Mongolia journal ~ 1 First impressions

It’s over a year since my Mongolian adventure, and I haven’t got near all the blog posts I was going to write. Thank goodness I kept a daily journal, or I’d have forgotten so much already.

I always intended to write themed posts about my experiences, rather than simply transcribing my journal. But… I’ve left it too long now, so my journal is what you get. It’s not verbatim, though. I’m cutting out the boring bits and re-interpreting a few things based on later experiences. I’m focusing on my reflections of the Mongolian horses and culture and horses and landscape and… did I mention horses? (Also, in some cases, kittens…)

It’s also giving me an excuse to finally go through my photos. Some I have already used in earlier posts, but I think many will be shown here for the first time.

So here we go!


Ulaan Baatar, 23 June 2015

Arrived Ulaan Baatar late morning and were whisked away to our hotel by a driver. The journey from the airport was fascinating. The architecture is blocky (mostly) and exists in pockets of conformity and multicoloured madness. Everywhere is badly maintained — cracked concrete, abandoned buildings, scraggly weed-infested gardens, faded and jumbled every which way — but quite clean, as in devoid of litter. Today was overcast and dusty and (when the wind picked up) thick with fluffy plant seeds.

We spent a couple of hours this afternoon walking around the city — there’s not much English, and things are hard to find, but the mix of architecture is interesting. The traffic is mad and, like in so many Asian cities, crossing the road is terrifying. I braved one of the non-traffic-lit pedestrian crossings… and survived.

I can’t wait to get out of the city and onto the Steppes. As the plane flew in, the view of the crumpled landscape was amazing. It’s really NOT flat. The drive from the airport also gave us a glimpse of the undulations at the edge of the city. I’m so excited to get out into the wilderness and experience the landscape properly! I think I’ll gain just as much insight about that as horses (to inform my writing) from this trip.

We have internet here in our hotel, but otherwise my phone is in flight mode. For the next two weeks, we won’t have any internet at all. Nor will we be able to charge our camera batteries, so we’re going to have to be conservative. It’s going to be interesting!

Steppe Riders camp, 24 June 2015

It’s after 7pm with such bright sunlight that it feels like the middle of the afternoon. We’ve had a relaxing day at the Steppe Riders camp, after being picked up from our hotel at 10am. The camp consists of several permanent gers, including one central common/dining ger, where we were greeted with traditional Mongolian tea. This is milk with rice and salt and bits of dried meat… one eats it with a spoon… very odd, but edible. Then we had hot tea.

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

Steppe Riders camp, Mongolia

We were left to our own devices for several hours, while they prepared a ger for us to sleep in and awaited the return of another riding party. We loitered in these gorgeous surroundings — rolling treeless hills, dotted with gers in the many valleys. The hilliness of this part of Mongolia has surprised me. The ground is also rocky in parts, and the grass is very short. Kirstyn and I walked up to the top of one of the hills to see the view — more hills and gers, also cows, horses, sheep, and many falcons hovering above the steppes.

Lunch was served at around 3pm (!) when the riding group returned. It consisted of fried pastry parcels (either filled with meat or vegetables) known as “hoosh” with salad (“gatherings”).

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

Steppe Riders horses, Mongolia

This afternoon, we went on a “training” ride for around 2.5 hours. I was a bit nervous to start with, and suddenly it was borne upon me what a big deal this is. Horse riding for 14 days! (OMG) Riding here is a bit different. The command for go is “chu” and the command for stop is “osh”. The horses are quite small and hardy, with a really smooth trot.

We rode in a loop out from the Stepperiders camp, stopping halfway for a visit to a neighbouring ger, where we tried fermented mare’s milk (“airag”). It’s only just become available as they start to wean the foals. I’m not sure I like it too much; it’s like a mix of yogurt and beer. Not really my thing, but pleased to have tried it. They keep it inside a massive open leather bladder hanging on the inside wall of the ger.

While riding, I tried the Mongolian way of trotting a few times, which involves standing up in the stirrups, instead of rising to the trot. It’s quite fun actually, and by the end of the ride I was feeling much more confident in general.

The sleeping ger we have been allocated is also home to a mother cat and four kittens! They are so cute. The mother cat is still suckling the babies, which seem to live in a pipe under one of the beds. There are five beds in here, but so far Kirstyn and I are the only inhabitants (along with the cats). This is a good thing, because we’ve just spent an hour (and all the available beds) re-packing our bags for tomorrow…

IMG_2717 kittens

The cuteness!


That’s all for now. I’ll try to keep the Mongolia journal posts coming every month or so. To see the earlier posts about the trip (and there were a few) click on the Mongolia tag.

D&D Chronicles: Of portals, dust and a strange villa

ZILLAH

D&D CHRONICLESWe’re finally leaving Issimbaal. It’s been over a week, but feels even longer. So much has happened.

After much deliberation, we’ve decided to brave the dust plains and head south-west towards the Temple of Bahaal and hope it doesn’t live up to its other name — the Temple of Death. We’re pretty sure that’s where Elliana has gone too. Last night’s research revealed, that in addition to possibly being the place the zombie virus was created, it’s the location of one of six known Vahdrim portals.

There’s another in Tel Marrenor. It figures. Elliana must be after the Right Eye. This is so not good.

But maybe — if we don’t all die — we can can find some hint of a cure for the zombie virus. And now I wonder if Squirrel and Alix between them can figure out how to use the portals (if we get that far)?

The six Vahdrim portals

Baal — Temple of Death (dust plains)
Tel Marrenor (broken forest)
Teras Arnor
Vahd (dust plains)
Tel Elenor
Capital Tuyar Empire (dust plains)

We’ve geared up for the dust plains as best we can. Water is going to be our main issue: we’ve scavenged two barrels and a cart, enough for 80 days (total rations). Hopefully we can make it to the temple and back in 20 days. It’s lucky (in this instance) that Nightshade doesn’t need rations.

