Free on Smashwords

The hatches are battened down here at Casa Ney-Grimm, and so far we are healthy and safe.

Since my husband sits squarely in 3 risk categories, hunkering down is a high priority for us!

Of course, the entire country and much of the world are sheltering in place just like we are. Which means we all need new books to help mitigate the cabin fever. 😀

So I’m participating in the sitewide sale on Smashwords especially to provide some reads for lovers of the fantasy genre.

All of my short works and one novel—The Tally Master—are free.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Most of my novels and novellas are 60% off.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Curl up with a good book and read!

 
 

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Now Solo! Tales of Old Giralliya

Tales of Old Giralliya is a small collection of fairy tales from my North-lands.

I released it first in the book bundle Might Have Been, with a promise that I’d make the collection available solo in a few months.

I’m delighted to announce that I’m now able to redeem that promise.

Tales of Old Giralliya is here as its own ebook and as a paperback. Its cover art is by John William Waterhouse, an artist strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. (I love the works of the Pre-Raphaelites!) 😀

*     *     *

A troll-mage rains death upon the land from his citadel in the sky. Who—if anyone—can defeat him? Despite the oracle’s prophecy, few believe the beggar’s son might be the people’s champion.

A magical plague infests the villages, the cities, and the lonely manors. Will the realm descend into ruin before a cure is found? Or could wizened, old Eliya convince the stricken that something improbable might save them all?

Three ducal brothers fight for the rule of their duchy, crushing fields and hamlets under their chariot wheels. Can young Andraia, kidnapped from her village, bring the destructive struggle to an end?

Instead of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the Giralliyan Empire has Ravessa’s Ride, the Thricely Odd Troll, the Kite Climber, and more. Tales of Old Giralliya presents six of these fresh, new fairy tales for your enjoyment.

Adventure and magic in the tradition of The Red Fairy Book and the Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

*     *     *

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 29)

Crawling around the privy smithy bearing one of Arnoll’s tallow dips, Gael collected fully as much dirt and soot on his tunic and trews as he’d expected. The smithy scullions kept the forge area clean and tidy. The tower sweeps kept the floors and counters clear. But the odd corners, crevices between various fixtures and the wall, and the surfaces below the tool racks collected finely sifted ash ground into grease.

It had never occurred to Gael that he should squirm on his belly under the lip of the privy forge or squish between the counters and the back wall, but now that he had, he would develop a few additional protocols for smithy maintenance. He should probably first check the other smithies to see if they suffered the same pattern of encrusted dirt. They might not.

Arnoll found a set of elegant two-tined forks in an empty quenching pail. Who knew which day they were forged? Gael himself found nothing. And neither of them discovered any missing ingots.

When Arnoll closed the lid of a chest of sand with a snap, Gael shook his head. “I think we both knew there was nothing to find,” he said. “But I had to check.”

Arnoll surveyed the blackened knees of his trews ruefully. “The leather grooms are going to beat me senseless when I hand these over for cleaning,” he remarked.

Gael’s knees were no better. “Time to quit for tonight, I think,” he said.

Arnoll nodded and led the return to the counter in his smithy where the stolen copper ingot still rested. Gale collected it, and then they headed for the exit on the back wall where the Cliff Stair climbed to the magus’ quarters below the battlements.

Gael was glad for his tallow dip, burning low at this point though it was. The torches in the tunnel between the smithy and the stairwell were doused, as was usual at this hour. And so few trolls climbed the Cliff Stair at night that only every third landing was illuminated by a flaming torch. Gael wasn’t sure why Theron bothered to order any torches lit. The bright landings merely meant one’s eyes must work harder to adjust on the dark ones and all the dark steps in between.

In silence, Gael climbed side by side with Arnoll, past the place of arms adjacent to the melee gallery and on toward the place of arms on the next level. His thighs felt weak as pouring copper, and his left ankle stabbed fiercely each time he took the next tread with his left foot. He’d chosen the outer position, which required longer steps, to spare Arnoll. Now he wished he hadn’t. Arnoll hadn’t climbed up and down the tower all day the way Gael had.

As they rounded the newel post toward a landing that should have been bright with flickering torch flame, Gael put out a hand to check Arnoll.

The landing was dark.

Gael paused, listening.

The sound of a door closing softly somewhere above was followed by the click of a latch, a gasp, and then running footsteps, headed up. Someone—perhaps the someone who’d doused the torch—had noticed the glow of their tallow dips approaching.

Gael looked sharply at Arnoll. Arnoll looked back, nodded.

And then they were running, shoving their weary bodies upward with all the speed possible. Whoever it was had a guilty conscience. They’d catch him, question him, and find out why.

Reaching the dark landing brought momentary relief to Gael’s tiring legs—three full strides across a blessedly flat floor. Then they were climbing again, up and up, around and around.

Gael felt his pace slowing, heard the furiously echoing steps of their quarry drawing away. He pushed harder, but sheer will wasn’t enough to hasten his faltering feet.

The footsteps above quickened, then cut off altogether.

Gael cursed and halted, slumping against the outer wall of the stairwell. Arnoll stopped a few steps above him, equally winded.

“He’s left the stair,” panted the smith.

Gael nodded, bent with one hand on his knee, sweatily clutching his copper ingot, the other holding his tallow dip, lungs heaving.

“Hells,” said Arnoll. “A dozen deep-set doorways, the central stair, half a dozen dark embrasures, and the entrances to the three other stairwells. We’ll never catch him.”

That was a given, now that they’d broken off the pursuit. But Gael shared Arnoll’s unspoken conclusion. Their fugitive could be anywhere by now.

Gael hung there, catching his breath. His grubby tunic clung to his shoulders and back as though someone had dumped a bucket of quenching water over him. His ribs ached, and his arms wobbled almost as badly as his legs.

