The Angle

Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge is 1000 words of action. I pride myself on my action, it’s one thing I think I do pretty good with, but Chuck’s further injunction to make it a story caused me to hesitate. I’m not so good turning short fiction into a tale with a beginning, middle and end. I fumbled around with a couple of ideas, but nothing stuck.

But then….

I have been reading Ralph Peters’ Hell or Richmond about the Union’s 1864 invasion of Virginia during the Civil War. Peters does a good job conveying the horror of the campaign. This was where and when warfare changed from occasional battles and armies maneuvering for advantage to constant battle and victory through attrition. The fighting prefigured the slaughter of World War I (too bad nobody in Europe was paying attention). One of the worst battles in this campaign occurred on May 12th to 13th, 1864, as part of Hancock’s assault on the Confederate salient known as the Mule Shoe. A Union division moving in to support Hancock hit the Confederate lines on the western side of the salient, and for about twenty-one hours a two hundred yard section of the line was turned into possibly the most savage slaughter-pen ever seen on the North American continent. Ever since it has been called “The Bloody Angle”, which is actually a mild term, considering what happened there.

Thinking about the Angle, I realized I had something I could write, although I will leave it to others to judge if it works as a story.

Warning: this is possibly the most graphic action piece I have ever written. It contains extreme violence and images. Even so, I probably didn’t really capture the essence of what happened at the Angle. I doubt mere words could.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Timothy crawled.

Screams, thunder, darkness, fire. Curses from men pushing forward, howls of pain from men falling, lances of flame as rifles went off in men’s faces. Rain.

Timothy pulled himself forward. He couldn’t see more than a yard; the rain was coming down so hard that each drop threw up a spray of mud and water in his face. The feet and legs of soldiers– he wasn’t sure which unit they belonged to– trampled about him, over him, on him. One man, then another, tripped over him and fell, cursing. Timothy fought to keep his head above the mud.

Get away from the works. He knew, in his bowels, if he stayed here he would be trampled down and out of existence, like a dog in the middle of a road. Thousands of men were coming on behind the first wave, all cramming into this little section of the line. Along the enemy line, rifles raised as clubs swung downward, the sound of skulls cracking like gourds beneath a hammer. Indistinct forms of men struggled and stabbed one another.

Get away.

Each time he pulled himself forward agony ran through his arm and leg like electric fire. He’d already puked from it, a sickness unnoticed in the muck all around him. His leg had been shot through; he couldn’t stand on it. Even if he could have, he wouldn’t– the air whined thick with Minie balls. Men charging forward were hit more times than Timothy’s distracted brain could count. Some of them just came apart.

His arm– the worst pain of all– dragged useless at his side. He’d been hit twice there. The ends of the shattered bone grated on each other.

Over the thunder and the gunfire, the shouts and cries of pain, Timothy heard officers urging men forward. It was if they spoke a strange language, pointless in its babble. There was no order here. It was some savage corner of existence where the normal laws of life were abolished.

More trampling feet– some soldier or another, anonymous in the mass shoving forward, slammed Timothy in the ribs with his brogans. A fresh, white-hot pain shot through him. He gasped, sucking in mud and rainwater, coughed them back out, making the pain flash through him again. Ribs. It would have been almost adding insult to injury, if it hadn’t hurt so much.

Weeping, his salt tears unnoticed in the rain that soaked him, he crawled on. Every inch was purchased with agony. More men stumbled over him. Was he invisible? Was he already dead? No, death would surely mean the end of pain, and pain was his present reality.

Mud in his eyes– he tried to shake his head to clear them. At the moment a shell burst high above him in the tree-tops. Bright light and a crack beyond thunder, and the tree came down, crushing men beneath it. One man was speared right through by a branch and pinned to the earth, where he writhed like a bug on a pin.

Out of the rain, a captain appeared, waving his sword, urging men forward. A volley tore the top of his head off. The officer fell right on top of Timothy. Blood and brains spilled over him; Timothy hardly noticed, as the officer’s weight crushed him into the mud. Every one of his wounds shrieked. Timothy, for just a moment, knew nothing but a white haze of pain.

He came to with muck choking his nose and mouth. He got his head up, spat it out, gasped for air. He tasted dirt and water and blood.

For a moment, the dead captain pressing him down, the feet of other men trampling him into the mud, Timothy knew he had no more strength. The sounds of the fighting faded. It would be easier, so much easier, just to rest and let it end.

He remembered a garden, a shading tree, the side of a house– Janie, sitting on that bench behind her mother’s house as he proposed to her. She had looked beautiful then. She had always looked beautiful to him– it didn’t matter about her nose, and the freckles. Timothy had never minded the little imperfections of a woman who made him want to be a better man.

This will be hard on her. To be a widow; more than that, a widow with a young baby. Clara, born the fall before. In his imagination Clara had her mother’s red hair.

But he had never seen her.

With a scream as much of rage as of pain, Timothy forced himself up on his one good leg and hand. The dead captain rolled off him. Balancing himself with his wounded leg– ignoring the lances of agony this sent through him– he crawled forward, with a sort of odd, lurching motion. The pain this caused him was expected now, reminders that he yet lived. With his unbalanced posture, he was going as much sideways as forward, but he was moving. Soldiers still moving toward the works saw him now, and dodged around him….

…until one of them didn’t, and blundered right into him. The soldier went one way and Timothy the other. He was blinded by more pain as he rolled down a slope, the back side of one of the undulations in the ground they had crossed in their attack. He came to rest on his back.

When he could think again, Timothy realized he was in a pocket of calm. The ground here was just low enough to shield him from enemy fire. Timothy lay panting. He was utterly spent. He could not go another foot. I’m sorry, Janie.

Other wounded lay scattered around this stretch of ground. One boy, who could have not been more than sixteen, lay against a felled tree, holding in his entrails. He gave Timothy a pleading look. Timothy wished he could do something for the lad. But there was nothing more he could do for himself.

He may have lost consciousness then, for it seemed as if a face suddenly appeared before him. It was young, and round, and smooth-cheeked. It took Timothy a moment to realize it was the face of a youth, leaning over him, peering down at him.

“Hey, there, corporal,” the boy said. “You still on this side of the Jordan? So you are, by the Lord God. I was afraid you’d gone on, like those other poor fellows.”

Timothy managed to lift his head and see that the boy wore the uniform of a drummer. “It’s bad out here, corporal, as bad as I ever seen it, and worse. Good thing you managed to crawl down here– can’t go up into the field to get any of the boys, that Reb fire’s cutting men to pieces. But now you just put your trust in the Lord Jesus and Jim Mahaffey. I’m Jim, not Jesus, by the way, just in case you’re confused. Between the two of us we’ll get you out of here.” The boy reached down and got his arm around Timothy’s shoulders.

“You just lean on me,” the boy said.

Horse Tamer – Chapter 4 – The Kyrian Girl

Chapter 4 of Horse Tamer. This one turned out pretty long, and what I have in mind for Chapter 5 is probably twice as long as this, so I may need to break it into two parts, or change the order of my chapters.

This piece has an odd provenance. Ana, in various forms, is one the characters of this saga who has been with me for a long time, but her appearance here is radically different from her previous incarnations, about which I may post more in the future. Characters evolve, sometimes by Darwinian gradualism, and then sometimes by a sort of punctuated equilibrium, under the influence of new inspirations. A new inspiration struck me in the last couple of weeks and took Ana in a new direction. Poor woman– her author is such a jerk….

