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Piglio, Chatter and the Mountain

This is a fragment. It introduces Tyn and the gang. There is some abuse in this chapter and not something I glorify. I originally intended to explore the issue of abuse with a few characters in the story.
The rat was old, its fur patchy and bones prominent. Whiskers twitched as it looked around the corner, cautious because it smelled the urine of feral predators. The alley seemed empty with its long stone walls, gutters and roughly cobbled street barely visible in the circles of light cast by neglected streetlamps.

Darting forward, it ran towards the appealing smells of the garbage dump. An unknown sound caused it to freeze, one leg held up as its ears and nose sought the source. A sharp snap caused it to leap forward … but it was too late. A massive blow flung the rat tumbling through the air to land on its back, legs fluttering.

“You see that? Got it with one shot!” Chatter yelled exultantly. “Who is the sling master?” Mash rolled her eyes at him “Lucky shot!”  “Your grandmother was a lucky shot,” he retorted as he ran to recover the smooth stone and admire his handiwork. He kept up a steady stream of dialogue as he moved, as if his legs were pumping his tongue – which is how he had earned his moniker. “Come on guys admit it, I am the best shot in this gang! Heck I’m the best shot on the island! Maybe even …” he said, flinging out his arms as if he had just won a race, “the world!”

Mash and Broom knelt and looked in admiration at the crumpled heap of fur while firing off a string of disparaging remarks “You have a better chance of killing something with your yakking than ever doing that again. Besides look how old she is, she was probably running at half speed.” Mash gave Broom a quick knuckle bump without looking away from the rat. “Good one bristle head.” “Maybe she even ran in front of the stone, ’cause she figured a quick death was better than listening to your bragging ‘Oh no here comes Chatter, ahhhhhh!” “Double knuckle bump for that one Mash” they both snickered.

Off to one side Piglio just smiled uneasily and rubbed his nose. Though the training was slowly making him lean and tough, he remembered being on the receiving end of enough fat jokes that he was uncomfortable poking fun at anyone.

Mash chortled and wiped a tear away, leaving a streak with a finger dirty enough to plant and grow seed on. Both laughed again at Chatter’s string of blustering protestations as he turned to the remaining member of their group.

Pointing at the large young man with the recovered rock, Chatter said. “Whattayasay Mount, wasn’t that a great shot?” The others turned their heads to see what Tyn – sometimes called The Mountain – would say. He was a recent arrival to Thracos but had become the defacto leader. In part because he was older, bigger and meaner than anyone else they knew, which was a good thing on these streets. There were worse things prowling the night and many of them preyed on the young. Tyn had simply appeared one day when a couple of glimroot addicts had tried to grab Mash. Tyn had beaten their assailants so severely than even the crazed drug enhanced strength, and resistance to pain, wasn’t enough to keep the them from fleeing into the night, their dim phosphorescence fading with the distance. After that Tyn had begun to systematically teach them how to survive and had provided the slings they all carried in their belts. All they really knew about him was that he claimed to have crossed The Wilds and he seemed tough enough for it to have been true.

Tyn looked down a little longer and finally said “It was a good shot.” He reached down to give Chatter a rare knuckle bump and what might have been a smile -which would have given Chatter warning if he hadn’t been so busy congratulating himself. “Which reminds me…” The Mountain’s large open hand swung swiftly forward and slapped the back of Chatter’s head so hard that he did a full somersault and ended up, on his back, staring up in a teary-eyed daze. “The name is Tyn, or The Mountain if you really must, but not ‘Big Boy, Shoulder Hocks, Mount’ or anything else – do I look like a damn horse to you?” Chatter looked up with fierce tears but managed to bite back the remark that came to his lips. Tyn looked at him for a second. “You’re learning. That’s good.” The others sat, still frozen by the loud thock sound of the hand striking Chatter’s head and the involuntary acrobatics. “I told you a couple times the last few weeks. I may not be able to catch you right away, but I never forget, so sooner or later payback will come.” He stood looking solemnly at Chatter’s face for a minute longer then reached down to help him up and said simply “That really was a damn fine shot.”

Chatter’s face went through a range of conflicting emotions, anger, fear and happiness at the praise. Piglio, Broom and Mash all looked at each other uncomfortably for a minute. Tyn had made them stronger, and better able to fend for themselves, but there was something dangerous smoldering in the gaze of the powerfully built young man. The small gang looked up at him and waited quietly.

Tyn looked at each, then motioned towards Mash with his head. “You take point.”  Mash nodded and set of at a jog, giving Chatter a quick punch in the arm as she passed him. Piglio and Broom followed next, each running in the shadows along opposite walls of the alley. Chatter resisted the urge to rub the back of his head and leapt silently into the night, falling into a middle position a few lengths behind the others. They moved down the darkening street leaving the dead rat to be reclaimed by the night’s other hunters.

Tyn smiled grimly as he followed swiftly in the shadows. He kept his eyes on Chatter, who ran the lure position. He hadn’t wanted to smack Chatter but it seemed he was barely in control of himself some days. He knew what was coming. Fear and regret weighed heavy on the Mountain and he felt a moment of uncertainty. Looking up at the stars as he ran, his hand reached into his pocket and fingered the sigil sitting there. He sighed. Even if he could outrun fear, pain and regret he would still be faced with the unyielding face of his duty. He turned back to his little band, and followed them silently in

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Johnny Red

This is another fragment and it features Johnny – sometimes called Johnny Red because of his wild red hair, Tebo and his father Garrun.

