The second part of a three-part story is often the trickiest. It can be hard to work the tale in such a way that it feels like its own complete story, yet works to connect the first part with the last. Even when a work is planned as a trilogy from the outset, the second part can suffer from a bit of ‘middle child syndrome’, and parts of it can feel artificially padded as plot points are set up for the final installment to knock over. J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson managed to avoid this with The Two Towers, which has its own contained story to tell. The question many asked is, can the same be done with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?
We pick up directly where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves are on the run from orcs. Even as the hunters give chase, they are unwittingly driving the company closer to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the goal of the company’s quest. While they evade immediate capture, Gandalf must leave to join Radagast the Brown in investigating rumors of a great evil on the rise. Meanwhile, Bilbo and his friends have to navigate the shady paths of Mirkwood, deal with the king of the wood elves, and behold the area around the Lonely Mountain known as ‘the desolation of Smaug’, a land scarred by dragonfire and cowering in the shadow of Erebor.
As much as I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, I am willing to acknowledge that, while it doesn’t rush, its pace can be a touch inconsistent. A good portion of that film, especially the first two acts of it, are occupied primarily with flashbacks and backstory. I realize this is necessary, particularly in the first chapter of a trilogy, but it can make the story move in two directions: forward, then backwards, then forward again. It can be awkward, and I’m glad An Unexpected Journey didn’t feel that way even as it shifts gears. Thankfully, The Desolation of Smaug has only direction: Forward.
From the opening of the film, with Thorin and company on the run from orcs, until the confrontation with Smaug in Erebor, the story is always heading into its next encounter. The nice thing is that, as much as it’s constantly in motion, it gives more than enough breathing room for its characters. We get more time with characters established in the first film, and new ones are introduced and given their own elbow room. That’s one of the advantages to Jackson incorporating so much from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and expanding this relatively simple story into three extra-long films. The world of Middle-Earth, and the beings that populate it, are given ample opportunity to come to vibrant, breathing life.
Even as the world expands and the story moves along, we manage to stay with and care about our core characters, for the most part. With Gandalf leaving the company to investigate Dol Guldur, and Bilbo already having overcome his impulse to just run home and curl up with a good book under about a thousand blankets, we focus more on Thorin Oakenshield. There are moments with other characters, to be certain. Thranduil gets more personality, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel steals most of the scenes she’s in, and I really liked the character moments we get with Beorn, Bard, and even the Master of Laketown. More dwarven moments are always good, from Bombur doing more than just being the butt of jokes to Kili turning on the charm to Oin’s healing abilities. But really, this is Thorin’s movie, right up until we meet the dragon Smaug. Thorin definitely comes into his own, having kingly moments as well as showing the nuance and questionable decision-making that comes from obsession. All of this might sound like Bilbo is taking a backseat in his own movie, but he has plenty of great moments, and I was reminded more than once that not only is he the uncle of Frodo Baggins, he’s also related to Peregrin Took. I recall grinning at the screen, shanking my head, and saying “That’s a total Pippin moment.”
I understand that there are quite a few die-hard Tolkien fans who aren’t satisfied with these films. And I can understand why. With its additions, expansions, and digressions, these film adaptations of The Hobbit are deviating from the text far more than Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings ever did. From the perspective of fans that have read and digested and lived with The Hobbit for decades, the simplicity and pace and whimsy of this story are being watered down, if not entirely lost. Since so much time is being spent with characters who aren’t the hobbit of the title, the deviations seem even more aberrant, again from their point of view. I can appreciate that perspective, and if that sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you, you’re justified in not seeing it. However, from my point of view, the inclusion of more of Tolkien’s lore and the growth of Middle-Earth around the core of this simple story and these vibrant characters is a good use of the material and leads to a satisfying continuation of a truly epic tale of fantasy. I may be overly optimistic, but I honestly believe this is building to a fully coherent and connected story that begins at Bag End with Bilbo Baggins getting a visit from a wizard, and ends at the Black Gate of Mordor. Or maybe a few scenes and a couple gratuitous fades to black after that.
Stuff I Liked: There’s a lot here for Tolkien nerds. The scene with Beorn is fantastically done. I’m glad they expanded on more of the dwarves. The execution of Bilbo in the forest of Mirkwood was very cool, from climbing the tree to the signs of his growing connection to the One Ring.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some of the digressions may not have been entirely necessary. A couple of the scenes’ CGI could have been sharpened up a bit – maybe they’d look better in 3D or 48 FPS?
Stuff I Loved: Thorin really seizes hold of both his destiny and our imaginations. Bard is a colorful character that makes decisions that always feel consistent from his perspective. There’s more wizardly daring-do, the fight along the river was a treat, and Martin Freeman continues to demonstrate what an inspired choice he was for Bilbo Baggins.
Stuff I REALLY Loved: Smaug.
Bottom Line: In the end, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels a lot more like the continuation of the overall narrative of The Hobbit rather than trying to stand entirely on its own. However, with its pace and new elements and complications, it feels a lot less like padded filler and more like a broadening and deepening of the world Bilbo is exploring. Absolutely die-hard long-standing fans of Tolkien may be turned off by its additions and digressions. However, it continues to demonstrates Peter Jackson’s directorial skill, the cast is in great form, the action’s never dull, and it delivers perhaps the best dragon on screen to date. For my money, it’s definitely worth seeing, and perhaps more than once.
“If this infernal heat doesn’t kill me,” Balthazar growled, “I’m sure the desert would love to fill my lungs with sand.”
“Why would the Equalizer be out here?”
“Think about it.” Balthazar tried not to snap at his apprentice. Gaspar was a good kid, and smart for his age, but he had an annoying tendency of not thinking things through. “If you wanted to hide something from the world, how smart is it to build a great structure out where everybody can see it?”
“But way out here? Wouldn’t you lose track of where you left it?”
“Not if you’re a Gods-damned Sage. Now enough with the belly-aching and give me the Astrolabe of Epsilon before I choke on the damn dune that’s come to play with us.”
Gaspar fumbled in his packs and produced the device. Balthazar squinted against the swirling sand, and tugged the dials into their appropriate positions. It was much like the other astrolabes in the world, but the one created by Epsilon, a sage so ancient even his name was lost, charted not the paths of the Sun and stars, but the lines of power that lay beneath the surface of the earth, invisible to the naked eye. He kept his eyes on it as he walked, stopping suddenly, turning, then moving on.
“The storm is getting worse!” Gaspar had to shout to be heard above the wind. “If we don’t find it soon…!”
“Please keep stating the obvious,” Balthazar replied, “because that certainly isn’t getting old.”
The Astrolabe of Epsilon rattled in his hands. No one was entirely sure how it knew, but it did. Balthazar pointed at the featureless sand at his feet.
“Here! We dig!”
Gaspar pulled the shovels out, and handed one to his master. It was hard to get started with the wind, but working together they managed to carve out a small hole in the dune. Gaspar’s shovel struck something about a foot under the surface, and when he tried to lift his shovel, it caught hold and there was a mechanical sound.
“Idiot boy! Back away before…!”
With a whirring, clunking sound, the trapdoor under the pair gave way, and they fell through the sand into the chamber beneath. The trapdoor shut almost immediately, and while the drop was short, it left both men half-buried in a small pile of sand.
“Augh! I told you Esvartus set up his laboratory this way! You should have been more careful!”
“I’m sorry, Master, but…”
Balthazar got to his feet and dusted off his robes. “‘But’ nothing. You need to pay more attention, Gaspar, and keep your mind more ordered. I know you’re young, yet, and visions of moaning women yeilding to your manly charms dance behind your eyes, but focus on where you are and what you’re doing, or you’re going to get yourself killed. Or worse, me!”
“Of course, Master. It won’t happen again.”
“By all the Gods’ knickers, it won’t. Now, let’s have some light.”
He extended his hand and spoke the right words. Elemental flame came to life in the air between his palm and fingers. He opened his hand more to give it more room to breathe. It illuminated the antechamber, showing pictograms and carvings on every surface, even the bottom of the trapdoor that had just admitted them into its bowels.
“Now. To find the Equalizer. Epsilon’s Astrolabe won’t work underground, so we need to go by Esvartus’ notes. What did you piece together?”
Gaspar pulled several half-ruined bits of parchment out of his pocket. “Only that to approach the Equalizer is to court the most dangerous of minds.”
“Pshaw. Esvartus wasn’t so dangerous that he wouldn’t let a pretty girl turn his head, either. You’d have liked him, Gaspar.”
“Why is that?”
“He died fucking.”
Balthazar picked his way through the corridor leading away from the antechamber, stepping over the skeletons laying over the various traps they’d triggered. Only a couple got past the first few feet of blades and spikes. The rest of the traps were cleverly concealed, at least from lesser minds. Balthazar made it a point to not tell Gaspar where they were. If the child was going to make it as a sage of his own, he’d have to deal with things far deadlier than static, ancient traps.
Once he reached the only other chamber in Esvartus’ hideaway, he turned to see Gaspar stepping gingerly over the last acid pit. Balthazar tried not to smile.
“There may be hope for you yet, shitbrain.”
“My hope is that you’ll stop calling me that.” Gaspar nodded towards the center of the room. “Is that it?”
Balthazar approached the dias, his unlit hand reaching towards the pedistal. “Yes. I believe it is.”
Balthazar stopped, whipping around towards Gaspar. “What is it now?”
“On the off chance that intruders were able to pass all of these traps, do you think he would leave everything else unprotected?”
Balthazar blinked. “Come on, Gaspar, he wasn’t that paranoid.”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Gaspar stepped up to stand beside his master, produced a long thin wand of yew, and touched the pedistal. A sigil appeared in the stone.
“A summoning glyph. Probably some form of bound devil.”
Balthazar watched agape as Gaspar twirled his wand in an anticlockwise motion, intoning the dispersal spell Balthazar had taught him the week before. The sigil disappeared with a soft sigh.
“Hmm. Perhaps a succubus. A good way to appear to offer an explorer a reward before destroying them.” Gaspar turned to Balthazar. “What?”
“Gaspar, I take back most of the bad things I’ve said about you.”
Balthazar did smile, now, as he removed the top of the pedistal and reached inside. The Equalizer was just past the stone lip. He pulled it out, and showed it to his apprentice.
“This is what the princes all fear?”
“What could men of power possibly fear from a book?”
Balthazar’s smile broadened.
“That proves, shitbrain, that you still have much to learn.”
In response to being asked to generate a random sentence.
This child farms.
She knows that it is work mostly done by boys. It is hard, long, muscle-snapping, back-breaking work, from sun-up until sun-down. Tools large and small are used to till the fields, harvest the grain, milk some animals, slaughter others. This child does all of those things.
It would not be this way if the farmer’s wife had had a son. This child knows this. She does want a brother. It would stop the other children from laughing at her, calling her a boy when she’s a girl, pulling down her pants when she’s walking with her arms full and laughing because she lacks what boys have. It’s not my fault, she often thinks. Why are they so mean? They never drew blood, but on days like today, they would blacken her eye or leave parts of her sore.
This child’s father is not one for comfort. He is a hard man of a hard land. Years of living under the realm’s protectors have made him so. They come and take his grain, sometimes a pig or even a cow, and give nothing in return save promises that his fields will remain unburned, his wife and daughter unraped. He calls them ‘thugs’ and ‘brigands’ and worse when they cannot hear. But this child hears, and the acidic and unpleasant feeling of hatred boils in her guts.
When the distant bells in the village begin to toll, it is towards the end of the day. Too late for worship. And the tolling is rapid, panicked. Then the voices can be heard: something has men and women screaming, calling for the guard, begging for mercy.
The farmer gathers up his child to get her inside. She can peek out around his shoulder. The village is already ablaze, and she hears the deep-throated roar somewhere beyond the thick, black smoke, which is buffeted by the power of mighty wings.
Out from the village ride several figures on fearsome chargers. They do not wear the white of the realm’s protectors, and their chain armor is black as pitch. Helms in the shapes of skulls and screaming demons adorn their heads, and they wield flails and axes and short bows. One laughs as he raises his bow, pulling the string taut and letting fly into a fleeing woman. She falls dead at the edge of the farm.
The farmer seems, for a moment, unwilling or unable to let go of his child, the child he didn’t want, the child he has not even named yet, claiming she would earn her name if she survived the decade. One year away, and now her world was burning. The farmer sets her down near the house, telling her to climb under it, reaching for his scythe. He is telling her to protect her mother when the arrow finds his back.
He cannot keep himself upright, and collapses on top of his child. She is unable to move him, screaming his name, pushing against his shoulders, horrified by the sound of his rattling breath in her ear. She pushes with all of her might, but his body will not budge. A soft, pained sound comes from his lips, and then he is still. She squeezes her eyes shut against the tears and the smoke, struggling and moving as much as possible, doing anything she can to escape.
Flames wash over the farmyard. Screaming, her body twists and turns, desperate to escape the prison her father’s corpse has created. The heat climbs quickly, and she coughs, breathing smoke. She gives her body one final pull to try and free it, and feels something tear. She doesn’t know if it’s her clothing or her skin, and she doesn’t care. She screams in pain as she slowly pushes herself free from the burning body on top of her, staggering to her feet and losing her balance almost immediately.
She stares at her hand. Flames race up her sleeve, and while her skin grows hot, she feels no pain from it. As she watches, a cut received during her struggle to escape her father’s grasp cracks and boils, slowly peeling the skin back. But the tissue beneath is neither red nor raw. She holds her hand up to the fire’s flickering light as she stands, flames reflected in tiny dark scales. She hears the roar of the dragon over the din of slaughter and the cries of the dying, and something in her yearns to roar back.
On sheer impulse, she begins to walk, then to run. She runs through the fire towards the smoke. She feels her human clothing, her human skin, her human disguise, falling away into the heat. Pain washes through her as her shoulders push against her back, growth and change giving her both a surge of strength and an overwhelming appetite. She leans on the wall of a burning house for a moment, and looks at her hand again. It is no longer the pink, squishy appendage of a little girl, but a strong hand ending in vicious talons and covered in black scales. She flexes her hands, looks down at the rest of her scaly body, and then back up.
The other children of the village, fleeing the fires, have stopped to stare at her.
She looks up. Wheeling overhead is the dragon, wings wider than the breadth of her father’s field, looking down at the scene with eyes like molten pools. They fix on the girl, and she is struck by what she sees in them. It is a gaze she has seen before, a quiet love and a resolute desire to see her rise above all that opposes her… the look of a mother proud of her child.
