Abandoned fragment # 3- The horsemen

Didn’t make as much progress on the hard-copy changes for Princess of Shadows last night as I wanted to– it’s hard to type when you’re falling asleep over your manuscript. I guess the four hours a night average I’ve been putting in lately for slumber finally caught up with me. I finally packed it in and went to bed about 9 PM, which is quite early for me.

However, I did make progress and I’m down to maybe 45 pages of changes left to put in. Four or five days should do it.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided to post one more abandoned fragment. One thing about going through my old trunk novels and stories is that I am forcefully reminded of why so much of this material is un-publishable. To put it simply, until perhaps the last ten or so years, my writing has generally sucked. It’s been harder than I thought it would be to find pieces I would be willing to post. On the other hand, I think I could publish a non-fiction book on “how NOT to write” with my own failures as examples (maybe I’ll mark that down as a future project…).

I’m not even sure I can genuinely call this piece ‘abandoned’, even though the three novels I wrote (plus a large portion of a fourth novel, short stories, novellas and a plethora of fragments) in this universe are all un-publishable. The chief protagonist of these stories, Mankin son of Tolen, was my first serious fantasy character, who came to me one summer’s day in 1977. For a long time I wrote no stories but his, and even now, years after I basically abandoned the universe, I come back to this character from time to time to try and figure out how to revive him. Somehow, though, I have never been able to quite make it work. I don’t think the problem is with the characters or the universe; it’s with the execution. I’ve read a lot fantasy over the years, but for some reason my own attempts in the genre come off wooden and clunky. Perhaps I have some residual high-fantasy template in my head I have not been able to completely get rid of. The one fantasy story I’ve published, Diggers, succeeds as well as it does precisely because I changed the setting around to reflect modern-looking elements I can relate to from personal experience (machine-guns instead of broadswords…), and which I could populate with characters I knew and understood from my own history. I have always regretted my inability to get Mankin’s world to work in as satisfying a manner.

This piece is from the opening of one of the later revisions I attempted. Maybe, just maybe, someday I can pull it together.

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Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel

On the sixteenth day men began to die.

The first to go was Tianmere. Two days before he had been stung on the arm by a red scorpion the size of Mankin’s hand. At first he had seemed to be all right, riding on in the early evening and joking with the others. Soon enough, however, it became clear that he was in pain. By the next dawn his arm was swollen to three times its normal size. Soon Tianmere was raving, going back in his mind to the war and the friends he had lost. As the party rested in the heat of the day his ravings and struggles became louder and more violent; it took three men to hold him down. Before sunset he died, screaming in agony. In the twilight they buried him in a shallow grave, and rode on.

Shuneme was next. Crossing the salt flats of Gerasahna by the full of the moon, with the men all drowsing in their saddles and the horses walking with drooping heads, Shuneme strayed too far off the path. His horse broke through a crust of dirt and salt crystal and sank into a morass of saline quicksand hidden underneath. Shuneme gave out one startled cry before he was engulfed; Mankin saw one hand wave above the ground, and then disappear. Nothing more.

On the evening of the twentieth day, as they were looking to start out, they saw a distant shadow on the northern horizon. Within minutes it grew into a howling blizzard of sand. They could not ride; dismounting, they led their horses while hanging on to the tail of the beast in front of them. They stumbled into a rocky ravine, where they huddled under an over-thrust of rock with their animals until the storm was over. When they emerged, the sky was clear; but Chitmere was gone. No one had seen him since the storm began, and he was nowhere to be found afterwards; it was as if the wind and the sand had wiped him from the face of the earth.

Two days after that the water in their skins ran out. They gave the last to their horses, reasoning that if the horses died, they would die as well. Komerte told them they would have to find water soon, or else die.

Tah,” Jukormu told Mankin as they mounted up. “We must thank him for that brilliant insight. And does he have a plan about how we’re going to find water? Does he have any idea how he’s going to do it? Or is this just another one of his grand gestures, like getting us stuck in this poisoned shit-hole in the first place?”

“Leave it be, Jukormu,” Mankin said. He’d been listening to Jokormu complain since they’d left the Hegemony, and he was sick of it. Only the scale of the man’s complaints had changed—they had started out with mosquitoes and were now about whether they would die of thirst. For his part, Mankin was too tired to rail against anyone. He felt brittle and dried out and ready to snap in two.

There were ten of them left now; Komerte, Jokormu, Lerte, Saname, his brother Soname, Gederte, Kurghin the Shulanite, Terekhani, Kerrensene, and Mankin. The party had started out small and was getting steadily smaller. Mankin wondered if any of them would reach the River Kingdom, or if their whitening bones would just trail off somewhere in the desert, ending up nowhere.

They rode through that night, with the moon rising before them. At least they had no trouble establishing their direction; the skies had been clear since they’d entered the Red Waste, and they were never in danger of losing their way. The River Kingdom was to the east, ahead of them, the Hegemony behind them to the west, and that was all they needed to know at the moment.

