All posts by Doug Daniel

A former tanker, one-time graduate student, present-day IT contractor, and largely unknown author. Working on that last part.

A SHORT NOTE

A brief note– the very observant reader may notice that suddenly this evening my page sports two and not one progress bars. The new entry is entitled Sky Lord, and it is indeed in second (perhaps even third) draft. I actually hope to have it on Kindle before Christmas.

I have been uncharacteristically mum, silent and otherwise uncommunicative about this new book. There are several reasons for this, including a growing certainty no one other than myself is wildly interested in the details of my writing struggle with individual works, as well as the fact that, much to my wide-eyed surprise, I set a record drafting this puppy– perhaps as little as ten weeks, which, for me, is stunning. The second draft took longer, which is, I suppose, appropriate.

Sky Lord is set in the same story universe as the Divine Lotus series, if not quite the same universe. If that seems obscure, well, read, and all will be clarified in time. Its protagonist, Jason Conlan, is a departure for me, and I actually had a deal of fun writing him. That may mean that something is seriously amiss, but, screw it, I’m going with it.

And poor Siege? Still in there, if not quite front burner. This past spring I realized that my initial concept for it was wrong– worse, it was boring. It’s undergoing a serious re-think, which is the source of those horrible grinding sounds you may have heard over the last few months. Hopefully, it will still see the light of day at some point.

I have other books coming, both about Jason, which will carry forward the storyline from Divine Lotus, as well as other, unrelated stories. Lately my head has been very crowded.

Oh, and Jason’s stories have a series title– The Nightmare War. Incoming….

Later.

A gladiator remembers

They say it’s for the gods, a holy rite
to honor the ancestors, but
they lie.  We sweat, bleed, die, while
they sell sweets in the stands.
We kill each other in
the sand for fools
who don’t know
our true
names.

I had a woman, a child, a home,
in the woods above the singing
stream, with barley in the fields.
We planted in the spring,
reaped the corn in
the fall, and drank
strong beer as
the snow
fell.

The chiefs said the Romans were weak, soft.
They lied, and ran away when the
Romans cut us off, drove us
to the river. Lucky
the drowned, first to greet
Wotan the great.
Luck left me.
Taken.
Slaved.

Far away, both years and stadia.
The heat, the sand, the stench of blood
and shit, these are real to me now.
The crowd’s screams, blood-hungry,
the song of my life.
All I will hear
until I
die here,
lost.

Yet I remember, though it’s like a
child’s dream, foolish, sweet, unreal– I
had a woman, a child, a
home, in the woods above
the singing stream,
with barley
in the
fields.

 

Wisdom for Three Emperors

Copyright 2019 Douglas Daniel.

******************************************

On a certain summer’s day, in the fourth year of the War of the Kingdoms, Topaz drowsed on a bench before his cottage.  The sun shone through the cedars; it was good to sit there and soak up the warmth.  At his age, Topaz always appreciated a sunny day.

“Master!”  It was Orphan, running up the trail toward the cottage.  “Master!”

“Boy, stop yelling,” Topaz said, opening his eyes.  “I heard you coming minutes ago.  What’s the trouble?”

Orphan stopped, panting.  “General…Foxglove…he’s coming.  With a…lot of his…soldiers.”

“Of course,” Topaz said.  He sighed; he never seemed to get to enjoy the sunshine very long.  He stood, leaning on his cane, his knees creaking.  “Orphan, listen to me.  Go find Cassia– she’s out by the pond.  Take her up to the hut by the falls.  A young girl like her will be a temptation to soldiers.”  Especially, perhaps, these soldiers, but Topaz did not speak the thought aloud.  “Both of you hide until…well, until you’re sure it’s safe.”

Orphan stared at him.  “What about you, master?  Will you be safe?”

“Well, maybe,” Topaz said.  “I mean, I don’t think very many of the soldiers will be interested in me– I’m rather past my best days, you know….”

“Master!” Orphan sputtered, exasperated.

“We shall see,” Topaz said firmly.  “If I am wrong, well, death is always sitting by the hearth anyway, at my age.  But both you youngsters are in danger.  Get Cassia up to the falls.”  Topaz started to turn away, but stopped.  “You know,” he told Orphan, “it occurs to me I should finally give you a proper name.  I’ve been calling you Orphan all this time, but you’re nearly a man grown.  Dahlia used to tell me it wasn’t proper and she was right.”

Orphan blinked in surprise.  “Is this the time, master…?”

“There might not be a chance later,” Topaz said.  He studied the younger man for a moment.  “I name you Arrow– for surely you are as swift and true as a good arrow.  Yes, you are Arrow.”

The younger man looked close to tears.  “Master, can’t you come with us?”

“Oh, no, no,” Topaz said.  “Someone has to greet our guests.  Now go.”

Arrow stared at Topaz for another moment, and then ran.

Topaz stepped forward a few yards, so no one coming into the clearing in front of his hut could miss him.  He leaned on his cane and waited.  The sun shifted and warmed him again and he was thankful.

The jingle of harness, the tread of boots– through the trees Topaz glimpsed the riders first and then the foot soldiers coming behind.  The company, perhaps fifty men all told, wound their way up the trail.  Topaz waited, despite his foot starting to ache.  He wished Dahlia were here.

The column entered the clearing.  The riders pulled up short at the sight of him.  At their head was a big man.  He wore armor and carried two swords, as if he had ridden to battle, instead of a hermit’s cottage.  Suspicious eyes looked Topaz over, out of a scarred face.

Topaz bowed over his cane.  “I greet you, Lord Foxglove, General of the Five Lands, conqueror of Darran and Sarmania.  You do honor to my humble house.”

If anything, Foxglove looked all the more suspicious.  “Are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” he asked, his voice rough.

Topaz bowed again.  “Some call me that.  My name is Topaz.”

“You know my name,” Foxglove said.  “So you probably know how I became Lord General of the Five Lands.”

“Indeed,” Topaz said.  “The fame, and dread, of your name has long preceded you, my lord.  But I greet you in peace, as a guest.  If it please you, there is tea and bread within.”

