Category Archives: creative writing

Shadows at Sunset

A few words in advance.

I don’t usually do Halloween stories, but I wrote this piece as a challenge in a writer’s group, and then didn’t get the chance to present it when work prevented me from attending the meeting.  There was a 2500 word limit, so some of the story I should have written got compressed and summarized, probably not in the best way.

This story creeps me out, partly as it is loosely based on a story my Grandmother told me when I was a child.  More than that, though, it touches on a couple of themes that disturb me at my core, including graphic violence against a teenage girl, of which I give everyone fair warning beforehand.  They say you’re supposed to write what frightens or disturbs you, but I couldn’t do this on a regular basis.  I don’t like horror, and I don’t like violence against children, and I don’t particularly like Halloween, but here’s the story, and you can let me know if it’s gratuitous or if it works.  Comments are welcome.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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They used to say that, on certain winter days when the sky was so clear and cold that breathing is like a knife in the lungs, and when the setting sun was in its last moment before it let the night in with its mystery and fear, and painted everything of this Earth crimson, travelers who passed by the old Kincaid place would see things that should not have been.  Sometimes it was a shape seen out of the corner of one eye, but gone when you looked with both; sometimes it was lights where there was nothing to shine; but, most often, they said you could see shadows on the side of the Kincaid’s old, tumbledown barn, where there was nothing to cast a shadow.  Sometimes the shadows looked like spattered clots of blood, and sometimes like some sort of blade that fell with horrible swiftness; but sometimes, they looked like a woman, on her knees, pleading for her life.

I never knew my Aunt Amanda; she was a teenage girl when my mother was born, and when my mother was about seven or so, Amanda vanished.  Some say she ran off with a drummer— in those days, a traveling salesman, and not some long-haired musician.  Some say she ran off to Kansas City, or even Chicago, looking to escape the weary life of a Kansas farm, for people said that she was a bright, mischievous girl who could never have been happy for long in a podunk town.  I think my mother always preferred that story, because it held out the hope that someday, maybe, Amanda would return and there would be a great joyous reunion.  She had adored her older sister, and never quite got over her disappearance.

Some other folk, though, whispered that something else had happened, and that Amanda was not the only girl gone missing in the county, although no one could ever put the flesh of proof on the bones of suspicion.  The sheriff never saw a pattern, although much escaped Old Sheriff Nichols and his posse of deputies.  They were mostly interested in writing parking tickets, and, when Prohibition came in, in making sure they got their cut of the bootleg trade.  It was a sad day for them when liquor was made legal again, when I was about four.

It was on a certain summer’s day eleven years later that I rode one of my family’s plow-horses into the yard of the old Kincaid farm.  What with the war and gas rationing, no one would have driven me here.  A horse, even an old roan named Betty Boop, was far more reliable transportation.  It was a moot question, in any event—this was a journey, and a day, I had to face on my own.

My hands sweated on the reins as I guided Betty into the yard.  I was old enough to admit to myself that I was scared.  I was scared of what I thought was going to happen; I was scared that I would be proven wrong and made to look a young fool; I was scared that it might all just mean that I was losing my mind.

The dreams had driven me here.  Three years of them, and the last so precise and vivid that it had led to this noon-time, here in the long-abandoned farm that everyone in Russell County avoided because of the stories about it.  As I got down off the horse, I knew the next few minutes would prove the truth of them, one way or the other.

The barn loomed in front of me.  Just looking at it caused me to shudder.  It was worn and weathered and canted slightly to one side.  It should have been just an old barn, no different from a thousand other old barns scattered across Kansas, but it seemed somehow to breathe out horror.  I hoped—prayed—it was my imagination.

I heard a car.  Around the far bend in the road came Ashton Lamar’s Buick.  As mayor of Russell, he, of course, had a gas allowance, and he could often be seen on the county’s roads, going about the people’s business.  There was talk of running him for state Senate—maybe even for governor.  At the moment, though, seeing that car merely made me go ice-cold inside.

This was happening.  This was really happening.

The car pulled into the graveled drive, and then quickly off into the short grass beside it.  Not into the sandy yard itself.  So as to not leave tracks, I thought, and the cold grew worse.

Lamar got out.  For a man of fifty-five, he was still considerably more than just good looking, and the smile he gave me should have warmed me through-and-through.  He was dressed in a shirt and tie, tweed pants and polished shoes, just how you would expect a man of public responsibilities to dress on a warm July day.  He held out his hands, as if to welcome me.

“Julia,” he said, and he seemed to caress my name with his tongue.  “I’m glad you came.  This is going to be so special.”

The hardest thing I had ever done in my life was to give him back that smile, or at least the smile a middle-aged man might expect from a young girl on the verge of becoming a woman—excited, flattered, expectant.  Three months of enticing this man now came down to this.  “I really want to do this, Mr. Lamar,” I said, and it was the most profound lie I ever uttered.

His smile got wider.  “Call me Ash, sweet girl,” he said.  “Tie up your horse, darling.  There’s something I want to show you.”  He gestured toward the barn.

I hitched Betty to a still-standing section of picket fence in front of the house.  Lamar waited for me follow, and then led me toward the open doors of the barn.  I tried to keep from stumbling in fear.

He stopped just inside the barn, and I caught up with him.  Standing beside him, I could smell his cologne.  The barn, though, was what captured my attention.  A cavernous space that smelled of long-ago manure and hay, it was dark inside, except where fallen boards let in solitary shafts of light.  Dust lay thick on its floor.  A pigeon, disturbed by our presence, fluttered out of its nest in the hay-loft with a rustle of wings.

“Look up there, Julia,” Lamar said, pointing upward toward that loft, and his words were so smooth that, despite the danger, I looked up.

The blow caught me by surprise, even though I had been expecting it.  Lamar’s fist crashed into back of my head, and I pitched forward into the dust.  I think his intention was to render me unconscious, but we Coopers are notoriously thick-headed, and all it did was momentarily stun me, and make fiery sparks dance before my eyes.  I tasted the dust of the barn-floor and struggled to make my limbs move.

He was on me the next instant.  He grabbed the back of my shirt—I had dressed in a flannel shirt and blue-jeans, the better to ride in—and dragged me bodily into the shadowed interior. I was genuinely too stunned to struggle very much.  In the very back, past the stalls, where hay bales might have once stood, with harness hung on the walls, he flipped me over so he could look me in the eyes, his fist clutching my shirt-front.  His smile was now that of a hungry animal, about to taste flesh.

“You stupid little slut,” he said.  “You’re all stupid sluts, every one of you.”

“What?” I said, not really having to act the part of a surprised child.  “What are you doing?”

“Ridding the world of another dumb bitch,” Lamar said.  “It’s my mission, you see—a little fun, and then off you go, with the world a better place for your leaving it.”

“You can’t,” I said.

“Oh, I have,” Lamar said.  “Over and over again, right here.”

He slapped me, hard, once, twice, three times.  I tasted my own blood.  I thought my nose was broken, and my lips were cut by my own teeth.

He grabbed my hair, and twisted my head around.  “Take a look, sweetie,” he said, his words now a parody of affection.

I was forced to look at the ground on which I lay.  I didn’t understand at first, but then, I began to see it.  Beneath a thin layer of soil, and here and there, with no soil at all to cover them, were bones.

Just as in my dream.

“Nobody comes out here,” Lamar said.  “It’s my special place.  Where I put my trophies.  All the dumb little whores who ever followed me.  I started with your aunt, you know, long ago.  She thought I loved her.  Stupid bitch.”

He let go of me, to step over to a stall.  He reached between the boards and pulled out a long blade.  Leaning back on my elbows, resisting the urge to run, with my head still ringing, I somehow had enough sense to wonder, however irrelevantly, where he had gotten a machete in Kansas.

He pinned me to the ground with a foot on my chest, then bent down to stroke the side of my face with the machete’s edge.  The blade was rusty, and where it was not rusty it was crusted with ancient stains.  It stank.

“First,” Lamar said, and now there was nothing human left in his eyes, “what we came here for, just not as sweet and meaningful as you might have wanted.  Then the pieces start coming off.  Then you die.  First, though, the little whore’s clothes….”

