Untrue Names

July 23rd, 2014

Told you there were more than a dozen novels in progress. Here’s another, and I’m not done yet. Funny thing, though — I’d forgotten I’d actually started writing this one. I thought I just had an outline, but then I looked at the file and here we are. This is another from the Fall of the Sorcerers series.

The bell above the kitchen door jingled, and the butler looked up.

The only person in sight was Miura the cook, whose arms were white to the elbow with flour as she kneaded a mass of dough. She could not be interrupted, which meant there was no one else he could send to answer their master’s call.

Some of the other staff members would hear a few choice words about this later, he thought as he straightened his coat and trotted out the door and along the passage.

He emerged into the dining hall and found it empty; he hurried across to the great hall, but that, too, was uninhabited. He sighed, and almost ran to the curving stair that led to the master’s study.

The door was closed. The butler hesitated, then knocked.

“Come in,” came the master’s voice.

He took a deep breath, then lifted the latch and swung the door open.

“You called, my lord?” he said, before allowing himself to take in the interior of the room.

“Ah, there you are, Erevar,” the master said. “Good. Give me a hand with these two, would you?”

The butler stared, and swallowed.

His master, Lord Querien, was standing in the center of the room, between two chairs. In one chair was the slumped body of little Dara the kitchen maid – Erevar’s niece. In the other was the equally lifeless form of Lurrent, one of the footmen. Both were bare-headed; Lurrent’s tunic was open, revealing his bare chest, and Dara’s blouse had been partially unbuttoned and pulled down to the very limit of decency. The apron and cap she ordinarily wore were nowhere to be seen.

“My lord, are they…”

“Oh, they’ll be fine,” Querien said. “I performed a simple binding, nothing more. When they wake they’ll have nothing worse than a headache, I assure you.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Now, help me carry this wench to her quarters, will you? I think she’d be happier waking up in her own bed, and I don’t know which one it is.”

“Of course, my lord.” Erevar hurried to Dara’s side, and began buttoning her blouse.

“Ever mindful of the proprieties, aren’t you?” Querien said. “Never mind that, just take her arms, and I’ll get her legs, and we’ll see her safely to sleep.”

“I can carry her, my lord,” Erevar said. He suited his actions to his words, slipping one arm behind Dara’s back and another under her thighs and lifting her from the chair.

He struggled to not let any trace of the fury he felt show. It wasn’t right that Lord Querien should carry out his magical experiments on innocent servants – but it was legal; in fact, as Landgrave of Mellinise, Lord Querien could legally do anything he wanted, so long as it did not violate an imperial edict.

The Emperor had not issued any edicts on the subject of how sorcerers treated their commoners.

“Good,” Lord Querien said. “Then get her into bed and come back here immediately.”

“Yes, my lord.” Erevar turned and carried the unconscious girl out of the study and down the stair to the great hall. Protocol said that from there he should take her up the narrow servants’ stair to reach her quarters in the attic, but Erevar ignored that and used the grand staircase; he did not want to risk bumping the child’s head or feet against the stone walls.

The Music Will Never Stop 69

July 20th, 2014

You may recall there were two tapes — “Coffeehouse Jam #1″ and “Jam” — that left gunk all over the heads and sounded like crap on the first play-through. I’d originally thought they were two copies of the same stuff, but they weren’t.

Well, today I tackled “Jam.” I wasn’t expecting much, given how very crappy the sound quality still was on “Coffeehouse Jam #1,” and how horrible this one sounded on first play-through.

I received a very pleasant surprise; the sound quality is mostly pretty good, much better than CJ #1. I didn’t need to filter anything. On the very last track I did run noise suppression and then amplify it, because it’s a very quiet little piece — the drummer and horn player had left, and the bassist and guitarist turned down their amps — but other than that, I didn’t need to mess with the sound at all.

I initially had an hour and seventeen minutes recorded; by the time I’d edited out dead air between numbers and other wasted space I had it down to an hour and thirteen minutes. Ten tracks — two actual songs (“Soul Kitchen” and “Spoonful”), a couple of minutes of the guitar player pretending he was Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and seven jams, one of which seemed several times as if it might turn into the Dead’s “St. Stephen” but never quite did.

Drums, bass, trumpet, and guitar — and I have no record of who they were. It’s possible that they were a local band called Pork Pie Hat, as I had scribbled “P.P.H.” at the top of the enclosed song list, then crossed it out.

That song list, by the way, is a mess; four of the seven jams are just listed as counter numbers with no titles, the Hendrix wannabe stuff is called “bits of guitar,” one jam is inaccurately described as “acoustic guitar, no drums,” when it’s actually electric guitar and bass (but I got the “no drums” right), etc. The two song titles are correct.

Whoever it is, they were pretty good — bluesy and jazzy. Jam #4 (I numbered the first five, gave the others names) is a twenty-minute tour-de-force, though there are a few awkward seconds in the last five minutes — I think they were looking for a way to end it neatly, and it took awhile to coordinate it.

For that matter, they gave “Soul Kitchen” seven minutes and “Spoonful” got ten — they didn’t rush through anything.

Anyway, it’s good music. It’s playing right now, and I’m typing in time with it. Nice.

That leaves eighteen tapes I haven’t played, and maybe half a dozen I may try again now that I’ve gotten better at keeping the heads clean and demagnetized.

