Welcome to SPFBO 6 and my brand new feature, Party with the Stars! Have you ever wondered what might happen if you could throw a party of your choice and not only could you invite your MC(s) but other literary figures as well? In this feature I ask you to imagine exactly that scenario and some more. Meet T K P Sternberg and let’s get the party started!
aka The Author
Tobias Krister Per Sternberg is a Swede who lives in Berlin, studied in London and has spent the last decade and a half working as a visual artist. He is an avid fan of fantasy, history and good storytelling in general. Sternberg speaks English with his wife, Swedish with his daughter and German or English with friends and colleagues. Born in 1973, he is of the generation who discovered tabletop role-playing games in their early teens, at the same time as they got their first simple computers. Those games became the point of entry both to Fantasy and to creativity.
aka The MC(s)
The celebration is held for Stig, as he will have to depart soon. The Singing Gold is the opening of a trilogy, and as it should be, things only gets worse as the book progresses. His family is there, of course. This is a book centered firmly around one small family, but things are not easy for them. Outer pressures push them apart. The most frustrating thing is that they hardly find the time to talk things through and decide together on how to tackle the outer challenges. Stig should definitely talk to Liv before he leaves, but he finds this the very hardest, since at their very cores, they don’t share the same view on the world.
Valgeir would turn up for the food, and to steal as much of their attention as he can. Klara will despise him, but Tobbe adores the rascal.
Illugi would skulk around at the edges, hiding behind the trees, trying to catch Stig as he finally slips away to confront his destiny. Let’s hope he doesn’t have a curse up his sleeve to outweigh Stig’s obvious advantage in the forest.
The dwarves would not have been invited. They would be outraged about this, even though they would of course never have turned up, had they been welcome.
It would be very practical for Stig if someone like Gandalf could turn up and explain a thing or two to him. Alas, the wandering wise man is not a trope I am about to employ in my writing. When ancient beings of uncertain repute do make an appearance, it is mostly to their own benefit and merriment, and any guidance they provide is cryptic and doubtful.
The Main Attraction
The Vittr are watching from the trees, perching on the branches, hiding between roots, clinging to the trunks. They are dressed up in their best finery, in capes of autumn leave, with wide hats of toadstool and warm, mossy boots. They see everyone and hear everything and yet no one knows they are there. Save Stig.
Trad Swedish Christmas song that exists in innumerable versions. Origins unknown. For me, this song is a perfect example of pagan roots intertwining with later Christian traditions and blending in a way that makes it impossible to see what is what. The subtleties of this cultural heritage is, I believe, difficult for an outside observer to perceive. Especially since Sweden has developed into such a hyper modern country. Here is a nice one by a ‘Finlandssvensk’ music school in Finland.
Stagger Lee by Taj Mahal
My dad used to play me this album when I couldn’t fall asleep as a baby (luckily, my folks were hippies back then, so I grew up surrounded by good music) and it still makes my heart ache. Of course, I understood not a single word of the lyrics back then, but the calm sorrowful melody and the melancholic voice soothed me. It still speaks to me and connects to the way I see the world, informing my writing. It speaks of sorrow and of unfairness and of the brittleness of life. Stig would understand this.
En Valsmelodi by Lillebror Söderlundh
The poem by Nils Ferlin was published in 1930, the music by Lillebror Söderlundh in 1939. The poem describes in a painful but also honest and humorous way, the absolute poverty of the artist. Both poverty and the wish to preserve ones individuality and pride are important themes of The Singing Gold. En Valsmelodi is an old Swedish classic which has been interpreted by countless artists. Here in original by Lillebror Söderlundh.
Pushin’ Against a Stone by Valerie June
Pushin’ Against a Stone by Valerie June is another song about hardship. Spiritual ones in this case, inner ones. All the characters in The Singing Gold suffer from inner doubts, misgivings and act rash after misunderstandings. If heroes at all, they are everyday heroes. But struggles are also what makes life beautiful. Without the struggle, we don’t appreciate the gain.
Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt
Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt, was written in remembrance of a good friend. This Cantatus embodies the sorrowful melancholia of the northern soul, but also the mystical tradition of Christianity. The medieval Mass was one of music and mystery, of leaving your daily work behind and for a brief time become one with eternity. I strive to treat the Church neutrally in my writing. I don’t see it as singularly a force for good or for evil, but a Force it is. As is the ancient magic infused in the very land itself.
aka Who Let the MC(s) Loose?
Stig would try to act the brave and self-assured, even though he is breaking apart inside. He was never very good at doing big occasions. The simple gestures and words in between work and duties was when he would show his family how he felt for them. Liv would try to draw him out, challenging him to resist his unfair destiny and fight for the family. It would probably be a quiet celebration in private. They never had enough barley to brew from anyway, so ale was never part of their fare. Some pottage, fresh herbs and fish. A newly caught hare roasted over coals. At least enough to eat for once.
I am not sure if the farewell of Stig would qualify as a party, but I imagine it would be rather solemn and beautiful. And lead the guests to the beginning of a narrow path leading deep into the forgotten lands of a lost age of magic.
T K P Sternberg submitted The Singing Gold to SPFBO. You can connect with the author here:
To read about more parties and to follow our process in SPFBO 6, please visit my SPFBO 6 Phase 1 page!
Excerpt from The Singing Gold
Prologue. The coming of a Holy man
Illugi was in a foul mood, and everyone around him knew it.
On such a nice spring day, with the sun shining much warmer than it had only a week earlier, the Archbishop’s farm was bustling with life and movement. Thralls and maids were hurrying between the many low blockhouses spread out between tightly fenced gardens and pastures. Most of the men were out in the fields doing the hard work of improving ditches and harrowing for the flax crop, but a prosperous farm like this employed enough specialized craftsmen that not only women were around during the day. The blacksmith was busy banging away at the endless queue of petty repairs, the baker was likewise firing his oven like he did every day, and the carpenter and his two helpers were laying a new roof on the large byre.
And all over the farm, in huts and cottages and out in the sun whenever the task at hand allowed it, the maids and female thralls were busy working their own allotted jobs, all under the watchful eyes of the Deja. Beer was brewed, clothes and linen were washed and mended, gardens were weeded and tilled, barns and byres were cleaned out and prepared, and all the animals were being fed, still from the rapidly shrinking stores of last year’s hay. All over the estate, the pleasant and harmonious sound of necessary tasks being attended to mingled with the songs and laughter and gossip of workers enjoying the first warmth after months of dark and cold Nordic winter. All over the farm, apart from around the Grand Hall, that is. Only this building seemed strangely avoided, even shunned, by the busy thralls and servants otherwise moving briskly and noisily about.
Nothing special marked the Grand Hall out from the other buildings in Eslehamar, apart maybe from its size. Two of the byres were equally large, however, as was the threshing barn. Despite being the main meeting place and heart of the entire estate, the hall was built the same as the rest. A simple single-storey log house stacked from solid pine trunks interlocking at the corners. It completely lacked windows, again like most of the other buildings on the farm, and had only one door. A wide opening cutting through the east gable. The roof was covered with neatly laid wooden shingles, and the only light inside came through a row of roof hatches. They were all opened to the full now, as was the sturdy double door. No ornaments or carvings embellished the building, and no particular expense seemed to have been wasted on it. What marked it out from all the other houses and huts and barns and sheds was simply its use.
The single, large room taking up the entire building was used exclusively for entertaining guests. Mostly. On the benches around the two rows of tables on their trestles, at least two score men could be seated and fed, and after rearranging the furniture for the night, most of them could then have slept in there fairly comfortably. Today, there were no guests at Eslehamar. Today, a single man was claiming the entire hall to himself, as well as an undefined sphere of quiet and silence stretching out from the walls around it. Having pulled one of the tables all the way up to the door to enjoy as much light as possible while still being inside, one could have thought he was guarding the vast, empty room behind him.
