Joe Bellow opens the door with my face, not quite fast enough that I can’t take the blow on my cheek and save a broken nose. I get a row of splinters that I can just see from the corner of my eye, rising tall and thick and brown from my skin like the towers of Monument Valley.
He turns me round and pushes me into a creaking seat by the sheriff’s desk. All my weight comes down on my fists, crushed into the gap between chair and ass. Something pops and one of my fingers folds in a new direction across the palm. That hurts, yes, but not as much as it might. Bellow tied my wrists so tightly my hands are probably cold and blue right now.
“Huh,” he says when he sees how my beautiful looks aren’t quite ruined yet, then swings a big fist and—bam—that’s my nose after all, and it hurts like a third eye opening for the first time in the middle of my face, stabbed by the light. Between that and the egg still growing on the back of my skull from yesterday’s pistol whipping, I’d just as soon be elsewhere.
The bomb rocked the buildings on Farringdon Road. Danny found himself lying face down on the walkway. Dust and screams filled the late evening air. A whistle sounded far above, another incoming gift from the Kaiser. He coughed, bowing his head, hands up to protect. The ground shook. Footsteps pounded.
Up, he told himself, but his body refused. “Up!” he said aloud and he found himself running to a building torn and battered, fire licking at its sides, his messenger satchel bouncing on his back. In the near dark, he stopped just inside what used to be the foyer. Fire consumed half the building. Low clouds reflected its eerie glow over the broken heap of timber and bricks before him.
“The zeppelins are here!” someone needlessly shouted. Muffled, as if it came from the other side of a large water trough.
With his good eye, Danny squinted into the shattered interior. A bloodied severed leg quivered. Something moved beneath it. He plunged into the debris, heedless of the flames, and threw the leg aside. More timber, a broken bed frame from the floor above. More bricks and pipes than Danny thought were possible. How tall was this building before the Germans bombed the shite out of it?
A hand grabbed at his arm. He grasped it back, his free hand still flinging debris aside. In a moment, someone’s head came clear, coughing and cursing like a sailor. Danny let go to push-off one last beam.
He reached down; arms linked under the person’s torso and heaved. They emerged in a bundle, each half supporting the other. Something crashed nearby. Smoke billowed. What was left above burned, raining flame and ash.
“Gotta get you out,” he said.
The person sputtered dust, flinging their long, dark hair aside and Danny saw it was a woman. One arm flopped useless against her side. The other clung to him for support.
He guided her out into the street. Sirens called. Someone approached them, asked if anyone else was in there. The woman shook her head, one side red, a flap of skin on her forehead exposed bone. She opened her mouth and said something.
A bomb screeched above. It detonated further away, but the earth trembled still. The person ran down the street. Danny hoped they were going to an air raid shelter, but wished the bloody fool had taken the woman with him.
Danny needed to search the other buildings, make sure no one else was trapped. He couldn’t let them burn.
“Ma’am, can you make it to the shelter by yourself?” he shouted above the siren. He could barely hear himself.
She said something, her mouth moving in exaggerated movements. He realized he couldn’t hear. She pressed her hands over his ears and they popped.
He scrunched his shoulders at the deafening sirens and pulled close to the woman, repeating his question. She placed her mouth near his ear and said, “Don’t worry about them. You need to come with me, Wyvern.”
Did he know her? He couldn’t place her, but she clung to him like a leech. It looked like he’d have to take her hospital himself.
“Wievern. Daniel Wievern, ma’am. Please come with me. I’ll get you to hospital.”
After which he knew he would put off delivering the sergeant’s letter to pick at the rubble for anyone he might be able to save.
* * *
A nurse snagged Danny by the arm before he made it out of the hospital. “Sir? Your mother is calling for you.”
“She’s not my mother. I can’t stay here.”
Fires burned. He had to save them.
“Come back as soon as you can? Just to check in,” she added, giving Danny a look meant to prick his guilt.
He nodded and left the nurse, pushing his way past the crowded waiting room. Outside was dark, bombs still fell, but distant enough that someone might think it was almost over for the night.
The second bloody blitz of the war and the Germans rained death from above in those damn zeppelins. He clenched his fists, staring at the wicked-pale orange clouds above, knowing he should be up there. The low drone of a Moraine-Saulneir buzzed overhead.
“Danny! You all right?” someone called.
It was his trench-mate, Jim. They used to call him Jimmy but after he lost his arm everyone started calling him Jim. The same blow that took Jim’s arm, took Danny’s left eye, but they didn’t change his name.
Danny reassured his friend he was fine. “Gotta run. People to save.”
“Leave it to the home guard. Sergeant wants your arse. Now.”
Danny grimaced. “Direct order?”
“Straight from his pie-hole: ‘Get that Wievern lout here before dark’.” Jimmy scanned the unnaturally bright night clouds. “Might be able to convince him it’s still day.” He gave Danny a half-smile and handed over his bike.
Danny swore under his breath and pedaled through the dark streets. He arrived breathless, leaned the bike against a tree and ran up the steps of the requisitioned royal post office. As he entered the wide foyer, the sergeant barked at a courier, handing him a bundle. The kid, who didn’t even look like he was past thirteen, darted from the room.
Danny caught sergeant’s eye. “Where the hell you’ve been, private? Did you deliver?”
Danny snapped to attention, saluted, then said, “No, sir. Bomb hit on Farringdon Road.”
“You look fine to me.”
“There was a woman—“
“Fuck me, Danny! How many times do I have to tell you? We’re not home guard. And you’re not on the front lines no more. You have one fucking mission!”
“Get the fuck out of here and deliver that letter or I’ll drop a bomb on your arse meself! And take these to Army Service Corps. They needed them two hours ago.”
Danny grabbed two small packages the sergeant indicated, saluted, and left. The bike was gone, so he stashed the packages in his messenger bag, crushing the letter, and started running back towards the ASC’s command post.
It was much darker now, though fires still burned and bombs still dropped from a clouded sky. From the ground, they could just make out the bloody dirigibles, like the golden finger of a god flinging sparks into a sea of fog.
Something burned in Danny. He wanted, no, needed to help. He couldn’t do nothing while the city burned. He saved that woman. She wouldn’t have made it out of there in time before the whole place turned into an inferno. He wanted to tear off his messenger bag, but he kept running, promising himself that he’ll ask for a transfer to home guard tomorrow morning, if not sooner. He kept a steady pace he learned as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Damn it, he was trained for more than delivering messages. He’d been in France since the start, back in August of 1914. Seemed like ages ago now. It only took once. He didn’t duck quickly enough and he lost his eye. They sent him back to London faster than you could roll a fag.
As he ran past the hospital, glancing up at the second story ward, he wondered if the woman was still there. He rounded a corner, turning on King’s Cross, and ran into someone. They clung to him, breaking his stride and forcing him to stop.
“Wyvern! You didn’t come back. Come with me.”
It was the woman. Her grip on his arm was like iron and she dragged him after her.
“It’s Wievern, ma’am, like a basket-weaver,” he said, yanking his arm from her grasp and stopping. “I can’t come with you. I’ve got to—“
“Save this city, boy. Which is what we are going to do.”
She snapped her fingers, and he thought he saw a spark. It flashed over her face, showing blood seeping through her head bandages. Her eyes were a stormy sea, and her hair had been pulled back. She was probably twice his age, late forties or so. And crazy.
He opened his mouth to say something, but shook his head. He wanted to go with her, help those he knew were trapped, but the sergeant’s orders…
Danny turned to leave, and broke into a trot. A few paces down the road, he ran into someone else. He took a step back when he realized it was the woman again.
“What? Did you— ? How— ?”
“No time to explain, Danny boy. It’s taken me ten years to find you. I’m not letting you out of my sight now.”
He sighed. The determination in the set of her frame told him he wasn’t getting rid of her anytime soon. “Fine. Come with me. I’ll finish what I got to do then you can explain all you want. Deal?”
She growled, but stood aside, allowing him to pass.
A year ago, he would’ve been shocked at a woman growling at him in the dark, but not anymore. Not after what he seen, and done, on the fields of Aisne.
* * *
The bombing raid was over, but fires burned throughout London. Streets were filled with the home guard and the fire brigade, mostly women, trying to put out one conflagration after another. Thrice, Blackwood, that was the woman’s name, had to pull him away from burning buildings after he’d stripped down to his woolen trousers and tramped through them looking for survivors. After the third one, she told him he had to stop, that he was needed further up the road.
“You said I needed to save this city,” he said, trying to loosen her iron grip.
“Not like this,” she answered, resolutely pulling him down the street towards the river Thames.