Pentagram Squadron

July 19th, 2014

I had originally intended this story as a comic book series, but then decided I’m more comfortable — and more marketable — with novels. It involves time warps, dinosaurs, pirates, the Bermuda Triangle, lots of old airplanes…

As the Cessna banked for the turn that would take him back up the beach for a third pass a gust of wind caught the little plane unexpectedly, and Jason Carmody felt it start to slip sideways. He let up on the wheel and fed more gas, straightening the craft out – still turning, but much more gently than he had begun; he would be flying closer to the shore for the first part of this pass than he had intended.

“Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel, over,” he said.

“Foxtrot Hotel, this is Hollywood Tower,” came the reply over his headphones. “What’s up, Jason? Over.”

“It’s getting a bit brisk up here,” Jason answered. “Any word from the client? Over.” He glanced out at the spring break crowds covering the Fort Lauderdale beach from Ocean Boulevard to the surf; while it was hard to be sure from this far up, fewer seemed to be paying any attention to him than on the first two passes. He mostly saw the dark spots of hair, rather than the lighter spots of upturned faces.

The crowd looked a little thinner, too; perhaps some of them had noticed those threatening clouds in the west, clouds that were blowing in much faster than Jason – or the weather service – had expected.

“Not yet. Weather service is issuing an advisory, so we may not – hold on…”
Jason waited, keeping the plane cruising north up the beach, easing a little farther out to sea as he went. He wasn’t sure exactly where in the spring break throng his customer was, so he wanted the banner to be visible everywhere.

“Foxtrot Hotel, this is Hollywood Tower, Debbie says Fred called, and quote, she said yes. Congratulations to all concerned. Over.”

“Thanks, Dave. I’ll be bringing it home, then; tell Debbie and Ed to be ready to roll up the banner. Foxtrot Hotel out.”

Another gust of wind buffeted the Cessna, and Jason looked out to his left, to the west.

That line of dark clouds was moving in really fast now; he swung the wheel and gave the plane a little right rudder, veering out to sea to start the run back to the Hollywood airport.

The Atlantic was turning choppy below him; he could see whitecaps appearing well offshore. He leaned over to look back at the beach just in time to see one of the big striped umbrellas suddenly turn inside out in the wind. The crowds were vanishing back into the streets and hotels as that freakish west wind swept down across the sand.

And that wind was driving his plane forward, out over the ocean. Jason frowned; he hoped it wasn’t going to tear up the banner. It wasn’t going to make landing any easier, either; he would have to fight his way back.
Or maybe he should just wait until it blew itself out; it couldn’t last very long, could it? The weather service hadn’t been predicting any real storms, just a cold front – if you could even call it “cold,” here in southern Florida.

Maybe this one really was cold, though; those clouds back there looked serious. Jason did not intend to do anything stupid. “Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel,” he said into the mike. “Say again, re: weather advisory, over.”

“Foxtrot Hotel, this is Hollywood Tower. National Weather Service has issued a small craft advisory – strike that, they’ve just upgraded it to a high wind warning. Back to the barn ASAP, Jason. Over.”

“Crap. Roger that. Foxtrot Hotel out.”

A lot of college kids were about to have their spring break ruined, by the sound and look of it. Jason gave the plane a little rudder and banked right.
The wind caught him, and the plane flipped back up to the left. “Whoa!” he said, involuntarily. He had never felt a Cessna 170 do that before. Cessnas were ridiculously stable – that was why the company used them to tow banners. Flying a Cessna in a nice straight line so that the banner flew straight and was easy to read was simple – it was getting a Cessna to do something other than fly straight that could be a challenge.

The light suddenly dimmed; that line of clouds had gotten close and high enough to block out the sun. Jason glanced at the compass.

The compass was spinning wildly. “What the heck…?” He turned to the GPS.
“Recalculating position,” the display said.

Jason looked up from the instruments just in time to see the clouds sweep over him, surrounding the little plane in blank grayness. “Oh, crap,” he said.

He had had his license for three years, and had been flying banners for a year, and he had never yet seen any weather remotely like this. Clouds, yes, and storms blowing in from the east, definitely, though usually he was safely on the ground well before they arrived, but this wall of clouds charging in from the west so fast it overtook him as he flew southeast at sixty knots was just weird.

He also wasn’t very confident of his ability to fly in it, especially when the instruments appeared to be malfunctioning. Perhaps the clouds had enough of an electrical charge to interfere with the GPS and throw the compass off? He glanced down again.

The GPS display read 10°16’24” N., 8°44’09” E., which was obvious nonsense – that would put him somewhere in the Sahara Desert, he thought, not just off the coast of Florida. Then it blanked again, but instead of recalculating, it read, “No signal.”

“Crap,” he said again. He pushed the microphone switch. “Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel. I’m in the middle of a cloud and have lost my bearings; instruments appear to be malfunctioning. If you have me on radar, please give my position. If anyone there has any other useful suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Over.”

There was no reply. Jason frowned. “Hollywood Tower, this is Foxtrot Hotel – do you read? Over.”

