you propose to do?"

"Leave. Another sloop is bound to come when this one is missed. They will find Bois-de-Bas, and they will find my shop. They will know I was here. But if I am not here any more, Le Maréchal will have no reason to bother you."

Onc' Herbert cocked his eye again. "Amelie?" he said.

"She'll come with me, of course. What, did you think I would abandon her?"

"Non," said Onc' Herbert decisively, which was gratifying to me.

I turned to go. "Amelie and I will pack up and be gone as quickly as we can."

"Non," said Onc' Herbert again.

"No? What do you mean, no? I tell you, I must leave."

"Non," he said. "Mais oui."

Now I was thoroughly confused.

"What?"

"Shopkeeper," said Onc' Herbert. "Non."

Marc took pity on me.

"It's simple," he said. "First, we need our shopkeeper. We can't let you take Amelie away; and the baby is coming besides."

I nodded reluctantly.

"Second, we need you." I blushed, and he went on. "And third, we are already committed." He smiled. "What, did you think we would abandon you?"

I hung my head a bit, and shook it from side to side.

"No," I said. "I thought I would have to persuade you."

Marc grinned. "We've been discussing what to do," he said. "And you're right, you'll need to go away for a time—but not so far as all that. But first, we need your help to move this sloop so that we can repair the damage to the green."

"Very well," I said. "I'm in your hands. But first, let me go tell Amelie to stop packing."

"No need. Mme. Gagnon is with her by now."

Once again, the village was too many for me. I should be getting used to that by now.

It was a busy day after that. I had never flown a sky sloop before, but I understood the principles well enough to trace the controls and figure out how to get it off of the ground, and to move it about slowly. The sloop, I must say, is a much more complicated beast than my simple sky-chair.

With help from Jacques and Étienne I directed the sloop to the edge of the green, where we moored it, still several feet above the ground, to a tree. Then by means of a rope and windlass we loaded it with supplies. There was some food and drink already on board, of course, though of low quality; Le Maréchal did not over-indulge his men, it seems. We added considerable to that, along with a fair quantity of other things. There was room, though the sloop is not large, for the belongings of the soldiers were already gone. I imagine they accompanied their owners to their eternal rest in some deep grotto.

While we were doing that, others were taking up the scarred and bloody turf. The gouges could not be hidden, but they could be removed altogether. Still others brought lumber and stout timbers, and raised a wooden deck covering the space, on which were put a number of the trestle tables at which we all ate dinner on Sonnedi.

And then it was time to go. I gave Amelie a last squeeze and a kiss and gathered my things, including this journal, and climbed the rope ladder to the deck of the sloop. Jacques and Étienne followed, and Marc flew my sky-chair into place, landing it gently just forward of the tiny cabin. And then the four of us proceeded to fly the sloop to the sky-island.

It took us most of the rest of the day, for we had not the skill to hoist the sails; and the larger the vessel the less it can depend on the kind of tricks my sky-chair uses for propulsion. But we made it, and flying through the mist of the waterfall maneuvered over the mouth of the river and in between the trees and moored the sloop as I've described some hundred yards upstream. Then, comfortable that I was secure from grand-blaireau attacks, Marc ferried Jacques and Étienne to the ground in the sky-chair, where a cart was waiting to take them back to the village.

Marc still has the sky-chair. I would have preferred to have it with me, but it is the only means the villagers have of reaching me, so I had to let him take it.

And so here I am. Amelie has been instructed to wear black, and to curse my name to all and sundry visitors for abandoning her, to which endeavor I fear she shall throw herself with fierce gusto and secret glee. Marc and another man from the village, a hunter, are going to lay a false trail for me to the south, along a series of hunting camps used by the villagers; or, rather, the hunter will lay the trail and Marc will follow in the sky-chair and bring him home, leaving no trace of their passage north. Then he will hide the sky-chair out of sight in the woods near the lake, so that he can reach me when necessary.

As for me, well. I have my journal and some books; I have food and drink; and I have the supplies and tools I need to begin constructing more sky-chairs. We will need them.

____
photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar Profile of a badger via photopin (license)

Letters from Armorica, 16 Juillet 34AF

Dear Journal,

It has happened. The forces of Le Maréchal have come to Armorica.

