Felda 2.0

I have decided to rather massively alter the setting of the story from which the first two Fiction Friday installments derived. This is what Felda’s first scene has become as a consequence of that change.

It took three sentences for Felda to decide she didn’t like the woman from the Guild. The first was when Felda, responding to her mother’s call, came downstairs to the kitchen to see her parents, tired, worried, older than she’d ever seen them, sitting at the table with a tall, elegantly dressed woman with unsettlingly clean nails.

“Hello, Felda,” she said brightly. That was the first sentence. Felda didn’t like this complete stranger knowing her name. It made her wonder what was written in the sheaf of papers on the table in front of the woman. 
The second sentence was the one the woman didn’t say: “Pleased to meet you,” perhaps, or something that started “My name is.”
“Ms. Ansfel is from the Guild,” Felda’s mother said. 
“I already talked to the Guild recruiter,” Felda answered. “I said no.”
Ms. Ansfel laughed. That didn’t count as a sentence, but nonetheless it contributed. People who laughed at things that weren’t jokes were, in Felda’s opinion, nearly as bad as people who didn’t laugh at all. 
“Oh, I’m not a recruiter,” said Ms. Ansfel. That was the third sentence, and it was the way she said “recruiter” that did it. Felda could easily imagine her saying “farmer” in the same way. “I’m a field contract specialist in our agricultural services and land management division. I’m here to talk to your parents about joining us.”
If Felda hadn’t already decided she disliked the woman, that last sentence alone would have done it. “We won’t sell,” she said firmly. “This land’s been ours since–“
“Since it was granted to your great-grandfather by the Feudal Reparations Act, yes,” the woman interrupted. “Your father told me. Though I suppose that would make it your great-great-grandfather. And before that your family worked these very fields as vassals of the  Carl of Whatever for umpteen centuries, I’m sure. We’re not interested in taking you from your land, believe me. The Crafters’ Guild has always been strongly in favor of local businesses staying under local management.”
“Then what are you here for?” asked Felda. She glanced at her parents. They were being unusually quiet. Felda was 16, an adult for a full three weeks now, so she appreciated them including her in whatever decision this was, but why weren’t they saying anything?
“I’m here to offer you an opportunity,” Ms. Ansfel explained. “You recently performed your coming-of-age examinations, I believe. According to the Academy’s records, you scored a 3.4 for Earth affinity on the Antonella scale. That’s borderline mage-level, did you know that? Do sit down, girl, you’re putting a crick in my neck.”
“Yes, the recruiter told me.” Felda sat, though privately she minded not in the least if the Guildswoman got a crick. “I don’t want to be a mage.”
“No, I can see that from the recruiter’s report.” Ms. Anfeld winked in what, Felda assumed, she probably thought was a conspiratorial manner. Felda’s dislike advanced rapidly in the direction of hate. “And I can’t blame you. Between you and me, the folk in the magic division are a stodgy bunch of old men. Plus it’s years of training before you start casting the simplest spells.”
“Are you ever going to answer the question?” asked Felda’s mother. 
Ms. Ansfel simpered. “Of course, my dear.” She inserted one gloves hand into a satchel slung over the back of her chair and smoothly removed something, which she set lightly on the table. “Don’t touch, please,” she warned. 
Felda stared. The object was shaped like an egg, but far bigger than any chicken or goose egg she’d ever seen. It was about eight inches long, five wide at the widest, and the pale orange-brown of fired, unglazed pottery. 
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked. 
“Indeed,” said the Guildswoman. “A dragon egg. We are prepared to offer it to you, Felda.”
Felda put a hand to her mouth. “–to me?”  A dragon’s egg. A dragon’s egg! She could be a bondswoman, a performer of miracles–
“Benefits are greatest with threes and fours, of course. On average, someone like Felda should expect an effective combined Antonella score of five and a half, though of course that would cover direct manipulation only…”
As the woman chattered on, Felda glanced at her parents and was relieved to see that, at least to judge by their glazed eyes, they understood as muh as she did. 
“What do you want from us in return?” her father finally asked. 
“Well, first, let me ask you a question, Herr Landsman. Do you know who the largest agricultural producer and distributer in the world is?”
Felda’s father’s eyes narrowed. “You’re about to tell me it’s the Crafters’ Guild, I suppose.”
The woman shook her head. “No! It’s the Healers, of all people! Even though we make most of the tools, they grow more than us by a huge margin. Honestly, Healers growing food, can you imagine?”
She smiled broadly at Felda’s family. Seeing no response, she continued, “Obviously, the Guild would like to be more competitive in this sector, and while we’ve had some success leveraging our vertical advantage, we’ve also been developing techniques for Earth-affiliated farming. That is what we want–for you, your family, your farm to join us as a test bed for the efficacy of our new techniques.”

