Posted in Short Stories

Tread Carefully…

Tread carefully, when you walk upon Our Land, my boy. Stay your step and take that second thought. We will wait here in the air long after you cease to breathe it, and our roots are nourished by your blood and bone. You have so much of both, my boy, do you really wish to give it to us?

Tread carefully, when you approach the Stones. Your people think of stones with graves, and that is for good reason. You are filled up with resources, and we can use every inch of you for something. You bring nothing of value save yourself. Do you mean to offer it up to us?

Tread carefully, my boy, and close the Gate up fast. The Guardsmen are sleeping and many of us have but waited long for this moment. We do not sleep, we do not dream, we do not hope. We only wait and watch and when a weakness is found, we strike it. Others should not have to suffer for the foolishness which is all your own, do you not think? Close the gate behind you, if tread beyond it you must…

Tread carefully, your people say that grass is made of blades, and you should listen to your elders, boy. Our fruits are laced with poisons sweet, our branches spiked with thorns. Your feet will bleed and your tears will only replenish our thirst, and you cannot afford to make us stronger. You will only weaken as we grow, and for everything we feed you, we will take back a thousand-fold. How much can you lose?

Tread carefully, for see how the storm-clouds gather above? The Huntsman rides this night, and his hounds have gone too long without feasting. The wind carries with it the sound of his Horn, and the cheers of his Riders break the night. Maybe you shall be fast and clever, able to evade them long enough they will take you for their one of their own, but you are so slow, so ill-used to these games, my boy, it is far more likely still that you shall provide them their sport in other ways. How do you think you shall taste to them when they catch you?

Tread carefully, when you think to follow the Hidden Path. It was hidden for a reason and wiser folk than your foolish young spirit learned the lessons to avoid it. Its twists and turns are beyond your mind’s capacity to hold firm, and you will not enjoy losing your grip on the world’s truths… nor on your own self. It is such a pretty, pretty mind, my boy, but it will be prettier still when it shatters into so many brilliant fragments…

Tread carefully, when you think to enter the Wilds and seek your fortune therein. You are a Tamer at heart, and the Wilds have no interest in buying what you sell. Tame things live lesser lives, shorter ones, Wild lives race along a razor’s edge and are all the more certain for it. You think to explore, but you wish to take with you more than memories and pictures and all things come at a cost. We do not give you of ourselves without consuming all that we can from you first…

Tread carefully, when you feel the Watcher’s gaze. It is not your imagination, for you cannot think of anything so terrible as Them shall be when they catch you. No, you cannot outrun them, nor outwit them. They were tearing apart those such as you long before even the language you think in. They will have their rightful prey when it wanders so willing into their den…

Tread carefully, you were not invited here. You were not wanted, and you were not sought out. You brought yourself, and that is an offering to the hungry. You are softer than you think, and know less than you ought. You are a candle trying to match itself to a forest fire.

It is not a contest.

Won’t you turn back, my boy, before you tread further? Before you become Ours, for ill or for worse…


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Posted in Short Stories

Over the Hills and Far Away…

When the fiddlers play their tunes you may sometimes hear,
Very softly chiming in, magically clear,
Magically high and sweet, the tiny crystal notes
Of fairy voices bubbling free from tiny fairy throats.

When the birds at break of day chant their morning prayers,
Or on sunny afternoons pipe ecstatic airs,
Comes an added rush of sound to the silver din—
Songs of fairy troubadours gaily joining in.

When athwart the drowsy fields summer twilight falls,
Through the tranquil air there float elfin madrigals
And in wild November nights, on the winds astride,
Fairy hosts go rushing by, singing as they ride.

Every dream that mortals dream, sleeping or awake,
Every lovely fragile hope—these the fairies take,
Delicately fashion them and give them back again
In tender, limpid melodies that charm the hearts of men.

Fairy Music, by Rose Fyleman, 1919

You wanted something different. Something new. Anything was better than this world, you thought, embittered by your own small problems and nebulous so-called larger issues which now seem so small in hindsight. And you had wanted an adventure of your own, to see if magic truly existed in the world, after all.

You danced at the standing stones, strayed from the paths in the woods, accepted the deal at the crossroads.