Unwritten Sequels and Spin-Offs

July 18th, 2014

Since genre fiction loves series, and since I love looking at things from more than one angle, I usually have more novels planned in any setting I create. Most of them never get written. In fact, most of them never get beyond the “rough outline” stage. Here are some of the stories I thought of but never told in all my various published series (including some you may have thought were one-shots) — all their titles are provisional, of course:

The Lords of Dus: Four published volumes telling one complete story, but I also planned (but never wrote) a spin-off, A Handful of Gold, and a sequel, Skelleth.

War Surplus: Two novels, but I planned a third, The Exile and the Empire. I also plotted (admittedly not in much detail) a couple of novels about other IRU cyborgs: Werewolf and Defender.

The Obsidian Chronicles: A trilogy. I’ve had several fans ask me for a sequel, but I have never planned one and don’t ever intend to. I did, however, plot a prequel, Lord Dragon, set centuries earlier, about how Enziet became what he was.

Annals of the Chosen: Another trilogy with no sequels planned. The series as published, though, is missing a piece; it was originally planned as either four or five novels. I cut out one of them entirely. Untrue Names (I later cannibalized the title and central concept for a not-yet-written volume in a different series) would have come between The Wizard Lord and The Ninth Talisman.

Ethshar: Thirteen novels and a short story collection so far, but I have an entire separate page about other planned stories in the series. That page, unfortunately, is incomplete and out of date.

Worlds of Shadow: Another trilogy. I don’t remember plotting any sequels or spin-offs.

The Bound Lands/Fall of the Sorcerers: Only two published, but many were planned, right from the start. The two that were published, A Young Man Without Magic and Above His Proper Station, were supposed to be followed by On A Field Sable. After that the order wasn’t set, but there’s Swordsmen of the Fallen Empire, Untrue Names, Assassin in Waiting, The Prince’s Return, The Siege of Vair, and several more. (All of these are set in the Bound Lands. Not all of them are part of the Fall of the Sorcerers.)

Gregory Kraft: Only one novel so far, One-Eyed Jack, but I plotted two more: Suicide King and Queen of Hearts.

Ragbaan: Again, only one so far, Vika’s Avenger, but two sequels are planned: One-Ninth of Catastrophe and A Sea of Slaves.

Carlisle Hsing: There are two novels about her, but I also plotted two different versions of a third one with the working title The End of the Night.

Shining Steel appears to be a one-shot, but (a) it’s actually set in the same universe as Denner’s Wreck/Among the Powers and the Carlisle Hsing stories, and (b) I did plot a sequel, Silver Stars, that I never wrote.

I never plotted a sequel to Denner’s Wreck/Among the Powers, but it actually was a sequel to a much earlier novel I never finished, Rise and Fall of the Second Imperium.

While I had hoped to write more horror, The Nightmare People never had any sequels, prequels, or spin-offs planned, so far as I can recall. Neither did The Rebirth of Wonder, or The Chromosomal Code.

The Final Folly of Captain Dancy” was supposed to have sequels, but I decided against writing them because they were too dependent on the first story. The working titles were The Further Adventures of Bartholomew Sanchez, The Triumphant Return of John Hastings Abernathy, and My Days with the Caliburn Witch. Tor asked me about prequels about Jack Dancy, but I never came up with any plots that satisfied me.

Esther and I did plot a sequel to Split Heirs, to be called Putting On Heirs, but Tor wasn’t interested, so we never wrote it.

I could never figure out a decent sequel to Touched By the Gods, but I did come up with an idea for a prequel, Rubrekir the Destroyer.

I’m not going to get into series where nothing’s published yet, or where only short stories have seen print; maybe in another post.

Did I miss anything?

The Music Will Never Stop 68

July 18th, 2014

Okay, here’s the situation:

There are two tapes involved. One is labeled “Coffeehouse Jam #1.” The other is labeled simply “Jam.” I had this theory that the latter was an edited edition of the former, simply because I had no idea what else it could be.

I tried playing the first one, and the volume faded quickly; ten minutes in it was virtually inaudible. I couldn’t tell what I was hearing, other than tape hiss and silence, and later squeaking that I thought meant the capstans (which have had no maintenance since 1968) needed lubrication. I stopped without playing Side 2.

I put that aside and tried playing the second one. It started fairly well, but about fifteen-twenty minutes in it, too, faded to near-inaudibility.

So I took a look at the heads on the tape recorder, and they were black with gunk — not just the usual ferrous powder, but gunk, black sticky stuff.

In fact, a blob of gunk had built up so that the tape wasn’t actually touching the heads at all — hence the diminished volume; the recorder was trying to play tapes from an eighth of an inch away.

I cleaned off the heads — and then I realized there was gunk on the guideposts and rollers, too. So I cleaned those off — mostly; there’s one roller that was so bad I couldn’t really get it clean.

That mostly fixed the squeaking; that was from the tapes being pulled across the gunk on the guideposts. Nothing to do with the capstans.

Then I played Side 2 of the first tape. More rapid fade-out. I looked at the heads. Black.

Apparently what’s happened is that after sitting untouched for so long (over forty years) the adhesive holding the oxide to the tapes has deteriorated to the point it’s coming off with the oxide and building up black goo on every surface the tapes touch.

However, the more they’re played, the less goo they deposit. The less signal remains on the tape, too, of course, especially in the higher frequencies.

