Azraya of Ethshar

This was going to be the next Ethshar novel for Tor, after The Spriggan Mirror, if they hadn’t dropped the series. I had submitted the proposal before the decision came down, but when the series was cancelled they returned it unread. Once I was going alternate publishing routes there were others I did instead, so I still haven’t written all of this one.

The soldier grabbed Azraya’s arm and dragged her back into the shadows of the alley. She whirled and kicked at his kneecap, but he held on firmly. “Come on,” he said. “Just a kiss.”

“Do you really expect me to believe you’ll stop there?” she said. “Let go of me!”

“Well, I’ll admit I don’t want to settle for just a kiss…” the soldier said, grinning.

“Pig!” Azraya spat. “Let me go!”

He grabbed her other arm, instead, and pulled her toward him.

Azraya looked around the alley desperately, but saw nothing of any use. The shops on either side had no doors or windows at ground level, and the three upstairs windows were all shuttered. The only living thing she could see, besides the soldier and herself, was a scrawny orange cat watching from a corner. One end of the alley emerged into a courtyard that appeared entirely deserted; the other opened onto Panderer Street, and Azraya could hear distant voices in that direction, but no one was in sight. She had ducked in here to escape the attentions of a determined pimp, only to find this drunken soldier relieving himself against a wall. She had tried to turn and go, but he had been much quicker than she had expected, and had caught her easily.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re a thief, aren’t you? Give me a kiss, and maybe I won’t take you to the magistrates.”

“I’m not a thief!” she protested. “Let me go!”

“Then why were you sneaking into this alley?”

“To get away from someone!”

“Who? Your master? Are you a slave trying to escape, then? An unhappy apprentice?”

“No! I have no master, and I’d like to keep it that way!”

“So you aren’t dodging a master, nor anyone you robbed – an angry lover, perhaps?”

“Let me go!” She kicked again, and managed to connect with the soldier’s shin.

His grin vanished. “That hurt,” he said. He jerked her forward, pressing her against his steel breastplate and glaring down at her. “I think I’ll need more than a kiss after all.”

Azraya had never for a moment believed a kiss would be enough to buy her freedom. “You won’t get it,” she said.

“You think you can stop me?” He turned, dragging her around, and slammed her back against the wall. The back of her head hit the bricks, sending a shock of pain through her. Momentarily dazed, she did not immediately see that the guardsman had released her left arm to reach for her skirt. When she did realize what was happening she grabbed for his wrist, but he barely seemed to notice as he clutched a handful of faded green wool and pulled it up.

“Stop it!” she said.

“Make me,” he answered, grinning again – a very nasty grin this time.

At that, she brought her knee up between his legs, as hard as she could.

The difference in their heights was such that this would not ordinarily have been very effective, but he was holding her about four inches up off the ground, which gave her a much better position, while his fierce grip on her arm and skirt provided a firm base from which to strike. A guardsman usually wore armor against exactly this sort of attack, but he had removed that particular accoutrement to conduct the business that had brought him to the alley in the first place, and as Azraya had noticed, he had not restored it to its proper position.

She did not think he had simply forgotten, either. That was one reason she had not believed a kiss would suffice.

Consequently, the result of her blow was all she could have hoped for. The guardsman let out a gasping bellow and doubled over, releasing his captive as he dropped to his knees.

Azraya did not wait for him to recover; she staggered, straightened, turned, and ran, out onto Panderer Street, where she turned left, ignoring the few pedestrians.

Her home, such as it was, lay in the opposite direction, in the Hundred-Foot Field beyond Wall Street, but she had a suspicion that that was exactly where the soldier would look for her when he could stand again. Besides, most of the city was to the west, and if she could put a few corners between them she doubted the man would bother to search for her, while he would probably find kicking down a few tents in the Field very satisfying right now.

She turned right on Trinket Street, then left again on Pawnbroker, slowing to a trot as she made a right onto Games Street, and then breaking the pattern with another right onto Camptown Street. Then a left onto Moneylenders Avenue, where she continued several blocks without turning.

She heard no pursuit.

She wondered whether the soldier had realized how young she was – and would he have cared if he did? Maybe he preferred little girls. He might have backed off, though, if he found out she was only thirteen.

Three Days Late for the Hanging

I have no excuse for this one. The opening just showed up in my head one day and wouldn’t go away until I wrote it down. I did eventually figure out some (not all) of the background and plot, and wrote on past the opening.

We were three days late for the hanging, so there wouldn’t be much to see, but I stopped in Osborne anyway. We needed supplies, and I thought I’d pay old Tom my respects. Dan Bates didn’t have any objection – leastways, none he saw fit to communicate to me, given as he wasn’t able to talk just then, so getting my attention could be a touch problematic. Oh, he’d act up right enough if he thought it was important, but a visit to Osborne didn’t trouble him sufficient to stir him to action. He went where I pointed him without putting up a fuss.

Osborne wasn’t that much of a town. The main street was about three blocks long before it trailed off to nothing at either end, and the two cross streets didn’t go but a block in either direction before petering out. There were a few establishments outside that tight little collection of streets, but for the most part, that was what there was to see. The courthouse was dead in the center, of course, on the south side of Main Street, but they’d had the good taste to build their gallows around back, where it wouldn’t trouble any townsfolk who might be of a sensitive nature. I thought I should go take a look.

I didn’t need to use my heels on Dan, just pointed him in the right direction, and he ambled around the courthouse to the square.

There was the scaffold, fresh-built of raw lumber by the look of it, and there was old Tom, dangling from the crossbeam. That was a bit of a surprise, that they hadn’t taken him down and buried him, the climate being what it was, but it was an even bigger surprise when Tom kicked up his foot at me.

