Gloriana's Torchby Patricia Finney
The year is 1587. The Spanish are preparing to launch the Armada against the English and Queen Elizabeth. Ex-soldier David Becket, now responsible for the Queen's Ordnance discovers that large quantities of gunpowder are going astray. Can someone in the heart of the English government be selling it to the Spanish? Unaccountably he is plagued by vivid dreams of
The year is 1587. The Spanish are preparing to launch the Armada against the English and Queen Elizabeth. Ex-soldier David Becket, now responsible for the Queen's Ordnance discovers that large quantities of gunpowder are going astray. Can someone in the heart of the English government be selling it to the Spanish? Unaccountably he is plagued by vivid dreams of England invaded, an alternative story where the Armada is victorious. Patricia Finney's brilliant reworking of the Armada legend is an imaginative tour de force. Thrilling, intricate, and inspiring, this is a tale of courage, of love, and, ultimately, redemption.
- St. Martin's Press
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- First Edition
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- 6.38(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.47(d)
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By Patricia Finney
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Patricia Finney
All rights reserved.
The Slave Coast of Africa, Autumn 1587
If I were as moon-white as you, you would call me a witch. You would torture me with water and weights and burn me with fire. But in my home where we are all dark and beautiful, we respect upside-down people.
I am not small and weak and slender like your pearl-faced women. I am tall and strong: my arms are like the black oak of your bogs; my legs are like the black fir trees of your forests; my body is as strong as any one of you strange pink men with your little pink manpiece. My breasts are towers of ebony, my face is a sculpture in onyx, my hair a wonder of black velvet.
Why did I come among the strange hairy ghosts of the cold north? There are no real people there, only you ghost-people with your foul milk skins and your hairy faces bristling red like a hog's, who wear great citadels of heavy and coloured and beautiful cloth. Do you know how badly you smell?
I am upside-down, so I do the opposite to everyone else. I came to the compound of my King, my brother, walking in on my hands so that his warriors were afraid to stop me.
I said, 'The Portingales and Arabs are bewitching us. They offer things such as cloth and guns for our strong fine men, who stumble in chains to the ports and never return. Surely such an evil is sorcery?'
My King blinked and shifted his golden collar. Behind him an adviser whispered behind the muzzle of his princely leopard skin.
(I too have a leopard skin.)
'These men in chains are not my people,' said the King and flicked at a fly with his whisk. 'I have never sold any of my people. I only sell foreigners and criminals. Why should I not sell foreigners and criminals to the hairy ghosts?'
'Was my son – your nephew – a foreigner or a criminal?' I asked coldly and he flinched, began to sweat. He thought I did not know what had happened to the lad, or did not care. Wrong.
'Why do you think I sold him?' asked my King, cautiously. 'Why would I do that?'
Now here was a great hole in his speech where the words 'I did not do it' should have been. But he was afraid to lie to me as well. I walked up and down on my hands in front of him, the breasts that suckled my boy hanging down. Then I jumped and came right-side up, my head rushing with the change, smiled to show him my pointed teeth.
'The spirits told me.'
Strictly this was a lie because I had found it out from one of his own advisers whom I had made drunk and trusting with magic drinks.
The other adviser, the one the Arabs have bought, tapped his powder horn and tilted forward his gun. It was one of the few in the kingdom, a thing of great power and witchery. But without its magic powder to eat, it is dead. I had heard a great deal about this powder, I had even smelled and tasted some. It is sickening to taste, but nobody knows how to make it except the hairy ghosts.
So I bowed and touched the earth with my forehead, only I bowed not to my King but to his gun, his god.
My brother wanted more of the magic powder the guns eat. Any troublesome young man is a fair exchange for more magic powder. This is why there are no men for my sisters to marry, why they must go to old men and cripples for their children, why the fields are becoming smaller and the crops dwindle. And certainly any foolish young man who talks angrily against the King and has a claim to be King instead will be worth more in gunpowder. Most certainly. No doubt my brother the King felt merciful that he had not killed my boy.
