Tag Archives: original fiction

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

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.”

Flash fiction– Random Song Title– “Wait”

A flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig— the title of a random song becomes the title of the flash-fiction. Length: 1000 words.

The title is from “Wait” by M83.

******************************
WAIT

Finally, after a while, it didn’t hurt so much anymore. The roar of the fighting faded away. He wondered if the brothers had pushed the Kurlanders back to the river. He hoped they had. It would be good to know he died for something.

Being stabbed had been a shock. It caught him unawares. A fellow couldn’t watch every direction at once. Maybe he had been too long battering down that spearman. Perhaps this was the price of being thorough.

The pain returned if he breathed too deep. He tried to breathe shallow; then it wasn’t so bad. But it felt as if half his chest wasn’t working, so he had take one deeper breath for about four or five shallow, and then the pain hammered him.

He lay with his head on the legs of some other fellow, and his own legs pinned beneath somebody’s horse. The animal must have fallen on him after he’d been stabbed; he didn’t remember it. The horse and the man were both dead. The ground was muddy with blood. He smelled smoke and blood and dung.

He didn’t mind dying. He hadn’t lived that long, but he had more than his share of regrets. Parting with life was not an unmixed sorrow. Many lost opportunities…and Briana. Briana, above all.

He couldn’t see much around him. It hurt to raise his head. He could hear plenty, though– moans, weeping, cries for help, prayers. Somewhere nearby someone called, over and over, “Rigan…Rigan….” He wished whoever it was would shut up– it was evident Rigan wasn’t coming back.

Lying there, he spent most of his time staring up into the sky. There were no clouds– the day had started out beautiful and stayed that way. He had never realized how deep the sky was. It just went up and up and up.

He coughed. It made him scream in agony. It also brought up blood. It coated his chin and ran down the sides of his face. He wasn’t surprised. It wouldn’t be long now.

There she was. Briana stood to his left, just beyond the dead man’s feet. She wore the dress they had buried her in, but she was clean and healthy and smiling, though her eyes were pained.

This won’t be so bad— not if she were here to help him. “I hoped…I would see you.”

“Nathan,” she said, “beloved, what have they done to you? Men are so foolish.”

It was just like her to lecture him. “At the moment…I have to… agree with you.”

She came and knelt by his head. She was no apparition. She seemed as real and solid as any living person. Her bare feet touched the earth, although they seemed unmarked by dirt or blood. Then she reached down and touched his face, and her fingers were alive and warm.

“Is this death?” Nathan asked, bewildered.

“This is just the borderlands of the greater world,” she said. “I came because you can’t cross over. Not yet.”

If bewilderment were an ocean, he would be drowning. “What?”

“You must live,” Briana said. “There is much for you to do. You don’t understand yet, but you will. I was sent to tell you.”

“What do I need to do?” he said, perplexity lending him breath. “Briana, I’m ready. I want to go and be with you.”

“And you will…in the end. But the end is not yet.” Reaching, she untied his helmet and slipped it off his head. The wool clothing the dead man’s legs was scratchy. “Listen to me, love. This war is bigger than your quarrel with the Kurlanders. There are forces at work…but all I can tell you now is that you must live, and that you must wait.”

“Wait? For what?”

“For the woman who contains the fire,” she said. “The woman pale of face and black of hair. She will hate you at first, and then she will love you. Wait for her.”

He peered up at her. “You come…all the way from the land of the dead…to tell me to wait for another woman?”

A wry look. “Well, you know I was never the jealous type. This woman is living. She is what you need now.” She smiled again. “I must go. If you doubt, remember this.”

She bent down and kissed him on the forehead. He would rather she had kissed him on the lips, but then, there was all that blood. “Remember me when you see the mark,” she said. She laid his head down and stood. “I love you.” She turned away.

“Wait!” he said.

She stopped. He meant that she shouldn’t leave, but she said, “I do wait for you, love. And you must wait to join me. Soon enough, we’ll see each other.” She turned and walked away.

“Briana!” he croaked, raising a hand. She was gone.

Someone caught his hand. “He’s here!” a man’s voice shouted, a voice rough with shouting over the din of battle.

It was Caspan; the old soldier knelt by him, holding his hand, right where Briana had knelt. Caspan’s beard was matted with blood; his mail was bloody and rent, but he was very much alive. “Hold on, lad,” he said. Over his shoulder he shouted, “Masari, move your ass!”

