Sunday, November 29, 2009
The cats have been keeping me amused. Cairo continues to be the funniest and most fun kitten I've ever been around. She's always good for a laugh. Often, when she's tired, she curls up in my lap or on my chest and falls right to sleep.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Copyright 2009 By
James Robert Smith
sights of asphalt
trash, paper, ice
blowing in vacant
parking lots facing
weed-choked yards on
of bad sides of towns
all along the
cancerous concrete sprawl that is
the East Coast.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Copyright 2009 By
James Robert Smith
The booth in front
seats a beautiful
young mother and her
He sits, blonde
like his mom
and gnaws on a fried
He looks up
at his mother,
and holds a big piece
of that gnawed, delicious
up to her pretty
with his tiny, pink hand
and he smiles
and I put my
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Sometimes I feel the urge to get as far away from anyone as I possibly can. And by this I mean completely alone. At such times I load up my backpack and, filling it with my portable home, bedding, food, take myself into spots where I hope not to see or hear another human being for a while. One place that I used to go for such solitude was Panthertown Valley. However, suburban sprawl has crept in on the boundaries of that place, so it's almost impossible to go there these days and avoid people and the sounds of their machines and creeping construction sites all around the former wilderness.
In fact, it's getting more and more difficult to find spots where I can hope to have some real solitude. Every once in a while I get lucky. The Middle Prong Wilderness was good to me for two entire days during which I never saw a single human. Ironically, the Panthertown Valley afforded me the same--but it was just after a hurricane and most people thought that the place was off limits (and I still heard diesel engines growling when the wind was blowing the wrong way). A few years ago I also had two days of complete solitude in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But I backpacked in during a February and got lucky.
The other place that has afforded me a few days with no contact with humans was the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Once again, I went during very early Spring when most people don't use the place and found myself all alone--as far as I could tell--in the gorge. I was so alone and it was so quiet that I broke my own rule and built a campfire on that trip. I was camped beside the Linville River and the banks were covered in vast supplies of driftwood that made perfect fodder for my campfire. I kept the fire going for two days and it was--ironically--good company. The only company I needed, in fact.
I'll try to experience similar solitude in the coming weeks. I'm searching for a place to go and have not quite settled on a location. I only hope that December will be a good time for others to avoid the wilds where I go to find peace and quiet.
A couple of summers ago hiking into Middle Prong Wilderness. You never know what you're going to find when you go bushwhacking in there.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Well, not really "bought". They accepted it. Payment was on publication. I'd have to wait a few months. But the pay rates were pretty good. One hundred pounds Sterling for every 1,000 words. You do the math.
After a while I got a note from the editor. They were having money problems. The pay had been reduced to one hundred-fifty pounds Sterling straight up. Alas. I could deal with it. I waited for publication.
Eventually, the issue with my story, "Deadly", appeared. With my copies I got a note informing me that the payment would be forthcoming. But, it never arrived. FEAR, and its publisher, declared bankruptcy. A couple of years later I received a cheque (it was spellt that way!) in the mail for a tad over five pounds. I never cashed it. I don't even know what happened to it.
But they published my cool fantasy tale. It, like "A Child of the War God", is set near my fantasy city of Mangrove (albeit in better times for that sad, haunted burg). Once again, this was slated for publication in my stillborn short story collection, A CONFEDERACY OF HORRORS.
Copyright 2009 by James Robert Smith
Redmon had planned his moves as well as he could under the circumstances. He was in this outland only because his reputation (if not his face) had become so notorious in Mangrove, the city. He'd become too bold for his own good, stealing things that should have remained in their owner's possession. No merchant would touch the things he had stolen. No fence would handle them. The consequences for being caught with the il-khan's little treasures were too terrible to risk for the fat, sweating middlemen. So Redmon had merely ditched them and had fled the city before anyone could point the finger at him. He was too good, too brash. Too foolish. He was making enemies in the guild, and he knew it.
A month's riding into the western frontiers had brought him to a province he did not know, even by name. The land was thick with stones that did not inhibit the growth of gnarly forests broken here and there by poor farms. Redmon could barely understand the dialect the natives spoke, and he did not like the place, especially when the hills loomed about him and the mist hung low on their shoulders like dewy cotton. He longed for Mangrove's busy streets, crowded taverns; he wished to dance along dung-scattered ways thick with the press of people.
But he could not go back just now. It was still too soon, and some higher Guildsman might not think he had yet done enough penance. Redmon could imagine the crackdown that must surely have occurred after he had fled. Perhaps the palace walls were adorned with the headless corpses of many of his fellows. He shuddered, not wanting to think of his own foolishness.
The more he traveled the outland trails, the less he saw anything he liked. Those rock strewn hills seemed to go on and on, interspersed with splashing streams and little freshets that sprayed him when he drew too near. His pony handled the terrain at a steady, even pace, and it had not split a hoof or broken a bone. Yet.
He did not know what he would do when he needed a new mount. Redmon had brought very little of value with him, and the folk that he met seemed very poor, the kind who would guard a horse as they might guard their own lives. Soon, he knew, he must find something worth stealing, something worth his effort. His food was nearly gone, and his coins were dwindled to less than silver.
Like the rest of the land in which he rode, the temple seemed very poor. Outwardly, it was constructed of plain, stone walls, pierced here and there by tiny windows that showed as squares of uninviting black in the gray stone. There was a bell tower at the back of the structure, the old type that rose like a low blister, holding a huge cast bell that had to be struck with a great hammer. The sound of that bell was what attracted him; but its depressing tolling almost chased him away.