'The hairy ghosts are my friends,' said my King. 'The English, the Portuguese, the Spanish. Even the Arabs. We have treaties, we have trade and trade is always good.' He paused, took a deep breath. 'I know nothing of your son.'
I smiled at him. It was, of course, true that he knew nothing of my son because nobody knows anything of those that are taken and bound by the Arabs and marched off towards the coast.
Once, long ago, I had a husband and so I had a son, praise be to the Queen Moon who gave him to me. But I was upside-down after the birth. When my husband beat me for it and I killed him, I gave my son to my sister whose baby had died. She came and took him and loved him. Then I went into the forest to hunt spirits and songs. Spirit time, song time is not the same as our time. When I came out of the forest again my son was grown and had passed his initiations, learned his secret songs, taken the scars of a young man, the snake that climbs up the right arm of men. My sister was the one who served him his beer afterwards. She was the mother who brought him to adulthood; I was only the mother who had spat him out of my womb. She wept for him when she came to me. But I did not weep. The King was foolish to sell him; more foolish to half-lie to me.
He looked away from my smile. 'Perhaps I could ask my friends the Arabs about your son?'
Oh certainly, he could do such a thing and tell them to see to it the boy was dead before sun up. Perhaps he would do that anyway, if he could. But why argue with stupidity? 'Let me go down to the port,' I said. 'I will sing and dance my son back to me.'
My King and his advisors looked at each other. I am likely to be a nuisance. Certainly a gun will shoot me dead, but then who knows where my soul will go or whose heart it might eat? Above their heads I could see their thoughts: the Arabs can have the curse for killing her after they capture her and find out how bad a slave she makes. My King's tubular, lead-spitting god sat on the sacred golden stool and smiled with his trigger under his long, tubular snout.
'You will not attack the Portuguese?' said the adviser. 'You will not frighten them away to trade with our enemies?'
'I am a woman,' I said. 'What do I know of fighting?'
'They won't take you as a gift, you fool,' sneered the other adviser, who had forgotten what he had told me. 'The Portuguese don't want to buy women, they say they have enough troubles of their own.'
'Nevertheless,' I told him, still smiling.
The King knocked his beautiful feathered and brass-bound spear on the ground, then reached out for the gun, which he put across his knees. A knife of light came through the leaves of his awning and softly cut the lock of the gun.
'You may go to the port,' said my King. 'You are the most upside-down woman we have ever seen, but there are others we can visit in the forest who are almost as upside-down, if we should need healing or to know the gods' sayings. You may go to hunt in the lands of the hairy ghosts.'
Of course, they were all glad to be rid of me, related to most of them as I am. Power comes down to me direct from the wise snake goddess who climbed a great many-boled tree in our land and mated with a golden bird; then she laid an egg in his nest and from the egg hatched the first of our line, alone, scaly, unbeaked, feathered by theft, male and female together, upside-down and right-side up. All of us, men and women, have such a snake climbing our arms, given in pain and blood when we became adult, very beautiful. So we are strange people and some of us see all the gods and spirits and become their friends.
I bowed again to the King and his advisers, and to their god, the gun, then I left them. In my poor King's enclosure where he must always stay except to go to battle, his great plump wives like hippopotami peeked between windowslats to see me go, whispering.
I laughed. I am a she-elephant – they are foolish cattle. I am a she- rhinoceros – they are frightened antelope. I am a she-snake – they are fat little birds.
To be upside-down is not always uncomfortable.
* * *
So with my best mantle of plush black and yellow fur, given me by a leopard most unwillingly, with my skirt of leather, with my stick and my pipe, my god-gifts hanging in a little frogskin bag at my neck and a leather net of dried meat over my shoulder, I went to the trail where the prisoners walk down, down to the sea, a river of them bowed in the sun.