“Did you see her?” Nathan asked.

“Just lay quiet, Nat,” Caspan said. “Let Masari strengthen you, and we’ll get you back to the healers.” Again over his shoulder, “Masari, get your pox-ridden ass over here!”

Nathan lay quiet. “Did we win?”

“Yes, lad– but the war ain’t over. That’s why you’re not skipping out on us just yet.” Caspan looked Nathan over, grimacing at the wound in his chest, then lingering on his forehead.

“What?” Nathan asked.

“Well, it’s a funny bruise,” Caspan said. “Right there above your brows. It’s fading, but– it almost looks like a kiss.”

“Ah,” Nathan said.

Masari appeared. The adept stepped right over the horse, his fists blazing with blue fire, the light of life.

Flash-fiction challenge– Stars are not safe in heaven….

A little belatedly, I found this flash-fiction challenge from a couple of days ago– my apologies for being late.

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

“‘Stars are not safe in heaven’,” Isaacs muttered.

“What was that?” Sonderson said.

“Just a line from an old poem. IP in thirty seconds.”

“Understood. On internal power. Guidance online and tracking. Shields on standby.”

“Any sign of Bruin defenses?”

“Negative– the squadron decoyed them.”

“Understood. Twenty seconds.”

The sun grew in the holo. It was red– a K0, Isaacs remembered. Still life-giving.

“Ten seconds.”

“Bogey,” Sonderson said. “Incoming– azimuth twenty, declination thirty-two.”

“Interception?”

“Negative– they’re too late.”

“Understood.” Warning alarms sounded. “IP- now. “

“Weapon launched. Running true, shields up– it’s away clean.”

In the holo Isaacs saw the weapon hurtle ahead. He got brief glimpse of the bluish glow of its engines, then nothing.

“Coming around,” Isaacs said. “Standby to jump.”

“Jump engine online.”

“Jump.”

The stars disappeared, replaced by the distortions of hyperspace. Isaacs sighed in relief. “Looks like we’ll reach base in time for supper.”

The weapon detonated in the sun. The induced supernova blew outward at a third of the speed of light. The inhabitants of the second planet had only minutes to gather their loved ones to them and offer a prayer before the shockwave obliterated their world, their lives, their dreams, their songs.

Writing plans for 2014

As is typical with me, I’m late marking the turn of the year. Yah, 2014. New opportunities, etc.

Okay, that’s done.

I have some definite plans for what I want to accomplish with my writing this year. Firstly, unless something goes very badly wrong, I should be able to complete and publish Princess of Fire this year, perhaps by late summer or early fall. Publishing two novels within a twelve month period would be a first for me.

There will be a downside, however. I anticipate Princess of Stars, the last part of the series, is going to be mammoth, probably somewhere north of 200,000 words, which will almost certainly mean I will need to eventually break it into two separate books. I want to write it as one narrative stream, however, so at the moment it is a unity in my head. Because of the length, there will probably be a long gap between the publication of Fire and of Stars, especially since there are things in Stars that may stretch my skills to the breaking point. I need to make Fire fairly memorable, to keep people engaged during what promises to be another long hiatus, and that is what I am working on at the moment.

It won’t be just the size of Stars that will be tough; I expect the book will be internally complex, as I pull together all the threads that I have been developing in the previous four books of the Divine Lotus series and resolve them in what I hope will be an epic science-fiction story. The size and complexity of the novel may well push me during this year to do something I usually don’t do for my stories– write an outline. That, or the equivalent of a movie treatment. Either way, I anticipate having to plan for Stars at a level I usually don’t attempt. I am normally a pantser, but this book feels as if it will need special treatment.

At the same time, while I work on Fire and prepare for Stars, other projects are romping around in the back of my brain. I have talked about some of these projects in previous posts, and at different times one or another of them looms larger in my consciousness than others. At the moment I am thinking about a historical novel set in 1900 (there was a lot going on that year) that I have had in mind, but it is actually an open question which project I will take on after the completion of Stars, which is, more than likely, at least two years away. Meanwhile, I am basically reading and researching for the other projects on an ongoing basis.

