Monthly Archives: June 2018

498. Living in the Promiseland

There is a winding road across the shifting sand
And room for everyone living in the promiseland
Willie Nelson

I began this website in the fall of 2015. It was to be about writing, particularly about writing science fiction, and I had no intention of responding to political events.

Fat chance of that happening, given what has happened in America since.

In fact, I had written about twenty numbered posts when events in the world forced me to stick some personal political comments in between posts 10 and 11. It was called Walls Against the World. It wouldn’t be the last time I had to interrupt my regular programming to speak out.

That was the day after Hungary closed it’s borders to Syrian refugees. It reminded me too forcibly of the Russians closing Hungary’s borders in 1956, to keep Hungarian refugees from reaching the west and freedom.

East Germany had built a wall across Berlin in 1961, and then-candidate Trump was running on the promise to build a wall across the border with Mexico. I didn’t buy in. At the time I said, “Hitler would be proud. East Germany would understand. Russia is laughing.”

Was that only thirty-three months ago? Time flies when you are running from a forest fire.

I opened that post with these words:

          Have you ever asked yourself, “How could Germany have been fooled into following Adolph Hitler?” The answer is on your television this morning, and it is Donald Trump.
          I’m not saying that Trump is a Nazi. I don’t see him as evil, merely foolish. But the techniques that have brought him to prominence are the same techniques that Hitler used.

Then Trump won and here we are. I have tried since then to be fair and at least somewhat balanced. After all, he was elected by the American people (aided by Putin and Comey) and the Democrats hadn’t given Americans much of an alternative.

I have resisted calling Trump evil, and I have resisted refusing to see why many Americans chose to vote for him. I understand them; I just don’t understand him. I have not called him by the H****r word, even as Trump has become increasingly dictatorial. I have tried to avoid pointing out that Hitler was initially elected to office, before he took over everything.

All that was before Trump opened concentration camps on the Mexican border in the name of Zero Tolerance. We haven’t seen this in America since 1942.

Maybe I’ll send the White House a copy of Willie Nelson’s Living in the Promiseland. At least I would if I thought it would do any good.

Give us your tired and weak and we will make them strong
Bring us your foreign songs and we will sing along
.               from Living in the Promiseland

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Banner of the Hawk 17

5.

The first blizzard of winter moved in, and for a week Marquart stayed close to home, studying maps, records and journals. He had a banner made with the sign of the striking hawk in black on a field of blue, and set it flying above the manorhouse. It was the first time his kladak had been used for anything but marking his personal goods, and it gave him pleasure. The Valley of the Menhir might be small, backward, and forgotten, but it was his.

The Valley was roughly round, roughly forty miles across. The River Gull divided it in two, flowing in through a gap in the western hills, picking up half a dozen minor tributaries and debouching through a wide, low gap on the east.  It was navigable only for nine miles, from the sea to the place where the menhir lay. On the coast was a small seaport, Port of the Gull, through which the valley’s exports passed, when there were exports.

The Weathermistress must have been in a nasty mood the day the Valley was created. When protracted winds from the west brought in hot, dry air from the Dzikakai plains, there was drought. When spring rains rode the seawinds from the south or east, there were floods. In all seasons, there was uncertainty.

On the north side of the Gull were Marquart’s direct holdings. To his east was Jor’s land. Technically, it was Marquart’s; if he ever chose to give it to another warden, it would be his right. But Jor had lived there all his life, and had the use of the land from his father, who had it from his father, who had originally been granted wardency by some lord whose name Marquart did not even know. So Marquart had decided to leave him in place, at least for now, and see if he had learned a lesson. Marquart’s soldier’s instinct said that Jor had not, but there was nothing to gain in precipitate action.

There were four other wardens, each with land and a fortified house. Wardency was a normal and reasonable way of distributing responsibility for the valley, but there was a catch. Like Jor, they had all lived for generations on lands they thought of as theirs. After generations of peace, every warden’s family was bloated with useless uncles and aunts and nephews and cousins. The serfs could not produce enough to feed them all.

“What this place needs,” Marquart said to himself, “is a good war to weed out the warrior class.” But he didn’t mean it. He had seen too much of war to want it visited on his new home.

# # #

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. more tomorrow

Banner of the Hawk 16

Marquart threw back his head in defiance and growled, “You knew my father. Now know me!”

A pulse moved through him. His hair stood on end. Then the moment passed and the menhir was quiescent again. Marquart moved across the grass and touched one of the uprights, but now it was only a stone to his touch.

Taipai stood in the entryway, alone, his old face calm and unreadable. He said, “The Menhir remembered.”

