TFNIWLNW: 9

Ah, greed.

Make no mistake, it is humanity’s greatest asset, the constant desire for more. The town I was in, the alcohol I was drinking, the friends I was renting — none of them would have existed were it not for greed. Avarice is, perhaps, my dearest friend.

But she has an ugly cousin: impatience. Some among us raise greed to an art form, manipulating the world with cunning and grace to take what they want. The most skilled practitioners of avarice have the patience of a toothless god. Alas, my acquaintances in that run-down tavern were not among that elite, to my sorrow and theirs.

For the happy part of my stay in Mountain Forge I was losing money to them steadily, each day enjoying my drink and leaving the tavern a little poorer than I had entered it. The dice were weighted, the cards marked, but I let them think I didn’t know, and enriched them a little more every day.

Little Elena was an island of light in the unbounded sea of gloom that is Mountain Forge when the rains come. My second day in the tavern, she greeted me, “H’lo, fucking Lord Toad-fucker.”

“Well, h’lo, you little festering pustule on a donkey’s scrotum.”

She smiled, then scowled. “What’s scrotum?”

“Ball sack.”

The smile was back. “Nice. Scrotum.” I watched her face as the word was neatly boxed and labeled, ready for reuse. And so began a tradition. Each day as I walked into the tavern she would greet me with a new insult, and I would respond in turn. She was a natural talent. On the last day she compared me to the offal running down the leg of the River God’s ox after it ate too much skungeweed. I was so impressed I almost forgot to insult her back. I sat down at one of the long tables with a warm feeling in my heart, and greeted my new friends.

But greed is always with us, and when not tempered by patience it will cause men to do foolish things. One of my new friends, perhaps the grizzled old man everyone called Mug, decided to accelerate the leakage of my funds into the community kitty. My wine that night had a little extra in it. Nothing dangerous, just enough to make a man feel invincible.

And invincible I was. Without the moderating influence of my own wisdom, I took the poor bastards for all they had. Invincible, I ignored Elena’s tugs at my elbow, her worried looks. I ignored the cloud gathering in the tavern, the angry glares and muttered curses. I laughed at them!

The illusion I had fostered was broken; my time in Mountain Forge was at an end. I don’t blame those men, not really, for what followed. I gathered their wealth, stood a little unsteadily, and stepped toward the door.

“Yer not leavin’ with that,” Jake said.

“It is mine,” I pointed out.

“Let the godfucked son of a whore’s twat go,” Elena said. Structurally a fine epithet but verging on nonsensical. She tried to push herself between me and Jake. Jake slapped her aside and I punched him in the face and to be honest I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. It was a blind and desperate struggle, surrounded, overwhelmed, crushed by numbers, flinging a fist into the confusion, feeling many land in return. Stars dancing as blows find my face, reeling breathlessly as fists hammer my gut. Sagging under the weight, in the end curling into a ball but there’s no protection in that, not really, as the kicks land on ribs and spine and death becomes a real possibility.

It was not the first time in my life my gambling friends had turned on me, but it was almost the last. This time, I did not draw my knives. I did not kill them all. Perhaps that small fact is significant, a sign that greater powers were in motion, twisting destiny. Perhaps I was just drugged and didn’t understand my peril. Perhaps, as Bags would say, there’s no use fretting over shit you’ll never know.

* * *

Consciousness was painful and unwelcome. I was lying on my back, and everything hurt. Icy raindrops stung my face. I took a cautious breath and my ribs protested while the smell of shit filled my head. I’d been thrown into a latrine. At that moment, it was difficult to appreciate the miracle of life.

“Marty.” I had heard my name used many times, I realized. I pried open one eye, puffy and reluctant. Elena was hovering over me. When she saw my eye open she said, “Fuck, Marty. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. It’s my fault.”

I raised a filthy hand to touch her face. “It’s all right.” More breath than words.

She shook her head. “I brought the twat.” She glanced over her shoulder. “The lady. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Elena’s face was replaced with Katherine’s. I closed my eyes and wondered if dying from exposure was still an option. “It just keeps getting better,” I said. I think. Something else was wrong, as well. I reached to my side where I kept my hunting knife and found only bare skin. I was naked, without a single sharp instrument that I could kill people with.

“Let’s get you inside,” Kat said.

“Get Mrkl,” I said to the night, hoping Elena would hear me. I had no desire to be nursed by the blacksmith, under his silent disapproval, but that was better than being trapped with someone who wanted to change the world.

“You’re staying with me,” Katherine said. A statement of fact, not an invitation. I was in no position to argue.

And there was Bags, gleaming in his new chain mail, lifting me up like I was made of shit-smeared glass, and I clung to his tunic with a white-knuckle fist and choked off any sort of outburst as my ribs ground against one another.

Somewhere behind us Kat said, “Take him to my room. You, girl.”

“Yes, m’Lady?” I’d never head Elena’s voice sound so timid.

“You will arrange a bath. In my room. With hot water.”

“Now?”

“Of course now. This man is filthy. Go.”

I heard the girl’s footsteps hurrying off through the mud. I felt a moment of nostalgia for something that hadn’t happened yet. I was going to miss her when I left town.

I was beginning to shake violently, and Kat put her tunic over my naked form as Bags carried me into the boarding house, his strong arms cradling me. Light-headed, I began to laugh. “Be careful what you wish for,” I said.

A small smile from Bags in return. “Watch out, or the Soul Thieves will come for you.”

I pulled myself into his warmth and laughed at what I thought was a joke.

first episode

1

TFNIWLNW: 8

I stepped into the tavern and surveyed the room. The six tables were little more than planks nailed to trestles, the boards warped and greyed with age, stained by spills from countless mugs. Benches lined them on either side, and a three-legged stool stood listing at each end. The two overturned barrels that served as tables seemed reserved for dice games. Two smaller tables occupied corners of the room. I like that sort of spot, but both were occupied.

The fire in the hearth did little to heat the room, but the smell of burning pine helped to cover the sour odor of unclean bodies and ancient puke. The floorboards creaked under my feet as I ventured farther into the gloom, but no one paid me any notice.

Men sat, men drank, men played cards. These were men who won their daily bread fighting the mountain, attacking the living stone and the wealth it concealed. There was a grey cast to the men to match the tables, their warped and knotted hands mirroring the twists and knots of the boards. They were strong men, and hard, but the mountain was winning. They played their games of chance listlessly, with a minimum of conversation, rarely even looking at one another.

I sat at the end of one bench, away from anyone else. I wasn’t ready to be social yet; that would come later, after the proper amount of lubrication. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. It felt like I’d been holding it for weeks. Here, in the quiet desperation of a working-man tavern, I was as close to home as I can come anymore.

“What you want, mlord?” The serving girl was fourteen years old at most, her skinny limbs long for her torso, her breasts only just starting to bud under her shift. Her dark, short-cropped hair showed a desire to wave.

“I’m no lord,” I said.

She glared at me through narrowed eyes. I noticed that one was puffy and slightly discolored. “You got all your fuckin’ teeth?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

“Then you’re a fuckin’ lord. What you want?”

“You have wine?”

“Oh, fuck, wine,” she said. “Yeah, we got fuckin’ wine, m’fuckin’ Lord.”

“Then bring me some, before the Seven Gods of the Sky finish their circle-jerk and drown the world in their spooge.”

The girl hesitated, then smiled. “All right,” she said, and disappeared through the opening to the kitchen.

She was back in only a moment with a mug filled with sour red wine. I took a long sip while she stood at my elbow, and I felt the glow begin in my belly. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Elena,” she said.

“Elena. I admire your unrestrained use of our language.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“But you’re limiting yourself. You haven’t said ‘dick’ or ‘balls’ or even ‘twat’ yet.”

“Go lick your balls, you fucking twat,” she said, and turned away to serve other patrons. Smiling. In a strange town, in an unknown public house, the best friend you can make is the one who serves the alcohol. The rest will follow. And it is always refreshing to meet someone who appreciates the power of language. I took another healthy draught. Already the wine was tasting better. Things were looking up in Mountain Forge.

* * *

Katherine may have thought she was being subtle when she invaded our little haven, but every eye in the room turned to her when she came through the door. I was still seated in the same place, but now I was with friends, though we held our cards close to our chests.

Her nostrils flared as she took in the ambience, then she spotted me. I set my cards down as she approached. “Martin, I was hoping we could talk.”

Elena arrived with the wine pitcher. I’d lost count of how many I’d had, but it hardly mattered. “Who the fuck is this twat?” she asked me. Elena was going to be a project, I mused, but the kid had a gift, there was no denying that.

“Mind your manners, girl,” Katherine growled.

For a moment Elena seemed uncertain, hearing the note of high-born command in Kat’s voice. A note I find distasteful, even among assassins and fugitives. Instinctively I came to the defense of my young friend. “This twat,” I said, “was just leaving.” I took another solid gulp of wine and I was sure I had done the right thing.

Katherine looked like she had been punched in the face, but the shock quickly gave way to a hard, quiet sort of anger. “I’ll talk to you later,” she said, “when you’re sober.”

I looked a Elena. “Let’s make sure that never happens,” I said. The girl smiled, her grin toothy.

Katherine set her jaw, turned, and left. The inevitable conclusion to our acquaintance. I knew Elena would not leave me, though. Not until my money ran out. She would even pretend to like me, an illusion of friendship we both would maintain, for our individual reasons.

“There’s a special hell just for her,” Elena said as she refilled my mug. I smiled, but it was bittersweet. It was Elena’s first creative curse, which was worthy of celebration, but it was a disturbingly accurate one. Katherine was in her own hell. I thought of chasing her down and listening to what she had wanted to say to me, but it was my turn to play a card.