Once, in the days of our great-grandparents, slaves would walk and walk northwards across the burning sands, across the rocky wastes of the north, walking in the night and the morning and resting in the brazen ugly day, when the Lion Sun stalks across the sky-desert and the world pants like a gazelle for breath. Half of them died on the way to the markets in the Arab lands by the Middle Sea.
Now there is no longer an ordeal by sand and thirst. The trail has widened and is used day after day and goes down to the sea. Now there is an ordeal by water and thirst. Then I knew nothing of it. All I knew is what I saw in that thin river of people: fine young men and a few crying women, some still weeping milk from their breasts for their dead babies, all walking walking walking down the trail. Many of the warriors were still wounded or dazed from being taken. They staggered with treetrunks necklacing each two together, and the tree bark wore great holes of meat in their shoulders and necks. It is not good for slaves to be healthy, especially not strong young warriors, the most valuable ones when once they have been broken.
I stood on a treestump and took out my pipe and played to them. I played them sad songs and hopeful songs. They were indeed all foreigners, as my King had said, enemies. Their language was crooked and strange, hard for me to understand. They were descended from a different tree snake. Yet it seemed that they knew some of the songs I sang. One warrior answered my flute with whistling, a coming-of-age song. He had his manhood snake carved upon his cheek, not his arm.
One of their many guards was a cousin of mine, from my year-group, and he explained to his Arab master who I was. He should know, for I had brought his little brother safe from his mother's cave, when she had died of giving birth to him. He saw that I was hunting gods from my stick and my pipe, but he smiled and explained to the Arab that I was only a poor, mad healerwoman. The Arab nodded and I knew he was thinking that the hairy ghosts might give something for me because although I am certainly not pretty in the ghostly way of seeing things, I am as strong as a man.
This is good, said the Lady Leopard, walking in her other shape of a zebra by my side. Being ignorant hairy ghosts, you may not know that we are all trailed by the souls of anything we have killed. I myself am followed by a leopard, a zebra, many impala and smaller animals and a few men. But they are all my friendly ghosts, because I killed them fairly and honoured them afterwards. They help me.
My dreamsight flooded over me when I saw the Arab. There was his god: a golden word flaring bright above his head. He prayed to the writing, bowing down to it five times a day and I was entranced, fascinated, the first time I had ever seen such a god. The Arabs gave us their writing and some tell our king- tales for us to their paper rolls with pen and ink. To write is a very great magic and one day perhaps I will learn it.
When the first night fell, I slipped among the friendly trees to sleep and laid a little snare for the man the Arab would send to fetch me once my King's warriors were asleep, to beat me down and bring me in.
It didn't kill him, only broke his ankle. Poor man. I let him lie in pain to teach him better tracking, and his groaning was a bull bellowing in my sleep.
At dawn, the Arab sent my cousin to me to bow and ask politely what I wanted.
'I am seeking out my son who was sold by mistake,' I said. 'Have you seen him?'
My cousin knew the boy. He was shocked and yet it was interesting that he never asked how such a thing could have happened. The slave-traders and their guns make normal what was once terrible. 'No, of course not,' said my cousin. 'Do you think I could have seen him and not freed him? The King sent me away south last month.'
He was afraid of me, rightly, but I nodded to show I believed him. The next night I slept in a tree while heavyset men staggered about underneath looking for me. One of them was bitten by a snake. My black and yellow fur kept me warm.
On the third day, my cousin came to me as I slipped among the trees by the slavers' road.
'Tomorrow,' he said, sweating with fear, 'tomorrow ... we will be near the fortress of the infidel and if you try to move through the trees and fields, their soldiers will take you or kill you, not knowing what you are. So after tomorrow it will be better for you to stay with us, whether you want to or not.'
Never have I been taken prisoner more politely.
'I will come back to you because you are intended to help me. But tonight I will sleep by myself,' I said to him firmly.
None of the Arab's men obeyed his orders to find me: they stamped about the forest, talking as loudly as they could and then went back to camp.