He flipped me over again.  I was face-down in the dust, looking at the bones, as he tugged at my clothing.  My nose throbbed and blood ran from it.  Droplets fell from my upper lip into the dust.

One drop.  Two.  Three.

Just as in my dream.

“You’re going to die alone,” Lamar said.

“No,” I said, with the certainty of a returning faith, “and I’m not alone.”

There was something like a chuff of wind, as if someone had opened a door to a hurricane.  Lamar let go of me.  I twisted around to look.

He had also turned around, to stare into the void that was growing, above and behind him.  Darkness swelled, lit by lights that pulsed and flashed.  As I gazed into it, past Lamar’s shoulder, the vortex seemed to point into a blackness beyond hope, beyond thought, beyond time.

“What?” Lamar said, sounding utterly shocked, “what?”  The machete fell from his hand and buried itself, point first, in the ground by my booted foot.

Out of the vortex came shining forms, shrieking, howling, and the sound of them shook my soul.  The walls of the barn swayed and rattled.  The shining ones swarmed about Lamar.

He howled, as if in fear or agony, or both.  The shining ones swarmed around him, circling him like a tornado of light.  He screamed again.

In the next moment, Lamar came off his feet.  The shining ones tore at him.  His blood flew.  He howled, a sound compounded of disbelief, horror and pain.  “No, no!” he pleaded.

There was no answer.  Instead the shining ones bore him away, toward the infinite darkness.  He tumbled, helpless, shrieking, blubbering, to dwindle away into the depths of the black.

In an instant, the vortex was gone.  Perhaps an echo of its roar lingered for a moment, or perhaps it was simply the ringing in my ears.  Otherwise, there was only the dark interior of an old barn.  Dust swirled, and the machete quivered ever so slightly, and that was all.

And then, there was light, growing around me, from some other place.  I got to my feet, shaking.  My shirt was torn and blood still dribbled down my chin, but I hardly noticed, as someone stepped toward me, out of the light.

She was young, and dressed in the shirt-waisted fashion of a generation before.  She had the same auburn hair as my mother, and myself.  She was slim and unhurt.

“Aunt Amanda?” I whispered.

She smiled at me.  She raised her hands to her face, kissed her fingertips, and swept her hands as if sending the kiss to me.  I understood—there was no crossing the chasm between the living and the dead.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Aunt Amanda shook her head, still smiling.  Then she turned, and walked back into the light.  In the next moment, she was gone, and the light with her.

 

I staggered back to Betty, and somehow got myself on her.  My cover story was already in place; Betty shying at a snake, and me caught unawares and falling off.  Somehow I hoped to elide the fact that Betty was the most phlegmatic horse in the Great Plains, and hadn’t even been startled when the lightning bolt had struck right behind her the year before.

It had been as in my dream.  The blood of a kinswoman—somehow, in this place, at this moment, it was able to exact a measure of extraordinary justice, something beyond the natural order.  I didn’t understand it.  All I knew was that I wasn’t insane, but had been a player on the fringes of something great and mysterious.

The question that troubled me all the way home, however, and ever since, is why meWhy then?  Out of the millions of times in human history a man killed a woman, either out of some ordinary spite or rage, or the sort of deep sociopathy that possessed Lamar, and this once, in a county in Kansas, the natural order was put aside to remove the disease?  Why?  For what purpose?  It has been a question I have not been able to answer all these years later.  It has come back to me with full force, however, as now I have a granddaughter.

And she has begun to dream dreams.

Nowadays they say that, on certain winter days when the breath from your nostrils seems to hang in the air forever, and when the setting sun is in its last moment before it lets the night in with its mystery and fear, and has painted everything of this Earth crimson, travelers who pass by the old Kincaid place see things that should not be.  Sometimes it is a shape seen out of the corner of one eye, but gone when you looked with both; sometimes it is lights where there is nothing to shine; but, most often, they say you can see shadows on the side of the Kincaid’s old, tumbledown barn, where there is nothing to cast a shadow.  Sometimes the shadows look like spattered clots of blood, and sometimes like some sort of blade that falls with horrible swiftness; but sometimes, they look like a man, on his knees, pleading for his life.

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SUNDAY PHOTO FICTION – September 3rd, 2017- A WRONG TURN

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for September 3rd, 2017— two hundred words based on this image–

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Copyright 2017 Douglas A. Daniel

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“Let me see the map.”

“Darling, I told you, we should have turned left, not right.  We’re supposed to be on Dover Five, not Dover Six.”

“Oh, crap, how did we manage that?”

“Well, I told you we should have brought the Sherman.  You go to the trouble of installing a GPS system and then you don’t use it….”

“And what did I say?  We needed better mileage for this trip, and the Sherman just burns gas like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Sweetie, you’re supposed to be a mechanical genius, can’t you do something about that?”

“Oh, yeah, in my ample spare time, sure.  Could you lay off me, please?”

“I’m not making any judgments, I’m just saying…..”

“Okay, never mind, let’s just get turned around….”

“KRAKEN!”

“I see it!  Get in the gunner’s seat!”

“Traversing!”

“It’s a big one!”

“On target!”

“Loading…you’re up!”

“Firing!”

“You got it, honey!  Look at it go!”

“I would too, with everybody in the harbour shooting at me.”

“It’s gone.”

“Thank God.”

“I love you, honey.”

“I love you, dear.”

“Okay, let’s get turned around.  With luck the ferry will be delayed pending the all-clear.”

“….we still should have brought the Sherman….”

Sunday Photo Fiction – August 13th 2017- Memento

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction flash challenge for August 13th 2017– 200 words based on this image–

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Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“He needs to grow up,” Jason’s step-father said, finishing off his eggs.

“It’s only been six months, William,” Jason’s mother said.

“And he keeps carrying that stupid toy around, Amanda,” William said.

“His father gave it to him,” Amanda said.

“Still, sooner or later he needs to man-up.”  William said.  He stood, draped his suit jacket over his arm and picked up his briefcase.  “Shareholder briefing today, don’t wait dinner for me.”

“All right.”

Jason heard the front-door close behind William.  Neither of them had seen him.  He was getting good at not being seen.

He went upstairs.  September sunshine shone in his room—school would start soon.  He lay down on his bed.

He opened his hand and stared at the little blue TARDIS in his palm.  He remembered—a crisply cold winter’s night, the Milky Way an arch of diamonds stretching across the sky above them.

“There, son, there’s Pleiades, and next to it is Taurus the Bull—see the two horns?—and there, see those three stars in a row?  That’s the belt of Orion the Hunter.  Find Orion’s belt and you can find your way around the whole sky.”

Jason closed his hand on the TARDIS.

Sunday Photo Fiction – August 6th 2017- Shortcut

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for August 6th 2017— two hundred words based on this image–

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© J Hardy Carroll

Copyright 2017 Douglas A. Daniel

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“It’s temporary,” the cop said, standing in front of the sign.  “A technical difficulty in the lab.  Please cross to the other side of the street.”

“Damn it,” Underwood said.  “The office is just over there.”

“Still, we’d better listen,” Hancock said.  “Situations like this, cops don’t mess around….”

“It’s just some construction hold up,” Underwood said.  “The lab’s not even finished, and they have a technical problem?”

“Come on,” Hancock said.

He started across the street.  Underwood turned as if to follow, then dashed behind the cop and up the sidewalk.

“Jim!” Hancock said.

“Hey, you!” yelled the cop.

Underwood grinned over his shoulder, and walked on.  He’d be in the office before slow-coach Hancock got to the door.

Midway up the block he reached the lab’s delivery entrance.  Without thinking he glanced to his left.

Over the building shimmered a silver disk of light.  Underwood stared; it was as if he could glimpse a different sky through it.

The cop yelled again from behind him.  The disk of light pulsed; brilliance surrounded him.

He had time to take in a shocked breath of warm, moist air before he caught sight of the Tyrannosaurus Rex bearing down on him.

Sunday Photo Fiction – July 30th 2017- Talking Heads

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for July 30th 2017– two hundred words based on this image–

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© A Mixed Bag 2009

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It is poorly preserved,” Dr. Angg said.  “The slackness of the jaw, the orange tinge of the skin— you’d think even a hundred years ago the curators could have done better.”

