That Loser Lise Wrote Another Novel: the (in)Frequently Asked Questions + Excerpt

This is largely the same post I made on Facebook on Monday — all I’ve added is the excerpt at the end, and a bunch of links. Feel free to skip it if you’ve read it there. I know at the moment the world is focused on bigger matters than little ol’ me and my writing, but I wanted to have this preserved somewhere less ephemeral and easier to reference than FB.

As I wrote elsewhere, I recently finished the novel project I’d been working on for ~3 years. Like the last time I finished a major writing project, I thought I’d make a few notes for people who might be interested in helping me out with the difficult next steps.

So, what’s the title of this novel?

A Lioness Embarked

So what is this one About ™?

A Lioness Embarked is a fantasy re-imagining of The Three Musketeers from the point of view of the antagonists, liberally sprinkled with queer characters, polyamory, frockery, and bad innuendos. In order to repay a life debt, diplomat (read: spy) Yfre must unravel a conspiracy to assassinate the Empress she hates.

It’s fantasy, obviously. Adult fantasy, specifically, and fantasy of manners more specifically still. Indeed, if you go to the Wikipedia page and look at the list of authors, it looks a lot like a list of my favorites 🙂

My alpha readers have compared it to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside stuff, which is flattering, and has caused me to ABSOLUTELY NEVER MENTION CHOCOLATE, because the similarities really are too great. Ironic, since I didn’t even read Swordspoint until I’d already started Lioness. There are some incidental similarities to the Kushiel series, too, just because we both picked a fantasy version of medieval France as our setting.

Other than that, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a great deal of inspiration from Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, although it’s grimmer in its outlook. (Definitely not grimdark, though).

How many words is it?
Around 120k, after cleaning out a repeated scene in the final chapter.

This is, for anyone keeping track at home, just about on the line of becoming a hard sell in SFF. (Books more than 120k are harder to sell, harder to edit, harder to publish, and harder to print). I can probably cut it down significantly, however, in editing.

Seriously, are you still writing fantasy?

Yes, Mom and Dad 🙂 Not that I really need to defend my choice to write genre fiction, considering that SFF stories make up something like 80% of films and TV these days, and being a geek is the new cool, but yes, I do proudly write fantasy. I write it because we all think we would be secret badasses if you gave us (in this case) an education in diplomacy, poisoned hairpins, seduction skills, and the ability to pick locks. I write it because when wonder has gone out of the world, I like to find it on the page; if I can’t find what I want, then I have to create it.

But I also write it because SFF has the unique ability to sufficiently remove us from the real world to provide a 10,000 foot view of issues we are mired in. As Anne Rice said in her totally unnecessary introduction to the movie version of Interview with a Vampire, it’s not a story about vampires. It’s a story about you and me.

(Lioness is also, literally, not a story about vampires. Just making that clear).

And what the heck do you plan to do now that you’ve finished it?

Well, first, celebrate. I’m trying to figure out how. Buying a lot of writing books appeals–I enjoy reading books about writing, and they have the potential to be helpful in some way, but I usually don’t allow myself to buy them, because that way lies procrastination and too much process. Ultimately they are not putting words down on paper, and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking they are the same as being productive.

But when you’ve just written 120k words, I think you can indulge yourself.

I kind of want to have hot dogs from Elvis’ Hot Dogs in Leominster and ice cream from Cherry Hill Ice Cream in Lunenburg, but a) they would both be breaking my diet, b) making an unhelpful connection between writing and food, and c) Cherry Hill is also closed for the winter.

LISE REALLY KNOWS HOW TO LIVE IT UP, AMIRITE?

(Note, after the fact: yeah, I mostly just ended up buying a lot of books, not all writing-related. Not a bad indulgence).

Okay, but really, what are you going to do with this novel?

Edit the ever-living fuck out of it. I think the first draft is relatively clean in terms of internal consistency, but there is a lot of characterization stuff I need to clean up, and the plotting is all over the place.

I’m probably going to use the editing method espoused by Rachel Aaron in her 2k to 10k book, because it appealed to me when I read it, and seems wildly better than the methods I used for Gods and Fathers. (Which were… none, really). I have a few editing books I might explore to see if they suggest anything that feels more in line with how I work.

