Monthly Archives: January 2017

Raven’s Run 76

Chapter Twenty-one

I woke early, becoming gradually aware of the rhythmic swaying of the railway coach. Beyond the curtain, the day was still gray and uncommitted. There was stale cigarette smoke in the corridor and stale sweat on my skin. I rubbed my eyes, pulled down a window and stuck my head out into the rushing cool morning air. The mixed smell of damp vegetation and polluted air swirled about me. In my stomach was an emptiness made up of one part morning hunger and nine parts loneliness.

The corridor was filled with sleeping forms. I stepped over them on my way to the toilet.

Every summer, the same pattern recurs. As June gives way to July and then to August, more and more passengers take to the trains, but the authorities make no attempt to provide space for them. Trains that were half empty in May and full in June, are packed in summer with twice as many passengers as there are seats. They sit on the seat-arms and in the aisles, in the corridors of the compartment cars, taking jump seats or sitting on suitcases, or sprawling on the floor, wedged against backpacks. Ragged backpackers and old Italian ladies in black, the youthful and the outworn, the poor and the middle class (the rich are in their reserved compartments, sleeping in their couchettes), having nothing in common but their humanity.

Crowded hip to hip, stepped on, pickled by cigarette smoke, jostled and sleepless – you would expect irritability and bitterness. It is not there. Instead, there is gentleness, kindness, politeness, and a warmth of underlying laughter at the absurdity of it all.

I made my way to the washroom at the end of the compartment. It was early. Most of the passengers were still trying to sleep, so the line was short. After ten minutes, I wedged the door shut behind me to dry shave and wash my face in the untreated water. I brushed my teeth, remembering not to dip the brush under the tap. Finally I lifted the lid on the toilet and spat toothpaste and saliva down onto the ties that were flashing by underneath.

I have always found something satisfying in the simplicity of that arrangement. A turd hitting the ties at fifty miles per hour will explode into a spray of material that dries and decomposes as naturally as a cow pie in a pasture. But try telling that to an American tourist.

Ah, Europe. With the most modern train system in the world and a hole in the floor to shit through. With two hundred mile per hour luxury trains running the same tracks with others that crowd their passengers like emigrants in steerage. The last time I was here, I had become tired of its foreignness after a couple of months. This time it was like a homecoming.

And today, Venice.

Any day that has Venice in it has to be glorious. more tomorrow


285. Menhir, a winter’s tale 6

This is one installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

Marquart had stripped to leggings and leather slippers. In his right hand he carried an ironwood rod balanced to the weight of his sword and in his left hand a lighter rod to match his lancette. He fought in a style he had learned from a minor prince of Renth, using his sword to deflect blows and depending on the quickness and grace of the lancette for most of his offense. It was a style that favored his bulk and power. Now he was facing both Hein and Conger. Sweat clotted the black mat of hair on Marquart’s chest and slicked the smooth skins of his adversaries as they moved around the great hall in the mock-deadly dance of sword practice.

Bheren watched with interest; he was a minor player in these games. Marquart has given him the task, three days each week, of clearing out the breakables from the hall and setting up heavy tables and benches so that each practice session found the warriors threading a new maze of furniture.

They had been working each other until all were arm weary and gasping for breath. Now Marquart kicked a bench in front of Conger, forcing him to jump back, then took out Hein with a backhand slash of his sword. Conger, however, was too quick and vaulted the bench as it spun across the flagstone floor. His false sword slammed into Marquart’s back as Marquart’s ersatz lancette slashed Conger’s ribs.

They all stopped by mutual consent and laughed. “You’re dead, Lord Marquart,” Conger crowed. “It’s the first time I’ve gotten you in a week.”

“Maybe, but you’re deader!”

Conger grinned and looked ruefully at the weal across his ribs. “Aye,” he admitted. “I’ll be packing snow under my tunic this evening.”

Marquart accepted a hot, moist towel from Bheren and then shrugged into his tunic. He found Dael in the kitchens, supervising preparations for Midwinterfest. He touched her shoulder fleetingly, then said, “Can you leave.”

“Of course.”

