[GUEST POST] Dave Gross Presents Chapter 3 of “Pathfinder Tales: Queen of Thorns”
To give people a taste of the Pathfinder Tales novel line, Paizo’s fiction editor solicits short prequels for the web fiction page. These stories allow us authors to show a glimpse of what happens to our heroes between books. I appreciate the opportunity to go darker or funnier or just a little different from the novels while showcasing the same protagonists.
I love them.
Paizo also posts chapter excerpts from the novels, often from the middle of the book, with glorious full-color artwork.
I hate them.
Well, I love that Paizo is showing off beautiful art and a sample chapter, but why is it never Chapter One? That drives me crazy! I wrote the chapters in order, damn it, and I think the first one is a pretty good introduction to the story. Why can’t that be the excerpt?
So I complain, as anyone who’s read my editor’s blog knows all too well. And he responds with perfectly reasonable-sounding explanations like, “We wanted to show off some action, because we like your fight scenes.” (That’s a dirty trick, the appeasa-flatter.) Or maybe he’ll say, “We loved this character and wanted an excuse to commission a painting of her.” (I loved her too, so I’m thwarted.)
But, damn it! I still want everyone to read Chapter One (and Two and Three) before Chapter Four. And so I keep complaining, and my editor keeps posting lists of things authors should never say to editors, and so it goes.
But something different happened this time. I don’t know, maybe my editor was just tired, or maybe the stars were right. I suspect the enlistment of publicity impresario Jaym Gates might have been a factor. The result is that you can follow the links from blackgate.com to flamesrising.com to sfsignal.com and finally to paizo.com to read Chapters One, Two, and Four of Queen of Thorns.
If you like what you read, I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book. And if you like that, I hope you’ll tell everyone you know to buy one, too.
In the meantime, let’s thank our hosts here at SF Signal, as well as Jaym Gates and my long-suffering editor, James Sutter, for making this happen.
I promise not to complain for the rest of the week.
The first buffet of the giant owl’s wings flung the riffle scroll from my hand. I snatched at it, but the wind tore it away. Without its magic, I would plummet to my death should misfortune throw me from the saddle.
“Hold tight, Count!” Seated immediately before me, Amarandlon shouted above the din. Petrified of falling without the benefit of a spell to soften my landing, I gripped the pommels of the tandem saddle.
Amarandlon held no pommels, and there appeared to be no reins with which to guide the enormous bird. The communion between owl and rider seemed derived entirely of training and empathy, despite the disparity in their sizes. The giant steed stood three times the ranger lord’s height, its unfolded wings nearly twice that span.
We rose above the spires of Iadara and soared out over the river, its waters shimmering gold beneath the setting sun. As the beating of the owl’s wings subsided into a steady motion, our escorts moved up beside us.
To our left flew a ranger called Faunra. She sat before a closed wicker palanquin used to transport Amarandlon’s hounds. Arnisant’s gray snout poked through one of the narrow windows, wide eyes watching me for reassurance. He had entered the compartment obediently, but he shared my unease at traveling on the back of a giant bird.
On our right flew Caladrel, his courtly garments exchanged for the green-and-dun leathers of the Kyonin rangers. In the saddle behind him dozed Radovan. Caladrel cast an uncomfortable glance backward as my sleeping henchman snuggled his head upon the elf’s shoulder.
Radovan had returned long past noon, a weary smile on his lips. He hung his jacket with care and peeled off his shirt. I noticed more than a few scratches, welts, and mild burns on his neck, shoulders, and back. He mumbled something about checking him for charms, so I riffled a simple divination and assured him he was under no magical enchantment. Before I could question him further, he fell into an unshakable slumber until the time for our departure. I surmised his involuntary abstinence of the past year had come to an end.
The owls drifted across the southern bank and soared across the green expanse of the Fierani Forest. Purple shadows lurked under the dense canopy, darkening as the horizon devoured the sun. Occasionally I spied a meadow or stream below a gap in the canopy. Here and there a hill rose up, its head crowned with ancient stones.