I frowned, and hopped down off Dan’s back. I could see now that Tom was watching me, and moving his tongue as if he were trying to talk, but he couldn’t get a word out with that noose around his neck. Didn’t have the air. And he couldn’t wave or sign to me, as his hands were tied behind his back.

I walked over to the base of the scaffold and looked up at him and said, “You ain’t dead.”

I could read in his expression that he was well aware of that fact, and didn’t much appreciate my pointing it out as I had.

“Seems to me that must mean Seth Pemberton ain’t dead, neither.”

It’s a sorry thing to see a man with his neck in a noose try to nod.

“Well, why the hell not? Seems to me that was at the heart of our agreement, Tom – you were to kill that son of a bitch.” My frown got a tad deeper. “And if you didn’t kill him, what the dickens are they hangin’ you for?”

“Horse theft,” someone said, and I turned to find a young fellow with a shiny badge standing behind me.

Myth America

This is one I started a long time ago, and put aside because I thought at various times that readers would confuse it with Robert Asprin’s Myth series or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (which I haven’t read yet). At one point I considered making it part of the Wayne Ellsworth series, and that might be a viable option, but here it is in its original form.

I wasn’t entirely awake yet, and when the doorbell rang I answered it, still in my bathrobe, without really thinking about it. I looked out at the guy standing on the porch.

I was expecting a neighbor’s kid selling something, or a delivery person with a package, so the grinning hairy face took a moment to register. I knew it was familiar, but right at first I didn’t recognize him.

When I did, my jaw dropped.

“Al!” I said.

“Hey, Will!” he said. “Get dressed, will you?”

I blinked at him.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we need your help.”

“With what?”

“That’ll take some explaining,” he said.

“Who’s we?” I asked, looking past him.

There wasn’t anyone else on the porch, but parked at the curb was The Car, and I could see there were people in it.

I couldn’t believe he still had The Car.

Al Larson was my old college roommate, and I had sold him The Car five years before – and I hadn’t seen him since three days after that, when I went off to get married and he headed for California, driving The Car.

The Car, I should explain, is a 1957 DeSoto I had bought during our freshman year for $100 from some guy out on the edge of town, a guy with a back yard full of old cars and orders from his landlady to get rid of them while she still had some grass left.

The 1957 DeSoto Firesweep is a truly amazing vehicle, weighing two and a half tons, measuring twenty-one feet from the points of the protruding chrome dagmars to the tips of the magnificent tailfins, and powered by a Chrysler 383-cubic-inch V-8 engine with twin exhaust lines and a design or casting flaw in the left exhaust manifold that resulted in most of them shearing through just behind the rearmost cylinder. Intact left exhaust manifolds for Chrysler 383’s were therefore almost impossible to obtain. When The Car had suffered this inevitable malady while in my possession a search of every junkyard on the east coast had failed to obtain a replacement, so I had had the exhaust manifold welded back together; during the three-week period when this repair had not been made, and those four cylinders were therefore not connected to a muffler, a casual drive down the street sounded rather like a Boeing 747 warming up. If both mufflers were gone it would probably sound like World War III.

That weld job probably violated half a dozen safety laws, but it worked, and kept The Car quiet.

Built in an era of gargantuan automobiles, the Firesweep was big even in its day – I’m six feet tall, but I could lie down and stretch out in the back seat without bumping my head or sticking my feet out the window.

The controls were the height of populuxe design, with push-button transmission – the owner’s manual warns you solemnly not to operate the car in Low-Low gear at speeds exceeding 65 MPH – and thermometer speedometer. That is to say, the speedometer has no needle; instead, there’s a slot across it, and in the slot is a strip of orange-red plastic. The faster you go, the more of the plastic strip is visible, as it slides across from left to right. Since the tip is beveled, so that the end of the plastic strip covers a span of slightly more than three MPH, there’s no way of telling exactly how fast you’re going, you can only approximate. This fascinating speedometer goes to 120 MPH, though in fact I could never get the thing over 115, at which speed it vibrated so much I could barely steer.

I don’t know if Al ever managed to top it out.

This was never meant to be a vehicle for the hybrid-loving, fuel-efficient, would-be-green modern world; at its best, on the highway, it managed maybe seventeen miles per gallon, and I think it did that well partly by burning oil, a quart every two hundred miles.

I loved The Car while I had it – it was everything a college student needed. But when I graduated and got a job and set out on the road to the great American dream-state of suburban marital bliss I knew the time had come to put away childish things, and that included my chunk of ancient Detroit iron.

No dealer wanted it in trade, and I didn’t want to take the time to find a collector, so I let Al have it for $500, which I used as the down-payment on an ugly blue Toyota.

That lasted as long as my marriage – Sharon got it in the divorce settlement, and I had then bought myself a used Honda Civic that was, on this particular morning, sitting in the driveway rusting away. The transmission had committed hara-kiri a month before, and I hadn’t yet made up my mind whether to junk the car, repair it, or try to trade it in.

I was using my mother’s Chevy Lumina in the meantime. I’d ordinarily say my mother’s old Chevy, as it dates back to 1999 or so, but with The Car sitting out there, obviously still running, the Chevy suddenly seemed terribly small and modern and sophisticated by comparison.

“Who’s in the car?” I asked.

“That will take some explaining, too,” Al said.

“So explain,” I said.

“I’ll explain in the car,” he said. “Get dressed, will you?”

“I’m not going anywhere without an explanation,” I told him. “And I’m not going anywhere without some breakfast. What are you doing here, Al? It’s been five years! And how the hell did you find me, anyway?”

