Excerpt 2

Bare feet flat to the padded floor of the practice room, he just brushed 6 feet tall, making him a good hand-span or two taller than the blonde man stretching in preparation across from him. His limbs were long and toughly muscled, as opposed to bulky – built for distance and endurance over brute strength. When not tied back from his high forehead, and matted black with sweat, his shoulder length hair was the dark brown of polished delan wood. Rough chopped ends testified to his impatience with guild rules which dictated hair could be no longer, and with custom which had short hair as the province of the ruling Houses.

“So you’re actually going to take the trip? Sim hadn’t been at the ale after all?” The other man on the mat gripped his practice sword in a two-handed stance and prepared to attack.

Luk shrugged and raised his own sword in defence.

“Seriously? You’re going past the borders?” the blonde shifted forward and then circled before lunging.

This time the only answer Luk gave was a grunt as he easily parried the blow and started an attack of his own.

“But with Tribal guides?” The shorter man stumbled backwards from the force of the attack, but kept up his stream of questions. “And one a woman?!”

“They’re the best”. Luk swung his wooden blade up under the guard of his opponent, twisting it so the other blade flew to the floor with a clatter, and his own ended up resting at the base of the other’s throat. “You weren’t even trying, Jac”.

“I had my mind on other things!” Jac – Pirael Jiacomo, as he was listed on the guild rolls – retorted as he stooped to collect his blade, then made to return it to the racks at the side of the room. “Enough. The only time I ever could best you was when you’d had the hide thrashed off you by a Master and even then you were fighting with your right hand tied behind you in forfeit. I’ve had about all the humiliation I can handle at your hands today. Time we sat down with a brew and you explained to me how the best mercenary on the Guild’s books got himself marked for guide-dogging a merchant through the borders with just the backup from some tribal scurf of dubious descent”.
“And a scholar. Don’t forget there’s a scholar as is one of those I am to guide too”. A tiny grin lifted the edge of Luk’s wide mouth.
“How could I forget the scholar!” Jac threw his hands in the air and pushed his tall companion out the door towards the changing rooms. “Shower – beer – explanation. And in that order. I’ve a feeling I’m going to be needing as much fortification as I can get down my throat to get a handle on this news”.

Just a thousand words

The third night out their pattern changed. They drew up to camp, aways back from the road, shortly before dusk as usual, but Rofan was edgy. Lukam watched as he muttered something to his brother and then approached Jariel Janir where she stood watching the campfire catch on the tinder.

“You sure?” her low voice carried to where he stood with the horses.
“I am sure, my lady” Rofan growled back. Jariel nodded, then stared at the ground for a moment, stiring the dust with her boot toe. Satisfied with something, she stooped down and picked up six, no seven, objects from the ground. Lukam would swear later they were just pebbles like the countless others scattered around the clearing. Next he watched as Jariel walked slowly round their burgeoning camp at the limits of the firelight, bending down at intervals to place a pebble on the ground.

“Ei, doi, kay, hir, vir, lar-tei” she muttered one word with each stone. Back at the fire, she raised the last and seventh pebble to her forehead, muttered “sai” and placed it in the pouch that hung from her belt. Lukam felt as if someone was watching over his shoulder, but as he made to turn, Jariel knotted the pouch shut and the feeling was gone. He shook himself slightly, shivering at the cool night air. Jariel then continued her preparations for their dinner as if nothing out the way had happened.

“What was that?” He queried Kriss as he neared the fire himself.
“What was what, mercenary?”
“With the pebbles? What LeiLei – he had slipped into the habit of calling her the Chalman for lady as all the others did early on – was doing?”
“Oh. The lady was just casting the boundaries”. Kriss caught his puzzlement. “More’n that, you need ask the lady your questions yourself”. Kriss turned away to check on their guests, effectively closing the conversation.

Nothing loath, Lukam approached Jariel at the cookpot.