A recruiting sloop came to Bois-de-Bas late this afternoon, landing on the green before the church and scarring it horribly. The lieutenant in command sent his troops to scour the village and gather us in. We men were made to form a pair of lines; the women and children, including Amelie, stood behind us in a frightened mass. Then the lieutenant, an officious over-inflated little popinjay, made to us a speech.

"Gentilhommes", he said, "the Grand Army of Provençe is fighting for glory in Andalus, in Hanondorf, in Illyrica. Le Maréchal has need of brave men, men who can fight and win. Nothing is too good for the men who serve the Motherland in this way!"

He went on in this vein for some time, trying to engage our enthusiasm, our cupidity, our fears of being thought cowardly.

We listened politely, because of the guns; there are few fools in Bois-de-Bas. But the little coxcomb did not get any takers, which seemed to offend him. He was eyeing us with a sour expression when several of his men came up to him and stood at attention. They had been searching the village. He turned and heard their report, making notes in a small book. At one point he seemed surprised, and cast us all a long look.

The soldiers saluted and rejoined their ranks; and then the lieutenant turned back to us.

"In this time of war, the Motherland may call upon her people at need. If you hear your name, step forward.

"Jacques Pôquerie. You are a cabinetmaker, a worker of wood?" Jacques stepped forward and nodded. "Le Maréchal has need of men like you to build his siege engines. Go, stand over there."

"Non," he said. "I will not."

"And yet you will," said the Lieutenant, and waved his hand. Two soldiers stepped forward. One leveled his weapon, aiming it at Jacques' belly. Jacques sneered at him, then leaped, taking the man to the ground. The struggle did not last long, for the other soldier clouted Jacques on the head with the butt of his gun. At a word from the lieutenant the soldiers carried Jacques off and laid him on the ground in the shadow of the sloop.

"Armand Tuppenny!"

I stepped forward. I'd known this moment was coming since I had seen the lieutenant's look of surprise.

The lieutenant inspected me. "You are the shopkeeper?"

"Yes," I said in Provençese. "Please, my wife is expecting. Do not take me from her, I beg you." I felt like a coward to be pleading with him; but it was necessary.

The lieutenant made a gesture as if to throw that away. "Le Maréchal has need of quarter-masters. You will be made to be useful. Yet there is something else, I think. My men tell me surprising things about your shop."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Oh, I think you do. Your sign, it claims that you are a thaumaturge? It is too absurd."

"I am, though. You can ask anyone here."

He swept the crowd with his gaze, then looked back at me.

"Bah. Why would a thaumaturge leave Toulouse, the City of Dawn, for a place such as this? But no matter. Le Maréchal shall discover the truth, and you will serve like all other true sons of Provençe. Go over there, with the other."

I saw movement in the trees behind the church. It was time for a distraction. I stood up straight, hoping I would not get clubbed for my pains, or worse. "But I am no son of Provençe," I said in my purest Cumbrian. "Armorica is my home, but Le Maréchal has no claim on me. Death to the upstart!"

The soldiers all stiffened, and the lieutenant scowled. "Cumbrian scum! Provençe is not at war with your land, not at the moment, but its time will come. I live to see the day! And as for you—"

And at that moment there was a hiss, and the lieutenant fell back with an arrow through his throat. It was the first of many.

We had made our plans, we men of Bois-de-Bas, gathered in the hot springs of a Sunday. At the first sight of the sloop, the young lads of the village had scattered into the trees and made their way to the surrounding farms.

In the Old Lands the farmers huddle together in the village for fear of armies and bandits, and go out to their fields each day. But Bois-de-Bas is a peaceful place, and the farmers and their men live on their farms. And the woods of Bois-de-Bas are wild woods, filled with game and savage beasts, and every man born and raised in Bois-de-Bas is a skilled hunter.

The lieutenant's men gathered us up they found only those of us who lived around the green. And the rest, hunters all, were well-prepared.

More soldiers will come when the recruiting party is missed. It is late, now, but tomorrow we must hide all signs that the sloop was ever here.

And I think we must do more than that. I have one or two ideas.

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Letters from Armorica, 22 Juin 34AF

Dear Aunt Maggie,

I am taking advantage of the current truce to write you and tell you how am I doing. Doubtless you have been waiting for word, and I must first explain why you hadn't yet received any. Several weeks ago I sent a letter to my father, a letter of the utmost importance. I think it quite likely that he will have burnt it unread and unmentioned; but knowing my father's temper as I do, I expect the event will not have passed unnoticed by my mother.