“What’s to find?” he asked, gesturing at the house. “I’ve been here before, Will, remember? Sophomore year, Christmas vacation, when my folks were in the Bahamas.”

“But how’d you know I’d moved back in with my mother?”

He grinned and shrugged.

“Lucky guess,” he said. “Now, are you coming, or aren’t you?”

“I’m not going anywhere without an explanation,” I said. “If you and your friends want to come in for breakfast and tell me what the hell is going on, maybe I’ll agree to help with whatever it is.”

He considered that – I could see him considering, making all the familiar old gestures, cocking his head to the left and chewing his upper lip so his moustache hairs wiggled.

The son of a bitch hadn’t changed a bit since college, so far as I could see, and I suddenly regretted my own short-trimmed hair and clean-shaven face – or almost clean-shaven, as that was something else I hadn’t yet gotten to that morning. Al had a huge sloppy mustache and a Van Dyke beard and wavy brown hair past his shoulders, which left his general appearance halfway between Frank Zappa and Jesus Christ.

“Okay, Will,” he said. “I’ll just have to hope we can spare the time. Wait here.”

He turned and trotted back down the porch steps, out to the curb, where he talked to someone through the car window.

A moment later The Car’s back doors opened, and two people got out – a plump woman in a flowing paisley dress and jeweled tiara, and a thin guy in jeans and a lumberjack shirt. They joined Al, and the three of them trooped back up the walk.

“Breakfast?” Al said.

Well, I’d said they could join me.

The Wizard’s Path

I decided I might as well get all the openings posted, so here’s another. There are actually at least two versions of this one — originally Dellen was male. Some of the others on my list, though, turn out to be vaporware of one sort of another — in some cases the “opening scene” I had listed turned out to be a paragraph or two, not a whole scene. One is a kids’ short story I’d been thinking of expanding into a middle-grades chapter book, but what I have is just the short story. For one I have several chapters, but written back in the ’80s, so the tech (it’s science fiction) is hopelessly out of date. One doesn’t even have its own file — it’s just an entry in a list of planned stories. Ah, well.

Dellen was hunting mushrooms in the woods when she heard whistling. Startled, she looked up, trying to locate the sound.

It was coming nearer. Dellen straightened up and picked up her half-filled basket. She peered through the trees at the sun-dappled greenery.

There were said to be dangerous people in the forests sometimes – thieves and poachers and so on – but Dellen did not think any of them would be whistling cheerfully. Whoever this was, he or she was almost certainly friendly.

But a girl had to be cautious. “Hello?” she called.

The whistling stopped. “Hello,” someone called back – a man’s voice.

“Who’s there?” Dellen asked.

“Why don’t you come see for yourself?”

Annoyed, Dellen replied, “Because I’m busy over here.”

“The mushrooms will wait,” the voice answered.

Dellen blinked. How had this mysterious stranger known she was gathering mushrooms? Could the stranger see her?

If the stranger could see her, she ought to be able to see the stranger, and even now that the voice had given her an idea where to look, she still could not spot anyone.

The mystery was irresistible. Basket in hand, she walked carefully toward the speaker, ready to turn and run if necessary.

Suddenly there he was, so close and so obvious that Dellen didn’t understand how she could possibly have missed him. The whistler wore a long white vest over a sky-blue robe, and a pointed hat of the same light blue, somewhat the worse for wear, was perched on his head. He was grinning, which made his gray-streaked beard bristle.

And he wasn’t a stranger at all, not really, though it had been years since Dellen had last seen him. “Uncle Zavar?” Dellen said.

“Hello, Dellen,” the blue-robed man said. “You’ve grown.”

“Uncle Zavar!” Dellen said. “You’ve come back!” She ran and threw her arms around him, not worrying about whether she spilled any mushrooms.

He returned her embrace and said, “You knew I would eventually, didn’t you?”

“I… I didn’t think about it.” She looked up at his face. “It’s been so long!”

“Six years. I know. Is your mother well?”

“She’s fine. She’ll be so glad to see you!”

“Well, I hope so. Shall we go and surprise her?”

“Yes, of course!” Dellen turned toward the village. “This way!”

Zavar chuckled. “I think I remember the way, even after this long.”

“Of course you do!” Dellen laughed. “Come on!” She grabbed her uncle’s arm, and together they headed for her home.


Ordinarily, one writes an entire novel before writing a sequel, but this is a sequel to Earthright, even though Earthright isn’t finished; I actually started writing Technoplague first, then backtracked. (I’ve done this with other series, as well.) I should maybe mention that Amelia Hand has already appeared in the comic book story “A Breath of Fresh Air,” and the short story “That Doggone Vnorpt,” though there are inconsistencies between the comic book version and the prose version. Also, I should maybe have mentioned when I posted the opening of Earthright that it’s the result of merging two previously planned stories, “Legends” and “Labyrinth.” This stuff didn’t exist in a vacuum; it was always intended as a series.

The Tristan Jones dropped out of hyperspace into the Lambda Aurigae system right on schedule, and alarms immediately began sounding.

“Damn,” Captain Amelia Hand said, her attention focused on the navigational displays. “Tris, what the hell is happening?”

“Nothing terrible, Captain,” the ship replied. “There’s a lot of unscheduled traffic in the area, that’s all. Those alarms are brainless stuff – unmapped objects, drive proximity, that sort of thing. There’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“Then shut them off.”

The various hootings and beepings suddenly stopped.

“That’s better,” Hand said. “Now, what’s all this traffic?”

“I don’t know, Captain. Lots of ships, apparently all headed out-system. None on a vector for our location, though.”

Hand frowned. That didn’t sound good – why would there be more ships than normal, all outbound? “How many is lots?”