Despite the deep, disheartening tone of the bell, Redmon rode his pony down the rutted trail that led to the temple. There had been people—peasants, mainly—filing into the squat building. At first he thought it was a temple of the goddess, Morn. But he could see where her icons had been torn down; their faint outlines were yet visible on the walls, and there was nothing new in their places. He could not tell what god was worshipped here, and none of the folk entering the place seemed to wear any kind of symbol upon their garments or about their necks. He was ignorant.
Still, no one said a cross word to him as he rode near. Few even seemed to more than notice him; only a handful nodded acknowledgment of the horseman. They all filed into the building, one by one, silent but for an occasional murmur: a chant. From inside, he could hear the clink of coins. Silver mostly, but he heard some gold.
He climbed down from his pony and tied it to a post beyond the yard. The animal sipped at a great stone hollowed out and full of rainwater. Leaving it to drink, he went in.
The temple was as dreary as the people of this province. There were few candles to light the place, and the pews had mostly been removed, leaving little space for the worshippers to sit. Perhaps, he mused, these people believed in the austere aspects of life. He knew religions that taught abstinence and want as virtues—he laughed at them. In Mangrove, he would laugh. But here...
The lack of seats did not seem to matter just now: it seemed to be a collection service. He watched as the drably clad folk moved past a deep wooden bowl. As each passed, they tossed in their offerings. Redmon quickly felt about in his pocket, reaching for the single halfpence he knew was there. He was happy to sacrifice that bit of coin for a look at a possible target. Perhaps he could take a share of it for himself before he left this depressing land.
He found himself a place in the line and edged forward, slowly, looking about, sighting unbarred windows, great beams even an oaf could negotiate as if a wide street. It seemed an easy enough target, on the whole.
Before he saw the man, he heard his deep voice and looked forward. Overseeing the collection was a huge brute. Hardly what one would expect of the priestly type. He wore his raiment like a great, loose bag, the hood standing open about his bull neck, showing his coarse, bearded face. Old scars lined his thick jaw, and his shoulders were as wide as a warrior's. Beneath his hard, icy stare, the people tossed in what they could. Redmon began to wonder if he could not slip out of line without attracting too much attention. He didn't think so, and moved ahead, inching along with the others, inevitably.
Yes, as Redmon drew near, he could see the priest was the unlikeliest of fellows. But then, they usually were. This did indeed appear to be more a figure of a guard or soldier than a man of the cloth. His eyes, though! His eyes seemed cut of blue ice, and his gaze speared all who passed before him. No one smiled. No one spoke. They merely gave.
The thief fingered the small coin in his pocket —the only sign of nervousness he would allow himself. Redmon was a cool one; in his profession, one had to be. Still, he was a bit afraid the surly priest might become angry at his meager offering. It was a chance he'd have to take. There were three ahead of him. Two. One.
He tossed his copper into the gaping bowl.
The priest did nothing, uttered no word of ire. Inwardly, Redmon breathed a sigh of relief, and another for a glance at the rewards of his next theft.
When darkness came, thick with unseen mist and no moon, Redmon scrambled back down from the rugged hill upon which he'd climbed. He left his horse on the far side of it, a good two miles from the temple. It had taken him three days before he'd satisfied himself that he was familiar with the trailless slope he would flee upon once he had his booty in hand. He hadn't wanted to spend too many days lurking about the gray, gnarly woods for fear one of the empty folk who dwelled in this land might notice him and spread the word. So he'd built no fire and remained deep in brush and forest. Now he was ready.
At night the temple was unguarded. No one hung about its walls or seemed to spy from any of those meager windows. It looked to be an easy mark, but he knew better than to assume that. He'd seen too many Guildsmen gutted in the acts of ‘easy’ jobs.
Using the cover of the arthritic oaks that seemed to grow everywhere, he crept onto the templeyard itself. He stopped, not breathing, listening. There was no one. His wide eyes saw nothing; his straining ears heard nothing but the wind, the rustle of some bird taking flight. He smelled only the earth. Soundlessly, on light feet, he scampered to the walls of the temple.
He stopped again, straining to sense the presence of another. No one. No one. No one. He was sure of it and ready to enter the place.
From a distance, and in the light of day, he had chosen a window in a wall that seemed unsuitable to climb. He slid along the pebbly soil around the structure and found the chosen spot on the chosen wall, just below the window. With fingers callused from constant practice, he climbed the wall, finding purchase in tiny cracks and nubs of granite that stood out from the surface of the hard stone. Soundlessly, he went up, pulling his lean weight with whipcord muscles.
He drew himself to the window and halted. Still he sensed no one, heard nothing.
To his right, a wide beam hewn from that same oak that grew everywhere offered a way across the huge central room he had been in days before. Carefully, he stepped from the window to the beam and slithered along its length till he was above the temple coffer. With an iron hook, he fastened one end of hemp cord to the stout beam, readied to lower himself to the floor. Gazing about, his pupils fat and black, he saw he was truly alone.
He had calculated correctly, and the other end of the tether did not touch the stone floor. In silence, he lowered himself. Catsteps took him to the offering bowl, itself now empty. But he knew that it would be. He had to discover the treasury; and he suspected it was somewhere close—a room near the bell tower. Only a search could confirm his suspicion, and he knew he would not have long to find it and be away.
With great skill he slithered across the floor to a hallway, down its length. In a little room at the end, he found what he was hunting. Gold only. That was all he filled his leather pouch with. The only sound he made was when allowed was a single clink of a pair of coins that tapped as he drew the bag tight.
Later, he doubted that tiny noise had alerted the priest. Surely it had been only a coincidence that had brought the man to the room wherein the treasures of the temple were stored. Perhaps the dour man had merely been paranoid over the safety of the collection of the community's wealth. That had probably been all that had brought him, his mass blocking the room's single doorway.
