The Turners

Another unfinished novel. This one was meant to be a Young Adult novel. While it might appear to be a contemporary setting, it is not our world. And you know, folks, I’d really like some feedback here — do any of these starts look promising? Would you keep reading?

Steve Everett sat quietly on the porch, his back against the wall below the living room window, listening to his mother’s conversation with Ms. Ramirez.

He knew he probably shouldn’t be there; the adults would consider it spying. It was spying, really. But they were talking about him, and he was curious, and wasn’t talking about him behind his back a little rude, too?

“You said he has his learner’s permit?” Ms. Ramirez said. Steve imagined her looking at her notes, the way she did every few seconds whenever she spoke with him. It was really annoying, the way she did that.

“Yes, of course,” Ms. Everett replied. “He’s been sixteen for months; all his friends have had permits for some time.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Ms. Ramirez asked.

“What? Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well, with the way his parents died…”

Steve could almost hear the expression on his mother’s face as the social worker’s voice trailed off, leaving her sentence unfinished. He knew that look of disgusted anger well.

“Stephen does not even remember his biological parents,” Ms. Everett said coldly. “We are the only parents he has, and we have not been in any car crashes. I think if you’ll check with the Department of Motor Vehicles, or our insurance company, you’ll find that my husband and I are very safe drivers – no accidents since before Stephen was born, and the last ticket either of us got was ten years ago.”

“Oh, I know, but I know Stephen knows what happened to his parents…”

“His biological parents.” Steve thought his mother had gotten to the stage of speaking through clenched teeth, and he was impressed; it usually took him half an hour of arguing to get her that angry, and the social worker had done it in five minutes. He would have to remember that trick of talking about his biological parents as if they were his only parents; he had called them his “real parents” once or twice in some of the nastier family fights, but he had never thought of not using any adjective at all.

“Yes, his biological parents. I’m sorry. At any rate, he knows they died in an auto wreck, so I’m not sure pushing him to learn to drive…”

Pushing him? Ms. Ramirez, how long have you been out of high school? The hard part is restraining him! He’s a normal boy; he wants to learn to drive as soon as possible. He wants his own car as soon as possible.”

“I really don’t think that would be a good idea, Ms. Everett.”

“Well, we aren’t about to give him a car, Ms. Ramirez, but if he earns the money himself, we aren’t about to stop him from getting one. Learning to drive is pretty essential, don’t you think?”

“I’m sure millions of people manage without.”

“When did you get your license, Ms. Ramirez?”

“When I was sixteen,” the social worker admitted. “But Stephen’s situation is different!”

“Not in any way that matters, so far as I can see.”

For a moment neither woman spoke.

This was one of the things that puzzled Steve about the quarterly visits from the social workers. He’d first noticed it when he was ten, when old Mr. Albright was still handling his case, and at first he’d thought it was just some quirk of his, but then when Ms. Zelinski took over four years ago she did the same thing, and for the past year Ms. Ramirez had done it, as well. All of the social workers kept talking as if he was somehow special, as if there was something abnormal about him, but they would never say why. They would never come out and say that he was anything other than an ordinary kid, but they talked about his “unique circumstances,” or “different situation.” And if he or one of his parents got curious or annoyed enough to ask outright what was “unique” or “different,” the social worker would change the subject.

The only thing he could think of that might make him special was never mentioned; he didn’t see any sign anyone knew about it other than himself. The social workers certainly never asked him about it.

For that matter, Steve wasn’t entirely sure why the social workers were still coming around at all. On TV shows or movies about adopted kids, no one ever mentioned regular visits from social workers going on for year after year. Social workers were supposed to check on abused or neglected kids, kids who got in trouble with the law, or kids who used drugs, not on kids like him.

And social workers on TV checked for bruises or asked about perverts touching kids, they didn’t go on and on about whether he’d seen any strangers in the neighborhood.