Foxglove squinted at Topaz.  One of the general’s officers, a thin, sharp man with a livid scar across his forehead, turned in his saddle and gestured.  Two of the foot-soldiers broke ranks and hurried forward, past Topaz and into the cottage.  Topaz waited.

The two re-emerged in a moment.  “It’s empty, my Lord General,” one of them said.  “Just a poor hut.”

Foxglove grunted and dismounted.  So did his officers.  The foot-soldiers spread out in a perimeter around the house– a movement precisely executed, although no order had been given.  Topaz turned and led the way into the cottage.

He was thankful Arrow had built a fire this morning– the kettle was hot and the tea steeping.  Foxglove and his officers crowded in, but no one sat in the two chairs.  Topaz noticed Foxglove’s gaze immediately falling on the small silver casket on the table, close by the plate of bread.  The casket was old and battered, but it was easily the brightest object in the room.

“I heard you were a man of wisdom,” Foxglove said, as Topaz poured tea for them into chipped cups.  Two of the officers took cups, but Foxglove did not.  Topaz thought that a shame; it was very good tea.  “I heard you live simply.  Yet you have that.”  He pointed to the casket.

“An heirloom of only sentimental value,” Topaz said.  “Believe me, it contains nothing of worth.”

Foxglove loomed up.  A big man outside the house, he seemed even bigger inside.  “They say that no man becomes Emperor of the Five Lands without speaking to the Hermit of Blackfalls.”

“People do say that,” Topaz said.  “Considering there has been no Emperor in two hundred years, it’s not really been put to the test lately, has it?  Do you wish to be Emperor?”

Foxglove smiled.  Topaz shuddered.  “I shall be Emperor.  The throne is mine by right of conquest.  There is no other beside me.  I want the Empire and I will take it.  I take everything I want.”

“I have heard that,” Topaz said.

Foxglove stood even taller, drawing himself up.  Topaz began to wonder if they were going to run out of space in the little room.  “You heard right.  I conquered Cisman in a day and burned it to the ground.  I overran Karsara and all the nobility came crawling on their knees to beg for mercy.  I threw down and slew the steward of Venaland and took his rod of office from his bloody hand.  Yes, old man, I take what I want.”

“So it seems,” Topaz said, with a solemn face.

“So, old man,” Foxglove said.  “I am here, speaking to you.  What wisdom do you have that will make me Emperor?  I will reward you well.”

Topaz sighed.  “My lord, I am sorry, but if I have wisdom, it is merely the sort that comes from living a very long time.  I’ve seen folly and pain.  I’ve even caused some of both myself.  If I were to try to impart any wisdom to you, I would say be careful what you want– and to remember that just because we want something, doesn’t mean it is good to have.”

Foxglove glowered at him, half-angry, half-confused.  “What is this?  Why shouldn’t I take what I want?  If I’m strong enough….”

“Strength is no justification for taking,” Topaz said, “and taking without right always ends badly.”

Foxglove said nothing for a moment.  His officers stirred uneasily.  Topaz merely watched the general and waited.

“This is a waste of my time,” Foxglove said.  “I thought you would pass on some secret of the Old Times, something useful.”

“I have no secrets that would aid conquest,” Topaz said.

“Is there a spell or enchantment…?” Foxglove said.

“None that will give a man that sort of power,” Topaz said.

Foxglove snorted, his face dark.  “You’re nothing but a weak, old man.”

“I am certainly weak and old,” Topaz said.  “Some mornings my sciatica is terrible….”

“Enough,” Foxglove said.  “I have a mind to gut you, hermit, but that would probably set the peasants down in the valley to revolt.  This has been a waste of my time.”  He glanced at the casket, then leaned over, scooped it up, and tucked it under one arm.  He sneered at Topaz.  “A little recompense.  You have anything to say about it, old man?”

Topaz spread his hands.  “You may take anything you want, my lord.  I am not attached enough to anything here to make much of a fuss.  I greeted you in peace, I say farewell in peace.  But,” he raised a finger, “while my lord may take that casket, I would caution you against opening it.”

“Opening it?” Foxglove said.  “Why shouldn’t I open it?”

“I don’t think you would be very pleased with the contents.”

Foxglove growled.  “I should kill you just for insolence.  Come, let’s leave this old fool.”

He and his officers stepped out, back into the sunshine. The soldiers, with precise movements, folded their perimeter back into a column for marching.  A soldier held the bridal of Foxglove’s horse; some of the officers mounted their own animals.

Topaz stayed where he was, waiting.  Through the open door he watched as Foxglove, still on the ground, stopped.  He fumbled with the latch of the casket and threw it open.

The sun disappeared; ink-thick blackness swirled all around.  Topaz could see nothing, but he could hear screams, howling, and the sound of rending flesh.  He felt it— the ravening hunger.  The human screams faded.  Topaz felt the hunger turn on him.

He stood straight.  His walking stick glowed in the darkness, forcing the hunger back.  You have fed, he told it.  Now, back to your prison, thing.  Leave the world of the living to the living.

The hunger fought him, but it could not resist the light.  The light grew and grew, while the hunger shrank and howled and shrank yet again.

The sun shone; the birds sang in the tops of the pines.  Topaz breathed a deep breath.  Leaning on his cane, he went outside.  He stooped, creaking, and picked up the casket.  He shut the lid against the swirling darkness constrained within and snapped the latch shut.  In the clearing there was no sign of Foxglove, nor of his men, nor of their horses, save their footprints.

“Some people just won’t listen,” Topaz said, sighing.  He went back inside to his tea.

 

Three years later, just days after Cassia and Arrow married– a quiet joining, with a few people come up from the village, at which Topaz had a little too much punch and a few too many almond-cakes– another party came riding up the trail.  These travellers were fifteen splendidly dressed men, splendidly mounted on strong, big horses.  The man who rode at their head was tall, proud and clear-eyed.  He wore a coronet on his brow and rode straight-backed, controlling his mount with nearly negligent movements of the reins.