They moved back to the great hall. Bheren was directing serving boys as they put the tables and benches aright. Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.

“None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .” Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both. 

“Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”

“Oh, man stuff.”

“I have visited each warden in his home, but other than Jor, I don’t know much about them. When we crowd them together and feed them wine and ale, they will show me who they are. continued tomorrow

Raven’s Run 75

The local police hauled him away. Susyn explained, not entirely accurately, that the drunk had attacked me when I tried to stop him from harassing her. The drunk’s hundred proof breath went a long way toward supporting Susyn’s story. It helped even more that the officer had seen Susyn in daily conversation with his chief.

When they had gone, and we were settled in at the table, Susyn turned angrily and said, “What the hell was that all about?”

I didn’t have anything to say.

“I thought I knew you better than that. You didn’t have to beat up that bastard; he was harmless enough.”

“I know.”

“So why . . .?”

I put my hand over hers and said, “Please.”

Her eyes were inches from mine. I watched the fire die down in them, and watched sympathy replace it. She said, “You’re hurting.”

I shrugged.

She said, “Why? What did I miss?”

“I can’t tolerate drunks.”


I had told Raven about my drunken father, but I could not tell Susyn, so I did not reply. She chewed her lip, looking puzzled, and said, “You don’t drink, and you hate drunks. A lot. There has to be a reason.”

“A few of years ago,” I answered, “I woke up from a fourth of July spree and found out I couldn’t remember June.”

It was an exaggeration, but basically true. A small part of the larger truth that I could not share.

Susyn looked puzzled and angry. She could tell that was not the whole story. But it was all she was going to get.

*       *       *

We went down to Venice the next morning, to find Raven. It was a twenty hour journey that sent us through the eastern fringes of the Alps. We sat in desultory conversation, alternately reading and watching the scenery.

During the last week, I had begun reading newspapers again. When I was with Raven, there had been no time, and when she first left me I had had no interest. Now I read that East Germans by the thousands were going down to Hungary on summer vacation and not returning home. The Honecker government had sent protests to Hungary and some kind of international incident was in the offing. It didn’t seem like much to me, or to any western observer. Communist eastern Europe was falling apart before our eyes, and no one understood what was happening.

Including me. I had other things on my mind.

For the second time in a few months, I had been thrown into daily intimacy with a stranger. For the second time, that stranger moved me deeply. As we crossed the fields and forests of eastern Austria, Susyn went to sleep slumped against me. I shifted my arm around her and settled her into a more comfortable position. The miles slid by with the soft, warm weight of her against my side, and the smell of her hair in my nostrils.

Susyn had reserved a couchette compartment. After she was asleep in the upper berth, I lay awake a long time thinking. After a while, Susyn’s hand and arm slipped down to hang above my head. I wondered if she was asleep. Then her fingers twitched in a come-here motion. I reached up and took her hand in mine. We rode on that way for miles, silent, hand-clasped, saying nothing. Finally she gave a tug and pushed her tousled face over the edge of her bunk. I stood up. She put her arms around my shoulders and drew me closer. Her lips on mine were soft and undemanding. When we broke, there were tears in the corners of her eyes, but she put her hand on my mouth when I would have asked why. She simply said, “Good night, Ian,” and drew the covers up around her until only her violet eyes showed. more tomorrow

284. Menhir, a winter’s tale 5

This is one installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

When she was ready, Baralia let herself be fully seen. She was sitting at the high table when Marquart entered the great hall. He stopped, scowling at her presence; then he realized she was his phantom. He crossed to her and saw that the chair was quite visible through her body. He did not call her ghost. That word is not found in Lankhara, nor Renthian, nor in the language of the Inner Kingdom. Nor is the concept.

On Marquart’s world the souls of the dead are either enreithed or fade into nothingness within days. His world knows neither heaven nor hell, nor any other form of afterlife except the one that all men aspire to, the joining together at death through enreithment into a besh. Disembodied souls are abahara. An abahara that does not fade away cannot exist, so there is no word for such a creature.

Marquart said, “What are you and where do you come from?”