I have enclosed a sealed copy of that letter. If you have reason to believe that my earlier letter went astray, please take it to John Netherington-Coates at the Former's Guild…at some time when you know that my father is not present. All you need do is give him the letter and explain the circumstances, for he is a smart man and he will know what to do. Yes, I know he is my father's chief rival in the guild…but the results of that will be on my father's own head.

I must repeat: this is of the utmost importance, to both myself and to the Cumbrian branch of the Former's Guild. Do not fail me, I beg you!

And now onto the news. I have fetched up in a rustic but charming village called Bois-de-Bas, a place of farmers and small-holders and grottos and hot springs. I have enclosed a drawing of the town and its setting, as best as I can render; I think you will agree that it is a lovely place.

I am wonderfully happy here. This might surprise you, after my upbringing in the big city of Yorke; or perhaps it might not, knowing me from my birth as you have. But happy I am. I have a place here, a fine one; and you are to know that I have married. Her name is Amelie, and she is lovely (of course). She is also strong, and skilled, and thoughtful, and kind. She is of Provençese background, as you might expect—but I must add to that that the Armoricans are sternly and stoutly independent, and not lackeys of le Maréchal.

More: my Amelie is in an interesting condition, as I have heard you call it, and in September I may have news of a blessed and wonderful event to share with you. I would have preferred to wait and speak of it at that time—but perhaps the truce will not hold, and I should wish my mother to know.

An amusing story for you. The homes and shops here in Bois-de-Bas are timber-framed, just as in the towns and villages of Cumbria, though here the timbers are of bronzewood; but where Cumbrian homes would fill in between the timbers with lath-and-plaster, here homes are are sheathed with overlapping planks of chêne-pierre, an Armorican tree that looks something like a Cumbrian oak but has a harder wood with a closed grain. It seems shockingly extravagant to me; but chêne-pierre is abundant here, and as families and farms grow we must harvest a great deal of it. It sheds the rain and snow without any need for paint, and in time fades to a lovely, durable gray sheen. This is how you must picture the dwellings in my sketch—for the most part.

Housewives seem to be just as house-proud in Armorica as in Cumbria, so far as I can tell. Mme. Pôquerie is the wife of our cabinet-maker; the Pôqueries are as well-off as anyone in town. A month or so ago M. Pôquerie acquired a small quantity of yellow paint—by accident, I believe, in an order of supplies from Mont-Havre—and having no better idea what to do with it used it to paint the window sills and frames on the front of his house.

This simple act has led to a frenzy of near-riot proportions. Every house-wife in our little village now insists on having "colored windows," the brighter the better. (This has led to much business for the keeper of the village store, the one who orders such things from the city, and for this he is duly grateful.) I believe it was Mme. Simard, the butcher's wife, who first insisted on having a "colored door" as well, by which she meant just the door-frame. She was roundly castigated for her extravagance by all and sundry; and then, of course, there was another flurry of orders for paint. Then Mme. Gagnon had her husband paint their entire front door a quite amazing red, and the whole circus began again.

Thus far no one has considered painting an entire house—or at least no one has publicly admitted it, the cost of paint and its transport being prohibitive. Someday soon, I expect someone here in Bois-de-Bas will find a way to make their own colored paint…and that will set off another war between those who are willing to settle for the less expensive local paint and those who insist on the "proper" paint from away. It is quite an entertaining spectacle.

Please give my best regards to my mother and my cousin Jack!

Your loving nephew,

Armand

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Letters from Armorica— 16 Juin 34AF

Dear Journal,

I never imagined that a grand-blaireau could grow so large. I had heard much about them from Jacques-la-Souris while I was living at Madame Truc's—the ferocity, the sharpness of the fangs, the surly and jealous demeanor—and I had seen the richness of the fur for myself. All these were as I had been given to believe. They did not surprise me. But to find a grand-blaireau standing man-high at the shoulder! Clearly something will need to be done if my project is to succeed.

But I get ahead of myself.

When I first walked to Bois-de-Bas my imagination was much taken by the sky-islands that I saw dotting the skies here and there along the route. I wondered what they might be like, and amused myself with day-dreams of sky-pirates and of pirate bases hanging in the air, hidden from view. And then, when I came to Bois-de-bas my joy was complete, for I noticed a quite large sky-island hanging in the air to the north. It is suspended over a lake, and there is a single waterfall perpetually falling over the edge and down into the water below. Where so much water can be coming from I have no idea, but I immediately longed to find out.