This child looks back at her bullies. Her talons shine in the fire light. Her mother’s riders rampage through the village.
For the first time in a long time, this child smiles. Her mother roars, and as she runs forward, she roars back.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, is a far more filmable piece of work than his larger work, The Lord of the Rings. It has a more simple narrative, its plot is contained to one volume, and its themes remain focused on the character of Bilbo Baggins and how he deals with his adventures. Yet, according to interviews and as evidenced in works such as the Unfinished Tales and the Silmarillion, Tolkien knew there was more going on than a hobbit coming out of his hole, and the intent was to embellish this work. Director Peter Jackson has taken it upon himself to do just that, adapting the story into three films, the first of which is sub-titled An Unexpected Journey.
Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. He is concerned with remaining a respected member of his community and not inviting any sort of trouble to his doorstep. Unfortunately for him, the wizard Gandalf has the exact opposite in mind. Thirteen dwarves show up at Bilbo’s house, and while they are certainly capable of troublemaking, they’re also personable and companionable. The leader of the company, Thorin Oakenshield, is a dwarf prince bent on reclaiming his homeland from the evil dragon Smaug, and to do that he needs the help of someone who can sneak into the dragon’s lair undetected. Gandalf has chosen Bilbo for this task, in spite of Thorin’s reservations and Bilbo’s own reluctance. The hobbit does come around to the idea of at least leaving his home – and a good thing too, otherwise we’d have no story.
The term ‘reluctant hero’ has never been more apt than in describing Bilbo Baggins. Neither a great warrior nor unflinchingly brave, there’s something very charming and telling about the hobbit in a very fashionable jacket and waistcoat following the heavily armed and armored company of dwarves. And when trouble does find Bilbo, he does not immediately seek a violent solution for the problem at hand; more often than not, it’s his wits and fast talking that saves him. It means a lot, in this day and age, to see a protagonist who does what he can to get himself out of trouble without violence.
Does the contract also protect the dwarves from liability related to addiction to magic rings?
This isn’t to say that The Hobbit is devoid of action. In fact, many of the scenes from the book have been embellished with Jackson’s trademark adeptness with epic action set pieces. We even get flashbacks to epic battles of the past. The tale tends to feel even more fantastical than The Lord of the Rings, focused as we are on non-human races and characters. And while accusations have been leveled at the film calling it too long or too padded, the moments of expanded lore and the occasional cameo are actually welcome moments to catch one’s breath between all of the fighting and survival. In spite of the film’s length, it’s paced quite reasonably and does not overstay its welcome.
Martin Freeman absolutely nails the affect of a fussy, emotionally exasperated hobbit far out of his depth. Richard Armitage brings a sort of haunted nobility to Thorin Oakenshield, who is clearly cut from a different cloth than most of the other dwarves. Boisterous and personable as they are, it can be difficult to keep track of all of them. Sir Ian McKellan makes a welcome return as Gandalf the Grey, and I was very pleased with the expanded role given to Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy. And rather than being part of a monolithic evil as they were in Lord of the Rings, the foes faced by the company vary wildly from three culinary connoisseur trolls to an orc with a grudge against Thorin. All of this makes for great storytelling and a fine film just in time for the holiday season.
“You did remember the Old Toby, didn’t you, Bilbo? We can’d do this without the proper pipeweed.”
Stuff I Liked: The White Council. The antics of the dwarves. The pacing of the story and the ways in which it kept moving without feeling rushed. The detail given to each of the dwarves even if they were hard to keep track of. The new look of the wargs.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: After two and a half hours, the 3D glasses really started to hurt.
Stuff I Loved: Dwarven song. The connection between Gandalf and Galadriel. Radagast the Brown. Bilbo’s affectations and tics. The perfect ominous atmosphere of Bilbo encountering Gollum in his cave. Just about everything related to Erebor. The scene with the trolls. The way Bilbo faces his problems – he’s usually pretty scared, but he steps up anyway, and that’s what makes him heroic.
Bottom Line: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey not only works excellently as a tale in and of itself, but bodes quite well for the next two films to come. It is a welcome return to Middle-Earth, with the same high quality in performances and production as Jackson’s previous fantasy trilogy. It is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and you can lay any suspicion of it being a blatant cash-grab to rest. It is definitely worth your time to go and see.
Art by ~boudicca
Chuck wanted a war on Christmas. Be careful what you wish for.
They come, on both sides, from tales of old. From the frozen wastes yet untouched by man, from crevasses and shadows and hidden places too fearsome for even the most brave and the most crazed, from realms and holes and lairs unseen even by devices in the sky, the enemy issues forth. It is almost always Jötnar, either one or a cadre, who lead, mustering up old hatreds and stoking the fires of bloodlust within the foe. Manticores and chimera and goblins and trolls, they all pour onto the glaciers and frozen seas and march on the stronghold.
The defenders come when the horns sound, on or about the Solstice. From kingdoms deep in the earth and forgotten by man come the dwarves that provide the raw materials for the workshops. Elves large and small rouse from their berths and leave their toy-making behind, taking up sword and bow and shield and spear. Spirits of the fae and what few treefolk remain find their way there too, and the skies fill with pegasi and griffons and great birds of previous ages. It is a host meant to match that sent by the enemy, and most years, the numbers are evenly matched.
This year is not one of those years.
The Jötuun who leads is a fearsome creature, towering over even the tallest and fairest of the elves. Such is his ambition and ability that twice the host of previous years has been summoned. Despite being denied what he truly seeks – the All-Father and his kin have long since left for Valhalla to await the final days – he will sate his hunger for despair and dismemberment upon those arrayed against him on the frozen plains he’d claim for his own. The first blow he lands cracks like thunder preceding a mighty storm, and with that one strike, the battle is joined.
Even when outnumbered, the host of defenders make the enemy pay dearly for every inch of ground. The fearsome fervor of dwarf warriors bites into goblins numerous beyond counting. Ancient spirits of the forests that pass for many years as trees wrestle with giants of frost. Pegasus and manticore swoop, dive, and strike, claws leaving ribbons of blood while hooves shatter bone. Beneath the icy plain, kraken and shark vie for supremacy in the silent, inky blackness of the crushing depths.
He emerges for two reasons.
One is that even as the battle rages, he has preparations to make. The sleigh must be filled. The sack must contain every gift. There must be sufficient coal available. The reindeer need to be fed, and all of this is done in spite of the fighting, for he will not forsake the children. Not on this night, not ever. What takes him away from his last-minute work is the other reason: if he senses a true challenge on the field, then and only then does he emerge from his workshop.
His very presence demands reverence from both sides. The defenders give him respect and even love, while the invaders react with fear. The lines of battle part to make way for him. Mail of the finest metal gleams beneath his red coat. No helm adorns his plume of snow-white hair, no gorget beneath the curls of his beard. In his right hand he carries a blade, long and shimmering in the lights of the north, forged in a forgotten age. In his left is a mace blacker than the water in the depths beneath the ice, one that nearly resembles a weapon of the enemy, for he has always been a capricious and merry old soul, loyal only to his devotion to the joy of children. He walks with purpose, without hesitation, until he faces the leader of the enemy host. He stands until the Jötuun turns to acknowledge him, then he taps the flat of his blade to the side of his nose, twice, his way of saluting his foe. When he speaks, his voice is deep, and heard by every ear on the field.
“Someone’s been particularly naughty this year. Ho, ho, ho.”
Some Jötnar banter with Kringle, others offer terms of surrender. But this year, the giant attacks immediately. Claus, for his part, seems to never be terribly surprised by the enemy’s decision, and this year his feet seem particularly nimble. The Jötuun’s axe is a fearsome thing that has cleaved limbs and heads both in this battle, yet Kringle ducks and dodges, giving it only the shallowest of gashes in his skin and coat. It glances off of his mail and bites his rosy cheeks, but never gives the Jötuun satisfaction. When Claus finally strikes, he does so with his blade thrusting at the knees of his enemy. Like a serpent, it darts in and out, piercing darkened frost giant flesh. The Jötuun must turn to keep up with Kringle, opening his own wounds up even further, but the giant is heedless of the pain, fixed entirely on making Claus bleed.
When the moment is right, Kringle brings down his mace on the right kneecap of the giant, then makes a long slash with his blade, and finally swings the black hammer up between the Jötuun’s thighs. The giant topples, howling in agony. Claus is swift, merciful in comparison to many, and plunges his sword into the giant’s heart while swinging his mace down into his enemy’s head. So utter is this defeat and so mighty the blows that the ice cracks, threatening all who stand upon it.
Kringle looks up from his work, smiling, bloodied by the fight but unbowed.
“Now, let’s see. Ho, ho, ho. Who else is on the Naughty list?”
The enemy host quits the field promptly at that point. A mighty cheer goes up from the elves and fae, the dwarves and the spirits allied with the defenders. There will be feasting and drinking in the hall tonight, before Kringle takes his crucial ride. Thanks to him, the war is over.
Until next year.
Participating in the Terribleminds Second Game of Aspects.
One hundred and fifty years of spaceflight innovation, and it’s still a pain in the ass to get a decent meal.
Commander Ellington grumbled softly as he pulled himself towards the galley. He remembered times back home when just a whiff of his mother’s home cooking would make his stomach growl like a hungry lion.
“What’s on the menu today, Slim?”
The technical expert of the construction crew was actually named Vladimir Moroshkin, but being skinny as a beanpole, Ellington had taken to calling him ‘Slim’. The physicist didn’t seem to mind.
“The same as before, Commander. Pre-cooked meats of a dubious nature and recycled water it’s best not to contemplate too long.”
“What I wouldn’t give for some decent chili.” He sighed, popping a meal in the microheater. “How’re things out there?”
Slim looked out the porthole at the in-construction Pluto gate. “Main structure is 90% complete, components are in place, and capacitors are holding charges. Crews probably need another few days to get the toll systems and registration servers talking to the relays.”
Ellington nodded. “Once it’s done we’ll have gates in orbit around Earth, Mars, Venus, Europa, Titan… am I missing any?”
“They just finished the Triton gate, sir.”
“That’s gonna make booking flights confusing. Anyway, where do we go from here, d’you think?”
“We’ll probably have to break the light barrier properly to go further. Properly, I mean. Not with artificial wormholes.”
“Does it ever bother you, ripping holes in space the way we do, just to travel more quickly from one place to another?”
“No, sir. The technology that powers the gates is completely-”
Before Slim could finish his sentence, the station shook. Supplies went flying from the galley shelves. As warning klaxons started going off, Ellington propelled himself to the main console of the small station. Slim was right behind him.
“Did something hit us?” Ellington asked as he scanned the instruments for hull breaches and other damage.
“Nothing solid. Looks like it was a shock wave. Suit comms are down.”
“A shock wave from what, Slim?”
Ellington looked up and got his answer.
In the silent, dark tapestry outside, a violet fissure had appeared. It glowed, blotting out the stars behind it. As Ellington watched, tentacles colored a green so deep it was nearly black wormed out of the fissure and began to push it wide. He glanced at the gate, seeing the men scatter. Looking back, more tentacles appeared, and within the void past the tear in space, Ellington saw piss-colored eyes. Ancient eyes. Eyes full of hunger and hate.
“Slim… tell me what I’m seeing.”
“The instruments are going haywire, sir. I need a moment.”
“Not sure you’ve got one.” As Slim watched, the thing in the fissure lashed out at the gate, swatting men and women in space suits aside as they tried to return to the station. They were unarmed, and their only means of escape was the ion-powered rocket that could get them to Triton and the gate there could get them home. The journey would be short, as Pluto’s orbit this year was closer to Neptune than it had been in decades, which was why the eggheads back home decided to move forward with building the gate.
Not that it would matter if the horror pulling itself into reality could also travel through the gates.
“Can you tell me anything about the fissure?”
“Near as I can tell, it’s putting off a frequency of radiation I’ve never seen before. Radio telescope was the first instrument to zero in on it.”
“Let’s hear it.”
Reluctantly, Slim flipped the external speaker switch. The control cabin was immediately filled with screaming. If it had been one voice screaming, it would have just been disconcerting. Instead, Slim and Ellington heard a thousand voices, all crying out at once without words, deeply in pain and endlessly, endlessly angry.
“Right. Time to get the hell out of here.”
Ellington turned and went down the central shaft of the station to where the shuttle was docked. He slid inside and did a quick check of its systems, making sure it hadn’t been damaged. He caught glimpses of the creature out the windows, but tried to ignore it. He stopped, however, when he saw the gate’s capacitors lighting up. He moved back to the shaft and kicked off of the deck, propelling himself back to the control cabin where he seized a handhold.
“What the hell are you doing, Slim?”
“If I can get the gate to generate a sympathetic counterpoint vibratory radiation pattern…”
“I think I can use the gate to close the fissure, sir.”
Ellington stared, then looked outside. The thing was even more massive than he’d thought, and it looked like it was still emerging from the fissure. It could easily reach the station with its tentacles, and Ellington feared one would collide with them any moment. He heard people in the upper reaches of the station, clamoring about, probably eager to leave. He didn’t blame them.
Slim twisted knobs, tapped in commands via keyboard, and finally pulled a lever. The gate sprang to life. Instead of the usual blue color, the capacitors glowed an angry red. Soon the entire gate was alive with that shade, and the radio telescope conveyed a sound that drowned out the screaming.
It was a single, reptilian, very pissed-off roar.
“Slim? What did you do?”
“Exactly what I said! I don’t…”
From the gate emerged a head that could have belonged to some sort of dinosaur. It was topped with ridges of horns, its scales were the color of blood, and when it exhaled (wait, exhalation in space?) plumes of fire shot from its nostrils. Seeing the abomination in the fissure, it shot out of the gate, spreading leathery wings and reaching out with talons easily as long as Slim was tall. It grappled with the tentacled monstrosity and opened its mouth. Flames washed over the fissure.
“I have a craving for popcorn.”
I have an unabashed love for science fiction and fantasy. I grew up on Star Trek (the Next Generation, mostly), and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia was possibly the first full book series I read start to finish. The ability of a writer to completely transport an audience, be it one reader or a million viewers, to a completely alien landscape populated with outlandish characters is one of the reasons I became a writer myself. And yet, for all of my source material and inspiration in these fields, I struggle to write science fiction and fantasy.
My problem is, I believe, twofold. It deals with world-building and pacing. The world-building aspect is not one of building the worlds themselves, no; it’s trying to build the world while also telling a story. The world, no matter how expansive or intricate its design, is merely set dressing. It’s the backdrop against which the story takes place. And what is a story without characters?
