Ondimee was barely more than a child, as slender as one still, so light-footed she seemed to make no noise when she moved. When the doors shut she counted ten slow, deep, shuddering breaths; then she gathered up her skirts and ran as never she had before. At the long cross-corridor where the guards waited she cried out shrilly: “Guard! Guard! Captain! Jalra–Jalra–Jalra! He has slain my lady! He has slain my lady! He has killed my lady! We die, we die, we die!”
It was called the King’s House; it was twice two thousand years old. Its original builder was long-dead, buried in the eastern wing. He had been buried standing: his tombstone alike with the squat, tapering pillars that ran in long double rows down the spine of the building, and half-lost among them.
Each part of the house branched off that low-ceilinged gallery, opened up into it. The shape of the house formed an eight-pointed star, its rays of unequal size. The feasting-hall was one of the more prominent ones. The elf-ambassador stood by the arched doorway, so still that, with his hood up and his head bowed, in the candlelight, he was little more than a thin gray image among the tall gray stones. He leaned on one long hand against the columns, and looked down on the dark and empty hall.
“I remember when this place was bright with feasting. A company met and made merry, one hour before the cold winds came.” He spoke their names, then, softly: the names of the living great houses, and the fallen heroes. “Morath. Drakonysches. Nishtar. Brandu. You know their names, you have heard them. They were young. They were strong. They laughed, they drank, and they boasted. And they rode into the north, into cold and to death, knowing they were heroes. That men would remember their names. That they would not see their wives or their children, or their homes, or this place, again.
“Perhaps–” and now he pushed back the shadowing hood. Elves did not age as humans: but he, who had seen this place before the walls crumbled and were remade; before the grinding ice had crawled out of the north and torn the world as it had once existed, was old. “–Perhaps it is fitting, then, that now young men ride out of the north. They will come here! A time of heroes again….”
“We are Whole Men. We are civilized. We have no need of heroes.”
The ambassador half-smiled and now made to fade away, shadow into shadow; but his half-murmur drifted back. “Have you no enemies?”
Black is the color of the wild, swift wings That circle and move over shadowed ground. Once, secrets were shown to the augur's eye, Food for Menaka's foundling found; I hear only far-fading cries And thrumming winds in the emptied skies.
(It’s a little rough….)
An old man from the village, standing on the far bank, hailed the Witch’s isle. The summer-dry stream was low in its banks, and she crossed over the stones to meet him. She did not let down the knotted-up kirtle, but one hand automatically rose to check the cowl and veil that were bound across her head, showing nothing but her eyes. In her other hand she bore a small bundle wrapped in a linen cloth.
The old man paid no heed. He was one of the fathers of the village, a man with wives and many children, cattle and a house built of stone in two levels. He was a man of wealth and influence. He had lost his cattle, which were wealth, to wolves; they were no friends to him. Such men did not come often the isle where those who fled found refuge. His eyes rested briefly on the motionless bundle in her arms, speculatively on the covered door of her hut, and returned to her shrouded face.
He said: “This forest is not for men. The ground does not yield to our plows. The trees turn upon us when we hew them. The ditches we dig run dry while the wild streams burst their banks to flood our fields. The boar drag down our fences, and the deer eat of our grain. We fear the wolf and the brown one. This forest is not for men. We are not wanted here nor welcome.”
The Witch stooped, and setting her tiny, gray-wrapped burden down, drew a knife from her girdle and dragged its point through the earth. She raised a handful of dirt and let it stream between her fingers. With her other hand she held the knife out, point-down.
The old man said, “We are not warriors. We fled from the open lands. We did not think to find unwelcome where no men were. We did not come here to fight. This forest is not made for men!”
The Witch flung her hands down, hurling the knife to the ground. She caught her left wrist with her right hand, circling it, turning it slowly.
The old man bowed his head and said, “Perhaps they will not chain us if we come back to them willingly.”
Enthusiastic, imaginative, and inept.
It’s a first novel, and it has the clawmarks of one: big ideas; enthusiastic, imaginative but vague worldbuilding; exposition delivered mostly through dialogue; characterization delivered mostly through dialogue; action described mostly through dialogue; and unnecessary dialogue pointing out themes and moral implications that have already been made obvious by basic narration or other dialogue strings.
There are also several structural failures: the main hero-buddy duo just doesn’t work (although the secondary one does, mostly). What’s worse for the book as a whole, none of the humor is quite as funny as it wants to be; the book itself could have excused a multitude of faults with a strong infusion of black, self-aware humor.
I held my stick at the loose ready. I was half-crouching, half-kneeling with my stronger leg under me. I could hear my own heart beating and the stream-noises. They were coming. They were not far behind. When they had gone past, I would back-track to the stone marker and strike due east, the shortest way out as the crow flew. I would summon the constables, and we would retrieve the bodies of Lemzy and Sul. Would they go past blindly? Surely they were better at hunting men than I was at being prey. It was a good hiding place–a hollow in the bank where a tree had washed out and toppled in, enough for me to flatten out and hope. But there was a chance. There was a good chance they would assume I had continued along the well-marked trail. There was a good chance they wouldn’t see me. It was a good hiding place: thorny bracken and the tree-trunk above me; the great tangle of sprawling, broken branches and reeds in front; and the water was clear again and swift. Water would hide my scent. Water hid the scent of men from men and the animals that men tamed and ordered. Would it from–that?
“Can I interest you in a protein chocolate bar? It tastes almost like a chocolate bar.”
“No, thank you, I’m good. I can wait until we get back into town.”
“Actually, you would probably be better off with this one. It’s lemon cake flavored. It actually tastes pretty good. The chocolate one’s been in the car for a while.”
“Are you going to throw it away?”
“No, I’m going to eat it.”
Aniuqi had been “Sycamore” to her father ever since she had been old enough to escape her nurses and gallop about outside–usually directly to the practice yards–or tread on his heels when he passed through the stables and be knocked about, gently, by his sleek, massive hounds. Ostensibly it was because she would grow up tall and graceful, gracious and lofty. In fact, it was because her skin burnt in patchy red and white blotches and peeled off in chunks, which she had diligently, as a child, collected.
It’s stupid to use Earth terms for non-Earth things, but whatever the word for “badass male leader and defender of his tribe” is, it described Big Bruno. He didn’t know fear, he laughed at pain, and he barely understood what caution was, on a bad day. He was twelve feet from nose to tail, toothed, clawed, armored, scarred, muscled, thick-hided, thick-skulled.
I’d’ve waited until he got bored and went away. Big Bruno knew that—knew me.
The man bleeding beside me couldn’t afford to wait.
Big Bruno knew that, too. He came down, rocked back onto the rearward four: crouching.
No tears shall be shed
for my darling daughter.
Rest she has found
and the sleep that heals.
Let the wailing women
be shuttered to silence.
Walk softly, men,
lest ye wake the dead.
(reposted from 4 a.m. poetry)
I’m going out of town for a several-day training course. Posting may be lighter and yet strangely more repetitive than usual.