Category Archives: Fiction excerpt

Story Fragment– A Sleep of a Thousand Years

Here’s a fragment from a fantasy novel I started a few years back. The plot is something vague about a legendary princess and men on a desperate quest, but it never really gelled. Occasionally I come back and doodle on it. Perhaps someday I’ll figure it out….

This piece is a little cheesy, but I think it’s fun.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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“This is it,” Ethar said. His face shone with excitement. “It has to be!”

Soren had to agree. They had all labored up the slope from the camp– Soren, Ethar, with his bag of scrolls, Gis, with his old man’s panting, Yar stumping upward, his face set, Duro following him– and now, before the Great Doors, sunk into the cliff-face, Soren was sure that their journey was over. Or half-over…. “Can you get it open?” he asked Ethar.

Ethar pulled a scroll from his pouch. “Give me a moment.”

“Gods give me strength,” Duro muttered.

Ethar didn’t seem to hear him. He consulted a scroll with red tabs, then stepped up to the Doors. They loomed over him, thirty or more feet high. Into their face were carved dozens of runes and images– Elha at war, on the hunt, bowing before their Queen. Soren studied the graven face of Tirana, but the features were stylized, stilted; they told him nothing.

Yar stepped close to Soren. “Captain, remember our bargain. You’re here to speak to the Queen of the Elha, if you can find her. But I want the Spear of Souls for my sovereign.”

“I remember,” Soren said. “But we’re still a ways from either goal.”

“True enough– but I didn’t think we would get this far,” Yar said.

Ethar studied the carvings. “It’s not a riddle; it’s a sequence….” he muttered.

Reaching up, he touched the foot of one hunter, dragged his fingers along the form of a dying warrior. Then he pushed at the hub of a chariot wheel.

A harsh, thunderous boom shook the ground beneath their feet. Soren staggered, then stepped back as the Doors shuddered, boomed, and then slowly began to open. They pulled apart, revealing a dark space beyond.

“Oh, my,” breathed Gis.

They went in, cautiously, weapons ready. The sunlight shining through the newly opened doors was watery, and the chamber within was filled with suddenly disturbed dust. Soren coughed, and Ethar sneezed four times in a row. But after a few moments they began to make out their surroundings.

The chamber was vaulted, and seventy feet high. On either side stood huge statues on pedestals– frowning kings and unequally unsmiling queens. “Hasu,” Gis muttered, gazing up at them. “Kannu, Sianna, Leato– all Tirana’s ancestors.”

“Fun looking bunch,” Duro whispered.

“They don’t like intruders,” Yar said. He stroked his beard, as if to ward off evil. He looked as patchy as Soren felt.

In the middle of the chamber stood a plinth, on which sat a huge stone casket. Around the base of the plinth runes were inscribed into the stone, of an old mode that Soren could not read. Gis and Ethar, however, both bent down at once and began to examine them. On the floor about the plinth, covered with thick dust, were sections of columns and blocks of stone. They did not look as if they had fallen; they looked as if they had been new-cut pieces, intended for further construction, but left in place and never touched again, as if their builders had just never returned to their tasks.

As the two scholars exchanged learned whispers Yar cautiously explored the chamber beyond the plinth, as if to make sure there were no enemies lurking in the far corners. As he did, Duro came over to Soren. “If there is a weapon in that casket, you must remember your charge from the Queen…no matter what you’ve told the dwarf….”

“I haven’t forgotten it,” Soren said. “But my charge was to find the Queen of the Elha and enlist her help. Any alleged weapon is secondary to that.

“Come on, Soren,” Duro said. “Look at this place– this is a tomb. We’re only going to find bones and dust in that casket. The legend is just that.”

Soren scowled. “As may be– but I will hold off judgment until we know, Duro son of Eig.”

The two of them glared at each other; then Gis said, “We have it!”

“Have what?” Soren said, glad to have something to distract him. Yar came hurrying back to the others.

