Fall Theme: Spook Owl Excerpt
This is an excerpt, not the beginning, of my new project Spook Owl. I decided to use the elements of legends, autumn, prophecy, and a solitary bell tower (the fall themes) for a working legend. Much of this information will change, which is why I’m vague sometimes. (This is definitely not my best writing.) Ask me any questions, especially about the proper nouns that don’t make sense.
Violen hauled her bucket of soapy rags into the study. She hesitated, not to rest but to watch the professor. She frowned, disappointed. Of the four scrolls on his desk, three had snapped shut and one imitated a sun-bathing cat, sprawled across the desk and spotted with ink. Not only was that something else to clean, but she could see Professor Joelseph was swamped.
She squeezed half the water out of the rag most likely to stay in one piece and drew the sturdy skin window shades high enough to see the city. She took much longer wiping the rough stone sill than she needed to, working the cracks cleaner than they’d been for months. Eventually she left off any semblance of working and walked her henna-stained fingers up and down the edge: pinky, ring, middle, pointer, pivot on thumb, pointer, middle, ring, pinky, and back. Her sudsy left hand joined in.
“Two hands. Must be quite the problem,” Joelseph mumbled over his scroll.
She turned, the harsh summer sun spearing her backside. “I could tell you about it.”
Joelseph smiled. “Will the chores suffer more if we talk or if you think?”
Violen’s heart lifted for a moment. “I take much longer to think than you do, so you could work something out for me.”
“But if we factor in how much you talk…” He shook his head, holding up his scroll again.
Her face fell. “Please,” she whispered. “It’s about a king.”
Joelseph blew on the ink. “Whose king?”
Violen relaxed. If he was pausing between scrolls, they had a moment to talk. “I’m not sure yet. It’s just a suspicion. But if you have a suspicion about a king—or a queen for that matter—” she added hastily, “how could you confirm it?”
He put down the scroll, licking his top lip as he considered this. “What do you mean?”
Well, that was helpful, Violen thought, blowing out air. “I mean their names.”
“Ah.” His eyes narrowed as his mind churned up information.
“I hadn’t thought about it until… recently,” Violen said, dropping her washcloth with a splash into the bucket. “But now that I have, I realize I’ve never heard the names of the royal family of Doors. They’re just the King and Queen and Princes and Princesses. It’s the same in any Kingdom.”
Joelseph was tapping his chin now. “Actually, you might’ve done without realizing it. Names are meant to be spoken, and be sure, they will be.”
Violen looked over her shoulder across the University greensward. She saw a few students, but not her spook. “They’ve kept their secrets.”
“As I understand the method, the kings and queens never give more than one name—or a name and a title—to the same person. You’d only have heard the names in worlds and for people you’d never connect.”
“Why would they do that? What are they hiding?”
“If someone knew their names, they’d be vulnerable.”
“You’re saying names have power.”
“No. Words are power. Names are control, especially to those who have power already.”
As a delicious shudder ran up Violen’s spine, she hugged herself. In human lore, names characterized a person. That was before they became a collection of syllables parents liked, but now that her brain was turning it over, Violen wondered if that’s why humans still favored nicknames. She didn’t call Draile “Hoot” for nothing—it described him.
“Murmur murmur murmur Shells?”
Joelseph’s voice drew Violen back in. She let her arms drop to her sides again. “What did you say?”
“Have you ever heard of the Bell Tower of Shells?” Joelseph repeated, rolling his eyes.
“I didn’t think so, but you might try paying attention for the short time we’ve got.”
Violen pressed her lips together, determined to wait for the point.
Joelseph smiled to himself, although he managed to maintain eye contact with her. “Wanderers used to meet there every autumn. I remember the rocky part of the shore, where the cold made me feel empty, but it just made the sound of the bells larger. We told the legends as they cleaned out gull nests and other remains of the year, and the one with the best story got to ring the bell the next morning.”
“You were a wanderer?” An elf, traveling without a caravan, cleaning with his own magic instead of human hands? Violen thought with wonder.
“Just with my parents, just for a while. Now the Bell Tower is a legend in the Kingdom of Shells, too.”
“Why?” Violen’s shoulders fell with disappointment. She had started to love these elves. “What happened to them?”
“Ah…” The lines in Joelseph’s face deepened as he sighed. “Remember how old I am. I was raised long before the Queen of Nests. But now men and women only move freely in Doors, and that’s only because of the dunes. If you could grow or fish here, the King and Queen hold off trade and send each one to their homes.” He gave a wry laugh. “Isn’t it odd? Travelers are only welcome to follow the call in the land with nothing to see. No shining shores like home…” He shook his head, his eyes gleaming.
Violen imagined bell towers and stories ringing in every kingdom. “You’d make a good king.”
The corners of Joelseph’s eyes crinkled, but in a stern voice he said, “Wheesht, girl, you’ll get yourself arrested. One good of the Bell Tower is there I heard the legend of the named.”
