My Goodreads Quotes

Allison’s quotes

"Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right--in the way that's best for us."
Do you really believe that, Mother?" Peter asked quietly.
Yes," she said, "I do believe it--almost always--except when I'm so sad that I can't believe anything. But even when I don't believe it, I know it's true--and I try to believe it."— E. Nesbit

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pendragon's Heir: Character Spotlight!

Hello, readers!  Sorry I have been absent lately.  A few of my classes all chose to wrap up at the same time, and I was busy finishing those.  Expect more frequent posting now that my time has freed up again!

I am pleased today to present a character spotlight by the delightful authoress, Suzannah Rowntree, from her newest novel, Pendragon's Heir

 Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of—or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?

Expect awesomeness: she uses the phrase "outrageously swashbuckling" to describe this character.  And now, over to Suzannah.

Meet Sir Perceval of Wales!

 Born in a cave, clothed in skins, raised far from civilisation, Perceval seems an unlikely candidate for knighthood. But when the wild boy of Wales comes to Camelot to become a knight like his father, he’s quickly hailed as the flower of chivalry, acknowledged as the son of the King’s most loyal knight, and entrusted with the safety of the King’s own daughter.

As a knight of the Round Table, a guardian of Logres against the forces of darkness, Perceval knows he is almost certainly destined for an early death in battle. His new life of adventure, fellowship, and glory is its own reward, however, and the price is one he’s prepared to pay.

But is he prepared to face the evil lurking within Logres itself?

When people ask me who my favourite character from Pendragon’s Heir is, I have to admit that it’s Perceval. I love all my characters, but no one else is as much fun to write about.

As one of two point-of-view characters and the secondary protagonist after Blanche, Perceval was always going to be important to my story. What makes him special, though, is his uniquely extravagant personality. In the original legends, Perceval’s backwoods origins make him a delightful mixture of brashness and naivete. As I fleshed his character out for my own novel, I came to think of him as the unsocialised homeschooler par excellence—extroverted, articulate, idealistic, and completely fearless. He was enormous fun to write, and the best part is, if you read the original legends, Malory’s version or the Mabinogion’s, he’s basically the same character in those as well. Needless to say, this makes reading the legends that much more fun.

I’m grateful that the original, legendary Perceval came with such an interesting character ready-made for me, because I wouldn’t normally gravitate toward writing such an ebullient, swashbuckling fellow. Now that I think about it, I don’t think most people find cocky self-assurance a very heroic trait. If anything, it makes the alarm bells go off in our heads.

But for the medievals who originally invented Perceval,  swashbuckling confidence was an obviously heroic trait. Not that they failed to value humility; rather, they saw the two as going hand-in-hand. They were the kind of people who would lop off the head of a serial killer, and then fast and pray for his soul. Less positively, they were also the kind of people who would set off en masse for the Holy Land with little more than a bunch of pitchforks and a whole lot of hope. Meanwhile the eventual hero of the Arthurian romances, Sir Lancelot, is described as “the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies…and the sternest knight to mortal foe that ever put spear in rest.” This was the medieval ideal, a sort of equal flowering of two apparently opposed things: vengeance and mercy, confidence and dependence, meekness and savagery. Such confidence was not always well-placed, of course, and the cry of Deus vult!—God wills it!—was often declared prematurely.

But for all their faults, the medievals were prone to different sins than ours; if they were rash, then at least they were not usually pragmatic, and if their love of fighting often got out of hand, then at least they were not cowards. Almost without realising it, my fun exploring this very medieval knightly character of Sir Perceval became a way for me to explore and understand the medieval knightly culture that birthed him.

 “Where may I find your King? I should like to be a knight.”

One of the men behind Lancelot coughed as though smothering a laugh, but Lancelot replied gravely. “I counsel you to go in search of him, sir, for it is the Pendragon’s chief delight to grant such boons to bold men. Yet there are conditions. You must keep yourself either to gentle words or hard blows, and you must defend the weak and poor.”

“I will do these things,” said Perceval with a gesture of easy assurance.

 I knew I was facing quite a challenge when I sat down to plan the story idea that would eventually become Pendragon’s Heir. At that point, I had never attempted writing from a male point of view before, and I knew I wanted to do it right. Perceval might be a knight in shining armour, he might be my main character’s love interest, but I also wanted him to be a real character in his own right, a character I wouldn’t be embarrassed about when the time came for my own brothers to meet him!