You were so happy to find Them at last. You were so eager, so excited…

Besides, nothing which sang so sweetly, which laughed so merrily, could be so very bad. They were so kind to welcome you, so eager to talk to you, as eager as you were to talk to Them. With moonlight skin and silver eyes, They were so wonderful to look at, so compelling to watch as They danced and danced, and you were welcomed to dance with Them in your turn…

Salt and silver, bread and milk, do not give them your name, do not take their deals, do not listen to their songs, do not eat their food, do not listen to their pretty, pretty lies…

You had heard the warnings of your elders, and you remember still their words, although their names have long since faded. Or perhaps they were taken from you? So many things have been taken from you by now, and it is pointless to try to count and trace them all. Time is a thief in its own right, but at least the soft fading away of long-ago memories is painless and natural. Nothing else about your life has been natural is so very long…

Ah, but you were so foolish back then…

But you see… You had so wanted to see another world, wanted magic and legends and something more than the dull grind of a callous world. Different would be better, and nothing could be worse, you had thought.

You have long-since learned that you were wrong. The mouse learns that the cheese in the trap is no better than food outside of it too, much good as the lesson does you both, now that you have learned it.

They liked you at first, you were different to Them. New. Your tongue was one They were unused to and you sang Them songs They had not heard time beyond telling. You showed Them the dances from your own childhood, odd hopping movements, and complicated gestures in the air. They laughed, and you laughed with Them then. They asked and asked and asked for the things which you knew back then, and you gave it all up to Them freely, asking little and less in return from Them. It did not occur to you to bargain, to hold anything in return, to keep anything in reserve should you have need of it later.

You were so foolish back then… So very foolish…

Perhaps you would have enjoyed those days of wonder, of light and sparkle and laughter, but even back then you could see – pushed aside and into the shadows, forgotten for a while in the face of something new – the eyes of those who had come before you. Could see your own future staring back from the corners of the room and the shadows they daren’t creep out from.

Faded beings, empty eyes and grasping hands, mouths slack with hunger or tight with pain, once human and now… not. But still too human to remain unmauled, even once they had been stripped of their colour, their spark and life. What remains of them is uncanny and stilted, but far worse is the sense that they are now … missing pieces. You wonder how they might have come to bargain away anything which you can sense, human as you are, but you just as quickly cast the thought aside. Best not to think about it. They looked at you with envy, aye, but they looked at you with pity also. The new, bright, hopeful auditioner, a new favourite… for a short while. Never for long.

They are like children, you think sometimes, though the words hold only the last remaining dregs of their remembered meaning. You’re not sure, if you try to think about it, if you really know what children are, what they look like, if you yourself were ever such a thing. But still you keep saying such phrases to yourself, trying to remember thoughts from a time when you knew they were your own. Sometimes They play a game where they slot new thought after strange phrase into your mind to see how long it takes for you to realise. Sometimes They take things away until you reach for something and find it is no longer there. Once the game is up and the laughter has ended, sometimes They give you the missing pieces back.

Sometimes.

If They feel you’ve earned it.

They are like children, easily distracted, easily charmed and no object permanence at all. Quick to discard a toy once it ceases to entertain Them, and quicker to forget and move onto the next shiny new thing to wander across Their vision…

Except there they are nothing like children at all. They never truly forget about their toys, after all. If they did, perhaps you could hide. But you can’t. No matter how far you push yourself into the shadows, no matter how small you ty to make yourself appear, They come to find you quickly enough.

They took and took and took from you, everything you could think to give, poking and prodding to remind you that there was surely always something more to feed to Their endless curiosity, and you gave it all up with open hands, freely at first and then more and more fearful. You do not even wish to imagine what will happen should you disappoint them. Your fears whisper to you and you determinedly close you ears to them. Your hands tremble as you hold out yet another part of yourself – some small detail, some new thought or memory or secret you had held within yourself for so long – to be gobbled up, sucked dry and you feel some inner core of yourself start to shrivel with the constant plundering by greedy ears and mouths and nothing new to feed it with. You will think of something new tomorrow. You must.

Eventually, the inevitable. You search within yourself for yet more to feed to Their hunger and find that there is nothing left that is new. And you realise that your fearful thoughts are only the beginning. Now comes the true price of your foolishness…

Your voice begins to crack, to dry up, your mind begins to empty. They do not wish to hear the thoughts which They put there for you. They want more from inside you. You have nothing left to offer, and now the real test begins. Your songs become stale to The, the melodies faltering, the verses hesitating, the notes unsure. You have sung this song since Before, surely you cannot forget it now? When they wait to hear it? But no matter how you stretch your mind, it finds only half what is needed and even that you are unsure of.

