An Onslaught Antagonized, Part 2

Here is the second part of my current story. Here we get to meet more characters.

Chapter Two

Krasnoyarsk Outpost Two, Siberian District, Russia

24 August, 2259 Terra Year

1416 Zulu Time

Horacio watched the embedded reporter speak to his CO. The little camera floated around on its regressive gravity platform, controlled by little twitches of the reporter’s big toe. The lieutenant pretended to be busy with a balky mass coil driver for a squad automatic weapon while the interview was going on. He was trying to keep an eye on Captain Màrtainn, ready to interrupt with a pretext to get her away from the reporter. Some bullshit excuse, maybe pretend he needed her CO’s retina print and voice print on a report for something. God knows there was enough paperwork floating around the military that it was plausible enough. Then again, there probably really was stuff that needed her to sign off on anyway.

The technology of the camera intrigued him. It was something proprietary, and more than likely some JAG lawyer was trying to get it licensed to the military. He could think of a few ways to weaponize something like that. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of getting the picocontrollers for the thing implanted in selected muscles. It was different for everyone. Not everyone had the best control of a certain muscle group, so they went with whatever body part they had the best control over, other than face, ears, and hands. Reporters still had to write, or at the very least manipulate electronic tools with devices. The military didn’t use thumbprints anymore, but the civilian applications did. Biometrics had come a long way in several centuries.

The captain was still outwardly calm. The reporter was a good man, and even though no one in the unit liked reporters, they’d all respected him. He was professional, competent, and best of all, a former Marine. The reporter knew how to elicit information and lay down covering fire. So, the reporter got more tolerance from the Marines. Horacio saw her twitch a little when she spoke about the Russian, and his heart hurt for her. Horacio was jaded after years of war and having served in two branches as officer, but for some reason he was more protective of his current CO than all the others. He wasn’t the only one to feel that way, and over blood beers later he and Second Lieutenant DeBourchier concluded it was because she was his first female commanding officer.

Not saying you’re attracted to her, sir. But we all kinda watch out for her in battle. God knows if she thought we were, she’d rip us new ones, and that’s no joke. That sharp tongue and temper of hers, well, you know how it is.”

Don’t I know it, D.B. Sometimes, she ain’t a people person.”

“No, but damn, what a fighter.”

Too bad we can’t replicate a hundred of her and send them all to Ik’tretka.”

Their home planet would explode.”

They looked around to make sure she wasn’t hovering around. Lieutenant DeBourchier sat back and belched politely. His black mustache stood out against the flash of pearly white teeth.

What I don’t like is the trippies running experiments on our women and using them like so many brood mares. I heard too much about the feeding stations.”

It was no secret about the particular atrocities visited on women. The staff xeno-psychologists were all ripping out body hair trying to figure out why the trippies liked women so much. Yes, there was the hormone thing, estrogen and such, but no one had captured a live Trippy to find out why. He knew about the warrior suicide culture they had. The xeno-anthropologists said that according to every intelligence document they could find, the trippies considered what humans called death to be the same thing as “growing up.” The thought that the human race was locked in a to-the-death battle with children was disquieting.

Sir?”

Yeah, D.B.”

Where are their ‘parents?’ Wouldn’t you think they have to be around somewhere?”

You’d think so, but no, I guess not. Leastaways, nobody’s made the trip to go find them.”

Yeah, too busy dealing with the hooligans knocking down the mailbox and leaving prank calls. What about trying to keep them alive when we take prisoners?”

You know how hard that is.”

The Trippy prisoners tapped into their warrior culture whenever they were captured, and performed a version of seppuku. The ritual was never-ending, and every Marine, spacer, soldier – or cop, for that matter – had seen it at least once.

Once a Trippy was issued into a cell, they made use of the facilities to ‘purify’ themselves. Water was water, apparently, and they consumed it with gusto. The Trippy prisoner would cleanse themselves, arrange their bark-like exoskeleton with care, and usually compose a poem in their native tongue. Some of the more educated among them would write it in Standard, which was strange enough. Those composers were the more militant of any of the prisoners taken.

The strange thing was that in the absence of a spoken language, the Trippies had very complex written language. It was a very precise orthography, heavy on mathematics. The heavy scientists like the physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, various engineers, and so forth all wanted to study this language for possible use in scientific expression. Strangely, though, there was several subsets of the Trippy language that dealt with the abstract of art and interpretive expression. The scientists with the artistic leanings was pleased to find this hidden side as well.

This dichotomy of the aliens – the absence of a spoken language versus a complex written language – made for a lot of head scratching and debates. Whenever a prisoner was taken, several of the scientists from whatever range of discipline that was available rotated watches along with the military personnel. They waited for the prisoners to write out anything, and watched for minute clues in posture or mood. Each composition was recorded and pored over, with the more popular posted in the daily intelligence briefings to the Theater CINCs.

Currently the November Tau Tanka was the selection given. So called because the layout happened to match the style of a Japanese tanka, it ran as follows:

the air of battle

makes gre’swetor’s sweet hail

sound seductively.

Come, gre’swetor! I have stood

awaiting my time proudly!

This particular tanka was accompanied by a list of battle accomplishments and honors, posts, duties, and commands held by the Trippy in question. It turned out that he (or she or it, no one was sure) was a fighter of some great influence. Even to a layman, it seemed impressive. The xeno-anthropologists seemed to be particularly impressed by the genealogy that the fighter had thoughtfully attached.

They couldn’t ask him/her/it about it, though. Like every other Trippy that they’d captured, the fighter had written all he/she/it had to say down after the ritualistic purification, bowed to the four winds, collapsed where he/she/it had stood upright, and died. This was the supposed meaning of the word ‘gre’swetor,‘ but no one was quite sure.

There was no way to stop them. Suicide watches had been set on every one, and most just recited a string of numbers, using their language hardware, then collapsed. Invariably, there would be a message arriving at the headquarters, with the numbers in the headers of the message, that contained the last words of the Trippy in question. If there was more than one, say in holding cells, one would act as a second for the others’ action. It was half-seriously dubbed trippuku by the Marines, and the slang word had caught on. After all the other Trippies had been ‘assisted,’ the second in the trippuku ritual would follow suit. This one would always list the assistance just given last as a great honor, and expire happily.

Lieutenant DeBourchier shoved his empty blood beer mug to the sergeant bartending and stood up.

It’s been nice, sir, but I got to rack out. I have an early patrol tomorrow.”

I hear you. Hey, don’t forget those evaluations.”

Yeah, tell me about it. I think sometimes the military runs on paperwork, not fake-coffee.”

It does. Thanks a lot for reminding me about coffee, fake or not. Real coffee’s five hundred credits a pound and you want to mention it? This crap we got now just sucks.”

Sorry. I’m not the one that lived on the stuff before the Trippies came.” The junior lieutenant smirked as he slipped the proverbial dagger in.

Oh, get out of here before I wipe that smirk off your face.”

DeBourchier left, not particularly worried about the jesting threat. The sergeant grinned at the officer.

Sir, one day he’ll get it back. Don’t you worry.”

Not worried, sarge. I’ll get mine. Besides, I still have a freeze-dried pound of coffee he doesn’t know about in my bank’s safe deposit box back home. When the war’s over, I’m going to get it out, open it, brew a pot, and I’m not sharing.”

The last part came as the sergeant was visibly drooling. He seemed to be disappointed. Horacio didn’t have any sympathy for him, or anyone else.

And another thing…”

Yes, sir?”

Anyone comes up to me and starts sniffing around for coffee, I’ll know right where to go.” A level glance spoke volumes. The sergeant nodded quickly, and placed a shot glass in front of the officer.

Sir, I got something for you to try. I was saving it for a special occasion, but now’s just as good a time as any.”

Okay, what is it?”

Patience, sir. You’ll see.”

Horacio watched as the sergeant took two unmarked green glass bottles out of the cupboard, one smaller than the other. He set those down by the shot glass, then got a teaspoon and a dirty white bottle from the small refrigerator under the bar.

Milk?”

The sergeant smiled, and shook his head. He set the white bottle down on the other side of the glass, and theatrically balanced the spoon on it. Horacio rolled his eyes, but was intrigued enough not to say anything. The officer watched as the enlisted man uncorked the bigger bottle and carefully pour out half a shot of clear liquid into the glass. He recorked it and put it on the counter running the length of the wall behind the bar. After he uncorked the second bottle, the sergeant grabbed the spoon and twirled it absently.

Horacio raised an eyebrow.

The sergeant placed the spoon bowl side up over the shot glass, and very slowly poured a deep green liquid over the spoon, leaving a space to the rim measuring maybe the thickness of three coins. Horacio noticed that the green liquid didn’t settle in and mix with the other fluid, but sat placidly in a layer over it. He still didn’t say anything. The sergeant uncorked the dirty white bottle with one hand without moving his spoon, and tipped in a milky white cream over the spoon in the same manner as the green layer.