In general, in creating Horse Tamer I am determined to give Mankin a fresh start. I have altered characters, shed plot elements, retained others and introduced new elements. Venia, for example, is a new element, in its entirety. I hope the new synthesis will be fruitful. It does feel good so far.

By the way, I wrote much of this chapter under the influence of some seriously epic music, including The Long Song from Dr. Who. Writing while listening to powerful music can be inspirational, but it can also be dangerous, in that it may make you think your writing is better than it is. Hopefully, that is not the case here.

Warning: this chapter has some serious language. Beware if you are easily offended.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel.
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They came for her in the late afternoon. Allia had her bathed, and then Cali painted her. “An important night for the master,” Cali told her, as she drew the lines around Ana’s eyes and across her face. “He’s hosting many important people, so many Highborn and wealthy folk. Senators and generals and all. You must do your best.”

It’s always an important night, Ana told herself. No matter the master. Her new owner, Denacles, was a climbing man, working hard to ingratiate himself to those who ruled here in Venia. Ana heard the kitchen gossip, as much as people seemed to think her deaf. He wanted citizenship, and a place on councils and in assemblies. Being a foreign-born just meant he had to climb harder.

Cali finished with her, and she sat in a corner of the kitchen, with a light shawl over her naked shoulders, while the other slaves bustled about with preparations. Ana would have gladly helped, especially with the food preparation, since Cook was not above allowing her helpers little tastes of the fantastic dishes being prepared– meat pies and turtle-soup, stuffed quail and savory olives, cheeses in great, dizzying varieties, ices and cakes, and three great roasted peacocks, arranged on giant platters with oranges and baked apples. Ana, though, was forbidden from turning her hand to ordinary household chores– not only would work damage her body-paint, but many of her fellow slaves still feared her, and made little signs against evil when she was about. That is, when the master was not looking.

At least, Ana thought, it had kept any of the men from trying to rape her. That, and the certainty that the master would castrate and crucify the slave who violated his pet seeress.

At least Cook, Cali and Allia were kind to her. Otherwise Ana had made no friends in the household in the two months she’d been here. There were times when she felt very cut-off and alone. She found herself missing the house of Vykranus, which she had thought a dark and sad place. At least there she’d had friends- old Plius the doorkeeper, Meg the weaver and Silanus, the ancient pedagogue, who had taught her forbidden things. She had grieved when the scholar had died in his sleep, three years ago. He had been the closest thing to a father she’d had since she was eight.

“There are laws in the Empire,” he’d told her. “Laws any man or woman can know and understand, even a slave. Laws even a slave can call upon.”

But they keep so much hidden. The struggle to discover what she wanted to know had been long and frustrating. She’d hoped to find what she needed in Vykranus’ house– but Silanus had died, and then Vykranus had fallen on hard times, after the earthquake. She had been sold to Denacles, who had heard of her, and had determined to add her to his collection of wonders…or oddities, she supposed.

She did not feel much like either.

She heard the guests arriving, heard the greetings and laughter echoing back from the front rooms of the house. The level of bustling visibly increased; then they fixed the collar about her neck, and the girl Hila led her on a chain to the library, to wait. The main dining hall of the master’s house was next door to the library; Ana could clearly hear the conversation as the guests settled in around the tables.

There was more laughter, and some jockeying for positions close to Denacles, which sounded good-natured, but which Ana knew was not. It was as if each guest carried a knife under their robes, forged out of the secret wants and hatreds they nurtured. They only waited the opportunity to wield them.

This was in addition to the three men who were, in fact, carrying swords beneath their robes. Ana was not particularly worried– they were all her master’s creatures, and went armed because the city was not safe. She was rather glad, sometimes, that she was usually kept within the house– the tales of the city the other slaves told frightened her.

The first courses were brought in, the pies and soups, to general approbation. The smell of the food wafted into the library. Ana’s stomach rumbled. They never fed her before she Spoke; they supposed it interfered with her inner sight. It did no such thing, but no one cared what she thought on the matter.

Denacles and his guests fell into conversation as they ate, as dishes were taken away and new ones brought in. Ana listened. She understood only part of what was said, but it was because these people shared common understandings she did not.

“A sad business,” one of the men said. Ana saw he was a merchant; some of the wine he imported was being served at this very moment. “Massanio Karvani gave the Empire many years of loyal service. Sad that a man like that should fall prey to temptation.”

“It’s common among these old soldiers,” another man said. This one was a young Highborn, to all appearances very sure of himself and his place in the world; when he walked, it was with a swagger. “They get done with the Army and they don’t what to do with themselves. My father was the same way– absolutely hopeless once he was out of armor.”

Ana nearly laughed aloud; the swaggerer had lived in absolute terror of his father, until the father’s death the previous month.

“You can’t have too much sympathy for Massanio, though,” a third man said. This was a senator, fat, with rings on his fingers. “His malfeasance was incontrovertible. We heard the evidence ourselves.”

“But should he have been executed?” another man said. “Quite aside from proportionality of punishment to crime, are you not afraid the New Way will resent the…finality of his sentence?”

“What of it? Who cares what those moon-headed fools think? Half of them are mechanics and freedmen, the other half old families whose blood is bred out. Time they were reminded who are the proper rulers of the Empire are. As far as I’m concerned, we of the Order need to set a few more examples like Karvani– it would fix that understanding in the New Way’s heads for good.”

“Well, then– as you say,” the other man said– but Ana could tell he was actually unconvinced. She had encountered this man before, as he met frequently with her master– a man of thoughts he never fully revealed, and understandings he shared with no one else. He frightened her.

The conversation strayed to other topics– the war in the far Inner Sea, the prices the lords of the distant Silk Islands demanded for their goods. Her master told a joke about the King of Silk and a monkey that raised a roar of laughter from the guests, but Ana could tell only some of those present actually thought it funny. The rest laughed because they thought it a good idea to laugh at Denacles’ jokes.

More courses were brought in, and more wine. Some of the guests were growing drunk. It was a strange state, impaired but with the delusion you were under control. She had never drunk enough wine to experience the state herself. It was odd enough in others.

Hila had fallen asleep on a cushion when two of the house guards finally came for her. One of them shook the child awake and told her to get to bed; the other picked up Ana’s chain. “Come on, girl,” he said, jerking on the chain. “The Master says you’re to do your best– very important guests and all. He says not to embarrass him, or you’ll find even you’re not immune to the lash. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” Ana said. She said nothing more; it was enough that she could taste the bully’s own fear of her.

They led her out, into the dining chamber. The master and his guests were all arranged as she had sensed on the other side of the wall, the guests reclining in a semi-circle on either side of Denacles. They all looked up as she came in. Ana had schooled herself years before to shut out what she did not want to Know; that ability had saved her innumerable times, in moments of danger, in moments of chaos, when she very desperately needed to know which voices were in her head and which were shouting at her with mouths. Even so, the wash of thoughts and emotions in this chamber nearly staggered her. There was so much going on beneath the surface, rivalries and jealousy and hate, all smoothed over with pleasing fronts. Ana swallowed and forced it all down and behind her, as if she were forcing herself not to vomit.

She could do little about the wash of emotions emanating from the guests. Many of the guests feared her, some at levels of which they were not even conscious. She was used to that; Venians feared anyone they considered barbarian. Others were curious, and a few– mostly the older men– looked at her with lust. She had encountered this before, many times before. It always left her feeling as if she had been crawled over by vermin.

