Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Samhain Tale: The Miser's Feast

I thought of writing about Samhain - the Celtic Halloween - today, but decided instead to post an excerpt from Storyteller and let you read the Wikipedia article yourselves.

The following passage is from the chapter called "The Making of Arthur's Crown", where Gwernin's teacher Talhaearn tells a tale one evening. (Reminder: the pdf version of Storyteller is still available free - see the sidebar for the link.) Here begins the tale; Talhaearn is speaking:

[In order to make the crown] ... we first needed gold from seven British Kings. Now the crowned Kings of Britain in those days were Tudwal Tudclyd of Strathclyde, and Cynwyd of Eidyn, and Cynfarch Oer of Rheged, and Lleenawg of Elmet, and Maelgwn Hir of Gwynedd, and Brochfael Ysgithog of Powys, and Geraint mab Erbin of Dumnonia. And this gathering of gold from them was no easy task; for many considered Arthur to be an upstart, with no good claim to Uthur Pendragon’s chair, while others had ambitions themselves to be High King. And in order for our magic to be true and right and potent, we might not get the gold other than by free gift.

So my Master devised a plan, and it was this: no King could risk the dispraise of a pencerdd, a master bard, however strong he felt himself, whether the dispraise was only by silence, the mere omission of his name from a list of Generous Ones, or by the sharper attack of satire. If each King were to believe that all the others in our list had given generous gifts to our endeavor, than each in his turn would give as well, not to be outdone. The difficulty lay in starting the process.

We went, therefore, first to the court of Rheged, which was ruled in those days by Cynfarch Oer, Cynfarch the Cold, who could as well have been called Cynfarch Caled, Cynfarch the Miser. For as my Master said truly, if we could win gold freely given from that skinflint, than no one else would dare to hold back, for fear of dishonor. And we arrived on the eve of Samhain, then as now one of the great festivals of the year, when even Cynfarch would be forced to hold a feast.

Now my Master's name was known in those days the length and breadth of Britain, and not for lack of resource. So in order not to put Cynfarch on his guard, we agreed that I would appear in my own proper person, but that he would dress himself in our oldest clothes and pretend to be my servant. And thus we arrived at Cynfarch’s hall, where a feast – of sorts – was in progress.

Cold, did I say was Cynfarch's calling? Cold was the hospitality of his hall as well. Few indeed were the torches that lit that hall, and small and feeble the hearth-fire, so it was little enough that could be seen through the drifting haze of smoke. The benches were thronged by such as had no hope of better entertainment elsewhere, but little good did they get by it, for the bowls of broken meats came half-empty to the table, and the drink was small sour beer. It is true that Cynfarch's retinue was served somewhat better – a war-band which is not feasted will soon find another lord – and better yet was the food on Cynfarch's own table, but I swear to you that Arthur's war-band in the field after a three-day's battle ate better than he. Nevertheless, we came into the hall, and I followed close after the porter to be announced, while my Master joined the servants near the door.

Now Cynfarch, though a miser, was no fool; and my own name was not unknown in the land of Britain. Yet like all those who value gear and goods above honor, he could not resist the prospect of getting something for nothing, or nearly nothing: in this case, my songs in exchange for his poor entertainment. It would be a bold bard who satirized him there in his own hall; and if my praise was less than fulsome, why, he could live with that. Indeed, he had been doing so for a long time. So he waved me to a seat at his own table, and presently he bade me sing.

I sang, first, a song in praise of Arthur, calling him Bull of Battle and Bulwark of Britain, Red-Ravager and Gold-Giver. This produced a little applause from Cynfarch, but rather more from his war-band, who like everyone else had heard tales of Arthur's success. Clearly they were now wondering if he might be a more generous provider than Cynfarch. Next I told the tale of Pwyll's winning of Rhiannon, when he comes to her wedding feast dressed as a beggar but carrying a magic bag which cannot be filled, however much is put into it. At this I heard one of the retinue say to another, "Well for him that he came not here!" and laugh, and Cynfarch shifted uneasily in his chair. "Have you no better tales than this?" he asked me. "Give me something new."

"Alas, Lord," I said, "I am weary from traveling and need food and time to rest. Perhaps you would hear a tale from my servant while I eat? He is not without experience."

"Gladly," said Cynfarch. "Let him come up."

My Master came to the front of the hall, still in his disguise. "Good evening to you, Lord," he said. "Would you hear a tale suited to the night, which I learned long ago in Ireland?"

"Gladly," said Cynfarch. "Tell your tale."

My Master then began to tell the most terrifying story I have ever heard, of unquiet spirits and monsters which could not be killed, and murdered men returning from the grave for vengeance, their empty eyes burning with the fires of hell. And as he spoke the hall grew darker, and the torches burned faint and blue, and outside the wind rose and moaned about the court, and there were voices in it. Even the retinue grew quiet and huddled closer together on their benches; and their faces were pale, and their hands moved uneasily now and then to their knife-hilts. Cynfarch's eyes went round and round the hall, as if he saw movement in the shadows, and sweat stood upon his brow; and I myself felt the skin creep on my shoulders, and the hairs on my neck stand up. And still my Master spoke, and the wind rose, and one or two of the torches flickered and went out.