I said nothing.  Angg was the Imperium’s leading expert in xenobiology and off-world artifacts.  We had found the alien head in among old displays in the museum’s archive.  There were many relics of humanity’s early, freebooting days in interstellar space in the vaults.  There were alien weapons, and strange religious artifacts, and more than a few trophies of the vicious wars of that era.  Angg and I had already examined a collection of Te’measkini scalps, gathered by the members of the Fifth Punitive Expedition.  It was gruesome stuff, and offensive to modern sensibilities.  Inclusion of multitudinous species was now Imperial policy, and we had been charged with cleaning out the collection.

“How do you think it died?” I asked Angg.

“Probably a victim of the Rilhalan War,” Angg said.  “The species looks correct.  Huge beings, they were—doubtless the head was taken as a trophy, and the body left to rot.”

“A lot you know, buddy,” the head said, as it sprouted spidery legs and scuttled off.

Sunday Photo Fiction – March 12th 2017- The Suit

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for March 12th 2017— 200 words inspired by this image–

spacesuit
© A Mixed Bag 2012

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It’s all old junk,” Clark said.  “The museum stores it here.”

I saw shapes in the darkness— a LEM mockup, dead animatronic dinosaurs, empty helium cylinders, a spacesuit.

“They have to keep the exhibits fresh,” Clark said.  “Kids like flash and bang.  Their parents want to see something new, or they won’t spring for a membership.”

“That’s a real spacesuit,” I said.

Clark looked.  “Yeah– we got a couple of those surplus.  Time for lunch.”

“Can I stay for a second?” I asked.

“Okay– just don’t mess with anything.”

He left.  I stepped closer to the suit.  Now or never.

The suit was on a standing rack.  I unzipped the main closure.  I wriggled my feet and butt inside, then angled my head into the helmet.  I slipped my arms into the sleeves.  I closed the zipper.

The inside of the suit smelled like a locker-room in need of disinfectant.  No matter.

I waited.  For a moment I thought I had miscalculated.

My stomach lurched.  I floated in blackness. I spun; stars and then Saturn came into view.  I looked down on the rings from about nine hundred thousand kilometers.

“Agent Fifteen-Q-zed,” I called.  “Ready for retrieval.”

PRINCESS OF STARS UPDATE #7

Yes, a progress report on Princess of Stars, something that hasn’t happened in over a year.  That’s because, effectively, there has been no progress.  To be precise, I have written, re-wrttten, cut, deleted, re-purposed, re-arranged, laid the story down in the despair, hovered on the edge of deleting everything and un-publishing the first four Divine Lotus novels, considered giving up writing entirely, written some more and deleted that– with the net effect being that I have been more-or-less cycling around the same point in the story for more than twelve months.  Throw in some clinical depression and about three major life-changes (which are still all working themselves out) and completing this novel has been a goal that has seemed far, far out of reach.

What has changed?  Nothing seismic. There’s been no epic epiphany, nor sea-change in my writing.  Just a couple of small things that seem to be helping me get unstuck.

Firstly, I think I have hit upon a means to finesse some of my inability to get past my blockage.  In my flibbertigibbet way of doing drafts, I normally write passages out-of-sequence, working on later or earlier passages in the narrative when I’m stuck somewhere.  Knitting it all together into a coherent story is what happens in the second draft.  This time around, however, I am doing something a little different; I am writing the story with the intention of not necessarily adhering to a linear timeline for the action– and, in the process, I am not worrying my pointy little noggin too much about connecting passages and such what.  It seems to be helping.  The finished product may look quite different from the other Divine Lotus novels, but the whole point of this is to get to a finished product, and I’m getting kinda ruthless in pursuit of that result.

Secondly, I think I’ve finally reached the acceptance stage of grief over my writing.

When I started, rather late in life, to write in a serious way I thought that I was pretty good.  The process since then has been a slow coming to terms with the fact that I will never be anything more than mediocre.  There’s a reason why no editors ever accepted any of my over-the-transom submissions, nor any agent ever took me on.  I’m just not that good.

It’s been hard for me to get to this place.  I spent a long, long time in the denial stage (ain’t just a river in Egypt, folks).  I think I passed through anger and bargaining pretty quickly, and then spent a very long time in depression.  It didn’t help that my depression wasn’t just about my writing, either.  The last twenty or so years have been hard in many ways, lightened here and there by friendships and the arrival of my daughter (make that the glorious and splendid arrival of my daughter, but I digress…..).

I may- may-be coming out of that stage.  As I mentioned, there have been some serious life-changes, and those may be helping.  The jury is still out.  But I believe I’m done with illusions about myself and my writing.

I will never have much of an audience; I will never make much money at this; and it’s very doubtful anyone will ever make a movie out of any of my works.  If any of this were to happen, I would be pleasantly surprised and give God the glory– but I have to stop holding my breath over it.  I’ve been getting dizzy….

Having said that, I’ve gotten to the point where I want to finish this story and the others still in my head, for my sake and for the story itself.  It’s not going to be great literature and it’s not going to wow the masses.  But I think the story is worth completing.

So– 49,000 words out of a projected 150,000, not quite one-third.  I am finally on the verge of getting Kathy on the road in pursuit of the Lady Rose Adamant– yes, the core action is a chase– and hopefully I will be able to report solid progress from here on out.  Not that there won’t be missteps and recalculations– knowing me, it’s pretty much guaranteed.  But I think I see a path forward, and that’s progress.

Later.

Oh, and PS– I got to use the word selbstgefällig today in the story.  I am so jazzed…..

 

 

 

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: RANDOM PHOTO EXERCISE — Memories by fire and moon

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig– 1000 words based on a random photo from Flickr.  After spinning through a considerable number of pictures, I found this one, by leogln7

Sea snake skeleton

It took me far, far away….

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“The dragons,” the guide said, “were foolish.  As powerful as they were, there were too few of them to rule humanity.  The last battle was fought here.”  He pointed at the vast skeleton, lying in the shallows of the placid lake.  “That’s old Thoronongrom, the king of the dragons.  He fell here with a thousand arrows in him, shredded by cannon, but it still took him three days to die.  The corpse was a generation decaying.”

“How horrible!” gasped the Marchioness of Tre.  She held her scented fan to her face.  “I can almost smell the rotting flesh!”

The dandy at her elbow laughed.  “Come, dearest, it’s been two centuries.”  His fingers fondled the hilt of the jeweled sword at his hip.  “These bones are bleached clean.”

“Roderick, must you spoil everything?” the Marchioness pouted.

The group stood on the lake shore, gawping at the skeleton, as the guide went on about the battle and its great slaughter.  The lords and ladies, with jewels and fine silks, had thought it diverting to come down to the shore for a while, before the evening’s feast and fireworks to celebrate the anniversary of the victory.  They whispered and laughed among themselves as the fellow went on.

“Probably expects tips in direct proportion to how loquacious he can be,” Jason, Baron of Rogen, whispered in Clara’s ear.  Clara wished he wouldn’t do that—she was trying to listen.

“In the end,” the guide said, “although not all the dragons fell here, their power was broken.  The Battle of Silent Lake ended their rule over humanity, and since we have ruled ourselves, to our own greater glory.”

“Hear, hear,” said Duke Coram, and the crowd applauded.

Clara did not join in.  Glory—she found it an ironic word.  Of course, this fellow, making a living off showing fancy folk the bones of legends, wasn’t going to suggest to any of them that their ‘glory’ came at a high price.

The crowd went back up to the mansion overlooking the lake, as the sun set.  There were aperitifs before the meal, and the high-born enjoyed them as they watched the sunset.  Then, by the light of huge lanterns the nobles danced to swiftly-played music, before sitting down to the meal, which was served by silent servants.

Clara, relegated to the outer tables, got up as the fireworks began.  Great balls of crimson and green fire burst high in the air, reflecting in the face of the lake, but she ignored them as she went down the steps to the lower terrace.  Her path was one she would follow to obey a call of nature.  Before she could reach the porticos, however, Jason intercepted her.  “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“My dear baron,” Clara said, “even ladies of the first rank have to relieve themselves from time-to-time, not to mention the daughters of country squires.”

