Review: Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel, by K.M. Weiland

I wrote my first attempt at a novel more than 10 years ago, back in college. It will never see the light of day; the print manuscript lies in a sealed envelope even I dread to open. It’s really quite terrible, but at least it’s out of my system. Maybe one day I’ll go back and completely rewrite it into something good, but it will look nothing like the monstrosity confined to a bottom desk drawer that currently exists.

Why do I think it’s so bad? Partially because my writing skills have vastly improved in the decade since then. But more to the point, I “pantsed” the whole thing. That is, I wrote it without any attempt at outlining or creating more than the loosest possible structure in my head. This lead to a story full of non-sequiturs, lost story arcs and missing character motivations—a long pile of words on pages that don’t come together into something whole in the end.

Never again.

I’m also reminded of an anecdotal story about Jim Butcher, acclaimed author of the Dresden Files novels and more. As the story goes, like most of us young and idealistic writers, Mr. Butcher railed against the idea that a novel must follow a particular structure. To prove the professors of his creative writing program wrong about this, he set out to write a novel according to the classic structure, assuming that it would, as expected, turn out to be drivel. In doing this, he wrote the first of the Dresden Files novels, the one that would eventually be called Storm Front (though at the time it was titled Semi-automagic—how I love that title!). Following the “formula” not only created a work that proved gripping, entertaining and—most important—creative, it launched his career as a professional author.

With all of this in mind, I highly recommend that the amateur writer (myself included) read K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel. Or, as I did, listen to them on Audible, where they’re both narrated by the same person, Sonja Field, who effectively brings the conversational tone of the books to life.

I’m not willing to suggest that anything Ms. Weiland does in these books is truly revolutionary. You will find a presentation of the “classic” approach to story structure, with definitions of standardized terms (“catastrophe” and “sequel,” for instance). But the information is delivered in a clear manner by someone who has used these techniques to publish several novels. She effectively uses well-known literary classics in different genres as illustrations for these structures and ideas. If I have one complaint about these books, it might be that there are too many examples. Impatient as I am, I’d be satisfied with shorter books with fewer examples.

Along with those examples, Ms. Weiland includes snippets of interviews with a breadth of authors (particularly in the outlining book). These interviews can be easily summarized: every author approaches the act of structuring and outlining their novels in different ways, but these are typically variations on a theme and very few successful authors do not outline their novels before beginning writing—though almost all of them leave themselves free to improvise on that outline when a spark of creativity hits.

This last sentence, I think, summarizes the major effect of both of these books, and why I highly recommend them to aspiring authors. First, the books give you tools and constructs to allow you to approach story structure and outlining in a productive manner—whatever your personal process turns out to be. Second, the books prove both the value of using “traditional” story structure and the fact that using “formulaic” story structures does not prohibit creativity in writing. Like all “rules” in writing, a person who understands the purpose of the rules can occasionally break them to great effect—knowing the intuitive expectations a reader has in how a story should go allows you to more effectively twist those expectations into something cathartic, or at least entertaining.

These books collectively touch upon several other grounds important to planning novels—the value of creating characters before outlining, the fact that novel-writing is a process and that you’ll likely need to make revisions to story, characters and outline as things developed, methods for brainstorming and then sorting through generated ideas (though I highly recommend the Great Course by Professor Gerard Puccio, The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit for that particular issue) and details of some of the ways stories and characters surprise their creators and develop lives and wills of their own.

These are both (relatively) short reads and, though I’d prefer them to be shorter, are easy to turn out in just a few sittings. If you intend to write novels and have not recently (or ever) reviewed story structure techniques and ideas, I’d definitely recommend picking up these books and reading them as a set.

After that, there are some alternative analyses of story structure that might be useful as well. Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points (designed for structuring roleplaying games but also generally applicable to fiction-writing, I think) comes quickly to mind. Maybe I’ll review that in the near future.

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Rules Versus Rulings: Failing Forward, Difficulty and Gaming Theory in Mechanics

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently been running Apocalypse World (and have also run several sessions now of its derivative Dungeon World). Meanwhile, I’ve been (re-)reading the 7th Sea 2nd Edition rules, and this has got me to thinking, as I’m wont to do, about RPG game theory and design in general and what sorts of selections and conceits I might use myself in designing my own ruleset (particularly for Avar Narn).

