Category Archives: sword and sorcery

Short Fiction Challenge– The Crossing

This short fiction is inspired by Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge, to pick five characters out of a list of fifty randomly generated characters and write a 1500 word story about them.

I picked–

The clumsy, wise, sleazy mentor on the wrong side of the law.
The quiet wanderer.
The agile heir.
The domineering assassin looking for a challenge.
The friendly musician.

This doesn’t work very well, but at least I finished it.

Warning– there’s some language at the beginning.

Copyright 2014 by Douglas Daniel
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It had rained for two days before, and now a large motley of folk waited for the river to come down far enough for them to cross. To be precise, they waited for the ferryman to tell them it was safe for him to take them over. “Fuck you all,” he said, when some of the merchants waiting to get their mule-train across complained. “Fuck you and all your pox-ridden mothers. I ain’t going until it’s safe. Think I want to risk feeding the fish because you fat bastards got impatient? Fuck you.”

Some might have taken offense at his forceful language, but he was the only one who knew how to work the ferry, he and his very large and numerous sons. And then there was the platoon of Imperial troops garrisoning the crossing, who told the travelers that the ferryman made the rules for the river and that was all there was to it.

So they waited– merchants, soldiers on leave, pilgrims, the young heir of a noble estate to the east, along with his retinue, a young couple going to Binsola to find work in the silk factories, a party of traveling musicians, a trio of grim, well-armed men, and one foreigner.

The foreign-man’s name was Mankin. He did not mind the wait– he had nowhere in particular to go, and he was in no hurry to get there. He had come down from Dan-es-reti that spring to see what sort of work a foreign sword might find. Now the autumn rains had come, and he was still looking.

There was an inn near the crossing, but it was often crowded and stuffy. Mankin liked to come out to the river bank, where there was a stone shelter. In the shelter the ferryman’s sons kept a fire going, so it was comfortable, unless the wind picked up. Mankin often sat there, watching the river, tending his sword and thinking.

The third morning a number of folk came out to look at the river, thinking it looked hopeful. The young nobleman was among them. He sat on the stone floor of the shelter. Mankin thought he was waiting for someone.

One of the musicians was there, as well, tuning his lute. As Mankin warmed himself at the fire, he bobbed his head in greeting. “Think we’ll cross today?” he asked Mankin.

“Maybe,” Mankin said, holding out his hands to the fire.

The musician waited, but Mankin said nothing more. “Oh, the joys of conversation,” the lute-player said, but he smiled as he said it. “Care for a tune?”

“I don’t know any Bukani music,” Mankin said.

“Ah– well, I’ll just play something to cheer everyone up,” the lute-man said. He started a lively song.

From up the river-bank an old man came stumbling toward the shelter. He wore the robes of a scholar-priest of the Fifth Rank, although somewhat askew and soiled. At the sight of him the nobleman bounded to his feet, in a motion that made Mankin’s joints ache just to see it. “Kura!” the nobleman said. “Where have you been?”

“Dear boy, surely you can guess,” the old man said. His words slurred, and he grinned lopsided.

“You’ve been to the song-house! Dammit, Kura, you know the company of women is forbidden you….”

“Now, my boy, you’re not going to begrudge your old tutor a harmless diversion or two?” the old man said. “Believe me, young lord, when you’re my age, a warm, female welcome will be most…welcome.”

The nobleman looked fit to burst. “Sit down, you old fool. No, not by the fire, your breath will set everything aflame.”

“Oh, the flame of love, the flame of love,” the musician improvised, strumming, “it o’erthrows e’en the wise….”

Mankin considered beating the fellow about the head with his own lute, but just at that moment the three grim men appeared. Their leader studied the river as if it had offended him personally. He wore expensive armor; his sword and daggers were the best Mankin had seen in a long while.

The musician’s tune trailed away. He edged closer to Mankin. “D’you know who that is?” he whispered.

“Not a clue,” Mankin said.

“That’s Shumon, the highest paid assassin in the Eastern Dasan,” the musician said. “Maybe in the Empire.”

“Really.” Mankin peered at the man. “And they let him walk around free?”

The musician snorted. “Foreigner. Don’t you know anything? Assassin is a lawful trade. The Assassins are a mighty guild. Their contracts are approved by the Emperor himself.”

“Huh,” Mankin said. There were some things about this empire he just did not understand.