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 7

With every step I took through the sucking mud and dung and mule piss into Mountain Forge, the gold folded securely in my belt got heavier. I calmed my shaking hands and resolved that this time would be different. This time I would wake each morning clear-headed and I would go to bed each night having only lost enough money to make the locals happy to see me the next day.

It’s a little story I tell myself every time I come to a new town. My story is no more truthful than the stories of Evil Things in the Night that mothers tell their children to keep them from misbehaving, and no more effective.

My own grandmother told me of the Evil Things while I sat on her lap by the fire, with or without a roof depending on current circumstances, and from her lips the descriptions of the Evil Things sounded frightening indeed. Gloriously frightening, fascinating for their danger. In her tales, when the hero arrived it sounded like the party was over. I loved my grandmother. My mother, I think, ever the pragmatist, would have preferred dear Grams tell her stories in a more traditional form, but I caught her secretly smiling more than once. She was raised on the same stories, after all. You might even say that my mother married one of the Evil Things of the Night, but we shall speak no more of him.

As I trudged into town the air carried a feel of pent-up lightning, a tension waiting for release. Or perhaps that was just me. Ahead, beyond a handful of ramshackle hovels at the far end of the street, the mountain rose cold and hard, stunted trees clinging anywhere purchase could be found, shrouded in shifting clouds. A waterfall scarred its granite face, leaping down from above in a series of cascades with great energy, the sound of the rushing water a constant reminder that it was here before we were. Somewhere else, it might have been beautiful.

The street had been churned by heavy traffic and saturated with rain until it was a slow, muddy river, flowing with grim determination back the way I had come, as if even the mud knew something I didn’t. Somewhere nearby a shout was answered by the bray of a mule, while ahead of me two men in ragged clothes stood in the muck shouting at each other, their friends gathered under an awning nearby calling encouragement to both sides. That would be where the alcohol was. Even as I watched one of the pair took a hopeless swing at the other, and they both collapsed into the foul mud, either wrestling or drowning, to the cheers of the onlookers. I would not be one of the buffoons in the mud, I told myself. Another story.

To my right I passed a livery, the lower half built of stone and the upper half of green timber, freshly cut. The burned-out building next door told the rest of the story.

The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer pulled my attention to the other side of the street. The smithy was open on three sides, raised out of the muck on a stone floor. I recognized Mrkl hunched over his anvil, sweat streaking the soot on his face and somehow permeating his leather apron, and allowed myself a little smile. I paused to watch him work, his massive right arm striking the heated iron while his left hand turned the piece with a large pair of tongs. The wind shifted lazily and the acrid smell of the forge stung my nostrils.

The big man wanted nothing more than to do good work and to get paid for it, which meant he had devoted much of his life to avoiding military service. Behind him a stout boy worked the bellows, while another, skinnier kid moved efficiently, preparing the next piece in whatever it was Mrkl was making.

The world is vast almost beyond comprehension, yet the gruff blacksmith and I had crossed paths more than once before. One might be tempted to credit some mysterious hand pushing us mere mortals around for purposes beyond our comprehension, but perhaps a simpler explanation is that we both like to be in places where interaction with any sort of army is limited. I altered my course, delaying for a few more moments being warm, dry, and drunk. For Mrkl, I would do that.

He glanced up from his work as I stepped under the shelter of the smithy. He dismissed me, looked back down, then looked up again and grinned. “Martin,” he said. “You’re still alive.”

“I’m as surprised as you are.” I stepped forward and the big man dropped his tools and wrapped me in a hug that threatened to suffocate me. I don’t have many friends, and this is why. I freed myself, aware of the eyes of my traveling companions as they stood rooted in the muck outside the smithy. Mrkl seemed to think it was funny.

“The big guy out there,” I said. “I owe him a mail shirt. The best mail shirt.”

“You have money?”

“For the moment.”

“Shit.”

“I was wondering if maybe you could hold some of it for me.”

He looked at me with eyes gone cold. “Let’s not do that again.”

I nodded, but there was a hot coal in my throat. “All right. But I’ll pay for the shirt now,” I managed to say.

“You want the top?”

“Of course,” I said.

Mrkl smiled. “Of course. Let’s get him in here, then.” The blacksmith waved to Bags and Kat, drawing them into the shelter of the smithy. I had walked away from them a quarter of an hour before. Now here we all were.

“This is Bags,” I said. “He needs a shirt.”

Mrkl looked from me to the big man and to Kat and back to me. Kat somehow managed to say nothing, though I could feel her words trying to escape out of every crevice of her being. “All right,” Mrkl said.

“How much?”

He smiled down at me. “Pay me when I’m done.”

“I’d rather pay you now.”

“I know.”

I tested the air, in and out. “Just let me pay.” My fists were clenching and unclenching without my direct guidance.

“No. I will do the work, and then you will pay me.”

Cornered. “Kat,” I said. “Katherine, I mean. Let me give you the money for Bags’ shirt. More than enough. Then you’ll be rid of me.”

She thought for a good long while. Somewhere out in the rain the battle between man and mule continued, with no clear winner but plenty of noise. The cheering up the street had faded; the entertainment was apparently over. “All right,” she said. “I’ll take your money.”

Carefully I pulled out five fat coins, far more than any mail shirt had ever cost, and I felt the lift in my heart as I did it. The true joy of money is not the having of it. True joy comes from spending it. At last I would be able to set the coins free. Those who keep their money locked up are cruel at best.

Kat took the gold and didn’t even look at them before she said, “I recognize this coinage. You just paid me with money you took from my own estate.”

Bags laughed. “Your own estate won’t mean much if we fail.”

Kat glared at him. “We will not fail.”

Whatever they may or may not be failing at, I wanted no part of. “You want to join me for a drink later?” I asked the blacksmith.

“You going to be sober?” he asked.

I hesitated and said, “probably not.”

“Then I’ll pass. Maybe we can do breakfast tomorrow if you’re up before noon.”

“I’ll get up early tomorrow.”

“We’ll see,” Mrkl said. “I gotta work now.” He turned from me and shoved the dull black piece of iron he was working back into the coals of the forge.

I didn’t let it show that he’d stung me. I know what I am; I don’t need to be reminded. Especially not by him. “See you tomorrow,” I said, and stepped back out into the rain, which was falling with renewed vigor. I didn’t put my hood back up; I just let the rain fall in my face.

“You all right?”

I looked back down to see Kat studying my face. “Never better,” I said. “If you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”

first episode

November 1, 2015

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s efforts for National Novel Writing Month here each year. Some years the day-one spew is more interesting than others; this year my approach to NaNoWriMo is somewhat different and so the product is different as well. What I’m doing is more like research than it is the actual story.

You know how you pick up some stories and you start reading and all of a sudden you’re “treated” to chapters of “how character X got to be here” junk? It’s all stuff that happens before the real story begins, but the writer doesn’t trust himself to show you the character organically so he feels compelled to go off on a huge tangent to explain who the main people are in the story. But it’s not part of the story, and if you can’t make a character’s behavior in the here and now make sense without first presenting a complete biography, then maybe it’s time to review that behavior.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a full backstory for characters, just remember that it’s for you as a writer, not for the reader. Write it, but don’t publish it.

Or, if the backstory is interesting, you can publish it on your Web site as a supplement to the core story. That can be fun for everyone. Just let people meet your characters in the story first.

Oh, by the way, this episode is all backstory. I’m writing it to answer to myself one simple question: “What’s the story with Bags’ pretty sword?” I wrote that in as an interesting detail all the way back in episode one, but I have no more idea what it signifies than you do. So I better figure that out. For the next couple of days I’m writing a story for me only, to hash through Bags and to try to find ways to make him interesting. After that I’ll do the same for Kat. Martin, maybe, maybe not. He lives so much in the moment that the past doesn’t seem to matter to him. He just is.

After that I’ll probably start gushing out versions of what TFNIWLNW would be like if I were to actually write it. The main thing I need now is a plot. Characters and setting will only get you so far. (Though there are plenty of big-name authors who coast on character and setting once people are hooked to their interminable series.)

Anyway, all that backstory I just said one should not publish? Here’s some of it now. One thing about writing backstory just for the sake of backstory: it’s almost all exposition. I’ll be getting into more character development later tonight, but this part is already pretty long to expect a blog audience to read.

I will say, what with it being a series of events, a lot does happen, even if I haven’t examined very much yet what the significance of those events is. At the very end of this bit I finally start getting some traction in that arena.

Anyway, here’s the first part of the first day:

The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write: Research

When Baxter Mongret was enjoying his fifth summer, his father went off to war and didn’t come back. When news of father’s death reached the modest cottage where Baxter had been born, all were pleased — but not surprised — to learn that he had died well. “Die young but well and leave plenty of offspring” might have been the family motto, were it not, “In Glory, Everything.”

Each generation of Mongrets saw a few of the men survive long enough to enrich his family with the spoils of war and the favors of grateful nobility, but Baxter’s father had so flawlessly embraced the family’s unspoken credo that he had died gloriously, slaying many enemies and saving the life of a bastard son of a minor prince, but expiring before any of the rewards of such heroism could be conferred upon him.

So it was that Baxter, his still-beautiful mother, one younger brother, and two sisters, found themselves living under the care of his uncle Traistin, one of his departed father’s older brothers.

The next few years were the best of his life. Baxter was set upon by his older cousins, beaten, taunted, and tormented in every way that the nefarious minds of children can invent. He fought them with fist, boot, tooth and words. He always lost. But sometimes he would pause, surrounded by the larger boys, and see Uncle Traistin watching, with a faint smile on his face, and he would give a nod of approval aimed at Baxter alone. Those moments made everything else worthwhile.