“Let’s go see what’s behind that door just above the dark landing,” he said at last, straightening. “A latrine, I think. But.”

Arnoll nodded.

Gael’s panting had slowed, as had Arnoll’s. They waited several moments more. Descending on wobbly legs would be worse than climbing.

“Come,” said Gael, starting down, taking the inside position this time.

Arnoll joined him with a grunt. “I almost wish I owned a cane,” he muttered.

Gael snorted a laugh. Arnoll with a cane was ludicrous, but Gael wanted one, too. Each step down to the next tread threatened to collapse his legs entirely. Had his troll-disease advanced another notch? Or did he merely sit too long every day at his tally desk?

When they reached the door located three steps above the dark landing that should have been bright, Gael eased it open. A powerful stench rolled out.

There was indeed a latrine behind that door, with the usual arrangement: a square of stone floor, a closed stone bench at the back, a round hole carved in the seat of the bench, and a slanting ceiling overhead.

So much was ordinary.

The wastes brimming at the lip of the latrine hole were not.

The latrines located off the Cliff Stair emptied into long channels descending through the walls of the tower, carrying their contents to the steep cliff located on this side of the citadel. The channel emptying this latrine—like several others—possessed a dogleg and required regular maintenance to prevent clogging. Such maintenance was always scrupulously provided, never neglected. Why had it been neglected now?

Gael reeled back, jostling Arnoll and nearly tumbling both of them down the two steps to the landing.

Somehow, Arnoll retained his balance, steadying Gael as well.

“Sias!” gasped Arnoll.

Gael surged forward to close the door. It didn’t reduce the stench much, and they retreated to the next landing up, where an arrowslit provided fresh air. Their tallow dips flickered wildly.

“What in hells?” said Gael.

Arnoll shook his head.

Gael pressed his lips with a forefinger, thumb beneath his chin. “Someone didn’t want to be discovered there.” He thought a moment, resisting what came next. “I’m going to check it thoroughly.” If only he’d not doffed his caputum when he changed his clothes. He could have pulled the fabric that covered his shoulders up over his mouth and nose.

“Wait here,” he told Arnoll, handing him the copper ingot.

The smith chuckled. “Oh, I’m coming with you,” he said.

“You need not.”

“Oh, I know, I know. But I’m curious, too.”

The stench outside the latrine door had not dissipated appreciably. It strengthened unpleasantly when Gael opened the door. He buried his mouth and nose in the crook of his elbow, held his tallow dip high with the other arm, and stepped inside, Arnoll hard on his heels.

Surprisingly, the floor was clean and dry, as was the surface of the bench.

Why had the castellanum’s scullions cleaned the latrine compartment thoroughly, but left the clog untouched? Surely they’d earn a birching that way.

Gael studied the slanting ceiling behind the bench, the small blocks of stone neatly fitted together, the mortar between them tidy. The side walls were similar. The front wall possessed a small arched niche to one side of the door, with a bucket of water resting within.

Gael removed the bucket, handing it to Arnoll, who set it down on the bench, well away from the brimming hole.

Gael crouched, hampered by the cramped space, peering into the empty bucket niche. His tallow dip flickered and went out, but he waved aside Arnoll’s offer of his, setting the extinguished saucer on the floor and probing the niche with his freed hand.

The mortar felt crumbly and loose. He worked a piece out, held it up in the dim light of Arnoll’s dip, then put it down to pick at the loose mortar again. Following the seam, he discovered a section lacking mortar altogether. His fingertips traced out a rough rectangle. He probed for purchase, then drew out the unmortared stone.

“Hah!” Arnoll exclaimed.

Gael stayed grimly silent, reaching into the now open cavity in the niche’s sidewall.

Somehow, he felt entirely unsurprised when he pulled out two nested ingots of bronze.

*     *     *

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 28)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 2

Whew! I seem to have created a really mean character. I didn’t realize just how mean she was until I typed the longhand draft into a computer file. When I finished, I wondered if I should maybe keep this lady under wraps!

I will tell you that I cheated while writing her scene.

Instead of putting myself in Zelle’s shoes, I put myself in the place of her victims and then had Zelle say things that would hurt me most.

Guess it worked! Because I cringed while typing.

So what have I been up to? Why the nasty character? What’s going on?

For those of you who missed last week’s post: I’ve been working my way through Lawrence Block’s awesome “seminar in a book,” Write for Your Life.

In the chapter “Your Most Unforgettable Characters,” Block assigns two writing exercises. The first, in which one creates a character, I shared last week. Check it out here, if you wish.

The second exercise goes as follows:

• Take a walk or do something similar that refreshes you and clears your mind.

• Then come home and sit as though you were going to meditate—comfortably. (I think comfortably is the key here.)

• For 10 or 15 minutes, envision your character going through an ordinary day. What do they eat, wear, do?

• Then grab pen and paper (or your computer keyboard) and write about the character for 15 minutes.

This writing can take any form that appeals to you. It might be a story, a letter from the character, a letter to the character, a poem, a scene fragment, whatever.

Don’t worry about style. Turn off the critical voice who likes to squelch you when you’re writing.

I felt drawn to writing a scene. I considered writing the arrival of the foreign caravan, but didn’t quite feel the pull.

I contemplated writing of an interaction between Zelle and the crone mage, in which Zelle was being her covertly annoying self and also struggling against her growing affection for the old woman.

That possibility did draw me. It still does, actually. But it felt more demanding than I was ready for. If I were to write the novel in which Zelle would appear, then I’d write this scene. For a writing exercise, I wanted something more straight forward.

I decided to write a scene in which Zelle ensures that someone is annoyed and discommoded.

