Ah, writing a novel.
My current cut file is longer than my actual, you know, publishable draft. Which is still in process.
All I know about Leech was what I wrote in some very early work, these being: “Stone Shoes” my first professional publication ever, which appeared in Subterranean Press Magazine; and “Oubliette’s Egg,” its sequel, which appeared along with “Stone Shoes” in a slender volume called Jack o’ the Hills, published by Papaveria Press.
Rights have since reverted to me, and you can get the ebook online at Amazon still, and I may have a handful of paperbacks left, but… there you have it.
In the present day, I’m worldbuilding a much larger idea of Leech, in the far more complex world of Athe, where most of my writing takes place. (Or… it does–sort of–but all over the timeline, across the mythos, and on many different continents.) (And, including, of course, the uncanny worlds folded into mundane spaces).
So as I write, I’m trying to remember, explore, and expand on some of the ideas I had before.
I woke up yesterday morning knowing what I should have already known: this scene doesn’t really belong in the novel. It was just for me, telling the story to myself.
But since I spent a few days writing it, I thought I might as well show you the process at. Some of you who are familiar with my early writing might get a kick out of it, and others of you who already love Lanie and Datu might get a different sort of kick out of it.
C. S. E. Cooney
P.S. Oh! And if you want a bonus song, here’s “Master Jack,” which my brother Jeremy Cooney and I wrote together. That’s him on vocals and guitar. I still think the tune is VERY CATCHY.
Lanie had first come across the legend of “Oubliette’s Gardens” in a battered old storybook found on the bookshelves of Stones Nursery, called Spook-Fables and Cradle Tales: Legend and Lore from the Lands Beyond Liriat.
She had read that book to literal pieces, and then, as the years passed, lost the pieces. But later, as Datu was growing up, her bedtime rituals growing ever more elaborate as she demanded stories that would stave off sleep for as long as she could, Lanie recalled all those old beloved stories again from memory, and recited them aloud.
While Datu claimed not to like any stories that were not absolutely authentic, verified, historical fact, the truth was, she enjoyed spook-fables too much to excise them from her nocturnal diet. The gorier the better—especially when she was around five and six. “Oubliette’s Gardens” was one of her favorite requests, though her didyi found it distasteful, bizarre, and too bloody-minded for a child who was ostensibly on her way to sleep.
But Lanie never put up much resistance when her niece demanded any specific tale of her, and a typical night’s telling of “Oubliette’s Garden” went much like this:
In olden days, back when Witch Queen’s City was still called King’s City, ruled by a family of humans who had hunted the local skinchangers to near extinction, there was a princess called Oubliette.
“Yes, Datu, Oobly-Goobly is what her brother called her. Brothers can be such pests.”
“You do not have a brother, Auntie Lanie.”
“Your Didyi is kind of like my brother. Don’t tell him I said that.”)
Oubliette was not just a princess; she was also a secret sorceress. Her powers lay in the realm of fascination, granted by the god Aganath, Queen of the Sea. With these powers, the Princess could push and pull a weaker will than hers with the ease of the tides. With these powers, she could bewitch any suitor she did not fancy marrying into doing what she pleased.
Which, it turned out, was all of them.
(“How many is all, Auntie Lanie?”
“Oh. A lot.”
“How many is a lot?”
“At least six dozen. Suitors come in batches, like eggs.”)
Princess Oubliette knew she was under a curse—to die on the morning following her wedding night. Therefore, she found herself highly motivated to maintain her unmarried state for life.
(“And can you blame her, Datu?”
“That is not a part of the story, Auntie Lanie.”)
Every time an ill-starred suitor arrived at Leech Keep to court Oubliette for his bride, the princess would cast her fascination magic upon him. She would command him to perform some public scandal—as illegal an action as it would be irredeemable and unseemly.
(“What is a scandal?”
“Like, she’d tell him, “Go play with the pigs in the pigpen, and then he’d have to do it.”
“That does not sound bad to me.”
“It was how he played with pigs, Datu.”
Princess Oubliette would then “discover” her suitor thus compromised, and denounce him as unfaithful to her hand, and thereby a traitor to the crown.
Such an uproar, every time! Her father, the King of Leech, would summarily execute his daughter’s erstwhile suitor in Gallows Plaza, where all King’s City could watch and cheer.
Then would the Princess Oubliette hang his body in her private gardens, where she could admire his decay and revel in her own continuing survival.
By the time she was sixteen, Princess Oubliette had quite a collection of corpses. She called them her “wind-chimes,” and loved them as other princesses loved fluffy kitties and golden balls and dancing slippers.
(“Auntie Lanie, was Oobly-Goobly a necromancer?”
“I don’t know, Datu. I don’t think so.”
“But she likes bones, like you.”
“Yes, but… liking murder is not the same as loving death. It’s hard to explain. Now, would you like to engage in a theological discussion with your genius aunt, or would you like the rest of the story?”
One morning, upon reading an omen in her tea leaves, Princess Oubliette began to weave a splendid shirt from stinging nettles, and laid upon it an enchantment of fascination. When it was finished, she went riding with her twin brother the prince out into the high ridges beyond King’s City.
There, she lay in wait for her quarry. She did not have to wait long.
Soon came passing by a wild young skinchanger, just recently come of egg-laying age. Princess Oubliette cast her nettle shirt over the skinchanger’s head, and with its magic bound her body between two forms: that of a girl, and that of a swan. Her arms became useless wings, weighing her down till she could neither flee nor fly.
The princess, greedy for more power, sold the poor skinchanger to her brother, the prince, in exchange for the sorcery in his blood.
(“What did his sorcery do?”
“It doesn’t say. But I think it was pain. The prince was cruel. I think he could hurt anything he touched.”