Violen lifted herself into the windowsill. “I’m listening.”
“Once upon this world, the Great Kingdom hadn’t yet split, but the Crown Prince was wasting his life well enough that it was certain to do so soon. One winter a tall person in a dark brown cloak that reached the floor came to this elf, calling himself the Wise One. At least, everyone thought the visitor was he. A hood completely overshadowed his face, and his voice was low and melodic but not particularly distinct. But once before the throne, she uncloaked—white silk-clad with silver stitching, gold her hair.”
“A spook woman?”
“Yes—and the Crown Prince was insulted that he had paid compliments to her as the Wise One. He wanted to cast her out, but the huge Red hound—”
Joelseph puckered his lips, thinking. “Didn’t I mention her giant dog? That’s another reason they let her in—he looked as if he could leap the battlements. The way I heard it, anyway.”
“Convenient that she didn’t need any magic to protect herself.”
“Typical example of elf fairytales, Violen,” Joelseph said. “The witches and wizards are supposed to be spooks, but they often appeal more than the heroes—and when they do their ‘tainted’ magic, it’s usually completely out of character. I rather thought when I heard it that this woman scared the Prince with her greater queenliness than his kingliness.”
“I take it she wasn’t impressed with him.”
“For what is supposed to be no good reason, she told him that he was going to lose his right to the throne—that he would lose even his name before the end. He took this as a prophecy, that he should protect his title by enchanting it.”
Violen’s hands went up in the air. “He believed he was prophesied to do…what?”
“Enchant the title, which he went on to do in a most fantastic and legendary way. Mind you, I don’t hold with prophecies. Magic is all very well, but our predictions are based on logic, not dreams and visions and second-rate fortune-telling that some fae stoop to.”
Violen felt color spread over her the tops of her brown cheeks. “I believe in dreams and visions.”
Joelseph shifted his weight onto his sagging elbow. “Am I criticizing you again?” He stretched his arm to her. “I apologize for violating our truce between human and fae. You can’t help how you’re raised.”
Violen took his offered hand and squeezed it. “You’ve done so much for me.”
Her brother would’ve debated with Joelseph that her belief in prophecy was not a product of the common human views of magic. Prophecies—the true ones, not necessarily this one in the legend—came from the Most High God as signs of His purposes, and many had been fulfilled already, particularly that of Mishael the Deliverer.
So Flet would have argued, but Violen hated causing friction with the only elf she respected.
“The point is that the Prince thought it was a prophecy, and he did exactly the wrong thing. He ran away. You can’t run away from prophecies or chase them; it defeats the purpose… if you believe in that sort of thing, right?”
Violen smiled a little. “But he did succeed in enchanting his title somehow, didn’t he? I thought that was the point of the lesson.”
“He did, yet the prophecy came true—that’s the balance of the legend. The magic of names came to be that if anyone knew both his names, they’d have the right to remove him without killing him. This held for him and his descendants and all who would be Kings and Queen after, but still he lost his names. The same enchantress spoke to him before he became the King, and his sister ruled in his place.”
“Not the enchantress herself?”
“Of course not. It’s a tragedy, but it would be treason for a story to put a spook on the throne.”
Violen fell silent for a moment. “So… what did the names actually do to remove him? I can’t see anyone giving up the throne just because someone named them.”
“You’re right—it’s magic, not a legal right. But the idea of the system is not that it’s fool-proof safe for a people or for the ruler…”
Violen started to speak when he paused, but he held up a hand.
“The point is that the full control of all the names is hard enough to find that one would only seek it if a new ruler was necessary.”
“But how? Does it hurt them? Kill them? Banish them?”
Joelseph laughed. “I don’t know! Our royal families guard their names well; I’ve never known the two to meet, much less all three. The legend concerns itself only with the noble death of the Prince and the tears of the succeeding Princess—and of course they had to cram her development in at the exciting bit, because she didn’t know up before.”
Violen remembered the idea behind the legend again. It wasn’t so that the hearers could depose their rulers off-hand, but it seemed to leave a lot of room for bloodthirsty fantasy.
“But that’s not what you really came to ask,” he sighed. “Violen, why do you pry, and why now?”
Violen swallowed. “The unrest in the Kingdom of Nests—it frightens me, because of Draile. Our spook might go to war.” Her voice stuck. “He won’t believe we have to come.”
Joelseph hooked his thumbs and flapped his hands. “Sometimes a restless loved one must fly away alone.”
Violen framed her chin with the L of her long brown forefinger and thumb. She cracked a smile. “That was weak, Professor, even for you.”
He grinned, lopsided. “One of your own proverbs says that worrying won’t add a day to your life. Get back to work now.”
Violen looked down at the bucket. At the end of the day, she was still the girl who did the chores—but after the end, she was the girl who dreamed. In some ways she envied Draile’s nocturnal life. He had never had a nightmare.