The Lost Scout

Today’s vignette offers a little of what’s to come in the novelization of “Serafina’s Saga.” I confess it’s a little awkward adapting my own script and drawings into novel format; usually, if I adapt any of my own work, I do so in the opposite order! But it’s kind of fun, also. So here’s a little scene from the animation, fleshed out for the novel. I hope you enjoy it.

*

Nikolaos expected to collapse into the grass at any given moment.

Yesterday, he had intended to scout only a brief distance—perhaps fifteen miles from camp. He planned to have plenty of time to return to base and sleep snugly in a tent with a belly full of warm stew. Camp rations were low, but at least at night he could usually expect a big slosh of watery soup full of scraps from the daily gathering. After adding a dash of chili powder, Nikolaos could almost imagine the stew delighting his senses with exotic spices. Then he would have sat next to a campfire and shared his scouting adventures with his fellow soldiers. He liked to narrate his wanderings in such a way that captured peoples’ interest and inspired them, rather than just reporting his work as a scout. Doing so made his own job seem more glamorous, and he rather enjoyed the attention. Finally he would return to his tent, throw off his grubby clothes, stretch his limbs over his blanket, and sleep like a baby.

That’s how he would have liked last night to play out. Instead, he had lost his way—a grave sin for a scout like himself.

Scouts should never get lost. They should be capable of distinguishing slight changes in the landscape, tracing every slope and plant into memory, so they could describe it in detail to their superiors or even draw out a map. Nikolaos should be able to guide his comrades into new terrain with confidence and reliability. More than that, he should be able to look beyond the superficial appearance of the landscape enough to assess its potential as a source of security, supplies, or strategic placement.

Not Nikolaos. Not yesterday.

He blamed his hunger. The large servings of stew every night usually satisfied him enough to grant a good night’s sleep. But the night before this fateful outing, he’d felt the first ache of hunger before tasting sweet slumber. Breakfast did nothing to satiate him, like a weak puff of air against a ravenous flame. His hunger had consumed him by midday, making his limbs drag and his thoughts tangle. The fact that the damn savanna looked the same in every direction didn’t help matters—just endless yellow grass and occasional trees stretching into a circle of sky. He had tried to return to camp, only to wander further into strange territory. When the sun started falling, he focused on finding shelter instead.

Now, after another day of wandering, he still had no idea where he was, and his hunger had become a monster possessing his faculties. He could concentrate on nothing but food, yet he couldn’t think clearly about how to obtain it. He only knew that when he saw a blur of green foliage in the distance, promising water and wildlife, he moved fervently towards it. What other hope did he have of finding food?

He ignored all the warnings he had ever heard about the jungles of Darzia. The darkness beneath the canopy harbored incredible danger, he knew, including a wide variety of animals and plants in every shape and size imaginable. Meanwhile, every single one of those strange plants and animals possessed its own unique way of killing enemies. Poisonous plants mimicked safe ones. Small creatures with frail bodies compensated with quick cleverness and sharp memory. An animal wearing the guise of prey could easily lead him into a maze of foliage from which he’d never escape. And as for the larger beasts, such as bears of griffins… well, they could just kill him with one blow.

But starvation worried him now more than any conceivable creature. So he continued moving towards the jungle, one heavy step at a time, heaving slow breaths of air through his leathery mouth. Everything exhausted him—even breathing, even holding his eyes open. The sword hanging from his hip felt like it tried to pull him into the soil below. His blue cloak, draped over one shoulder in the old Elborn fashion, yanked at his torso as it flapped in the wind. His ear-length black hair slapped his face and open eyes. He wanted to fling off his burdens and maybe chop off his lashing locks. But even doing all that would require too much effort.

So he stared vacantly ahead, watching the dark entrance of the jungle yawn wider. Even through the fog of his weary mind, he wondered briefly what he intended to do once he got inside. Hunt for an animal? In his current state, he’d never catch one. Search for water? That was a start. Surely the water of the jungle wasn’t poisonous, was it? He would have to take his chances. Maybe then, at least, he would feel good enough to hunt. If not, he would have to try eating a plant. He had no idea which ones were safe, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t matter. Even people who spent years studying botany struggled to analyze the plant-life of Darzian’s jungles, which were full of tricks and surprises. Once again, he would just have to try his luck.

He looked briefly towards the heavens and thought of his god, the mysterious Lokke, lord of mischief. Normally, Nikolaos didn’t bother praying, even though he worshiped Lokke devoutly. He didn’t think Lokke appreciated typical prayers the way other gods did. Even so, he whispered hoarsely, “Please Lokke, lend me some luck, would you?”

He dropped his head again, for it felt too heavy to tilt skyward. He watched his boots crunching through the dry yellow grass.

He noticed something shift on the top edge of his vision, towards the mouth of the jungle. He looked up reluctantly. Then he froze in his tracks.

A girl. No… a young woman. Or someone caught directly between the two stages. But not awkwardly, he thought. On the contrary, she seemed to embody the brilliance of youth and adulthood. She moved with incredible speed, even as she came to a sudden halt at the edge of the forest. An aura of wildness surrounded her as solidly as the jungle itself; she had bright red hair that tangled around her face and shoulders like a lion’s mane. She wore a small brown tunic, tattered and dirty, leaving most her arms and legs bare. But she seemed neither scantily clad or fully-dressed: merely a girl in her natural state. Her body was small altogether, but even from a distance he could see the firm flow of her muscles, and the steadiness of her grip as she twirled a spear at her side.

Then she stopped and saw him, too.