What I was scared of was writing some unrecognisable paragon, the kind of male character that plagues lady novelists everywhere. I never could believe in Mr Rochester, and I have to admit that even Lord Peter Wimsey has always stretched my credulity. They, and characters like them, seemed written at least partly for wish-fulfilment. I always agreed, with GK Chesterton, that

No woman later has captured the complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all the after women went about looking for their brains. She could describe a man coolly; which neither George Eliot nor Charlotte Brontë could do.

I was so concerned about the danger of voodoo-dolling my heroic male characters into my idea of the perfect man, out of all resemblance to actual men, that my natural inclination was to err on the side of the unromantic. Fortunately, somewhere along the way I stumbled across a contemporary author’s perceptive words on what it is that readers really want in their fiction:

Young men want noble things, to slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress, to help widows and orphans and win glory. Young women want even nobler things, to be rescued by a handsome prince on a white charger with a heart of fearless gold and a sword of peerless fire. And they want to win the kind of men who win glory.

Many a young man these days, poisoned by the venom of envy called feminism will deny this, and even more young women. Then the men will go out and read paperbacks about spies or special forces officers who do what knights do, and the women go out and read paperbacks about heiresses kept as wards by scheming guardians who need to be rescued by brooding yet stalwart young barons.

This quote has been a great encouragement to me—sticky-noted, more or less permanently, on the inside of my brain, as a kind of permission to write—well, to write stories about knights. And that, with a good deal of gusto and enjoyment, is what I have done.

 He swung into the saddle and gripped his spear with a shout. “Ho! I know you, Knight of Gore! What of the Witch of Gore, your mistress? Does she still send you to do her cutthroat work, as she did on a day I recall, in the castle of Gornemant?”

“And I know you, Welsh swineherd, well enough to weary of your babble. I have a debt to repay. Come, let me teach you how men speak, with steel, not mockeries.”

“It is a tongue I love!” Perceval said, laughing and laying spear in fewter, and striking spurs into his horse.
When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at and is the author of both fiction and non-fiction. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, released March 26.
You can buy a copy of Pendragon's Heir here, here, and here.
I cannot wait to read this book!  Thanks so much for dropping by, Suzannah, and congratulations on your new novel!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In Memory of Sir Terry Pratchett

Once upon a time, there lived a man who wrote beautiful stories.  Although they were not true in the classical sense, they resonated with unspoken truths and emotions.  Those quirky, irresistible stories influenced generations of readers and writers... including me.

He was Sir Terry Pratchett, and he passed away five days ago.

I did not know him personally.  I only know his stories, which I love.  I read his The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents at a young age and quickly followed it with his Tiffany Aching series.  A little bit older, I found the rest of his Discworld books: dozens and dozens of witty, hilarious, heartfelt novels.

He was a giant among fantasy authors, and it pains me to think of the novels we shall never have because of his untimely passing.  (If you feel like having a cry, read what his daughter wrote after his death.)  But I feel blessed that he left us so many of his wonderful, wonderful stories.  Rest in peace, Sir Terry Pratchett.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Firn and Furan-- Part Four

And so concludes my novella, Firn and Furan!  If you've enjoyed it thus far, you may be interested in reading my other novella, Hespera.

You may be wondering now why I chose to have strictly nameless characters in the novella.  You may believe I meant to reflect the permeating, often-confusing nature of good and evil.  You may be prepared to congratulate me on my sage allegory.

It's less romantic than that.

The truth is I wrote the prologue of Firn and Furan long before I conceived of a mad princess and her pageboy.  (At the time I intended it to be a retelling of the princess and the pea.)  Although the first line remained the same from day one (I can't believe it either), the king started his literary life as a grief-stricken, mournful, preferably stern and authoritarian father.  He was, in short, boring beyond belief.  So I went back to the first line, but where I had initially gone right, I went left.

Because it had only been a writing exercise, I hadn't bothered naming any of the characters.  (You may also notice the prologue uses extremely sparse description.  I hadn't written Hespera yet, where I honed this skill.)  When I resurrected the concept for Firn and Furan, I thought, "This looks sage and mysterious!  I'll keep it!"

There you have it, readers.  The truth comes out.

And so we go!

Chapter Nine:



he quiet, genteel journey from the manor to the city had taken them weeks, punctuated by modest inns, picnics, and obscure historical sites.

            By dogsled it took them two days.