Felda’s mother frowned. “It sounds like you want to… experiment here.”

Ms. Ansfel laughed yet again. “Oh, don’t worry. We’re not talking about… legless cows or vampire squash or whatever you’re imagining. We’re talking about the things Felda here could do, post-augmentation–and the augmentation itself is of course time-honored and tested, lifebonding is as old as time, as I’m sure you know.”

“What… I would be able to do?” asked Felda. Despite herself, and despite Ms.Ansfel, she couldn’t help but imagine the new abilities she might gain. Floating great boulders with a gesture? Shattering mighty city walls with a glance? Bending rods like they were made of licorice?

“Imagine, if you will,” Ms. Anselm intoned, turning slowly back and forth between Felda’s pareants, “an entire field plowed in a day. Imagine never needing to rotate crops, because your daughter can turn the tired old soil young and new in a matter of days. Plus a lifetime guarantee that you–whichever of you you decide–will always be manager of every aspect of this farm, that the other, Felda, and all your other children will have guaranteed employment at competitive rates of pay, though of course the children’s hours will be limited until they turn 16…” she looked down at her papers. “Ah yes, and a quite sizeable discount on all equipment, seed, and feed purchased from us.” 

“And in return you get our farm,” Felda’s father said coldly. 
“Well, perhaps in an abstract, paperwork sense. We’re more interested in seeing how well it works, and of course in making money. But you will all receive good salaries, and continue to live and work where your ancestors did, without needing to fear a bad harvest wiping you out or a greedy banker foreclosing.” Ms Ansfel consulted the papers again. 
“No deal,” Felda’s father said firmly. 
“But papa–” Felda began. 
“He’s right,” said Felda’s mother. “It’s our farm. Doesn’t matter what they offer, it ain’t worth giving ’em our farm.” She gazed sternly at Ms. Ansfel and lowered her voice to a murmur so only Felda could hear. “Don’t be fooled by her pretty talk. This woman’s a snake.”
Felda started to answer that of course she could tell what Ms. Ansfel was, but dragon’s egg, but the woman spoke before she could. 
“Ah, here we are!” she said brightly, pulling out a sheet from the middle of the stack. She shook her head at it and tsked gently. “Twelve hundred gil in debt, I see.” 
“How do you know that?” demanded Felda’s father, looking slightly purple. 
“And you’ve missed your payments for the last four months.” Ms. Ansfel shook her head sadly. 
“Old Greta would never–“
“Apologies, Frau Landsman. I suppose it is quite rude of me to interrupt, but I am afraid Ms. Hofstedter does not actually have a say. It’s quite hard out there for an indepent local bank these days, I’m afraid, and the Bank of Frogshackle found itself in dire need of funds. So when we approached them seeking to purchase certain securities, well…”
“I don’t understand,” said Felda’s father. “Our loan is with them, how–“
Ms. Ansfel smiled genuinely for the first time, and Felda, who had been torn between rising hatred for the woman and fantasies of being able to walk through stone found she suddenly had a new factor to consider: fear.