Even if there are good characters, though, the pacing problem tends to arise. There’s a habit in some writing I’ve seen in these genres where the action or conversation will stop and description will take over. Tolkien and Martin spring to mind. They’re both writers I deeply respect, but man, they can go on sometimes. While some of Tolkien’s descriptions of landscapes lead to the breathtaking vistas we see in the Lord of the Rings films, and Martin’s in-depth cataloging of grand Westros meals can be mouth-watering, it sacrifices time with characters or plot advancement for the sake of world-building.
The thing to keep in mind, as far as I’m concerned, is that these characters who inhabit these worlds do so the same way we do ours. They coexist with wonders and strangeness the same way we do with things like airplanes and the Internet. Imagine if a writer broke up the action in a tense modern thriller or a detective yarn to describe the interior layout of a 747 in detail, or explained exactly how communication between one computer and another works. I personally don’t think that story would get very far.
While some description is inevitable, especially when it comes to these strange new worlds, I have come to understand that such descriptions should be used sparingly. A quick verbal sketch of something new and interesting may be required for context; I think the description should be made as concisely and quickly as possible. And I don’t believe that in-depth descriptions should ever be used anywhere near the opening of a story.
Consider the opening of Blade Runner. The scene in which Leon is tested could take place in any modern building. The only hint of sci-fi trappings is the device on the desk. It concerns itself first and foremost with character moments and building tension. Instead of showing off how awesome its effects are, the film paces itself, only revealing as much as it needs to in order to set scenes and move the story along. Jurassic Park is another fine example. It’s around 40 minutes before we even see our first dinosaur in full, but the build-up is done so adroitly that we are just as invested in the characters as we are in the spectacle, if not moreso. It’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as I get myself together for my next large project.
How do you feel about writing weird worlds? Would you like to see more description in such tales, or less? What good examples come to mind when discussing these stories?
Disclaimer: I do not own anything related to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and apologize in advance for what may turn out to be only passable fan fiction as I write down stuff that goes through my head as I play this game. Also, the following does contain spoilers for the game. Fairly be ye warned.
21st First Seed, 202 4E
She waited until we were outside Solitude’s gates to speak her mind.
“I think you’re wasting your time.”
“How do you mean?” The wind was picking up, and I put on my helm before drawing up my hood.
“You have the Scroll. You know what must be done. Why not hunt down Alduin and kill him, while you still have the element of surprise?”
“I’m still not certain that I’m ready.”
She shook her head. “You are Dragonborn. You’re one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met. I know you can do this.”
“But if I do it now, would it be for the right reasons?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
We hired horses from the Solitude stables, and we were on the road, riding side by side, when I picked the conversation back up.
“I’ve been to Windhelm. I’ve seen how Ulfric Stormcloak treats those of other races, especially Dunmer.”
“I don’t blame him for keeping an eye on the dark elves. I wouldn’t want them running rampant in my streets, either. They can’t be trusted.”
“Not all Dunmer are cutpurses and backstabbers, Aela. That’s like saying all Khajiit are scoundrels and liars, or all Nords are illiterate barbarians.”
She looked like she wanted to elaborate on her opinion, but she regarded me carefully as I continued.
“If Skyrim is to be free, it should be free for all who wish to live here. I’m not enamored of the Aldmeri Dominion, either, but I will not trade a puppet regime for a racist one.”
“There’s an alternative, you know.”
Before she could go on, we encountered what I’m told is a place called Robber’s Gorge. We were ambushed, and our horses killed from under us. The bandits, to their dismay, were no match for the pair of us. Unfortunately, we needed to proceed on foot from there.
“What?” Aela was inspecting her bow as we walked, making sure the string was still taut after so much use lately.
“Tell me about this alternative.”
“You are Dragonborn. The blood of conquerors and kings flows in your veins. Why not unite Skyrim under your own banner?”
I didn’t look at her or respond, at first. That very thought had crossed my mind more than once. But when it did, the voice that carried it was only barely my own. It’s woven into the chant that exists in the foundations of my soul, the one stirred by Alduin and awakened by that first kill outside Whiterun, when Mirmulnir fell and I breathed in his essence.
The day was waning and I could make out the houses of Rorikstead in the distance. I looked at Aela and smiled a little.
“Let me show you something.”
Nahagliiv’s bones remain where we left them.
Just outside of Rorikstead, where the dragon fell, Aela and I studied the sight. She’d been there when we’d slain him, but I hadn’t spoken of it since. I walked up to the skeleton and ran my hand down a rib.
“This was Nahagliiv. His name means ‘Fury Burn Wither’. His is one of the voices that now prompts me to do the very thing you suggest. And if I were to listen, I don’t think I’d be any better than our dead friend, here.”
Aela said nothing. I turned to face her.
“I won’t save this world simply to put it to the torch myself. The sons of Skyrim are owed more than a mere conqueror. I would be known throughout the land for who I strive to be, not merely what my blood demands. I hope you can understand that.”
She stepped to me and took my hands.
“I do. But I still think that we should ensure there is a Skyrim whose sons can learn who you are, as I have, before something truly horrific happens.”
I looked over my shoulder. In the distance, I could barely make out the sky-stabbing height of the Throat of the World. The wound in time was there. My destiny was there. The Elder Scroll felt heavy in my pack. I turned back to my wife and nodded.
“We deliver the horn to the Shrine of Talos, and ask for his favor. Then we ascend that mountain, and we put an end to Alduin’s evil once and for all.”
Aela leaned up and kissed my cheek. “I’m by your side no matter what comes. Remember that.”
Disclaimer: I do not own anything related to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and apologize in advance for what may turn out to be only passable fan fiction as I write down stuff that goes through my head as I play this game. Also, the following does contain spoilers for the game. Fairly be ye warned.
18th Morning Star, 202 4E
Since coming to Skyrim, I’ve faced many challenges. I’ve faced down wolves, bears, trolls. I’ve taken on a veritable army of draugr and more than my share of hagravens. I have laid waste to bandit encampments and strongholds alike. I have slain dragons. I have saved the world on at least one occasion. And yet, yesterday morning, I felt more edgy and nervous than on any of those occasions.
Aela, of course, knew something was on my mind, and asked me about it immediately.
I remember the first time I saw her. Fresh from my aborted execution, on the run and confused from Helgn, she glanced at me with narrowed eyes while she fought that Giant outside Pelagia Farm. I’d met Nords before, but to see one such as her in her native environment, full of beautiful ferocity and unwavering bravery, I was struck, even then. She said nothing of my magic but I could feel her suspicion. Now, as a Companion, and chosen by Kodlak Whitemane to succeed him as Harbinger, her eyes were not suspicious, but concerned.
“I’ve been thinking,” I managed to begin.
“You do that quite a bit, for a Companion. Maybe that’s why Kodlak chose you.”
“He could have chosen you. You were close. He trusted you. You ran by his side many nights.”
Aela shrugged. “What could be is not what is. I’m more concerned for you than I am for Kodlak. He is in Sovngarde. You are here.”
“And so are you.” I cleared my throat. Why was this so difficult? “I keep thinking of how I came to be here, of that day at the farm when we met. Do you remember?”
“I do.” She smiled a little. “I thought this spindly little mageling had a surprising amount of balls, standing with us against a Giant.”
“And I found you more dangerous than that Giant, to be certain.”
“Yet you stood by me and helped take it down. You’ve stood by me many times since then.”
As she spoke, Aela noticed the metal glittering under my tunic. Without prompting, she pulled out the amulet, and looked in my eyes.
“You know what wearing Mara means, don’t you?”
I nodded. “The priest in Riften told me. The question is, Aela, do you know why I wear it now?”
There was softness, there in her eyes, that I had not anticipated. Her fingers lingered near my chest. “I won’t lie. I’d like that.”
“I won’t lie either. I want you for my wife.”
She smiled. “Then it’s settled. We should go to Riften immediately. Times like these, to dally is to waste precious moments.”
So we did. We made the arrangements at the Temple, and the delighted priest admonished me not to be late for my own wedding. We rented a room at the Barb and Bee for the night, but Aela was restless. It was her nature. Her blood ran as hot as ever.
“You know what we should do?”
She turned and looked at me. It was an incredulous gaze, anticipating some sort of arcane scheme worthy of the Archmage of Winterhold.
“We should hunt.”
She blinked. I smiled. I was glad I could surprise her.
“On the eve of our wedding?”
“Can you think of a better way to spend it?”
Her smirk was coy. “Connor, you do know the way to a lady’s heart.”
So it was that we found ourselves north of Riften, stalking wolves, her with her bow and I with my Skyforged blade. Its edge softly glowed with the electric energy with which I’d enchanted it. Eorlund disapproved of my doing so, but nobody denied the results. I was watching Aela, taking in the way she matched the wolves move for move, until they bolted. She looked back at me, wondering perhaps if I’d made too much noise, and then her eyes lifted and widened.
I don’t know how it snuck up on us. They’re not known for being terribly sneaky or subtle. But the dragon plummeted out of the sky on us, and my Skyforged blade flew from my grip. I brought up my dragonbone shield, and seeing it and that I was armored in the stuff, the dragon was incensed. I looked in its eyes and, in that moment, as it always was when I fought the Dov, we knew one another. His body pinned mine and his jaws snapped at me. My other blade was far from my hand, strapped to my back, and I was too distracted to summon Magicka. I struggled, smelled the fetid breath, closed my eyes.
I heard Aela’s howl. By the light of the moon, I saw my bride-to-be leap across the dragon’s snout, raking him with her claws. I had banished my own wolf-spirit to settle a conflict within myself, but Aela was as comfortable as ever wearing her two disparate skins. Now she wore the skin of Hircine, the skin of the werewolf, as she protected me and distracted the dragon. He wheeled on her, leaving me half-pushed into the muck, taking a deep breath and bathing the foliage in blue fire. Aela was quick, dodging away, roaring in defiance. The dragon snapped at her, swept in with claws and wings, finally catching her with his tail. It was when Aela was knocked away that I properly introduced myself.
The words Paarthumax had taught me took shape in my mouth and issued forth as orange flame. The dragon staggered, turned, and stared. Now on my feet, I reached over my shoulder and drew Dragonbane, the sword of the Blades given to me by Esbern. I gripped my shield and charged. Dragonbone met dragonbone with a mighty crash, and Aela was slicing into its hide with her claws. But dragons are cunning, and he knew there was a bond between us, the way we each leaped to the other’s defense. When Aela sprang again, the dragon spun and swept out his tail, grabbing Aela’s ankle and slamming her back into the ground. He faced away from me, and even if I got his attention, I didn’t know how badly he would hurt her with his back claws as he turned.
Time itself stilled at the sound of my voice. I dropped my shield, ran as fast as I was able, and with my free hand I scooped up the werewolf from where she lay. I shoved her with as much strength as I could muster. I then backed away, as time once again flowed, as the dragon’s jaws closed on empty air. Aela hadn’t yet moved from where I’d pushed her. I swallowed my fear and looked up at the dragon, backing away slowly. My foot glanced off of Skyforged steel, and I bent to hold my Companions blade in my off-hand. Dragonbane seemed to gleam in the moonlight. The dragon leapt into the sky, blanketing the forest in fire. I ran, sheathing my blades, picking up Aela and running from the inferno. The dragon landed directly in front of me. I bent to lay Aela aside and stood between her and my foe. He inhaled, glaring eyes full of hatred, nostrils flaring as he prepared to breathe again.
“FUS RO DAH!”
The first shout I’d ever learned, one of my most powerful weapons, caused the dragon to lose his footing and slide down the hillside. Blades came free of their scabbards and with the mightiest cry I could muster, I leapt down after it. I slashed across his snout, ensuring I had his full attention. He roared at me, and I roared right back. I stabbed him in the cheek with Dragonbane, pushing myself upwards using the blade as my fulcrum. Landing directly between his horns, I brought my weapons down with all of my strength. Scale, muscle, and bone gave way under the strike and the dragon twitched violently as life fled from his body. Gasping for breath, I pulled my blades free and slid down the side of his still face, returning my blades to their homes. I looked up at the moon and closed my eyes as the wind came over me, carrying the voices of the Dov with it to fill my ears and my soul, telling me this Dovah‘s name and adding his voice to my own. When it was over, and nothing but his bones remained, I turned to see to Aela.
“No wonder they sing songs about you.”
She was already there, clad only in moonlight, holding my shield in one hand and her own axe in the other. Bruises and scratches did nothing to slow her as she made her way down the hill to me. I tipped her chin towards me and tasted her kiss for the first time.
“After tomorrow, I will take this dragon’s scales and make you something special.”
“You already gave me something special.” Aela’s gaze didn’t break from mine. “I’m going to spend my life giving you all I can in return.”
I’m really not sure where to begin with this. If I were still doing IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! I may just lead with a few moments of silence. Powerful films have a way of taking the breath, the very words right out of me. Make no mistake: Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those films.
The year is 1944, and Spain is under new management by the fascist Francisco Franco. At a forward post established against guerrillas fighting the new regime, Captain Vidal has summoned his wife and step-daughter to stay with him. His wife, Carmen, is close to giving birth to his son, while the girl, Ofelia, would rather keep her nose in her fairy tale books. En route to the post, Ofelia happens across a strange insect that transforms before her eyes and leads her to a secluded labyrinth where a faun tells her she may be a legendary princess. To prove herself worthy of her birthright, she must accomplish a series of tasks, in the midst of this bloody civil war, with the lives of all she knows and holds dear hanging in the balance.
Writer-director Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to dark fantasy. He brought us Blade II (one of the good ones) and both Hellboy films. By ‘dark’, I don’t mean the sort of dark fantasy where there’s lots of naked women and cursing and gratuitous buckets of blood. No, I mean thematically dark. Truly dark. The sort of dark that has kids curling up tight in their beds with their sheets pulled up to just under their eyes, because they’re scared witless by what’s in the shadows but don’t dare look away. You could even call it ‘edgy’, as it lives on the very edge between fantasy and horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is unafraid to glance, just for a moment here and a heartbeat there, into the deep shadows of the realms of the unknown and the very real darkness in human nature.
Absolutely stunning visuals.
You can’t tell a story like this without good characters, and in film you need good actors to make them come alive. In the hands of a less adept director, Captain Vidal would come across as a caricature of the fascist movement, a Nazi in all but name, not so much a man as he is a punching bag leering at us to hit him harder. Thankfully, the character is written with complexity and depth, even if he’s a rather vile human being, and Sergi López gives a fantastic performance. As for Ofelia, del Toro was so impressed by Ivana Baquero that he aged up her part so the young actress could play it. She, too, is complex and deep, as well as fallible.
