Sunday, 26 June 2011
Sumto rescues a pig in The Invisible Hand.Still in editing mode with this, book III of Freedom's Fool.
"You should help her."
It was the first thing Anista had said in several minutes, and predictably enough, it was a demand that I do something. Kathan was right, his sister didn't listen to what she didn't want to hear. It was becoming a problem. We had ridden slowly through the valley, following the narrow paths that wound where the lie of the land was easiest and least fertile. Farming of any kind is a fairly labour-intensive business and there were not as many people active on the land as I knew there should be. Crops were growing, but so were weeds. There were women and children in fair numbers, tending herds and channelling water and weeding crops; but there was hardly a man in sight. The heavy work went undone, or was attempted but not achieved; like the porker that had managed to get itself into a hollow but couldn't get back out. It stood in the mud, forelegs up on the muddy ground and struggling to get purchase with its hind legs, squealing and grunting as it wriggled in the narrow channel. A woman and a boy stood by, watching, mud splattered; she worried and thoughtful, the boy wary and dejected. I guessed they'd tried to lift the animal out. He'd tried his strength against the task and found it beyond him.
I steered closer, keeping to a walk. "And when she needs help tomorrow? What then? And the next day? Come harvest, what then?"
"Everyone helps at harvest," Anista said. "Everyone wants to eat, don't they?"
The woman and the boy had looked up at our approach, both wary and hopeful, and I gave them a friendly smile as I swung down out of the saddle. "Going to give me a hand, soldier?"
"Not my pig," he turned in the saddle, scanning our surroundings.
"Exactly," I muttered as I passed him my reins. "Keep an eye out, then."
"Rider coming out of the west, patron. Was that an order?"
"No." Like he said, it wasn't his pig. I looked. He was right. One rider, well over a mile away, not in any hurry. I looked back the way we had come. The second guard was on his way to join us, and would be with us sooner than the other. I wondered over toward the pig, shooting a brief glance at Anista, who had frozen in the act of dismounting, glaring at the indifferent soldier and then at me. I shrugged and focused on the problem.
The animal had reached as high as it could, had its forelegs out of the hole and flat against the muddy ground; it hadn't enough strength to pull itself out and couldn't get purchase with its back legs to push its own weight higher. I briefly imagined straddling the hollow and reaching down to get my hands under its chest to lift it high enough and forward enough that it could get clear. Good way to throw your back out, I thought. And it would only work if the pig cooperated, which it wouldn't, being a pig; it would wriggle and struggle and fuss and make the task impossible. Get in the hollow with the pig and lift? Not a plan of genius.
I looked up at the woman and grinned. "I suppose you could always butcher it where it is."
A look of horror, almost fear, flitted over her features and she dropped her head to look at her feet. I could see she wanted to say something but was afraid to voice her concern.
"Bad jest," I told her, looking at the boy who didn't look quite so terrified. Just wary, maybe a little angry. Much better.
"Sow's pregnant, sire," the boy muttered, gaze drifting away from mine, face flushed.
"Worth more alive, then. And it's patron, lad. I'm no one's king. Do you have a shovel?"
The lad nodded.
"Go get it then," I could see a dwelling not much more than a hundred yards off. From a walled pen I could hear other pigs; so maybe only this one had gotten loose, or maybe they had fixed the wall and dealt with the rest, leaving only this one that had gotten itself into trouble. I couldn't tell how much damage the pigs had done while loose. Any was too much. The boy looked to his mother before going at her nod of assent.
"How did you get them out from the town?" Pigs don't herd easily.
She shot a glance up at me, then hurriedly lowered her gaze again. "Didn't have time to take 'em in, s..." She broke off, flushed. "Had to leave 'em." She shrugged helplessly; flustered, she looked for help and found Anista.
"Don't worry, Nila," Anista soothed, "I won't let him hurt you."
Hurt her? When I don't understand something I generally ignore it. "I'll dig the pig out," I looked over the hollow and pointed back of the pig, "there, then we'll get her to back out," I shrugged. "It shouldn't take long." I'd probably get blisters, though.
They ignored me; Anista put an arm around Nila and walked her off, talking too softly to be heard.
You’re welcome, I thought, and sympathised more with the soldier’s answer. Not my pig.