We depart Issimbaal on 5 April. At first the road is easy followed, if overgrown and untended. But soon we begin to feel the full despair of the dust plains. They are bleak. Barren. And this is only the fringe.

The first day is not so bad, but on the second the wind picks up until our visibility is reduced to about 30 feet. Grit swirls into our faces as we push through through the cloud of dust. It’s well nigh impossible to pick out the road, and I’m trusting all my instincts to make sure we’re heading in the right direction.

We shelter in a ramshackle hut for the night, but it feels like we’ve been settled only minutes before we’re under attack. Two creatures lurking in the dust and the night are hurling magic at us — fire, cold, electricity. We manage to fight them off, but our shelter is in flames and our water barrels are destroyed. Again.

dustplains_firehut

Squirrel casts a magical shelter, and we huddle inside as the dust storms around us. Dawn comes and there’s no respite from the dust. Squirrel casts another hut and we wait out the day and another night. By the next morning, the storm has settled. We deal with a couple of giant scorpions… and then fight off three giant poisonous centipedes as we trudge along the road back to Issimbaal. We arrive back in the city, despondent and despairing, around midday on the fifth day after we left it.

The clerics have made some headway with the zombie virus. They tell us they need a special type of moss — Sorias moss — which is grown to the north and west. We discuss heading there instead, but ultimately decide we need to make a second attempt to get to the Temple of Death. We scavenge another couple of water barrels.

This time when we head out of Issimbaal, we have better luck. The ‘road’ is clear of creatures (mostly) and dust storms, until on the fourth day we reach a town. It’s in ruins and the wells are all empty, but it yields a few coins when we search.

The villa

On the fifth day, we see a villa on a hill in the distance. After days of lifeless waste and decayed buildings, the two-storey villa looks remarkably grand and intact. What is more, it’s surrounded by a thick border of living trees, vibrantly green. Clearly there’s magic at work, and we approach cautiously.

When we’re about 400 feet from the trees, we make out an array of withered corpses. It looks as though an attacking force fell foul of some magical barrier, and we halt about 30 feet away from the outermost one. Squirrel, Alix and I venture forward, but almost immediately feel the drain on our energy. We retreat, and Squirrel determines there’s a spell causing the trees to drain the life energy of living creatures in the vicinity of their root systems.

Nightshade crosses into the danger zone. Her zombie disease enables her to move through the field of corpses and get closer to the trees before the ward affects her. According to Squirrel, three of the corpses bear magic items and Nightshade drags them out. (There’s a ring, a suit of ring mail armour and an iron shield.)

We discuss how to get beyond the trees and reach the villa. I immediately veto Squirrel’s suggestion that he fireball the trees. I can’t bear the thought of killing these trees — it’s not as though the mages who cast that ward gave them a choice.

Instead, we circumnavigate the villa, searching for an entrance. There are more corpses, many non-human, and we discover a path and a gap in the trees. Beyond, there’s a dormant fountain in a courtyard in front of the building, and the doors to the villa tantalise us with their inaccessibility.

The villa is just too intriguing to abandon, and Squirrel eventually decides he will attempt to dispel the ward. It’s late in the day, so we make camp opposite the entrance to the villa.

Just before dawn, Squirrel casts his spell. It takes a while. He seems to be struggling. Sweat beads on his brow.

Then he reels and collapses…


Will we get inside the villa? I’ll find out tomorrow, so stay tuned for the next D&D Chronicles post. See the D&D Chronicles page for the full story.

Farewell, my devilcat

I collected Chenna’s ashes today, exactly three weeks after she signed out. Three weeks. Gosh.

Chenna with Mr Tickle December 2015

Chenna with Mr Tickle December 2015

I still think about her every day, because there is not one aspect of my life in this house that she wasn’t a part of. She arrived as a cute and cantankerous kitten within weeks of me moving in, and proceeded to make her presence felt each and every day.

She was the first thing I thought about every morning, as she sat on my pillow (or sprawled on me) and jabbed me awake.

She was the first thing I encountered every time I arrived home, as she waited for me, meowing, at the front door.

She was often the last thing I was aware of at night, as she snuggled against me in or on the bed.

This was her house, just as much as it is mine. From the beginning (for nearly 14 years), a whole end of the sofa was set aside for her use. During the day, she slept on a colourful cushion propped up for her comfort, positioned so she could see out the window. Sometimes she would squeeze half her body through the venetian blind, much to the amusement and joy of my neighbours (and the ruin of said blind) — presumably to catch a bit of extra sun.

(I’ve just removed the cushion and set the sofa to ‘rights’, after two and a half weeks of staring at her empty bed. Now my sofa seems too big.)

For most of her life she enjoyed complete run of the house and garden. I keep thinking I hear the distinctive clunking sound of her cat flap. That and her automatic cat feeder, which allowed me to program feed times and dispense measured doses of feed from a hopper, revolutionised my life. And hers too, I daresay; because she was much happier at home with no interruptions whenever I was away.

It’s no secret she wasn’t a particularly likeable cat — although I loved her. Even with me, she could get vicious, often without apparent reason. She was quick with her claws, unrestrained with her teeth. Some nights, she developed a fondness for attacking my bare feet — really painful! — and even though I could usually read the signs, it was often too late, and I’d be subjected to ninja foot attacks. My only recourse was to run and jump on my bed, but she was much quicker than me.

As for her relationships with other people… I cannot think of one person other than me that she liked (and I’m mostly sure she liked me). Some people she tolerated… barely. Most people she detested on sight.