Maybe the TV stories had it all wrong. Maybe the regular visits were just something nobody mentioned. But it seemed a little weird. His biological parents had died almost fifteen years ago, when he wasn’t even two yet; was it really worth the government’s trouble to keep sending people to check up on him?

“Well, thank you for your hospitality, Ms. Everett,” Ms. Ramirez said, breaking the silence. “Stephen seems to be in good hands, as always. I’ll be back in September to talk to him again.” Steve could hear papers shuffling and the thump of her briefcase closing.

“Of course,” his mother said, and her voice still had an icy edge.

“You will let us know immediately if you see anyone watching him, won’t you?” The briefcase latches snapped shut, one after the other.

“Of course.” Her tone was a little softer.

Steve knew that Ms. Ramirez would be coming out the door any second now; he turned – really turned – and hid.

Sure enough, the knob turned and the front door opened, and Ms. Ramirez stepped out onto the porch. She turned and shook his mother’s hand.

“See you in September,” she said.

“September,” Ms. Everett agreed.

Then Ms. Ramirez turned and hurried down the front steps, her high heels clicking. Steve watched her go.

So did his mother; she stood in the doorway as Ms. Ramirez bustled down the walk to her car, tossed the briefcase in the back, and climbed into the driver’s seat. She watched as the social worker took out her phone and punched a number.

With the phone to her ear, Ms. Ramirez looked back to see Steve’s mother in the door. She started the engine, and drove away as she began speaking to whoever she had called.

When the car had pulled away from the curb, Ms. Everett leaned out and looked around. “Steve? Are you out here?”

Steve hesitated, then decided not to answer. He wasn’t a little kid, after all, who had to come running the instant his mother called him.

She shrugged, stepped back inside, and closed the door, and Steve let himself show again. He sat on the edge of the porch, looking out across the lawn.

A car appeared, cruising slowly up the block, and he blinked. He hadn’t seen it come around the corner; it just seemed to be there. And why was it moving so slowly? It wasn’t anyone who lived in the neighborhood; he knew all their cars. And this certainly wasn’t anyone’s new car; it was a beater, at least ten years old. The dark blue paint was in terrible shape, the front bumper was cracked on one end, and there were visible dents here and there.

The blue car stopped at the curb in front of the house, in just the same spot the spiffy white sedan from the Department of Social Services had been in a moment before. The driver’s door opened, and a woman stepped out.

She was tall and blonde, and certainly looked as if she ought to be driving something nicer than that battered heap. She wore a fine gray suit, a yellow blouse, and low-heeled black pumps; her hair was cut to a little above her shoulders and looked as if she had just come from the beauty salon.

She waved to Steve, and started across the lawn toward him. He slid from the porch and stood up.

“Hello,” she called. “You must be Jason Turner.”

That explained a lot; she was clearly lost.

“No,” he said. “I’m not. Sorry.”

She frowned, but kept walking toward him until they stood just a few feet apart. “You aren’t?” she asked.

“Nope, I’m afraid not.”

She studied his face. “You look like a Turner,” she said.


“Who are you, then?”

“Steve Everett.” He held out a hand.

She took it, then released it again, still staring at him. “Were you born with that name?”

Startled, Steve hesitated, then admitted, “I’m not sure.” After a second’s thought he added, “Probably not.”

“You’re adopted?”

“Not that it’s any business of yours – ” Steve began.

She interrupted him. “Your parents died when you were not quite two, right?”

“Well, my biological parents, yeah.” Steve wondered how she knew that. Was it just a lucky guess?

“And… let’s see… when you were little, you had trouble learning the directions, didn’t you? Because there was one that no one ever talked about, that wasn’t up, or down, or left, or right, or east, west, north, or south, and when you tried to point to it no one knew what you were talking about.”

Steve’s jaw dropped. He threw a quick glance over his shoulder at the house, to see whether his mother might be watching out the window. He didn’t see her, so he leaned closer to the strange woman and asked, “Who told you that?”