            The princess spent it sitting, wrapped in furs, watching the passing snow with vacant eyes.  The boy shouted at the dogs, pulled them into line, and steered the sled.  By the time the fir trees finally closed overhead in a comforting canopy, blocking the worst of the snow, he was almost too tired to stand.  He saw the manor with new, weary eyes as it rose above the trees, stark and ominous against the pearly sky.  He’d not seen it that way in a long time.

            The princess murmured sleepily when he awoke her, so he gathered her into his arms and, staggering, carried her to the front, firn-covered step.  He hated to leave her there on the cold stone, but the dogs needed tending.  He listened anxiously as he fed them frozen meat and, at a loss, put them in the stable’s cold stalls.

            The princess had struggled from the step by the time he returned and had fallen, protesting, into the snow.  She knocked on the frozen step like it was a door and said, “Really, brother, you’re being ridiculous.  Let me in; I’m cold.”

            “We’re going in,” the boy said, helping her totter to her feet.  She didn’t respond to his words, but he felt better talking.  “I hope there’s still something good to eat, princess.  We weren’t gone for so long.  It’s only…”

            His words slowed, then stopped as he struggled to count back the last two days.  Backwards… backwards….

            “It’s Christmas Eve,” he said, surprised.  “Fancy that, princess.  Perhaps we can cook a puffin and Christmas pudding if we have the ingredients.  I know how much you love Christmas pudding.  You make it even if it isn’t Christmas!”
            Away in a manger,” the princess sang tunelessly, and he took this as a good sign.

            “That’s right, princess.  The little baby Jesus has his birthday tomorrow to save us from our sins.”  He paused, his fingers struggling with the cold lock.  “I always wondered when he was born.  Was it on the night of Christmas Eve or the night of Christmas Day?”

            “’Twas the night before Christmas,’” the princess murmured, and he shivered.  The lock clicked beneath his fingers, and he opened the door gratefully.  A breath of air almost as cold as outside touched his face.  A menacingly decrepit foyer loomed about him, adorned with shadows and cobwebs.

            “We’ll need a fire,” the boy said, quailing.  “In the library.  Come on, princess.”  The words were redundant, for he half-carried her with him into the dark, lonely room, only meagerly more homely than the rest of the house.  He was afraid he must leave her to fetch firewood, but the stand by the place was as full as he’d left it.  His numb fingers shook as he tipped furan across the logs; the twitch of a match, and they leapt into flames.

            “Firn and Furan,” he murmured, like a benediction.  “Well, we shan’t freeze, princess.  Can you wait here while I get food?”  He was afraid to leave her by the open flames, but they’d scarcely eaten on their journey, and she might sicken.  Carefully, he pulled the screen across the fireplace and retreated to the kitchen.

            There it was even colder than the rest of the house.  Ice shimmered in the sink and over the drain.  But the neat cheeses, breads, and meats on the larder shelves had not soured in the absolute cold, and the boy gratefully piled them into his arms.  They’d not starve.

            “Excellent idea,” the princess said behind him, and he almost screamed, half from shock at her sudden appearance and half because her voice was as sharp and clear as a frozen mountain stream or a snowflake.  “In the old days, they defended castles by pouring boiling oil on the attackers.  We shall do that, too.”

            “Defense?” the boy asked.  “What do we need to defend ourselves from?”

            She cast a raised eyebrow at him in a look so dear and familiar that tears sprang to his eyes, though they did not fall.           

            “My subjects, of course,” she said.  “The men and women of the village, of the northern isles.  They shall not suffer a witch to live, and they certainly won’t stand for her to rule.”  Her mouth fell slackly open for a moment while she looked over his shoulder.  Then she snapped back into icy calm.  “We have a day at most.  We must prepare.”

            Her clear, cold eyes met his dark ones for a moment.  Then, frighteningly, they slid into passivity, and she cooed at the sudden discovery of cooking oil, murmuring, “Perfect!  But how to heat it…?”

            She struggled visibly with this question, then her face grew light, and she picked up the tea kettle and slowly, carefully poured a stream of oil in.  The boy stared at her as she wandered back to the library, holding the kettle defensively to her chest like someone might steal it.

            He sat alone in the quiet, lonely kitchen, empty even of the comforting tap of dripping water from the spigot, for all had frozen, even him.  He was very cold.

            Then, slowly, like one who has aged a hundred years in the blink of an eye, in the breaking of a heart, he gathered up his thick woolens and plodded from the kitchen, through the long, dark hallways, and to the door of the library.  The fire crackled more vividly in the hearth, and the princess kneeled beside it and rested the kettle above it, checking it frequently with her bare hand to see if it had heated yet, like a mother fretting over a fevered child.