The boy brought two shovels. I took one and we got started on the task. He was too young and small to be much help and there wasn't enough room, so he more got in the way than anything else. Still, I let him, worked round him, and made sure he saw how I was approaching the task. Siege work is mostly digging, when magic isn't available. I'd done my share, thanks to my Uncle. I settled into the work and we got it done, talking only as much as needed. I hit rock pretty quickly and adjusted the plan, filling in as much as digging out. I warmed to the work; liking it. It felt good. Nothing hurt worth talking about. I felt well. The porker ignored the whole process apart from being spooked by the noise and motion behind it, occasionally scrabbling with its back legs and getting nowhere, grunting and sometimes squealing. After a while I got down in the trench, stamping down on the loose earth, tamping it into the exposed rock to firm up the impromptu ramp and getting pig shit on my boots and trousers. I walked out the way I intended the pig to back out and made it without much trouble. The other guard had joined us and both sat their mounts watching the approaching rider. He was close now.
"Scout," one of them said, seeing me look.
The pig was still resting against the end of the trench, forelegs splayed out in front of it. I walked around to the front, gesturing the guards to move. They hesitated. "I don't want the porker to run off," I said. With identical shrugs the two men walked their horses, leading mine and made a kind of wall of horses a little way back from the trench. The boy moved to plug a gap. Content with the arrangement, I stepped close and slapped the flat of my shovel against the pig’s nose. It gave an outraged squeal and shuffled back, dropping into the trench and then kept moving, head turning from side to side, it backed slowly up the improvised slope and out. "Get it in the pen," I said, turning away and tossing the shovel aside. The scout was close now and heading our way. I gave a wave and moved to meet him, ignoring the grunting of pig, huffing of horse and muttering of men behind me. My work there was done. In a moment I'd see about getting something for it; the least Nila could do for payment is feed me, I figured. Nothing is for nothing, after all.
Sunday, 19 June 2011
This is from The Invisible Hand, book III of the series that I think of as "the price of freedom" or freedom's fool" depending on what mood I'm in, and follows on from The Last King's Amulet and The Key To The Grave. It is still in editing format, as you can see, but is none the worse for that, I hope. The book is done and stands at 150,000 words, longer than either of the previous books. All being well, the book should be vailable early to mid July.
"How far along is the census?" I wanted that information. It all comes down to information in the end. If you have it, you can make decisions. Without it, any decision you make is likely to be wrong.
"Should be complete. I ordered two copies made and we should have it today, I would have thought."
"Seed grain, tools," I was thinking out loud. "I want an inventory done, every damn thing here down to the last nail. How much material was scavenged from Learneth?" The place had burned to ground, more or less, but there had been warehouses outside the town walls that might have survived.
"More than can be easily moved. I hired Lendrin Treleth into shifting it up here as he has the mules and manpower for it."
I had forgotten about Lendrin Treleth and his trading post. "I'll talk to him later. I have no problem sourcing anything we need from him, for now. My biggest problem is getting money onto the economy, getting it started." I wondered what else Lendrin had been doing over the last few days; in one way he was my competition, as he would be looking to extract wealth from the area for himself, but would probably also need to put something in to get things started, and so in one way was my ally. In any case I would tax him; he was a noble and making money here, which made him liable to contribute to the administration; which was me for now.
Meran shrugged. "Why not just give everyone some money?"
I blinked three times before I figured out how to respond. It took so long because his comment displayed such a depth of ignorance on the subject that I kept discarding possible responses as being beyond his understanding. "It doesn't work that way. If you give someone money, they will spend it and then look to you for some more. It's human nature. We are what we are. You never give anyone money. Ever. It must be a transaction. It doesn't matter what kind of transaction, what they give in return, but they must give something. Don't even think about smiling." I knew what he was thinking. I'd been living of the largess of my family for most of my life. Which proved my point, rather.
"I wasn't." But the effort was costing him.
"Which reminds me, there is enough coin kicking around that I can clear my debts. Get it done. I'd rather keep the money in the local economy but I might need to borrow more later. The problem is that no one here has any money or any goods worth talking about. Nothing to buy and nothing to buy it with. The trick is to get people working for me first, and I'll pay them as I have all the bloody money, which isn't the way it's supposed to be. Houses; everyone needs one, so the more we get built the better. Land clearance, ploughing - we will need oxen, remind me later. I'll pay them to build farms and they can rent the land from me after an amnesty. Same with the houses, actually. What else? There are a lot of people here, they all need to be working. I need that census, to know what skills are available so I can fund workshops. That'll function somewhat differently, loans that can be repaid with interest on top of rent."
