Why do dragons have hoards?

One of the more enduring ideas of Western-style dragons is that they hoard things. Gold and treasure, most typically. It’s a mental image I have from childhood, where I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and attempted to redraw the cover art of Smaug coiled around his mountainous heap of gold.

I had this paperback version. Wrote an extremely simplistic book report about it.

This is the cover variant I read, and it’s the first mental image I have when anyone talks about The Hobbit.


More recently, Smaug’s hoard was brought grandly to life in the Hobbit movies, where the coins in Smaug’s hoard were painstakingly computer animated to spill across his scales. Fans are trying to estimate the worth of Smaug’s hoard, and it seems like no one can agree on the dollar value except to say that it’s astronomically high.

Why did this traditional idea of gold piles come about, though? Why do dragons hoard treasure?

In a basic historical sense, dragons were found alongside gold. Or, at least, that’s what our ancestors would have assumed when they dug up precious minerals and ended up finding dinosaur fossils. We’re a species compelled by stories, so people would have made up stories about these ancient, reptile-like beasts who were always found deep in the earth, near gold.

It’s logical enough that dragon hoards are meant to represent greed. Western dragons are classically portrayed as greedy beings of pure evil. They’re thought to have hoards just because that’s what dragons do: dragons simply sit on their treasure and revel their ownership of it, as opposed to a rich human who could use their wealth to build things, provide for the poor, or otherwise improve society.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.

Feel free to insert a joke about the 1%, Donald Trump, or similar.


In stories where a dragon hoards treasure, that treasure can doubles as a reward for the human hero. Anyone brave enough to slay the evil beast can claim its hoard as their own — although Norse and Germanic stories often specify that a dragon’s treasure is cursed, dooming any human tempted to be as greedy as the dragon. Maybe the curse would be dispelled by giving the gold away to needy people, or similar acts of charity? That would make narrative sense.

Okay, so the greed metaphor works when dragons are depicted as evil monsters. What about more benevolent dragons, though? More recent fantasy stories acknowledge that dragons are interesting creatures and they might make good allies to humans — so why then would a dragon covet gold and treasure? What motivation would they have to collect it?

I grew up watching The Flight of Dragons, in which dragons need a soft bedding material that can’t be accidentally set on fire. Gold serves this purpose well.


Other franchises suggest that dragons are just fond of shiny, pretty objects, or they like the idea of owning valuables to impress others with. And why not? That’s why we humans wear pretty jewelry or expensive watches. It’s why we consider a golden crown to be headgear for an important, royal person. It’s not such a stretch to think that other intelligent beings would feel the same way about rare, precious metals.


I tend to think that lifespan is a factor, too. Dragons are generally imagined as long-lived beings, able to watch human dynasties come and go like the tides. They have more than enough time to build up a collection of money and valuables. Maybe dragons want savings for the same reason human beings want savings: to look after themselves and their loved ones in the inevitable hard times to come. Whereas short-lived creatures wouldn’t be as concerned about what the world will be like 50 years from now. I’ve never made this idea explicit in my Stories of Aligare, but the dragon-like korvi people have the longest lifespans of the three peoplekinds and they’re also most interested in the earth’s mineral riches, and they’re most likely to have a stash of metals and gems in their homes just in case. That’s not a coincidence.

Peregrine liked to think he could endure a little work. He had tempered himself in the mines, hauling rock until his body balked at the thought of more, until he felt like spent ashes all over and he still needed to cross the plains home. Fyrian hadn’t intended his sky-child korvi to break rock, but they did it anyhow. Someone needed to provide.

     -Remedy (A Story of Aligare), Chapter 9

And the whole reason I wrote the Serpents of Sky collection was to spin lots of different dragon scenarios. Dragons guarding gold to save humans from their own greed. Dragons who physically manifest the concepts of greed and chaos and destruction. Dragons whose close-guarded treasures let them bend time and space. Even a dragon whose precious stash is just cream and sugar to put in their coffee.