I PLAN to have a PLAN.

So are you going to publish it?

I am going to attempt the very traditional route of finding an agent who then sells the book to a publisher. I know, a wild and crazy thing to do in these days of self publishing, but honestly? I want more people than my friends to read this book. I would also like to make non-zero amounts of dollars from it. And really the odds are much better in these regards if you go the trad publishing route.

So I’ll continue to bang my head against the gates to the ivory towers of publishing. Maybe I’ll self-pub it if I can’t find a way in, but more likely I’ll do what I did with Gods and Fathers, and trunk it as not-good-enough when I can’t even get an agent to request a partial.

ISN’T WRITING FUCKING AMAZING?

Can I read it?

With a few exceptions, I prefer that people don’t read it unless they are prepared to offer constructive feedback. I desperately need lots of eyes on this to make it the best novel it can be, and while it warms my heart for you to look at it and go “I love it!!!” it doesn’t actually make the novel better.

That said, if your question is actually, “Can I be a beta reader?” why yes, you can. In an ideal world I’d have alpha readers, who see it in its current state, and beta readers, who take a look after I do edits — but let’s be real, I’ll take what I can get. The latter is a much more pleasant job, I would imagine. And I do have some alpha readers, in the form my writing group (i.e. Dave* and Laurence).

I am also desperately in need of sensitivity readers. As I said, there are numerous characters of an LGBT persuasion, including one trans man, and you’ll have probably noticed I am none of these things. It is not a story about being gay or bi or trans — that is not my story to tell — but this is a world in which those kinds of characters exist, and I’d like people who have real experiences with such things to comment upon it and tell if I’ve fucked it up.

Really, it’s your preference what role you’d like to take on. I’m happy to send it to you in any format you like, at any point in its development, as long as I get some sort of feedback on it. Since I use Scrivener I can even send it to you as an epub, so you can read it on your e-reader or mobile device, if that’s easier.

Comment below, or email/PM me, if you wish to be involved. All I can offer in return is an exchange of critiques and/or your name in the acknowledgements and/or a free copy of the book, if this ever gets published.

Can I see a sample of your work so that I know your writing is better than a kindergartener writing with crayon on a paper bag?

Sure. There’s a brief excerpt from the first chapter below. (I don’t want to post more, because posting to a blog does, yes, count as publication, and most publishers only buy first rights).

Do you like peas?

Yes, yes I do.

Without further ado, I present: the excerpt.

Continue reading

Unending Circle

möbius strip test

Inspired by Chris S/Ren’s own bit of 5G Silverfire fanfiction… of course, Ianthe has a slightly different memory of how it went down 😉

It had made Ianthe proud to see the two war banners flanking the entrance to the tavern — the Wing and the Talon on painted silk, glinting silver on blue in the torchlight. Now I am one of them, she had thought, as she had wanted since her earliest memories. She had stood up straighter to see them, thought herself a paladin, a champion for good–

Is war everything you hoped for?

Hush. She closed those thoughts out, watching Ren bundle his throwing blades in his silver and blue tabard. As if it were any other rag.

Last night, she had stood before the Veiled — under the banners, in that same torchlight — and Ren had regarded her, strange, appraising. “You are so much like your mother Eirene,” he had said, with a rasping sigh. He looked as if he had more memories than if he were a thousand years old.

Maybe he did. Maybe he was. Ianthe felt nearly that old, now.

Ren had followed her into the woods last night, too, after they had been attacked at the crossroads by the Bloodred Moon. When she thought she had heard someone cry out, saw the shape of a human form in the shadow of a rock, she had leapt into action, and Ren had stepped after her.

“Do you always run straight into danger?” he had asked her, with a gentle curiosity.

“All I know is that if I were out there, I’d want someone to come find me,” she replied. He’d had no response to that.

Later, in the tavern, Ianthe had asked him, “May I ask you an impertinent question?”

“I don’t see how I could possibly stop you,” he had replied, with something approaching mirth.

“Why does your Order wear the Veil?” She knew it was wrong to ask, even before Rolant set a hand to her arm in a gesture of warning. But she abhorred questions without answers, and took a perverse pleasure in being the sort of person to speak the unspeakable.