One by one the older boys were given over to the master at arms, to begin formal training, and were no longer allowed to tussle with the children. It was a grave and solemn graduation from child from youth, and later from youth to young man. Young men could serve warriors, and would eventually achieve that station themselves, somewhere around their twentieth birthdays. The only step that followed that one was ‘corpse’.

By the time Baxter, or ‘Bags’ as his unkind cousins had taken to calling him, turned seven there were no longer any cousins who could best him. He wasn’t the biggest, though he had the bones to suggest he would be. He wasn’t the most skilled; he moved with the awkwardness of a large puppy still trying to gain control of his skeleton. But he was strong, and he was fast, and more than anything else he was releltlessly untiring. Combined with a patience born of being overmatched, of enduring and waiting for the one chance to strike a blow that might turn the fight, he had the discipline of a mature warrior.

His younger brother William, or “Worm” now to most of his cousins, did not recieve the same attention. He was still too young to be involved in family politics, and as he got older he grew into awareness of his surroundings already knowing the cousins his age. Worm was small for his age, and while he shared his brother’s quickness, he was obvioulsy never going to be a great warrior. Luckily, you don’t need to be a great warrior to die bravely. It might even hasten the path to glory.

On Bags’ seventh birthday, then, one year ahead of when most boys were sent for their arms training, Traistin stood to speak in the family mess hall, and solemnly announced that Baxter Mongret was ready to join the master at arms for formal training. There was much cheering, because Bags was popular among the adults and respected by the other children, but some of his cousins did not like it. Their own father was showing some interloper greater respect than he ever had shown for them.

“You better watch your back, Bags,” Clyde hissed across the table. “We’ll be using real weapons next time.”

Bags smiled. His life would once again become what he was accustomed to. He was going to be the target again, and he was going to learn how to fight all over again.

 

Only it didn’t work out that way. First, all their fights were carefully controlled by their tutors. Even when the tutor was an older brother of the cousin Bags was fighting, they kept things scrupulouosly fair, lest they dishonor themselves. Nobody was prepared to diminish himself in the eyes of the master at arms. Second, After the first few weeks while he accustomed himself to the new tools of violence, Bags started winning. He fought with joy and daring, without ever being reckless, and he was steadily matched against older and older opponents. The graying men who presided over the training too notice, and gave him personal attention with more sophisticated attacks and defenses. The masters hoped, quietly, to themselves, that Baxter would have many offspring before his inevitable fall. Out loud they told Traistin that Baxter was going to bring great glory to the family.

They were wrong about both those things.

 

When Bags’ mother got pregnant again, Bags thought nothing of it. Pregnancy was someting that happened to women. Other people seemed terribly upset about it, though, especially Uncle Traistin’s wife Greta. Greta had come from far away to marry Uncle Traistin, and she had never much liked Bags’ mother. She didn’t seem to like anyone, for that matter — she went out of her way to make it clear she was unhappy pretty much all the time. But for Bags’ mother there was a extra special sort of hatred that Bags did not understand, as much as he was aware of it at all.

Most of the other people around the place didn’t seem to care all that much. It all went with the Unspoken Credo. Leave many offspring. A bastard could die gloriously just as well as any other.

Things only got worse when word came that Uncle Traistin had been killed in battle, hundreds of miles away, along with his two eldest sons, fighting for some prince Bags had never heard of. The messenger had ridden through sleet and rain and winter’s muck to bring the news as quickly as possible, as if another day of not knowing would have mattered. His horse died right there in the courtyard, while Bags looked on sadly.

His uncle had died a violent death, but that’s what it meant to be a man in his world. From Bags’ point of view, Glorious Death was the sole reason battles even happened, and princes only existed so that men could die for them. Without princes, what would his family even do?

Traistin was the last of his generation, and his oldest surviving son was a mere seventeen, only now starting on the “many offspring” part of his destiny. Just married and to be honest rather stupid, he was ill-prepared to be head of the household. Which allowed Greta to take control, at least until more distant testicle-bearing relations could make their way to the compund. While she had the ear of her sons, she made two decisions. One, that not all her sons would die in battle. Two, there was no room under her roof for beggars and whores. By whom she meant Bags and his family. Mother and sons she turned out into the winter; Bags’ sisters she sold to a caravaner passing through.

 

It was only a few weeks before Greta was executed by the men of her family for bringing Dishonor on the name Mongret, but by then the damage was done. Penniless and starving in the snow, Bags’ mother died giving birth to a little boy, who died hours later while Bags held it, crying helplessly. “They turned their backs on us,” His mother panted while she bled into the snow, her doomed infant son wailing in her arms. “Listen how your tiny brother cries for vengeance.” She shuddered. “If you share his cries, Bax, you must remember one thing. One thing…” She coughed and took another shuddering breath, her face as pale as the snow around them. “They must die the death of cravens, or your vengeance will merely hasten them to glory.”

 

Bags couldn’t even bury his mother and brother. The ground was too hard and he had no tools, and no way to get them. As night fell he heard the furtive sounds of scavengers and predators, drawn to the scent of blood. He woke his younger brother who lay pulled into a ball, shaking in his cloak. Bags pulled him shivering to his feet. “Never forget this place,” he told Worm. “We must always remember.”

Worm nodded. “Always.”

“We have to go now.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“She will become part of the forest.” Wolf shit is part of the forest after all.

“Like a spirit?”

Bags nodded, though he had no idea how these things worked. But there were spirits in the woods, and they had to come from somewhere. “Yes,” he said. “And we have to remember this place, remember her, or her spirit will fade.”

Worm, solemn as ever, said, “I will always remember. Even when you forget, I will remember.”

“I won’t forget.”

“You forget everything. Everyone in our family forgets. They forget what people looked like as soon as they’re gone. They forget the happy times they had together. I think we have to forget or we’ll be sad all the time.”

“But not you?”

“Not me. I remember everything.”

“I won’t forget this,” Bags said. “Not this.”

“I won’t let you,” Worm said.

The creatures of the night were getting braver. “We have to go,” Bags said. He took Worm’s hand and led him out of the underbrush and onto the deserted, moon-lit road. “Which way?” he wondered aloud.

Worm pointed to their right. “That way,” he said. “Away from anyone who has ever even heard the name Mongret.”

1

TFNIWLNW: 6

Episode 6

Civilization at last. Or a reasonable attempt at civilization, at least. Mountain Forge is a squat stone blister on the side of a mountain, habitable only because shit runs downhill. Its five hundred inhabitants, mostly male, are there to extract wealth from the stone, and for little else. But where there are men with money there will always be alcohol, and where there is alcohol and money there will be gambling. A truth as eternal as the stones under out feet. The alcohol would be watered and the games would be rigged, but those are problems a resourceful man can manage.

We slogged into town through steady rain, the gray mud sucking at our feet adding to the effort of our climb. I had long since given up trying to keep the moisture from permeating my clothes, my skin, even my bones. My cloak weighed twice what it usually did and my trousers chafed my inner thighs. My feet had swollen up in my shoes and threatened to burst the worn leather.

We hadn’t spoken much before, but once the rain came we plodded in silence, each of us wrapped up in our own personal misery. We marched, Kat in front, Bags in the middle, and me staring at Bags’ rain-sodden ass mile after mile. The trees became sparser and shorter as we climbed, until they quit entirely on the outskirts of Mountain Forge. The wind kicked up and drove the raindrops under the brim of my hat, a thousand icy needles stinging my skin.

Kat stopped before reaching the first stone hovel at the edge of town and waited for us to pull up next to her. “They will know about Sothron’s murder. There will be a reward. Someone here might try to claim it.”

At that point, I would have taken a cell in the deepest pit over more rain. Still, it’s important to remain pragmatic when running for your life. “Will there be time to get drunk first?” I asked.

Kat snorted as if I’d told a joke. “Just be alert. The baron was not well-liked here. Most people here hated him even more than they love money. But the temptation will linger in their hearts if they think they can get away with killing you and delivering your head to the authorities without having their own guts poured out in the street first.”

I looked up the muddy lane flanked by low stone structures, their granite walls dark with the rain. Coal smoke rose from chimneys only to surrender and roll back down to the ground, adding to the heavy mist, and giving the town a ghost-like cast. Farther up the lane the buildings became larger, more permanent-looking. One of those would have booze, a fire, and other entertainment. I started walking. “Speaking personally,” I said, “I’ve never heard of Baron Whosifuck. I just want a drink.”

“We’re in this together,” Kat said.

I stopped, turned, and regarded her. “No,” I said. “We’re not. There is no ‘this’ for us all to be in on. An asshole is dead. We all agree that’s a good thing. But that’s done now and the next step is to not be killed just because some rich bastard got his throat cut. I promised Bags a new shirt, and he’ll get one. But first I’m going to get warm, get dry, eat a hot meal, and try not to get stabbed for playing dice better than the locals. None of those things require your participation.”

She looked like I had taken her favorite toy away. “You don’t understand.”

“Actually, Katherine, I do. Better than you do, I think.”

Bags raised his big hand in a gesture somewhere between a wave and a salute. “See you later then,” he said.

I raised my own. “Let’s go find the blacksmith of this shithole after lunch tomorrow.”

He smiled. “You’ll still have some money then?”

“I’ll run out of welcome long before I run out of money in a town like this,” I said.

“Well, try not to get killed before tomorrow.”

“We’ll be staying in the same place,” I said. “I’ll leave it to you to keep me alive.” With that I turned and trudged up the road into town. I heard Bags and Kat exchanging words behind me, but I chose not to hear what they said. There was nothing she could say that hadn’t been said about me many times before.