Here are two human beings who come at life from entirely different angles, even in some cases wanting the same thing for completely disparate reasons, and their conviction is what drives this story forward and holds us mesmerized by it. The visuals and the construction of del Toro’s fantasy world don’t hurt, either. Culled from all sorts of fairy and folk tales, the world Ofelia alone can see, touch, and enter is brought to breathtaking life, with del Toro mainstay Doug Jones playing the parts of the Faun and the Pale Man. As wondrous as it is, there’s also a primal and untamed nature to it, as as attractive as it might be to a young girl, one wonders if it’s any less dangerous than the cold, jackbooted reality through which her stepfather reigns as nominal master.
My skin crawls just looking at the guy.
The tendency is to write something like “I can’t say enough about this” but I really feel, in this case, I can’t say any more about it. You should really just watch it, if you haven’t already. Despite its fairy tale trappings, it’s an exceedingly mature and heart-wrenchingly vital tale, far removed from what most would consider kid-friendly. Don’t be put off by the choice del Toro made to shoot it in Spanish; the truths of this film and the lives of its characters transcend things like spoken language. It is one of the most deeply affecting films I’ve seen in a very long time. I really cannot recommend Pan’s Labyrinth highly enough.
The lingering storm clouds made way for the moon, and that was when it began.
The crew of the fluyt Eenhoorn lit lamps on-deck to throw back the darkness. The ocean nearby rippled and swooned, small waves crashing over one another. To Captain Kroeger, the phenomenon was entirely unnatural. He gave the wheel to his first mate, passed a deckhand being sick over the rail, and went into the cabin where their passenger sat, reading.
“Mister Franklin, we need you on deck.”
The American looked up over the rims of his spectacles.
“I take it the storm has ended?”
“Yes. But something else has begun.”
Franklin put his book aside and rose. He picked up a collapsing umbrella from his belongings and ventured out with the captain. He took one look at the swirling waters nearby and frowned.
“Captain, you may want to have your men man their battle stations.”
“We passed Bermuda this morning, correct? And are taking a southern course?”
“Then we are in dangerous waters.”
“We spotted no other ships nearby! Neither the English nor the Spanish are…”
The roar of the sea in upheaval drowned out the captain. From the swirling pool burst the prow of a ship. Its hull rose into the moonlight like a breaching whale, its masts hung with seaweed instead of sails and tackle. Kroeger’s breath caught in his throat when he beheld the opposing crew. They shambled rather than walked, in various states of decay, many an eye missing from its socket and those still intact smoldering with murderous intent.
“Battle stations! Run out the guns! Prepare to repel boarders!”
Benjamin Franklin furrowed his brow as he studied the enemy ship. Any colors it would have flown had long been consumed by the wildlife beneath them. Sliding the long umbrella into his belt, he climbed the rigging towards the crow’s nest. The Eenhoorn reeled under the superior firepower of the enemy vessel, despite said vessel’s cannon having been underwater moments before. Franklin nearly lost his grip more than once, but he refused to let go completely, gritting his teeth against the spray of the sea and the smell of battle. He alighted into the crow’s nest and took stock of the situation.
The enemy ship was closing in on the Eenhoorn. The half-eaten ambulatory corpses and oddly animated skeletons moved towards the railing closest to the fluyt, wielding grappling lines. Franklin knew it was now or never. He reached down the front of his shirt for the key that hung around his neck. When he freed it from the silver chain, it made his fingers tingle. He slid it around the top of the umbrella, opened the device, and held it above his head.
The storm clouds high above began to shudder and growl. Lights went off like cannon fire within the dark surfaces, and as Franklin pitched the umbrella towards the enemy ship, there was a momentary feeling that his hair was standing on end, his skin about to catch fire. A bolt of lightning snapped into existence, connecting the cloud to the umbrella as it sailed over the ghost ship. The steel spines of the device conveyed smaller bolts onto the ghost ship’s deck, catching a few of the undead crew on fire. A cheer went up from the Dutchmen as Franklin climbed back down.
“That was brilliant, Mister Franklin!”
“Thank you, Captain, but it only slowed them down. I need to find a more permanent solution, and I only brought the one umbrella with me. Hold them off as best you can. Excuse me.”
He grabbed his jar of salt from his belongings and made his way below decks, to the lowest point in the ship. He set a box down and carefully laid out the circle he’d need. Praying the Eenhoorn did not list too much, he touched the circle with both hands.
“Come up from your Locker,” he said. “Come up from your Locker, Come up from your Locker, Davy Jones, Davy Jones.”
The shadows in the bilge seem to grow longer, and in the circle, two saucer-like eyes appeared, blinking at Franklin.
“Ye be a bold soul to summon me, human.” Blue smoke wafted from the spirit’s nostrils. “Release me, and I’ll not drag your ship down to me Locker.”
“I will release you when you take back the ship attacking us.”
“Ye have no business at sea, Benjamin Franklin.”
“Shall we parley, then?”
There was an annoyed puff of blue smoke. “Go on.”
“My destination is Barbados. I have business there with a voudoun priestess.”
“I know of whom ye speak. She be a long way from home.”
“I want to offer her help. Perhaps bring her back to our colonies.”
“Two of ye at sea, then? I should indeed drag ye down now.”
“We will do no harm and work no further magic while at sea. You have my word.”
Jones reached up with a hand to stroke one of his horns. His tail swished in the dark.
“And what benefit be Davy Jones getting out of this bargain? I drown ye now, I’d have me no worries.”
“I wouldn’t go down without a fight. And if we fight, we draw the attention of ocean powers greater than you.”
Jones grinned, his eyes alight. Three rows of teeth glistened in the semi-darkness. “Ye’d lose, little wizard.”
“Maybe. But not before hurting you just in time for your king to arrive.”
The smile vanished. “Fine, then. I give ye safe passage to Barbados and back. But this not be something Davy Jones will forget, Benjamin Franklin.”
“Nor shall I.” Fingers broke the circle and the spirit was gone. He climbed through the decks to find the crew celebrating.
“The sea swallowed them up again!” Captain Kroeger slapped Benjamin on the back. “How did you do it?”
“The fine art of parley, captain. Now, let us get to Barbados with all possible speed. The less time we spend in these waters, the better.”
At time of writing, the rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds stands at 50,230 spanning 17 chapters.
I’m roughly more than halfway done.
In addition to completely reworking the opening so it doesn’t suck, I decided it would behoove me to move some of the folks in the story away from traditional interpretations of fantasy races. In earlier drafts, they were elves and dwarves. It made sense to go with what I knew, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was doing myself a disservice in trying to make my world something special but making these races no different than what’s come before.
Acradea is a living, breathing world all its own. Its native races should reflect that. So elves and dwarves became Yusarulim and Vulumae. The Yusarulim, or Children of the Grove, blend in with the foliage and greenery of their home in the forests and jungles, protecting what wildlife and resources they can from human intrusion. Events have left their people a bit scattered, with the biggest enclave being the titular Grove that rests at the heart of what Citizens call the Wilds.
At first, Asherian saw nothing. Then he detected movement, sliding down the vast trunks towards them. The coloration and texture of those approaching was nearly identical to the tree. Others emerged from the bushes and ferns, fronds wrapping around slender limbs that looked so delicate, Asherian feared they’d break with the slightest pressure. Their features and proportions, while vaguely humanoid, unnerved him, from their long digits to their slanted, almond-shaped eyes. The more they moved from the trees and plants, the more they appeared to be clothed in garments bearing motifs of leaves and sky, rather than those elements themselves. Their skin tones complimented these patterns, some with dark skin to match bark while others were the color of a clear summer sky. They were all armed, some with bows or spears, and others with wickedly curved daggers. And they were all staring at Asherian, not saying a word.
The Vulumae, while more numerous than the Yusarulim, are actually more secluded, living as they do far beneath Acradea’s surface in Holds of various description. With magic outlawed and lacking open air in which to travel, they have developed a rail system spanning the planet. Their society is highly regimented and vigilance is constant, as many believe that their proximity to the depths of the world brings them perilously close to what is referred to as ‘the Deep Darkness’.
Where the Yusarulim are slender and graceful, the Vulumae are massive, tending to move with deliberate purpose. They’re not quite as tall as the Children of the Grove, but the Stone-Folk easily have half again as much mass as a human of comparable size. Their skin tones range from soot to marble to obsidian and granite, slowly becoming more and more stiff and immovable as they age. They have large, dark eyes, well-suited for dark caverns and caves, and where humans have hair, they have either ridges of darker color than their skin that somewhat resemble cornrows or braids on a human, or strands or ringlets of what would appear to be spun metal, copper or gold or silver to name a few. They move in battle as one, with towering shields made to lock together and provide space for their spears, becoming mobile fortresses dangerous to approach and fearsome to behold when they charge.
So there they are. I didn’t want to just change the names of the races to sound different. My goal is to have them be functionally different from what we’ve seen before in “fantasy” settings. There’s a lot going on with Acradea and its origins, and these two races are a part of that. It’s my hope that readers will find them interesting and they add to the tapestry I’m weaving in Citizen in the Wilds.
And I managed to avoid spoilers! Not bad for my first rewrite update.
When I was growing up there were plenty of books to be had in my house. My parents owned a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but that wasn’t what kept me up past my bedtime. I never read any of my mother’s paperback romance novels, either. No, for the most part I started by reading books by Paula Danzinger, the adventures of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, and flipping to the back of the newspaper for the latest Calvin & Hobbes. As I got a bit older, I found myself curious about a few dog-eared paperbacks my dad owned, penned by one Mickey Spillane. So I guess I really have him to thank for this writing thing I have going on. In addition to the book that got me juiced to write in the first place, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, he introduced me to a guy by the name of Mike Hammer.
Mike Hammer, a private detective and somewhat caustic fellow, is most often described as “hard-boiled.” His rage, violence and rather selfish outlook on life and the law are far more emphasized than in the likes of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. His influence can be felt throughout Frank Miller’s Sin City and in modern, more esoteric detectives like John Constantine and Harry Dresden. My curiosity about this form of storytelling is probably where my fascination with pulp really began.
This interest grew when I discovered Robert E. Howard and his musclebound sword and sorcery heroes, Conan and Kull. These blood-soaked tales were quite different from others I’d experienced growing up. In addition to the sex and violence, though, was the difference in protagonists between Conan and, say, Luke Skywalker. Like Mike Hammer, Conan was not a hero that I always liked. There were times he struck me as a complete selfish jerk. Thus pulp adventures introduced me to the concept of the unlikable protagonist.
But most of all, pulp showed me how concepts and settings that might seem weird in other, more straightforward works could be pulled off with bombast and appeal. Specifically, Flash Gordon’s world of Mongo and the Mars in which John Carter finds himself are filled with exotic aliens, dangerous creatures and shockingly beautiful women; in other words, they’re fantastic places to which many would love to escape. They showed me that no world is beyond creation, that with refinement even the most screwball idea can yield something interesting to read.
Time has passed and we live in an age that tends to be a bit more cynical and straight-faced, with such flights of fancy often looked upon as juvenile or even sophomoric. The failure of pulp-flavored adventures on film like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sucker Punch haven’t helped matters. Call me sentimental, but I feel there’s still room for the pulp in which my fascination with writing is rooted today. I know I have enough on my plate as it is, but in the back of my brain there’s something going on involving rayguns and war rockets.
Then again, that could just be my daily coping mechanism.
The environments have some great detail.
If you’re even tangentially connected to video games that deviate from the big cash-cow options of linear, realistic first-person shooters and endorsed sports simulations, chances are you’ve heard of a game called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. After all, it isn’t often when a new IP makes it out of the imagination of a basement programmer and onto major platforms. Sure, indie titles can sneak into consoles and hard drives, but we’re talking a full-blown commercial release backed by the marketing juggernaut of EA. You need to have serious clout to get them involved. Being a major league baseball star helps.
Curt Schilling isn’t just a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, you see. He plays and is passionate about MMORPGs. He founded 38 Studios to develop his own, currently code-named Copernicus. In the meantime, his creative resources for the art direction and backstory for the project, Todd MacFarlane & R.A. Salvatore respectively, also developed a single-player RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which boasts an open world, organic and free-flowing combat and a dynamic character-building system allowing you to change what sort of character you play on the fly. It’s an impressive endeavor on paper.
At first blush, however, it seems that a few notes have been cribbed from BioWare. You start the game having been recently resurrected (Mass Effect 2) in an underground facility reminiscent of the Deep Roads (Dragon Age: Origins) and everybody seems to be in awe of you but are no help in filling in the gaping holes in your memory due to your amnesia (Knights of the Old Republic 2). I don’t mean to say or even imply that Reckoning is ripping off BioWare or anybody else. R.A. Salvatore apparently wrote up a timeline of 10000 years’ worth of history for this new world, and I like the fact that the primary conflict is due to a struggle between the Summer and Winter Courts kind of like that one novel in the Dresden Files.
While the story beats may feel familiar, the world at least has a unique aesthetic with a breathtaking amount of detail. The world is rendered in such a way that every aspect has some thought & creative energy behind it. The walls and decoration of buildings give them a lived-in feeling and the forests have flowers, fungus and greenery aplenty. Character designs opt more for fantastical, painter-like style rather than photo-realism, and it fits in with the overall design of the world even if the NPCs seem to only have three or four gestures between them.
I can see why you’re by a fire. Doesn’t it get cold in that getup?
You’ll be seeing those gestures quite a bit, too, as you go from one glowing exclamation point to the next picking up quests. Like the MMOs that drove Schilling into the gaming business, Reckoning is structured to present a world in which you can explore every corner as you hunt down quest objectives, item drops or just some extra experience to build your character. The knowledge of these origins and the nature of the gameplay make it not quite as immersive as Skyrim but it’s still a tried-and-true design that will have players grinding for hours, battling enemies they happen upon and taking all their stuff.
Combat immediately reminded me of the likes of Fable and Dragon Age 2, with a slightly better pace. You can switch on the fly between two melee weapons and a variety of spells, stringing them together into interesting combos to vary the ways in which you dispatch hapless opponents. You also have a blocking maneuver, though you may need to wait for the animation of your last attack to finish up before your shield appears, and you can also dodge. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of delay outside of what I’ve mentioned, and I’d say the game encourages you to try different weapons and styles because sticking to one particular set of skills could get a bit repetitive. Also, on Normal difficulty, it was entirely possible for me to run roughshod over the guards in the starting village and collect whatever gold and armor they dropped. I spent the night in jail afterwards, sure, but other than that there was no consequence. It was like nothing ever happened, kind of like appearing outside the police station in a Grand Theft Auto game but retaining all of my weapons and stolen goods.