So I recorded them again, trying to get the optimum balance between the improving cleanliness and the deteriorating signal. I got a passable copy of the first tape, but I don’t seem to be able to filter out the tape hiss without significantly damaging the music. I made five tries on the first track, and the last is… marginally acceptable.

Haven’t gone further, yet.

Oh, and having now actually heard what’s on there — the two tapes are not the same. Sigh. I’ll either have to record and clean up both, or just decide some of this music is expendable.

I got Side 1 done. The middle part was the weakest, but the last half-hour was actually pretty decent. That part is two sixteen-minute jams. The first is entirely free-form, but the three musicians knew what they were doing, so it’s fun. The second drifts in and out of recognizable songs, most notably “Smoke On the Water.”

The higher frequencies are weak throughout. Nothing much I can do about it. Boosting the treble boosts the tape hiss, too, so that’s not a good solution.

Oh, the first hour is fourteen different chunks of music. A few involve singing; one I actually recognize and has intelligible lyrics, though I forget the title.

The good stuff is those last two jams, though.

As for Side 2, I had to decide whether any of it was worth saving. It was only 44 minutes; the rest of the tape was blank.

Much of that 44 minutes is filled with seventeen different versions of the silly children’s song “Alice.”

The quality is pretty terrible throughout. The enclosed song list says some of it was recorded “with Tim Ebacher’s lousy microphone.” I barely remember Tim Ebacher. His brother Chris I remember, but not Tim.

The song list, incidentally, is not in my handwriting. I don’t recognize it.

The only reason to save this… well, there are two reasons. First, some of the variants on “Alice” are funny. Second, and more importantly, these are the only recordings I have of these people, some of whom I haven’t seen since 1973, including one who was murdered while hitchhiking in Michigan a couple of years later. Which is especially macabre given that in one of the variants he sings, Alice goes hitchhiking and gets murdered.

In the song she gets sliced up, where in real life he was deliberately run down (as half a dozen witnesses testified), but still.

So I mulled it over.

I decided to save them, and just finished editing them.

Some of the variants are funny; some are just stupid. The best is probably the original “Alice” as sung by the cast of “The Maltese Falcon” — Sidney Greenstreet for most of it, Humphrey Bogart as Alice, and Peter Lorre for the “Oh my goodness” lines.

Which was done entirely by Chris, the guy who was murdered while hitchhiking. I’d forgotten how amazingly good he was at impressions. The reason he was hitchhiking in Michigan when he was killed was that he was trying to make it as a stand-up comic, and had just made the jump from open-mic nights to paying gigs in small clubs. “Paying,” however, doesn’t mean they paid enough to cover transportation from one gig to the next, so he was thumbing — I think to Ann Arbor.

Chris was the one who wrote the version of “Alice” where she gets murdered while hitchhiking, so he presumably knew it was dangerous. Sigh.

Anyway, that finishes “Coffeehouse Jam #1.” Finally. Still haven’t done the other “jam” tape, though.

Stone Unturned

July 17th, 2014

Here’s the next Ethshar novel, at least in theory — but right now I’m pretty upset about it, because when I opened the file to pull this sample I discovered that a little over two thousand words are missing. The most recent file I can find is from January 2013, but I last worked on it in March 2013, and according to my records had ten pages more than any file I can find. Gaah!

Anyway, this is what I’ve sometimes called “the Big Fat Ethshar novel,” and it may actually wind up as three (or more) intertwined stories, rather than one big one. If it does get subdivided, this will be the opening of Lord Landessin’s Gallery.

Morvash of the Shadows leaned over the rail, ignoring the glares of the crewmen who obviously wished passengers would stay below, out of sight and out of their way, while the ship maneuvered up the Grand Canal into the heart of Ethshar of the Spices. One advantage of being a wizard, though, was that no one was going to actually order him to move, so he was able to stay where he was and watch as the warehouses of Spicetown slid by to starboard. If he stretched a little and peered forward he could see the yellow walls and red tile roof of the overlord’s palace, but judging by the shouted orders and the men hauling ropes the ship would not be going that far.

Indeed, a moment later the first mooring line was flung to a waiting dockworker, and the ship’s forward motion stopped. Morvash watched with interest as that first rope was used to haul a much larger, heavier rope, which was then secured to a bollard at the end of a wooden dock. A second line quickly followed, then a third and a fourth; when those had been pulled tight, securing the ship to the dock, two more were added. That seemed unnecessarily thorough to Morvash, but he assumed the sailors knew what they were doing. Their movements seemed assured and practiced.

Once all six lines were secured the gangplank was run out, and the bustle on the deck shifted focus. Most of the sails had been taken in before venturing into the crowded waters of the canal, but now the remaining canvas was furled and various parts of the ship’s superstructure were secured or rearranged. It all seemed to be happening very quickly.

Morvash turned his attention to the dock just as a carriage came rattling to a stop. He squinted, trying to see better; the coach was painted in the family colors, maroon and silver, so it was probably his uncle’s. He straightened up, turned toward the stern, and called, “May I go ashore now?”

The captain was standing on the afterdeck, keeping an eye on his ship and crew, but now he glanced down at the wizard. “Please yourself,” he said.

Morvash nodded, and made his way to the gangplank.

His feet had just landed on the dock when the carriage door opened and a man stepped out, a man considerably fatter than Morvash remembered his uncle to be, and with gray hair rather than black – but it had been a long, long time.