In other clearings slouched the ruins of abandoned watchtowers or temples. They appeared to have been ancient before the fall of Azlant. The elves had done little to reclaim such sites, leaving them as monuments to the civilization they abandoned in the face of Earthfall.
The beauty of the land awed me to reverie. Suspended between the earth and sky, I felt a tranquility I rarely enjoyed outside of dreams. For hours, it seemed, I mused on how my life might have differed had I been born in Kyonin rather than Cheliax. Yet even the elves looked down upon their half-breeds, confining them to the port city of Erages. By the laws of Cheliax, I was no less gentle for my mixed heritage. And by the beneficence of my grandfather, I was as legitimate as any trueborn heir.
As the stars and a thin crescent moon appeared, I spied an anomalous shape at the head of a ragged clearing. The dark figure itself appeared to be an enormous tree sculpted into the shape of a man caught midstride. On second glance, I surmised it was composed of at least three different trees bound together in parasitic vines and ivy.
“The Walking Man.” Amarandlon twisted in the saddle. He hardly needed to raise his voice, so quiet were the owl’s wings since gaining its full altitude. He signaled Caladrel to point out the sight to Radovan, but my bodyguard drooled insensate on Caladrel’s shoulder.
“An elven construct?”
“It appears so.” He released the saddle straps and turned to face me in a gesture reminiscent of a Qadiran camel-rider. So far above the ground, his motion set a flutter of vertigo through my stomach. “Not even our most venerable scholars remember its creation. We know only where it is going.”
Amarandlon pointed down at the Walking Man. I strained to see what he indicated. As I was about to admit that my half-elven eyes were not equal to the task, I spotted a dark patch behind the figure’s trailing leg. Taking the spyglass from my coat pocket, I focused on the spot.
Amarandlon nodded. “If you had been here yesterday, you would have seen it step forward. It does so every midsummer, one immense step each year.”
“And you know its destination?”
“Erages,” he said. “Have you seen the village of half-elves?”
“No.” Curious that he should ask again. Last night he had asked me the same question, although I sensed he had already received a comprehensive report of my limited previous visits to Kyonin.
Unlike Greengold, the mixed city administered by humans and open to all, Erages welcomed only half-elves born in Kyonin, not foreigners like me. The village sprawled among the crumbling ruins of elven towers that I had long wished to visit despite—or perhaps because of—the tales of lost expeditions beneath their ancient foundations. In our visit to court, I had gleaned enough gossip to know that some among the Iadaran nobility feared that the simmering resentment of the half-breeds had reached the boiling point of sedition.
I exchanged my spyglass for a fresh journal. Reserving the first few pages for a later introduction, I dashed off a crude sketch of the aerial view of the Walking Man before returning the book to my pocket.
We descended soon after passing the Walking Man, the owls alighting on a bald hill where more of Amarandlon’s rangers awaited us. In their dun-and-green leathers, they were invisible from above, even through the lens of my spyglass. They flung dozens of hares and squirrels up to the great owls, careful not to venture too near their powerful beaks.
We sat on the grass, drank the last of the spring nectar, and ate loaves stuffed with fresh snap peas and herbed venison. Radovan devoured half his meal before flopping down to continue his nap. Before he awoke, his food had vanished. In its place sat Arnisant, his canine countenance a study in innocence.
When roused to continue our journey, Radovan remained awake, for which Caladrel appeared much relieved. Once in the air again, they spoke in Taldane. Radovan asked the elf to teach him a few choice phrases in Elven, from the flirtatious to the vulgar. I pretended not to notice. To my relief, so did Amarandlon, although Faunra’s long ears twitched as she overheard some of what passed between them.
