Sample Chapter: As Feathers Fall

Want to read a sample before jumping in? Have no idea what Galfordian writing techniques look like, and would like a fair shake of them before tossing yourself into a trilogy? Have no fear; a preview is here.

The following takes place in the early pages (as I’m sure the chapter header makes clear) of As Feathers Fall, taking place immediately following the events of At Faith’s End. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

 

It was bitterly damp wherever they seemed to move him. In his dreams—though he could no longer tell the difference between the real and ethereal—all smelled of urine and feces, and where his head rolled through the effort of drugged observation, they rustled through endless leagues of muck and thorny branch. Every turn enflamed the wounds that ate at his flesh. Every stumble through trails unknown and unpaved drew another whimper and threatened darkness.

In flashes, the world came to Rurik. They were less than visions, more like shades of shades—a flash of color here, a brush of wool there. There were hands on him even when he slept, and sometimes he came awake shouting, but another hand was always there to silence him. Sometimes he kicked, in his most violent moments, but they pressed him down and whispered his name until he had no more fight left in him.

Voren had hurt him with his blade. Bound and stuck him like a pig, until the blood had run hot across his skin. There were times, in his more lively moments, in which he felt the stickiness creeping along his sides and his hands and he told himself: more blood. There was always more. At least, for now. Eventually, he would run out. Men were lakes, dammed up by flesh. Without it to hold them back, they all ran out.

Rurik wished he were a braver man. He told himself he was dying and the very thought set him to whimpering. All the rest: an act. Face to face with the bowel-shaking notion of what the light would bring—if he could trust the light at all—he knew it to be so. He feared the dark that stalked him.

Somewhere between the boughs of the trees, pale fingers of warmth stroked against the shadows. He saw the forest. He remembered Verdan. Somewhere above him, eyes of green watched and waited, and he was not certain they would weep for his passing.

 

From the fragments of daylight, he sought some semblance of the madness around him, but what came to him was a fevered inability to reason. Thoughts jumbled and broke apart on contact. Yet he knew the pain was worse than the flesh. He felt as if his heart had sundered, pricking him by jagged pieces from within. This, he knew the baker had no ability to render. Those bloodied hands had never once laid the faintest touch upon his heart.

It was the needle that jarred him back. He screamed, but they were already half done before he came awake. Hands jerked against him and the weight of a swordsman forced him down, crying, “Easy, easy,” with Rowan’s voice. Still he thrashed, for the body fought against its pain with a single-minded will, and as the man’s cousin stitched together the serrated lines of his flesh, Rurik tried to retreat. Into himself. Away.

Breaths came in gulping, writhing waves. He whimpered, turning his head, and there, beside the dying embers of a small fire, he beheld the true reason for the pain.

Curses rode the wheezing figure of his guardian, wan beyond his years, nearly still amidst the forest weeds. His eyes were closed, the paleness spread even into the splits of his lips, so that Chigenda, set beside him, was as a great and terrible shadow over him. Nothing seemed large enough to encompass the madness of that vision.

He could not keep the sounds from coming. They burbled in his throat and warbled out with the dying of the light. Blood moved in him and he was cold, and fired in the same instant, and everything twisted up inside. His oldest friend. His guardian. Another father gone before.

They moved to let him retch his pain into the dust.

 

The sun had changed position again when he returned once more. For the first time in nearest memory, the pain within was a dulled thing—a constant, throbbing ache, but deprived the edge with which Voren Bäcker had carved him.

They had pulled him away, patched him up, saved his life, twofold salvations from the course of a day he never should have ended alive. Vaguely, he pulled at the memory of cannon and his brother’s eyes. These, too, had meant to be his end. Somehow, he had stepped along the path of the final circle, only to grow lost along the way. It was a boon he did not deserve.

Assal is not without his whims. What he offers to one must surely be taken from another.

All men had their paths, but all paths intersected, and all were equal. There was always an exchange when something so great as death became involved.

It took a long time for his shaking hands to press against his stomach. A blanket had been draped across him, but he shoved at its weight to reveal himself. What remained was more like a maze of thread than a body. Lines connected across his sides, his chest, and along the length of one arm—the very arm that had been broken, not so many moons ago. Every inch of him screamed against his rising, but he struggled, huffing, into the most terrible pounding he had ever known, and sat upright beneath the trees.

“Assal be damned. The idiots rise. Get you back down before you hurt yourself, child.”

Rowan spoke the words, but they did not still him. Fear was nothing before stubbornness. Before the need to know. He began to crawl before Essa cleared the gap and thrust her arms against him. She was stronger than she looked, and he, so much the weaker. Rurik sputtered and staggered, but she pressed him back, saying, “Stay, stay.”

But he would not stay. “I need to know,” he repeated. Their eyes met, dark and heavy as the double eclipse, and her hands faltered, but did not loose him.

“Your own wounds are not healed, Rurik. If you press them, they will bleed.”

The words rent him bitter. “And whom do we have to thank for that?”

The hurt was reflected in Essa’s eyes. They shuddered once, knowing, and the image sank away into their depths—devoured, accepted, with the weight of so much more.

“That was undeserved, Rurik,” Rowan chided him from across the clearing. He could not see Essa’s cousin, but the distasteful look was in his words. “There was not a one of us could have foreseen this day’s events. We’ll chalk up that talk now to pain, shock, and too little alcohol to numb it all up. But if you persist, I’m not above swatting a bloody man.”

The words bit. He retreated into himself, a lectured child, and felt all the more spiteful for his own bitterness. It was not his choice, merely bodily reaction—so he told himself, but so had Voren no doubt told himself, when his crazed mind propelled him to “defend Essa.”

Voren. Fire spread from his wounds deep into his heart and kindled there, surging against the merely mortal bonds that held him down. I will kill you for what you’ve done. You cannot run far enough. Nor fast enough.