In addition to your normal means of laying waste to folks is the Fate meter that grows as you deal damage. Fate plays a big part in the world of Amalur, and as one who does not have a pre-determined Fate, you have the power over the Fates of others. After enough mundane destruction you can go into a special mode that slows down the world and allows you to unload on an enemy with abandon. At a certain point you can execute that enemy with a special quick-time event for bonus XP. It’s animated well and has a unique look to it, varying the means of execution enough to keep things interesting in that regard.
Character advancement revolves around three skill trees: Might, Finesse and Sorcery. The more points you invest in a particular tree, the more options you unlock in the form of character classes based on Fate cards. This makes it easy to create a hybrid class of character rather than being rigidly fixed within one of the three main archetypes. And if you’re ever unsatisfied with your choices, a little gold to a Fateweaver allows you to re-specialize immediately. I didn’t spend enough time to delve into the crafting professions or really check out the selection from vendors, but if my experience thus far is anything to go by, they’ll be very similar to established conventions with a bit more depth in places.
I guess what I’m getting at is that, to me, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning feels a bit derivative. Don’t, however, take that as an entirely negative thing. What the game does, it does well. The way lore is weaved into most aspects of the game is impressive and I can’t deny it has a neat look to it, even if some of the proportions and fashion decisions strike me as somewhat odd or trying too hard to be ‘fantastical.’ It sticks to tried-and-true methods of RPG design and for the most part is functional and slightly above average without pushing too many boundaries or blowing a lot of minds. For a first title in a new IP from an untested studio, I can’t help but be somewhat impressed, and I can understand cribbing notes from what’s worked before in order to forge a successful title. I just hope that Copernicus and future Amalur titles take a few more risks, as Reckoning tends to play it safe. Still, there’s some good game to be enjoyed here, and if you want to pick up Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning for some MMO-flavored action that also lets you unlock collectible armor and weapons for other titles like Mass Effect 3, I say go for it.
One of the concerns I have about my major rewrite is the person.
Not the person of the protagonist himself, mind you. He’s (probably) fine. It’s the perspective that bothers me.
You see, I wrote Citizen in the Wilds from third-person perspective to avoid pouring myself too much into the protagonist. I may be overly paranoid about it, but projecting oneself onto the lead character can be the death knell both for the narrative and the writer’s credibility. However, it’s entirely possible that this fear has lead to a diametrically opposed problem. There may be too much distance between him and me, and by extension the audience.
There’s also the problem of world-building. I think part of the issue in opening this tale is that we have an entirely new world. I want to set the scene as much as possible by talking about the society our would-be hero was raised in, so it can be compared to the reality of what’s outside his little bubble. I’m probably bogging down the flow as a result.
This is why I’m considering switching back to first person.
The thoughts and emotions will be more immediate. I’m likely to cultivate more energy and drive by removing the barrier between reader and character. And if things start to bog down, I can sit back and ask myself “Do eighteen-year-old bookworms think like that? Did I?”
Or I could simply try to pare down some of the slower bits of the first few chapters I’ve gotten through. It’s hard to say which course is best.
Joseph Campbell is famous for basically saying that all storytellers are essentially telling the same story. Be it a myth based on the perceptions of the ancient Norse of their weather patterns or the all-caps melodrama and bright, splashy colors of a comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, our stories are a way of exploring ourselves and the world around us. Sometimes, the old stories are reimagined and transitioned into new forms that appeal to the altered sensibilities of modern audiences. Sometimes this works; other times, it doesn’t. Not every middle schooler is going to have a nascent interest in the mythology of ancient Greece, so author Rick Riordan took it upon himself to set those stories in the foundations of those tumultuous schoolyards, giving us Percy Jackson & the Olympians. The first volume of this chronicle, The Lightning Thief, got the major motion picture from Hollywood treatment.
And by ‘treatment’, I mean the potential for storytelling that’s worth a damn got tied to a chair and worked over with a baseball bat.
Our titular character is a struggling middle-school student with apparent dyslexia and ADHD. His mother is married to a complete and utter douchebag while his birth father scampered off while Percy was still a newborn. His best friend, Grover, walks with crutches and has a penchant for cracking wise that works really hard to put Chris Tucker to shame. A visit to the local museum and a lecture by his wheelchair-bound Latin teacher begins to reveal some truths to Percy: his dyslexia is due to his brain being hard-wired to read ancient Greek, mythological creatures want him dead, his best friend is a satyr and his teacher’s a centaur. Oh, and he’s the son of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. He must undertake a quest to return the lightning bolt of Zeus lest the king of the gods starts a massive war over its theft. Why Zeus would leave his trademark weapon which also happens to be the Olympian equivelant of a tactical nuclear strike laying around unattended is one of the many, many unanswered questions brought up in the course of this plot. Odin had a damn treasure vault for stuff like this, and Zeus couldn’t even slap a “No Touchie” magical whammy on the thing? But let’s move on. I don’t want to spend my entire rage quotient in the second major paragraph.
Having never read this series of books, I can’t comment on how well the narrative of the novel transitioned into the screenplay. What I can comment on is a visible shift in style and pacing by director Chris Columbus. This is a man best known for his light-hearted, kid-oriented films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Lightning Thief feels a bit like an act of teenage rebellion against those more childish forays into filmmaking. While once we might have spent more time with Percy at home or school learning about what makes him tick and how he deals with the challenges of his young life, we’re thrust into the action almost immediately and given very little time for exposition.
This is both a good thing and a bad one. Exposition, after all, is difficult to get right and more often than not becomes an anchor welded around the ankle of the story, dragging the audience into the cloying darkness of boredom. However, without even passing attempts at exposition the story is left adrift, batted without foundation between one event and the next with nary a thing to connect them. Percy’s got a quest for a series of magical MacGuffins and an incidental need to rescue his mother to keep things going, but these elements have their own problems, seperate from those plauging the rest of the film.
It would be one thing if the MacGuffins were tied one to the other by clues that needed to be investigated on the scene where each is found. Instead our heroes have a magical map that just tells them where to go. Cuts down on stuff like intellectual curiosity and character building, sure, but who needs that stuff when you have mythological creatures to battle with swords? As for Percy’s mom, her character is also given something of the short end of the stick, and while most people would be genuinely concerned with a parent’s sudden death or disappearance, Percy reacts to the incident with a bit of dull surprise, quickly lost when he spots the girl. Because, you know, hormones are a much better motivator for moving a story along than concern for a loved one.
Without decent motivation or characterization for our hero, all we have left is action and spectacle. Again, the film falls short of delivering these elements without making things either bleedingly obvious or unnecessesarily dense. Instead of discovering the ways and means of his water-based demi-god powers, Percy has to be ham-handedly told how they work. Our heroes get out of their first two major scrapes thanks to everybody in the world having seen Clash of the Titans at some point, without explaining this point in-universe. The intrepid band spends five days in a pleasure palace before Percy’s dad calls him up on the Olympin telepathiphone to inform him of the fact that they’re farting around in a pleasure palace. And this says nothing about the aforementioned girl, supposedly the daughter of the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy, not employing the most practical and straightforward means of ending confrontations possible. Sure, it’s in keeping with traditions to train with swords and bows and whatnot, but just think how many of these encounters Annabeth could have resolved more quickly, directly and painlessly with the implementation and distribution of fucking guns.
Let’s see, what else is wrong with this flick? Grover’s irritating from start to finish, the only character who has interesting motivations and character beats in the slightest gets maybe five minutes of screen time, there’s no real tension and any attempt the story makes at trying to be more than a pandering and predictable distraction for middle schoolers just trying to make out in the back of the theater is slapped down in favor of more of that blunt telling over showing bullshit I’ve harped about for the last three minutes. Given my personal interest in stories like this reworked into other settings and genres to prove their viability and longevity, I wanted to like The Lightning Thief, but the more I watched the angrier I got. No amount of Sean Bean or Kevin McKidd can save this flick. Harry Potter does a much better job of giving us relatable adolescent characters in a fantasy setting, and cribbing notes from Clash of the Titans made me yearn for the early 80s schlock of that original film and wonder about how bad the new version is. I guess I’ll find out next week. For now, skip Percy Jackson. Give the books a try if you’re part of the target demographic, but if you’ve already read Harry Potter and aren’t frothing at the mouth for more of the same, I doubt you’re missing much. Find Madeline l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or T.H. White’s The Once and Future King instead. They’re classics, they’re poignant, and you don’t have the token black character weighing the whole thing down with his attempts at being both the ethnic wisecracking sidekick and the Magical Negro. But at least you can make a fun drinking game out of every moment the so-called heroes of The Lightning Thief just get a solution handed to them and don’t have to think for themselves, much like the audience.
Wait. Scratch that. I don’t want to be responsible for any of you dying from alcohol poisoning.
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far:Having delivered the last of the swords charged to him and Victor Luxon, Cadmon Hightower remained in Sunspear when Victor and Maester Chrysander sailed for White Harbor. While Jon Snow, Brandon Stark and others went to Moat Cailin at the behest of their lord, Eddard Stark, Cadmon returned to King’s Landing. Much like his reasons for staying at Sunspear as a guest of House Martell, his true purpose in the court of King Robert Baratheon is unknown.
“There. Would you be so kind as to deliver these to their intended recipients, young man?”
Cadmon bowed slightly as he took the messages from Grand Maester Pycelle. The sage had spent some time in the rookerie retrieving them from their ravens. The former bastard had fought down an impulse to volunteer for that duty, as well, but he didn’t know the first thing about handling birds. He was lucky that Zephyr had never bucked him off, given his track record with animals in general.
“I certainly shall, Grand Maester.”
Pycelle nodded, then murmured to himself as he hobbled back to the chair behind his desk. Cadmon bowed again as a way of excusing himself, and began winding his way through the corridors of the Red Keep. He’d taken care to avoid many of the goings-on. He was curious, to be certain, but he didn’t want to make any of his intentions or even interests obvious. Prince Doran had cautioned him, using the words of Victor Luxon of all people: “The court at King’s Landing all hide daggers in their smiles.”
It would make the first of his three deliveries very interesting indeed.
He found the recipient walking towards the main hall speaking with Janos Slynt, commander of the City Watch. When the tall, slim man saw Cadmon approaching with messages in his hand, he waved the gold cloak away. His smile was quite disarming and he inclined his head respectfully.
“Young master Hightower. I see you’re still at Pycelle’s beck and call.”
“Even a Grand Maester cannot be everywhere at once, Lord Baelish, and I understand he has much to do before visiting the Hand this morning.” Cadmon handed Littlefinger his message, keeping the other two in a belt pouch opposite his Braavosi blade. He wasn’t wearing his finest clothes, but rather the sort of thing that would have passed him off as a bravo across the Narrow Sea. It was slightly more comfortable and somewhat anonymous, even if his aunt had insisted on the white tower of his house being added to the half-cloak he wore over his left arm. He toyed with the signet ring on his left pointer finger with his right hand as Baelish read his message.
“You’re not carrying your family’s blade.”
The comment from Littlefinger was made without him looking up. So he did not see Cadmon’s smile at first.
“I thought I would leave such flagrant displays of House loyalty and intent for high court and other functions. Valyrian steel, in my opinion, is not something you unsheathe for every occasion.”
Littlefinger did look up at that. “So you are exercising discretion.”
“In a way. I’m of the opinion that the best swords remain in their scabbards. No need to draw steel on someone who’s of no actual threat to you.”
“The perception of a threat, or lack thereof, does not always depict the true nature of the threat itself, does it?”
“Of course not. But if we boldly wear our most potent means of defense at all times, wouldn’t we become predictable and, by extension, vulnerable?”
Cadmon nodded slightly. “Do you have a reply you wish to prepare? If so, shall I collect it to be sent?”
Littlefinger rolled up his message. “No, thank you. This missive contained all I needed to know for now.”
The messenger bowed and backed away a few paces before beginning to turn.
“Thank you for your service, young Hightower.”
“And you for your time, Lord Baelish.”
Cadmon waited until he was around the corner to take a deep breath as he walked. Littlefinger struck him as a singularly dangerous man. Certainly not the most physically imposing or deadly in close quarters, but what he knew, gathered and inferred gave him an arsenal unlike that of any noble in Westeros, save perhaps one man.
Putting the encounter behind him, Cadmon made his way to another wing of the Keep, where two men in golden armor stood outside an expansive chamber door. Cadmon bowed to the knights, handing one his message.
“From Harvest Hall, Lord Commander.”
“My thanks.” Barristan Selmy unrolled the message and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. “My nephew Arstan is to be a father again. Wonderful! It always warms my heart to know things are well there.”
“I had no idea he was a father already.” The other Kingsguard rested his mailed hand on the pommel of his sword. He seemed alert and aware of his surroundings despite his attention on his Lord Commander. “You don’t speak of Harvest Hall that often.”
“Mostly because it has little to do with my duties here.” Selmy nodded respectfully to Cadmon. “Come by White Sword Tower this evening, ser, so I may deliver a reply to my family. I may be dining, but feel free to interrupt me.”
“It shall be done, Lord Commander.”
“I’m curious.” The other man of the Kingsguard fixed Cadmon with his flashing green gaze. “Our brother Meryn Trant doesn’t seem to like you very much. But he won’t say why.”
Memories of a fat, spoiled boy spitting accusations tugged at Cadmon’s mind. He rubbed his nose, which the boy had broken after being disarmed. Shortened fingers had set it right, but as for the boy’s mouth and family…
“I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“Maybe if you sparred with him he’d work out his frustrations.” Jaime Lannister smiled. “I’m sure I can arrange that.”
“We have better things to do than indulge Meryn’s cruelty. His reasons for disliking others are his own.”
“It was just a suggestion, Barristan. No need to be prickly.”
“While I appreciate the offer,” Cadmon said as he regained his composure, “I have duties to attend to that prevent me from sparring as much as I’d like. For example, this last message I must deliver.”
He bowed to the sworn brothers and walked away. He would have liked to talk with Ser Barristan more, as the aging knight seemed both forthright and keen in mind as well as blade, but not with the Kingslayer there. He may have been acknowledged as Baelor Hightower’s son thanks to the words of Jaime’s father, but the Kingslayer’s desire to watch him fight unnerved him. Be it to catalogue weaknesses he could exploit or some sort of perverse pleasure, Cadmon didn’t know, nor was he willing to find out.