As the hours passed, I divided my observations between the wheel of stars above us and the sea of leaves below. Astronomy and botany were studies to which I returned frequently over the years, while others remained passing fancies, their accoutrements gathering dust in the storage rooms of Greensteeples. The elves were masters of both arts. Would that I could spend a decade in their lands, learning from the ancient scholars who still walked among their descendants.
The mellow breeze stroked my hair. Once again I surrendered present thoughts to antique memories and half-remembered dreams. Too soon the sky behind us brightened, and Amarandlon called out, “Omesta!”
Our owl folded its wings and dove. The forest canopy surged closer, the slashing wind forcing me to squint through tears. Soon leaves and branches slapped at us. I prayed Amarandlon’s eyes—and those of the owls—were keen enough to navigate the tangle.
Somewhere behind us, Radovan whooped with glee. I was glad that one of us should enjoy the plunge, yet also resentful that he should find delight where I found terror.
The owl’s wings snapped open like a sail catching the first breath of a gale. With a final slump downward, the owl settled on a massive perch.
We had landed in a wide clearing upon a tree-borne platform. A pair of elven rangers wheeled a portable stair beside our owl. While I struggled to free myself from the saddle straps, the elves clambered nimbly down the harness. By the time I steadied myself on the stair, Radovan imitated the elves’ descent.
“How was that?” he asked Caladrel.
The elf considered the question. “I saw a monkey once, at court.”
“A monkey, eh?” Radovan scratched his neck. Sometimes that was a sign he was about to throw a punch. Before I could intercede, he said, “A monkey. I like that.”
The elves lowered Arnisant’s basket to the floor of the aerie. With another pang of vertigo I noticed that we remained high above the ground, our platform secured in the high branches of a giant elder ash. Peering over the edge of the aerie, I saw far below us the stone paths and warm brown shingles of the elven city of Omesta.
Arnisant wobbled as he emerged from his compartment. He looked to me for an explanation for his miserable state, but I could only scratch his head while we awaited the return of our land-legs. As the Omesta rangers unsaddled the owls, Caladrel laughed with Faunra over Radovan’s egregious pronunciation.
“I must go down to receive the reports of the local captains,” said Amarandlon. “I hope we meet again.”
“Upon my return to Cheliax, your reputation for generosity shall rival the legend of your valor.”
We made our farewells, and Amarandlon placed us in the care of a pair of gnome watchmen. The gnomes were barely taller than my halfling servants at Greensteeples and even slighter of build. One had hair the color of new violets, the other a brilliant yellow mustache threaded with glass beads which rattled when he spoke. Their clothes were brighter still, the leather and plant fibers dyed in hues of berry and petal.
As Amarandlon’s group departed, Faunra glanced back at Radovan. He winked at her. She smiled back before following Caladrel down a rope ladder.
“Perhaps you should pace yourself,” I suggested. “We’ll never get back to Egorian if you try to seduce every woman in Kyonin.”
“You’re just jealous.”
The gnomes led us to a stair winding down around the trunk of the giant ash. They paused occasionally to touch, smell, taste, feel, or peer at trivial objects along the way. One chewed a leaf, then lifted a mantis on his finger and carried it a while before setting it back down. The other dropped back to walk beside us, constantly fingered the hem of my coat or the leather of Radovan’s jacket, until Radovan slapped his hand away.
“Sorry!” said the gnome. “That’s a nice jacket.”
Radovan showed his teeth. The gnome skipped ahead to avoid further retribution.
“What’s wrong with these guys?” Radovan whispered.
“Gnomes experience the world with all of their senses, a habit that puts off many of the less inquisitive races.”
“I think that one just ate a bug.”
As we ducked to avoid the arms of a slanted windmill, I thought it time to broaden Radovan’s education in elves before we delved too deeply into the subject of gnomes. “You should know that it is dangerous to trifle with the affections of an elven Calistrian. In Kyonin, the worshipers of the Savored Sting are far more ardent in pursuing her teachings. The three blades of her sigil stand for—”
“Guile, lust, and revenge. Yeah, I learned all kinds of stuff the other night.”