Gis stood. “The inscription says that Tirana, Queen of the Elha, in her grief over her brother, chose to sleep the Sleep of Forgetfulness. She took the venom of a shistaska, and became like one dead, and was lain here, until the time should be fulfilled for her revival.”

“‘Became like one dead’, or died?” Doru said. “Are you sure of your translation?”

“Fairly sure,” Ethar said, still bent over the runes. “Although the declension is ambiguous in some contexts….”

“Sorry I asked,” Duro said, rolling his eyes.

“How do we open the casket?” Soren said, determined to stay focused. He sheathed his sword.

“Ah,” Gis said, with a raised finger, as if Soren had raised an interesting point in a lecture. “If the honored Ethar is correct, he understands the sequence for opening the casket. It is another secret pattern, but one he has deciphered from the ancient Elha chronicles….”

“Spare us the description,” Duro growled, “and just do it.”

Gis scowled at Duro, then looked at Soren. “Please do,” Soren said. “Before we start chewing each other’s ears off.”

Gis nodded. “Very well. Ethar…?”

“One moment,” Ethar said. He stood. Appearing to ignore Duro’s huffing and muttering, he walked slowly around the plinth. Every other step he touched one or two of the runes; Soren, watching, believed he understood the pattern. Each of the runes corresponded to numbers in the Elha mathematical system; together they seemed to be numerical sequences that had mystical importance. But he was not sure; his command of ancient Elha mysticism was not a patch on Gis’ or Ethar’s.

Ethar finished his circuit of the plinth. He touched the last rune. Instantly there came a sharp snap. Everyone took a step back. The top face of the casket split length-ways down the middle; as they watched, the halves folded back and slid down out of sight. The casket, now an open box, silently rose a foot or more. It stopped, and the sides folded down.

Inside, lying on its back, was a body. It was a woman; she was clothed in a shining blue sark that reached from her shoulders to her white feet. She was Elha; her ears and the tilt of her eyes marked her. Her hair, nearly white, lay over her in two long braids, reached to her midriff. Her hands, small and fine, rested on her belly.

The men approached slowly. “By the high gods,” Gis said, in little more than a whisper. “It’s her. Tirana.”

Soren was willing to take his word for it. To him, the woman looked as if she had just lain down for a summer’s nap. He stepped up and examined the body closely. The form beneath the sark seemed more than pleasing, but there was no movement, no sign of breath. Without being obvious about it, Soren took a deep breath. No scent of decay came to him.

“She sleeps!” Ethar exclaimed. “Just as the old chronicles said!”

“That’s daft, even for you,” Duro said. “She’s dead. It’s obvious. The old Elha were masters of embalming, that’s all.”

“I don’t know….” Gis said, uncertain.

“Come on,” Duro said, “it’s been a thousand years!”

“Yes, it has,” Soren said.

Yar stepped up beside him. “Is this it? One dead Elha wench? Is there nothing else in the casket?”

“There doesn’t appear to be,” Soren said.

Yar looked as if he wanted to hit something– or someone. “My king will be displeased. No, actually, my king is going to gut me slowly and feed my manhood to starving wolves while it’s still attached. He wanted that Elha weapon.”

“Well, my mission’s a failure, too,” Soren said. “I have no capacity for speaking to the dead.”

“She’s not dead!” Ethar said. “I tell you, it’s in the chronicles! She merely sleeps!”

“A thousand year sleep,” Duro said sarcastically. “Of course. So, if she sleeps, you scroll-addled fool, how do you wake her up?”

“Um….” Ethar said.

Tentatively, Soren stepped closer to the plinth. He reached a hand and touched Tirana’s cheek. He blinked in surprise. The flesh was supple, smooth, and seemed no different from that of a living person.

“She’s not mummified at all,” he said.

“As I said,” Ethar said, his excitement returning.

Soren hesitated again. Then he leaned down over Tirana’s still face. Still no scent of decay. Very gently he pressed his lips to hers.