“No one told me,” she said. “I can see it, too.” She pointed. “It’s that way.”

Steve stared at her finger, held at an angle he hadn’t known anyone could hold a finger at – well, anyone except himself. Then he looked back up at the woman’s face.

“Who are you?” he asked. “Are you another social worker?”

She grimaced. “Social worker? No, I’m not a social worker.” An expression of sudden understanding burst onto her face. “You mean like the government woman who was just here?”

“Yes, like her,” Steve said.

She’s not a social worker! Is that what they’ve been telling you?”

“Yes, of course. Her car says ‘Department of Social Services’ on the side; of course she’s a social worker!”

The stranger shook her head. “No, she really isn’t. That’s just her cover story. She’s a security agent. I followed her here from the security office downtown.”

This whole conversation had gotten so weird that Steve began to think he was dreaming. A strange woman drives up looking for someone else, but then seems to know things about him, including stuff he hadn’t mentioned to anyone since he was in preschool, and tells him that little Ms. Ramirez, with her clipboard and iPhone, is a government spy.

Things like that just didn’t happen in the real world!

Unless… was this woman crazy? Was she a madwoman?

But she had known how old he was when his biological parents died. She knew about the Other Direction…

But then, Steve had sometimes suspected that everyone knew about the Other Direction, and it was something you just didn’t talk about. Maybe she was willing to talk about it because she was nuts.

Or maybe the whole world wasn’t quite what he had thought it was.

“Who are you?” he asked.

She smiled. “You are Jason Turner, I’m sure of it. And if you are, I’ve been looking for you since you were a baby. I’m your Aunt Lucy.”

Untrue Names

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.

Pentagram Squadron

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.”

Stone Unturned

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

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.”


“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

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

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

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.

Mirrors and Shadows

I have a dream. I dream that someday, someone will actually comment on something I post here.

Meanwhile, this is the opening of a story intended to be the first volume of a contemporary fantasy trilogy.

Alicia awoke coughing.

She was sitting up in bed, coughing uncontrollably, before she opened her eyes and saw the smoke. It was everywhere, surrounding her; her room beyond the bed was a vague blur. Her eyes widened, and she called, “Mom!”

She didn’t wait for an answer; she rolled out of bed and stooped down, trying to stay below the smoke, the way they had taught in safety class back in grade school. She pulled open a bureau drawer and grabbed a pair of panties, wriggled into them, then hesitated, trying to decide what else to grab. Those long-ago lectures had said that the first priority was to get out, get out of the house before the heat and smoke could overcome you. Don’t stop for anything – get outdoors!

But she really didn’t want to wind up standing on the lawn in nothing but black lace panties and an old Nirvana T-shirt.

She coughed again, and looked around, trying to see where the smoke was coming from, and where her best escape route might be. She didn’t see any flame, but the room was filled with smoke, rolling clouds of blue, gray, and black that seemed to be expanding downward, almost as if it was following her toward the floor. Even down on one knee as she was, she wasn’t below those billows. She couldn’t see the ceiling at all; the window was merely a paler patch of smoke.

But… Nirvana and black panties?

She didn’t see any flame, and she didn’t feel any heat. She knelt in front of the bureau and rummaged through the drawers, struggling not to cough as the smoke swirled around her.

If she was going to die of smoke inhalation, she told herself, she hoped it wouldn’t happen until after she got some clothes on.

Jeans! An old pair of jeans – those would do. She pulled them on, then groped for the door. At the last second she remembered the old instructions and put a hand to the wood. It felt cool.

Where was the smoke coming from, then? She looked around again, squinting; her eyes were starting to tear up, but the clouds didn’t seem quite as dense.
The smoke seemed thickest right above her bed – was the mattress on fire? But it hadn’t felt warm when she first woke up, or at least no warmer than normal.

It didn’t make any sense, but she was starting to feel dizzy, and knew she had already waited too long. She flung open the door and plunged out into the hallway.

Smoke billowed out behind her, filling the corridor around her.