The look Essa spared him suggested she peered into at least some aspect of his rage. She winced deeper, and wilted, but the rough touch did not leave him—it held him and even began to pick him up, to help him along toward their guardian. Whatever her own feelings, she was not above what needed to be done. She never had been. What fear lay in her was a different sort of fear altogether. Not a thing bred of weakness; a dread of what she knew would come to pass.

“I’m sorry,” he said belatedly. She did not look at him. “I didn’t mean—but this, all of this, let it change—”

“Now is not the time,” she answered sternly, and the tone as much as the words told him to let it be. They would speak in time, he knew. There was no need to press. So he fell silent, and looked to his oldest friend.

Shadows were longest where the old man lay. What time had not achieved in years, a blade had finally rent from him in hours. Days, perhaps—in the span between bitter rousings, Rurik had lost track of the time. Yet for Alviss, time was leaking out at an exponential rate. His skin was waxy, where once had surged the vision of a northern frost. Some of the braids of his hair had been cut away, and the grey strands in the blond seemed more prominent than ever before. He lay as if upon a bier, weaponless, defenseless, his eyes open—but scarcely—and his breathing shallow.

Rurik refused to accept what the vision meant. Could not fathom it. So in its space he attached other words, other thoughts. There had been worse, he told himself. Blood was like water to the Kuric, Alviss himself had once said. And he recalled his father’s own words on the man: that he was like a mountain, that man could not shape him with his hands, that only time could bear him out again. He was wrong, of course. They were all wrong. The proof lay before them in the dirt.

Over him, the shape of the Zuti remained unmoving. Hands folded over the Kuric’s breast, Chigenda’s lips twined again and again over the same silent prayer, eyes closed, head bowed. Tucked beneath him, his dark legs seemed to run into the very earth, though the dried blood upon his chest and his hands unraveled whatever serenity might be sought there.

As Rurik and Essa hobbled nearer, the Zuti looked up and stopped them with the same. It was the fierce, wary look of a mother lion scenting danger to her cubs. They tittered. “Can I…?” Rurik asked, but it was the motion of Alviss’s hand that bid him nearer, not the Zuti. Chigenda sat warily back on his haunches, but said nothing.

They huddled before him as children at their father’s feet. But there would be no nightly tale here. No sleep and no sweet dreams. Essa’s composure crumpled as she settled, and a tremor went through her, along with the wracking heave of a sob. Rurik could not bear to watch it. It was hard enough, he reckoned, to look on Alviss himself.

Alviss said, “No children anymore.”

Rurik reached out and took one of his hands. It lacked the warmth of flesh, though sweat slicked it. Words began to spill out. “I am so sorry, Alviss,” he said. “I didn’t want this. I didn’t want any of it. If I had just stayed, none of this would have happened.”

“I would have smashed your skull. For father, brother…you.”

The truth of that pain left Rurik all but speechless. In the end, he pleaded, “Forgive me. I always learn too late.”

Alviss grunted. “Nothing…to forgive. It is. Doubt undoes nothing.” In the same breath, he squeezed the hand that gripped him. Then the hazed mirrors of his eyes swiveled to Essa. “Sweet, you are stronger than this. Peace. Peace.”

“How? How, even now, do you act so—how? I don’t understand. I’ve never understood. We don’t deserve you,” Essa said quietly, as she bundled deeper into herself.

“I know.” Alviss laughed once, mirthlessly, though not painlessly.

“Rest. Dis wait,” Chigenda added.

Crossing the gap of the forest, where he had settled onto the watch, Rowan anchored down across from the Zuti, to join the vigil. “He is not the only one that should.” He looked to Rurik, but no anger moved him. He ran a hand through the copper stretch of his hair, wincing as it touched a bright bruise there. “If there is anything we can do, Alviss…”

Alviss’s eyes closed. For a heartbeat, Rurik feared it would be for the last time.

After a long moment, he seemed to find the strength to speak again. “They need you,” he uttered, without focus. Then, “Away. Nothing…here.”

“Alviss?”

“Free as wind. As…grey dreams, old hands wrought.” The Kuric’s head rolled with that, a shudder passing through the bulk of his frail form, and his lips opened as if to scream—as in any lesser man should have sprung shrieking from them—but made no sound. He blinked several times before coming back into himself, and by then, Rurik and all the rest had huddled closer. Clinging.

“Where is…Bäcker?”

Despite himself, Rurik flinched. That needled worse than all the rest, and he choked back a sob. It was not right. It was not fair. Any of it. Essa openly wept beside him then, burying herself against Alviss’s leg as Rowan, shaking his head, leaned closer still, until the old man could watch his lips.

“He’s not here anymore, Alviss. He’s gone back to Verdan.”

They had not told him. In all the rush, all the madness and the pain, they had withheld that final truth from him. If Alviss suspected, then he gave none of it away. His head moved in the slightest bobbing of a nod, and narrowed on some point between Chigenda and Essa.

“So should we. And you, Chigenda…”

Words trailed. They blended into some slurred nothing. Brows furrowed and the man lurched, seized, and Chigenda wrapped an arm around his shoulders, bearing him up. But it was no good. Alviss heaved, and rasped again, but nothing came. His eyes cast once, wildly, between them, yet seemingly saw nothing, before they fell on the practiced rage of the Zuti. Something passed there the rest could not see. Whatever it was, it chipped even Chigenda’s blank repose.

It was always different, the poets wrote, when Death came for a friend. It was never the end any man should wish.

There, in the midst of a forest in the middle of a burning province, so close to home and yet so far away, he shuddered once more and drew still. Soundless. Then Alviss was no more.

* *

It was dusk and the sun was in their eyes. They did not seem to notice. For all intents and purposes, they were blind from realms far beyond the reach of that mortal sun, with blood slick on their hands and a still man cradled in their laps. For hours, the hunter had watched them. Studied them. Waiting for his moment.