“Soren?!” Gis exclaimed.

Soren lifted his head, hiding his surprise. He had expected his kiss to meet hard coldness, and, most likely, to taste putrescence. Instead, Tirana’s lips were warm, and she tasted, not of rot or death, but of woman.

But she still did not move.

“Now, what did that accomplish?” Gis complained.

Soren looked up. The others gathered around the plinth started with expressions of surprise, disgust or confusion. Soren smiled, shrugged. “Well, it always works in the tales.”

Gis rolled his eyes and groaned; Yar laughed. “And I thought I was strange,” he said.

“Well, it also means I’m out of ideas,” Soren said, sighing.

“I suggest we give the problem a rest,” Gis said. “Perhaps we can think of something after we’ve eaten.”

There was a general murmur of agreement. “Well,” Duro said, sighing, “all right. I’ll get supper started. We’ve got that venison and the turnips. I’ve got a little garlic left. That should give the stew some flavor.”

Tirana sat up on the plinth. “Oh! I hate garlic!” she shrieked.

Yar yelled in surprise, lifting his axe and stumbling back. Gis fell backwards over one of the fallen pillars, his robes flying up and his spindly legs waving in the air. Ethar shouted, “Yah!” and dropped his scrolls, which rolled every which way across the floor. Duro turned and fled for the open chamber doors, wild-eyed with fright.

Soren instinctively retreated, and reached for Splitter. His hand was on its hilt when Tirana collapsed back on to the plinth.

“What in the name of the unholy demons of Lis was that?” Yar exclaimed, still in a battle-stance, as if preparing to receive a cavalry charge.

“I don’t know,” Soren said. He stepped cautiously back to the edge of the plinth. He kept a hand on Splitter. Tirana again lay on the plinth, but now her chest moved with breathing, her lips parted, and as Soren watched she stirred and moved her arms. She lifted one hand up to her mouth, then let it fall back.

“I think,” he said, wondering, “she’s waking up.”

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Abandoned Fragment #11- The Chase

Chuck Wendig threw down a flash fiction challenge today in honor of the new Mad Max movie. The challenge is to write a car chase. Everybody loves a car chase, right?

Unfortunately, I am a lazy scum-sucking low-life cheater from Cheatville. Instead of writing a new piece, I remembered a car chase embedded in one of my abandoned novels, an alternate history story, and thought it might work. I plead the excuse that I have been backing away from doing flash fiction in general the last couple of weeks, as I am trying (really, I am) to focus on Princess of Fire, and so don’t have the energy to spare to write a new piece. Feel free to resent me; I understand.

Please note this is an excerpt, not a complete story; because of that, the end is a little abrupt.

It is incumbent on me to post the following warning–

DO NOT READ THIS PIECE IF GRAPHIC VIOLENCE AND BLOODSHED OFFEND YOU!

Really, it even icks me out in places.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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The tunnel went down, a slight but noticeable slope. Roberts floored the accelerator and the walls of the tunnel shot past. The vehicle’s headlights were an ever-retreating patch of light in front of them.

Nathan dropped the windscreen. If there was gun-play ahead it would keep shards of glass out of their teeth. He locked the screen down and the wind buffeted them.

Nathan checked the shotgun and tried to calculate the geometries of the chase. Surely the Delhites had no more than a few minutes lead; the fight had not taken long. On the other hand, they could be counted on to be moving at the best speed their vehicles could make, and Nathan and Roberts had no advantage. Nathan prayed that the tunnel would open out onto a single road; if the Delhites turned off before the Americans caught up to them they would get away for sure. Even if they did catch up, there were two enemy cars between Nathan and the one carrying Halima. And Raneesh?— was the thin man dragging Halima the Maharaja of Delhi? He hoped to find out.

The tunnel leveled out, then began to climb. Roberts downshifted once; the car hardly slowed. They shot up the incline, and the walls of the tunnel became rougher, as if the closer to the exit the less trouble the Delhites had taken to make their work clean. Nathan‘his hands gripped the shotgun tight.