He took for granted that she was not of his world. There were other worlds, and menhirs were the gates to reach them; this Marquart knew. The Comanyi had come through the menhir on the top of Mount Comai to rule as Gods for a thousand years, and his world’s more recent Gods, Rem Ossilo and Hea Santala, had come in through the very menhir for which the Valley was named. Shapeshifters had come from Lorric; kakais and tichan had come in with the Comanyi. Marquart’s world had no concept of ghosts or heaven, but other worlds were well known to them.

There were even reputed to be dziais, men of power from Marquart’s world, who could tap the power of the menhirs and travel through them to other worlds.

Then, as Marquart looked closer, he realized that this apparition could be of his world, could even be from this region. Her dark hair, broad cheekbones and copper face could belong to the daughter of one of his own serfs.

Baralia saw that recognition, and answered, “I am of this place. This is my world.”

“How can this be?”

Hea’s geas had placed many constraints on Baralia, but telling the truth was not one of them. However, Baralia chose to simplify her lies by staying close to the truth. She said, “I died, and Hea Santala took me before I was enreithed and made me her servant.”

“To what end?”

“Ours is the menhir of her entry into our world, and she holds it precious. The worshippers of Rem Ossilo had it for a time, but Hea took it back so that the priests of our menhir now worship only the Damesept.”

Marquart nodded. This was common knowledge.

“Now there has been a change in the Remsept, and she felt the need for another, unseen watcher over that which is Hers.”

So close to the truth, as all good lies are.

“If unseen, then why do I see you?”

“Because I choose to let you see me.”

“Again, why me?”

“The menhir is Hers, the land is yours. It may be that to serve Her, I must first aid you.”

And she faded, leaving Marquart to stare at an empty chair and ponder how to deal with this supposed messenger from the Damesept. continued tomorrow

Raven’s Run 74

The next morning, I had made my rounds and was waiting in our favorite outdoor cafe for Susyn to return. For four days, we had made it our own, sitting through the early afternoon watching the tourists go by while we compared notes. From a table near the low stone wall that separates the patio from the narrow cobbled walk, I could see through a curtain of geraniums as I watched for Susyn’s return.

When I finally saw her, she was coming out of a cross street a block away, looking over her shoulder in conversation with a stranger. Something in her stance brought me fully alert. Her heels were tapping the cobblestones angrily. The stranger kept pace with her, but there was something wrong with his stride. His feet seemed to find the cobbles a bit sooner than his mind had anticipated. He did not exactly stagger, but he was by no means stable.

Not falling down drunk, but drunk nonetheless.

I rose and stepped over the low stone wall to wait on the sidewalk. Something black and old was rising up inside of me, compounded of remembered and half-remembered indignities.

When Susyn reached me, I turned her so that I stood between her and the stranger. Over my shoulder, I said, “Do you know him?”

“Not really. I met him an hour ago when I was showing Raven’s picture around. He has been following me since.”

His eyes met mine, and he tried to blink me into focus. He was further gone than I had thought. He said, “Wo sind sie?” and his breath would have taken paint off a wall.

Then he reached for me. It might have been an innocent move, but I don’t like to be touched by drunks.

I caught his right hand in my left, with my thumb in the cup of his palm, my fingers hard against the back of his hand, and rotated outward and downward. He winced. He should have cried out. Aikido locks are painful, but he was mostly anesthetized.

He jerked loose and I let him go. He staggered back a step and his face finally registered pain. He began to mutter obscenities, gradually growing louder, rocking from one foot to the other as he worked himself up to act.

I waited, letting the red haze build up inside me.

He threw a looping right. I stepped inside it, caught his collar with my left hand, broke his stance and dragged him forward in one rapid movement. At the same time I hit him in the side of the face. I caught his neck with that same hand and spun him in a tight circle. He lost what little balance he had and fell forward against the low stone wall. I stepped back and waited.

He rolled over on his hands and knees, and came up slowly, weaving and trying to find me with his unfocused eyes. I was aware of Susyn shouting at me, but it was distanced by my rage. He drew back his fist again. I hit him again as he threw his punch, a twisting blow to mid-sternum. He was coming in when I hit him. His ineffectual blow snapped the edge of my ear, and I felt the shock of my fist against his chest all the way to my shoulder.