The master rose from his couch. Ana crouched down by the house’s God pillar, in the lowest abasement, as always. She did not look up; she kept her eyes on the stone floor. It had been swept to immaculateness.

“My friends,” Denacles said, “I do not doubt you have all heard of of my hobby of collecting the curious and the odd. You have seen my singing dwarf, some of you have had speech with my hermaphrodite, and a lucky few of you have feed my unicorn. Here is my latest acquisition– the Kyrian seeress, the one who predicted the earthquake that shook Bharu last winter.”

As if anyone listened, Ana thought. For three days she tried to tell Vykranus of what was coming, what she had seen in the fit that took her in the night. She had finally gotten a beating for her trouble. Oddly, that had saved her life, as she had been in the sturdy well-house, washing her scrapes and soothing her bruises, when the earthquake hit. Half of Vykranus’ household had died, and Vykranus’ fortunes were never the same afterwards. In the aftermath, yes, people had cheered her, but what good had it done then?

“I heard of her,” Denacles was saying, “and determined she would be a fine acquisition for my collection. At great expense,” at knock-down prices “I purchased her and had her brought here. Stand up, girl, let my guests see you better.”

“Yes, master,” she murmured, and stood. She kept her eyes downcast, as she had been taught. She was grateful for the paint, the ritual colors and the dark lines these Venians thought were the signs of a Kyr seer. They had it all wrong, but Ana said nothing. The paint did a little to cover her half-nakedness. For that she was grateful.

“She is,” Denacles said, looking from Ana to his guests, “pretty enough, for a barbarian, and still a maid, which is necessary for her prophetic art,” wrong again, “and therefore she is a precious commodity, my lords and ladies. So, no touching, if you please!”

A gust of laughter greeted his words. Ana could tell some of the men wanted to touch her; she wrapped the erroneous assumption about her maidenhood about her like a coat of chain-mail.

“So who would like to know their future?” Denacles said. “Who among you has the courage to face what Will Be? Although I warn you, lords and ladies, sometimes this girl’s prognostications are couched in ambiguous language– the immediate meaning may not be clear.”

“Isn’t that the way with all these seer-folk?” the young Highborn swaggerer said. “Come now, Denacles, this is just a parlor game, isn’t it? You might as well set us to miming stories for one another.”

Denacles smiled at the young man, but behind that smile Ana saw a hatred so black and sharp-toothed that it nearly staggered her. “Then there would be no harm, my lord Cortenso, for you to be first to have a go,” Denacles said.

Ana did not have to See to see how the swaggerer was taken aback by the suggestion. He instantly tried to cover it up. “It’s all the same to me,” Cortenso said, with a shrug of exaggerated indifference.

“Very well, my lord,” Denacles said. He turned to Ana, reached up and unclipped the chain from her collar. “Do well, bitch,” he whispered in her ear. He stepped back.

Ana lifted her face, looked toward the ceiling. She affected a distant, somewhat distracted look, not because she needed to, but because the Venians expected it. They seemed unable to conceive that a seer might be something other than ethereal.

She dropped her eyes to Cortenso, met his gaze. The young man had a superficial beauty, but the anger, resentment and greed that boiled just beneath his surface repulsed Ana. She smiled at him– you always had to smile, otherwise they thought you were about proclaim their death.

She dropped her guard, the shield that kept out all the voices. Not completely– just enough to focus on this boy/man/monster.

Words, images, sensations– some rough, some clear, some blurred with wine– she traced them all, followed them through the twisting present, tracked them into the writhing future– that which is to be, always shifting, always changing its face, so that usually she could not see clearly beyond a few weeks, at most. It was usually enough, though. As it was now.

Ana spoke. “My lord would do well to beware of ox-carts this evening.”

A moment’s pause, and then general laughter. Cortenso himself looked to be caught somewhere between mirth and indignation. “Oh, come now! Denacles, admit this is a fraud! Ox-carts, indeed!”

“Be patient, if you please, my lord,” Denacles said, from behind Ana. His calm words hid a blooming anger, and dread– he was suddenly worried that his new toy would humiliate him. Ana saw what that would mean for her. She forced herself to focus on Cortenso, refusing to be distracted.

“My lord,” she said, her Venian just touched by the burr of her Kyr birth, “has suffered a loss. It weighs heavy upon you.”

“Hmm, very good, barbarian, now you’ve managed to predict what has already happened,” Cortenso said, sneering. Some of the guests laughed again. “At this rate you will tell us the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning.”

“You will find joy again,” Ana said, “when you find that which bears the symbol of your heritage, in the place of your mother’s hopes. A golden circle, within a box of cedar.”

Cortenso’s eyes flew open wide with surprise. “My mother’s cedar chest? How did you…? My father’s signet ring? Is that where it is?”

“My lord’s heart will be relieved,” Ana said.

“Does this make sense to you, my lord?” Denacles said. Ana sensed the recession of her imminent death.

“My father…hid his signet ring, and did not tell anyone where before he died,” Cortenso said. He stood hastily. “I must beg your forgiveness, Denacles– but if this is true, I have to see to it at once.” He scowled. “If she’s making up tales, though, you will hear of it.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Denacles said smoothly. “I would have it no other way.”

Cortenso bowed, and left in haste. Mind the ox-carts, Ana thought after him.

As he left, Denacles said, “Who else? Who else wants to know their future?”

Several guests spoke up at once. Denacles smiled– he had them now, and Ana could tell how much this pleased him– and picked an older man in rich robes, who reclined close by his young wife. They made quite a contrast, as he was gray-headed and she could be no more than a year or so older than Ana herself. “Illio, you are very eager. I would think an old fellow like you would be content to let the future come at its own pace.”

“I have new things to concern me,” Illio said, and he smiled at his wife.

“Very well,” Denacles said, and he nodded to Ana.

She stepped forward. “So, what do you see for us, outlander?” Illio said. “Any portends of untied boot-laces?” He was amused, but there was a twinge of fear underneath his gruff demeanor.

Ana smiled again, but this time she turned to the old man’s wife. The girl was frankly frightened of her, although she tried to hide it.

“It is well, lady,” Ana said. “Do not be afraid, of me, nor of what you carry in your womb. Your joy is complete.”

“What?” Illio said, startled. “What is she saying? Imeda, is she saying you’re with child?”

The girl flushed bright red, but gave her husband a nervous smile. “I…just learned today, husband. I did not tell you at once, I wanted to find the right moment….”

“For good news like this, any moment is good!” Illio said. He sat up and laid a tender hand on his wife’s belly. Then his face clouded. “But how is this prophecy?” he said, looking at Ana. “More likely, you know the signs of pregnancy in a woman….”

“My lord shall know the truth of my words,” Ana said calmly, “when your wife bears a boy and a girl to you in one birth.”

Illio gaped, then laughed. “Well, then, it will take nine months to test this saying out, but it will be worth the wait!” He leaned over and kissed his wife.

The guests clapped. Ana wasn’t sure if it was for the tender scene or her prophecy. Venians were so strange….

“Who next?” Denacles said, beaming himself.

“I am feeling the need for a little soothsaying,” the fat senator said. “Things have been going well for me. Want to see if my luck will hold.”

Ana stepped toward him. Opening her mind to him was stepping into a shallow, but fetid, pool, full of rank things. She steadied herself, and smiled again.