He had not answered then, either.

And then… what had happened, had happened. They had stood in front of Baron Kalaris, who spoke the word of the Silverfire King; arrayed at his back was the King’s might. An honor guard, merely, they had thought at the time.

Ianthe had been daydreaming — thinking of the counter-equations she had worked with the Arcane Circle last night, or pondering the ominous words of Selaine of the Ivory Gate, or perhaps just admiring the finely-turned calves of Kein Vyland. The tired platitudes about the great service the Champions had rendered didn’t apply to her; she hadn’t fought in the War, after all. She was yet half a Champion.

When Kalaris said the Orders and warbands were no longer needed, she had thought she’d misheard. When he talked of turning their Power over to the Silverfire King, who would be its final arbiter, she had drawn in a sharp breath. Wasn’t this — wasn’t this the same thing the Ebon Order had wanted?

Kalaris had strode down the first rank of Champions, calling on each of them to renounce their Orders. Each refused, in turn. Ianthe was glad she was in the back rank, as a late arrival; had Kalaris turned that immense presence towards her, she was unsure what she would have said. Others in the back ranks called out that the Ebon Order was still a threat, that they were still needed. Kalaris refused to listen.

Ianthe remembered the moment when he had proclaimed them all outlaws. When the killing had begun. She remembered it most vividly because Rolant had stepped in front of her, wrenched her behind his well-armored back and shield.

The ranks fell apart around her, and Ianthe couldn’t think, didn’t know what to do. These were the knights she had looked up to all her life, and they were slicing through her warband and her newly-made friends. These were the knights whose retreat her mother had died to defend, and now they gave no quarter to the fallen, mercilessly running them through.

In the end, she didn’t have to think. A warrior with a two-handed sword charged her, and instinctively she called on her talent, summoning tines of force. One, two, three, the arrows of air landed in rapid succession, and the man fell senseless. Later, she’d learn that the Silverfire Forge would call him back to life, but in the moment, she might as well have killed the man.

She remembered little of the battle after that. She stayed behind the lines, healing where healing was called for. Wise Nacera Umber, another Arcane Circle healer, gave her guidance on where to go and what to do. But neither could do anything for the fiery death that rained from the sky, or the silver-chased swords that struck killing blows.

Swords, perhaps, forged by the King himself.

The next thing Ianthe remembered, she was running for Rolant, seeking comfort from him, as if she were a girl awakened from a bad dream. But there was no comfort to be found there — he grieved, too, as his friend Nu, a Disciple of the Tempest and another member of the Talon, had been struck dead by the fiery rain. She wasn’t the only one of the Eyrie, either — Jayna of the Wing, a Golden Temple archer, had also died, and only lived again thanks to the Baron Sunderwynd’s own Power.

Nu would live again, too. That was the blessing and the curse of Champions — those whose bodies could be recovered, at least. Not Mother, buried forever under ice and poison of the Ebon Order. Not those who could not pay the toll of the Arbiter of Death.

The battlefield was a ruin of the only life Ianthe had ever wanted. When Tezac, the grizzled Golden Temple warrior from the Wing, found her resting beside the Gate, he had asked, “Is war everything you had hoped for?” She wanted to scream, to fly at him with nails bared. He was older, and wiser, sure, but he didn’t have to be smug.

That was hours past, and a world ago. In the present, Ren said, “I suppose it is time to put this away.” He gestured at the sad bundle of silver and blue and gleaming steel.

“You can always put it back on when this is settled,” Rolant offered.

Will there ever be a time when this is settled? Ianthe hardly believed it — any more than, sixteen hours ago, she could have believed the Silverfire King could betray them.

But…

Magic is an unending circle — Ianthe’s link to Power had taught her that. No, more than that — magic was a moebius strip, a circle turned in on itself to make a single surface.

And magic is life. Preserve me, she added mentally, recalling the words Rolant used when he called to healing.

“We can wear it to reclaim it,” Ianthe said at last, with an optimism she didn’t entirely feel, yet. “They are our colors, too.”

Drinking Greef at the End of the World (fanfiction; Elder Scrolls)

Originally published on Archive of Our Own on January 17, 2014. Reposted here with slight corrections.