They rode into the yard.  Sunlight sparkled off the leader’s coronet and the gold thread woven into his robes and those of his companions.  As the leader reined his horse to a stop, one of his followers leapt from his horse to hold the reins of the leader’s mount.  Another hastened to come forward and throw himself down on all fours.  Dismounting, the leader stepped down to the ground, using his follower as a stepstool.  Topaz watched from his doorway; the only change in his expression was his raised eyebrows.

“Old man,” the leader said, looking down his nose at Topaz, “where is the Hermit of Blackfalls?  I have come to receive his blessing, for I am Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands.”

“Oh, I see,” Topaz said.  He bowed.  “Your pardon, lord, for not greeting you with more ceremony.  I am the Hermit of Blackfalls.  Welcome to my home.”

“You?” Birch said, haughtily surprised.  “Surely not.”

Surely not?” Topaz echoed.  He considered this.  “Well, nobody’s ever said surely not.  I mean, I usually don’t call myself that, certainly, but everybody else does, so I just assumed everybody knew what they were talking about….”

“Are you Topaz the Wise?” Birch demanded, glaring.

“Oh, yes, yes,” Topaz said, “that’s what my mother always called me, and I suppose she would have known.  Maybe not the Wise part, but Topaz, yes, indeed.”

Birch looked as if he were restraining a gathering anger.  “I have come,” he said, measuring out his words with great precision, “to seek your blessing on my ascension.”

“Have you indeed?” Topaz said, looking impressed.  “That’s quite an honor.  But, since I am not a priest, and even less a god, I cannot bless you, my lord.”

Birch turned purple.  Topaz, in all his long life, had never seen anyone turn that particular shade.  He found it fascinating.

“They told me,” Birch snarled, “that no man becomes Emperor without the blessing of the Hermit of Blackfalls!”

Topaz sighed.  “‘Blessing’ is the wrong word, my lord.  It is tradition that the prospective Emperor of the Five Lands seek out the Hermit of Blackfalls—whoever that happens to be at the moment—but it is not for a blessing, or even less, validation of their rule.  You rule because you command hosts and the loyalty of powerful lords who bend the knee to you.  You earned that loyalty by winning battles in the War.  You don’t need the approval of some old fellow in the hills of Daran for that.”

If anything, Birch looked more haughtily offended.  “Then I’ve wasted my time!”

“I’m sorry if you think so, my lord,” Topaz said.  “The tradition is that the Emperor-to-be comes seeking the wisdom of the Hermit.  Such wisdom as I have is yours.”

“Wisdom?” Birch said, towering over Topaz.  “What sort of wisdom could you give me?”

“You might be surprised, my lord,” Topaz said.  He hesitated.  “If I may ask, do you usually dismount from your horse in that manner?”

“What do you…Sir Belfore?” Birch said.  He glanced back at the young noble, who stood beside Birch’s horse with a bowed head.  “Ah—his father dared offend me, earning my enmity.  As a lesson to others, I have degraded him and his family in every way and will do so until it pleases me to stop.”

“I see, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And degradation of another human being aids you, how?”

Birch started to turn purple again.  “I am the supreme lord of the Five Lands—I will not allow anyone to forget that!”

“There are better ways to remind people of who you are, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And an honor that touchy is often offended.”

“How dare you!” Birch snarled.

“It is my office to offer such advice to anyone who wishes to be Emperor,” Topaz said.  “You cannot sustain a state by assuaging your hurt feelings, my lord.”

“You dodderer!” Birch said.  “I’ve killed men for less!”.

“You may do as you please here, my lord,” Topaz said.  He waited.  The moment stretched.

“You’re not worth the effort,” Birch said at last, freezing the air between himself and Topaz with his disdain.  “This has been a fool’s errand.”

“I am sorry you feel that way, my lord,” Topaz said.  “But before you go,” he reached into his robes, “I would like to give you a parting gift.”

Birch, already turning away, stopped.  Topaz pulled his hand from his robes and held out to him a trinket— a small, red stone, intricately carved into the shape of a pomegranate, on a silver chain.  It gleamed in the sunshine.

“What is this?” Birch demanded.

“A small charm,” Topaz said.  “Its power is quite subtle, but it will help you to speak the truth and sway multitudes.”

“Hm!” Birch said.  “As if I cannot do that on my own!  Still…”  He turned and snatched the stone and chain from Topaz’s palm.  “A small enough reward for my trouble, old man.”

He turned and strode away.  Remounting his horse with the renewed aid of Sir Belfore, Birch rode away from Topaz’s cottage, with all his splendid followers in tow.  Topaz never saw him again.

Months later, however, Topaz did hear of Birch, one more time.  Apparently it came to pass that, after a victorious battle, Birch had cause to address the citizens of the city of White Cloud in their great square; and because he happened that day to be carrying the stone pomegranate in his purse, he told the citizens everything he actually thought about them, in the most honest and forthright terms.  He kept on telling them, despite trying to stuff his mouth with his own gloves and to choke off his voice with his own hands, until the citizens rose up in a mass and stormed the dais on which he stood.  When the mob receded, or so Topaz was told, all that was left of Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands, was a stain on the stone.

“Hm,” Topaz said to Arrow and Cassia.  “You have to be careful with the truth.  Should have mentioned that, I suppose.”

 

Four more years passed.  Even in the valley the people heard the tales of the wider world and how the War went on and on.  With each passing month the tales grew darker.  The distant suffering seemed to echo along the valley itself.

One sunny morning a man came riding up the hill.  He came unarmed, with but one companion, a young man with haunted eyes.  Neither wore armor– just old uniforms of the Venaland Guards.  The leader was as dark-haired as Foxglove had been, but lean and tall.

Topaz was seated beside the cottage’s front door when the man rode into the yard.  He had taken to dozing in the sun more and more lately; Arrow, who had built a hut for himself and Cassia behind Topaz’, had hired a hand from the village to help with the chores.  He and Cassia themselves kept busy with their own child.