“Yes.”

“And now that it has caressed your ai, it will never forget you either. You belong to it — or you will.”

“As you do.”

“Yes. I, and Dymal, and now you. Everyone who can manage, comes here at death. But only a very few are bound during their lifetimes.”

“I do not wish to be bound.”

Taipai shrugged. “I did not bind you, and I cannot loosen you. I do not think you can be loosened.”

“I always thought . . .”

“Yes?”

“I always thought that I would die in battle, and that my soul would dissipate.”

“A sad fate.”

“Is it? Is it really? I never thought so. I always preferred that to this.” He gestured around them.

Taipai stared at him, puzzled, and not quite believing. “Come,” he said, “take refreshment with me, in a place less charged with power.”

# # #

On the grassy lawn where the menhir stood, a faint troubling of the air was all that showed where Baralia stood. “That was him,” she said, and, though the menhir must remain mute, she knew and it knew that she was right. She had changed in the months since Hea Santala had set her to her task. The bloom of youth had faded from her face; she was old now with melancholy and loneliness. She drew sustenance from the menhir — Hea had forged that bond — but she could not touch it. She could freely wander to see and hear, gathering such information as she might need, but she could not touch or communicate with any living creature, except Marquart.

She faded from that place and drew up at Marquart’s shoulder. He did not know. He would only know when she chose to exert herself and make herself known to him. But she would never leave him, as long as he lived.

# # #

Hours later, when Marquart had gone and the daily routine of the temple allowed it, Taipai sat down with Dymal. He said, “What do you think.”

“What is he?”

“Dziai, at least. A man of power, but entirely untrained.”

“He lacks — humility.”

Taipai laughed softly. “Humility in a soldier leads to an early death. He has done great things. I would know this from the taste of his ai, even if I had not already heard tales.”

“The menhir knew him.”

“It remembered.”

“What did it remember? He has never been here before.”

“His father was.” Taipai then told how Beshu had come as a young man seeking prophesy, and had made a warrior’s sacrifice of his own blood in the center of the menhir.

Dymal said, “Marquart seems more polished than that. More sophisticated, yet . . .”

“Less dangerous?”

“More dangerous, if he becomes our enemy. He is not our enemy yet, I think.”

“That is the way I see it, as well. Anyway, he will be yours to deal with.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come, Dymal, don’t play at words with me. And don’t tell me you haven’t cast my mandala.”

Dymal said nothing.

“Death soon, Dymal. A quiet death I think.” He paused and closed his eyes, for Dymal was quick and would have read much in those eyes. It would be years before Dymal could see the future as clearly as Taipai saw it, and it was unlikely that Dymal would cast mandalas to foresee his own death. It was not his way. But Taipai had cast for him, out of a fatherly concern for his pupil and protégé. 

Dymal’s death was years in the future, but it would not be a quiet one. more Monday

497. A Tangled Web

Last July fourth weekend I went to Westercon and received a gift. While observing a panel, I got the inspiration for a novel. I started it as soon as I got home and finished it in October, which is fast for me. It became The Cost of Empire, my first steampunk novel, and you just got a chance to see the opening pages spread out over the last two weeks.

I call it steampunk, and it deserves that description, but it could as well be called alternative history since it does not have the sense of complete weirdness that many steampunk novels possess. Soon afterward, I began another steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. It is completely different in tone. If you want weird, we’ve got weird in this one.

I placed part of a chapter in a post, but that particular excerpt is almost domestic in tone. Not weird at all.

I’ve been working on Like Clockwork since about November and I am only about 40,000 words in. I have no idea how long it is going to be. I know the set-up and development, and I’ve already written the last few chapters. I just don’t know how many more words it will take to get from where I am to where I am going. Or exactly how I’m going to get there.

If I were teaching a class in how to write a novel, this would get me fired. Nothing I ever write takes a straight path, but this is the most tangled web I’ve yet woven.

Cyan has a fairly large cast of characters, but the novel centers around Keir Delacroix. There are sections of the novel where other characters step up and have their moment, but Keir is the sun around which everyone else orbits. That makes things easy for the reader.

Cyan takes a century (global) or about thirty years (subjective) to occur, but everything proceeds in a linear fashion. There are flashbacks, but not too many. Mostly we get to see things as they happen, which minimizes explanations, although there are a couple of dense pages right at the outset.

Events begin on Cyan, move back to Earth, then end on Cyan again, but the reader goes along for the ride, so there is no confusion.