In short, there are lots of reasons dragons might hoard gold. It’s one of many traits we can get creative with, and reinterpret as we see fit. If you haven’t seen the Unusual Dragon Hoards artworks by Iguanamouth, I highly suggest taking a look — it’s a cute series where dragons sit possessively on piles of stuffed animals, spoons, comic books and other unexpected treasures. Golden hoards are just one more way for dragons to capture our imaginations.

DISTORTED cover reveal

It won’t be long until Distorted is available for sale! Transmundane Press has put together a collection of short stories about monsters, gods, and mortal struggles. The anthology includes To Sing Which Tune, my story about sirens on modern Earth. It’s a bit darker than my usual works!

Today is cover reveal day — but that’s not all!  Reading Addiction Virtual Book Tours also has excerpts of some of the stories, and personal factoids about us contributing authors. And don’t miss the giveaway raffle at the bottom of the post!


Distorted goes on sale November 7th, 2014.

Designing the phoenixes of Tselaya Mountain

I’ve been doing some rough draft work for Tinder Stricken, and a lot of thinking about the new book’s world. It’s been a while since I did extensive worldbuilding for a writing project! The Stories of Aligare setting has been firm in my mind for years now, with only the smaller details and customs that needed defining. It’s a nice change to design a completely different realm — and the creatures in it.

Which brings me to the phoenixes! Greek mythology usually refers to the phoenix as a large, magical, immortal bird that periodically douses itself in fire and rises up renewed from its own ashes. That renewal symbolism is a great selling point for a mythological creature and it’s been interpreted variously over the years, even embraced by early Christian symbolism.


A phoenix, as depicted in FJ Bertuch’s 18th century book of mythological creatures.

The phoenix has differing physical descriptions, depending on which ancient text you consult. It’s usually said to have a crest of feathers on its head, and red/yellow colouring that suits a fiery creature. Other than that, they’re up to the individual’s imagination. Sometimes the phoenix is the size of an eagle or a rooster, other times it’s said to dwarf an ostrich. (I suspect that the stated size has to do with whether people wanted to carry the legend on their arm like a trained falcon, or ride it through the sky.)

There are other cultural representations of phoenix-like birds, such as the Slavic firebird, or the simurgh sometimes said to plunge itself into fire after 1 700 years of life. And some mythical creatures are loosely compared to the phoenix just because they’re legendary birds.

In particular, the fenghuang is often called a “Chinese phoenix”, although it’s not fire-aspected. Fenghuang are legendary birds associated with femininity, justice, honour and the various celestial forces, and sometimes used to symbolize the ruling empress. Fenghuang were originally described as elaborate chimera creatures (much like Asian dragons) but more modern depictions of fenghuang are mostly fusions of peacocks, pheasants, cranes, ducks and swallows. To be fair, they do look a lot like a Western phoenix.


A fenghuang on the roof of Longshan Temple in Taiwan. The structure was built in the 18th century by Chinese settlers.

A fenghuang on the roof of Longshan Temple in Taiwan. The structure was built in the 18th century by Chinese settlers.


And can we consider Harry Potter a legitimate folklore source for phoenixes? I think we can, since the series is so far-reaching. Fawkes the phoenix has the crest, long tail and colouration of a traditional phoenix, and he bursts into flames to recover from periodic death. His feathers are powerful magical items that can be made into wizarding wands. And Fawkes also has some less traditional special abilities — such as healing tears, teleportation, and an enormous carrying capacity — that phoenix lore is able to support. Surely, a creature magical enough to be healed by fire must have some other amazing traits, right? J.K. Rowling was able to put her own spin on the mythology.


Fawkes, as seen in the Harry Potter movie adaptations.


Because much like dragons, the phoenix has a lot of long-standing mythology to draw from, but not many stone-set rules.  A phoenix can be recognisable while still being different from what we’re expecting. I love it when the fantasy genre does that!

I’ve used phoenix lore alredy in my Aligare world — as Phoenix the Legend Creature, said to cause volcanic eruptions each time she throws herself into the renewing “firerock”. Now, with Tinder Stricken, I’m using phoenixes in a more central role to the story. Much like my Aligare dragons being more approachable interpretations of Earth lore, and mundane in their own world, I’m making the phoenixes of Tselaya into more realism-based creatures. They’re not all-powerful legends. They’re just living things — and a part of the local ecosystem.