Shumon turned away from the river to the fire. He looked at the lute-player, dismissed him. His eyes settled on Mankin. “Ho, a stinking outlander,” Shumon said. “What’s your business, foreigner?”

“Looking for work, nothing more,” Mankin said.

“Yeah?” Shumon said. “You any good with that sword?”

“Fair,” Mankin said.

Shumon smiled nastily. “Just ‘fair’? Aren’t you going to claim to be the greatest swordsman who ever drew blade?”

“No, because I’m not,” Mankin said.

“Bah,” Shumon said, disgusted. “And here I was hoping for a bout. Maybe I’d have given you a cut, you could have said, ‘I got this from Shumon the Great’.”

“You go around the countryside making people fight you?” Mankin asked.

“When I can,” Shumon said. “I need to keep my skills sharp, not just my blades. Practice is what I need, against real opponents, but there’s hardly anyone these days who can challenge me.”

“Huh– that makes you special. Most men just want to get through the day in one piece. They don’t go looking for trouble.”

Shumon swelled. “I’m not most men. I am Shumon, the man who slaughtered Lord Ehan and all his soldiers. I strangled Lord Gesaon and pitched his body from his own walls. My name is feared in the Empire. Noble lords pay me not take contracts against them, out of fear of my name. Women come crawling to please me.”

“Well, that sounds like easy money,” Mankin said. “Good work, if you can get it.”

Shumon peered at Mankin. “You’re afraid of me,” he said.

“Yes,” Mankin said. “But, then, I’m afraid of many things.”

Shumon sneered. “I fear nothing. Nothing can touch me.”

Mankin shook his head. “No, that’s wrong. Any man can be touched. And there are things every man should fear.”

“Maybe you,” Shumon said. “Not me.”

Mankin shrugged, and kept on warming his hands.

Soon after the ferry-man declared the river crossable. The travelers would cross in the order they had paid their fare. Mankin crossed with the nobleman and some of his retinue; Shumon and his two followers, despite their protests, had to wait for the second trip.

The nobleman and his men had to wait on the far bank– a second group of his party, with Kura the scholar-priest, were coming after Shumon. When they came ashore, and the ferry started back, Mankin bowed to the nobleman. “My lord,” he said, “may I beg a favor?”

The nobleman nodded. “Surely.”

“Would one of your men hold my horse’s reins for a moment? I have something I need to do.”

“I will hold them myself,” the nobleman said.

Mankin bowed again. “Thank you.”

He walked down to the water. The bank was covered with pebbles, worn smooth by the river. The water lapped at his boots. Mankin bent down and picked up a pebble, about the size of a hen’s egg, and very nearly the same shape. As he did, the ferry left the far bank, with Shumon, his men and their horses onboard. Shumon was facing the far bank, shouting something at someone, and laughing an ugly laugh.

Standing up, Mankin reached beneath his jacket and untied the slingshot he wore about his waist. The stone fit perfectly in the leather cup. Mankin weighed it for a moment, felt the wind on his right cheek, judged the motion of the ferry. He swung the sling, twirling it over his head until the leather whistled, and let it the stone fly.

The pebble flew true across the water. Shumon turned around just in time to take it square in the forehead. He staggered back, hit the rail of the barge, and toppled right over backwards into the river. Water splashed eight feet in the air.

Mankin tucked the slingshot away and walked back to the nobleman. The youngster stared at him in amazement, his mouth open.

“Thank you, my lord,” Mankin said, taking his horse’s reins from him. Out on the river, the cries of Shumon’s men indicated that Shumon was not coming back up in a timely manner– indeed, that he might not be coming back up at all.

All to the good— but now there was no time for dawdling.

“You– you sank him,” the nobleman said.

“Yes,” Mankin said, sighing. He put his boot in the stirrup, mounted. “I just can’t stand loudmouths.”

A few changes in the works, and a thought on literary time-bombs

I am in the process of changing a few things about my blog, mainly in terms of appearance, starting with the title. “Doug Daniel’s Writing Blog” is what I slapped on this thing two years ago, for lack of anything more creative, when I wasn’t sure what blogging involved or what I wanted to do with it. Well, now I’ve got a much better idea what I’m doing, and the old title is pretty, well, blah. “On Writing, and other forms of suffering” seems a much more appropriate title, although I may try some others on for size. I may work on the themes and other items as well. But it will still be me, worrying and whining about something.