Remorse, like a tick, drank at his heart’s blood, for the man they laid to rest. Were it any other moment he should have—no, not cried, for there was no moment in which he should have so divorced himself from the world—but he would have liked to say his piece to the man. Let him go without any doubts.

The dead man was a good man, and a friend. He had trained them all when they were boys. He and Ivon. He and Rurik. Tonight, he was glad the man had passed, in truth, that he should not have to bear witness to their reunion.

An hour before, the Zuti had gone. Heated words blew between the trees as the girl clawed at him, screeched at and beseeched him, but the southerner’s ears were filled with as much mud as his flesh. He left them, with shadows wrapped about him and blood in his eyes.

More than one man had been laid in that ground.

Still, the hunter waited. Waited long enough to know the Zuti was not coming back. For then there were three, and though the act would not change, he liked the thought of having to strike but three more than he liked the notion of striking four.

He eased back a moment, motionless, holding himself above the earth. Listening. No wind through the trees. The squirrels had ceased their chittering. No sound except the weeping of the young and the huffing of an eager dog.

With anyone else, he should have used a bow. Somehow, that one small distinction struck him as profane for this.

If the Zuti did return, it would be too late. The baker would distract him. The hunter had seen to that—bound the fool and wrapped his eyes, and set him walking through the woods. He had played his part. Freedom was his, if only he found the courage to take it. The hunter suspected he would not.

When the moment came, he snapped his fingers and Cathal—his faithful wolf-hound—burst through the trees. He tore from the cover of the woods on anxious, loping strides, his shadows streaming across the twilit field.

The hunter leapt from his perch and slit the rope that bound him there as his body sank against the dirt. He came on wordlessly, exhausted from the long night of no sleep, but lurching on for all this. The wind reeked of sage and lavender—unexpectedly sensual.

Tonight, Isaak was going to kill his brother.

The other voices were silenced. His trail followed Cathal, followed his slobbering announcement across the ground to the specks of men huddled in the blanket of leaves. He heaved over a bank and between the trees, hair snapping back in heavy chains across his face. They came for his brother as a pack.

With the gathering dampness of the morning, his mind cleared. Purpose gave it an edge. He saw them, narrowed on them, alone among the trees, their heads twisting to the sound of his hound’s sudden baying. He could see the fear—it was a collar, and it pulled them back into the realm of the living with a sharper, simpler grace.

The girl came to her feet with tears wet on her cheeks and a bow going natural to hand. The hunter strafed out of Cathal’s path with a whistle, and the hound copied him, its bounds taking on a serpentine reproach. The other did not rush as the hunter had supposed; he drew steel and kept his ground, digging in to meet the hound’s approach. An old hand. Steady.

Only Rurik did not rise. He edged and struggled, but he seemed incapable. Feeble. Even in the washed-out light, he could spy the flecks of blood that dragged him down. So close. So close.

He could see the boy’s eyes the moment he broke the line of trees: when all other eyes had laid upon his hound, when he stepped from the trees with a blade of sunlight in his hand, the breeze crying out the vengeance no flesh could steal from him.

Some people spoke in moralities. None shone behind his father’s eyes. The longer people lived, the more chance they had to see it in all its myriad shades of grey.

As Feathers Fall

As fall the feathers of their signet bird, so too fall the great and mighty of Idasia. One after another, members of the Imperial family have been slain, through convictions forged in steel and vengeance fueled by dark sorceries.

The Cullick family stands in the ascendant, poised to snatch a crown long denied them, but they are beset on all sides by the chaos they themselves have sown. Winter saw the horrors of war, spring the sparks of rebellion, but as friend and foe alike surrender to unspeakable crimes, summer may yet bring the soul of a nation to boil.

And if Rurik Matair and his broken band of sellswords can cling to life a little longer, salvation may not be the prize, but they might find a way to balance the scales of their mad quest and put to rest the loss and bitter memories which have consumed all that they have known…

National Poetry Month & a Novelicious Preview

AtFaithsEndIt occurs to me that it has been some time since I had an update on my novelicious progress–which is to say, an update on “As Feathers Fall,” the third and final novel in my Haunted Shadows fantasy trilogy. At the same time, it’s National Poetry Month. As a writer, I should be focused; quite the conundrum that leaves me in. Fortunately, I have just the solution.

Oh, I’m still going poetic on you all, but this time it also happens to be an excerpt from chapter 6 of the novel. Faithful readers: can you guess who might be pondering, and whom they might be pondering about?

In ebon hour

all men know the baker’s power

the rite of life

beyond, betwixt, by edge of knife—

a magic notwithstanding

a birthing in the powdered breathing

where hand, on hand, the flesh

commits by blind and dust enmesh

salvation in creation:

solidifying by fiery consumption.

More updates will be forthcoming in time! Stay patient! Stay strong!

Sneak Preview: At Faith’s End (Prologue)

Today, I have a special treat for you. With the release of “At Faith’s End” less than a month away now, I thought it time to tease out some of the facts contained therein. Where better to start than the prologue itself? If you can handle submerging into the crazy that is Usuri once again, I invite you to begin the sequel to “The Hollow March,” and step into the second chapter of the Haunted Shadows fantasy trilogy… More previews and goodies shall arrive in the weeks to come.

And remember: OCTOBER IS THE LAUNCH!

Prologue

Outside in the courtyard a dull, resonant clang issued from the gates. A dozen times a day they repeated that sound. They were never simply open any more. One never knew what might blow in on the wind.

Sword and smoke and always ash, rising in the east.

Outside, they were rattling the last bit of frost from the hinges. Pikes and bows bristled along the walls as soldiers stalked the battlements. They had been lax, at a time, but no more. The snow had gone, or near enough, yet the world never seemed to thaw. As the poets cried, the Winter King was nearly overthrown, but the young Spring Prince crept only slowly from his hole. The first flowers would be long in coming.

Seasons marched, like men, like countries. But there were no countries, and in time there would be no men.