Phoenix concept art, aggressively image filtered since my rough pencil drawings are usually too light to effectively show people.

These phoenixes are about the size of an eagle, with physiology like a combination of ravens and cranes. They’re omnivorous, snapping up passing insects and other opportunities, but the bulk of their diet is shoots, buds, fruit and seeds from high-magic-content plants. Because such plants are rare in the challenging growing conditions of Tselaya Mountain, phoenixes cultivate some of their food. They use flint and steel to start fires, so that they have fertile ashes to grow seeds and saplings in.

I thought that using striking tools to start their fires would be an interesting take on phoenix lore, since tool use is a well-known sign of intelligence in Earth birds. To that end, phoenixes have stringfeathers — two tough, cord-like tail feathers that they can use to help carry objects. The stringfeathers can be wrapped or tied around the phoenix’s cargo, including their prized bits of fire-starting minerals, or their gathered plant sprigs. The rest of the phoenix’s tail is forked like a swallow’s tail. I figured that a mountain-dwelling bird would face high winds, so they’d need a more practical, flight-assisting tail than the showy display plumes usually seen on a phoenix.

But the crest aspect of phoenix design suits my purposes. Partly due to intelligence and partly due to their magic-rich diet, Tselaya phoenixes are very good at communication. Their three crests of feathers help them express themselves.

Kind of like these hoopoes. Except with three crests.

Kind of like these hoopoes, except with additional, smaller crests for more nuances.

And an intelligent, fire-starting bird like that is bound to get on the wrong side of the local humans. Phoenixes are generally considered dangerous pests — but the best way to get rid of a wild phoenix is to have a trained phoenix talk to it and ask it to leave. When Tinder Stricken‘s main character has her family heirloom knife stolen by a wild phoenix, she essentially needs to fight fire with fire. (Huh, I just noticed how conveniently that idiom fits into my scenario.)

So I’m looking forward to working with my own take on various old lore. Phoenixes and similar legendary birds might be well-known and open to interpretation, yet they’re nowhere near as popular as dragons. And unlike werewolves and vampires — which are nearly their own genres — phoenixes don’t often get top billing in fantasy novels. I think that should change! The phoenix is one more aspect of speculative fiction that’s fertile ground for reinvention.

How people view dogs: what’s the story?

The Wolf and his Master, by Harrison Weir

The Wolf and his Master, by Harrison Weir

Lately, science has been uncovering more evidence of how humans domesticated dogs. It’s been an interesting few thousand years of evolution! From this article:

This reflects a more complicated history than the popular story that early farmers adopted a few docile, friendly wolves that later became our beloved, modern-day companions. Instead, the earliest dogs may have first lived among hunter-gatherer societies and adapted to agricultural life later.

“Dog domestication is more complex than we originally thought,” said John Novembre, associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago and a senior author on the study. “In this analysis we didn’t see clear evidence in favor of a multi-regional model, or a single origin from one of the living wolves that we sampled. It makes the field of dog domestication very intriguing going forward.”

Even before humans started developing highly specialized breeds of dog, there were changes being made on the social and genetic levels. Also, here’s another article suggesting that wolf domestication made use of the wolves’ ability to watch humans and learn from them, even before the two species had friendly relations.

What I find interesting about this is the way humans have pretty much forgotten how we first made allegiance with dogs. We need to go back and examine our own remains to remember. Most of the insights require modern science, since we didn’t have genetic theory in our early farming days. But still — we didn’t really pass down any lore about how wolves were tamed and developed into domestic dogs. As far as we’re concerned, man and dog are (usually) allies because we just are. “Man’s best friend”, we say.

A bronze statue of Hachikō, a real dog whose loyalty became a well-known Japanese folk tale.

A bronze statue of Hachikō, a real dog whose loyalty inspires people to this day.