"Drop what you've taken." His deep voice filled the space, freezing Redmon, surprising the proud thief, chilling him to the core.
Redmon looked up, and for a horrible instant seemed to see the priest's icicle eyes glowering back at him from the tar of the night. He took hold of his panic, replaced it with calm, and saw merely the bulk of robed figure that blocked his exit. His only reply was the hiss of his blade coming free of its leather scabbard, slicing air with its edge. He didn't want to fight. If he could, he would dodge the big man and.
The heavy bludgeon missed Redmon, barely, and crashed into the chest he had lockpicked moments before. Splinters flew. Sparks glared in the black, and he saw the priest wielded a flint-headed ax that must weigh as much as a big guard dog. Redmon stepped, weaving aside.
"Thief!" The bludgeon fell again; the priest grunted, holding it back, keeping the weight from pulling him down. "Bastard!" The ax came around, barely missing again. Redmon lunged for the door. Luckily, it was not the axhead that met Redmon's scalp. It was merely the other man's great left fist that popped along his skull and sent him reeling. Powerful though it was, the blow was not enough to knock him senseless. But the thief knew he would not get through this man by stealth and agility.
Redmon dropped to the floor to avoid the ax once more. Using his spare weight, his superior speed, he quickly leaped up, blade forward, his knife hand, his arm, his body a spear. The point pierced heavy wool, passed bothersome ribs; the edge sheared flesh, met a lung.
In the dark Redmon heard the priest. "Hhkkk! A-hukh!" There was a slurp as the man drew breath through two mouths. The ax fell heavily to the stony floor. Redmon fled.
Behind, he could hear the priest muttering, chanting a prayer. The holy man must know his wound was mortal. Quickly, quickly, he was up his rope, out the window, down the wall. The forest hid him as he scrambled up rock-strewn slopes.
He was not halfway to his horse when he heard it: the bell tolled, loud even this far from its great metal bulk. Through the darkness he fled. Hurrying no faster than he had before, he again reached deep for that cool reserve upon which he so relied. He must not panic. When he reached his pony, he mustn't be so tired he would have to rest. He had to ride fast, and far. Quickly.
At the temple, a peasant who lived on his small farm nearby found the priest lying in a steaming pool of blood at the base of the great bell. The padded hammer used to strike the bell lay just beyond the man's outstretched fingers. Steadily, the priest chanted. When the peasant knelt to listen, the priest gripped him with iron fingers, drew him close.
The peasant heard.
Dawn was just beginning to streak the sky when Redmon reached his mount. He stopped by the pony barely long enough to catch his breath. But he was not winded, merely tired after his steady jog across the long ridgetop in the night. For a short time, he had been frightened that dogs might have been put on his trail before he could make it to the pony, but that seemed not to have happened. He quickly lashed the thick pouch to the pack strung upon the pony's rump and climbed atop its warm back.
He had been breathing loudly, sure of himself, and he didn't hear the baying hound as soon as he should have. He could feel the pounding of a single set of hooves not so far behind it; what must be a large horse, one able to traverse the stony way he had fled.
Redmon urged the pony to a gallop and out of the brushy hollow in which he had stashed it. Someone had found his trail much quicker than he had imagined. It must be a superior tracker sent after him so soon. He knew the risks.
Weighing the chance the pony wouldn't catch a leg in the thick brush, he made his way out of the close stuff, finding the trail he had chosen for escape. It was wide, moderately traveled, and he was fairly certain it did not wind toward the temple or any village near the temple. But the one who chased him had followed over the steep hills, disdaining trails, if they existed. His pursuer was mad, probably, with religious fervor and righteous indignation. The worst possible predator. Redmon had his pony up to a run. The hound bayed again, much nearer.
The sun climbed into the sky. Redmon's pony began to tire. Behind him, the hound still bayed, the hoofbeats still thundered heavily. They were gaining. His pony was too poor to do the trick, had been on the trails too long. Redmon was in trouble, but there was nothing he could do except run as long as the pony could go.
They loped around a bend, and the hound was suddenly there, slashing at his mount's hooves, lunging again and again at Redmon's legs. The thief lashed at the dog with a length of cord. The rope looped about the dog's thick neck, and the weight of the stumbling hound caught Redmon by surprise. He fell from his pony, which galloped a hundred feet before pulling up.
As the hound tried to disentangle itself from the loop of hemp, Redmon was on it, stabbing with his long knife. But for a bruise or two, he was unhurt. From around the bend, he could hear the pursuer approaching, almost within sight. He dove into the brush that closed in about the trail, the dog's corpse lying where Redmon had left it.
At least there was only one chasing him, thus far. Or only one who had caught up with him. He could still trust to his proficiency with the longknife, his speed and agility. In his day, he had bested excellent fighters, and he could do so again. From cover, he looked back.
A peasant! He couldn’t believe it. The man climbing from the great plowhorse was merely a farmer! Spying the dog, the other turned to the forest, slashing with a dull sword at the growth that blocked his way. Redmon watched.
The thief lay, waiting, as the farmer hacked at the green brush, tearing at it with the little-used, notched sword. He seemed clumsy with it, unused to the art of swordplay. The thief did not think he would have too difficult a time with him and would even try only to subdue if he had the time. But he didn't have the time. He had to escape, quickly. So...
As soon as the farmer drew near enough, Redmon leaped from hiding. The peasant had drawn up parallel to him, and it was a child's game to thrust forward with his blade. Once only, and he turned and raced back to the trail.