In The Cost of Empire, Daniel/David James (one person, but he changes names part way through the book as part of a masquerade) is even more firmly the center of the story. He is our eyes and ears; there is only one short paragraph where the reader knows something that he doesn’t.

The action begins in England, moves to Trinidad, moves back to England, then crosses Europe and the Middle East and ends up in India. Like Cyan, it takes in a lot of territory, but the reader takes the trip with David, so he/she never gets lost.

My newest novel Like Clockwork has at least six major characters (so far) and a couple more nearly as important, all of whom have about equal time on stage. That stage is restricted to a portion of London in the year — well, I can’t really explain when things happen. Figuring out when is sort of the point of the novel.

At the beginning, the reader doesn’t know where or when she/he is; just that it is London, or sort-of London, and a strange London at that. The characters in the book know more than the reader knows, but they don’t know much either. The reader and the characters have to figure everything out as they go along together, and the storyline shifts from one character to another with every short chapter.

In a way, it is like a mystery novel, with clues in abundance, but without a villain. There is a prime mover, but he is in deep, deep background and — sorry, that would be a spoiler as well.

Like Clockwork is also a book length clinic in how to explain a situation without resorting to a narrative dump.  It’s been a lot of fun so far. Now if I can just figure out what the hell is going on, I’ll get this thing finished.

Banner of the Hawk 15

“You are so self-complete that you are in danger.”

“From what?”

“From yourself.” Clevis turned in the saddle and faced Marquart, determined to have his say even if it got him knocked to the ground. “A wife is not just a whore who doesn’t go away. If your life is going to be worth living, she has to become your friend. Confide in her. You can’t tell her everything, but tell her much. Tell her more than you would tell me.”

# # #

Two men faced each other across a cleared space outside the grounds of the temple complex and regarded each other minutely. Taipai, was senior priest of the Menhir, and thus the local hand of Hea Santala and the Damesept. Marquart s’Beshu, Lord of the Valley, was by extension the local hand of the High King, Limiakos IV. 

Everything within the thorngall hedge surrounding the menhir was clearly in Taipai’s jurisdiction. That the temple grounds surrounding the menhir were his as well, was accepted by long precedent. But the town which abutted the temple grounds? That was the rub. Kafi had taxed the town a decade ago, but he had let the taxes go uncollected as his health deteriorated. Taipai had backed the townspeople in their closet rebellion.

Now Taipai spoke appropriate greetings; Marquart responded, and swung down from his kakai. He offered his wrist in a freeman’s greeting — a greeting of equals. Taipai hesitated only a moment before responding in kind. After all, they were equals in the Valley, although Marquart should have shown Taipai the greater respect here on Taipai’s home ground. And Marquart had not removed his gloves, so that Taipai’s bare wrist touched martial leather. By such subtleties, Marquart announced his intention of curbing Taipai’s power.

Taipai nodded toward the belted weapons at Marquart’s waist, and said, “You will not need those here.”

Marquart looked down as if he had been unaware. A heavy sword hung at his right hand and the delicate, leaf bladed lancette at his left. “I am sorry, Taipai,” he said, “but I have been a soldier so long that they have become a habit. I would feel naked without the tools of my old trade.”

Taipai shrugged slightly. He gestured toward the temple, but Marquart shook his head, and said, “No. First I will see the menhir.”

“Then you must lay aside your — tools. No one goes into the menhir armed.”

“No one?”

Taipai’s face flamed red and his loose, wrinkled mouth drew into a firm line. Marquart continued, “I, of all people, know that story.”

Three decades ago, Marquart’s father Beshu had made a bloody warrior’s sacrifice in the middle of the Menhir. It had taken weeks to purify the place, and the stain on Taipai’s honor still rankled.

Behind Taipai was a lean, dark haired priest of middle height. His face was set in an expression of suppressed fury; clearly, he was even more insulted than the Senior. They had not acknowledged his presence yet, just as they had not acknowledged the presence of Clevis, Conger, and Hein, still mounted and awaiting orders. Marquart nodded in the young priest’s direction and asked, “Your protégé?”

“Lord Marquart, this is Dymal, whom the Menhir has chosen to replace me when I die.”

“In these troubled times,” Marquart said blandly, “it is good to have one’s house in order.” Then he pushed past Taipai, gesturing to his men to remain, and stepped down toward the thorngall hedge.

Menhirs are beshes, and beshes are stones, but they can be arrayed in many shapes. This menhir had been constructed of basalt. There were four pairs of standing stones, each pair surmounted by a capstone. The pairs were arrayed in a rough circle with the widest gap toward the rising sun at midwinter. 

