Friday 26 April 2013

Meanwhile, in The Real(-ish) World

I'm enormously pleased to be able to say that Jacob Jones and The Bigfoot Mystery, a game I had the huge privilege of working on with the wonderfully talented and inventive team at Lucid Games Ltd, has been announced.  It's a 3D-animated puzzle adventure about a young boy's stay at a strangely sinister summer camp.  For those who might be interested, the official website can be found at

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Theft of The Heart of The World, Part III: A Matter of Trust

[Part I of this story can be found here and Part II here. In summary, Otherwhile's most able thief, Arbor Vulpa, plans to carry out the Greatest Theft The World Has Ever Known. To this end, he has climbed the walls of the Palace of Days and made his way into The Tower of the Heart, where he was much surprised to find himself not between four stone walls but rather in the middle of a large forest. After getting thoroughly lost among the trees (Arbor is a city boy at heart), and discovering a ramshackle hut with what appeared to be the skeletal arms of a giant monkey poking out from underneath it, he met a dark-dressed man more long than tall, who assured Arbor he wasn't planning to kill him.]

Arbor pressed on into the tunnel, the flames of his torch licking the walls that pressed in upon him and breathing dark smoke on the ceiling under which he was forced to crouch.  The dark-clothed stranger had been as good as his word: offering advice and explanation aplenty and, as far as Arbor could tell, not once trying to kill him.  Such honesty was, in Arbor's experience, increasingly rare in these troubled times.  It felt uncomfortable to trust it.

Equally uncomfortable was how little Arbor had been able to understand of what the stranger told him, but then Arbor wasn't entirely sure that the existence of an apparently unending forest within tower walls he could walk around while holding his breath was a thing that could be easily comprehended by anyone.  And as for the cottage that stood in the middle of that forest, or the gigantic, skeletal arms that protruded from beneath it ... such things were as far beyond his understanding as was the idea of seeing a heavy purse without trying to lighten its load a little.

No, Arbor had satisfied himself with nodding and smiling at the stranger's words, paying attention instead to the stranger's face and movements, looking out for the possibility of either a threat or a lie.  Neither had come.  Instead there had only been the various incomprehensible explanations and enough advice to make Arbor's nodding and smiling worthwhile.  In all he had learned three things and another thing from the stranger and from those things he could deduce several more.

The first thing Arbor had learned from the stranger was the location of this tunnel.  From this Arbor could deduce, or at least reconfirm, the stranger's familiarity with the forest, which led Arbor to believe that the stranger might have been speaking the truth when he said that the trees and birds and small, swift-moving creatures that roamed across the undergrowth belonged both to another place and to another time, however strange the idea sounded.  After all, what could be more implausible than the idea of a gutter-beggar of Farla rising to a place where he could commit a crime that would send shivers through History itself?  Yet that was exactly what Arbor proposed to do.

The thought gave him added urgency.  Much, not least the prospect of his neck continuing to play its favoured role linking what he liked to think of as his noble head to his finely-hewn body, depended on his plans being executed swiftly.  How long had he spent wandering among the trees?  The stranger claimed that time meant nothing in the forest and that, as soon as he left it, Arbor would arrive back in the Tower of the Heart, just a moment or two after the point he had first slipped within its walls.  But how far could the stranger be trusted?

Arbor would have a better idea when, if, he reached the tunnel's end.  If the tunnel led to the inner staircase of the Tower, he would know his informant was a speaker of truth and one who wished him well.  If, on the other hand, the tunnel ended in a dead end, or a deep pit, or the lair of some beast, or some other direct route to pain and probable death, Arbor would be less inclined to think kindly of the stranger.  Indeed, Arbor felt he might well use his dying breath to curse all dark-clothed strangers more long than tall and all those who put their trust in them.

He was dwelling on this thought, rolling it round in his mind as a man rolls a half-full cup of warm drink between cold hands, when the near-silent pad of his feet was replaced by a sudden splashing.