“Jariel Janir? May I talk with you?”
“Of course mercenary. Sit. You can peel those roots whilst you’re at it”. Grey eyes smiles over her saibu. Recognising a superior authority, Lukam grinned in return, admitted defeat, and set to work on the mound of tubers.
“What did you do just then? With the pebbles?”
“I cast the boundaries” she spoke as if that was all he needed to hear.
“And that means?”
“Ai, I forget at times you are Nation-born, mercenary” she settled back on her heels and looked afresh at him.

“The taught you of Toth, in the village where you were born?”
“I was raised to follow Toth, yes”.
“I sense something else though, in your tone. I would guess you spent time with the Sisters?”
“Eh, yes. Now you ask, the Sisters had the raising of me and my brother for a year or so after my mother took sick. Then I started Layishan and that side of thing sort of took the hind step”.
“So your understanding is of the Nation world. You know of this world and the next that follows. You were raised in a land where death follows birth and Spirit follows death in a clear line”.
“In Chalman we see things a mite differently. Our lives are more… ‘circular’ – I use that Nation word, but it does not translate direct. For our purposes now it will serve. We acknowledge something beyond Spirit. Our name for it is ‘Sula’, which is closest to your ‘power’ I would think. Ah, I see from your eyes you have heard of Sula. From a Healer, perhaps?”
“Our healer for a term at Layishan was Chalman trained. His reputation was formidable”.
“I am not surprised. Not for nothing, the best healers on Kenmarkiu come out of the sands. But I stray from our point. Sula, power, ties us all to this world. It turns through us all, to differing degrees. It lets us do things your Nation tutors would have slandered as ‘magic’. Casting the boundaries like I just did is simply that. I set the limits to our camp. Oh, it will not be some impenetrable barrier, so hide your skeptiscm Rikart Lukam. It will simply let us know if people approach”.
“The words? You spoke… it sounded like a chant to me”.

“Counting words only, mercenary”. She raised a reassuring hand. “Worry not, I will try to refrain from corrupting you with my desert magic till we are well beyond the reach of Frenan witch hunters”.
“Why do you tell me this so freely?”
“You asked”. She smiled again over her saibu. “I am a Healer, Rikart Lukam. Part of the reasoning for my very existence is to impart knowledge. If a savage Northern blademan is all Ruad presents me with then, by the six tribes, I shall make the most of the opportunity”. She held her arms wide to the night sky for a moment then dropped, the moment of levity passed.

“Get some rest, mercenary. The boundaries are cast and are as safe as we can make them. Ne’el has first watch, then Rofan. You have third, so I suggest you sleep while you can. From here out our journeying is going to get a little more exciting. I would rather we had been further on our way, but we deal with the hand the fates have given us”. She rose to her feet gracefully, patted him on the shoulder, and took the basket of tubers to Kriss at the other side of the large fire.

To the different ones

She sat at the computer and stared at the screen in front of her. Who to make the hero this time, who the villain? What meagre aspect of her normal life could she twist out of all resemblance to reality. What curl of drudgery could she wow them with this time? She was fed up with it, sick and bone tired, of being always expected to come out with something new. Or with something old, just dressed over to look different. How much of her life could she stand to see put down in print on a page, how much of her past pain would these people swallow before they realised that it was all false?

There was only so many times she could see the look in her friend’s eyes as they read her words. She didn’t want to watch any more. The thrill of seeing tears brim had faded quickly to revolt that she was shaming them so. What right did she, to tell of the pain so publicly? The days of wishing she could stand and scream on the rooftops had gone, along with the days of waiting on a miracle to end it all.

She did it by stealth, let little bits of her truth filter out, hidden in a flood of fiction. Those that cared, knew; knew what she did. She shamed them by revealing in public all those little failures that had built up into the biggest of all. Her failure to be what they had wanted her to be.

She didn’t want it any more, that knowledge of what she was doing to them, those she loved. She couldn’t even love them enough to stop, because she kept going. After all, her public expected it, waited for it. The days when she could be silent for months at a time, her fingers moving over the keyboard for nothing but work were gone. This was her work now. Now she spent her days using her pen to dig away at the scabs of normalcy, till her full strangeness lay revealed for those who chose to see it.