“Morvash?” the fat man called.

“Uncle Gror?” Morvash picked up his pace, and the two men met and embraced midway between the ship and the coach.

“Welcome to Ethshar of the Spices!” Gror exclaimed. “You’ve grown!”

“I would hope so,” Morvash said. “I was eight the last time you saw me.”

Gror laughed. “And here you are, a grown man and a wizard! It’s been too long.”

“You could have come to visit,” Morvash said. “My mother and Uncle Kardig would have been glad to see you.”

“Oh, I’ve seen all I need of Kardig,” Gror said, slapping Morvash on the back. “He’s here every year, and all he does is complain about the prices.”

“I can believe it,” Morvash replied. “But when was the last time you saw my mother?”

“Far too long ago, I admit it,” Gror said. He looked past his nephew at the ship. “How was your voyage? Do you have luggage?”

“The journey went well enough,” Morvash said. “We had calm seas, and I was able to frighten off the pirates near Shan with a simple pyrotechnic spell.”

“I don’t suppose the captain saw fit to pay you for defending his ship?”

“Of course not. But I did eat better after that.”

“And your luggage?”

“I’m afraid there’s a lot of it – possibly more than will fit in your carriage. Shall I hire a wagon to have it brought to the house?”

“Oh, I’ll have my staff fetch it. Just tell the captain.”

“I think that would be the purser’s concern, but I’ll tell someone.”

“I hope there won’t be any serious pilferage.”

Morvash laughed. “Uncle, I’m a wizard! Nobody steals from a wizard. I’ve drawn runes on every case, just to be sure.”

Gror looked intrigued. “What sort of runes? What do they do?”

Morvash smiled and leaned close. “Nothing,” he whispered. “But they look like magic, and that should be enough.”

Gror smiled back. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t meddle with a wizard’s belongings if I saw mystic runes on them. Come on, then, say your farewells to the captain, and let’s get home.”

Morvash started to say something about it not being his home, but he caught himself. It was his home now, at least for the moment. Instead he turned back to the ship and called out.

Twenty minutes later the carriage rolled through the elegant gates of Gror’s mansion on Canal Avenue, in the heart of the district still called the New City more than two centuries after it was built. The gates were wrought iron, depicting a pair of dragons; the house itself was of fine yellow brick, with broad windows, white-painted trim, and a red tile roof. It blended nicely with its neighbors. Morvash looked up at the elegant facade and frowned; except for the bright colors it seemed rather plain, with no turrets or gargoyles. In fact, most of the buildings here seemed pale and insubstantial compared to the architecture of his native city, Ethshar of the Rocks – wood and brick and plaster, instead of the dark, solid stone structures of home. It probably came of using the materials that came readily to hand; after all, it was called Ethshar of the Rocks for a reason, while Ethshar of the Spices was built on clay and sand.

A footman opened the carriage door, and another was holding open the door to the house; Morvash climbed out of the coach, then waited for his uncle to lead the way inside.

“I hope you’ll like it here,” Gror said, as they crossed the forecourt. “As I understand it, you’re planning an extended stay?”

“Yes,” Morvash said. “Uncle Kardig… well, he and Mother think it would be unwise to show my face in the Rocks or Tintallion for the foreseeable future.”

“Is it as serious as all that?”

“I don’t really know,” Morvash admitted, as they climbed the steps. “It seems to be. But honestly, Uncle Gror, I didn’t have any choice. Doing what they wanted would have been a violation of Wizards’ Guild rules, and I swore to obey the Guild law – I could be killed if I broke it.”

“Did you tell Kardig that?”

“Of course!”

“I suppose he thought you were just making excuses. I know he had really been looking forward to having a wizard in the family.”

Morvash stepped past the footman into the hall, planning to reply, but once he was inside the house he stopped dead. “By the gods!” he said.

Gror smiled at him. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

“All these statues!” Morvash said, staring.

“Lord Lendessin collected them,” his uncle said. “The whole house is jammed with statuary of one sort or another.”

Veran the Fair and the Thieves of Borgran

July 16th, 2014

This one’s a bit longer than usual because there really wasn’t anywhere earlier to break it. It’s in a setting that I came up with originally for a completely different story that hasn’t yet gotten past the outline stage; I’m hoping for three or four stories there eventually.

Veran heard her father’s voice as she approached the house. He sounded angry. She hoped he wasn’t mad at her – she hadn’t been out that long, and he hadn’t actually told her to stay in the house.

“…boys for miles in every direction are already sniffing around her, and if we don’t…”

He stopped abruptly when Veran lifted the latch. She peered around the door to see her father standing in the middle of the room, arms raised, while her mother sat quietly in her rocking chair. Veran’s mother’s mouth was tight, and she was looking down at her hands, not at her husband – so she was angry, too.

They had probably been arguing, then, and Veran probably wasn’t the target of her father’s ire after all. She smiled as she stepped into the house, pretending she hadn’t heard anything.

Her father had not merely stopped talking; he seemed to be holding his breath. Now he let it out in a sigh as he looked at her. “Veran,” he said. “Where have you been?”

“Playing down by the river,” she said.

Her parents exchanged glances. “Who were you playing with?” her mother asked.

“Gorbin, and Dalleth, and the Weaver girls.”

