The last day or so I have had a terrible time with posts. I wrote and posted a long piece on self-publishing marketing strategies. I read through it again, realized I was being a bloviating jerk (I do that sometimes), and removed it. This morning I decided to post an abandoned fragment, prematurely hit publish, removed it, then realized I didn’t want to publish that fragment, I wanted to publish this fragment. Just goes to show that a master’s degree isn’t a guarantee that you know what you’re doing.
This fragment is from a fantasy novel from years and years (and years) ago. After 30,000 words the novel petered out, probably because I was trying to do something too ambitious for my level of skill at the time. The protagonist, a young outcast barbarian, has been stolen away as a slave and is on a slaver’s barge headed downriver. In this piece, he decides to do something about it. I find it interesting I first achieved a small degree of competence, and confidence, in writing action scenes. It was characters and creating believable lives for them that I found really hard.
Reading the following passage will probably not cause your skin to break out, nor interrupt the smooth functioning of your endocrine system, but scientific studies have not completely ruled out the possibility. Copyrighted by me, 2013.
Sometime after the slaves had been fed the third time, the ship dropped anchor. There were calls and orders back and forth above, including the one Karagam now recognized as turn in, the ship’s secure. There was a distinct quieting down up above.
“This is probably our last stop,” the Kuiritan whispered. “Probably reach the mines’ landing tomorrow.”
As horrible as this voyage had been, Karagam didn’t want to think about what that meant. Even in Sa-sania, mining had been the work of slaves and condemned men, and few lived long. Whatever kind of mining it was—and the Kuiritan had been vague about that—it wasn’t something you did for your health.
What’s to be done?. Unless they could figure out some way to melt iron without a fire, there was no escape for any of them. Even then, there would be a bad fight getting out of this hold and off the ship against the whips and swords of the slavers.
Nothing will be gained by not trying. Karagam looked around. How could he see this space, this entryway into the land of the dead, differently?
He looked at the ring bolt to which the chain that connected the slave’s collars was shackled. It was firmly embedded into the ship’s timbers. It was not loose and Karagam had no chance of ripping it out by force. The chain itself was cunningly looped through iron staples driven into the wood of the benches, to prevent the slaves from all pulling on it together. Karagam reckoned that if he had a few months he could possibly work the ring bolt loose, a little at a time. But he had only hours.
The lock fastening the end of the chain to the ring-bolt was strong and cunningly worked. It was far better made than any lock Karagam had seen in the north. There was no chance, he decided, of popping it open by force.
Locks need keys. And the keys the slavers carried for all the shackles and collars were obviously the true answer to that riddle. Just as obviously they were exactly the items most jealously guarded by the slavers—only the head driver and the man on watch had copies.
The watch. The driver on watch carried his keys on a ring on his belt. Karagam twisted his head around to look down the dim hold to the companionway at its end. The driver on duty was seated at the head of the steps, just out of sight. The ship was quieting down; quite possibly no one was still awake by now except the deck watch and the slaver here. Perhaps not even them. Karagam’s hands were unshackled, like all the slaves. It would be the work of a moment to snap a man’s neck. Karagam had never done it, but his uncle had taught him how. How to get the driver within reach?
Many years before, Karagam had taught himself the trick of rolling his eyes up in his head, so that only whites showed. It had been something to scare his older brothers with, until one day his father had grown tired of the tomfoolery and beaten him. But Karagam could still do it at need.
“Kuiritan,” he whispered.
“Hmm?” The man sounded irritable, as if he had been on the verge of sleep.
“I’m going to try something. When I start shaking, yell for the guard.”
“What? What’s that? You want the guard?”
“Just yell for him when I start.”
“I don’t know, barbarian, start what…?”
Karagam ignored the Kuiritan’s questions. He lay flat on his back and gathered his breath. Back went his eyes; it was not as easy as it used to be, but he could tell the effect was working from the muffled oath the Kuiritan uttered at the sight. Sucking up spit, Karagam made it froth behind his teeth and pushed it out his mouth.