But she was a tricky one. She was good at looking all cute and cuddly and luring people in, before flipping into a ninja attack. So many people refused to heed my warnings, only to suffer the pain of her disdain.

She definitely earned her nickname Devilcat, and my Diary of a Devilcat series of posts on this blog and earlier on her own blog Feline in Therapy (mostly 2007-2009) — were a lot of fun to write. I am so glad now that I’ll have them as memories.

I was probably the only one who ever experienced her affectionate side. And she was affectionate far more often than she wasn’t. She didn’t start off as a lap cat, but she made up for it in her latter years, when she would appear beside me as soon as I sat down… her little face peering up at me, then she’d leap up and nudge any obstacles away. (FYI it is a challenge to negotiate a lap cat and a laptop computer simultaneously.)

She also liked stretching out on my chest when I was reading in bed — not necessarily convenient, but it was hard to shove away a purring, warm, cuddly feline, gazing up at me.

Having her around was always companionable — whether smooching on me, sitting outside in the sunshine, sleeping the day away, greeting me at the door. Even when she was being annoying — waking me too early, nagging me for food, prowling all over my workspace, or leaving dead moths (or worse) all over the floor.

Chenna had her share of medical issues as well. From early on she was prone to urinary tract infections, although this was controlled with a specially formulated diet. Then there was her left eye, which changed colour from green to brown when she was still quite young. This saw us visiting animal eye specialists and contemplating the prospect of having her eye removed due to the risk of melanoma of the iris. Thankfully we risked keeping her eye and nothing came of it.

Extra random memories of Chenna (to be updated as they come to me): her black fluff smeared over my chairs (and its subsequent removal with lint cloth)… the sound of her jumping off furniture… the sound of her simply walking across the floor… her enjoyment of tuna juice… her love of escaping out the front door and scampering around the driveway… the fact I always walked around with scratches over my wrists (they have, alas, all healed now)…

The myriad tiny adjustments I would make to accommodate her: turning my toothbrush to the wall so she wouldn’t brush against it… putting my devices out of the way so she wouldn’t sit on them… never leaving food uncovered on the bench unless I actually wanted her to lick it up…


When I received the news about Chenna’s condition three weeks ago, after several weeks of knowing there was something wrong, I wept and wept. (I had no inkling it was something so serious.) Then I sat down and wrote her final devilcat post. Then I curled up beside her in my bed until it was time for her final appointment at the vet.

She purred and let me stroke her. That was our farewell.

I made the decision to end it straight away, as she was so sick there was a good chance she’d simply die in my bed at any time. That, I wasn’t prepared to deal with. And I didn’t think she should have to either.

I spent a lot of time crying (well, bawling) in the days that followed — when I rang the vet to arrange for her to be cremated, when I received a card from the vet with Chenna’s paw print on it, when I packed up her stuff strewn about the house.

When some amazing friends presented me with the following bespoke graphic illustration of Chenna in a frame. (Designed by Rachel Rule, The British Rule (etsy shop).)

Chenna

Graphic illustration of Chenna

And I wept today, when I collected her ashes from the vet and donated her leftover food. (And, of course, while writing this post.)

After three weeks, the intensity of the grief has ebbed. Most of the time I can think about Chenna without weeping, or only weeping a little. Most of the time her absence seems almost a quizzical thing, something just a bit wrong, a bit weird.

But I’m still sad. A bit flat. I miss my little devilcat animal companion terribly.

Farewell Chenna

Farewell Chenna

chenna_10-Aug-16

Diary of a DevilCat: This is Chenna, signing out

I got a bit of a shock today. Turns out I’m not so indestructible as I liked to believe.

Bone marrow cancer. That’s what I’ve got. The prognosis is “guarded” (which means “not good” is a helluva understatement).

No options for treatment. Barely any options for management.

I’m so anemic I could keel over at any second.

I haven’t been feeling great for the past six weeks or so, truth be told. It’s just been so hard to rouse myself to get out of bed. (Ellen’s bed, under the doona, where it’s nice and warm.) Even eating has been too much effort. (Yes, I know. Who’d’ve thought?)

The upside? I’ve lost a kilogram in weight. (I’ve been trying to lose weight for a while, now… Maybe that much in six weeks is not such a great idea.)

The downside? This will be my final post on this blog. I wish I could make it more devilish in nature, go out with a last hurrah; but I’m just not feeling it. It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to attack anyone’s ankles — although I did get in a couple of awesome swipes at the vet last week.

Hey, at least I’ll go out with a manicure! The vets did a fine job on my claws yesterday, when I went in for the full workover.

I’m almost 14 years old, and I’ve had a great life. Even if I haven’t had all that many friends… I know Ellen loves me.

Thanks for reading my Diary of a Devilcat posts on this blog. And my Feline in Therapy blog was pretty good too, while it lasted.

This is Chenna, signing out. I’m off to hang out with the cat gods.

 

D&D Chronicles: Getting our butts kicked in and around Issimbaal

ZILLAH

Dealing with Elliana (not)

D&D CHRONICLESWe argue long into the night about how to get the Left Eye of Varrien from Elliana.

The clerics of Phanator refuse to help us, not wanting to start a conflict with the Church of Elloran. I think we all know Elliana and her protector are far too strong for us, but the thought of simply letting the woman leave is intolerable.

Gritting our teeth, we resolve to confront her. Our plan is to waylay them at dawn, try to take them unawares, use Alix’s magic as protection.

None of it goes to plan. Elliana and her henchman take a different route than expected, so we have to chase them. They stop and frown, as though we’re merely annoying insects (and not the giant kind).

Then they kick our arses.