“Once again you prove that you are smarter than you look.”
“Hey, how’d you know Kemeili was a Calistrian?”
“I learned ‘all kinds of stuff’ before your grandmother was born.”
The gnomes paused to offer us a shortcut on an aerial ropeslide connecting their tree-borne platforms. I declined in favor of the rope bridges, which had the advantage of being fixed at eight points rather than two.
“That Kemeili really is something.” Radovan licked his thumb and soothed an angry mark on his neck. “Still, I’m glad we flew out of there when we did. One more night, and I’d have needed a healer.”
“So you have no intention of returning to resume your tryst?”
“Nah,” he said. “She’s a fun-once kind of gal.”
“Good. It could complicate my relations with the court if you were to disappoint her.”
“Oh, she wasn’t disappointed.”
Rising song and laughter gave me an excuse to look away rather than listen to the sordid details.
Below us, the occupants of Lower Omesta had emerged from their homes. Elven potters wet their morning clay near a well. A family of leatherworkers sorted scraps upon a shaded table, preparing for the day’s work. A painter in a sunny spot daubed color on the wings of swallowtail kites, while men crawled over a nearby roof, peeling away moldy shingles. Children ran along the street. One of the swallowtail kites pursued them, lofted by a young woman I took for their minder. They were the ones who sang, though all they passed joined in their laughter.
“Happy families,” said Radovan. His wistful expression made me wonder whether he missed Egorian so much. I suspected he still thought of Ustalav and the woman he left there. He rarely spoke of her, but on moonlit nights I sometimes spied him tracing the wings of Desna between thumb and finger. Sometimes he murmured a name in his sleep.
The city in the trees was a distorted reflection of the city on the ground. Instead of paved roads, paths of wood, rope, and living vines threaded the boughs. The gnomes made their homes in tree houses and platforms suspended between the sturdiest trunks. From the ground they could ascend on spiraling ramps, rope ladders, and great baskets raised by rope and tackle. Windmills powered their machinery and stored power in enormous flywheels. Even where I could see no obvious need for them, gears, axles, levers, belts, and draw-lines acted as the connecting tissue to the larger organism of Upper Omesta.
I explained to Radovan that the gnomes had discovered the original Omesta during the elven retreat from Earthfall, the cataclysm that wiped the ancient empires of Azlant and Thassilon from the face of Golarion. Rather than take over the existing structures, they built their homes above them. When the elves returned, the gnomes introduced themselves as neighbors, not squatters.
“You know what this place reminds me of?” Radovan waved at the disordered structures around us. “A labyrinth.”
“Very good.” Earlier he had used the term “lethargy” in conversation with Caladrel. “And in Varisian?”
He took well to the tongue of his homeland, but I had to correct his Tien. I told him the Elven word for “maze.” He was still trying to pronounce it without spitting when one of our escorts tugged at my sleeve.
“Up there.” He pointed at a circular platform suspended by lines from five surrounding trees. Its high position left it in open sunlight. “That’s where you’ll find your woodshaper.”
“Will you not introduce us?”
The gnome with the beaded mustache sniffed, sneezed, and shivered. “Not on a bet.”
Before I could object, our guides withdrew with such alacrity that I looked over my shoulder to make sure no great spider descended upon us. Radovan, Arnisant, and I ascended the last spiral stairs to the platform. We emerged in full sunlight, surrounded by a profusion of greenery.
An elaborate arrangement of tough ropes and wire suspended earth-filled troughs above the platform, casting more than half the area into dappled shade. Lush vines and tendrils in full bloom overflowed each container. At a glance, I discerned three distinct areas on the platform.
To our left stood an octagonal arrangement of tiered shelves bearing planters full of herbs and unusual plants. Some were the same as those I cultivated in my hothouse in Greensteeples, but others I had never seen. Whoever tended these had more than rudimentary knowledge of botany, and perhaps also of magic.