Now, what is he on about? Tebo wondered.

At the top of the tall stone tower that dominated the harbor, he could see Johnny flapping his arms and waving. Even at this distance Tebo could could tell that Johnny was excited about something.

Tebo waved back and chuckled, his breath condensing in the brisk morning air as he did so. He shook his head and smiled as he thought of Johnny but didn’t slow as he set the kegs and rough wood planks his father and he used as shelving for the small outdoor stall where the sold various goods. His back and hands were used to heavy work, so his mind was free to wonder what Johnny was up to. Tebo wasn’t sure when it had happened but at some point, Johnny had stopped being an oddity and become a friend. There was a special quality to Johnny that was hard to define. There was no malice in him. He was openly friendly, trusting, and generous in a way only common to young children.

There was also a keen and observant mind behind his friend’s awkward speech. Johnny wasn’t ‘simple’ or ‘addled’ as some folks said he just saw the world differently.

Tebo placed baskets of various sizes on the shelves that his father would fill with the assorted items he sold or traded. Satisfied, he stretched, yawned, and looked around. There were a few other vendors roasting various food stuffs and the pleasant smells of roots, nuts and small bits of meat being cooked intermingled with the smells of fish guts and garbage. Most of the stalls carried few goods in winter, unless a ship was wrecked or Duar traders arrived. Tebo couldn’t wait until the warm weather a greater variety of goods would fill the stalls.  His stomach grumbled and he looked towards the store to see if his father was done.

Garrun was using his massive arms to roll out and position the last barrel of smoked fish. He looked at Tebo, and his broad bearded face lifted in a small grin. It’s like watching a rock smile, Tebo thought. He smiled back. A hairy rock.

Garrun looked up at Johnny still capering madly on the stone tower and shook his head. With fingers as thick and sturdy as spear shafts he pulled on the small strap securing the barrel lid, then reached in and pulled out a handful of dry apples. He tossed them to his son who snatched them out of the air with deft movements. “You’d better get that fool boy off the tower before he hurts himself.” Garrun stepped into the small lean-to at the center of the stall and pulled out a fistful of burlap bags. “Fill these with a mix of whatever nuts and dry berries we have left and run them out to Josef. Tell him I expect no less than ten loaves, and he can throw in a couple of sweet rolls if he wants me happy.” He grunted at Tebo’s smile. Josef was an incredible baker. Garrun scratched his beard as he looked at the tower. “And if Johnny doesn’t fall before you get there, take him with you. Tell him he can eat with us tonight.”

Garrun looked at his son, then gave a short nod and winked as he hurried over to assist the widow Yglara. The old woman wore a look of dissatisfaction and was jabbing at the oily fish in one of the open kegs as if they had somehow offended her.

Tebo chuckled and grabbed the bags, snagged some cheese from one of the crates, then dropped in the apples. He loaded Josef’s goods into one of the carrying baskets, tossed in his food and slid his arms through the harness. Tebo bent his legs and lifted the large pack and grinned as his father rolled his eyes at him. Yglara was a character, that was certain. She was up before any of the merchants and had a tongue that could peel the bark off a tree.

Tebo rapped lightly on the counter of the adjoining stall where Herog was busy flipping skewers with small bits of marinated fish, and starchy roots, and held up four fingers. The vendor quickly bundled fish and roots with sea-bracken leaves into four thumb-sized, then held out two fingers of his own indicating the cost. Tebo paid, added the bundle to his pack, and nodded in thanks as he swung it onto his shoulders.

As he turned, he realized he could no longer see Johnny’s red hair which meant that Johnny might be standing near the front edge of the tower and there was probably ice up there today. Worried now, Tebo set off at a jog.

 

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Maggie & Kai

This is another fragment featuring Maggie and Kai. It is earlier in the story, just prior to Duke Rathstone’s infamous murder party that causes Maggie to move from eleventh in line to the throne, to second. Soon afterwards she is forced to flee and so begins her own journey of discovery.

Maggie pushed Kai into the mud causing the petite Yahata’ai girl to fall hard onto her side. “You cheated!” Maggie yelled. “You started before I was ready!”

Kai looked up at her friend, her moist eyes reflecting her hurt feelings. “I didn’t cheat! You just always have to be the winner. Why are you like that Mag?” she said, her lip trembling. “Just can’t stand to be beat by one of us?” Kai stood stiffly and turned to hide her tears.

Maggie saw her friend’s shoulders shaking and all of her 9-year-old self-righteous anger melted away. “Kai please… I’m sorry.” She laid her hand hesitantly on her friend’s shoulder. “I’m really really sorry. I don’t know why I did that” and then her own hot tears fell.

She felt Kai’s arms around her and they cried together, eyes running until they looked up. When Maggie saw Kai’s mud-covered face, she couldn’t help herself. She snickered and then she laughed. “You’rrr suchhh a meesss…” Kai frowned for a second and then she was laughing too. Big, girly, snorting, silly laughs that left them holding their sides and gasping for air.

“You are such a princess!” giggled Kai. “Twelfth in line from the throne? You should be next in line!” and she snorted again, which made them laugh even harder.