Horacio noticed that the cream left no residue or droplets on the spoon. Looking at the shot glass, he saw that the concoction was steaming or smoking – he couldn’t tell which.

Throw it back, sir, whole thing. Quick, before that top layer melts. Swallow quick.”

The officer looked up at him, then shrugged. He grabbed the shot glass, feeling the warm and cold layers through the thin glass, and threw it back.

His breath left him as molten fire coursed down to his stomach. As the slug inched its sedate way, following gravity, he was surprised to note that the peristalsis of his digestive tract had stopped in shock. His muscles tightened in response, but as the shot worked its way down, the muscles loosened up after it passed. Horacio was sure that his stomach was going to clench up, but that didn’t happen. Instead it seemed to calm itself and go to sleep. A feeling of warmth and content ease washed over him, and he looked at the bartending sergeant in astonishment.

Sergeant Hanks, just what in the hell was that?”

The sergeant grinned.

Felt like poison going down, didn’t it, but at the end, feels great?”

Yes, but you didn’t answer the question. What was it?”

“The guys call it Cosmic Explosion.”

Horacio grimaced.

“I can see why. Where did it come from?”

The sergeant wiped the bar as he spoke.

Well, one of the intel guys was looking at the trippuku stuff they get, and one of them left his favorite drink. They didn’t really think anything of it, until other Trippies after that one mentioned in their own missives that they wished they’d had it one last time. It’s sort of like Gunny Jacob’s meat jerky, as far as we can tell.”

The officer nodded. Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Jacob was famous in the unit, and beyond, for the jerky chews he made to take out on patrol with him. He charged a high price for a small bag of his jerky, but not one Marine complained. They got discounts compared to the Navy and Army. The joke was that when he retired, Gunny Jacob was going to get rich from the jerky. The other joke was that since he guarded his secret method so well, the recipe he used was classified high enough that even God wasn’t cleared for the information.

So what about it? Are you saying that this Trippy made this drink, like Gunny’s jerky?” He coughed and watched, fascinated, as the room spun a little. The sergeant had a hand out to steady him already.

That’s it.”

How do you know this stuff won’t kill me?”

Me and the boys did a scientifical test. We found out what the analogues was to the Trippy ingredients. It turns out that you have to make up the green part and the white part, but any moonshine at least a hunnert ‘n’ fifty proof will do.”

So what was the proof?”

We took leave and drank shots. Nobody can get through more than two. Best part is, you don’t get a hangover.”

Horacio grinned.

Well, that’s good, but I don’t think I’ll be trying a second one so soon. I’ll try another one next week. Damn, that’s potent.”

You say so, sir. You know what’s funny?”

What?” He was slurring his words a little now.

Skipper can slam two of these beauties, and still ream someone out. You can’t tell it affects her a-tall.”

Dayum. She’s a better man than me. You put me out with one shot. I’m going to bed.”

The sergeant laughed.

Have a good night, sir.” He watched as the officer carefully got off the rough wooden stool and navigate slowly to the door. Sergeant Hanks traded smirks with the other enlisted man cleaning up for closing time. The lance corporal flipped the sign over, and turned out the lights, then walked to the bar.

Sergeant Hanks was just finishing two more Cosmic Explosions, and he locked up the bottles, as the lance corporal sat down on the seat the officer had just left. He picked up his shot.

Well, Bill, another day.”

Got that right, Roger, another day, down the tubes.” The sergeant picked up his shot, and they threw their drinks back. Both shuddered simultaneously.

Think this place is going to survive?”

The sergeant stared off in the distance, thinking about the lance corporal’s question.

I hope so, but the way it’s been going, I don’t have any kind of clue.”

Lieutenant Bisbee’s all right, but the Skipper… she’s scary.”

The sergeant thinned his lips.

I know she isn’t going to win any popularity contests, now or probably ever, but if anybody that managed to deal with half of what she’s had to and still be a saint is cracked. He’s got something eating at him, too, but he keeps it close.”

Why? You heard something?”

Bartenders and priests hear a lot, and both drink because of it. I’ll keep the Skipper’s secrets, mainly because I don’t want her after me.”

OK, well, yes, I can understand that. You know scuttlebutt has that there’s another operation laid on in a few weeks.”

I know, and it don’t look too good.”

You know any details?”

All I know is rescuing women. They’ve been pretty tight with anything else. The Skipper and Mr. Bisbee’s going in with the whole team. I don’t know anything else, and don’t really want to know anything else.” The sergeant gave the lance corporal a speaking glance.

Did you know about the special munitions for the mass driver weapons?”

What?”

Yes, there’s several huge crates, about big enough you or I could stand up in, being guarded at the corner of the ammo dump. All hours, and the guard are all people that I don’t remember having seen here before.” The lance corporal had a photographic memory for faces. “I don’t know where they come from or what they do when they aren’t around those crates. A forklift had to move them, and they drive the forklift, too. Nobody on the base is assigned there. I nosed around. People don’t even know about it, and I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t happened to drive by on an errand the other day. It’s locked up tighter than a battlecruiser’s hull. There’s a godawful big barracks behind that razor tipped fence, too.”

Maybe you shouldn’t be talking about it. Loose lips and all that, you know?”

I know, but …”

But what?”

They’re armed with some serious shoulder weapons, they’re in uniform, and they have military discipline out the yingyang, but this group isn’t Army, Navy, or Marines. They aren’t wearing Hegemony threads.”

So they’re government contractors.”

Yeah, you’d think so….”

The junior enlisted man had a frown on his face still. Sergeant Hanks looked at him.

What?”

I said that I didn’t see anyone that belonged here, and I meant that. I did recognize quite a few people I’ve served with that. All of them were lifers. Career service, and no pushovers. Two of the others was my senior drill instructor and another drill instructor. None of them would get out of the service for anything and I would have bet my life savings that all of them would die in uniform before they took it off. Plus, we’ve had a higher rate of turnover in our staffing on this assignment than the norm, not counting casualties and injuries. I called some friends in the network around the world and they’re telling me the same thing.”

Are you saying…”

I don’t know what I’m saying, except something is going on that don’t look aboveboard. There’s a paramilitary unit out there, behind that fence that’s got people in it that mean business. They’re self-contained in there. They don’t mix and mingle with our people out here.”

That’s not good.”

No, and that worries me. Yeah, military secrets and all that, but I did a little digging.”

Hold on! The hell!”

Relax. I checked building orders. I didn’t get into personnel files or anything like that. Building orders are non-class.”

Sergeant Hanks shook his head.

I don’t want anyone busting up in here and throwing me on the ground just because you happen to be here.”

I doubt it. Now, do you want to hear what I found, or not?”

I think I’m going to regret it, but you have my attention now.”

The lance corporal grinned humorlessly.

It turns out that the base planning commission – you know the guys that go to work all day in that basement and almost never sees the sun – they think that corner of the base is all forest. There’s no work permits, construction permits, administrative orders, utility hookups, electronics contract work – nothing. Just a permanent hold order for that exact plot of land. Those feather merchant clerks in that detachment didn’t seem interested in telling me much more than that.”

What does the hold order do?”

It’s a reservation thing. Whoever puts the order in can hold it until they’re ready to develop it, and things like that can literally stagnate.”

Well, if there’s this ‘hold order,’ then why isn’t there other paperwork on file for the buildings and improvements out there?”

The lance corporal blew his breath out.

Don’t you get it? There’s some higher than top secret stuff going on over there, and people are noticing. It isn’t just me. There’s people being quietly shuffled around, too. That makes holes that need to be filled, and it’s attracting attention. It’s going to start pulling in more than that soon, and it’ll start with trying to find the unit all these people went to. Somebody is going to pull that hold order up on a computer somewhere and they’re going to see that it’s a ‘work in progress.’ They’ll stop looking there, unless they go looking with the Eyeball Mark One, Mod Zero. If they decide they want more answers and try to get onto that mini base out there…”

They disappear.”

The sergeant looked at the lance corporal, then unlocked the whiskey cabinet again.

-JB Steele

Vocabulary

Vocabulary

A writer’s vocabulary is the single most powerful weapon in his or her arsenal. It is words that make us what we are, that and the way that we use them. For the average adult, it ranges between 20,000 and 35,000 words. Don’t ask me how many words I personally have – I have no idea. I think I’m right about the middle of that particular bell curve.

One of the ways that kids are encouraged to extend their vocabularies is by the “five-word” method. Pick a book that on any given page (or so) might have five words they don’t know. Then get a good dictionary and look those five words up. It worked for me, but I’m a bookworm. I have a dictionary that I’ve had for twenty years. It’s followed me from move to move, along with a thesaurus. Believe me, I’ve used both of them.