            “What is it, brother?” she said impatiently.  He hadn’t known she had seen him.  “I’m in the middle of something.  Don’t distract me.”

            “I… I’m sorry,” the boy said uncertainly.  He twisted his hat in his hands.  “I… I wanted to say goodbye.”

            “What?”  Now she looked at him properly, hurt plastered across her face.  “But you’ve only just arrived,” she protested.  “I thought you would stay for Christmas, at least.”

            “Some things have come up,” the boy lied.  “I’d like to stay.  Really.  But… I don’t think that’s an option anymore.”

            Now suspicion flitted across her face.  How easily, how plainly she wore her emotions.  He’d never noticed it before.

            “Is it fa—the king?” the princess corrected herself, biting her lip.  “Did he call you home?”

            He felt sick.  “Yes.  He called me home.”

            “Well,” she said unhappily.  “I suppose you’d best go, then.  But come here before you leave.  Give me a kiss.”

            Slowly, reluctantly, he bent over her.  His kiss fell to her cheek, but she turned at the last moment so it landed squarely on her mouth.  She stared at him, surprised.  He thought he could see two realities reflected in her eyes: one of the fair, vibrant prince, the other of the hushed, dark boy.  She struggled with them for a moment before a bright, gay laugh dispelled both.

            “You’re too silly,” she said.  “Always have been, always will.”  Her brow clouded.  “I thought—I dreamt—but, no.”  She watched him, unnerved.  Then she smiled, and she was as lovely as a cloudless day.  “You’re all I’ll ever need.”

            “Goodbye,” the boy told her.  She smiled vacantly, and her eyes slid away again, back to the fire.

            “It’s not warming up,” she fussed, feeling the kettle’s breathing side.  “Why won’t it warm up?”

            The boy turned to the doorway, his heart heavier than the chains of his forefathers.  He had his hand around the doorknob when she said, “Boy.”

            He turned.  “Yes, princess?”

            She looked at him like one in a dream that mingled reality and fantasy, and a faint frown caressed her brow.  Her hand lingered on the kettle’s flank, and he swallowed down a warning not to burn herself.

            “You’re a brave man,” she said.  “A very brave man.  You realize that, don’t you?”

            “No, princess,” he said.  “I don’t believe I do.”

            He locked the door behind him.



Chapter Ten:



he was cold, and she was alone, and at first she saw nothing wrong with this, because that was the way she had always been.  In the dim, vaulted chambers of her memory, she remembered the early days in her manor, when she had been bitterly lonely and wished for someone to hit her, or shout at her, or share a cup of tea in silence.  She had been lonely until she realized one day that no one hit her or shouted at her, and that was perhaps worth doing without the last.  She was alone.  She was free.  And over time, they came to mean the same thing.

            A cup of tea might warm her.  She stared, puzzled, at the porcelain cup in her hand and tried to remember when she’d picked it up.  It was like when she’d had her wisdom teeth removed, and the physician’s medicine had plunged her into a thick, shuddering fog.

            Something glinted in the flames, and she realized it was a kettle.  Her hand didn’t shake as she drew it out and poured slow, glistening gold into her glass.  It was cooking oil, she realized, perplexed, but she still raised it to her lips.

            The rim clinked against the thick glass of her mask.

            “Ah,” she said.  “That explains much.”

            Don’t think, the mask said, and don’t worry.  I’ve taken care of everything.  The boy will never distract you again.  Now worry about the people coming for you.

            “What?” she said, horrified.  “You—you drove the boy a—boy!” she cried, flinging open the library door.  She ran through the hallways, heedless of the cold.  Her shouts rang into silence.  The house was empty.  She was alone.

            She fell to her knees in the foyer, and the chill of the stone crept through her skirt.

            “How could you?” she cried, sobs shaking their way into her throat.  “You made him hate me!  You drove him away!”

            She gazed down into the limpid gold oil and saw her own face reflected there, and back again in the glass mask.  The mask spoke, and jerkily, her lips moved along.

            It’s very simple, isn’t it, to blame all your problems on me.  But I did not do those things, princess.  You did.  I’m you, and you’re me: we’re the same side of the mask.  You can’t pass your sins off on me any more than I can claim to have your goodness.