To prepare, I made a list of things that I would find annoying. Here it is:

    item lost
    item misplaced
    item damaged
    reporting someone’s gossip to another
    food mis-flavored
    tripping hazard
    bed short sheeted
    locked out
    sent on false errand or to carry a false message
    instructions wrong
    supplies low or gone
    sink dirty
    dishes dirty
    picture crooked
    sandal strap broken
    talking behind someone’s back

The list inspired me, and I said to myself: “I think I will show her dirtying the washbasin of the crone mage, and then steering a novice to where she’ll overhear people discussing her unfavorably.”

Once I started writing, it got darker than that. Zelle is mean! Take a look at the scene as it evolved.

To Bruise the Soul

Zelle untwisted a kink in the topmost of the gold chains holding her vest closed and shook the cuffs of her bloused pants to a more graceful position on her ankles. She checked that her tail of red hair, falling from her crown to drift forward of her left shoulder, lay untangled.

Then, tray in hand, she breezed into the sleeping chamber allotted to the two junior-most of the crone mage’s handmaidens.

The youngest of the pair, Gasha, just fifteen, sprawled on the salt-silk banquette where she took her rest. Her vest and pants were rumpled. She lay scowling down at her toes.

“You’d think the crone mage might let me at least apply some healing salts to my own face. It’s not fair that any girl in the community, if her mother be provident, can have clear skin. While I go around with a face like a pox victim.”

Gasha was indeed much troubled with adolescent acne. Which would serve Zelle’s current purpose well. Adolescent vanity was exactly what she intended to trigger.

The dark-haired girl to whom Gasha spoke turned away from the chest into which she’d been stowing folded shifts of bright pattern. “You know you aren’t skilled enough yet to practice healing magery on anyone, let alone on yourself, which is far more demanding than casting on someone else.”

Miyla was two years older than Gasha and known for her serene demeanor. Zelle doubted the girl was so serene beneath that surface appearance however.

Gasha rolled onto her side to meet Miyla’s gaze, her jaw abruptly pugnacious. “Don’t you wish you could use magery on yourself?” Gasha demanded. “If your cheekbones were higher and your chin squarer, you could be the most beautiful girl in the domicile! In the community!”

This was true. Miyla’s eyes were an amazing ice-blue with a surprising intensity beneath dramatic brows like dashes of ink. Her nose was short and straight, her lips beautifully formed. But the excessive flatness of her cheeks and her receding chin removed all possibility of loveliness. Zelle suspected Miyla would have handled ordinary plainness much better than the potential for extraordinary beauty scuttled by a few problematic features.

Miyla’s mouth thinned. “Shut up!” she snapped.

Her lips parted to recriminate further, but then she noticed Zelle’s arrival, and her angry eyes went flat. She curtsied, murmuring, “Salt mother.”

Gasha’s sulks disappeared, too, and she lurched off the banquette to her feet to echo Miyla’s knee dip. “Salt mother!” she gasped.

Zelle ignored the girls’ discomfiture, handing a crystal vial from her tray to Gasha. “Here you go. The crone mage has approved your request.”

The vial contained the very mage-infused salts the girl had been complaining of. Her request had been approved with no resistance once Zelle conveyed it. But Zelle had delayed such conveyance for six moons. She’d needed Gasha feeling discontented and rebellious.

“Oh!” exclaimed Gasha. “Thank you! I thought—I thought—”

Zelle smiled. “You thought the crone mage desired your humiliation.”

“Oh, no!” protested Gasha. “I was humiliated. I am humiliated—”

“Don’t be,” said Zelle, and then added, her tone light, “Such a shame that your skin is not clear like Seliya’s. But no matter. These salts will take care of it, and when they are gone, you shall have more.”

Gasha’s delight fell from her expression. She looked confused, trying to reconcile her pleasure in receiving her desire with the pain of the gratuitous reminder that her acne was severe, while the newest of the crone mage’s handmaidens—Seliya—possessed naturally flawless skin.

Zelle concealed her inner amusement and turned away from Gasha, focusing instead on Miyla, who stood nervously twisting her fingers together.

“I accidentally overheard you talking with the herbalist yesterday, and I think the wish you expressed to her is reasonable.” It hadn’t been a wish. Zelle was well aware it had been an expression of frustration.

But hearing the girl’s frustration had inspired this entire scheme in Zelle’s imagination. Now that she was putting her plans in play, it was working beautifully, judging by the tension in the room.

She took up the stack of face veils from her tray, handing them to Miyla. “I think that you are quite right that if you assume the zavoj of an ascetic, you’ll gain a more favorable response from the people around you. If all they can see are your eyes . . .” Zelle trailed off, smiling kindly.

Miyla’s expression congealed. She looked a though she’d been punched in the stomach, but she accepted the face veils.

“I shouldn’t be surprised if strangers imagined you to be as beautiful as Seliya, and even your friends will forget in time that you aren’t.”

Miyla curtsied. “Salt mother,” she whispered, not meaning the respect the courtesy conveyed, but not withholding it either.

“Salt mother,” echoed Gasha.

Zelle breezed out as she had breezed in.

The next step was to fetch Seliya. She’d have the girl wait in the corridor outside Gasha’s and Miyla’s chamber, ready to accompany Zelle on an errand to a ague-stricken household on the edge of the community.

Seliya was wonderfully uncertain of herself, trying to fit in, trying to make friends. She should get an earful, listening to Gasha’s and Miyla’s verbal storms in the aftermath of Zelle’s provocation.

Zelle nodded.

While Seliya listened and grew even more lonely and unhappy, Zelle would have just enough time to weaken the buckle strap on the crone mother’s favorite sandals—it would break on her next sojourn outside the domicile. She could also pour dirtied water into the crone’s washbasin. The chamber maid should have just finished cleaning the crone’s water closet.