Some joker heard me mention the “five words method” once, went to a used bookstore and got an old textbook from the 60’s on Irregular geometry. He knew I was not the best on mathematics (probably why I enjoyed my English and writing classes) and wanted to play a prank.

I took the book and thanked him. I still have it somewhere, although haven’t read it in a while. I just happen to hate algebra, but love geometry. Still I applied the “five words method” to this book. In the Internet age, there are a bunch of different ways to look up words now that sometimes blow my old trusty paperback dictionary out of the water, and now for that old geometry book more explanation is there. A squared plus B squared still equals C squared.

Sometimes, though, there are no reference books available to you. For that matter, no cell tower signal, WiFi, or even battery charge available. It is then that you are forced to rely on the mental library of your vocabulary and the time spent to build it up.

Let’s say you need to write something on the social aspects of kitten pictures on Facebook. I will bet that there is a good chunk of Internet bandwidth devoted to these cute furballs, in both still and moving form. So you do a little research, spend six hours at Lolcats, and determine that some people like kittens, some don’t. I do, and I get highly amused.

It’s not hard to write about a cat. Furry, warm, ignores you until they want something, sleeps all day, plays all night. Stuff like that. If you want to pick up more of a challenge, write about the differences between going EVA from the Space Shuttle and going on a Crusade quest, then you need to have different sets of vocabulary. (And some imagination, too.)

21st century low-orbit travel and 12th century time-of-war travel couldn’t be much more different, but both are dangerous. I picked those two examples out of thin air, and so I would have to research to write about it, but I’m pretty sure that my vocabulary would need to be extended a little bit to write about both of them in the same piece.

Then again, it might be fun to write about Saladin and the Space Shuttle. Inspiration strikes.

So, build up your vocabulary. Grab a dictionary and find those entries that end in “see such-and-such.” See how many times you can go see such-and-such. Keep track of what words you follow, then find the antonyms for those words. It can be a little boring, but building up a vocabulary of words to call upon when there isn’t Internet available helps.

If you really want to confuse yourself (and who doesn’t) pick a language that you don’t know, and see if you can find the translations for the words you kept track of earlier. Then we get into cognates and the French term faux amis, or ‘false friends.’ That is a subject for later, I promise.

Any kind of vocabulary building exercise will do, and I recommend looking some of them up and running through them. It can only help strengthen your writing.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Humor

Humor in Writing

Humor in writing can be a good thing. Humor can also be overdone. The problem as an author is finding that line between “good thing” and “too much.”

For instance, let’s say that our good friend Jack is in the story. You remember Jack – he was the one that found a body in the garbage a few posts ago. The head was rolling under the garbage truck. If you were to start cracking a joke about rotten melons, that could be in bad taste – unless it was from an established character that was shown to be rude and crude.

The guy that was with him in that post, Odell, didn’t get a lot of backstory in this snippet. I’ve imagined him as a jolly sort, an ex-Army infantryman that did a bunch of gruntwork in the service for four years and got out. If he cracked a joke, it could be dark humor or not much at all.

Say there’s this one guy that nobody likes to work with, who keeps them all on edge. He’s the rude and crude type I mentioned beforehand. Let’s look.

“Hey, Jack.”

Jack ignored him as best he could, but there wasn’t much question about who he was addressing. The young man sighed, still rattled by his discovery. He didn’t like the other man.

“What, Tommy?”

“Heard you had some excitement earlier. Found some deli special in the trash, huh?”

Jack’s face went white. He had held himself together as well as he could, but the jocular remark tipped him over. The young man grabbed the trash can and vomited noisily into it.

“Jeez, man, that was just a joke. Didn’t mean to set you off or anything. Whatsamatter, you can’t handle it?”

Still wiping his mouth, Jack pushed past the other man roughly and left the room. Tommy shouted after him, “Sorry you got your feelings hurt, you little snot!”

Odell came in, and looked around.

“Hey, man, maybe you should button it. It’s a shock to see something like that, and he’s young.”

“Aw, stuff it. I can’t help it if he’s just a widdle delicate baby.”

Odell stared at the other man.

“Look, he’s a hard worker. I doubt you would have done any better. You’re all talk, but I don’t see you offering to clean up. You just shut your mouth.”

So, one ill-advised joke from a character set up a scene there. Actually, if I had kept going, that would have been some physical stuff going on. Even as I write these words, I can see Odell beating the living crap out of Tommy. Hmm… maybe we’ll see that in another post.

Let’s put Jack somewhere else.

His day had been rough, and Jack decided that he was going to stop at the BBQ joint for dinner. The waitress took his order and started to turn away, when she looked at him again.

“Hey, sugar, you don’t look too happy. You ok?”

He smiled weakly.

“Just a bad day at work.”

She clicked her pen, and put her pad back in her pocket.

“You look like the south end of a northbound mule just sat all over you. Want to talk about it?”

He smiled again, a little stronger.

“Just some rough stuff I don’t normally see.” He looked up and saw that the TV over the bar was playing the news. He directed her attention to it. “Look at that.”

She watched, then shook her head.

“That’s just terrible!” He grimaced at her tone.

“I know. I’m the one that found it. Nothing like finding a body to make you want to lose weight.” She stared at him, her eyes wide.

“You poor man! I’m so sorry!”

“Yeah…”

“Lose weight?”

“Yeah, after seeing that, I didn’t want to eat anything. I’m not really sure I want to eat anything here, but I haven’t eat all day.”

“Honey, you can’t go all day without eating. You’re already skinnier than a board. You remind me of a strip of wood instead of a board. Come on, I’ll get you some bread on the house.”

“You don’t have to do that…” he protested weakly.

“Sure I do. I like my men healthy and well-fed. Otherwise, they can’t keep up and I run them down.”

So, you see, humor can help a scene along. And sure looks like Jack’s going to be going to this BBQ joint more often. That waitress is either really interested in him or she wants a good tip.

If you as a writer are good with puns, use them, but don’t go crazy with them. Bad jokes, same thing. Limericks, haiku, koans – all of that.

To use a food analogy, humor should be like mustard (or wasabi sauce if you’re like me and like spicy.) A little bit of mustard goes a long way, and a few lines of humor does, too.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Point of View in writing.

Point of View

 

Instead of a dry recitation of what the different types of point of view are, I will just write about uses of point of view. Besides, this isn’t a college lecture hall and I’m not a professor.

In writing, a point of view is what a character sees, thinks, does, or feels. For that matter, it is what a group sees, thinks, does, or feels. For example, let’s look at our old friend Jack. Here, Jack is a garbage man. He’s got a dirty job.

The trash was there in the can, and judging from the smell emanating from it, it had been sitting there in the hot sun for several days. Probably put out right after the last garbage run had come through, Jack thought. This stuff gets old. He opened the swing top lid and gagged at the scent that punched him in the stomach. He saw three bags in the heavy duty can, the kind that was supposed to be able to hold an astounding amount without ripping. The thick black plastic was stretched tight over the trash inside it, and Jack grimaced. Why couldn’t they get one of the new trucks like the guys on the north end had, the ones that lifted the can and dumped it without anyone having to touch it? He knew it was his job, and he was glad to have it. Still, there were times like now, he wished he didn’t have to touch it.

He grabbed the first bag and heaved it in the back of the truck. It was pretty heavy, but the plastic held. Jack wondered what it was. Whatever it was, it was good quality. He grabbed the second bag, and it was just as heavy. It landed with a dull thud and a squish of the bags underneath. Jack turned back to the rancid can and steeled himself to lean into the deep cavernous depths for the third bag. It seemed to be the most tightly packed and the bottom was filled with liquid. He hated those. Every time he got one of these heavy ones with liquid, he had to grab the bottom of the bag to throw it in the back of the truck.

Cursing under his breath, he grasped the knot tightly and lifted straight up. Jack grabbed the bottom of the bag and felt the plastic mold to his hand. He wound up to throw the bag as far as he could, ticked off at the homeowner.

The bag ripped halfway through his swing. Blood came out of the bag, and so did an arm. Jack watched in horror as a severed head bounced out and rolled under the truck, coming to rest against the right front tire. The eyes glared out at the world.

Jack screamed.

Oooooo. Poor Jack.

Now, since Jack rides in the back of the truck, somebody’s got to drive it, right? Let’s shift the point of view here from Jack to the other guy.

Odell laughed. He was in the air conditioning of the truck. He saw it as his due since he had been the one on the back of the truck in the hot sun for eleven years, day in and day out. Never missed a day, either. He was proud of his perfect attendance, but he didn’t talk himself up. He liked Jack, and worked well with him, but Jack had just started a few months ago. As far as Odell was concerned, the boy had to put in his time. Plus, drive better. He had a bunch of speeding tickets and Odell had never gotten one.

Before he’d turned the A/C on, he’d had the window rolled down to air out the cab. That beef and bean burrito hadn’t agreed with him, but the smell of that can they’d just got to was many times worse. He rolled the window up, turned the dial to full blast, and watched the kid in the mirror.

