THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
January 28, 2017
When I was a child, my Uncle Neil used to tell me (and as many other children as were on hand to gather around him) a fairy tale that he called “The Story of Feet-in-the-Ashes.” It began like this: “The King of Ireland stood out on the terrace in front of his castle, surrounded by his powerful captains and his strong-armed guards.…”
In the story a vicious giant named Shambleshanks, from the Island of the Shadow of the Stars, knocks out the King’s three front teeth and walks away with them. The King promises a reward of half of his kingdom and hand of his daughter in marriage to anyone who will slay the giant Shambleshanks and return to the King his three front teeth. The only one who will take up the challenge is a poor boy named Feet-in-the-Ashes, who, aided by a few magical gifts from his grandmother, sails off to the Island of the Shadow of the Stars, slays the giant, manages to find the King’s three front teeth, brings them back to Ireland, and claims his reward.
I found out years later that the story was originally written by Padraic Colum, under the title “The Stone of Victory,” and was included in Colum’s book of stories The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said. I have a photocopy of the original story, as well as a tape recording of Uncle Neil telling his version, and Uncle Neil’s version is an almost word-for-word recital of Colum’s.
A few years ago I was waiting for a story idea to present itself to me, because I’d been itching to get started on a new novel. Whenever I’m not in the process of writing a story, I feel as if I’m not doing what I was meant to do. During this fallow period I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Annals of the Western Shore, a trilogy containing the novels Gifts, Voices, and Powers. I marveled at those books, wishing that I had such a gift for fantasy. But where would I find a plot?
The answer came to me: steal something. Not a whole story but a small handful of schticks to get started with. The first fantasy story of my youth, Uncle Neil’s “The Story of Feet-in-the-Ashes,” gave me enough to travel with. I took only a few artifacts from Uncle Neil’s tale, which he stole from Colum’s story, which Colum probably lifted from Irish folklore. The King of Ireland’s three front teeth became the crystal eye of High King Rohar of Blackberry Island, the largest of the fourteen Farther Isles. Feet-in-the-Ashes was replaced by Rodney Trapper, the Goatherd’s Son, of the Isle of Goats. Shambleshanks turned into the Giant Clobber of the Isle of Wind.
That’s all I needed. I cut ties with the original plot, and I wrote the story as it made itself up. It developed into a story that owes a lot to several archetypes in our cultural lore: David and Goliath, the Odyssey, Jack and the Beanstalk, and The Wizard of Oz, for starters. I hope my story will entertain readers who have fun reading those classics. But even if it doesn’t, for I know I’m no match for Ursula LeGuin, I had a fine time on this voyage. And I was glad to be writing again.
I self-published The King’s Eye as an ebook, and it’s now available on Kindle, Nook, and wherever ebooks are sold. But I have also decided to present the novel (for free) to readers of my blog, The Joy of Story. I will post a new chapter the fourth Saturday of each month, and it will remain the lead post for a week thereafter.
We begin this week with the Prologue, which sets the plot in motion. I hope you enjoy it!
THE KING’S EYE
A Fantasy of the Farther Isles
John M. Daniel
On the Summer Solstice of the twenty-first year of the reign of High King Rohar the Seventh, twelve of the thirteen lesser monarchs of the Farther Isles gathered at Blackberry Island, as they did on the Summer Solstice of every year, to swear their allegiance to the High King. The one missing lesser monarch, the Giant Clobber from the Isle of the South Wind, was not missed. None of the other kings and queens, including High King Rohar, could abide Clobber, and Clobber had never sworn allegiance to anyone but himself.
The married kings brought their queens along, and the queens brought their consorts, and the mood of the meeting was merry. This year’s gathering was more festive than ever, for King Rohar’s only child, the maiden Llanaa, had just turned sixteen years old, the age a maiden should marry; and Llanaa was as beautiful as the full moon on a clear winter night, and as ready as a ripe summer berry to become a woman, and a queen. Four of the lesser kings of the Farther Isles had brought along their unmarried sons, each king hoping to strengthen his ties to the High King by the bonds of family and favoritism.