Outside, they went about as if all the world was still the same—and so it was, and it wasn’t. They said an emperor was dead. Others had died before him. Those that lived on shedded tears wiped them on their sleeves and stepped over the graves into the twilight of their lives. Old men passed so new could arise. So this one had, and even now she could smell the stink of him, close her eyes and feel the horror of his ringing pulse battering her heart—the fervor of his face, looming orthodoxy sneer behind the thin veneer of snow and emeralds, and gryphons, as shepherds gliding beneath the setting sun.

All this she saw and felt, and all the while the world went on pretending she no longer was a part of it.

There was no country and no king, and all the fire in Hell bespoke.

Yet inside, she couldn’t feel the tumultuous summer’s pull. The walls assailed her. When she breathed, there was frost in her lungs. When she touched the glass, there was nothing but a mirror of herself, in all its horror.

Usuri had grown haggard over the months spent in Vissering Castle. She scarcely ate. Only when her body cried out agonized gasps for life did she oblige, and always questioningly. In rebellion against the eastern styles of longer hair, she had carved what little she had close to the scalp. There was something satisfying in the motion. Her father gnawed at her waking thoughts and Rurik at her dreams. Each mocked her from the flames. Both gagged her days with brimstone and stole her breath away.

For months her father had laid beneath the earth, but his blood was no longer the only thing coursing in her. There were other faces, other names, ghosts without homes save her own tormented mind. It was only right. She had done them. All of them. She had plucked the chords of their life away and forever silenced their notes in life’s song.

Three tunes for three dead princes.

It was their deaths that racked her, not their lives. Names. She did not like to think of them with names—merely featureless ghouls, stalking the periphery of her soul.

The soul—a fevered thing. It was breaking every day, piece by piece, bringing a skeletal paleness to the olive life of her body. When she killed, pieces of her died with them. Not literally. Will. A slow and purposeful dying within. Inside: blackness. She loathed to look into it, lest it become all she saw. A step or a bound—she did not know how far away she was, yet she was getting closer every day.

How long since she had killed? The princely pair were last in mind—the villain king and his dolled-up brother. She had kissed the one, felt his touch on her skin. It wouldn’t come out no matter how hard she tried. The stain was on her. It bubbled inside with her father’s voice, tormenting her.

“I see you,” it said, “I know what you did,” and she could not hide, no matter how deep she buried herself. Her hands were still wrapped from when she tried to dig the voices out. The blood had stopped flowing, but the bandages held—she knew the danger as well as they did. Yet the danger to herself was the least of her worries.

Somewhere down below, the blood stirred like a poison, threatening her sanity.

They were not alone in the castle anymore. There were others. Those things. They had its blood and they had its eyes, and they were laughing inside, where only her father could laugh now because they had taken him, as they took Kasimir, as they would take her. There was an empress and a prince, and it was their presence that saw her locked within a tower.

Before, she had been allowed to roam a little. She had her watchers, but so long as she was calm, she could roam. Then she had tried to put her claws upon the Cullick wench, the lying creature-creature-creature that had taken Rurik inside her and—they didn’t like that. Cullick saw her to the tower. She was too weak to object. Her deprivations took their toll on her body, as the killings peeled at the innards. They locked her in a tower, ostensibly for her own good, but she knew better.

Cullick couldn’t let her be seen. Cullick couldn’t risk what she would do if she saw them. Yet she did see them. In the yard. On the walls. They were everywhere.

“Father,” she cried as she had when she was small. “Father, I am weak! I have not the strength! I have seen the Sunrise! I have seen the Shadow, and the Lion’s mouth, but it is wide and it is terrible and what am I? Who am I to tip the storms? They will not change!”

Killer! The word barked back at her and she could not deny, but there were words in her head, pounding with the force of a thousand-thousand cannon, and she could not turn aside from them.

Everything slid slowly into place, piece by piece. Little pieces on the board, moving to fruition. Everywhere the kings and queens, riding onto glory and to death.

Their devil-angel rode on southron wings. That was what they said. She could hear it, when she wanted. It haunted her dreams. The terrible shadow in his robes of white—they could not see him for what he was. She ran from him, but he only grew and grew, fangs falling from his malformed cheeks as his body bloated and distorted. He would laugh at her, arms outstretched as the darkness spread around him. He was a devil, and in her dreams she would round the circle three times, and he would catch her, pin her, devour her in white, and she would be falling into pyre flames, and everywhere was her father, tortured in innumerable ways, and always by the same faceless woman, wearing her husband’s crown.

And as she screamed, the choirs sang—the children’s dirge, from little bodies without tongues. Sometimes, she saw Rurik there, and she would call out to him, but he could not hear her. Then it would be him on the scaffold where his father met his end, and it would be his head put before the chopping block, and Essa with the blade. Singers sang, the head rolled, and at her feet, Charlotte would raise it to her lips and the head would ask:

“Can you see the glory?”

Of the coming, of the coming—

The door rattled and she twisted back, watching how the shadows spread across the twilit planes. The room was always brightest this time of day. Keys jangled, real voices gossiped.  Her prison didn’t feel quite so small in these moments. Yet it wasn’t small, not really. Not terribly, at least. She had a bed and pillows, two mirrors—thrice broken each—and all the space for walking, wandering, twisting, dining on the open air—and the purity of that air was a marvel. There were no cobwebs. Not anywhere. She saw to that, day in and day out.

One day, she caught a spider weaving webs above the door. Spider-little-spider-May, she never saw it coming. Then there was no more spider above the chamber door.

If only she were just as squishy.

Weren’t they all?

Light broke from the hall beyond, in ringing dust. Usuri tried not to cringe. In the ring—a scream—then nothing, never.

Would that she could pluck her wings.

Charlotte filled the silence with her doll-like form—no ruffled wrinkles, no miscombed hair; curled, gold as the coins bitter men exchanged. Her skin—like porcelain. The light struck her angelic.