He finally dug his heels in, making her stop, though she still clung to him. She was the same height as him, medium build. Though he could think of a dozen ways to kill her, he couldn’t think of a respectable way to brush off someone her size.
“If not like this, how? Let go of me, you m–”
“Mad? Were you about to call me a mad woman? The whole world has gone mad, Danny. And it is time to put a stop to it. You can do it.”
“Stop this war.”
Danny barked a laugh. “Get it done by Christmas? Just like last year? And how am I, one single–” He paused. He was about to say ‘wounded’, but didn’t. “–soldier, supposed to end the war?”
She pointed up. “You’re going to take out the Zeppelins. All of ‘em.”
Danny couldn’t laugh anymore. He shook his head and turned to leave, pushing at her hand still firmly attached to his forearm.
“Ma’am, if you don’t let me go, I can’t be held responsible for any injury you may sustain.”
“I didn’t take you for a coward,” she said, the orange glow of a nearby fire glinting off her gray eyes.
Danny balled up his fists and she let go.
“What would your parents say to you leaving a woman alone in the streets? What would they say if they knew you didn’t even try?” she asked.
“I am trying. Besides, they’re dead,” he said, as he walked away.
To his back, she said, “You didn’t kill them.”
A hitch in his step slowed Danny for a second, but he kept on walking.
“It wasn’t your fault, Danny. Your parents were dead before the fire got to them.”
A group of women wearing wool knickers and scarves wrapped about their mouths pumped water into a house. Not the house on fire, that was lost, and anyone who might still be in it, but the one next to it. They were hoping to keep it from catching and setting off a blaze that would take out the entire street. The building’s residents, women with babes and a few elderly couples, stood scattered on the road ahead, all staring at the fire, faces dry and smudged with soot. Danny wondered if he wore their same lost look. The tears would come later, much later. At least, they had for Danny.
Over his shoulder, he said, “You knew them.”
Her quiet, close voice made him jump. She had moved to stand beside him, but she wasn’t staring at the fire.
“Does this have something to do with them?”
“It has everything to do with them, and you.”
Danny nodded, and when she moved, he followed.
* * *
Temple Church stood south, just off the Strand, filling Danny’s view, its high arched frame reaching for a nameless god. The round bit on the top was dark. No lights burned to highlight the domed, copper top nor shone through the stained glass mosaics on the tower.
They went round back and Blackwood knocked on a door. It seemed no one slept in London that night for someone opened the door immediately. A boy, maybe ten or so, looked up at them.
“Nurse Keat?” he asked.
Blackwood nodded, and the boy waved them in.
Danny frowned. Was she lying?
The boy moved down a narrow hall, talking over his shoulder the entire time. “Most of the wounded were taken to the hospital, but three of ‘em they didn’t want to move. We put them up in the rectory. Plenty of space in there. The deacon said they can stay as long as needed, but he can’t attend to them himself. He doesn’t have that kind of learning, he says. And seeing as all the nuns are busy administering aid in people’s homes, he said he just couldn’t bear to add to these folks’ suffering by adding his inexperienced hand. He decided he would pray to God to ease their suffering instead.” The boy prattled on, either to explain the deacon’s cowardice at touching burned victims, or to calm his own nerves, Danny couldn’t tell.
When they entered the room, Danny was surprised at how strong the smell was. Charred flesh made his stomach turn in a way he didn’t want to think about. It had always been that way, but he had never given it much thought.
Blackwood hissed at the boy to bring water and clean rags. He scampered off and she went directly to the worst burned. One side of her face sunken and falling off, like a candle that had been placed too close to one side of a hot stove. All her hair had been singed off; her scalp looked mottled, as if mold drew out unknown continents.
She was unconscious, which couldn’t be said of the other two unfortunates, moaning and sobbing. They weren’t as bad off, and one even looked like they had no burns at all.
“Quick,” Blackwood said, “before the boy comes back.”
Danny came close and hovered by her side, unsure what to do.
“Should I go get another nurse?” he said.
“No,” she said. Holding up her palms an inch from his face, she added, “Lick ‘em.”
“You heard me. I need your saliva. My magic’s not strong enough for this one.”
“And what’s my saliva got to do with it?” Danny said. And why had he followed this woman?
She gave him a sad and desperate look. “Did your mother not tell you anything?”
Blackwood cupped her hands and held them at his chest.
“Okay, just spit.”
His lips pressed together and he frowned at her.
“Just do it! He’ll be back soon then I’ll have to kill the boy if he sees what we’ve done.”
A patter of footsteps sounded far off, but was getting closer. Danny glanced over his shoulder, then did as Blackwood wanted. A big, wet glob splattered over her palms. The hunger the burned flesh awoke in him had given him plenty to expunge.
She danced around a bit, careful not to lose any. He wiped the corner of his mouth, as Blackwood rubbed her hands together and started chanting. He thought it sounded French, Gaelic, and something else all at once.
Blackwood bent to slather her hands over the melted woman’s face, neck, and shoulders.
Danny gasped and took a step back, staring at Blackwood’s hands as they continued to pass over the woman’s face as it transformed from a ruined mass of flesh to something whole and healed.
“Bloody hell!” he blurted.
“We will have no such language here, son,” a voice from the door said.
Blackwood moved to block what she did from view and Danny spun to face a man dressed in a tweed jacket.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not accustomed…I didn’t know…”
“It’s all right, son. But don’t make a habit of it. Blackwood, is that you? What are you doing?”
She moved away, clasping her hands behind her back.
“Attending to your patient, Deacon Marshall. The one you wouldn’t touch.”
The wounded woman’s head was covered in white, neat bandages with openings for her eyes, nose and mouth. Danny wondered how Blackwood had done it so quickly.
“Who sent you?” the deacon said. “Are they so desperate they’ve resorted to enlisting the help of people like you?”
He pushed past Danny to stand near the cot. Blackwood sneered at him, but said nothing. The deacon visually inspected the woman while the boy brought in the supplies Blackwood had asked for. Blackwood busied herself with attending to the other burned victim’s wounds, but she kicked Danny in the shins as she did so, indicating with her eyes that he should spit in the bucket of water.
“Well, she seems to be breathing a bit better now. Thank you, Blackwood,” the Deacon Marshall conceded with a nod. ”It seems you’ve been to the infirmary yourself this evening.”
“Yeah,” she said, “Me and half of bloody London.”
The deacon scowled at her, but ignored her blatant jibe. He concentrated on the other burn victim and Danny took the opportunity to spit into the bucket. He didn’t understand it, but he’d be damned not to offer relief to those he could help.
“There may be more coming,” the Deacon Marshall said. “They only sent you?”
“I’ve got my assistant,” Blackwood said, nodding to Danny.
The deacon snorted. “I don’t mean to be blunt, but he’s not doing anything.”
It was Danny’s turn to scowl.
“Doesn’t need to do much. He’s Dragonblood.”
“I have no idea what she’s talking about, sir. I’m here…well, I don’t right know why I’m here, but I’m here to help anyway I can.” He held out his right hand. “Private Daniel Wievern at your service, sir.”
Deacon Marshall raised an eyebrow at him and clasped his hands behind his back.
“No, sir. Wievern, like weaver, but with an ‘n’.”
“Interesting,” he said, giving Blackwood a knowing eye. As if Danny wasn’t standing in front of them, he bent closer to Blackwood and said, “Does he know what that means?”
“Sorry, sir?” Danny interjected at the same time Blackwood said, “As ignorant as you were ten years ago, deacon.”
The deacon’s eyes widened and his cheeks reddened. “Well, I won’t have it, Blackwood. You take your black magic somewhere else. I’ll not have you defile sacred ground.”
“I’m not planning to,” she said, then gestured to the man she administered to. Already the skin about his burnt forearms looked whole, raw and pink, but whole. Not the blackened, angry red welts they were before Blackwood gently washed them with the water Danny had spat in. “And if you haven’t noticed, we are helping.”
The deacon narrowed his eyes at her. “What is it you want?”
She gave him a grin with no mirth in it. “It’s not what I want, deacon, but what this city needs.”
* * *
“Stop fidgeting,” Blackwood said.
“What else should I be doing?” Danny asked.
“Do as I told you. Keep watch. Make sure no one disturbs me. We only have one chance at this.”
Danny stared up at the dark sky and wanted to run. He stood just under the Temple Bar Griffin. A dragon, really, but everyone called it a griffin. His eyes focused on the faint cloud-glow on the dragon’s raised claws.
