This week on the Gumbee blog, we have the quite brilliant (which often means genially insane in my experience) Marcus Pailing. Marcus writes much harder fantasy than I do, and isn’t averse to a bit of gore. So, let’s see what he thinks of the softer side of fantasy…..
(Oh, and incidentally, I was indulging my romantic side when I added the tags for peril, conflict, fight scenes and pursuit… Will)
“Romance, eh?” I thought as the suggestion was put forward. My esteemed Gumbee colleague, Will MacMillan Jones, had recently returned from the Festival of Romance, and was all afire with passion … or such was the impression he gave. It was his suggestion, with a fast-beating heart and hot cheeks, that we turn our attention to the theme, to see whether the rest of us could also demonstrate our forays into the realms of romance.
I don’t consider myself much practised in the writing of romance. Generally I’m more of a swords and spears fantasy writer (and I don’t mean that euphemistically). When I was growing up, fantasy novels either steered clear of ‘lurve’ (and often eschewed females entirely, or kept them as very minor characters); or else treated women as lusty, heaving-bosomed bit-players, planted in the stories to demonstrate the equally lusty masculinity of the over-muscled protagonist.
Now, I appreciate a heaving bosom as much as the next man, but I never wanted to have female characters who were mere eye-candy. At the same time, I never set out to write ‘romance’. I did introduce it to my novels, however; but in small measures only – my main characters do meet women, marry them, and have children with them, after all.
This changed somewhat when I wrote The Withered Rose, because the entire novel is basically a romantic tragedy. So when the idea for this theme came up, I turned to that novel to see what I had written.
In order to explain the following extract, here’s some context. There are two friends, both called Atela. One of them is locked in a marriage that is starting to fall apart, having had a very positive start; the other has recently married herself, and is blissfully happy. Kieldrou, the son of the count of Trall, is younger than both the women, but has dazzled them with his tales of adventure – he has recently returned from a journey in the exotic lands of Azzawa. He has made it clear already that he finds them both attractive, and while he hasn’t exactly attempted to seduce either of them, he has managed in the past to trick them into giving him kisses.
“My ladies, I said that I had gifts for you both.”
The two Atelas sat in a window seat, having moved away from their husbands after a while of conversation. Now Kieldrou stood before them again. He had left his audience, where Derian was now entertaining the folk with more tales of their time in the east. Kieldrou looked a little flushed, but it was not from drink; more likely it was the excitement of having had an audience hanging on his every word.
“I think you should consider becoming a player,” teased Short Atela. “Entertaining the masses with your tall tales.”
“I swear, on my honour, that I exaggerate nothing,” he said, sounding only a little hurt. “I told nothing but the truth. Although perhaps it is better that you did not stay to hear me tell of the thieves of Ukhara, or you really would not believe me.”
“You noticed we had gone?” Atela asked. “I thought you too engrossed in your glory.”
“I noticed,” he said softly. “But it does not matter. I do not seek to gain favour with mere stories.”
Atela raised an eyebrow. “And how would you gain favour?”
At that, Kieldrou held out two small wooden boxes, handing one to Atela, and the other to the younger woman. “I found them in Ukhara, and thought of you both.”
“After three years?” laughed Short Atela. “Or did you buy them, and then think of us when you got here?”
Kieldrou frowned, and stepped back slightly, giving them a little space as they opened the boxes.
Atela gasped. Lying inside her box was a small white rose, exquisitely carved from the purest ivory – a rare and expensive luxury in Western Gilderaen – and turned into a brooch. It was a perfect reproduction of the flower, even in miniature. Short Atela was similarly overcome: hers was a tulip, also most delicately carved.
“I recalled the silver rose I gave you at your wedding,” Kieldrou said, his voice faltering a little. There was none of his usual humour in his voice. “I remembered how much you liked it, which is why I thought of you when I saw it. For you, my lady,” he continued, turning to Short Atela, “I wanted something of similar beauty, to match yours.” For the first time in Atela’s memory, he appeared to blush a little.
“It is beautiful,” Atela murmured. “Truly a marvel, and I do thank you. What favour do you wish for in return, then? Are you hungry for another kiss?”