But during our animal domesticating pre-history, a lot must have happened! Imagine all our ancestors adjusting their perception of wolves, and deciding to allow those dangerous wild animals into their lives. There must have been so many individual humans who took chances on wolf-dogs and found it a surprisingly workable arrangement. I find it weird that we don’t have a lot of stories about humans and dogs becoming friends. Maybe humans just liked the fact that dogs are our companions now — so much that they neglected to immortalize how we made dogs our companions. (Then again, human history has a lot of documentation gaps, so this particular gap might not mean anything at all.)

There’s even been a discovery of a human buried with what appears to be a pet fox — and the grave dates back to well before dogs were domesticated. Foxes are different from wolves and dogs, and that particular human and fox seemed to be an isolated instance of one person who had a random wild animal friend. But still, that human and fox are a small fragment of a greater cultural story of pet animals. A story we used to know, but we don’t anymore — not yet.

Because I find this subject interesting, I made dogs part of my Aligare world. The domestication process is directly talked about in Render (A story of Aligare). Hear more about the Aligare world’s relationship with dogs in these previous posts:

◦Dogs in Aligare

◦The legend of Juniper

What do dragons represent to us?

Lately, my mind is mostly on my upcoming collection of dragon short stories. Not the NaNoWriMo murder mystery I’m supposed to be hammering out, haha, oops. I’ve just always found dragons fascinating. All of human culture has, it seems, because there are so many dragon-like things scattered across our folklore.

Saint George Killing The Dragon, by Bernat Martorell

Saint George Killing The Dragon, by Bernat Martorell

Dragons are pretty much always amazing creatures in their mythologies. Most can fly, whether they have wings or not, and there are few things humans envy more than a naturally flighted creature. But dragons aren’t the delicate little birds and bugs we’re used to seeing in the air. They’re beings of great size, power, longevity and/or wisdom. Sometimes they have fire breath, poisonous blood or other dangerous skills. Sometimes they are wise, benevolent creatures, guarding water sources or teaching speech to humans. Whether humans are supposed to slay them or worship them, dragons just seem to demand human attention. They represent a thick stew of our primal fears and desires.

In the last 50 years or so, mainstream English fantasy books have added some new ideas to the mix. Dragon-riding is probably the most notable. Dragons were mostly evil monsters in Western culture, even in Tolkien’s highly influential works. But this idea suddenly caught on that dragons could be loyal companions who help protect humanity. Maybe that was influenced by the kind-hearted Eastern dragons? Maybe people just realized that dragons would be even cooler if we didn’t need to go out and murder them? Who knows.


So we’re all confident we know what a dragon is, and yet there are so many angles to approach the idea from. Dragons kidnapping princesses because that’s just what dragons do. Dragons guarding something valuable — golden treasure or golden knowledge — that humans want to take because that’s just what humans do. Flight and companionship and bravery, being shared one way or another between humans and dragons. There are so many ways to spin the concept. That’s why I’m trying to hit as many of those angles as possible in my short story collection.

In the Stories of Aligare, I already took the companion dragon concept in a different direction. In the development of the Aligare world, I wanted to take the idea of ally dragons and make the dragons more mundane. More typical to see walking around in a town. So korvi folk are like weird little friendly birds compared to most Earth dragons — but by Aligare standards they’re large, strong and courageous in combat. They have the gift of flight and all the freedom that comes with it. So korvi are dragons and yet they’re regular, relatable people in their society. It would be hard to do that in a world with humans.

But the short story collection is letting me play with more human-centric concepts of dragons. I’ve got two standout favourite stories so far:

1) A wise queen tries to befriend and negotiate with the dragon who kidnapped her all the time when she was a princess.

2) Small, magical dragons are the dominant race and they use humans to power their magicpunk flying machines. Y’know, so the dragons are riding the humans.

These subversions seem obvious to me, but I haven’t seen them around nearly enough.

So to answer the question “what do dragons represent to us?”, I’d say they’re the embodiment of the fantasy genre itself. Dragons can be very familiar and predictable, like the comfort food of speculative fiction. Or they can be radically different from everything else out there — yet still recognizable. I think we can all agree that that’s pretty neat.