One attempt to engage Tob is all I need to realise I don’t have a chance against him, and then a magical blade is whirling around him in all directions, seriously wounding Blizzard. Nightshade and I manage to get out of the way, but…

In under a minute our entire party is fleeing in the opposite direction. Elliana sends a friendly fireball after us as a final ‘fuck you’.

That was fun.

Elliana leaves with the Left Eye and the taste of failure is bitter.

Are we ever getting out of Issimbaal?

We need to regroup.

Even were I not sworn to retrieve the Right Eye, it seems more important than ever, in case it’s Elliana’s ambition to bring the two Eyes together to raise the goddess of destruction. If only she’d talked to me when I attempted to discover her goal, instead of bespelling me into being her slave. At least that curse has been broken by my recent death and resurrection.

We know Elliana is looking for magic portals, perhaps to reach Tel Marrenor and the Right Eye, lost deep in the broken forest. We considered offering to accompany her on her long journey, but with Nightshade stricken with the zombie disease, she needs the priests here to find the cure.

I’m already half-regretting our decision to confront Elliana. I don’t know whether we could have trusted her and Tob enough to travel with them, but that option must surely now be lost to us, along with the Left Eye.

I don’t know what to do.

The next few days pass slowly for me as we remain in Issimbaal. Squirrel is busy learning new spells, the others are poring over books from the libraries; meanwhile I’m at a total loose end, my mind turning everything over and over and over until I want to scream. I hang out with Fleet, and try to calm down by teaching her a new trick.

Zillah and Fleet

Zillah and Fleet

Those hitting the books find out stuff about the flail and the Eyes, and acquire a couple of maps that could be useful. They don’t discover much about the zombie disease, other than the knowledge it was cast by mages in conjunction with priests of Bahaal. It’s possible the spell creation took place in the Temple of Death, which is about 200 miles down the road.

Zombie hunting

Helping the priests find a cure for this zombie disease has become a bit of a fixation. Nightshade needs it. Not only has she become a friend in the weeks we’ve known her, but her knowledge of the forest, and her passion for saving it, will help us in our quest to retrieve the Right Eye. No doubt she’ll be just as pleased to avenge the Dark Tree too, as we promised the tree ent.

For as long as we’re in this abandoned and now charred city, every night we search for zombies. But they too seem to have abandoned the city, and our hunt is fruitless.

After several days we take the hunt into the broken and deserted lands outside Issimbaal. It’s morning, sunny, and I easily find the tracks of six humanoids, some of which are larger than humans.

(Interestingly, I also find two sets of separate human tracks, likely to be Elliana and Tob, heading in the direction of the Temple of Bahaal — which is decidedly not the direction we expected. It also happens to coincide with our proposed next destination…)

But it’s the zombies I’m interested in for now. Maybe one of these holds the key to the disease.

We’ve been going for about two hours, and I know we’re really close to the band I’m tracking, when my peripheral vision picks up shapes looming to either side and — no warning — we’re under attack.

Fuck. We’re surrounded. Fleet! Fleet is getting ripped into. No!

My brave, bleeding cat falls to the ground.

The world shrinks to her sand-coloured fur, tufts torn out, rivers of red. I’m on my knees at her side, fumbling with a cure light wounds spell. She’s still warm. But my hands tremble too much for me to tell if she’s alive.

My limbs are wooden, my heart empty, as I lurch to my feet. I stand over Fleet, and take in the battle that is all my fault. I led us into an ambush. All. My. Fault.

But Blizzard has a zombie under his control already. One explodes nearby at Alix’s hands. I take out my fear and grief on the remaining zombies within my reach. They do not last long.

As soon as it’s over, I gather Fleet into my arms. Thanks to blessed Emrys, she’s alive. Alix heals her some more and my heart is full again. But I can’t bear to let her go. Her fur is soft against my face. She puts up with my fussing for a while, but then she licks my face and twists out of my arms. I take a deep breath and get to my feet.

We return to Issimbaal by midday with two zombies under Blizzard’s command. Hopefully the clerics can do something with them.

I just want to curl up in a corner with Fleet and feel her warmth against my side, her rhythmic purr vibrating through my bones.


Fleet (a desert cat) is Zillah’s second animal companion. Her first was Ash, a dog, who was killed in the broken forest. All our D&D adventures are listed in order with links on the D&D Chronicles page.

Singing acapella in the tea room

The most important aspect of singing for me is creating harmonies with other people and filling a space with music. There’s a kind of magic created when multiple voices weave together and unfurl, blending and enhancing and expanding, the whole so much more than the sum of its parts.

This is why I have been singing in a community choir for the past three and a half years. And it’s also why I leapt at the chance 18 months ago to be part of something incredibly special.

A group of women from my ‘choir’ (which isn’t a choir in the ‘carmina burana’ sense) were hanging out together, when one of them voiced an idea. Every one of the nine other women present said yes to this idea without hesitation; and now, a year and a half later, we are still getting together monthly to sing at a local hospital palliative care unit.

As one of my fellow songsters said on Saturday, it’s the most worthwhile thing I do.

Once a month we sing acapella in the tea room, with the idea that our sound will travel down the two long corridors where the individual rooms are. Sometimes the tea room is mostly empty, with the occasional staff member or visitor wandering through; sometimes those patients who are well enough wander down to listen; sometimes we gather a bit of a ‘crowd’.

The main idea is that we fill the space with music for a time, hopefully bringing comfort to those who are dying and their visiting family.

Some of us have been known to sing at the beach as well.

Some of us have been known to sing at the beach as well.

Even when it feels like no one is listening, it’s tremendously uplifting for us; because that’s the thing about music — it travels into all the nooks and crannies of space and somewhere it’s making someone feel a bit better. It goes way beyond the simple joy of singing together.