A woman and a small child, a boy, stood there in the trail and saw him. Redmon glared back at them: a tired peasant woman of husky build, dark features and a tow headed boy both gazed at him with blue eyes. He did not need to harm them and dashed past the pair.
He paused for a second to examine the farmer's horse. It was an old animal; Redmon was surprised it had followed as it had. It was less than his pony, even now, so he left it remounted the pony, and galloped away.
From the trail, the woman heard the moan, the chanting. She was a wife, a mother, a tender to life. She went down the embankment to the source of the painful sounds, leaving her small son on the trail. It was quite easy to find the man lying in broken vegetation on the forest floor. All about him the twigs and saplings were bent, the loam soaking in his blood. Still he moaned, calling out. She knelt beside him, knelt to listen, and drew close. And she heard.
Into the day, Redmon pushed the pony to the limits of its endurance, to the limits of his own. He did not stop for more than a handful of minutes to let the pony sip at some stream or to force some grass into its mouth. It was only in late afternoon that he felt safe enough to halt by the side of a river that splashed over huge boulders, misting spray into the air. He had to stop, or his pony would surely die.
He led the animal to the edge of the water, let it drink its fill. He, too, knelt by the pool's shore, dipping his cupped hand into the cool stuff. Behind, the clatter of hoof against pebble alerted him not an instant too soon.
Redmon spun, his bloodied knife hissing free of its scabbard. He stared with weary eyes.
At the peasant woman.
Yes, he saw, it was the peasant woman he had left by the side of the trail. He relaxed, somewhat, as she climbed down from the massive plowhorse she rode. It was similar to, but not the same as the horse the farmer had ridden to his death. Obviously, it was her own. But why was she here? Had she followed Redmon? Alone? She knelt to the stony ground as he watched.
It was always the ‘easy marks’, he thought as the rock she threw glanced off his skull.
He reeled in genuine pain. He stumbled and fell into the water, and the shock of the cold liquid brought him to his senses. He kicked backwards, pushing himself into deeper water, where he could dive. The woman had followed him in, was struggling with the weight of her dress as it soaked up the moisture and clung to her legs. Despite himself, he lunged toward her, slashing with his knife, which had never left his grip.
On his first try, of course, he stabbed her deeply, a killing wound. The clear water about them ran suddenly red. The thief moaned in horror at what he had done and staggered out of the small river. Passing his pony, he went to the woman's horse, ready to take it in place of his own overworked mount.
A bearded face looked down on him from a steep bank on the far side of the river. Redmon did not think he would have time to lash his booty to the other horse before the man crossed over. With a cry of anguish, he was once again upon his pony, urging it on as best he could, as quickly as he could force it to move.
The trapper had been in the hills for months, disdaining contact with his fellow men. If he needed to be reminded why, he had only to look upon the dying woman and know. He thought he recalled seeing her on his last journey to the post where he sold his furs. He wasn't sure, though. Tenderly, he cupped her lolling head in his hard hands, drew her lips close to his ear so that he could hear what she was mumbling to him. He dipped his head, and he heard.
Before night fell, the trapper caught up with Redmon on the edge of a small village. They fought; the trapper was cut. Redmon fled on foot—his pony dead of exhaustion just before—with the bag of gold weighing him down. Several folk witnessed the fight, but it was a youth, a red-haired teen, who went to the trapper to see if he were wounded as grievously as it appeared. The boy knelt beside the man to hear what it was he was chanting, and he heard.
Redmon could run no further. He had dropped the great pouch of gold a mile back, hoping the boy would take it and be satisfied. But he came on, following even as the sun began to dip below the high ridges about them. Redmon left the trail he had found, stumbling over decaying logs that tripped him, over stones that found his toes and shins and toppled him time and again. He could not run, and the boy would not heed his threats.
Redmon turned, drunkenly, swaying on legs turned to water. The boy smashed him in the face with a staff, crushing Redmon's nose. He dropped, his fingers loose, the blade falling into the leaves. The boy kicked the knife aside and pulled Redmon to him, speaking.
Redmon heard, he listened to the words hissing, slicing into his ear, tunneling; telling him, telling him, telling him.
The thief brought his head forward, looked into the boy's face, saw those eyes of ice, and he heard.
On the day of tithing, the farmer was happy to come to the temple to give. He was prepared and obliged to make his weekly offering. He waited in line as the folk moved slowly, filing past the bowl where the money accumulated like grains of wheat. Smiling, he thought of how little grain he and his fellows had harvested before the new temple came into the province. Now, the fields yielded much more than stones. Now, he and all the other peasants had more than enough to feed their families. Now, they could bag their grain and sell it to fat merchants from the cities, and they could give some of their excess to the temple.
True, there were rumors of certain practices the new priests engaged in on some nights when the moon glowed full and bright. But he didn't dwell too much upon that. He didn't care, so long as his fields continued to bear fruit in plenty.
It was his turn now, his time to toss coins into the bowl. The priest should be pleased with the silver he would put there. He looked at the holy man.
Strange, he mused. These priests never were what you would expect of such men. They rarely were what you'd expect. Still, this new one looked even stranger than the last—whipcord lean; more the build of a Guildsman thief than that of a priest.But that icy gaze was the same.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The book nearly sold a couple of times, but never quite made it through to publication. And that's not counting one small press that accepted the book and then went broke before it could be scheduled.
Three times I've taken the book out of the cobwebs and rewritten it. Some things change a bit, others not at all.