It wasn’t up to Llanaa to choose her husband, but if she had to choose she would have had a hard time deciding between Prince Tamber of Isle of Mirth, the black-haired handsomest of the four, and Prince Lowll of the Isle of Worth, the richest. Lowll’s father’s castle was said to be splendid, built of red marble and furnished with fleece and furs. Prince Zorn from the Isle of Song would do, Princess Llanaa supposed, but he was already twenty-seven years old, and he was said to prefer reading books to riding horses, and to prefer his friend Songeman, the choirmaster, over the company of any woman. As for the fourth suitor, Prince Frogge, he was out of the question: a short, round, giggling lad of twelve whose voice had yet to change, and he hailed from the marshy, rainy little outlying Isle of Fens. Frogge’s grin was too big for his face, and his head was too big for his body. An annoying, fat little puppy he was, and always had been.
Surely the Stars in all their wisdom knew that Princess Llanaa, who stood as tall and as serenely proud as her beautiful mother, and whose wild forest of hair was as red and thick as her father’s fierce beard, deserved a better betrothal than one to a squeaky child, or to a reader of books.
The day was spent on the long lawn behind King Rohar’s castle, a vast expanse of lush green grass kept trim by pair of dwarf goats. The kings and the four princes played an all-afternoon game of chuckerball, which gave them a chance to vent their rivalry without revealing their mutual dislike for one another. The game was interrupted once when his lesser Majesty King Thikken accidentally tossed the chuckerball into the reedy little pond in the center of the lawn. That might have put a welcome end to the game had not Prince Frogge stripped himself utterly naked and waded into the mucky water and retrieved the ball, for which he was insincerely thanked. At least young Frogge wasn’t seen naked by the women, who were naked themselves, but far away on the sandy shore at the end of the lawn.
High King Rohar, a tall, burly man of middle age with a fire-colored bramble of beard, did not take part in the game of chuckerball, but stood watching from the terrace, his mouth set in a broad grin. Perhaps he was watching the game, with his good right eye of icy blue. Or he could have been enjoying the spectacle of naked womenfolk on the sandy shore, watching with the clear crystal ball he wore in his left eye socket. It was said that this crystal eye could see far distances, and into men’s minds, and even into the future; but most folk didn’t really believe the King’s left eye had such powers. It was eerie and commanding, but in truth only a ball of pure crystal, which he had worn for twenty-one years, having lost his original left eye in battle on the Isle of the South Wind, the only battle King Rohar had ever lost.
Late in the afternoon, when the sun was still in the sky but the shadows were growing long on the lawn, all the guests repaired to their separate quarters for a brief rest and a quick wash, then donned fresh finery and reassembled on the terrace. They drank ale and wine, and chatted and laughed, like friends—although the kings and queens all knew that the friendship showing on the surface barely masked their silent and deep-rooted rivalry.
After the time spent in social drinking, the entire company filed into the Great Hall, where they sat and sated themselves on Blackberry Island coney stew, hot bread fresh from the castle’s ovens, and a salad of greens plucked that afternoon from the palace garden.
When the meal was finished and the crockery taken away by the servants, the light from the windows had darkened and the air had grown chilly. The steward brought a candle into the Great Hall and started the fire in the hall’s massive stone fireplace. He lit the torches on the walls and then walked up the length of one of the guest tables and down the other, lighting the candles in brass candelabra. He then lit the candles on the head table, where the High King sat with Queen Gardeen and Princess Llanaa. When the room was warm and bright, the steward tapped a brass gong on the head table for silence, and he left the hall before all chatter ceased.
King Rohar stood and held his scepter up for all to see the candlelight sparkling in its jewels. Candlelight also sparkled in the King’s left eye.
“Fellow kings, gracious queens, and proud young princes, I welcome you once again to my island and my home. We gather this night, as we do every year, to pledge our friendship and allegiance to one another. As you know, this is your oath of fealty to me as your High King, but we must consider it more a solemn promise to each other that we stand together and undivided. I shall ask each monarch to stand, one at a time, and loudly proclaim the oath as I do now.” King Rohar laid the scepter down and sang out the tuneless song for all to hear.
“With all my mind and all my body and all my heart I honor and support my fellow kings and queens of the Alliance of Farther Isles, and I pledge my fealty to the High King of Blackberry Island. As I am faithful to the Stars, I will be faithful to my fellow monarchs of the Farther Isles, and to this promise, forever.”
The High King sat down and turned his gaze to the lesser king seated at the far end of one of the long tables. “King Gorling, what say you?”