            “I’m only a mask,” she murmured, and she drew off the thin, lovely but cheap mask her mother had given her.  She stared numbly as she opened her fingers around it, and it landed with a chiming, shattering crash on the floor.  She kneeled there mutely, a girl in a once-fine gown that captured winter’s harshness and cruelty and, perhaps, a little of why the people of the northern isles loved it.  She stared in silence at the shards of glass on the ground.

            Then, because she didn’t know what else to do, and because she had always done so in past times of trouble, she gathered up the broken shards of glass, or ice, or mirrors, mindless of their cruel tearing into her hands, forming little envelopes of skin that dripped red blood.  Cradling them in hands that would bear those scars for the rest of her days, she scurried back to the library and the warm, crackling fire.  Her hands did not shake as she tossed the glittering diamonds, like tears, into the flames.  The kettle of oil still gleamed, bubbling on the hearth, and she absently pulled it off the flames to cool.

            The shards didn’t melt satisfyingly into soft folds of oily gleaming that caught the orange and red in its heart like she had hoped they would.  Even when she splashed furan across the flames and they devoured it hungrily, they broke their teeth on the glass fragments.  Disappointed, she piled logs over it, barely leaving room for the fire to breathe, and hoped that it would melt when she was gone.

            She’d taken three steps from the fireplace before she realized it would not be that simple.  The glass would melt, yes, but the villagers would still find her.  The thought didn’t frighten her.  She didn’t know why.

            And then she saw the gleaming gold spines of the books, her precious books, and she knew.

            “Oh,” she said quietly.  “I see now.”  Carefully, she drew her favorite volume from the shelf.  Slim, faintly lettered, illustrated.  She opened it to the first page, where the print sang out The Adventures of Robin Hood.  A smile touched her face as she leafed through the pages, past the Sheriff and Marian and the Merry Men.  All the way to the end, in its final, curling script.

            Then, just as carefully, she turned back to the beginning, and Robin was discontented again.  She flipped to the end, and he was happy.  The beginning.  The end.  And pressed between those, in the middle, Robin always lived, and he always would.  Not happy.  Not finished.  But safe.

            Although something in her closed up tightly and unhappily in fright, she closed the book and slipped it inside her belt for courage, so it pressed against her side.  Then, her head high even as her hands shook, she glided to the fireplace with a princess’s grace and lifted the kettle of furan.  It only took a flick of her wrist to send it cascading across the sofa, drenching the books, her beloved books—but she didn’t care anymore.  She would burn the past.

            Golden lamp oil rained from the kettle onto beds, linen closets, furniture.  She dashed it across the drapes, sent it spilling down the staircases like waterfalls.  Seeping into the cracks of her home.

            She had to refill the kettle three times.

            When she finished, she felt weak and trembling but somehow clean and light, as though she’d given her soul a good scrubbing and dumped out the ashy water.  She retrieved the lamp from the library and gathered up the few things she would need: a knife, a cloak, a loaf of bread.  No money.  She didn’t want it anymore.

            When the clock rang twelve, she stopped by the front door.  The lamp broke with a satisfying crash when she dropped it.  She watched curiously until the tiny, dying flame caught the lamp oil and raced through the hallways, crackling and spreading through rooms, sinking its teeth into the aged wood.

            The princess raised her face to the flames that licked her home, and she said, “Thank you.”  Then, with a thrilling smile, she grabbed the front door handle.

            It was locked.



A serene shimmer of snow fell through the green needles, and it dusted the boy’s shoulders and lashes as the butterscotch pony plodded through the trees.  They walked steadily in the snow, and he very carefully did not look back or think, because either might lead him to question the path he had taken.

            An image rose before him, dancing in the faint white light of the snow.  The princess, smiling crookedly, her sleeves hitched up and her hair tied back as she washed the dishes and chattered.  He always thought she was most beautiful when she smiled, although others might have preferred her still, icy silence which accentuated the fine bones of her face.

            With surgeon-like precision, he squelched that thought with the memory-pain of a hand striking his face.  “Oh, princess,” he muttered while he laboriously kneed the pony to a brisker walk.  “You should not have hit me.”

            As though his words broke the dam with their weight, more images spilled across the backs of his eyes: the prince laughing, then lying unearthly still amidst a cradle of pillows.  The princess, watching her brother with puzzlement but not fear, like a mathematician confronted with a strange new problem.

            “I hope you were sad,” the boy said, trudging onward.  “I know you were wild then and not in your right mind.  But I hope you were sad.”