The bronze dragon stood atop a tall, ornate, and rectangular base, maybe thirty or forty feet high. Each long side had an alcove, housing a statue of Queen Victoria on one side, and the Prince of Wales on the other. The short ends had bronze reliefs commemorating some royal celebration Danny couldn’t give a fig about that night. The dragon atop held a scroll in its front claws, its wings held aloft, barbed tail snapping out to the sky like a whip. The dragon itself wasn’t that big. Maybe the size of a large horse. Hard to tell in the dark. Danny had passed it numerous times, going about delivering messages, but had never paid much attention to the site of Temple Bar, one of the old city’s gate boundaries. The dragons were part of the city’s coat of arms, signifying the frightful protection the creatures would bestow on the great City of London. This wasn’t the only one. Twelve more surrounded the old city, but Danny knew this one was different. Unique or not, fat lot of good the ancient boundary markers did London now, he thought.
He couldn’t believe Deacon Marshall so easily gave Blackwood what she wanted even after she fixed, literally fixed, the last man’s broken leg, but he supposed she deserved it. But the deacon had handed over the city’s keys as if he handled them like a normal pair of slippers. It didn’t sit right with Danny.
Fuckin’ hell, he thought, the night couldn’t get any stranger.
“Are you keeping watch?”
Danny jumped and looked one way down the Strand, then the other way down Fleet. All the buildings here had been spared from the night’s blitz, and no one roamed at this time of night. If he and Blackwood stay out much longer, they’d be greeting the early morning crowd soon. He pinched his eyes shut, then re-opened them, snapping his head to one side. It made him a little dizzy, but it also awoke his senses. He breathed in deep, and felt a pressure on his chest.
“Is it getting hot?” he asked, trying to keep his voice at a steady whisper, but panic crept in, making his last word louder than he had wanted.
He walked around to the other side of the dragon’s base. Blackwood stood facing him and the dragon above, her eyes closed, her mouth moving. She held the foot-long, gilded city key in front of her like a staff, both hands wrapped about it.
Danny clutched at his chest. He was having a hard time breathing. Metal scraped on stone above him, dusting him with a dry, fine mist. He wanted to look up, see what was happening above him, but his head felt as heavy as a sack of coal. He thought his neck would break. He leaned against the dragon’s pedestal.
“Something…wrong…” he tried, but a sharp pain rent through him. A cry escaped his lips and the world went dark.
When he opened his eyes, his back and stomach muscles felt as if they worked. Something brushed against his sides and he angled his head to see a heavy leather drape. He looked down at Blackwood, a grin so wide on her face he thought it would permanently stay that way, like his mother used to tell him when he made a funny face.
He opened his mouth to say something, but only a straggled cough came out and a whiff of smoke. He looked down his snout past the ridges of scales, trying to focus on his flared nostrils. Then realized he had a snout.
He backed up a step, his hind legs fell through air. With his fore-claws, he grabbed hold of the stone pedestal beneath him, gouging the ornate structure, desperately trying to break his fall. The leather drapes continued to buffet the wind above him and he wanted to scream at whoever the cheeky bastard was.
“Wyvern!” Blackwood called.
Danny took in a deep breath, fire broiling in his belly and chest.
“You won’t fall, Wyvern. You’re a dragon. And dragons have wings, remember?” Blackwood said.
Danny thought he heard mock in her voice. He narrowed his eyes and her face came in sharp focus. He could see every pore on her face, and the pull and release of the rods and cones in her eyes. He thought, if he tried, he could probably see into her brain.
What had she done? Was he a dragon?
He swung his long neck to one side and, indeed, he did have wings.
And he could see – out of both eyes.
A pressure built in his chest and he let out a roar, fire and smoke belching forth like a fountain.
“Don’t get too excited,” Blackwood continued. “Why don’t you try out those wings?”
Danny didn’t need any encouragement. He flexed his back muscles and drove his wings down in a great heap, at the same time pushing off the pedestal. He bumped into the top of an adjacent building, blocks tumbling, but he righted himself and climbed higher and higher. So high, he could feel the fine mist of the clouds condense on his scales, making him heavy and cold. He shivered, shedding water. He looked down and saw a dark London split by the winding river Thames. To the west, the glow of the remaining fires marked the zeppelin’s route that night. To the east, the city’s low buildings looked as if they cowered in the dark, happy that on this night, they had been spared. Far beyond the rolling hills, he could see the glint of waves on the dark sea.
He looked straight down, and realized he had moved quite a bit down the river. He banked to the left, his dragon body knowing what to do. If he didn’t think about it too much, it did the right thing. If he tried to work it out, his wings got out of sync and he wobbled in the air.
With a deftness he didn’t feel, he alighted back onto the pedestal and looked down at Blackwood. She looked so small. And human. His belly rumbled with a familiarity he didn’t want to think about.
“We must make haste, Wyvern. That body will demand food soon and we can’t have you flying around during the day, they’ll set the Royal Flying Corps on you. Now, do you think you can handle our weight?”
Danny cocked his long head at her. She gestured for him to come down into the square before the statue’s pedestal. He did, and noticed his body, his human body, sat slumped against the stone. He thought he looked smaller and far less intimidating than what he had always imagined. He snorted smoke, hoping that was only because he was currently knocked out cold at Temple Bar.
Blackwood strode over to his body, the human one, and positioned herself behind him, hooking her arms beneath his and hoisting him until his back rested on her chest. She then backed towards Danny, the dragon, dragging Danny’s human body over to him.
He had so many questions, but they jumbled in his head and he had no way to ask them. He could only hope Blackwood had a plan. She seemed to have one so far, so he decided to trust her.
She gestured for him to help. He lowered himself to a crouch. With a grunt, she managed to drape his human body over his back. She climbed aboard; using his scaled knee has a step-stool. He could feel her arranging his body and herself on his back. When she settled and patted the back of his long neck, he stood and tested the weight. It was too much, but he’d be damned if he left his body in the streets of London.
With a belch of fire, he leapt into the air, his wings beating frantically, neck straining forward until he reached the sky above the buildings. His beats slowed, but he still took great sweeps until he reached a height where he could glide over the burning streets of the city.
* * *
Danny woke to the stench of iron blood and sulfur, and the taste of raw meat and brimstone on his tongue. With his gaze, he traced the long, thick timbers that held up the barn’s roof. The events of the previous night played over in his head and he scowled. Passing his tongue over his furry teeth, he wondered if this is how crazy people felt; satisfied? With a sense of well-being he hadn’t felt since his parents died? Like he hadn’t lived till he felt his wings beating a steady, mile-eating rhythm?
He signed and propped himself up on his elbows in the bed of hay he had slept in. His gaze passed over Blackwood’s form, under a blanket and still asleep, over the half eaten carcass of a cow, and then settled on a bronzed dragon curled up next to the cow. The dragon’s tail was wrapped about its frame and its wings were tucked neatly over its back. And it lay there as still as a statue.
Danny stared at it for a long time.
“He’s impressive, isn’t he?”
A shivered passed through Danny. “Yes.”
“And I’m impressed you figured out how to get back into your body. Do you think you can take over his again without my help?”
Danny glanced over at Blackwood. She had sat up, and was stretching her arms above her head. His gaze settled on her breasts and he wondered what it would be like to have her straddling him in a different position than last night. He coughed and brought his attention back to the dragon.
“Can I?” he asked.
“Well, you managed to get back into your body, didn’t ya?”
Danny shrugged. He wasn’t aware when he had left the dragon’s body. It must have happened while both bodies slept.
“What am I?”
“You haven’t figured that out yet? You’re Wyvern.”
“What’s a Wyvern?”
“That’s your name, Danny. Not Wievern. Someone got that wrong at the orphanage. And it’s the reason it has taken me so long to find you.” She snorted. “You’d think I would have figured that out sooner.”
He turned towards her and caught her in a yawn. She gave him a coy smile, then said, “But I have. That’s all that matters now. We’ll have you in fighter-shape before the Germans can send in their bloody zeppelins. Won’t they be surprised to see you!” She barked a laugh and slapped her thigh, then stood up.
“But what am I?”
Her smile turned sad. “Dragonblood, Danny. Your people have Dragonblood in you. Either your mother’s or father’s line, I’m not sure which. They were murdered before I could find them.”
Danny’s blood ran cold. “Murdered? I thought–”
“That you did it?”
“I started the fire. That night. It was me. I was playing with fire. My father had told me—“
“Did you mother encourage it?”
Danny shrugged. “I started the fire.”
“It wasn’t you.”
His jaw clenched and unclenched. He looked at his boots. “How can you be so sure?”