Your stories dull and wandering; you do not remember the endings anymore, cannot always keep the threads straight in your mind. You think at first that the suggestions They call out to you – to the sea, he goes to the sea! No, to the hills, you said to the hills! Ah, but he has wings, so he must fly! – are to aid you, that They have taken some pity upon you at last, mocking though Their pity only ever is. But you begin to realise that you have told the beginning of the same story seven times over and gotten no further than the first of the hero’s tasks, cannot remember now what the task was, nor why they were attempting it, and the silver bells of laughter around you echo so loudly in your ears that you cannot hear yourself think long enough to find and pick up the shivering threads.

You look up, lost and beseeching, but the silver queen stares straight back at you from her frozen throne, her silver eyes which pierce you through like spear-tips, uncaring as you bleed beneath your wounds, and you wonder why you ever thought that she was kind.

“I will have my story, child. Begin again.”

And the air that you breathe cuts into your lungs with icicles but you gasp for it anyway. Speaking with no air in your chest hurts. You bow your head, find your tongue again and begin once more, as you were bidden. You cannot rest until you reach the ending, after all.

You think you may be taller now than you once were. Perhaps. Your hair is certainly longer, but maybe you are only remembering a different style to wear it in. You have become more and more like them and they have hundreds of their own. They do not need you, pale imitation of their own beauty that you are. You are no longer exotic, and far from perfect, and so you are simply… defective. A malformed creature in their eyes. You wonder if you look like your own people, from Before, but you have no way to know and you doubt it all the same.

You are no longer the focus of the evening’s attention, certainly. You think you sigh in relief, but perhaps it is regret also. You miss the chance to dance with Them, and you still pine for Them to smile upon you and laugh, for the days when Their hands were soft and welcoming to you, not tipped with claws and greedy to pluck ever more from your depths. You wish so much to escape from Them, but you also wish you could crawl up and curl at Their feet, sleep in peace again and be loved by Them.

Surely They loved you once? You were so sure that They did…

Ah… But you were so sure of so many things, and you were wrong… so very wrong…

Besides there is always something new out there to be found and collected, something different. There are new children come to Court, bright-eyed and giggling with excitement. They can’t believe that all of this is quite real yet, are sure that it is all some fantastic dream, which they do not ever want to wake up from. There is little enough chance that they can, so perhaps they will be happy for a while.

You pity them a little, but you hope too that they are full of interest for everyone. You are sure that they will have plenty of new songs and stories to share, perhaps even a new dance to teach Them. They like to learn something new, They always do. Things move on so fast, do they not? You have grown, no longer shining and innocent and new. There is nothing left to corrupt, nothing left to shock or bedazzle. You have seen Their tricks one too many times too.

You have not yet lost all use though. You are never sure whether to be glad of it or not. You think it cannot be worse, to be finally cast entirely aside, but you remember you used to think nothing could be worse than your life Before, and now you know better.

They find other ways to take their entertainment from you. Ways you were expecting and ways you weren’t. They change the colours in your hair, your eyes, your skin, changed the shape of your chin, the tilt and form of your ears, until you look into mirrors and even you don’t remember what you once looked like anymore. Your voice is different every day now, and sometimes it is no voice at all but the whine of a frightened beast or the shriek of a trapped bird. They like to rake you with pain and see if They can make you scream in the tongue of every creature They know, comparing the different tones and timbers of growl or whimper, pretending to pet you as They discuss which voice They should ‘gift’ you with next. You are not asked what you would wish for. You do not expect to be.

They took your eyes from you once, and you don’t know how long you spent stumbling without them, feeling your way around and trying to gauge distance from the sounds in your ears, until you remember that They can play with echoes just like anything else, and gave up all hope at last. You have eyes again, but you doubt that they are truly your own. Nothing else is, after all.

Your limbs may be longer than theirs now, but They find interest enough in them all the same. You flinch whenever they bring out the pipes, but you know there is nowhere to run to, and trying only makes things worse.

Come, dance for us! You love to dance! They call, and the pipes drone out their opening notes and you wish They had not taken your tears from you, but even if you still could cry, it would do you no good.

The notes lash themselves around your wrists and ankles and you jerk to your feet, stumbling and flailing a little. They laugh. You spin and turn, leap and bend, body moved by the music, over and over, faster and faster, never ending, never slowing, you are lost to it, until the music should see fit to realise you, and it never will. Another quick spin and you feel the skin on your feet begin to shred, blood beginning to seep out into the dry earth. It soaks the redness up without comment or thanks. You gasp for breath and find too little of it. The air is sharp and hard, you cannot breathe it properly. You need rest. You need to stop.