Jason smiled and leaned against a balustrade.  “You are such a queer little thing.  You were really intent on what that fellow had to say this afternoon.”

“Why not?” Clara said.  “Have you no interest in history, my lord?”

“I’ve told you before, call me Jason.”

“I don’t wish to imply an intimacy to which I have no right,” Clara said.  Not yet—and, with any luck, never.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Jason said.  “But, to answer your question, not particularly.  It’s all dead and gone.  Particularly the dragons.  Ancient business that has no meaning now.”

“No?” Clara said.  “I think we are the children of history, and everything in the past lives in us.”  She hesitated.  “My lord, do you believe the tales that not all the dragons died?  That some took human form and that their descendants live among us?”

Jason’s insouciant smile faded.  “That’s not legend, little Clara,” he said.  “That’s dangerous.  The sort of loose talk that puts one in the company of the secret police.”

“Forgive me, then, my lord,” Clara said.  “I spoke out of turn, and foolishly.  Now, please excuse me—I do not wish to have an accident.”

He let her go.  She went through the porticos, but instead of going to the privies she went down to the beach again.  The fireworks continued, even as the Bone Moon rose above them.

She walked out into the water, careless of her shoes and gown, until she stood right under and within the skeleton of Thoronongrom.  She stood there and found it hard to catch her breath, as she tried to imagine what it had been like, on that day, when the old realm had been thrown down, and the new—a regime that needed secret police—was born.  She laid a hand on the giant, weathered rib beside her, and tried to imagine what Thoronongrom had been like, alive, and dealing out death and justice.

I have seen you in my dreams.

She waded to the skull.  The great jaws were agape, as they were in that final moment of death, two centuries before.  Clara tried to picture what sort of agony it was for this great creature to spend three days a-dying, and found she could not.  Her eyes filled with tears.

Music echoed from the terrace above, as the fireworks went on.  Clara was sure she could hear laughter.  The revelries would now move into their terminal, drunken phase, she supposed.

She reached up, to touch one of the great fangs in the upper jaw.  Almost without intending to, she broke off its tip.  It was easier than she thought—the skeleton was so weathered it was well on its way to becoming chalk.

She stared at the tip in her hand.  She closed her fist about it.  She gripped it hard, until the point bit into her palm, until blood flowed.

When the blood struck the water, it sizzled.

She looked up at the mansion, and knew that fire danced in the depths of her eyes.

Rest well, Grandfather, she thought.  They will pay yet.

The Horseman- Part Eight

A note to the discriminating reader– this part came out both a little short and a little too much “tell” rather than “show”.  This is a drawback of posting what is essentially a first draft.  Properly, now that I understand what information needs to be imparted, I should go back and rewrite some of the previous chapters to lay more revolvers on the mantel (so to speak).  That may happen in the future; for the moment, please forgive my clumsiness.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Eight

As it turned out, Mankin did not see Gonatani again for three days.

The first day, Mankin did hardly more than sleep and eat the food brought to him.  He saw mostly servants and his guards.  As far as communications went, the former were skittish, and the latter, Mankin thought at times, might not have even possessed the power of speech.

The second day he felt strong enough to think about going outside his room for a few minutes.  It was mid-morning, as near as he could figure.  It had to be a sign of returning strength that he felt some guilt about lying about when the sun was well up.

He pulled his chamber door open, and was instantly met by the glares of both of the hulking guards.  Their uniforms told him they were house guards, personally pledged to the lord of the manor.  In this case that was doubtless Gonatani.  Mankin had had a little experience with Okharian house-guards, mostly those who were pledged to Okharians who had come over and sworn allegiance to the Electorate.  Soldiers such as these tended to be humorless, fanatically loyal to their patron, rather direct in thought and action, and generally selected for size and strength rather than wits.

The two glowered at Mankin; he tried to smile back.  “Good morning,” he said in his best Okharian.

“What are you doing?” the left-hand guard growled.

“Thought I might take a walk,” Mankin said, trying to sound as inoffensive as possible.

“It’s not allowed,” Left-hand said.

“Yes, it is,” Right-hand said.

“No, it ain’t,” Left-hand said, “the master said he shouldn’t be allowed to escape.”

“But master said he could walk about the gardens and go to the library,” Right-hand said.

At the word ‘library’ Mankin’s ears pricked up like a cat’s.  He had an impulse to interject, but the guards were still arguing.

“I didn’t hear him say that,” Left-hand said.

“Well, your ears are full of wax, you know.”

“Well, your mouth is full of shit, you know.”

“Gentlemen….” Mankin said.

“You always say that and it’s always stupid….”

“You’re the stupid one!”

“Seriously, gentlemen, I’ll go back to my room,” Mankin said.  He would have done so on his own, except that the door was closed behind him and the two guards were now leaning in toward each other and threatening to crush him between them.

“I ought to pound you…..

“Just try it!”

“Silence!”

The word was like a cannon-shot.  Both guards stood up straight at once; Mankin sagged against the door, relieved.

The command came from Seneschal Muri.  He came down a short flight of steps into the anteroom before Mankin’s door.  His expression was like a wind off a glacier.  “What’s the meaning of this noise?”

“Garana says the prisoner can walk about,” Left-hand said.  “But master says he’s not to be allowed to escape.”

“Tikomuni has problems with his hearing,” Right-hand said….

“Enough!” the seneschal said.  “Captain Mankin is our guest, and while’s he’s not allowed to leave the palace, he may walk in the garden at his pleasure as long as he is escorted.”

“Told you,” Garana said.

“Oh,” Tikomuni said, abashed.

“So, you two lard-headed louts can stop your squabbling and escort the captain to the garden,” Muri said.  “If I hear you two arguing like that again, breaking the harmony of the house, I’ll have the master assign you duties more suited to your limited talents, like shoveling out the pig-sties.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Garana said.

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Tikomuni said.

“Very well,” Muri said.

“I thank the honorable seneschal,” Mankin said, sketching out a bow.

The look Muri turned on him was beyond freezing; it was like a breath out of a bleak winter’s night sky.  “I serve the master, Khetuna,” Muri said.  He turned on his heel and left.

 

So it was that Mankin took his first walk around Gonatani’s garden.  It was not a long walk—perhaps ten minutes of slow progress, broken by frequent stops to catch his breath.  Mankin definitely felt stronger than he had when he arrived, but he still far from any thought of escape, even if he had not given Gonatani his parole.

The compensation for his weakness was being able to see open sky, to smell fresh air, and to, for a few minutes, walk among growing things that rustled in the wind and smelled of life.  Mankin had not realized how much he need to these simple things to clear his mind.

He was not so weak that he could not appreciate the gardens themselves.  Well-paved paths wound, in what appeared to be random patterns, between pools of water fringed with ferns and tall stands of flowering shrubs.  Flower-beds of roses and lupines lined the paths in other places, which led to little circular plots in which stood orange and lemon trees.  Mankin could hear bees buzzing among the plants that were in flower—a great number, it seemed to him, considering how late in the season it was.  Of course, in Okhar’s climate far more plants flowered year-round than in Khetun.  In any event, it was pleasant to see and smell something other than wet stone or the rancid bodies of other prisoners.  It seemed strange that a place as peaceful as this could exist in the same world as the Pits.

After a while Mankin had to sit down.  He picked a bench beneath an orange tree.  This one was filled with fruit.  Mankin stared up at its branches as he caught his breath, and wondered how long it had been since he tasted an orange.

“Are you done, Khetuna?” Garana asked, sounding gruff and put out.

“I suppose,” Mankin said, puffing.  “Give me a minute and we’ll start back.”

“Hm,” Tikomuni said, with obvious impatience.

Mankin examined the two of them, comparing.  “Are you two brothers?”

They looked at each other; Tikomuni jerked a thumb at Garana and said, “He’s the older one.”

“Ah,” Mankin said, nodding.  “That explains it.”

To Mankin’s left a flight of steps led up to a door; at that moment a man in the robes of a scholar came out of the door and down the steps.   He was small, middle-aged and wore the look of someone thinking hard about something and not really paying attention to where he was going.  He wore that look right up the moment he walked right into Garana.  The guard turned as the scholar stumbled back, surprised.

