A Slow Parade in Penderyn
The following is an excerpt from my novella, A Slow Parade in Penderyn: Book One of the Dryad’s Crown. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.
Piper was up later than usual, but she refused to go to bed until Timon told her a story. The priest sat on a cushion next to her cot and took a deep breath, which was his way of saying, “You win.”
“One day unlike any other, an old Penderyn farmer fished along the coast. Every morning, before the sun rose, he would walk from his shack to the beach, and cast his line. He enjoyed the noise of the waves. He enjoyed his routine. The farmer had lived alone for some time. His husband had passed during the plague, before the War of the Hounds. During those lonely years, the farmer discovered a secret. He could work half as hard and still manage the livestock just fine. There was time to fish, time to reflect. If he could have done anything differently in his younger years, he would have slowed down sooner. He and his husband should have had more time for fishing and walks.”
Timon began this story the same way every time. He loved to talk about the farmer and his routine. Timon thought of himself as being like this farmer — called to a boring and methodical life.
“The farmer felt a pull at his line. A fish! He held onto the pole, tucking the end under his armpit. With his other hand, he pulled at the hemp cord and looped the cord under his elbow. He did this again and again until the hooked fish was on the shore. The fish flipped about on the sandy shore, mouth opening and closing. It was a large river fish. They sometimes found their way along the coast in the brackish water near the estuary. The farmer transferred the fish to his net, which he left in the water until he was ready to leave.”
Timon lifted Piper out of her cot. Pretending to be the farmer, he carried her around the room as if she were the fish. He swung her around as she giggled.
“Once home, after fanning the room, he placed the fish upon the kitchen table and grabbed for his knife. He chopped at the fish’s head to prepare it for breakfast. As soon as the knife struck, the fish began to expand, twist, stretch, and convulse until it transformed into a little girl! The girl sat up. She took deep, confused gulps of air. She looked around, wide-eyed. Blood trickled from the side of her neck.”
“And I’m that girl? The fish girl?” Piper interrupted, even though she knew the answer.
Timon smiled, “That is what I was told.”
“That is ridiculous.” She held out her hands to indicate her utter lack of fishness.
Timon raised his finger to indicate he had expertise to share.
“What about the named goddess of the wilderness? She can turn into any animal she wants — some fey can as well.”
“Fey aren’t real.”
“So, the farmer,” Timon continued the story undeterred, “dropped his knife and stumbled backward. The girl — that’s you — fell off the table and scrambled to the other side of the room. You hid behind a chair. The farmer could hear you struggling to breathe, pulling in the air with great effort, learning something that should come naturally. Soon, your breathing settled, and the farmer approached you. He reached out his hand. You flailed about in a panic. He stepped back. He noticed how your head moved about looking at everything. You focused on a mobile, which the farmer’s husband had made as a gift. It hung in the open window with chunks of blue glass dangling at intervals, suspended by twisted wires. Sunlight hit the mobile. Rays of shimmering blue danced and swayed around the room. You smiled. The farmer inched forward not wanting to disturb you, and then sat next to you. The farmer looked at the cut on your neck, which was minor and no longer bleeding. You and the farmer sat there for a while as you took in the surroundings, wiggled your toes, and sniffed at the air. Then you fell asleep on the floor.”
Piper took over the telling of the story.
“And the farmer knew I was a gift from the gods, a gift he had no interest in taking responsibility for. He wrapped me in a blanket, and carried me to you, a Taraki priest. The farmer shared his fish story. And you were dumb enough to believe it, even though it’s completely unbelievable.”
“I make space for a few miracles. And maybe you’re one of them? Yes, I took you from the farmer. I named you ‘Piper’ after the fish that are plentiful along the coast, and I said I would raise you in the temple as an act of devotion to the benevolent Taraki.”
For a while, Timon was successful in caring for the girl. He taught her what he could. But sadly, he had no interest in being a parent, even if such an act would honor Taraki. Like the farmer, Timon had his routine, which he preferred to any higher calling that broke from his regimen. The girl had a feral impulse that was difficult to restrain for a priest who enjoyed cleaning the temple more than disciplining a child.
As the girl grew older, she kept running away, choosing to live on the streets of Penderyn — where merchants sold their goods, sailors shared stories of distant lands, and children played the games of their own invention. She could not endure the rigidity and boredom of temple life. She preferred to wander free.
Eventually, the priest stopped searching for her, knowing that she would come back when it suited her. She would be gone for a day or two, and then return like a stray cat. Which she did, until one day when she did not.
On that day, Piper prowled the wealthier north end of the city. Piper was tired of begging for alms or being offered small jobs in exchange for a meal around the docks and the east gate. However, this patrician district was not as generous as one might hope. As she worked her way along the street, she became aware of the judgmental glares, the upturned noses. Her ambitions dimmed, and she shifted her agenda to sightseeing. She wanted to explore their domain. The main thoroughfare of the city ended at the north gated section. Here is where the truly elite lived — an entire neighborhood of large homes with personal guards patrolling each property.
Piper peered through the wrought iron gate to this dazzling world beyond. One house caught her eye at the far end. The two-story manor had stone pillars all along its exterior. Polished stones accented the trim at the first and second levels, and gilded owls roosted at each corner. Windows were small, but plentiful — not to let light in, but to give the occupant several eyes on the city.