Meran had taken a seat and was taking notes. "How long will you keep the food dole going?"
"Until there is food security, sometime after the first crop is in. Find out who is working the land here, I noticed the hills behind us are terraced so there must be people who did and their wives and so on will be tending it as we speak, with any luck. Anything being neglected will be rented to anyone who wants it. I'll have to fix a rental rate per modius of land and I have no idea what that should be so we will offer to the best bidders, no man to offer on more than four modius."
"They probably haven't got any money," Mern reminded me.
"It doesn't matter. They can owe me. Am I forgetting anything?"
"Livestock. We recovered sheep, goats and cattle from around Learneth. There are plenty of pens but there isn't enough fodder here to sustain the cattle for long."
"Same deal. I need to get out of here and take a look at things." I'd started pacing and was beginning to feel hemmed in. Decisions and action go hand in hand.
"Breakfast," he reminded me.
Actually, I was ready for something. "Who is cooking? You hired staff? We are going to have to, a scribe, cooks, and so on."
"We're eating what the men eat."
On cue, there was a knock on the door and a soldier came in carrying food. The noise level in the hall beyond had increased steadily as we had talked. It was an intrusion I would continue to ignore for now but it made apparent what I already knew; there were too many people here, crammed into too small a place. I took a seat and forced down some porridge; there were a few bits of pork in it for flavour.
"Where are Sapphire and Dubaku?"
"Sapphire has the suite next to this but I haven't seen him this morning. Dubaku left with Jocasta; I thought you knew."
I hadn't. But perhaps it was just as well. We hadn't spoken since the burning of Learneth. I shied away from thinking about it. It was the past; no sense dwelling on it. "I owed him some money."
"He told me. I paid him."
I nodded. Poured myself another cup of wine. "Good enough." So much for my promise to help him find his people. Doubtless he thought Jocasta a better bet for actually getting the job done. And he was probably right; she would be in the city soon enough, in the centre of things; and our influence spreads for a thousand miles in any direction. She would find them for him. And what would he do for her in return? I'd had an idea involving illusory spell-forms and spirits to research new spells. That is what she had in mind; I'd bet my last coin on it. But it was my idea. To do something about it I needed another shaman, and an illusionist. I could send to the city and hire the latter, but where the heck was I going to get another shaman from? A possible answer tugged at my awareness but I was interrupted by raised voices before I could explore it.
I turned to glare at the door. "Who the hell is that?"
"Sounds like Orlek's widow, Anista. Want to see her?"
He sounded too cheerful. "Is she always that loud?"
Meran cocked his ear, the better to listen. He didn't need to make the effort. I could hear every word of her demands to speak with me, but not the more moderate response of the sentry on the door.
"If she marries again there will be at least one man who mourns her husband’s passing," Meran said.
I had a mouthful of wine, and managed to keep control so that I swallow it instead of spraying it across the room as Meran had clearly intended. "The guard isn't going to let her in, is he?"
"Not unless you change my standing orders, no."
"She can't be that bad," I told him as I opened the door and found out that I was wrong. Still, you don't solve problems by ignoring them.
The guard was standing with his back to the door. The frown that settled over my features was part irritation that there was a guard on my door and part confusion because he appeared to be calmly and patiently talking to himself. Beyond him, the room was full of women and children, the women clustered below the dais and the children running riot through the room and mingling with soldiers who were trying to rest. I stood in the doorway, taking it all in. Chaos. It wouldn't serve.
"As I have said, the commander is busy." The sentry was saying, he half turned to look over his shoulder as the door opened. "Sir?"
I leaned to one side so that I could see past him. He wasn't that big but the woman standing beyond him, hands planted on her hips, was tiny and had been entirely hidden from my sight until that moment. Her gaze snapped like a whip to lock with mine and for an instant I froze in the open doorway as the force of her personality struck me an almost physical blow. She fairly crackled with controlled energy, quivering with suppressed anger so that she appeared to be in motion even though she hadn't moved more than her eyes, which were green and bright.
"This cannot go on." She snapped the words at me like weapons, her voice harsh and loud. "I will not be forced to ignore my responsibilities and duties to my own people. Their problems are mine to resolve and I will have the freedom to address them. From here I can do nothing to alleviate their suffering or reassure their fears, nor can I assure myself of their well-being." I was hardly hearing what she was saying, nor did I much care about it. I kept eye contact but deliberately adjusted my awareness to take in the scene behind her; partly in self-defence.
