Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

521. The Eve of Battle

I was cleaning my computer of half started blog posts when I came across this quotation. It comes from the last pages of Scourge of Heaven, the sequel to Valley of the Menhir. This excerpt comes from a time when most of the action is over, when the godly battles have been won and lost, and the only task left for Tidac is stopping the human armies that have gathered in the Mariatrien Plains to do battle.

By this time Tidac is in full possession of his power. He lets his ai move from mind to mind, considering those who will stand on the verge of death when the morning comes and the armies move against each other.

============

Limiakos was king. He strode where others walked. He kept his head high, while those around him bowed. He looked at the men before him and knew that they would do what he told them to do. He walked with armed men at the left of him and armed men at the right of him, and all men feared him.

Limiakos and his kind are rare among men. If they seem common, it is only because they always make themselves so visible. Tidac had no use for them.

Such men are the leavening; they are not the loaf. Tidac set them aside and touched the others, those common men who make up the bulk of armies, and the bulk of mankind. Men neither overpoweringly good nor overpoweringly evil; men with mild ambitions and small accomplishments. Men herded to battle and taught to hate a faceless enemy. Men who die without any real understanding of the issues they decide.

For such men, the movement of nations has no reality beyond the slogans they are taught. The rise and fall of dynasties has only dim and distant meaning for them. To such men, this is reality — a woman in the night, a meal when they are hungry, a warm fire, a dry place away from the rain and perhaps, if they are among the lucky ones, a child to protect and teach.

To such men, death is the reality. The last reality they ever confront and its lessons live through eternity. If such men knew while still living, that which they learn in the moment of their deaths, there would be no wars.

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Hiatus

Back in 2015 I started serializing things I had written. There have been novels, short stories, novellas, fragments, essays, and how-tos. First they came five days a week and later four days a week. All in all, I estimate that there have been between 700 and 800 posts in Serial, but I’m not going to count them. That would be too much trouble.

It has been three years, almost to the day, and I’m out of stuff.

I considered serializing Harold Goodwin’s Rip Foster novel. It is in public domain and I would love to introduce it to a new generation, but I decided against it, at least for now. Serial has been almost entirely mine, and I don’t want to screw that up. I could see serializing a series of public domain classics, but I doubt that I will.

I have two old novels, recently updated, which are out looking for a home. I have a new novel doing the same, and I see the completion of another new novel on the close horizon. None of those will appear in Serial since I am committed to seeing them published in the normal fashion.

There will be others, as well. I plan to keep writing until they nail the lid down.

I am not closing Serial. I can see several possibilities that would place more writing here at some time in the future, but none of them are likely to occur soon. So I am declaring a hiatus, not an end.

I’ll leave you with a picture of Snap working at his bench, in the shop called Like Clockwork. That’s the same as the title of the novel that is nearing completion.

Snap is still working, and so am I.

Firedrake 2

Once again, Mynna started to call out to those inside; and once again, she did not. Her village consisted of an inn and three hartwas; seven men, five women, three children. It lay where road to the Great Barrier diverged from the valley of the River of Souls. Caravans stopped there every spring during the brief season of Greengrass, but for nine parts of the year it was barren and empty and turned in on itself. Nothing ever happened during all those months, and Mynna was unwilling to share this event with anyone while she could still keep it for herself.

The stranger advanced across the snow, keeping a slow and steady pace, like a man who feels exhaustion but will not give in to it. Now she saw that he was on snowshoes, crudely hacked from trical limbs and laced to his feet with rawhide. Around his shoulders he hugged the pelt of a red bear. In the stillness that came upon them as the night wind died away, she heard first the shuffling of his snowshoes and then the rasping of his breath. 

He topped the last drift and dropped down into the stamped snow of the inn yard. She inclined her head and said, “Where is your kakai?” 

He let drop the two bundles that he carried. One struck the flinty snow like a stone; it was frozen meat. He gestured toward it and said, “I ate most of him.”

The voice was harsh with pain, but deep. He let the bearskin slide from his shoulders. It left smears of blood across his tunic and she saw that it was fresh, untanned, just barely flensed. Mynna’s eyes widened at that and she looked more closely at the stranger. He carried neither bow nor lance, only a great knife at his belt. To kill a red bear in the prime of its health with only that — he should have been torn to pieces.

When he had dropped down into the innyard, Mynna had noticed that he was only of her height, and had not looked further. Now she looked again and caught her breath. His face was broad, his eyes black, his beard and hair were thick, coarse and dark. The muscles in his cheeks were like walnuts and the cords of his neck like cables. The breadth of his shoulders was not from layered clothing, for his tunic was thin and threadbare, but was a massing of muscle that would make two of any man in the village.

Like two men in one skin. The quotation from Hean scripture came to her and she made Avert.

The stranger sighed sadly. He said, “I am not the Shambler. I am only a man.”

“What do you want of me and mine?” she asked.

He looked at her with weary and compelling eyes. A shock went through her, followed by a melting readiness. He said, “Shelter,” but her heart heard more, and she knew that whatever she had was his for the taking.

now that’s really all you get

520. Beta Readers

This isn’t really a rant. Honest. If you had ever heard me rant, you would recognize the difference.