“As of last week, I’m afraid the Bank of Frogshackle merely administers your loan. We own it. So I’m afraid the choice isn’t actually a matter of whether you want to keep your farm or share it with us. It’s a matter of losing your farm or sharing it with us.” At the horrified stare of all the Landsmans, her smile widened slightly. “Snakelike of me, perhaps, but business is business, and we do very much want to expand our farming operations. Come now!” She slid a clipped-together set of papers out of the pile in front of her and across the table toward them. “It’s not a bad deal at all. You’ll be more productive and make more money than you ever did as a tichy little mama-and-papa farm. You’ll be on the cutting edge!”

There was much more debate, and reading of the contract, and demands to know what certain passages meant, but Felda knew her family had no choice, and soon her parents came to admit it, too. Even the horror of being trapped by this snake of a woman, however, could not entirely dampen her excitement. She knew that by the end of the evening she would be a bondswoman, a somebody, a force to be reckoned with. The snake kept talking about revolutionizing farming, but Felda could see so much more than that. She saw adventures in high mountains and deep deserts, great battles with wicked sorcerers, most of whom looked quite a bit like Ms. Ansfel, the bustle of the great cities and the cries of dragons. She’d never dared seriously imagine being anything other than a farmer, and other than farming, the only other thing she’d ever been good at was reading–and who wanted to be a scholar, shut indoors all day? Being a weak mage would be no better–she knew what kind of work that would mean, sitting at the end of some factory line and casting the same spell of sharpening or strengthening a hundred and fifty times a day.

She wanted that egg like she’d never wanted anything, more than the temporary farmhand she’d spent half of last year lusting after, more than the one volume of Tales of the Nine Realms she didn’t have. So Ms. Ansfel was a hateful, malicious woman–all Felda needed was that egg, and she could squash her! She’d like to see anyone try to take her home once she had power like that.

“Very well,” said Ms. Ansfel at last, putting away the finally signed papers and standing. “This is yours, child.”

Felda held out both hands, vibrating slightly, and the woman put the clay egg in her hands. It was cool, and prickled slightly.

No, more than slightly. It prickled a lot. Stung, actually, and it was growing hotter by the moment. With a shout, Felda dropped the burning egg, or tried to, but it was stuck fast to her hands. Felda fell to her knees, unable to take her eyes off the glowing egg as agony spread up her arms. Cracks began to spread across the surface of the egg, which shone so brightly it hurt, but not nearly as much as the twin columns of fire marching up her arms. The pain reached her shoulders, spread in and downward, swirled together in her heart, before it exploded outwards to encompass everything, her entire being. Dimly she knew she was lying on her side, but it was hard to tell, because the room kept jerking wildly about.

“Stop,” she whispered, to the room, to the pain, to the wild pounding of her heart, but it went on and on. The egg was breaking apart, crumbling, seeping into her hands. She couldn’t see through the red-fire haze that filled the universe, but she could feel it, chunks of dull throbbing agony passing up her arms to punctuate the fire. Was someone screaming?

The lumps were nearly to her heart. She knew she was dying, and welcomed it. What was death but the end of pain? But of course that was absurd, there had always been pain, would always be pain, and death would bring no relief–and then they were in her heart, and she felt it skip one beat, then two, an entirely new kind of agony, a squeezing

Felda woke.

She was lying on the kitchen floor, and every part of her hurt. From where she lay she could see her parents, their eyes filled with concern and fear, but for some reason they were keeping back. “Mama?” she asked, her voice dry and cracked and weak. “Papa?”

“Baby,” her mother whispered, tears in her eyes. “You’re awake! It’s been nearly an hour…” But she came no closer.

Felda took a deep, shuddering breath.

Something large above and behind her did as well.

Felda let her breath out. So did it, warm and wet across her shoulders. It had been there the whole time, she realized. She just hadn’t noticed its breathing before because–she gasped. It whuffed.

Because it was breathing in perfect synchronicity with her.

Slowly, painfully, she rolled over. A great black nose came into view first, then a proud head, great curving horns and enormous eyes, the same brown as Felda’s own. A massive body, short fur the color of rich black soil, powerful legs, strong gray hooves as sharp and hard as flints.