He felt stricken with a lightning bolt. Her big green eyes affixed him as surely as if she had thrown her spear into his stomach. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. Just stare straight back at her and wonder what she would do next.

She turned around and darted back into the jungle.

“Hey, wait!” he cried hoarsely. But it was already too late, and he knew without a doubt he had no chance of catching her.

*

More “Serafina’s Saga”

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Published in: on March 11, 2014 at 10:40 am  Comments (2)  
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Looking for a Friend

Here’s a little vignette written for Quantum Conscience, my sci-fi visual novel releasing this summer. This scene happens years before the visual novel begins.

*

Korah yearned for sleep, but the silence of her lonely metal home seemed to ring in her ears, forcing her to listen to her turbulent thoughts.

For as long as she could remember, she had anticipated the day she would obtain her own Household. Any helot who served faithfully until the age of sixteen, proving her ability to fulfill the tasks of her Cypher, would acquire her own Household. She would stay alone in this small metal house until the age of twenty-one, at which point she would marry the man Terra chose for her. Until then she had five Terra-blessed years of solitude—years she had dreamed about every night at the factory dormitories, where she would listen to other kids squabble in the beds around her, or hear bugs and rats skittering restlessly in the walls. Once she had her own Household, she had promised herself, she would kill all the bugs and rats. She would keep everything clean—perhaps she would even decorate—and at night she would sleep deeply enough to remember her dreams.

Now that she had her own Household, she did in fact keep everything clean. She set out traps for small rodents and squashed every bug she came across. The peaceful quiet within her little dwelling surpassed all she had imagined, until it became something terrible. She had not expected loneliness to become a new monster.

She could always hear the wind shoving against the thin metal walls of her structure, hissing through the cracks as if attempting to speak. Sometimes Korah thought she discerned words in the wind’s voice, but not enough to make sense, like a sputtering old woman missing most of her teeth. Other times she heard the sounds of gorgans walking down the road outside: their large metal paws scraping against stone, their eye-scanners humming as they searched for helots breaking curfew.

Tonight, she shifted from side to side in her tiny wooden cot and wondered how long she’d been trying to sleep. Minutes? Hours? When she closed her eyes, the monotonous events of her day replayed in her mind: arriving to work at the factory, measuring fabric, then cutting, folding, and marking it for sewing… over and over again, just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, ever since she was seven. All of it melted together into an intangible mass, an ugly span of eternity that stretched all directions. It felt like enough to drive her mad. She would have given anything to be surrounded by the noisy children and nasty rodents of the factory dormitories, if only to distract her from the agony of inner reflection.

When a loud knock shook her front door–once, twice, then a third time–she shot up in bed and briefly stopped breathing. She felt a moment’s relief from her own dark thoughts. But she feared that whatever person might bother to knock on her door in the middle of the night would be far more dangerous than mere cogitation. If it was a helot breaking curfew, then she should not offer refuge, or she would be punished as severely as the perpetrator. If the visitor was Militar, such as a Cypher-G or O, then he must be here to punish or restrain her somehow. He might even want to take her to a synch-station and pilfer her memories, a process that often involved random selection. Every possibility seemed horribly grim.

“Open up! I SAID OPEN UP! I am a Cypher-P, and if you do not obey me I’ll have you flogged in the street!”

Without wasting another breath, Korah scrambled out of bed and pulled on her robes. A Cypher-P: a Politician! That was even worse than a Militar. Cypher-Ps had authority second to none but the Q himself, the dictator of all Teballai. Why would a Cypher-P bother himself with her Household? Had she passed him on the street and met his gaze on accident, or done something else to offend him? She would have remembered. She couldn’t imagine what the reason must be, but the possibilities made her heart pound with terror.

“So help me Sol, I’ll break down the door and I’ll—”

She swung open the door before he could finish his sentence.

She was not supposed to look into a Cypher-P’s eyes. But tonight, given the circumstances, she couldn’t help herself. The tone of his voice suggested he would unleash his anger upon her, one way or another. So she gawked helplessly at the young man in her doorway, as if upon her fate, and what she there saw surprised her.

He was close to her age, maybe sixteen or seventeen, his body tall and slender. If not for his station and apparent distress, he would have not have seemed intimidating at all. He wore fine clothes: an embroidered shirt with puffy sleeves, a short cloak festooned with gold loops, slim trousers and embroidered boots. As a tailor, Korah could not help but admire such beautiful clothing. Nearly every single day she worked on drab tunics and robes. Only on very rare occasions would she assist with the creation of a truly fine garment, usually for someone important enough to work in the Q’s Tower, like a Cypher-P or honored D.

A gorgan stood on the street behind him, a silent guardian, its jagged metal body reflecting the city watch-lights like tiny daggers of light. But its red eyes stared into the shadows of the street; the fearsome robot did not seem concerned with Korah in the slightest. If Korah didn’t already know that gorgans felt no emotion, she might have thought it bored.

“I’m looking for a Cypher-P named Blaire,” snapped the young man. Korah turned back to him, trying to avoid his gaze this time, but not quite succeeding. His brown hair was disheveled, his face red and puffy. His voice sounded dry and tight. His whole body trembled, even as his fists clenched into bulging knots. “Did you hear me, drudge? I’m looking for Blaire P. Shorter than me, blonde hair, blue eyes, smirks like a bastard.”

“I… I am sorry, Master P, I have not seen this person. Even if I had, I would not remember, because I’m not to look at a Cypher-P’s face.”