He did feel bad for him. Odell watched as he gagged from the smell. The driver shook his head and tsktsktsk’ed as Jack struggled with the first two bags. Those had to be heavy from the way he struggled with the awkward angle, and he knew Jack was no weakling. Odell was getting a little concerned, since the sound of the bags traveled through the body of the truck and somehow it didn’t sound right. He’d thrown many a bag in the back of quite a few garbage trucks.

He looked more closely at Jack’s reflection in the mirror. His horrified eyes watched as the bag ripped and blood cascaded over the younger man, and caught a glimpse as a head dribbled its way under the truck. He was already rushing out of the truck as Jack screamed.

Man. I don’t think either one is having a good day at work.

So, the point of view could allow for a story to be told differently in many ways. In one example, we see Jack and what he thinks. In the other we see Odell, and how he sees things. Often a different point of view will allow for an author to reveal things about a main character (in this case, Jack) that otherwise didn’t get revealed. For instance, he’s just started his job, drives crazy,and fairly strong.

In writing, you could use the point of view to do this, or make your story go somewhere else.

Point of view can also be used in reverse, as in a good guy, bad guy fight. Let’s say the good guy is rescuing the damsel in distress, and the story is focused on him. He sees the bad guy reach behind him, and decides to frag him. Bad guy has the cure for the hero’s narcolepsy, but dies before revealing it.

This way, the reader could see that there is something there that the hero missed, and watching as he reacts to this discovery is anticipation.

Another example of point of view – Harry Potter’s POV versus Professor Snape’s POV. Personally I like Severus Snape. He had a lot of conflict that he tried to keep hidden, and at the end of the series the POV that he had was flipped in some ways.

So, use your point of view, but I suggest no more than three or four. Otherwise it gets confusing.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Inspirations for Writing

Inspirations for writing

 

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind, but now I see!

Inspiration is what I’m thinking of today. It takes many forms, many expressions, and many ways of wriggling its way into your muse, and none of us know all the ways. The above came to us from a slave trader (among things) named John Newton. There have been things written about Mr. Newton which would give you a broad overview about him, some of which was unhappy and some happy. Also, several films and stage works continue his story. His was a divine inspiration, through a path that many of us today couldn’t fathom. Amazing Grace was first published in 1779 and it was one of many acknowledgements of the inspiration that John Newton came to express.

For us as writers (or singers, or movie makers, or artists, or ….) inspiration is that quality that can either be effortless or agonizing. Sometimes, there is a paradox in that the nominal inspiration can be both at the same time.  Usually, it’s simply a desire to say something. After all, the only difference between the written word and the spoken word is that you can see the written word. Or, in the case of Braille, touch the word.

Inspiration can hit when you look at your significant other and think, “Her birthday is next week. I want to do something for her.” So, you arrange for flowers to be delivered and get a cake made with her favorite colors. You write some lines that, while it might not be as eloquent as you’d want, it still expresses your feelings as clearly as seeing the smile it brings.

Or, it can hit when you lose someone you love. Many times, this is private catharsis, and for those of us that are wordslingers, sometimes it’s a surprisingly effective way to generate a word count over what you might ever think you’re capable of. The words tumble out along with the tears. It seems that this is often the most powerful form of writing, especially if your reader forms an empathic bond with you.

For me, inspiration can come from many things. I could be walking along in a store somewhere and see something that makes me go, “hmmm… what if?” Sometimes, I’ll be washing dishes and an errant thought will traverse my mind, and I’ll follow that thought with, “hmmm… what if?” I’ve had happy times that I wanted to put down in verse, and I’ve poured out my pain in my writing.

A good way to look for inspiration is in the things you like to do other than writing. It’s a lot easier to write about something that your mind is engaged in, instead of fumbling around trying to come up with something that makes sense. Fumbling around is going to happen, too, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a lot easier to rip out the words when you have focus and intent, or so it seems to me, anyway.

I like to watch or read the news a lot. It’s a habit that I picked up in childhood, trying to learn about whatever might be going on in the world. I’ve written a few things before after having heard about this breakthrough or that occurrence. It’s the same principle as an editorial cartoon. It just takes a different format. I’ve written fanfic before, after having watched an episode of my favorite TV shows and thought to myself, “hmmm…what if?”

I stubbed my toe one night when I ran into the dresser. Never mind what I said about the subject, but what I wrote the next day in my Creative Writing class was well received. I got up the next morning, looked at my aching toe and thought to myself, “hmmm… what if?” I limped to class, sat down gratefully in that uncomfortable desk and let it rip.

Do you see what I’m driving at?

“Hmmm… what if?” That “what if” drives a lot of speculative fiction. For that matter, a lot of historical fiction. Yes, in historical fiction, you as the reader already know (maybe) what happened. But do you know what the characters thought about this or that? Ever wonder what went through Winston Churchill’s mind during World War II? Or Benedict Arnold’s mind before he was caught? Or maybe Alexander’s mind, before he lay on his bed and died?

I watched a Dr. Who episode recently with Winston Churchill. Quite entertaining, but what if old Winston had really met a Dalek?

See what I mean?

So, you find inspiration where you can. Writing about what you like to eat can do it (sausage, hot peppers, steak, potatoes, practically anything but sour cream and guacamole,) Maybe being turned down for things you needed for this or that. Perhaps something going on in your community that you just have to write a letter to the editor to. All of these things.

What about writing a short story, or perhaps something longer?

I’ve been inspired by people I know to put characters like them into what I write. I don’t get petty or mean about it (usually,) and sometimes I take things about two or three or even four people and make a new character. Then I think about a scene, and after I plop a character into the scene I think about a plot. Inspiration in this vein can sometimes come depending on how much I like that particular character.

And then I’m off and rolling.

I like to try to keep track of what I’m inspiring on, though. I’ll use my pad to write down the ideas, then go back to my keyboard and keep writing. This way, I can incorporated what I’m thinking about and not have to juggle a bunch of thoughts.

Mind mapping is a good idea, here. It can often lead to other inspirations, too. Try that and see where you end up. Don’t be surprised if you find ideas for separate writing.

Happy writing! Next up, rewriting and revising.

-JB Steele

Conflict in Writing

Conflict

Conflict is an integral part to writing a story. It is said that variety is the spice of life, but conflict is the engine of fiction. Conflict propels a story and turns pages.

Conflict is absolutely necessary. Without it, all you have is a linear narrative. It’s something dry, and also a boring point “A” to point “C” traverse. How dull would Harry Potter’s life be, without some guy named Voldemort? I doubt that there would have been seven books (and eight movies) if that had been the case. Much less two, plus all the book sales and box office receipts.

For that matter, imagine how much less enjoyment a reader would have gotten trying to get the One Ring to Mordor, without conflict.

Or, what about drama? Drama is another face on the dice of writing. To use another metaphor, drama sometimes is the stage paint that the actor named Conflict wears. Dramatic screenplays are just another way to dress up conflict. Go to a high school drama class production. Right there. Take a look at the earnest young actors trying to hide their trepidation with anticipation and smiles. That is conflict. Granted, some of it is stage fright, and therefore not part of the script, but if they put that into their acting then guess what? The conflict drives the plot and motivates the show.

Example One:

Bob stepped out his front door to go to work. He was dressed in his good suit. He turned to lock his door, then got into his car. He drove off.

This is serviceable and gets the job done, but it’s something many people do. It’s boring in its monotony. Let’s give old Bob some problems. He’s got to get to work. I’m sure he can handle them.

Bob stepped out his front door to go to work, still upset about the argument with his wife. She had caught a credit card statement listing a bunch of charges at his brother’s new strip club. She had pointed out that the ten dollar charge from the bar wasn’t so much a problem, but there was no explanation for the ATM withdrawals. He didn’t want to say why and risk sleeping on the couch for a month. Bob’s refusal to tell her just made her more mad, and she’d stormed into the bedroom and slammed the door. A click announced the door was locked. After a few minutes of trying to cajole her into opening the door, he gave up and left for work.

 

At least he’d been able to shower and get his good suit on. Breakfast was a no-go now, so he’d have to stop at a drive-through somewhere. He put his key halfway in the lock, and suddenly sneezed. The force of the sneeze caused his hand to clamp on the key and bend the key.

 

Bob stared at the bent key. He could lock the doorknob from inside, but what about the deadbolt? He muttered curses under his breath, and looked around for something to straighten the key out with. He found a suitable rock after a few minutes, and laid the key out on the concrete. Bob pounded the helpless key with the rock, chipping flakes off and marring the shine on his nearby shoe. Finally, the key was mostly straight, but scarred from the impacts of the rock.