“That’s lots,” she agreed. If thirty-eight ships were headed out of the system at once, there was presumably a reason. “Are you picking up any chatter?”

“Nothing useful or out of the ordinary.”

“Any idea why everyone’s leaving?”


Hand considered for a minute, then shrugged. “Keep listening, let me know if you hear anything, and meanwhile see if you can get us down on L.A. 3 without running into anybody. Let ’em know we’re here.”

“Will do, Captain.”

They were, according to the displays, roughly six light-minutes from their destination: Amphitryon Port, on Continent Two, Lambda Aurigae 3. Their relative drop-out velocity was around thirty million km/hr, and decelerating at a steady two g’s would put them on the ground in about twenty-eight hours. That gave her more than a day to figure out what was going on and decide whether to land, or crank it back up and aim the next jump.

A day at twice her normal weight, of course, which wouldn’t be much fun, but she was used to these inconveniences.

“Put a call through to Amphitryon,” she said. “Let ’em know we’re coming in, and ask why there’s extra traffic.”

“Will do, Captain.”

She sat up, no longer straining at the screens – the ship had things under control, now that the crucial moment of drop-out was past, and she could let it fly itself.

“Got ID on all those ships?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. One jumped out before I could get anything beyond a drive signature, and at least three appear to be running silent, but I’ve got the others.”

“Are they all human-built?”

“Yes, they are, Captain. No alien presence has been reported in the Lambda Aurigae system in a dozen kilodays – the local colonists, including the authorities, run to mild xenophobia, and nobody’s bothered butting in where they’re unwelcome.”

“So who are they?”

“Well, four are scheduled traders running late, seven are unscheduled traders, eighteen are local transports, two are local military, and three I can’t classify.”

Four traders running late?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

That was bizarre. Something was very definitely strange here – but bypassing the system would cost her money and throw her off schedule, and besides, her stores were low and she didn’t want to eat recycled paste all the way to her next port of call. “What’s the turn-around on that message to the port?”

“About another seven minutes lag-time if they pick up right away,” the ship replied.

“Put it through when it gets here.”

That said, she sat and watched the screens, counting the signals indicating other hyperspace-capable ships in the system.

Thirty-seven, as Tris had said – and then thirty-six as another ship jumped.

Of course, those ships had already been gone when Tristan Jones had dropped out, but their signals had taken time to reach her, just as her message to the port and its reply would take roughly six minutes each way.

She waited, and a moment later a screen lit up. An unfamiliar face appeared, and a young man said nervously, “Tristan Jones, this is Amphitryon Port – welcome! We’re expecting you on Pad Four. As for your question about the traffic, we had a little trouble here, but everything’s under control now, and we’re looking forward to your arrival.”

Hand stared at the screen as the man smiled uncertainly. Then the image vanished.

“Replay,” she said.

The ship obeyed, and Hand watched closely. When the message had finished again, she said, “I wonder what happened to Ricardo, and who this guy is.”

“I don’t know, Captain. Should I ask?”

“Politely, just for curiosity, yeah.”

“Done. We should have a reply in about eleven minutes.”

“Good. Tris, do you believe him when he says everything’s fine?”

“Nope. He’s lying about something. They shouldn’t have had a human reply – machines are more convincing.”

“That’s what I thought, too,” Hand said. “Stay alert, get ship’s defenses ready – but let’s go on in and see what’s up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Unless you spot wreckage. If they’ve shot up any ships, we’re out of here.”

“Understood, and may I say, Captain, I think that’s a good call.”

“Yeah,” Hand said. Then she slapped the console. “I’m going to go get something to eat. Pipe me any messages that come in, and keep an eye out for trouble.”

A brief note…

For those who may have been wondering, I just looked through my records. I have eleven more novels (I think; they might not all reach novel length, assuming they get written, and one might turn out to be a graphic novel) I could drag out to post openings of. And three stories I’m pretty sure would not reach novel length.

That’s only counting stuff I’ve worked on in the past eight years, and only counting stuff where I’ve actually written an opening scene (though one opening, Yard Sale Mystic, is in script form). One’s an Ethshar novel, two are Bound Lands novels, two are science fiction, four are contemporary fantasy, one’s traditional fantasy in a setting I never used anywhere else, and one’s a supernatural western.

There’s a twelfth novel I can’t post about because it’s work for hire and I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

There are also scads of older works, and shorter works I didn’t enter into my “works in progress” records, and stuff that only exists as outlines, with no opening scenes. (Lots of planned-but-not-written sequels are only outlines.) And I may have missed some.

This is why I have trouble deciding what to work on.


Okay, I’ve done lots of fantasy; how about some science fiction this time?

Amelia Hand stared at the screen of her phone, holding it in her right hand as she reached for the lock of her room with the other. “You can’t be serious,” she said, pressing her palm to the sensor.

“I’m afraid we are, Amy.”

The door swung open, but Amelia stood where she was as she shouted, “Mother, I have told you a hundred times, don’t call me Amy! Nobody calls me Amy any more! My name is Amelia. You gave it to me – why won’t you use it?”

“Maybe my tastes have changed since you were born, Amelia. One gets into habits, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” Amelia said. She looked up from the screen at her open door and stepped through, into the familiar clutter of her tiny room.

She knew very well that one gets into habits. Like the habit of not worrying about money. Like the habit of relying on her parents. Like the habit of taking her own sweet time about her education.

Except now it appeared all those habits were about to be broken.

“You’re really cutting me off?” she said, sitting down suddenly on her bed.

“We have to, honey. Your father needs every mu we can get our hands on. You know how expensive medical care is!”

“It’s not the medical care that’s so expensive, Mother, it’s the resource tax.”