            You should go back, his thoughts whispered.  She’s in danger, but even if she weren’t, do you think she’ll live in the state she’s in now?

            “She shouldn’t have struck me,” he muttered, rubbing his eyes.  “Friends don’t hurt each other.”

            He would go home to Father, his strong, intelligent, noble Father who would know exactly what to do.  Who would not, of course, say that the boy had abandoned her.

            He pulled the reigns, and the pony stopped.

            “She likes being alone,” the boy argued.  “And if you haven’t learned that yet, you’re a fool asking to be burned again.  She’s made it loud and clear that she doesn’t need anybody but herself, and I’m not going to stop her from believing a fool thing like that.”

            But she had called him a man.

            “Doesn’t matter,” he insisted doggedly.  “I don’t want to go back.  I’d rather be alo—“

            Snow flitted softly.  The word frozen on his lips.

            He was just like her.  He was running away, because he was too afraid of the bright, beautiful flame that was the girl he loved.  He was afraid of being burned, he was afraid of the chance of being hurt, so he settled for nothing at all, as though that were better than actually being alive.  It might take a day, it might take a year, but if he took another step he would be no better off than the cold witch who had frightened him in the shadows.

            “You may want to be alone, princess,” he said.  “But I won’t let you, because you’ve had your way for far too long.”

            He thought of her now.  Not of the scullery maid, nor of the witch, not even of the princess—but of her.  And his Father’s words that he had repeated to her of a humble chimney came back to him on the breath of time.

            “You were right, Father,” he said, and he turned the pony around in the snow.  “Some things are worth it even when they burn you.”



The sound of that burning, like a scorching waterfall, filled the forest.  Burning ash pockmarked the snow, and the stained grey melting watered the frozen roses.

            The villagers shoveling snow onto the raging fire barely noticed the boy shouting.  They only broke off from their work when he dropped the reigns of his butterscotch pony and threw himself at the front door.

            “Princess!” he said hysterically while they held him back.  “She’s in there!”

            “Probably,” a man agreed.  “Someone lit that fire.  Can’t you smell the furan?”

            He did.  The reek of it coated his throat, but it couldn’t still his babbling.  “But she couldn’t have gotten out—I have the key—she---“

            “Son,” the man said kindly.  “If she couldn’t escape this manor, then she didn’t want to leave.”

            The boy’s struggles ceased, and the villagers released him.  He stared numbly at the front door.

            “She didn’t have to die,” he whispered.  “She could’ve been happy.”

            “Boy,” the man said.  “She didn’t want to be happy.  If she didn’t come out those windows, none of us could’ve made her.”

            The boy raised his eyes to the spiraling ash that clouded the heavens.  The upper windows glinted in the snowy light… pristine.

            “It hasn’t reached the second floor,” he said.

            “That doesn’t mean—“

            “If she couldn’t get out the front door, she might’ve gone upstairs.”

            “You can’t—“

            “If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” the boy said quietly, “it’s that I am free, and I can do whatever I want.”

            With trembling fingers, he drew the key from his pocket and unlocked the door.



He was in the coal mine again.  His eyes strained against the fiery darkness, and black damp choked his lungs.  Had there been an explosion?  Where was Father?  He struggled through the burning darkness, looking for the way out.  Glass cut into his hands.  Someone had dropped a lamp.

            But the mine had been colder than death, and now the boy felt his skin burning.  Sweat burst from every pore, stinging his eyes and his cut hands.  He couldn’t breathe, but he didn’t need to yet.  Painfully, he crawled to the stairs, bowing his head beneath the stifling heat.  It was barely cooler upstairs, but he was able to run in a crouch.  The door to the library opened easily beneath his hands.

            A small, still figure lay on the couch.  Her pale dress and skin were blackened with ash.  A rafter must’ve fallen on her, for something in her collarbone was twisted subtly out of shape.  For a terrifying moment, she did not breathe.

            “Come on, princess,” the boy said, shaking her as much as he dared.  “We have to leave”—but how?  Through the front door?  Could he carry her through that inferno?

            Her eyes fluttered open, wider and lighter than he remembered against her ashy face.  Strange how you could forget your true love’s features in so few hours.  Those eyes fastened on him.

            “Boy?” she whispered and tried to sit up.  She gasped.

            “Don’t try to move,” he said belatedly.  “I don’t think you’re hurt, but…”  He wished he hadn’t said that.  “Can you move?”