What had turned her down this path? No therapy had spawned this version. No guidance counsellor suggested the pen as alternative to the razor. When had the sweet girl become bitter? Her cynicism – British humour, or neurochemical glitch? Whatever had happened, this wasn’t the truth or the reality, no matter how many journalists she told it was.

It was a fine line, the distinction between author-public, and suicide-private, but it was there if you took the care, and just enough people were left to know where to look. In the past she’d tried for a full-scale abandonment, but one or two had clung on, like so many barnacles. Unnoticeable till she tried to run, and then they caused enough drag to make the difference between clear get away, and guilt-ridden confrontation.

She kept saying to them, telling them to back away, that she didn’t want them around. But still, no matter what her desires, they knew best. It actually made them proud to read her latest work. Thrilled them a little bit when they could trace the arc of reality through the space-battles, or relate a minor character to some mundane feature of a life she no longer wanted.

Tell me what to do to make it right. Tell me what to do to make the voices stop, to make the pain go away, to make it all clear.

She was tired, shattered, beaten, worn down, and they didn’t even see. Those who professed to love her best didn’t see that she was being slowly buried alive under their expectations. She knew what they wanted for her, and it was so simple, which made it so much worse. She couldn’t even live up to their one simple request. Be happy. Two words, three syllables, a rush of endorphins…

The crucial switch in her head was stuck on “off”.

Long ago she had taken to writing it down because, on the page, or on the screen, something of the incomprehensibility faded, and she was able to see patterns. She had discovered her gift at the same time as the assorted transmitters in her brain had decided to take a few decades in vacation. Her gift, when she chose to look at it like that, was that she could also make other people see the patterns. There was something wonderfully gothic about the way that she could make other people understand what was going on in her head better than she herself could.

All they had ever wanted for her and she’d failed at it. But she was good at things, good at this. So she somehow managed to translate the randomness in her head into prose people enjoyed, but that wasn’t living. She made money, but so did street-sweepers. Not everyone could write the shit they saw behind their eyes, and not, it seemed, everyone, could be happy.

Tell me what to say and I will say it to you, I will do it for you, I will burn this house down. I will burn us to the ground.

Excerpt 1

Because he asked so nicely, this is for Josh. It’s unfinished. I’m still not sure where it fits into the whole picture (though from the character interaction we’re talking later on in the story) and I’m still not totally convinced I’ve separated the two world-views out enough, but enjoy…
p.s. – any comments on how art mirrors life, and I will take my revenge by eviscerating you in fiction. I know that I use my writing to work things through. I don’t need my nose rubbed in it :p

She sat there, watching quietly as Luk stirred the fire, making the coals collapse against one another and give out more heat in preference to light. She loved how the amber glinted off his bones, spare with decades of fighting, making them softer; the bones he would have had had fate not stepped in.

“What is it, mei sa?” Luke turned to look at her over his shoulder. “You’re quiet tonight, quiet even for you”.
“Just thinking, ma sona. Thinking what life would have been”.
“Deep thoughts, Je-Je, but why think them? Life is as it is. We have nothing to gain by pondering on how it might have been different”.
“Now who sounds like a Healer, hey?” Jariel grinned. “I know thinking this line won’t get the horses watered, but it intrigues me. How much of life comes because of our actions and responses to situations, and how much was predestined for us. Would I be here to today, the person I am, if a Healer two centuries ago had not fore-spoken my birth and my actions? Or of if the Shantarican had not ordered the death of the Kainapas because of prophecy — would I still be Saiauri? Jariel Janir?”
“You would be who you are”.

