Character Sketch: Aiden Kane
Casing the room his pile of coppers got,
Aiden takes in the chair, the narrow cot,
and shuts and locks and bolts and bars the door.
The gaps and knotholes in the splintered floor
show from below a flash of candlelight,
a creak, a laugh; the inn is full tonight.
The storm shows every sign of going on:
best to be in before the light is gone.
Aiden sits down, back to the wall, and draws
his faithful guns. There’s light left; he ignores
the winter clamouring outside the walls,
and strokes the dim-lit rune-work, and recalls
the first they ever gave him, young and green,
a soldier minted new, his hands still clean.
The years of training meld into a haze
of bleary nights and yellow summer days;
the bells that tolled the faithful through the hours,
bright flags stretched in the wind atop the towers;
the shields on the gables, blue and white;
the river wide and radiant in the light;
the scent of lilacs drooping in the wet;
the sounds of home, his native alphabet,
the language of his homeland in the air.
But he is here, and king and kingdom there,
as far apart as they have ever been,
with half a bleeding continent between;
his masters, too, a thousand miles away:
it was not ordered, what he did today.
Across the steppe, in far-flung monasteries,
they chronicle defeats and victories:
this battle won, this lost, this vantage gained,
the war examined, analysed, explained.
Aiden does not read chronicles. Their themes
play out across his daylights and his dreams.
Before the birth of paper, there was hide,
cropped square and cleaned of blood, and stretched, and dried;
the squares made into books, and notes from scraps,
they set down scriptures, chronicles, and maps,
a thousand songs to sing and tales to tell.
Skin holds the impress of the stylus well:
a book may last – though it will wear and fade –
a thousand years or more since it was made.
And though the words should dim from black to grey
they will not fade entirely away:
beneath the scholar’s lamp they yield again
the words of wit or warning they contain.
The book that wears its skin outside the spine
so too records its travails, line by line:
wounds heal and fevers pass, but scars remain,
the fossil remnant of a buried pain.
Across the living page the reader sees
our love-songs and our ancient histories.
Aiden reloads his guns, face to the door.
At thirty-three he’s younger than the war.
One hand – the left – has bones; the other, spars,
articulated lengths of iron and brass;
a touch across his shoulder-blades would feel
the jagged seam where skin gives way to steel;
and downward, find another, older tale,
a tapestry of lines that tangle, pale,
across, across, across, again, again,
the souvenirs of capture and the chain.
Few hands have traced the scars. Aiden prefers
to keep the thick grey bulwark of his furs:
his greatcoat, gloves, half haven, half disguise,
protect him from the cold and from their eyes.
In all the time he rotted in the place
they never touched his fingers, or his face.
The colonel said it would have been a shame.
In months he never learned the colonel’s name,
nor the guards’ names, nor even where they were;
days became weeks, and weeks became a blur.
When there was nothing left, they made a deal:
hostage for hostage. Freedom seemed unreal;
the journey south, a phantom; home, a dream.
They patched him up and sent him back upstream.
Ten years, that was, ten years ago and more,
and he is not the boy he was before.
He speaks their language without thinking now;
his own has rusted. Times do not allow
for any thoughtless slipping of the mask:
he is a soldier, and he has his task.
Outside, the forest bends beneath the strain
of wind and snow that streaks the window-pane.
Drifts pile around the door. The night draws in.
Out here the winter wears the people thin:
grey, weatherbeaten, quiet, they do not care
who seeks the Empress’ gold-and-amber chair.
which distant city fell, which stands beset.
The Empress they adore in silhouette,
scarce closer than their God to matters here:
the freezing grind of time from year to year
does not respect Her Highness’ dreaded name,
nor all the prayers they offer to the flame.
Serenely, in a narrow, rented room,
the light gives way to early-falling gloom;
as the horizon claims the winter sun
Aiden reloads his pistols, one by one.
* * *
Following on from my post ruminating vaguely on the gradual retreat of verse from genre fiction, I was kicking around some half-baked ideas for stuff, and it occurred to me that I might as well have a shot at putting my metre where my mouth was, as it were. Back in my fanfic days, I did a few of these types of character sketches – short (this one is in the region of 750 words), circumscribed snapshot portraits of a single person. Those, however, were all in prose. And so my embryonic plan to keep my writing hand in with a few more character sketches collided with the drifting wistful thoughts about a lack of genre poetry, and then this happened.
Captain Aiden Kane is a tabletop RPG character of J’s, hailing from the third-party Iron Kingdoms setting for D&D 3.5. Any readers familiar with the IK universe will probably have no trouble identifying which country Aiden works for and who he’s spying on (although I did take a certain amount of liberty with the details, because our particular campaign went off the rails from IK canon rather early on.) However, I wanted to make this piece as free-standing – and as comprehensible to people who don’t happen to be acquainted with the same bits of geekdom I am – as possible, and so deliberately left out names of places and so forth.
Here I write in rhymed iambic couplets, traditionally known rather grandly as heroic verse, or occasionally the Heroic Line. As the Wikipedia article on heroic couplets notes, this has historically been the favoured form in which to render in English the dactylic hexameters of Classical literature, and several famous translations of the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid have been in this form. As such, it seemed simultaneously apt and whimsical to borrow the same structure for a portrait of a character who, while fitting a similar narrative slot to Classical heroes – fingered by a deity to save his country – is hardly heroic in the moral sense of the word.
All the rhymes are so-called masculine rhymes, with the line ending on the stressed, rhyming syllable; this was not intentional until I was about three-quarters done, at which point I noticed that there wasn’t a single feminine rhyme in there, and wondered if I could keep that up all the way through. (You may wish to quibble with me on the subject of hours and towers. I maintain that in my accent they are, at least, closer to one syllable than two.)
Some poets, notably Milton and Wordsworth – who was a total Milton fanboy – avoided feminine line-endings on stylistic grounds. I don’t especially understand why; I mainly mention it because it gives me the opportunity to quote Stephen Fry’s frustrated remark that trying to find two consecutive feminine endings in Paradise Lost “is like looking for a condom machine in the Vatican”. While I’m here, though, it is worth noting that the extra weak syllable of a feminine line-end does alter the flavour of a line, its speed and balance, and sometimes it’s what you want and sometimes it isn’t. If you’re interested in observing the differences in effect this particular nuance can convey, have a look at Kipling’s “If”, which alternates strictly between masculine and feminine endings, and at Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, which uses only feminine endings (widely taken to be a kind of structural pun on the feminine quality of the Fair Youth’s good looks). You might also wish to investigate the Onegin stanza, which requires a particular pattern of masculine and feminine rhymes and has a very distinct rhythm as a result. (Here is a post about how much I love the Onegin stanza, with links to various attempts thereat.)