Arbor looked down at the puddle beneath his feet and saw how it stretched out to meet the sides of the tunnel.  "How deep?" he wondered.  He thrust out his torch, watching as, below him in the water, his twin did the same.  Both of them looked forward and saw how, at the very end of the torch's light, the roof of the tunnel bent down to join with its reflection  It seemed like a very good time to begin cursing.

Ten minutes later, Arbor was tired of hearing his voice echo along the tunnel and conscious that some of the epithets he was flinging at himself, at the long, dark stranger and at the world in general were beginning to repeat.  With a sigh, he knelt at the water's edge.  There were, it seemed, only two choices.  He could go back to the forest and resume his wanderings, lost in the wrong time and place, with only the hope of encountering the stranger and doing him some very severe harm to sustain him against the consciousness of failure.  Or Arbor could trust that beyond the water lay the tunnel's exit and, beyond that, the prize he sought.  In truth, there was no choice at all.  He began to strip down.  Shortly afterwards his clothes and gear were bundled tight in oilcloth and he was stepping out into the water.

It was cold like a knife in winter and he gasped long and loud before seeking warmth in a few choice oaths.  He ducked his head under the water, rose, swore again, ducked, rose, swore once more.  And then he paddled out to the point where the tunnel itself plunged downward, took a deep breath and followed suit, striking out with arms and legs as he dove down into the darkness, gambling his body and breath against the rock above him and the water around him.

A stroke and a stroke and a stroke, then another and another and another as he followed the passage down.  And all the while the cold eating into his body, trying to stiffen his muscles and steal the breath from his lungs.  Again, a stroke and a stroke and a stroke.  He let his body rise a little as he swam.  A stroke and a stroke and then rock striking his head.  He swam on.  A stroke and a stroke and a stroke and the ever-growing need to breathe.  A stroke and a stroke and a stroke and again he rose and again struck stone.  He began to think his gamble was lost.  A stroke and a stroke and a stroke and now the passage beginning to rise with him.  But would its rise be swift enough?  A stroke and a stroke and a stroke.  And now his lungs screamed and his heart ached and his lips longed to part and drink deep.  A stroke and a stroke and then a frantic burst from his limbs, spinning, twisting, pushing him forward even as he turned his face upwards.  A stroke and a stroke and then one last stroke, one last rise.  And then he was tumbling and gasping and falling through not water but air, air which he sucked deep into his lungs even as he fell against the hard tiles of the floor.  He was alive and unharmed and within the Tower of The Heart once more.

"Safe", he thought.  And then the first sticky cord fell against his wet and naked arm and then the second and then the third and then he did not feel safe at all.


Wednesday 17 April 2013

Some Information Concerning the Crowpeople

[It seems that Lemnick of Carysfort has once again let his diplomatic bag go astray, the result of which is that I am now able to provide the following extract from a report directed to the boy-king of Shende, concerning Otherwhile's mysterious Crowpeople.  As ever I would advise my readers that Lemnick's information is highly unlikely to be accurate and that any grains of truth it does happen to contain are almost certainly entirely incidental.]

Knowing, as I am privileged to do, of Your Majesty's abiding interest in the Unusual and Fantastical, I thought it might be meet to apprise your Serene Self of an incident in which I became involved during my recent journey across The Spine of The World, the Mountains which, as I have no doubt Your Majesty will recall, form Otherwhile's northern border1.  These Mountains, snow-capped. rough-sided and with a  tendency to loom rather aggressively, have long been the locus for many items of Otherwan folklore and mythology.  Knowing my interest in such tales, my companion for the journey through this somewhat difficult terrain, Lyre2 Merrum of Melch, an Otherwan nobleman of some distinction, was happy to favour me with some few examples of the lore concerning the creatures known variously as Cawfolk, Feathermen or Crowpeople.