Maggie sighed and smiled at her friend as her giggles subsided. It was hard to deal with Kai sometimes. Not because she was difficult in any particular way, but because like most of her people she was incredibly honest. Blunt even. Maggie’s family was considered plain-spoken by the standards of the Illian elite, but she had grown up in circles where people played word games and what they said was not always what they meant. Maggie loved that she didn’t have to be on guard with Kai or couch her remarks in clever dialogue. The problem for Maggie was that when she removed the social wrapping from her interactions, she came to realize how petty, mean-spirited and spoiled she had been. But she could change.

Maggie took her friends small hand, marveling again at the hard ridges and calluses she found there. “You’ve got mud in your hair. We’d better get that washed out before it dries.”

Kai bowed mockingly “Whatever you say your ladyship.” She looked up with a twinkle in her eyes as she ran her fingers through her long hair. “Besides, we’ll also have to wash your Ladyship’s gown.”

Maggie looked down and gasped. Her play clothes bore the muddy imprint of Kai’s body. “Ahh! Nana is going to be mad!” She squinted her eyes and wagged her index finger at her friend. “You did that on purpose!”

Kai laughed and curtsied again. “Yes, your highness.”

“And knock that off” Maggie grumbled. “I’m perfectly happy having eleven others ahead of me. Believe me, the last thing I want is to live in that hornet’s nest and feed the royal dog, or whatever it is they do all day.”

Maggie walked towards the well, arm in arm with her friend. They were the same age but that was where most of their similarities ended. Kai’s Yahata’ai heritage was apparent in her dusk-colored skin, long dark hair and green flecked eyes. Maggie’s light skin and freckled face was common enough in Illia, but her wavy auburn hair with its blonde highlighting was unusual and striking. They had met a year earlier where her house bordered the woods. Maggie had been racing her cousin and looked up to see Kai grimly matching her speed through the trees. They’d raced often after that until Kai had walked up to Maggie’s well for some water. They spoke and a friendship blossomed.

Maggie pulled the lever on the well, and the mechanos built device turned hidden gears and cogs drawing water up the large, enclosed screw-pump that angled deep into the earth. Clean cold water flowed into a basin, and she helped Kai rinse the mud from her hair.  She looked at her critically for a moment and then declared “That’ll have to do.” Maggie looked down at her clothes and sighed “I’m not sure there is any way for Nana to avoid seeing this.”

“I have an idea” said Kai “Hand me that sponge.” Maggie turned to look for the sponge and heard a sudden plop and splash. Spinning quickly, she found Kai with a mischievous grin and a full bucket. “This ought to help!”

“Don’t you do i…!” her cry ended in sputtering outrage as the ice-cold water hit her chest. Within moments the two were hooting, hollering, and splashing water with all the energy and joy of youth.

A long dark shadow stretched on the ground between the girls causing them to pause and look at each other with trepidation. They turned and saw a shape limned by the setting sun. Nana stared with an expression of disbelief and exasperation at the two girls.  She slapped a broad hand on each hip and reared back on her heels before thrusting her head forward. “What in the name of the Holy Builder’s Beard are you two pixies doing!” Kai and Maggie stood stunned for a moment, at the roar that came out of the diminutive woman’s mouth. They looked at each other, and back at Nana before bursting out in laughter again.

“Ok, ok you two. It’ll be getting dark soon. Off to the house with you and we’ll get you cleaned up before Master Moran gets back.”

 

 

 

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Trapped!

This is a fragment of a chapter featuring Maggie. The first image is my poorly rendered attempt at a Cley – a creature created from a condemned man and warped by magic and science. The second is a concept for Bash, one of the gang leaders.
She was in trouble.

Maggie felt the debris crunch beneath her feet as she inched forward.  A fire-blackened beam blocked her path. One rested high above her, at the top of the two-story building. The other had crashed through walls and floor and rested on the ground before her. Cold air and snow blew in through a gaping hole to her left that extended to the roof line. Getting past the opening, without being seen, would be a challenge.

Maggie remembered the thudding strikes, as the cley’s massive mud-colored claws pounded a hole in the wall. Heavily armed Seawatch raced behind the many-legged creature as the Kral ordered it into the breach. Above it all, she remembered the sounds. The clang of weapons, the crashing of falling stones, and the cley’s enraged chittering.

Focus!

Maggie shuddered and looked at the metal clad beam. She considered climbing it to the roof but the way up was treacherous. The angle was steep and the snow would make it slippery. Debris from the collapsed upper sections rested on it in places, forming a series of obstacles that she would have to get around. Maggie looked at the long vertical wedge of space to the right of the beam. She wasn’t fond of tight spaces, but there was no way around it. She bit her lip and slid her arm into the narrow opening, moving with crab-like steps while her leading hand felt for obstructions. Ragged metal tugged at her clothing and scratched her legs. Her coat dragging along the wall, released a steady stream of grit that fell on her hair, and down the nape of her neck, making her itch.

Then she was stuck.

Maggie fought down her panic and tried, to no avail, to free herself from whatever had snagged her coat. She could hear her heart pounding in her ear and took several slow breaths to calm herself. Her arm stretched forward until she found a metal strap. She pulled as hard as she could, bending her knees, and pushing with her legs until something ripped, and she stumbled forward.