This past Saturday, we were invited into a patient’s room for the first time. The man himself was very ill, but his daughter explained that he had been in a choir and would love to hear us sing. So, after our usual half-hour set, we gathered around his bed and sang a few songs.

Although he could not respond, he seemed to be aware and listening, and I cannot explain how moved we all were to be able to do that for him.

Each month is different when we sing in the palliative care unit, but it’s always rewarding. I know that we all gain something each time from the simple act of singing together, but it makes it so much more worthwhile to think that our music brings something to others as well.

Priddy’s Tale: book review

priddyPriddy’s Tale is another gorgeous love story from Harper Fox. It’s a fantastical tale about a lost young guy who lives in a Cornish lighthouse and falls in love with a merman.

I love this story so much. It’s told in a fairy tale style — which isn’t usually my thing, because I prefer a closer relationship with the characters. But Harper Fox managed to weave her magical words around me until I felt every bit of Jem Priddy’s confusion and uncertainty about his life’s direction, his yearning for Merou (the mysterious guy he ‘rescues’ from the waters), his growing conviction that his future lies somewhere else entirely.

Priddy is adorable — blond curls and blue eyes, just out of high school, and recovering from an almost fatal experience with a party drug that has left him prone to wild dreamings. His best friend Kit has gone to college without him, leaving Priddy caretaking a fully automated lighthouse for the winter. After he calls in the rescue chopper for a boat about to be wrecked on a stormy night (and where was Flynn Summers, where?), Priddy dives in to help the man swimming beside the boat, and changes his own life forever.

The beautiful man in the water is Merou, who doesn’t of course need rescuing at all, until Priddy touches him and he’s transformed… The magic of this story doesn’t lie in the mystery, though, and it’s pretty damn obvious from the start (to the reader at least) that Merou is one of the mer people.

Merou is charismatic and charming, an ancient traveller of the oceans and time. To Priddy, he’s like a prince — worldly, confident, fascinating, even if at first he seems a bit of a nutcase. (Or possibly a hallucination.) And Merou clearly desires Priddy, calling him such sweet names as ‘daisy-brained sweetheart’ (my favourite) and ‘king of the mountain’, based on the Welsh derivation of his name, ap-Ridih.

I’m trying not to re-tell the story here, but it’s hard, because it’s such a sweet gender-flip of traditional mermaid stories. Merou romances Priddy without artifice, and Priddy is swept away (at times quite literally) by his man of the sea. There’s a glorious sexy scene down at the bottom of the ocean, where we learn a little about the physiology of mermen, and Priddy learns what it would take to be with Merou forever.

There are some tense moments, mainly surrounding the introduction of a genetic scientist who wants to capture one of the mer for research purposes. But the resolution of this — and the afterward, written by a fictitious academic who also presents a foreward — is just perfect. I finished reading this long novella (short novel?) with my heart full and a smile on my face.

It’s the way this relatively simple tale is told that makes it so wonderful. It’s filled with magical and impossible things — like horses and apples from the sea, and a stranger who mysteriously knows about Priddy’s penchant for pastries — and infused with beautiful language and an abundance of ocean-themed imagery.

Like all the author’s work, Priddy’s Tale is also evocative of place — in this instance the wild and exciting south-western tip of Cornwall, where several of her books have been based. Inspired by the old Cornish folk tales, Priddy’s Tale is Harper Fox at her lyrical and beautiful best.

Here’s the Amazon link. You won’t be disappointed. I’m reading it again… and maybe re-reading some of her others as well. I just can’t get enough Harper Fox books in my life!

D&D Chronicles: Three battles, third time not so lucky

ZILLAH

Zombies inspire reckless action

D&D CHRONICLESIt’s around midnight when we finally find a band of zombies towards the outskirts of Issimbaal. There are six of them, five of us. This should be easy.

Although I must remember we need to take some alive for the clerics to study. I’m much better at killing zombies than anything else. In fact, they’re one of my favourite enemies. After the frustrating and fruitless afternoon we’ve had, the others will probably need to hold me back.

Except they don’t.

I charge first into the thick of it and start laying about me with both weapons. Yes. Zombies begin to wobble and fall. But, er… now I’m surrounded by them and… Ow. The bastards! It seems my companions have held back and I’m alone facing ALL THE ZOMBIES.

One explodes to my right. (Thanks, Alix!) Another breaks from the fray, but — ow! Shit. Fuck.
My head is swimming and my limbs feel like water. I’ve got to get out of here.

I edge back from the battle, but I can’t retreat far enough to stop them coming at me again. But then Nightshade is standing right in front of me like a shield, and they’re ignoring her. In fact, they almost stop their attack. Alix is free so I scream at her for some healing.

It’s over soon after that and Blizzard has a zombie under his control. I didn’t know he could do that. Why can he do that? It’s horrifying (but I’m reluctantly impressed). Two of the other zombies aren’t quite “dead” yet, so we take them back to the priests as well, but it turns out the only one that’s useful is the one Blizzard captured.

They give us some gold for the zombie, but I’m far more interested in whether they can use it to study the zombie disease. Find a cure. For Nightshade.

It’s very late and we fall into bed.

Tomorrow we face the beholder guarding the one room in the mage college we haven’t been able to get into yet. We crawled all over the second floor of that college this afternoon and found pretty much nothing. Let’s hope the contents of the workroom prove more rewarding.

Battle with the beholder

The beholder appears to see us immediately Squirrel and I enter the workroom. So much for our elaborate plan involving sneaking and invisibility potions and invisible twine and coded tugs…

But it doesn’t attack us. It looks… curious, with its one enormous eye, and other eyes on stalks sticking out like a tentacled sea creature. Except it swims in air and according to Squirrel each of those eyes will unleash a vicious spell.