Despite its size, some forty odd paces long and twenty wide, the hall seemed crowded. Meran had used the hall as a barracks and his men had staked claim to the areas adjacent to the long walls of the hall, bedrolls spaced evenly and war gear set neatly to hand. Some few were gathered around the women, clustering like flies around a honey pot. The rest ate at the two long tables either side of the fire pit or sat on their bed rolls at their ease, and talked or watched the slew of children who besieged them. They looked weary but in the noise and activity that surrounded them there was little or no chance of sleep and the doors at the far end of the hall were thrown open to admit light. That door was manned but one soldier. He allowed a young lad to swing the shortsword the boy had expressed an interest in. I watched as he taught the boy how to grip the hilt correctly and explained how the balance of the blade brought the point to bear naturally on the enemy’s belly.
I stepped forward and Anista gave ground but didn't stop talking; the guard stepped aside; all too willing to leave me to deal with her, I thought.
"The spiritual needs of my people are also not met; our priest of Hesta is imprisoned and he must be released at once to minister to the needs of my people. Are you listening to me?"
She was wearing wool of a fine weave that clung everywhere and more enhanced than concealed her figure, which was very fine. It didn't work with her auburn hair. "Black doesn't suit you."
"You should have thought of that before you made a widow of me," she snapped and continued on a new subject without hesitation. "And the children must be allowed outside; how are they to grow strong cooped up in here all day?"
I'd thought to take the wind out of her sails. It hadn't worked.
"I also require to know our status. The women look to me for answers and I have none for them. It is well known that the men of the city take their enemies for slaves yet this has not been done. Is it your intent to torture us with uncertainty about our future?"
Directly in front of me stood a high-backed chair of deeply carved dark wood. I moved to stand behind it, hands resting on its back. We stood on a raised platform, just one step higher than the rest of the hall. Here is where Orlek would have seated himself, raised above his fellows to preside over his small court. Here he would have heard complaints and resolved disputes, feasted with his household, his warriors and other notables, entertained guests.
It wasn't the way we did things. It was a symbol of authority; but it was a symbol of someone else's authority and it would have to go. For a moment I was tempted to make some dramatic gesture, like throwing it into the fire pit, but it was a nice piece of workmanship. It would serve some other purpose. In the office, I decided, and gave the order to the sentry. Anista at once stepped forward and place one hand on the chair. "My son's throne stays here," she stated it like a command, which I ignored, pretty much as I had been ignoring everything she said. So did the sentry. He moved slowly but with purpose and her strength was far from being a match for his. She gave it up as though it had never been an issue, her gaze never leaving my face as she continued airing her concerns. "And there are too many people here. Darklake cannot support half this number. The granary will empty in weeks and come winter people will starve."
I noticed that Meran had come as far as the doorway and had to move aside as the sentry dragged the chair away. He was smiling, but not too obviously. His attitude reminded me forcibly of his origins. He was a barbarian, and I suspected he had been a chieftain among the Alendi. His attitude to women, and to ruling, was that of his culture. A chieftain rules by consent, he does not command but rather cajoles and persuades his people. He had had some days here to arrange things to suit himself and had approached the matter as an Alendi chieftain would. He had allowed Anista to continue to think and act as though she were a chieftain’s wife, responsible for the welfare of the people. She acted as though her power and influence were unchanged. It was a precedent already established and that was a problem that could be handled two ways; I could either make the change harsh and sudden or slow and subtle. The simplest answer for me would be to make slaves of the lot of them and get them out of here, but I had the same problem that Meran had faced; I really didn't have enough men to escort sixty odd men and some hundreds of women and children south.
"... and the hall is too crowded; I am sharing a bed with two other women." This last seemed to offend her particularly, but from the size of her husband’s bed I would have though she was used to it.
"Do you ever stop talking?"
"Do you ever start listening?"
"I've heard enough." My attention had been snagged by movement at the far end of the hall; a prisoner was being brought forward by two soldiers and I let my gaze rest there as I answered her. "Every problem you have brought to my attention will be addressed once I have decided what might best be done about them. For now, the children may leave the hall but not the grounds." I wanted them out of here so then men could sleep. "See that they are supervised," I glanced at Meran to be sure he knew I meant that last partly for him. He nodded and made off to see to it.
I was sure she had also seen the prisoner but she had kept her attention focused on me. "And if they disobey, as children are supposed to?"