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 5

Episode 5

There is a moment each morning when the night must recognize that day is coming, when darkness admits it must give in to the sun’s bullying ways, yet clings to the world for just a while longer before slinking back into the shadows. In the forest it is a time before color has awakened, when mist hangs close to the ground and the air is gravid with the scent of the earth. There is a silence then, broken only by the furtive steps of timid creatures trying to steal a meal in the stillness, before the predators of the day begin to stir.

Those who believe that the sun has no choice but to rise may not appreciate the magic of that moment. They forget that it will not be long before the uncaring ball of fire rises without them. When I am able, I stop at that moment and thank whatever gods might be out there for allowing me to know that simple peace once more.

It is also an ideal time for hunting. When my companions stirred with the growing light they were welcomed to the day by the smell of rabbits cooking over oaken coals.

“I could get used to this,” Bags declared as he tore dark meat from the bones and pushed it into his mouth, but I wondered if he could. The pace and the terrain were taking a toll on the big man. His hands bore a dozen cuts and scrapes from climbing, and fatigue was etched in his face. He favored his left foot when walking and I saw blood on his socks when he took off his boots. I had not been unhappy to bid the horses goodbye when the terrain got rugged and the forage sparse, but Bags, it seemed, had been born on the back of one of the beasts. Still he greeted each day of toil with a smile.

Katherine, on the other hand, suffered not because the pace was too fast, but because it was too slow. Each day she would range ahead, finding the best route for the big man, and then sweep behind us, checking for signs of pursuit. For every mile we covered, she walked three or more. Each night she agreed with tight-lipped reluctance to stop when Bags could go no further.

For my part I was content to pace Bags, traveling mostly in silence, encouraging him when I could, carrying his pack on occasion — though never for very long — and helping the civilized man to negotiate the wilds.

North, we traveled, relentlessly north; only Katherine sure of our destination. She knew more than I did about the people who wished us dead and the people who might still have use for us in this world, so I was content to let her choose our path, all the while knowing that while we toiled through the rough country, word of the baron’s death was traveling by road and was by now far ahead of us. A problem for another day — but each day Bags was going to be less useful when it came to dealing with the unfriendly people we might meet.

“Going to rain today,” Katherine said.

I looked up into the brightening sky. There were no rain clouds, just high, feathery clouds drifting to the east.

For a moment Bags’ smile faltered. “Well that’s just grand,” he said.

“It is, actually,” Katherine replied. She softened a bit. “Hang on a little longer, Bags, and you can rest. I made you something for your foot.” She handed him a wad of leaves that smelled awful.

Bags peeled open the leaves and looked skeptically at the gray ooze she had given him. He took a suspicious sniff. “What is it?”

“I found some dragontooth while I was scouting yesterday. I made a balm last night. Rub it on your blisters.”

“Isn’t that stuff poisonous?” I asked.

She ignored me. “When you put it on, it’s going to burn like you stuck a hot iron on your foot. But it’ll harden up your skin where the blisters tore off. And, uh, don’t lick your fingers.”

While Bags tended to his wounded foot Katherine turned to the food I had prepared. She took a bite of rabbit and nodded. “Thanks for breakfast, once again,” she said. “I appreciate not having to hunt.”

“I just put out snares,” I said. “The rabbits do most of the work.”

Bags picked up a pebble and threw it at me. “Just say, ‘you’re welcome’.”

Katherine allowed herself a hint of a smile. “You’d rather not take credit for anything, would you, Martin?” Katherine asked.

“I have always found credit difficult to distinguish from blame.”

“You’re worried I’ll blame you for making breakfast?”

“Your breakfast is stolen property. This forest belongs to someone. I would rather he never give me credit for making your breakfast.”

She made a face like she had bit into something bitter. She had extremely well-developed scowling muscles, I noted, forming small knots at the corners of her mouth and between her dark eyebrows. “Lord Wilmont can choke on his own genitals,” she said, “now that Baron Sothron won’t be sucking on them.”

I had to chuckle at the fine polish she put on her obscenity. She had not grown up poor, but she was comfortable enough living simply now. The frayed edges around the hood of her cloak and the patches on her knees bespoke a thrift I was not accustomed to finding in one raised in comfort.

It was possible, of course, that her carefully-learned diction was simply artifice, adopted with care, with the intent to conceal, rather than reveal, her origins. I am acquainted with people who have made that effort. The roll of her r’s and the elongation of her vowels hinted of the north, an impression reinforced by her pale skin, but her northness had been muted, subjugated by the tyranny of a southern-born tutor. Father dearest had hoped to improve her value in the eyes of the powerful men in the moneyed south. Based on current circumstances, I hazarded that his plans were not working out the way he hoped.

“Why are you smiling?” she asked me.

“I was jut trying to imagine how it went when your father tried to marry you off.”

She stood abruptly and reached for her bow. Apparently it was time to start walking. “Oh, I married him,” she said. “Father did very well for himself. But that’s over now.” She held her hand out to Bags and helped him to his feet. “Better?” she asked him.

He tested his medicated feet and nodded. “Better.”

I stood also and gathered my few belongings.

“My husband is dead,” Katherine said. “He was mutilated before his throat was cut, in a tavern while surrounded by his own men. No one seems to know whom to blame. Or to credit.”

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 4

Episode 4

It was I who heard them first. Horses pushed hard by angry men.

We had covered perhaps five miles by sunrise; the terrain was still friendly enough, and as the clouds broke up a sliver of moon provided enough light for us to avoid the worst obstacles. A bed of pine needles on the forest floor softened our steps as we wove between the dark pillars of the tree trunks. Katherine, when I could see her at all, seemed to blend with her surroundings until she was little more than a shadow. If ever needed to kill her, I decided, I’d make sure I did it in town. But today we were on the same side, or at least running from the same people, and the sound of pursuit to the south meant that blood would soon be spilled.

“Horses,” I said.

The others stopped to listen. After a moment Katherine nodded. “Riding hard — they don’t care if some of them break their legs.”

“How many?” Bags asked his partner.

“Several. Maybe ten.”

I would have wagered seven were I in a more congenial crowd. “No dogs,” I said, with some relief. Dogs are harder to deceive.

Katherine scanned the rising ground ahead of us. Not far to the west a rocky outcrop peeked above the trees, its pale face shining pink in the early-morning light. “We’ll set up there,” she said and turned that way without waiting for an answer. Bags and I followed, jogging behind her.

She didn’t slow until she was at the top. While Bags caught his breath I explored the outcrop, listening as the horses drew near. We were in a a good, defensible position, the approach to the outcrop easily visible. To the right was the gentler slope we had climbed, to our left the rocks were broken and jumbled.

“I should be able to get a couple of them before they reach shelter,” she said.

“What if they shoot back?” I asked.

She smiled. “I hope they do.”

Bags pulled his sword free. Everything about him was ragged except that blade, gleaming in the early-morning light. “I can hold the path,” he said, “’till you pick them apart.”

I studied the outcrop, and realized that I would be little help in the battle they were imagining. I have no sword, no armor, and no bow. “I’ll see you two later, then,” I said, and started down the other side, away from all the trouble.

“Where are you going?” Katherine asked me sharply.

“Not sure yet. I’ll play it by ear.”

“You godfucked son of a mongrel,” Katherine said. “I didn’t take you for a coward.”

“This isn’t my sort of fight,” I said over my shoulder.

“See you later, then,” Bags said.

Her voice was steady and hard. “I will find you, Martin. You can count on that.”

“I’m counting the minutes, Kat” I called back. Then I was among the trees, and I began moving more quickly, while wisdom warred with curiosity in my head. If I kept walking, I could live to spend the gold in my wallet, Kat’s threats notwithstanding. I could be far from the ugly politics, far from hundreds of angry soldiers. Eventually Katherine and Bags would be killed, Katherine’s connections discovered, and I would be forgotten. All I had to do was keep walking west.

Wisdom lost the battle, but of course you knew that already. Wise men rarely have interesting stories to tell; people don’t crowd pubs exchanging stories with their friends about the time they did the wise thing. I found myself curving around to my right toward the jumbled rocks on the north side of the outcrop where my friends waited to fight seven to ten well-armed men.

Our pursuit would have seen our change in direction and known exactly what it meant. They would be cautious. Katherine’s bow would slow them, and Bags’ sword would push them back, but assuming my companions won those two skirmishes, there would be other men looking for a more subtle path up. I needed to find that path first.

I found a likely spot, a fissure in the weathered granite that provided shelter from arrows and unwanted eyes. Through that passage the honorable men who wished to slaughter us would be able to get behind my companions at the top of the hill, making the fight much more fair than I was comfortable with allowing. I moved through the gap and found a nice nook behind a loose boulder. I was just settling in behind the rough, weathered stone when I heard the first man cry out. An arrow had found flesh. There were shouts, the leader instructing his men, but I couldn’t make out specific words.

Another curse, and the clash of metal, then quiet. If Bags had been overwhelmed, the enemy was now above and behind me. Best not to think about that. I had only one choice: to trust my judgement, to trust my companions, and to do what I do best.

Perhaps ten minutes later I heard the first furtive sounds of men trying to be stealthy while wearing metal clothes. By the time they were near me I had identified three of them by the sounds they made. I would have preferred two.

The knife I chose for this job was thin and razor-sharp, her blade the color of a dark dream on a moonless night. The smith who had forged her was dead now, slain by her twin. If I was going to die today, I wanted to die with this lovely blade in my hand. The steel was surprisingly resilient, but if I erred and hit armor rather than flesh she would break in a thousand pieces. Mentally I promised the piece of metal that I would not miss.

Three of them. I’d have to wait until I was right in the middle of them to make my move. If they didn’t cooperate and pass where I thought they would, my best option was to start running and not stop until nightfall.

