Thursday, March 8th marks the start of my new serial, following the rise and fall of Rapunzel’s captor, Mother Gothel. The journey begins with the following preview.
“There once lived a man and his wife who had long wished for a child, but in vain. Now there was at the back of their house a little window which overlooked a beautiful garden full of the finest vegetables and flowers; but there was a high wall round it, and no one ventured into it, for it belonged to a witch of great might, and of whom all the world was afraid.”
-The Brothers Grimm, Rapunzel
The wind rushed the blue pillars of the cloister, painting the garden with bright waves of incense. From the shadows, Gothel Morcades, Princess of Aealdor pushed a broom across the flagstones. The heady smoke of prayers lifted her. Her brown eyes closed but her cool hands repeated the rocking motions, guiding the stern elder branches through yielding old leaves and stray earth. High above the pale bricks and painted limestone of the Kannon of Saint Bruna, a lone hawk sounded. Gothel Morcades wrapped herself around its song, fierce and free like the keen of a feathered drake. Beneath the brown robe of the young dune’s habit, Gothel’s heart swelled. Today she was two and twenty, almost to the hour of her birth. For eight years she had dwelt within these open walls, beneath this roving sky, cradled by leagues of sturdy forest. The dramas of court were far behind her.
Her eyes opened, tracing the vibratory dance of a bee along the low hanging wisteria off the flagstones. As it passed, Gothel counted the tolling of a bell. One ring at midday summoned the novice dunes of the cloister to the office of the kannoness. Two rings summoned the adepts. The princess counted two and carried the broom down the shaded pathway. Through late summer, the doors of the cloister leading to the Kannon proper were left open. Gothel passed through a round wooden portal behind a parted curtain. Even at midday, the chamber of dark bricks was lit by many candles. Smoke of a bitter sort lofted down the auxiliary altar of squat Saint Engred, the beggar who lifted the drowned body of young Saint Bruna from the forest pool before the first geyser sprang to life. Gothel’s father had been named for the saint, whose coarse mane of hair recalled his own. Seldom did she pray here, with its low ceiling and tarnished draperies tended by the novice dunes. At the back of the room, the princess climbed five stone stairs to a sunny foyer with wide rugs and high curtains recalling the garden’s wisteria. Here she was joined by two of her fellows, and then five and eight as silent dunes young and old passed from the open doors flanking the chamber from the left and right. Gothel Morcades flowed behind them in a stable train up the dais and the tower stairs leading to the office of the kannoness.
Wendolyn Crown was six and seventy. She had been the kannoness and high dune of Saint Bruna’s for more than forty years. She sat behind the low desk like a dusty parakeet perched upon a branch. The old woman was surrounded by salvaged furniture. A full length mirror dominated the western corner and in the east, a coral vase sprouted feathers. Gothel recognized the plumage of enfields in the black and russet shades, those cunning, flighty foxes prized by the hunters of Aealdor. The green and blue feathers belonged to the harmless, leaf-eating drakes, cousins of the fearful dracones. “Sisters, I will come to the point. Grave news has reached me,” said the kannoness. On her desk, a scroll of parchment curled upwards. Gothel Morcades recognized the stock from her father’s office. “The city of Amata, seat of the Holy Sarum Empire has fallen.” She did not pause to address the questions or gasps among the sisters. “The soldiers of the Holy Empire who protect this Kannon and protect our Circle have withdrawn. The military outposts along the coasts and the hill country were also vacated. As we speak, two hundred of the Empire’s warships sail from Rodor to—I suspect—defend the ruins of the Sarum’s legacy.” At last she paused. Her eyes met Sister Gothel’s and lingered until one of the younger sisters spoke.
“What of the King? Does he send his men to protect us?”
“Patrols from the capitol will increase from once to twice daily, but never after dark. There is some concern with the northern border. The Mandaro, Lord of Esmere, was never a friend to Aealdor. Now that we no longer have the defenses of the Empire, King Engred will need the balance of his army far north,” said the kannoness.
It was Thalia, one of the older, wiser adepts who offered the voice of reason, “Advanced curfew,” she said, “and the circle could hire private guards along the cloister gates.”
Mother Crown nodded. “I said as much to Father Yorice at the Circle. Be assured, a sentry will be placed atop the Circle’s bell tower. Being higher than our own modest tower, a band of lawless men or Esmerian scouts, would be easy to spot,” she frowned and rolled her eyes, “granting us a running start.”
“But let’s be reasonable. We’re much more likely to be raped or burgled by a single passerby without a guard staff in the Kannon. I move for hunting knives, for us adepts and the novice ones. Make everyone feel safer, it will,” offered Sister Thalia. But Mother Crown did not answer. Her thoughts ran sluggish circles around the King’s daughter. Gothel Morcades, with the broom she’d brought with her, looked more like a witch than a dune. Wendolyn thought she knew how it was; the younger woman with dreams behind her eyes heard the bell and climbed the tower without discarding the tool. She was always forgetful, eternally lodged elsewhere. Much like the Jester in the well known card game; her face turned upwards, her feet about to strode across a cliff.