The car’s headlights flashed on something ahead. Nathan peered ahead. “Slow, slow,” he shouted; but Roberts was already braking.

At two hundred yards the headlights barely gleamed off the dull brown metal of the cars; but Nathan could see well enough the Delhites scrambling around the vehicles. In front of the machines a patch of red daylight and purple sky was growing; Nathan glimpsed silhouettes of men against the sunset, shoving the doors open.

“They had to stop to open the door!” he yelled to Roberts.

The door was open, a rectangle of ocher. The officers scrambled back aboard their cars. Nathan threw himself into the back seat of their car, as Roberts downshifted and braked again. The cars blocked the exit; they were suddenly very close. The headlights shone on the enemy. Nathan saw one of the Delhites look back at them with wide, terrified eyes as he tried to climb aboard the last car.

The first vehicle shot out the tunnel’s mouth on to the dirt track that lay beyond. The second followed, and then the third, its rear wheels fishtailing. Nathan held on to the seat in front of him and Roberts floored the gas again; the car streaked out of the tunnel into the sunset air, into the enemy’s dust.

The car jounced and slewed. Roberts worked the wheel and the accelerator and the gear-shift as if he directing a concert. Nathan, blinded by the dust cloud, wondered how Roberts could see where he was going. He knew a sudden fear they would lose the Delhites.

The car broke out of the dust-cloud. Roberts slewed the wheel, and the car turned hard right on to a tarred road, so sharp it came up off its right wheels. Nathan held on to the front seat with one hand, the shotgun with the other, and yelled in triumph; the last Delhite car was fifty feet in front of them.

“Get them!” he yelled.

Roberts worked the gear-shift and the gas; somehow, beyond all of Nathan’s expectations, the car accelerated. The air whistled around them. The last car grew big. Nathan braced himself.

The bumper of their car slammed into the rear of the enemy vehicle. The Delhite car slewed back and forth on the road, the driver fighting to control it. Roberts tried to ram again, but the Delhite driver jerked his wheel hard and the car slid rightward. One of the passengers in the back seat twisted around to face them. Nathan saw the pistol in the man’s hand as a black blur. He slid down in the seat, Roberts bent low over the steering wheel and slewed the car leftward; the officer’s shot went over their heads.

The bumper of their car hit the Delhite’s fender. Metal screeched and ground; the car shuddered, then jerked leftward again. Nathan found himself staring at the back seat of the other car, the two vehicles racing side-by-side. The officer, left hand braced against the back of his seat, was standing up, trying to get a bead on Nathan.

Nathan leveled the shotgun one-handed and fired. The recoil nearly knocked him out of the car; he barely held on to the seat in front of him and the shotgun both. His helmet flew off, bounced off the car’s boot, disappeared. The blast ripped the side of the other car and converted the Delhite officer from a man to a ruin of blood and red meat. The two men in the back seat with him screamed, peppered with pellets and bone fragments. The corpse toppled backward out of the car and disappeared in the grass along the road.

Nathan worked the lever of the shotgun, ejecting the smoking, empty shell. He braced himself and aimed at the back of the driver’s head. He hesitated; the man was helpless, unarmed, his back turned. It suddenly felt like murder. Nathan cursed, and pointed the muzzle of the shotgun at the Delhite’s left front tire. The flash of the blast was bright in the twilight, against the dark-surfaced road. The tire shredded; the driver cried out and struggled with the wheel.

“Shove ’em off!” Nathan yelled. Roberts, grinning, tweaked the wheel hard. The car slammed sideways into the Delhite. The driver’s cry changed to a scream as the car careened rightward, off the road and down the embankment. Nathan looked back, as it flipped and rolled. Bodies flew. He wondered if a quick blast would not have been more merciful.