Mom!” she yelled again.

“What?” came her mother’s voice, from somewhere in the direction of the stairs. She sounded annoyed.

“Fire!” Alicia called, before being overcome by a fresh bout of coughing.

“What?” The tone was very different this time, and the word was followed by the sound of rapid footsteps as Alicia’s mother ran up the stairs. “Oh, my God! Are you all right?”

“Call the fire…!” Alicia managed, before coughing cut her off again.

“Get out of there, Ali!”

Alicia was dazed and dizzy, but that penetrated her mental haze. She looked back over her shoulder at the smoke rolling out of her bedroom, then got to her feet and ran, stooped over, for the stairs.

She was already out on the lawn, straightening up and trying to get her coughing under control, when her mother finally managed to call 911. Smoke of various colors was pouring from the eaves and upstairs windows, blending into the surprisingly dense morning fog, but Alicia still saw no flame anywhere, and as she watched the smoke seemed to lessen.

Queen of the Night

I’m experiencing technical problems with the tape recorder, so no more music reports yet. Instead here’s another opening. This time it’s not part of a series, just a story that insisted I start writing it. It hasn’t insisted I finish it, though…

Dan Calvert was up late, finishing a report for one of his more annoying clients, when he heard a sound from his daughter’s bedroom. He looked up from the keyboard.

He wasn’t sure exactly what to call the sound – a whoosh, perhaps? It wasn’t anything he could identify immediately. It sounded as if it might be caused by a vacuum cleaner or a water pipe doing something peculiar. He was fairly sure that it wasn’t a sound that should be coming from Ali’s bedroom at half past midnight.

He glanced down at the computer. The report wasn’t due until Monday; he just hadn’t wanted it hanging over him during the weekend. It could wait overnight for a final polish. He saved his work, then got up and walked down the hall to the door of Ali’s room, where he put his ear to the painted wood and listened for a moment.

He didn’t hear anything.

Maybe it had been something caught in a vent – but the furnace wasn’t running. Or maybe it had been something falling, perhaps one of the posters over Ali’s bed. Dan frowned, hesitated, then carefully and silently turned the knob.

Ali was sixteen, and as jealous of her privacy as any teenager, but surely it would do no harm to glance in and make sure she was okay. He opened the door a crack and peered into the dark room.

At least it was dark; she wasn’t sitting up late. There was no glow of a TV or computer screen, just her alarm clock’s red digits reading 12:27. Nothing was obviously out of place in the sliver he could see.

He pushed the door open a little wider, and let light from the hallway spill in.

The posters were still in place; there was her bed, nothing on it that shouldn’t be…

But it was empty.

Dan blinked.

Maybe she got up to use the bathroom, he thought. Maybe that was the noise he had heard. He turned and looked across the hall.

The bathroom door stood wide open, and the bathroom was dark. Ali wasn’t in it. He turned back to the bedroom and looked in again, thrusting his head in through the crack.

She was definitely not in the bed; the blanket was pulled up, but no one was under it.

She wasn’t at her desk, or sitting in the chair in the corner, either. Baffled and concerned, Dan stepped into the room and looked around.

Ali wasn’t anywhere.

He flipped on the light, but his daughter did not magically appear; with the light on the bed was still empty, the desk deserted, the chair unoccupied. Ali was not standing in one of the corners.

Both worried and annoyed, Dan crossed the room and yanked open the closet door, revealing a lot of dirty laundry flung on the closet floor, but no sign of his missing daughter.

“Ali?” he said.

No one answered.

Feeling foolish, Dan knelt down and looked under the bed, discovering several forgotten CDs, an old pizza box, and a healthy crop of dust bunnies, but no teenage girl.

She was gone; there was simply no doubt of it.

Could she have crept down to the kitchen for a late snack, perhaps? That would have taken her right past the nook where he had been working, but he had been pretty involved in that stupid report; it wasn’t totally beyond the realm of possibility that she had walked right past him without being noticed. He left the room, turned off the light and shut the door, and walked quickly down the stairs to the kitchen.