These strange folk are the subject of tales all across Otherwhile, but, I was advised by Merrum, feature most heavily in tales originating in the region around The Spine of The World, perhaps unsurprisingly given the area's surfeit of Mountain Crows, an unusually large species of Corvid, a little bigger than a Raven and reputed to be unusually intelligent even for this most sagacious of birds.

The Crowpeople themselves are variously described.  According to some tales they are Men who take on the form of Birds, according to others they are Birds who take on the form of Women, while yet others aver that they are neither Men nor Women nor Birds but remnants of the First Folk, who reputedly lived upon our World long before Man and Woman first set foot upon it.  Whichever is the case, tales of them have an almost universally dark aspect, being continually associated with Melancholy and with Death.

"One for darkness
Two for rain
Three for sadness
Four for pain
Five for suff'ring
Six for death
Meet seven and draw not one more breath."

Among the many stories Merrum shared with me was that of a crowmaiden, gifted to an old and childless couple, which I found most affecting ...  [At this point in his letter, Lemnick goes on to repeat the Tale of the Crowgirl, which I will omit here]

... As Fortune would have it, it was on the same day that Merrum shared this tale that we were to have our own brush with local superstition.  Whilst travelling through a particularly unfriendly pass, our small party encountered a Snowstorm of such Suddenness and Violence that it scattered men and beasts alike.  Had it not been for the swift actions of my own attendant, Reech, I would have been cast from my horse.  As it was, I was able to gain some control over the creature and, together with Reech and two other retainers was able to rescue Merrum, whose mount had cast him off with some violence, and drag him to some shelter.  With the storm refusing to abate and Merrum both befuddled from a blow to the head and suffering what appeared to be a broken arm, we were in a very sorry state and, I must confess to Your Majesty, I feared my time in Your Service might well be approaching a rather earlier End than I had anticipated.

"To follow the Crow-woman": an Otherwan euphemism for Death

How thankful, then, was I when, even as the Blizzard raged, the dark Forms of a group of men and women began to emerge from the Storm.  And yet, my Joy was unshared.  Rather than greeting those who approached us as Friends in our Peril, the attendants all began to make the Sign of the Absented and to twist their hands in a manner intended to ward off the Evil Eye.  Reech himself, usually a Man to know his Place and never question it, had the effrontery to put a Hand on my Person and try to draw me away from the Strangers.  I quickly shrugged him off, giving him a Look that, even in the Storm, sufficed to remind him of his Place and of Mine, then took the Time to examine those who drew near.

They were not, admittedly, a group over-endowed with Beauty.  If anything they were somewhat hunch-shouldered and rather short in stature, though their features were sharp and their dark eyes held the spark that marks real Intellect, even as they lurked in their shadowed faces.  They moved with surprising Lightness, hopping neatly across the Snow over which the now-cowering attendants and I had trudged.  None of this seemed extraordinary and I was at a loss to understand what had caused such consternation among my small band until I noted that the Strangers' clothes, which were otherwise of the usual rough type worn by those living in the vicinity of the Mountains, were heavily adorned with Crows' feathers.  Connecting this at once to Merrum's tales, I realised the simple-headed servants had fallen back on superstition and thought the strangers to be the half-bird, half-men Creatures of their Myths.

"Four Cawfolk came a-corpsing by-and-by
One took the lips, another an eye
One took a finger, one stood apart
Then all of 'em battled over who should have the heart"

Dismissing such Superstitious concerns, I called out to the Leader of the approaching Group, who greeted me in return.  His Voice was, I grant, a little harsh and his words and dialect had an Antique quality about them but, nonetheless, all he had to say was Friendly and indicated a willingness to band together to wait out the storm. Thus he called on his Group and soon they were huddled alongside me, while the attendants continued to skulk and mutter their protective Charms.  I meanwhile, had only concern for Merrum, who by now was showing all the signs of a high Fever. 