The great bull–her bondling!–lowered its head and nuzzled her. Its nose was warm and cold all at once, like a dog’s but bigger. Gratefully, Felda wrapped her arms around its neck and pulled herself to her feet. “Mama, papa, there’s no need to be afraid,” she said, smiling. “I want you to meet Varick.”

It was good, she thought. They had been caught by the Guild and that woman, yes, but this was worth it. They would still work the farm, sell their crops, buy seed and tools. Her brothers and sisters would go to school and do their chores. The only changes would be no more worrying about money, and Varick. Her Varick. She dug her fingers into his hide and inhaled his smell of sweat and clean, rich earth and growing things. It was more than worth it, she decided, and eventually the rest of the family would understand that as well.

And she was right; within a year even her mother had to admit that they were better off as Guild farmers.

It would be another four years after that before they all came to understand exactly how they had been swindled.

Fiction Friday: Untitled Fantasy Thing Pt 2

Another scene from the same story as the previous Fiction Friday.

The great Alterian Plains lie flat under the moon, neatly split into squares by irrigation ditches and fields of gently waving, tall green corn. Flat, that is, but for the great dimple in the landscape that is Altre. A tall wall surrounds the rim of the valley, a near-perfect circle, and beyond that there is a steep drop of dozens of feet, a maze of ramps and stairs and winding paths carved into the cliff-face, carefully designed so that any army which might breach the wall finds itself exposed to the thousand and more wizards that dwell within the tower at the valley’s bottom.

Beneath the cliffs is the great smooth bowl of Altre itself, greatest city of the world, descending ranks of houses and banks and guildhalls and marketplaces, twelve great concentric rings surrounding the Academy Lake at the center. Just off from the center of that lake is the Academy Island itself, joined by thirteen bridges–some might arcs of stone, some slender and wooden, and one just a train of barges roped together long ago–to the innermost ring of the city. At the center of the island is yet another lake, this one artificial, and in the center of that an outcropping of rock, from which rises the great Tower of the Academy. So it is that, despite being well-known as the tallest building in the world, the top of the tower is just about level with the plains. On the other hand, should one step off the edge of the roof, the drop is quite a few hundred feet.

Hundreds of feet in the other direction, silhouetted against the moon, Aldhea danced. Great leathery wings beat slowly as she looped and dove, claws outstretched, her green and golden scales pale and ghostly in the moonlight. Below, those few citizens out and about at this hour of the night looked up to watch her. It was said that the rare dance of the Archon brought luck to those who saw it, that she wove moonlight into the very threads of magic that permeated and sustained the world, that in her dance were encoded secrets of the distant past and the possible future.

In truth, she mostly did it because sitting atop the Tower of the Academy in quiet contemplation all day, every day made her muscles stiff.

After a half-hour or so, feeling thoroughly stretched out and rejuvenated, she folded her wings and plummeted toward the city. At the last moment before striking the tower, she snapped her enormous wings out, coming to a complete stop barely a man’s height above the tower. She stretched out her claws and settled onto the roof, curling her sinuous length around the perimeter and settling her oddly feline head on her claws.

“Hello again,” said a precise, slightly fussy voice.

The great dragon jerked in surprise, then whipped her head around on its long neck to stare at the little man standing in her shadow. “Who’s there?” she demanded. “How did you get up here?”

“Forty million years ago,” he said by way of answer, “this was the surface of an inland sea. A thousand years from now, it will be a crumbling ruin.” He stepped out into the moonlight, a scruffy man in a worn black jacket, wearing a round black cap with a narrow brim.

“Ah,” said Aldhea. “Albrecht.”

He bowed with the air of one making a joke at the expense of everyone in the room, especially himself. “Archon,” he said. “Or do you prefer ‘Empress’ these days?”

She waved a dismissive claw. “You know perfectly well I care nothing for such human nonsense as titles.”

Albrecht arched an eyebrow. “And yet…” He gestured at the city around them.