The last major piece of my writing plan for 2014 is to continue blogging, diversifying what I blog about (more reviews, less whining) and staying engaged with the online community I’ve discovered. 2013 was the year I began to blog in earnest, and I plan to keep it up. Aside from that, I will probably doodle away on pieces on the side, such as Dinosaur Planet (a new episode coming soon), more abandoned fragments, and assorted topics as they come to me.

Looks like it’s going to be a busy year. Then again, life has a way of throwing me curve balls. Or avalanches. We’ll see.

Later.

Princess of Fire on fire– a quick dispatch from the front

I have finished inputting the feedback from one of my beta readers on Princess of Shadows, but the other two folks are dragging their feet. Not that I’m eager to publish or anything (well, at least a little). I just want to get this monkey off my back.

My first beta reader did me a tremendous service in one respect– she caught an inconsistency in Kathy’s character growth that should have glared out at me but that somehow I missed. It’s fixed now and I seriously owe my reader chocolate or gold bullion or something.

If I can get the feedback from the other readers soon, it is entirely possible I will be able to publish next month. Thank God.

Meanwhile, so far every time I sit down to write on Princess of Fire I do a thousand words or better. Two nights ago I wrote 1400 words in one session. I wrote 1100 today. For me that’s a blistering pace. I don’t know how long I can maintain it, but it’s a nice change.

Later.

Abandoned fragment # 4- A meeting by night

I should clear 10,000 words on Princess of Fire tonight, as I wait for more feedback from my beta readers to come in re: Shadows. Once again, I am not writing this draft in chronological order, but picking up a section that corresponds to scenes I already have in my head and running with it for as far as it will take me. So far it’s working.

I’ve found another abandoned fragment that’s not half-bad. This was another pass at restarting Mankin’s world, the first chapter of a re-imagined novel. It’s now obsolete and plays a little heavy-handed, but it’s not wholly bad. I think.

*************************************
Copyright by Douglas Daniel, 2013.

Nakanu walked carefully. The moon was less than half full, and the streets of Canaas were dark. He carried a shuttered lantern, but it was closed; a bright light now would do more to mark him as a target than illuminate his way. He moved from shadow to shadow. The street was slick with rain, littered with refuse. It stank of rotting garbage and piss; he could guide himself nearly as well with his nose as with his eyes.

He paused to get his bearings at one intersection, which opened out into a small square with a public fountain its center. The water in the fountain trickled lazily from its clay-pipe outlets; it had been a dry month and doubtless the aqueducts that fed the city were low. The quiet sound of the water was the only noise Nakanu could hear, besides the beating of his own heart. All honest folk were abed at this hour, and the watch did not come to this quarter very often. At least, not in less than company-strength.

The rush came from three sides at once. Nakanu threw the lantern at one of the figures, even as he snatched his sword from its scabbard. The metal and horn contraption collided with the man’s head with a satisfying crack; the ambusher went down and the lantern clattered on the cobblestones with a sound that seemed thunderous.

Nakanu didn’t even wait to see if the lantern connected; as he drew he spun and caught the thrusting blade of the second man in a sweeping parry. The blades spoke harshly on each other, their conversation fast. Nakanu slipped the blade past the attacker’s guard and felt it sink home in meat. The man grunted and then seemed to sag as if he were a puppet dropped by its master.

Nakanu whipped his blade free, just in time to catch the sweeping cut of the third man. This bravo had cut across the corner of the square and arrived too late to help his mates; Nakanu heard him curse by the dark gods of Junir as he swung again and again at him. Nakanu parried and retreated, gauging the man. He was no devotee of the new swordsmanship, that was sure—his attacks were wide, all edge and no point. But he was strong and he was fast. Nakanu watched, waiting for an opening.

Something grabbed him about the torso as if he were a child, and lifted him up off the ground as easily. His feet dangled and his arms were pinned. A hot breath blew on his neck, as if a bear had stuck its muzzle close by his ear. He kicked backward, but his boot only bounced off a thigh solid with muscle.

“Hold him tight!” the bravo hissed. He lifted his sword.

Another figure sprang from one of the shadowed alleys. “Attau!” it cried. Nakanu saw a long blade catch the half-light of the moon. It sliced the bravo across the back. The man screamed in agony, his own cut interrupted. He stumbled about, whether to escape or to simply to see what had hit him, Nakanu could not tell. The newcomer cut him again; this time Nakanu saw the spray of blood and the ropy wetness of the man’s intestines as they spilled from his belly. A stink of feces and blood reeked. The bravo dropped his sword. He fell to his knees, hands clutching at his guts, and then toppled sideways.