Here's a section of a chapter from that book:
Wepner arrived on the scene a long half-hour before Venson Day had a chance to speed the distance between Elijah and the construction job he was working in Jasper. The lawman was happy for that fact on one hand, but it caused him a bit of a problem on the other. From the instant he arrived, it was a full ten minutes before he could calm the hysterical Mrs. Day enough to get the story out of her. Finally, with much difficulty and a complete taxing of his bullish patience, he got her to sit still long enough to give him an idea of what was going on. Between sharp gasps, she told him that her baby was missing—gone!
Chief Wepner took Kathleen’s damp hand in his plump, rough ones, then patted her kerchief-tied head. “You just sit tight Miz Day. Sit tight right here. Venson’ll be here soon and I’m gone have a quick look around th’ place an’ see if I can find Pat.”
“But I already looked everywhere,” she gasped, eyes held wide. “I even checked th’ hay loft! Little Pat cain’t climb no hay loft!” She began, again, to hyperventilate.
“Miz Day! Kathleen!” Her eyed locked on his. “Now you calm down some. He cain’t have got far. I’m gone go out an’ look around right quick an’ see what I can see. Okay?” He took her silence as an affirmation and lifted his bulk up from the kneeling position he was in. Kathleen said nothing as he went out, not even when a small clod of dried clay dislodged from his boot to fall upon the carpet.
Outside, Wepner gazed about the empty back yard. Not quite empty. He went over the to hound and looked down at it. There was a little pool of gelid blood in font of its snout. He toed the animal with the hard tip of his right shoe. It was most certainly dead. He bent closer, hands on his knees for a better look. It was a good-looking hound; if he knew Venson Day, the man owned only the best dogs.
Puzzling that such a stout, young animal would just up and die like that. With his right hand, he nudged it a bit, looking for some mark or wound. There was nothing. No wonder Kathleen had flown off the handle.
Straightening, he looked about. There was a small gap in the fence, but it didn’t look wide enough for even a small child to have squeezed through. Beyond that there was only more lawn that gave way to pasture. Surely the mother would have been able to spot the youngster if he had toddled out that way. He turned around. The forest seemed dark, vaguely menacing. Leaning in the direction of the woods, the thought of poking about in there suddenly seemed not so wise. There was a dense tangle of brittle blackberry bushes, thorny and dry in their pre-winter death. Pines grew thickly, making deep shadows. Better to just go back into the house and wait for Venson to get there.
Wepner took a step toward the house, ready to go back inside the warm walls and sit with the frightened woman. He thought of Kathleen cringing in the chair in which he’d left her and realized that he was somehow frightened of the woods. Frightened! Of what? Again, he turned for the line of trees that lay beyond the fence. His steps were heavy and ponderous; his keys jangled metallically at every step. Putting his hand to his holster, he unbuttoned the stiff flap that held down the .357 magnum. He had it loaded with 158-grain semi-jacketed hard point; the ammo could pierce just about anything and made a nasty wound. Thinking of that, he felt better.
At the fence, he placed his hands upon the nearest support and hefted his leg. With a grunt, he braced his weight and stepped up. The fence bent beneath his two hundred and seventy pounds, but it did not buckle. After a clumsy pirouette, he was over, landing solidly on the other side. He squinted, peering suspiciously into the shadows.
Moving up to the thicket, he pushed forward, picking his way through the thorny stuff. If it had been summer time, he would not have dared tramping through. But it was nearing cold weather and the blackberry bushes were all dead, snapping off where before they would have bent resiliently and snagged at his flesh. Too, they would have been full of snakes.Warily, he picked his way through the mess.
Beyond the thicket and its barrier or thorns, the forest was clearer, easier to walk through. It had been twenty or thirty years since the timber had been felled, and new trees had grown up everywhere—pines where they had been planted, oaks and poplar where they had sprung up, mongrel-wise. He reached out with his left hand and pushed aside needle-y branches that blocked his view. Carefully, he stalked through the rows of pines, trying to avoid treading on dry limbs that would snap and give him away. His eyes swept about, searching for some sign, some movement. There was nothing.
The land swept up form the fence, climbing in a slope that became steeper as it approached the flanks of the nearby mountains. Wepner moved up the incline, treading slowly, searching. At his feet, he saw where the carpeting of pine needles had been disturbed as if something had been dragged. The trail went in a straight line, farther up the hill. He followed it till it met with a wide expanse of worn granite. Continuing, he went across the twenty feet of pocked stone, crunching dry lichen beneath his shoes.
He looked down. There, in the forest floor of dead and gray hued needles of former seasons, was a flattened space of perhaps five feet square, where something had lain. In the center of the spot were several tiny drops of crimson. Blood. The trail halted there. Nothing led away.
Wepner’s head jerked up, scanning the nearby area. He stared into the dappled forest that seemed to close in all around him. Squinting, he tired to spy into the shadows beneath the trees. The forest looked back. He felt it.
Again, he gazed down at the spots of blood. There was no doubt that it was blood. Four or five little dollops of red shone back. The wind blew, sighing through the pines that surrounded him. Straining, he listened for the sound of something that might be watching, ready to pounce. He was afraid; his hand went for the .357, feeling the hard lines of it against his waist.
He thought. Nothing had dragged the child into the woods to this place. This was nothing more than the spot where Venson’s hound had brought a rabbit and killed and eaten it, leaving a tiny sign of its meal. Or the animal had been stricken with some brain seizure and bled a few drops before staggering back to the yard. That was all that had happened. No need to stir up a panic over nothing. Eagerly, he left the place and went back to the house to await the arrival of Mrs. Day’s husband.
But, before he did, he made sure to scuff his big feet about in the pine straw until there was no sign that something had lain there. Until the little drops of blood were gone as if they had never been.
Monday, November 23, 2009
copyright 2009 by James Robert Smith
stubbed out another
went to the
took a whiz.