“Don’t you dare lie to me, you miserable drudge! I’ve knocked on every helot’s door for miles. How could none of you have seen Blaire at all? How could someone so memorable vanish without a trace?

The last word was almost a scream, his voice cracking in the middle. The gorgan turned its large metal head towards him slightly, but could not find a threat, and thus looked ahead again. But Korah saw the threat–one a gorgan could not. This Cypher-P was about to burst into tears. His lips quivered, his eyes crinkled up, and he held his breath as if to repress the explosion. She feared the outburst would only be more violent as a result.

She must have been mad, for she suddenly opened her door wider and said, “Would you like to come in?” She didn’t know what she was thinking. She must not have been thinking at all. How else could she explain the fact she felt sympathy for a Cypher-P?

“I… I…” He tried to protest. But he failed. He was falling apart at the seams, Korah thought. He was a Cypher-P. He had wielded incredible authority his entire life. He spent time every day with the dictator of the entire planet. He could make helots bend to his every whim and desire. He could search their memories, demand their labor, or even kill them without consequence. But tonight, none of that seemed to matter. He was just a young man searching for his friend.

So he stepped into her house, then he burst into tears.

That was the night Korah first met Veramus.

Walking with Water

 Another vignette from the galaxy of Quantum Conscience, this time providing a glimpse into Amalek’s background.

***

Amalek Nikat from "Quantum Conscience"

Amalek Nikat from “Quantum Conscience”

The captain’s quarters of the Free Fin rolled and lurched as the oceans of Alqualin surged against its hull.

Amalek clutched the sides of his chair until his dark knuckles turned pale. He had known to expect rough movement on a traditional wooden ship like Captain Yorna’s, but this exceeded all expectations. He felt as if someone trapped him in a box and then threw it down a steep hillside. No matter how he tried, his body could not harmonize with the movement of the vessel. His stomach swayed and dropped while his limbs struggled to follow. Meanwhile his mind raced in many directions at once, wondering why the power of the ramming waves did not smash this wooden ship to pieces.

He heard a chuckle behind him, and fought to keep his gaze steady while he turned to view the observer.

Captain Yorna swaggered past with the graceful gait of a woman weathered by a hundred storms. She half-sat against her desk so she could cross her slender legs and sneer down at Amalek from a comfortable height. She wore a neoprene suit that wrapped her lean body like a big rubber glove, and its black surface bore the bright yellow stripes of an Alqualin captain. A leather cloak also suggested her rank, hugging one shoulder in the typical fashion of a high-sea sailor. She wore her auburn hair in dozens of tiny braids that spilled down her neck and shoulders like a dark waterfall.

As she studied Amalek from her perch, he wondered how he looked to her. He was twenty years old and fresh out of sea school, though people tended to mistake him for older. He had done his best to dress the part for the job. He wore a neoprene suit with the dark blue stripes of an average deck-hand. He had bound his long black hair in two braids that currently swayed against his chest. He tried to sit up and stare back at her with the same intensity she fixed upon him, but failed, because he could not shake the feeling that the whole world was spinning.

She laughed again, a coarse sound that somehow managed to beat back the roar of crashing waves. “Amalek Nikat. Don’t tell me this is your first time on a high-seas ship?”

“Of course… not.” He struggled with the last word amidst the sensation that his gorge was rising. “I just don’t remember it being so… unstable.”

Her amused sneer faded suddenly. “I selected you because I thought you were the best. High test scores, strong muscles, impressive stamina…”

“I am the first in my class,” he confirmed, sitting a little higher. But somehow his voice did not resound with the confidence he needed. “Ask me anything about this ship and I can tell you. It uses spider-thread rigging. I can tie a triple-noose knot in ten seconds. I can climb a—”

“You can’t stand up for ten hacking seconds without falling flat on your face,” Yorna snapped. “Tell me. Have you spent your whole life underwater?”

“Most of it,” he confessed. His stomach was churning violently now. He needed to close his eyes so he could stop feeling dizzy. But he tried to pretend that he was reflecting deeply upon his past. “I grew up in the underwater city of Balka Reef. But I’ve also spent time on submarines. And I’ve been on the surface on several occasions. Just not—”

He couldn’t hold it back any longer. He leaned over the side of his chair and heaved his breakfast upon the lovely red fibers of her carpet.

For a moment, both of them just stared in disgust at his body’s excretion. Then Captain Yorna snorted and shook her head. “I should have known better. Test scores mean nothing if you can’t walk with water. You won’t last a week on these waves.”

“I’ll adjust!” His green eyes were open now, his voice filled with the deep roots of conviction that even sea-sickness failed to eject. Now that he had finally vomited, he actually felt a little better, and met her gaze with fierce intensity. “Captain Yorna. You did not make a mistake. It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life underwater. I have swum the ocean’s darkest depths, and mastered every test that Alqualin Academy can offer. But I still do not know our Mother Okeanos.”

“You want to know the ocean, do you? Want to make her your mistress?” This time Yorna offered a gleeful cackle. “I can save you a lot of trouble, Amalek, and buy you a seaside prostitute. You might have more fun swimming her darkest depths.”

“I speak of Okeanos,” he snarled, “the spirit of Alqualin. I have lived in the ocean’s womb, surrounded by the silence of her dark depths, always within her but never beside her. I want to learn to walk with water as you do. I want to breathe fresh air and feel the sun upon my skin. I have read every book I can about man’s mastery over this planet. But I still feel like its servant. I want to see the true face of Mother Okeanos. And then I’ll decide which one of us truly reigns here.”

“Nice speech. Was that from your graduation essay?”