“Well, in your father’s case it comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? Anyway, darling, the point is, we simply can’t pay your way any more. You’ve had six years of grad school at our expense, and I’m afraid that if you want to finish your degree you’ll just have to do it on your own.”

“But Mother, I have everything but my thesis done!”

“Amelia, you’ve been ‘All But Dissertation’ for two years now. Just when were you planning to actually do your dissertation?”

“I’ve been researching it,” Amelia said defensively. “I’ve got dozens of gigs of background information!”

“Then go ahead and do it, honey, before your money runs out.”

“I can’t,” Amelia wailed. “I’m not ready!”

“Then either get ready, Amy, or do without your doctorate.”

“Mom, I can’t do without a doctorate! I can’t get a license without a doctorate, you know that, and without an export license how am I supposed to make any money?”

“I see plenty of unlicensed journalists on the net, honey; they must be making a living somehow.”

“But Mother, I want to have kids someday! I want life extension! I can’t earn enough for that without an export license. I probably can’t even afford to get my nose fixed!”

“There’s nothing wrong with your nose.”

“It’s a blob, Mother. It’s a lump. It’s ugly.”

“It’s a nose. It’s your father’s nose.”

“It’s his genes, but it’s my nose, and I intend to get it fixed eventually. But that’s nothing compared to kids or life extension, and I can’t afford those without a license!”

“Your father wants an extension contract too, Amy, and he needs it a lot sooner than you will, and that’s why we need our money now. You’ll have plenty of time to earn yours, but if Julian doesn’t get that contract now, while he’s still young enough to get decent terms, he’s not going to be around in another forty years. I don’t think either of us wants that. Not to mention we want to start saving for my extension!”

“He couldn’t wait just a little longer?”

“Amy,” her mother said. “Amelia. Seriously, now – would just a little longer make any difference? Have you actually started your thesis?”

Amelia glanced unhappily at the big and distressingly blank screen standing open on her desk.

“Well, sort of,” she said.

“Then let me make you a deal – one last concession, since you are our only daughter, and I really would like to see grandchildren someday. I am not going to send you any more credit, but I will countersign one more loan, enough to get you through another month or two. That will give you time to find a place, get started – or if you really do think you can get your thesis done, then go ahead and do it quickly. It’s up to you. But I warn you, this is the last you get from us until we have both our extension contracts signed and paid for, resource tax and all.”

Amelia started to argue, then stopped in mid-breath and thought better of it.

“All right,” she said. “Thank you, Mother. I’ll check the aid sites this afternoon and see what’s available. And I will get that thesis down on disk, you just wait and see!”

“I hope you do, darling. I really do. And I’ll let you get right to it. Do let us know when you decide what you’re doing, won’t you?”
“Of course, Mother.”

“Then I’ll say goodbye. Take care.”

“Goodbye, Mother.” Amelia cut the connection, then flung the phone at the armchair against the opposite wall.

Meant for Each Other

Here’s another one. I’ve written at least one short story in this setting, the world of the Extermination — “Arms and the Woman,” which appeared in Sword & Sorceress XVIII. There may be more; I’m not sure. I certainly plotted more. Anyway, this is a bit of fluff, but I had fun with it. I really ought to finish it someday.

The midwife lifted the baby, cooing, and then stopped. Her smile turned to a puzzled frown.

“What?” the new mother asked, still panting from the delivery. “Is something wrong?”

“Not wrong, exactly,” the midwife said quickly. “He’s a fine healthy boy, by the look of him.” The child, silent until that moment, suddenly let out a wail, his face crumpled in displeasure at his new surroundings. “But he’s got a birthmark!” the midwife called over the baby’s crying, as she handed him to his mother.

The father had appeared in the bedroom door at the baby’s first yell, and now stared as the mother cradled her new son. “What kind of a birthmark?” he demanded. “Is he disfigured?”

“No, no,” the midwife said. “It’s quite small. It’s on his left shoulder.”

“I see it,” the mother said, as she held the infant to her breast. The crying came to a sudden end. “It’s shaped like a sword and crown.”

“Like what?” the father asked, startled.

“Like a sword and crown,” the midwife said. “Exactly like a sword and crown. Right down to the star on the pommel.”

The father hesitated. “That doesn’t sound natural,” he said.

“It’s not,” the midwife said. “You can see that at a glance. That’s a magical birthmark if I ever saw one.”

Magic? My son has some kind of magic?” the father demanded.

“I’m afraid so,” the midwife said. “It’s not one I know, though – you’ll need to talk to someone at the Department of Signs and Prophecies.”

“What, up at the Citadel? That’s a hundred miles!”

“No, no,” the midwife said. “They have a branch office in Deerford.”

“Oh,” he said, slightly mollified. “That’s still a long walk – fifteen miles, isn’t it?”

“About that.”

The father frowned. “Do I really need to go?”

The midwife shrugged. “I would, if I were you – what if it means he’s cursed? Destined to kill his father, maybe? I’d certainly want to know.”

“That’s a good point,” the father admitted. “All right, then, I’ll go. Eventually. No need to rush off.”

“None at all,” the midwife agreed.

“He’s beautiful,” the mother said, interrupting.

“He’s a pretty baby, all right,” the midwife agreed.

“Let’s have a look, then,” the father said, stepping to the bedside.

The midwife didn’t leave the room, but she moved aside and said no more; there would be time enough to collect her fee later.


The royal physician kept his expression carefully unreadable as he announced, “There is a birthmark.”

The queen looked up, puzzled.

“On her left shoulder,” the physician’s chief assistant confirmed. “It would appear to be magical.”

The physician threw his assistant a quick irritated glance. “Indeed,” he said, “but it is not one I recognize immediately.”