That night I made a fire with the sacred red wood that spits and wails as it burns; I broke my stick of power, weeping as I did it, and burnt it to ashes. I broke my flute and buried it. I ate the last of my meat, drank the last of my beer and burnt the bag and the calabash. I took them all full and pure into my heart where they could not be stolen.
Now you must go into the lion's mouth, said my Queen Moon and I saw that she was changed from a zebra to a leopard. I was afraid and sad.
I lay quietly by my fire and pretended to be asleep, pretended not to notice when the hairy ghosts sent by the Arab crept like elephants through the leaves in the dark and threw a net over me, rolled me in the leaflitter, bound my hands and arms like a buck.
'Why are you so afraid of me?' I asked, forgetting they would not speak my tongue, and the Queen Moon, my Lady Leopard pawed my lips to be silent and to listen and to watch. Truly, they were well worth watching for simple strangeness.
They smelled sour of milk and sweat and their pale skins glistened like a slug, except where they were boiled red from the sun or where their beards sprouted like monkeys'. I thought their bodies were not like ours for the strangeness of the shapes their clothing puts on them, though I learned better. They spoke hideously the language of the coast as they warned me not to try any tricks and to follow them.
Under the smiling plump face of the Queen Moon we went down to the port where the town rattled with traders, women, pens full of treetrunk bound men, sitting stunned with exhaustion and misery, some weeping in their sleep. Some swayed together and sang very low of how they had died and gone to live with the songs of their fathers, singing their own deathsongs, willing themselves to die. Perhaps they would. It does not always work.
The part of my heart that was not kidnapped and eaten by the gods was struck dumb and blind with fear at the stone squareness of the place. Around me, the Queen's light fell like water and the air was filled with flies that sting.
Soon we met the Arab and his train of captives, escorted by more of the hairy ghosts and no longer by my own cousin who had gone back to my King.
Now here was a great stone pen full of people guarded by Arabs with guns and hairy ghosts with guns and swords. So many people, men and women, but mostly men. The hairy ghosts prefer them for they can work harder, although they die quicker.
They had put iron bracelets on my wrists and a chain between, the same on my feet to hobble me, and a ring round my neck to lead me. It was heavy, awkward but not so bad. I am upside-down, a woman who brings back songs from the dreamtime to lift men's hearts, and so I sang to them, softly, under the heavy stars.
* * *
The day passed. Young men were bought in coffles of four. As I squatted in the dust, waiting, the Lion Sun patted my head with his golden paws and my mouth swelled with thirst. Nobody wanted to buy me, for I was not pretty to be bedded and they did not believe I was as strong as one of their men. The Arab scowled at me as though this was my fault and then clapped his hand to his head and sent a boy with a message.
At last, as the Lion Sun dropped down to be killed by the Night Panther and his sister the Leopard Moon, here was a new hairy ghost. He was a scrawny creature, sweating in all his rich clothes, a cap on his balding head, his weak, pale brown eyes squinting behind glass windows.
He spoke quickly in a language of rich browns and golds, the tongue of the Portingales. The Arab beckoned me over and I shuffled to him.
'He wants to know if you can heal the flux?'
It depends on what kind and how bad it is and which demons are implicated.
'Yes,' I said.
More talk between them. 'He wants to know, can you look after a sick woman?'
'Yes.' I smiled. Why else do you think anyone tolerates upside-down people?
Excerpted from Gloriana's Torch by Patricia Finney. Copyright © 2003 Patricia Finney. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Patricia Finney attended Oxford, where she read history. Her first novel, A Shadow of Gulls, won the prestigious David Higham award. Gloriana's Torch is her fifth novel. She lives in England.
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In Gloriana's Toch, several characters come to life in all their richness, complexity and flaws. The story is told from their different points of view. And there's a dreamlike, what-if alternative history (what might've happened if the Spanish had landed in England)that makes it an even more compelling book. I couldn't put it down. Great reading. Wonderful historical fiction on the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth I of England.