His eyes rolled up and he sank bonelessly to the sidewalk. more tomorrow

283. Menhir, a winter’s tale 4

This is one installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

It was hard into midwinter when Marquart first caught sight of Baralia. To carry out the geas that had been laid upon her, Hea Santala had given the abahara the power to make herself seen and heard by Marquart, but she did not use this power until she knew him well.

When he first saw her, she was down a hall from him and she moved quickly around a corner. He rounded the corner after her, and saw no one. A day later she let him see her out of the corner of his eye at evenmeal, and disappeared as quickly. When Marquart inquired, none of the servants knew of anyone who matched her description.

She called Marquart’s name, standing invisible at his side as he watched the sunset. 

She let him see her reflection clearly in a polished breastplate as he worked at swordplay with his men, but when he turned, she was not there.

Later, when he had become attuned to her, she let him feel her presence without letting herself be seen. At night, as she stood at his bedside, staring malignantly down at Dael, he would waken and light a candle in the apparently empty room.

She went everywhere in the manorhouse. She saw every deed of malice, every slacking of work when no one else was looking, every thing that was stolen, every quick thumping of furtive loins when it was supposed to be worktime.

She watched Marquart undress at night, aching to touch his body, but unable. Sometimes when he woke in the morning, with a stiffened rod of flesh, she closed her translucent hands about it and felt nothing, as he remained unaware. She hated him. She lusted for him. She wanted to fly around the manorhouse and report to him everything she saw, and make him omniscient. She wanted to tell just the right lies, to send him to his death. He was the reason she was hung half way between death and life; and he was the only contact she had with the living.

She watched Dael when she sat naked on the bedside. She watched her breasts and longed to touch them, as she longed to have human hands caress her own transparent nipples. She watched when Dael lay back and spread her legs to reveal her secret place to her husband, and knew that no man would ever plumb her own depths again. As the weeks passed, she watched the slow thickening of Dael’s waist, and the rounding beneath her navel, and knew that this child would grow and be born, and that Dael would live to hold and nurse him. And she hated. Perhaps more fully than anyone had ever hated before. And could do nothing. When she ripped her fingers, clawlike, through Dael’s eyes, Dael never knew. continued Monday

Raven’s Run 73

By the fifth day I was restless and worried that Raven and Eric might have decided to skip Salzburg in favor of Venice. Susyn argued that we should spend one more day in Salzburg before we moved on.

Susyn had a sunny, open disposition. Every day was an adventure to her. When she made her rounds each morning, the head of the local police treated her with an avuncular familiarity that would probably have gotten steamy if she had let it. She described his antics every noon when we met to compare notes. Her mobile, comic’s face made him so real that I could almost see his moustache.

“You are very good with people,” I said.

“But, Ian, that’s easy if you like people.”

“You must be very valuable to Senator Cabral.”

She grinned. “He says so. But, of course, he is valuable to me, too. Without him, I would be secretary to some insurance salesman.”

“No. Not you.” It was not so much a compliment as an observation. Beneath her competence and friendliness, Susyn had a burning core of ambition. “How did you meet Senator Cabral?”

“I was working as a secretary – for an insurance salesman.” She grinned at me. “I didn’t like it and I was looking for a way out. The Senator was just running for his first term then. He looked like a winner, so I joined his team as a volunteer and worked my way up to a staff job. Six years later, here I am in Europe.”

“For the first time,” I said. She had told me early on that she had not been to Europe before.

“For the first time, and loving every minute of it. I want to find Raven, but I’ll miss this when I take her back. And I’ll miss you.”

“Tell me more about this drug dealer. I don’t understand why he is still after Raven. Surely he has figured out by now that she was not sent damaging information.”

“How could he be really sure? For a man like that, it would be better to act than to worry, and if that action includes murder, it wouldn’t bother him very much.”

“But a senator’s daughter? He should know that the Feds would never let him alone after killing her. Somehow, they would get him.”

“How could anyone know what happened to Raven if she simply disappeared in mid-ocean? After that, I can only speculate, but perhaps he is afraid to have her come back to California and testify. Anyway, why isn’t really important. It’s just important that we find her.”