Then He pulled
on his coat.
Took a turn
around the block.
got back we
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Saturday, November 21, 2009
This is a short story I wrote decades ago. It was published somewhere (I forget where) and was to be part of my short story collection that never happened when the publisher keeled over before it could go to press.
A CHILD OF THE WAR GOD
By James Robert Smith.
We hold them in our grasp
and we mold them
and they have no choice.
—Akhita, wife of the great emperor.
The teacher gathered the young sons about him: and he told them this history as they sat in a field of wheat, the group of them overlooking the Great Sea.
Sometimes, in the scheme of history, monumental things occur close upon the heels of another. So it was in the land known as Mangrove in the time of your own grandfathers. Three great things occurred in quick succession there, in that country of wide plains and sheltered bays. Three great things that brought many lands under the yoke of Mangrove and the world under the tread of its armies, and worse; and out again.
First, from a minor dukedom in the hills that border its rich fields, from a place that Mangrove's kings claimed only as an afterthought, came a little known royal son: Jarrad. His father was a weak and silent link in the chain of holy blood. More ambitious dukes and princes who were hungry for power did not covet his poor lands. So it was that few knew his name or his reputation when he came to be counted among the highborn sons of the kingdom. But when he at last came to Mangrove the City, all soon knew him.
Physically, he was a giant, so his ability as a soldier was second to none. No other could quite handle the great swords and axes as well as he, and no one could best him in single combat. His record in military contest was unblemished.
But he was a giant in more ways than merely size. If he knew how to handle a sword, he knew better than anyone how to wield the small armies that were his father's bequest to him. Within a week of the old duke's passing, he was quarreling with his royal neighbor—within a week of that, he was at war; and in another week brought down the castle of his rival, its master's head at the end of a long and bloody pike. The neighbors to the east and south of the defeated duke looked with worried eyes at the hungry Jarrad who, for now, seemed ill at ease to sit and enjoy such a small conquest for one with such great ambition. Soon they did more than look; they began to mutter amongst themselves.
A giant in size, a giant in tactics. And, woe to the plotting dukes, Jarrad yet proved them midgets in the art known as subversion. Not only did he prise apart the loose coalition of royalty that sought to put an end to this upstart, he soon had them quarreling among their own numbers. So, while they fought their aimless skirmishes, his new army rode strong into their disorganized midst and put them down, swallowed them up. Where one head had graced a single pike, now there were six shafts of iron-tipped bronze dripping royal blood upon the fists of the captains in whose tight grips they were carried.
So it was that a giant soon had made a single county of all of the duchies that had been the kingdom we knew as Mangrove. So it was that the king of that place looked to the borders of the rich lands that were his, from the towers of his castle on the high cliffs above the calm, green bay full of his ships. He looked and saw the approach of the new pretender who was come to topple him out of the high place and take the crown and the throne and make a fresh king—a king named Jarrad.
There was a battle, for great things do not come easily. But in the end, Jarrad stood on the parapet overlooking the rocks far below and the merchant navy that floated on the calm water. It was Jarrad who himself lifted up the struggling form of the old king and threw him off where the little man was dashed to pieces on the earth's jagged teeth, there where the waves pick at them.
A giant was now king in Mangrove. Other kings looked in fear instead of calm amusement at Mangrove's ambassadors and with some envy at the modest wealth of the place. The giant was yet hungry, and they were afraid.
Where there had been a great fleet of merchant ships plying the eastern seas, Jarrad added to it a formidable navy that equaled the merchant ships in number and which brought his armies to lands that had once traded in peace with Mangrove or competed with that land. The sandals of his armies ranged far and conquered all. Within a small span of years, Jarrad had an empire that reached as far as any ship had yet sailed, that held within it all that was worth having and some that was not; that enthralled the people of many cultures and races. Only a giant could have stood at its head: Jarrad.
The next greatness was that Jarrad fell in love. Or, rather, he loved a strange woman and their union produced a son.
Jarrad's advisors did their best to tout him away from wedding the woman he chose. She was Akhita, whose name in her native tongue means, "freshly picked rose." Jarrad had been struck at once by her almond-eyed beauty when she was sent to Mangrove as an ambassador by her newly cowed father—he who had lost all his armies to those of Jarrad. But she was not of Mangrove, not of his own people; and worse, she did not worship at the altars of Morn, the one true God. Jarrad's whisperers-at-ear could not convince him otherwise; and the priests were most displeased by this strange and foolish choice of a wife.
And worst of all for the holy men, the new queen believed in foreign philosophies they believed it was better Jarrad not hear, let alone consider practicing. These organs of the Church well knew the danger of their king coming under the influence of thoughts that might dissuade him from further pursuing the policies that had now made a world power of once modest Mangrove. They were afraid of her; and fearing her, their hatred followed soon on the heels of that most malignant of human emotions. The priests did not like her, and they did not like the teachers and attendants she brought with her from her native land.
But, there was nothing they could do to stop this folly. Jarrad was at the height of his power, and the people of Mangrove loved him so there was nothing he could do to make them cross at him. Great riches flowed into the kingdom—the crumbs of the wealth that fell from the tables of the fat merchants and royal families made even the average citizen of Mangrove rich by the standards of other lands. The priests could not dissuade the king, and so they were left to convert the beautiful Akhita to the ways of God, Morn.
As it happened, the holy men needn't have worried over her, for with the first child to be born of Jarrad and his lovely wife, the burden proved too much for her. Akhita died in childbirth, leaving Jarrad with a son, Prince Nita.