Meanwhile, some of you may recall that in my last post I implied that I might occasionally doodle away at my epic fantasy while focusing on Princess of Fire. Well, Sunday I doodled, and doodled, and doodled, to the tune of more than 2000 words. I finally had to force myself to stop. I really enjoy writing the main character. Mankin is morose, suffering, meaner than a tax auditor on April 16th (when he’s riled), but also smart, compassionate, funny, and humble. And he is a deadly, deadly swordsman. Anyone who is part of the Three Musketeers/Captain Blood demographic would get this character.

But doodling this much on the epic reminded me quite pointedly of one of the main problems with the story line I created for him– there isn’t much there. Mankin has always been something of a character in search of a plot. In his earliest incarnations, he really did little more than wander around and have adventures, like Conan the Barbarian with musical talent (oh, did I mention that?). Even now, after years of noodling about him, I realize that he would be under-motivated for the story I have created. Most especially, there is no sense of a ticking time-bomb– the urgent danger that necessitates him, and others, risking life and limb, and even more, to stop the bomb from going off.

In most dramatic literature, you need that time-bomb, ticking away in the background. In Lord of the Rings the time-bomb is will Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom (without getting caught) before Sauron conquers everything and/or Gollum stabs them in the back? Even realistic fiction has versions of this– in Hamlet the time-bomb is will Hamlet freaking make up his mind before his uncle knocks him off first? In most drama, you need some impetus against which the protagonist has to struggle to his utmost. There’s a reason why stories involving literal ticking bombs are usually so dramatic.

So my little diversion with this story did have one benefit– when I do return to it in a serious way, I will need to thoroughly rethink the story, so that Mankin is given something real and important to strive against, as well something good to achieve. In the meantime, bud, sorry, but it’s back in the drawer with you. I have to go help Kathy out. Who, by the way, does have a serious time-bomb on her hands. Simply mountainous….

The Whole Wide World

This afternoon I cleared 50,000 words on Princess of Fire. Now I can go party (in a strictly non-alcoholic manner, of course) with a clear conscience.

I love films, but poverty and the demands of life sometimes mean that I completely miss films I really want to see when they are first released. Sometime they’re so obscure or art-house that I then have trouble locating them. I just recently tracked down one of these, The Whole Wide World, from 1996, about the on-again/off-again friendship and near-romance between Robert E. Howard, pulp author and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and Novalyne Price, a local school-teacher and budding writer, in the middle 1930’s in Texas. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Robert E. Howard and Renee Zellweger Novalyne Price.

The film itself is very small scale, and it has some awkward directorial moments, as well some jumps in continuity that made me wonder about deleted scenes. The movie was Dan Ireland’s (more noted as a producer) first directorial credit, which probably explains these issues.

On the other hand, Zellweger and D’Onofrio are both great as their respective characters. But it is D’Onofrio who especially captures Howard. There is a blustering vulnerability about his Howard, who seems to be burning up with imagination and the worlds he creates. He is also contemptuous of the ordinary central Texas world in which he grew up, which causes all kinds of sparks when that contempt strikes up against Price’s more conventional sensibilities. There is a studied quality to the Howard’s disdain for the mundanes around him, exactly as if it is, at least in part, a shield thrown up by someone whose social skills are questionable in the first place.

In other words, D’Onofrio’s Howard is a nerd, blustering and posing his way through life, decades before PCs or the internet, with only his imagination and his writing to lift him out of the dull universe in which he finds himself.

The film works very well when it shows us the rocky path the friendship between Howard and Price takes. These two have an attraction to one another, but Howard’s ‘I have to walk my own path’ swagger and disdain for what he perceives as the hypocrisy of mundane society constantly sabotages their friendship.

Howard as an insecure, vulnerable man who has a talent that transcends his surroundings is a powerful, and satisfying, theme, one that resonated with me. I know exactly what it was like to be the freak who reads that “weird stuff” (mostly Heinlein in my earliest days), in a conservative Southern milieu. This is not to compare my talent with Howard’s, but to suggest that anyone who has had to hang on to what they find good and beautiful in the face of disapproval will see at least a bit of themselves in Howard.