I thought about the forces we were facing. They remained unreal in my mind. I had seen them through binoculars when they threw Raven into the sea. I had seen them up close on board the Wahini. Sitting now with Susyn, I stared at the livid scar across the back of my hand, trying to bring the skinny thug into focus. It was no use. My loss of Raven made them seem small and unimportant.

My mistake. more tomorrow

282. Menhir, a winter’s tale 3

This is one installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

“Clevis said that I should confide in you. That’s hard for me, but I will try, if you want me to.”

Dael was silent as she watched him, hunched over, rubbing his hands together. She had observed him closely this last month, as only a woman who has cast her entire fate and future into the hands of a stranger can watch. She knew how hard this speech had been for him, and she recognized it for the gift it was. 

She said, “I pledged you my loyalty, and you have it. I pledged you my body, and you have it. I pledged you children, and you will have them. I gave you all that when I did not know you, because you asked me, and because my brother’s letter assured me you were good and honorable. But if we could become more than just allies and bedmates, that would be wonderful!”

#             #             #

They moved to the bed quickly then, tearing at each other’s clothing. They were not alone. Baralia watched, as she watched every hour. When they fell together, Baralia gasped. When Dael cried out, Baralia groaned. Her hand moved to touch herself, but to no avail. She could no more touch herself than she could touch others. She screamed in the agony of her loneliness, and no one heard.

#             #             #

Marquart had arrived at Instadt two months earlier, carrying a bundle of letters from Reece s’Imbric. He had just left Limiakos’ service to take up lordship of the Valley, and Reece’s home was along the way. Imbric had given a warm welcome to his son’s friend and ex-commander, and it was there Marquart had met, courted, and married Dael.

Reece had told his family all he knew, but there was much Reece did not know. So that when Dael asked Marquart, out of the darkness of their shared bed, “What happened between you and the High King?”, he was not surprised that she wondered.

He gathered her hands between his and said, “I took Port Cantor in my own way, carefully, with much planning, so that both death and loss of property were kept small.”

Her hand, caught in his, pressed fingers against his palm, and she said, “Yes, I can see that that would be your way.”

“When the High King called me to an accounting, he was not impressed. He had wanted blood and slaughter.”

“But . . . why?”

“So that he could wander the battlefields where my troops had gone, feeding on the ai of the newly dead.”

“I have heard those rumors,” Dael said, “but surely . . .”

“They are not rumors. Limiakos told me himself, and threatened to have me killed so he could feast on my ai.”

Dael tore her hands loose from Marquart’s and threw her arms around him. He patted her shoulder and went on, “Instead, he said he had another job for me. Not as a commander in his armies – I wasn’t bloody enough – but as the lord of a small but troublesome demesne. This one.”

Dael asked, “Are we in danger?”

“No. Limiakos would have killed me and fed, right there in Port Cantor if the mood had struck him. When he said that I could still be of some small use to him here, he meant exactly that. He had no reason to lie. By now he has forgotten that I ever existed.”

For a time, Dael listened to Marquart’s breathing. Then she said, “This can be a good life here. A really good life.”

“Aye,” he grunted. “Lord of the Valley of the Menhir. Jor would kill to have that title and those prerogatives. But I was large in the world, and becoming larger. Now, this is as great as I will ever be.” continued tomorrow

Raven’s Run 72

Chapter Twenty

Susyn and I waited in Salzburg for a week. There had been no hope of finding them in any of the lesser towns they might have gone through; there were dozens of routes from Montreaux to Salzburg. We divided duties as before; Susyn went to the authorities and I went to the youth hostel, the campground, and the street.

You don’t find many street musicians in Salzburg. Whatever their musical tastes might normally be, when tourists visit Salzburg, they have only Mozart on their minds. Salzburg lives on Mozart, from the museum they have made of his birthplace, to the the unending cascade of Mozart memorabilia, to the silly Mozart chocolates, the entire city is a shrine to the commercialization of his name. Every summer, productions of his operas are staged, bringing in the finest talents in the world and drawing on a worldwide clientele. The book and record stores in the old city are a classical music aficionado’s heaven. There is even a puppet opera – not a watered down children’s version of the operas, but a staged in the ancient European tradition of fine art marionettes, set to the music recorded during the previous year’s live productions.