I suppressed a smile. "See that they don't. I've a mind to let your people remain here but in what exact circumstance I have not yet decided; in any case you and yours will be under probation. Understand that these are not your people and that your son will not be chieftain here. Your husband conspired with others to make war on the city without provocation and he has paid the price; unfortunately so have you and yours." I lifted a hand to stop her as she opened her mouth again. I wasn't done. "I have no idea if you were a party to his plans, or if you supported them, but I cannot doubt that you bear us ill will for your husband’s death, no matter that the risk was his idea and none of ours. I need to know if you are able to put that aside for the welfare of your children."
The nearest group of women had moved a little closer and were listening avidly. I meant them to hear.
Anista was also aware of them. "And our men?"
"They made war on us. What would you have me do with them?"
The prisoner was now close enough to hear this. I sized him up as his escort guided him to me; his arms were crooked around a stick and his wrists bound at his waist. He was a short but powerfully built man, shaven headed and his bare torso and arms smothered in tattoos and old scars. A warrior with a warriors bearing and attitude. He walked proud, as though the soldiers either side of him were his retinue rather than his guards. His gaze rested on me but I was sure his real attention was for Anista; I could practically hear him weighting up the situation, judging what authority she had here.
"Have them swear an oath of peace before Hesta and release them for my son to command."
"How would such an oath be binding? And have I not said I will allow your son no authority here?"
An expression of surprise flitted across her features for just an instant. "My son is not his father, and have I not told you there is a priest of Hesta here? He will summon a spirit to bind them to their oath."
The priest was another problem. He couldn't stay here, but maybe I could use him for this one thing before I sent him into exile. Of course, I could send a small number of people south, or just sell them to Lendrin Treleth and let him deal with the problem; but a priest wouldn't last long in the city; he would try and convert people to his faith and be condemned to death in no time. I didn't want the man's blood on my hands. Anista already struck me as a woman who didn't listen and would not easily give up her ambitions for her son; Treleth might be the solution for her, as well.
Sunday, 12 June 2011
I would have to cast the spell. I had no idea what it did. But that didn't matter. If it was good, I would take advantage of it. If bad I would just change the spell form randomly on the second casting and see what happened.
I didn't say it was a great plan. Anything could happen with an untried spell form. It is what makes research such a dangerous and solitary practice. All habitual spell researchers kill themselves. It's just a matter of time. Sometimes they learn something useful first. Sometimes they remember to teach someone else what it is that they have learned.
I was. I had drank a couple of beers for breakfast. I'd even eaten something, though it was a chore and my stomach felt like a lead balloon afterwards.
“Good,” Larner oozed, “Glad to hear it This afternoon, you will begin teaching. I'll come and fetch you.”
I nodded acceptance. I had a plan. Everything would be fine. Or not. But it would be something other than this, and anything that wasn't this was good.
“You will see that the master is fair and just, Sumto. You won't regret serving him.”
I nodded easily and sipped my beer. The snuffling and growling of the dogs had faded slightly. “I don't.”
He nodded happily, headed for the door and opened it. On an impulse I asked him who I would be teaching.
He turned back, holding the door open. “Kukran Epthel, of course. There is no one else here who needs to learn.”
“But there are others?”
“Do you think he would be alone? Do you think his wisdom would have gone unnoticed? Of course there are others. He is one of many. Though few have attained immortality. That learning is a rare privileged, rarely earned. There are a handful of others. He is not the oldest, but he is the best. Not the greatest, but the wisest. Anything else? Should I stay?” His voice had become animated, his eyes bright.
I shook my head. No, I don't want you to stay. Go away Larner. Just go away.
He did and I spent a few brief moments thinking over what he had said. One of many. Not the oldest, not the strongest. And there were more, not like him, not walking corpses, but more Necromancers. Many more, by implication.
I turned away from the door just in time to see Sapphire drop to the balcony with a muffled thump, tuck into a roll and come to his feet inside the room, eyes alert, body taut and ready to move. He looked better than the last time I had seen him. No blood, no bleeding. The bruising on his face had subsided somewhat, his eyes were more widely opened, I noticed as the cold blue of them focused on me.
“Dammit you made me jump,” I hissed.
He smiled. “Sorry. Are you here?”
“Of course I'm here, are you blind?”
“Yes,” Dubaku said from just behind me.
I spun like a top. “What the hell... will you stop doing that both of you? Is there anyone else here?”
Sapphire snorted as he came by me. “Do you have it?”
“Yes.” Dubaku held out a shortsword, sheathed.