“It has to be this way,” she said. “You know that. We’re not like you.”

“No,” he admitted. “No, you’re not.”

“So what brings you?” she asked. “I assume you’re not here to rehash old arguments.”

Albrecht smiled. “Oh, but I do so enjoy doing it!” His smile faded. “But no. I’m here to warn you. War is coming.”

Aldhea laughed. “Is it really?” She partially uncurled herself, rearing up and spreading her wings. “I’ve been watching the humans a long time, Albrecht. War is always coming somewhere. If it comes here, it comes here–it would hardly be the first time, nor the last.”

Albrecht shook his head. “This one is different,” he explained. “Forces building up for centuries are about to move.”

Aldhea snorted. “What forces are there besides us?” she asked. Above her, the full moon winked out, its light extinguished. “So long as we have the humans, nothing can harm us. And so long as the humans have us, some of them will survive.” The moonlight returned.

“Are you quite done?” asked Albrecht, though his tone remained light. “You think you and the other Archons are all powerful. Has the worship of humans gone to your heads?”

“We control the elements of which this world is made,” countered Aldhea. “We are all powerful–and I am the strongest of all.” Albrecht gasped and crumpled to the ground, as if an enormous weight were crushing him–which, in a sense, it was. “You would do well not to forget that.”

“My warning is given,” he choked out. “War is coming, and Archon and human alike will burn. Be ready.”

And then he was gone. Aldhea blinked at the space where he’d been, then gave a shrug with began at her shoulders and then rolled backwards along a good thirty feet of spine. It was his way, after all, and she’d grown more than used to it by now.

Honestly, what nonsense. A war that could threaten her? Not even one of the other Archons could match her power, except maybe the one, and if he came back, well, it wouldn’t be just her he’d have to fight. And even if the unthinkable happened, it wasn’t like she’d be dead for long.

Still, if war was coming it was best to be ready for it. In the morning she’d talk to the Deans about strengthening the military and trying to identify where the war would break out. They’d complain about the timing, of course, and who could blame them–this was going to wreak havoc on the research schedules. She sighed; the life of a scholar-god-empress was full of compromises.

Introducing Fiction Fridays!

I was going to wait until the move to the new site to start these, but what the hey. I’ve been trying to get back into writing fiction, both fan- and original, and given how good this site has been for my nonfiction output, I figure a similar public commitment for fiction can’t hurt. So, every Friday I will post a scene from something I’m working on. It might be a fanfic, an original piece, whatever. Generally speaking, they will be drafts, not polished final pieces, just straight regurgitations from my brain.

First up is this bit from an original piece I’m toying with:

Felda stood shoulder to shoulder with the other youths, vibrating slightly. She couldn’t help it; she was terrified, ecstatic, and excited beyond anything in her life.

Three months of tests, that’s what it took. The normal couple of weeks of midsummer testing that any 16-year-old went through at their coming-of-age, of course, and then the discovery that her resonance was Earth! Then the unimagineably long journey with her mother to Weizenstadt—20 miles, at least!—and nearly a week there, assaulted with sights and smells and so many many people, hundreds and hundreds bustling about between buildings two, sometimes even three stories tall! And then more tests of her health and intelligence, fiercely competitive games of cunning and speed against a dozen other youths her age, but none of them made the cut, no—only Felda, in all of Weizenstadt and the villages around, was quick enough and clever enough and tough enough to earn a spot on the barge that floated down the river past more country than could possibly fit in the world, taking her every hour farther from the mother she had never spent a day away from in her life.

But there was no time to miss her, because at the mouth of the river was the harbor and the ship that held as many people as lived in Felda’s village, including two girls and a boy who’d passed as many tests as she, and beyond the harbor was the ocean, which was not only too big to fit in the world, but too big to fit in Felda’s head, and nothing had ever been that big before…

Felda permitted herself a brief wolfish grin, then closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened again. Her hands were still shaking, barely perceptibly, but she could focus on the view in front of her, a large stone floor bigger than her village square, with open sky beyond. Behind her, slightly closer than she was entirely comfortable with, the Guild Tower dropped almost two hundred feet from this roof to the Great Square of Tauftor, heart of the mightiest city in the kingdom. It was all too big, too grand for a farm girl from the southern reaches–but she was about to become so much more than that. A spark of energy, terror and delight in equal measure, leapt from her heart and into the back of her throat.