Marquart strode through this entry gap and slammed to a halt, instinctively touching his lancette. He had expected to feel the power of the menhir. He had not expected the menhir to feel him. But it did. It came surging sluggishly to life and Marquart felt tendrils of power touch and judge his soul. more tomorrow

Thankfully Deleted

Snap shook his head. “Let’s look from here, and think about what we see. The Clock is a machine. It has gears that mesh together. 16,384 gears in the outer layer alone, although you can’t see them now. They are cleverly built, with fine bearings, but the still they generate heat. Look at the snow, falling on the shell of the Clock, but not melting.”

The paragraph above was written for chapter 36 of Like Clockwork, and then deleted. It was too detailed. It told an accurate bit about an important part of the world of Like Clockwork, but it also slowed the story down.

For those who follow this blog looking for hints about writing, here is a koan, or a parable, or a rule of thumb, depending on how fancy you like in your language:

Think up a thousand nifty things for your novel, hold them firmly in your memory, but write down only ten of them. If you use them all, you will never get to the end of your novel, and neither will your reader.

Banner of the Hawk 14

4.

In the stable, the largest of the outbuildings, Clevis was supervising the saddling of kakais two mornings later. The eaves were open for light and ventilation, so that the slope saddles hanging from their tackles threw irregular shadows on the damp floor in the wan morning sunlight. Two more nights of light snowfall had given the Valley an even, sugary coating. 

Stable boys and hostlers were guiding kakais under the falls. Kakais are naturally excitable beasts, and they have no love for winter. When the Comanyi came into the world as Gods, they brought kakai and tichan with them. By the time they were driven out, the beasts had become virtually native, except that they still loved the warmth of summer and hated the snow.

Now two stable boys urged Marquart’s favorite mount forward beneath the slopesaddle and, at the well chosen moment, the head hostler dropped the saddle onto its steeply sloping back and quickly adjusted the breast band. The elaborately woven cane and wood saddle formed a small level platform for its rider, with unsocketed lance sections holstered at the right knee, riding stirrups drawn up high and the single mounting stirrup riding low.

There was much good natured chaffing and cursing, which Clevis readily joined. Already he was coming to know these men who would be his particular charge in the months to come.

Hein and Conger came in, yawning and scratching. They had learned already how to stay abed until they were needed, and how to look as if they had been awake for hours when Marquart appeared.

“Come on, Bedbugs, let’s get these out into the yard,” Clevis growled, and the others grabbed reins so that they were already standing at ease before the manorhouse when Marquart came out. He swung immediately into the saddle and the others mounted quickly.

“Did you have a good night?” Hein asked with a fatuous smile.  Marquart paused long enough to stare at him until he added, ”Milord.” When Marquart still did not reply, Hein shifted uneasily, hacked and spat, and stared at nothing as even he finally realized that his Lord’s night with his wife was none of his business.

They left the forecourt in a flurry of scattered snow, setting a sharp pace for the first mile to settle the kakai. When they dropped to a walk, Clevis pressed his kakai up beside Marquart, and said, “Hein is an ass. But he is loyal.”

“Loyalty is the beginning of what I need, not the end.”

“I’ll talk to  him.”

“Again?” Marquart asked, and now he smiled.

Clevis grinned back. “Again. I tell him how to act, and he says he understands. But he forgets.”

They rode on for a while. This part of the Valley was heavily cultivated, with fallow fields and clusters of trees coppiced for firewood. Here and there hartwas showed as low mounds of snow, with wisps of smoke coming from their central holes. Ahead the River Gull was made evident by the band of heavy forest on both its sides.

“Marquart,” Clevis said, deliberately leaving off his title, “I want to say some things that you could take wrong.”

Marquart’s face clouded with irritation, but he fought it down because it was Clevis who spoke. He said, “Go ahead.”

“Did you know I was once married?”

“No. You never said.”

“I was young, and not a soldier then. I was a merchant’s son; she was a merchant’s daughter. We had three years together before the blacklung fever took her. After she died, I took up the sword.”

Marquart nodded understanding. Clevis continued, “I’ve served a dozen Septaurs, but none as good as you. I stayed with you because you were both skillful and careful. The men you led always had a soldier’s fair chance at coming through a battle alive.

“And I know what happened between you and the High King.”

Marquart sighed angrily and his fist on the rein tightened. Clevis let the time flow until his Lord shook his head and said, “Continue.”

”I followed you here,” Clevis gestured around them, “because I never met a more complete soldier, or a more complete man. But you are so self-complete that you are in danger.” more tomorrow