UPDATE: My dragon short story collection, Serpents of Sky, is now available! Check the Books section of this blog for all the buying options, or just click this cover image to go to Amazon:

Serpents of Sky: Nine stories of dragons

Related articles:

◦  Anthropomorphic stories: what are they and who are they for? (heidicvlach.com)

Flying characters in fantasy and sci-fi (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar? (heidicvlach.com)

Aligare’s Mandragora, the Legend Creature of stories

On the Aligare Lore page, I’ve outlined the twelve Legend Creatures thought to inhabit the land. One of them is the Mandragora, a plant creature.

The Mandragora is loosely based on Earth lore about the mandrake/mandragora plant.


This plant’s roots contain hallucinogenic compounds, and they often resemble human figures. Our Earth cultures have attributed all sorts of meanings to this plant: fertility, love, death. One bit of folklore says that the mandrake plant screams when uprooted, and this scream will kill any living thing that hears it. Mandrakes must be uprooted by tying a dog to them and abandoning the area. When the dog tries to follow its master, it will uproot the mandrake and die in its human’s stead.

Aligare’s mandrake plants are friendlier. They don’t scream: they’re silent like any other plant. But they’re thought to soak up negativity and sadness in the area, like absorbing and neutralizing a poison. Mandrakes are treated as good omens and luck charms. If a peoplekind settlement encroaches on a mandrake, the plant might be relocated to a meaningful place near the Middling circle or the town’s chromepiece. Or the mandrake might be allowed to grow undisturbed, even if that means leaving an untouched patch of plant growth in the middle of a busy town street.

Mandrakes are the children of the Legend Creature Mandragora, and Mandragora is friendlier still. Despite being a plant, it has enough animal qualities to be considered a Legend Creature. It’s sort of a self-appointed liason between plants and animals.


The Mandragora is a bipedal plant-creature that walks on two rootstalks, and flies on the wind (with wing-like leaves or fluffy seed-pod sails, depending on who is telling the legend). Its head is a flower blossom with rainbow-coloured petals. But although the Mandragora has a toothy mouth at the center of its flower head, it can’t speak. Instead, it loves to meet other travellers and listen to their stories. It smiles a lot, especially while listening to a tale. The Mandragora travels on the wind because it’s curious — a lover of life and a seeker of new stories.

Rue had often thought that Father was like the Legend Creature Mandragora. He kindly smiled; he didn’t speak overmuch; he left whenever a travelling wind caught his leaves or tempted his whims.

Render (A story of Aligare), Chapter 13

Like any Legend Creature, there are very few reported sightings and those … aren’t from the most reliable sources. But Aligare folk still like the thought that somewhere in their mysterious land, the Mandragora is out there listening to everything worth listening to.

Related articles:

    ◦ Aligare’s Barghest, the Legend Creature of judgement (heidicvlach.com)

    ◦ Writing gods I don’t believe in: how atheism gets along with fantasy (heidicvlach.com)

    ◦ The Unfinished Song (Book 1): Initiate by Tara Maya (heidicvlach.com)

Aligare wildlife: the basilisk

Aligare’s invented animals are often based on Earth mythology. And as I talked about in the post about the lucky rue plant, Aligare has basilisks.

The traditional Earth basilisk is a monstrous snake/lizard creature with poisonous breath. There’s some confusion and cross-over with the similar legendary creature, the cockatrice. Either way, basilisks are bad news.

Aligare basilisks still aren’t something you want to run into — but they’re not legendary, and not prone to destroying everything in their path. They’re just lizard creatures.

aligarebasiliskThey’re sort of a mixture of Gila monsters and raptor dinosaurs. Aligare basilisks stand about 3 feet/1 meter tall, and have pebbly hide with hard, scale-like feathers. Their spotted colouring and grass-like feathers serve as camofluage in the basilisk’s grassland habitat. They’re active hunters, seeking out animals to ambush, sometimes working together in pairs or stealing kills from other carnivores. The basilisk’s teeth are grooved to let their venom flow into its prey (which is a sort of evolutionary precursor to snakes’ fangs). Basilisks also have innate electricasting magic, which is based in their mouth. It’s used on larger, struggling prey; it’s also used for mating displays and to scare off larger predators.