“By the Truth!” the man said.  “When did they move this mountain here?”

“Very funny, magister,” Garana said.  “You really gotta watch where you’re going.”

“Such is my keen observation of the universe, I always know where I’m going,” the scholar said.  That statement elicited a derisive snort from Tikomuni.  The man did not seem to notice, for just then he caught sight of Mankin.  “Oh, ho!” the man said, his eyes brightening.  “So this is our northern guest!”

Mankin managed to get to his feet, to bow to the fellow properly.  “Captain Mankin Tannersson, of Brema, at your service, sir,” he said.  He struggled to process what he had just heard—‘magister’ indicated that Tipal was a scholar of the highest rank, charged with not merely scholarship, but explorations and experiment.  Mankin had never met a magister in the flesh, since in the Electorate they were licensed and had their own college separate from the Lyceum.  “You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid.”

“Oh! Tipal Kash, magister, researcher into the known and unknown, humble advisor to the Consul, my lord Gonatani,” the man said.  He inclined his head in a polite—although definitely social superior to inferior—response.

“Magister,” Tikomuni said, “I’m not sure you’re supposed to talk to this Khetuna….”

“Tush,” Tipal said, waving a hand.  “I know no military secrets, so there is no danger of me betraying anything.  Come, captain, may I sit by you?”

“Certainly,” Mankin said, hiding his surprise.

The two of them sat down on the bench.  Tipal did so with an audible sigh of relief.  “I must tell you, captain,” he said, “it is a pleasure to be able to sit in the sun for a moment.  I’ve already had a day, and the day is only half-over.  The packing—oh, by the gods, the packing….”

“Do you, um, have a lot to pack?” Mankin prompted.  He did not know what Tipal was talking about.  Years in the Army, though, had taught Mankin that, even if he had no clue what a superior officer was going on about, listening with an attentive expression would often supply important clues.

“Oh, indeed- I did not bring my entire laboratory, you understand, just enough to continue my essential studies.  Still, that’s enough to fill seven or eight crates some mules are going to have to carry, and the packing itself—well, my retorts simply cannot be flung into boxes.  I had to supervise everything.”

“It sounds as if you had to take special care…,” Mankin said.

“Absolutely,” Tipal said.  “If any of the retorts are broken, it will set back my research many days.  Do you know that I have to heat some of the Kunai materials as hot as a blast furnace just to be able to detect their component elements?  Without a working retort that sort of thing is impossible.”

Mankin hoped no one noticed he was holding on the edge of the stone bench, in an effort to keep from falling over in shock.  “Indeed?”

“Yes,” Tipal said.  “But when I succeed- ha!  The mysteries I discover!”  The man paused, turning thoughtful.  “One must be careful, of course– if I were to heat a device that still possesses an energetic charge, the results– well, ‘catastrophe’ hardly covers it, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yes,” Mankin said, desperately trying to keep up.

“But,” Tipal said, smiling again, “once we’re back in Desumanu, and I am returned to my own laboratory, I should be able to wrap up my studies and be ready for the great journey.  I am glad you will be helping us, captain!  We are not natural enemies, the Khetuni and the Okharians, and it is proper that we all work together on this venture.”  Tipal stood, rather more spry than seem proper for a man his age.  Mankin rose more slowly.

“I have to be about,” Tipal said, “still much to be done.  It was a pleasure speaking with you, captain.  We shall see each other soon.”

“I look forward to it,” Mankin said, lying through his teeth.

Tipal nodded, smiled, and was off.  The three men were left standing in his wake; Mankin, for his part, definitely felt like a chip of wood in a whirlpool.

“So why does the master keep that daft fool around?” Tikomuni asked.

“He knows things,” Garana said.

“Does he know how make a girl lift her skirts for you?” Tikomuni said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then what use is he?”  Tikomuni looked at Mankin.  “You done with your tour of the gardens, outlander?”

“More than done,” Mankin whispered, struggling to comprehend what had just happened.

Mankin spent the rest of that day and most of the next mulling over what Tipal told him.  The magister, in apparent innocence of what Gonatani had told Mankin about why he was here, had said a great deal, but not nearly enough.  Mankin, puzzled after his first interview with the consul, was now worried.

‘…heat some of the Kunai materials…’.  Who in their right mind meddled with any of the artifacts of the Kunai?  The Ancients had left their ruins and debris scattered across the face of the world; occasionally, a discovered device revealed itself to be still energized.  Every nation on Ohon shared the stories of what happened then, tales of horror and mystery.  As far as Mankin was concerned, Tipal was either far braver than he was, or an incredible fool.  Based on their so-far brief acquaintance, Mankin leaned strongly toward the latter.

But Tipal was Gonatani’s magister, so in some way or another he labored at the consul’s command.  Gonatani’s interrogation of Mankin suddenly obtained a context.  What was Gonatani’s interest in the Kunai?  Mankin doubted it was simple intellectual curiosity.

Power.  People had tried to resurrect the technology of the Kunai before; the legends of the Ancients’ power and glory tempted many.  All such attempts had failed, horribly.  How did Gonatani think he would be able to succeed where others had not only failed, but been obliterated, or left raving, or transformed?  Mankin had no idea, but he was sure of one thing; Magister Tipal might be a fool, but Gonatani Samar was not.  He knows something…. 

A consul of the Okharian Empire looking to appropriate the power of the Kunai– Mankin shivered.  There could only be one reason– to win the war.  Perhaps win it in a manner that would leave Okhar master of the world.

And what are you going to do about it?  Mankin wasn’t even sure he could make it a day’s march in any direction.  He surely couldn ‘t assassinate Gonatani; besides, that left Masanata, and Kunatara , and Tipal, and who knew who else.  But his duty was clearly to frustrate the consul’s designs.

Play the fool yourself— or, at least, the innocent.  That seemed to be the only way ahead. Play along, find out what was afoot, find his opportunity.

Mankin just hoped the Unchanging would let him know when opportunity came knocking.

 

 

To be continued…..   

 

 

 

 

The Horseman, Part Seven

Warning: this piece contains violence and vulgar language.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Seven

Mankin drove his fist into Sergeant Torman’s face.  The man fell backward, colliding with two of his bully-boys.  Kass and Denetoi came in from the sides and punished the others with their fists.  The thieves, stunned by the sudden attack, stumbled backwards.  Mankin took the opportunity to grab the bag of bread and retreat.  Another one of the sergeant’s henchmen tried to grab the bag from Mankin; Mankin rewarded his impudence with an accurately aimed knee to the groin.  The soldier fell sideways, clutching himself, and Mankin, Kass and Denetoi broke free of the melee in front of the food-distribution gate and ran for it.

They passed through the Third Archway and reached the north-west pit before they slowed down.  Other prisoners, streaming toward the food-gate, avoided them; in the half-year since coming to this place the other Khetuni prisoners-or-war had learned not to meddle with the half-Attau captain and his men.  Or most of them had.  Torman is a problem, Mankin told himself.

They walked, and Mankin was glad.  The spurt of frantic action he and the others had launched themselves into to recover their ration of bread had left him shaky.  I’m getting weaker by the day.  Even a few moments of energetic movement left him dizzy.

He glanced up at the Okharian guards pacing the wall that ran around the perimeter of the pit.  Back above the food-gate off-duty guards laughed and placed bets on the scrimmage down below, as they always did.  Mankin had long since stopped caring that the bastards looked upon the Khetuni prisoners in their charge as entertainment.  He no longer had the energy to spare.

He had to admit, though, that the prisoner-of-war camp was effective, despite its simplicity.  On a rocky plain a series of open-air mining pits had been enlarged by the Okharians into more-or-less circular holding pens, by themselves thirty to fifty feet deep and up to three hundred yards across.  On the rim of each they had built a wall that added another twenty feet; at the base of the masonry downward pointing iron spikes had been mortared into the stone in a hedge that extended all the way around each pit.  The Okharians had connected each of the pits by carving archways through the living rock, which were fitted with portcullises that could be dropped down from above if the Okharians ever needed to isolate one pit from the others.  There were only three gates in or out of the camp, tunnels carved down to the pits and fitted with heavy doors and more portcullises– the main gate, the food-gate, and the death-gate, where prisoners who died were collected for removal.