They cooperated. The first was past me when I lunged from my little haven and cut the throat of the second, my black steel sliding through his flesh like it was air. The third in line had time to raise his sword before I found his larynx and pushed my knife home. Blood gushed onto my hand, threatening my grip, as I turned to face the one who had been in the lead.

He was facing me, sword ready, shouting obscenities that were frankly unimaginative. His feet were searching for purchase on the rocks, his hard-soled boots with tapered toes were made for the stirrup, not uncertain ground. His armor was clean and showed not a spot of rust, his green cloak hung easily on his shoulders. He held out his sword, fighting for balance on the rocks, and he knew that his only advantage was that his deadly steel was longer than mine. We seemed to be in a standoff. From above came another clash of steel, another cry of pain.

“You’re the last one,” I said. “All your friends are dead.”

“You are a lying son of a whore,” the soldier said. He was barely more than a kid, the fuzz on his cheeks more a wish than a beard.

I shrugged. “We can stand here until my big friend comes down to see what all the shouting is about, or you can drop your sword and go back the way you came.”

“If I drop my sword, you’ll kill me.”

I smiled and moved my blade to the side just enough, my empty hand in a placating gesture. “Why would I do that? I just want to be on my way. Drop your sword and start walking, and we’ll have no reason to kill you. We’ll be keeping your horses, of course.”

From above the sound of heavy footsteps. One person, favoring a leg. If it wasn’t Bags, I wanted my current situation resolved long before he arrived. “You’re time’s running out,” I said.

The sound of his sword rattling among the rocks reverberated through the forest. “Thank you,” I said. I reached out my hand to steady him as he clambered back past me. When he was next to me I cut his throat and watched his eyes widen in shock as he choked on his own blood. “You saw my face far to well, kid,” I said as he slumped to the ground. He deserved an explanation.

I turned to meet the approaching footsteps. Bags greeted me with his gap-toothed grin. There was blood smeared on his cheek, but I couldn’t tell if it was his. “Good to see you,” I said.

“Dangerous work,” he said. “Three of them, huh?”

I nodded. “Kat all right?”

“Yeah. Might go easier for all of us if you call her Katherine.”

“I know.”

“You also should have told us your plan. So we could work together.”

“I didn’t know my plan.”

“Maybe not specifics, but you did know generalities.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to take the chance to leave you guys behind.”

His face was almost serious for a moment. “Fair enough. Why didn’t you?”

“Still might. But you’re a good guy. Hate to see you die some anonymous death out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“You imagine a better death for me?”

“Maybe not better, but later.”

Bags laughed. “I’ll take it. And I’ll tell Katherine that I’ve already chewed you out for not being a team player.”

“A lot of good that will do.”

Again that smile. That toothless smile that lacked any guile at all. “Oh, she’ll still be madder than a cat in sack, but she won’t say anything. And she knows that you’re going out of your way to annoy her for a reason. She just has the wrong reason.” He laughed again. “She thinks you like her.”

first episode

The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write: Chapter 3

There’s a milestone in the development of the characters I need to reach before I walk away from this setting.

Chapter 3

A gentle silence settled around us as we finished our food. We all knew what must follow. Travel. Pursuit. Fear and maybe death.

I don’t make much of an impression when I’m in a room, and that’s all right with me. Even after I killed the baron I doubted anyone who was there would be able to identify me with certainty. Were I alone I’d just need to put enough distance between my face and that ugly scene, and refrain from showing too much of the baron’s money in one place, and I’d be fine. Eventually they’d find some other bastard to execute.

Bags, however, had made quite an impression. We could get him new armor and maybe even new teeth, but it wouldn’t matter. The baron’s friends would follow him to the end of the world. It was time to find shelter from the storm.

“Know anyone who hated the Baron?” I asked my new companions.

Always-Katherine nodded. “Almost everybody.”

Almost everybody is worthless. “Anyone who might be grateful enough and powerful enough to protect us?”

She framed her response carefully. “Grateful and powerful, yes. But willing? Probably not. The baron’s enemies aren’t going to want to reveal themselves yet.”

Yet, she said. I wiped my fingers on my cloak and stretched my legs. The fire was just a glow now, painting our faces red. Bags belched and laughed. I asked the question I already knew the answer to. “What makes you think that?”

She spit into the fire. “Because one of them hired me to kill the son of a bitch.”

Bags laughed. “That’s why she made us come marching out here. To see who stole her fun.”

“And to keep you alive,” she said. She turned back to me. “Who are you working for?”

“I fill my own belly, and starve on my own account,” I said.

“Why did you kill him, then?”

“He was an asshole.” And that’s the whole truth. But people want to make it complicated.

She smiled, but it wasn’t a particularly friendly smile. “Do you kill all assholes?”

“I’d like to.”

“Bags said the baron was attacking a woman, and you killed him for it.”

Katherine was trying to like me, trying to see me as a defender of the weak, a man willing to risk his life to protect the downtrodden. A lot of people are like her; they feel a need to enjoy the company of the people around them. Those people annoy me. “I killed him,” I said, “but that’s not why.”

Bags snorted.

I let it drop. If they wanted to think I was some godfucked saint then it would be easier if I ever needed to cut their throats. “We should be going,” I said. “And Bags, can we prevail upon you to not leave a trail of blasted vegetation behind you?”

Bags gave me his toothless grin. “Probably not,” he said.

“They’ll know by now we are headed toward Bishop’s Junction.” Katherine said. “They’ll be waiting for us there. We should turn north.”

The terrain to the north got very rugged, making mounted pursuit less of an advantage. It also meant slow, hard travel and a much longer wait before I could start spending my money. “Maybe we should split up,” I said. Without Bags, I was pretty sure I could fade into the forest and emerge somewhere else, just another stranger.

She looked at me with narrowed eyes and shook her head slowly. “You’re the one who got us into this.”

“Us?”

“Baxter’s messes are my messes, too. And this one’s yours as well.”

“I wanted to do it,” Bags said as he sucked the last of the chicken grease off his fingers. “They were hurting her.”

“That’s because you’re a kind-hearted idiot,” Katherine said, but she didn’t sound angry when she said it. She looked back at me. “I don’t know what you are. We’re staying together until I figure that out.”

And not a moment longer, I added silently, because that was the truth of it. I stood. “Best get going, then. I hear the north is lovely this time of year.”

first episode

1

More from the Novel I’ll Likely Never Write

I don’t have a plot, but I have some characters.

The fire crackled and sputtered as it nibbled at the damp branches I had laid for it. Smoke rose reluctantly in the heavy night air; were it not for the heavy cloak of clouds overhead I would not have risked giving away my location. But after a good night’s work I felt I deserved better than to huddle in the darkness. I had put a lot of distance between myself and the blood-soaked public house, and I had taken pains to be difficult to follow.

My stomach growled. I wished I had take the time to eat before saving that girl. It wasn’t the first time I’d gone without dinner, however, and it wasn’t likely to be the last. Nothing drives the work ethic quite so well as an empty belly.

I sighed, pulled my travel-worn cloak tighter about me, and once more opened the purse I had liberated from the baron. We are creatures of habit, all of us, and I honestly don’t remember removing the baron’s money sack even as I removed his family jewels. But here it was, heavy with gold — far more gold than the baron could possibly have needed for a night out abusing his common folk.

The freshly-minted coins gleamed in the fickle light of the fire. Whatever the young baron had intended to do with them, they were mine, now. My little friends.

The sound of footsteps made my ears want to swivel on my head. Still far away, but heading my direction. Two people, one making no attempt to be quiet, the other almost silent. Alone, the furtive one would have been able to get very close indeed. I took a long breath in through my nose, released it through my mouth. I needed to act, but I needed to act wisely. And quietly. There was only two of them, but if they had found me, they were probably more skilled than the average yahoo.

But dark woods at night — that’s my battlefield. I am, in the words of my father, one sneaky son of a bitch. Away from the fire I moved, easily, carefully, silently. I had scouted fallback positions before laying a fire, and on this damp night I chose to move out and up, into the comforting branches of a towering conifer thirty yards from the little clearing that had been my home. Some twenty feet off the ground I pulled my night-colored cloak around me and relaxed with my feet underneath me. If I had to, I could jump, but that didn’t seem likely. I practiced my knife skills while I waited.

It was twenty minutes or more before the pair arrived at my campsite. During that time two things became clear to me: they were following me, and they weren’t trying to hide the fact. By the time the big man stepped into the light I was not surprised to see him. His ragged chain shirt had another gap, but I didn’t see any sign of blood. I might have smiled, but my teeth would have reflected the waning firelight.

Behind him was another man — no, a woman. The quiet one. Her eyes flashed into the shadows all around the fire, not scanning for me, but for signs of my passing. She held a short blade of darkened steel, more a large knife than a sword, while a compact bow hung from her shoulder. Her clothes were earthtone and her boots were soft. Her straw-colored hair was pulled back so it would not interfere with her vision. She was a tracker. I’d never met a woman in that line of work before, but her presence here marked her as a darn good one. I was going to have to me more careful in the future.

The big man turned and smiled at her; she smiled back. He slipped the pack off his back and sat on my rock as he swung the pack around in front of him. She remained standing, keeping her eyes on the shadows in my general direction, the dark blade comfortably loose in her grasp.

Out of his pack the big man pulled an oil-stained bundle. He opened it to reveal three roast chickens. He laid the cloth at his feet, pulled a drumstick off one of the birds, and took a bite. “Shit, this is good,” he said.

I smiled. She saw me, but she tried to pretend she hadn’t. “Do you have enough for one more?” I asked.