The final message was for the Hand of the King. Cadmon made he way towards that tower quickly, but slowed at the sight of who was emerging. The diminutive man dressed in gold and crimson broke into a grin at the sight of him.
“Ah! The former bastard, now Pycelle’s errand boy. What comes?”
Cadmon couldn’t help but smile in return. Tyrion’s japes never really bothered him. Better than than Victor’s usual terms of endearment, about as pleasant as a mailed fist up the side of the head.
“I have a message for the Hand from Winterfell.”
“Oh, do you now? You may want to delay its delivery. The Hand, you see, is currently conversing with my sweet sister. She tends to let her eyes wander. Over messages, of course. She’s very curious.”
“I’ve no doubt.” The Queen’s eyes had wandered over Cadmon the day they’d delivered the blades of House Baratheon to the king. Cadmon still wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “I wouldn’t want to disturb them.”
“No, I think our beloved Hand is disturbed enough as it is. His health seems to be fading rapidly, I’m sorry to say.” Tyrion was carrying a goblet, and he took a long drink from it as he studied the tall young man in front of him. “Was that the only missive our resident wizened old sage had you carry around?”
“There were a few that required quick delivery.”
“Mm-hmm. And to whom were they addressed?”
“Your sister isn’t the only curious one, I see.”
Tyrion spread his arms. “You’ve caught me! Please, do bear me away to the Black Cells posthaste. Such treachery must be dealt with swiftly. Besides, Ser Ilyn hasn’t had a head to lop off in some time. He’s probably getting bored.”
“Well, I was going to entrust the message to you for delivery as I have somewhere else to be, but seeing as you’re a traitor and all, I suppose that’d be unwise. Let’s go find Ser Ilyn, then!”
“Now, now, no need to be hasty.” Tyrion waved away the notion. “Let’s say I do deliver this message to the Hand, without my sweet sister indulging her curiosity for its sordid contents. Do you think that would save me from the block?”
“Maybe, provided you don’t read it yourself.”
Tyrion gave a little smile. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of reading another man’s message. That’d be unforgiveably rude.”
“We have an understanding, then.” Cadmon handed the Imp the message. “One bastard with a noble name to another.”
“Here I thought you would have forgotten our conversation! We did drink quite a bit of wine, after all.”
“‘All dwarfs are bastards in the eyes of their fathers’ is far too poignant a sentiment to forget, wine or no.”
Tyrion extended his hand, and Cadmon took it. “We do indeed have an understanding. On your way, bastard.”
He left the Red Keep and wound his way through the crowded streets of King’s Landing. In short order he made his way to the docks. The cog Pillowmaiden’s Sigh was in the process of being moored as he approached. Among the dour seamen and ware-bearing merchants that disembarked was a rotund man dressed in finery. Cadmon made his way to the end of the gangplank to meet him.
“Why, Cadmon Hightower! Don’t tell me the King is so concerned for my safety that he sent an escort!”
“Indeed not, Lord Varys. In fact, I doubt the King has marked your absence at all.”
Varys tittered. “Oh, he’s so raucous, our sovereign. One must be amazed that he can rule from within his cups as he does.”
“Even so, I do wish to return you to the Red Keep directly, as Grand Maester Pycelle is keenly interested in the state of affairs overseas.”
They began walking and Varys put on a thoughtful expression. “I wonder what specifically the Grand Maester wishes to know about the Free Cities and the inhabitants within them.”
Cadmon looked at the eunuch, not quite smiling. “I’m certain I have no idea, Lord Varys.”
The spymaster clasped his hands behind his back as they walked together. “And if you did, you would not say so to me in any sort of public forum, even a street such as this?”
“I didn’t think so.” Varys was also not quite smiling. “Still, if you wished to remain my escort for a time, to ensure I don’t scurry off, you may find my report somewhat illuminating.”
Cadmon Hightower looked up at the Red Keep as they approached it once more. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.
Courtesy Jim Stanes
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. Word of the lost swords of high Westrosi houses by up-and-coming House Luxon has crossed the Narrow Sea…
He looked up from the meal in front of him to the bearer of the news. Under the wide-brimmed hat providing shadows for half of his face, there were not many in Pentos who would easily recognize the traveler. Still, Viserys could not shake a feeling of doubt. Were they being watched? Who else knew of this, of them?
“You saw this thing?”
“With my own eyes.” The voice of the traveler was low, subtle, all but lost in the tavern’s ruckus. “The blades of the Baratheons were laid at the feet of the king himself.”
“The king sitting on my throne.” Scowling, Viserys snatched up a goblet of wine and drained it. “I can’t wait to see the look on his fat face when I split him open.”
“In time, in time.” The traveler spoke calmly, unruffled by the notion of waking the dragon. That didn’t sit well. He should fear the dragon. All men should fear the dragon. “What was interesting to me, however, was not only what this man of the north carried, but what he did not.”
“The blades of my family. Where are they?”
“I suspect they are locked away in Moat Cailin. Little birds tell me the new maester has taken residence in a tower built atop a vault. That would be the most likely place.”
Viserys took a bite of stew, trying to think. The spices in the Pentoshi food distracted him, equal parts curiosity and revulsion interfering with his ability to strategize.
“My ancestors would storm the castle with their armies to take back what is theirs. I have no army. Aemon would have flown over the walls with his dragons. I have no dragons.”
“Astute, my prince.”
“I wasn’t asking for your opinion.” He waved his goblet in the air until it was refilled. “I need inspiration, not sycophancy.”
“Not all wars are won with armies and dragons. Some are won with deception and stealth, before they even begin.”
Viserys considered this. What glory would he win stealing into a castle like a thief? He wasn’t stealing anything, he was reclaiming it. But what price would he pay to get those weapons? There were blades of Valyrian steel among them, perhaps even the sword of Aemon the Dragonknight, or that of his elder brother Rhaegar. He envisioned himself riding towards the Red Keep, a loyal army at his back, the smokey steel in hand and raised high as he returned to the place he truly belonged…
“How do we begin?”
“Well, for one thing, we cannot have you and your sister staying in places where you could be stumbled upon. It is no small miracle that you have remained relatively undiscovered until now. Fortunately for you, I have just the place for you to stay while plans are made. A trusted friend.”
“Inasmuch as I trust anyone.” Viserys finished his wine and laid some coins on the table. He moved to stand, then paused. “Wait. You said a man from the North came to deliver the fat king’s swords. But when you first told me of this, you spoke of two men.”
“Indeed I did.”
“The other was not from the North?”
“No. He is not, but as our time is somewhat short before I am missed, I think that is a tale I shall have to tell another time.”
Viserys narrowed his eyes. “You’re hiding something from me, eunuch.”
“I hide things from all men, my prince. It is how I stay alive.”
“That, too, is no small miracle.”
The traveler only smiled. He stood, gesturing for Viserys to lead the way. As it should be. I’ve been here long enough to know this city like the back of my hand. They wound their way through the streets until they came to the merchant ship owner’s pavilion. The traveler tipped his hat down slightly.
“I will wait here.”
“Is the place we’re going better than this?”
“Slightly larger, and infinitely more hospitable, I suspect.”
Viserys grunted. He walked through the gate and found his host sitting by one of the windows that faced the harbor. Half of the man’s hair, both on his head and in his forked beard, was painted blue, the other half green. A girl from a pillowhouse knelt at his feet and was massaging his ankles while he enjoyed a pipe.
“Ah! My guest returns. Did you have an enjoyable lunch?”
“I did, but I’m afraid I must depart. My sister and I thank you for your hospitality.” He dropped a few coins on the table and walked back towards the guest rooms.
“I find it unfortunate that you still will not consider my offer.” The merchant was standing. “Your sister would be well taken care of and greatly desired. Is that not what all women want?”
Viserys looked over his shoulder, first at the man then at the girl who remained on the floor, barely clothed in the silk gown that fell from her shoulders. Shaking his head, the prince walked into the guest bedroom he shared with his sister. If anyone is going to whore out Daenerys, it’s going to be me, not that old pirate, and not for any pittance of gold, but for my crown.
“Daenerys. It’s time to wake up.”
She murmured as she rolled over on the bed. Viserys crossed to it, reached around her and took hold of her breast, pinching her nipple until her eyes opened.
“We have to leave. Now. If you delay, you will wake the dragon.”
Nodding as she looked at him, Daenerys quickly found her clothes and packed up her few meager belongings. Viserys was already packed. The message had made it clear that they would not linger here long, and so had prepared himself before dawn. They walked out to find the merchant with an old blade in his hand.
“I think I’ll be keeping your sister. She’s worth far more than you are, boy.”
Viserys was armed only with a dagger. But the merchant was in his cups, despite the hour, a fact evident in the empty glass bottles near his chair and the stink on his breath. The young king gestured for his sister to stay behind him as he drew his short blade.
“I’m sure you’d like a virgin to sell to whomever you got that whore on the floor from, but my sister stays with me. And we’re leaving.”
The old pirate scowled, slamming the pommel of his blade on the table, causing bottles to fly. “Wretch! I keep you under my roof for months, feed you and clothe you in keeping with this station you claim, and this is how I’m repaid?”
“No. That gold on the table is how you are repaid. More will come if you let us pass. You will have the thanks of a king.”
“I’d rather have the girl. And your head!”
He roared and charged towards Viserys. The prince ducked to one side, still between his opponent and his sister but out of direct harm. The merchant slammed into the corner where his main room met the hall back to the bedrooms. Viserys smiled.
“Has age slowed your pirate reflexes, old man?”
“I’ll show you how pirates fight!” The merchant reoriented himself with Viserys and charged again. Another sidestep put the man squarely into one of his cabinets. In spite of the deadly nature of the situation, Viserys laughed.
“You should stop now while you still have a house to live in!”
The pirate’s reply was wordless, a restored grip on his sword and yet another charge. This time, when Viserys stepped aside, the man went through the large open doors and across his pavilion. It was easily seen on the streets when he launched into space and landed face down on the inside of his low garden wall. His dogs trotted over to see what had happened, and when he lifted his face, the passers-by laughed, as he now wore one of those dog’s droppings in his beard.
Viserys, sheathing his dagger, took hold of Daenerys’ hand and walked out the door to where the traveler waited. Beside him was an extremely obese Pentoshi gentleman who bowed as they emerged.
“Your Grace. My lady. I’m quite pleased to finally meet you both.”
The pirate staggered towards them, but at the sight of the large man he stopped short.
“Ah. Numeris.” There was something in the fat man’s gaze that reminded Viserys of himself. Of waking the dragon. “I do hope your altercation with this young man will not keep you from seeing my shipment safely to Lys. I’d hate for you to lose your contract.”
“Um. Yes.” The merchant took a step back. “I will see to it personally.” He ran back into his house. Both the fat man and the traveler laughed.
“Spineless as always,” the traveler observed, then tipped his hat to the Targaryen siblings. “I must take my leave, my friends, but let me introduce you to Illyrio Mopatis, Magister of Pentos.”
“And your humble host, Your Grace.” He bowed to Viserys again, and kissed Daenerys’ hand. “My lady.”
“At last, some manners!” Viserys bowed in return. “We are in your debt, Magister. I look forward to seeing your home.”
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“Thank you for coming, Mister Franklin.”
“It’s nothing.” The printing mogul and statesman leaned on his walking stick as he looked around the room. Like so many Parisian homes, it was as ostentatious as taste and budget allowed. A black cat looked up at him from the fainting couch as the gentleman who’d summoned him settled in an armchair near the window. It was nearly dusk, and soon the sun would disappear behind the horizon entirely.
“I am simply hoping to sleep well tonight.” The gentleman wrung his hands as he watched Franklin move around the sitting room. “The noises and broken glassware in the middle of the night are not helping my work ethic and mental well-being.”
Franklin nodded, narrowing his eyes. He set his satchel down on the side table and opened the clasp, extending his senses. “The request was somewhat unorthodox. Normally, members of the church undertake tasks such as this.” There was definitely dissonance in the house, a cold feeling that lingered at the edges of his perception. He tipped his spectacles down and looked around the room without their interference.
“I had heard you were an inventor and a man of letters, but not…”
“A wizard?” Franklin had to smile. “That’s the proper term. But I will thank you not to spread the fact around. His Majesty has enough headaches from our precocious colonies without witchcraft and wizardry becoming involved.” He withdrew a small jar of salt from his satchel, along with a small clay pot. “Now, Monsieur LeBeouf, I must ask you to remain still.”
LeBeouf nodded, and Franklin walked over to the man’s easychair. He handed his host the pot, unstoppered the jar and began sprinkling salt in a wide circle around the chair.
“Should I be doing anything with this?”
“Just hold on to it, for now.” Franklin was careful to make sure the circle was even in its construction. He did not want it to break prematurely. Once it was complete, he replaced the stopper in the jar and knelt by the chair. He traded the jar for the pot, removed the pot’s lid and spread a bit of its cool, creamy contents under his eyes, then under LeBeouf’s.
“What is this?”
“An ungent based on a composition I discovered thanks to travelers from Mexico and Jamaica. Now, please remain quiet.” Still kneeling, he touched the inner edge of the circle with his fingers, having laid the jar aside. He uttered a soft incantation, and immediately the timbre of the room changed. What had been pre-dusk light, coloring the cream walls and soft carpets with pink hues, darkened to deep, angry reds. The cat hissed and bolted from its spot to leave the room. LaBeouf shuddered, nearly dropping the jar of salt, as Franklin rose to look to the door the cat had not run through.
“You can come out. I mean you no harm.”
Slowly, a flutter of white cloth emerged from around the corner. The figure took silent, shuffling steps, one at at time. Her nightgown seemed to be in tatters, her flesh more pale than the surface of a pearl. She had been beautiful before her eyes had sunken and her lips turned purple. Dark bruises could be seen all over her slender neck. She glared at LaBeouf for a long moment when he came into her vision.
“Why do you linger, spirit?”
She looked at Franklin, and when the men heard her voice, it wasn’t from her mouth. It filled the room, an insistent and omnipresent whisper.
“Ask my husband.”
Franklin glanced at LaBeouf, who has apparently shrunk into his armchair. The ghost bared her teeth at him, but Franklin stepped between them.
“Tell me what happened, child.”
The ghost seemed to compose herself.
“I could not give him children. The doctors said I’d never bear fruit. He was so angry. He waited until we were home and I was exhausted, ready for bed. Then he…”
The voice felt silent. Her hands moved to her neck. Her eyes widened in fear. Franklin nodded slowly.