The music does not care, you begin the sequence again, spinning and leaping and bending. They laugh as they watch. You think desperately to scream for help, for mercy, but there is little help to be hoped for and certainly no mercy to be found. The soles of your feet are covered now in blood, you think it is probably your own, but there are plenty more just like you all around, jerking wildly and leaping and turning and you are all being pushed too far beyond your limits. You are all bleeding, chests tight as you fight for your next breath. And your next. The pipes play on, heedless, tugging you this way and that to the tune of Their fickle whims.

They laugh.

You wonder how you ever thought Their laughter an invitation.

It was a warning.

They did warn you. Back before everything.

You didn’t listen.


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Posted in Oxford Odditites

That Time When No One Talks About The Unnamed Guardian…

For those of you who haven’t been to Oxford before, this is Oxford’s train station…

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It’s not the most glamorous place in the world is it? I remember hearing when I first moved down here that the town wasn’t at all keen on this whole ‘train’ idea, and many people were sure it wouldn’t catch on at all. So rather than build a nice swanky train station like London has in spades or York, they just sort of… shoved it out onto what was at that time the outskirts (ha! Oh, urban sprawl, you aggressive weed…)

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And for a long time I sort of believed this story too…

However!

No more shall we calmly accept this mundane tale! No indeed! We shall instead acknowledge the battle of a brave soul who has for so long gone unrecognised!

For if you go to Oxford’s train station, and you walk into the main hall and look up, you will see a small figure, sitting above the main doors…

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She’s only small, and you can easily miss her, but there she is… the Guardian.

There she sits, watching over us all. No matter the season, the time, or the weather, she remains at her post through it all, unstinting in her duty of care.

If you ask a member of the station team, you may be given a name for her. But if you ask more than one for her name, you will find that you get a different name every time. This is only sensible, I suppose, for Names are Important, as we have discussed here before.

Now you may say to me, ‘Cameron. You’re being ridiculous. She’s a plastic owl to ward off a few pigeons; this isn’t a big deal.’

But that’s where you’re wrong!

For one thing, if she were there to simply ward off a few pigeons, she’d be hilariously bad at it! I didn’t actually manage to get a photo of the feathered terrors perching on top of our girl, contrary creatures that they are, but I assure you that there were plenty of them doing so! And the good people of Oxford train station wouldn’t keep her around if she didn’t function! What do you think she is? One of our ticket barriers?

So she must be there to ward off another threat, a bigger threat than mere pigeons…

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Now you might wonder to yourself, what possible dangers are there hanging around at train stations, but I urge you to remember your folklore for a moment…

What are the places you must be most careful of, the places where a moment of unwary complacency can cost you all that you hold dear?

Graveyards, yes, ruins and standing stones, sure, but also? Crossroads.

Nothing good comes of being too relaxed by a crossroads, does it?

And what are train stations but big, modern crossroads? Oh, sure we don’t tend to bury our unquiet dead there, but train stations are where large groups of strangers are pressed closely together, no one looks too hard at another’s eyes, nor do we count their fingers. Everyone’s in a hurry, no time to ask enough questions, lots of quick decisions being made. And then we’re off! Never looking back, never sure who the person we just spoke to was or whence they came…

Train stations might fool you with their florescent lighting and their pop-up coffee shops, but think about it even a little and suddenly they look much more Otherworldly, no?

But fear not!

For at Oxford, there is one who stands guard against the Lord and Ladies of the Otherworld! The silent sentinel figure of the owl…

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Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

She is an apt choice in many ways. In the North of England, my own place of origin, it is said to be good luck to see an owl, and if you’re are at either the beginning or the end of a long train journey then I can assure you that you’ll take any piece of good luck you can find!

On a less … owl-friendly note, owls have long been associated with evil and wickedness owing to their nocturnal habits and liking for the quiet of graveyards and ruins. In Kent it was said that the owl kept to the nighttime hours because she had once won first prize in the animal kingdom’s beauty competition and the jealous losers punished her by only allowing her to come out at night. Poor love.