Maggie looked down at the new tear in her heavily patched coat. Great. A few more holes and I can use it to catch fish. She arched her back until her vertebrae made small popping sounds and examined the space.  A section of the upper floor and roof rested on the overhanging beam, creating a tent like clearing. The rest of the interior was devastated.

The ground beneath her hiding place rumbled and groaned as the screaming stopped. Soldiers stumbled out of the building, moments before a colossal explosion tore the heavy doors from their hinges and sent them windmilling into the street. Projectile shards of brick and wood rattled against the stone wall beside her head. She was dazed. Faint. Much of what happened next didn’t seem to make sense. Towering green flames. Thick yellow smoke. And water. A wave of water rushing from a huge hole, filled by the body of a now bright-red and steaming cley – a cley that had once been a man, boiled alive in its carapace. It’s human eyes bulging in the insect face. She felt nauseous and looked away.

Well, the water was real enough, she was soaked. Maggie shook her head and tapped the beam. Metal sheathed roofs were common enough on Highmount, but no one living in low town should have been able to afford it, which confirmed that it belonged to one of the gangs making glim. The metal was probably the only reason it didn’t burn to the ground.

The smell confirmed it. Despite all of the holes in the building the smell of burnt glim irritated her nose and eyes. It left a bitter taste in her mouth and made her itch. She touched the tip of her tongue experimentally to see if there was anything coating it and promptly spat. She stared at the offending fingertip. It was impossibly dirty. So dirty in fact, that she had a mental image of Scritch.

Nana would have a fit.

Maggie smiled sadly at the thought of Nana and continued to look for an alternate way to exit the building. The winter sun, filtering through holes in the walls and roof, created a patchwork of shadows. Beams of snow filled light laced throughout, added a strange and unexpected beauty to the scene. Maggie shook her head and felt a moment of dizziness. Have to keep moving. The cold and lack of food was affecting her concentration and she had no idea what long term exposure to the glim could do to her. She might have to run before this was over.

Maggie pulled a piece of dried fish out of her pocket and chewed it slowly to scrub the taste from her mouth while she considered her options. When she was finished, she tugged the shabid to cover her nose and mouth. The once bright and beautifully embroidered scarf was now soiled, its colors muted. She thought she could still detect the scent of the Hetani’s sacred hanais flower. It was a reminder of the past and all that she had survived and she found strength in the remembering.

I’ll survive this too.

Maggie pressed her face against a small opening and examined the street. Twin rows of charred buildings extended outward from her location. No torches, nor movement signaled life – yet she knew someone was out there.

She’d run when she spotted the men following her, easily outdistancing them. Children on the street were frequent victims of those who preyed on the unlucky and the foolish. If you survived it was because you were strong. Or careful. Some joined the gangs willingly. Some by force and then tried to survive the brutal price demanded of them. So far Maggie’s speed had kept her safe, and free. No one could run like she could. She’d turned into this street without slowing her pace. Her feet had inadvertently brought her back to the building she had seen destroyed weeks earlier. She’d known, as soon as she turned the corner, that something was wrong. All she could do now was hope that she hadn’t been seen entering and that the snow would hide any footprints she’d left outside.

Maggie started involuntarily when the tall dark silhouette appeared at the head of the street. Clouds of vapor puffed in ragged streams from his head, evidence that he’d been running. He panned his head slowly, and Maggie felt a sense of foreboding. There was something familiar about his movements.

A single high-pitched screech echoed down the street.

Maggie sucked in a slow hissing breath as she recognized her pursuer. She didn’t need to see his teeth or ears to know. The sound and strange contours of his body identified him. Bash. She shook her head at her carelessness, a chill crawling up her spine. He set a trap for me.

Backlit shapes began to peel away from the darker shadows at the opposite end of the street, drawn by Bash’s call. Maggie’s heart thudded loudly as she counted ..five, six, seven…

Too many to get past.

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Rathstone’s Dinner Theater

This is a fragment of a chapter featuring the power hungry and murderous Duke Rathstone in Alcheron.
Vapid. That’s the word that came to mind. Soon they’d be gone and he could stop playing this tiresome game. Duke Rathstone hid his smile by stuffing a bit more of the delicious bread pudding into his mouth. A drizzle of honeyed brandy sauce on the surface, and the dried fruit within, made every bite a pleasure. He was glad he’d had the foresight to have Chef Herven write down his recipes before he’d had his throat cut. It was a shame really, but he couldn’t risk the kitchen staff bearing witness to the night’s events. He was certain he could find someone to recreate the chef’s delicious desserts. They really were to die for, he thought, then choked on the pudding at the unintended wordplay.

“My goodness duke, have some wine!” said Lady Garfan as she rushed to his chair.

Coughing uncontrollably, and red-faced, the duke reached for the proffered cup to wash down the offending morsel. How undignified, he thought as he was able to catch his breath. Perhaps Herven was getting his revenge.

Everyone at the table was looking at him, as he dabbed his eyes and mouth with a napkin. The duke shook his head. How ironic it would be, if all my plans were undone by a bit of pudding. He took a moment to compose himself, and looked down the long length of richly embroidered linen covering the trestle table. Suppressing a frown, as he pondered the cost of all of this extravagance, he raised his cup to Lady Garfan and the other assembled nobles.  It was a master stroke to get this many in one room.

The duke raised his hand to silence the musicians, who had been playing a light tune. “My dear Lady Garfan, I do believe you saved my life!”.