Zelle repressed a sigh of satisfaction. People were so simple-minded. They always assumed others meant well. Zelle never did. It was delicious.

*     *     *

For the first character assignment (that produced Zelle), see:
Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 1

For more flash fiction, see:
Ribbon of Earth’s Tears
Mother’s Gift

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 28)

Gael stared in shock.

Arnoll! Arnoll was the thief?

It was impossible. If any troll within Belzetarn could claim integrity, it was Arnoll. He told no lies. He avoided pretense and poses. He befriended those in need. He’d befriended Gael for no reason Gael could see, those seven years ago. He defended those who needed defense. He’d defended Gael.

Gael’s thief absolutely could not be Arnoll.

And yet, there Arnoll sat, examining an ingot of tin that he should not possess.

Gael’s feet felt glued to the stone floor, while his heart hammered.

He wanted to turn around, to retrace his steps—through time, as well as space—to go back to the moment before this one. To return to his chambers and not leave them. To avoid this instant of discovery altogether. To never see Arnoll holding the tin ingot. To not lose one more friend. To not be betrayed.

Gael stepped forward.

Arnoll looked up. His curly hair, iron gray, emerged from shadow, and his face lightened, losing the demonic aspect conferred by his frown and the lighting. He held the tin ingot out to Gael. “Look at this,” he directed matter-of-factly. “What do you make of it?”

Gael’s heartbeat slowed, and he tamped down his consternation. Of course there would be a reasonable explanation. Arnoll was exactly as he presented himself: trustworthy, solid, steadfast. Gael was a fool to even consider otherwise.

He took the ingot in his hand and immediately knew why Arnoll had perceived something amiss with it.

The flat rim, roughly two fingers in width, lay cool and smooth against Gael’s palm, filling it. The hollow pyramid rose at the normal angle from the rim, a dull and silvery gray, not yet darkened from its fresh forging to the blacker hue of old tin. The flat top was properly square. The ingot looked entirely normal, and it possessed the correct heft, neither too light nor too heavy.

But the metal was too thin.

Not by a lot. Not enough for an inexperienced troll to notice, perhaps. But to a smith or to one who tallied metals, it was significant. Belzetarn’s ingots of copper, tin, and bronze all weighed the same—one pound—and possessed identical width, length, and height. But the thickness of the sheet forming the ‘hat’ shape of the ingots varied. Dense copper was thinnest. Bronze, just a hair thicker. And tin—light and rare—was thickest of all.

This tin ingot possessed the thickness of a copper ingot. And Gael wanted to know why.

“Did someone use the wrong mold?” he asked, without really thinking.

“That would be the preferable explanation,” said Arnoll, his voice taking a sardonic tone. “But, no.”

Arnoll knew something Gael didn’t, evidently.

“What is it?” asked Gael.

“Look at it with your inner sight,” said Arnoll.

Gael’s calming pulse quickened again. Anything in Belzetarn involving energea posed the potential for unwanted complication. Gael especially wanted no complications in the smithies or, by extension, in his tally room. But complications were almost guaranteed, once he’d discerned the thefts of tin and bronze. He was awash in complications.

With almost as little preparation as the physician he’d observed in the afternoon, Gael closed his eyes and opened his inner gaze.

As he expected, a lattice of energea, criss-crossing to form diamond shapes, vibrated within the metal. But the diamonds were smaller, more closely packed than those of tin, while their vibration was less rapid than it should be. Small flickers of green shimmered within the lattice.

Someone had used energea to tamper with this ingot.

Gael compressed his lips. How dare anyone defile his tin. He reached for power within his heart node, guiding silver sparks along his arcs, and pushing them through the ingot, where they caught the green flickers and drew them out of the metal.

Arnoll cursed. “Cayim’s hells!”

Gael closed his inner gaze and opened his eyes.

The ingot resting in his palm now looked like what it was: an ingot of copper, warm-hued and shiny.

“Gaelan’s tears,” said Gael blankly.

He set the ingot down on the counter.

“Do you have any idea who might have done this?” asked Arnoll.

“No,” said Gael, even more blankly. He could imagine all sorts of reasons that someone might steal tin. It was valuable. But why in the north would anyone want to make an ingot of copper look like an ingot of tin? Something very strange was happening amongst Belzetarn’s metal stores.

“Neither have I,” said Arnoll. “Which was why—I did steal this ingot, Gael. And I hadn’t planned to tell you.” The smith grimaced and gestured at the ingot. “But you needed to know this.”

Gael’s teeth set hard. “Why?” His tone held an equally hard edge.

Arnoll did not mistake the direction of Gael’s question. The smith’s gaze fell, not in shame—because his face was just as set as Gael knew his own must be—but in some other uncomfortable realization.

Gael swallowed. What distressing revelation would come next in this string of bad to worse?

Arnoll looked up. “This is not my secret. Which was why I planned to keep you unknowing of it. But in the circumstances”—he nodded at the copper ingot—“you need to not have my theft mixed in with whatever else is going on.”

Arnoll settled more securely on his tall stool.

Gael glanced around, saw a stool around the counter’s corner, and snagged it to sit himself. If Arnoll was going to confess to stealing . . . Gael needed to be seated. This would not be pleasant hearing.

Arnoll nodded, grimly, and began. “The march sponsored me in Belzetarn thirty years ago. He was not the march then, of course, just one of the opteons. One of the better ones.” Arnoll’s lips straightened. “Ylian would have executed me else.”

“You?” Gael couldn’t imagine any regenen ordering Arnoll’s death.

“I held the same standard you did when you arrived here. I would not betray the unafflicted.”