“Hail, Senator Marco Gremanius, Elder of the City, former consul, protector of the traditions of your fathers,” Ana said. “It is known, lord, that you have labored mightily to build your house and to establish it as preeminent in the Empire. I tell you now, very soon your family will see you honored above all others, and the city will turn out to pay respect to you.”

The senator’s face grew more avid with each word. “When? How soon?”

Ana smiled wider. “Within the week, the Senate will vote you special honors of the Fifth Order, and your statue will be erected in the Lesser Market.”

“A pleasurable prophecy, indeed!” Gremanius said. If he had been a dog, Ana thought he would be licking his chops; his puerile delight with what she was saying nearly turned her stomach. “Of course, I will hold you to it, wench, and you, too, Denacles.”

“Of course, Senator,” Denacles said. Ana sensed a renewed tension in him; he was less than pleased with the specificity of Ana’s prophecy. Trouble hovered.

A couple of other guests asked for their fortunes, but Ana sensed that most were leery– she was being entirely too specific, not at all what the Venians were used to in soothsayers. She gave the last two pleasing little promises– a good week in business, the return of favorite son from the eastern reaches of the Empire– and then Denacles held up his hands. “I’m afraid,” he told his guests, “that we have taxed our seeress tonight. Her gift is fragile, and I would not wear her out….”

“Your pardon, Denacles.” It was the closed-minded man. ” I would like my fortune told. If it is no trouble.”

Denacles hesitated. Ana sensed something in him she had not seen before– genuine fear. It was as startling as lightning on a clear day. And if Denacles was frightened, Ana wanted no part of this man.

“Certainly, Samarius,” Denacles said. He could hardly refuse the request of a guest, although Ana sensed he wanted to, wanted to badly. “It is no trouble.”

Ana stepped toward the man. He was lean and dark; he watched her with eyes that missed nothing. Ana lowered her guard.

She shivered. It was like plunging into a snow-bank, with brittle ice crackling around you. The senator had been all surface greed and gluttony; this man, this Samarius, was deep darkness, with shadowed gears within gears, plans well-laid and well-calculated. There was, in fact, something unhuman about him, something that denied the validity of any compunction.

The man would trample infants if they lay in his path.

Ana swallowed, forcing herself to stay steady on her feet. “My lord,” she said, “very soon you will have your heart’s desire.”

Samarius smiled. Ana did not like it. “And do you know what my heart’s desire is, little one?”

Ana realized he had whispered it, just for her. “Yes,” she answered.

Samarius’ smile widened. “Good.”

He knows. Ana did not know how he knew, but she was certain he understood her Gift. Perhaps better than she did.

Denacles came up behind her, took her arms. “I am sorry, Samarius, but I must really insist that this child rest. You can see how fragile she is.”

Samarius inclined his head. “Of course– I am sorry if I caused her any distress.” Ana knew it was a complete lie, but he spoke it as carelessly as someone else would remark on a mild spring day. “An entertaining display, nevertheless, Denacles– I congratulate you.”

Everyone made similar noises. Denacles signed to Ana and the guard. Ana bowed to the guests. The guard re-shackled her and led her from the chamber. To her disquiet, though, he did not take her back to her room, nor to the bathhouse to have the paint washed off her, but back to the library.

There they waited. The guard said nothing; they both abided in silence. Ana’s silence grew more and more worried, but she said nothing.

She heard the dinner-party begin to break up, people making their excuses and thanking Denacles for an evening that was entertaining, delightful, fascinating, depending on who was thanking him. While some of the guests were still leaving there came a commotion. Cortenso had returned, in a stunned state; he and Denacles were far enough away, at the front of the house, that Ana could not make out their conversation. But she picked up, not just the shattered state of Cortenso’s nerves, but a blossoming gratitude toward Denacles.

A little while later Denacles came into the library. Inside himself he was a roiling boil of emotions, so mingled up Ana could not separate them out. He took Ana’s chain from the guard, told the man, “Wait outside.”

Ana had only a moment’s warning. The door closed behind the guard, and Denacles picked her up– he was so much bigger than she was– and slammed her into a wall.

“Master…please,” she got out.

Denacles grabbed her by the throat, holding her upright, his grip hard. “You little cunt,” he whispered in her ear. “You really can tell the future.”

“Master….” she choked out.

“I thought maybe it was trick, but that fool Cortenso, he found his father’s signet ring, right where you told him he would,” Denacles said. “Then, on the way back, an ox-cart broke loose on the Way of the Virgins and nearly killed him. Did kill one of his lantern-bearers, and just missed Cortenso. So the young idiot is now eternally grateful to me, and is ready to help. All because you know what is to be.”

“M-master.” Sparks began to fill Ana’s vision.

Denacles let her go. She fell to the floor, gasping. “Master, as I told you….” She coughed, coughed again. “As I told you, I cannot See more than a few days ahead, and never perfectly. I do not See everything.” Indeed, she had not foreseen this burst of anger by more than a second. She massaged her throat. “Sometimes, I do not understand what I See. But I have told you the truth about the Gift.” Not all of it– no one knew of her ability to sense feelings, and to see surface thoughts. She had kept that secret. Except perhaps from Samarius. The thought worried her.

Denacles, standing over her, said, “That business with Gremanius, what was that about?”

“He will die in four days,” Ana said. Her breath came easier now. “His heart will explode.” While trying to couple with a slave girl, but that was an unnecessary detail. “The city will vote the honors I mentioned.”

Denacles stared at her. Then he started to laugh. “And his son, Regnus, will succeed him. Regnus, who is three times the man and one-fifth the fool– who will be more of a mainstay to the Order than his father ever was. Yes. It is good I’ve cultivated their family.” He shook her chain. “What of Samarius?”

“When Gremanius dies, there will be a shuffling in the secretariat of the Senate,” Ana said. She wasn’t even sure what a secretariat was, but the word was there, in the mind of Samarius, a great, golden idol of a word. “Samarius desires to be appointed to it, and Regnus will bring him in as an aide. And his heart’s desire will be realized.” For now.

Denacles laughed again. He gaze was if he stared across the future himself. “And I am friend to both. Oh, this falls out well.” He focused on Ana. “Get up.”

She did, staggering a little. Her throat hurt.

“It is good you spoke the truth tonight– it will establish your bona fides, so to speak. But you are never to speak the truth again, unless I tell you to.”

“Master?” Ana said.

Denacles jerked on her chain. “Do I have to explain it to you, you stupid little cunt? You’re my slave. You will do what I tell you. And your Gift– it is in my service, as well. To me, you will always speak the truth. Always. I will expect to hear from you daily. To other people, you will say what I tell you to, when I tell you to. But you will tell me what you find out about them.” He paused. “I won’t be trotting you out very often, as I did tonight– you’re a precious commodity, I need to keep the price high. Do you understand?”

“Yes, master,” Ana said.

“Good,” Denacles said. “Ricanius!” That was to the guard outside. The man came back in to the library. “Take her and have Allia give her a bath. Get your rest, girl– we will have a great deal of work to do in the next few days.”

Ana bowed. “As the master wishes.”

###

Allia did indeed give her a bath, dressed her and then fed her, even as the rest of the household went to bed. “The master’s pleased, although he is gruff about showing it,” which Ana thought was like calling a thunderstorm a light drizzle.

Bath and meal done, they locked her in her room, as they always did. Outside the high, barred window Ana heard the sounds of the city settling in for the night– the calls of the night watch to one another, the distant barking of a dog, the sound of the night wind. Ana could see a scattering of stars in the opening.