“Good.” Sapphire took it and tucked it into his belt. “This'll help.”
“What are you both doing here? And how did you get in?”
Dubaku shrugged his thin shoulders. “My ancestors helped me. And so did you; I couldn't get through the door the first three times but this time he stood and talked for a while. It helped. This is for you.”
I took the silver ring he held out to me. “What is it?”
“Put it on.”
I hesitated, pointed at the shortsword. “And what was that?”
“Mine,” Sapphire said succinctly.
I let it go. Doubtless Dubaku had stolen it, or reacquired it more accurately.
“How did you know Dubaku would be here?”
“Jocasta sends vivid dreams. We fixed the time last night. If that works you are leaving now. I'll make a diversion.”
“How have you managed to stay free so long? How many have you killed?”
“Twenty-three,” he grinned. “And I am way way better than them at this. Better training. More practice. They're just barbarians. Nothing. You slip behind them and they think you have disappeared. Superstitious fools. If I am not under their noses it's like I don't exist.'”
It was the longest speech I'd ever heard him make. “Could you teach me?”
“Are you five years old?”
“Training starts at five. No exceptions,” he grinned.
“You are enjoying this,” I accused him even as I admired him.
“Absolutely. Try the ring. Time to go.”
He shrugged. “Ruins the plan to get you out if you don't leave.”
“They are taking me to Kukran Epthel this afternoon. I'm going to kill him.”
“I like your plan better. How?”
“I have a knife for that, for the rest I'm making it up as I go.”
His snort of humor was tinged with approval. “Spontaneity. Confound the opposition with unexpected actions. Good. But we are allies. Tell us what you have in mind.”
“They want me to teach him. I'll try for as large a stone as I can get. I am planning to start with the spell Jocasta showed me, it may be enough, if not I will generate a random spell form and see what happens.”
He shrugged, glanced at Dubaku. “Do you know what he means?”
Dubaku nodded. “I've been learning about spell forms. A random form can have any effect, just as you might expect. Any effect at all. It is very dangerous thing to do.”
“Hmm. Risky. But if we all move at once it might work.” He shrugged. “Or not.”
“Keep Jocasta out of it.”
“I mean it. Look, if this goes sour then I don't want her in his hands. She has too much knowledge and too much stone to risk him controlling her.” It was a blatant rationalization and I suspected they both knew it. Sapphire's next words confirmed it.
“If necessary I'll kill her to keep those weapons out of his hands,” he said, far too casually.
“I was joking. But listen, we would have a better chance with her. Think about it. I'll be around.” He nodded to Dubaku and headed back out the window. He gripped the balcony, pulled himself over and disappeared from sight. I listened for a moment, heard a shout, and then others as he was spotted and the chase was on again. I shook my head in wonder. Twenty-three. Not for the first time I wondered where my father had found him, and where he was from. Training begins at five, he had said, training to be an assassin? Where did they train assassins from age five? And what did they begin to teach them at that age?
“This is rash,” Dubaku said.
“Yes, but I am going to do it anyway.”
“A knife won't kill him.”
“I know. It was a joke. For Sapphire. I have another idea for that. I plan to set him on fire. I figure he is dry and will burn pretty good.”
“He will be guarded.”
“I know. I'll assess it when I see him.”
“We are not idle, Sumto. Things are happening. Sapphire is not alone in addressing the numbers of the enemy.”
“What are you doing?”
“Raising the populous. The army is gone. There is only a small garrison here. It might be wiser to wait.”
I shook my head. “I won't wait. I know my own limits. If I obey him it will get to be a habit. I think that is what happens to all of them, regardless of how he makes them obey him the first time. I've been thinking about it. Pretending to be him. Working out what he thinks, how he thinks, what it would be like to be dead and yet alive, how he would 'feel' and what would amuse him. I think all the torture and trickery just amuses him and the secret is that he has a spell that reinforces obedience. He will order me to show him a spell today, not ask me. I know it.”
Dubaku was silent. “And if you obey once, will it be enough for him to own you?”
“I won't obey, I'll push power into an unknown spell form, knowing that whatever happens cannot yet be called a spell by any sane being. I won't cast a spell, I'll unleash chaos.”
After a moment he nodded. “Shankara.”
A faint luminescence grew into the form of a tall woman who stood behind him and wrapped him in her arms, fading into nothing as she did so, and taking him with her.
After a moment I stirred back to life and went to the door. I waited to be sure he was ready and then opened it.