“Dreas convinced you otherwise?” Gael knew that currently Arnoll believed trolls deserved protecting—thus his peace as armor smith—even while he also held that men deserved better than war with the troll horde. Gael could not slice his own loyalties so finely, but he understood Arnoll’s point of view.

“No,” answered the smith. “Dreas promised to secure me a post in which I would do no direct harm to Belzetarn’s enemies.” Arnoll sighed. “He kept that promise, not only at the beginning, but through the years.”

Gael could see where this led. “You owe him.”

“I owe him,” agreed Arnoll.

“But why tin? You thought it was tin, didn’t you?”

“The march’s troll-disease is advancing,” said Arnoll.

Gael’s belly felt abruptly cold. The truldemagar did advance. That was its nature. And in a citadel of trolls, there would always be a troll in whom it had advanced too far. But one didn’t like learning of it. And one especially didn’t like learning of it in a troll so key as the march.

“Seriously so?” asked Gael. “Requiring an end?”

“Not yet,” said Arnoll. “But Dreas sees his end, more clearly than before. And he wants to delay it. Not for himself, he says, but for Carbraes. Carbraes needs him. He says.”

Gael understood that. Carbraes and Dreas had held one another’s backs for decades. Dreas would not trust another to do so as faithfully as himself. But death waited on no one’s will, and the truldemagar less so than many hardships. How did Dreas think he could delay it?

“The march plans to follow Fuwan’s path,” continued Arnoll.

Gael’s cold belly grew colder yet.

Fuwan had been Belzetarn’s magus before Nathiar. Nathiar was already installed as magus when Gael arrived, but Gael had heard the stories. Fuwan was the oldest magus the citadel had ever possessed, and his body had shown it: spine so curled he could not stand straight, but craned his neck upward from his half-bent stance; ears so enlarged that the lobes brushed his shoulders; skin and eyes so yellowed he should have been too sick to climb out of bed.

Despite his physical deformities, Fuwan’s mind stayed clear and sound, most unusually so. But when his madness came, it came suddenly and thoroughly. One of Belzetarn’s outposts was a slagged heap of stone, melted by Fuwan’s potent and destructive energea in his death throes.

“There’s a way to follow Fuwan?” Gael demanded. “Why would Dreas want such an end? Why would you help him to such an end? Slaying hundreds of trolls—many of them young boys, no doubt—in his final conflagration? Arnoll—”

Arnoll gripped Gael’s forearm. “Hear me out,” he said.

Gael settled back, nodded.

“Dreas found Fuwan’s notes, which included his predecessor’s researches,” Arnoll explained. “Small amounts of tin ingested daily retard the truldemagar madness, but bring it on more violently when at last it comes. Dreas—eating powdered tin every morning, when he broke his fast—would outlast Carbraes. There would be no final conflagration for Dreas. Once Carbraes was gone”—Arnoll drew the edge of his hand across his throat, mimicking a knife on tender flesh—“Dreas would depart as well. By his own hand.”

Gael felt sick. The more he delved into the arrears in his tallies, the uglier it got. He could see where Arnoll’s story was going.

Gael spoke his thoughts aloud. “If Carbraes knew the march’s intention, he would forbid it. I can hear him now: ‘No troll knows the ultimate path of his disease. Let us take our chances, old friend, and live it as it comes.’ And while Dreas is willing to act against his regenen’s probable wishes, he’s not willing to disregard his expressed request.”

Gael shook his head, his lips twisting a little. “Thus, secrecy. Thus, you.” He glanced irritatedly at Arnoll. “And, thus, theft. Hells, Arnoll.” He felt disgusted, even while he sympathized.

Arnoll nodded. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

Gael’s breath huffed out. Where in the hells was he going to go with this? He’d located a thief, but not the thief who taken the ingots missing from yesterday’s tallies. Or had he?

“Was this the first ingot you stole from me?” he asked.

Now Arnoll looked exasperated. “This is the only ingot I’ve stolen. Ever. And I will not take another. I’ll ask you for the next straight out.”

Gael stared at Arnoll staring back at him.

“I understand your position,” he said finally. “But I don’t like the choice you made.”

Arnoll’s eyes continued to meet Gael’s. “I didn’t expect you would.”

Gael’s anger ebbed. Conflicting loyalties were unavoidable in Belzetarn. Or anywhere, really. He’d avoided splitting his own—thus far. But that assessment held true only if he kept his vision sufficiently narrow. Looked at with a wider gaze, Gael’s mere presence in Belzetarn represented a serious split in his faith—especially his presence as secretarius, the one who ensured that the warriors possessed weapons. He was loyal to Carbraes. Truly. And, yet, he remained opposed to the troll horde and still hoped for their ultimate defeat by the unafflicted.

Gael avoided thinking about that wider view, and now was not the time for it. He held the tin vault’s contents in trust for his regenen. He needed to decide how he would slice his loyalty within Belzetarn, between Carbraes and Arnoll.

Except that was already a given. He would never betray Arnoll, no matter how his loyalty to Arnoll nibbled at Carbraes’ interests.

Meeting Arnoll’s gaze again, he said, “Thank you for telling me. I’ll give you an ingot of tin—one untampered with—tonight.” And he would tally it properly.

“You’re missing other ingots?” asked Arnoll.

Gael nodded.

“And now this.” Arnoll gestured at the ingot of copper that had borne the semblance of tin.

“Yes.” It was three hells of a tangle. “Help me search the privy smithy. I doubt any ingots were accidentally kicked behind an anvil or under a counter, but you know Martell.”

Arnoll snorted. The armor smithy being adjacent to the privy smithy, Arnoll did indeed know Martell. And Arnoll was no fool. He likely sensed as surely as did Gael that something sinister stirred amongst the trolls of Belzetarn.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 29)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 27)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters

I’ve been working my way through Lawrence Block’s book Write for Your Life, doing the assignments contained therein.