He wasn’t. The tall and stocky middle-aged man in modest priest’s robes and with a quill perched in his hand was working. Spread out across the table in front of him were some weathered books and scrolls, his trusted abacus as well as sheets of slate for taking notes, and a large number of wooden sticks scored with rows and rows of notches.
Illugi was in a foul mood because the books of Eslehamar were in a right mess. Same as they seemed to be in the rest of the diocese. The previous Diaconus Episcopi of Upsala had obviously been both lazy and incompetent, and his Latin was an insult to his peers. But much worse than that, in the two years since his death, it seemed they hadn’t been able to find a replacement who was even literate! Illugi had already spent the last two weeks questioning the reeves and servants of the Archbishop on the business of his lands, carefully trying to reconstruct the accounts from what they could remember between them. They weren’t stupid, these people, merely ignorant, but without any written notes whatsoever, there was only so much he could do. And what about verifications?
The master baker of Upsala claimed to have delivered from his ovens more bread than could have possibly been had from the meagre yield of that poor harvest in 1243 – minus fodder for horses, the fifth held back for next year’s sowing and theminimum tenth lost to mice and mould. Both the baker and the reeve staked their verbal claims with intricately carved tally sticks, only to their own understanding of course, but even if the sticks could be trusted, they were wholly insufficient in their limitations. Assuming that none of the venerated servants was a liar and a cheat, there must have been some other reason or event explaining this surplus in grains that had miraculously carried them so easily over a bad year.
With only the help of tally sticks and partial memories, however, how was Illugi supposed to reconstruct the cause? What was he to answer if suddenly a wealthy freeman appeared and claimed payment for grains he had supposedly delivered? No accounts were verifying such a sale, but he also couldn’t risk dragging the archbishop into a legal dispute when he didn’t even know if he was in the right. To gain at least some fundamental clarity, he would have to spend the next couple of months touring the lands of his new lord counting stock and cattle and interviewing illiterate servants, which would be no fun at all and a sad waste of his time. His ten years in Paris had made him forget how barbaric the North still was, even though he had grown up there himself.
When the old thrall shuffled up and muttered that one of the Lord bishop’s sergeants had arrived, he almost threw his pumice stone at the fool if he hadn’t needed it so badly for rubbing out the Latin errors of his predecessor.
“I told you to let me know in advance, you idiot, not when he is already here! Didn’t I order you up on the roof to keep watch? Look at my hands. How will I possibly have time to wash these stains off if his outrider is already here?”
The old man shuddered and almost fell over in fear.
“It’s only the Lord’s servant, master, riding ahead. The Lord bishop needs a new horse. He is still far away down the road.”
“Well go saddle me two horses then, you dunce. I will obviously go meet him half the way, won’t I? Run, run, don’t just stand there and gawk!”
• • •
While riding behind the bishop’s armed guard on the narrow country lane, Illugi’s temper slowly mellowed. The guard was a strapping young fellow, smartly dressed with the arms of the Archbishop on his surcoat, and his hauberk rhythmically clinking away for every double-step of his horse. He was wise enough to keep his mouth shut for the entire ride, but had still offered to lead the spare horse. Which, of course, Illugi had declined, preferring to collect the credit for bringing the new horse himself.
It was always a tricky business, the first meeting with a new master. Illugi had planned to clean up and dress in the formal robes of his new office to emphasise his official status within mother Church for his introduction to the archbishop, but this untimely interruption could perhaps even prove useful. Still in his simple day clothes and with noticeable ink stains on his hands from his diligent work on the bishop’s affairs, without a second thought to his appearance so to speak, he was riding out to be of service to his master. It could work, all depending on his master’s personality.