And this, of course, is why I began the experiments that led to the creation of my sky-chair.

This morning, having persuaded my dear Amelie that the sky-chair is perfectly safe, I embarked. I did not go alone, which has turned out very fortunate—I rode through the middle air to Onc' Herbert's, and picked up Marc Frontenac to come with me. And then we were off!

It was a fine day today, warm and not over breezy, and yet I was glad of my coat—the chair can move with great swiftness, easily faster than a galloping horse; and as I have discovered, warm on the ground does not mean warm in the air! Though of course I was also shivering with anticipation.

As we rose to the height of the island we more or less followed the line of the river that runs from the lake down past the village. The view was stunning. Vast forests spread out beneath us, as yet little travelled by men. We saw stands of bronzewood and Chêne-pierre, studded here and there with the grottos and hot springs that give Bois-de-Bas its name.

It took us the better part of half-an-hour by my timepiece to reach the island. I wished to fly over the middle of the island directly; but Marc persuaded me to fly around it, under and over and about, spying out the land as he said.

And so, avoiding the waterfall, which is just east of the southernmost end of the island, we began by passing underneath—and again I was glad of my coat. It was dim and cool and damp under the island, with strands of hanging moss to be wary of. The base of the island proved to be made of the same stone as the land below, worn through with grottos and cave-lets, much like those of the hot-springs in which we take our Sunday soaks. Some of the grotto openings were quite large, and I imagined flotillas of small pirate craft issuing from them to prey on passing shipping.

Of which there is none, of course; but then, there are no sky-pirates either.

From there we circumnavigated the island. The edges are rocky, festooned with moss, and heavily forested right up to the edges. We found no break in the trees anywhere, except where the waterfall issued forth. There we found a shallow gorge worn by the force of the water, overhung by Chêne-pierre, almost like a tunnel. We could have proceeded in by that route, but there was a strong breeze blowing out of the mouth of it, stemming, I think, from the rush of the water. Instead we rose up over the trees, only to find—

Well, more forest, looking very much like that we'd passed over on the way. The general topography of the island was more or less bowl-shaped; it was, in fact, a shallow valley, rising up to a rim on the northeast. The river rose somewhere in that vicinity, and ran through the lowest part of the valley in a swooping curve only to issue forth on the southeast, as we'd seen. The air was moist and slightly foggy over the island, and here and there we saw clouds of rising steam indicating the presence of hot springs.

I backed off from the island a bit, so that I could see it and the lake below at the same time.

"It's almost as if the island used to be where the lake is," said Marc, and he was correct, right down to the sheer cliff on the northeast side of the lake that matched the rise on the northeast side of the island and matching line of the river to the south. If so, the island must have moved north as it rose; for the waterfall came down in the northern half of the lake.

And then it was time to take a closer look. Finally!

The island was heavily wooded, making any kind of landing difficult; were anyone to try to settle here they would need to clear a deal of land. There were a few open spots on either side of the river, however, and I directed the chair to one of these. It was not a perfect spot; the bank, though open, sloped enough that if we were to land there chair would likely topple over. I had foreseen this difficulty, and brought along a short rope ladder; and setting the chair to hang still a yard or so over the bank I threw the ladder over the side and climbed down. The chair held its position admirably, though it heeled to one side and rocked a bit.

And there I was! The first human being ever to stand on the island—perhaps the first human being ever to stand on any of the sky-islands of Armorica! My heart swelled within me as I scrambled up the bank to get a better vantage point, and to see what I could see under the trees.

I know very little about the nature of the grand-blaireaux, save that they are large, and badger-like, with strong jaws and white spots on their cheeks; and I have no idea what this one found to live on, or how it managed to grow to such a large size in such a confined space. Perhaps the grand-blaireau is like some fish I have heard tell of, that continue to grow their whole lives long, to fit the size of their pond or lake. And yet, that cannot be right, for the giant that emerged from deeper in the woods, its brown fur frosted silver with age, is far larger than any grand-blaireau of which I had ever before heard, and those had all of the land of Armorica to roam in.