“That sounds all right,” her father said. “But remember – ”

“There must always be another girl,” Veran said, completing his sentence. “I know.” She closed the door.

There was a sudden howl of wind, and the entire house shook; all three of them froze in astonishment.

“What was that?” Veran’s sister Helria called from the attic.

“I don’t know,” her father called back. He turned to Veran, and started to ask a question.

Before he had gotten beyond, “Did you…” there was a heavy knock at the door.

Startled, Veran whirled around.

“Was there someone following you?” her mother asked. She sounded worried.

“No!” Veran said. “The Weavers went home, so I came back, and Dalleth and Gorbin were still splashing around when I left. I didn’t see anyone else!” She didn’t mention that at least half an hour had elapsed between Alzi and Morin’s departure and her own.

The knock sounded again. Veran looked to her father for guidance.

“Who is it?” he bellowed.

“One who you would be unwise to offend, Larzam of Korbek!”

“The wizard,” Veran’s mother gasped.

“Open the door, girl,” her father barked.

Veran hurriedly turned and obeyed.

Wind swirled in the instant the latch released, and flung the door back against the wall, revealing a tall old man in a flowing black robe, his long white hair and beard fluttering in the breeze. His eyes were so pale a blue they almost seemed to glow, and Veran stared at his face, fascinated.

This, she realized, must be Algath Skybreaker, the wizard who lived atop the Gray Mountain and ruled the surrounding valleys – including the one her family lived in.

He stared back at her.

“Dread master,” her father said, kneeling. “What can I do for you?”

The wizard kept his gaze locked on Veran’s face; she was becoming very nervous, but did not dare look away. “This girl,” he said. “She is your daughter?”

“Yes, my lord. Her name is Veran.”

“How old is she?”

Veran blinked. Why was the wizard here, and asking about her?

“Thirteen, my lord.” His voice shook slightly.

The wizard’s expression changed; he cocked his head to one side, looking thoughtful. Veran tore her eyes away and glanced at her parents.

Her father looked nervous, but her mother, usually so calm in appearance, looked terrified. Veran swallowed uneasily, and turned her attention back to the wizard.

“That’s too young,” he said, not addressing anyone in particular. “But then, it may take some time to arrange matters and prepare her.”

Her father cleared his throat, and the wizard raised his gaze, looking over Veran’s head at him.

“Prepare her for what, my lord?”

“For what I have in mind,” the wizard replied. “I have a use for a beautiful woman, and my magic tells me that this girl has the potential to be by far the most beautiful woman in the Six Valleys.”

Veran blinked. Beautiful? Her?

“We… we had noticed her beauty, my lord. It has been… we have been concerned about it.”

“Concerned?”

“The local boys, my lord – they’re taking an interest. But as you say, she’s still too young!”

The wizard frowned. He looked down at Veran again. “Then perhaps we can come to an arrangement that will please us both.” He thought for a moment.

Veran wanted to say something – she had a hundred questions, and besides, they were talking about her as if she wasn’t even here – but she didn’t know how to talk to a wizard. And Algath Skybreaker, Lord of the Six Valleys, Master of the Gray Mountain, was not just any wizard; he was the ruler of the entire area. His magic permeated earth and sky for miles in every direction, and everyone who lived in the Six Valleys did so at his sufferance. He made the soil fertile, and kept away crows and locusts that would eat the crops. His magic cleansed the water and made it safe to drink. She couldn’t just talk to him as if he was an ordinary man.

And then she had missed her chance, as the wizard said, “I will have need of your daughter at some point in the future; I can’t say exactly when. Until that time, she will be under my protection, and anyone who would harm her, or touch her against her will, does so at his peril. I will provide you with rich fabrics, fine thread, and jewels, and you will see to it that she has clothing befitting her new role; if you and your wife are not capable of sewing suitable garments, I will find another to undertake the task. Beginning on her fifteenth birthday… ah, but wait. Do you consider a girl of fifteen to be of marriageable age?”

Veran turned to see her parents’ reaction; they were staring at one another.

“Sixteen,” her mother said.

The wizard sighed. “Very well. Her sixteenth birthday, then. From that day on she must always dress and conduct herself as if she were a king’s daughter, so that should she be snatched away without warning and brought to a royal court, she will give no evidence of her humble origins, but will appear to be a princess of the highest breeding. If you feel yourselves incapable of training her in the manners appropriate to a woman of high station, a tutor can be provided.”

“I… I think that would be a good idea, my lord,” her father said. “We’re just ordinary folk.”

The wizard nodded. “I will see to it that, however ordinary you may be, you will be very successful folk, for as long as you obey these instructions to my satisfaction.”

“We will?”

“Oh, yes. As long as you remain in my domain, and do as I have told you, your every enterprise will be met with good fortune. No vermin will trouble you. Whatever you may grow in your garden shall bear plentifully, and game shall present itself to you to be trapped or shot. Any man who displeases you will displease me, as well.”

“But… I don’t understand, my lord. Do you intend to wed my daughter?”

“Me?” The wizard jerked upright as if stung. “Me? By the good earth, no! I have no interest in children, no matter how lovely.”

“Then… I don’t understand.”

“I have a use for a woman of exceptional beauty. Your daughter will become such a woman, and there is no other in all the Six Valleys who will be her equal in the next hundred years. I am setting forth the terms under which you will grant me your daughter for my purpose.”