Beyond guarding the walls and distributing a ration of food every day, the Okharians left the prisoners to their own devices.  By all appearances the southerners did not care what the Khetuni did in the pits, even if it was to each other, so long as they did not try to attack the gates or scale the walls.  The latter was virtually impossible, and even if the prisoners could break down one of the gates– unlikely, as they had no tools, not even knives– they would find themselves in a narrow tunnel facing cannon and bowmen and more portcullises, and it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

Once, Mankin understood, there had been a command structure among the prisoners in the pits, which had kept order and made sure that food was distributed fairly.  But then an epidemic of blue flux had swept the prison, the officers and sergeants who had maintained the order mostly died, and prisoners began to form gangs and fight among themselves.  Again, the Okharians did not care; they neither provided help during the epidemic nor interested themselves in restoring order.  Instead, they watched and laid bets.

Mankin and the others made their way through another arch into the Western Cell.  This was one of the largest of the pits.  Crossing it made Mankin feel like an insect on a bare floor.  Other soldiers, in ones or twos or small groups, late-comers to the food distribution, hurried past the three of them.  Some of the soldiers eyed them and their bag of bread, but none of them made a move.  Reputation is a wonderful thing.

The three of them reached the caves that sheltered what was left of Mankin’s command.  Ben and Hal were on guard; both men grinned widely when they saw the group returning with their burden.  “You made it, sir!” Ben called.

“Not without a few bumps and bruises,” Mankin said as they climbed the steps carved into the rock-face.  “Food distribution’s getting a little vigorous.  We’ll have to take more men next time.”

“If we’d taken more men this time, it would have saved my knuckles some rough duty,” Denetoi muttered.  Mankin ignored him and enter the caves.

Inside was a warren of interconnected rooms cut from the stone.  The chambers further in were gloomy and dank, and most of the Mankin’s soldiers tended to cluster in the spaces nearer the entrance.  When Mankin and the others entered they were immediately surrounded by his men.  Some cheered their arrival, but others hobbled silently forward, leaning on crude staffs, or the shoulders of comrades.  They were all ragged and thin and dirty.

“One at a time, boys, one at a time!” Kass called out, as he and Denetoi opened the bags.  “Line up neat and proper, that’s it.”  The two of them began to hand out the loaves of bread.

Mankin stepped aside, wanting to make sure he went last, and felt a tug on his sleeve.  It was Corporal Marsh.  “Beg pardon, sir,” the young soldier said, “but Private Gahl is going.”

Mankin’s heart sank.  “I’ll go see him.”

 

In one of the further chambers a little fire burned in a crude lamp, painstakingly chiseled out of a block of sandstone.  Private Gahl lay against the far wall, under a covering of rags.  As soon as Mankin entered the room he smelled its peculiar stench—sickness and bowels and unwashed sweat, which by now Mankin thought of as the stink of despair.

He knelt down beside Gahl.  The young soldier was a skeleton with skin stretched over its bones.  His sunken eyes were closed.  A sheen of sweat covered his emaciated face; his hands clutched the rags under which he lay as if he were holding on to them for his life.  Perhaps he is.

“Private,” Mankin whispered, “Private Gahl.  Can you hear me?”

Gahl at first seemed not to notice; then he stirred a little, and his eyelids cracked open, just a little.  “Is that you, Father?” the boy murmured.

“He’s been going in and out like that all morning, sir,” Marsh said.

“It’s Captain Mankin, Gahl,” Mankin said.

“Captain?  Where’s my father?”

“He’s coming, private,” Mankin said, not sure what else he could say.

“Good,” Gahl said.  He breathed heavily, one, two breaths.  “I just wanted to tell him…I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I got angry.  I didn’t mean it.”

“I’m sure he knows, Gahl,” Mankin said.

“I want to tell him…I want to tell him…,” Gahl trailed off, and then he sighed and his hands slowly unclenched from the rags.

Mankin sat there for a moment, then reached over and closed the boy’s eyes.  “Once you’ve eaten,” he told Marsh, “and we’ve said a few words, get a detail together and take him to the collection point for burial.”

“Yes, sir,” Marsh murmured.

Mankin got up.  He went back further into the cave, to nearly the last chamber.  The attenuated sunshine barely reached this space at all.  Mankin sat down on its moist floor, put his face in his hands, and wept.

Sometime later he realized someone was standing close by, just outside the chamber.  “Who’s there?” he said.

“Denetoi, Cap’n.”  The sergeant stepped forward.  “Look, I got you some bread, and those bastard Okharians actually threw in some pepper-pods, I gotcha a half of one.”

Mankin shook his head.  “I don’t want it.”

“Now, Cap’n,” Denetoi said, “you’re being plain foolish.  Nobody blames you….”

“Maybe they should,” Mankin said.  “I’m the one who surrendered us.”

“And if you hadn’t our bones would be bleaching in the sun, even now,” Denetoi said.

“So instead,” Mankin said, “I brought us here.  A slow death instead of a quick.”

Denetoi hesitated, then sighed.  He sat down next to Mankin.  “You know, Cap’n, I’ve never wanted to be any sort of officer,” he said, “much less a commander.  Never wanted the responsibility.”

Mankin said nothing, which Denetoi apparently took as tacit permission to go on.  “I’m not going to sit here and pretended that I understand everything an officer’s got to think about,” he said.  “All complicated and meshed together, parts working here that affect other parts over there.  Keep men fighting while seeing how everything fits into some bigger frame.  That’s not me.”

“Not sure it’s me, either,” Mankin murmured.

“More you than that damned Lyon,” Denetoi said, “and more than many an officer I’ve known.  So stop second-guessing yourself.”

Mankin looked at him with raised eyebrows.  “Is that an order, sergeant?”

“Advice from an old soldier, sir,” Denetoi said.  “My point is, this much I can see this clear– even for officers, sometimes it comes down to doing the best you can with what you got, where you are.  ‘Cause in this life, when do ordinary men like you and me ever get a perfect choice?  About anything?”

“That’s what I keep telling myself,” Mankin said.

“You should listen to yourself,” Denetoi said.  “The point is, thanks to you we are alive, saving poor Gahl and Roas and Timms and the others who got sick—and only living men can have hope.  So, take your damned bread and pepper, sir, before I eat it all myself.”

Mankin looked over at Denetoi, who was holding the bread out to him.  “A practical moral position, if I ever heard one,” he said, and he nearly smiled as he took the food.

 

Before they removed Gahl’s body Mankin gathered his surviving command around him as he stood by the dead man.  Gahl’s comrades had made a small effort to make him presentable, washing him and arranging his limbs and tying up his jaw with a cloth.  It wasn’t much, but Mankin was grateful for the effort.

“We have to say goodbye to our comrade now,” he told his men.  “None of us have the strength to stand for a long sermon, so I’ll keep it short.  Private Gahl was young, and sometimes he was a silly fellow who was faster with a joke than his bow, but he never complained and he was always first to the wall when stand-to sounded.  We will miss him.  He came a long way from home, to die in this place, but we’re all a long way from home.”  Mankin hesitated, trying to think of what to say to encapsulate what he felt at this moment.  “The Unchanging grant that poor Gahl is the last of us to die here.”

“The gods grant,” the men murmured, in a soft, ragged chorus.

 

The three strongest men, Grer, Jason and Preet, bore Gahl’s body away to the corpse collection point, while the rest of them dispersed back into the caves.  Mankin settled back into his own space, and tried not to think about anything for a while.

Too soon, though, Kass came and found him.  “Captain,” he said, looking worried, “we got trouble.”

 

It was as big a party of Okharians inside the prison as Mankin had seen together since surrendering.  That was the first surprise.  The second was that they were not garrison guards, but regular soldiers, in full kit.  A half-company, at least, he estimated, as they spread out around the cave mouths, making sure no one could get out, or in.  There were swordsmen and pike-handlers, and a scattering of arquebusiers, who took positions that would all cover all the exits of the caves and all their approaches.