She was exhausted, and her throat still hurt, but she forced herself not to fall asleep. She waited until the house quieted. When she was sure, she got up, moving quietly. Down in the far corner of the back wall she located the loose brick with her fingers. She removed it as silently as she could. There was an empty space beyond, some error in the construction of the house, a void within the wall about the size of Ana’s head. She had found it soon after her arrival in Denacles’ house, and put it to good use.

Now to use that forbidden knowledge Silanus had taught her– Ana reached into the space and took out the small book she had stolen the week before from the master’s library, along with the stub of a candle she had acquired from Cook. She lit the candle from the lamp burning high up on the far wall, and then sat down by her pallet. She had to be careful, and she had had only a little while yet to try to penetrate mysteries, but she did this every night, and she was making progress.

She opened the book– Laws of Servitude and Bondsmen, the cover said. This is what Silanus had taught her, and it was power beyond her own Gift. Which, of course, was no gift at all, but a curse that had fallen on her as a child. This was her road to freedom.

She bent over the book, the candle in her other hand, and began to read.

Sometimes you have to be merciless….

Seriously, there are times when you have to harden your heart and just do what is ugly, but necessary. Mercy, sentiment and compunction have no place in this business– you must be utterly ruthless….

I am, of course, talking about cutting your work in progress.

I have just cut about 10,000 words out of the heart of Princess of Fire. This is on top of earlier cuts to the tune of about 20,000. The poor little things were the innocent victims of my rampant pantsing of this novel earlier this year. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that with this project I let my normally healthy and productive instinct to write without an overall plan or structure in mind run out of control– at the start I was far too optimistic all the boss and utterly epic scenes in my head would fit together without major difficulties– surely I just needed a few transitions and a couple of patches, and everything would knit itself together into a glorious narrative that would set Kathy up for the finale, Princess of Stars, with some dandy, really big explosions along the way (gotta have explosions).

This delusion carried me to about 96,000 words. The beginning and the end were all written. All I needed to do was address the middle…and that’s when I started to slow down, and to doubt, and the whole project staggered and shuddered to a stop, in a cloud of steam and noxious gases.

The middle, unfortunately, is where the most intense action of the story happens (well, duh, thank you, Aristotle)– and I began to find it difficult to tie things together, and to get down the missing pieces of action. Worse, I started reduplicating scenes, as I tried to find some avenue through what increasingly appeared to be a brick wall.

In the end I did something I rarely ever do with a work in progress– I decided to start over. Not from scratch, but from about one-third of the way through the narrative, while also preserving the final third, or thereabouts.

And this is where the merciless part comes in– I had disjointed pieces that belonged to that middle third, some of them quite extensive, some of them duplicates, thousands of words that I now had to liquidate. I had to because I found they were actually impeding my progress– I kept thinking “okay, surely I can fit this piece here” or “I can retrofit this scene”, which was preventing me from starting fresh. So I cut them. Despite the screams.

Writers, it should be noted, are not completely rational. We are also frequently extraordinarily untidy. Our stories don’t always smoothly flow off our fingers, with the plot and characters all pitch-perfect and correctly structured. Usually, quite the opposite. Writers can, in fact, write themselves into serious corners– a particular danger with serial story telling, such as comics and TV (yes, I’m going to mention Lost, my personal touchstone of how to screw up a great concept). The effort to get out of some of the entanglements of serial story-telling has given rise to the term “retcon”, which is as ugly in action as it is to say.

For fiction writers, this is where the second draft is both a blessing and a necessity. It is the chance to change course, to correct the mistake, to find a better way of saying something. Anyone who publishes a long narrative without re-drafting is a either genius or a fool.

(Of course, this is essentially what I am doing with Horse Tamer, and since I am certifiably not a genius, then….)

So, despite the trauma of doing away with essentially a novella’s worth of words from Princess of Fire, I feel better, and I think I now have a clear path in front of me. Maybe– maybe– thirty to forty thousand or so words, done the right way, will get me across this stubborn wilderness of a middle I’ve been wandering around in for the last several weeks, and give me that genuine, unified first draft that is always my initial goal for any of my novels.

I hope so. I am getting pretty parched and sunburned out here.

There is a moral in this– if you pants, at least use a pair of suspenders. And for the love of God, put the damn things on one leg at a time….

Horse Tamer – Chapter 3 – Down to the Dead

Here is Chapter Three of Horse Tamer. As promised, I am starting to introduce other viewpoint characters. I’m not going to try to imitate George R.R. Martin and do each chapter strictly from the viewpoint of one character, but I want to make sure everyone gets the page time they need. I have a lot of characters who want to have their say.

Fair warning– we’ve just started this tale, and what I have in my head promises to go on for a while. Everybody draw up a chair and get settled.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel.
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Crisonia steeled herself, and stepped through the Portal of Weeping. Only Nema came with her; the other household slaves stayed on the pavement outside the temple, gray hoods cast over their heads, weeping. Crisonia wondered how many shed genuine tears of sorrow, and how many faces were wet for show. Probably she would never know.

She herself had not shed any tears. Not yet. But they were not far away.

Within the tall bronze doors stood two temple attendants, slaves whose tongues had been removed at birth so that their voices would never disturb the serene silence of the entryway to the underworld. They bowed to Crisonia. Holding lamps, they conducted her down a flight of stairs.

How far down they went, Crisonia did not dare to guess. Being preoccupied with other things, she didn’t think to count the steps as she descended them. It was deep, however; the light from the portal above faded to nothing as they went down.

At last, the stairs ended in a wide, level corridor. More lamps burned here, but their light was mingled with that of a number of nolere, more than Crisonia had ever seen in one place. The cool light they gave off made the corridor bright and shadowless.

Off the main corridor were chambers, cut from the native rock, each lit by a single lamp. In these chambers stood a slab. Most of these rooms were empty– in one, though, she spied the body of a man on the slab, with a woman sitting, red-eyed but silent, by it.

The slaves conducted her to a chamber midway down the corridor. Here stood a lictor of the Senate, in his robes of office, attended by two burly guards. Are you afraid of me? Crisonia asked him silently. Good.

On the slab lay her father. The body was naked. Crisonia had never seen her father naked; now, in death, it made him look shrunken and pathetic. She closed her lips tight. The last indignity.

“Crisonia of the Karvanii,” the lictor said, in an official voice, “the Senate greets you. Receive now the body of Massanio Karvani, condemned as an attainted traitor and malfeasant in full trial by the Senate of the Venian people, who has suffered the just punishment of his crimes. All charges, indictments and allegations have been discharged against him and his house. The Senate clears you of all implication in your father’s crimes, and, out of mercy, leaves you free and without taint.”

“I thank the Senate,” Crisonia said. Thankfulness was the furthest thing from her heart at the moment, but she was expected to say the words.

“We shall leave you,” the lictor said. He bowed to Crisonia, who did not return the gesture, and left, trailed by his guards.

Alone– Nema had stayed by the door– Crisonia stepped to the slab. Her feet seemed suddenly unsteady. She forced herself to stand firm, and looked down at her father.

They had not cleaned him. A wide fan of dried blood crusted his torso and belly, from where it had flowed out of the gaping sword wound in the center of his chest. Massanio’s eyes were half-open, as if he were just dropping off to sleep. Shuddering, Crisonia reached and closed the eyelids. The dead flesh was cold, waxy.