She said it quickly, laughing, and without thinking. She certainly did not expect the reaction she got. Kieldrou’s brows creased in a frown, and he muttered a denial, before turning on his heel and striding away.
The two Atelas looked at each other, puzzled. “Did I offend him?” Atela asked, and the other shrugged. “Oh, Hogra, I fear I have. We forget he is a young man, now, no longer a high-spirited boy.”
“We must apologise,” Short Atela said. “Where has he gone?”
They scanned the hall, but he was nowhere to be seen. They figured he must have left, and they stood up to follow him. Yet they had to be discreet: it would not be seemly for them to go chasing after him. As they walked through the hall they were accosted again by Elnir and Sturgar, and were forced to stay in conversation for some time. When they escaped, they were then trapped by the earl and countess of Mendivar. It was a good half hour before they managed to get out of the hall.
“Let us try the garden,” Short Atela suggested. Atela nodded, and they hurried along the empty corridors towards the door that led out to the cloister.
It was late, and the garden was lit by a pale moon, throwing dark shadows yet illuminating the rows of flowers in the middle of the garden. He was there, walking alone between the bushes. He turned when they called his name, stiffening when he saw who it was that disturbed him.
“Kieldrou, I am truly sorry,” Atela said. “I was teasing, forgetting you are no longer a boy. It was wrong of me, and you did not deserve it.”
“I, also,” Short Atela admitted. “They are truly beautiful gifts, and you must have thought hard about them. We do not deserve your kindness, nor your thoughts of us while so far from home.”
Kieldrou gave a wan smile. “No, my ladies, you deserved no less. I can easily forgive your teasing. It is my fault: of course I expected nothing in return, and there was no call for me to take umbrage. Besides, you are both married women. Perhaps I should not have made you those gifts at all.”
“But they are most gratefully received,” Atela said. “I, for one, will treasure mine.” Beside her, Short Atela nodded in agreement.
“I am glad,” he said. “I have no expectations, but beauty and friendship should be rewarded.”
Atela felt a tightness in her chest, and she never knew what made her do as she then did. “Indeed they should,” she replied, and she stood on her toes to plant a light kiss on his lips. She felt his arm reach round her shoulder and she stepped back quickly. She remembered the strength of those arms three years before, and dreaded what she would do if she felt them around her again. “I’m sorry,” she breathed. “That is all I can give.”
He smiled sadly. “I understand, my lady.” He bowed to them both, and turned to go.
He turned back, and looked at Short Atela, who stepped forward, biting her lip. “I’m sorry,” she said, “that I cannot offer you even a kiss. I … it would not …”
“Thank you, my lady,” he said, cutting her off to save her the embarrassment of stumbling through a needless explanation. “You are happily married, I know. As I said, I have no expectations. The gifts were gifts, and deserve no payment. Although I shall treasure your return gift,” he added to Atela, briefly touching his lips.
Then he was gone.
“Oh, Hogra!” Atela groaned. “What did I do?”
“Nothing wrong,” Short Atela said, firmly. “It was a friendly gesture, that is all. Although it was wise to step back when you did.” She laughed, but it was a brittle laugh.
“I almost lost myself. What was I thinking? I am eleven years older than he, and married.”
“Locked in a withering marriage,” Short Atela shot back. “Let us be honest about it. Yet you must not do any more. I would advise you – both of us – not to seek out that young man again. You’ve had ‘the talk’ from my mother.”
Atela started. “How did you know?”
Short Atela laughed. “I know my mother. You were clearly unhappy at the time of my betrothal, and you sought a private meeting with her. She never told me what you discussed, but I am not stupid. I know her, and I have seen enough other women seek her advice. It takes no great imagination to guess what advice my poor, dear, beautiful and unsociable mother could give.
“Come on,” she went on, taking Atela’s hand in hers. “Let us get back to the hall and put the Trallian from our minds.”
This is the point in the novel where Atela – the one who this time kissed Kieldrou – begins to harbour romantic thoughts about the young man. Later in the novel these are to cause a lot of pain to a large number of people … but to say more here would rather spoil the story.
Still, the novel only costs £1 on Amazon …