Luk got to his feet and walked over to where their saddle packs were slung on a high branch against night-crawlers. He rummaged for a pack of trail bread and split it as he came back to the blankets. He tossed half over to her and flopped back to the ground. “There is no point in wondering what this alternate Jariel would be like because you are here. Those things did happen. The result is the lady who sits beside me, chewing her thumbnail, worrying about things even she lacks the Power to change. You are Saiauri. There is no changing that. You are Fomori and Kainapas. You are respected. You are feared. You are loved. You just are”.

“I worry you miss my point, Rikart Lukam. I am not saying I want to change the me I am now. I am just wondering if an alternate route would still have brought us to this point in time. Fireside conjecture, but I am too much a guide not to wonder about shortcuts and the paths not taken”.
“Mei sa, I am a mercenary, a fighting man. I deal with the enemy and the life I see before me. More than that I cannot manage. I leave the deep thinking and route finding to those better trained for it. But I will say this – I am here with this Saiauri, with this Jariel Janir. I know that it is the she who sits beside me, and she alone who could have brought me over to the Tribes. Factor that into your thinking, dear Guide of my life. If you look at an alternate you, you need to look at alternates of everyone else, and personally? I like the version we are today”.

On that, Luke turned back to the fire, carefully adjusting the pot so it sat in the best cooking coals. Jariel sat and watched him for a long time. Could the mercenary be right with his Northern pragmatism? She was trained to look for the complexities in every argument. Could it really be as simple as making the decision to be the person you saw in the mirror each day and to ignore the “what if’s”?

The Story Of A Girl

I’m not right sure how I can possibly go about writing the love that I feel. Or to express to the gratitude. Is that the word? I don’t know. I don’t feel like I should be thanking her for getting me to the train station on time (though she’s done that), or for lending me some music (though, again, she’s done that time out of count). It’s more a peaceful sense of thanks that she came into my life when she did. I honestly don’t know what I would be without her — less of a person in many ways, I do know that. Without her I wouldn’t be, well, me, though some could argue that that would have been a good thing. But I’m not here to trace through a path of might-have-beens. I don’t have the skill, the self-awareness, or the will, to figure out what I would have been like if things had been different. I am having issues enough deciding what I am like with the way things actually happened.

Fate. No, I don’t really like that particular word, that idea. Life made sure that I met her long before I knew her (and yes I know I am being ridiculously convoluted and cryptic), two years, in fact. Two years of sitting within touching distance and barely a word spoken between us. Me, shy, and not fitting in. Her, not fitting in, and shy. Yeah, I’m thick; moronic might even be a more accurate description. You think I don’t beat myself repeatedly over the head with the knowledge that I wasted two years? Huh? But that’s done with, I finally plucked up the courage and I don’t know what it is was, but something just clicked, and suddenly I knew. She was the one. I could willingly tie my life to this girl, and I wouldn’t regret it.

And I was right. Not one second has passed where I have regretted that decision to follow her into the Bar, or when I let myself be held to ransom for a piece of ginger cake. It is easy, when you let it be, to love someone. You just… do it. Let that person in whole-heartedly, hold nothing back, et voila, magic. Soul-mate. Friend.

I don’t let people in easily; I tend not to let people in at all, in fact. That is my fault, one of my many flaws, I know. So what about her that makes me smile at the most inopportune moments? Just thinking of her existence and I start to float. She stands for all that is good in my life, and acts as a barrier to all that is bad. When she’s in pain, my heart breaks. One girl and I would willingly die for her. And she doesn’t know. That’s the sad thing about the whole situation. She doesn’t know. God I am thick, when you think about it, I really am stupid. I am in danger of chasing away the most perfect thing in my life because I am scared. Because I think I have forgotten how to let someone in totally. Even when I am with her, I keep this tiny bit back. I wish I didn’t, it’s not like I wake up in the morning planning what I can keep secret today. I trust her implicitly, I love her more than life, yet I still can’t make that final step and tell her all that I am. Because I am scared. I am scared of the hurt that I will feel when she finally realises the truth and leaves me. I am so shit scared of that one thing happening, I think I am making it happen.