“I understand. And I will make this right. You will be at peace.”
The ghost’s hands fell to her side, and then she picked up the skirts of her ruined nightgown and curtsied to Fraklin. He bowed, then broke the circle. Immediately, she was gone from their sight and the color of the fading day returned to normal. LaBeouf shot to his feet.
“She lies! It’s slander!”
“She is not capable of lying, Monsieur. Spirits of the departed only lie to themselves from time to time. Spirits of other worlds, now, there you have some skilled liars.”
He began cleaning up the circle with a small brush and pan from his satchel. LaBeouf struggled to find words.
“What… what happens now?”
“Now? Now, you go to the magistrate and confess to your crime. You show him where you disposed of your poor wife’s body and you throw yourself on the mercy of the court.”
“That’s preposterous! I’ll be ruined!”
“The alternative is that you live with this secret… and your wife’s ghost… forever.”
FOREVER wafted through the room, a whisper from the spirit that was breathy sigh and deadly premonition. LaBeouf turned as pale as his wife had appeared. Without another word, he grabbed his hat and headed out the door.
Franklin sighed, shaking his head. It was times like this he missed America. He turned to find the black cat looking at him.
“I’m sorry, dear. Would you like a new home? Fresh cream every day and plenty of bookshelves on which to sit?”
“Meow,” the cat replied.
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. Jon Snow has left Winterfell for Moat Cailin, home of House Luxon. His brothers Robb and Bran have gone with him to wish him well. Lord Goddard invites the sons of his liege lord to stay for a feast and rest before returning home, and while Robb spars with his half-brother one last time, Bran explores the unfamiliar castle and its many towers…
He adored the feeling of the wind cutting through him.
Summer kept pace on the ground, watchful, long ears alert. The direwolf pup could not climb after him, though. The craggy masonry and hidden handholds were Bran’s province alone. Here, in a place he’d never seen, he still navigated walls and towers with speed and precision. In his mind he saw himself assaulting an enemy stronghold, a dagger clenched in his teeth, men at arms struggling to keep up as they moved to overwhelm the guards at the gate, or carry off a damsel in distress.
One tower was different from the others. It was not the tallest one of Moat Cailin’s many, but it was one of the few that seemed unmanned. A gregarious garron was the only creature keeping watch at its base, tied to a post and pawing at the ground. Summer gave it a sniff in introduction as Bran ascended the tower. He immediately caught a scent from above: freshly brewed tea, strong and exotic. Curiosity overwhelmed him as he moved, hand over hand, up the side of the tower. At last he came to the window that was the source of the scent.
A small spiral staircase rose through the middle of the room. Several stout bookshelves were spaced around the room, scrolls and tomes stuffed into their spaces. Tapestries hung from the higher portions of the wall and rugs lay on the floor. A small firepit was near the window, with a kettle hanging over it. Across the way from Bran was a table featuring odd figurines and two men facing one another as they sat in thought.
One was Lord Goddard Luxon. He reminded Bran of his lord father, a man of war tempered with patience and wisdom. The other was an older man, his head curiously devoid of hair, dressed in the robes of a maester. The stranger’s eyes flicked towards Bran, then back to the table.
“A moment while I tend to the tea.” He moved one of the figurines and rose. He picked up a staff that had been leaning against a nearby shelf before hobbling over to the fire pit, slowly, his eyes on Bran. The boy didn’t move. Carefully, the maester removed the pot from the firepit’s rail, set it on a side table, and covered the firepit with a broad metal lid.
“You best come inside, my lad. ‘Twould be a shame to see you fall from this height.”
Nodding, Bran climbed into the room. The maester was pouring tea as Goddard regarded him.
“As you are not one of Lord Goddard’s children, I deduce you’re one of our honored guests.”
“That would be Bran Stark.” Goddard hadn’t moved from the table, his gaze severe on the boy. “And he should know wandering a yard, any yard that is not his own, is inherently dangerous.”
“I’m sorry.” Bran found his voice but did not meet the lord’s eyes. “I like to climb.”
“Well, since you worked so hard in climbing up here, would you mind holding onto this tray for our lord?” The maester was holding a small tray with two steaming cups, and Bran took it. Smiling, the maester moved back to the table with the boy in tow. Goddard’s look had softened for a moment before turning back to the figurines.
“What is this?”
“It is called cyvasse, young master, a game of strategy and cunning. It is a means of keeping the mind sharp and taking the measure of another without the need for swords.”
“And it’s damned annoying at times.” Goddard’s voice was laced with mirth, however, and he rubbed his chin as he regarded the board before him. After a few quiet moments, during which the maester sampled his tea, the lord moved his trebuchet.
“Why is it annoying?”
“A skilled opponent knows not to move all of his powerful pieces to the front.” Goddard took a sip of tea, then nodded to the maester with a raise of the cup. “I jest; facing a skilled opponent is only annoying in that more effort must be exerted in overcoming them.”
The maester smiled, then turned his attention to the board. Bran leaned closer and looked at the different tiles and pieces.
“Why not simply fly your dragons over everything?”
“Two reasons.” The maester moved one of his spearmen to block his opponent’s trebuchet. “One, this is a game of Old Valyria, and the object is to capture the king, which is stronger than a dragon. Two, moving your dragons aggressively can sometimes be effective, but canny players can deal with and extinguish early threats and leave their opponents at a disadvantage for the duration of the game.”
“Not every battle is won with strength alone, Bran.” Goddard moved his heavy horse. “More often than not, you must use your eyes and your mind as much as your sword or fist to win the day.”
Bran nodded, watching as the game unfolded. Eventually, the maester was forced to move his king out of his fortress and after a merry chase, Goddard pinned it in the back corner with his horse and spy. The maester, unflustered, stood and bowed to his lord.
“A well-played match, my lord. The board is yours.”
Goddard stood and offered the maester his hand. “A good game and good tea. We must do this again.”
As they shook, noise came from below. The bulky form of Brock Samson came up the spiral, followed by the quick and quiet Spectre. Bran smiled and walked over to the shadow cat, who rammed Bran’s shoulder with her head to ensure she had the boy’s full attention.
“Some of the locals have arrived, my lord, wishing to speak with you about their crops and trade. I also was told to find Bran to inform him Robb is ready to leave.”
Bran looked up from petting Spectre. “I want to say good-bye to Jon.”
“So you will.” Goddard laid his teacup down on the side table and made for the stairs, with Brock in tow. Spectre moved after her master, but Bran hesitated, looking back at the maester as he put the cyvasse pieces in a box on a shelf near the table.
“Did you go bald when you became a maester?”
The older man smiled. “In a way. I shave every morning. It’s a ritual, a reminder of the commitment I’ve chosen to make to the realm.”
“What about your leg? Doesn’t that remind you?”
“My leg reminds me that I am more than the circumstances that left me with only one of flesh and blood.” The maester leaned on his staff as he regarded the boy. “Men are more than they seem, young master. More than their handicaps, more than their prowess, more than their smiles. Do not be afraid to look deeper into their hearts, as well as your own.”
Bran nodded as Goddard called his name. He hurried down the stairs. Summer bounded after him as they searched for Jon. He wasn’t leaving until he said good-bye.
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For the Terribleminds flash fiction challenge Sub-Genre Tango Part II, here’s a mix of cyberpunk and sword & sorcery.
“Man, I don’t know about this. We’re static if we get caught.”
Van looked over his shoulder at Anton. The shorter youth’s outburst had been no louder than a hiss, but it sounded a bullhorn at this hour. It was after curfew and the Street Sweepers would be on patrol, ready to stasis-bolt anybody wandering the city. If you were really lucky, you’d awaken in a cozy cell with no lights and a bucket in the corner. Anton had been there before, one of the reasons he was so nervous.
“We won’t.” Van grabbed Anton to yank him close. “Not if you keep your taco-hole shut.”
Anton nodded, nearly dislodging the rig attached to his temples. He’d been locked up before due to his propensity for jacking into civil government relays through innocent public kiosks. He was brilliant, but about as calm as a ferret high on sugar and amphetamines. Van brushed dark hair out of his vision and held a finger to his lips.
Anton obeyed, stepping closer to Van in the shadows of the alley. A Street Sweeper hummed softly as it floated by, held aloft on its hover-fans, the men manning the cannons inscrutable behind their dark helmets. To serve and protect was emblazoned on the vehicle. Van waited until it turned the corner to pull Anton back into the street with him.
“Look. I know those bastards scare you. They give me bad tingles, too. But you want to get Sarah out, right?”
“More than anything. I know I was in a bad place, but hers is even worse.” Anton blinked. “Are you sure this is going to work?”
Van shook his head. “Nope. But we’ve already tried remote unlocks and direct runs on their bulwark servers. We gotta go seriously old-school to get in there.”
Anton and Van resumed their quiet walk down the street, on the lookout for Street Sweepers or night cops on foot. Every time he looked south, Van saw the Grand Citadel. It had started life as just another skyscraper. Now the glass gave way around the 50th floor to bright white marble, reaching up to spires and wind-snapped banners. The whole thing had a glow around it, making it even harder to see the stars. The media pundits loved to talk about its warmth and promise of peace, but Van knew the glow was as cold as the corridors in its sub-basements.
“We gotta get her out of there, man.”
“We will.” Anton managed a smile. Van put an arm around Anton’s shoulders and kept him closer as they walked. Finally, after another couple close calls with Sweepers, they came to the address Van had written down.
Anton wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Don’t look like much.”
The row of brownstones were all run down. The one they’d stopped at had boarded-up windows, the first floor featuring bars on top of the boards. The box next to the front door looked like it hadn’t been touched in about a century. There was only one name on it, barely legible: Crystal.
Van exchanged a look with Anton and pushed the button. A burst of static made both youths cringe.
“It’s after curfew, you fool! What in the Hells do you want?”
The voice sounded shrill, at war with the static. Van cleared his throat.
“We’ve come to see Crystal.”
“Oh! Come to point and laugh at the witch, have you? Piss off. Readings happen during normal business hours. And no, I don’t care that my reading lead you to ruin, you‘re the one who interpreted the cards.”
Anton glanced around the street in wide-eyed terror. Van took a deep breath.
“We’re not here about a reading. We’re here about a rescue.”
“I beg your pardon, young man?”
“My sister is held by the Citadel as one of their workers. We need to get her out.”
“Van…” Anton tugged Van’s jacket. Feeling the pull on the leather, Van looked over his shoulder. A Street Sweeper swung into view.
The door clicked open. Van pushed Anton inside, reaching under his jacket for his gun. It was an old autoloader, a crime in and of itself since all non-Citadel arms were heavily regulated. Van aimed at the door.
“She’s on the third floor. Keep moving.”
Anton scrambled up the steps, Van close behind, as the door came open. The night cops were carrying man-portable stasis rifles, shouting for them to stop. Van fired a couple rounds to keep the cops’ heads down and turned to follow Anton. They made it to the stairs outside the door to the third floor space before the cops opened fire.
Van’s hand went numb and the gun fell from his fingers. It was a glancing shot but it’d deprived them of their defense. Anton was putting his hands up when the third floor door came open.
Standing in it was a woman as tall as Van, but full-bodied where he was gangly. Ringlets of red hair fell around her face and blue eyes blazed with fury. A silver sword was in her hand and she pointed it at the boys.
They did. Lightning snapped through the air over their heads and caught the lead cop in the chest, knocking him and his friends down the stairs. Anton scrambled inside, and the woman grabbed Van to pull him past the threshold. The door closed.
“Van, is it?” Her voice was far less shrill in person, more like dark velvet. She lifted his chin to get a look at his face. “Not bad for growing up hard on the streets. Is it your sister in there?”
“And my girlfriend.”
She lifted an eyebrow at Anton. “Good for you, then.” She straightened, resting her hands on the pommel of the sword as it rested point-down against the floorboards. “We’re safe for now, boys, but if you want to head back out after the girl, we’ll have to make a deal.”
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. After a caustic argument in the wake of House Luxon‘s return of stolen blades and his training of his little sister in swordplay, Jon Snow left Winterfell for the Wall on his own. It was Goddard Luxon and his captain, Brock, who brought him back, but not before Ser Allister Thorne insulted the visitors and fought Brock in the yard. They have returned to Winterfell, and while Brock recovers from his wounds, Jon and his direwolf pup Ghost prowl the godswood…
“Only those worthy of the name of Stark carry these. And you are neither worthy, nor a Stark.”
Ghost could sense his mood. The direwolf pup was only as tall as his shin but he still brushed up against Jon Snow’s boot as he made his way around the godswood. It was a quiet evening, the air cool as it always was in Winterfell, and Jon half-expected to see his little brother hanging from one of the pale white branches above their heads. It would have been a welcome distraction from his thoughts.
The words of his mother rang in his head. Step-mother. He reminded himself of that. Catelyn may have been the only mother he’d ever known, but she’d made it clear on several occasions that she did not see him as her son. No; Robb, Bran and Rickon were her sons, not Jon Snow. He was another woman’s issue. Yet Jon tried to please her, to live up to the name of his father and all the Starks before him. Was it impossible, as she seemed to think it was?
He hadn’t been looking at the swords for himself, in truth. Yes, some of the blades that came back to Winterfell with the Luxons of Moat Cailin were very fine, but none suited for his purposes. He wanted to spar with Arya on even terms, her with Needle and himself with a similar blade, not just with harmless sticks. She needed to know how dangerous it could be. She wouldn’t shrink from it, of course, and he loved her for that. But Catelyn had other ideas.
“Arya will study with her sister to be a proper lady of a noble House. I will not have you putting ideas in her head that she’s suited for anything else. It’s hard enough on Septa Mordane as it is without your interference.”
Jon kicked a small stone. Ghost loped after it. Sighing, the dark-haired young man looked up at the twilight sky. The stars were beginning to emerge through the branches of the weirwood, but they did not seem as clear here as they had at the Wall. He’d talked of joining the Night’s Watch, to remove himself from Cat and the drama of his House rather than cause more strife, but that too had been a disaster. He hadn’t been able to get past the master of arms’ prejudice and scorn, and when Goddard Luxon and Brock Samson arrived it’d been even worse.
I could have chosen to stay. I could have tried harder. But I picked the easy route. I ran away.
Because of his choice, Brock had a broken arm and more than a few bruises and scrapes. It’d taken Lord Goddard and the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch to convince Thorne and Samson to use practice blades. Had they not, Brock might now be dead, only because Jon had leaped at the chance to escape from the Wall.