“Um. Yes. Like your mother. Except your mumyu uses weapons and poisons and things. And all the prince had to do was touch.”
“I wish I had that power.”
“No, you don’t, Datu.”)
The prince thought he had the better end of the bargain. He planned to collect all the skinchanger’s eggs for his own. He would sell the fertilized ones to the highest bidder, for young skinchangers were prized by wealthy human game hunters who wished to chase exotic fare in the field.
But even a skinchanger’s wind eggs were valuable, for when they carried no precious child inside their empty shells, the shells themselves were made of purest gold. The prince planned to line his household coffers with golden eggs, so that the royal kingdom of Leech would grow in riches and power.
Such would have been the skinchanger’s life, and oh! An awful life it would have been.
But thankfully, wild as she was, she was not without friends.
(“This is my favorite part.”
“Mine too, Datu.”)
It just so happened that the skinchanger was traveling with two peasant boys from the hill country of Leech.
The older was strong, but strange and silent, pale and lumbering like a white bear; the younger was small, but cunning and clever, quick as a fox with a fox’s rufous hair.
Years ago, they had found the skinchanger’s egg all lonely in the hills, and raised her from a hatchling. Every day for all her life, they had fed her souls to suck, so that she could learn and grow. She supped on people from the hills, people like the boys themselves, whom nobody would miss.
(“People like us?”
“No. Because, you see, my plumula, your didyi and I would miss you. Very much.”
“But what if a skinchanger was very, very hungry, and I was outside playing in the garden, and they found me and…”)
“Datu. I will not let any skinchanger sup on you. If they ever tried, I’d raise an army of the undead and bury them in a pile of bones. And if they tried to turn into a mouse and scurry away, then your didyi would turn into a falcon and eat them up.”
When the boys did not find the skinchanger on the ridge where they left her, they grew frightened. They followed her trail all the way to to King’s City, where they learned that she had been stolen by the princess and princess.
The younger disguised himself as an emissary of a foreign king. The older played the king, his pockets heavy with the skinchanger’s golden eggs. Together, these two brave boys marched upon Castle Leech and requested Princess Oubliette’s hand in marriage.
The princess, thinking to add more fine skeletons to her collection, agreed to marry her new suitor in seven days—provided he would stay faithful to her till the wedding night.
Little did she know that her silent swain was no king at all. He was not even the peasant boy he appeared.
(“What was he then?”
“I’m getting to that, Datu! It’s like you’ve never heard this story before.”)
No, his true form was that of a great white bear. He was the natural son of Wykkyrri Ten-Thousand Beasts, a god known to roam the hills of Leech in His many forms, and lay with any willing bird, beast, or fish He met there—including humans.
Because he was the child of a god, none of Princess Oubliette’s powers of fascination had the power to bend him to her will. And so, bound by her word, at the end of seven days, she had to marry him.
On the same night, the Prince of Leech married his captive skinchanger. The kingdom rejoiced, for surely this was a sign that Leech would prosper henceforth.
(“No, it was not. They were wrong.”
“Not exactly wrong, Datu. Just… the prospering went in an unexpected direction.”)
But though at night the kingdom rejoiced, by morning’s tide, the kingdom mourned.
(“Told you so.”)
No one knew exactly what had happened during those night-dark hours when King’s City slumbered.
All they knew was that, when dawn broke, the King of Leech was found dead—mauled, they said, by a great white bear, who had disappeared into the heart of the rising sun.
Alas, poor Leech! For the king’s heir, the Prince of Leech, was also dead! His body was strewn across his wedding bed, pierced through and ragged with wounds, his remains wrapped in the bloody rags of a nettle shirt.
(“You should not capture people. You should not trap them and make them marry you. You should not be cruel with your magic when you touch them.”
“That’s, uh, yes, the moral of this story, Datu. Well, um, said. Your didyi would be proud.”)
And so, the Princess Oubliette was declared Queen of Leech. Wild she was with happiness, beneath her semblance of grief. Her meddlesome father and brother were gone. Her magical bridegroom was released to his true form. She had survived her wedding night, and her path to the throne was clear.
But in her giddiness, the new queen forgot two things.
(“The younger brother! The younger brother! The fox one!”
“I like him.”
“That’s because you’re just like him. Small, but clever and cunning.”)
She forgot the boy from the hills. And she forgot the skinchanger, whom he had helped escape in the night.
The skinchanger struck fast as Oubliette passed. She caught the queen in her quicksand gaze, and sucked the soul from her body, and stole her shape for her own.
Now the skinchanger was the queen. She spoke with the queen’s voice, and knew all the queen knew: magic and mathematics, science and sorcery, languages and literature, politics and poetry. The old Oubliette was only a shell; she could not even speak. She had no memory, no words, no self left, for the skinchanger had eaten it all.
So the new queen denounced the old queen as an imposter and caused her to be burned upon a pyre.
(“Did you say something, Datu?”
“No. I was only sucking my thumb.”
“Do you want me to stop?”
“No, you are almost done.”)
And that was how the skinchanger took Oubliette’s title, took her power, and took her country. She became the Witch Queen, who gave Leech back to the skinchangers. All the humans who had hunted her people now became the humans who were hunted down or driven out, never to be heard from again.
And the olden days turned golden days, and were golden ever since.
(“That is a happy ending, Auntie Lanie.”
“I always thought so, Datu.”)
Long after the days when her young niece grew tired of those old spook-fables and cradle-tales, Lanie remained fascinated by Leech. One day, she vowed to herself, she would travel there. She would climb the ridge, cross the bridge into the capital, and walk up to the municipal Court of Pneumaphages, and apply for a permit to visit Oubliette’s Gardens.
And then, if she had the chance, she would ask the dead for their side of the story.
But in her wildest imaginings, Lanie had never dreamed to arrive in Witch Queen’s City like this.