Though there was no daylight in the Corprusarium, Yagrum Bagarn, the last living dwarf, knew it was Morndas. Because it was Morndas, it was not Uupse Fyr who brought his breakfast tray and morning medicaments, but one of the nameless servants of Tel Fyr. While Bagarn missed her sweet voice reading to him, the absence was expected, and he resigned himself to reading to himself until she finished her martial arts lesson with Vistha-Kai.

What was not expected was the tremor that shook the Corprusarium at the tenth hour of the morning. Dishes clattered in cupboards, rock ground against rock, and Bagarn found his centurion spider legs skittering beneath him.

He knew what earthquakes were, of course, though he hadn’t lived through one in years — not since Red Mountain had gone quiescent. Even then, such things were rarely felt as far as Azura’s Coast.

The tremor passed, and Bagarn righted himself, panting. Everything was eerily silent in the wake of the shock; even his corprus-demented neighbors had been silenced. After a few heartbeats, the drip of water on stone breached the quiet, and everything seemed to return to normal again.

Bagarn was returning to his reading — considering if this play had any merit, and if he would like it better had he seen it performed — when Lord Fyr bustled into the room, carrying a silver tray with a bottle and two glasses set upon it. The Dunmer wizard was not wearing his usual Daedric armor, but was dressed in loose robes for sleeping.

A social call? Bagarn surmised. An odd time for it, but well, Divayth Fyr was an odd mer. “Good Morndas to you, Lord Fyr,” he greeted his old friend. “I see it takes an earth-tremor to bring you down here, these days.”

Fyr gave a crooked smile. “Rather a nasty one, wasn’t that? Shook all the paintings off the wall in the Onyx Hall.” He set the tray down on the table beside Bagarn. The Dwemer thought he saw a tremor in Fyr’s hands as he did; but in his next movement, he smoothly unstoppered the bottle and poured a liquid into the two glasses with a little flourish, making Bagarn doubt he had ever seen the thing.

“Is Red Mountain erupting, then?” He lifted the little cup to his nose, smelling the bitter, fruity smell of comberry brandy. Greef, the Dunmer called it. He set the cup down again, content just to smell. It was early to be drinking.

“Doubt it.” There was a firm set to Fyr’s jaw, a glint in his red eyes that Bagarn read as mischievousness. Then he switched topics: “Have you ever seen Vivec?”

“The Chimer? Your warrior-poet?”

“The city that bears his name.”

“Ah. No.” Bagarn smiled. “Though I’ve heard it’s an unobliging place to get lost.”

Fyr chuckled. “It is, as that.” He seated himself on a stool that Uupse favored for reading. “I’ve had news from some colleagues there.” He paused, steepling his fingers above his cup of greef. “If I tell you Baar Dau has fallen, that means nothing to you?”

Bagarn shook his head.

“Hmm.” Fyr’s eyes searched the room. “It is a large rock, floating above the city, on which we have our Ministry of Truth.”

“Floating above the city? That sounds infinitely interesting. How is such a thing accomplished?”

“By Lord Vivec’s will, of course. Said he stopped it when Sheogorath tossed it out of Oblivion in a fit of pique. You know something of such things, I imagine, since Vivec’s power derives — derived — from –”

“Ah yes.” Bagarn cut him off, shifting uncomfortably in the seat of his centurion chair. He thought of the Heart of Lorkhan, Kagrenac, the Numidium project–things he hadn’t thought about in years. Not since that Argonian with corprus came to Tel Fyr.

It occurred to him then. “But Lord Vivec has been– I hear he has been in seclusion for many years now.”

Fyr made a snorting noise, and rose to his feet, crossing to the cupboard. “In seclusion, my grey arse. He disappeared. Lost his powers, and then disappeared.”

“Lost his powers?”

The Dunmer was rummaging in the cupboard now, and Bagarn could hear the clinking of metal and glass. “When that slave destroyed the Heart,” he said, over his shoulder. “You remember her. The Argonian.”

“I was just thinking of her, actually. You mean to say… she destroyed the Heart of Lorkhan? How is that possible? Lord Kagrenac himself couldn’t…” He trailed off, not sure what this all meant.