Why?

Well, first of all, Block has written over 100 novels and over 100 short stories. His career started in the 1950s, and he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1994. His accomplishments in the writing life command my admiration and respect. He’s someone I’m honored to learn from.

Secondly, I’ve read each of the four writer’s guides penned by Block, and I like the man’s approach to living as it comes through in his writerly advice. He’s down-to-earth, he’s real, and he has a lot of insight into being human.

And, thirdly, when I first read Write for Your Life (without doing the assignments), there was one passage which really caught my attention and made me vow to return, pen in hand and paper before me. The gist of it:

Do the writers who work the hardest achieve greater success? Not from what Block has observed. A certain threshold of work is necessary, but beyond that he has not seen correlation between effort expended and success achieved.

The biggest factors in success are the beliefs you hold about yourself, your writing, and the world. What you think is what you get. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

Therefore, you must learn what beliefs hold you back and confront them, so as to change them.

I am very interested in removing any internal blocks that stand in the way of my success.

Most of the assignments detailed in Write for Your Life are too personal to share in a blog. But the chapter titled “Your Most Unforgettable Characters” includes two assignments that are not personal at all. In fact, they are rather fun, so I thought I’d share the first of them right here and right now.

These were Block’s instructions:

• Seek out a public space.

• Take note of a stranger there, someone of whom you know nothing beyond what you can observe.

• Spend some time unobtrusively observing that person. How do they move, how do they talk, what do they wear? Don’t take notes; just get a good sense of them.

• Then go home, thinking about the stranger as you go. How might they react to events? What might they feel? Think?

ª Once home, get out pen and paper, give the person a name, and make a list of the person’s characteristics. Some items will be things you observed, some inventions, some a mix.

*     *     *

Since it was 9 pm as I was reading these instructions, and as I was already in my pajamas, I decided to make an adjustment to the assignment. I neither wanted to get dressed again and go out somewhere nor to wait until the morrow to do so.

Instead, I meditated upon my memory of a photograph I clipped from a magazine 30 years ago (now lost), because I found the image so arresting that I imagined myself (even then) writing a story about the woman depicted.

Rather than describing the photograph for you, I’m going to transcribe what I wrote for the assignment.

Zelle

She has copper-red hair, long and very straight. She wears it in a horse-tail at the crown of her head. Her skin is very pale, but it neither burns nor tans, no matter how much sun she gets.

She wears tangerine-colored harem pants and sandals with many straps, like the footgear of the ancient Roman soldiers.

She wears a peach-colored vest secured in front by chains of gold. The vest is short, so her midriff is exposed, just a few inches. The front edges of the vest do not quite meet, so her cleavage is visible, also her navel.

She lives in a salt desert in a residence built of salt bricks.

Her people “mine” the salt and sell it afar via caravan.

They possess something called “salt magic” which involves colored salts and can be used to repair both inert things and living beings.

Zelle holds a position of authority, but not the ultimate authority. I think she is the assistant to one of the crone mages.

She feels a sense of personal power when she argues with people or causes them to feel annoyance.

Her magical abilities were discovered when she was 5 years old, and she was taken away from her family to learn control of her gift in the palace from which the crone queen rules. Zelle felt very small, lonely, vulnerable, and lost at first.

She proved very talented, so she leaned into her magic as a way to feel secure.

She didn’t boast to her peers, because she somehow felt it would be undignified. Instead she learned to find small and unobtrusive ways to cause trouble for her cohorts, which made her feel strong.

She never helped her classmates, because being better at classwork made her feel good. But not boasting meant they did not realize just how good she was and thus did not marshall their resources to catch up. She studied all the time, except when she worked to create subtle pain and annoyance for others. Her teachers did recognize her excellence.

What does Zelle want?

I think she wants exactly what she has: enough authority, but less visibility. Ah! But she is beginning to feel affection for the crone mage she serves. She is unhappy about this, because she feels more comfortable with aggression and hostility.

There could be a story here.

What if a caravan of foreigners entered the salt lands instead of waiting on the caravans the salt landers send out?

The salt landers hate this invasion, Zelle included. But the assistant to the caravan master attracts her. And he seems more conscious of her than he should be.

But what if there is another element to events than this? There is water en route. Not overland, but as a storm approaching. The salt landers can see clouds building and building. When the deluge arrives, the flood will inundate the salt plan and dissolve the salt.

How do the salt landers manage in their salt desert? They use their magic to make glass utensils, pipes, basins, and even furniture.

Why is someone aiming a rainstorm at them?

*     *     *

Block speaks of this exercise not as the route by which to create characters in one’s stories, but as a way to gain access to areas of one’s own personality that might otherwise remain buried.

The next exercise in the chapter builds on this one. I’ll tell you about it next week! 😀
Lawrence Block and Unforgettable Characters—Take 2

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 27)

The Regenen Stair was a good deal busier than the Lake Stair. It provided the most direct route between all three great halls—stacked above one another—and the kitchens. Scullions carrying leather bottles to the bottle scullery jostled scullions toting drinking horns to the horn scullery. Porters bearing broad laving basins sped past their slower brethren burdened by heavy bench cushions.

Gael had intended to descend via the Cliff Stair, which debouched directly into the armor smithy, but habit had directed him onto the more familiar route. He steadied a messenger boy who, tripping on a porter’s heel, threatened to tumble headfirst through a bunch of his ascending fellows.

“Thanks!” gasped the boy, dashing onward.

Gael chuckled.

The messenger boys of Belzetarn were just like the page boys of Hadorgol—eager to get where they were going, equally eager to leave once they arrived. It made no difference, at their young age, whether they suffered the truldemagar or not. Later, the disease would slow the afflicted ones, but not now.