When the moon rose there was a moment of excitement, even joy, for the moon rose up from behind a shadowy line of mountains they had not seen before. Mankin, raised in mountains, reckoned they were yet at least ten days away; but a few minutes the men in the party stood in their stirrups and whooped with joy. “It has to be the Mountains of the Western Rivers,” Komerte declared. “We’re in sight of our goal!”

Mankin reckoned that both optimistic and not terribly accurate. Even if those height were the western mountains that bordered the River Kingdom—even if they had not strayed off-course, a grave possibility in Mankin’s estimation– they were not the expedition’s ultimate goal. Their ultimate goal, in fact, was no place at all. It made the business they were on terribly ambiguous.

It did not take long for the men to calm down and resume their ride. As the night passed they left the dunes behind which they had been travelling for three days, and descended into a flat, stony waste that seemed to stretch forever before them. The one advantage Mankin could see to this ground was that it was a good as a road in terms of traveling; but it would be a frying pan in the heat of the day. They would need to find shelter of some sort well before the sun rose.

They did not. For a good portion of the night Komerte and Kurghin talked as they rode; when everyone stopped for a rest, while the sun was still down, Komerte told them, “Kurghin is sure there is a water-hole close by. He says that if we push on we can reach it before noon. But we can’t stop here on this flat. We have to push on.”

“And if the Shulanite is wrong,” Terekhani said, “we will die.” The old soldier’s face was sunburnt and caked with dust, so that his eyes appeared to peer out from within a mask.

“We’ll die if we stay out here,” Komerte said. “There’s no shelter. Kurghin says there is an oasis in a ravine, where there is shade and water both. He says the Asani people lived there, in the old times, and built a temple.”

“‘Kurghin says’,” Saname mocked. “Always it’s Kurghin says. We’re in the mess we’re in because we’ve followed the word of this dirty-assed foreigner.”

Kurghin, sitting his horse next to Komerte, turned to look at Saname. The Shulanite was not supposed to know that much Attau, but apparently he’d gotten Saname’s gist. “Go home then, horse-tamer,” he said in Trade. “Go back on your oath. Go home to dishonor, with your tail tucked. All it will prove is that your mother coupled with a rabbit, and not a drop of man’s blood flows in your veins.”

Saname growled, and reached for his sword. His brother grabbed at his arm, as Komerte shoved his horse forward. “Don’t you dare draw your blade!” he told Saname. “I mean it, Saname—let go of your hilt. Now.”

Saname glared at him, then slammed his sword back into its scabbard. Mankin had seen three inches of naked steel. He breathed out a quiet sigh of relief.

“Fighting among ourselves is pointless,” Komerte said. “Kurghin is our only guide, and we have to trust what he says. You all swore an oath. You knew this was not going to be a stroll through a flowery field. It’s not Kurghin’s fault, nor mine, nor yours, that our friends have died. It’s the Red Waste.”

“But if we can get out of this damned desert and to the Western Mountains, we’ll have a chance to live and fulfill our oaths. So, yes, we’re going to listen to Kurghin. Unless someone else has crossed this desert before?”

It was not a rhetorical question; Komerte waited for someone to speak up. All of them were silent. “Right. So if we’re done bickering, let’s ride.”

A few hours later, the sun rose, a blazing eye of death. As it climbed up the eastern sky, Mankin could feel it sucking the life out of him. It was now a race between the sun and finding this oasis Kurghin spoke of. If it existed.

Riding with the sun blasting at him, Mankin’s thoughts drifted away into some place midway between memory and delusion. For a moment, in the shimmering heat that rose off the desert, the men and horses ahead of him seemed to be insubstantial hallucinations. He felt disconnected from himself, from here and now—was he riding in the Red Waste, or was it the long march from Harrow to Skull Bluff, with the stink of rotting men and horses by the wayside in his nostrils? That ride had been hot, too, and the wells poisoned by the retreating insurgents.

But Alektl had been with him then. His wife had insisted on traveling with the army, even though she was very near her time. “The baby will be the son of a horse-tamer,” she’d told him. “He needs to get used to being on horseback.”

But the child had been a daughter. That had been proven when the insurgents cut the baby from Alektl’s belly.

Someone shouted. Mankin, dazed with the sun, his head aching, the scar on his face hurting like a ribbon of fire, didn’t understand the words. He shook his head, blinked, and squinted into the heat and sunlight.

It was Komerte. Yards ahead of everyone else, he stood in his stirrups and shouted again, pointing ahead. “The oasis! We’ve found it!”

The men and their animals nearly stampeded down the path into the ravine. The gap in the earth was perhaps a couple hundred yards wide and a hundred deep, and the path down into it might have allowed three men to ride abreast with ease. No one paid attention to the width of the path, though, in their eagerness to reach the stream at its bottom. Mankin was just thankful to the Unchanging that no one was shoved over the edge.

