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.

Flight_of_Dragons_17

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.


Some Aligare sketches

I have lots of final prep to do before Serpents of Sky launches next week! So I don’t have much in the way of bloggish thoughts today, but I did do a few rough sketches. Just some random Aligare folk.aemetfeb14sketch korvifeb14sketch ferrinfeb14sketch

 

I think it’s about time I update the diagram of the Aligare peoplekinds — the one that appears at the beginning of every Story of Aligare book. In the original image, I was trying for a clean, simplified look. But I’m thinking a more detailed, dynamic art style like these sketches might make it easier for readers to visualize the Aligare races in the story to come. Thoughts?


Serpents of Sky cover reveal

Well, folks, here’s that cover art I’ve been working on! That paper maché dragon got a few coats of paint, then I enlisted my dad’s help to set up lights and take photos. I’ve been slaving away over a hot image editing program and now I bring you the Serpents of Sky cover:

serpentscoverpng

Because dragons are fictional, yet such a deeply-rooted part of human culture and lore, they’re unreal even when they’re “realistic”. So I was going for a semi-realistic look to this cover. This art project has been a learning experience!

And when will you be able to read the short stories underneath the cover? February 17th! Serpents of Sky is going to be an Amazon exclusive when it first launches. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can use Amazon’s free Kindle app, or convert the .mobi file to another ebook format using Calibre or a similar service. Paperbacks should be available by the end of February. After a few months, I’ll consider bringing Serpents of Sky to Smashwords and other ebook retailers.

Like any of my writing, I’m really excited to show this to the world. Serpents of Sky touches on a wide variety of genres, from sword and sorcery to dystopian sci-fi. The crown jewel of the collection is Raise (A story of Aligare), a novelette of adventure and family drama — which I hope will welcome new readers into my land of Aligare. Judellie of Cherez, one of the dragon-like korvi from Render, makes another appearance in Raise. (Syril of Reyardine returns, too, but it just wouldn’t be a Story of Aligare without some mention of that guy.)

That’s enough blogging for me. Back to editing!

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Some korvi artwork

motherofflamepicOne of the short story ideas I’m working on features Constezza, a very nurturing korvi. She looks after eggs, ill people and well-behaved children — but mostly eggs.

 

I didn’t intend this drawing to be Constezza. It might be her as a younger woman, I guess. I was just thinking about warmth and other fire analogies.

 

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◦  Korvi and their eggshells (heidicvlach.com)

The structure of Aligare homes (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Korvi festival ties (heidicvlach.com)


Korvi and their eggshells

Aligare’s korvi are a dragon-like folk, a combination of reptile and bird traits. As one would expect, their young hatch from eggs.

 

Korvi eggs are similar in colour to the woman laying them — yellow, orange, red or burgundy.

Korvi eggs are similar in colour to the woman laying them — yellow, orange, red or burgundy. The hatchling inside doesn’t necessarily match.

 

And once the hatchling has cracked their way into the world, what happens to the eggshell? It’s treated as a keepsake. The event of an egg hatching isn’t thought of as birth, exactly — more of a transition. The infant inside the egg has been breathing and existing for who knows how long and it’s just now taken a step of development. The shell pieces are cleaned and carefully stored by the hatchling’s family, like human parents might keep their child’s lost baby teeth.

 

Then, once the hatchling fledges and decides to leave home, they receive their eggshells as a warm parting gift. It’s a coming-of-age gesture, giving the young korvi responsibility for that fragile remnant. Although the parents keep the eggshells as intact as the hatchling left them, once the young adult korvi takes their eggshells they’re free to do what they want. Some continue preserving the shell pieces’ shapes, and some choose to break the eggshells into smaller pieces for easier storage. Either way, the majority of korvi have a generously cloth-wrapped bundle somewhere in their home, which is rarely unpacked and always handled with care. A rare few don’t like that idea. They make their eggshells into something more functional or decorative: maybe a painted bowl to hold trinkets, or a string of beads they’re always wearing.