The film also does a great job demonstrating exactly why writers are often just a little odd, as it shows us what is going on in Howard’s head as he creates. In one scene Howard is physically blocking out one of his boxing stories (he wrote across several genres for the pulp magazines of the period)– unfortunately, while he is walking down a street, drawing disapproving stares as he does. His created universe is, at that moment, more powerful than the one in which he breathes and walks. Any writer can relate to that.

Price and Howard’s potential relationship eventually founders, in no small part because Howard is distracted by the care of his mother, who is dying of tuberculosis. D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Howard in relationship to his mother adds even more depth to his character, as he cares for her with great tenderness.

Of course, it was when his mother went into her final coma that Howard killed himself. There are plenty of theories of why he did so, but all that matters now is that his suicide took a great talent out of the world, one that might have done much more had he been able to find a way through and past the pain of that moment (Howard was only thirty when he died).

At the end of the film Price, in graduate school in Louisiana, receives a telegram that Howard is dead– and the ‘what might have been’ remains just that, although there is a grace note of gratitude, as Price contemplates a Texas sunrise, for what we did receive.

We need more movies about writers and their lives. I think more people would be inspired to write, and write well, if they understood how you can create whole worlds from the most ordinary of experiences.

Even central Texas.

My disappointment with Peter Jackson

I am back to making progress on Princess of Fire, although I discovered that trying to write in any serious way on Christmas Day is problematic at best. I hope to begin really cranking on Fire tomorrow.

Sometime back I suggested that I would not be going to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, assuming that it would be the same sort of bloated disappointment as the first installment (An Unexpected Journey).

But some friends of mine saw Desolation and liked it a great deal, and reviews have been generally more favorable than An Unexpected Journey, it’s a Christmas tradition in our family to see a movie Christmas day (last year it was Les Miserables), and so I broke down and went to see it today.

Why, Mr. Jackson? Why?

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

I mean it. Spoilers. Really.

Desolation is not as miserably expository as An Unexpected Journey, much of the movie works as an action piece, the world creation is good, the movie’s pace overall is a good deal better, and there are genuinely funny moments. Evangeline Lilly does a good job as the elf woman Tauriel– but as a non-canonical character, she is completely unnecessary, as is her budding (and doubtless doomed) relationship with Kili, one of Thorin Oakenshield’s dwarven followers. This is where I basically choked on Jackson’s adaptation– he has introduced too many unneeded elements, both canonical and non-canonical, apparently in the interest of making The Hobbit into a solid prequel for The Lord of the Rings (which the book never was), and to pad the material so as to fill out three long movies. The pace is better, but by the last thirty minutes I was once again wondering how much longer this thing was going to go on. It didn’t help that at about that point in the movie the action began to, once again, look like a Disney theme-park ride. The outlandish physics of the final action sequence finally made my suspension of disbelief go spung. And while Smaug is huge, powerful, and terrifying, he’s absolute crap at killing anybody, as he spends long minutes chasing Bilbo and the dwarves around the inside of the Lonely Mountain without nailing a single one of them. The whole sequence is just a contrived mechanism to get Smaug out the door and off to fry Laketown– which is where the movie ends. When I saw the movie there were audible groans in the audience when people realized they’d have to wait a year for the next segment.

Sigh. I’ve seen suggestions that the studios made Jackson pad the material, so they could improve their profit margin. If so, the studio suits need to be exiled to the Moon. Or maybe Neptune. Whoever’s at fault, they have basically ruined this adaptation. The original book is about 95,000 words, a quarter of the length of The Lord of the Rings. Bloating the Hobbit movies out to the same length as the LOTR films destroys the spirit and sense of the book, and takes the story places I don’t believe Tolkien would have approved. Frankly, you could take out the non-canonical elements inserted into this film and make a whole extra movie out of them, and both movies would be better than what we got.

Doing an adaptation of a book into a movie is never easy. It is an act of translation from one form to another, and a lot can go awry. But it really seems as if Jackson, his screenwriters, and/or the studio bosses have completely disregarded the spirit of The Hobbit to create something with the same name, but lacking its charm, its language and its clean, tight structure, in pursuit of a bogus epic. All-in-all, another severe disappointment.

And, once again, no one consulted me. Somebody needs to give me a call. Seriously.

Later.

Abandoned fragment # 3- The horsemen

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

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

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

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

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

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Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel

On the sixteenth day men began to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everywhere they looked ruined, tumbled walls stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later.