My Neighbor Fred

July 14th, 2014

Keeping this one pretty short. This may or may not eventually be part of a series about a guy named Wayne Ellsworth who’s a “weirdness magnet.”

It stood a little over seven feet tall, with skin the mottled gray of New Hampshire granite. Its eyes were set inhumanly low and far apart; its snub nose was black and appeared to have four nostrils. Its mouth had a divided upper lip that vaguely resembled a cat’s, but its blue-gray teeth didn’t look catlike at all – or like anything else I’d ever seen before. It wore a baggy sweatshirt that failed to hide the fact that its shoulders were structured wrong. The four-fingered hand that was still hovering near the doorbell had far too many joints, and was at the end of an arm with three elbows.

“Hi,” it said, in a voice that was obviously not human. It had a slight lisp and the faintest trace of a Brooklyn accent. “I’m Fred Smith, from Number Nine, down the block. I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

“Uh,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I look pretty strange.” It glanced over its misshapen shoulder and asked, “Could I come in?”

“Uh,” I said again.

Its mouth did something I really can’t describe that I guess was a grimace, and it said, “Maybe this was a bad idea, but honestly, I didn’t know where else to go.”

I wasn’t ready to invite it in for tea, but despite its appearance and the weird voice, it sounded so normal that my brain finally started to slip into gear. “What kind of a favor?” I asked.

“Could you make a phone call for me? Maybe tell a little white lie or two?” It looked around uneasily. “And if you could let me in, out of sight, I’d really appreciate it. I don’t want to start any trouble, and I’m pretty nervous out here in the open.”

That made perfect sense. I couldn’t help taking a quick look at its hands and teeth, but I didn’t see any claws or fangs – in fact, it didn’t appear to have fingernails at all.

“Come on in,” I said, stepping aside, “and tell me about it.”

It ducked its head to fit through the door, then straightened up again once it was inside, and looked around.

“You have a lovely home,” it said.

“Thank you,” I replied automatically.

The Innkeeper’s Daughter

July 13th, 2014

This one starts out as just about the most generic fantasy opening imaginable; that’s deliberate. I like to think it goes somewhere a lot less predictable, though.

Marga dodged the outstretched foot deftly; the tray balanced on her hand did not wobble. Once upon a time she had wondered why so many customers tried to trip her – was it really that funny to see her spill ale all over someone? Now she didn’t even think about it; avoidance was completely automatic.

She glanced over at the two soldiers in the corner. You’d think that with two of Lord Gorzoth’s killers here the regulars would behave themselves better, but apparently habit and beer were capable of partially overcoming common sense.

Only partially, though – the three tables nearest the soldiers were all empty, and nobody was looking at the pair, or calling to them. Marga hoped there wouldn’t be any trouble. She knew the soldiers probably weren’t going to pay for anything, and she was resigned to that, but she did not want to be cleaning up blood or bodies, or having to tell anyone’s family that he’d been stupid enough to anger one of Lord Gorzoth’s men.

The door to the street opened as Marga set two foaming mugs on the table where the weaver’s twins waited; she looked up to see a figure looming in the doorway, one she did not immediately recognize. She glanced quickly over at the soldiers, but they were involved in their own conversation, paying no attention to the new arrival.

The newcomer stepped down into the tavern, and Marga could see two more strangers behind him; the first man had completely hidden them.

That first man was big, bigger than Vromir Smith, who was the biggest man in town; Marga didn’t think she had ever seen anyone as tall, or as broad in the shoulder, as this fellow. He was wrapped head to toe in a brown woolen cloak, a hood pulled forward to hide his face, but as she watched he reached up both hands – hands clad in heavy leather gloves – and pulled the hood down to reveal a strong, handsome face. His golden hair and beard were clean and brushed, but had not been trimmed for awhile. He scanned the room, looking for an empty table.

There were only three – the three nearest Lord Gorzoth’s men. The big man stood for a moment, gazing at the two soldiers. Then he shrugged, and headed for the nearest of the unoccupied tables.

His two companions trailed behind him. They were of far more ordinary dimensions than their leader, their heads scarcely topping his shoulders; one was lean and dark, and had apparently been clean-shaven several days ago, while the other had a broad face framed by brown curls, sporting a shaggy mustache and a goatee.

As Marga watched, the trio marched straight to their chosen table and sat down, with only the barest glance at the soldiers. She hesitated only an instant, then told the twins, “Let me know if you need anything else,” tucked her now-empty tray under her arm, and hurried over to the newcomers.

“Can I get something for you gentlemen?” she asked.

“Something to eat,” said the brown-haired one.

“And ale,” the dark one added.

“The commons tonight is roast pork and carrots, half a crown each,” Marga said. “The ale’s two slivers a pint.”

The big man thumped a purse on the table, thumbed open the drawstring, and fished out a heavy coin. “Will this feed us all?” he asked, in a deep, warm rumble of a voice that stirred something in Marga’s belly.

Marga picked up the coin and studied it. She had never seen one like it. It had the color and shine and heft of gold, but she knew those could all be feigned in one fashion or another. The emblem on one side was of the sun rising above a hill; the other showed an open hand encircled by an inscription in an unfamiliar alphabet. Something about it tugged at an old memory, and she stared at it, trying to dredge up that faint recollection.