 

He eased the key into the deadbolt, and after several wiggles, he managed to get it to lock. The doorknob refused to take the abused key, and he gave up. For now, the deadbolt was enough. Bob threw the rock into the bushes, and got into his car. It took several tries for the engine to turn over and crank.

 

“What is going on here? What else is going to go wrong? I don’t want to call a cab to get to work!”

 

Bob looked to see that he’d left the headlight switch on after coming home from the strip club last night. The battery was very low, but it finally cranked. He breathed a sigh of relief and let it run for a few minutes to start charging up the battery. He glanced at his watch and saw that he was running behind. He had to get going if he wanted to get breakfast before work.

 

As he drove off over the hill, his wife rushed out the door.

 

“Bob! Come back! You forgot your phone and your wallet!”

 

 

Yep. Poor Bob. Heckuva day for him. It would really suck if he passed a speed trap on the way to work.

Humor can have conflict. Here it probably is camouflaged as jokes and whatnot, but if you’ve ever read “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain, you can find conflict. I won’t detail the conflict in this one – except to say when the frog gets an “enhancement,” things change. The stuff that happens after that provides a natural progression to the story.

Also, there is satire, parody, and other things that one might not think that conflict would exist. However, in these cases, think about what’s being referred to – and there’s your conflict.

In Patrick Rothfuss’ excellent “Name of the Wind,” Kvothe has all manner of conflict, both internal and external. The things that he has to deal with, plus the clashes between the internal conflicts and the external conflicts (a conflicting conflict of conflicts drastically causing conflicts, if you will) all open up paths for the story to flow that otherwise the reader wouldn’t see. You know, like Bob. Poor guy. He should have just sent his brother a nice card on opening day.

I have deliberately broken a rule of writing in this piece, and re-used the word “conflict” many times, instead of shuffling through synonyms. In this case, I’ve applied the maxim “repetition breeds clarity” in the hopes than when you write, you remember to throw in some conflict to bedevil your characters.

Next up, inspiration for writing.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

 

Plots and plot twists

Tonight, I’m thinking about plots.

Nominally, a plot is absolutely required. You can’t tell a good story without one. Stephen King had one with the Dark Tower books. David Weber has several with the Honor Harrington books, the Safehold novels, and the Empire from the Ashes books. These are but two of the many authors that I’ve read. The thing about the ones that I enjoyed?

They all had a compelling plot. Or, plots and sub-plots.

Tom Clancy, may he rest in peace, was a master at gripping plots. I only hope that I will be able to match his plotting ability. David Weber, who is a great guy (and his wife Sharon is just sweet,) has a gift of his own. I will gladly read anything by either.

But “plot” is the topic tonight.

Let’s go back to Jack from a couple of nights ago. He’s our maybe-not-the-best guy. He’s found himself trapped in our world and he can’t help but get kicked four times too many.

Let’s say that he is set in the Renaissance era, a clerk to a lawyer. He has a stuffy office, really tiny, and to add insult to injury, he has to share the office. He’s getting bumped a lot while he’s trying to write. Ink is spilling on his clothes, and he doesn’t make much to replace them. He sees people that aren’t much better off than he is. Jack doesn’t eat a lot, since he doesn’t make a lot.

See what I’m doing? I’m defining a background. With this background, a plot might just suggest itself.

On one hand, Jack could spend his nights at the pub, getting drunk and bemoaning his lot in life.

On the other hand, he could decide to become a criminal. Hey, he works in a lawyer’s office. I’m pretty sure he could see things to do or not do.

On the gripping hand, he could be in the right place to contribute when the hero needs help with the Big Bad – or become the hero himself.

If he becomes the hero of the story, then the backstory (a war, or savage rulers, or famine, or something) could be the cause of the situation that Jack finds himself in and that he has no choice but to do something about. Create drama – put him in the position that the alternative is death or a fate worse than death.

If he is a supporting character, then the plot is established before he is brought in. It’s up to you.

So, here’s a plot. The kingdom is peaceful, but that peace only comes at the cost of several hard-fought wars. This means that the royal treasury is low, there are a lot of veterans with conditions that they didn’t have when they went off in the service of the King, and to top it all off, winter is coming. There hasn’t been a lot of the men around to plant the crops, much less harvest them, and the King and his advisers are just a little bit stuck. They have to figure out what to do to get through the winter, and do it quick.

So, they decide to levy heavy taxes. It’s either that, or go back to war.

Jack hears about that, sitting in the lawyer’s office scribbling away, and shakes his head. He’s never going to do that, not go into the King’s service and maybe get sent off to war. Nope, old Jack’s staying right where he is.

About that time, a neighboring sovereign, with a little more resources and a lot more meanness decides the time is right to go hunting. He starts to attack the kingdom that Jack is a subject of, and it’s ugly. It seems that this aggressor king has a general that very competent, very strong, and very vicious. This uber-general sacks the outlying towns, and starts the rape, pillage, and burn routine.

The subjects are outraged. The King is outraged, and worried. Jack is outraged, worried, and upset.

Why “-and upset?” Well, you tell me. What could fit in the plot to do that?

So, to advance the plot, Jack gets told “you’re in the Army now, son,” and hilarity ensues (so to speak.) He has to make it through Army life, in alternating chapters, while the Hero or his stunt double rides bravely forth.

Probably with half his face painted blue, but that’s another story.

I won’t lay out the rest of the plot for you. You know, I might want to write this one out one day and submit to somebody, but this brings me to the other part of tonight’s post. For now, old Jack is resigned to KP, drilling, and trying to remember the parts in his Springfield M3 shoulder fired weapon. Okay, I’m kidding about the M3 rifle. I’m thinking about something useful.

Plot twists.

Plot twists are just that – something to set you on your ear and make you yell out, “Oh no, he did’ENT!”

And I can think of one. Several, really.

It’d be too easy to say that the opposing general would turn out to be the Hero’s long lost brother during the climatic battle that finds them fighting to the death, one about to strike the deadly blow that will end the war.

What about the other general being Jack’s son, or former partner in the law firm, or even better…

How about the general being female, and she’s the woman he loved and lost?

So – here’s another subject that I’ll save for another post. Conflict.

You know old Jack is going to be torn. At this point in the story, the plot has to go somewhere, but it could go anywhere. You know how you want the story to end – the kingdom back at peace and recovering, Jack’s in better shape, and maybe there’s a setup for another book. But before you get to the end, there has to be a beginning and a middle. In other words, a plot.

So, sit down and make a plot, then write to the plot. As you get more accomplished in plotting (ahem) then plot upon plot will unroll in the infinite spaces of your mind even as you write scene after scene.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Thoughts about background

Background for your characters is important.

Let’s say you have some guy that wanders aimlessly. He seems to be someone that seems to always be in the trouble spots or the tight spots in your story/book/epic/whatever. He’s a little irritating, too. Your main character is getting suspicious because this guy always turns up at the various crime scenes rubbernecking or he’s always in the crowd when, as in the The Princess Bride, the evil Prince announces his upcoming marriage to the female lead. Or, any such other happening. You can’t help but notice him, but unless he is introduced to the reader properly, this character is just going to confuse the story.

So, in your plot, you carve out a little bit of time to introduce this character. I’ll call him Jack. Jack’s a quiet guy, but he’s had a rough life just like all the other guys in his socioeconomic class. He’s got issues, but he’s plodding along and really trying not to hurt anyone that doesn’t need it. Jack doesn’t have the best of luck and it seems that he can’t get ahead in life. He’s resigned himself to always be the overlooked. Jack gets up, does his work or whatever, and comes home to an empty house. Probably his empty house is either freakishly neat or a total dump. Jack doesn’t go out of his way to be rude to other men during his day, but he doesn’t try to be nice either. He keeps getting kicked while he’s down, so why bother?

Then one day, the female lead dashes in, and she’s being chased by a minion of the Big Bad. She is scared out of her mind and trying to get away from the minion, who has this maniacal gleam in his eye. He obviously doesn’t want to sell her tickets to the square dance. Jack looks up to see her… and stops the attack. He rescues the young woman.

That would be it for that little bit. Simple, formulaic, and you kind of want to root for the underdog Jack. You know, maybe things will start to look up for old Jack and he’ll get the girl, to boot.

But what if Jack was misogynistic like all get out? What if you had earlier in your story wrote Jack as embittered by being kicked down four times too many in life, and he hated women? Suppose all the background that you established for him didn’t match this act? Here he is, more bitter than week old coffee brewed too strong. He hates women. If it wasn’t for biological urges, he’d just as soon see them all packed away somewhere far away. And he really dislikes blondes, like two of his ex-wives. But, he saves a woman from getting kidnapped, or raped, or murdered, or turned into an undead revenant. Why?

Now, if the hero of the story was an investigative sort and found all this out, he would be seriously wondering just what Jack’s role is in all of this. He has the Big Bad to worry about, too, but Jack gives him fits. What is Jack’s secret and how does he fit in with all this? The hero is going to be thinking, and rightly so, that this Jack guy is acting out of character for what he’s supposed to be. Is he up to something?