Tray in hand, the angel moved parallel to her, to place her meal beside the bed. Usuri inched a pace, on hand and foot, marveling at the novelty. Little Charlotte was not a rarity in her presence, for all the ill-will she bade her, but the girl never brought her food. Whether that was her desire or her father’s, Usuri could not say. All Cullicks are as kings before the servile—above, beyond, mere men with lofty heads. She watched, but she moved no nearer. A shadow lurked behind the angel, filling the doorway, then the room. She did not shrink from it, but she did not goad it.

It had struck her. It would have no problem doing so again.

She cringed, reveled—perhaps, again.

“A mess. As ever.” The angel did not look at her as she set each item on the bed. “How might a woman become a beast?” She paused. Usuri could imagine her smiling. “You teach us every day, bit-by-bit.”

Usuri kept her silence. Charlotte moved on, handing the tray off to her shadow as she gathered some unseen strength into herself. Charlotte turned, steadied, drank her in. Usuri waited, shrinking—she did not like it when those eyes were on her, when they would meet her as a person. She advanced, a river rushing on to swallow her whole. Usuri felt her breaths quicken, felt the tightening in her chest. Angel wings, all too near. False promises taking flight. She shut her eyes, tried to close out the voices.

“Can you see the glory,” her dead father asked.

“Go away,” she whispered as the body crouched beside her. Tiny angel wings, like a fly’s—she could crush them if she wanted. Just needed to reach out and…

“Usuri, please look at me.” She did not want to look. Hell is in the eyes, and in Hell you can see and you don’t want to see and everything is…“Please.”

Usuri lashed at her, crying “Out!” but the hand caught her wrist, Usuri’s shaking wrist. Another was on her arm and she did not want to look but Charlotte was there, and she was not leaving. They never left. Not really. They were everywhere and all around—but their walls, their halls, they could not hold her. Even with body broken, the spirit rose and swam in the deep recesses of the forgotten—self.

Usuri looked at her with eyes hollowed in the flame’s of man’s hate, watched the mirrors of the angel and the monster in their reflection. Her or her, she could not say. There was compassion there, though, staring back at the remnants of her life. The hand on her arm moved slowly, purposefully. She felt it, did not watch it, but it came to her, stroked the hair from her face and flecks of dirt from her skin. She must have been so thin.

Charlotte’s face shrank at the sight. Her eyes left Usuri’s momentarily. They found the floor, then back, creasing with care. “What is it like?” Charlotte whispered. Her touch lingered on Usuri’s cheek.

“There are things out there, you know. Waiting. We do not want to push you. You are so…”

Dead?

“Frail,” said Charlotte. A line of worry creased the woman’s brow. “Surely this does not…” Need to be? Apparently, Charlotte thought better of her path. Usuri could see the shift. “But you did this to yourself. And before that: them.” Charlotte’s hands folded in her lap. A place where so few things fell. Usuri would have thought her virginal, but all was poison there. Rurik was poisoned there. “It will get worse now. Our lord’s inquisitor would sit the throne. Ring about his neck, with bastard children in tow. There will be burnings, you know. Of course you know. Do you care?”

Underlying: would you have them do unto others as they have done unto you? She could imagine Charlotte burning, but the pretty locks always fell away until it was her father’s grimacing, screaming face—but she had not been there. The moment when the Inquisition’s flames finally split his screams. She could only imagine it now.

“Father wishes to see you. With them, between them—it grows dangerous. It’s just a matter of time before—it’s worse now. Much worse. We would end it. And you—I know you do.” Justifying, clarifying, always mitigating to the sound of its own sullen ring! A beast! A beast! Father, how of this breast, or of this beast, might any word yet change? “We could not spare Matair, but the rest—they still breathe, you know. Would you like to see them?”

And say what? Usuri looked at herself and in a moment’s clarity saw what they saw: the disheveled monster, in fine but ratted gowns; bound hands, black feet, hair crusted wet. All of House Matair was dead. She could smile for them and twirl in her little gown, as this creature did, but they would never know her as anything more than their father’s novelty.

“You will lie again,” she whispered.

Charlotte smiled faintly. “All men lie. Should we wish against it, we should not speak at all.”

“Does it sing? When no one is around to hear it?” Usuri watched the confusion settle about the lady. “Take heart. He moves in you. Never…I cannot touch them if I know not what to touch. I see them, but I do not know them.”

More than once, she had heard Rurik’s voice ringing in the dark. That faint cry from fields choked with frosted death. She tried to shut him out. To close her mind and her ears against it and pretend she couldn’t hear his pain.

“We can piece them for you. Or bring you to them. This is bigger now. You’re not a shadow, Usuri. You’re not,” Charlotte said.

“It says, the songbird without wings. In its cage, it speaks of wind. What does it know that she does not?” Usuri touched the hand and the hand faltered. She traced it down the wrist, felt it yield until the shadow stirred its steel. Such lines, such grace, majesty in a vase—the design was fickle. It never knew. They never did. It took something larger. “If it comes, then so will I.”

She released her grip on Charlotte’s skin, and the girl drew up and away. They always did. They had their purpose, and once they saw it done there was no other. Usuri folded her hands into her lap, watched the way the veins creased along the knuckles. So frail.

Rurik might have said that to the lamara whore, as he caressed her at night.

“Will you eat?”

Usuri smiled toothily at the woman until she left. Eat is the wrong word, she thought, as she looked over the bread Charlotte had left behind. She would consume—until she had grown fat on all the vagaries of her odium and burst forth in a requiem of deconstruction. How sweet the sugared tune that would sing them all to silence.

Of “Petals,” and Things to Come

A preview of things to come… Set in the same world as The Hollow March, this story will take readers to another corner of the world, and a young woman’s struggles to right a festering wrong. Though the characters shall indeed be new, some events may strike a chord, and it will certainly shed more light into other shadows of the world Lecura. Idasia, after all, does not have a monopoly on turmoil.