The man holding Nakanu dropped him as if he were an unwanted toy. The nobleman hit the stones hard enough to knock the remaining breath from his body. The man—if such he were, for he was easily seven feet tall or more, and broad as a cask—stepped over him and lumbered toward the newcomer. The newcomer dodged a groping hand the size of a ham and retreated.

Nakanu found his sword and forced himself up. With a cry he thrust hard and sank his blade into the giant’s back. The big man stopped. He made an odd noise, like the whimper of a child; and then he turned. Nakanu had to pull his blade free to keep it from being snatched from his grip. The giant advanced on him.

The newcomer attacked. He thrust the giant through; Nakanu saw the first foot of the man’s long blade emerge from the giant’s belly, black with blood in this half-light. That should have been a killing thrust; but the giant merely whined again, and once more started to turn toward this new tormentor, as if he were a simple-minded cow responding to the flick of its master’s whip.

Nakanu attacked again. The next few moments were something from a nightmare; the two men piercing the giant over and over again, cutting him with a desperate fury. The giant staggered back and forth, trying to advance, trying to turn, but never trying to run away. Blood splashed Nakanu and spilled on the stones like rain.

At last the giant went to his knees, almost as if he grew weary of this game. Nakanu pulled his sword free and with both hands thrust it through the giant’s eye. The monster stiffened, shuddered, voided its bowels in a great, stinking rush, and died.

Neither Nakanu nor the newcomer said anything for a long moment. Instead they leaned on their swords and gasped for air. Nakanu half-expected to see the giant rise again, but the flow of blood around its body finally convinced him that the thing was dead. It was a relief.

Tah,” the newcomer panted. His Bukani betrayed a slight accent. “They make them hard to kill in this city, don’t they?”

“Well met, Mankin,” Nakanu said. “It’s fortunate for me you finally caught up with me.”

The outlander merely grunted. “Nothing lucky about it. I’ve been following you for the last quarter-hour. You’re very loud, did you know that?”

Nakanu stared at the man. “What? And you didn’t come help me at once?” His brief sense of camaraderie with the foreigner evaporated.

“You were doing all right until meat-mountain here showed up.” Mankin bent down and recovered the lantern. It somewhat bent from its collision with the bravo, but the wick must have still been glowing; Mankin quickly blew it back into flame. He held it out and they examined the giant’s body.

The giant was well over seven feet tall, vastly muscled and heavy-boned. Its clothing was of the plainest cloth; its feet were bare. The expression on the thing’s dead face seemed to be some sort of wearied puzzlement, as if it had not managed to comprehend its own death. The face itself was broad, wide-mouthed with blocky teeth; but the eyes were small and animal.

Mankin looked across the corpse at Nakanu. “Construct?”

“Yes,” Nakanu replied, as he noted certain signs; the thickness of the giant’s thumbs, the attachment of its ears, the scanty hair on its body. “Very carefully made to look human.”

Tah!” Mankin exclaimed. “The Masters need a little more practice on what makes a man, if this is the best they can do.”

“Obviously they thought strength and endurance more important than appearance,” Nakanu said.

They examined the other dead men. Mankin carefully searched their bodies, but found nothing. “Market thugs,” Nakanu said at last. “Half an imperial each, and maybe a bottle of rotgut into the bargain. The sort of trash nobody misses.”

“The Masters can send better than this,” Mankin said. “If they want us dead, why waste their money on this kind of garbage?”

It was strange to Nakanu as well. “Perhaps they were counting on the giant. Perhaps they were testing us.”

Mankin shook his head. “Perhaps this is a question for another time. Right now, what do we do with all the meat?”

They dragged the thugs’ bodies into an alley; but the giant stymied them. “We can’t lift him, or roll him,” Mankin said, “and I’m not going to waste all night figuring it out. We have an appointment to make.”

“So we do,” Nakanu said. He studied the position of the moon, reckoned it was not yet the Hour of Contemplation. “We’ll just have to see if our friends can do something about him.”

A little while later they entered a small court set off one of the side streets. All around the court ran wooden tenements, three stories high, with railed galleries. The end-posts of the buildings’ gables were all carved into the heads of hunjka, the spirit-protectors of the household. Nakanu was sure that, during the daytime, the place would be alive with the talk and shouts of the inhabitants, the play of children and the smell of cooking. At the moment, though, it was all silent, all sleeping. Nakanu was glad for the anonymity.