“Have you ever been burned?”
Danny had always been attracted to fire and hot things. He used to hug his mother’s stove while she rubbed his head. It was such a comfort. When his father would catch them, he’d scream at ma, saying she was the worst mother. She would always laugh, showing him that Danny was fine. And he was. Always had been. Fire couldn’t touch his skin, and the heat just made him feel…right.
“As long as you’re alive,” Blackwood continued, “the Dragonblood in your veins make you impervious to fire and heat. Whomever of your parents were of Dragonblood, they wouldn’t have burned in the fire you started unless they were already dead.”
“They were murdered,” he said, a shiver passed through him, leaving his heart like stone.
“And you would have been, too, had ya been in the house in bed like you should have been.”
Danny blushed, and immediately wondered why. He let it pass, then said, “Who.”
“Assassins. The Kaiser’s men knew your kind were still around, and they planned to get rid of you all before the war broke out. Or maybe they were just killing you off because they couldn’t stand that we had an advantage.” She shrugged. “It is not much of an advantage. Your kind defend our boundaries. Can’t leave the kingdom, and you’re strongest within the city of London.” She indicated towards the dragon. “You two will not last long away from the city.”
Danny wanted to take to the air and rain fire on the world. All these years he had thought it was his fault, that he had killed his parents. He got up, brushing hay from his clothes. He tried to keep his voice calm. “Where are we?”
“Not far. Just on the other side of Temple. Danny, we can wait—“
“What happens now?” he asked. He didn’t want to wait any longer.
She went over to the still-as-death dragon and patted the sharp scales on its head. “Practice.”
* * *
That night, the Wyvern banked around the dark edge of a tall, roiling cloud. Three zeppelins droned ahead, churning a line in the sky as straight as an arrow towards London.
They hung in the air like bloated, grotesquely enlarged ticks; over six hundred feet long, and fatter than any sea monster the Wyvern had seen. Moonlight gleamed on its great sides, an alternate dull silver and matte black as it bored through a cluster of clouds.
The nearer they got to the city’s boundaries, the stronger the Wyvern’s wings beat the air. His chest swollen with unspent fire, he stayed a few miles back, watching as the small pilots tried their best to shoot the zeppelins out of the sky with their tiny stings. Their bullets did nothing but puncture the hides within the zeppelin’s aluminum shells; the leaks too small to make a difference.
A plane buzzed over his right shoulder and he felt the sting of bullets scrape over his thick scales. The Wyvern roared, more at the shock than the pain. He flew under the plane, getting out of pilot’s range. They danced in the sky; the Wyvern matching the pilot’s every move. Together they approached the rear-most zeppelin and the pilot shifted from trying to shoot the Wyvern to shooting the zeppelin. The pilot tried to keep his bullets focused on one spot, but when he feared a crash, he peeled off.
The Wyvern dove forward. His claws clung to the zeppelin’s shell, gouging deep scars along its side until his body caught on a support beam. Peeling back a sheet, he peered within. A hydrogen filled bladder hung beneath.
His belly rumbled, like a mountainside rolling across the land. Reaching in, he punctured the balloon and spewed a gout of fire as hot as the sun.
The zeppelin shook with the Wyvern’s rage.
Flames roared and licked into the night sky, setting the nearest clouds aglow. A succession of blasts shuddered through the Kaiser’s beast held between the Wyvern claws. As the aluminum frame melted, the dragon launched into the sky.
Men screamed as the ruined carcass glittered with golden flames and shifted down to the green fields surrounding London.
The pilot who had attacked the Wyvern drew abreast with his buzzing metallic beast. The man’s fist pumped the air, then he sped forward towards the other zeppelin, waving the Wyvern forward, and Danny followed.
* * THE END * *
Author’s Note: I wrote this for my newest anthology, Wars To End All Wars, in case we didn’t get enough stories. But we did, and my story didn’t fit in well with all the others we chose. So, here it is just for you! I hope you liked it. If so, please consider buying Wars To End Wall Wars. First year’s proceeds will go to Doctors Without Borders.
The other day, I was perusing the internet, as one is wont to do, and I came across something interesting on Julie Czerneda’s website.
Ms. Czerneda is an award-winning science fiction/fantasy author. I’ve only read one of her works, In The Company of Others, which I enjoyed, but I didn’t like it enough to read more of her Science Fiction. I am, however, looking forward to starting her new Fantasy series, Night’s Edge, later this year. The first book is out, Turn of Light, and the second, A Play of Shadow, should be released in November.
Anyway, her website is a regular stopping spot on my rounds. On that particular day, I noticed she had a writer’s advice list (or something, I can’t find it now, of course) and I skimmed through it, thinking, yeah, yeah, nothing I haven’t read before until my gaze stopped on the last tidbit of wisdom. Again, I can’t find it now, but essentially it went something like this:
“Don’t get fat and flabby.”
Okay, we all know Ms. Czerneda didn’t write anything remotely like that, but that’s what I walked away with.
As a group, we writers probably tend toward the more…let’s be nice…sedentary lifestyle.
We encourage each other to sit our butts in our chairs and stay there until we’ve finished a story – even if it takes years.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I know that I actually burn more calories sleeping than I do while at the computer typing. (Yes, I know this for a fact because I used a BodyBugg for over a year. The numbers do not lie.)
Not only that, I often find that eating sugary, fatty foods give my brain the glucose-boost it needs when I’m in the creative-thick of my stories, when the last climax is just within grasp. Without that hefty slice of cheese cream-iced carrot cake, my protagonist would never slay that dragon or smother their foes.
So, not only am I not burning any calories during the hours I write, but I increase my caloric intake.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
While many of us live to live on the page, we have to all remember that our bodies need exercise just as much as we need to write. We are not doing anyone any favors if we drop dead of a heart attack. (Not to mean, but George R. R. Martin, I’m looking at you. You must finish The Winds of Winter!)
I’m not saying we all have to march out the door and start running marathons or training for the Olympics, but a good, brisk walk (or equivalent) once a day is the least we should all do. And for many of us, much more.
But, you say, I work all day. I come home tired. After doing my chores, and carving out time away from my friends and family to write, now I’m supposed to exercise, too?
I joined the gym a few months ago, and I go to the BodyAttack and BodyCombat classes. Since it’s a set schedule, it’s something I can put on my calendar and force myself to go. It’s a good workout and I get to observe all sorts of potential characters. In addition, while my dog is looking at his 17th year, he still forces me out for a walk twice a day. I’m not running marathons anymore, but I’m doing my best to manage the excess fat I have and maintain some muscle mass.
How about you? What are you doing to keep in shape (whatever that means for your body type)? Other than health, what writer-specific benefits do you derive from physical exercise?
Alternate tales set during the first World War, this short story collection takes history and tweaks it.
2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1. Seven authors, including the award-winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author, Elizabeth Moon, commemorate that event by writing stories set during the great war, adding their own, sometimes speculative, interpretations and answering the question, “What if…?”
Under normal circumstances, a blog title like that would scare most readers away. (History? Bah! Give me some celebrity gossip.)
But I know you.
Like most writers, you probably love history as much as I do.
Are you aware that this year marks the 100th year anniversary of World War One?
(That’s a rhetorical question.)
While I know you’ve probably seen some of BBC’s programs commemorating the event and the recent National Geographic article on the war, you may not have been aware that yours truly has put together a collection of short stories on World War One.
Today, I’m happy to announce that the anthology is complete. I’m just waiting on some last-minute changes from my e-book designer, then I’ll be publishing out latest collection on Amazon and Smashwords.
Until then, check out the cover put together by my writing buddy, Joe Bailey.
Nice, huh? He did a great job of capturing the general feel of the collection while keeping it generic enough to encompass the diversity of the stories.
Each year, the process I use to put together an anthology changes. This time, Rob H. Bedford, senior reviewer at SFFWorld.com, and Dag Rambraut, owner of SFFWorld.com, participated by helping me select each story. Rob also provided editorial direction (amazing how much I miss). I can’t thank the two enough for their help and especially Dag for providing the venue that brought us all together.
Oh, one other thing. Like the two first anthologies I created with the writers whom frequent the forums of SFFWorld.com, the first year’s proceeds garnered from the sale of Wars to End All Wars – Alternate Tales from the Trenches will be donated to Doctors Without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières). When you buy this collection of stories, you’ll not only get some great fiction, but you’ll be supporting a great cause. Plus, it’ll only be 99 cents!
By the way, you may have noticed that I filed this blog post under my Friday Fiction category. That’s because I do have a story for you. It’s from our second-year anthology titled Lucky or Unlucky, 13 Stories of Fate.