Piper noticed the lush garden outside this house. Penderyn was a city of trade and commerce. It wasn’t known for its beauty or public gardens. This garden was a verdurous paradise. The ivy twisted along the pergola. The untamed shrubs stretched awkward poses. The white flowers, luminous and alluring and unsettling, did not even seem possible in Piper’s cobblestone world. She had to pick one flower, just one, and keep it for herself.
A light breeze carried the fragrance of the plants to her. Piper gasped in recognition. It all felt familiar. Her eyes began to water and a lump formed in her throat. She wiped her tears — not sure why she was reacting this way. The pain was so primal, a longing for home.
Piper climbed the gate and landed on the other side. She might have reconsidered had she known the estate belonged to Dahlia Tulan.
In the garden, Piper touched everything. She pressed her flat palms against the broad ivy leaves. She ran her fingers along the flower petals. She inhaled the floral redolence. She closed her eyes, a shiver shot across her arms, up her neck, and along her scalp. Then she heard the sound of boot upon gravel. She turned to see a woman.
The woman had a stern face, punctuated with dark sharply angled eyebrows. Her black hair was cut short, shaved on the sides. Piper noticed her ears, which had several small hoops along the pierced ridges. The woman dressed like the mercenaries who hung out at the taverns — with intricately patterned leather, straps, and arms bands, all fashioned to display and accentuate her muscular arms. She held a rapier. The sword was the only thing about her without a trace of ostentation. The sword was not ceremonial. Unambiguous in its purpose, used and used often.
Dahlia raised her sword, pointing it at Piper.
“I’m sorry, but if I let you live, every urchin in the city will be scaling that gate to visit my garden. Let me know if you have parents. I will toss your body at their doorstep, so they don’t think you’ve gone missing.”
Piper ran. She fled with the panicked realization that her life was at stake. Piper rounded a corner in the garden. Her foot slipped as she turned. She reached out for something to keep her from falling. Her hand landed upon a gnarled staff, lodged in the grip of a horned fey statue. She pulled the staff free, and tumbled onto the ground.
Piper looked up to see Dahlia approaching.
“Did you honestly think you — ”
Piper did not wait for the woman to finish. She swung the staff around. Dahlia did not expect the girl to fight back. The swing caught her unaware. It struck Dahlia across the face. She wobbled, reeling from the hit. Dahlia took a step back, and then another to get out of range. She rubbed the side of her face and looked at the girl with new eyes.
“What is your name?”
“People call me ‘Piper.’”
“That’s not a name. That’s a fish.”
“Timon, the Taraki priest, says I spent my first years as a fish.”
Piper’s response was so genuine and spontaneous. It caught the guildmaster off guard. Dahlia laughed.
“Do you have parents?”
Dahlia’s eyebrows arched higher, incredulous.
“I’m going to ask you again. Do you have parents?”
“No. The priest takes care of me sometimes. But for the most part, I’m on my own.”
Piper could not tell if this was the right answer, but she was too afraid to lie. She wouldn’t get far if she ran again. Dahlia’s sword aimed at Piper’s chest. Piper knew her life hung by a spider’s web. The wrong movement, the wrong word, and she was dead.
“You like those flowers?” Dahlia gestured to the white flowers.
Piper wanted to cry, but she would not cry, not in front of this monster. She trembled. That was involuntary, but she could hold her tears back. That she could do. The corner of Dahlia’s mouth twitched. Whatever thoughts were crawling through the twisted maze of Dahlia’s mind, Piper could not tell.
This preternatural attention to facial details: this is how it is for the child of an abusive parent. Piper would soon become an expert at reading every twitch upon Dahlia’s face. Every movement, no matter how slight, might signal the warning of violence.
“I’m going to name you ‘Silbrey.’ It’s Volir,” Dahlia’s tone was even as she declared her claim upon the frightened girl. “Do you know Volir? It’s the language of the elite and the educated. Means ‘beautiful flower.’ Sil is flower, and brey for beautiful. The object and the descriptor are reversed. I can teach you the language.”
“Why do I need new words?”
“With the right words, you won’t need to climb the gate. The gate will be opened for you.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“You’re going to stay with me. I have an empty room with a view of your garden.”
The girl, who was now Silbrey, noticed Dahlia did not answer her question.
Dahlia had a question of her own. “Where did you get that staff?”
“In your garden, the fey statue held it.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“No, I’m not lying. I pulled it from the statue.”
The girl looked over to where the statue was, the place where she fell. No statue existed. No horned fey. She had tripped over overgrown brambles that extended across the path. Whatever she saw had been a deception of her peripheral vision, the phantom of a distressed mind.
Yet there it was. A gift. Her staff.
The next morning, Silbrey woke up in her new bed in her new room that overlooked the garden. The bed was wooden with tall posts at the corners that held up drapes. The drapes had a beautiful pattern, Karkasse design, embroidered in green thread. The mattress stuffed with down.
She slept with the staff under the quilted blanket. Every time she stirred during that first night of fitful sleep, she would grab for it. As the sun broke over Penderyn and the city roused with the sounds of a new morning, Silbrey rolled over to look out the window. She saw a crown wreath of the white flowers laying on her bedside table, a gift that signified adoption.
The first book in the Dryad’s Crown series is available for pre-order. It features illustrations by Daniel Decena and a map by award-winning cartographer, Francesca Baerald.
David Hopkins is working on book two of the fantasy series. He plans to release a few books each year until the ten-volume series is complete.