Lady Garfan blushed and hid a smile behind a delicate hand while many of the guests at the table rapped their forks against their cups in approval. “Here here Lady Garfan!” several called out, while others laughed good-naturedly.

“Well if something happened to you duke, where would we go to enjoy such culinary marvels as we’ve had at this table?” Lady Garfan quipped, to more merriment and tinging forks.

Duke Rathstone laughed heartily in response. “Ah, gentle lady, I think I will miss your cleverness most of all.” He chuckled at the confused looks around the table.

“Are you leaving us Duke Rathstone?” asked Baroness Verani.

“Perhaps he is going to visit some shy country maiden!” shouted the slightly tipsy Baron Regur, which brought loud guffaws from the men and tittering from the ladies  – testifying to the potency of the duke’s wine, and the relaxed atmosphere he had deliberately cultivated at these affairs. Normally the competition among the aristocracy would make gatherings more formal and showy, as each vied for favor and position. It often seemed to the duke, that these inflated and carefully coiffed fish bladders, had dinners for no other purpose than to establish a pecking order. It reminded him of the great Horned Seals he had hunted with his father, on the northern beaches of the Ice Lands. The aggressive displays of the males, and the fin biting females, caused the groups of animals to be in perpetual motion as dominance was asserted, lost, and then reasserted.

“Alas my friends, I wish it were so. As much as I have enjoyed having you empty my larders and wine cellars, on a regular basis, it is you who will be going.” said the duke.

At that moment a loud thud and scraping sound at the door caused the guards to look at each other.

“What rudeness is this Rathstone?” asked Duke Baerson “Or is this the wine speaking? Come let us  …”

The guards turned towards the door with halberds slightly raised. There appeared to be a commotion in the hallway.

The duke nodded to one of the attendants who had been serving wine. While the guests at the table asked questions and wondered out loud what was happening, the small man set down his tray and casually lifted a knife from a silver platter, piled with sliced meats. The guard opening the door suddenly stiffened, the swiftly thrown knife sprouting from the nape of his neck. A spear thrust from the hallway, took his companion in the throat, as the doors crashed open to reveal a score of heavily armed men.

Shock turned to disbelief, and then to terror. Most of the seated and inebriated guests fell quickly. Delfegar and Tritun, twin brothers who were respectively fourth and fifth in line for the throne, kicked back their chairs and armed themselves. Baron Regur displayed surprising alacrity, by leaping chairs and running in circles, while two armed men attempted to corner him. He finally held up his left hand, signaling a moment’s pause, then drank down the last of his wine – which he had miraculously managed to hang on to while running. “Not a country maid then, eh Rathstone?” His falling head seemed to stare at his cup with regret, as it tumbled away from his body.

Othram, the Minister of Defense and an old soldier, was giving a good account of himself. His sword, unlike those worn by most of the other guests, was not some sparkling showpiece with a fantastical sculpted guard. It was brutal steel. Forged for only one purpose. To kill. Three men lay dead at the minister’s feet while several others circled warily. All were injured. The minister parried a curved Hetani sword, and jabbed quickly below the assailant’s ear, piercing the jugular. The man screamed and crashed to the floor, his blood brilliant against the tiles. But the minister was old, and tiring. Blood stained his shirt in several places, and his sword forms had become defensive.

The duke reached beneath the table to pull out a small one-handed crossbow of intricate and complex design. The slim metal box on top held multiple bolts and the gearing gave evidence that this was not the weapon most were familiar with.

I considered asking you to join me, the duke thought as he triggered the crossbow’s drawing mechanism. But you are too bound to the King.

Minister Othram was staggering now. He looked up as the duke leveled the crossbow.  The certainty of his death galvanized the old warrior and he charged his antagonists yelling “Illia!” He cut through a spear shaft with a powerful swing and rammed the knife he held in his off hand into the man’s stomach. Screams and cursing played counterpoint to swiftly ringing steel as the minister spun and cut with blurring blades. The terrified attackers fell back as he dealt a massive overhead blow that clove a man’s head all the way down to the jaw.

For the briefest of moments, it seemed the minister might reach the door. An iron tipped quarrel punched through his eye ending the illusion.

Duke Rathstone looked around for a moment, and laid his hand on Lady Garfan’s blood spattered head. “Check everyone and make sure no one is left breathing.” He stepped over a musician whose limp body cradled an unbroken mandolin. Not a bad nights work, he thought. All the guests, and potential witnesses, were dead. Of course, he’d also lost fifteen of his raiders, and Chef Herven he reminded himself with regret. Othram and the twins had proven deadlier than he would have guessed, piling up a substantial stack of bodies before being brought down. He hadn’t wanted to hire the best fighters, otherwise he might have a hard time eliminating them when this was over. He couldn’t really take the chance that the hard drinking and vicious mercenaries would not betray him.

Two men peeked in from the hallway and the duke signaled them forward. “Menistus, Calvius, master playwrights, it is time to employ your skills.”

Menistus looked slightly ill, his sallow face haunted and drawn. He generally wrote light comedies and nothing had prepared him for the horrible sights and sounds of so much carnage. He ran to the corner and retched violently. Calvius, whose works were rife with politics and intrigues, seemed unaffected. In fact he appeared to be considering the possibilities of the scene before him.

“Remember” the duke said, ticking of each point with a lifted finger, “We want to implicate the Hetani and Yahata’ai, demonstrate my heroism and make my survival credible.”