Captain Yorna still spoke with a note of mockery. But her voice was softer now, her gaze measuring. He gave up impressing her with flowery speech and held her stare with equal weight, ignoring the pitch and roll of the ship around him, forgetting about everything but his unquenchable desire to prove himself on the high seas.

She looked away first, and he felt a slight moment of triumph. But her voice had regained its tone of amusement as she said over her shoulder, “I’ll give you a week.”

Published in: on December 17, 2013 at 1:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sky of Teballai

This is another little scene I wrote as backstory for the characters of “Quantum Conscience,” my current project. Blaire is the main character. For the next few weeks or more, my vignettes will probably focus on the different planets and characters of “Quantum Conscience” (unless someone requests I write a vignette for a different story, and please feel free to do so!). I find it both fun and useful to write little scenes like this on the sidelines of the main story. A great deal might be left unexplained in each vignette, but such is their nature. I hope you find them interesting all the same!

*

We stood on a balcony of the Q’s tower, watching night smother the city far below. We were only fifteen years old, but felt that the world was ours for the taking. We were not far from wrong.

A fog hovered over the world, softening the edges of the stony landscape beneath us. Where the smoky plumes brushed light, colors blossomed in the mist: red, yellow, green. At the time I did not consider it unusual. Strange fumes drifted endlessly from the rocky depths of Teballai’s surface, harmful to breathe, but beautiful to watch. If we forgot to take our medicine—or, in the case of the less fortunate, could not obtain any—we developed raucous coughs and bloody noses from the toxic gases. But Veramus and I always took our medicine, because we were class Cypher-P. We had everything we desired, because we were too stupid to realize we should have desired more.

The winds bombarded our bodies, harder than usual. Our cloaks flapped against our torsos like furious wings. I took a swig of korkal. The bitter spirit burned down my throat and punched me in the chest. I let out a squeal of unrestrained delight.

Veramus only glared at me, his mouth a flat slash across his face. I watched his long dark hair whip around his head as if trying to yank free of him, and this made me laugh harder.

“Blaire, we should get inside,” he grumbled.

I barely heard him over the rising gale. Just for the crux of it I pretended I couldn’t hear him at all. “What was that?”

“I said we should go inside!” He spoke louder now, the muscles of his face tightening and making his forehead bulge. “Looks like we might get a wind storm.”

“Please Terra no,” I groaned. When wind storms struck, everyone had to go into their homes, shut all the doors and windows, and not come out until two days after the storm had passed. We depended on mechanical creatures called gorgans to run errands and clean up the city until it was safe for re-entry. The Q’s tower was a sturdy stone construction, so I never feared for my life. Rather, I dreaded the impending boredom of house arrest. “If that’s the case let’s stay outside for as long as we possibly can!”

“Hacking fool,” hissed Veramus. He might have thought I couldn’t hear him. But I did. And although Veramus often fell into grumpy moods, I rarely heard him sound so venomous. “You’ve had too much korkal. If these winds get any stronger they’ll throw you off the balcony.”

“Oh! I’ve always wanted to fly.” Laughing, I took another gulp of korkal. Then another.

“Idiot!” He made no attempts to hide his fury as he grabbed my bottle, ripped it from my fingers, and flung it off the balcony.

I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the glass flew far over the city, driven by wind. “That’ll hit someone.”

“As if you ever pause to think of the consequences!” He was yelling at me now. I stared at him in a state of helpless perplexity. His long, angular face was nothing but a series of sharp lines, slicing me from afar. “You can do whatever you want, and somehow you always get away with it. Why?

“Veramus, what the crux are you talking about?” The wind blew furiously now. I had to grip the balcony railing to keep my footing. Somehow, Veramus held nothing and stood as sturdily as the tower itself. “You’re a Cypher-P just like me,” I reminded him. “We can do whatever we want.”

“That’s not what I mean. The last test. How did you pass it?”

“Eh?”

“The last test!” He reached over and grabbed the front of my tunic, pulling me closer. In one sense I was grateful, because he provided an anchor in the wind. But his fingers tightened the collar of my tunic around my throat, and his dark eyes drilled into me without mercy. His hair lashed me like dozens of tiny whips. “I studied for months. Trained my mind to harmonize with the machine and enter the program. You forgot about it until the day before, and even then, you ran off to play pranks on the O’s instead of training. Then you got the best score!

“Who cares?” I wriggled a little, wishing to escape his grip, but realized that the wind would snag me if Veramus let go. I reached out and grabbed his tunic in return, a hand on his shoulder, like a brotherly gesture. But my fingers dug in as sharply as his, making him wince. “The Q wants us to harmonize with a hacking computer program. Who gives a shit? Maybe your problem is that you take everything too seriously. You make it so hard to have fun sometimes. Maybe you’re just a tight-ass and that’s never going to change.”

A strange look came into his eyes then. The wind stole my breath away. I’d never seen an expression like that on his face before. He looked at me as he might look at a dumb peasant on the street. No… worse. Truly, I thought he might throw me throw me off the balcony and be done with it.

Then his gaze shifted, and I realized he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He stared up into the sky. His eyes continued to widen, then his mouth dropped open slowly. “Blaire… look!”

I followed his gaze to the sky.

Something had changed. It took me a moment to realize what. The sky looked so different I almost didn’t recognize it. The fog had cleared. Beyond lay a vast expanse of endless darkness. But not just darkness. There were specks of light, hundreds—maybe thousands—of them, twinkling across the abyss. Here and there I saw larger orbs, with a hint of color, hovering as if on the edge of existence.