Ah, the priests now smiled their reptilian grins in the privacy of their own company. They were rid of the infection, and now Jarrad could once more be turned to new conquest and new loot to decorate the halls and troves of Morn's temples. In the main, a bishop arose from their midst, a certain Albinus, who spoke his twisted prophecies into Jarrad's ear and waited for him to react to them in military ways.
But nothing came of it. Jarrad retired to his ancestral home in the darks hills of his father's holdings, and he did not go out with his armies to raid far lands as in other days. He only went back to where he had come, and there he seemed merely to be idle, rarely venturing out, even to Mangrove the city, where he had left his generals in charge to see to the maintenance of his empire. The priests, with Albinus at their head, were uneasy in this new entropy to which they were not accustomed after all the years of so much wealth flooding into the kingdom. They grew angrier, and in their anger, the plotting began.
Albinus sent out his weasel spies, and this they told him:
"Jarrad sits at the feet of foreign philosophers and learns of ways of life that shun conquest. Akhita may be dead, but her influence lives on. For Jarrad seems determined to live life as she would have had him live it, and raise their only child in the ways that molded her own soul into the one with which Jarrad fell so in love."
The chief priest listened, and the spies could hardly tell that he ground his teeth at their words. He asked them more. And what else, that he might use it against Jarrad, or turn him once more to the ways of old?
"There is little else, holy man. Save that he loves his son greatly, so much that he spends his days with him."
"The boy is not healthy, as most boys are. His left foot is misshapen so that he cannot run, and his right arm is partially withered so that he cannot grasp the lance, nor throw the spear."
There was a gleam in the eyes of Albinus that frightened even these corrupted spies who had seen much and done the deeds of snakes.
"But Jarrad loves him more than you would imagine. As one who once loved the mother from whom the child came. He shows no anger at the boy's shortcomings and carries him wherever they go.
"And he holds him just so."
The spies beheld again the gleam in the bishop's eyes; they trembled.
The third greatness, the damning one for Mangrove, now came.
No king had ever risen without the aid of his god. Jarrad was no different from any other king in this respect and had always acknowledged the guidance of Morn in his own rise to power and in the bestowing of the greatness that had come to Mangrove. And so, while Jarrad languished with his son in his native hills, he looked on from time to time with little interest as the Church and its bishops began to exercise the offices of that body. Jarrad noted only in passing the gradual return of near-forgotten traditions and barely practiced religious law—it was like the slow creep of patient vines up a granite wall. Such old practices were in keeping with the teachings of the Books of Morn, and such had been good for the nation, and for him. He merely nodded his approval as edicts were carried to him, going back to seats of power with his great signature scrawled broadly thereon. Jarrad had never denied Morn his due. Jarrad had never taken back his own word.
For years, the king lived in the castle of his father, guiding his son and being guided by his love for the boy: a love for his wife that yet lingered. He rarely stirred forth, doing so only for certain functions of state and to see that skirmishes with small armies on the empire's borders did not ignite into any embarrassing wars. Occasionally, Jarrad had been known to send down decisions of diplomacy rather than of war, of political solutions rather than those of a military nature. Grumbles began to filter up out of the enclaves of the Church, and the agents of Bishop Albinus began to stir.
"The child has been a cancer," Albinus was heard to mutter. "But it has been twelve years since his birth. It is time for the boy to be a man." His robed minions stared up at him, waiting.
"A man, as Morn instructs the son of a king to be a man."
When the ambassadors from the enclave of Albinus delivered the communication from the bishop, Jarrad was with his son. The boy was sitting at the feet of his father, reading to him from a book of poetry written by his mother. The boy's words were sweet to the king, and the child's accent hinted of Akhita's vanished voice. With the boy still reciting, Jarrad received the message and absently unrolled the scroll to see what new bother the chief priest was disturbing him with that day.
Peering up from his reading, Prince Nita saw the pale and frozen mask his father's face had become. His recitation was stilled. "Father?"
"Albinus." The name was clipped off of the king's tongue like bad meat by a butcher. The scroll in Jarrad's gigantic hand vanished as his iron bar fingers clenched, his bearlike palm consuming it. "Albinus," the name hissed out, and the holy man's priests drew deep for the courage to stand fast and await their king's reply, hoping that it would not come in the form of angry steel.
"What have these men brought that has angered you?" Nita had risen from where he sat; looking at the paper that was slowly being swallowed by Jarrad's great and fleshy hand. The boy was stunned as his father, fear written on the king's face, stood suddenly and strode to the child, taking him up in mighty arms that could snap the spine of an ox.
The king lifted the boy, and he held him just so, betraying his royal facade with short, soft sobs.
Prince Nita's gaze was drawn to the scroll that had fallen to the marble floor. In the language of the church: ‘A Call for the Trial of Manhood, for the Successor, Prince Nita’. An old and ancient tradition not required of the sons of Mangrove for generations. But old traditions had returned to the kingdom during the ministrations of Albinus. Jarrad himself had approved them to placate the Church and his people.
Jarrad sobbed. Prince Nita, despite the embrace of the giant, shivered.
He came out of his castle in the dreary hills of his father as an addict from his pipe dreams. But this illusion had lasted for more than a dozen years, and the expression that was etched on the emperor's great head was filled with rage borne of resignation; there was none of the bewilderment of the awakening opium fiend in his eyes. Jarrad had fooled himself into believing that the wealth and power his armies had won had also won for him a measure of security and protection from the responsibilities his people expected of him. And he had been fool enough to think that his station had provided for himself and his heir a measure of exemption. He came out of his castle and down from his hills, and although he held no more of his silly delusions, he was filled with a fire of anger, of hatred for those who had dashed his reverie.