Topaz woke with a start when the man’s horse clopped to a stop.  He looked up and met a gaze that seemed at once weary and curious and frightened.  It was so many emotions tied up in one bundle that Topaz was worried the fellow might split open.  “I’m sorry, grandfather, but– are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” the man asked.

“Well, people call me that,” Topaz said.  “Considering that I am the only hermit in the neighborhood of Blackfalls, I suppose that qualifies me.”

The man smiled.  “Oh, good.  I was worried.”

“You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid,” Topaz said, arching his eyebrows.

“Ah– your pardon.”  The man dismounted.  “I am Hart.  This is Galagan.”  The young man with the haunted eyes bowed, hesitantly, over his saddlebow.

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “I’ve been expecting you, my lord.  You are both welcome.”

He tried to stand, but had trouble getting up.  That was happening more and more these days.  Hart quickly stepped forward and took Topaz by the elbow and helped him stand.  “Oh, thank you,” Topaz said.  “Not quite as quick on my feet as I was seventy years ago, so it’s good to have a little help now and then.”

“Don’t you have anyone here to help you?” Hart asked

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “They’re around, but busy with other things, I suppose.”

He led them into the cottage.  Once again there was tea and bread ready.  Topaz and the two soldiers sat at the table.  Topaz served them with his own hands.  Galagan, at first, seemed suspicious and fearful.  He peered about, as if expecting to spy ambushers in every corner of the cottage.  “You needn’t worry, young fellow,” Topaz told him.  “You and your master are quite safe here.”

“Yes, please stop, Galagan,” Hart said, irritated.  “You’re embarrassing me and offending our host.”

Topaz held up a hand.  “I am not offended, my lord.  I understand the young man’s caution.  You have both been through some hard times.”

“It’s nothing,” Hart said, “to what the Five Lands have suffered.”

“Yes,” Topaz said, “although this valley is a sanctuary, even here we have heard of all the troubles.”

“Forgive me, grandfather,” Galagan said, “but it’s not just that.  We know what happened to Foxglove and Birch when they came calling.”

“Nothing happened to them they didn’t bring on themselves,” Topaz said.  He meant it as a reassurance, but Galagan turned pale, his eyes wide.

“Galagan,” Hart said, “please stop making faces, or I’ll have you go out and stand by the horses.”

“Sorry, my lord,” Galagan said, hanging his head.

“Forgive him,” Hart told Topaz.  “We have seen a lot.  We both have to learn to trust people again.”

Topaz studied Hart.  “If I were to ask you why it was important to trust people, what would you say?”

Hart gave him a sharp look.  “How else can you build a society, except on trust?  This war has gone on so long no one trusts anyone anymore.”

“Ah,” Topaz said.

A shriek; both soldiers sat up straight with surprise.  Galagan half rose from his chair, almost as if he were about to fling himself between Hart and whatever danger was about to appear.

Instead of a monster or a horde of assassins, however, what appeared was Cassia’s daughter, Cowslip, bursting into the cottage through the back door.  “No, no!” she cried, making Topaz’ ears ring, “I don’t wanna take a bath!”  She tried to flee through the front door, with her grubby shift, muddy feet and begrimed face all unaltered– but her mother, wise to her tricks, had circled around the cottage and caught her in the doorway. Cassia scooped the struggling child up in her arms.

“Nooo!” the child wailed, as if facing her ultimate doom.

Topaz glanced at Hart and Galagan.  The younger soldier looked relieved beyond words.  Hart, though, wore a smile, first of relief, but then of genuine pleasure.  Something in his look told Topaz Hart was more than a little sympathetic to the little girl’s plight.

Cassia, holding the squirming child, looked chagrined.  “Master, my lord, I am so sorry!” she exclaimed.  “We didn’t mean to interrupt!”

“It’s alright,” Hart said, still smiling.

Topaz looked from him to Cowslip.  “Cowslip,” he said, “listen to me.”

“Gran Topaz, I don’t wanna a bath!” the girl cried.

“Listen to me, sweetling,” Topaz persisted.

The little girl stopped struggling in her mother’s arms.  Instead, she regarded Topaz with suddenly solemn eyes, although her mouth was still threatening a pout.

“Be good for your mother,” he said, “and accept your bath without complaining.  Even I have to take baths.”

“But you’re old,” Cowslip said.

“Cowslip!” Cassia cried.

Topaz merely smiled; and, in the corner of his eye, he caught Hart’s smile broadening.  “Young or old, dear little girl,” he told Cowslip, “we all have to do things we don’t like sometimes.  Now, be good for your mother and we’ll see if there aren’t sparklies after dinner.”

“Yes, sparklies, yes!” Cowslip cried, her mood changed in a moment.  Cassia bowed to Hart and carried her mollified daughter away.

Topaz faced his guests with a bemused look.  “I probably shouldn’t bribe her like that,” he said.

“Sometimes,” Hart said, “you can’t avoid it.  It takes some coaxing to get my son Brand to do his lessons, at times.”

Topaz, pleased, hid his pleasure with a sip of tea.  “So, my lord,” he said, “you want to be Emperor?”

Hart looked startled.  “No,” he said at once.  “Who would?”

“You’d be surprised,” Topaz murmured.  “So why are you here?”

Hart did not answer immediately.  He seemed to be studying some internal map only he could see.  “Everyone tells me,” he said slowly, “that I’m the only hope for the Five Lands.  The one person who can unite all the factions and end the War.  I have the loyalty of the Army and I have the right blood, although I was raised the son of a glassblower, and had to earn everything.  It’s just…it’s so much, much more than leading an army.  Where do I begin?”

“Here,” Topaz said, “at the beginning.  Or a new beginning, perhaps.  As I told that little girl,” he smiled at Hart, “sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do.”

 

They talked through supper and into the night.  They talked after everyone else, even Galagan, had fallen asleep.  They talked of many things, of rulership and peace, of hunger and harvests, of fears and hopes.  By morning Topaz was satisfied.