Calvius nodded his head and clapped in swift staccato. “Those not injured report for assignment now!” He pursed his lips then strode over to speak to Menistus. After a brief conversation, he pushed the pale and shaken Menistus towards some tables, then began giving directions to the remaining men.

The duke smiled. It had been a stroke of genius to involve Calvius. His work was intelligent but also belligerent, dark and acerbic. It matched his own world views quite nicely. It was Calvius who had suggested using mercenaries whose heritage would allow them to pass for Hetani or Yahata’ai. They had been provided clothing and weapons that would facilitate the ruse. The only odd note was Calvius’s insistence that they involve Menistus – his bitterest rival. The aristocracy seemed to favor frivolous humor and poetry over the harsh realities that Calvius provided.

Calvius watched with manic intensity, as the remaining mercenaries placed various Hetani and Yahata’ai items on his stage.

“Replace the crossbow bolts with the arrows! Stick the Hetani sword in Count Rolod’s back! No the next body over, with the green vest! Move the twins!” yelled Calvius, his arms swinging and pointing like a wind vane in a storm. He took a deep breath then turned to the duke. “This is where you’ll lie.” he said, pointing to the area where the twins had fallen. “The pile of bodies around you will give testament to your singular bravery.”

The duke considered the scene carefully. “Grab a few more bodies from Minister Othram’s pile. He was well respected. I don’t want his funeral casting a shadow on my heroic actions.”

“You’re quite right duke. The people can be fickle.”  Calvius said, then rushed off while he called out instructions, “If you are going to use that body you have to bring the head! Holy Builder’s Beard – a man’s head you idiot!”

Duke Rathstone looked around and then at the Alfhiran pocket watch he always carried. Time to wrap up, he thought. He’d arranged for Minister Othram’s adopted son, General Kurfan, to meet him in an hour under a pretext of discussing rumors of rebellion. Rumors which he himself had started, of course. He needed someone to discover the bodies. As an added bonus, when Kurfan found his father’s body, any distrust he might have for Rathstone would be set aside.

The duke poured a cup of wine and drank it quickly. He wasn’t really looking forward to this next part. He called over the man who had thrown the knife which killed the guard at the door. The man who obviously did more than serve wine. He was in fact, a very deadly, and very expensive, Zharan assassin.

Calvius approached Menistus who had been walking around the room, arranging bodies and the props chosen to aid in the deception. Just now, he seemed to be wrapping Lady Garfan’s hand around a three pronged pastry fork, whose tines were buried in the eye socket of one of the raiders dressed as a Hetani.

“What are you doing?” asked Calvius

Menistus jumped and looked up. “Oh, sorry Calvius, got caught up in the story.”

Calvius looked at the tableau and scratched his chin. “I must confess I don’t understand the setting.”

“Oh” Menistus said “Well, I always thought Lady Garfan was nice. At least she claimed to like my work. I thought I would make her heroic and work in a bit of irony so her tale would be more memorable.”

Calvius looked for a moment and burst out laughing. “Ha ha! I see it now. Irony and a play on words! The delicate lady bringing down a Desert warrior with a Dessert fork. Ah, you are subtle Menistus. A true master.”

Menistus looked up with a cautious smile, a bit of dry vomit on the edges of his thin beard. “I’m pleased you think so. To be honest I always thought you disliked me.”

“Disliked? No.” Calvius tilted his head pensively. “To be honest I suspect I’ve been jealous of you. How odd. Even as the sole surviving playwright, I suspect your death will likely only serve to make you more famous.”

“My dea…” Menistus gasped, and clutched with a suddenly weakened grip, at the handle of the knife that Calvius was driving between his ribs.

Calvius held Menistus upright until the body stilled. “Fear not Menistus.” Calvius said as he lowered the body behind Lady Garfan. He carefully wiped his blade and worked a Hetani knife into the fatal wound he had just inflicted, then arranged Menistus’ hands to cover his face, as if in fear. The look of horror on Menistus’ face helped. “You will be remembered in the same breath as Lady Garfan, cowering as she kills your assailant with a dessert fork. Now that my dear Menistus, is comedy I can appreciate.”

Across the room, Duke Rathstone grimaced as the Zharan assassin carefully pushed another arrow into his body. It didn’t hurt, thanks to the needles that the Zharan had placed at various locations on his body. The discomfort from the tugging and pushing of the arrow heads through flesh and muscle was another matter. There had been some debate about whether the use of the Yahata’ai bow indoors would be believable, but the value of the iconic fletching in establishing blame could not be denied.

The duke looked down. Several feathered shafts protruded from his body. There were other convincing wounds, carefully placed to avoid serious injury, and minimize blood loss. The assassin completed his work, removed the needles and sat back on his heels, his eyes on the duke. The duke carefully turned his head, eyelids drooping from the wine and the sedative which had coated the needles. He surveyed the scene, his eyes seeking Calvius. The playwright stood with an unreadable expression on his face. Calvius met the duke’s gaze, looked about, and nodded. Turning to the small deadly man at his side, the duke said “Finish it.”

The Zharan picked the two nearest blades from the floor as he stood. Turning gracefully, he launched himself at the mercenaries – so swiftly that the duke caught his breath. They look surprised, he thought, as the small man landed in their midst. The men, violent and accustomed to fighting, readied their weapons. They seemed confident when they saw the size of their opponent. One of them however, perhaps recognizing the small man for what he was, turned as if to run. The Zharan smiled, weaving his weapons in a complex pattern then struck with blurring speed.