The guards became instantly alert. “What do you want?”
The door had not been locked once since I was put in the room. I hadn't found it odd at the time but why take the chance, I wondered? Part of a game? Or were they so sure that I could not get out? Over-confidence. They had been overconfident with Sapphire and that had cost them twenty-three men so far.
“What? Oh, food. I'm famished.”
“And some more beer, eh?” The other piped up.
“Yes. More beer. Good idea.”
“Shut the door. We'll see if it is possible.”
I nodded. “Right. Good.”
Monday, 6 June 2011
Sometimes it's good to remember that writers aren't the only struggling artists out there. So, in case you need that reminder due to sinking into the wallow of overindulgent self-pity (as I did), or just like new and good music, go check out this singer-songwriter-musician who lives on the road and performs great music, and is clearly under-appreciated.
Maybe even go buy some of her music, if you like it as much as I do.
I'll post a link on the sidebar. Check out I'm Not Here, Regret and Grief, Believe. Some of her other work is... strong, but it's all honest and so 'good' art.
Maybe even go buy some of her music, if you like it as much as I do.
I'll post a link on the sidebar. Check out I'm Not Here, Regret and Grief, Believe. Some of her other work is... strong, but it's all honest and so 'good' art.
Sunday, 5 June 2011
Late in The Last King's Amulet, Sumto and Sapphire have infiltrated a northern stronghold on a rescue mission of their own. Sumto finds that significant quantities of booze are needed to hide his mind from the magically twisted pack of dogs that hunt him by the stone in his forehead. It's been a fun trip, but it's nearly over.
Torches lit the scene, the flames reflected in the dark water of the moat, pooling round each torch bearer, dancing on the walls of the stronghold. As the barbarians walked across the bridge in single file the crowd clustered at our side of the bridge was slowly thinning. We tacked ourselves onto the back of the group that waiting their turn without incident, and stepped out onto the bridge when it came around to our turn. Ahead of us they passed through the small gate one at a time, torchlight dancing inside and fading, dancing and fading, until it was our turn to pass inside, Sapphire ahead of me and no one behind apart from four bored guards who had eyed us disinterestedly. The bridge was wide enough so that one man could walk without difficulty, but not so wide that two could pass or walk together without risk of being pitched into the dark waters only five feet or so below. I was relieved to make it to the end of the bridge.
A long corridor stretched away from the door, and to either side narrow but tall passages led inside the wall, all lit by torches paced at twenty foot intervals. It must have been fifty or sixty feet away, the doorway where Sheo stood facing us in the broad doorway, watching the new arrivals impassively, our gazes meeting for an instant. He didn't react but I froze for a moment, a thrill of anticipation running through me, before I stepped out of his line of sight. No half-expected shout of alarm followed me. I tried to imagine what he would do, tried to guess what he was thinking; was Kukran Epthel here? Was Sheo still in thrall to him? Would Sheo send men after me? I strode after Sapphire, my heart hammering in my chest, nerves frayed. He had moved silently into one of the side passages and ghosted along the corridor ahead of me, moving fast, passing in and out of light and gloom; and I followed, less assured, head pounding and belly rebelling. Our own shadows danced around us. He turned a corner and I sped after him. Sheo is here, I wanted to yell. He saw me! But yelling didn't seem like a brilliant idea under the circumstances so I hurried to catch him, holding in the fear, aware that Sheo had not instantly raised the alarm, hoping he was free of Kukran's influence, an ally, biding his time, or perhaps that Kukran was destroyed and Sheo here for some other reason. The fear of the unknown was almost worse than the fear that we would be discovered and find ourselves back in the power of the lich. The thought of that made me shudder. Dubaku was not invisibly near to save us, this time we would face Kukran alone.
When I turned the corridor, Sapphire's forearm was locked around the throat of an Alendi, his free arm gripping a wrist to keep that one from reaching his knife. Red faced and eyes bulging the Alendi struggled and failed to break free.
“Where is Tahal Samant?” Sapphire hissed the question fiercely in the man's ear. “Tell me and live, keep silent and die. Where is he?”
“Vaults,” the Alendi squeezed the words through his closed throat, “In the vaults.”