            “Oh, boy,” she whispered, leaning back.  “I am so, so glad you’re here, and I pray you understand why I wish you hadn’t come.”  She smiled weakly.  “What if I threatened to execute you?”

            He squeezed her hand.  “I know.  But we need to leave now.”  Smoke curled through the air, and they both labored for breath.  “We might be able to—“

            “Listen to me,” she said gently, and he hated that she wanted to be strong and graceful and protective even on her deathbed.  “I want you to leave.”

            “Yes, I know,” he said impatiently.  “Here, try and see if you can—“

            “I realized something, you know,” she said, with an achingly happy smile even as he tried to sit her up.  It must’ve been agonizing, but she smiled.  “I was reading—here, help me—“  She winced, scrabbling at her waist, and he hastened to assist.  She’d tied a book inside her sash, where it escaped the smoke.  He held it up to the firelight.  A good-looking man with violently red hair grinned toothily back at him.

            “I was reading that, and I r-realized that it’s really not that easy, is it,” she said.  “Life’s not a book.  It may be stupid and horrible and rottenly unfair sometimes, but I can’t rewrite it.”

            Her eyes shadowed as she went back to the beginning of her life in a close, sad room where someone died, and her thoughts wandered through the middle.  Days and nights spent reading, or chopping firewood, or playing in the snow all alone.  Hounds and ponies and snowmen for company, but never people, never other children.  On and on and on, through all her days.

            A tear glimmered on the tip of her nose.

            “I think,” she whispered, “that I should like to see the end now.  Do you see?”

            “Yes,” the boy said unhappily, though he was not at all sure he did.  Her eyes closed, then she forced them open again and, with trembling fingers, closed the boy’s hands around the book.

            “Will you take it and read it someday?” the princess asked.  The ghost of a smile haunted her face.  “I know you don’t like fiction, but read it for me.”

            “I will,” the boy said miserably.  “For you, anything.”

            Her eyes closed.  For a dreadful, breathless moment, he thought she had fainted.  Then, almost inaudibly, she said, “Boy?”


            “I know why I took you.”


“I took you because,” she said, very clearly and very softly, “I do not wish to be alone.”

            He stared down into her beautiful face, and she didn’t move except in the quiet, natural way of exhausted sleep.

            Very slowly, he raised his eyes to the fire, dying into wisps of smoke as the rest of the manor raged, plastered with the remains of glass.  Then the edges of the bricks.  The lumpy, pale, unsightly patch.

            He knew what he had to do.

            “I’m sorry, princess,” he said softly, lifting her.  She was shockingly, blessedly light, like a bird.  “This might hurt.”

            He knew as he approached the chimney, with its distant square of starry sky, that it was impossible for one person to maneuver another up it despite its wide, straight flue.  No one had cleaned it in years, and judging by the warm bricks beneath his knuckles, the ash gathered inside now burned.  It was utterly impossible.  And he knew, with the same certainty in his bones that he knew summer was long and life was good, that he would do it.






he same snow that became caked with black coal dust and slicked the muddy streets also flitted in delicate, waif-like flakes upon the courtyard in the king’s castle.  The young man, handsome and dapper in a scarlet waistcoat that set off his dark coloring, gazed up at it with a slight, unreadable smile.  Then he tipped his top hat more firmly onto his head and strolled through the garden into the brightness and light of a castle.

            Christmas trees glimmered with festive lights in each room, sweeping over packages wrapped in glistening, gem-like paper.  Although the scent of roast puffin and Christmas pudding filled the halls with warmth, the servant who led the young man forward had a grim slash for a mouth and unhappy eyes.  If the young man noticed, he didn’t let on.  He whistled snatches of tuneless carols.

            “Here you are, sir,” the servant said, stopping before modest double doors.  “The king’s study.”  His face twitched.  “Are you… absolutely sure that you have an appointment?”

            “Yes,” the young man said easily.  “And it’s been a very long time in coming.  Thank you.”  They shook hands, and none could say if something glinted between them, but the servant smiled, bowed, and let him be.

            The young man regarded the doors for a long moment, some of the cheer sliding from his face.  He looked for a moment as though he might turn and walk away.  Then his hand tightened, so the golden band that shone lightly against one finger pressed into his skin.  He squared his shoulders and opened the door without knocking.

            The past few days had not treated the king kindly.  He was wan and malnourished.  Someone had decorated his study with holly and berries, and it was a gruesome contrast to the deep lines of grief and loss cut into his not-old face.  He did not look up from his writing when the young man cleared his throat and said, “Merry Christmas, your majesty.”