“Mistress,” Nema said.

Crisonia turned. In the doorway stood Rebonius.

“General,” Crisonia said, startled. She bowed low. “You do me and my father great honor.”

Rebonius entered the chamber. He, like Crisonia, wore the gray cloak of mourning. He threw back the hood. His shaven head, as massive as a boulder, shone in the lamplight. “No more than is deserved,” he said, his voice a low rumble. He came to the slab and gazed down at the body of his old comrade. “Ah, Massanio,” he said. “How did we come to this?”

“We came to this,” Crisonia said, hard and bitter despite speaking in no more than a whisper, “because of hatred and greed. And because my father made mistakes that left him vulnerable to his enemies.”

Rebonius sighed. “I would not have said it out loud, in the presence of his mortality, but it is true.” His face darkened. “Nothing deserving of public execution in the arena, though, as if he were a slave, and not one of the Highborn.” He glanced at Crisonia. “Nothing that should leave his only child without the means to live.”

“I have an inheritance from my mother,” Crisonia said.

“A small inheritance, child,” Rebonius said. “It will keep you from starvation, but not much more.”

“It will be enough,” Crisonia said.

“Perhaps– but I came, in part, to let you know that you can call upon the protection of my house, and all my allies. I will not leave the daughter of my best friend alone in the world.”

“I thank you sincerely, General,” Crisonia said. “You are most generous.” And how was it the thought of that generosity brought her to tears? She had held off all through the trial and the execution– why did the kindness of an old friend cause her to weep? “I should tell you, though, that you may not want to be too closely associated with me. Considering what I must do.”

Rebonius stepped closer. “I will not tell you, do not,” he whispered. “You must do what you must. But I counsel caution, and patience.”

“That is hard,” Crisonia said.

“But it is wisdom.” The general gestured at her father’s body. “Your father was sacrificed on a political altar this day, out of all proportion to his crimes, because our state has entered a dangerous time. Our enemies grow ruthless, and they begin to manipulate the apparatus of the state for their own ends.”

“The Empire must find a new path,” Crisonia said.

“Yes– you and I know that. Convincing others is the difficulty, especially when they do not want to be convinced. The old guard is determined to cling to power by any means. If they suspect you oppose them, powerless as you seem to be, they will not hesitate to strike you down. Better that you play a long, slow game, child. Lull your enemies into unwariness. And remember you are not alone.”

“I understand,” Crisonia said. “And I thank you again, from the bottom of my heart.”

Rebonius nodded. “I will leave you– you have rites, and grieving, to do, and having an old soldier hanging about will not help.” He threw the cloak back over his head. “I have men standing by to help with the body, when you are ready.” He left.

Crisonia turned back to the slab. Rebonius’ words warmed her, a little, but they could not do away with her grief, nor with her anger. And they changed nothing about what she needed to do.

Her face was wet now. She wiped her checks dry; then, with the moisture clinging to her fingers, she touched the dried blood where it had poured out of her father’s chest. Heart’s blood.

The wetness liquefied the crusted brown, and a little clung to each of her fingers. Enough. Quickly, she dabbed her forehead and streaked both cheeks.

“Father,” she whispered, “with your blood upon me, I swear I will avenge you. Those who murdered you will feel the wrath of the Karvanii. I will do this, and our ancestors will see it from the Afterworld and rejoice. However long it takes, whatever I must do, I will pay back each and every one of those so-called men who killed you. I swear this before all the gods, of light and of dark, and before all our ancestors. Your blood, on me, bears witness.” She breathed deep, taking in the scent of blood, of damp stone and lamp oil. She wanted to remember it. “I will kill them all.”

Horse Tamer – Chapter 2 – Vikeres

Rather ahead of schedule, here’s Chapter Two of Horse Tamer (I retconned the title just a smidge). I don’t really intend to do a chapter every other day, but this one came off the keyboard pretty easily, so there seemed little reason to delay posting it.

As this story goes on, it will be expanding to other viewpoint characters, and I anticipate some of those chapters will be quite challenging. After all, I’ve never been a woman, or a gladiator, or a slave (except, perhaps, to chocolate)….

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Chapter 2

Vikeres

Mankin waited for his grandfather in the cool of the Old Longhouse. The ancient structure had been spared in the fighting when the loyalists retook the holding. Through its open windows he heard the busy sounds of hammers and saws; rebuilding the Clan’s essential buildings was a boon to the local peasants, who saw a chance to make extra money before planting, and were making the most of it. In the meantime, the Clan leaders had to make do with what was still standing.

Mankin had been here during that fight. The western army had come up the valley of the Jilan, taking towns and other clan holdings– the Silver Spear, the Crimson Shield– at the run. But at the Bronze Mask the rebels had made a stand. Mankin had led his troop into a house-to-house fight in the alleys and across the commons of his own holding. The Moot, the House of the Elders, the Temple of the Powers, all of the warrior-barracks and most of the stables had burned to the ground. Half the holding, and all the important buildings, had gone up in smoke in an afternoon.

Well and good. Mankin was glad for the burning. The holding could now be rebuilt clean, especially since the exorcists had worked hard to purge the stain of kin-slaying from the grounds.

But then, memories really didn’t reside in places….

The northern door of the longhouse screaked open. Mankin stood. He’d had time for a hasty bath, and a change of clothes, after arriving at the holding that morning. He still felt tired and scratchy. His uncle, his men and Mankin had camped rough at Five Willows, although the night had been pleasant. But Mankin had not slept much, especially after his uncle had tried to talk to him, or at him, before they bedded down. Sunone meant well, but he was too short-tempered and too impatient to deal with a nephew who didn’t want to talk.

Mankin forgot about his uncle, though, as his grandfather entered the longhouse. Preceded by two warriors– no one important in the Hegemony went without guards these days– Vikeres came in, dressed in his own blue and gold. A tall man, unbent by his years, he nearly had to stoop the avoid cracking his head on the top lintel. Mankin had the same problem; he had often reflected that his ancestors must have been very short people, or they didn’t mind hitting their heads every now and then.

Vikeres’ beard was white, his hair was white, but there was nothing old about the look he gave Mankin. The guards remained by the door. A single scribe followed Mankin’s grandfather, a self-important little man name Kukerene. He did not open his tablet or uncork his ink-bottle, though, but stood to one side, ready if called upon.

A private chat, then. Or as private as they got with his grandfather. Mankin wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or worse.

“Boy,” Vikeres said, the barest of acknowledgments. There were chairs by the dining tables in the middle of the longhouse– its chief occupation at the moment was as mess for the warriors– but Vikeres ignored them. Perforce, Mankin remained on his feet. He had the sudden sensation of a tardy schoolboy hauled before the headmaster, a feeling that irritated him.

“Did you enjoy your ride yesterday?” Vikeres asked. As sarcasm, it was the most dry species imaginable.

Mankin’s lips tightened. “Some parts were good. Other parts were…unexpected.”

Vikeres peered at him. “You really intended to do it?”

“Yes.”

Vikeres grew grim. “You have disappointed me occasionally, Mankin, but this is the first time I have ever been ashamed of you. How dare you besmirch the name of our family….”

“All right, that’s enough,” Mankin snapped.

Vikeres stared, his tirade stopped in mid-stream. Kukerene looked as if he were about to drop his tablet. “What did you say?” Vikeres said.