Mankin emerged from the caves just as the most senior Okharian present—a captain—stepped forward.  By this time most of the men of Mankin’s command were gathered around, and the Okaharian peered from face to face, just as if he were trying to recognize someone.  “Which of you,” he called, in fair Khetuni, “is the captain called Mankin the Attau.”

“Who’s asking?” Kass demanded.

The officer glowered.  “The man who’ll spread you guts over these rocks if you don’t answer me civilly, Khetuna.”

Kass looked as if he might be readying another smart reply, but Mankin held up his hand.  “Don’t, sergeant.”

Kass shut his mouth, but he did not look happy.  Mankin stepped forward.  “I am Mankin,” he said.

The officer looked Mankin over, as if examining him for identifying marks.  The Okharian’s eyes lingered on the scar on Mankin’s face.  “Very well,” the fellow finally said.  “You’re to come with us.”

“Why?” Mankin asked.

The Okharian flushed with anger.  He said, “Because, you stupid outlander, you’re required somewhere else.  More than that I don’t know, nor do I care, except that my orders are to get you to that somewhere else as quickly as possible.  Alive and in one piece, if that’s concerning you, although again, I don’t know why anyone would care if I carved my family crest into your stinking skin.  So come, now, or I’ll have my men carry you—oh, and if any of your starvelings get in the way, my men will skewer them, since nobody gives a damn about them.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Sir…,” Kass said.

“Sergeant Kass,” Mankin said, “at ease.  Seems like I have no choice.  I don’t want anybody hurt.”

“They’re up to something,” Kass said.

“Maybe,” Mankins said lowly, “but if they wanted me dead, they could kill me here and now without much fuss.  And all my military information is a year old, so I can’t imagine it being of any use to them.  So I’m going.  I’ll get back as soon as I can.  You’re in charge, sergeant.”

Kass looked from Mankin to the Okharians and back to Mankin, unhappy.  But he said, “Yes, sir,” and stepped back.

Mankin climbed down to the Okharians, unsure if his legs shook from hunger or fear.  He faced the half-captain.  “I’m ready.  Don’t have much in the way of baggage.”

The captain sneered at him for a moment, then told his men, “Bring him.”

 

The captain led Mankin to the main gate, with the half-company surrounding them both.  They all filed out the gate, and Mankin realized at that moment that whoever wanted him carried a great deal of clout.  The gate guards, all four layers of them, did not question the half-captain or even say a word to him as he led Mankin out.

Once he had Mankin in the outer court of the main-gate fort, the captain seemed to really look him over for the first time, and not like what he saw.  He sat Mankin down on a mounting block, and gave him bread and a handful of dates to eat.  Mankin downed them without question, almost before he had them in his hands.

“I’m not being charitable,” the half-captain told him.  “We have to ride, and I can’t have you falling off every half-league from hunger.”

“Fine,” Mankin said around a mouthful of bread.

They gave him water to drink, as well, and Mankin used some of it to wash his face and hands.  Then they brought out a squad’s worth of horses, saddled and ready, the strong, phlegmatic sort of beasts the Okharians used for long journeys, and Mankin knew his first twinge of misgiving.  “How far are we going?” he asked the captain.

“Far enough to leave this place well below the horizon,” the officer said.  “Mount up.”

Mankin was glad no one in the Reach saw what happened next; he had to be boosted into the saddle.  He swayed a moment, then got his feet into the stirrups and hung on for dear life.  Spearmen mounted the other horses, a good twenty men.  A large guard for one Khetuni who can barely hold on to the saddle, Mankin thought.

The captain mounted, gave Mankin the look of a man resolving to make the best of a poor situation, and waved to their escort.  “Let’s go.”

 

It was early the next morning when the detail clattered across a drawbridge into the outer keep of a huge palace-fort atop a hill.  They had ridden east through the night, with only brief breaks to change horses and drink and eat.  With each stop and each remount, Mankin had gotten weaker and weaker.  At the end he clung to the saddle only by force of will and the half-captain’s promise of more food at their destination.

As they entered the gate Mankin got only impressions of the palace; he was too exhausted.  When they stopped in the keep’s courtyard the Okharians had to help him off the horse, then they had to help him to stand.

As the soldiers did so an older Okharian appeared, wearing the robes and tonsure of a high steward, and a severe expression.  He looked at Mankin, then at the half-captain.  “Did you look to kill him?” the steward snapped.

The officer glowered back.  “I was ordered to get him here as quickly as possible.”

The steward growled in the back of his throat.  “Well, you’ve done that.  Now leave him to us.”

The steward snapped his fingers; house servants stepped forward and took Mankin bodily away from the soldiers.  Mankin, far too weak to protest, accepted the transfer without a word.

The soldiers stepped back; the half-captain in particular looked as if he had swallowed a dose of castor oil.  The steward faced Mankin, now literally in the hands of his people.  He inclined his head to Mankin.  “Greetings, Captain Tannersson,” the man said.  “I am High Seneschal Muri.”  He spoke the words with icily formality, as if he did not like their taste.  “This is the Great House of the Lords of Shining Rock.  Be welcome.”

It penetrated Mankin’s fuddled brain that he had just had the status of guest bestowed upon him.  This is unexpected.  Somehow he managed to stand a little straighter.  “I am…honored to step within…your sacred house,” he managed, just before collapsing completely.

 

He slept much of the day, in a cool room somewhere in the palace.  He hardly noticed anything from the moment he lay down to the moment house servants came to rouse him.

Once he was able to stagger to his feet they bathed him, then they fed him.  Mankin could not tell which left him more unstrung.  The bath was so warm and pleasant that he very nearly sank under the water, not caring if he drowned.

When he finally emerged they dressed him in the light cotton shirt and breeks of an Okharian commoner.  Mankin had no objection—the clothes were clean and new.  They left him barefoot, though, which Mankin supposed was a precaution against his running.

When they set food before him, the spongy baked naan and hotly spiced beef that was typical of Okharian cuisine, he had to force himself not try to grab everything, but to eat with a measured pace, and to stop at the first sense of being replete.  That moment came much sooner than he thought it would.  His stomach, he reckoned, must have shrunk to the size of a grape.

When he was done it was close to sunset.  The servants, accompanied by two overly burly guards who kept their eyes on Mankin the whole time, escorted him through a maze of rooms and courtyards toward what appeared to be the center of the house.  The air outside was still hot, but the thick-walled rooms were cool and dark.

At last they brought him to a large, windowless chamber; water trickled down the far wall into a deep pool—this was obviously the house’s well-room, or one of them, but on a scale Mankin had never seen before.  The space echoed with the sound of the water and their footsteps; it seemed a place of rest and coolness and peace.

Kunatara Maso was there.  He sat, in ordinary clothes, on the ledge by the pool.  Mankin felt a strange mélange of emotions—relief at seeing a familiar face, mingled together with suspicion of why he was here, together with a powerful burst of rage.  He tried to put it all aside and to think clearly, for Kunatara was not alone.

Two other Okharians were there.  One was an older man, seated in a wide-armed chair by the trickling well.  He was a big man, dressed in a simple tunic, whose frame spoke of youthful power and vigor, but for whom age had softened his body and grayed his aspect.  His face was lined and pensive, and he hardly seemed to notice Mankin’s entrance.

The other Okharian paced on one side of the room.  He was younger, very fit, and although he, too, wore ordinary clothes, Mankin could tell he was a soldier.  The man glared at Mankin with unreserved hostility.  Mankin sensed that here was a man who would take no prisoners, least of all Khetuni.

The two guards stepped back to the doorway, leaving Mankin standing alone.  He took his best guess, made a shaky bow toward the older man, and said in Okharian, “I greet you, dread lord, and thank you for your great hospitality.”

Kunatara’s eyebrows went up; the pacing man scowled in even deeper suspicion, if that were possible; and the older man looked up.  Eyes as weary as they were intelligent met Mankin’s; and then the man gave him a small smile.  “That’s not bad,” he said.  “Your accent’s pretty good for a Khetuna; your form is slightly off, but nothing at which anyone would take offense.”