“I have a parting gift for you, my lord,” Topaz told Hart, as he and Galagan prepared to leave in the middle morning.  “Three, in fact, if you will have them from my hand.”

“What are they, sir?” Hart asked.

Topaz stepped into the cottage and led Arrow, Cassia and Cowslip, in Cassia’s arms, out into the sunshine.  All three were dressed for traveling and Arrow carried a backpack.

Hart looked at them with interest, and then at Topaz.  “Gifts?”

Topaz placed his hand on Arrow’s shoulder.  “This is my apprentice, Arrow, who has studied under me for many years.  His knowledge and powers are yours to command.”

Topaz took Cassia’s hand.  “You’ve met his wife, Cassia.  She has made her own studies and is deep into the lore of the Maranonians.  This is only proper, as she descends directly from the ancient priestesses of that race.”

“Ah!” Hart said in surprise, for the Maranonians were widely supposed to be extinct.

“You’ve also met Cowslip,” Topaz said.  He laid a hand on the little girl’s head and she giggled.  “It is yet to be revealed what her skills may be, except in the accumulation of mud on her feet.”  Cowslip giggled again.  “But I sense in her great potentialities.”  He faced Hart.  “They stand ready to serve you, my lord, in your great labor.”

“They…they are welcome, if they wish to serve,” Hart said.  He sounded a little overwhelmed.  “But…”

“What troubles my lord?” Topaz said.

“I had thought…I mean, to come here from time to time….”

Topaz stepped close.  “My lord,” he whispered to Hart, “I am nearly a hundred years old.  My time is very short.  I waited a long time for a new Emperor and had to go through some notable scrubs to get to you.  Please the gods, may the years be long before your son needs the wisdom of the Hermit of Blackfalls, but, long or short as the time may be, I will not be here.  There will doubtless be some other hermit by then.  In the interim, my lord,” Topaz took a breath, “you’re going to need all the help you can get.”

 

Topaz said farewell to Arrow and Cassia and kissed Cowslip goodbye.  He bowed to Hart and watched them all go down the trail.  Somehow, leaning on his walking stick, he managed the trick of feeling all at once the loss of his young friends and the consolation of having completed an important task.  It was an odd sensation.

“I think he’ll do,” said the elderly woman beside him.

“I think so, too,” Topaz said.  He turned toward her, smiling.  “I was hoping you would come, Dahlia.”

“Beloved, how could I not?” Dahlia said.  “Are you ready?”

“Almost,” Topaz said.  “One good cup of tea for the journey and we can be off.”

They took one another’s hand and walked to the cottage.

 

 

Recursions

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for September 8, 2019— two hundred words inspired by this image–

l.l.jones-selfie_49
Photo courtesy of LL Jones

************************************

“Amanda…”

“Just a little further, Peter.”

“Amanda, no!  The displacement operator device can take only so many recursions.”

“And we’re already past your theoretical limit.”

“I’m serious, stop!  We don’t know what the consequences will be….”

“I’m head of the project,” Amanda said.  She didn’t the take her eyes off the growing chain of glowing reproductions of her own face.  “I will take responsibility.”

Peter turned from her to the pale-faced assistant standing by.  “Evacuate the building.  Get everybody out.”  The assistant ran from the lab.

“If you’re afraid, Peter,” Amanda said, “then you leave, too.”

Peter shook his head.  “We started this together.  I’m sticking with you.”

Amanda hardly heard him.  She still watched the ever-growing recursions.  They kept expanding out and out, deeper and deeper, unhindered, unstoppable.

“I can see it!” Amanda cried.  “I can see it!  Oh, my God!”

“It can’t be!” Peter shouted over the wind that suddenly filled the room.  Behind the wind came light—white light, purer than any light humans had ever seen.

When the light faded, the other scientists cautiously re-entered the lab.  They found nothing but the displacement device, lying on the floor, and a faint, lingering scent of roses.

ASPECTS OF CULTURE AND SOCIAL INTERACTION AMONG HUMANS, as seen from the Kitharan Compact, 3468 AB

ASPECTS OF CULTURE AND SOCIAL INTERACTION AMONG HUMANS

Compiled by the Xeno-ethnology Department of the Compact of Kithar Institute of Advanced Studies, Tikiria Prime, 3468 AB.

Note: this list has been compiled in the hopes that our first contact with the dangerous and violent human species, which is impending, will be peaceful and not result in any Kitharans getting eaten, enslaved, or turned into sexual playthings.  Unless, of course, they are into that sort of thing.   

  1. On Earth, humans regularly battle giant reptiles, giant apes, giant birds, giant turtles, giant insects, giant this and that, which explains why they are so hardened and violent.  Several of these giants have returned again and again, especially ‘gohdzyllla’ and ‘kingghong’, thus demonstrating the implacable assault humans have to live with.   
  2. Humans also battle one another, sometimes small-scale with swords before cheering crowds, and sometimes with vast tribes battling one another over huge portions of the planet.  Some scholars think the two kinds of fighting are both preparations for interstellar war. The fact that human contenders often turn from fighting one another to make common cause against an alien foe is seen as supporting this view.   
  3. Earth has been invaded over and over again by extraterrestrial species.  As a consequence, humans have destroyed any number of alien races. The fact that no one in the galaxy recognizes any of these races is taken to mean that the humans destroyed them before they could make contact with the greater galactic community.
  4. Earth appears to have been the victim of several dark ages, short-term ice ages and nuclear holocausts, including some collapses in which disease makes the afflicted look like dead people.
  5. Humanity engages in all manner of ritualized combat, including ‘bassbohl’, in which participants use various skills to avoid being killed or maimed by a small, white projectile, and ‘golph’, in which players wield vicious, skull-cleaving clubs while engaged in a cross-country death march.
  6. Another ritual combat is called ‘fudbohl’.  The rules of this combat are obscure– such is its vicious nature that some scholars believe it is chiefly a means of culling weaker individuals from the gene pool.
  7. Humanity chooses its leaders by having candidates spin a wheel and try to spell out words.  Those who fail these tests are executed, chiefly by hanging.
  8. Human women often must fight for mates, in arenas, observed by the whole planet.  These women are called ‘mohckingjahys’. The reference is obscure.   
  9. Humans execute traitors with creatures called ‘draagons’, which breathe fire– doubtless an indication of humanity’s advanced genetic engineering capabilities.
  10. Humans have enslaved both sentient and non-sentient species, including ‘dogghs’, ‘caats’, ‘whalsss’, ‘moskuitoes’, ‘farh-annts’, ‘draagons’ and ‘monsteer truuks’.  The last are particularly used to further cull the genetic pool in another form of ritualized combat, known alternately as ‘road rage’ or ‘the daily commute’.       
  11. Humanity has a supreme leader who appears all in black, and whose hissing breath chokes the life out of people. 
  12. Many races fear humanity possesses a giant, planet-destroying ray.  
  13. Humans have a disintegrating/reintegrating machine, which transports (hence its name, ‘transporter’) people from their home planet and reconstitutes them as slaves with no will of their own.  This is particularly effective in securing mates in reference to item number 14.
  14. Humans are horny.  They will do it any time, anywhere, with any number of partners of different genders or species, as evidenced by such instructional videos as Debbie Does Deimos and Naughty Nymphets of Neptune, Number 347.  This is seen by scholars as desperate attempts to repopulate their planet after all the monsters, disasters, societal collapses and alien invasions.