I pray to blessed Emrys those other spells and blessings and shields and the deathward cast on us by Alix and Blizzard work.

The beholder abruptly scuttles up high, out of easy reach. Squirrel is visible now — he must have attacked. Our agreed plan was to retreat if the beholder saw us, but Squirrel doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Blizzard’s in the workroom now, wielding that floating sword he has. I guess we’re staying. I have my bow out by now and I start firing arrows into the creature.

I have no idea whether it’s attacking us back — I can’t see any sign of spells and I don’t think any have hit me. I hope the others are similarly lucky. It’s all very chaotic and messy, but in a surprisingly short time the thing is twitching and dead at our feet.

Nightshade pounces on the corpse and begins, er… eating it? I guess better its blood than ours.

After a search of the workroom we discover the fourth and final part of the key to what we assume is a door leading into the tower. To Squirrel’s delight and relief, we also find ingredients for the ink he needs to transcribe and learn mage spells.

I wouldn’t say this mage college has delivered enough bounty to offset the gold (for lives) we’ve sacrificed here, but the prospect of Squirrel with new spells is at least a positive.

Going one-on-one in the mage arena

Trying not to betray my trepidation, I step across the threshold into the mage arena. Squirrel tells me how to say the command word in the Tuyar language. As soon as I repeat it the air coalesces around me into one of those whirling wind creatures — air elementals — that we’ve confronted here already.

With a swallow, I raise my swords. It’s just me versus this creature in one-on-one combat. If I win the physical challenge, we will hopefully gain entrance to the top floor of this tower. If I lose… I can’t lose. This is a last resort. The other two levels of the tower have yielded precisely nothing except for a magic quill. There must be something here to find. Why else would we have to scavenge so hard for the four pieces of key?

We engage in battle, me with my two strong blades versus… magical air?

I have no idea how I’m going, but I feel strong. Steel flashes in the arena mage light. My companions are cheering me on. (I imagine the stands are packed full of cheering onlookers — how amazing that would feel.) Am I making a dent? There’s no way of knowing. I just have to keep going and try to beat this thing.

Air rushes past me as it flings me through the air. I crash against some sort of frame, but there’s no time to figure out what. I haul myself to my feet, aching now, and re-engage. I hope I’m putting a dent in this thing, because it’s certainly putting a dent in me. But I’m okay for the moment.

I’m hurtling through the air again. It’s almost like flying. The arena surface slams up to meet me.

A third chance at living

I open my eyes and the world rocks and shimmers around me. In my mind, there’s the echo of words, important words, words I can’t quite remember. Words from my god.

My skin prickles. Emrys spoke to me. I strain to recall the words and clutch them to my chest.

I become aware of the others hovering over me, alongside one of the clerics of Phanator. Sitting up, I look around this sacred room, take in their solemn faces, and I know exactly what has just happened. That cursed air creature killed me after all. Fuck.

But I’m alive. The priests have performed their third resurrection for our party in about as many days. And I feel… whole. We’re down a lot more gold (again) but I can continue my sworn quest to retrieve the Right Eye of Varrien.

And get the Left Eye back from that bitch cleric of Elloran, Elliana. (The others look at me in relief when I say this. I cannot quite meet their eyes.)

And find a cure for the zombie disease so we can cure Nightshade.


You may be interested to know this is the second time Zillah has died and been resurrected. The first time was all the way back in August 2014 (In the depths of the barrow there’s a wurm and an eye). She was not the only one that night. Our DM should go back and read that post when he’s feeling sad…

The D&D Chronicles page has some background and all posts listed in order.

D&D Chronicles: Trying to survive the mage college of Issimbaal

ZILLAH

early afternoon

D&D CHRONICLESThank blessed Emrys we are holed up in this temple with these clerics of Phanator. They have resurrected Blizzard with very little fuss.

It has cost us, though — and me especially. It is no secret among our group that there is little love lost between Blizzard and me, but I will be doing penance for a good long while for my actions earlier today. I contributed half the resurrection price, but it hardly seems enough. The fact I was bespelled when I slew one of my own companions doesn’t salve my conscience.

At least Blizzard seems back to normal, more or less. As unlikable as ever (although I cannot truly blame him for his hostility towards me at present).

We are now headed back to the mage college to resume our attempts to enter the library and retrieve the information these clerics need to cure the zombie disease. We have devised some strategies for avoiding a repeat of the disaster inflicted by the ‘Guardian of the library’ spell. Squirrel managed to cross that threshold without ruin this morning. Perhaps he can do so again, with a few safeguards in place…

early evening

It’s been a truly terrible day. After losing and reviving Blizzard this morning, we have now lost Squirrel — literally. He succumbed to the library spell, disappeared into the bowels of the college and never came out.

This is bad. Really bad.

Earlier, we triggered a cloud of poisonous gas in one of the corridors (which almost did for me), and we fear Squirrel entered it in his bespelled state. It’s pitch dark inside the college without mage light, so we cannot even search for him without succumbing to the poison gas ourselves.

To make matters worse, Nightshade is unconscious and not responding to healing. During our exploration of the ground floor of the college this afternoon, she succumbed to a fear charm at the entrance of what looks like a great hall. I didn’t get the chance to enter, before she was fleeing out the front door of the college.

We hadn’t dared to open the front door yet — for good reason, as it turns out. In her blind panic, Nightshade found herself facing four of the whirling wind creatures on her own. Once she fell, I managed to drag her back inside, but now we cannot bring her around at all. We can only hope the clerics of Phanator are able to help her.

Darkness has fallen and we are a sorry trio stumbling back to the temple for the night, carrying one companion and missing another. I am still weak after my encounter with the poison gas, and Blizzard is probably still coming to terms with his death experience. Alix remains our strength.