Earlier this month on the 13th, we posted Getting Lucky by J. M. Odell. It’s a short story about what we are willing to do, and live with, for our loved ones. Would you take someone’s luck away so that you and yours could have more? Pop on over to SFFWorld.com and find out.
Fog covered the street like a shroud. It cut off the skyscrapers, obscured the store signs, and made ghosts of the pedestrians. The weather seemed an omen, of prospects cut short and people who would fade from his life. ~ From Getting Lucky by J. M. Odell.
And if you like Getting Lucky, please consider purchasing the entire anthology at these fine venues:
As some of you may know, I review books for SFFWorld.com.
Don’t let that fool you, though. I’m not a real reviewer.
I don’t churn through tens or hundreds of books a year.
I squeak out maybe one or two a month. And I spend forever thinking about the book after I’ve read it, before I write a review. Then I end up writing a short and superficial review. Then I immediately feel guilty for not giving the book its proper attention, but since I have another book to read and I’ve spent so much time dawdling on the last one, I move on.
Regardless, I feel I’ll never get through my (virtual) reading pile.
So, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading book reviews.
I know, doesn’t make sense. If I don’t have time to read more books, why do I spend my precious free time reading reviews of other books?
Well, confession time:
It makes me feel like I’m wider read than I actually am.
Also, I admire a good review.
There is a careful skill to writing a good review, and I admire that. I don’t have it. Writing a good review is rather hard. Have you tried it?
One has to summarize the plot and story of a book while giving the potential reader a sense of the writing quality, pacing, setting, and voice. Then you have to make up your mind on whether you like it or not, or if it was just ‘meh’. Then you have to figure out if your readers would like it or not, and whether you should recommend it or not taking into consideration extenuating circumstances (riddled with typos, reputation of the author, etc).
That’s a lot of pressure.
I rarely perform well under it.
But when I see a review that does all the above effortlessly, I not only enjoy it, but think maybe one day I’ll be able to do that, too.
An odd aspiration, I know, but there it is.
Do you write book reviews? If so, why? And what are you reading this summer (whether you’ll review it or not)?
Today I have the pleasure of handing over my blog to Emmie Mears. Before that, allow me to tell you a bit about our relationship.
I ‘met’ Emmie a few years ago. I visited her blog and became besotted by the strength and honesty oozing from her blog posts. Lucky for me, she thought I was alright, too. Since then we’ve swapped encouragement, writing advice, and even gifts. Even though she’s half my age, Emmie is the sort of woman I look up to. She calls it as she sees it, but doesn’t roll around in the muck. Everyone deserves respect and it is refreshing to read her intelligent, but heartfelt, responses to some of the industry shenanigans that inevitably sully the blog-o-sphere headlines. To boot, she’s a great writer.
And that’s what she’s here to talk about. Without further delay, please welcome Emmie Mears.
First of all, I want to say a huge thank you to Nila for hosting me today. When I started my WordPress blog that became EmmieMears.com, she was one of my very first friends. That was three years ago, and I couldn’t be happier that we are still in touch.
I did a lot of thinking about what I would want to say here. It’s a special day, and this is a special place to be. It’s not a coincidence that I asked her to host me on this particular day, the day my debut novel launches into the wild. Whether it takes wing and soars around or simply flaps in a circle and dive bombs unsuspecting passers-by is sort of moot. The most important thing about this day is that it’s happening, and the only reason that most important thing exists whatsoever is because of people like Nila.
Writing is often a solitary gig. We spend hours or days or months closeted in our studies or on our couches or in actual closets, scribbling or typing, banging away at keys or sometimes desks or walls with our heads. We read books and spend a lot of time navigating the swirling chaos of our own minds.
The thing about the written word is that it very seldom exists in a vacuum.
Every book on your shelves or e-reader is the product of not just one person sitting down and putting scratch marks on a white background; it’s the manifestation of tens of people, maybe even scores of people toiling for weeks and sometimes years on end. Even if you self-publish, there are people at every stage.
Some of those people are critique partners. Some are paid to read your work, either by you or by your publisher. Some don’t read it at all, just silently pass you a shot of tequila when they see you looking wild-eyed.
A book, it’s been said, is the chance to see inside another being’s mind. People can speak to us – directly to us – after hundreds of thousands of years. Each word we write could be a future archaeologist’s window into now. But that’s all big picture stuff. Huge picture. One-way conversation with Shakespeare on one hand, the surviving remnant of human existence on the other.
Community takes writing out of a vacuum and makes it smaller. More accessible. Having someone who understands and can empathize with the wonderful, whirlwindy, terrifying, frustrating, crazy-making thing that is putting words into stories makes it seem that much easier to keep going. I know without any doubt that I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the people around me who encouraged me, learned with me, cheered me on, shared their own work with me, and just showed me that they would keep writing no matter what. It made – and makes – me want to keep writing no matter what, too.
I’ve already called today a launch day, and it is; it’s the day my little book THE MASKED SONGBIRD becomes available to anyone with a couple bucks and an internet connection. But really, it never existed in a vacuum at all. It only came to being because of the myriad connections to people in my life, through the internet or in person.
Whatever your personal goals are, there’s a lesson that I think all of us could bear to let sink in a bit more deeply. Surround yourself with people who build you up. Avoid those who tear you down. Whatever your craft, find the community surrounding it and engage. We get much farther together than we do alone.
Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.
Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.
Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.
Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends—even her country.
Emmie Mears was born in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star state promptly spat her out at the tender age of three months. After a childhood spent mostly in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana, she became a proper vagabond and spent most of her time at university devising ways to leave the country.
Except for an ill-fated space opera she attempted at age nine, most of Emmie’s childhood was spent reading books instead of writing them. Growing up she yearned to see girls in books doing awesome things, and struggled to find stories in her beloved fantasy genre that showed female heroes saving people and hunting things. Mid-way through high school, she decided the best way to see those stories was to write them herself. She now scribbles her way through the fantasy genre, most loving to pen stories about flawed characters and gritty situations lightened with the occasional quirky humor.
Emmie now lives in her eighth US state, still yearning for a return to Scotland. She inhabits a cozy domicile outside DC with two felines who think they’re lions and tigers.
You can preorder THE MASKED SONGBIRD here (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JD7TWZK)! Released in a box set, you get four great paranormal and urban fantasy books for less than $4!
I wrote this story ages ago. So, it’s not particularly well written, but it did earn a spot in Tales of the Sword, edited by Dorothy Davies. If you like this story, please considering buying the anthology.
Warning: adult content ahead (not really, but need to warn the kiddies). Also, this is a love story. I think the first (and only) one I’ve written. You’ve been warned.
* * *
1391 – At the edge of the Emirate of Granada on the Iberian Peninsula
“Take up that sword.”
Elijah looked to where the turbaned Moor pointed. A man’s guts filled the room with a smell Elijah found familiar. Memory flashed a scene before his mind’s eye. He gagged, but forced it away. His gaze skirted beyond the blood seeping into the dirt floor and concentrated on the dead man’s hands wrapped around the hilt of a short sword.
“I don’t…I’ve never…”
Shouts from outside his small home made him jump in place.
The Moor scowled at him. “You’re a farmer. You chop wood, plow the field, and harvest your grains. You can wield a sword.”
More shouts and the ring of steel-on-steel filtered through the window, and the Moor took his leave without another word.
Elijah stared out the open door into a darkening sky. He wanted to go after the man and thank him. The Moor just saved Elijah’s life, having killed the raiding Christian who invaded his home, but he feared what he would encounter outside. He was a farmer, not a warrior. All he could do was hope the Arab and his small band of men would save the Jewish community from the northern hordes — and do so before nightfall.
With Elijah’s face flushed with shame, he looked at the corpse in his home. The Christian looked much like himself; dressed in breeches and a tunic, his feet bare with cracked nails. Elijah realized they were probably the same age, in their prime. Thanks to YAHWEH, and despite his cowardice, he lived and the sword-wielder at his feet burned in hell.
Was that right? Did he owe YAHWEH? Or the Moor and his god?
A scream not ten paces away filled his one-room home. His family and neighbors suffered and died while there he stood, feet rooted with fear. He swallowed hard, the dry pain making him grimace as he knelt down beside the dead man. Taking care to avoid the blood, he tried to shift the dead man’s hands away from the hilt of the sword, but they refused to move. Even in death, the man’s grip held true.
Peeling the Christian’s fingers off the hilt, he got to his feet. Elijah held the sword before him and marveled at the straight blade. Though he tried hard to know little about swords, Elijah could mark the weight of good iron. The ivory hilt, banded with gold, felt warm and hard in his hand. It was not an unpleasant sensation.