Before us sat a double row of tables filled with woodworking tools, planes, awls, knives, and brushes. Jars of pigment and lacquer sat under the tables, and around them lay scattered patches of sawdust and curlicues of wood shavings.
To our right squatted a thatch-roofed structure no larger than a garden shack. Exquisite carvings on its outer walls depicted woodland scenes. A slender unicorn drank at a brook, while a family of stoats sheltered beneath the bole of a gnarled oak. The carvings emphasized the beauty of the flora as much as that of the fauna. The artist loved the grass and trees as much as the unicorn.
“Hello,” I called out in the tongue of gnomes.
“Bless you,” said Radovan.
I repeated my greeting in Taldane. “Hello, Fimbulthicket?”
We walked around the little house to the eastern side of the platform.
A gnome sat facing the sunrise, his back to us. All I could see of him was a mass of white hair spilled loose over his naked shoulders. He sat upon a cushion of what I imagined were his own grimy robes, but they lay upon the leather couch of my beloved Red Carriage.
The wreckage lay in heaps and stacks across the platform. Even if I had not inventoried the shattered pieces in the vain hope they had all been recovered, I would have recognized the distinctive ornamentation of the carved wood.
The carriage fragments were not simply strewn about. The doors lay to either side of the central compartment, the back and roof behind, the driver’s perch, lamps, and tongue to the front. Its broken pieces had been arranged like an unfolded paper box.
The gnome stood, revealing that he was completely naked. Before turning to greet us, he donned his robe and secured his hair with a leather thong. The bound hair more resembled the spray of a fountain than a ponytail.
The gnome resembled a pale pink phantom. Even his blue irises had faded to the color of winter skies. He stared at me, his huge eyes uncanny as the sun at his back cast his blanched face into gloom.
He suffered not from albinism but from the Bleaching, perhaps on the verge of surrendering completely to the doom of the gnomes. Just as they embrace the tangible world with all of their senses, gnomes suffer a sensory withdrawal if they do not maintain a constant state of new experiences. As they age, those who suffer from too much boredom or routine find that the once-vivid hues of their skin, hair, and eyes begin to fade. Left unchecked, the Bleaching almost always proves fatal.
“Varian Jeggare.” The gnome stared at me as if remembering my face.
“Have we met?”
“No, of course not. But you look just as I imagined you would.”
“Perhaps you have seen my image before.”
“Something like that.”
While hardly as famous as Prince Amarandlon, I do occasionally find that someone has mounted a copy of one of my portraits in their salon. It is possible I stood slightly taller at the implied compliment.
“Careful, boss.” Barely concealing his smirk, Radovan glanced at a potted plant hanging above me.
“My associate, Radovan.”
He tossed Fimbulthicket an irregular salute. That was a bad habit to bring home to Egorian, where the Hellknights are quick to take offense. Radovan took a cue from my raised eyebrow and withdrew, settling down on a three-legged stool where he began massaging Arnisant’s back. The hound scooted closer to him.
I turned back to Fimbulthicket. “I see you have examined the remains of my carriage.”
“It breaks my heart to see the dear thing in such a state.” He picked up the top half of a lamp casing. “I carved these.”
“I thought you created the entire carriage.”
“No, I merely assisted, and later I drove the carriage to Greengold and had it shipped to Egorian. You never knew that, did you? We almost met then, but I decided not to take such a long trip alone. Variel Morgethai himself created the carriage.”
“Oh.” I had been under the misapprehension that Prince Amarandlon had located the crafter, not simply his assistant. Still, it was a clue that might lead me to the man I needed. “And where can we find him?”
“No one knows,” said Fimbulthicket. “He has been missing for seventy …no, more like eighty years. Isn’t that the real reason you are here? To find Variel?”