“Perhaps. But not now, I think. For now, we will close our gates before sundown. And we need only lodge the wounded and the ill. No more peddlers or vagrants for the time being. And a strict curfew, as you said, Sister Thalia.” The old woman nodded. “Now don’t go looking mournful through the cloister. I’m counting on you to enforce my decision upon the novice class.” She made a flippant, shooing gesture not necessarily urging dismissal. Mother Crown meant to terminate the direct line of questioning. She understood a fair amount of political questions remained, and she encouraged them. But the first question was poised about the grounds.
“What about the hot springs?” asked one of the younger dunes. She stood so near the Princess Gothel, for a moment the kannoness thought it was her. She flinched, as if the question was preposterous. The springs in question were situated between the Kannon and the Circle. Wendolyn’s mind went immediately to the legend of Saint Bruna, a beautiful child plagued endlessly by her jealous mother, a local queen. Once, the devout girl of eight years stole into the forest to escape her pagan mother and fell through the darkness into a pool which flowed from Lake Gedref. The princess drowned, but when her body was removed by an old beggar, four gleaming geysers of hot water boiled forward. The water revived the saint, who went about the kingdom spreading the message of healing and salvation. Factually, the boiling waters did contain certain properties considered curative, and the site became a destination for Circle pilgrims.
“Of course,” the old woman answered impatiently, “the springs will be visible from the Circle’s tower. But, no doubt the Lord will deal with heathens who seek to defile it.” She looked away from the young adept. “Are there any questions about the nature of Sarum’s disappearance from our shores or the fate of Aealdor?”
One middle aged adept asked about the attack on the city of Amata across the eastern sea. Mother Crown nodded vigorously, restored by the logical question. “Yes! There are rumors, at this stage. Word has reached King Engred of fires among the ruins. One wonders if the dracones groomed by the state have taken action. Of course, the Holy Empire has long been enemies with Esmere and common knowledge dictates the presence of war ships perpetually docked along their coastal cities.”
“But which bodes worse? Feral dracones or the mobilized fleet of Esmere’s navy?” asked a younger adept beside Sister Thalia. Again, the kannoness would not answer. She shrugged, keeping her eyes upon the darning hands of Sister Gothel on the broomstick. How long her fingers were. It was like she gestured through a private conversation. Or convulsed, like a cat stuck within a troubled dream.
The skies opened, drawing sparrows from the garden with rain. A full week had passed since the meeting with Mother Crown. Gothel Morcades stood beyond the cloister, dusting stout bottles from a shelf above the apothecary. Thunder rattled the glass like heavy footsteps. Gold embers of dust crossed a narrow shaft of sunlight through a window on the eastern side The flakes dulled when the clouds linked and danced when the sun held sway. Soon she counted the bottles and made a register of the ones she’d fill come evening. The young woman descended the ladder as a novice called her name. Lightning struck the field outside the eastern gate, and Gothel absorbed the shock through the cobbled floor of the apothecary. The voice belonged to a young widow named Pearl who had arrived last fall. The Princess smiled when the novice entered. She had yet to register the panic on the dune’s face.
“I—From my room, I saw it!”
Gothel tilted her face. “Forgive me, sister. You saw…?”
Pearl took the adept by the forearm. Together they reached the flagstones of the cloister. The novice pointed at the garden, to the rough tangle of fur and wings and arrows amid the roses. Rain blurred its features, but Gothel thought she knew the creature. She motioned for Pearl, “Find Mother Crown, quickly!” The novice dune ran towards the kannon. Gothel advanced upon the garden. Larger than a lion it was, with a wingspan of five feet. And it was breathing; she could tell as the rain slowed. A low moan escaped the bear. An owlurus, she corrected herself; the proud and noble creature was the central figure of her family’s royal crest. She had never seen one in person. It was common knowledge that the endangered owlurus rarely took to open air. The mountains and caves were their haunts.
“Gothel Morcades!” The horrified voice of Mother Crown jolted her. The old woman was joined by an archer. Gothel reached out her hand to steady them. They stood beneath the cloister, frozen. Gothel crouched beside the owlurus. On its side it laid, with a shallow arrow lodged above the ankle. Another jutted from the opposite shoulder. Not the archer’s arrows; these were crude and makeshift.
It’s eyes opened and a voice escaped its mouth. “How… deep?” Footsteps crossed the drenched lawn. Gothel reinforced her gesture to steady them. Mother Crown ignored her charge.
“Be still, will you,” she said to Sister Gothel. The old woman half knelt on the damp earth. The archer made to steady her. “Did you speak?” she asked the owlurus.
The beast winked its eye and tensed.
“You’re in no danger here.” She motioned to a dune or two Gothel could not see. “We will examine you. The wounds seem superficial to my eyes, but I am old. My wards,” she paused, checking behind her shoulder, “are capable.” At least twelve dunes and the pair of guards retained from the entrance appeared. Gothel Morcades was pushed aside, mutely. She remained on the grass, hands folded across bent knees, fixed upon the depression of the grass after the owlurus had been lifted upon the stretcher. Her eyes held the relics of blood and feathers and sunken earth. She would not move when the storm returned in earnest. Wendolyn Crown stood by her side a moment longer.
“…an omen,” the young woman said as the back of the kannoness turned to her.
The old woman paused. Gothel, perhaps, was not truly speaking to her. “Beg pardon?”
“…but the House of Morcades will fall, even though,” she trailed off, inaudibly. Thunder resounded and Mother Crown left the adept dune where she knelt, praying to the stained and beaten ground.