“Consul,” the pacing man said, “please allow us to judge that matter for ourselves.”

“Hush, Masanata,” the older man said.  As he spoken Mankin hastily revised his estimate of the man’s rank and status—Consul meant he was one of the Empire’s elite, someone who had sometime before served at the right hand of the Imperator.  “Captain Mankin is, indeed, our guest, and you should remember that.  Not to mention, we don’t want to poison the well from which we’re about to ask him to drink.”

As rebukes went, Mankin thought that speech was pretty mild; Masanata’s expression, however, darkened as if he’d been slapped.  Mankin, though, wondered what the consul meant by ‘wells’ and ‘poisoning’ and ‘drinking’, all of which, juxtaposed together, sounded more than a little ominous.

Kunatara stood.  “Perhaps, Consul, we should engage in a little more formality, and introduce ourselves.  Captain Mankin and I have met; Captain,” he gestured at Masanata, “may I make known to you Strategist and High Commander Masanata Rimun Basa, lord of Dere-naru.”

Mankin hid his surprise again; Masanata was a member of the Imperator’s inner military council, as well as a landed baron of some wealth.  What a strategist of the Imperator’s own council was doing here, a long way from the Okharians’ temporary capitol of Gesu-kana, Mankin had no earthly clue.

In any case, Mankin bowed to Masanata.  “I am honored by your presence, esteemed strategist and lord.”

Masanata glared at Mankin in open hate.  “I want no courtesy from you, you Khetuna bastard.”

“Lord Basa,” the consul said, and this time there was a snap in his voice, “please cease to insult my guest.  Keep it up and your words may begin to impinge on my honor.”

Masanata actually paled; he turned and bowed to the consul.  “Your pardon, lord.”

“And,” Kunatara said, smoothly, as if the consul and Masanata were exchanging pleasantries, “may I make known to you my lord Gonatani Samar, overlord of Usser, baron of Isu-kara,  March of Desumanu, Strategist and Overcommander, Royal Companion and Kinsman, former Consul of the Empire.”

It was all Mankin could do to keep from staggering, now from surprise rather than weakness.  Gonatani Samar—even common Khetuni soldiers had heard that name.  Four times consul of the Empire, the close cousin of the Imperator, the strategist who had kept Khetun from overrunning all of Okhar in the first years of the war, the man most said could have had the throne of Okhar for himself, but had loyally defended his cousin’s right to it.  If Masanata’s presence here was unexpected, Gonatani’s was like the visitation of a minor deity.

Mankin forced himself to keep his feet under him as he bowed deeply.  “I am unworthy to greet the dread lord, and I am indebted to him for his courtesy and grace.”

Masanata’s expression told Mankin that, as far as that point was concerned, he was entirely in agreement with him, but the general said nothing.  Gonatani smiled again.  “Well, captain, you are entirely welcome here.  I have to admit, though, I did not expect to hear this much courteous speech from a Khetuna officer.”

“If it please my dread lord,” Mankin said, “courtesy costs nothing.”  Of course, discourtesy in this context would doubtless be fatal, but Mankin reckoned there was no need to mention that fact.

Then, in spite of everything, he swayed on his feet.  The room spun around him, and he staggered.

Gonatani sat up straighter in his seat.  “By the high gods, where is our courtesy?  A chair for the captain, at once.”

The guards hustled about behind Mankin, and in a moment a chair was brought in, a seat that matched Gonatani’s.  Mankin sat down at once and gripped the armrests.  “I thank the dread lord,” he said.

“Well, we can’t have you falling on your face,” Gonatani said.  “I am sorry for the hardship you experienced in the camp, captain, but there was nothing I could do for you until now.”  The consul sat back.  “Better?”

“Yes, dread lord, thank you.”  Indeed, the room had ceased its revolutions.

“Hmm—you’re going to be here a while, captain, so you can cut your salutations back to an occasional ‘lord’,” Gonatani said.  He rubbed his nose.  “I understand, captain, that you were wounded in the fall of the fort at Senso-marta.”

Mankin wondered why Gonatani was being so circumspect, when the scar on his face was wide and bright.  “Yes, dre…yes, lord.”

“Does it give you much pain?”

Mankin actually had to stop and think about that one for a moment.  Many strange things had happened to him already in the last day, but having Gonatani Samar enquiring about his battle-wounds was perhaps the strangest.  “Only when the weather turns, my lord,” Mankin said.

Gonatani grinned.  “With me it’s my knees.  Too much marching about when I was young, I suppose.”

“Consul…,” Masanata started.

Gonatani held up a hand.  “No need, general.  I’ll get to the point.”  To Mankin he said, “You are weak and tired, captain, so I don’t want to detain you.  But there are a few things we need to clarify.”

“As it pleases my lord,” Mankin said, perplexed.

“You are called Mankin the Attau, but your family name is Tannersson?”

Mankin tried to marshal his thoughts with one hand while holding off bewilderment with the other.  “Yes, lord.  My father was Khetuni, my mother Attau.”

“Ah,” Gonatani said, as if Mankin’s answer had granted him some sort of comprehension of a previous mystery.  “And you’re descended from tanners?”

“Some generations back, yes,” Mankin said.  “Apparently my father’s great-great-grandfather had a tannery in Gereburg.  When the king of those days expanded the ranks of the Named, my forebearer had the wherewithal to pay the fee and earn a surname.”

Mankin was not surprised to see Masanata sneer.  He had gotten the same look from Khetuni officers from old-name families.  But Gonatani merely nodded.  “Good.  Good.  And you’re a man of some learning?”

If Mankin had been on a horse that had suddenly broken right when he had expected it to go left, he could not have been more thrown.  “Um…yes, my lord, well, I studied at the Lyceum, I did not earn my stole….”

“Excellent,” Gonatani said.  “If you would oblige me, please read something for me.”

Mankin blinked, then blinked again as one of the guards came to him, carrying a heavy codex.  He placed it, open, in Mankin’s lap.  Mankin peered at it.  “Oh, ah…this is strange.”

“Do you know what this is?” Gonatani said.

Mankin looked up.  “This is a chronicle, the Corso Havenum Brekis.  It’s a narrative of the Kunai.”

“Can you read it?” Gonatani said.

“Why, yes, lord,” Mankin said.

“Please do,” Gonatani said.

Mankin stared at him for a moment, then looked back down at the open book.  “Um…Heste urun harla terimini degusta parva….

He read about half a page of the Kunai text before Gonatani held up a hand.  “Excellent.  Now can you translate that text for us?”

“Yes, lord…ah…‘the ordering of the Kunai state is in five parts, all in opposition to all, so that a balancing of interests and powers may be attained, to the greater harmony of the commonwealth….’”

He re-read what he had first read, translating into Okharian as he went, hesitating only once or twice where rendering the sense of the Kunai words in Okharian presented some extra difficulty.  He finished and looked up.

Gonatani was peering at him with the intensity of someone undergoing a revelation.  Kunatara had covered his open mouth with a hand, as if to hide his surprise.  Masanata had stopped his pacing, and was backed up against the wall behind him; his expression had changed from disdain to something close to outright fear.

What is this all about? 

“That is…that is good, Mankin of the Attau,” Gonatani said.  “Well read.  Yes.”

He gestured, and the guard collected the book from Mankin and took it away.  As he did Gonatani said, “Mankin of the Attau, I have no wish to tire you further today.  There have been enough questions for the time-being.  My servitors will take you to a private chamber; you are my guest, and you may rest there as you please.”  He raised a hand in caution.  “Despite that, of course, there is still war between our nations; I must ask you not to wander about the house and grounds without an escort.  Some places, of necessity, must be forbidden to you; and I ask that you make no attempt to escape or leave this fortress.”

As if I have the strength to get more than half a mile, Mankin thought.  Aloud he said, “I hear, my lord, and will obey.”

Gonatani nodded.  “Doubtless you have questions of your own.  We will speak again, soon, and I hope to be able to answer some of those questions then.”

Mankin heard the dismissal in Gonatani’s words.  He bowed, backed away according the Okharian custom, bowed again, then turned to leave the room.  His guards fell in beside him, as he wondered, what the hell is going on?

 

To be continued…..