Was exile really the right choice for dealing with trolls? They were no different from men . . . until they were. That was the difficulty: knowing when the madness would claim them. And when it did, all too often, they used the dangerous energea—acrid orange—to lay waste to their surroundings. A rare few hid their insanity, doing more subtle damage for a longer interval. Neither outcome—explosive destruction or subtle corrosion—yielded anything good.

There was no good answer. But Gael could not help wondering how his life might have gone, if Heiroc had chosen to keep his magus by his side in some other capacity. Gael had bent all of his intelligence and loyalty to Carbraes’ service for the last seven years. How if he had given it to Heiroc instead, to the benefit of humans, not trolls?

Gael shook his head. He’d thought down this road so many times before, and he knew its turnings too well. Heiroc had possessed no other real options for the disposal of his friend and magus, afflicted as he was by the truldemagar.

But Gael wished his king might at least have allowed Gael the grace of claiming the necessary exile, instead of thrusting it upon him.

No. That wasn’t true. Heiroc had been generous. Heiroc had thrust nothing upon him save his beloved landseer Morza. It was Damalis who’d leapt to repudiate Gael.

And, yet, what choice had she possessed? At least she’d been honest.

Gael wanted to blame her. To blame Heiroc. But his own reason prevented him. Thousands of trolls had been exiled before ever Gael was born, and thousands more would be exiled after his death. How should Heiroc—or Damalis—solve this desperate riddle of the ages?

The footsteps on the Regenen Stair—slow tramping mingled with swift rushing, irregular punctuated by steady—and the warning shouts—“Look out!”—faded rapidly as Gael took the tunnel from the stairwell toward the forges. The light faded with equal thoroughness.

The torches in the tunnel had been doused.

Gael suppressed a curse. Had he simply followed the same routine for so long that he’d forgotten how to operate when he did something different? He’d meant to take the Cliff Stair, not the Regenen. He’d meant to bring a tallow dip, expecting the smithies to be dark, and had not brought it.

Standing in the archway at the back of the blade smithy, he strained to see.

Was that a glimmer of light on the far side of the forges that clustered around the central flue?

He squinted. His eyes adjusted. And—yes—someone in the armor smithy—no doubt Arnoll—had remembered the need for lighting at this hour.

Gael stepped forward cautiously into the gloom. If he felt before him, he should be able to maneuver around the work counters in the blade smithy, the tool racks in the tin smeltery, and the anvils in the annealing smithy without more than a stubbed toe or a barked shin.

His eyes adjusted further as he moved forward, and the glow from the armor smithy strengthened.

Reaching the low wall on the far side of the annealing smithy, he paused.

Arnoll settled one haunch on a tall stool, his burly shoulders casting a large shadow. Two tallow dips flickered on the work counter beside him, lighting his face from below, accentuating the deformed curve of his troll nose and casting his eyes into darkness. The smith looked . . . evil.

He studied the object he held in his right hand.

An ingot of tin.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 28)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 26)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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Writer Conference of Two

Yesterday—when I should have been ensuring that my blog had a new post—I was instead meeting with Laura Montgomery to talk shop about writing and publishing for 4 hours.

It was glorious!

I don’t dare impose upon non-writers and non-publishers with such a prolonged concentration on the craft of writing, the intricacies of advertising, and the requirements of book design.

(We greeted one another with a Thai wai—and did a lot of hand washing—so as to minimize the chance of conveying COVID-19 from my location to hers, or vice versa.)

I’m not going to impose upon you with a blow-by-blow account of our discussions. But I will relay a few highlights.

Dorothy Sayers

Since I’m re-reading several of Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries, I spoke of a new discovery I’d made of something heretofore unnoticed by me. Sayers’ world building is largely focused on the social milieu in which her stories take place. She gives just a sketch of the physical setting—enough that the reader has some idea, but no more.

In Murder Must Advertise, I felt myself to be in the ad agency, not because the office premises were so vivid, but because the attitudes of the copy writers, the typists, the art department, and the account managers were vivid. I heard how they spoke, learned what their concerns were and what produced friction between different individuals and groups. It was fascinating!

In The Nine Tailors, I visited a village in the English countryside of the 1930s and felt myself immersed in the community gathered around the parson of the local church. In Gaudy Night, I experienced the society of the dons, scouts, and students of a women’s college in Oxford.

I’m really intrigued by how Sayers conveyed the social milieu, because my own world building tends to focus more on culture, art, religion, and social hierarchies. I’d like to bring more of Sayers’ community feeling to my work.

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block has written many marvelous books on the caft of writing, and I’ve read all of them. But just recently I decided to read his Write For Your Life, a “seminar in a book” focused on how the unconscious beliefs held by a writer can hold her back and how to get free of such impediments.

Laura and I have both been reading Write For Your Life and doing the exercises within.

Next week’s blog post will be a transcription of my results from one of the exercises on building characters.

January-February Accomplishments

We looked over what we’d each accomplished so far this year. It’s helpful to be accountable to someone other than oneself. Here’s my list:

Jan 2—brainstorm short story about bridge engineer for the legions of ancient Rome
Jan 3—register Sovereign Night at the US Copyright Office
Jan 4—write flash fiction: “Ribbon of Earth’s Tears”
Jan 6—create cover for The Hunt of the Unicorn paperback
Jan 8—write first scene of bridge builder short
Jan 15—write “Were It Only Exile” short story
Jan 20—work on Here Be Elves bundle
Jan 21—publish Sovereign Night
Feb 1—register The Hunt of the Unicorn at the US Copyright Office
Feb 4-10—big marketing push for Gael & Keir series
Feb 10—publish The Hunt of the Unicorn on Amazon
Feb 12—first correction pass through Journey into Grief paperback photos
Mar 2—register Tales of Old Giralliya at the US Copyright Office

Looking Forward

We also shared our plans for the year ahead. More accountability to help with productivity.