Roberts stomped on the accelerator; the car zoomed toward the next Delhite. This driver knew what was happening; he weaved back and forth, denying Roberts the chance to slip alongside. The batman swerved, trying to see a way past. The right front fender of the car clipped the Delhite’s bumper; the headlight shattered with an ironically musical sound over the roar of the engines. The Delhite vehicle shuddered; the two cars locked bumpers. Metal crumpled and screeched. Roberts cursed, fought the wheel.

The car jerked loose suddenly, as the Delhite car’s bumper gave way and bounced on the roadway, sending up a cascade of sparks. Their car skidded hard left; Roberts yelled in fear. Nathan grabbed hold of the seat, fighting to stay in. The vehicle kissed the edge of the blacktop, hung there for a perilous moment, then shot back.

Nathan lost his balance, slammed into the floor of the car. He pulled himself up. They were now even with the Delhite car. Roberts jerked the wheel; the two vehicles slammed together with a song of bending metal. Nathan found himself staring into the faces of a pair of Delhite officers in the back seat.

He leveled the shotgun, pulled the trigger. Nothing happened– the hammer clicked. “Dammit!” Nathan said. He jerked the lever. The chamber was empty. The bandolier of shells trembled on the floor beside him; he reached for it.

A weight landed on his back. A sudden memory– a summer’s day when he was sixteen, the Carter family’s barn where he had hired out for a day’s work, the smell of the dust of the barn’s floor, mingling with the scent of the hay-bale that had fallen on him. Nathan slammed hard into the floor of the car. His face hit the floorboards, skidded on the metal, the bandolier under him. He returned to the present, and smelled starched cloth and sweat. One of the Delhites had jumped into the car on top of him.

Nathan twisted under the Delhite. The man had fallen part way over the seat, off balance, but he scrabbled for Nathan’s neck. He kneed Nathan in the gut, his dark face fierce.

Nathan swung the shotgun. He had no room for a windup, but the barrel connected with a sharp smack against the man’s jaw. The officer grunted, fell back against the door. Nathan pushed himself up. The Delhite swung hard and slammed his fist into Nathan’s face.

The man was big; it was like being slammed with an oak board. Nathan saw black, swimming spots, skidded back and hit the other door. His head made an odd, hollow, coconut sound as it hit the door’s paneling. The Delhite leapt after him. They grappled, as the cars tore apart.

The officer got his hands on Nathan’s throat. His grip was a steel band on Nathan’s windpipe. Nathan knew at once he would never pry the man’s fingers off his throat; instead he slammed the heel of his hand into the Delhite’s face, over and over. The third blow broke the officer’s nose. Blood flowed, spewing with each breath the man took. Nathan followed with a knee to his groin, as blackness closed in on the edges of his vision.

The car slewed left. The officer fell backward; his hold on Nathan broke. Nathan, coughing, shoved himself to his knees. He grabbed a handful of the Delhite’s dress shirt; he noticed, with odd irrelevance, that the blood was wilting the man’s starched creases. Nathan slammed his fist again and again into the fellow’s face, concentrating on his nose. The flesh pulped under his hand. Nathan head-butted the man, then hauled him up with rage-enhanced strength. The officer clawed at him, but he was having trouble breathing; his face was a mask of red. Nathan pulled him up and pushed him out and over the lip of the door. The Delhite cried out once, fell between the cars and hit the black-top. The body rolled fifty feet, limp as a doll, before it stopped.

Nathan hardly noticed. He picked up the shotgun and the bandolier. He shoved shells into the gun, as the cars ground together again. This enemy driver was giving as good as he got; Nathan’s car slid sideways several feet before Roberts got it under control. No hesitation this time; Nathan jacked a shell into the shotgun’s chamber, stood and blew the enemy driver’s head off. Blood and brain blew through the other car’s shattered windscreen. The headless corpse still clutching the wheel, the car veered and sailed off the road.

The last car was a hundred feet ahead, its taillights a beacon in the growing night. “Go, go,” Nathan told Roberts, as he loaded more shells into the shotgun. He wiped the officer’s blood off his hands onto his battlesmock.