“What does it look like?” the queen asked.

“See for yourself, your Majesty,” the physician said, as he handed her the baby. She accepted the child hesitantly.

“A crown with a sword through it,” she said. She looked up at the physician. “What does it mean?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, your Majesty,” the physician said. He turned to the royal magicologist. “I believe this would be your department, my lord Hopin?”

“I suppose it would,” Lord Hopin replied. “I am afraid I do not recognize the significance of the mark, your Majesty. I did, of course, research all signs, portents, and prophecies known to relate to your own bloodline, or the King’s, but this birthmark was not among them. It may well be described somewhere – no one could memorize all the known prophetic indicators – or it may be a previously unrecorded sign. If you will allow me, as there is no other manifestation of magic in evidence, I shall begin researching it at once.” He bowed.

“Go on, then,” the queen said, dismissing him with a wave, then turning her gaze back to the infant in her arms.

“Your Majesty, what shall we tell the king?” the physician asked.

She looked up. “Tell him he has a healthy daughter.”

“Shall we mention the birthmark?”

The queen looked back at her daughter. “Oh, I suppose you had better.”

“Perhaps we should wait until Lord Hopin…”

“And which would you rather do, physician,” the queen interrupted, “bring his Majesty bad news, or have it known that you concealed bad news from him?”

“I see your point,” the physician said, ignoring the sudden look of terror on his assistant’s face. “I will tell him, and pray that Lord Hopin discovers the mark’s nature quickly.” He turned to go, leaving the assistant to clean up the blood and sweat and other detritus that must attend even a royal birth.

Just three hours later Lord Hopin found the relevant prophecy, and reported that the princess Rhaminythaeria was destined to bear a child who would one day save the entire world from destruction.

“Well, that’s not bad,” King Korigildin said, a smile spreading across his face. “That’s not bad at all. My grandchild will save the world?”

“So it would seem, your Majesty,” Hopin said, with a bob of his head. “As so often with magic, however, there is one catch.”

The smile vanished. “What is it?” the king demanded.

“The child must be fathered by the one man in the world who bears the same birthmark on his left shoulder. Otherwise the prophecy shall be voided, the spell placed upon the girl broken, and there shall be nothing to halt the threatened catastrophe.”

The king stared at the magicologist for a moment. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, then said, “And where do we find this man?”

“I have no idea, your Majesty,” Hopin said. “The prophecy gives no indication at all. The records simply says that the wizard Gharoush of Shethor became aware through his arts that at some point in the distant future – this was recorded before the Extermination, of course, in fact some seven hundred years ago, so the present day is his ‘distant future’ – at any rate, at some point, possibly in our own time or possibly still far in the future, spells cast well before Gharoush’s own day would have repercussions that could destroy all the world. Gharoush’s response was to perform magic of his own, ensuring that two children would be born bearing the crown and sword, one male and one female, and that they would in turn produce a child whose actions would prevent the disaster. It appears that Gharoush himself did not know who the children would be, or exactly when or where they would be born.”

“So Rhaminythaeria’s destined husband may not even be born yet?”

“So it would appear. Or he may be a child, or a grown man.” Hopin was careful not to mention the possibility that the prophesied father of her child might not ever actually be her husband.

“This may significantly diminish her betrothal value,” Korigildin said thoughtfully, plucking at his lower lip. “If she must marry this person with the matching birthmark, I can’t pledge her to just any princeling who comes along offering an alliance.”

“Your Majesty is wise,” Hopin said. “On the other hand, the renown of being destined to bear the world’s savior must surely have some value.”

“True enough. And that other birthmark may well turn up on the Prince of Attesteyin or someone of the sort, and if it does, he can’t very well refuse an alliance, whether he wants one or not.”

Hopin nodded.

“Well, it’s a complication, but it’s not bad,” Korigildin said, slapping the arms of his throne. “And Ferinora will undoubtedly provide us, in due time, with other heirs not so magically hampered.”


“When the Queen wakes, you may tell her everything you have told me. And you will observe our daughter, and make sure that any other signs and portents are noted.”

“Shall I send word to the various archives and recorders of signs and prophecies, your Majesty? Or perhaps begin discreet inquiries regarding the bearer of the matching birthmark?”

“I don’t think there’s any great hurry about notifying anyone. After all, we have several years before my daughter will be capable of bearing a child. Let us wait until we know a little more. Discreet inquiries would be appropriate, though – very discreet.”

“I understand.”

“Good. See to it.” With that the king rose, and the audience was over.

Graveyard Girl

I thought I had finished this one, but then my agent looked at it and pointed out all the reasons it didn’t work, so it went back into the “Works in Progress” folder. I’ve worked out how to finish it, I just haven’t done it yet.

The two girls were sprawled on the floor in front of the TV with a bowl of popcorn between them, giggling madly, when the phone rang – not a cell phone, but the landline Madison’s parents still used. Neither of them paid much attention as Mrs. Fernwright answered it, but when Mrs. Fernwright said, “Yes, she’s here,” Emily realized it must be someone looking for her – probably her mother.

“Oops,” Emily said. “Sounds like I’d better turn my phone on.” She reached for the pocket of her jeans.

“But it’s just getting good!” Madison protested. Then she sighed and hit the pause button. “I suppose you better see what’s up.”

“Emily?” Mrs. Fernwright called from the family room door, and Emily stopped what she was doing, phone in her hand. Mrs. Fernwright’s voice was unsteady – really unsteady. Something was badly wrong, for an adult to sound like that.

“What is it?” Emily asked, sitting up and turning to face her friend’s mother.

“Emily, there’s been an accident.” Mrs. Fernwright’s face was white, and Emily began to be genuinely frightened.