Seeing Merrum's State, a woman with a Face of a kind that even a Mother would turn from it, stepped forward from among our new Companions, announcing that she had some skill as a Healer and would tend to Merrum's wounds.  I must admit to Your Majesty that I had some doubt as to the advisability of allowing a Stranger to attend to my Friend but, given the difficulties of our position and the refusal of the Storm to abate, I felt I had little alternative but to accede, and soon the woman was hopping forward to Merrum's side and twitching an assortment of bone instruments and pouches of powder from a bag she kept at her waist.  This was, I regret, too much for the two remaining attendants who, seeing what they took to be a Crowish Witch approaching, fled at once into the Snows.  My man Reech, meanwhile, turned away from us all and burrowed deep within his cloak, babbling his own Charms.  Appalled at such ignorance, I waved the woman to her work.

"Take ashes for your widows
Eat charcoal for your men
See not the crowman's nightblack coat
Or never smile again"

I will not bore Your Majesty with all the Details of the doctoring with which Merrum was attended by the ill-favoured medicine woman, but there are some Peculiarities which I feel sure Serene Self would have the Kindness to enjoy.  The treatment was begun by the woman throwing a red-tinted powder onto the snow, for all the world making the area around Merrum appear like some blood-stained Field of battle.  Next she let out a series of rasping cries, strangely unmuffled by the winds which continued to beat at our poor shelter.  Then she produced a few scraps of tinder which, when kindled with a striking stone, let off a powerful, not unpleasant odour.  She next began to waft the burning substance under Merrum's nose, which Procedure appeared to further loosen the bonds of his mind on his Surroundings and send him deeper into sleep.  After this, she began a long and looping dance around Merrum's body, at the same time giving voice to a series of low ululations.  The effect was strongly soporific, something confirmed by the fact that I too was soon slipping into Unconsciousness, with only time to note that, huddled at some distance as he was, Reech also appeared to have surrendered his mind to Oblivion.

I did not wake until the next morning, when I found the storm abated, Reech seeing to my horse, Merrum hale, in good heart and entirely unaware of the events that had befallen him and the Strangers entirely gone. Not one sign was there that they had ever been about and no sign of them did we ever encounter on the rest of our journey through the pass, though we must surely have followed the same Paths as they.  When I questioned Reech about it, he made signs against the Evil Eye and muttered that we had "met the Crowmen and survived" and that we should "give thanks to the Absented for it".  I, of course, was quick to dismiss such foolishness, yet it did at least furnish me with an Example of the tight grasp the legend of the Crowpeople exerts on the minds of simpler men even to this day, an Example which I am gratified to be able to pass on to Your Serene Self.

There is but one small addendum to my story, which is this: a day's journey after we had met the Storm and Merrum had received aid at the Strangers' hands, we encountered the servants who had run off at the beginning of the Medicine Woman's ritual.  They were, I regret to say, dead, having perished in the storm.  It was in truth a pitiable sight, a testament to the dangers of Ignorance, made all the worse by the fact that, even after exacting the Tribute of their Lives, Nature had sought yet more of them, for it was evident on close examination that both men's eyes had been neatly plucked out, as if by some claw or beak.

1. Those seeking a map of Otherwhile will find it here
2. "Lyre" is the rough Otherwan equivalent of our own "Sir" and indicates someone whose position is somewhere between a knight and a member of the nobility.  The same term is used for persons of either sex.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

So, What's Going On?

Much, much is going on.  Unfortunately, a lot of it is in the real world rather than Otherwhile.  As a result, rather than something bespoke, today's update is an off-the-peg (actually out-of-the-dust-filled-bottom-drawer) story, set in a vaguely Arabian Nights-y land, and called The City of Bells.  You can find it capering around in The Pasture for Elderly Stories at this very moment.