Opportunistic and aggressive, basilisks usually hunt small animals like birds, lizards, snakes, rodents, and rabbits — but they’ll attack larger animals that seem weak or ill. In an open grassland area, signs of weakness such as heavy breathing or limping might catch the attention of a nearby basilisk. Even peoplekinds need to be careful. Basilisks can be incredibly bold if they think they have a chance to take down a meal.

“Dear gods.” Eyes wide, Tijo hurried close and laid knuckles on the boy’s brow. “Where was he?”

“Two-thirds of the way between Opens and here. I came across the whole family but everything holy forgive me, I couldn’t carry all four of them! The mother was the only one who could cough two words and as if that weren’t enough, she said something about a basilisk hunting them. The miserable beast must’ve–”

“Here, pass him.”

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 13

Basilisk venom kills the small creatures the basilisk usually feeds on. It’s not usually fatal to larger creatures, but causes weakness, numbness, blurred vision and difficulty breathing (hence why the basilisk only attacks larger creatures if they seem weakened already). But animals in the mustelid (weasel) family resist basilisk venom. An adult ferrin is significantly smaller than a basilisk but will only experience mild symptoms if bitten. Ferrin also aren’t easily affected by other creatures’ electricasting, because of the way a ferrin’s own electricasting flows through their fur and basically envelops their entire body. So despite their small size, an adult ferrin has little to fear from a basilisk. Like in Earth mythology, weasels are well-suited to fending off a basilisk.

Although korvi are pretty good at it, too, being much larger and stronger.

Peregrine may have stumbled upon the occasional basilisk, but those beasts turned cowardly as soon as a fellow spat some smoke; a second tooth puncture scar on his leg wouldn’t be the end of him. The Skyfield plains held no trouble Peregrine couldn’t handle alone – oh, this was true and he knew it.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 17

And like any Aligare animal, basilisks aren’t considered evil. They’re dangerous sometimes, and prone to attacking others’ weaknesses — but they’re only following their nature and only trying to kill so they can eat. They’re just a sharp-toothed part of the natural world.

Aligare wildlife: the sylph

While building the Aligare world, I drew a lot of inspiration from Earth’s history of evolution. Nearly every living thing that has ever inhabited this planet has other creatures similar to it, splintered off from some common ancestor. We humans are very closely related to the great apes, but we can also look at monkeys, tarsiers and lemurs and see a vastly extended family. I wanted my Aligare races to see some different cousins living among them, too. For aemets, those distant relatives are the sylphs.

Earth mythology says that sylphs are air spirits. Sometimes they’re invisible beings made of magic or emotion. Sometimes they’re physical creatures similar to fairies. They probably have wings and they’re probably feminine, and that’s about all folklore agrees on.


Well, that left me plenty of room to worldbuild! I mostly drew on the fairy-wing part of the mythos, and the idea of whimsical, flighted beings. Aligare sylphs look more like dragonflies. Like so:


Like their aemet relatives, sylphs are betweenkind. Their skeletal system is a mixture of bones and chitin plates; they have mammalian eyes and insect antennae; their body temperature hovers around lukewarm. Sylphs lean more heavily to the insect side, though. They have two pairs of wings, and a simplified circulatory system made possible by their small size. Sylphs have airsense, but it’s much less sensitive than aemet airsense: sylphs mostly detect moisture in the air, so they can sense incoming storms and make sure to find shelter.

Sylphs are herbivorous, eating mostly lichens, mosses and exposed roots. They spend most of their time in flight, preferring open spaces and mountain peaks. Their skin and shells have speckled camofluage colouring, for some measure of protection while they’re on the ground feeding.

These creatures are social. They’re usually seen in lively colony groups, buzzing in playful circles and chirping a wheep-wheep-wheep cry to one another. Particularly brave sylphs might fly closer to a person or large animal for a better look, although they’re too skittish to really interact with. The Aligare peoplekinds think of sylphs as “luck bugs”, creatures who brighten your day just by allowing themselves to be seen. But because they are betweenkind, sylphs are affected by some of the same disease demons that terrorize aemetkind.

Tillian peered down. “Is that a sylph?”