I don’t know how to live without her, and I think that is what paralyses me the most out of the entire situation. The fact that I have let someone into my life to such an extent that I am not a full person without her. I think of life without her, and I freeze. Is this what love is? To be so totally scared that the one person you care for above all others will leave one day? Is love the inability to be one hundred percent content and happy in the moment, because you are dreading that future second when you will no longer be together? Is it being jealous, because the other is finding her happiness with other people?

Or is it the knowledge, deep down, that perhaps they feel the same way. That perhaps they think the same things and that perhaps you mean just as much to them. Perhaps it’s the secret knowledge of the pretty face she hides from the world, of that smile she keeps just for you. When you can look at a blurry dog-eared photograph and treasure it more than gold, maybe that is when you know you are in love. Maybe that is when I knew.


She lay on her side in bed, the covers pulled up, hugged against her despite the warmth of the evening. One arm was free of the covers and she gently touched the picture stuck to the wall beside her head. She could look direct into his eyes without shifting her head on the pillow. Over and over she gently brushed her fingers over his photographic lips, touched his reproduced nose, and stroked his picture perfect hair. She didn’t want to turn out the light, for to do so would mean she could no longer see the picture. Not that she needed it; his every feature was indelibly drawn in her brain. And she wanted to sleep. But she couldn’t bring herself to turn out the light. With the light on she had that tentative link with him, she could look into his smiling eyes. When the light went out, she would be alone with her thoughts and no longer able to fool herself that she wasn’t with him.

The same urge that kept music playing constantly, kept the light burning, and her pen scribbling long after she should be at rest. Every moment, music was playing, or the radio was on, anything to fill the silence she was once so happy in. Once, silence meant time to think, time to dream, time to write. Now it still meant all those things. But now the silence had a name. His name. She ached to touch him, to hear his voice. But when the music stopped, or when she stopped moving, she could no longer fool herself.

There were times, when she wasn’t paying attention, that she could forget him for a moment. Concentrating on a particular problem, or talking to her friends. But then she would remember and bend almost double in pain. It physically hurt, like a punch to the stomach, and there was nothing she could do. So she kept the music playing. And the lights on. And pen and paper always to hand, or the computer on.

She flicked the media player on and, even though she couldn’t see the screen without her glasses, the mouse invariably found the correct file. Open. Play. And his voice filled the room. As the tears started rolling, his voice wrapped round her like a blanket. Soft, honey rich, full of love and life… And she hit play over and over. Five, ten, twenty times. His voice played over and over. Thirty precious seconds. She lived for those seconds.

In the darkness now, she plays the clip once more and closes her eyes against the pain. She holds her hand back from the mouse, ordering herself not to click “Play” again. 20 times tonight. 19 tomorrow.


He looked across at the figure at the other end of the bar, his eyes drawn in fascination by the sharp planes of her wrist bones, the casual grace of the limb. It wasn’t something he would normally remark upon. The hand wasn’t the usual appendage noted about the female form, at least not first, but on her, the wrist was all he could clearly see. Resting along the battered counter top, motionless, as if it were divorced from the rest of the world. A sculpture. At that moment he would swear on any scripture you cared to name that, if he could touch it, that arm would be as smooth and cold as the marble it was carven from.

The middle finger, centre of the bridge her hand made, arced up ever so slightly, bearing a wide sliver band. From here he couldn’t see, till she raised her hand to lift the tumbler to her lips, the rectangular amber stone recessed flatly into the metal, the colour of the whisky in his own glass. All he could see in the downward shaded pool of light was the silent flight of her arm: the fingers birds, stilled momentarily in migration from the shadows cast around. A moment of silence in which he felt the woman had come closer to him than a lover. He knew her deeply, and was moved in turn by the honour she had bestowed upon him by permitting this glimpse of quiet strength. She might laugh at her companion’s joke, but it was he who was privy to her lyric calm.

Oh yes, he would later tell his children, it is possible to love someone you have only just seen. To commit so deeply to one person, for the chance that you might one day be permitted to see once more the silent grace, and rest at last in its calm.