And what else is to come?  Well, I'm keen to learn more about the Crowpeople: they'll play a part in the book for which these Otherwhile Tales are supposedly providing the background, and people have been very kind about The Tale of The Crowgirl, so it seems like a good idea to revisit them soon.  I'll probably have to consult with Lemnick of Carysfort again and see if he has any further information on these mysterious folk.  I'm also conscious that I've left would-be thief of Otherwhile Arbor Vulpa still stuck in an impossible forest, so I'll need to see how he's getting along too.

And then there are all those other elements of Otherwhile to cover, like the Mountain Herds and the Fallen Stars and more information on the Queens of Day, not to mention The Heart of the World itself.  So, fingers crossed, something along those lines will be coming in the future.  On the other hand, they may need to make way for The Tale of The Candle-Heart Boy, whose title popped into my head last week and has been leaping around crying for attention ever since.

I hope that sounds interesting.  In the interim, all the best and have fun in The City of Bells.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

The Tale of the Crowgirl

Not so long ago and not so far from here there lived an old man and an old woman.  They were very happy in themselves and in each other, save for one thing: they could not have any children.  Now it happened that one day, when the old man was on his way to market, he came across a birdseller being waylaid by two ruffians.  The old man was strong for his age and had seen long service in the army of the Queens of Day.  So it was that he set upon the ruffians, belabouring them with his crook until all that could be seen of their skin was black and blue and purple and red, and they fled off into the woods never to be seen again, leaving the old man and the birdseller to gather up the scattered cages that held her chittering, flittering birds.

Now the birdseller, who was young and very fair, was most grateful to the old man and asked him whether there was anything that he desired.  Being a little slower of mind than he was of arm, the old man shook his head, telling her that his dearest wish was one she could not fulfil, which was that he should have a child.  Hearing this, the birdseller smiled and reached into one of her cages and drew out from it a crow, which sat patiently upon her finger.  She spoke to the bird in a language the old man could not understand and when she had finished speaking it hopped down from her hand towards the earth.  But as its feet touched the ground it was no longer a crow but a small girl, no higher than the old man's knee, with long, dark hair and eyes like the night sky.  Gravely, the child walked towards the old man and took hold of his outstretched hand.

"Now", said the birdseller, "heed well my words: this child is yours to raise and care for, as all the world raises and cares for its children.  She will grow as other children do and live as other children live but she is not a child as they: her feet must not touch earth, for it will remind her of the feel of the ground beneath her claws and she will fly away; her teeth must not touch meat, for it will remind her of the wriggling of worms in her beak and she will fly away; and, most of all, she must not touch fire, for the flames will make her fear and she will fly away".

The old man nodded at her words and, satisfied that he had understood, she took up her birds and cages and walked away and was never seen by him again.

And so the old man walked home, the crowgirl skipping happily along at his side.  And when the old woman saw them arrive and heard the tale of what had happened, her face split in a wide smile and laughter bubbled in her belly and she joined her husband and the crowgirl in a dance of joy.

The years passed as years will do and the crowgirl grew into a young women.  She was fleet of thought and light of foot, her laughter was as warm as sun in summer and the only tears she knew were ones of happiness.  The old man and old woman loved her very much and tended to her with all the care and gentleness a parent could have and always they heeded the birdseller's words and never once let her bare feet touch the earth or her teeth touch meat, nor did they let her approach a flame.

Now villages are close-minded places and strangers and strangeness have little room in them but, for all that, the crowgirl's wit and beauty and warm-heart were such that all who met her loved her and none ever questioned who she was or where she came from.

As the crowgirl's beauty moved from bud to blossom, the old man and old woman found a steady stream of visitors coming to their gate, to gaze upon their daughter's long, dark hair and eyes like night, and to sigh.  Soon, word of her charm reached the ear of the local lord and soon this handsome prince found his heart captured by her mind and looks and laughter and soon again did he bow down before her and seek her hand  in marriage and sooner still she put her arms around him and said, "Yes".