He’s going to be wondering pretty hard about Jack.

And, if you establish the background of your characters just right, so will your reader.

In this example, there are a lot of questions that other characters are going to be raising about Jack. But, there would be no reason to be raising those questions (and therefore creating drama for your plot) if you didn’t first describe Jack in such a way that when he later saves the princess, it seems like there something about Jack’s character that no one knows – yet.

So who is Jack, really?

Finding out who he is could be a viable subplot in your story, and if executed correctly, would add nuance and all those different shades of gray that set off the main plot.

So, let’s say that the hero is chasing after the Big Bad, who’s got the princess this time. She’s fighting him and spitting and clawing and being totally disagreeable. He doesn’t care. The hero is falling behind, and the Big Bad is about to escape.

Except – that there’s a hidden sidekick that has all his demons wrestled out. Jack shows up and slows the Big Bad down enough to allow the hero time to show up.

This leads into the idea of the plot twist, which couldn’t happen without establishing a background for your characters. Take the time early in your story to do that establishing, because in the middle of the book, when your plot is supposed to be getting hot and heavy is too late. If you do character development then, except in certain flashbacks, you just mess up the tempo of the book and have to pick up the pace again.

Next up, the plot and plot twists.

-JB Steele



 

Review – Basic Equipment

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Here’s a glimpse into history.

Not history as in “what happened during the Crusades,” or “Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine,” or even any number of historical greats that some of us dozed off to in class.

This is a glimpse into the way things were before computers.

I grant you that right now, reading this on a computer or cell phone screen, it doesn’t seem to be quite right. Still, dissonance in the space-time continuum aside, this is a tried-and-true method of putting down ideas.

Don’t believe me? Think about it, the next time the internet goes out. You’ll be digging around for the paper bill from your ISP to call them and give them a piece of your mind. That is, if you don’t do your services through your cell phone.

About the only problems with using computers to compose is the notifications, the seductive lure of email, the clarion call of Google and Bing to look up this or that, and that link up in your bookmark bar to play a browser based game.

Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the way words found themselves distributed in the 1400’s. Before then, it was carefully carved wooden blocks or even more carefully scribed letters. The common denominator for all of these was the surface for all the symbols. Clay tablets, or papyrus scrolls, fabrics, or paper.

And that is what I refer to, when I mention history.

There are times when I write that I don’t want to be bothered by the blinkenlichten and sounds. I just grab the pad and something to write with and go. I write faster this way and while there might be scratchouts or whatever, I get my ideas down. Writer’s block is often cured in this way.

Also, if I should get a new idea, I’ll scribble it down on the back of the page, or in the margins, and keep on truckin’ with the main event.

So, looking at Amazon, for instance, I found these pads. Plenty of paper to look at and think about what to put down.

And pads or notebooks are of no use whatsoever, if you don’t have anything to write with, so here are some tools to write with. Simple stuff, really, and there are certainly preferences to take into account here, but I would suggest these.

And, of course, these can be used for more than just writing the next bestseller.

Attack on the Castle

This is a piece I did, using the keyboard that I reviewed and while it might be a little clunky, I like it.

Comments and suggestions, please.

After the heavy rains, stillness abounded. The freshness of the air was complemented by the silkiness of renewed leaves. The recent dry spell had not been good for anything or anyone. The farmers breathed a sigh of relief in between their sighs of worry. Animals stared out at the still pools of water in troughs with a bit of disbelief still.

The hooded figure stood silently on the large flat rock and waited with a barely concealed air of impatience. Soon others emerged from the glen with mutters of discontent. About twenty-five in number, most of the group had wet clothing. A few had either found sufficient shelter during the heavy thunderstorms or had weatherproof cloaks, like the man on the rock. Here and there complaints could be heard, followed by corrections from the others. Some of those corrections didn’t involve speaking but did involve blows.

He waited for the curses to subside, then smoothly descended from the rock in a deceptively powerful jump. He was of middle height and had strong shoulders, but that was all anyone could see. He wore a long cloak of darkest green and a hood that concealed every other detail about him. A giant of a man pushed through the crowd toward him. He was the largest of the group, and confronted him at the base of the rock with an angry growl and a bared dagger. Markings on his body, long and unkempt stringy hair, a missing eye, two powerful scarred arms, and a foul disposition told the others that he wasn’t a kind soul. He reached out for the hooded man with an enraged growl.
His target wasn’t there at the base of the rock, as it quickly turned out. He had ducked away from the bigger man’s grasp, and moved away several steps. The man in the green cloak drew a small keen blade that seemed to shimmer on its malevolent edges. The larger man felt a sharp cut across the small of his back, and enraged, turned to crush the other man. The giant’s opponent stood ready several feet away, and waited for the larger man reach him. He didn’t seem to be very worried. The others in the group of brigands formed a loose circle, and several men opened their mouths to start betting.

That is, only to snap their mouths shut as the aggressor collapsed on suddenly limp legs and numb hips. The fire in his lone eye changed quickly to alarmed panic and he screamed. The others heard him babble fearfully about poisons and a lack of feeling in his legs for a short moment, then the giant was silenced abruptly as a foot of steel pounded through his temples. His own dagger stood upright, pinning his insensate head to the ground. The jeweled pommel shook and glinted as the giant convulsed in his death throes.

As the smaller man stood with his small knife and the dead man’s cloak in his hands, the hood fell back. The malicious evil in those bloodshot eyes froze the others, and they surreptitiously kept a collective eye on the hand using the cloak to clean the blade. The owner of that hand straightened and put the knife away, then reached deeper into the cloak for something unknown. The circle was widened as everyone quickly stepped back. The killer saw this. He threw his head back gleefully and chortled.

“Oh, it’s not so bad as that, lads! He just forgot his place in this group! A simple mistake that was quickly rectified, and he’ll be sure not to make that mistake again. Or any other mistake, for that matter.”

His smile promised agony and a rapid demise for anyone who doubted him.

“Since no one knows me, I’m called Shul Ghost-walker.”

A fearful shudder ran through the small crowd at this revelation. Shul Ghost-walker was a local legend, reputed to be a ravening madman with no respect for lives or property. No sheriff had caught him, and more than a few had lost their lives in gruesome ways. The King had a bounty on his head.

“That’s not my real name, of course, but that’s the one I live and work under. I bid you to gather around and listen. I have a job for this group, so long as everyone understands that there will be no problems. If there are any issues …”

He waited for any questions, and finding none offered, gestured to the stiffening body behind him. No one doubted the consequences that he referred to for any “issues.”

“So gather around, my boys, and hear what I have planned to do.”

At the insistent gestures of the man in the green cloak, the group closed up. The dead man was given a wide berth, as the others moved around to hear what Ghost-walker had planned. No one said anything now, since they was unsure if he would stab anyone else. They watched as he quickly jumped onto the rock again – his pulpit to preach his message to the group.

“Boys, we’re going to do something that will be told in tales and sung by bards all over the kingdom. Something that isn’t original, unfortunately, but still worthy of note. There will be rewards for you, depending on how much you do for me, but I’m very fair. Each according to his ability and work, and how much effort you put in. For that matter, how much loyalty you show me.”

Another gesture to the dead body. The implied message was very clear. Everyone was very quiet, not wanting to trigger the madman. A rustle in the trees signaled the presence of other bodies. A few in the small gathering looked to see drawn swords, several staves, and a few arbalests. They looked back to see a knowing gleam in Ghost-walker’s eyes, and waited for him to reveal the reason they all stood there. They knew that they could not escape, so waiting was all they could do. He did not disappoint any longer. The green cloak rustled when he spread his arms wide and issued his gleeful proclamation.

“We’re going to kidnap the princess!”

*

Aleister Greyblade, Captain of the Guards for Castle Cairfield, squinted critically at the young man standing before him. He had doubts. More to the point, he was starting to regret leaving his door open to anyone who had something that they want to discuss. The youngster had been issued in by the Sergeant of the Guard with a suitably grave expression, but Greyblade had detected the gleam in the older man’s eyes. The torches on the walls stood ready for the night, and the officer briefly entertained a thought about using one in a highly improper fashion on the Sergeant. He leaned back in his chair and continued his squint. He’d been listening to this boy for more time than he wanted to, already.

“Tell me again. Why do you want to be a gate guard?”

The youth puffed up at the question. Here was his opportunity to impress the Captain with his knowledge, competence, and all-around general ability. He stood tall and confidently delivered his reason for visiting.

“I want to keep the castle safe from intruders, learn about the workings of the castle’s keepers, and become a knight – Sir!”