“I’m not a naughty child, to be scolded,” Mankin said. “If you want to talk to me, talk to me as a man. Otherwise, I’m leaving.”

“How dare you….”

“What, stand up to you? About time someone did.”

Vikeres glowered. “I am your grandfather and High Chief!”

“And I’m a man who’s past caring about that,” Mankin said. “You could execute me where I stand, and I would be grateful. So you might as well be civil.”

Vikeres stepped back a pace, not a retreat, but as if he genuinely needed to get a better look at Mankin. “You,” he said coldly, “are not the first man to lose a wife and child in war.”

It was more than that, but this was not the time to explain it. “No. But it’s the first time for me. And it wasn’t war– it was murder.” Ripped from her belly….

Vikeres grimaced. “As may be. But you still have a duty to your family and Clan, and I can’t believe you would throw your life away….”

“Believe it. Until you do, we have nothing to say to each other.”

Vikeres pondered him, and seemed to shift his ground. “All right. I am sorry about Alektl and the…child.” Mankin didn’t believe him, but there was no point in throwing the words back in Vikeres’ teeth. “The war was hard on everyone. Don’t think I don’t understand that, Mankin. Three of my grandchildren dead, two sons, my own brother….”

“Don’t count Arad in the total,” Mankin said. “Without his ambitions– without his greed– none of this would have happened.”

“Granted. But allow me to grieve the loss of a brother, who was once dear to me. And all the dead, on both sides. The Hegemony will be years rebuilding.” Vikeres gestured toward the windows, where the sound of work went on. “And not just the buildings.”

“I know, Grandfather,” Mankin said. “Right now, it’s just not the first thing on my mind.”

“It is on mine,” Vikeres said back, but without heat. “I have to use all the tools I have to bring the nation back together. And I am not a young man.”

Mankin restrained a snort. He reckoned Vikeres would go on and on, for years yet. This was a man who had already buried four wives, and was working with a fifth to produce aunts and uncles for Mankin young enough to be his children. Vikeres kept hours and a pace of work that ran younger men ragged. No, Mankin wouldn’t hold his breath waiting for his grandfather to drop dead.

“So,” Vikeres was saying, “I have to ask– are you done with this business of killing yourself?”

Mankin hesitated. “For now.” Figuring out the meaning of the lions would take time.

“Good. Because if you mean to live a little while longer, I have a task for you.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Hear me out. You can still serve and find a purpose for living. A small one, perhaps– but it is important. More than that, it will take you away from here, which might be the best thing for you.”

“I said,” Mankin snapped, “I am not interested.”

Vikeres didn’t snap back at once. “I would think,” he said, after a moment, “that out of all that pain you would want one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“To keep Alektl and your daughter from having died in vain,” Vikeres said. “And all the others, too. Because if the Hegemony fails to hold together, after so much sacrifice, their deaths will be for nothing.”

Mankin glared at Vikeres. “You manipulative bastard.”

For the first time, Vikeres cracked a tiny smile. “You know, your mother called me the same thing, once. Right before she left the Clan. You remind me of her.” The smile widened a little. “Of course, she always reminded me of me, in most ways.”

“Stop complimenting yourself,” Mankin said, “and tell me what you’re talking about.”

“You remember your cousin, Senitendre?” Vikeres asked.

“Vaguely.” Mankin had a host of cousins– a corollary of Vikeres’s multitude of wives and children. Senitendre was years older than Mankin. They may have meet once- Mankin wasn’t sure.

“He was an aide to our Speaker to the Triumvirs, in Venia,” Vikeres said. “Not sure what exactly he did for Deremoi, but it kept Senitendre out of trouble here. Unfortunately, he found trouble there– six weeks ago it seems he managed to get himself knifed in a tavern brawl, of all things.”

Tah,” Mankin said. It was an old expression of his mountaineer father, expressing surprise or dismay, and it slipped out without conscious thought.

“If that is meant to convey your surprise and grief at this news, well, that’s about all the energy you need expend on it. I would have thought Senitendre old enough to know better, but then…well, let us not speak ill of the dead.” Vikeres peered at Mankin from under his brows. “You, on the other hand, are not the sort to frequent taverns. And if there are no lions about…”

“What are you saying?” Mankin said, although he was starting to get a idea.

“It is always a great advantage to us,” Vikeres said, “to have one of the High Chief’s blood in Venia– if not as Speaker, then at least to show himself about. I am of a mind to send you to replace Senitendre. You would be a diligent aide, I think– and, as I said, it would get you away from the Hegemony, and all its memories.”

“Venia,” Mankin said, thinking hard. He was rather taken aback. “The Empire did us no favors during the Rebellion, grandfather. Despite our pleas for aid. Despite the fact that we continued to pay tribute to them, right through the whole war.”

“And yet, the Empire is a fact we have to continue to take into account,” Vikeres said. “Look you, Mankin,” and he stepped closer to his grandson. “Despite your…impulse of yesterday, despite my harsh words a little while ago, you are a steady, sober young man. Too sober, in some ways. I need a sober young man in the Imperial capital right now, someone I can depend on. The Empire– well, the world’s becoming more and more uncertain by the day. I need eyes there to see, and a brain that can understand what’s going on, and hands to write to me with the truth. It will do us no good to rebuild here, if the wider world becomes dangerous. So– if you’re done, for the time being, with trying to fatten lions, I need your help. Will you give it to me?”

Mankin hesitated, then met his grandfather’s eyes. “Being elsewhere,” he said, slowly, “might be a good thing.”

Horse Tamer- Chapter 1- Called Back to Life

Here’s the start of something new for me.

I’ve mentioned before the character Mankin, my swordsman and horse-tamer, who has been with me for a long, long time. I have previously posted a couple of abandoned fragments and a short story featuring him. But this character has always cried out for an epic treatment. I have had bits and pieces of a complete story for him floating around in my head for a while, and I’ve decided to try to knit them together into a novel, which I intend to post as a serial story on this blog. I will try to post a short chapter a week, and we’ll see if I get farther than I did with Dinosaur Planet.

Some of you may be saying, “But what of Princess of Fire?” Progress continues to be made, at least in sporadic fits– but I recently cleared one obstinate roadblock, and hopefully the pace will pick up. At a chapter a week, I don’t think Horse Tamer will seriously impede Princess of Fire– and I very much want to tell Mankin’s story.

NOTE: There will be violence and some graphic scenes, as well as language, and possibly sexually suggestive situations. Less than Game of Thrones, but more than Cat in the Hat. I think.

Also, as with Dinosaur Planet, this will be more-or-less first draft as-it-rolls-off-my-fingers, so I will have to beg the reader’s indulgence. I will try to fix any major faux-pas before posting.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel

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Chapter 1

Called Back to Life

The sacrifice done, Mankin rode out into the waste lands. The sun greeted him riding north, through fallow fields filled with green, waving grass. He rode at a steady trot, not wanting to tire his animal. There was no need. He had plenty of time.

It was mid-morning before he crossed over into scrub and mesquite, and well after noon when he finally spied what he was looking for. A rocky kopje, topped by a locust tree, extended two hundred or so yards across his path. Tumbled rocks lay scattered at the kopje’s foot. Perfect.

Mankin stopped well short of the rise. No need for his horse to suffer along with him. He dismounted.

He unsaddled the stallion and removed the animal’s reins and bridle. The stallion seemed puzzled, but settled in to cropping the short grass between the mesquite bushes. Mankin piled the tack to one side. Perhaps someone would find it and have a use for it.