The marriage day came swift as summer swallows and the old man and the old woman and all the people of the village gathered before the lord's hall for a celebration such as had rarely been seen.  Eagerly they helped to cut back the grass so that there might be dancing, and to carry the meats and wines and fish and fruit that there might be feasting and to pile high the wood that great fires might burn long into the merry night.  And in the midst of all the rushing and bustling, the crowgirl and her lord stood together, wrapped in happiness, awaiting the moment that they might speak their vows.  And when their vows were spoken, they kissed such a kiss as has never been known and a great shout of joy went up from those assembled and the casks were cracked and the fires were lit and a great, wild dance was begun.   And now the old man and old woman looked down upon their daughter and her lord and they found their hearts swelling with pride.

The crowgirl and her lord were plied with wine and fêted by all and filled up with the love they had for each other and the love others had for them, so that they became giddy with it all.  And when the villagers called on their dark-haired girl to dance, she kicked off her shoes and span into the middle of the grassy circle and led a long and lively dance, her bare feet beating down against the earth.  And such was the old man's pride in his daughter that he said nothing.  And when the servants brought forth the fruit and fish and meat they had prepared, the lord and his crowgirl enjoyed all, the crowgirl savouring the sweet taste of flesh against her teeth.    And such was the old woman's pride in her daughter that she said nothing.  And then night's cold began to lurk and the fires were stoked to send it back and then the crowgirl held out her hands to the flames that they might be warm. And at that moment the words of the birdseller echoed in the minds of the old man and the old woman and both cried out.

They were too late.  A single flame, whipped by a sudden wind, licked against the crowgirl's hand and, at its touch, something within her leapt away in fear and, as it leapt, it thought upon the heat of the fire and the touch of meat against teeth and the feel of earth under foot ... and then it thought of fear and the wriggling of worms in beaks and the feel of the ground beneath claws.  And at that moment, the crowgirl's dark hair turned to feathers and her dark eyes turned as black as coal and her laughter turned to a crow's harsh caw and then she was a girl no longer, merely a small, black bird, leaping into the night sky and away from the flames.

On seeing this, the villagers and the lord's men and the lord himself cried out at witches' work and set upon the old man and the old woman, beating them and cursing them and ignoring their cries for mercy until, at last, they cried no more and the only sound that could be heard was the call of a single black crow.  And then the lord and the lord's men and the villagers turned away from each other and went back to their homes unspeaking.  Nor did they speak the next day, as they buried the old man and the old woman.

And so time passed as time does and a year and a day went by from the lord's wedding to the crowgirl.  That night, as the people of the village and the hall lay in their beds asleep and the moon tucked herself behind the clouds, there came a rustling in the sky, distant at first and then ever closer, sounding all the while like a soft blanket being drawn over a child.  Such a calm sound it was that all in the village and the hall were cast deeper into their slumbers.  Soon they were so fast asleep that they did not hear the sound break up as it drew near, becoming the noise of many wings, beating against the air.  Nor did they see the dark and many-eyed cloud, blacker even than the night, which approached the little village.  Nor did the hear the many caws, and khows and karks that issued from it.  They slept on even as cunning claws and beaks scratched at locks and pulled at windows, as creatures hopped and flew from house to house and bed to bed and crib to crib.

Next morning they awoke from a deep and dreamless sleep, into a world of great quiet, a world in which no birds called and no babe cried.  And then, in every house a great wailing went up, as the villagers and lord's men and lord learned what had befallen them, for in all that place every crib was empty and every cot was bare.  Somehow, in the middle of the night, all the children had been snatched away and taken up to a place that few shall ever know.  Some say that they were taken to the home of the West Wind, some to the singing sands of Afar, but one man of uncertain age, more long than tall, and one silver-haired mistress of thieves, say that they were taken to the home of the birdseller, high up in the mountains of Otherwhile, where they were taught many secrets unknown to men.  And that, they say, is how the Crowpeople came to be.