 

Korvi traditionally cremate their dead, and the person’s eggshells are burned with them. Eggshells are there when a korvi sets out in life, and the korvi takes their eggshells with them when they depart.

 

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Social attitudes toward other people’s loose hairs

Y’know what I’ve always found weird? That people get so deeply alarmed at finding a human hair in their food.

I mean, sure, it’s a sanitary problem if a restaurant’s employees are routinely shedding hair into the food. Not a sanitary problem that’s likely to kill anyone — as opposed to, say, storing food at an temperature that fosters bacterial growth — but it’s still a problem. Even though we’re living creatures who make mistakes sometimes and it’s easy enough for one stray hair to fall off someone’s head. Personally, I don’t fly off the handle and summon a manager if I find someone else’s hair. I just pick it out. I’m probably getting all kinds of human skin particles in the air I’m breathing, so why place extraordinary importance on this one human cast-off I’ve just happened to notice?

But I’m definitely in the minority in my society. I know that. Hair is thought of as beautiful and attractive when it’s attached to a human’s head, but remove the hair from its human and it instantly becomes an object of revulsion. At my restaurant workplace, we routinely get customers who discover one of their own hairs in the food and angrily complain to the management, wanting a new meal prepared. (No, seriously. Just a few days ago, a customer with long, curly red hair found a long, curly red hair in her food and lodged a complaint. None of the staff present that day had hair even remotely similar to hers.)

It’s part of first-world North American culture, I guess. We take hygiene very seriously, and many of us are privileged enough to throw food away just because one hair off a stranger’s head has touched it.

It makes me wonder how my Aligare folk would react to finding someone else’s sheddings in their food. Since 3 species of people live closely together, there’d be a wider variety of sheddings to be found.

"Waiter, there's some dragon in my soup!"

“Waiter, there’s some dragon in my soup!”

But whether Aligare folk find weasel fur, dragon feathers or betweenkind’s waxy hair, I can’t imagine they’d get in a flap about it. They don’t have germ theory, and they’re used to a much more rustic style of living than first-world humans are. Worst-case scenario, a particularly fastidious Aligare person would pick out the offending hair and the spoonful of food surrounding it. It wouldn’t be a reason to reject the food or make the cook feel badly.  More relaxed personalities would probably crack a joke while picking the hair out — particularly if they’ve found a korvi feather, since korvi do sometimes trade their own moult feathers. “Hey, friend! I’ve found something of yours! Are you paying me and letting me eat your food?”

It’s just one tiny aspect of culture. Even on Earth, different cultures have widely varying opinions on whether trace amounts of hair and saliva are something to worry about. But one thing’s for sure: I doubt germophobes read much high fantasy.

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The structure of Aligare homes

You can tell a lot about a culture by what it builds. And in the Aligare world, folk don’t build a lot of structures other than homes and shared social spaces.

An Aligare thatch home would look something like this, although with less square angles. The walls would angle inward and the door frame would be a trapezoid shape.

An Aligare thatch home would look something like this, although its angles wouldn’t be so square. The walls would angle inward and the door frame would be a trapezoid shape.

Aemets were mostly responsible for the advent of house construction. In ancient times, when ferrin lived in the trees and korvi lived on mountaintops, travelling families of aemets began building shelters out of fallen wood and plant debris, propped against living trees. As they developed their plantcasting magic into full-blown agriculture, they also developed the art of permanent(-ish) buildings made of plant materials. And like many Aligare developments, the process picked up speed as aemetkind befriended korvikind and the two races pooled their skills. In the timeframe of the Stories of Aligare, the vast majority of buildings are built in the aemet style.

Building a house in Aligare isn’t as simple as chopping up trees into lumber and nailing them together. Aemets treat the plant goddess’s gift of wood with great respect,  so there are rules about how wood should be used. To respect the tree’s death, wood is never placed with its grain running perpendicular to the ground — which would be akin to propping up a dead body and pretending it’s alive. When wood is used to make the structural poles of a house, those poles are set into the ground at a slant. The exact angle isn’t important as long as it’s clearly not a 90 degree angle. Korvi often find the necessary wood for these poles, since they respect aemet ways but don’t have the same qualms about breaking a tree down into needed material. In some places, korvi metalsmiths provide steel poles for buildings — which don’t need to be placed in any particular way.