It is hoped that this brief description will aid anyone who comes into contact with this dangerous species.  Rumors of the advance of humans toward Kitharan space have been rampant in the last several felenhara, and it is only a matter of time before they make their presence known.  We beseech the gods to protect the Kitharan people, and ask that anyone who might be contacted by humans to remain peaceful and calm, and keep this list handy.  As well as a good supply of condoms.     

Game of Thrones– Final thoughts (well, maybe….)

Just in case–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS

D

R

O

G

O

N

I

S

P

R

E

G

G

E

R

S

Well, I hope so…the one shot I desperately wanted to see in the final episode was him (?) brooding a clutch of eggs….

Time to put this puppy to bed.  Game of Thrones, the television show, for better or worse, is over.  For a lot of people it’s for the worse, and the online rage is astounding.  The petition to have Season 8 remade is out there, and is a measure of some people’s disappointment.  It is, of course, a bigger fantasy than Game of Thrones itself.  Folks need to find a more productive way to express their disappointment.

For me, the final episode was a mixed bag.  In a previous post I outlined how the sketchy, truncated natures of both Season Seven and Eight had negative consequences for both story-lines and characters, and, without tooting my own horn, this seems to be the emerging consensus among thoughtful critics of the show, such Chuck Wendig and Curnblog.  All of those problems came home to roost in the finale.  Just one example, and perhaps the most important– Dany goes all Mad Queen, but while it had been hinted at in previous episodes, the way it was written still seemed abrupt.  The groundwork just had not been laid in a satisfactory manner, as far as I’m concerned.

The odd thing is, I generally like where the (surviving) characters ended up.  Their individual ending points made sense to me, for the most part.  But again, it wasn’t where the characters ended that mattered, but whether we believed the path they took to get there.  For the most part, for my taste, the answer for most of them would be ‘no’.

There is an important lesson for all writers of fiction here, whatever your medium.  If you want your readers/viewers to reach the end of your story and say, “That makes sense; this is how it had to be,” then you cannot avoid doing the work you need to do to build up the story and the characters in a believable fashion.  There are no shortcuts.  You have to do the work.

In light of that truth, it very much appears that the show-runners of Game of Thrones, in the end, didn’t have the energy or chops to carry the narrative the full distance to a more complete resolution.  Tired of the business, or without the skill to resolve the admittedly complicated narrative and characters satisfactorily, they slapped on an ending and called it a day.  Or so it appears.

And so one of the greatest TV shows ever– perhaps the greatest– ends with a whisper rather than a shout.  To those who rage about how it all played out, I would recommend taking a deep breath and letting it go.  It is done.  The practicalities of film and television production militate against any quick solution.  Perhaps in another generation someone will undertake a remake, especially when they have the entire series of completed books available.  It is unlikely, however, that any future production will be able to call upon the acting and production talent that this show called upon, and for the most part utilized quite fully.  You can never get the stars to align quite the same way, nor lightning to strike twice, and so it is with great TV shows.  Be happy for all the good parts, which will endure, and which will set the standard for this sort of storytelling for a long time to come.

And, yes, there are two books yet to come, which I expect will give us fuller resolutions all around.  Someone online suggested that the show is fanfiction, and the books canon.  As attractive as that gloss may be, I think prefer to think that the show is one creature, and the books another, although related.  Each operates under their own constraints and imperatives.  And, fortunately, the disappointments of one do not necessarily foreshadow the success or failure of the other.

And, of course, there is my personal solution to narrative disappointment– writing my own stuff.  With which, at the moment, I am fully engaged, and to which I am trying to apply the lessons of Game of Thrones, both the good and the bad.  Hopefully we can all learn from this experience.

Later.

 

 

A few thoughts before the end…Game of Thrones

MASSIVE AND HAIRY SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES, SEASON EIGHT.

REALLY, I’M NOT KIDDING.

DON’T BLAME ME FOR ANY SUBSEQUENT SPOILAGE AND/OR HYSTERICAL BLINDNESS.