And so, in the midst of a girl’s journey:

The tavern keeper was a thin man, but thick-necked and coarse, with bright eyes. If she were another woman, she might have found him handsome. Tragedy.

His voice was heavy, but it barked her own tongue easily enough. The fact surprised her, but then, in border lands such as this, she supposed it shouldn’t. “Loraci. Lovely.” He grunted. “Looking to lose your head a while, or just wet your waggles?”

At home, her father’s credit might have carried her, even if her pockets could not contend. Here, she was as good as a beggar.

She looked him in the eye, that each could understand the other’s worth. The trader’s way. “Much as I should like, I come hunting bobbles for another drink.” She paused a moment, waiting for some sign of care or annoyance in the man, but he was as a blank slate. “I seek the petals of the Starlit Bloom. Do you know where I might purchase it?”

If her abruptness did him wrong, the tavern keeper was practiced enough not to let on. “Blooms. Maker’s balls, girl, you best be saying where the plague’s gone to tits now.”

“Where?” She demanded firmly.

“Well there’s no chord to strike in me, girl. No place to buy it, neither. A might bit rarer than gold, I’d say.”

“Then where does it grow?”

Pink rose petals

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Curiosity tweaked? A teaser of a thing, I know, but it will be a long tale at its end. When finished, “Petals” will also be one of the myriad submitted to literary mags across the country. Hopefully one of these days I will be able to point you on its way. Beyond that, it, like so many stories, will eventually be packaged in a series of tales–anthologies–that should serve to further flesh out the world.

In that same regard, I have to ask: readers, potential readers, and stumbling guests: what facets of this world would you like to learn more about?

Sneak Peek: The Hollow March

One of several prospective covers by artist Matthew Watts, though not the one the final work will be going with...

Busy, busy, busy. It’s a busy month all around, I must say, and I’m not talking about National Novel Writing Month (though it’s certainly appropriate for this post). While many writers are out there right now scrambling toward 50,000 word goals, I’m caught dead in the midst of the marketing part of the publication program.

The time is close and getting closer, as they say. Two weeks, dear friends. Two weeks until November and the time of thanks have slipped us by. Two weeks until December and the Christmas rush begin (although the songs have already begun). What’s more, in around two weeks “The Hollow March” will be up for distribution in both e-book and print editions, ready and waiting for the fantasy lover in your life.

That is, lover of fantasy in your life. Not someone with a diverse selection of fantasies to pull from for the holiday season. If that’s your thing, well, a very interesting and merry Christmas to you both. Cheers.

Yet what is a book without a little pre-launch taste? We’re another week closer and that means it’s time for another special pre-launch feature for your reading pleasure.

So far these little “sneak peeks” have given you a look at the empire of Idasia (via a lovely map by one Nathan Hartley), in which the book is set, as well as a touch of the surrounding geography, the book’s summary, and a look at a few of the roughs being considered for the cover art. Of course, more on both will be coming soon, but in the meanwhile, I thought it was about time I slapped together the biggest bit of pre-launch material yet.

So without further adieu I give you the opening chapter of “The Hollow March”—a prologue fraught with a dash of intrigue, a good dose of character, and a pinch of magic to top it all off. It should give you a good taste of my style, and a touch of the work’s themes, so I do hope you enjoy…

“Man tames not vengeance; vengeance breaks the man.” ~Idasian Proverb

Prologue


Life falters, but blood is eternal.

Such is the pain everlasting when one sees their blood bound up before them and put to the pyres of humanity’s injustice. The crowds roar, but the child weeps evermore. It is easy to dismiss when it is not their blood to be spilt. It is painless to roar with the crowd. Only later, when the sickness turns to them, do they ever shed a tear. When it is their father burning.

Egotistic creatures, men. Glacial beasts.

Usuri felt cold as the doors creaked shut behind her, neither her furs, nor the bodies and hands pressing her on enough to warm the lingering feeling. It pervaded every crook of her body, swimming through heart and mind in equal measure. The world was a haze. Days had passed in such a way. She was certain years would pass in much the same.

She marveled at how the light caught the armor of her escorts, reflecting every aspect of the room, like a mirror on the world. The red of the rugs formed a bloody sky, while the marble swirls of the ceiling formed a bottomless and hypnotic ocean. Clank-clank-clank. The world rang with every step. Its guardians were stoic, like the statues lining their path. She debated if there was any life within them, and marveled at how easily it might be taken.

Three days had passed since they plucked her from her home—one of her homes. She had puttered around for days before, hungering, thirsting, but without the will to quell either. They had thought her a wretched thing, and it was not her place to say they were wrong. At the time, she had done little to stop them. In its way, the canvas hood they had slipped over her head had been oddly comforting.

In her wake, the trail was paved in grime. Her feet, as bare as she felt inside, had grown black as ash. They looked like the smoldering embers of a crumbled home—and everything they touched, they marked. The world around her was too perfect, too orderly. A little chaos could go a long way.

Father had taught her that there was a little of each in everything. Order and chaos, the sustaining balance of all. It was the reason the world marched on. In taking, one also gave of himself, and such was the principle that guided secrets far older than any of these creatures could still rightly fathom. She understood the balance, and took upon herself the mantle of chaos, but the balance had not availed her and it had not saved her father, and all that disarray had swam around them both and bit them when they least expected it, dragging her father down into the darkest depths. She might have screamed. She had, when the memory was still fresh. It caught in her nostrils and died, a burbling nightmare of regret, like the stench of so much broiling flesh.

With every step, the devil at the end of the trail grew closer. He was a distant figure, chill, rigid, but vibrantly garbed. It drew one in, lured away from the haunting hollows of his eyes—and then they were there, no longer the looming danger, but the present. His gaze was inescapable. It was narrow—marked by a false sense of tender docility, but in truth pointed, hawkish. He was accustomed to being the predator. They all were.