Widely was also a fine example of cooperation between the peoplekinds. Syril couldn’t help thinking that every time he landed; today, falling earthward on wide-held wings, he thought the very same. The buildings were roofed and walled with grass thatch, but built on metal poles so that aemet folk wouldn’t fuss about which direction the wood grain in the poles was running. Truly a revelation. The result was good, large buildings that tapered only slightly inward, instead of the drastically slanted pole homes that stifled out every bit of headspace a korvi could possibly put his horns in. All around, Widely made excellent use of materials, in Syril’s opinion.

Render, a story of Aligare, Chapter 8

But when possible, aemets like to tie their house walls around living trees. The house is dismantled and retied each year, to accomodate the trees’ growth and avoid stunting them. With some plantcasting energy spent, it’s possible to grow trees specifically for house structure. If a village is founded in the plains and a few strong casters decide to put the effort in, that village can become a new patch of forest.

The roof (and sometimes the walls, too) are made of woven thatch. Polegrass — which can grow as tall as a person — is used, or else cornstalks from the town’s crops. Strongly scented flowers such as marigold are worked into the thatch to repel insects. Gaps are filled in with moss, cotton fibre or clay. If not thatch, the walls can also be made of wood boards, since the wood is laid horizontally. In fact, wood boards for houses are very valuable, usually given as gifts of love and esteem.

How lively everyone’s hopes had been, giving Arnon more precious boards than the remnants of the Tellig family could possibly use for their two selves. The newly named Fenwater had wanted a leader, someone too stalwart to fear demons, someone surrounded by children learning the trade. They gave their saviour Arnon more house boards, so he could make all the home he would ever need. Father had supposed – in a thoughtful moment years past, candlelight snagging on the lines around his eyes – that he would use the boards for extra training space until Rose had her children.

Remedy, a story of Aligare, Chapter 5

What about korvi-style homes? Their major contribution to housing is pretty much the skill of mining. Hotrock Volcano is a network of tunnel-towns, where korvi live in the warm rock and scrape out spaces large enough to live in. Occasionally, nice slabs of rock are brought beyond Aligare’s mountains and mines, for use as furniture or walls. But for the most part, korvi make use of aemet-style homes when they travel beyond their ancestral Volcano home. If a social space is made with korvi visitors in mind, it’ll usually have a ceiling height that’s really excessive by aemet standards.  That gives enough head space for the often-claustrophobic korvi to feel comfortable, and keeps them from catching their horns on the ceiling thatch.

And ferrin? When they first met the other peoplekinds, they hadn’t developed structural techniques other than their natural way of sheltering in hollow trees, or building squirrel-like nests of clumped plant matter. So ferrin usually accept whatever sturdy homes the other kinds build, or learn to build in the aemet way.

In the current time frame, Aligare hasn’t had much motivation to advance their building techniques. The climate is mild, so dirt floors and thatch walls suit everyone fine. And since aemet-majority villages often fold under the pressures of illness demons, it’s helpful that a village’s buildings can be easily taken apart for their boards and poles. Maybe in a few thousand years, Aligare homes will look different. Maybe.


Felixi of Velgarro: outcast in a friendly world

Render is primarily the story of Rue finding her place in an uneasy time. And that story would have turned out very differently if she hadn’t met Felixi. He’s a korvi who hunts wild game in the traditional way, by dropping onto it from the sky and taking it by surprise.

felixisgazecolour

This looked like the Felixi of Velgarro in Rue’s imagination. He was thick-built in the shoulders, muscular like a hunter would need to be, his mane feathers long and wild. He straightened from his landing — and he turned stone-hard eyes to Rue.