“What kind of accident?” Emily asked.

“Your mother’s been hurt.”

Emily’s general unease suddenly solidified into a horrible fear that clamped around her belly. “What’s happened to my mother?” she asked.

“She was hit by a car,” Mrs. Fernwright said. “I’m… we’re going to the hospital to see her.”

Emily swallowed. “The hospital?”

“Yes. St. Luke’s.”

“That’s where she works,” Emily said, but after the words were out she wasn’t sure why she had said them.

“That’s not why she’s there,” Mrs. Fernwright replied. “She’s in the emergency room, as a patient.”

“Is… is it bad?”

Mrs. Fernwright looked miserable and trapped, not like herself at all. “Very bad,” she said.

“Oh, no,” Madison whispered.

Emily swallowed. “How bad?” she asked.

“We need to go now,” Mrs. Fernwright answered. “Did you have a jacket or coat?”


“Then come on.” Mrs. Fernwright picked up her own purse from the table by the door and gestured for the girls to follow her. “Hurry! Both of you, move it!”

“Why is there such a rush?” Madison asked.

“I told you, it’s very bad,” Mrs. Fernwright answered. “Anne… Emily’s mother is seriously hurt.”

How bad?” Emily demanded, as Mrs. Fernwright opened the door to the garage.

“Why are we hurrying?” Madison asked.

Mrs. Fernwright sighed. “We are hurrying, Maddie, in hopes of getting there while Emily’s mother is still alive. Now, come on.”

Emily could not say anything in reply; her eyes grew wide and her throat seemed to close up. She climbed into the car without another word, and Madison got in beside her, eyes wide. Emily sat back, trying to press herself into the seat cushions as Mrs. Fernwright started the engine.

Mrs. Fernwright murmured, “It may not be…” She didn’t finish the sentence; she looked as miserable as Emily felt.

They had gone several blocks when Emily finally gathered enough of her wits to ask, “What happened? Who was that on the phone?”

Mrs. Fernwright didn’t answer immediately; she was focused on her driving. When they had cleared the next intersection, though, she said, “That was your father. He said your mother pushed someone out of the path of a car and was hit herself. The car went right over her.”

“Oh,” Emily said, feeling very small and frightened.

A few minutes later the car pulled into the parking lot of St. Luke’s Hospital, and Mrs. Fernwright cruised along three rows before finally finding a space not too far from the emergency room entrance. She pulled in and turned off the engine, then unbuckled her seat belt, opened her door, and got out.

Emily sat frozen in the back seat, vaguely aware that she should be moving, she should be doing something, but she didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. If she stayed here in the car it wasn’t real yet. Beside her, Madison was also motionless, staring at Emily.

“Emily?” Mrs. Fernwright said, opening the door beside her. “We’re here.” She reached in and patted Emily’s shoulder.

Suddenly Emily saw something that had nothing to do with the inside of the car, nothing to do with the hospital, nothing to do with her mother. For an instant she was somewhere else entirely, looking down at an old woman lying face-down on the floor of a hallway, sprawled across a small Persian rug. The woman was wearing gray slacks and a loose top in a bright floral print; her snow-white hair was cut short in a style Emily had never seen before.

The woman wasn’t breathing.

Then Emily was back in the car, and everything was just as it had been. Mrs. Fernwright was holding the door, and Madison was looking at her with a worried expression.

“Are you all right, Emily?” Mrs. Fernwright asked.

“I don’t know,” Emily said, not looking at her friend’s mother.

Mrs. Fernwright’s hair was dark brown and shoulder-length, and she wasn’t really very old at all, but somehow Emily thought it had been Mrs. Fernwright she saw lying dead on the floor somewhere.

It had been her imagination playing tricks on her, she told herself, that made her see that dead woman. The stress of being rushed here without any chance to prepare herself, the news that something horrible had happened to her mother – that had made her hallucinate. That was the only rational explanation. Nothing like that had ever happened to her before, but it had to be her imagination.

Madison and Mrs. Fernwright were both staring at her, she realized. She swallowed, and spoke. “We left your TV on,” she said. “On ‘pause.’”

She had no idea why she said that. She had needed to say something that wasn’t about her mother or weird hallucinations, and that was what came out.

“It doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Fernwright said. “Come on.”

Emily forced herself to move, to get out of the car and stand on her own feet. Mrs. Fernwright reached out a steadying hand.

Again, there was a momentary flash of somewhere else, some other time and place, and a white-haired woman lying dead on the carpet, but it was briefer this time, less disorienting. Emily ignored it and started walking.


This one’s cheating a bit. I started it in 2006, because I had a central concept and some characters I liked, so I started writing. Then a couple of chapters in I realized the plot I had wouldn’t really work, so after meddling around trying to fix it I put it aside in 2008, leaving it until I could come up with a plot that worked better. I still don’t have one, but here’s the opening anyway.

The address on his uncle’s card was not what Donnie had expected. He had assumed that Uncle Jerry’s office was in some boring concrete-and-glass box, with white walls and earth-tone wall-to-wall carpet, but the number picked out in crumbling gold leaf on the fanlight over the door here was 618, and the number on the card was 618, so this must be the place, gargoyles and all.

He pushed open the big black door and stepped into a shadowy hallway where yellow glass bowls hanging from tarnished brass chains cast warm light across dark wood wainscoting, red-papered walls, and a black marble floor. A narrow stair of bare wood led up to the next floor.

“Suite 202,” the card said, so Donnie shrugged and headed up the well-worn steps.