S

P

O

I

L

E

R

S

**************************************************

In the unlikely event anyone noticed, I have been holding back about commenting so far on Season Eight of Game of Thrones. Partly this has been because I have been heavily engaged with other projects, and partly because I didn’t want to judge a product before it is fully…well, produced, but now, hovering on the edge of the last episode, and whatever resolution it provides, I wanted to record some thoughts.  Or feelings.  Or emotionally-laden thoughts that are probably idiosyncratic to one aging nerd who has some pretty curmudgeonly ideas about stories and how they should work.  So here goes, in no particular order–

  1. I was disappointed in the rushed nature of Season Seven, and I am at least as disappointed in the rushed nature of Season Eight.  Really, both seasons needed those extra episodes to lay things out properly, both in terms of plot and characters.
  2. Even more than that, though, it seems obvious, from the way things have played out in Season Eight, that the show-runners, at the moment when they need to bring all the disparate elements of this massive story together, had no clue how to do it.  Now, I’ve said this before, but ending an epic storyline in a way that satisfactorily resolves all the threads and themes is very, very hard.  Tolkien did it, but Lost (which had story issues from the get-go) utterly failed, The Sopranos ended in a black screen, and even Hayao Miyazaki’s manga version of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind  seemed to lose its energy toward the end.  By that standard perhaps I should cut the show-runners a little slack.
  3. On the other hand, they had years to develop the story and characters arcs, and at the end it still seems as if they didn’t quite know what to do with all the bits and pieces.  They’ve killed off characters– Rickon, Littlefinger, Jamie and Cersei– important characters, in peremptory fashion that hardly served the story at all.  They killed off the Night King in a fashion that was not only peremptory, but which ended one of the two major story-lines of the series in wholly unsatisfactory way that left more questions than it resolved.  Supposedly important elements (e.g. the Golden Company) are introduced and then disposed of in a summary manner that makes you wonder why they were brought into the story in the first place.  Again, a full slate of episodes would have allowed more time to properly resolved these issues.
  4. The show-runners, in their comments on episodes, talk a great deal about subverting watcher expectations.  Well and good, because otherwise the story would grow predictable.  But you can’t subvert expectations and make the characters you’ve spent years building up look like useless puppets in the process., not if you want the story to be worth anything.  E.G., Jon confronting the Night King– it would be one thing for Jon to engage the Night King, proceed to get his behind kicked, and then have Arya save the day.  It’s wholly another, and immensely unsatisfying, to have Jon blocked and impotent, while Arya comes out of nowhere (literally and story-wise) to do the deed.  Also, take the manner of Jamie and Cersei’s (apparent) deaths– after years of build-up, it is immensely unsatisfying, from the perspective of a viewer, as well as the perspective of story resolution, to have them die in a rain of masonry.  Yes, bad guys die all the time in mundane ways, but viewers were rightfully expecting a resolution to these characters in a story that spoke to all the build-up and repeated themes around them.
  5. By contrast, Clegane Bowl (for me, at least) seemed to at least minimally do the job, although it still felt truncated.  The hate between these two men, the unstoppable nature of (undead?) Gregor, and the final mutual end in fire seemed to wrap everything up as far as the characters went.
  6. To put it another way, if you are going to subvert expectations, you have to subvert them in a way that makes the viewer (or reader) say, “Oh! I didn’t see that coming, but, yeah, it makes sense!”  Too often the twists in the last two seasons seem to have left the viewers scratching their heads, instead.

How to sum this all up?  One of things I keep telling myself is that, as an adaptation, and, more than that, an adaptation of a series of books that have yet to be completed, Game of Thrones, in some way or another, was always going to fall short of expectations.  Adaptations generally do.  Having said that, it appears, from the extreme distance at which I sit from the writing effort that finished off the series (a distance, admittedly, to be measured in parsecs), that no one seemed to know how to achieve even a minimally satisfying resolution to many of the arcs, and sorta kinda cobbled it all together, threw it out the door, and said, “Whew!  Glad that’s over with.”

And that’s the way it is. Having expressed my dissatisfaction, I am not going to be joining the online chorus of fan-folk raging at how GoT failed and was destroyed by SJW’s or feminazis or hipsters or whatever other strawman they wish to concoct to vent their spleen upon.  GoT is hardly the first television show to end weaker than it initially promised (hell, even Downton Abbey was pretty worn out by its finale).  If the show-runners failed to bring proper resolution to the story, then they are hardly alone.  Their failure perhaps looms larger precisely because expectations were larger in proportion to the epic scope of the tale.

Now, I am reserving complete and final judgment on the series, since there is one episode left.  Even so, I don’t expect one episode to afford enough room to redeem every sin committed in Seasons Seven and Eight.  The writers and show-runners would have to do something pretty spectacular to come close to ending the whole series on a fitting note.  Maybe–

  1. Bran becomes the new Night King (actually a fan-theory that’s already out there).
  2. The wildfire reservoirs under King’s Landing go off while Dany, the Unsullied and the Dothraki celebrate their victory, thus solving the problem of the Mad Queen (perhaps already hinted at in the eruptions of wildfire seen in Episode Eight).
  3. Jon steps in and prevents Dany from executing Tyrion, possibly at the cost of his own life.  Dany, grief-stricken, goes back to Meereen and leaves Sansa Stark to rule in her stead.
  4. Dany executes Tyrion for freeing Jaime, Jon assassinates Dany, the Unsullied and Dothraki kill Jon and the Northmen, and then turn on each other, and when everyone is dead, Jaime and Cersei emerge unharmed from the rubble and walk off, hand-in-hand, into the sunset…. (actually, if the writers had the stones to do that I would stand up and cheer.  Then start crying).

Sorry, I was starting to trail off into the silly there.  Still, the point is that the writers could still have come up with some pretty interesting twists, and, even if the series as a whole has not lived up to expectations, I still want to see how the individual characters are resolved.  Having come this far, I want to follow through to the end.

Later.

 

The Cavalry– Flash Fiction for Sunday, May 5, 2019

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for May 5, 2019— two hundred words related to this image–

192-02-february-19th-2017
© A Mixed Bag

****************************************************************

“That’s silly,” Pamela said.

“It’s what Gran told us.”  At ten I was stubborn.

“Gran was a little off,” Pamela said.  “Remember when she thought the vacuum cleaner was Cousin Frank?”

“Well,” I told her, “there is a family resemblance.”

“Har, har.  You’re so funny.”

“Look,” I told my sister, “kidding aside, we need help.  They’re going to break through soon.  You can hear them, Pam.  Aren’t you willing to even try?”