We fear Squirrel is dead.

night

I didn’t think today could get any worse. I was wrong.

The clerics say Nightshade has succumbed to the zombie disease. They can do nothing for her — although they have fortunately restored my depleted constitution. This makes me even more determined to find them information that will help them develop a cure.

We cannot let Nightshade turn into a zombie.

The clerics tell us that she must be fed blood. I can barely comprehend it. Blood. Blizzard, Alix and I have each allowed her to feed from us, and she is now awake.

Her eyes are now red and she is still weak. She has begged me to take Domino, her ferret companion, until her blood cravings ease. (I’m not sure what Fleet will think of this.) Apparently Nightshade no longer needs sleep or any other human sustenance.

I do not know how I will sleep tonight. I cannot stop thinking about Nightshade’s predicament, but she is our companion and we will find a way to save her.

And Squirrel. His motivations may be a mystery sometimes, but he has proven his loyalty to our quest time after time. I hope to blessed Emrys we can retrieve him safely tomorrow. I fear we will once more be grateful for the presence of Geretam and his fellow clerics.

And then of course there is Elliana — the cleric of Elloran who stole the Left Eye of Varrien. She is the whole reason we are here in this desolate abandoned city. Geretam is not sure how much longer they can delay her departure. And even if they do, we somehow need to figure out how to wrest the Eye from her.

Without dying.


SQUIRREL

the next day

Last thing I remember was stepping across the threshold of the library. I’d done it before, no ill effects — unlike Zillah, going berserk and killing Blizzard out of some ensorcelled sense of protectiveness for the mage school.

Next thing I know, I’m returning to consciousness on a cold altar at the temple. Alix is saying, “Welcome back”, and Zillah and Nightshade are helping me off the slab, my legs as weak as a newborn foal’s. Alix calls down some holy goodness and before too long I’m able to proceed under my own steam, the woolly fog cleared from my mind.

“I died again, didn’t I?” I ask. This weakness, the confusion, the sense of having been gutted of all energy and fitness, is sadly familiar.

“We had to give up your cloak in part payment,” Zillah says, and I count the loss of yet another piece of magical accoutrement. I’m pretty much down to just the dagger I’ve borrowed from Blizzard and the bracers my parents gave me. And I can feel the loss of physical fitness; coming back from the dead takes its toll. I should know – that’s twice now. Third time’s the charm?

The others fill in some of the blanks: I’d been trying to access the library again, and I’d fallen foul of the charm ward, been turned into a guardian. My companions had the good sense to stay out of my way; but then, presumably, I embarked on a perimeter search or perhaps undertook an inventory.

They found my body in a hallway filled with poison gas, the remnants of a trap we’d triggered earlier. Fortunately, it had been dissipated sufficiently for them to retrieve my corpse.

Pause to consider that, again. My corpse.

Is this mission worth the risk of dying again? Yes, I’ve become a more accomplished mage; yes, my skills at larceny have been honed. But my body, and my mind, have been weakened, and I’ve precious little to show for the all the discomfort and death other than a bulging spell book.

Heh. That could be payment enough, if I could just get my mind around them. But for that I need to transpose them into my own grimoire, to imprint them, to harness them, to my will. And for that I need special ink…


ZILLAH

And the next morning

I was so wrong about Elliana! She is truly the nicest and most honest cleric I have ever met. I knew I was right in thinking her motives in taking the Eye from the Church Elloran were altruistic. She and I sat down together last night and talked everything through.

I’m not sure why she’s interested in learning about magic portals, but since we finally managed to get all the books out of the library yesterday (a good present for the newly resurrected Squirrel — he needed a quiet day to regather his strength), I was able to retrieve all the books we hadn’t already given to the clerics of Phanator (on plants and the like), and which Squirrel hadn’t already claimed for himself.

I felt a little bad sneaking out to the college in the dead of night, not telling my companions, but they wouldn’t understand. Besides, Elliana swore me to secrecy, and I trust her. (They have busted me now, though… they noticed all the books were gone today. I have tried to explain to them that Elliana is our friend and we should help her — and let her help us — but they don’t believe me.)

And at least it means Elliana is now staying an extra day while she reads through the books I salvaged for her. I’m looking forward to seeing her this evening and hearing whether they were helpful.

In the meantime, we continue to search for answers in this terrible college, risking death with every step. The clerics need still more information to cure the zombie disease, and we are hoping to find objects and information that will aid (and fund) our quest. Most of the rooms are little more than dull classrooms — although we did find a most useful storage room with all kinds of useful gear, and a few other miscellaneous rooms of little interest.

magecollege#1

The most interesting doors are protected by fierce magics. I don’t know how we’re going to get past most of them. Perhaps I should ask Elliana tonight whether she will aid us — assuming we make it through the rest of the day…

SQUIRREL

Early afternoon

Did I mention I need magic ink?

It might be worth risking death again, because in that school of magery is a workshop. And in that workshop, I suspect, are all the ingredients I need to make up a useful batch of ink – and who knows what other valuable trinkets might be in there?

But the workshop is guarded by a beholder, and it is a fearsome sentry. My father told me of them, these concoctions of master wizards. It is a floating ball of stalks set around a central eye, with each stalk ending in a tiny eye. Forget sneaking up on a beholder. Each eye is more than just observant – each has a special power. The ones my father mentioned were spells such as paralysis, weakness of mind and body, and, of course, death.

I’ve convinced my companions to finish searching the school, in hope of finding a keyword or somesuch to disarm the beholder. Failing that, we’ll have to fight it, assuming I can convince my colleagues the potential payoff is worth it. But I’m up for it. I need to be able to access these spells. Our lives might depend on one of them.