More to our purposes here, since the early Roman times and continuing right up and into the 19th Century, it was considered that nailing a dead owl to the door of a house or barn would ward off evil and ill-fortune (I think out of the idea that an owl caused the ill-fortune so an owl could jolly well take it away again.) And while that’s clearly awful and you should never do such a thing to the noble and majestic owl, a plastic owl is a perfect modern replacement, don’t you think? Can’t get more dead than being made of plastic now, can you?

All around the world, owls are often credited with powers of prophecy, wisdom and being the messengers between this world and … others. I can certainly think of no better guard against the inherent evil of public transport terminals than our dear Oxford Owl! She’ll see through any mischievous being who tries their luck on the unwary, that’s for sure! And any who have seen the talons and beaks of an owl will know that her vengeance will be both swift and vicious indeed!

So when you next pass through Oxford’s train station, look up on your way out and tip your hat to our noble guardian. She’s doing a hard and thankless job up there, but we are all safer for her presence.

Does your local train station have a guardian? What is it? As I travel around the country in the coming year I’ll keep an eye out myself…

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

How to Build your Fairy City

Or: What Your Building Can Say About You…

Updated with images – 29/01/18

So I’d like to start this post with a special dedication to all my friends who live with me and my writing. Friends are the un-celebrated support network behind any artist or writer and we just don’t give them enough thanks!

This post was born out of the following, I swear I’m not making this up, real-life conversation:

Me: Hey, I’ve just had a thought

Friend: What?

Me: What are fairy cities like? What do they look like?

Friend: …

Me: I mean, do they have large cities? Do fairies have a social structure that would support that? Because they seem like they’d be ‘Bigger Is Better’ people-

Friend: … Cameron…

Me: – but they also seem to have a pretty feudal society and that only really allows for kind of small ones. And would they be too territorial for close-quarters living?

Me: And what do the buildings even look like? Do you think they’d be all tall and ethereal? Or one story high and made out of sturdy rocks? Like super-defensive?

Friend: …It’s gone midnight, Cameron. Talk to me later, yeah?

To all of my friends who bear with my madness; your patience is noted and appreciated. I thank you all.

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Anyway, this post is going to look at world-building from one very specific direction; choosing a specific end result – in this case the final ‘look’ of Tir Na Nog’s cities – and working backwards to figure out what would need to exist to allow this to happen.

I’m a big believer in looking at a lot of different approaches to world-building, and trying out all of them. Even if you find this helpful, please don’t feel like you need to use this for everything you go on to build or indeed feel like it should work in all scenarios, because it probably won’t. Different approaches force you to ask different questions and that’s what’s fantastic about world-building. Go crazy and try everything you can get your hands on! The end result will be much better!

Why Think About Cities This Much?

So, Cameron, why are you giving any though to what the cities of the fairies look like?

I hear you ask.

Well, fantasy fiction has historically had a bit of a leery relationship with the idea of cities. They tend to feature cities as far off in the distance, mentioned and referenced maybe but only entered, if ever, during a fraught quest or at the climax. (Also, is it just me that keeps finding cities as being almost exclusively where The Bad Guy™ lives, rather than normal places of normal people with lives and businesses?) So the focus is never on the city itself as a functioning population hub but as the place where the action happens. And for good reason.

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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Fantasy tends to really like to base itself in medieval feudal societies and they don’t have the sort of social structure to maintain big cities like the modern world does. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t cities, but by our standards they’d be pretty small, and they are rare and they usually are the result of very specific factors coming together, like the joining of two or more main roads, or a crossing place on a river…

Mostly the population lived in smaller towns and villages; the larger your settlement is, then the more people living in it, and the more food it needs to keep going. Since the middle of a settlement is not where the good agricultural activity is, that means that the ‘hinterland’ (the land which is essentially there specifically to feed the town) gets larger too, but now the distance food has to travel from the outskirts of that hinterland inwards is larger, and after a while it’s not worth it. Pre-industrialisation, goods just take a lot longer to move than we can easily conceive of now – a horse and cart laden down with food can travel around 12 miles in a day, according to my research, assuming that there aren’t highwaymen or robbers or flooding…

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Sarlat Périgord Foie Gras, Sarlat-la-Canéda, France. Photo by Tom Parkes on Unsplash

Plus, once you get a lot of people into a single area, you need to keep the peace between them, dispense justice, collect revenue to keep the public buildings and infrastructure maintained and pay the people who are keeping that peace I just mentioned. It’s a lot more complicated than just shoving people together and calling it a city. There’s hierarchies to sort out and maintain and differentiate. The priorities of the society will shape the city’s major centres – hospitals, libraries and universities, banks and markets, churches and temples, public parks, etc. Trade routes to be established so goods can come in and out, and industrial areas to develop and spread. And then of course cultures change and develop…

No, wait! Don’t panic! I know it sounds complicated but that’s not really a bad thing! You’re a writer after all! You get to be the boss of this world, and you get to make those decisions now! Just be aware that you might need to think about these things if you want to go into detail.