“We need something more practical than rattling some old toy and mumbling some words.  Like the 82nd Airborne.”

“Well, they’re not here,” I said.

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Gran said the eldest of the family has to do it.  That’s you, I’m sorry to say.”

“Watch your mouth, kid,” Pamela said.  Sighing, she seized the horizontal stick and manipulated the little toy up and down three times, so that its wooden wings flapped.

“Drake, fire and claw,” she said, “drake, fire and claw.  To your own in need now return.  Drake, fire and claw.”

She let go of the toy, made a face at me.  “See?  Nothi….”

Her words were interrupted by a massive roar, and the sound of a great, armored body landing on our roof.

Captain Marvel vs. The League of Evil Whining Man-babies– oh, and a review

Wherein there are minor spoilers.  Really, I don’t know how you can do it otherwise….

T

H

E

K

R

E

E

A

R

E

J

E

R

K

S

***********************************

In the toxic fever-swamp that is sci-fi/comic book fandom these days, it only takes one innocent remark to set off a tsunami of stupid.  So it was with Brie Larson, star of Captain Marvel, when she expressed a wish for more diversity in movie reviews.  This rather innocuous remark triggered a host of crying man-babies, mostly from the right of fandom, talking about how Larson was against men and how the film should be boycotted and how it was going to tank at the box-office and take the MCU and Marvel and Disney and maybe the planet with it.  To a large extent these are the same trolls that then intentionally set out to sabotage the Rotten Tomatoes ratings for the film as a way to poison the well, long before any of them had ever seen the movie.

Ha, ha, ha.

Even with an anticipated drop-off for the second weekend, Captain Marvel should easily make its money back in the very near future, considering that, as of today, Box Office Mojo shows it with a world-wide total earnings of about $550 million.   So much for that.

The sad thing is that this sort of whining political stupidity has become something of the new normal in fandom.  Between the Sad Puppies and Gamergate and the wholly unhinged reaction in some quarters to the The Last Jedi, blah, blah, blah, fans who just want to connect with good, enjoyable content have to negotiate a festering landscape populated by entirely unreasonable trolls who see left-wing, anti-man conspiracies everywhere.  These goombahs, of course, are merely a specific thread of the greater alt-right narrative distorting our public discourse and popular culture at the moment.  You wish you could just ignore them, but that’s rather like trying to ignore someone flicking a cigarette lighter in a room filled with flammable gas.  At some point you need to yell, “Knock it off!”, if only for your personal survival.

Whew– enough of that.  I would like to say a few words about the movie itself.  Somewhat at the risk of setting off more swamp-gas flares, but you can’t let the trolls silence you, either.

So, the 4-1-1, the bottom line, the skinny– Captain Marvel is a good movie.  Not a great movie, not Infinity War, or War and Peace, or Citizen Kane.  It’s a good, mid-rank Marvel movie that accomplishes the main thing it sets out to do– establish the character of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel and help us understand why she’s going to be very, very important in Avengers: End Game  (yeah, new trailer, yippee! Ahem.).

It does so by starting out pretty much in media res, with Carol (called ‘Vers’) already on the Kree homeworld of Hala, already a part of the the Kree Starforce, but troubled by dreams of a possible former life she doesn’t remember.  From there she ends up the captive of a group of Skrulls, perpetual enemies of the Kree, and is taken to Earth, where she attempts to track down the Skrull infiltrators, while connecting with early editions of Nick Fury and Shield, who help her begin to piece together her past.  This leads her to a rather startling discovery that causes her to question what she has been told, and who she can trust.

On the whole, this story line works, but the first time I saw the film I thought its first half was off in terms of tone.  Danvers is not nearly as much a fish out of water on the primitive Earth of 1995 as I thought she should have been, and her relationship with Fury is a little too easygoing for a pair of people, one of whom is a spy and the other an ‘alien’ warrior, who have just met.  I was a little concerned that the movie wasn’t going to fulfill the minimum necessary requirements to make Carol the hero she needs to be for the final confrontation with Thanos in End Game.

But then there came a rather nifty mid-film twist, Carol gets her lost history filled in, and she realizes that she has been lied to and manipulated for the six years she has been gone from Earth.  This sets up a really satisfying climactic confrontation  in which Carol realizes her full power, and makes her the hero she needs to be.  By the way, do not skip out on the mid and post-credit scenes.  The mid-credit snippet is almost worth the price of admission by itself.

So, a slow start, but the film picks up and finishes pretty strong.  It doesn’t hit every note I would have preferred, and I would have handled the first half differently, but they aren’t paying little old (emphasis on the ‘old’) me to direct these films.  Which is, admittedly, probably a good thing.  Captain Marvel is not Infinity War, but neither is it Thor: The Dark World.  Which I still liked, but it did have issues.  Not all MCU movies are created equal, and I’m just fine with that.

There is one aspect of the film, however, that positively disappointed me– the way Fury loses his eye.  Lame.  Sorry, I was expecting more.

But, on the whole, go see the film.  It’s good, and it’s really about as solid a prologue for End Game as we could hope for.  I am really looking forward to seeing Brie Larson as Captain Marvel in that film, in ensemble with all the other great characters of the MCU, as they bring this story line to a thundering conclusion.  We live in glorious times, despite the trolls.

Later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The End

IN THE END

And so, goodbye.
Well-deserved the shouted praises,
the rose petals strewn,
the bended knees,
the pledges of fealty.

You did it—
the Sacred Jewel reclaimed,
the land restored, hope reborn—
all by your hand.

And me…?
nobody.
As I knew
when I joined
your band of shining heroes.
A plow-horse among thoroughbreds.
A clod of dirt beside bright silver.

Through it all, I knew my place
to march,
to carry,
to sweat,
to fight,
to bleed,
to hope to see you lifted up,
glorious,
as now you are.

Goodbye….
Rule well, as
I know you will.
It’s just…well,
The people look to you.

Time to go….

What…?
Why do you hold out your hand?
Small and fair, palm upturned,
waiting to clasp mine.