King Gorling of the Isle of Thunder stood, cleared his throat, and chanted, “With all my mind and all my body and all my heart I honor and support my fellow kings and queens of the Alliance of Farther Isles, and I pledge my fealty to the High King of Blackberry Island. As I am faithful to the Stars, I will be faithful to my fellow monarchs of the Farther Isles, and to this promise, forever.”
So it went, monarch after monarch, until all twelve lesser kings and queens had sworn the oath. When the last king, Othor of Fens, had said his piece and sat down, the entire party of assembled royalty shouted loudly together, and whistled, and howled with what passed for comradeship.
King Rohar stood again. “Now, this Midsummer Night, as you all know, we have another matter to discuss.”
The lesser kings and princes cheered, but the High King stared them down to silence. “The matter of my daughter, the light of my life, more precious than spring, who is now ripe as summer. Your Majesties, and your highnesses—”
The massive door at the far end of the Great Hall banged open and stunned the High King into a loud silence.
Into the Great Hall of the castle of Blackberry Island marched the one man loathed by every king and every queen present. The Giant Clobber, King of the Isle of the South Wind, the only lesser king who had refused to be called lesser, and had refused to pledge allegiance to any confederation of puny rulers.
None of the kings or queens in the hall had seen the Giant Clobber for twenty-one years, not since he had stamped out of this same Great Hall, cursing and smashing crockery with his cudgel as he left.
Now he stamped back into the hall, half again as tall as the tallest king in the room and carrying a cudgel as long as a lance and as thick as a leg. He strode between the long tables and didn’t stop until he reached the head table and stood towering over the Royal Family. He grunted. He hollered “Haaaahh!” He smashed his cudgel on the tabletop and grinned when the candles toppled over and sputtered out in the spilled wine.
The assembled lesser monarchs and their spouses and sons murmured and gasped, then sat in stunned and frightened silence.
The Giant Clobber snatched the nose of the High King of the Farther Isles, and tilted his head backwards, forcing Rohar to look up into his seething face. Then the Giant plucked a spoon from the table, jammed it into the High King’s left eye socket, and scooped out the crystal eye, which fell and clattered on the table, rolled, and came to rest in front of the frightened Queen. The Giant Clobber released the High King’s nose, snatched up the crystal ball, and put it in the pouch that hung from the rope around his massive waist. He nodded to the High King, and to Queen Gardeen, and to Princess Llanaa, then turned and marched out of the Great Hall and into the night.
The steward watched the Giant stride across the terrace, over the long lawn, and down to the shore, where a galley ship awaited him in the last glimmer of twilight.
Inside the Great Hall the High King was the first to stand and speak. “Who will avenge me?” he roared. “You have all just sworn your fealty to me. Will you go as one to bring that villain to his knees, and to bring me back my left eye? Speak up!”
No one answered.
Very quietly, the High King said, “As the Stars are my witness, to the man who kills the Giant Clobber and brings me back my left eye, I promise to give the western half of the Kingdom of Blackberry Island, as well as the hand of my daughter in marriage. What say you, you brave young princes? Prince Tamber?”
“I’m afraid I’ve injured my back playing chuckerball,” Prince Tamber answered. “Otherwise—”
“Your Majesty, I beg to be excused. My father and I have a large estate to manage, and—”
“Zorn? Are you a coward too?” the High King thundered.
“No, your Majesty. I’m a librarian. I’ve never trained for battle.”
“Because you’re a coward,” King Rohar shouted. “You’re all cowards, every whimpering one of you. You call yourself kings and princes? You’re rabbits, that’s what you are. Well, I’ll just have to find somebody among the common folk who has courage and loyalty. I’ll post the word throughout my island kingdom, and throughout your lesser kingdoms as well, that—”
“Yes? Who spoke?”
Round little Prince Frogge of the Isle of Fens stood up. “I’ll go,” he said. “I’ll kill that giant and bring you back your eye.” Frogge grinned. “And then I’ll marry your daughter.”
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for February’s 99-word story submissions is February 1, 2017. The stories will appear on my blog post for February 11, and will stay posted for a week.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: email@example.com
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by the following sentence (in honor of Valentine’s Day): I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.
Calling all published authors—
I try to feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for visiting. Please drop by next week!