It was tall and sturdily-built, though lean and hungry; and its dark eyes were focused on the nearest source of fresh meat—me; and it moved quickly and silently. I was aware of it only because of Marc's shout, and I am sure I covered the ten feet or so back to the rope ladder in one bound. Marc had shifted himself to my seat in anticipation of trouble—God bless him—and he did not wait for me to climb in before taking us out of danger. The beast's jaws snapped shut just inches from the bottom of the ladder; what would have happened had they closed on it I shudder to think.

Marc took us well up and out over the river, with me still dangling on the ladder, and there paused to let me clamber up and into the front seat. Much shaken, I allowed Marc to guide us back to Onc' Herbert's farm. The blaireau watched us until we were out of sight.

It is clear that if we are to return we shall need to bring an entire hunting party. I shall need to build a larger vessel; or perhaps a covey of additional chairs.

____
photo credit: vwcampin Ausable Chasm – Upstate New York via photopin (license)

Letters from Armorica— 4 Juin 34 AF

Dear Journal,

My sky-chair is a success! I completed it yesterday, just before writing to my father, and today I took it out for its first trial. It functions almost entirely as desired, and unlike my first effort it is not confined to the Nursery. I built it in my new workshop as my first major project, and it was with the greatest of ease that my neighbor Jacques Pôquerie and I carried out through the double doors into the open air.

I had originally intended to work on my sky boat in secret, given that I am unregistered with the local guild—but that cat is long out of its bag. And since I built it in my new workshop I couldn't hide it in any event, what with customers coming and going. What my father will say when he discovers what I am doing I fear to learn. I only hope he sends me my master's chain promptly, before any such word comes to him. Once I receive the chain I shall be forever out from his power, by the very rules of the Guild he so adores: I shall be my own master in all truth. And I shall need to be, for I am sure I shall be reviled as much in Toulouse as in Yorke. A former engaged in trade! A former selling to the common folk! Unheard of!

Trying to keep my work secret would have been foolish in any event. My Amelie is neither a gossip nor a prattler, but she is proud of me, and she will speak up on my behalf, as witness the affair of the pots. And then, had I built it in secret I should have had to do without Jacques' help.

Jacques is our village cabinet maker, and as a result the new sky-chair is both more sturdy and more beautiful than its predecessor. Instead of being made out of old packing crates it is solidly joined out of the wood of the Chêne-pierre tree, and it is most beautifully finished. It is larger than the original, with room for two to sit one behind the other, but is otherwise similar in design. It has the same controls, and the same lifting element hanging over one's head like the canopy of a four-poster bed. Or, actually, a three-poster bed: there are two posts at what I suppose I should call the bow, one to the right and one to the left; and then a stouter stern-post that rises up behind the operator. All three posts extend below the vessel by about a foot, and serve to the support the vehicle when it rests on the ground. Jacques assures me that three posts will be more stable than four. It even has comfortable seats for the occupants, shaped like the seats one of Jacques' fine chairs.

So first thing this morning Jacques and I guided it out of the workshop; and climbing in I took it for a spin around the village, being careful to rise no more than a foot or two from the ground. It steers over-large, and I can see a few modifications I shall want to make to the controls, but I was well pleased. There were many cries of delight from my neighbors, and I fear that all of the infants of the village will be wanting rides around the green ere long, once their mamas see that I have come to no harm.

The morning was still young, and so we went visiting. Jacques helped Amelie to climb into the bow of the craft; and once she took her seat, blushing and a bit anxious, I guided it down the road to Onc' Herbert's farm. We were able to travel faster than a cart, and with perfect smoothness, and indeed could have gone faster yet but for Amelie's qualms. Well, and my own: one step at a time! Our friends at the farm were most astonished—all except Onc' Herbert, who just laughed quietly to himself when we hove in view.

We stayed for the noon meal with Onc' Herbert and Marc and Elise. Marc is curious about building a kind of sky-sleigh, pulled by mules, or even a self-propelled sky-wagon, much like my sky-chair but larger. I assured him that a full-fledged sky-wagon should be almost as easy to form as a sleigh, but he's thinking that a sleigh would be easier to control with less training, and be a better working tool on the farm. He may well be right. The thought of a laden sky-wagon hurtling through the village at the speeds I believe my chair to be capable of—well, it is more than a little chilling.

I begin to view the future with a mixture of alarm, delight, and wild surmise.

____
photo credit: creyesk Green tunnel via photopin (license)