When Illugi had left Svitjod more than a decade ago as a young man of the Minor Orders, the archbishopric up in the north had still been held by a nobleman. Olof Basatömer had been precisely the kind of man you would expect for such an important office. He had been born and bred in one of the best families, connected with all the powerful men, cousin to the king, part of a dynasty. That was something you could predict and understand. Then, not long after Illugi had left, Olof had passed away and vacated his seat.
Now, if things had taken their usual course, Illugi would have had a much better idea of what kind of man his new master would be. He might even have known him from before. It would, of course, have been another younger son of the Erik lineage, which would have made Illugi’s life foreseeable and easy. Dynastic politics would have been the principal goal of his new master, and since regional power stratagems were of absolutely no interest to Illugi, the man would have been easy enough to placate and manipulate.
Instead, someone entirely unknown had been ordained to lead the church in the kingdom, elevated by the primate in Lund over the heads of all the local aristocracy. This man Jarler was someone Illugi had never heard of or met before he had left, and while in Paris he’d had enough on his mind not to bother keeping abreast with political developments in his faraway homeland. As it were, he hadn’t planned to ever set his foot in the north again. Now having to re-integrate himself into these very politics, he sorely regretted his earlier disinterest. He had only been back for two months and already had the impression things had changed fast up here, or maybe it was merely that as an unimportant young man, he hadn’t had the same access to gossip and insights as he had now.
Everyone he had talked to about it after his return had emphasised that Jarler was an especially Holy man, which was undoubtedly why he had been elevated beyond the station of his family. If Paris hadn’t shown him otherwise, this would have worried Illugi, but long years and hard-earned lessons in the very heart of ecclesiastical learning had taught him that things were seldom what people called them. Within the tight-knit and jealous hierarchies of the Church, only a fool would admit what they honestly thought about someone else. You never knew what could get around to the wrong person, or who could suddenly climb past you on the career ladder, and he had seen more than once how a few careless words by a young student had come back years later and bit someone so hard in the ass they never recovered from it.
Because of this, the prudent prelate would never say an ill word of any of his brothers, above or below him in rank. Not that one couldn’t necessarily gossip. It only meant that one had to be careful with how. For example, a lazy slough was said to be serene, a lecturer with an especially ill temper and vicious tongue was a spirited teacher, a glutton was amiable, and a sodomite was ‘ministering to the juvenile’ or ‘admiring of youth’. In general, minor character flaws could be described with less circumspection, as they were less hurtful. Thus, it could be said without great insult that so and so always kept the advancement of his kin close at heart, as such a man was probably even proud of putting the interests of his own family before those of mother Church. If someone was a real cut-throat careerist who would step over dead bodies to reach his goals, however, it might even be dangerous to hint that he was sometimes overzealous. Such a man would surely hear of it and wonder in the stillness of his dark heart exactly what you did mean when you said that.
For the very worst men he had ever encountered, however, for those feared and hated by their servants and colleagues alike, the eulogy ‘most esteemed’ or just plain ‘Holy’ had been used. Because of this, Illugi was confident his new office would turn out alright. When he had first arrived at the cathedral school of Notre Dame to study under a ‘most splendid and Holy’ master, he had paid for his naivety with much pain and grief, but now, to Illugi, the very same words simply meant – plain predictable.
• • •
They came upon the archbishop’s party as the forest opened up to some fenced in meadows gently sloping down towards the narrow stream of Fyrisavon. A cold breeze still remembering the past winter ambushed Illugi as soon as they got out from the cover of the trees. He pulled his cloak tighter around him and looked down towards the score or so riders that had just forded the marked out crossing where the water was shallow and calm enough. Apart from the armed guards and the other servants, Illugi quickly spotted an older man on a beautiful white mare that was being led by a plain looking youthful Ordo Praedicatorum friar on foot.