He was on his third or fourth circuit of the godswood when he heard the soft sound of stone on metal. He turned around the trunk of a tree to see his father sitting beneath the heart tree, a sword in his lap. Jon assumed it was Ice. He moves quietly to get closer, Ghost his inspiration as the pup stayed beside him.
“I know why you’re out here.”
Jon rolled his eyes. Of course his father knew.
“Father… am I a coward?”
The stone stopped. Eddard Stark raised his eyes to look at his son in disbelief.
“I ran away from here. And then I ran from the Wall. I thought I’d have a place there but all I got was more scorn. I have enough of that here.”
Ned sighed. “Jon. Come and sit down.”
“You can’t tolerate being thought of as less than what you are. I know men who’d lash out in anger when their self-image is challenged. And you’ve yet to prove yourself in the eyes of those that need it. The Wall may have been a place to do it, but your uncle sent a raven telling me not to let you stay. He doesn’t want you near that’s happening there. He worries about you.”
“I can take care of myself!”
Ned lay a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “I know you can. That’s why you’re going to Moat Cailin. They are drawing attention from people in the South, and if trouble comes from there, that castle is where it will begin. Benjen’s on one border of our charge, and now you’ll be on the other. I’ll feel better having a Stark both on the Wall and on our gate to the South.”
“I know, and I think I can do better there than on the Wall, but… I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll run away again.”
“I’m not. I know you won’t.”
The moon emerged from behind the clouds. Jon’s eye was drawn to the sword in Ned’s lap. It was shorter than it had seemed at first, it’s grip suited for only one hand, the leather embroidered with wolves chasing each other. The pommel was large, like a plumb weight slightly smaller than Jon’s fist, to balance the blade and provide a place for the off-hand in the instances of a two-handed swing. The moonlight played on the smokey waves that seemed to deepen the steel.
“That isn’t Ice.” But it could be Ice’s little brother.
Ned followed his gaze and smiled. “No, it’s not. This is Snowfang. My father gave it to Brandon the same day he gave me Ice. That was before they left for King’s Landing.” Ned paused, the smile fading. “It was the last day I saw either of them alive.”
Jon swallowed. He didn’t like seeing his father dwell on the past. Yet his next question would have him doing exactly that.
“Was that before you met my mother?”
Ned said nothing. Instead, he got to his feet. He seemed to tower over Jon in the darkness, a giant come down from beyond the Wall. For a moment, he loomed there in silence. Then, he picked up the scabbard for Snowfang, sheathed the blade, and handed it to Jon.
“I give you this sword, Jon Snow, so that you may carry the honor and courage of the House of Stark with you everywhere you go.”
Jon blinked, taking the sword with numb, disbelieving fingers. “Mother will…”
“She’ll disapprove. I know. You let me deal with that. You have other tasks ahead of you.” Eddard knelt in front of his bastard son, looking him in the eye. “Listen to Lord Goddard and follow his example. Be ever at his side as much as possible. Observe. Learn. Have their maester send ravens to me when you can. You are my eyes in Moat Cailin and aimed at the South. I will not be blind to what comes from there no matter how dire things become at the Wall. You remember our words.”
“Winter Is Coming.”
“And it comes from more directions that just the land beyond the Wall. Things are changing, Jon. I can feel it in my bones. If we do not change with them, this House will fall.”
Jon’s grip tightened on Snowfang.
“I won’t let that happen, Father. I give you my word.”
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The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. House Luxon is in the process of returning a trove of stolen blades to their rightful Houses. Victor Luxon has now crossed the sands of Dorne to return the final blades to House Martell. Accompanying him from Sunspear to the Water Gardens is Maester Chrysander, newly appointed to service at Moat Cailin. Cadmon Hightower, however, is nowhere to be found…
They were two, now, while three had entered the Water Gardens.
Areo Hotah was in step behind them, silent, his poleaxe leaned against the crook of his shoulder and his hand resting on its shaft. They walked at a reasonable pace, both for his Prince and for one of their visitors. They said they’d come from House Luxon, far to the north in a castle once ruined. Yet only one of them appeared to be of Northerly stock. He was broad of shoulder and long of gait, even if Hotah was slightly taller. His eyes betrayed neither mirth nor treachery, and his mouth seemed to speak only blunt truths. Hotah admitted he was taking a liking to him.
“I still don’t see why we’re here, while I do appreciate Your Highness’ hospitality.” Victor Luxon pushed Doran Martell across the pink marble floor slowly. The wheels on the chair had been freshly oiled, and made no noise. There was occasionally a metal rattle from Hotah’s armor or a scuff from Victor’s boots, but the sound permeating the hall was the rhythmic clack of the maester’s staff against the floor. The sun glistened on the bald pate of the older man, who had no hair whatsoever on his skull. Even his eyebrows were missing.
“I wanted to show you all that Dorne offers.” The Prince’s voice was set at its most magnanimous. “I can only imagine what you might have heard from the smallfolk in Highgarden on your way here.”
“I had begun to acquire a taste for your Dornish wine in Oldtown.” Victor smiled. “You can tell a lot about a people by their wine.”
“Oh? And what does our wine tell you about us, young Luxon?”
“The wine has a sweet taste, many textures and a warm finish that may burn if you aren’t prepared for it.”
“We had the pleasure of drinking it without it being watered down,” Maester Chrysander observed. “I shudder to think what becomes of it in less civilized parts of the world.”
“I wouldn’t strictly called Oldtown ‘civilzed’.” Victor Luxon was frowning. “It has its share of unruly elements. Mostly in and around the ports.”
“Isn’t your young friend something of a sailor?” Doran turned to look over his shoulder at Victor. “He has that look about him.”
Victor’s hands visibly tightened on the handles of the chair. Hotah noticed this, and the way the maester took a discreet step further away from him.
“He is not what I’d call a friend.”
“Yet you travelled together.”
The maester stepped close again as they walked. “The young master is, ah, of an opposing personality with the heir of Hightower. Born a bastard and raised in the Free Cities, his attitude can be somewhat cavalier at times.”
“He’s a green, vain, arrogant boy, and I trust him about as far as I can throw him.”
Hotah hid a smile. Victor was a capable warrior, it showed in his every movement. It’d be an honor to meet him even in the yard, trading blows. Yet he had all the subtlety of Robert Baratheon’s fabled warhammer.
“You needn’t concern yourself with Cadmon Hightower any longer, young Luxon. He has asked me for the priviledge of staying in Sunspear for the time being, and after hearing his petition I’m of a mind to oblige him.”
Victor Luxon blinked. “Why would he want to do such a thing?”
“Perhaps he fancies one of my daughters. He couldn’t court them anywhere near as well from Moat Cailin, now could he?”
Hotah studied the guests. Luxon simply shook his head, looking disgusted. *He thinks the boy a fool, blinded by lust and power plays.* The maester, on the other hand, seemed locked in his own thoughts. His expression was distant but otherwise inscrutible.
Prince Doran picked up on it. “You seem quiet, Maester Chrysander. Shall I guess your thoughts?”
Chrysander looked to the Prince and smiled. “You might be mistaken, my Prince, at what they are. Perhaps a game of cyvasse instead, with our thoughts as the stakes?”
“That again? Do you play it in your sleep?”
“You’re a fair player, young master. I would not disparage it out of hand. It teaches much about…”
“Boredom? Obscure rules? Treachery and deception?”
“I was going to say, ‘warfare’.” Chrysander’s smile was that of a teacher speaking to an obstinate student. “Your aggressive playstyle would be suited for some opponents, but you must learn to anticipate beyond the next move.”
“I deal with what’s in front of me.”
“Such honesty seems a uniquely Northern trait.”
“I’ve noticed, Prince.” Victor sounded only slightly more bitter than usual. “Too many around the Iron Throne seem to like hiding daggers in their smiles.”
“It’s unfortunate that we can’t always see the threats that ally against us.” Prince Doran steepled his fingers as they approached the courtyard, where the children played as they always did. Chrysander smiled beatifically, and Victor blinked a few times.
“I come here whenever I need a reminder of what we’re fighting for.” Doran’s posture relaxed as he took in the sight. “Ensuring I never lose sight of what is most precious to me.”
Doran turned to look up at Victor. “I’ve no doubt you do. Perhaps one day you’ll have children of your own, and understand more deeply.”
“As long as my sons are strong,” Victor replied. Chrysander leaned on his staff.
“I’ve no doubt they will be, young master.”
“We’ll watch them play for a time, if you’ll indulge me.” Prince Doran was now utterly at ease. Areo Hotah rested the pommel of his axe against the white marble floor. Despite the manner of the Prince’s guests, he remained watchful, as he always did. “Afterwards we shall take a midday meal, and then make arrangements to return to Sunspear where you can take ship to White Harbor. Martell is in your debt for the return of our blades and the justice done in the name of their owners. It is the least we can do to see you safely home.”
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The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. House Luxon is in the process of returning a trove of stolen blades to their rightful Houses. Carrying those belonging to the Houses of the Reach and Dorne, Victor Luxon has reached Oldtown. After delivering the treasures of House Hightower, the Citadel offers the growing House of the North something no political force in Westeros should be without: a maester. The Archmaesters have been reviewing candidates for three days…
He began the day he always did. He swung his body into a seated position on the small cot in his cell within the Citadel, in walking distance to one of the lower libraries. He used a cloth soaking in the bowl of water by his cot to clean the stump of his right calf, the flesh smooth inches below his knee where he’d been cut free of the dead horse. He reached under the cot for his leg. It was made of two pieces of ash, one shaped like a foot and the other taking the place of his lost leg tissue, held together with a sturdy pin of iron. He strapped it into place with the specific procedure he’d used countless times since coming to the Citadel as a novice. The leg had been his own design, perhaps the largest step in forging his link for alchemy.
He stood, ensuring the leg held, and half-hobbled to the larger water bowl on the dresser. Even with the faux leg it was difficult to move quickly without assistance. Rapid movement, like dreams of knighthood and vast sums of wealth, had been left crushed under the poor horse. He reached to the side of the bowl for the razor, washed the blade in the water, and took it to his scalp, jawline and lips. He scoured his head of hair, including his eyebrows.
I am a maester of the Citadel, he told himself as he set the razor aside. Would that we had vows like the brothers of the Night’s Watch that the realm might know our quality.
Sighing, he put on his robe and fished his chain out from beneath it. Adjusting it so it hung correctly, he next took up his staff. It was old, an oak shaft just slightly taller than he, carved with Valyrian letters and symbols and topped with a shard of dragonglass. He leaned on the familiar tool, cleared his throat and opened the door.
He had been expecting one of the pages of the Citadel, or perhaps a novice like Pate, ready to help him to the library for the day’s research, filing and answering of questions.
He was instead faced with another maester.
“Maester Chrysander. The Realm has need of you.”
The figure in the hall was shorter than Chrysander, stockier and broad of shoulder, his chain easily double that of the cripple’s. In normal clothes and not the robes of a maester, he could have been mistaken for a deckhand or thug in the employ of a pirate or dock lord. Instead, his imposing frame spoke of power and knowledge. The thing that Chrysander focused on, however, was the Valyrian steel mask the other wore.
“Archmaester. I’m honored you deliver this summons in person.”
“I’ve done it before,” Marwyn sniffed, gesturing for Chrysander to join him in the hall. The junior maester did so, his staff clacking softly against the stone with every other step. “It’s not that rare. Your predecessor in your post, Maester Luwin, was also summoned in such a fashion. Of course, that was some years ago, and to an old and storied House of the North. You are going in the same direction, but to a House much younger.”
“That would be House Luxon, I take it.”
“Your ears work fine, I see, even if your legs do not.”
Chrysander looked over his shoulder. As usual, the black cat with which he shared his cell had stepped out to follow him. Selyne’s tail was straight up, crooked slightly to one side, as she padded along silently behind the maesters. After a moment, her ears pricked up and she darted down a side corridor. Chrysander smiled. She’ll be along. She needs breakfast, too.
Over a meal of bread, cheese, fruit, cooked eggs and fresh water, Chrysander discussed the post with Marwyn. The archmaester hosted his apprentice in his own rooms, where he removed his mask to eat. His red teeth tore into an apple before he spoke of Chrysander’s purpose.
“Other than providing guidance for Lord Goddard and education for his children, I advise you to keep a weather eye towards the Wall. Ravens from the North have been most disconcerting of late. The astronomers are quite nervous.”
“I suspect the Luxons are equally squirelly.”
“Ha!” Marwyn slapped the table hard, sending an orange rolling across the floor. “A good one, but I’d watch those puns if I were you. They may not be welcome in a lord’s hall.”
“I will do so, Archmaester. What else of the North?”
“As I mentioned, Luwin preceded you, as my apprentice and as a maester in the North. You know which House he serves, and their words.”
Chrysander nodded. “Winter is coming.”
“Aye. Look well-armed to receive it when it does, Chrysander. Your charge is nothing more, and nothing less. The Realm may depend upon House Luxon standing its ground when the blizzards come, bringing Seven knows what else with them.”
Chrysander fingered the ring of Valyrian steel on his chain. “It will be done, Archmaester. The Realm has called, and I will answer.”
Satisfied, they left to proceed to the yard. Chrysander made a list of provisions, books and materials he’d need for his service at Moat Cailin, and requested the garron Aloysius, a heavy and somewhat lethargic beast too large for barding and too intractable to serve as a steed. Yet he pulled carts very well and he didn’t seem to mind Chrysander’s presence. As the cart was loaded and Selyne caught up with him, Chrysander caught sight of a man in the yard testing his strength against several squires of House Hightower. Marwyn approached, his mask back in place.
The man in the blue and silver armor roared defiantly at the six men coming at him. His greatsword, blunted for practice, nevertheless floored two before they could come to grips with him. The shield of a third was splintered when he tried to attack, and he fell away, clutching a broken arm. The figure in the armor punched a fourth in the face while parrying the blow of a fifth. Pushing the warhammer away, he glanced between the two squires who still stood and laughed heartily.
“I knew you squirts from the South were made of suet!”
At this, the squires attacked as one. Still laughing, their opponent stepped aside from one blow, parrying another and headbutting the one on his left. As the squire staggered back, blood spewing from his nose, the broad-shouldered warrior grabbed the final one by the throat and forced him to his knees. The others staggered to their feet and called out, one at a time, that they yielded.
“I’ve only seen such ferocity and dedication to victory once before,” Archmaester Marwyn observed.
“When was that?”
The man in the Valyrian steel mask turned to his apprentice, his expression inscrutable.
“Gregor Clegane. The Mountain that Rides.”
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