A fervent nod accompanied this bold statement, and Greyblade hid a sigh of disbelief at the rawness of this recruit. Seeing that the young man’s eyes strayed from the garrison walls to the window where feminine laughter was quite noticeable, the captain mentally moaned in despair at what he had to work with. He decided to take this particular scrawny bull by the horns.

“More like, lad, you want to meet the Princess or one of the other maids for common and base means.”

Greyblade had to stifle a laugh and school his face to stillness at the rapidity with which the young man’s face fell in dismay, but it wasn’t easy. Biting his tongue helped, a little. He couldn’t remember the last time he himself been this pristine. He kept listening to hear the youth squeak as he moved, but was disappointed.

“But…”

“But nothing! Get that idea out of your head, right now! You enlisted with that in mind and you are finding out truth. Gods above and below! How you got through the basic training, I’ll never know. If you’re an example of what’s being turned out nowadays, I’m going to despair for the safety of this castle! Now, boy, if you don’t want to find yourself in more trouble, you need to think with the right head. Otherwise, you won’t survive in the King’s service. Now, no more. No more! Get back to your squad and don’t come back here with that fool’s talk again! You do, and I’ll shove my foot up your ass so far, I’ll be able to wiggle my toes and tickle your tonsils!”

The boy gaped at him. Greyblade slammed his fist down on his desk as hard as he could and bellowed at him.

“Get!! Out!!”

The boy fled, dragging his pride, and it was all Greyblade could do to wait long enough to not be heard bawling with laughter. He shook his head and bit his tongue again as he listened to the sound of the boy’s feet running away from his office as fast as he could, knocking some things over and getting yelled at more by others. His sergeant came in after a few minutes, and saw the captain’s purple face. After the explosion of mirth, Greyblade took a deep breath. He affixed a mock-angry glare on the sergeant.

“What are we coming to? Callow youths dreaming of adventures!”

The sergeant shook his head, a dour expression on his face.

“If by adventures, you mean in battle or under sheets, I’m afraid to say the first is much more probable. And judging by the looks of that one, never for the second.”

He held out a sealed letter, in a gauntleted hand. It bore a thick wax seal, which looked very official. The governor’s crest gleamed from the wax. If anything, the sergeant’s expression got more solemn.

“This came a few minutes ago.”

Greyblade’s light mood was swiftly chased off by the serious tone in the other man’s voice. The captain took the letter, and broke the seal. He read for a few moments, then stood quickly. He glanced at the sergeant.

“How much did you know already?”

“I only suspected, sir, but if that is a note about Ghost-walker, then it can’t be good.”
“Damned right it isn’t. Turn out the guard and double it until further notice. Make all of them painfully aware that if I catch them sleeping on watch, they’ll hang. Move quick. I need to show this to the King.”

*

In the King’s audience chamber, a line of supplicants was waiting. They ran the gamut from arguing over the ownership of a chicken to arguing over who owed who money, plus any number of other things. The King seemed bored, yet strangely interested still. He cared for his subjects, the Guards Captain knew, but sometime wearied of it. This was especially true when those under him failed to take care of matters that they should, and passed the problems up to him. Greyblade crossed over and whispered discreetly in the King’s ear.
His Majesty stood up and addressed the subject kneeling before him.

“You are right. Chamberlain, see to it that this man is recompensed, plus half. Then take over here.”

The King strode off without waiting for a reply. Outside the audience chamber, he motioned the Captain into a quiet corner. The King’s expression was pained.

“Good thing you showed up. I was about to fall asleep.”

Aleister Greyblade grimaced.

“Your Majesty, you might not thank me when you hear the troubling news I bring.”

A kingly glance accompanied the raising eyebrow.

“Well, spit it out. What is it?”

Greyblade grimaced even more.

“Sire, we have just discovered that there is a plot to kidnap the princess tonight.”

The King went rigid.

“By who?”

“Shul Ghost-walker is involved, Sire. His reasons are as yet unknown. My informant in in grave danger and could only give me this much.”

The King eyed the other man speculatively.

“Informant, eh? You’re serious about getting rid of Ghost-walker, aren’t you?”

“Sire, you know my reasons. I’ve lost too many people I love and too much else besides, to that man. I will see it stopped, even to my last breath!”

The King waved his hands placatingly, as the other man’s voice rose.

“Softly! Walls echo in here. But, I understand. Well do I remember your beautiful wife Sianne, raped and broken by that man, and little Mairwyn. She died far, far too soon, and I think about her every day. I miss that little girl – but I well know that I can’t miss either one anywhere near the same amount you do. Aleister, do what you need to do to set this aright. Have you made arrangements for the security of my daughter?”

“Aye, and for the rest of your family besides.”

“Good.”

The King stared unseeingly at Greyblade with a troubled mien. After a few minutes, Greyblade ventured forth.

“Sire, what else troubles you?”

A world weary sigh answered him.

“What you haven’t been told, because the nobles keep it close, is that Ghost-walker is also Duke Mossy Breakwater, and he had put in a bid for my daughter’s hand last month. I refused it.”

Greyblade paused for a moment as he digested this new information.

“And tonight he’s coming for her anyway, is that correct?”

“I fear you have it.”

“Then Sire, I have more to do. By your leave?”

“Go, quickly.”

The Captain hustled off, shouting orders when he turned the corner. The King turned to stare out the slitted window, his heart heavy. Outside the window, he could see the castle guards drilling in some formation or other, a few merchants headed for the main gate, and town children playing in the fields around the stone edifice. He could hear the faint sounds of blacksmiths and feminine voices calling to each other for this or that. The whickers and neighs of horses blending in with the occasional bray of a mule drifted up to him. After a few minutes of uneasy contemplation, the ruler called for his secretary. He awaited the arrival of the scarred man with tense impatience.

“Kenelm, I need messages sent immediately to Duke Golthem, Earl Blackwater, and Duke Hollow Glen.” The King didn’t bother listening for the man’s acknowledgment, and waiting for him to be ready. As he waited, he mentally composed the words of the message he wanted to send. The three men he listed was only hours away at a hard ride, and one was a sole hour away.

As the man set up, the King sent word for three of the stable’s fastest horses to be made ready, and three of the castle’s best riders to attend him directly. Presently, his secretary discreetly cleared his throat to indicate that he was ready. The King took one last look outside, then nodded and turned to face the other man. His secretary was waiting with a quill in his hand.

“Cairfield is soon to be under siege and attack tonight. I need fully equipped fighting men to report forthwith, as this attack has been determined to be upon the Royal Family itself. Send word out to those farther out to send troops as well. Move extremely quickly, as your oath to your liege lord demands.”

The king waited for the secretary to finish the first copy, then looked at it and approved of it with a nod.

“Get the messages out within the next few minutes.”

“Yes, Sire. At your command.” The man busily set to work and soon had six envelopes sealed with wax, bearing the King’s sigil. He distributed them out to the newly-arrived riders. The King had resumed his view outside, but turned to the riders with a hard expression.
“Make sure you put those letters in the hand of the people they’re intended for. No chamberlain, no secretary, no knight with delusions of grandeur. Give each an extra to send to the others lying farther out. Report back.”

The men nodded, saluted, and left at a run to the stables. The horses stood ready for them. They mounted up and tore out of the castle grounds as fast as they could.

*

The Captain had his hands full. The armories in the castle was being emptied, edges was being put on swords, axes, spears, pikes, and anything with an edge as quickly as possible. Armor was being checked over as hurriedly, and meals was being gulped down. Sergeants and their officers was haranguing the men into formations and assigning patrol areas without care for diplomatic words.

“Sergeant!” The bellow was easily distinguished as coming from Greyblade. The fact that he was currently putting on chain mail and his weapons didn’t seem to much matter to him.

“Aye.” The man’s earlier laconic tone was gone, replaced with a long service warrior’s hard edge. He wore his mail and sword as though they were integrated parts of himself.

“Get conscript parties going. All the slackers, drunkards, roustabouts, and other such paragons of humanity, and put them on the outer walls with tough sergeants to mind them. If they won’t be useful in times of peace, they damn well will be useful now.”

“Got it.”

“Good. Send Alec in to see me, wherever he is. I need a scouting party.”

“Aye, sir.” The man left, hustling out the stone doorway. Various people, intent on their own jobs, got out of his way quickly. Aleister Greyblade turned back to his thoughts, and kept examining what else needed to be done.
“Get me the sentry officer of the watch!”

*

As twilight arrived, the unease among the guards in the castle grew. The soldiers had been told what was going on and weapons had been distributed out. A few of the younger soldiers stroked their sword hilts nervously and wondered. The archers had filled the time checking their bows and rejecting warped arrows. Now they stood ready. Aleister Greyblade waited for his scouts to report back, a forgotten ale and sandwich at his side.

A clatter at the main gate caught his attention. A bedraggled man was there, talking to the guards. The Captain recognized him and motioned for him to be brought in. As he was escorted in, Greyblade could see dried blood on him along with several uncared for wounds.
The man saluted weakly, trembling.