I find myself out of step with the modern world most of the time. I’m comfortable with that, but once in a while it catches me by surprise.

This comes of being an only child, raised on a farm, miles from the nearest small town. That is to say, alone. I also grew up in the era of the movie cowboy, the lone hero standing against the world. We’re talking John Wayne here; Clint Eastwood came much later.

In other words, I grew up in a place and time that preached individualism.

Today, we all cooperate.

That is, if we believe songs and movies and television and books, everything has changed. But has it really? I doubt it. We always cooperated on many things, and we still treasure the individual’s take on some things, although the balance between the two seems to be shifting. Even John Wayne always had some gang of scraggly misfits following along behind him.

I taught middle school as if cooperative learning hadn’t been invented yet. I could get away with that in the eighties and nineties, and a lot of other teachers had that same attitude. If I had to teach where “every child is equally and specially brilliant” — I’m quoting a TV ad for a private school — I’d rather drive a truck.

===============

So, what brought this to mind? Beta readers. The word is new, but the idea isn’t. Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife is rumored to have burned the first draft of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and didn’t like the rewrite all that much. We also hear that Mrs. Mark Twain often wasn’t too keen on what Sam Clements wrote.

Of course beta readers are more than censors. Ginny Heinlein always read RAH’s first drafts. She was agonizing about telling RAH that the first draft of Number of the Beast was not up to his standards, when an operation cured his mental fogginess and he saw it for himself. (It’s in the biography; I’m not claiming any special knowledge here.)

Since I always visit the websites of anyone who clicks a like button on one of my posts, I have been looking over the shoulders of a lot of young writers. I see people seeking beta readers and thanking their beta readers. They clearly think that beta readers strengthen the work.

Maybe. Even probably. Still . . .

It is certainly true that the editors who once filled that function are no longer as easy to reach. I also see the self-publishing advice that hiring an editor out of pocket before going to press is money well spent. Again, probably. It’s hard to spot your hundred and fifth grammatical error, after you have fixed a hundred and four.

Beta readers are all very twenty-first century, and I certainly have great respect for those writers who have the nerve to bypass traditional publishing. But for me . . .

Nobody reads a word I have written until it is checked and rechecked, read and reread, and then reread again a few dozen more times. By me, and only by me. It’s mine. I don’t share until I’m ready to publish. The first person to read my blog is you, and the first person to see one of my novels is an editor at some publishing house.

It’s all very much old school.

So beta readers need not apply to the old curmudgeon. But that’s just me. You’ll follow your own style. Writers always do.

Firedrake 1

Seven years will have passed when we meet up with Tidac again. He is a young man now, on the run from Melcer, who has placed a price on his head. He has no wish for revenge, and no wish to become enmeshed in the affairs of the Valley of the Menhir. To him, his father’s lands hold only bitter memories of being different and alone. He remembers nothing of the  powers he possesses and used briefly as a child.

Marquart is dead. The few who knew him well have mourned him. His own son has not. Melcer is alive, and in command of the Valley; when Tidac thinks of Melcer, he sees his father’s face, and knows fear.

Little else in the world holds any terror for him. He has learned many lessons in the seven years since his escape from the fall of the citadel, but the reader won’t know what those lessons are for a long, long time.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the next section of Valley of the Menhir, so you can at least get a glimpse of the character around whom the menhir series really revolves.

The Retscon Road

19.

In the third hour of the morning, with a good part of her chores behind her, Mynna stepped outside of the inn to let the crisp air wash about her and to breathe something besides peat smoke. The sun was just up, low and red in the southeast, sending slanting light that emphasized the dunes and hollows of the snow. It had been a deadly night, cold and clear with harsh crackings as the trees froze harder in wind that rolled in from the Retscon and the land of the Dzikakai. It was still harsh; a breeze licked around her and snapped the edge of her cloak. The long winter had truly begun.

Mynna shuffled her feet, enjoying the brittle crunch of the snow. The sky was pale blue green, unclouded but tinted by high ice crystals. Across the rolling plains of snowdrifts no tracks remained after the night wind had done its work. In the distance the blanket of snow was seamed by lines of bare trees where watercourses would run in springtime and hold their precious moisture through the brown summer.

She strained her eyes for movement. Sometimes, when the snows were new and heavy, and the deer had not yet lost their autumn fat, there would be a chance for hunting. Even the old men of her village could track and kill a deer on such a day as this.

There was movement. She reached to draw her cloak tighter and turn to get the men, then hesitated. This was no deer.

It was upright and furred, but it was not a red bear. It strode too tall and it did not sink into the snow. From time to time, it stumbled. It came up the valley of the River of Souls, straight toward her. Of course it was a man, and he was heading for the smoke that curled and whipped above the chimney of the inn. But to Mynna, he seemed to be striding straight toward her. more tomorrow

Banner of the Hawk 59

18.