I felt dizzy. Veramus must have, too, for we clung to each other desperately, staring at the beauty above us in a state of terrified awe.

“What is it?” gasped Veramus.

“The night sky?” I said dumbly.

“Yes, but… those lights… that darkness… I feel as if it goes on forever. And it’s not empty.” I felt his heart pounding against his ribs.

“It’s amazing,” I agreed.

Then the wind surged, howling so loudly now we could no longer hear anything else, and we both began to fall.

Everything spun. My limbs flailed. My legs scrambled. Veramus and I clutched at each other. Fingernails raked across the stone floor. One moment I thought I was falling off the balcony—either to impale myself on the stones below, or somehow fly up into that endless expanse hanging above us. The next I saw walls around me, felt a door in my grasp, and noticed Veramus bracing his body against mine. We both grit our teeth and pulled with all our might, until I saw sparkling lights against my eyelids like the strange dots of the night sky.

Finally the door shut, sealing us in the tower, and we collapsed upon the floor.

For a long time we just lay there, catching our breath. The wind howled through the door, as if with angry curses, banging against the rock as if to break through and exact its revenge.

Then Veramus and I looked at each other. And for some reason I could not explain, grins burst across our faces.

“See?” I laughed breathlessly. “If we hadn’t stayed out that long, we never would have seen that.”

“Yes.” His eyes spun as he looked at me. “That was truly amazing. But what does it mean? I never thought there was anything above us other than the evil eye of Sol. Are there other forces of power out there?”

“You’re doing it again!” I cried, but shook my head fondly. “Don’t think about it so hard. Whatever’s in the sky, it’s pretty awesome, but has nothing to do with us.” I punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Now let’s find some more korkal!”

Published in: on November 26, 2013 at 11:05 am  Comments (1)  
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The Hopeful Companion

A quick return to the tale of Edric the Wild….

*

Audrey walked quietly next to Edric, watching the low hills and tangled scrub of western Engla-lond become a silhouette of black bumps in front of the setting sun. For some reason, the shape of the horizon reminded her of a toad’s warty back, and she wanted to laugh. But the somberness of her companion stifled her budding amusement.

Edric seemed unaware of the humor, or perhaps anything at all, as his boots plodded methodically through the grass and his stare remained grim beneath brows of knit concentration. Once, he might have enjoyed leading a group of rebel Saxons into Wales for a surprise attack against the Normans. These days, he remained somber no matter what the occasion. He had good reason. His wife and true love had abandoned him without explanation. His country was being choked into submission by William the Bastard and his hordes of Norman soldiers. But that didn’t stop Audrey from wanting to see him smile.

Eventually, Audrey dared to raise her voice. “I heard that you asked Meirion to accompany you across the Welsh border.”

Edric made a small sound which might have been a grunt of assent, but otherwise kept trudging onwards without reply.

“I think you two will make a great team,” she prodded.

This earned a much louder grunt from Edric’s throat. “We’ll see.” He turned his head slightly, just enough to glance at Audrey. The dying rays of sunlight seemed to set his red hair on fire with color. “Why do you like him so much?”

Audrey shrugged, as if the question didn’t set butterflies loose in her stomach. “I don’t know. He makes me smile. And why do you care?”

“What? I don’t.” Edric looked away from her probing stare, then fell back into silence.

He did not notice that Audrey’s smile had stretched wider, so that now she grinned with unrestrained satisfaction.

*

Later that night, as she sat next to Meirion by a low camp-fire, her smile remained. He was talking about something—telling her some silly story about how he had once fallen off a horse and then chased it with a stick—but his words did not matter. What mattered was the twinkle of mirth always shining in his bright blue eyes, the optimism of his lilting voice, and the way he gave a funny jerk of his head whenever his short black hair fell into his eyes. She found it endlessly delightful, and the next time he did it, she realized she was laughing aloud.

He looked at her curiously through the drifting smoke of the fire. His smirk took on a curious quality as he lifted an eyebrow. “Are you laughing at me or the horse in this story? Or are you just laughing at me in general?”

“I’m laughing… because I feel like it.” When she calmed down, she fixed him with a steadier stare through the firelight, though her eyes continued to moisten with merriment. “You just make me want to laugh.”

“Ah,” he said, and his smile drooped slightly.

At that, she just laughed harder. “What I mean is… you make me feel joyful. Hopeful. In a way that no one else has made me feel except…” She took a moment to consider this. Then the moment stretched on, until the blackness of the night sky seemed to seep through it, and she dared not continue.

She tried to avoid Meirion’s gaze, hoping to drop the subject completely. She poked at a log in the fire as if her mind had simply wandered to more important matters. But his blue eyes continue to pierce her through the shadows.

“I suppose Lord Edric has always had a way of spreading hope,” said Meirion carefully, “even when his silvatici have lost their homes and fortunes and… well, everything.”

Audrey just snorted. Then she continued to stoke the fire and grit her teeth. She did not want to admit her own doubts and fears about Edric to anyone other than Edric himself, even if she was not yet ready to do so.

She did not want to voice the fact that the light shining from Edric had been extinguished some time ago, and she feared it would never return.

“Audrey.”

Meirion’s voice sounded so brusque, so uncharacteristically grave, that she flinched visibly. When she looked at him, no hint of his usual grin remained. “What?” she asked at last, even though she was afraid to hear the answer.

“I feel that you should… know something, though I hesitate to tell you.”

“What is it?” Her heart felt like a cold lump in her chest. The world had fallen into deathly silence, so that her ears seemed to ring while she waited for Meirion’s response. She had never seen him so serious.