Elijah could not imagine the poor soldier at his feet ever having enough money to purchase such a fine weapon. It must have been loot the Christian stole from the good people of Granada as they pushed the Moors ever south to the belly of the Iberian Peninsula. It might have even belonged to one of Elijah’s brethren, Jews fighting to claim a small spot of peace.
Rough voices threw challenges outside his home, and Elijah stepped into the evening, his new sword at his side.
Would fear grip again at a crucial moment?
He steeled himself against the thought, and started towards a tangled group of men.
The Moor who saved him fought a horse-mounted Christian. The horse’s flanks bled as the Moor danced around, swiping with his wicked curved blade at the armored man atop it.
The baker’s son, his brave heart bigger than his young stature, used a club to beat a fighter wrestling with Elijah’s uncle. More of the Moor’s men drove a line of Christian soldiers between the closely spaced huts in a vain hope to drive them back across the river. Down the path that ran through their village, another group of men fought.
If this did not end soon, someone would light a torch and their homes, fields, and livelihoods would burn.
Trembling with rage, a fire lit inside Elijah, and the world turned red. His steps sped, and an unearthly howl filled the evening air. His new blade slashed across men’s backs, faces, and torsos. In his arm, the sword felt free do as it pleased as Elijah tried to dance like the Moor. He spun up and across the beaten horse’s back, ramming the sword through the soldier. Blood drenched Elijah’s hand as he landed on the other side.
Moving with a macabre grace, he slashed at a man about to hack at his uncle, then another beside him. His sight blurred at the periphery, honing sharp as a blade at the men that plagued his homeland. No one could stop his fury.
A shout too close to his ear made him jump up from a crouch. Blood roared in his ears. Glancing down at his feet, he saw a mass of sliced flesh that might once have been a man. The Moor that had save him stood before them both, tears in his eyes and his turban gone. A stiff wind batted his long, black braid out behind him. In the darkening sky, it looked like a serpent. Elijah lifted the sword, muscles tensing to move in and remove the offending creature.
The Moor brought up his hands. “No! By Allah’s power: STOP.”
Elijah’s eyes snapped to the Moor’s lips and the world went dark.
* * *
Voices woke Elijah. He opened his eyes to candle light and the familiar sight of his ceiling. He raised himself onto his elbows, and a girl came quickly to his side. She pressed down on his chest. “Shhh, sleep now. Rabbi Abraham says you need rest.”
It took him a moment to focus on her face. The potter’s daughter. He noted a few bruises on her face and arms, but she seemed intact otherwise.
“What happened? Are they gone?”
A sad smile tugged at her lips as she pulled away from him. “They are gone. We lost many. We would all be gone if not for the local imam’s warriors and…you.” She looked away from him at the last word.
The rabbi came and pushed her away. Others crowded around Elijah’s cot. He recognized village elders, and noted a few that were missing. Some wore nervous smiles while most frowned. He wondered why they were there, with him, and not with the wounded.
“My brother…did he…”
The Rabbi knelt beside him and took up his bloody hand in his own, easing him back down on the cot. “Your brother is lost, Elijah. He died swiftly and is with God, praise be unto Him. There’s no reason to worry about him anymore. We must speak of your…affliction…” He looked away, too.
“Affliction? What do you mean?” Elijah noticed the drying blood on his hand and pulled it away from the rabbi. “I’m hurt. I need to clean the wound.”
“None of your blood was spilled.” The voice was too harsh. Who said it? His uncle?
Elijah swung his legs over the cot and tried to stand, but his legs gave out. With a hand on the rabbi’s shoulder, he eased himself back down in a way he found new, yet familiar. A memory of his father entering their small home, dragging his feet across the threshold as fatigue weighed him down flashed before Elijah’s eyes.
“My father’s curse…” He looked down his legs. His clothes hung heavy with blood. With eyes closed, he said, “I’m just like him.”
Elijah felt warm tears roll down his face.
The cot shifted, and Elijah surmised that the rabbi had stood. “We need to decide what to do, Elijah. Yes, you are afflicted just as your father. And like your father it will only end in death. But Martín Yáñez’s northmen will not relent with his intolerance. We need assistance such as–”
“No. He can’t control himself.” His uncle’s voice. After their parents died, he raised Elijah and his only brother. Where was his body? Why wasn’t it here so he could attend it? Did they not trust him even with his dead brother’s body?
“But he saved us all.”
“Who gave him that blade?”
“This will only lead to sorrow and shame.”
“We need fighters. Good ones.”
“He can’t be trusted.”
“I didn’t kill the Moor.” Elijah’s voice skittered around the room, silencing the growing storm.
“What?” The rabbi spoke for them all.
“The Moor that saved me, that fought for us. He came to me when I was…afflicted…and demanded I stop. I had the urge to slice his head off, but I didn’t.”
“Lucky for him.”
“No.” Elijah opened his eyes and stood. He took in a deep breath, knowing that what he said next would either save or damn him, or maybe both. “I can control it. With training, I can be of use.”
“He can join Yūsuf’s army. If the Moor saved Elijah’s life, is it not their custom to take responsibility for that life? They are camped not too far from here. Send him to them. Let the Moors with their angry god handle this affliction. I want none of it here,” Elijah’s uncle said as he gathered the potter’s daughter to him as if to protect her from Elijah.
Elijah looked to the man who raised him. The tears that filled his eyes moments before overfilled their bounds. He wiped at his face, wondering how quickly a man he thought he loved could so easily go against him. What had he done out there? He remembered killing the man on the horse, but little else until the Moor demanded that he stop.
The Moor had somehow been able to release the rage inside him with one word. He remembered how once it took six men to subdue his father after one of his own bouts. Everyone would be safer if he joined the Moor’s cause and defend Granada’s northern border.
Tucked on a small tributary of the Rio Genil, the Jewish alcove of Moclín were often at odds with their Moorish rulers, but they knew how to tolerate each other. The Christians only wanted to see every Jew dead or converted; taking up Granada’s defense would help them both. And it was clear he was unwanted here. Besides, a warrior’s death would be better than what his father endured.
“I’ll go,” he said, and it was settled.
* * *
Tahir Shia-Agil watched Elijah spar with two younger boys. Sunlight beat upon them all as they practiced in the stone courtyard in one of Tahir’s training yards. Sweat ran down Elijah’s tanned, muscled back and soaked the top of his britches. Slicing their scimitars through the morning air, the young lads where making the Jew work to defend himself with his short sword. But his face remained calm; a mask of serenity that belied the monster that hid within.
Tahir had only seen the monster come out three times since Elijah had joined the Caliph’s army, and never during practice. He need not worry for the boy’s lives, but still, Tahir watched carefully.
After almost a year of defending the Moorish border, the Caliph himself had heard of Elijah’s battle hunger and success. A message had been sent: Elijah was to present himself to the Caliph for an honor.
But before that could happen, he needed a bath.
Lifting his fingers to his mouth, Tahir discharged a whistle that froze the warrior’s movements. They bowed to each other, and Elijah spun towards Tahir.
Tahir motioned for him to join him under the blossoming orange trees that lined the courtyard. Elijah trotted over, snatching up his tunic that lay at the edge of the central yard.
Tahir returned the greeting.
“What pulls you away from the royal palace? Are we to be sent out again?”
“Castille’s dogs have been satiated with enough of our blood for now. You’ve done your part to protect what is left of Granada. But I suspect we’ll be fighting the Christians again soon enough, but not today. Are you so ready to bath in their blood again?”
Elijah looked away with a slight shake to his head. “You know I don’t.”
No. Tahir knew that. The Jew only wanted to see his home again, but the last time he had tried to go back, his battle-hungry reputation preceded him. His uncle had refused to acknowledge Elijah ever existed, saying that no one in his family would forsaken their faith so easily, and taken up the sword with such gusto.
Though Tahir encouraged Granada’s warriors to convert to Islam, the Caliph did not require it. At least, not during the pitched battles to save the shrinking realm. So Elijah had kept his own counsel and prayed to his own gods. His uncle was wrong to accuse Elijah of converting, but Elijah had taken up wearing a turban while fighting. It had made it easier for his fellow warriors to distinguish him from the Christians, but thus was the reason many thought he adopted all the Arab’s customs, including their religion. But he had only taken up the sword. After that first day near Moclín, Tahir hadn’t seen the ivory and gold-hilted blade far from Elijah. Tahir believed he slept with it.
“You need a bath.”