A wizened old man emerged from the hole in the center of the floor, wrapped in a long brown robe and carrying a tray. Behind him came two pikemen, tall and with an air of menace that reminded Felda of her village’s constable.

The old man stepped forward while the pikemen took up positions on either side of the entrance. Felda watched curiously as he offered the tray to each of the twenty-odd youths lined up before him, gathered from Weizenstadt and a half-dozen other regions throughout the kingdom. The tray was full of little balls of fired clay, each a few inches across. He proffered one to Felda, and she took it and held it in her palm. It weighed little, and was warm to the touch–fresh from the potter’s kiln, she assumed–and her palm itched slightly at the touch.

The old man reached the end of the line, and then stepped back. “Kneel, candidates, in the presence of Her Majesty, Queen of Tauftor, Empress of the Southern Reaches, Protector of the Mountains of Holoth…” he went on for several minutes while the youths kneeled, reciting a long litany of titles and distinguishments, ending with, “and rightful ruler of the stolen lands of Ackerbucht, Margeurite the Third of that Name.” He turned to face the opening in the floor and knelt; only the pikemen remained standing, stony-faced and impassive. A young woman stepped up and out onto the roof from the stairs that wound down from the opening. Felda’s first impression was of majesty, a tall golden crown and rich, furred robes of exotic materials she didn’t recognize, jewels and an elaborate hairstyle; it took a moment for her to see the rather bored-looking young woman, barely older than Felda herself, underneath. With some shock, Felda realized that if Margeurite had been dressed plainly, she would have walked past her in the street and never noticed anything special. Briefly, she wondered if that was why people always said things like “Your Majesty,” because they would rather talk to the crown and robes than acknowledge the rather ordinary people underneath, but that line of thinking was cut off when the Queen spoke.

“Our loyal subjects,” she said, her voice deep, calm, and welcoming, “it is with great pride that we welcome each of you. Of all those who came of age in the past year, you and you alone have the strength of heart, endurance of muscle, craft of mind, and loyalty of spirit to earn this highest of honors.” She down at each of the assembled youths in turn. “You are children of farmers, miners, artisans, soldiers, merchants, and nobles. You come from the mountains of the east, the ports of the west, the fields of north and south. And when your training and service is complete, if you wish, you may return to those lives until the realm has need of you again–for on this day, you transcend birth and rank and class. On this day, you become protectors of the realm.” She bowed her head. “Blessed Taufong, Archon of the Earth,” she began to pray.

Suddenly, the ball of clay in Felda’s hand grew burning hot. She gasped and let go, but it stuck to her palm. She stared at it while the Queen’s voice rolled on. Cracks grew and spread across its surface, and burning agony spread up her arm, through her chest, into her heart and her brain. She collapsed on her side, dimly aware of the other assembled youths writhing in agony while the Queen prayed.

The pain went on for what seemed like hours, but the sun had not moved visibly in the sky when it was over. Felda slowly uncurled, blinking at the bright day with exhausted eyes. Every muscle in her body ached, as did her head, and her throat was raspy from the screaming. She felt utterly drained as she looked up, seeing the rest of the youths slowly reviving as well.

No, not youths, for next to each of them sat or crouched or stood an animal that had not been there before. She saw badgers and moles, a goat, two snakes–and then a shadow fell over her, and she looked up to see a bull, black and warm and strong. She reached out slowly to stroke his coat as he bent down to nuzzle her, and she knew with absolute certainty that never in her life had she loved any creature so much, nor would she ever.

She stood, shakily, one of the first in the group to make it all the way to her feet. It was done. She was a knight, and he was her elemental.