            “Go away,” the king said, digging his pen into the paper.  “I never want to see you again.”

            The young man winced.  “Be that as it may, sir, I have great interest in seeing you.”  He sidled behind the king to catch a glimpse of the letter, and the king turned to give him the flattest, grimmest look.

            “Go away before I lose my temper and execute you,” he said.  “I trusted you with my daughter, and now she’s—are you laughing?” he asked suspiciously.

            “No.  Forgive me.”  The young man smoothed away his smile.  “But you have no idea how many times I’ve heard that.”

            Something drained from the king: the fight, or the spirit, or the even the life.  “My children are all dead,” he said, staring down at his papers like they sickened him.

            “You have no heir, ‘tis true,” the young man said, and his words had the whisper of prophecy about them.  “You have been too strong and too stern and far, far too powerful for the people of the northern isles to allow you to survive this loss.  You were a good king, and a strong one, but you are still a king, and people do not want kings anymore.  They want people like themselves to rule over them.”

            “I suppose you mean a parliament,” the king said, returning to his writing.  “I tell you, it shan’t happen in my lifetime.”

            “Of course it shan’t,” the young man agreed.  “You wouldn’t let it.  You still hold the power.  But can you guarantee what happens after?”

            “No,” the king admitted.  Something in the young man’s voice had changed, and he looked up.  “What are you—put that down!”

            “It’s heavy,” the young man said idly, weighing the golden crown in his hands.  “I always wondered why they make it so very heavy.”

            “To remind you,” the king said grudgingly, snatching it from the young man’s hands to place it on his head.  “It’s the same crown the first king wore, but for each coronation, they melt it down and add in a penny’s worth more of metal.  A crown both new and ancient, getting heavier and heavier as the years go by…”  He’d gone pale beneath the gleaming circlet.  “It’s to remind you how heavy all the lives are that you carry.”

            “I can’t imagine the weight,” the young man said softly, and they were no longer talking about crowns.

            Then the moment passed, and the king lifted the gleaming disc from his head.  “Perhaps you’re right,” he said grudgingly, “and my time is coming to an end.  Firn and Furan, the country might even be better off without me now, for who needs a king with no children?”

            “No heirs,” the young man said, softly and significantly.

            Again, something in his tone puzzled the king.  “What have you come back for, anyway?” he asked, setting down his pen.  “I thought you’d run as far as your legs could carry you.”

            “I tried,” the young man said with a smile.  “But I was never great shakes at running.  Weak legs, don’t you know.  Anyway.  I came to give you this.”

            The king accepted the elegant square of thick white paper and, brandishing his spectacles, squinted at the curled writing.

            “Who wrote this, anyway?” he asked, holding it out at arm-length in an attempt to decipher it.  “Their cursive is terrible.”
            I did,” the young man said, wounded.  “It’s graceful.”  He sighed.  “It’s an invitation, if you can slip away.  You might find it interesting.  Have one of the servants—no, have an advisor read it to you once I’m gone.”

            “But what’s it for?” the king asked.

            “A wedding.”

            The king stared at him, his eyes unguarded with shock, his mouth open.  The young man smiled nervously at him.

            “This wedding,” he said at last.  “Do I know anyone involved?”

            “Of course,” the boy said, and he winked at the king.  “You know me.”

            He smiled and slipped out, closing the door on the beginnings of a royal smile.  His steps led him through the darkened hallways, thick with the uplifting scents of Christmas dinner.  He half-hesitated on the threshold, then stepped out into the frosty winter air and the sounds of a thriving city.  His sleigh and four was where he’d left it, and even as he strolled closer the door opened, and a remarkably pretty young woman in moderately good floral silk glanced out, holding her cloak closed at the neck.  The shadow of a dark-skinned, beaming Father rested behind her.

            “You took your time,” the young woman said, smiling when she saw him.  “I trust everything went well?”

            “Of course, darling,” he said.  She smiled, her teeth bright against her dark hair as she pulled him up into the coach.  His knee knocked against the ice-hardened corner, and he rubbed it ruefully.

            “Smarts, doesn’t it?” the princess asked.  She smiled gloriously at him.  “It means that we are more than dead.”

            The light, snapping flick of the reigns brought the butterscotch ponies to a trot, and the snowflakes fell in a gentle curtain as they set off through the snow, into the light.



The End

Ah!  I'm tearing up!  I hope you love it as much as I do, readers.