Elijah glanced at him, and then sniffed his arm pit. “It’s not any worse than usual.”
Tahir quelled the snort of laughter that threatened to erupt. “This is serious. The Caliph, King Yūsuf Abū’ l-Hajjāj the second, requests your presence. You will bathe. And ask the steward for perfumed water.” A smirk spread across his face. “You’ll need it.” He turned to leave.
“Wait. Why me?”
Tahir didn’t look back, but said, “Your sword.”
* * *
Elijah could tell it was her. Though she wore a servant’s thicker hijāb, her smooth, sensual gait gave her away. She walked across the slick, tiled floor with a small flask cradled in her hands. Knelling at the edge of the pool, she pored a dram of the thick essence into his bath.
Naked, he turned in the hot pool, his face red from the steam and now his shame. The scent of lavender engulfed him.
“What are you doing here.”
There was a pause in the air about him. He glanced over his shoulder at Tahir’s daughter, Zorah. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was just another one of the bath-girls. A quick look into her dark eyes told him he was not wrong.
Only large enough for one man, the sunken bath was too small to allow him some modesty with distance. She was so close, he could smell her sweet jasmine scent mix with the lavender. He feared he would say or do something wrong as he always did in her presence.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“There are some who say the same thing about you.” He heard her dip something into the water, and lavender-infused water ran down his head.
He looked over his shoulder. She had pulled back her shawl, exposing her smooth, brown arm. Dipping her hand into the water, she reached over the small space between them to wet his head. Turning away from her, he backed up closer to her for fear she might over-extend and end in the pool with him.
When would the young woman learn? She couldn’t keep throwing herself at him. Already her father, Tahir, had forbade she step within the same room as Elijah. He had to berate her before all the servants. “He’s a Jew, Zorah, and a commoner. I forbid you from mooning after him.”
But at every opportunity, she thwarted her father’s efforts to keep her away from Elijah. Now that the fighting was over, it was getting worse. And though Elijah only wanted to honor Tahir’s wishes, he couldn’t help but feel elated when she succeeded.
Dropping his head back, he closed his eyes and allowed Zorah to pour lavender-water on his forehead. She used both hands this time, and caressed his face and ears. Goosebumps tingled over his flesh despite the warmth of the bath and his feelings for her.
He couldn’t pinpoint the moment he fell in love with her. It had happened sometime after the first time she made him laugh, and the first time he caught her with her veil down. Her beauty lived up to her name; she was as fresh as a spring dawn. If he could, he would carry her off to some distant land where they could live in peace together without the constraint of culture and religion. But he couldn’t, so he would do with these few stolen moments. He’d just hoped Tahir would marry her off soon before something serious happened between them. Elijah didn’t think he could restrain himself for long, though at the moment he was managing rather well.
“You are to see the Caliph?” she asked.
Elijah moaned something akin to a “Yes.”
“Do you know why?”
He turned towards her, crossing his arms on the tiled lip of the bath. Zorah sat adjacent to him, crossing her legs before her, still close enough to run her hand across his shoulders. She had allowed her face veil to fall across her shoulders.
“No. Wait. Yes, sometime about my sword. But I’m sure you will tell me I’m wrong.”
She huffed. “Someone has to correct the way you mangle our language. And my father doesn’t have the heart to tell you when you’ve made a mistake on the sparring grounds.”
“I don’t make mistakes. Every now and then I have to let your brothers win.” He winked at her, and she splashed water into his face. Skirting his arm across the water’s top, he drenched her with his bath water. She stifled a scream, and stood up. Laughing, Elijah drunk in the sight of her. The soaked garment clung to her breasts and hips.
“How dare you! My father will kill you!”
He laughed harder. “For what? Dragging you in here?”
She turned to leave.
“No, Zorah, don’t leave. I’m sorry. Please come back.”
Stopping a few paces out, she turned back towards him with a sparkle in her eye that made Elijah’s heart skip a beat. “If you want me, come get me.”
With only the barest of pauses, Elijah lifted himself out of the water and strode towards her. Her eyes widen, but she kept as still as a frightened doe. He placed his hands on her arms, and resisted the urge to press his body into hers. Instead he kissed her lightly on her cheek, her closed eyes, and then her lips. Pressing his cheek against hers, he whispered, “You know I want you.”
She pushed him away, wrapping her arms about her as if she were cold. “You won’t make a whore of me.”
He frowned. “I wouldn’t think of it.”
She took another step away from him towards the open door to the bath house, her gaze frantic until it settled on his hips. If someone went by they could easily see the two of them. Elijah wondered how long it would take Tahir to slice his throat at a presumed transgression.
“I think your thoughts are very clear at the moment. You may not be able to control yourself.”
He was naked before her, and couldn’t hide his desire, but did she really think he couldn’t control himself? How much did she know of his battle rages? He yet again did the wrong thing with her. Turning on his heel, he went back to his bath. As he heard her slam the door behind her, he wondered what she had wanted to tell him.
* * *
Yūsuf had arranged to hold court with Elijah at the edge of his mirror pool, under an arched patio that lead into the palace. The water reflected the deep blue sky and the sliver of moon that heralded the cool evening to come. It held a peace that Elijah felt he would never find for himself.
He’d come in the finest clothes he could borrow from Tahir’s sons; a white silk shirt and pants. He managed to find a jeweled studded scabbard that befitted his sword, and slung that across his hips with a belt of interwoven leather strips. A long length of red silk had been placed in his room. He had wrapped it about his head in the manner that Tahir had taught him. As he walked through the palace’s great room and passed beneath the ornate arched doorway, his silk pants shimmered across his thighs, reminding him of Zorah’s touch earlier in the day. He bit down on his tongue to keep from thinking about her.
With a group of men and guards about him, the Caliph literally shimmered next to the pool. He wore a shirt made of pure gold.
“Ah, the great Jew warrior deigns to grace us with his visage. Did you lose yourself with the bath-house girls?” The Caliph spoke directly to Elijah.
He frowned and stopped a few paces from the group. Bowing as he had been shown just moments before, he said, “Pardon me, my lord, I did not know His Grace waited upon me. I will make you wait no more. I am here.”
“Yes, you are.” He raised his arms. “How do you like the gift my brethren have given me.” He turned in a slow circle for Elijah to admire him.
“A gift worthy of Your Grace, my lord.”
“Yes. I think so, too. This, along with our hard victories, has put me in a good mood. I have decided to bestow a gift.”
Elijah stayed silent, but his mind raced. A title. Maybe some land. He tried to banish the far-reaching thoughts that entered his mind. He concentrated on the men about Yūsuf. Tahir, a nobleman in his own right, stood among them, his face as stern and unmoving as the hours before a battle. He recognized a few of the others as men of Arab learning, but none that he knew personally. One of the guards had been at the battle of La Higueruela. He was best suited for close fighting. It made sense to see him here. As he scanned the group, his eyes caught sight of a bit of red moving back along a corridor leading into the palace. He squinted, but couldn’t make out what it was, but most likely one of Yūsuf’s harem.
“Are all your men so stunned by gifts they stand mute, Tahir? Maybe John of Castille should have showered them with gold and silver. We would have lost just as much land but without all that blood.”
Tahir coughed, and Elijah met the Caliph’s gaze. “My lord, so stunned by your generosity, I thought it best to keep silent lest this be a dream the evening wind could carry away.”
The Caliphate laughed. “That is so. Life is fickle, Elijah Cruz, but my gifts are not. Tahir sings your praises each time I allow him to open his mouth. He suggests I name you a lord of Granada, and give you a small district south along the coast to protect and manage. The locals are complaining about the new northern neighbors, driven south by the Christians. Your skills with that sword would help, and so would your diplomatic nature. Tahir tells me you have made many friends among his clan. But the only way a Jew could hold such a title is if you convert to Islam.”
Elijah’s mind raced. A conversion? This is my gift? He tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t insult the men before him.
“Or you could marry a Muslim.”
A lump caught in Elijah’s throat. “My lord?”
Tahir stepped forward, a small smile on his face. With a nod of his head, he said, “I offer Zorah.”
Elijah’s heart skipped a beat, and then thumped in his chest. A smile spread across his face as Tahir came towards him to give him an embrace that could crack the ribs of a bear. Words of praise and congratulations were exchanged, but Elijah couldn’t remember them all. Yūsuf signed a decree that ceded Elijah lands, a title, and a wife. He hardly heard any of the words he said to bid his leave of His Grace, but he found himself walking with Tahir back through the palace. Their steps bounced along the polished tiles and high, mosaic-ceiling, but he felt like he walked on air.