There was a narrow door at the back of the court, just where they’d been told it would be, close by the shrine and almost hidden by it. Nakanu could smell the lingering scent of flowers and fruits that had been laid that day at the feet of the Five-way God. The idol seemed to glower at the two men from the shadow of its wooden pavilion. Nakanu whispered a prayer word and raised a hand in respect as they passed; Mankin, being an outlander and ignorant of such things, ignored the god.

Nakanu knocked at the door, in the pattern he’d been given. A moment passed; there was the muffled sound of scuffling feet on the other side of the door, and a spy-hole opened up. Light from the hole washed over Nakanu’s face; it was a thin beam, but in the gloom of the courtyard it came near to blinding him. “Say your name,” a voice demanded.

“Friends of the Empire,” Nakanu answered, again as he had been instructed.

The spy-hole closed with a thud. The door opened, creaking on its hinges a little. “Inside, before you’re seen, by the gods.”

Nakanu and Mankin stepped inside. The door clicked shut behind them.

Within was such a blaze of light—several lamps burned brightly on a stand in one corner—that it took Nakanu’s eyes a few heartbeats of time to adjust. They were in a spacious antechamber, with plastered walls, festooned with painted twirls of ivy and pictures of swooping birds. The ceiling was high, crossed by strong oaken beams. The floor was more hard wood, polished so that it gleamed in the lamplight.

In the far corners of the room two crossbowmen knelt; they held their weapons leveled and ready to shoot. In their positions they had a perfect crossfire on the door. Another man blocked the door that led out of the anteroom; he was armed with buckler and long sword. All three were plainly dressed in the tunic and leggings of common folk; but by the way they held their weapons these were clearly trained men.

As Nakanu and Mankin blinked to clear their eyes, a fourth person approached, and stopped just out of easy sword reach. She was black, and more richly dressed than the others; she also wore a good coat of mail beneath her jacket. Nakanu reckoned the sword she wore at her side was worth a whole farm on his father’s demesne. The fact that the woman was a head shorter than either Nakanu or Mankin did not fool the nobleman; she moved with the easy grace of a sword-master.

“I am Tarthia vul-Pasar,” the woman said, “First Decarion of the First Company of the Cannaas Chapterhouse of Devotions. You are the lord Nakanu vul-Kameru?”

“I am,” Nakanu said.

They bowed to one another. The woman seemed to take in the stains on his and Mankin’s clothing, and their sweaty faces. “You’ve had trouble this morning?”

“We were attacked on the way here,” Nakanu answered. “We had to leave some bodies lying about. It looked to be a party from the Masters.”

The woman’s eyes widened at that. “Where?”

“At the Goat’s Fountain, I think it’s called.” Nakanu did not know Cannaas as well as some other cities. “East and south here.”

“I know the place.” She turned. “Kitumasi, take a detail of the brothers, make a clean sweep. Don’t leave anything that’ll raise questions.”

“Yes, Decarion,” one of the crossbowmen said. He hurried out.

Tarthia turned back to the two men. “We’ll make it like it never happened. Though if the Masters know you’re in the city….”

“No one followed us afterwards,” Mankin said. “I made certain of that.”

Tarthia looked him up and down. Perhaps she took in his accent and understood who he was. In any event, she nodded. “Very well. Come in, most noble sirs. The commander has been waiting most anxiously to speak with you.”

They were given water with which to, very briefly, wash up. Then they were conducted into an inner room. This chamber was expensively furnished, with rich tapestries hanging before the walls and carpets of great worth. Chairs had been set about a central brazier, although the bronze vessel was cold and fireless on this balmy night. In two corners of the room were another pair of Chapterhouse soldiers; although no arms were in sight, Nakanu had no doubt they could appear at need.

The commander of the Cannaas Chapterhouse rose as the two of them entered. He was a thin man, as tall as Mankin, which made him uncommon tall for a Bukani. He was simply dressed, although Nakanu noticed that his simple clothes were made of silk and the finest linen. His face was sharp and his eyes were sharp; even as he bowed in precise courtesy to Nakanu his glance searched him over. “I greet the noble son of a noble house,” the commander said.