It’s worth stressing at this point that some writers do not go into detail, and that’s not necessarily going to impede your narrative at all.

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has the Fellowship rest at the city of Caras Galadhon, the largest city of Lothlórien. What do we know about it? Well, it’s built up in the massive mallorn trees, on platforms connected by stairways and ladders, and it’s lit by “many lamps”. That’s not a whole lot of description of a major city. We get some highlights of important places; the fountain, the mirror of Galadriel and there’s a palace that Galadriel and Celeborn live in, but none of them are described in that much detail. And did that affect the plot at all? Nope!

So please don’t read this post and panic because you haven’t really described your city (if you have one). Especially if the plot is just glancing through it, the city doesn’t have to matter all that much. Books are there to tell stories with words, they aren’t a visual medium like comics or film where designing a set is vital for the whole narrative to work.

I personally made the decision to tackle the idea of fairy cities. I haven’t read about a lot of them and I really wanted to take the opportunity to really think one out. I like a challenge and it’s something that is potentially distinctive in my writing. I don’t even know if they are going to be a major feature, but I know I want to give them a try. I want to see how the cities built by fairies – who are not and never have been human and who have had very limited and mostly rural experiences with humans – would be different from our own. I wanted to experiment to see how their political structures would affect their physical surroundings. What would be the same and what would be alien to us?

You will have your own ideas which are different and unique and you’ll want to play to those strengths.

What Buildings have to do with People?

OK, so architecture says a lot about the people who built it. It says a lot to those people as well, actually. Before the rise of literacy among the general population in Europe, architecture was the main way that ideas and concepts could be spread to the masses.

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Church of Saint-Pierre, Caen, France. Photo by Thomas Millot on Unsplash

There’s a reason that the Catholic Church built those huge cathedrals with their stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes and lessons, and (pre-Reformation times) were decorated inside and out with painted statues and huge murals also depicting important stories and ideas: Heaven, Hell, Saints and Angels protecting the innocent and punishing the wicked, Devils are bad and do bad things, what the major sins are and what happens to those who succumb to temptation.

You get the idea.

Also buildings reflect the changing power dynamics and attitudes of societies too.

This bit is grossly over-simplified, I’m sorry, and I should stress that I am not a qualified architectural historian or anything of the kind!

The Renaissance saw a revival of what became known as the Neo-Classical style of architecture, which reflected the period’s renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture, ideas and society. The ‘Middle Ages’ (as they were now called, since people had clearly lived beyond that age and into a new one) were despised as the ‘Dark Ages’, a time without all this clearly superior Classical literature and scholarship of science. The backlash to that dismissal was then seen in the rise of the Neo-Gothic architecture of the Later Victorian Era (timings approximate) where the revival of medieval ‘gothic’ architecture was used to celebrate the poetically reimagined vision of the Middle Ages as a more exciting and untamed era of adventure and great deeds – just as the Europeans imagined their own actions and innovations to be; exploring new lands and conquering mountains, seas and desserts instead of dragons and griffins.

What I’m building up to here is the idea that architecture is a reflection of the people who design it, and therefore these two things need to match. If you give me a peace-loving society with no recent conflicts, but everyone lives in well-built and defensive castles and fortified towns, I’m going to have some serious questions. Which could be answered with something interesting like ‘There was a war recently and no one wants to talk about it, but that’s why they love peace so much’ or ‘The masses are told that they are a peaceful nation, but the Powers That Be are war-lords and are preparing for a terrible war.’

See? Inconsistencies can add up to fascinating world-building on their own. A war-faring culture that lives in undefended settlements might simply be terrifyingly good warriors, like the Spartans who had no walls to defend their towns because their army was amazingly effective.

So about these Fairies?

OK, so I always say this: When you sit down to do some world-building, start with what you already know, then work out from that. This approach has never let me down, because I stop focussing on the things I haven’t worked out and start focussing on all the things I’ve already figured out, which is both more positive for me as a person, and means I’m not figuratively looking at a blank page, but at a puzzle piece which just has some gaps in it. (Sometimes big gaps, but they’re still just gaps, right?)