A flash of red caught his attention, and he stopped. Zorah glided towards them, covered in a red silk hijāb that perfectly matched the color of his turban. He took one step towards her, and froze.
The memory of his mother’s wails and screams for mercy pierced his elation.
The scroll in his hand trembled. He looked down at it, his vision dimmed, and the events of the last night he spent with his father threatened to spill the contents of his stomach. He swallowed hard, knowing that marrying Zorah would be his greatest sin.
He turned to Tahir, muttered an apology, and ran.
* * *
“You are acting like a fool.” Tahir wrenched the saddle from Elijah’s hands. “And have broken Zorah’s heart.” In the close quarters of the horse stall, Elijah could not reach around Tahir to snatch the saddle back.
Better her heart break now, he thought.
“Fine. I don’t need the saddle.” He bent for a blanket lumped in the straw bedding, shook it out, and placed it on the horse’s back. Making his way to the tack hung on the stall’s wall, he tried to ignore the fierce scorn coming from Tahir.
“Do you think you can insult my family this way? The Caliph?”
Elijah stopped, and looked to Tahir. How could he insult this man who taught him how to wield a sword, and how to tame the beast within him? He could no more insult him than he could visit ruin on his family.
“You don’t understand.”
Tahir grabbed the bridle from Elijah’s hands. “Tell me. You owe her that much.”
Elijah’s looked out the open door of the horse barn. Blue light filled the dirt courtyard beyond. The sun’s rays would not crest the horizon for some time. Time enough for him to gather his few belongings, and make a run for the mountain forests in the east.
He had managed to hide in a brothel’s cellar for the night, and he thought he had out-waited Tahir’s guards, but he ran into the blustery man as soon he came out of the room with his gear. He had wanted his wool tunic and breeches. The silk wouldn’t last long where he intended to go.
“Tahir, the last thing I want to do is insult you. And Zorah moves the blood in my veins. Without her, it will cease to flow. But I can not accept these gifts, nor her hand in marriage. I will only visit ruin on your family.”
“Do you fear the rage inside you? That is gone. You have banished it with the family that disowned you. Besides, it is only it battle that it might rear its head. As long as you don’t intend to turn against us, there is nothing to fear.”
Elijah had no desire to see his family again. Anyone he cared for was already dead. He never felt at peace with his people or their religion, or any religion for that matter, so it made no difference to him which side he fought. But the Christians killed his brother and plagued his people for centuries, he had no love for them. His place lay with Granada or south across the sea.
Dawn began to light the courtyard, and pale light filtered into the barn. Elijah could make out the concern etched on Tahir’s face. He owed him the truth.
“I fear my love for you all.”
“Why on earth should you?”
He took a deep breath. “My father’s curse has been in our family for generations. My great, grandfather is a hero among my people. He defended our village from each passing horde – Christian or Muslim – for years till he died an old man’s death in his bed. As each generation passed, the rage that gave my forebears strength and clarity in battle, grew and intensified in at least one of their offspring. It became…uncontrollable.”
“Every man loses himself in battle, Elijah. You’ve seen enough of that to know its truth.”
“Yes, but would they visit that evil upon their loved ones?”
“Of course not. And you wouldn’t either.”
“My father did. After a trip across Granada’s old border to protect a neighbor’s merchant caravan, my father came back convinced my mother had sinned against him. He hacked her to pieces as she begged for her life. He would have done the same with me and my brother if my uncle and neighbors hadn’t come in time to distract him. Two men died trying to tame him. They slit his throat before he could kill anyone else.”
A gasp spun them both around towards the door. Zorah stood silhouetted by dawn’s light, her hands covered her mouth.
Elijah groaned, and turned back towards the horse, taking the bridle from Tahir’s limp hands. He never said the right thing in front of that woman, why should it be any different now? He pulled the patient horse from its stall and bent to gather the saddle Tahir had placed on the floor.
Soft hands pressed along his shoulder. He lifted the saddle, using it as a shield. She ignored it. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she pulled him down and said, ” You’re not your father.”
Elijah tossed the saddle to the side, and hugged her to him. Tahir embraced them both.
After a time, Elijah pulled away from them.
“I know. I’m not my father, but I can’t risk it. If you marry me, the beast will be there, waiting for an opportunity.”
“Love conquers the most hellish of creatures, Elijah. You will not be alone in your struggle. And Zorah speaks the truth. You are not your father. With training and discipline, you have banished your demons,” Tahir said.
“I have seen it,” Zorah said. “The other day when you sparred with my cousin. He nearly broke your knee with a sly kick, and an horrendous howl escaped you. But you only retreated to rest. You have beaten it!”
They continued to list examples that showed Elijah’s grace and calm under duress. Elijah’s heart sank and lifted with each of their stories as he listened to them. Could they be right? Would making a new life for himself with the Arabs break his family’s curse?
“And just yesterday in the bath house?” Zorah said.
“The bath house?” Tahir looked askance at his daughter.
Elijah didn’t want to explain that to his future father-in-law, and interrupted her. “Enough! Yes. I think you may be right. With my father’s death, and your training, Tahir, my curse has been lifted.”
He looked to his new family with a quaking heart. Though he doubted the truth of his words, he would dare to love them. Taking the sword he stole a year ago, he placed it in Tahir’s hands. He would get a new, untainted sword. One worthy of a lord.
So, it is no wonder that book promotions on sites like Facebook and Twitter seem to be mandatory fare.
I’ve created a Twitter account, but have eschewed Facebook – for now. My time spent on Twitter is rather low. I have the Twitter app on my Kindle Fire, but I rarely check it there. Instead, I pop in from my desktop during the morning before I start work.
Scrolling through the tweets, I’m usually disappointed. If I see something interesting, I’ll re-tweet it, but mostly I ignore you all (sorry).
Tweets seem to fall into four categories (I know, there’s more, but I have to limit it somehow):
On-going conversations which are meaningless unless you happen to be around when they begin
Occasionally, someone says something pithy and smart so I favorite it, but essentially, the above covers it and I’m not all that interested. Sometimes, I think writers on social media are just a bunch of people saying, “Read me! Read me! Read me!”
To be sure, I’m guilty of doing the same. I’m not full of profound statements I want to share with the world, nor can I offer the best writing advice you’ve ever come across. I’m just not that clever.
Regardless, there’s no denying that Twitter users promote themselves or others on a regular basis and everyone seems okay with it. Since Tweets are relatively small, your promotional tweet can be easily ignored. While that may seem counter productive, the old adage that if one sees something often enough eventually you’ll buy it may hold true in the Twitterverse.
I know that I’ve checked out book links that seem to crop up over and over. And there’s this one writer I follow that seems to be tweeting one sentence from his novel each day. At first, I was perplexed by his tweets, but now I’m kind-of following along, and the other day I almost clicked on the link. Soon, I’m sure he’ll wear me down and I’ll just buy the darn thing.
So, what is your experience with Twitter? Or Facebook? Have you considered tweeting your novel or posting excerpts on Facebook?
Hell, who am I kidding? I have nothing else to blog about so I’ll blog about me.
It’s half way through 2014, so let’s see how we are doing in terms of the goals I set out at the end of last year.
Get Organized – This isn’t one of those things you can’t tick off and say, “Done!” It’s an ongoing thing. What I can say I’ve done is to create a spreadsheet with a list of the stories I’m working on. While it may not help me to keep on track, it is nice to look at it (I added lots of color).
Novels – I’ve veered way off track with this one. Instead of finishing my nested dragon story and revamping my Spanish bat tale, I’m working on my Science Fiction novel about a woman forced to start a new species. Regardless, I have made some progress. I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of September.
Short Stories – As I said before, my princess story sold to Mystic Signals for their August print edition, so I kind of consider my work is done in this department. But that’s hardly true. I wanted to finish at least three short stories this year. I got one out for my upcoming anthology (WW1 themed), but haven’t finished any others. Two more to go.
Anthology – This year’s anthology is going well. I have almost 40,000 words of great storytelling to offer to the world, especially a very military-oriented story from our featured author, Elizabeth Moon. I’m afraid the other stories do not quite live up to her skill, but regardless, the collection is a fine thing.
That’s it. Those were all the goals I set for myself. There is, of course, all the reviewing and blogging that goes along with my writer’s life. I think I’ve read about 15 books or so this year, and have manged to review half of ‘em. My blog posts are scarce, but hopefully that means I’ve writing more fiction.
Overall, I’m happy with my progress, though wish I could be doing more. I guess that will always be the case.
Did you list any goals at the beginning of the year?