It was a stick-shaped body, mottled with lichen-dull colours, shimmering where its clear wings caught light. Hiding in plain sight, indeed. Peregrine stepped around it, placing his feet careful in the muskeg. “Yes. They watch folk when they’re alive, though. The easiest way to sight them is by the sparkle in their eyes.”

“It’s– Oh.” Fur brushed against his neck as Tillian turned. She likely watched the still little body in their wake, mourning that no one had helped it.

“We’ll see more of them around here,” Peregrine said. “The same as that one. Sylphs are betweenkind, so they catch gripthia, as well. The only time they aren’t good fortune is when they turn up dead.”

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 10

Aemets have no gene theory, and they still think of sylphs as far-flung relatives. That’s not much of a stretch, though, when aemetkind considers trees and plants to be their sisters. It’s all part of the highly flexible definition of family that Aligare society lives by.

Aligare’s Barghest, the Legend Creature of judgement

On the Aligare Lore page, I’ve outlined the twelve Legend Creatures thought to inhabit the land, maintaining balance and lending colour to the place. The most commonly talked about is the Barghest, a giant green-furred dog. He’s a big part of Aligare morality.

The legendary Barghest, in lineart I don't want to muck up with Photoshop.

The legendary Barghest, in lineart I don’t want to muck up with Photoshop.

Aligare’s Barghest is based on the black dog folklore of the British Isles. These monstrous, ghostly dogs go by many names, including barghest, cu sith, or black shuck. Most black dogs are malevolent creatures that stalk lone travellers in the night and cause people to disappear. But a few black dogs are benevolent — like really scary guard dogs who escort travellers instead of eating them. I drew from both versions when imagining my Barghest. There’s also a little Grim Reaper in him, and some Lady Justice, too.

It’s said that if an Aligare being has lied, cheated, stolen or caused harm, they will eventually get the strange feeling that they’re being watched. No one else sees or senses anything unusual, but the victim knows something is up. They’ll catch glimpses of glowing eyes in the shadows. They’ll detect the shape of a dog slinking along behind them — not an ordinary dog, but a beast bigger than a horse. The Barghest is a master of darkcasting magic; it is only seen when it wants to be seen, and it can hide in an ant’s shadow if it wants to.

Eventually, when the victim is alone, the Barghest appears before them. The hound can’t speak, but it’s said that a victim’s sins will come flooding back into their mind as they look up at the judgement creature’s face. If the victim is a sentient person, this is their chance to explain themselves. They have one chance to plead their case, explaining why they committed sins, maybe even promising to rectify the situation. And the Barghest is capable of mercy — but the excuse had better be very good. If he doesn’t like what he hears, the person will vanish without a trace. Some say the Barghest devours his victim on the spot. Others say he banishes them from existence, so it’s like the person and their sins have been erased from the land.

The people of Aligare may genuinely value teamwork and sharing, but there are still temptations. Sentient beings are the most suscteptible to greedy, cruel impulses. So in Aligare’s oral history, on the rare occasion a character acts sinfully, they always vanish mysteriously. Could they have simply gotten lost in the forest, or drowned without a trace? Maybe. Are these historical stories just tall tales invented by the bards? Could be. Or those sinful folk might have met the Barghest and been forced to pay the price for their transgressions. If the benefits of teamwork aren’t enough motivation for a person, then the thought of a scary judge-cum-executioner usually does the trick. If someone still decides to act sinfully, well, they must have a good enough reason to risk meeting the Legend Hound.

I haven’t heard back from the other korvi fellow I sent to Fenwater [with a supply of healing stones], gods only know where she is.

“She wouldn’t have taken your stones? It happens in times like these.”

It did sound as though she had aemet friends in Greenway … A frown marred Ethen’s face, and he said, She can plead her intentions to the Great Hound, I suppose.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 19

So the Barghest is mentioned with reverence, and he’s meant to be scary. But Aligare folk don’t really fear him. This isn’t some slavering monster that eats anything he can catch. The Barghest only notices and stalks those who do wrong, and he only renders judgement on those who have knowingly sinned against others. If you have a clear conscience and you always try to do what’s right, then you have nothing to fear.