“The other night… just before Edric announced that he would take us to Wales… I overheard him talking to Leofred. I did not mean to at first. But when I realized I could hear them talking through the trees, and they were unaware of my presence, my curiosity got the better of me.”

“Just tell me,” she snapped.

“Right.” He took a deep breath, gulped, then continued. “Apparently, Lord Geoffrey—forgive me, I should no longer call him ‘lord’—Osbern’s knight, Geoffrey de Faucon, made Edric a strange offer.”

A chill went through her body and settled in her bones. Geoffrey. The name of the man who had killed and tortured so many of her friends and neighbors. A man who had nearly taken her as a victim—not once, but twice—and yet she had escaped both times. A murderer whose golden eyes had stared at her as a hungry dog would look upon fresh, bloody meat.

“He said that he would kill Osbern FitzRichard, his own Suzerain, if only Edric would hand you over.”

She stopped breathing. She stared into the fire and thought she would gladly let it consume her, if Geoffrey was the alternative.

“The idea seemed to disgust Edric,” said Meirion softly. “But… I know that these are hard times, especially for him. I know that Edric has become… well. Different. A man who has lost his hope. And for that reason… I just wanted to warn you.”

“Thank you,” whispered Audrey. But the words were cold and empty. She didn’t want to thank him. She wanted to scream and yell and draw a sword on someone. She wanted anything other than the truth.

She did not hear him move closer. If she had, she would have shied away, afraid that in her distress she might grab his neck and strangle him. But then he leaned against her, ever so gently—just his shoulder against hers—and all feelings of violence melted away. She leaned her head against the crook of his neck, and listened to the gentle flow of his breath, and realized he had never finished his story.

“Tell me what happened to that horse, in your story,” she demanded.

“Ah yes! Well, you see…” And as he kept talking, she could hear the edge of a smile return to his voice, and that was all that mattered.

*

Edric the Wild cover

Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 7:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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That F***ing Wolven

I’ve been missing the Broken Balance series a great deal. And yes, I still intend to write Sands of Hanubi: Book 2, but somehow it keeps getting pushed back amidst a flow of other projects, and for that I apologize. Until then, here’s a vignette for those who wonder what Fayr and Sygmund have been up to ever since the events of Ashes of Dearen: Book 2. Um… spoiler alert if you haven’t read that book yet.

***

Sygmund struggled to step quietly as he entered Fayr’s tent, bringing a draft of frosty air with him. His entire body was stiff with cold, and his legs ached from riding a snow-bear all day. The huge, lumbering creatures scared him half to death, and he considered himself a brave warrior. But unfortunately, he understood why the northern clans had undergone the task of taming such ferocious beasts. Traversing the steep, icy crags of Buffridge was impossible without them.

As he crouched by the low embers of the fire and peeled off his frosty clothes, he wondered—not for the first time—how he had ended up on such a gods-forsaken corner of the world as this one. Many years ago, he served the prosperous nation of Dearen as an honorable knight. Even after the disappearance of safra, he had continued to lead a privileged life in the Dearen palace, where the walls still shimmered with beauty and the sun sent warm beams through the hallways. He had never gone hungry, and even when he suffered from the wounds of swordplay, he did so for an honorable cause.

Not anymore. His exhaustion and soreness came from riding a fucking snow-bear, and he had only done that in order to fish and hunt. For his efforts, he’d killed one hare and snagged two copper-back fish. Somehow he did not feel triumphant.

Then he looked over at Fayr sleeping in a thick bundle of blankets, and a fresh wave of warmth flowed through his limbs. Even now, despite great tragedy and loss, she looked as beautiful as the first day he ever encountered her in the Garden of Delights. He crept closer, not yet wishing to wake her, and watched the golden fire-light flicker across her skin. She still looked so young, as if in her early twenties, despite the fact she neared forty years of age. Most remarkable about the youth in her face was its ability to counteract her long gray hair. Once, when she ruled as Queen of Dearen, it had shone a deep, lustrous purple—an inherited trait from the goddess of joy. When Friva awakened and inherited a new body, the bond between her previous descendents shattered, leaving Fayr’s eyes and hair gray and ashen.

Sygmund lifted the blanket, allowing his gaze to rove her sleeping body as he slid into bed behind her. He pressed his chest to her back and felt her warmth spread through him. He wrapped an arm around her, ever so gently, so he could brush the gray hair from her face. He watched her eyelashes flutter as she swam in her dreams. His hand continued down the curve of her neck to the top of her chest, which pushed and pulled at his palm as she breathed. He tilted his head so his lips could caress her cheek while he breathed the soft, sweet scent of her body. Then his fingers wrapped around her breast.

Fayr inhaled sharply, then let out a sleepy whisper. “Sean…”

Sygmund recoiled as if slapped in the face. He would have moved more carefully if he could have controlled his reaction, but instead he flailed and flung the blankets off both of them as he shot to his feet.

When Fayr finally pulled herself from whatever ridiculous dream entertained her darkest fantasies, she opened her eyes to see Sygmund pacing shirtless next to the fire. She pulled the blankets back over her body with a murmur of complaint. “Sygmund. What’s wrong? Come back to bed.”

What’s wrong, she asked? He hardly knew where to begin. Everything was wrong. Everything was fucking wrong, and had been for years, but he endured it all because he loved Fayr dearly, and he wanted to make her happy. Yet in a single breath released while she slept, Fayr had dashed any remaining illusions that she had come to care for Sygmund more than her former husband: Sean Wolven, a man who had lied to her from the moment he met her, an assassin who killed her own brother, a mortal whose own sister embodied the god of wrath, Belazar. Fayr had barely been married to the son of a bitch for all of one year. Her relationship with Sygmund had lasted nearly ten years in its place. And yet she murmured Sean’s name while she slept.