As the duke drifted towards sleep, he watched the final dance of death with appreciation. Worth every coin I paid.

Spinning, air whistling, slicing blow. Hot blood squirting. Swinging, ringing steel, broken blade. Sliced neck. Red dripping edges, cut, cut, cut. Screaming, begging, crying. Dying. Bodies falling like scythed grass. Sweep, block, counter, hack. Duck, spin, kick, slash. Silence.

 All of the mercenaries lay dead. The duke watched with detached interest as a final tear tracked down one of the still faces. He thought fuzzily about what remained to be done and drifted into sleep.

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Komoro’mai & Merhana

This is a fragment of a chapter that introduced Kiyo of the Canta’eyeh and contains a story within a story. I had the sketches done by someone on Fiverr.

The old man sighed contentedly. Months of eating forage and rations could make even simple waterleaf-wrapped fish taste like the food of kings. He studied his audience by the light of the camp fire. A big part of story telling was getting the timing right. Children sat on laps, or bunched up in whispering groups. Some stared at him boldly, while others peeked shyly from behind fingers or long strands of dark hair. Grandmothers sat patiently, with blanket draped shoulders, tending toddlers or enjoying the silent companionship of one with whom they had grown old. Here and there old men smoked narrow pipes and birthed fragrant clouds.

Two light-hairs stuck out in the crowd, sitting with the Mongweh and his family. In the light of the day the man had hair the color of a winter deer, and the girl, of red honey in the sun. She glanced at him as if sensing his attention and offered a quick smile before turning back to her friend. The old man had been surprised to find that the girl and her father spoke the Yahata’ai language.

Laughter drew his eyes to a group of young men clustered around Hekai, the Mongweh’s eldest son. They ignored the storyteller, strutting like warbirds with ruffs and tails extended. He smiled. Some things hadn’t changed despite the long years. He captured as much of the experience as he could, binding the memories with each of the seven senses as he had been taught. The last time he had crossed this land, the elders of this tribe would have been children. From that time to this he had not seen another of his kind. It was hard to accept that he might be the last. Wherever he went, he spoke to the people, learned their history and recorded their legends. Great stories often grew in unexpected places.

The old man stood. The crackling logs snapped and popped loudly in the silence that followed as eyes turned towards him. He pulled back the hood of his cham and untied the woven belt at his waist. Occasionally the story tellers of other cultures wore similar garments, an ancient reminder of their shared history, but none was quite like this one. Bits of carved stone, tinkling metal, feathers, beads and dozens of other objects hung from the robe. Within its folds cleverly sewn pockets hid many more items both utilitarian and mysterious. Tiny metal guides were sewn in various places, and threaded with sturdy silk cords tied to small rings. The cham was not only clothing, it was a portable stage, with sets, props, costumes and special effects built in.

The old man opened his robe. The firelight illuminated an unusual sword at his hip. It was short, but wider than his palm. The hilt carved of some glossy wood in the form of a large tree, with branches that wrapped the blade up to the narrow guard. A simple thong around his neck held a fist-sized disc that glimmered faintly. His bare chest and legs were lean and muscled. His body was tattooed with scars. Mute evidence of battles fought against blade, and tooth, and claw. It was a map of a history that could not be contrived by artifice. He lifted the token on its thong, and turned so each could see it. A collective gasp rippled through the gathered elders, and tears fell from the eyes of those who understood the significance of the symbol. “I am Kiyo once of the Teogan. The First People. I am Canta’eyeh.” Of all the story tellers of the people, none were as great or as revered as the Canta’eyeh. It is said that they knew all the stories of life and bore the true knowledge of the world contained therein. For two nights the old man had delighted the people with stories that made them sing, and dance, and cry, yet coyly avoided naming himself. No Canta’eyeh had been in their midst, since the fathers of the oldest in the tribe, had been youth and most thought them myths.

The fire flickered in hues of many colors, reflecting off the symbol of the First Tree on the old man’s medallion. He looked at each of the people, young and old, and smiled. His eyes reflected stars and fire. His tone expressed his love. “I have enjoyed sitting with you these past nights and thank you for your gift of food and drink. I also thank you for the gift of your beautiful children.”

No one spoke. The children, sensing something of their parents emotions stared with wide eyes. Even the young warriors had fallen silent. Their bravado stilled by the evidence of battles and struggles beyond their imaginings.

Kiyo smiled to reassure them. He laid the token against his chest again, then paused for a moment. “We are told that all stories are part of the First Story, sung by Yoki as he wooed Amatsin. And that the music of her response gave rise to all of nature. From their union were born all the natural children of the world. We know this. Other races have forgotten and remember only the male influence. The light hairs know him as “The Builder” and the Duar as Fulkan.

Tonight I will sing of Komoro’mai and Merhana.”

Kiyo felt a small charge as he remembered the first time her heard Canta’eyeh Obash recite the tale. It was one of the oldest stories and not often told. The young favored tales of warrior prowess, monsters and heroes. Others preferred the comic, to forget their sorrows for a time. These types of stories were called Yehe’yeh, the little stories. There were also Heo’heyeh, the teaching tales, that reminded people of important principles.