Then she realized that not only were the three newcomers watching her, but so were Lord Gorzoth’s men, and a few of the locals. It suddenly seemed more important to avoid trouble than to perhaps accept a counterfeit – and really, what counterfeiter would have come up with something like this, instead of a more ordinary coin? The thing was almost certainly a genuine coin from somewhere, and probably more than enough to cover the cost of a meal. “Been awhile since I’ve seen one of these,” she said. “It should do fine. I’ll fetch your supper right away.” Then she tucked the strange coin in her apron pocket and headed for the kitchen.

Assassin in Waiting

July 12th, 2014

Another one from the Bound Lands — set in Ermetia this time.

Prince Dalvos was late – or at any rate, he had not come. Since there had been no specific appointment he was not exactly late, but Burren had expected him to appear at more or less the usual time and place, and was slightly puzzled that he had not.

He had nothing better to do with himself, so Burren strolled down from the terrace outside his apartments, into the gardens, along the back route that Dalvos would most likely have taken from the royal compound at Heathertop if he had indeed come. Burren half-expected any minute to see the prince trotting along the path, calling out a greeting and apologizing for his late arrival.

He ambled down past the tea garden and through the trellis gate, then turned onto the hedge-rose path. At the arcade he paused, considered for a moment settling on one of the stone benches – but he had not brought a book, and simply sitting did not suit his present mood. Instead he strolled down the steps to the herb garden and steered himself toward the willow grove beside the duck pond.

Around him the bees bumbled and beetles clicked and buzzed; leaves rustled in the warm and gentle breeze, and every so often a snippet of birdsong trailed by. The day was far from silent. The realization that a human voice was mixed in the springtime hum was slow and gradual, but at last unmistakable – someone was in the willows, talking quietly.

Burren had no desire to intrude on anyone’s privacy, and called out, “Ho, there!”

Willow branches whickered, and shadows moved amid the greenery, but no one replied. Burren frowned slightly. There were a thousand innocent explanations possible, but the chance that this reticence was an indication of guilt could not be denied. Thieves and poachers were not unheard of here, though his father’s estates were less troubled than most.

Burren considered calling out again, but shrugged and began whistling instead. If the voice was that of a trespasser, Burren would give him a chance to flee – but would not let him be.

The willow rustled again, but no one fled.

Burren strolled nonchalantly forward, around the drooping branches, and found his prey – Prince Dalvos was there, leaning one outstretched arm against a willow tree, his back to Burren, his attention firmly fixed on Tira, the chamberlain’s daughter. Tira stood with her back against the trunk of the tree, Dalvos’ arm blocking her escape on one side. Her skirt was twisted somewhat awry, and one hand was clutching it, trying to straighten it, while the other was on Dalvos’ chest.

She did not look as if she were enjoying the prince’s attention.

“Prince Dalvos!” Burren called out, “What a pleasant surprise!”

Reluctantly, Dalvos turned his head.

“Hello, Burren,” he said. “What brings you down this way?”

Burren saw the expression on Tira’s face, and quickly concocted a lie.

“I was looking for your companion, I’m afraid,” he said.

Tira blinked at him in surprise. “Me?” she squeaked.

“What do you want with her?” Dalvos asked, startled.

I don’t want anything with her,” Burren said hastily. “It’s Megrin the witchwoman who wants her.”

Dalvos straightened up and dropped his hand. “The witchwoman?”

“Apparently young Tira has been assisting her in her witchery,” Burren said.

“Really?” Dalvos turned back to Tira.

“That’s right, your Highness,” Tira said quickly. Her performance didn’t strike Burren as entirely convincing, but Dalvos didn’t seem to notice anything wrong. “I fetch her the powders and herbs, and stir the kettle.”

“And Megrin wants her to come help with the stirring right this moment, I believe.”

“Then of course she must go,” Dalvos said, stepping away from the tree.

“Thank you, your Highness,” Tira said. She tugged her skirt back where it belonged, then gathered it up above her ankles and hastened away, running up the path toward the palace. She glanced back over her shoulder as she left the grove and threw Burren a quick smile.

“A pretty little thing, isn’t she?” Dalvos asked as he watched her flee. “I must say, Megrin’s timing might have been better.”

“Witchwomen are notorious for their inconvenience,” Burren replied, stepping up to the prince’s side.

“True enough,” Dalvos agreed. He turned and slapped Burren on the shoulder. “Well, at least this means I see more of you today than I had expected, so it’s not all bad. How goes it with you today?”

“Oh, quietly, my prince, quietly,” Burren said. “I was glad of an errand to run.”

“Were you, indeed? Then perhaps I can assign you another. That wench has my blood running hot – do you think you might find some other who could cool it? This is your town, not my own, and I know little of its hidden ways.”

Burren hid his distaste at this bald request; he was a duke’s son, not a pimp or procurer. “Not at this hour, Highness,” he said. “It’s yet morning, and the nightbirds fast asleep.”

“Ah, then I must suffer a few hours more, I suppose.”

“Or find another means to cool your ardor, perhaps.”

“Perhaps.” Dalvos turned away. “Come, let’s go up to your father’s palace, and see what amusements await us there.”

“As you will, my prince.” Burren followed as Dalvos headed up out of the willows.