“Sure,” the big man said, “But I’m not giving you your seat back.”

I began my descent. “So you recognize that it’s my seat.”

The tracker spoke. “The seat belongs to us all.” Her voice was a husky alto. The conviction it carried sounded like trouble.

“My little brother has a saying,” I said as I reached the base of the tree. “The man with the chickens can sit where he chooses, as long as he shares.”

The tracker opened her mouth to speak, but then just nodded. I stepped into the light and appraised her as she appraised me. We were about the same height, and about the same weight. Her blue eyes made me think of snow. Her mouth was set in a thin line that pressed the blood from her lips.

“My name is Martin, more often than not,” I said.

“Baxter,” the big man said through a mouthful of food. “But usually Bags.”

“Katherine,” the tracker said. She paused, and a tiny smile quirked her hard face. “Always.”

I sat on the ground next to the food and turned to look at the big man. “You all right?” I asked. I gestured toward the new gap in his chain shirt with a chicken bone.

He smiled toothlessly. “Definitely gonna be purple under there,” he said. “But that’s what the shirt’s for.” He took another bite of chicken, pulling the tender meat off the bones with his molars.

“Looks like it’s saved you a few times.”

He looked down at his battered armor. “Yeah,” he said. He pulled at the metal links idly. “Lotta holes in it now, though.”

Katherine’s back was to the fire. All I could see of her was a cloak that draped to her knees, lean calves and skinny ankles below that. “Then why haven’t you replaced it?” Her voice was carefully flat.

The big man, Bags, looked at me and shrugged, a little half-smile on his chicken-grease-slicked face.

I sliced off another chunk of meat and ate it off my knife. Rosemary filled my head and I felt benevolent toward the entire world. “I found some money recently,” I said. “Let’s get you fixed up right.”

“Well, actually—”

“Thank you,” Katherine said. She crouched down and tore a piece of chicken away with long, slender fingers. “Good people should help each other.”

“And on occasion I help good people as well,” I said, to lighten the mood. Let’s not make any mistakes here; I am not a good person.

Katherine sent me a thin smile. “This is going to be an interesting journey.”

first episode

1

An Excerpt from a Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write

So I just banged this out and I’ll discuss it maybe a bit in the comments — it diverged from the idea in my head in an interesting way — but I should warn you that this gets violent. Knives and genitals meet.

The Duty of the Strong

The Baron grabbed the serving girl and pulled her forcefully onto his lap, sliding his hand inside her dress. Her cries were drowned out by the laughter of his men. Her struggles only added to the merriment. “I like ’em feisty!” the baron shouted.

The man sitting next to me at the long common table tensed. He was big, but for his size he was lean and hard. He wore a simple chain shirt that had been repaired many times; in places the links bunched while other areas were only thinly protected. The shirt he wore beneath was tattered, more hole than cloth. His long dark hair was tucked behind his ear, revealing the tension in his square jaw and the crease of his brow pulled down over deep-set eyes. A scar, still slightly pink and puffy, bisected his eyebrow and continued down his cheek.

Another cry from the serving-girl, barely audible over the roar of the baron’s retainers. My stomach turned. But I am a smallish man, slightly built, talented in my own ways, perhaps, but helpless to prevent what was about to happen. The big man was breathing carefully.

“It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak,” I hazarded, softly.

“Perhaps,” said the big man, in a voice for me alone, the product of a throat that has known no shortage of shouting, “But I am more inclined to help the girl.” He looked at me directly. His eyes were blue, sapphires buried in the shadow of his brow. “But I am just one.”

“Sometimes simple brawls have unexpected collateral damage,” I said. “Where no one is looking.”

He smiled, revealing a void where his front teeth should have been. He put a hand on my shoulder, a big, hard hand that bent me under its weight. “It is the duty of the strong,” he said, “to protect the unarmed.”

He rose with a roar, tipping his chair and mine, his blade gleaming in the light of the fire, a living thing almost, flawless and beautiful. I rolled beneath the table adjacent, lost in the rush to flee the violence.

“Come here, you little bitch baron,” the big man shouted. “Come over here and learn what it means to be a man!”

The baron stood, dumping the girl on the floor, and for a moment I thought his pride was going to render my skills unnecessary. He drew his sword, stepped forward two paces, and said, “Nobody speaks to me that way.” To his men he said, “Kill him.”

Twenty green-cloaked men rose and I didn’t like the chances of my new friend, however strong he was. I was not going to tip that scale, however; he was on his own. All that was left for me was to make his death worthwhile. I chose a thicker blade, a cutting knife rather than a stabbing one. I thought perhaps the extra blood on the floor would end the violence more quickly.

From one table to the next I moved, though in the confusion and noise I need hardly have bothered. The big man was using that gleaming blade to keep the greencloaks from getting too close, but it looked like he’d only killed a couple of them so far. I continued toward my goal.

They say that poetry is lost in this world, that the bluster of commerce and war has hardened our souls to beauty, but it is lost only to those who don’t know where to look. There is the poetry of moments, a poetry of found things that a perceptive mind understands. Take for example, a moment when one emerges from beneath a table, holding a very sharp knife, to discover the genitals of a man about to violate a woman while she watches her would-be savior perish. The poetry is further enhanced if one is well-versed in the various ways to use a knife, and if the possessor of the genitals releases a particularly shrill scream when they are removed from him.

I almost didn’t kill the baron; living his life so altered would almost certainly be another poem, and enduring sonnet. But I knew he would hold a grudge, and he had seen my face. I cut his throat as he clung to his gushing crotch, interrupting his continued scream with a burble.

The baron’s scream had turned the attention of the greencloaks my direction. “Time to go!” I shouted to the big man, in the event he was still alive. I dove for the shadows and the window in the corner that was still open despite the chill. Always know where the exits are, my mother used to say. My mother was a wise woman.

November 1, 2014

You probably didn’t notice that I didn’t put my first night’s NaNoWriMo effort here on November 1st. It’s not like people wait all year to glimpse the unedited, unplanned, product of my imagination. It is rarely sparkling prose. My first sketch of a story (not even a draft, really) often turns out to be conversations between people about what they could do, and not a whole lot of people doing things. Kind of an outline-the-plot-with-dialog technique. They are also rather light on description. Periodically in this year’s effort, I put great emphasis on description, and was pleased with the result. But not on November 1st. Maybe some other time I’ll post my description of a breakfast diner in rural North Dakota.

But even though I’m less proud of this month’s first chapter than I have been of others, it does set the scene for the action that follows. (Well, the action that is subsequently discussed.) So, here it is. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Note that as usual, I didn’t spend time doing silly things like proofreading or correcting errors or (God forbid) tightening up ambiguous pronouns. I’ve still got to finish my NaNoWriMo effort this year, and there’s only six hours left.

A Cool Breeze in Hell

Harper pulled out the last of his crumpled wad of bills and smoothed them out on the fake woodgrain of the bartop. His backpack sat at his feet, containing everything in the world that he could call his own. Two extra pair of socks, one pair underwear (in need of cleaning), blue jeans (the pair with smaller holes in the knees), a toothbrush, a few toiletries, and a t-shit for a band he’d never heard of all shared space with an ancient laptop whose battery really didn’t hold a charge any longer. In his pockets huddled some loose change, a pay as you go phone (unpaid, going nowhere), and a pocket knife that had attachments to do almost anything… poorly.

When his little pile of greenbacks ran out, things were gong to be tough. He scratched his four-day beard and held up his finger to catch the bartender’s attention.

“Another one?”

Harper nodded.

“Happy hour ended five minutes ago. I’m going to have to charge full price.”

“That’s fine,” Harper said. He hadn’t been that happy anyway.

He watched as the balding man behind the bar wiped his hands on his apron and stooped to get a glass out of the freezer. The bar was almost deserted; there was no reason for the bartender to hurry. The barkeep straightened with a moan and slid the glass under a tap and pulled the long handle emblazoned with the logo of one of the local microbreweries. The blessed liquid gushed forth and before long a pint of deep amber liquid rested on a tiny napkin in front of Harper. “Five bucks,” the bartender said. Harper counted six off his stack and gave them to the man. He tried not to see how much was left. Better not to know, sometimes.

The television behind the bar was muted, but grabbed his attention anyway, with amateur video of explosions and car crashes. Harper decided he liked the world more before every damn thing that ever happened was recorded and put on the Internet. Still, he watched.

He didn’t see the man come in, was only peripherially aware when he sat two stools down from Harper. When he sat he exhaled heavily, as if he had taken off a backpack full of stones. “Beer,” he said, “Give me the IPA.” Harper was taken by the man’s smooth baritone voice. Though he spoke softly his voice carried, bearing a tone of authority. Harper turned and studied the man’s profile as the other waited for his drink.

He was tallish, on the thin side, darkish hair swept back, narrow straight nose. Dark eyes, thin lips pressed together, creasing his face. He seemed to be in pain, concentrating on not letting it show. His suit was probably a nice one, Harper thought, though he wasn’t sure exactly how to tell suits apart. The stranger’s navy tie with yellow stripes was loosened and his top button was undone. His right hand tapped the bar in impatience, the left he kept clenched in his lap. The other man’s beer arrived and he turned to Harper and raised his glass. Guiltily Harper returned the gesture.

“Long day?” Harper asked.

The man nodded. “I’m not even sure what a day is anymore.”

It was then that Harper knew he was talking to the devil. There was no one thing to tip him off, no weird glimpse of horns or red skin or cloven hooves for feet. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the guy at all, except that he was the Prince of Darkness, loose on Earth to spread torment and damnation.

Up until that moment, Harper had not considered himself a religeous man. He still didn’t, he realized. The bartender went about his work, pausing for long stretches to watch TV, seemingly unaware of the Dark One sitting on one of his vynyl-topped barstools.