Theirs was a mundane world. She was there to break the boundaries of that simple logic.

The predator circled, gauging her. The others stepped back to give him room. He wore no armor, because he had never needed it. Observation was his art, as was the summary decision, but execution? This was a man that had servants at his beck and call from the day he was born. His hands were stained without the blood ever touching them. In tapestry as well as motion, he saw himself as a lion. Generations of his family had thought the same, and one after another they hoisted up the yellow and the red, letting their kitten waft in the breeze, as though by will alone they might make it fierce.

A man lurked at his back, skulking between the statues with a panther’s macabre. There was a killer, born and bred. Such must have been the sort that fell upon her father, though they played pretend with their silver rings. Men justified a great deal with the conviction of religion, and vindicated the worst of men at the worst of deeds so long as it met their good god’s evasive plan.

Overhead, she spied the very banner dangling from the rafters, though it was a much older version of the beast. It bore the same yellow lion, but with a bird’s head, its claws raised and jaw wide, backed by the bloody sun of their ancestors. Mementos of a house long dead. This beast styled itself a king, the crown still hovering above its head, the staff draped over its shoulder.

The modern lion bore no such dignities. Its crown had long been stripped, though the claws remained. They had rent a friend asunder and sought him yet through wood and dale.

She followed the modern lion with her eyes, until he disappeared completely at her back. Slowly, her eyes drew back to the end of the room, and the long, narrow portrait that dangled crystalline before the sun. Even the form in which the nobleman looked upon the outside world spoke volumes. The portrait was the only window and through the image of a saint the world was colored, light filtered and expunged in a dim array of earthen tones. A single point of yellow light above the saint’s head offered the only sample of reality.

Air shuddered as wrinkled fingers swam toward her. They paused mere inches from her back, hovering. Then they fell away, apparently thinking better of it. The nobleman stopped just behind her. When she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could hear the beating of his heart. It was…troubled.

“You do not look well, milady,” the noble spoke. “I trust my accompaniment did not inconvenience you…?”

There had been four when they took her. One broke from the others when they arrived. One never left her home.

His hand had caressed her skin, while his eyes roamed deeper still. He saw the bronze of her skin and the storms of her eyes, focused instead on the swell of her breasts. If he had merely sought to take her, as the others had, there would have been no issue. Instead, he lingered. So she had coiled her arms around him, pressed her lips to his, and reduced every ounce of moisture in his body to dry ice. She made it slow, too. One had to make sure the others saw the lesson.

Usuri shook her head.

“You have my condolences, and I assure you, lady, no harm will come to you here.” He ignored the soft chuckle that left her. “I knew your father, you know. Good man. Wise man.”

Dead man. Usuri could still picture him every time she closed her eyes, and she could smell the fire she had never gotten to see. If only…

It was another gift from men who thought themselves as dangerous as this one.

“Mistakes consumed him, though. I’ll not dance about it. He took his voice and he spread it too far—and in these days, such a voice as his cannot be tolerated. An enemy of the Church…well, you know. I know.”

Again the chill came on, such that she shuddered from its onslaught. Icy flames licked across her palms and she became aware of her own nails digging into her skin, fists clenched. The saint smiled at her from the sky, in his pompous mockery of piety. That man had found eternity in humility and peace. Yet it was a façade. He was laughing at her, as they all were. Laughing at the little devil girl. Her time was done.

“But I have a proposition. You seek what anyone would seek in such maddening courses. I would assist you, shield and endorse you, to our mutual benefit. I assure you, we have common cause here, and I have considerable resources—”

When she pried loose the fingers of her right hand, sparks coursed to the tips and rained down tiny bolts across the floor. It sent an unpleasant tingle through her raw knuckles. Everyone hopped back as she turned, anticipating devastation. The men had their swords drawn, but she paid them no heed. She merely rubbed at her hand, caressing the spreading numbness. She looked at the nobleman, let her smile spread ominously, then looked back to her hand.

She saw the doubt in the nobleman’s eyes but, clearing his throat, he pressed on. “I know you have no reason to trust me, but I assure you this house, and all those in it, are not as the gryphons that surround us. This is not a circled home, milady, and when the day comes that their head is stricken, the wild claws will turn on us as sure as you. And this, I fear, is not so long off.

“Great forces assemble against us, Lady Usuri, whether you know it or not. I think of this land, and I weep for what shall come to pass. Ever are we in blood, but nothing spills it so readily as those blades steeled by zealous devotion. Some find phantoms where there are none—as in the case of your father. Left to their hands, they would deliver us back into the age of stones, with a patriarch as lord and master, the circle set to bind our hands as well as our throats. Where true evil resides, they move astray. The seed has blackened. They would ruin this nation, were they to sit the throne.”

Ruin us or ruin you? In your mind—are they one and the same?

Usuri’s father was already dead. The nation her mother had called home was in bondage to an empire far more vast and vicious than the swath of log-choked rivers and farm-laden plains this one dared to call a home. Her people, that is to say, those things that could do as she, mysterious and powerful as the world so adored to make them, were broken, shattered and gone. Like the sun setting in the east, their time had come and gone, and those that remained were left to lie down and die, or to be baptized in fire.

“What I ask is not an easy burden to bear. Could you kill, Usuri, for those that are dead? Could you kill, that many more would live?”

There was a certain lunacy to the request. Imperial claws were not the only bloody things about, nor were they the only ones to rake at the stability of her life. One took her father, the other a friend. Her dear boy had been set to the road, to wander and be lost amidst the horizon, forever stalked by hungering blades. The Cullicks had not killed the boy, but they meant to, and that was a sin as grievous as any other.

Her stare was a ghostly thing, which pierced both flesh and bone as readily as cloth. She laughed. It echoed among the statues and the walls. It was a soft thing—like a child’s. The nobleman seemed unmoved, impassive to her madness.