His throat moved as though he meant to speak. Nothing came out for an instant; he swallowed, frowned, and tried again. “Something you want?” he asked in a rasping voice.

Like he hadn’t spoken lately. Like he was a wild creature himself.

Render, a story of Aligare, Chapter 5

Because the three peoplekinds have a strong history of peace and cooperation, a stranger is usually just a friend you haven’t met. That’s the norm. If an aemet, korvi or ferrin doesn’t care for that sort of sociable life, they make recluses of themselves to avoid it. Folk respect the fact that recluses don’t want to be bothered, and will usually only seek out a recluse with an offer a trade, a warning of danger, or some other very good reason.

Felixi is one of these cases. His past is mysterious — but he definitely didn’t fit in with the last town he lived in, and his abrasive personality is made worse by some personal demons. At the time Render’s story happens, Felixi flat-out refuses to enter a settlement and dislikes the thought of associating with more than one person at once. He’s returned to a solitary, standoffish version of the korvi race’s most ancient roots — living on a mountain, spending his days in flight, hunting animals for food. He’s sort of a parallel to Render‘s antagonistic wolves: strange, snappish, frighteningly primal, but Felixi is still a creature with needs and motives. Actually, Felixi is about as close to archetypical Western dragons as an Aligare character could ever be.

I came up with Felixi while wondering about Aligare society. Sure, the three peoplekinds consider it normal to be friendly and cooperative. But what about the inevitable odd people? The minority who just don’t like all this symbiosis stuff and don’t fit in? Felixi has his good qualities but he’s still defined by his sharp-toothed refusal to be normal, and always fighting to protect that solitary freedom he can’t live without.

If you know anything about name roots, you’ve probably picked up on my cruel irony already. Felixi is a tweak of the name Felix, meaning “lucky” or “successful” in Latin. It’s usually a name for characters who are cheerful and loveable and happy, always the winners, always landing on their feet. It’s a name that would have suited nearly any korvi other than Felixi. Frankly, I feel a bit guilty for calling him that. (But not guilty enough to stop me from sketching jokes, apparently: here‘s slightly-off-model Felixi meeting an actual cheerful Felix, the one from the movie Wreck-It Ralph.)

The Render story introduces Rue the atypical aemet to Felixi the atypical korvi. And as they bond, Felixi shows more of his subtleties. His fears, his values, his dry brand of wit. Felixi was pretty much a closed book to me, the author, until I wrote scenes that pried him a little farther open. And that was a big part of why I finished the book.


Korvitongue

In the ancient Aligare world, korvi and aemets each developed a spoken language. But as the peoplekinds interacted and grew closer together, it became clear that aemet mouths couldn’t make the rolled sounds of the korvi language. They just didn’t have the hardware to do anything but mangle korvi words.

 

Gosh, friend. You're pretty bad at this.

Gosh, friend. You’re pretty bad at this.

 

Fortunately, aemet language didn’t have that issue. Korvi (and ferrin, for that matter) could speak it just fine. Out of courtesy as much as practicality, aemettongue became the default language. It’s now called commontongue and it’s considered everyone’s language.

 

I know, I know. “Commontongue” is the most cliched thing I could possibly name a fantasy language. But in this case, I figured it was best to call a spade a spade. Aligare society would consider it very positive that the three peoplekinds have a language in common. For the purposes of my stories, English represents commontongue — although commontongue isn’t English, per se. Just a language with a similar structure and sound profile.

 

As for korvitongue, it does exist. Sort of. I’m not methodical enough to build speakable languages as a fun hobby, but I have dabbled in conlang enough to determine the rough basics of korvitongue. It’s heavily based on the Romance languages, and that’s why korvi names often sound French, Italian or Spanish.

 

Remedy and Ravel didn’t really need korvitongue. It was just a background element, something korvi were implied to speak among other korvi in the Hotrock tunnels. An early draft of Remedy had Tillian interpreting korvitongue messages, but it simply wasn’t a necessary element to the story. That’s a common downfall of invented fantasy languages. Unless the linguistic culture is strongly relevant to the story, there’s little reason to give the reader grammar lessons or make them boggle at foreign words.