What did my image of my fairies tell me?

My version of fairies are based on the Early Medieval folktales’ version; not demigods like the pagan Celtic peoples knew them (Tuatha Dé Danann), but more powerful and interesting than the little house spirits the Church would make them into by the time of Shakespeare (he describes them as being small enough to hide inside acorns when frightened). The best concise description I have ever found for fairies as I pictured them comes from (who else?) Terry Pratchett, in Lords and Ladies:

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.

That’s it, that’s it right there! Those are my fairies! Beautiful but cruel, interested in beautiful things but not with lives, covetous and jealous and magical. That old phrase about a person who could “kill you or kiss you”? Those are my fairies.

I knew that they would have an elf king and a fairy queen, that each ruler had their own distinct court; so they’d need palaces. I knew that they liked music and dance for the sounds and the colour and the movement, that they liked theatre and the inherent falseness of the magic of the stage; so they’d have large public venues to enjoy them in. I knew that they would have big parties to celebrate and show off in, so some big open spaces to “dance upon the green” would need to be incorporated.

But there’s another side I needed to conceive of. I knew that all the glitter of my fairies would be – not hiding exactly, but definitely distracting from – another, darker set of priorities. I knew that they would collect lives like some people today collect action figures – to be kept on a shelf and displayed for pleasure but never ever used. That they would consume more than mere food, and that they would barter in dark secrets and blood-stained memories. I knew that they would craft beautiful artworks and terrible weapons in the same shops, and sell lucky potions and deadly poisons in the same markets, and not always tell you which it was you were buying, because they’d get a kick out of watching you take a gamble with your own life and lose.

So now I needed to think about what aesthetic best fitted that sort of culture.

So About Those Cities?

These days with the wonders of the internet, whenever I need to find a specific ‘look’ to fit an amorphous concept, I use Pinterest, but any other way you have for finding lots of images will work just as well! Go forth, scramble around and collect every single imagine that strikes you as fitting. They don’t have to match, they don’t have to be exactly fitting. You’ll go through them later and throw out the ones that don’t work anymore, or find patterns you didn’t even realise you were tracing out in these little snippets.

I have a whole set of photos cut out of old magazines at home which are literally just windows and doors and I am reliably informed that they have no visible common aesthetic at all. They do. They are the doors I think belong in a character’s house, which is large and has a lot of different types of rooms, like any large old house, and it was only later that I realised that they were also the doors into different realities…

Anyway, I went away and looked at lots of pictures of buildings. Lots of them. And finally I found something that really worked for these fairies: Gothic Architecture! … Sort of…

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Looks absolutely beautiful, doesn’t it? Like they made it out of sugar paste instead of stonework… Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

So, if you’ve ever been inside a Gothic cathedral the first thing you’ll probably have been struck by is all those massive windows. They’re huge and (or at least they were) filled with coloured glass, and they have these amazing spiders’ web of stone and lead running between all these pieces?  I’m fascinated by Gothic stained glass windows, they’re just so pretty…

But the thing is, Gothic architecture can be beautiful and romantic and intricate and absolutely full of tiny details and little carvings that just add so much… but they are also really sinister too. At least to me. Like, there’s a reason why Gothic architecture is associated with vampires and evil spirits and malevolent magics too. Those walls are really tall, and they just loom over you, and all the angles come to sharp points of stone that catch the light and throw claw-like shadows everywhere, and the halls are full of these statues that may or may not be watching you, right? I love visiting old cathedrals, but sacred ground or not, you will never pay me enough to stay inside one overnight. Nope, not happening! Nuh-uh.

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Looks much more sinister in black-and-white with a bit of fog though, huh? Photo by Linnea Sandbakk on Unsplash

So I started to imagine an entire city based off of the sort of design that went into a Gothic Cathedral. All that grand sense of height and looming presence, filled all over with stained glass caught up in these intricate webs of silver-lead and impossibly fine stone, throwing glittering points of coloured light everywhere. All those sharp-edged columns and pointed arches upon arches to build a ceiling like a ribcage over top of huge, echoing, cavernous halls. Lots of wide spaces, yes, but lots of twisted shadows too, that you aren’t sure are occupied or not…

And like the real cities of old, lots of hungry people living tightly together with not much food… and there you are, all alone…

Thanks for reading this post, I know fantasy architecture is a weird topic! 

If you liked this and found it helpful, check out the rest of the series here.