He began to shake. He tried to make it look like the convulsions he’d seen a beggar at Haramsford go into one day years before. He made his feet drum on the wooden bench. He forced his hands to spasm and his shoulders to rock. He moaned as if in pain—not wholly feigned, since the motion was hard on his ulcerated back and shoulders.
“Gods,” the Kuiritan said, as if he thought this was real. Perhaps he did. “Guard!” he yelled.
Some of the other slaves, either joining in the trick or because they had suddenly been awakened by the noise, joined in yelling for the guard. There was a snort and the thump of something dropped on the companionway, and here came the guard stumbling down the steps. He had a lamp in one hand and a club in the other; and, yes, the keys were dangling on their hoop from his belt. Karagam redoubled his spasms.
“He’s having some sort of attack,” said the Kuiritan, sounding convincingly alarmed.
The guard came down the hold, skirting the Dwarf, and lifted his lamp to see. Karagam put his whole heart into his playacting. Come on, just a little closer. He had to be sure of his grab—a miss and he’d be shoved over the side with a stone tied to his ankles.
The guard stopped and stared at Karagam. He was just out of range. “Hifa and Juras,” the man swore. “He’s got something, that’s for sure.” He started to back away, obviously afraid of some sort of contagion. Karagam wailed inside, No.
The guard backed up another step. It was a mistake. Instead of retracing his steps he had crossed the centerline of the hold. The Dwarf, behind him now, pulled himself up by the chains on his wrists. Karagam thought that if the Dwarf’s feet had been unbound he would have wrapped his legs around the driver’s neck and done the job himself. As it was, the Damarzi drove his knees into the driver’s back. The man stumbled forward. The lamp went flying and smashed into the bulkhead. Flaming oil spattered across it.
The driver stumbled and fell into Karagam’s arms. Karagam smelled the man’s sweat and the rankness of his leather kilt and jacket. By the light of the spreading fire he glimpsed the startled look on the man’s face; then Karagam had his hands on the sides of the man’s head. Like that, and there was the sharp sound of snapping bone. The guard spasmed, tried to get a breath past the point of destruction in his neck, and died.
The other slaves were yelling, screaming; the flames were already roaring up the side of the hold. Karagam made himself ignore them all. He hauled the corpse up beside him by main force. The ring of keys was cool in his fingers. He ripped it off the dead man’s belt. He made himself try one, then another key, as the hairs on the backs of his arms began to singe. It was the fourth key; the padlock opened with a ting. Karagam almost lost a finger as the other slaves jerked the suddenly freed chain out of his hand. He unlocked the foot chain and it disappeared, too. He slid out of the bench and forced himself to stand. It was an odd feeling to have his feet under him after three days.
“Get out, get out,” the Kuiritan was yelling. Men were scrambling for the companionway even as he did; Karagam could trace the progress of the chains as they made their way around the hold and men surged free.
Someone bellowed, cutting above the din. The Damarzi was swinging on his chains, trying to get away from the fire, which was very close. Karagam bent down and unshackled the Dwarf’s foot manacles, and then—it was like forcing himself forward against a wind, so strong was the heat—he reached up and unlocked the wrist chains. The Dwarf dropped to the deck, but scrambled up at once. He shoved past Karagam for the stairs. Karagam followed, retreating from the fire, which was licking across the overhead, threatening to cut him off, rolling smoke up the companionway. He clambered up the steps, toward the stars and clean air.
He reached the deck. The larger moon was up, and there was plenty of light to see the milling chaos that surged across the weather deck. Slaves ran in every direction; drivers and crewmen, some naked from sleep, shouted and lashed out at dodging men. One came at Karagam with a boarding pike. Karagam managed to dance away; the riverman drive the point of the pike into the wooden bulwark behind, where it stuck. All the training his mother’s-brother had given Karagam over the years seemed to come together at that moment. He slapped the man aside, pulled the pike out, and stabbed him with it. He gripped the weapon tight. It felt good in his hand.
He dodged around knots of struggling men, trying to reach the side of the ship he thought might be closest to shore. It was hard to tell, despite the moonlight; the river seemed very wide on either hand, but Karagam’s glimpse of shoreline off the far side of the vessel drew him in that direction.