The taillights veered off the road. To Nathan it was as if they had vanished. He blinked, then saw the car jouncing along a track, toward a village in the middle distance. “Follow them,” he said to Roberts.

“Do we have to?” Roberts said back; but he turned the wheel and the car trundled off the road.

Nathan sat down to keep from being thrown out of the car. He finished reloading the shotgun. His hands were shaking. There were a dozen spots on his body sending warning signals that tomorrow they would be in agony. Nathan ignored them, kept shoving shells into the gun. This isn’t finished.

The last enemy car disappeared among the white-washed houses of the village. Nathan could see where the track, which passed through the hamlet, where it came out beyond and twisted away into the distance. He watched; the car did not appear. “They’ve stopped,” he hollered to Roberts, leaning forward. “They’re going to be laying for us. Pull up and stop outside the village.” Roberts nodded, looking grim.

The track led them, rattling, over a dry stream-bed. The palm trees loomed large over the houses. The car climbed the track. Roberts braked; the car stopped in the shadow of the outermost house.

Another bit on exposition– Abandoned fragment # 10– Uncle Zedekiah’s Bible.

I haven’t done one of these for a while. This is another snippet from my abandoned series of alternative history novels, an alternate beginning I never completed. In it I attempted a bit of incluing. It seems clumsy now, but I think it works as an example of how you can go about it. The main purpose of the scene, though, is to establish the relationship between Nathan Cooper and his grandmother, and to show what Nathan is leaving behind. The incluing is in the background, as it should be.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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It was surprising how little twenty years amounted to.

The recruiting officer had told Nathan he was allowed only one bag. The only bag the family had that he could reasonably carry in one hand was an old carpetbag that had been up in the attic for at least thirty years. He took it down and knocked the dust and cobwebs out of it, run a moist towel over the interior and then set it out in the sun all day, until finally it no longer smelled like an old carpetbag that had been in the attic for thirty years. Or, at least, not as much.

Now it came down to what he would take with him. Nathan laid his belongings out on his bed by the yellow light of his room-lamp. One change of shirt and pants, two of underwear and socks, a towel with his shaving kit and toothbrush rolled up in it— and there he stuck. In desperation he added an old pullover. He doubted he would need it in New Albion, but it was better to be prepared. There were mornings here in the Washita that turned cool, even in June. He would also be wearing his duster, although that was mostly for the train ride south. He wouldn’t need more than one pair of shoes, he figured, and he would be wearing those.

Even with the addition of the pullover, there was still a lot of empty space in the bag. Nathan was tempted to add more clothes. The recruiter, however, had made it clear that he shouldn’t burden himself with too many civilian clothes he would have to either mail back home or give away to charity. He looked around his room. The desk with its own lamp was obviously staying. The rug on the polished floor served no military function. The bookcase wouldn’t fit into the carpetbag.

He hesitated. My books. The product of years of scrimping, doing odd jobs, carrying golf clubs for Banker Nugent and Mr. Pinter who owned the feed store, doing carpentry and hauling trash and doing without a noon-day meal sometimes—he was going to have to leave them behind. Somehow that had not sunk in until this moment.

He ran his hand along the spines. Hermann’s History of the Confederation, Georges’ Works and Ways of the Native Fathers. Rabelais and Montaigne and two or three of the permitted Shakespeares. Cassidy and Simonides, Livy and Plutarch, Josephus, and Clark’s Tales of the Americas, which he had almost worn out through years of reading and re-reading. Modern historical novels and the speculative fiction that earned so much of Gran’s scorn. The complete set of Everett’s histories– The Wars of Faith, The Fall of England, and The First Fleet. Ickes’ Principles of Science, and the math and Latin texts that had once been the bane of his existence and with which now he didn’t want to part. A crowd of friends he was leaving forever.