“Insofar as I wish my carriage repaired, I suppose so.”
“But the queen must want you to find him. Why else would she invite you to Iadara? Why else would she tell me to help you?”
“Is he so important?”
“He was to Queen Telandia,” said Fimbulthicket. In a softer voice he added, “He was to me.”
“But if no one knows where he is, how do we begin? Perhaps you can start repairing the carriage. Since you assisted in its creation, can you—?”
“My powers never matched Variel’s. In fact, since we parted, I have turned to nursing plants and helping those who will accept my assistance.” He sighed and glanced down at Lower Omesta. “That means mostly elves.”
I thought of what he had not said. “Your fellow gnomes shun you because of the Bleaching.”
His brisk nod conveyed no invitation to pity. “The fact is, I could craft replacements for the parts I contributed, but I can’t restore the body of the carriage to its original state. Only Variel can do that.”
While I had hoped to return to Egorian soon, I had been away so long that a few more days would hardly matter. “I suppose I shall need your help to find him.”
“I hoped you would say that. I can show you all our old haunts. We traveled half of Kyonin together before…Well, before I began to get old. Nothing would please me more than to see him again. And it’s true what I said: He’s the only one who can revive your carriage.”
“Revive? That seems a strange way to describe repairs.”
“No, don’t you see? Come, come here.” He grasped my hand. His skin felt paper-thin, but beneath it I felt the pulse of life. He placed my hand on the outer panel of one of the carriage doors. “Feel it.”
The lacquer had peeled, leaving the once-smooth surface coarse and brittle. Ash and crystalline residue clung to my fingers. I reached for a handkerchief.
“No,” insisted Fimbulthicket. “Feel it. Really feel it.”
Suppressing an impatient sigh, I did as he bade me. Kneeling beside the ruined door, I pressed my hand to the scorched surface. Still I felt nothing more than the cold dead wood of an object I treasured perhaps more than I should. After all, I had never met the father who sent it to me.
A sudden anger stirred my heart. Had I been deluding myself all these years? Why had I elevated the stature of my absent father so? Was it to replace the lacuna of his existence with an ideal of a lost, romantic figure, unable to return to the family he loved? In my childish fantasy, the carriage provided a substitute for an affection I had never received.
“I feel nothing.”
As I rose, I touched the hilt of my sword to avoid tripping. Just as had occurred at the masquerade, a double vision appeared before me. Radovan, Arnisant, and Fimbulthicket appeared unchanged, although the images carved on Radovan’s jacket shimmered with motion—no doubt the result of its recent enchantments. It was the Red Carriage whose outer illusion faded to reveal the truth inside.
Its wooden body appeared not as scrap but more as the injured body of a living plant. Its splintered edges oozed with a golden sap so clear and fine as to be invisible to the unassisted eye. The darkened clots I had taken for mold now seemed far more like weeping scabs.
I could see beneath the surface. Within the fibers of the wood, thousands upon thousands of vital capillaries spread throughout the carriage. At every injury they had been severed. The missing pieces were not lost but amputated.
“It is wounded,” I said. How long had I left the carriage to lie alone in a Greengold warehouse? Had it suffered in its untreated injury? Could it feel pain? Loneliness? For how much was my ignorance to blame? A surge of remorse caught in my throat.
The gnome placed a hand on my shoulder. “Now you see. Now you feel. The carriage doesn’t need repair. It needs healing. It needs Variel.”
“Tell me more about this Variel Morgethai.”
Fimbulthicket paused, his face contorting with a sudden epiphany. “Oh, no! I thought you understood. I thought you knew! Oh, I should have known by the way you said his name.”
“What is it?”
“Variel Morgethai isn’t just the creator of the Red Carriage,” said Fimbulthicket. “He’s your father.”
Dave Gross is the former editor of Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. Author of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Black Wolf, Lord of Stormweather, and more. More on his many projects can be found at frabjousdave.blogspot.com.
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