“I am grateful for your courtesy, Commander Iterase, and for this meeting,” Nakanu replied, bowing in reply.

“I am to glad to have the chance to speak with you, Nakanu vul-Kameru,” Iterase said, his glance straying to Mankin again, “but who is this outlander you’ve brought with you? Is our conference fit for the ears of a barbarian?”

Nakanu resisted the impulse to glance at Mankin. The Attau, for his part, did not move, but stood easy, as if he did not understand what Iterase was saying. Nakanu was grateful for the man’s tolerance. He couldn’t count on it being endless, though.

“This is Mankin, of the Horse Lands,” Nakanu said. “He has served my father for ten years, five of those as his Chief of Scouts. My father appointed him my aide and assistant on this task.” He met Iterase’s eyes. “My father trusts him; if that is not enough for you, Commander Iterase, then perhaps this conference can end before it begins.”

“Ah,” Iterase said. He looked more intently at Mankin. “I see. Forgive me, I did not know him by his face, although his name is spoken often among the Chapters.” To Mankin he said, “Be welcome, Mankin of the Horse Lands.”

Mankin bowed his head to Iterase, correctly, much to Nakanu’s relief. “I thank the lord commander,” Mankin said.

“We have matters of import to discuss,” Iterase said to Nakanu. “Should we not begin?”

“Yes,” Nakanu said.

Nakanu and Iterase sat. Mankin stood against the wall behind Nakanu. The nobleman was glad of it; he wouldn’t have to watch behind himself.

Wine was brought. Nakanu took his cup gratefully, after the night they had had, although he only sipped the vintage. It was quite good, though. Iterase tasted it himself and smiled.

“A superior year,” he said to Nakanu’s silent question. “It was laid down in the coronation year of our most beloved Emperor, which makes it now a most rare vintage. As I recall, that year was blessed with superior sun in the southern provinces, and the grapes, as a consequence, were fat and sweet.”

“Indeed—you honor us with such a delicacy.” Since the Emperor had now reigned for fifty years, uncorking a bottle of something this prime was either generally reserved for a celebration or business of the utmost importance. Nakanu reckoned that this was certainly the latter sort of occasion. It was also, he supposed, a symbol of what they had gathered to talk about.

“And yet, as with all things mortal, this wine will not last,” Iterase said, rather wistfully.

“Of course,” Nakanu said. “Like the Emperor himself?”

Iterase nodded. “You come most readily to the point, noble lord.” He smelled the bouquet of his cup before going on. “To put it in plain words, the Emperor is dying.”

Nakanu had expected it; but the words still fell like a blow. “Is it sure, then?”

Iterase nodded. “Our agents at court have confirmed it—he will not live to see the winter.”

Nakanu did not saying anything for a moment. He was not yet thirty. Tulkas was the only emperor he had ever known. It was as if someone had said the very axle of the universe was about to taken away. “Is this common knowledge?”

“Not yet; the Court has guarded its secrets well. It cannot remain a secret for very much longer, however.”

“I understand now the urgency of your summons,” Nakanu said.

Iterase nodded. “Those of us who wish to see an orderly succession must join together and plan what we can do beforehand.”

“Have your agents discovered who the Emperor shall name as his successor?”

“Yes—Sha’ere, his granddaughter.”

The name did not surprise Nakanu, but he made a show as if it did. “Sha’ere? Why her? If I remember aright, she has not been to Court since she was a child. And she’s young, and female.”

“But she has ruled her northern demense in the Emperor’s name for the last five years, and ruled it well,” Iterase said. “She has never plotted against Tulkas, and she stood by him when Chusdasi raised his banner against the Emperor two years ago. Of the Emperor’s grandchildren, she is the most able. She would make a good Emperess; she has all the qualities Tulkas possessed in his youth.”

“If she lives,” Nakanu said. “Sha’ere has many cousins, most of whom are…odious. Many of them will not like being passed over in her favor.”

“Precisely,” Iterase said. “She will need all the support she can gather, from the moment she is openly named as heir. It is the policy of the Chapters to support the legal heir, for the sake of the Empire’s peace.”

And for your own position, Nakanu added silently. In the past the Chapters had been the power in the land; but too often different Houses had sided with different sides in the Empire’s civil wars, with the result that the Chapters now possessed but a shadow of their former influence. “Do the Chapters expect war to break out immediately?”