The old prelate was ugly as few, and beneath his grand bishop’s mantle he was wearing worse than rags, but he looked content enough perched up there in the saddle, dozing away under his double layered armour of wool and silk. Whatever made him so ‘Holy’ was beyond Illugi’s best guess. Best to approach him with care though. He was, after all, a man who had come out of nowhere to claim the highest office of the young Svitjod church, and who had then proceeded to hold it for eight long years in spite of all the men of better families surrounding him.
As the young guard rode past him and joined his comrades, Illugi used the excuse of having to lead the second horse to take his time reaching them. The friar preacher leading the old bishop’s horse was unnerving him. He wasn’t old but also not young enough to be insignificant. A man of the Order was bound to be a scholar, so probably a servant of some importance, maybe even his private secretary. So why was he made to humiliate himself by leading his lord’s horse on foot? Hadn’t the Order’s strict ban on riding been alleviated up here in the north, where the distances would otherwise be impossible or had he heard wrong? And was this then the sign of a conflict? And was it with the followers of Dominic at large or only with this one friar? Was the old man humbling or punishing him?
But you never knew with these old buggers; it might as well be a sign of trust or some kind of test to see how the poor man composed himself. If it was a test, then it was safest to keep out of it. In any case, it would be best to pretend like nothing until he knew more. If the archbishop wanted to use a highly learned preacher friar for a simple footman, then that was his business, and wasn’t Illugi also acting stable boy for the archbishop at the moment?
Illugi stopped in front of the old man and got off his horse, to appear more humble on their first meeting. The friar holding the reins of the archbishop’s horse gave Illugi a friendly smile and started greeting him, but Illugi wouldn’t let himself get distracted by a fellow scribe. He had decided he needed to know more about the Dominican’s relationship to his master before taking a stand. Instead, he offered up the reins of the spare horse he had brought with him, trying to catch the attention of the old patriarch.
“Sire, let me offer you a fresh horse, that you can ride more comfortable the last mile.”
The old bishop gave him a distracted glance that he couldn’t correctly interpret and absent-mindedly scratched his nose. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but the friar interrupted him.
“You must be Illugi, who they call Eligor Gothicus?”
“When are we eating?” the old bishop blurted out in a raw and unpleasant voice.
“Dinner is being prepared at Eslehamar right now, and a rested horse could carry you much better. If you wanted to, we could be there within the hour,” Illugi answered eagerly, only to be interrupted again by that bothersome friar.
“I’m sure the half of an hour more or less makes no great difference now that we are almost there. It’s not like we are starving, but thank you anyway.”
“For every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heaven. That every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of his labour, this is the gift of God,” Illugi retorted in flowing Latin, to spite that annoying busybody with his knowledge without having to raise his voice and make himself a fool in front of the bishop.
But the friar didn’t waver or falter or look taken aback at all. Instead, a warm smile spread across his face as huge tears started to form in his eyes and roll down his cheeks, and Illugi began to suspect that there was something he was missing. He looked up at the old man, who seemed as puzzled as anyone, and then he noticed the smoothness of the hand with which the friar was still holding the reins of the horse and the ring he was wearing. A large golden ring set with a stone in deepest purple, an amethyst for a bishop’s ring. Then he took another look at the rags the smelly, old man was carrying under the beautiful mantle thrown over his shoulder, and at the plain but clean and well sewn black cappa of the friar. Aghast, he scrambled to repair his mistake, only slowly starting to imagine how it could be that a dirty old beggar was sitting in the saddle of the archbishop wearing his mantle.
“Ah, ag, I…”
“I stand corrected Eligor Gothicus,” the friar broke out, interrupting him once more, but this time saving him from having to find a way to explain himself. “By the grace of the Lord, this poor, old beggar was set upon our way, so that we could exercise our charity by inviting him home with us to eat and rest. I meant to follow the example of St. Martin by cutting my mantle in half and sharing it, but my good servants stopped me and told me it would be a shame on the fine workmanship, so I agreed to lend it to him instead. I will gift him a simple but warm robe later so that we won’t have to take money from mother Church to buy me new vestments again. Do you find that was good advice?”