Fyr emerged from the cupboard, holding a Dwemer coin in one hand. His other hand waved dismissively. “It’s all very complex. Damned if I can quite follow it myself.” He stared off into the distance, a look of nostalgia written on his face. “Clever gal, wasn’t she? Didn’t give her a single key, but she opened all the boxes in my labyrinth.” He hefted the coin in his hand. “Sure she figured something out. They decided she was the Nerevarine, did you know? ‘They’ being I don’t know who. Vivec. House Telvanni. Whatever. Fulfilled the prophecies, and all that.”

Bagarn drew in a breath, trying to keep up with Fyr’s stream of consciousness. Luckily, he was well practiced at it —  plus he knew some small amount about Dunmer legend. “An Argonian Nerevarine? Isn’t that… odd?”

“Yes, well. Azura does rather have a sense of humor, doesn’t she? Anyway! Our intrepid slave girl destroyed the enchantments around the Heart, severing our dear Tribunal from it, and causing them to lose their powers.”

Bagarn was well aware his friend was speaking what the Tribunal cult would call heresy. Perhaps he felt safe doing so because he was a four-thousand year-old wizard who could travel to Oblivion. Perhaps, here at the center of the Corprusarium, he simply knew he could not be overheard by anyone who cared about such things. “Do go on.”

Fyr tossed the coin from hand to hand. “Vivec disappeared. But as the legend goes, while the people loved him, Baar Dau would stay afloat.” He paused. “Today, it has fallen.”

He dropped the Dwemer coin, then, into a puddle of water at his feet. It splashed and dispersed the puddle, rolling unharmed to the side. “That coin is Baar Dau. The puddle is Vivec.” He bit his lip. “Was Vivec.” He sat down abruptly and picked up his cup of greef, sipping at it. “One of my colleagues was on the road to Pelagiad when it happened. Contacted me at once. Told me he saw the cantons knocked over like toys under an ogrim’s heel.” Again Bagarn saw that hesitation in his caretaker’s movements. “That was,” Fyr licked his lips, “the last I heard. Lost the transmission. He must have Recalled out of there.” He didn’t sound sure.

Bagarn was silent, shocked. He had never been there, but he knew Vivec was the greatest city on Vvardenfell.

And now it was gone.

“I’m sorry,” Bagarn said, because he did not know what else to say.

Fyr drank deeply of the greef, before continuing. “Well. You know. It’s not just that.” There was a hint of menace in his voice. “Do you remember,” he began, and then cleared his throat, because his voice was gritty. “Do you remember how Red Mountain would erupt and cause an earthquake? And if there was an earthquake, it would conversely cause Red Mountain to erupt? And sometimes, over in Mournhold, the waves would rise high off the coast, smash fishing boats and houses, and…” He trailed off, shaking his head. “Of course you don’t know about that last part. Point is. Nirn and the roots of the mountain and the tides, they are all connected. What affects one, affects the others.”

Bagarn thought he understood. “Ah. You believe there will be… after-effects?”

Fyr shook his head. “Already begun. In another quarter of an hour, we’ll know the full extent.” He rolled the cup in his hands.

Bagarn’s mind moved infinitely slow, as if refusing to accept the gravity of the situation. Was it his imagination, or could he hear a low rumbling beneath the Corprusarium? Was a river of lava already snaking its way right to their door? He felt a thrill of fear. It was an odd sensation, entirely foreign to a mer whom corprus had inoculated from simple mortality.

The first inane thing he said was, “What of your daughters?”

Fyr opened his mouth to reply, but it was a long time before the words came out. “Safe. Recalled to Mournhold. With family.”

“You could Recall, too,”

Fyr laughed. “Bitter irony. Mine is set to Vivec.”

“Or seek intervention.”

“To Molag Mar, which is hardly safer than here.”

“You have that daedric amulet –”

“No. I gave that to the Argonian.”

Bagarn thought. Water dripped. “Look, old friend. If nothing else, you can travel to Oblivion, can’t you? Hardly comfortable, but if you choose the right realm, you’ll be safe for a time.”