Tijo bent over a bag of stones now, sorting them with fierce motions. “Nothing is hopeless, Syril. I heard of a young aemet with stipple fever some years ago. She boiled in her skin for two entire days and came out of it fine. Seeing, speaking, remembering everything. If I can make such good fortune happen for those poor souls you found in the fields, then let the Barghest take me if I choose to stand idly by.”

Frankly, if Syril were the Legend hound judging rights and wrongs, he would swallow up all of korvikind for making choices at all, terrible mess of wormy apples that this was.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 13

The Barghest also won’t punish any creature for its basic nature. Carnivorous animals must kill to eat. As long as a person kills animals mercifully, and for a good reason like needing food, that’s acceptable, too. And the Barghest allows demons to cause illnesses and bad luck in people, because they’re only nourishing themselves in their own strange way.

So the Barghest is partly there to answer the question, “Why is everyone so nice in these books?” The Aligare world has what we’d consider strong morals and a ridiculously low crime rate — so the Barghest isn’t often needed. But the Legend hound is there in the minds of Aligare folk, providing yet another reason to do the right thing.

The lucky rue plant

With the explosive popularity of The Hunger Games, people have been talking about the character Rue. It caught me a little off-guard, because before I had ever heard of the Hunger Games, I was writing about Rue Tennel, an aemet. Another writer remembered that rue is a plant that would make a good female name? Cool, I guess! (Another thing I learned: Katniss’s name isn’t just a weird variation of Katherine or something. It’s another plant.)

But yes, rue is a plant easily grown in gardens. Also known as the Herb-of-Grace, it’s a flowering shrub in the genus Rutaceae, related to citrus trees. Rue can be used to season food, but it’s very bitter and can be toxic in large amounts. The sap can also make human skin hypersensitive to sunlight, causing blisters.

European history considers rue a symbol of loss, regret and bitter lessons.  It was also used as a medicinal herb in earlier centuries. Along with being an insect repellant, antiseptic and abortificant, rue was thought to ward off witchcraft and cure all sorts of poisons. Rue is often mentioned as a counter to the mythical basilisk, since it’s the only plant able to withstand the basilisk’s deadly poison breath. Weasels — the only animals resistant enough to fight a basilisk — would wet their teeth with rue to poison the monster, or they would eat rue to speed their own healing after the battle.

In the Aligare world, aemets have a ready understanding of plants, so folk see rue quite differently. They see no regret or pain in this simple flowering shrub — just another one of the goddess Verdana’s children with its own virtues and dangers. Rue leaf is a minor ingredient in most medicinal tonics, thought to aid sleep, soothe minor pain and neutralize toxins. It has only mild effects on aemets and korvi, but it’s a potent treatment for ferrin. Wild ferrin will seek out some rue to eat whenever they’re feeling unwell — particularly if they’ve been fighting with a very real Aligare basilisk. (When building my fantasy world, I thought the basilisk-weasel-rue lore was cool and I specifically wanted to work it in.)

Although rue isn’t the most potent medicine for aemetkind, many aemets still regard it as a lucky plant. Wherever rue grows, a ferrin might show up to partake of it. Rue is a symbol of the way otherkind friends will arrive whenever there’s a need. If a person has rue leaf tonic on hand or keeps some rue growing nearby, they’ll be able to ensure the health of any new allies they meet.

That’s why rue is thought to be a fortuitous plant. And that’s why the character Rue is seen as a lucky young woman, although she doesn’t personally believe in luck.

“And let’s meet at this same time, next eightday. This shade of daylight.” [Felixi] turned a crooked smile to the sky. “It’s the colour of rue flowers, wouldn’t you say?”
It was — a late afternoon light, fully yellow without making itself obtrusive.

“Why, do you think it’s a lucky colour?”
“Of course not. Luck is fool’s magic.”
Rue couldn’t hold back her grin. “Right. It’s just a time, then.”

–Render, a story of Aligare, draft version

There’s an awful lot of history and symbolism in this one little plant. I think that’s why it’s so easy to add more symbolism through speculative fiction: because rue already has lots to work with.