I hope to adjust the categories and sub-categories for a bunch of my backlist books, as well as doing a few other publishing tasks. But the most important plans are my writing plans. Take a look!

March (early)—write short story about bridge engineer for the legions of ancient Rome
March (mid)—think about Deepearth Rising, Gael & Keir Book Three
March (late)—revise first 16k of Deepearth Rising

(April—visit several colleges with my daughter)

May 2—start writing Deepearth Rising
October (early)—write short story: “Sleeping Beauty 2”
October (mid)—write short story: “Sleeping Beauty 1”
October (late)—write short story, plot to be determined
November (early)—think about Gael & Keir Book Four
November (mid)—plan Gael & Keir Book Four
December—start writing Gael & Keir Book Four

I’m crossing my fingers that my health stays good and I don’t have any surgeries this year! 😀

 

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The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 26)

Chapter 6

Gael slipped away from Belzetarn’s main hall via the Lake Stair, the one most easily reached from his end of the high table. Night had fallen at last, and the torches illuminating the stairwell flared, casting golden light on the stone walls and making the embrasures of the arrowslits into seeming caves. Coolness poured through their dark openings, carrying the pure freshness of the night air.

Gael paused at the last embrasure before he had to exit the stairwell and cross the lower great hall via the curving balcony that led to his chambers. After the noise and brightness and smells of feasting, the solitude of the night called him.

He took the awkward step up to the embrasure’s floor and moved to the arrowslit at its far end. Leaning his elbows on the deep sill, he looked out.

The moon waning deichtain had just started today, so the moon shone large in the night sky, a gibbous lantern shedding silvery light across the landscape below. He could hear the lake lapping at the base of the cliff on which Belzetarn stood. Dark water spread toward the horizon and the silhouette of the mountains there, a wake of moonlight shivering across the broad expanse, pointing east.

The trolls who fished the lake drowned sometimes. Belzetarn’s hunters took their hounds when they chased dangerous game, but the fishers had no dogs to help them, unlike the fisherfolk of Hadorgol.

In Hadorgol’s rivers and bays, landseers brought fishing nets to shore, towed small dinghies, retrieved waterfowl for duck hunters, and rescued children who fell in the water or men tossed from capsized boats.

The king’s landseer, Morza, had rescued Gael in more ways than one.

The six guardsmen who had accompanied him to Hadorgol’s border carried his gear, steadied his faltering steps, cooked meals, and procured shelter so long as they were with him, but they departed all too soon. Without Morza, he would have perished. She carried his gear then, in a pack attached to a special harness. She guided him through the trackless wilderness. She hunted hares for his sustenance. And she lay close to him when he fell, keeping him warm in the cooling weather.

A lump rose in his throat when he thought of her: great hearted and generous, patient, steadfast.

Her sagacity preserved his afflicted body, but her love—dog-love though it was—preserved his soul. When he’d buried his face in his hands, despairing, she nudged her cold nose against his wrist until he looked up. When he stopped walking, wondering if there were any point to going on, she barked until he stepped forward again. And as summer changed to autumn, when he failed to build a fire in his evening’s camp, she fetched wood and stood over him until he arranged the sticks and lit them with his flint.

Through the long nights, she pillowed her head on his chest, where his searching hands could stroke her ears when he felt most alone. He was not alone—because of Morza.

On her last night, Morza met an ice panther’s charge, slowing it just enough for Gael to loose a bolt of energea before it reached him.

The beast fled snarling into the darkness, confused and defeated.

Morza bled to death in the snow, her noble head cradled in Gael’s arms. He’d wept then. Never had he wept for his truldemagar. Nor for Damalis’ dismissal. Not even for his king’s banishment.

But for Morza, Gael had cried.

A clatter on the stairs recalled him. Reluctantly, he returned to the stairwell, passed down the last steps to the landing, and exited onto the balcony above the lower great hall. Below him, scullions were carrying the table boards to adjacent storerooms, while others noisily stacked the trestles against the walls.

Gael hurried to his chambers, quickly changed into the scruffy knee-length tunic and trews he reserved for dirty work—a rarity—and hastened down the Regenen Stair toward the smithies.

Arnoll was no doubt wondering what was taking Gael so long.

Just as Gael wondered what mystery Arnoll sought Gael’s opinion on.

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 6 (scene 27)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 5 (scene 25)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)

 

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Now Solo! The Hunt of the Unicorn

Nearly a year ago, my short story “The Hunt of the Unicorn” released in the bundle called Here Be Unicorns.

I promised that I’d also release it solo in a few months—maybe three or four. Then life intervened.

I had oral surgery, part 1 and part 2. My husband’s position at his workplace was eliminated. My children started the college application process, which proved to be much more demanding of the parents than I’d ever imagined. And, and, and. 😉

But now, at last, “The Hunt of the Unicorn” is available within its own cover—with amazing art from the 1500s—in both ebook and paperback form. I’m thrilled.

Go check the Look Inside! I think I’ve developed an unusual twist on the medieval fable of the unicorn. I’m curious what you’ll think.

Heal a wound. Purify poison. Reveal truth amidst falsehood.

He would be king one day, and called as king to be wise for his people. But wisdom—and kindness—no longer come to him.

Brychan, princess in a corner of a Wales that never was, requires a unicorn’s horn to mend what is broken within him.

The ancient fables speak of unicorn miracles, but if she finds the magical beast of fable, will the powers of his horn prove to be living truth? Or lying legend?

 

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