The ship suddenly lurched; it was moving, drifting with the current. Karagam wondered if this was a tactic of the rivermen, or if one of the slaves had accidentally or intentionally cut loose the anchor cable. In either case, it made it more difficult to reach his goal. The ship was turning, spinning out of control in the stream, its stern coming around so that it was going backwards. Shouts of dismay from the rear of the ship, from the tiller, told him what the crew thought of this development.
He fetched up against one of the masts. The fighting surged around him. Something sang through the air. Crossbow bolts—a knot of crewmen near the bow were shooting down the length of the ship, trying to quell the riot, willing to risk hitting friends to do so. One of the bolts buried itself in the mast not far above Karagam’s head; the others ripped through the slaves near him. One of them was the Kuiritan. Karagam saw him fold over with a bolt in his belly and a surprised look on his face.
Someone bellowed like a bull aurochs. It was the Dwarf. He was swinging a length of chain. He charged the crossbowmen, who had foolishly shot all their bolts at once and now were frantically re-cocking their weapons. A crowd of slaves followed the Damarzi. He piled into the crewmen, using the chain as a weapon. He dashed out the brains of one man; on the back swing he wrapped the chain around the neck of another and broke it more neatly than Karagam had the guard’s. The slaves who’d followed him bowled over the other crewmen and drove them down with fists and feet.
Flames roared out the hatch from which the slaves had escaped. Karagam decided he had lingered long enough. Never mind deciding which bank was closer; he had to get off the ship. Thanks to the Damarzi and his impromptu battalion the slaves held the deck at the moment; but other crewmen were shoving their way up from below through several hatchways, so that dominance might be short-lived. It was past time to go.
Karagam shoved himself away from the mast, made for the rail. As he did the ship lurched with a violent motion. Timbers shrieked, and a shudder ran through the vessel; the ship had hit something.
The collision—whether with rock or snag—threw him right off his feet. The ship listed at once to one side. Karagam slid along the deck. He tried to get to his feet, but the ship was already sinking, going down on her side. Men were pitched headlong into the water, tumbling past Karagam. Others tried to scramble back up the tilting deck. In the space of a few heartbeats the fighting stopped as everyone, crewman, driver and slave, fought to stay on the ship, above the water already lapping over the low-side rail.
No point in fighting it. Karagam gathered his feet and pushed himself into an awkward dive. At the last moment he wondered if he would land clear of rock or wreckage, or perhaps impale himself on an underwater snag. Then the water closed in dark over him, and he was free.
He kicked himself to the surface after a few yards. He stroked hard away from the ship. He glanced back. It was indeed a rock, a sharp spire that glittered wet in the moonlight. It had ripped a huge wound in the side of the ship, as high as Karagam himself above the water and reaching as far as two men could stretch their arms on either side; small wonder she had started to go over at once. Karagam saw men scrambling into the rigging, obviously hoping to stay above the water when the ship finally settled. Good luck, he thought, not caring who he was wishing well of.
Something thrashed the water close by. Someone—the Damarzi. The blunt little man obviously had not the least idea how to swim—he flailed and tried to paddle with his hands, but his head kept going under. Karagam glimpsed wild terror in the Dwarf’s eyes.
Two strokes brought Karagam to the Damarzi’s side. The Dwarf clutched at him with incredible strength. “Relax, or we’ll both go under!” Karagam shouted at him. He doubted the Dwarf understood his words, but something in Karagam’s tone must have reached him. He stopped flailing long enough for Karagam to get his arm under the Damarzi’s chin. Towing the Dwarf, he struck for shore. Behind them the flames of the river-runner burned higher even as the ship sank.
It seemed to take a very long time for Karagam to feel the muck of the river bottom beneath his feet. He staggered upright and waded toward the shore. The Damarzi struggled loose from his grip and found his own feet. He rushed toward solid land as if it was his mother. Karagam followed. Hills loomed ahead. There was enough moonlight, he reckoned, to reach them before day.
The basic premise of the story– an outcast making his way in a foreign land– still intrigues me, but the concept, as far as I executed it, would need significant re-working, and about 70,000 more words, before it could see daylight. Unfortunately, therefore, it’s not priority at the moment.