At first, he had denied that the prince must bend to the will of the bishop. Gathering the few advisors he yet trusted, he conferred with them and went over and over the options that were open for him and for Nita. Each time he proposed a solution to the problem, his studied men dashed his hopes, told him that the boy had to endure the trial and prove his manhood and thus his worthiness. It all fell back to the edicts and Jarrad's foolish mark placed upon paper for all to read.
In Jarrad's long absence at the literal head of his armies, the frontiers had grown restive and the little uprisings more frequent. So the people of Mangrove had become more xenophobic, especially under the aggravations of Bishop Albinus, and the idea of a prince tainted by foreign blood did not appeal to the masses who filled Mangrove's cities and fueled its industries and manned its machinery of war. Jarrad, giant though he was, found himself stuck. He had resigned himself to the inevitable, and took his son to the capital of the nation so the trial could take place, knowing the boy could not pass it.
In truth, the trial was a simple thing. Most of it took place under the watchful eyes of teachers, of tutors who had been with the prince many of the years of his short life. He knew the history of his father's land, the ways of its folk and the legends that were regarded as truths by the people of Mangrove. Part of the trial was an examination of Nita's knowledge of the teachings of Morn and the prophets the god had spawned. In this, too, the youth proved himself worthy, even though none other than Bishop Albinus posed the questions himself. Nita was a deep one, and he did not falter at the problems presented to him nor fail to reason as one who followed Morn.
But the third prong of the trial was a physical one. Still, it was a rare boy who could not pass it. Thrust and parry. Run and throw. Proof of manhood.
The pain of it was made worse by the publicity of having the last trial in plain view of the vulgar many who filled the amphitheater where it was held. Nita was small in the simple cloak he was made to wear. His right arm, like a pale stick newly peeled of its bark, was evident to the crowds who had come to see the young one show his mettle. He was not allowed to wear a shoe or a sandal, so that all eyes saw that his right leg ended in something more like a lump than a proper foot. The prince failed so that the sheathed blade struck him more often than he was able to fend it off. When he tried to throw the spear, it went wide of the targets, and his score was quite poor. And the boy did not, could not run.
He was no warrior, this frail child. Alas, he was not, in the eyes of Morn, a man. He could not be allowed to take the throne.
It was not enough that this son of Jarrad would not be allowed to succeed the father. No. Albinus now asked for the final judgement of the trial: that the boy be put to the sword so that no faction could later claim he was worthy, that the boy might be used to usurp the throne for some future puppetmaster. The sentence was passed, and a date set so that the realm could be rid of the threat.
In the castle above the bay, Jarrad raged and gnashed his teeth and wanted nothing more than to rend the bishop head from body, to mash the priest’s brains to suet and drag his filthy body through the streets at the end of a long tether. But he could not do that. To do such a thing would be to spit in the face of Morn, and that the people would not allow. Even Jarrad could not stay his armies and his folk if he were to so insult the will of God. He had no choice but to allow it. There was nothing he could do. Nowhere to run.
When, at last, the time came, Nita spoke. He was, as he had proven to Albinus and the priests, a true scholar of the teachings of Morn. So it was that he made a legitimate request.
"I ask," the boy said, "that the blow be made away from the prying eyes of our people, and that it be struck by Jarrad, my father and our king."
Though the request angered Albinus, he relented; for indeed it was legal, and he could not risk a refusal. He himself had wished to do the deed, and now he was robbed of it. Still, he was mainly content, for soon his king would be rid of this taint, would once again place himself at the fore of the conquering army; and Jarrad might be tempted to take a queen born of Mangrove and give the kingdom a proper heir, one more tractable to the ways that Albinus interpreted the words of Morn.
It happened on a holy evening, the sun gone to a ruddy glow in the sky above the sea. Jarrad and Nita made their ways down the granite stairs carved into the steep cliffs below the castle, going slowly down and down until they found themselves on the tide-wet sands, waves slashing noisily between the rocks. In earlier years, on visits to the city, the two had sometimes gone there, the boy riding high on the giant's broad shoulders. They walked together now, side by side.
And though the king would have waited until the last moment, when the sun would come rising over the craggy peaks behind them, Nita would have none of that. He knew that his father's love might make him falter, that he might fool himself into thinking the two of them could somehow escape. "It's time," the boy said.
Hating Albinus, his kingdom, his people, Jarrad unsheathed the great sword that hung at his thigh. The cold steel of it hissed in the salt air as he slowly drew it free. Loving his son more greatly than can be imagined, he lifted the boy up in his great left arm.
And he held him just so.
The boy sighed once; and the giant roared back at the sea, silencing even the waves.
In the morning, Albinus and the soldiers from his enclave descended to the beach to make certain that the deed had been done. He came with the others upon the scene, and it was more than any of them could believe.
Jarrad, like a fallen oak, lay stiff and dead on the bloody sand. Upon his great breast, cradled there like a babe, was the prince. The king had stabbed them both, the broadsword piercing their hearts, pinning the two of them together.
In a short time, the enemies of Mangrove learned of the death of Jarrad and knew that nothing less than a giant could hold together such an empire. Within a handful of years, the greatness of Mangrove was shattered. The kingdom was a quickly fading memory, cut up into independent lands once more, with minor duchies writhing amongst themselves like maggots in a rotting corpse.
And Albinus never saw the end of it. For his enclave had been overrun by marauding barbarians, and the bishop was stuck like a bug to a great wooden wall where he was jabbed with pikes and made to watch the rape of his priests. There, he was forced to await the ravens who soon came to land upon his bare and blistered shoulders, where they plucked out his staring eyes.
At the very end, he saw visions of Jarrad, and heard the voice of the little man who had shamed him, fooled him, won at last...