Nathan sat down on the bed. He felt homesick already, and he was still at home. He hadn’t expected it to hit him this hard. His anger had carried him a long way, and his resentment even further. Now, he wasn’t sure anymore.

A floorboard creaked. It was Gran, come to stand in the doorway. She stood straight, but with her arms folded in that way of hers that told Nathan she was perplexed or upset. Perhaps both, this time around.

“I am trying to understand,” she said. It was a continuation of their argument before dinner.

“That puts you ahead of Anna and Cee,” Nathan said. “They’ve locked me out of their hearts already.”

Gran didn’t respond to that. “I know you’re disappointed….”

“It’s beyond disappointment, Gran.” Nathan sighed. “It’s just the last of a long series of insults.” He hesitated. “What do you think there is for me here?”

Gran did not answer at once. “I supposed,” she said finally, “that you could follow in your father’s footsteps…in mine. Help with the school…perhaps restart the gazette….”

“The gazette?” Nathan snapped. “And what good would that do? What good did it do Father? It’s not worth it if you can’t tell the truth in it. And the school— Gran, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have no desire to spend the rest of my days trying to scratch out a living teaching snotty kids who’d rather be gigging frogs down by the river. You know I wanted more.”

“I know,” Gran said. “And your Uncle Richard has been very cruel. I do not excuse what he did. To give you every indication that he was about to help you, when he knew how badly you wanted to attend university, and then….”

“Don’t say it.” Nathan couldn’t bear to have it all rehashed again. The useless acceptance letter lay in one of his desk drawers. It had briefly made him the happiest young man in Garrison. The illusion had lasted two whole days. The apogee of my life.

“I do understand,” Gran persisted. “What I don’t understand is why you think going for a soldier is an answer.”

Nathan gave a short laugh. It was an unhappy sound. “Bare minimum, it’ll get me out of this town. Right now that looks really good all by itself.”

Gran sighed. “That’s not a sufficient reason throw away everything you have….”

“What do I have?” Nathan said, his voice rising.

“Do not raise your voice to me, young man,” Gran said back, glaring.

“No, Gran—I honestly want to know what you think I have.” Nathan knew his face was ugly with resentment, but he didn’t care. “Do I have a future here? To work at the family school, under Anna’s sharp tongue? To do odd jobs trying to make ends meet for the rest of my life? And you know there’s always the chance that I’ll get taken in a levy anyway. Better to go as a volunteer than be dragged. What other choice do I have, Gran? Please tell me.”

His grandmother met his look. “Child, I am not going to play your game. I hear your disappointment, but I also hear a good deal about yourself and your wants. God is not in the business of giving us what we want, least of all when we throw tantrums over it. If this is a trial, the Lord wants you to meet it with humility and faith.”

“It’s a little late to be bringing God into it, Gran,” Nathan said. “If you wanted to tell me that it was my God-given duty to endure and stay put, you should have mentioned it before I took the King’s coin and signed the paper. Unless you want another Cooper spending time in a royal prison.”

Gran said nothing for a long moment. “So that’s that.”

“Yes,” Nathan said, “pretty much.”

Gran hesitated, then said, “Wait here,” as if he were about to jump up and run away. She turned and left.

Nathan had just enough time to wonder where she was going before she was back. In her hands was a small Bible. Nathan recognized it as one of the old Bibles she kept on a shelf over her writing desk. Gran held it out. “This was your great-uncle Zedekiah’s Bible. He carried it with him when they took him in the levy for the Patagonian War. The one thing I know they allow you in the Army is a Bible. Take it.”

Nathan stared at it. “Gran, I can’t. It’s an heirloom.”

“It’s the only Bible we have of its size,” Gran answered. “You surely can’t take one of the study editions. It will make me feel better knowing you have it. So long as you promise to actually read it.”

Nathan, hesitating, reached out and took the Bible. The leather of its cover was worn; he could barely make out the lettering spelling out Holy Bible on its front; the former gold gilt was nearly all worn away. “Thank you, Gran.”