“What brings you round here?” Harper asked.

“The beer,” the devil said. “Not the conversation.”

Harper took the hint and turned back to his own beer. He tried to nurse it, but far too quickly it was gone. “Another?” the bartender asked when there was half an inch of beer left in his glass.

He nodded. “And one for this guy.” He pointed down to where the devil sat. He counted out twelve dollars and saw that there would be no more beers tonight, or ever again until he got a job.

The bartender pulled the two beers and set them in front of the two patrons.

The devil regarded his beer with narrowed eyes and turned to Harper. “What’s this?”

Harper shrugged. “You looked like you were having a tough day.”

“And now you’re going to ask me for a favor.”

Harper blinked in surprise. “No.”

The devil rocked back on his stool and looked Harper up and down. “Everybody wants something.”

A job, a place to call home, friends, a purpose for his life. “Not so much. You just seem to be having a rough time right now.”

Somehow now the devil was on the stool next to Harper. He couldn’t remember it happening. “Have you ever said, ‘it’s hotter than hell in here?’”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“You were wrong. Hell is really fucking hot.”

“Well, at least you can get away for a beer sometimes.” Harper raised his glass to illustrate what a fine thing that was.

“I am in hell right now. I am always in Hell. I always will be in Hell.”

“Oh, I get it. So it’s not like a physical place then? More like a state of mind?”

The devil drained his beer and set down the glass. “Oh, it’s a physical place, all right, just not in this space-time continuum. I’m what you might call extra-dimensional. I can exist in both places at the same time. And that means I’m bathing in liquid sulfur and having my flesh boiled off my bones at the same time I’m sitting on this stool being annoyed by some guy who didn’t pay attention in Sunday School.”

Sunday School was a distant memory, to be sure, and indeed Harper had not paid attention, but he was pretty sure the phrase ‘space-time continuum’ had not been used.

“So how hot is it, exactly? Sulfur boils at 445 C, so it’s cooler than that, right?”

“There are areas that are much hotter than that. I avoid them.”

“You should air condition,” Harper said. He discovered his glass was empty, which ruined the fun of his little joke.

The devil scowled. “Don’t mock me, human.” To Harper’s ear, though, he didn’t sound angry.

“I’m not mocking you at all. It’s a straightforward engineering problem. You need to move heat from one place to another. All that takes is energy, and you have tons of that. Possibly you could use sulfur as the refrigerant.”

“I am skeptical.”

“You’d be making some parts of Hell cooler, at the expense of making other parts of hell much hotter. Of course, it would be much more efficient if you had a cooler place to pump the heat to. Maybe…” An idea was taking shape in Harper’s head. A brilliant solution to the devil’s problems, made all the more beautiful through the haze of the five beers doing the rhumba in Harper’s brain. “So, you can cross dimensions, right?”

“Obviously.”

“Could you open up a hole from here to there? You could use hell like a geothermal source, pump the energy over here, generate a shit-ton of electricity, and cool things down a bit on your end. Not a whole lot, maybe, but enough you might notice a cool breeze. Meanwhile humanity would benefit from a cheap, clean power source.”

“The benefit of humanity is not my concern,” the devil said. “Although I do encourage technological progress where it will result in more humans on earth. More souls.”

“You must love nitrogen fertilizer, then.”

“Yes. It will be a shame when its overuse leads to the destruction of a large amount of the world’s farmland. It will be a busy time for me.”

“So, you like for there to be more people, so you can lead them astray?”

“I suppose you could put it that way. Think of me as a farmer.”

“Then this should be a no-brainer for you, don’t you think? This could mean a lot more kids growing up to be sinners.”

“You amuse me, Mr. Harper. You think you’re tricking me into making life better for humanity here on Earth.”

“I’m not stupid enough to think I can trick you.”

“In fact, you’re fooling yourself. You still don’t believe, deep in your heart, that this project could result in countless more souls in eternal torment.”

Harper didn’t have a good answer for that. “I guess I don’t. Modern agriculture made it possible for me to be here. So if you were behind that, then thanks.”

The devil smiled, showing two neat rows of narrow teeth. “Very well, Mr. Harper. I will provide you with the necessary resources and technical advice. You will install a cooling system for hell, and you will use the energy to provide clean power to humanity.”

“Uh, me?”

The devil’s smile grew. “Of course. Who else?”

“But I’m not even remotely qualified. I don’t know anything about power stations, or drilling a hole across dimensions, or getting a permit for… whatever I need permits for. I suck at that stuff.”

“Well, Mr. Harper, I think it’s time you started learning.” The devil reached into his pocket and pulled out a smart phone. “Here. You will need this. You will be getting calls from some of my people.” He set the phone on the bartop between their glasses.

Harper reached out, then hesitated. If the stories were true, accepting a gift from the devil seemed like a bad idea.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” the devil said. “Not every gift incurrs an obligation. This is just a tool I’m providing so you can do your job. You can return it when you’re done if it will make you feel better.”

Harper picked up the phone and held it like it might bite him. It had a satisfying solidity. No lightning came from above. He set it back down. “You have the wrong guy,” he said.

“I’ve been around for a long time, Mr. Harper, and you are one of a handful of people in all the history of your miserable race that has surprised me. So shut up and take the phone before I get angry. You are going to air condition hell. It is not for you to decide.” He reached into his pocket again, and pulled out a credit card. “I will pay you, of course. Fair compensation for your labor. Once again, no additonal obligation.”

“How much?”

“You decide. That card has no limit. None at all. Soon you will be hearing from my money people to arrange financing the project. In the meantime, I’ve asked the bartender to make sure your glass is never dry tonight. You have a new job, after all. It’s time to celebrate.”

November 1, 2013

NaNoWriMo returns, and with it the public airing of my first night’s work. Thanks to all y’all who suggested ideas for me to write this year; it may or may not be obvious which one I chose from the following excerpt. Had a chat with my sweetie after I wrote this bit and I’ll be going back and inserting a fairly disturbing event, but here’s the first two chapters of what I did last night.

The usual disclaimers apply: I haven’t even reread this, so errors likely abound. I’m about to take this setting and try to turn it into a story, but so far I have no story in my head, just a regular superhuman guy and his daughter getting by in a harsh world.

The End

Chapter 1

By mutual consent they paused to rest beneath the tree that separated their dusty fields. Dot leaned the plow against the tree’s rough trunk while Joe shrugged out of the harness, sweat staining his tattered shirt where the straps had lain across his skin. Dot sat carefully, cradling her gravid belly with both hands. She sighed heavily, her cheeks puffing out, and closed her eyes. Beneath a sheen of sweat her face was gray. Her loose tunic blended with the bare earth between the tortured roots of the tree.

They didn’t talk about her sickness. There was a lot of things they didn’t talk about. The race between the malignancy that would destroy her and her unborn child. Who — or rather what — the father was.

Joe stretched his back, flexed his shoulders. On her side of the creek, the dirt was turned and ready for planting, the soil almost white in the unforgiving sun. On his side, stubble from the last crop limp and dry. Beyond the fields, nothing. Poisoned soil dotted with stumps and rocks, impossible to till. It had been a mighty forest, once.

He wondered why they were doing this. Plowing their fields, as if either of them would be around when harvest-time came.

“Water?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

Joe stepped cautiously down the embankment to the edge of the stream. The water moved sluggishly, weighed down by green scum. The swarms of insects left him alone as opened the pouch on his waist and extracted his water kit. He put the fine mesh filter over one of the cups and scooped water with the other. It took two minutes or more to pour the water from the first cup through the filter and into the second, but there was no reason to hurry. There was never a reason to hurry anymore.

He took the water back to Dot. She drank it down in one go. Joe took the cup back from her and returned to the stream. When he got back, her eyes were closed. He put the water near her, but no so close she might knock it over by accident, and returned to the stream to refill his deerskin water bag.

Fifteen minutes later he returned to find her watching him with haunted eyes, her sandy-brown hair shifting with the listless breeze. He sat facing her, and took a sip.

“How are you going to feed her?” she asked.

Another thing they didn’t talk about. Not until now, apparently. Dot was certain her child was going to be a girl. Joe had no reason to doubt her.

“I’ll find a way,” he said. “Don’t worry.” As if he could say anything else.

She was staring at him now, and he was sure she was going to say something else. Something that demanded an honest response.

“Do you regret it?” she asked.

Joe thought for a while before answering. He almost didn’t answer at all. He wasn’t sure what she was referring to—probably the night they had slept together, after she had learned she was going to die. The night they had created a new life they had no means of sustaining. But she might have meant a thousand other things, large and small. “No,” he said, and it was mostly the truth. “Unless you mean the time I let you cut my hair.”

She smiled, showing gray teeth, then her face went slack again, as if exhausted by the effort. She made a listless effort to push a stray lock of hair away from her face. “That didn’t turn out well, did it?”

He passed a rough hand over his close-shorn scalp. So much easier than the long, black waves of hair he had worn back then. “It turned out OK, in the end.”

“She’s going to be all right.”

Joe nodded, wondering where she had found that confidence and wishing he could share it.

Dot pulled her feet underneath her. Joe jumped up and helped her stand. “That field’s not going to plow itself,” she said.

Joe hefted the plow and harness and stepped carefully over the creek. He went back to help dot across and up the slope, then shrugged into the harness. They probably shouldn’t have rested so long; now they would not be able to finish before nightfall.

Chapter 2

“Wait a second,” Dot said.

Joe relaxed in the harness. He twisted around to look at her, but couldn’t when bound by the hardened leather straps. “You want to take a break?”