At last Cynfarch could stand no more. "Enough!" he cried. "End your tale now, old man!"

"But how shall I do that," my Master asked, "and the tale not half finished?"

"I will pay you to end it," said Cynfarch. "In silver, if need be."

"Nay," said my Master, "that would be ill doing. For it would be bad luck to me to end the tale untimely, and silver is not enough to pay for that misfortune."

"Let it be gold, then," said Cynfarch, and he hauled off from his arm the great twisted bracelet of red gold which he wore there, and which no one had ever seen him without, and threw it into my Master’s hands. "Take it, and be silent." And my Master bowed, and turned away; and as he did so, the torches burned up again, and the wind died away to nothing.

We did not linger long at the hall of Cynfarch Rheged, but went on with our journey. At all the other Kings' courts we showed the arm-ring, and praised Cynfarch's generosity, and we had no trouble in getting their gold. And so the first of our tasks was accomplished...

(the above (c) 2007 by G. R. Grove)

Happy Samhain to you all!

Sunday, October 28, 2007


After last weekend's snow, the weather has warmed up again. I spent a lot of time today doing garden cleanup and thinking about the next book. Clipping the dead sunflowers out of the potato patch, I tried to transpose a scrap of medieval gossip back several hundred years. The stated motives for someone's actions concerned illegitimacy - but this makes no sense in medieval Welsh law, where all acknowledged sons shared equally (see the history of 12th and 13th century Wales for working examples, or read Edith Pargeter's Brothers of Gwynedd quartet). So what did X think he was doing? There has to be logic in there somewhere... Removing the frost-killed pepper plants and tomato vines, I thought about balance. What, or who, is my story really about? The historical background, or Gwernin himself?

About that time my train of thought was derailed when a kestrel dived into the cloud of sparrows around the bird feeder. The sparrows took refuge in the rose bushes, chirping hysterically; the falcon, disgruntled, watched them for a while, and then flew away when the cats came to check on the excitement. And I went back to clipping dead tomato vines.

The plot? Well, we'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Winter is almost here

Here in Denver today we're having our first snowstorm of the season. Heavy, wet, clinging to the leaves which haven't yet fallen (which is most of them - only a few of the ash trees are sensibly bare), bending them over under their icy burden. If the temperature inches up another degree or two, much of it will probably drop off, but for now I keep a watch and occasionally go out with a broom to shake the roses, the young maples, and the drooping rowan tree. The cats are not happy today; they want out, but don't like it when they get there.

Yesterday was warm, dry, and sunny - "the warm before the storm" we call it. This snow won't last; in a day or two it will be gone, and we'll be back to mild autumn for a while longer. It's a reminder, though, that winter is on its way: the dark half of the year starts at Samhain. Winter in Gwernin's time was not the pleasure that some people find it today, but rather something to get through, hopefully alive. The lord in his hall might be happy enough, with a roaring fire and plenty of food, but then as now the poor man suffered, and some of the poetry reflects this.

The dark half of the year is the time for stories, and I am taking thought to my next book, The Ash Spear.

But that's a post for another day.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Storyteller cover on the sidebar

I am thinking about doing a revision of Storyteller to catch a few typos and upgrade the cover. What do folks think of the design on the sidebar as opposed to the original cover?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

I Did It

Last night I pushed the button, so to speak, for distribution of Flight of the Hawk. It's available on Lulu now, and should reach Amazon, B&N, etc. in two to three weeks. There's also an ebook version on Lulu.

Next project: building the Aldertree Books website. Oh, yes, and starting the next book...

But that's a post for another day.


Friday, October 12, 2007

A Busy Week...

First, the October Promotion is going well - twenty seven people so far have downloaded free PDF copies of Storyteller, and I hope will be sharing them with their friends. I can't afford to give hard copies away, but sharing ebooks costs me nothing, and I'm glad to have the chance to do it.

Today I got the second proof copy of Flight of the Hawk, and it looks good. Inevitably there must be a couple more typos somewhere - there always are! - but I'm not going to search for them: 99% correct is close enough.

This gives me a choice, though: release the book now, or wait until the scheduled November 1st date? What to do, what to do...

There'll be a PDF version of this book, too, although not a free one ... at least not now.

But that's a post for another day.


Thursday, October 4, 2007


I haven't been posting much in the last week because I'm on the (absolutely, positively, I mean it this time!) last editing pass through Hawk. Once I've finalized that, I'll have time for a few other things like reference book reviews and general creativity. It's taken quite a lot of time and work (thanks, Rivkah and Rowen!) but I think it's been worth it in terms of a really clean final draft. And we're still on schedule for November 1st.

Meanwhile, in the unused synapses at the back of my mind, the next story is starting to take shape. Maybe this weekend...

But that's truly a story for another day.


Monday, October 1, 2007

October Promotion

In the run-up to the November release of Flight of the Hawk, I am making the pdf version of Storyteller a free download from my Lulu storefront. Anyone who would like it but doesn't want to create a (free) Lulu account in order to get the download can email me at the address on the sidebar, and I'll send you one direct. Not only is this ebook available free, but I actively encourage you to share it with anyone you think might be interested under a Creative Commons license!

Meanwhile, final revision on Flight of the Hawk continues on schedule for its November 1st release.