Illugi eagerly nodded hoping this was the right response, but the friar continued as if he didn’t notice.
“Then I gave him my horse so he wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the manor, and immediately one of my servants set out to fetch me a new one. But when you came here, you did not give the horse to me, your liege lord, but instead offered it first to the old beggar. I understood then. You must have seen it too, that the true gift is not to give a beggar a horse and a cloak so that he can travel in comfort, but to give the powerful man his two bare feet to walk on and the cold wind to dress his proud back so that he can learn humility. And who am I to say that the poor old man should not be eager to fill his belly, merely because I may relish in self-restraint? You have admonished me fairly Eligor, and I will do well to listen to you in the future I think. It is hard to be charitable when you have so many kind servants looking after your needs. I have heard already that you are working tirelessly to order our affairs, and strictly in upholding its fairness. Now that I see that you are equally strict with me, your master, I know you will be one of my most beloved servants. Is that not so? Come Eligor, let me embrace you as a brother in faith.”
With those words Jarler closed Illugi in a warm embrace, kissing him on both cheeks. What they had meant with Holy, in this case, must simply be a Fool, Illugi realised with dread. An idiot in a mitre. Illugi carefully kept his face blank, wondering how many ambitious young men were carving a decent living out of manipulating his holiness at this very moment? He would have to step in hard there, restrain them and seize his own share of the cake. It would be a mess, and it would be dangerous. He would very much have preferred to act the useful servant of a power hungry and corrupt lord. That would have given him free reins to pursue his real interests on the side. Having to manipulate an innocent idiot, and at the same time fighting the other rats for the scraps under the table would be much riskier. He would make enemies and upset people, but it could all be mastered if he relied on his superior intellect and his smooth tongue. Why not try it out right then and there?
“Your Excellency, I did want the poor old man to change to this horse instead, but only so that you too could mount again. If you insist on continuing on foot, we will take an hour longer than we need before we reach Eslehamar, and what charity is it to keep twenty good servants from doing the useful work they could do there simply to prove your own humility?”
It was a gamble, but Illugi thought he had judged the man correctly, and felt himself relax as Jarler continued smiling at him.
“Spoken not as a sycophant but as a useful and honest servant. I shall take your advice Illugi, today and on many other days, I hope. Let’s ride hastily as you demand so that we can make ourselves more useful once we get there. But first I want to bless you, as it is a blessed day that I have met my new deacon.”
Illugi kneeled before the bishop, felt the soft palm of Jarlar’s hand on his tonsure and absent-mindedly listened to the well-known words as he was already thinking of how best to get what he needed from him. Then, with the terrible dread of realisation, it came to Illugi that what they had all said about Jarler had been nothing more or less than the simple truth. It wasn’t a euphemism for something else, not for cruelty and most certainly not for simplicity. Even while silently cursing how difficult it would be to serve under such a man, he felt the annoyingly soothing and reinvigorating power of Jarlar’s blessing. It started as a tickle in the hairs on the back of his neck, then spread like a flush of warmth across his back and all over his skin, making his heart beat faster and his face heat up. He heard the words then, really heard them for the first time in a long while.
Looking up, he caught the eyes of one of the guards, who smiled warmly back at him. That big bearded brute in his heavy hauberk, with his muddy boots and a sword at his side, looked down at him and beamed with knowing affinity. He too felt the true Holiness of Jarler, they all did. They probably all loved him, the idiots. Suddenly life felt all hopeful and forgiving again. Against his best attempts, he couldn’t stop a stupid, happy grin spreading across his face and his eyes wetting with grateful tears, merely at being so close to pure Grace. It was a most beautiful and sacred moment. Illugi was disgusted, smiling like a fool even as he was thinking that practising the Black Arts would be almost impossible while serving under a man like this, someone truly Holy and close to God.
To read about more parties and to follow our process in SPFBO 6, please visit my SPFBO 6 Phase 1 page!