“Ohhh…” she hummed, until words finally found her. “I think I can.” Without thought, without guilt—till long the deed is done. “These fingers,” and she held them dangling before her, “can quake the very earth. I can whisper death on the wind. And they, and you, will know the ails of assailing such a woman as I.”

The man’s smile was feline. “And I?”

“And you. Dear count, you want, but give little. You’ve wronged, and until that wrong is righted, you risk more than kingdoms…”

The practiced muscles of the count’s face flexed, first in surprise, then feigned ignorance. Illuminated in the shadows of his saint, he shook his head.

“I am certain I have no idea of whom you speak.”

Then her words came without speech and her eyes scorched the confines of his soul, and even his practiced forms of the nobles’ precious Jurti gave way to fright. It was momentary, but she did not miss it—the twitching frown, parting in a soundless gasp, and the recoiling, frantic darting of his eyes. There was but one word, but she knew he knew what it meant. There was but one negotiation she would make and he would take it or he would burn, and everyone else would fall, even without his “patriotic patronage.” She burned that word into his mind with force of will alone, until the man within was nearly fallen to his knees and praying like some priestly fool for a mercy that would never come.

Matair. For her, it was the one name left with any meaning.

The Hollow March Begins

For two years, I have spoken here and there of a mysterious book in progress. Between bouts of poetry and short story fancies, I have penned, edited, and re-edited this work countless times, in my own attempts to reach that forever out of reach pinnacle of perfection we writers view as something akin to the Garden of Eve.

Well, a writer is never fully satisfied in his own work. It is our way.

Yet in two months time, I am proud to announce today, “The Hollow March” will be available in e-book and print, from Kindle to Nook and back to the glorious old ways of literature. Only two parts of the puzzle remain, and both are to my viewing pleasure: the cover art and the maps that span the breadth of this work’s imagined world.

The map, I am proud to say, rests comfortably in the hands of my good friend (and one of the book’s editors) Nathan Hartley. The previews I’ve received via camera phone (while small) certainly have me anxious, and I look forward to the time when I will soon have them-in hand, both in the digital sense, and the delightfully physical (pictures to follow when that day arrived, by the by).

As for cover art, the artist should be settled within a week or so, with the month after given over to their labors. It’s amazing to see the breadth of people already sending in applications though, from all corners of the world. Especially where, being an indie author, I lacked the funds that the publishing companies do, I was astounded to see such an overwhelmingly positive response, and hope to continue viewing the same. So much fascinating work to behold…from the comic to the dark heart of cyberpunk-style CGI. It’s a trip.

Thanks to the people at ConceptArt.org for a lovely site by the way – they really streamline this process. If you need artists for any project – books, games, what have you – I highly recommend them.

But I suppose I’m nerd-squeeing at the moment (writer-squee, it’s the same thing, really), so let’s get back on topic. “The Hollow March” – what is it, you may ask? Well, dear fellows, it is a fantasy novel subscribing more to the modern approach in style: realist fantasy, which is to say, more in the vein of George R.R. Martin than J.R.R. Tolkien. Magic lurks in the shadows, but the world before your eyes is one of renaissance—and turmoil.

Because every good bit of literature needs turmoil, no?

For your viewing pleasure, though, here’s a more accurate summary:

“It is a time of upheaval in the Idasian Empire. As religious fervor stirs dissent among the people, and the winter winds loom, thousands gather behind their aging emperor on a march to war.

In the midst of this, young Rurik Matair blunders home with childish notions of revenge, and an unlikely band of sellswords at his back. The third son of a backwater nobleman, Rurik was destined for a life in service to the crown. But when he reached beyond his station, he was banished from his father’s house with nothing to his name. Tired and hunted, he returns after two years abroad. Yet all is not as it appears. As Idasia’s brutal war threatens to stagnate, old rivalries rekindle. Other players shift through dark games behind the scenes, and old magicks rise against a tottering throne, stirred on by a woman with nothing left…”

What do you think? As that is, at present, likely what’s going to be slapped on the back of this book—“the blurb”, as we call it—if there’s any way you think it could be improved, I’d surely love to hear your input.

Also: keep your eyes peeled for a preview in the days to come, to give you a little taste of how this book runs. A look into the author’s mind as it were–though I’m sure mind surfing is something of a terrifying process.

So to sum: December. Keep your eyes and ears open, people, because “The Hollow March” will be ready for your bookshelves or your electronics. Good Christmas gift, don’t you think? *nudge-nudge*

Winter is Coming

The day may still be a year away, but HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular fantasy novel series A Song of Fire and Ice has never felt closer.

Last week, a new teaser trailer (the first) was released, showing several scenes from the show and getting all trippy on us. It doesn’t reveal much, just a few glimpses here and there of things we can gleefully anticipate.

The first season will revolve around the first novel in the series, and all seasons thereafter will follow the same theory. Martin has seven books planned for the series (though fans are still biting their nails over a five-year wait on the fifth book: A Dance with Dragons).

The story takes place in the mythical land of Westeros, and follows the story of the noble but intensely unfortunate Stark family, who become intricate parts of the gathering intrigue and drama of the land when the King draws the Stark patriarch, Eddard (played by Sean Bean) in to be his closest advisor. People squabble for the throne, characters fall, and in the midst of it all, the once semi-peaceful land devolves into war-torn madness.

The script for the show is written and produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, with Thomas McCarthy (at least at present) directing. The cast will also play host to a number of fairly well-known names, including Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey, amongst others.

The series is going to be filled with necessary pretties, and some serious cash will have to be invested in visual effects—given that we have got dragons, magic, and even giant wolves running around Westeros, all waiting for their moment on the screen. The show is said to be more “character-centric,” but we’ll see how that turns out.

The series is set to premiere in Spring, 2011, barring setbacks. And by god, there better not be setbacks.

(And yes, I know, geek points for me, since I posted this on both my blogs. I’ll live.)