Instantly Sapphire release his grip, hands moving with smooth precision, one hand cupping the Alendi's bearded chin, the other coming to the back of his head. He wrenched fast and hard and a sound like a green branch breaking rang out, echoing dully from the walls. Sapphire caught the man as he fell and dragged him a few yards to the bottom of a stair well and dropping the body. Grabbing the lolling head he smashed it three times in quick succession against the stone floor. Despite myself, I winced, stalled where I had been following. I shuddered at the calm indifference with which Sapphire handled the body and I reached for the bottle. As I downed a good swallow of the fiery liquid, Sapphire briefly examined his handiwork; satisfied he grabbed the man's legs and heaved the body into the stairwell, leaving it looking as though the man had fallen, legs and arms twisted randomly awry.
“Sheo is here. He saw me,” I remembered to say. It was important, though I didn't know what we would do about it.
Shadows danced across Sapphire's face as he looked at me, face calm as stone, cold gaze locked on mine. “We split up,” he told me. “Look for the vaults. If you are captured I'll get you out.”
He snatched the bottle from my hand, poured some grotesquely into the corpses mouth and ghosted up the stairs. After three steps he dashed the bottle on a stair, discarding it and it's contents, and then was gone.
I stared in shock at the broken bottle, glass shards winking in the wavering light and precious liquid dripping on the stairs. He'd broken it. He'd thrown away my whiskey. And it was the last bottle. What had he said? Find the vaults. Right. I looked at the corner round which I had come, then turned away and lurched down the corridor. Easy to say, find the vaults, but what was I going to do? Ask someone? Well, I thought, why not? Barbarians would need to know the way more often than spies and infiltrators, surely?
If only I could remember what clan we were, just in case I was asked.
A drunk can get away with anything, I decided. No one expects them to be coherent or sensible. All they saw was a wasted Alendi about some business he was not fit to complete. They smiled in sympathy or snorted in derision, either way not seeing me as a threat.
I'd grabbed a door frame, leaned drunkenly into a room full of men taking their ease, lifted a jug of ale and taken a swig while the owner protested, then asked where the vaults were.
“If you're going to the vaults, you can get your own beer,” one of them told me.
“Under your feet, where do you think?” Another had called, contemptuously.
“Get off my beer,” The nearest had growled.
I nodded sagely, let him have the jug, wiped my mouth with one hand, feeling the beard growing there, and straightened up. “I will,” I said with exaggerated care. Beard, I thought. When had that happened? I couldn't remember the last time I had shaved. How drunk had I been? I'd grown a beard and not noticed. I was looking up and down the corridor, still leaning on the door frame.
“That way,” one of them said, spacing the words as though talking to a drunken fool, which I suppose he was.
I nodded sagely and went.
The Alendi jerked his thumb over his shoulder and carried on walking, his companion eying me in disgust. I nodded thanks and carried on walking. Next set of steps down, I decided.
It wasn't far to the stairs.
I found Sheo and four Alendi at the bottom and froze.
“You're drunk,” he said, seeming to appraise me.
I guess I just hadn't decided what to do. I had a sword, but I didn't reach for it. Doubtless Sapphire had a plan, but I didn't. I hadn't thought it through, so I just stood there at the bottom of the stairs, gaze locked on Sheo as he looked me up and down as I stood there wavering, his four companions unmoving but alert.
“Are you alone?”
I shook my head, then tried to make it look like I was just confused. Not too difficult under the circumstances.
He shook his head, his expression disappointed.
“Come with me,” he said.
So I did.
As the guards moved close around me and reached for my sword I acted, but it was far too late. There were four of them and they were not surprised or unready or drunk. They overpowered me, took my sword and dragged me after him. I struggled and fought and cursed to no avail. Part of me couldn't believe they had taken me so easily and part of me was defeated and not surprised in the least by my abject failure.
“Who's side are you on?”
Sheo looked at me as though trying to assess my sanity but didn't answer.
He stopped before a door, one of the four unlocked it and they threw me in.
“Stay here,” Sheo told me, as though I had a choice.
Doubtless Sapphire would have sprung into action at once, effortlessly killed all five and moved on rapidly to find our target, picked the lock that held him captive, clothed him in barbarian gear and escorted him promptly from captivity with the minimum of fuss. I wondered why I had not? Why had surprise shocked me into inaction? How drunk was I exactly?
I stood there staring at the door as it closed and locked, knowing that part of my inaction was the result of not knowing if Sheo were ally or enemy. I still didn't know. The door had a small grill and I pressed my face against it shouted, “Sheo, he has the last King's amulet!”
His voice drifted back down the corridor, mildly irritated. “Shut up, Sumto.”
So, I thought to myself, my face pressed against the grill, now what?