Fyr shook his head. “The ritual takes time, and supplies I don’t have. I can’t just pop off to Moonshadow in an instant.”

A sudden, clever thought occurred to Bagarn. “Aren’t your people known for their resistance to fire and heat?”

“Resistance is not immunity. If nothing else,” Fyr said, grimacing, “it will just kill me more slowly.”

That was a frightful picture, but Bagarn was becoming exasperated. Everywhere he offered suggestions, Fyr threw them aside. “You are the single most brilliant sorcerer in Vvardenfell!” Bagarn cried. “At the very least, you can levitate yourself somewhere neither lava nor earthquakes nor giant waves can reach you.”

A thin, sad smile stole over Fyr’s lips then. “And leave the Corprusarium behind? Leave you behind?” He gestured to the Dwemer’s bloated body. “Where I would go, you cannot follow, friend.”

And that was the entire truth behind the excuses, Bagarn saw at last. His shoulders fell.

“Please, drink up,” Fyr whispered. “Hate to drink alone.”

Bagarn looked into his cup, and considered his own death. All things considered, it would be a relief. His body was a twisted, traitorous ruin; even his senses were beginning to fail him.

But it was a funny thing, to have survived so much, only to die now.

To have survived the failed experiments that turned his people to ash.

To have survived Akaviri invasions.

To have survived corprus, which made him this ruin, but also allowed him to live to this far-attenuated age.

To have seen the Nerevarine.

To die, in the path of a natural disaster. A natural disaster caused, however indirectly, by the very thing Kagrenac had tried to do to improve the Dwemer, thousands of years ago.

He wondered if it would hurt much.

He sipped his greef, and felt its numb his tongue.

“I’m sorry there’s not much left,” Fyr said, smoothing his topknot of white hair with hands that visibly shook. “You know how Alfe likes her drink. This is good stuff. Second Era vintage. They were drinking this stuff when Vivec flooded the Akaviri out of Vvardenfell.”

The numbness did not leave Bagarn’s tongue. He licked his lips, and knew suddenly that the Fyr daughters had not gone to Mournhold. They were duplicates of Fyr; what family could they claim?

“This will make it easier,” Fyr said. “I don’t know if the seas or Nirn will take us… but sera alchemy is always obliging.” He set his head down on the table, his breathing heavy. “That is the hackle-lo leaf you taste. To numb the pain. Luminous russula and violet coprinus does the rest.”

A cold stone settled in Bagarn’s chest, and with surprising eagerness, he embraced it. He reached for the bottle of poisoned greef and poured out the dregs of it, speckled with precipitates. “Will this… be enough?

Fyr tried to nod, but didn’t quite manage it. “Yes,” he rasped instead. “Excuse me if I don’t pour for you. My spine — seems to have stopped working.” He laughed. His skin was pale, the color of a Falmer’s. “Terrible old man. Lived far too long. But. Know how to be a gracious host.”

You have always been good to me, Bagarn wanted to say, but the words froze in his throat. He saw the same glint in Fyr’s eyes he had seen earlier, and knew it wasn’t mischievousness, after all, but fear.

Fyr was too proud to ask for his company–he was as haughty as any Dunmer. But he was slipping away, his intelligent eyes dimming, even as the Dwemer delayed. The least he owed Divayth Fyr, Bagarn determined, was follow him into the dark.

He threw back the cup of greef and drank greedily.

The Battle on Christ’s-Mass (flash fiction)

Originally published December 21, 2012, on Livejournal, for Terrible Minds’ weekly flash fiction challenge, where the prompt was “The War on Christmas.” Here I am imagining an alternate history where the German states never became Christian. Small corrections made in reposting it here.

In the Year of Our Lord 1844, as every schoolchild knows, Prince Albert wrought peace between England and the German states.

This is how it was accomplished.

It was an accident of his campaign in Hesse that Prince Albert found himself camped outside the city of Geismar on the eve of Christ’s-Mass, which the heathens called Yule. It was snowing, and this did not escape the notice of the two middle-aged men gathered inside the Prince’s command tent.