“Let us say that we hope that, by showing that the legitimate heir has a solid base of support, a great deal of unpleasantness may be avoided,” Iterase said. “That support must be evident the moment the Emperor makes his choice.”

“Of course,” Nakanu said. He sat back. “Please convey to the Governors of the Chapters that the House of Kameru will stand by whoever the Emperor designates as heir. I can also tell you that my father prays daily that the Emperor will choose well.” No need to mention that Sha’ere figured prominently in those prayers.

“As do we all,” Iterase said. “If the Collegium and the Concilium can see that Sha’ere—or the legitimate heir, if you prefer—is backed by strength, there will be less…temptation…to set aside the Emperor’s wishes and find another candidate.”

“I assume that the Chapters have been investigating the attitudes of the other great Families?” Nakanu said.

“I cannot speak of specifics,” Iterase said, “but we have made discrete inquiries. There are other Families that have declared their support of the heir, as you have; others who might wish to do so, but cannot commit themselves openly; and some others whom we believe, whatever their words to us, are scheming to back their own pretender. It is a difficult matter, very delicate and not at all clear, but we believe the majority of the Families will support Sha’ere.”

“There is another factor,” Nakanu said. “The Masters.”

Iterase glanced sharply at him. “Yes. I was told you had a run-in with them on the way here.”

“Perhaps,” Nakanu replied. “Of more importance is how they factor into the question of Sha’ere. She is no friend of theirs. We all know that the Masters will not hesitate to kill her, if they can.”

Iterase did not answer at once. “Let us say that the Chapters have taken positive steps to ensure that Sha’ere reaches Imer-brin alive to be crowned. Of course, nothing is certain in this pain-filled world, but we are doing what we can. And, in any case, we oppose the Masters at every turn.”

“As does the House of Kameru,” Nakanu said. “It appears, commander, that our interests coincide most closely in this matter. I will convey your words to my father.”

“More than words, my lord, are needed,” Iterase said. “We may need to act in concert, very soon. The year is already well advanced, and we have learned that Tulkas will be requesting that Sha’ere leave for Imer-brin soon. That will be the moment she will be the most vulnerable. We have a plan”– as he said this, he glanced at Mankin– “but we may need the assistance of your house to implement it.”

Nakanu followed Iterase’s glance. “Oh? How so, my lord?”

*************************************
If I ever try to resuscitate this universe, I will probably not approach the story again from this direction. But this piece had some interesting elements, and, in particular, interesting characters that would probably carry over into a new version of the story.

Later.

We have crossed the Rhine.

We have secured a bridgehead and the enemy is on the run. It was a vicious battle with no quarter given or taken, but truth and right and justice have prevailed. Victory is in sight.

I’ve completed inputting the hard-copy edits for Princess of Shadows.

And if you think that metaphor is overblown, you obviously haven’t read through my previous posts. World War II seems a perfectly appropriate metaphor for a struggle that has seen many reverses and terrible casualties (mostly to my self-esteem). But the last major barrier has been breached and we are in the enemy’s heartland.

There is plenty of fighting (work) left to be done. I am now adding chapter breaks and making sure that the formatting is to Kindle standard. This mostly involves getting rid of extraneous hard returns, making sure that the paragraph spacing is where I need it, and getting the bookmarks right. I want to handle all of this and get it in place before I give Shadows to my beta readers. Their feedback will (hopefully) be the last major changes to the manuscript prior to (cue the triumphant music) publication.

The generals are optimistic, but a shadow hangs over their planning. I have not been able to get the word-count below 162,000, despite cutting some significant sections. 162,000 is still way huge, and the idea of publishing a book that size is like the rumors of a Bavarian Redoubt, a threat fit to unsettle the generals’ sleep. The unanswered question is if a work this big will sell. In a traditional publishing setting my editor would almost certainly be screaming at me to cut the novel further. In a self-published, e-book format, I am not sure it matters.

Of course, the real test will be if my beta readers think the narrative drags at any point. That will be the red flag, the point at which I will need to focus. Still, the temptation exists to take yet another editing pass over the whole shooting-match before giving it to the beta readers. At this point I am resisting the urge– it feels rather like stepping off into a morass of endless editing, where I could end up floundering without a way out. No, I am going to try and trust my beta readers. Really. I mean it. I can trust people…I think.

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.

*******************************************
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.