Still, in the back of my mind rings the warning: third time’s the charm.


Thanks to Jason Nahrung for Squirrel contributions. See the D&D Chronicles page for all posts in sequential order.

Travelling in the 90s: Venerable Rome

It’s been a year since I posted the last extract from my 1993-1994 travel journal for the Travelling in the 90s series. I’ve been distracted. But there’s only a couple of weeks of Italy to go on the entire trip, so I’m going to focus on getting to the end.

Our last stop was Florence — a bit of a disappointment in gloomy February. Will Rome be an improvement? (Oh, yes, I think it will!)


[Thursday 15 February, 1994] We took a train to Siena this afternoon, but upon arriving discovered that the train station was at the bottom of the hill (mountain) upon which the town perched. We tried to ring a hotel and got someone who only spoke Italian. Then we tried to catch a bus (up the mountain) but couldn’t work out how to get tickets.

Then we both had a tantrum, and in a fit of pique decided to trash Siena and Go Rome!

So we jumped back on the next train to Rome. When we got there we didn’t see any pickpockets (I have to admit to being paranoid) and were taken by a scout to Soggiorno “Vichi”, which is where we are now. However, there are not many blankets on the beds, and the shower is only so-so, so I’m not sure whether we’ll stay for the nine nights we have left. In the meantime, Rome awaits — I can’t wait to see some of it tomorrow!

[Wednesday 16 February, 1994] Today, we basically explored Rome. Our LP guide book gave a suggested route, which we more or less followed, and which included many of the major piazzas and monuments. Rome has so many of these that there is no possible way to see them all in one day.

We’re staying in a not-so-interesting area near the train station, but it’s certainly convenient as far as carrying packs goes. It means that we have to walk somewhere to get into the atmosphere of Rome. Initial impressions include smog, crazy driving, enormous, and the incredible number of piazzas — small or large squares, often with fountains in them.

There is the fountain in the piazza del Spagna (near the Spanish Steps, which are all uneven and higgledy piggledy); the famous and beautiful Trevvi Fountain (which was by far the cleanest thing we saw today — sparkling white); the fountains in the piazza del Navona (the central and main one is called “The Four Rivers” and in fun we named them Tiber, Arno, Rubicon and Grand Canal); and fountains in the piazza Farnese (two old bath tubs). We threw coins in the Trevvi Fountain (as one must) and also I believe in some others along the way.

Another feature of Rome is obelisks!

It was a great day. I really enjoy wandering around a city and just soaking up the atmosphere — Rome doesn’t hit you the way Paris or Venice do, but respect and wonder kind of seep in. It’s a GRAND old city and reminds me (in a literary fling) of a crusty old grandfather, who has seen so much of life that now everything is taken in his stride. Age and position command respect!

Our route today included the major sights of the Spanish Steps, Trevvi Fountain and the Pantheon. This last is an amazing piece of architecture — a huge dome with a hole in the top. The inside is mostly Christian, having been consecrated to the faith in 609BC. It was originally dedicated to all the Roman gods.

pantheon

Pantheon, Rome

The Campo de Fiori was very un-bustling — I guess you have to catch it in the morning. And the via Vittorio Veneto is absolutely DEAD in the morning! We went through a pedestrian subway between via Veneto and piazza del Spagna which must have been half a kilometre long. We also walked for quite a while along the Tiber — it’s pretty, but seems almost forgotten. The grass is overgrown, and I got the impression that traffic zips over the bridges without even noticing that there’s a river there at all. Poor river.

Tiber River, Rome

Tiber River, Rome

There is so much more of Rome to see! More piazzas, heaps of churches, ruins, museums, not to mention the Vatican. Rome has so many layers. Venerable City!

Tonight we solved the dilemma of whether or not we should use our kettle (which MUST BE EARTHED) on the Italian sockets. For the operation we donned rubber-soled shoes and flicked the switch with a plastic spoon. It worked and boiled water twice without electrocuting us! But we shall continue to be careful…

[Thursday 17 February, 1994] It’s incredible to think that it’s only a week until we leave for home. Today I amazingly woke up with the 8:30 alarm, and actually got out of bed into the freezing cold morning. H was about half an hour behind me.

We went to the ancient sector of Rome today — the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine hill. The Colosseum turned out to be free for the first level, which suited us. A ruined stadium looks much the same from all levels.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Next we went to the Forum which reminded me a bit of Ancient Corinth. It was a mess of ruined temples and basilicas — we were taken aback at how disorganised it was. We were forced to buy a guide book in order to discover what everything was. However, the book proved to be really good value with lots of interesting and useful facts.

There is not much left standing in the Forum. The Temple of Saturn has about six pillars, Castor and Pollux three, and Vesta three. The Temple of Antoninius and Faustina has about eight as well as a Christian basilica built in the centre. There were also temples to Julius Caesar, Venus and Rome, Romulus, and an interesting one to Apollo on the top of the Palatine Hill.

Ancient Forum, Rome

Ancient Forum, Rome

The guide book also covered the ruins on the Palatine hill, which consisted mainly of palaces and houses. The architecture of these buildings is really amazing. The Romans seemed to mainly build with flat bricks, so as a result the ruins look less ancient than ruins in Greece. They also tend to be covered in green vines, blending into the side of the hill. It was a very enjoyable day. We had a picnic lunch beside the temple of Venus and Rome with a view of the Colosseum.


I really really must go back to Rome. It was one of my favourite cities on this trip. There’s still more to come from Rome, but next post will be a side trip to Naples and Pompeii. More amazement!

(As usual, terrible photo reproduction… adds to the experience!)

If anyone has memorable travel experiences of Rome I’d love to hear them in the comments.