“Sir, Millerson reporting. We found the main force five miles from here, toward the coast. We tried to sneak out, but was almost completely apprehended. In the battle we killed all or most of their advance party, but I fear they will be here soon. I am the only survivor.”
Greyblade nodded, trying to ignore the loss of an old friend.

“Get your wounds tended to. I need you to help with the defense. Eat something and do it quickly. Then get a blade, and join the group on the west side.”

The man saluted again and left.

The preparations continued, until the castle was silent for the waiting. Full dark had arrived and the moon shone in the sky. Every ear listened, and every eye searched. Some unexplained noises had been heard but no one was sure exactly what it was, except that it wasn’t the normal sounds of night time. A scout party was sent out to investigate.

A series of shouts rang out, a loud crash hammered the night air and a burning fireball arose, impacting on the arch above the portcullis at the end of it’s fiery arc. Another lofted through the air after a moment or two to drop into the courtyard. Flames shot up from forgotten carts and other items, easily ignited, and soon people dashed in to beat at the hungry fires.

Captain of the Guards Greyblade yelled up to the archers.

“Longbows, volley fire toward the trebuchet! Fire!” He knew bows couldn’t possibly reach the range of the trebuchet, but he would have sent men out ahead of the war machine to attack the walls if he’d been on the other side.

His theory was proven correct, as he heard screeches and screams of pain outside the walls.

“Keep firing! Crossbows stand ready! Inner gate, close in!”

The inner portcullis came crashing down and as it landed, a loud bang was heard on the outer gate. A battering ram was in use there. The gate bulged in, but held.

“Get those walls covered up there!” he called as breaching ladders slapped up against the walls. Several enterprising soldiers with poles tried the lever the ladders away from the walls. It worked – sometimes. Another dashed up with a battleaxe, and chopped away at one leg of a ladder, then tipped it over with the imbalance. Seeing his success, he started on another one and raised his axe for a measured blow.
The center of his forehead sprouted a crossbow quarrel, and the axe fell from his lifeless hands. It severed another man’s wrist as it fell and that man reeled back, stumbling over the edge of the castle walls. His screams, strangely louder than all the raging din of the battle, terminated abruptly in a sickening splat as his body intersected the ballista’s inbound bolt. If nothing else, it helped deflect the huge bolt from its intended point of impact, and the line of soldiers held.

Greyblade drew his sword and sent a quick prayer up for success. Some of his men on the outer walls were dead already, from the trebuchet’s impact alone. More heavy smashes on the outer gate, and with a crash it broke free. A crowd of men burst through, firing more crossbows with very deadly accuracy. Right behind them was another crew with a heavy battering ram which shortly slammed into the inner gate.

The archers were fully engaged, although their numbers were dropping rapidly from the directed fire of the opposing force. Some of the castle’s hunters picked up the bows from the fallen archers and began firing arrow after arrow into the horde of crossbowmen. Several fell back with injuries, while some simply died there while their appropriated bows falling silent again.

Greyblade noticed a small group breaking off from the main force swarming in and moving with a distinct purpose toward a little-used door. His instincts screamed a warning at him, and he grabbed three nearby guards, as they put down the attackers they fought.

“Sergeant Cromwell, direct this defense! You three, come with me!”

He pointed at the invaders. The two glanced at them, and nodded to the Captain. Together, they took off in pursuit. The group disappeared inside the castle halls, and the pursuers went deeper in. Sounds of fighting bounced off the hard stone walls, and so did screams, shouts, and the sickening notices that people was meeting their ends at the bloody hands of the invaders. Greyblade and his companions ran harder.

Swords were out and the battle for the castle was in full swing. Blades flashed and here or there a battleaxe sang its song of death. Every armed man was fighting for the castle, and most of the women were too. Their banshee cries wailed their fury and pain, as rolling pins, knives, and heavy handles beat upon every unprotected spot they could reach. Eruptions of flour blinded the attackers, and boiling hot cooking grease scalded them. Here and there, small fires licked out to consume the unfortunate soul that found himself thrown into them after being attacked.

At the keep’s nave, knights in armor advanced in on the throng. Heavy shields in front deflected the crossbow quarrels, while swords swung down to shatter arms and crossbows alike. The crossbowmen found themselves decimated, and to a man, was destroyed. This cleared the way for the next wave to arrive, which came in the form of another fireball. It landed in the midst of the armored knights, and the fireball shattered as it hit the hard cobblestones. The firebomb had been made of flaming pitch and tar, and as it shattered, the fragments stuck onto each knight’s armor. Every man felt the temperature inside his armor rise from the flames, but no one was able to put the flames out by himself. Some threw dirt on themselves and others, or barrels of water, or slapped the sticky pitch off by hand or by sword. Several knights succumbed to the great heat, and lay unmoving.

Greyblade was near a window when he heard a nearby horn sing out a melody. Several others answered it, and as he came to the window he quickly looked out. Some of the King’s allies had answered the call for help, and Greyblade saw the rear and side flanks of the enemy attacked by the fresh troops. There was several different units, but not quite as many there was supposed to be. A fresh worry wormed its way into all the other concerns in Aleister Greyblade’s mind.

He and his men chased on after the small group, who seemed to know where they were going. A sharp sense of consternation made itself known to the Captain. The group was finding its way to the chambers of the King and his family, and doing it as though they knew the way like the back of their hands. Aleister Greyblade wondered in a distant corner of his mind about that, as he ran. How did they know exactly where to go, and without any apparent false turns? He told himself that after all this was over, he would find out. However, he was busy trying to protect his King and his King’s family.

“Faster, lads, we’ve got to catch them!”

The invaders entered a large open room, and all of them came to a sudden stop as they recognized the King, standing patiently in armor beside a guarded door. He held a naked blade, richly ornated, but very sharp and deadly. Four knights in full armor arrayed themselves about him and by the door. Each one radiated deadly menace and cold purpose, even through the armor and helmets hiding their identities. Each one held a different weapon. A sword, every bit as sharp as the King’s, a wickedly spiked mace, a scintillant deadly morning star, and an imposing bardiche all stood ready to shred attackers.

One of the men broke from the group and challenged the King with great contempt.

“Get out of the way, you old fool! You refused me once. You won’t do it again because I will kill you, tonight! I will defile the Queen and kill her, too, after my men have had her. I will put your puling son’s head on a pike, and I will possess the Princess! I, Shul Ghost-walker, promise this!”

The King seemed oddly unmoved, even as the brigands with Ghost-walker raised crossbows at the royal presence. The rogue Duke was quite surprised when they fell, arms lopped off by Aleister Greyblade and the soldiers he had brought with him. An errant crossbow bolt caromed off the walls, striking fire with the metal head, and stuck into the back of a wooden chair. Two of the knights beside the door moved from their positions and stood in front of the King. The other knights, the one bearing the bardiche and the other bearing the morning star advanced to hem in Ghost-walker. Aleister Greyblade and his three men behind the rogue Duke completed the ring around him. The King spoke.

“Duke Mossy Breakwater, sometimes called Shul Ghost-walker, you have been exposed by your actions and by people loyal to the Crown. You have threatened the Crown with great bodily harm. You have attempted to kidnap the Princess, and have also attacked your Sovereign’s lands and possessions. You have made war upon your Sovereign, and by my right as King, I sentence you to death. Your title is formally revoked. All of your lands and properties are forfeit, and will revert back to the Crown.”

“You wouldn’t put a hand on me, you decrepit old bag of bones!”

The King smiled.

“You’re right. I wouldn’t.”

Ghost-walker stood straight in elation at this announcement and sneered, but the King continued.

“But these people would. Aleister, your revenge.”

The rogue Duke was spun around roughly, and eyes widened in disbelief as he recognized the man behind him as one of the many he’d terrorized. The face was emotionless and the eyes empty as three and a half feet of sharp steel was rammed into his belly hard enough to separate the chain mail he wore. The steel tendoned arm and the vise-grip hand twisted the blade halfway around, then withdrew it without a sound.

Ghost-walker sank to the floor, and screamed with pain as his life fled and the others stood around watching without pity.

*

The fighting was shortly stopped as the aggressors noticed the body of Shul Ghost-walker, Duke Mossy Breakwater carried out and thrown amongst the throng. Every man laid down their arms and was escorted to the dungeons below to await quick sentencing. The Guard secured the castle, and others turned to the job of fixing the damages.

The King sent word to the neighbors that did not respond to his call for help, and those worthies sweated out the sanctions that he decided to levy. The ones that did answer was rewarded richly.

Aleister Greyblade finished his work as the Captain of the Guard, and the King rewarded him with his proactive approach to tracking the rogue Duke with lands of his own. In fact, he was given the same lands, and title, once claimed by Ghost-walker.
No further attempts on the castle were ever attempted.

THE END