The upstairs corridor looked very much like the downstairs one, save that the floor was polished hardwood instead of marble. Three doors of dark wood and frosted glass opened off it, two to the right and one to the left; the glass panels in the two on the right glowed warmly, while the one on the left was dark.

The one on the left had the number 200 on the glass in gold paint, and nothing else. The first door on the right bore the number 201, and below that the name “Emerson & Fay.” That left just one choice, and sure enough the last door, numbered 202, said “Orpheus Retrieval Co.” Donnie knocked lightly on the glass, then tried the knob.

It turned, and he opened the door as footsteps sounded somewhere within.

“Hello?” Donnie said, leaning around the door.

“Donnie boy, that you? Come in, come in!” His Uncle Jerry was marching across an anteroom toward him, hand outstretched. Before Donnie quite knew what was happening he had been hauled into the office, Uncle Jerry’s left arm around his shoulder while Uncle Jerry’s right hand gripped his own, pumping it energetically – the man was old, positively ancient, white-haired and leather-skinned, but still amazingly vigorous, and far stronger than he looked. “Let me show you around!”

“Thanks, Uncle Jerry,” Donnie managed.

“You’ve never been here before, have you?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, take a good look!”

Donnie took a good look, at the big antique wooden desk, the computer on the desk that looked as if it had been there since the twentieth century, the phone that looked older than that, the answering machine so ancient it used cassette tapes rather than digital memory, the glass-fronted shelves of badly-assorted books in mismatched bindings. Four sturdy metal-framed chairs stood in front of the desk, and a worn leather-upholstered swivel chair stood behind it. A once-lush but badly worn Persian carpet covered most of the floor. Two doors led to inner rooms, and two windows had a view of tall maples and a small parking lot.

There was nothing in sight that gave any hint of the present century.

“What do you think, eh?” Uncle Jerry asked.

Donnie swallowed. This was a crucial point, he knew – he could either tell the truth, or do his best to suck up.

He had never been a good liar. “It looks a bit old-fashioned,” he said.

“Old-fashioned? Old-fashioned?” Uncle Jerry clapped him on the back. “It’s fuckin’ ancient! Pretty much everything but the computer’s older than you are, Donnie, and if we didn’t need the computer – hell, sometimes I think we should have hidden it somewhere, but it’s so goddamn handy having it there for the appointments and billing.”

“Oh,” Donnie said. He looked around helplessly.

“Come on into my office,” Jerry said. “We’ll talk there. My partners are due in about twenty minutes, but I wanted to talk to you before they got here.”

Donnie nodded. “Okay.” He allowed himself to be led across the room and through one of the inner doors.

He had expected a small, cramped space in keeping with that front office, but instead he found a spacious, modern room – it was like stepping through a time warp, back into the twenty-first century. A flat-screen TV hung on the wall above shelving that had probably come from IKEA, the desk was broad and open, an elliptical trainer stood in one corner, and there wasn’t a trace of polished brass or oiled wood anywhere.

“Have a seat,” Jerry said, gesturing at a chair as he settled into his own desk chair. Donnie obeyed.

He perched warily on his seat while Jerry leaned back and laced his fingers across his belly, studying his nephew. For a moment neither spoke; then, just as the silence was growing uncomfortable, Jerry said, “So, do you have any idea what we actually do here?”

“Uh… well, the name says ‘retrievals,’ so I assume you get things back for people.”

“Got anything more specific?”

“Uh… no.”

Jerry snorted. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I’d hoped you were bright enough to make a guess, or that maybe your mother had let something slip.”

“Sorry,” Donnie said. “I never gave it much thought.”

“I suppose there’s no reason you should. Care to make a guess now, though? Maybe work out a little?”

“Well… you keep that front office looking like something out of a BBC period piece, and I assume you’re in this weird old building deliberately, so your customers must want something old-fashioned, not high-tech. And you call the company ‘Orpheus,’ so – something to do with music? Locating rare old instruments, maybe?”

Jerry laughed. “Good guess,” he said, “but wrong. About the music, I mean. What else did Orpheus do?”

“Got torn to pieces by maenads. That doesn’t help.”

“Besides that.”

“He went into the underworld to get his wife back.”


Donnie thought about that for a moment as Uncle Jerry looked at him expectantly, then said, “You track down lost wives? I don’t see why you’d want to look old-fashioned…”

“No, the other part.”

What other part?”

“Where he went to find Eurydice.”

Baffled, Donnie said, “The underworld?”


Donnie considered that carefully. Then, very slowly, he said, “You operate underground? In the sewers and subways?”

“No!” Jerry threw his head back and pulled at his white hair with both hands. “Jeez, kid! The underworld! The afterlife! The land of the dead! We bring things back from the land of the dead!”

Donnie licked his lips and watched Uncle Jerry warily, not saying anything until the old man had straightened up again.

Uncle Jerry stared at him expectantly.

“From the dead,” Donnie said at last.

“Yes! From the land of the dead, the realm beyond, the next world. We go there, we find things, and we bring them back.”

“What sort of things?”

“Two sorts, mostly – souls and answers. Every once in awhile it’ll be something else, something that shouldn’t be there, but mostly it’s dead souls and straight answers.”

Donnie stared at his uncle.

“Uncle Jerry,” he said, “are you trying to tell me you bring people back from the dead?”

Uncle Jerry smiled. “Now you’ve got it!” Then the smile vanished. “But it’s not what you think, not really. We mostly find answers, or bring back ghosts, rather than bringing people back to life. To resurrect someone you need an intact body, and usually whatever killed them the first time will kill them again – and that’s assuming we can find the right soul and fetch it back in time in the first place, which, frankly, we usually can’t. What we do isn’t easy, Donnie, it’s not easy at all.”

“I didn’t think it was possible.”