“We hit something. Huh.”

Something about the huh made the hair on the back of Joe’s neck stand up. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, but…”

Joe tried harder to turn around, partially shrugging out of the harness. Dot was crouching, knees far apart, one hand under her belly, the other holding a perfectly spherical object.

Joe’s heart tied in a knot, refusing to beat, and his lungs became stone. He dropped to one knee as stars danced at the edge of his vision. “Shit,” he said.

The artifact—there was no doubt, this was an artifact—lay in her palm, the size of an apple (Dot had never seen an apple), black to the point that it was an absence in the world, rather than a presence.

“It’s warm,” Dot said.

“Put it down!” The scream tore from Joe’s throat, edged with hysterical panic.

She flinched and dropped it, pushing it away from her. Joe dodged as it landed right in front of him. Dot was pushing herself away from him, her eyes wide. She stopped when she was about ten feet away. She swallowed and collected herself. “What is it?”

Joe took a ragged breath and regarded the orb. He didn’t recognize it, but that didn’t matter. “Trouble,” he said.

“It’s an artifact?”

Joe nodded.

“What’s it doing here?”

Joe shrugged, hoping he wasn’t betraying the churning in his gut. How far into the future do you have to see to arrive at the blade of a plow here, now? Long ago someone dropped this thing here, and it stayed buried until circumstances suited it. But had the artifact reached its destination or were the two—three—of them just the next step to get it where it wanted to be? “You can never tell with these things,” Joe said.

“What do we do?”

Joe stared at the thing, tried to look through its perfectly-black surface to see what purpose it might conceal. Run away! some prudent part of his mind shouted. “I don’t know,” he said to Dot.

“I—ugh” Dot’s face contorted.

“What’s wrong?”

She smiled, and for a moment her skin flushed pink and healthy. “It’s time,” Dot said. “She’s coming.” Joe had seen that look before, on the faces of soldiers who lay dying after a victorious battle. Dot would not survive childbirth, but her daughter would.

Joe lifted her in his arms and carried her to the hut that served as her home. He laid her on the straw-filled mattress that served as her bed and dripped cool water on her forehead. She was burning up. She clung to his hand. “I’m frightened,” she said. Her face contorted with pain again.

“I am too.”

“You’re supposed to tell me I’ll be all right, you idiot.” Another wave of pain hit her and Joe could hear her teeth grinding together.

“You’ll be all right.”

She was breathing fast and shallow now. “Too… late…”

Joe wanted to stand, to pry her hand off his, to get the hell out of there. To be anywhere else. Dot was about to be dead, and nothing was going to change that.

“Bring it,” Dot said.

“Bring What?”

“The…” she grimaced again. “The thing. Out there.”

“No.”

“It can help her.”

“No.”

“It came to find her.”

“To use her. It might just want her blood. Tomorrow I’m going to dig a very deep pit.”

She contorted as the next spasm tore through her. “Bring it.”

“No.”

“I…” Dot moaned and words were done. In the terrible hours that followed, the baby arrived, Dot departed, and Joe wondered what he might have done differently.

Descending From the Mountain

Snowflakes, fat and fluffy, falling poco tiempo, dance out of the way of my car, sliding up the windscreen and out of view, as I glide along Barranca Road. It is quiet, modern car quiet, the rental’s motor almost inaudible. The flakes aren’t piling up yet, but the road is cold and it won’t be long.

I take a breath, inhale the silence.

By the time I reach Santa Fe the sun is shining; my sunglasses are in my bag in the trunk. I lower the visor, squint, and roll on south, joining the Interstate traffic and setting the cruise control for a speed just a little over the posted limit. Going with the flow. Time for the radio. The station I listened to as a kid is still playing the same list it was thirty years ago. Some things never change.

I’m tired, my nerves raw from rambunctious nephews, back stiff from a night on a too-short sofa, nose and eyes still irritated by the christmas tree. Not the kid’s fault he had a toothache last night. I’ll miss those guys. Who knows how old they’ll be when I see them again? The younger nephew probably won’t even remember me.

Man it was a hoot hanging with those guys. Non-stop entertainment. By the time I reach La Bajada hill I’m missing everyone already. I turn up the radio. Twofer Tuesday. Nirvana – not on the list when I was a kid, but I’ll take it, at the intended volume.

Numbers

442.

Sometimes numbers just come into my head like that. I’ll just be lying in bed at night, listening for mosquitoes, and bam here comes a number. Fifty-seven million. Five. Can’t say I’ve ever thought up a negative number that way.

Sometimes it’s not just a number: 442 pounds of TNT. Thirty-six thousand rounds of ammunition. One time on the john I thought “forty-seven thousand hand grenades.”

They’re just numbers; they don’t mean anything.

 

3

Remembering Topstar

This is how far I got before I realized that the idea in my head wouldn’t fit in a short story.

Despite the altitude, it was too hot to sleep. Jor lay on his back and stared up at the stars. The captain had told him what would happen to the sky as they traveled, and while Jor had believed him it was a different thing altogether to see it for himself.

Topstar was no longer directly overhead. It was a little off-kilter, revolving drunkenly around the place in the sky it used to hold. The sun, too, was behaving strangely, dipping and rising as if a year passed every day.

The captain was moving carefully in the unseasonal darkness, stepping over the loose rocks that covered the slope. He crouched down next to Jor. “Drink some water, son,” he said, offering a tin cup. Jor took it and drank greedily.

“Thank you, sir.” He returned the cup.

The captain nodded and stood. “Be ready to march in an hour,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” Jor scrambled to his feet, his hand on his hat to keep it from blowing off. “Have you informed the naturalists, sir?”

The captain smiled and put his hand on Jor’s shoulder. “I thought I’d let you do that.”

Jor managed not to flinch from the contact. The farther out they got, the more familiar the captain became with his men. Jor managed a nervous smile. “Yes, sir.”

Jor watched the captain move on to the next soldier and gathered himself for the coming confrontation. Somehow dealing with the naturalists had become his job. They were like children, demanding yet ignorant of the smallest hazards of the wilderness.

The canvas tent that dominated the center of the plateau shifted and strained at the moorings that held it in place. Uncousciously Jor rubbed at the welt on his arm where a rope had whipped across his skin while he and the others had erected the damn thing.

The tent was bad enough, but Jor reserved his hatred for the scientific instrument which lay inside. He stepped through one set of flaps and then another to reach the still air within. The naturalists huddled around the apparatus, talking quietly. Even though their voices were civil, Jor knew they were arguing. It seemed to Jor that was all they ever did.

The “instrument”, the subject of Jor’s ire, towered over the three figures huddled around its base. Whoever had designed the instrument was clearly not worried about having to carry it. The four legs of the pyramid were heavy iron pipe, with solid spikes to drive into the earth to anchor the frame. From the peak of the frame a weight was suspended from a cable, hanging almost to the ground. The pointed end of the weight swung inside a circle of dominoes. As time passed it would knock over a new tile, progressing slowly around the ring.

“Excuse me, sirs,” Jor said.

They stood and pretended like they hadn’t heard him come in. The old one with the beard sighed heavily. “Hello, Jor,” he said.

“Time to strike the instrument. Captain’s orders.”

The youngest naturalist, barely older than Jor, said, “Please tell the captain we need just a little more time.”

Jor shook his head. “I’m sorry, Professor Hod. Captain wants to move by, um… spring. So we have light.”

“Please. Tell your captain that this is an unprecedented opportunity to calibrate our measurements. We’ve never been so far out and still able to see the sky. A little more time here will make the rest of the expedition much more worthwhile.”

Jor tried to look sympathetic. “Captain’s orders,” he said.

The bearded old guy, Professor Timkin, spoke up. “The captain does not understand science.”

“Are you asking me to explain it to him, sir?”

Timkin laughed. They were friends when the naturalists wanted something. “Fair engouh, Sergeant. But this really is important.”

“You said you would need 50 hours. It has been 60.”

“We thought that would be enough. But some of our measurements are unexpected.”

“It’s the altitude,” Hod said.

“I think not,” Timkin said. To Jor he said, “We need more time. Important measurements, you have to make many times.”

The third naturalist spoke at last. “It’s pointless,” she said. She looked at Jor with unsettling intensity, her black eyebrows pulled down over her eyes. “This one is powerless.” She turned her gaze on old Timkin. “And the instrument is limited. We’d best bank what little goodwill we have for when things get difficult.”

Jor was surprised to find an ally in Professor Rej. He was powerless, after all, and was happy to have that recognzed. Unfortunately Rej had already squandered her goodwill, both with the soldiers and, Jor suspected, with her colleagues. The naturalist just didn’t seem interested in what people thought of her.

“Two more hours,” Hod said. “Jor, you can tell him.”

Jor thought he caught Rej rolling her eyes and almost smiled. “I’m sorry, sirs. We will begin striking the instrument in ten minutes. If you can convince the captain before then, I will be happy to not carry it for a little longer.”

A couple of notes:

Originally the three naturalists were all men, but I decided to skew the story a bit toward the old adventurous science fiction, with the obligatory female and inevitable repercussions (some of them not-so-old school). I’m picturing hostile natives, continuously worsening conditions (constant horizontal hot rain), lots of soldiers dying, equipment abandoned, and a collapse of discipline that leaves the female singularly threatened. Meanwhile, the commander is going slowly mad, driven by dreams of conquering the south pole. He’s not turning back for any reason.

I am particularly happy with Jor calling morning ‘spring’. I kept the names short, thinking that might reflect a culture with a low population. I think of the names I came up with, however, ‘Hod’ is the only one I like. Rej I like, but in English there’s no simple unambiguous spelling. It’s a soft j; in Czech it would be Redž.

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