After the first day, our routine became established. We stayed in adjoining rooms in a small hotel across from the old town. Once a day, Susyn would stop in at the police headquarters to ask if anything had been found, and to remind them that we were still there. I called Will every evening, and made the rounds of the hostel, campground, and cheap hotels. During the day, Susyn and I played tourist, wandering about Salzburg on the off chance of seeing them on the street.

Salzburg is a lovely small city, and the first two days were enjoyable. Susyn was a lively companion. The tourist’s were a cut above the ordinary. Beyond their obvious snobbery, there was a sense of intellectual curiosity about them that made them interesting even in casual encounters. But after two days we had seen what was there to be seen, and I was going crazy. Somewhere out there, Raven and Eric were in danger and did not know it. And somewhere out there, Raven was with Eric, instead of with me.

We walked the city, sat for hours in street cafes watching people go by, attended the puppet opera and a real one, and went to the park where the Sound of Music was filmed. And all day, every day, I played the game of “what went wrong?” No matter how many times I replayed my time with Raven, the crux of our relationship always came down to that day on the beach outside Marseille. A game of one-upmanship that revealed a depth of striving against each other. I had won that day; and in winning, I had lost Raven.

To Eric. That was a big piece of the puzzle. Why Eric? Beneath that friendly-dog expression there had been an essential uncertainty; a lack of intensity. It had put me off. Within five minutes I had known that we might be friendly, but we could never become friends. Had Raven been drawn to the same thing that repulsed me? Had she gone with him precisely because he was my opposite? more tomorrow

281. Menhir, a winter’s tale 2

This is one installment of a twelve part excerpt from Valley of the Menhir. Check December 29 for an introduction to the novel.

Late in the afternoon of the fifth day, the storm abated, and by evening, it was gone. Marquart went out to the rimwall surrounding the top of the manorhouse to watch the sunset and try to guess how long the lull would last. He wanted to visit each of his wardens in his own house before the deep snow made travel more difficult.

The snow had stopped, but the sky was of low, unbroken clouds. The sun was setting red-bronze toward the western hills, painting the mounded snow in blue-gray and mauve.

Marquart leaned on the rimwall and smiled contentedly. Then he heard the cook’s cry; it was time for the evening meal. As he turned away, he realized that a part of his contentment came from anticipation. He was looking forward to seeing Dael. That he was looking forward to seeing her, was both a pleasure and a relief.

There had been plenty of women in Marquart’s life, but he had rarely spent more than a few days with any one of them. Fighting his way up through the ranks, he had always intended to marry, once he reached the station that required a wife. He had never particularly looked forward to marriage, nor was he prepared for the actuality of it, but here it was. And he was finding that he liked it.

In their chambers later, Dael shed her woolens for a light silk robe that clung to her lovely young body. He embraced her, kissed her deeply, and pulled her down beside him on the bed. He said, “What do you think of Clevis?”

Dael had not expected conversation. She said, “He is attentive and respectful to me, and he seems loyal to you. I like him better than the other two you brought with you.”

Marquart smiled. “Yes. Conger, and especially Hein, are a bit rough. They came with me out of loyalty, and that is worth a great deal, but they really don’t fit in here. Clevis is different. Clevis is like your brother Reece. They each came under my command when they were young, and as I trained them in my way of handling men, they became friends.”

“I’m glad you have a friend.’

“Dael, why did you agree to marry me?”

She wanted to give a stock answer, something out of a troubadour’s tale of romance, but she correctly judged that this was a time for honesty. She said, “Because you asked me.”

“I’m glad I did.”

She smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. “Thank you for that.”

“Did you know that Clevis was once married?”

“Clevis again!” she laughed, then sobered at once. “I am sorry,” she said, “Go on.”

“He said that I should confide in you; that I should tell you things I don’t even tell him. That’s hard for me. I almost never confide anything in anyone, but I will try, if you want me to.” continued tomorrow