He nearly said these thoughts aloud. He wanted to yell and scream at her, to kick at the fire and burn the whole tent down. After all, that’s what Sean would have done. Maybe a display of pure, frothing rage would arouse her dormant passion.

But he wasn’t Sean. And as he stared into the flames, contemplating his response, he thought of a different way to channel his anger. Something that would heal his own wounded pride, and wipe Sean from Fayr’s mind forever.

“I thought there was a… bug in the blankets,” he said at last. “Sorry I woke you.”

“Oh. Well, now that I’m awake, we might as well make the most of it.” Even her sleepy smile managed to drip with sensuality. She pulled back the blanket once more, then lifted her gown and opened her legs…

Knowing the true source of her interest made Sygmund’s stomach churn. “Maybe… we should talk first. How was your trip to town?”

Fayr’s face darkened immediately. She folded her legs and stared into the fire, its coppery flames reflecting a lost splash of color against her diamond-like irises. “Fruitless. It took me nearly all day to find a translator. By the time I started asking people if they had ever seen a young girl with white hair, they were all preparing to go home for the night.”

He nodded slowly, not surprised. Wherever they went, the story repeated itself. They struggled for a few months to get acclimated to a new setting and community. They began to search for Fayr’s lost daughter. And they found absolutely nothing.

“How was your hunt?” she asked weakly, as if that subject would be more cheerful.

“Fayr.” His voice was sharp, full of sudden resolve.

Fayr sat up straighter. “What?”

“I’ve been thinking. We’ve been looking all this time for your daughter. But we know so little about her. You only knew Kaylen as a newborn baby.”

Fayr stiffened. His words hurt her. But she needed to hear them.

“We have no way of guessing her current lifestyle, her personal motives, even her appearance—other than her white hair. She might even keep that covered, to pass as normal.”

“Are you saying we should give up?” she snapped. “Because if that’s how you feel, I won’t drag you along unwillingly.”

“No,” he said, though the fact she would cast him aside with so little hesitation threw salt into his wounded heart. “I’m saying we need to change our tactics.”

“You mean look for Er’Mekan?” Fayr shook her head. “Looking for a god would be even harder, I think. At least Kaylen is my flesh and blood.”

“I mean that we should look for Sean Wolven.”

This time Fayr jolted as if stricken by lightning. For some reason, he enjoyed seeing her react that way. For years now, they had stopped speaking of Sean, pretending that he never existed. At least if Sygmund forced Fayr to acknowledge the man who haunted her, she would remember how terrible he had been, and consider how any prospect of encountering him again was altogether horrifying.

“S… S… Sean.” The name that had drifted so effortlessly from her lips in sleep now struggled to roll off her tongue.

“Yes,” said Sygmund firmly. “He’s looking for Kaylen, too, isn’t he? He started the search long before we did. With all his Wolven prowess, perhaps he’s had some success. And something tells me he’ll be easier to find. He’s really quite… predictable.”

“He’s… he’s… he’s not the man he used to be,” gasped Fayr. “He gouged out his own eyes. He’s a wandering blind man now. Who knows where he might be?”

“Something tells me he will act as he always has—lying, killing, or doing whatever he must to get what he wants.” Sygmund felt a sneer pulling at his lips—one he wanted to hide, but failed to restrain. “Besides, maybe finding him would give you some amount of… closure.”

She blinked at him with surprise. He hated the hope he saw in her eyes, even though he sensed its reflection in his own gaze.

He planned to get closure from the reunion, as well. For if they truly managed to find Sean Wolven again, Sygmund would kill that fucking Wolven, once and for all.

 ***

Ashes of Dearen: Book 1

A red-eyed assassin, an unready princess, a sadistic politician, and an adulterous queen all desire the secret behind a magical dust known as safra. Safra is said to bring happiness, but these characters’ desperate attempts to obtain it will cost them all dearly. Their salacious and violent deeds bring three great nations to the brink of warfare. And little do they know, their scrambling efforts are being carefully watched by a much greater power: the gods behind the beguiling drug that ensnares them all.

Published in: on October 29, 2013 at 9:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Eadric’s Map

Today’s vignette is about Eadric Streona and Godwin Porthund from Eadric the Grasper, in no particular time and place.

*

Eadric listened reluctantly to the sound of Godwin pissing against a nearby tree. The squat, burly henchman seemed to believe that the faster he expelled his liquor, the sooner he could drink more. But Eadric had no desire to contemplate Godwin’s inner reasoning; he merely wanted to keep riding until he escaped this God-forsaken forest. Bugs of all sorts accosted him wherever he turned, a rash had developed on his arm for no apparent reason, and the air beneath the trees was so humid he had sweated almost entirely through his tunic.

He could not remember the last time he had felt so sticky, filth-ridden, and uncomfortable unless he reached back into his early memories of being a swineherd. And if all that wasn’t torturous enough, he had to tarry while listening to the wet splash of Godwin urinating.

“Jesus in heaven,” he cried out at last. “Get back on your horse, Godwin.”

Godwin chuckled as he walked back to the main path, his boots crashing carelessly through the underbrush. “What’s wrong, my lord? I thought you wanted to take the forest route.”

“If you had been paying attention,” hissed Eadric through gritted teeth, “you would have heard me explain that I chose this route of great necessity!”