The Keo’heyeh were tales with roots deep in the past. Each contained special meaning and purpose, with elements of history, prophecy or knowledge that must not be forgotten.

The Yahata’ai in their legends speak of their ancestors known as the ‘Bird People’ who came from the stars and traveled across the land with great wings, formed from the hides of the mighty Deragi and the magic known simply as ‘root’. The Bird People mapped and explored all of the world within reach of their wings. So great was their skill, that they vanquished the ancient Khetan who drank the blood and ate the flesh of men.

The most famous of the Bird People was Komoro’mai, a great explorer and prince of his people. One day, as Komoro’mai explored the edges of the vast frozen wastelands of the north, he was swept up by a powerful winter storm. Ice crystals formed on the wings and the weight drove him to the ground. He tried in vain to remove the ice but as quickly as he scraped it reformed. He sheltered beneath the wings as best he could until the storm passed. He dragged the wings as he pushed his body through the night’s accumulation of fresh snow heading towards the river he had seen from the air. Despite the cold he shook his head in wonder at this land. Bitter and frozen it was, yet from the small mist covered river that he saw from the air was born the mighty Sangual that gave life all the land south until it was swallowed by the great desert. With luck he could construct a simple raft and sail far enough to be able to use his wings.

As he walked, his eyes scanned the landscape and for a long time it felt like he walked in a spirit world where everything was dead and white. A change in the wind and something else not immediately definable let him know that the river was near. He crouched and moved forward as giant white wolves and bears were said to inhabit the land and might be drawn to the water. “And Yehti’ai” he thought to himself, and smiled, a legend to scare little children.

He stopped.

Was that singing? He pushed forward slowly, climbing a small knob of land which could as easily have been a pile of dead bodies as rocks thanks to the thick blanket of powdery snow. From his vantage point, he saw a beautiful woman bathing in the waters where the river bent around a large rock. He sat there then, enchanted by what he saw and by the clear tones of her song, until his exhaustion and the cold lulled him into the sleep of ice.

Pain. Hands rubbing his arms and legs. He cried out and opened his eyes. It was Merhana as she would later name herself, the maiden from the lake, a Yehet’ai in human form as he would learn but for now, he slept again. Much later he awoke to find himself beneath a fur with her and when she opened her eyes, for the first time he saw a future, and dreamed of things greater than flight.

They spoke through the night, beneath the tiny shelter that Merhana had provided, oblivious to the winter winds singing inches above them. When the storm ended they dressed and Merhana showed Komoro’mai her lands and people. The world among the Yeheta’ai was marvelous to behold. Vast spires and ancient structures of ice and steel extended above and below the earth.

Merhana gave Komoro’mai a small basket containing snowstone, a waxy substance gathered from the nests of the Keekeri the Dragon Hawk. The Keekeri were large predatory birds that could run on the snow without sinking and fly in all but the fiercest storms. The secret of its ability was the thick oil it exuded and worked into its feathers. Over time the oil built up in the nests as a waxy substance that the Yeheta’ai collected. Applying it to leather or cloth imparted protection from the weather. Most unusually with years of repeated use the strength, flexibility, and clarity of the material it was used on increased, which Merhana said with a laugh made it great for everything except pants.

Komoro’mai spent his days with Merhana and each night sat by a small fire and rubbed snowstone into the wings. Soon they were thin enough for a gauzy light to pass through, flexible yet stronger than a double thickness of the original hide. As he worked, he felt the breeze tugging at the wings and soon took Merhana aloft. They flew higher than Komoro’mai had ever flown alone, until their breath felt thin and then they laughed as they swooped over the land. They saw the breadth of the earth and witnessed the mating of the mighty dragon hawks. They passed beneath the Wanderer as it circled the land, and saw at the edge of vision hazy shapes that seemed to be a city, encircled by towers floating in the sky.

Komoro’mai taught the Yehti’ai to make wings and with time Merhana and her people abandoned their cities of steel and ice and joined The Bird People. In the lush land of the great valley they became one people, the Yahata’ai.

Kiyo stood silently for a moment and looked at each member of the tribe.

In the final years of their lives, Komoro’mai and Merhana bid goodbye to their children. They climbed to the top of the great waterfall and with their wings clear enough to see the clouds through, climbed the wind, spiraling upwards until they were lost to sight.

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The Battle Nobody Wins

people arguing
Image Credit: Wallpaper Cave

If you think what I’m about to say is about you, it isn’t. I am speaking in general terms about the craziness in the world as I see it. We live in a time where posting an opinion on social media easily draws the ire of people who have become increasingly hostile over real and imagined offenses. Often the real offenses are magnified so much that something that should have been a conversation seeking a solution instead attracts swarms of e-warriors ready to do battle to the death. Nothing but total humiliation and destruction of our opponent will satisfy us. It feels like we are in a video game where people vie to score points against the cartoonish figures we create and label. We are good and right, and they are evil and wrong. Listening to people is too much work; instead we create our boxes and trim the people we disagree with until they fit in the box we have already prepared our arguments against. That’s what I hear when people say “the left” and “the right” and of course those who aren’t ‘left enough” or “right enough” are traitors.

When you don’t listen you don’t have to think. You make the people who disagree with your view fit in the box, then take your collection of rocks off the shelf and cast them at the enemy.

This seems like madness to me.