He removed his sword and sword-belt. He removed his hat. He removed the blue and gold jacket, the jacket that marked him as a warrior of the Clan. He hesitated as he held the jacket. He ran a hand over the cloth. He had been so pleased the day his grandfather had overseen him donning it for the first time. That seemed like a long time ago.

All of these he laid down with the saddle and bridle. Certainly anyone coming across this equipment would be able to puzzle out who it belonged to. What had happened would be no mystery.

He loosened his linen shirt, but he kept his pants and boots on. He had no desire to walk barefoot across this ground; it was covered with sticker-burrs. And something in him rebelled at doing this half naked. He smiled at himself.

He undid his queue. It took a few minutes; usually he had someone to help him with it. Doing it by feel with his hands behind his head was frustrating. Finally, though, he got it loose. His hair, now freed, streamed out in the breeze, waving about his head. That seemed a shame, in a way– his hair was so wavy that putting it in a warrior’s queue was a long and difficult labor. And now it was undone.

It is all undone.

He stood for a moment and looked around. This was a good place, open under the sun. Doubtless in the summer it would be hotter than a gunner’s match, but on this spring day it was merely warm and pleasant. Good. Mankin would have hated to do this in the heat of summer, or the wet and cold of winter, for that matter.

He walked forward. He made no attempt at stealth– there was no point. He walked, weaving his way between bushes, and the ground opened up even more as he approached the kopje.

A ripple of movement– to his left, at the base of the kopje, amid the rocks. A flash of brown– and then Mankin saw the lioness. It was peeking out from the rocks, watching him.

He walked on ten, fifteen more yards, before he stopped. Another lioness appeared beside the first, watching him just as intently.

The ground here was quite open. Mankin knelt down. Doing so made his scars ache, even the one on his face. He knelt down, let out a breath, and waited.

Slowly, the lionesses came out from among the rocks, suspicious, looking about for other men. The Clans hunted the rock lions of the scrublands often enough that the beasts knew men came in groups, with horses and dogs, spears and arrows. A lone man puzzled them.

Behind them came a male. The lion was huge. It padded out, tail twitching, tasting the air. It, too, seemed puzzled. After a few paces it scrambled up on the kopje itself, as if to get a better look around.

Mankin waited. He’d anticipated the lions would take their time. These were cautious beasts, living this close to the horse and cattle herds of the Clan. He was patient. Nothing better to do at the moment.

The lion came down to the flat ground again, apparently satisfied that a hundred men were not waiting somewhere out there in the scrub. By now the lionesses had advanced closer, with one on each side of him. They paced back and forth, not closing, but not going away, and still watching him.

The lion came toward him, walking slowly. Mankin watched it come. So you are my death, he thought. Good.

The lion came to within ten feet of Mankin. It stopped. Mankin could hear the deep panting of its breathing. It looked about, clearly still suspicious.

Come, Mankin thought. There’s no need to be afraid, friend. Help me.

Send me to my wife and daughter.

The lion padded forward again, moving slowly. Mankin waited. The rush would come– there would be a brief, sharp pain, not as bad as the pain that had created the scar down the right side of his face. Mankin had seen how the lions killed their prey. It would be over quickly. He smiled at the great beast.

The lion stopped. The animal was within arm’s reach. Mankin looked right in the lion’s eyes– great, yellow orbs in its massive face. Man and lion stared at each other for a long moment. Mankin felt the lion’s breath, warm and moist, on his face.

The lion stared at him, blinking. The beast snuffled once, then twice. Then it turned away.

Mankin was sure he felt the brush of the lion’s whiskers on his face as it did. The lion walked away, not looking back, as if it had dismissed Mankin from its mind completely.

Mankin stared after it. If it had been a man, surely he would have run after it. As it was, he was too stunned to move. Mankin watched as the lion, now followed by the lionesses, padded back to the rocks, and disappeared from view.

He knelt there in surprise for long minutes. He didn’t know what to do. He had rehearsed this moment in his head over and over again since making his decision, and it had never turned out this way.

At last, slowly, he stood up. He had no idea what this meant. Except that he was not supposed to die. Not yet, at least. Not this way.

He turned and staggered back the way he had come. His legs felt strange under him, as if they didn’t want to carry his weight. He managed, stumbling, to reach his clothes and weapons where they were piled. He dressed himself and strapped on his sword back on with trembling hands.

What do I do now? His pain was no less now than when he had walked down to the kopje. It was a wonder he did not break in two under it as it was, even without the help of lions.

Unchanging, Unchanging, he thought, why not let this be simple?

His horse had not wandered far. Mankin had just got its bridle back on when he spied the dust in the south. A dozen or more riders. Mankin instantly knew who they were. He went ahead and finished saddling his horse.

In a short while, Mankin could make out horsemen at the base of the dust cloud. They were coming fast, pushing their horses. A sudden guilt twinged Mankin—it was dangerous for horses to be run that hard for long.

He stood and waited, his horse’s reins in his hands. Once they spied him the horsemen slowed down. As they came up Mankin recognized faces—Telekhade, Deledre, Cherumaka, and his uncle, Sunone. As he rode up his uncle wore an expression of towering rage mingled with the most profound relief. Sunone pulled his horse to a stop and glared at Mankin through swirling dust. The other riders surrounded them, obviously worried about lions. Don’t worry—they’re my friends.

“So here you are,” Sunone snapped. Dust covered his face and only made his scowling worse. “What are you playing at, nephew?”

“Nothing, as it turns out,” Mankin said. Without his intending to, some regret leaked out.

“Give me none of your smart-mouth,” Sunone said. “I just thank the gods I thought to question that useless cob Vin. The young idiot thought you were leaving the Hegemony, ‘til he told me which way you’d gone.”

“Freedom probably set his head to spinning,” Mankin said. He had manumitted the boy as what he had thought would be his last act.

“I doubt it—he doesn’t have that much of a head,” Sunone said. He leaned forward over his saddle-horn and blew out a breath. He had the air of a man in the grip of a profound relief, who didn’t want to show it. “In any event, we came as fast as we could. I’m glad we got here in time.”

“You didn’t, actually,” Mankin said.

Sunone peered at him. “Eh? What are you talking about?”

“Never mind, uncle—it’s moot now,” Mankin said.

“Hm—all right,” Sunone said, obviously dubious. “We need you back at the holding, Mankin, as soon as possible. We won’t make it back tonight, though– we’ll have to camp at the Five Willows. Do I have your promise not to do anything foolish?”

Mankin sighed. “Yes, Uncle—you have my promise.”

Sunone nodded. “Good. Otherwise I’d have to tie you up and drag you back. Your grandfather would not like that.”

“Grandfather?” Mankin said, puzzled.

“Yes,” Sunone turned his horse. “He’s the one who wants you back at the holding. Now.”

A quote for the day

Madeleine just about says it all–

“What I believe is so magnificent, so glorious, that it is beyond finite comprehension. To believe that the universe was created by a purposeful, benign Creator is one thing. To believe that this Creator took on human vesture, accepted death and mortality, was tempted, betrayed, broken, and all for love of us, defies reason. It is so wild that it terrifies some Christians who try to dogmatize their fear by lashing out at other Christians, because tidy Christianity with all answers given is easier than one which reaches out to the wild wonder of God’s love, a love we don’t even have to earn.”

—Madeleine L’Engle

Thoughts on the daily struggle to write, with reports from the front line.

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