Godwin searched his saddlebags for a fresh pouch of ale. “Because it’s faster.”

“That’s right. It is more direct.” Even so, Eadric sank a little lower in his saddle. “At least I thought it would be.”

“Well don’t let the woods bother you, my lord. If you’re afraid a demon will leap out of the bushes, I say let it come. It has been too long since my sword tasted blood.”

Eadric pulled back his yellow curls and tied them behind his neck, eager to feel a breeze on his sweat-sodden throat. But the wind didn’t seem to stir this deep in the forest. “Who needs demons, when the world is already full of men like yourself?”

Godwin scratched his beard, loosing dirt from the thick hairs. “Was that an insult?”

“Never mind, Godwin. I just want to get home and take a good long bath.” Eadric lashed Freolic’s reins and nudged the large steed ahead.

Godwin was still settling onto his saddle with a loud creak of leather. “A bath?” Godwin snorted. “You talk too much to those Danes.” Then he followed his lord onward.

Soon enough, the monotonous rhythm of plodding hooves, snapping twigs, and screeching birds erased the echoes of Godwin’s pissing from Eadric’s ears. But he did not feel relieved. He would not feel good again until he was back in his own stronghold with fresh food at his fingertips, a gleeman to serenade him, and a lovely wife to lead him to bed. He would not arrive in Tamworth for days yet, but he envisioned his return in such vivid detail that he could almost see such pleasantries on the other side of the trees blocking his path.

In truth, he only stared at shifting branches and tangled foliage, which scattered the sunlight into thousands of shapes. In such light, one could easily see anything. One could also grow confused as to which direction the light originated.

On and on they plodded, until the sun sank below the canopy and shadows flooded the ground with black. The woods seemed to thicken around Eadric and Godwin, enveloping them in twigs and branches.

“I don’t understand,” said Eadric. “We should have passed through by now.” He stared at his hearth companion, as if for help. But Godwin only snorted in response.

“If we had stayed on the main road,” said the executioner, “then at least we might have found a place to stay for the night. Anyway, we should look for a safe place to sleep.”

The thought of a roof over his head and soft blankets under his back made Eadric ache with yearning. But he dispelled such thoughts with a brisk shake of his head. “Just a little further and we’ll come out the other side, I’m sure of it.”

“How are you so sure?”

“Because I studied a map before we left, you fool!” He lashed his horse and pressed on, despite a thorny bush that snagged his clothes and sliced his skin.

So they kept riding, but by the time the daylight had dissolved into a dim red haze, they remained in the thick of the woods.

“Look there,” said Godwin, and pointed to a churned spot of soil. “We’ve gone in a circle.”

“What? That’s impossible.” Eadric dismounted and hurried over to see for himself. Godwin also dismounted, for it was once again time to relieve himself.

Eadric studied the ground and found horse tracks matching their very own steeds. He tried to further survey the area in the failing light and realized that he had not only ridden in a circle, but a very large circle; they had passed through this spot in the morning. Altogether, this entire day of miserable riding had led to almost no progress whatsoever. And as he reached this dismal conclusion, the sound of Godwin pissing serenaded the forest.

*

When Ealdorman Eadric Streona decides to support a Viking king and put a stop to centuries of bloodshed, he discovers that his greatest opponent—a masked vigilante called the Golden Cross—may be the same person he wishes to save.

New Blog Theme: Character Vignettes

Dear Readers,

When I started this blog, my goal was to update every Tuesday with either a short story (at the time, I was releasing the “Lost Tales of Mercia“) or an informational post related to the subject of the stories. I succeeded for awhile. But then I got distracted by other things, and life was a bitch, and then I finished the Sons of Mercia series altogether, and then I really didn’t know what to post about here. But I want to keep posting regularly. Therefore, I have finally come up with a new idea for what to post each Tuesday–one that I will enjoy and thus am very likely to accomplish every week.

From now on, I will post every Tuesday with a so-called “vignette”–AKA *very very short story*, maybe even venturing near flash fiction levels of brevity–about whomever/whatever I feel like, but most likely featuring one or more characters from one of my already-written novels. The stories might only be a page long–some might be longer, some might be shorter–but rest assured there will be stories once again on this blog.

My head is already filled with ideas, mostly of scenes that never made it into one of my novels because they weren’t crucial to the plot… or perhaps they happened to a side character and thus the main character never found out about it. Here are some examples:

–from Eadric the Grasper: what Aydith and Hastings were really saying to each other before Eadric found them together

–from Eadric the Grasper: the truth behind Runa’s disappearance

–from Edric the Wild: one of Edric’s many adventures as Silvaticus, living it up like Robin Hood

–from Ashes of Dearen: that entire year Sean spent as King Darius… lots of unwritten material there

–from Sands of Hanubi: the undocumented adventures of pirate captain Greedy Gregor

… and many more. Those examples are the most obvious ones that come to mind. Granted, some of the vignettes I intend to write will probably be about less significant events than the ones mentioned above. My goal will be just to capture the character in a moment that is somehow unusual, interesting, or enlightening.  Occasionally, I might write about a character you don’t know–I have *lots* of unpublished stories–but hopefully you will still find it entertaining.

Given the fact I will be taking a break from my larger projects to write these vignettes, I maintain the right to write about anything that strikes my fancy at the time. That said, please let me know if you have any requests about a specific character, situation, etc. SEND ME REQUESTS!

I hope that you will enjoy the new blog theme!

Published in: on September 28, 2013 at 7:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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