 

In Render, korvitongue will be shuffling a step closer to the limelight. Judellie of Cherez is a korvi with a strong korvitongue accent. She just kind of manifested that way in my head. Many korvi speak with a very slight accent, but it’s rare to have a really marked accent like Judellie does. Under stress or excitement, she might forget a vocabulary word or stop using contractions. So what’s her story? Why didn’t she learn commontongue during the early childhood period of greatest fluency? Good questions. As a character, Judellie is mostly a manifestation of being korvi. She’s easygoing but fierce, social but independant. She’s a foil and a role model to Rue, the aemet who sometimes feels like she was born the wrong species.

 

Inventing a language is a great way to indicate, “This is a fantasy world, things are different here”. And it’s a technique I do want to use more in the Aligare world. Not too much. Just as the linguistic equivalent of sprinkles on the cupcake.


Aligare greetings

In any society, real or fictional, the way people greet each other can be very telling. Greeting etiquette is directly linked to other social rules. Which gestures to make, what to say, whether people’s rank or social status have to be addressed.

handshakepurple

Aligare society is all about cooperation and mutual gain, and so the social rules are quite relaxed. When meeting a new person, folk assume that the new person is friendly, because why wouldn’t they be? There’s no such thing as class or caste: everyone is born equal and encouraged to make friends. Everyone can freely address everyone else. If a given person doesn’t like meeting strangers, they tend to go live in an isolated place where they won’t need to bump into any.

Greetings are mostly verbal. Just a simple “hello” or “good day” or “welcome”. It’s acceptable to address a complete stranger as “friend” and then ask a favour, like you actually are friends (“Pardon me, friend. Which way to the mage’s home?”).

Aligare society does have a form of handshake, but it’s specific to ferrin. Ferrin are small folk — about the size of an Earth housecat — with a lot of natural predators. They’re more likely to feel nervous in the presence of a big stranger. So when meeting a new ferrin and introducing themselves, aemet and korvi folk traditionally offer their hand. Palm up and held loosely, in an unthreatening way. This is an invitation to sniff the new person and get to know them better, in the same way that we humans introduce ourselves to dogs, cats, and other creatures with a good sense of smell. Even wild ferrin who have never met other peoplekinds will usually figure out the intent of this body language. At this point, the ferrin can actually sniff the offered hand if they want to — if they’re actually feeling uneasy, or if the new person simply smells interesting. The ferrin answers the greeting by grasping the aemet/korvi’s hand in both of their little hands and giving it one light shake.

ferringreetingsketch

In Remedy, Rose the aemet has known Breeli the ferrin for years. But in the early story, Rose is so rattled thinking about her mage responsibilities that she forgets herself, and offers her palm to Breeli as though they’re meeting for the first time. Breeli is nice enough not to comment. She just shakes the offered hand. Hey, what are friends for if not putting up with your brain farts?

Korvi have a more generalised physical greeting: they open their wings slightly, fanning out the flight feathers. This can be done for anyone, not just newly-met strangers. It might be a token movement that shows a featherwidth or two — or it might be a three-quarter spread of the wingspan, a dramatic gesture like a spur-of-the-moment performance.

twilightsainttradesketchsyril

Syril of Reyardine, I’m looking at you. (Art by TwilightSaint.)

Fanning the wings in greeting is very much optional. Korvi with outgoing personalities tend to do it along with their “hello”, “good day” or “welcome”. If a korvi is extroverted enough to chat up everyone they meet, they’re probably fanning their wings for those same folk. (And if they have any sense in their heads, they tone down the greeting for a nervous-looking ferrin.)

Greetings are appreciated in Aligare society, but like anything, the customs aren’t set in stone. Wild ferrin might not be familiar with town customs. Practical folk might skip the pleasantries and get right to the point. It’s all valid, and it’s all part of daily socialising.