Melcer sat long after Jor had left, staring into the fire. In the month since Marquart’s death, he had done much to consolidate his rule, starting with Jor’s reinstatement as warden. Tomorrow, he would meet with Dymal to try to enlist his support. Messina would be disappointed that he would not get Jor’s land, but he would he happy enough with Dutta’s. Dutta’s children were too young to effectively complain. Things were going well.

Still, he was uneasy. Tidac had escaped his men, though they had brought back Clevis’ body. The boy was lost somewhere in the hills surrounding the Valley. With winter’s deep snows only weeks away, that would probably be the end of him.

But, he could not be sure. Until he saw the boy’s body, his position would not be secure. He would have to go in fear that the boy would grow up to avenge his father’s death, just as Melcer had avenged Rondor’s.

Melcer’s hands trembled with suppressed rage; if only he could be sure.

He stared into the fire, seeing the sails of a ship, well trimmed, in those glorious hours when a storm had just begun, before the sails had to be reefed and the ship began to wallow in the waves. Those had been the days. Wine and women in every port, the easy camaraderie of the fo’castle. He remembered his old friend Rondor, standing wheel watch with his long hair blowing about him, grinning into the wind. Those were the days.

Rest easy, old friend; you are avenged.

Avenged, but still gone, and the life they had lived was gone with him.

One of the servants was waiting for his attention with yet another detail of the daily administration of the Valley. Melcer stared hungrily at the fire, praying that he would go away, but instead he approached tentatively until Melcer stiffened his neck and shouted, “Leave me alone!”

The servant scurried away and Melcer felt a little better.

He tried to recapture the feel of a ship beneath his feet. He closed his eyes and saw the storm clouds scudding across the damp sky. He opened his eyes and saw the basalt walls of the citadel which had become his prison.

Vengeance had seemed so important, but now Marquart was dead, and it hadn’t helped Rondor at all. Melcer wondered why he had bothered.

He thought of Tidac again. Because he had killed the father, the son must die. It was the way of the world. 

He would have to pass the word that he would pay for the boy’s death, but he would have to be careful not to arouse the High King’s ire. Even though Limiakos was busy fighting back the Dzikakai, he could spare a hundred men to swat a fly.

Again he remembered his nephew’s face and regretted that the boy had to die. Melcer hadn’t really wanted the Valley. But now that he had it, no one was going to take it away from him.

finis

There will be one final echo of this tragedy, Monday and Tuesday.

Banner of the Hawk 58

Marquart saw Melcer’s face, as he had seen him in the Griffon, but this time he was not drunk. This time his eyes held the deep hatred that Marquart had put there when he killed Rondor.

This need not have been!

But was that true? Looking into Melcer’s face, Marquart saw Beshu. Observe much, speak little, and trust no one. Beshu’s words; Melcer too had grown up with them ringing in his ears.

In Melcer’s face he saw Beshu. And himself. And even Tidac, in years to come. So much alike. Too alike for alliance.

Marquart felt all his failings come round to halter him. The dead men at his feet had fought for pay. Not one of them had cared if he lived or died. All that might have cared, he had driven away.

# # #

Clevis threw his left arm around Tidac and began to retreat, sword out in front of him, backing toward a side passage that ran down to the kitchens.

# # #

Marquart raised his lancette. He was dressed in furs and wool and Melcer in leather and mail, but that was not the killing difference between them. Marquart felt his end before his end. Dread filled him, as a rage that matched his own put an end to all his scheming.

# # #

Tidac saw the end. He saw Melcer’s sword fall, and saw his father fall. He saw much more than that.

He saw Baralia throw back her head, screaming out in orgiastic joy, “Free!” and saw her fading figure fly arrow straight through he stone walls of the Citadel to the menhir, to merge finally and eternally with those she had sought to join for all her years of hellish exile.

He saw his father’s soul rise up out of his falling body and follow her flight, crying out, “No!” The menhir had claimed him years before. There would be no need of enreithment. The menhir itself had torn soul and ai from his body as it fell, and all that Marquart had been was swallowed up by the ring of stones before his body had stopped twitching.

# # #

Clevis saw none of this, but he heard Marquart’s death cry and knew that nothing mattered any more but getting Tidac to safety. He dragged the boy through the kitchen and out to the entryway. No one was there. All the guards had rushed into the Citadel toward the sound of battle. Clevis dragged Tidac down the ramp. 

One of Marquart’s men, Devlin, came cantering up on kakai. Clevis let him draw close, then jerked him down. He hit the ground hard, stunned, and Clevis kicked him in the face.

There was no time for explanations. Not even seconds. Clevis hurled himself into the saddle and reached down for Tidac. He turned up the road toward Instadt, where the boy’s g’father could offer him sanctuary.

He had not gone a mile when he saw troops on kakai moving to cut him off. He turned north then, in the direction of the mountains.

# # #

Melcer looked down on the empty face of his h’brother. He looked like Beshu. He looked like the face Melcer saw each time he looked into a mirror.

Tidac would look like that someday, if he lived. And he would remember this day. When Melcer had seen the boy sitting on the fence rail, half a year ago, he had actually felt a kinship with him. It would have been pleasant to have a nephew.

Now all that was changed. Now the boy had to die. more tomorrow