The water was sweet and cool, flowing over smooth stones. The stream was lined with tall palm trees that cast a cool blanket of shade over its banks. The men threw themselves down beside the water and drank, laughed and splashed one another, and then drank again. The horses drank beside the men, until Kurghin and Terekhani began to gather reins and pull the animals away. Under the palms, though, there was plenty of grass, so there was no difficulty in distracting the animals until they had cooled down in the shade.

Once everyone had drunk their fill, they filled their water-skins to bursting. Then they sat for a while in that shade; and now that their minds were unoccupied with thirst, they noticed the walls of the ravines.

Everywhere they looked ruined, tumbled walls stood.

There were ruins on the floor of the canyon, and more ruins higher along the walls on terraces. Crumbled staircases connected the different levels. Now that they had the leisure to look, even the path the Attau had come down showed signs it had once been a road. The ruins stretched out of sight in both directions along the course of the ravine.

There was no sign of living inhabitants, save birds and some bats. The Attau, staring about themselves in wonder, listened, but heard no sounds but the wind.

Komerte called them together. “Kurghin says that this was a high city of the Asani, before the Winter War,” he told them. “The Asani were allies and vassals of the Kunai, but it did them no good. They’re long gone.”

“We should still be careful,” Terekhani said. He looked better now that he’d washed his face. “This would be a good hiding place for bandits and outlaws.”

“Yes,” Komerte said. “We all should keep our guard up. Kurghin says the stream flows out of a cavern, a mile down the ravine. We can shelter there.”

Kurghin led the way. The Attau led their horses. All the way to the cavern they passed more and more ruins; in some places it appeared that mansions had been carved into the ravine walls, alongside lesser dwellings, temples, granaries, and a wide marketplace on both sides of the stream. All silent, all empty—the Attau moved in a hush, oppressed by the ancient eeriness of the place.

They reached the cavern, a wide, circular opening thirty feet across. The stream flowed right out of its mouth. Just inside the Attau made camp, built a fire and mixed the last of their corn meal with water to make cakes. Kurghin took his bow and went off to see if he could bring down some water fowl.

Once the horses were staked out and the fire was going, Mankin had no duties. He felt a tug of curiosity. This cavern was not dark; diffuse sunlight shone from within, suggesting it was open somewhere in its inner reaches. Feeling a good deal better now with a gallon or so of water in him, he decided not to bother Komerte with asking permission to explore. Mankin quietly walked upstream.

The light grew brighter as he went. A hundred yards in, he found that the stream cascaded down from an opening, high up on a rock wall, into a pool about knee-deep. The cavern itself continued some yards further back. Just over the cascade the cavern roof was gone; a ragged gap fringed with stone and dangling ferns framed blue, blue sky.

Mankin stood in the pool beneath the spring and let the water fall on his face. It was like the kiss of an angel. He opened his mouth; the water tasted like life itself.

Having quenched his thirst again, Mankin climbed out of the pool and wandered back further into the cavern. If, indeed, it were a cavern at all; in the filtered sunlight he could see mortared stone lining the walls on either hand. He walked on and under the sand he felt the even hardness of paving stones, buried a few inches deep; here and there the sand had washed away to reveal the paving itself.

He walked on; a few more yards and the space opened out into an echoing chamber, with a high ceiling that admitted beams of sunlight in one or two places. Here stood columns, holding up what was left of the roof, in a double row. The columns still showed the faint outlines of sculpted friezes—twining vines, flowers and leaping gazelles. But the carvings were worn and crumbling; two or three of the columns exhibited rather frightening cracks down their length. Old, Mankin thought—older than anything in the Hegemony, of a certainty.

The columns ended before a high wall of masonry, discolored with moss and stained by water. On a dais before the wall stone a giant statue. It was of no god or goddess Mankin recognized; a mammoth stone idol, with a benignly smiling face that could be either male or female. The sense of ambiguity was reinforced as Mankin noticed the multiple breasts the statue bore on its chest, which juxtaposed oddly with the huge, jutting phallus between its legs.

But for Mankin the most disturbing aspect of the idol was its arms. It had a multitude of them, ten at least, and possibly more that had been broken off. Arms that were raised, or extended, or resting akimbo on the idol’s hip; arms holding out an empty hand in welcome, holding up a sword, or extending a stone scythe as if to reap worshippers like ripe grain. To Mankin it was alien and repulsive; the idol seemed to loom over him, threatening him with a false face.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, all at once. It was not, he realized, the idol. Perhaps it was something in the still air, some shift that was less than a breath, but more than nothing. Mankin froze, listening. To his ears came the faintest sound, the barest skit of one stone slipping on another. Genuine fear swept through him, washing away his repulsion for the statue. His left hand stole to his sword-hilt, but he sensed it would be folly to draw. Instead, he backed away slowly, going back the way he had come in.

He backed all the way out into the pool. Only then did he turn and run.

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This could be truly epic if I ever figure it out, because from here it goes on to disaster, intrigue, battles, quests and love. Someday….

Later.

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