No sign of her.

It would seem she had snuck out of the house.

That was bad. That was very bad. It also didn’t seem like her at all – and that made it even worse, since it meant that Dan didn’t know his daughter as well as he had thought he did.

Then an even worse possibility struck him, and he hurried back upstairs to her room, this time not bothering to be quiet about it.

The windows were both securely locked. No one had broken in and dragged her out.

That was some relief, but not much. She had left under her own power – if she hadn’t gone out the window, then she would have had to have gone past where he was working to leave the house, and there was simply no way that could possibly have happened if she hadn’t gone willingly.

Now the obvious question was what he should do about it.

The obvious answer was to wake up his wife and tell her, but he really hated that idea. Ali and Sue hadn’t been getting along very well of late – nothing serious, so far as he knew, just the normal teenage mother-daughter stuff, with Sue worrying about Ali’s friends and grades and behavior, and Ali feeling that she was constantly being nagged and picked on, but still, there had been enough conflict that Dan really didn’t want to wake Sue unless he had to. In fact, waking Sue up for any reason was usually a bad idea; she was not a person who handled disturbed sleep well at all.

And he certainly couldn’t call the police without first waking Sue up and conferring. If he did call the cops, and Ali turned up ten minutes later, or was found alive and well sleeping over at a friend’s house…

But she wasn’t sleeping at a friend’s house, or at least she wasn’t supposed to be. She had eaten dinner with Dan and Sue, and they had all watched “Once Upon A Time” together even though it was a rerun.

That hardly seemed like someone who was about to run away from home, and honestly, Dan couldn’t think of any reason Ali would want to run away. He and Sue weren’t perfect as parents, but they weren’t monsters, either, and the tension between Ali and Sue hadn’t seemed anywhere near running away level stuff.

Slipping out with friends on a dare, or meeting some boyfriend – that, Dan could believe, though he hadn’t known about any boyfriends at the moment. It seemed likely to him that Ali would be back safe and sound later tonight.
That left him two choices – well, more than that, really, but two he seriously considered.

First, he could go to bed and pretend he had never noticed she was gone, and if she was back in the morning he could talk to her privately later and find out what the story was.

Second, he could stay up until she came in, and have that talk right away.
That, he decided, was the way to go. He would get a book and catch up on his reading, there in her room.

Five minutes later he was settled on the chair in the corner with a John Grisham novel.

By two a.m. he was having trouble staying awake; he would find himself reading the same paragraph three or four times. He decided that wasn’t going to work. He got up, stretched, and went down to the kitchen, where he made a pot of coffee. While it was brewing he put the book away and fished yesterday’s newspaper from the trash – working the sudoku puzzle ought to be better than reading, he thought.

He wasn’t very good at puzzles, but an hour later he had finished both the puzzle and a cup of coffee, and Ali had still not reappeared.

He once again debated waking Sue, but now he really didn’t want to – she would demand to know why he hadn’t done so at 12:30, rather than three in the morning, and he didn’t have a good answer.

He drank another cup of coffee and tackled the novel again, and this time made some real headway – either the caffeine had kicked in or he had his second wind, he wasn’t sure. All the same, at about a quarter to five he decided he didn’t care whether the hero won his case, and put the book aside.
He had thought Ali would be back by now. He was not at all happy that she wasn’t. He wasn’t happy about any of this. He had thought she knew better than to do anything like this without at least leaving a note. He stood and stretched, and looked out the window.

The eastern sky was starting to lighten. The sun would be up soon, and his daughter was still out there somewhere instead of safe in her bed. He really should have wakened Sue in the first place, he decided. He turned and took a step toward the bedroom door.

There was a dull thump, and Ali was lying on the bed, wearing a flannel nightgown that had been a hand-me-down from her mother. She was lying on top of the blanket, not tucked in.