“It is inadvisable,” said the Duke of Normandy, Laurence Martel, “to march up the hill in snow towards…” He raised and lowered his hand, demonstrating, with wordless frustration, their goal. Then he brightened and added, “Perhaps a flanking action –”

“There’s no time,” Prince Ernest of Thuringia snapped. “Nor can we split our forces like that.”

Despair returned to the Duke’s face. “Then… perhaps if we can hope for superior firepower. They haven’t got rifles, have they?”

Ernest barked a laugh. “We aren’t savages, you know.”

Prince Albert listened to his companions for some time longer, but eventually he rose and walked out of the tent. Later he would note the silence of this moment — so still he believed he could hear the breath of the sky. If he noted how uncanny that was, it is not mentioned in his memoirs; nor, it seems, did he reflect on his odd place in this war, as the husband of a Christian ruler and the child of a pagan land.

Prince Ernest and the Duke soon followed him out. They found him staring to the south, at the hill city of Geismar, alight with lamp-light, rising out of the plain like an island rising out of the sea. Less than a mile distant, it might as well have been impenetrable.

Prince Albert looked to the west instead. Against the setting sun, he could see outlined a tree. It took him some time, he records, to realize it must have been truly of epic proportions to block out part of the horizon like it did. “Brother,” he said, in German, “What is that tree?”

“Donar’s Oak,” the Prince of Thuringia replied. “The local people equate it with Yggdrasil, the World Tree.” He gave a disdainful shrug. This was an unorthodox belief, even for a heathen.

“Will it be defended?”

“I can’t imagine it’s a strategic target.” After a moment’s reflection, he added, “Though I expect there are some few priests of Donar there, and they’ll defend it with their lives.”

Prince Albert considered for a long time — so long that the sun sank in the west, leaving them in full darkness. The breeze continued to whisper possibilities. Eventually, he cleared his throat, and spoke. “Normandy, be prepared to march at dawn.” Turning to Ernest, he said, “I would like an axe.”

#

The battle at Donar’s Oak was accomplished without fanfare. There were some dozen priests tending the tree, and they resisted with passion and abandon, but they were overwhelmed by the strength of the infantry. Preferring death to indignity, few of the priests had allowed themselves to be captured.

The surviving priests stood guarded by a circle of infantry in the shadow of the leafless giant. When the sun was high, Prince Albert emerged from the milling soldiers and stepped up to the mounded dirt around the base of the tree, where heathen idols had been scattered. He was wearing a dress uniform and he carried an axe. He looked to either side of him as if awaiting a cue.

The gathered people — heathens and soldiers both — seemed to be holding their breaths. The impact of the axe hitting wood was a great exhalation.

Prince Albert was a fit man, but the tree was fitter, and His Highness was soon sweating and panting. He removed first the uniform jacket, then his shirt. By the time he began making the lower notch, his hair was wild and he looked like nothing so much as a common laborer.

Lightning then broke from the clear sky, its only warning a ripple of electricity through the air. It struck the crown of the tree, and the force of the impact drove a wedge between the main limbs of the tree. With a tremendous creak-crack, the vast trunk of the tree was split.

When it landed, the tree was in three smoldering sections. Sap sizzled beneath its bark.

Prince Albert seemed a little uncertain at this moment, and summoned forth his brother to converse in whispers. The Prince of Thuringia only made a gesture of confusion.

The symbols must have seemed clear enough for His Highness to continue. “The Most High provides,” he said, taking on the air of the orator. “See how he has split this oak into three parts, representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?” He made the sign of the cross as he said this.

The priests of Donar were murmuring in their little circle. Prince Albert looked at their captors and said, “Deliver them to the gates of Geismar, and then free them.” While the soldiers frowned at their orders, His Highness addessed himself to the captives in German. “Clearly the hammer of Donar has sundered his monument tree into three parts. I leave to your wisdom the interpretation.” As he said this, he approached one of the smoldering limbs and broke off a branch, still decorated with dry, rattling leaves. With its woody end, he scratched in the dirt three interlocking triangles.

Prince Albert had taken Geismar within the week, and the rest of Hesse within the next year. But perhaps what is most remembered from that day is how Prince Albert bore with him the branch of the sundered tree, and carried it with him back to England.

And this is why today we celebrate Christ’s-Mass with garlands of oak leaves.