The first pen and paper RPG I played was the old West End d6 Star Wars RPG. This was in late elementary school—well before I had much thought on system mechanics at all. My later youth was spent with the White Wolf games (Old and New WoD), with my perennial favorite, Shadowrun, and reading through—but never actually playing—Rolemaster. Surprisingly (and this is another story for another time), I didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons until college (aside from one abortive attempt at a game of AD&D during a Boy Scout campout).

Most of the games I played or was familiar with growing up were heavy on the crunch, with far more rules than were strictly necessary. As I’ve GMed more and more games, I’ve come to look for “Goldilocks” games that have just the right about of rules, erring on the lighter side. I try to read all sorts of rules for design ideas, but there are many I just would not run a game of. I really like Burning Wheel, for example—it has a depth to it that builds genre and atmosphere. At the end of the day, though, I would never run BW—I have too many minor nitpicks with the system (“scripting” combat for example) and don’t want to have to use that many rules.

As I’ve also mentioned in other posts, I’m quite a fan of the Fate ruleset and of Cortex Plus, though, as I’ll explain, I certainly have my concerns and gripes about these rules as well (I can’t say I’m ever completely satisfied by a ruleset, which is probably why I spend the amount of time I do thinking about RPG rules).

But this post is not really about the rules “lightness” or “crunchiness” of gaming systems. Nor is it about the “GNS” debate—which, while a useful construct for thinking about designs, probably shouldn’t have the level of concern about it that it does.

What I want to talk about instead is how much the metaphysics of gaming (or, more appropriately, design priorities and theories about rulesets) should be hard-coded into the rules of a game. Which returns us to the Apocalypse World Engine/PbtA games and the second edition of 7th Sea. I’ve heard both John Wick and Vincent Baker called pretentious by gamers for their approach to games, but if they’re pretentious, I’d be happy to be in their company all the same.

Baker’s games (not just Apocalypse World but also the excellent game that I’d never actually play Dogs in the Vineyard) and Wick’s new edition of 7th Sea are emblematic of a late trend in roleplaying games—games that know what they want to be and are unabashed about it. It’s not simply that these games are “rules-lighter” or more narratively focused, it’s that they are built on specific design principles.

I don’t want to confuse (in fact, quite the opposite is the point of this post) the theory of running a game and the theory behind mechanical choices. Baker’s agenda for Apocalypse World (barf forth apocalyptica, view every NPC through crosshairs, etc.) is not the same as his design theory.

Here’s a design principle used by both 7th Sea and AW that has become something of a byword in design lately: “fail forward.” This idea behind fail forward is that every action, success or failure, should move the story forward. Another way to put this is “no whiffs.” A statement that “you fail,” by itself doesn’t progress the story and just isn’t interesting. Adding a complication as a consequence of failure, or interpreting failure on the dice as “success at a cost” does and is.

Mechanically, this is hard-wired in both Apocalypse World and 7th Sea. The very resolution mechanic of AW provides various costs for failure and presents a result range that is specifically “success at a cost.” 7th Sea has a sidebar about the lack of a Dodge skill—because simply dodging and being missed isn’t fun or exciting (by the theory of the game). In 7th Sea, your approach is to use obstacles, climb the walls, defend yourself with your weapon, throw sand in the enemy’s eyes and otherwise create exciting and innovative maneuvers to avoid being struck—maneuvers that likely manipulate the environment in addition to stopping an attack, thus pulling double duty.

Having run AW and Dungeon World, I will say that the system’s mechanics do push the story inexorably forward, giving the GM a chance to complicate the story without having to prepare this in advance. My reading of 7th Sea seems to indicate a similar drive, with the additional qualifier that the generation and spending of Raises in that system creates a sort of bargaining system where failure and its consequences are not accidental. As an aside, I strongly suspect but cannot confirm that the Raise system used by 7th Sea drew heavily on Vincent Baker’s dice-bidding in Dogs in the Vineyard.

While some form of “fail forward” mechanic could be converted into use with any RPG’s core mechanic, the question I ask myself is whether this is necessary. In a Dungeons and Dragons game, a skilled GM can do the same thing without needing a mechanic for it—“Your sword strikes true but shatters against the mail of your enemy. Roll your damage and count your sword as a dagger from now on.” Success at cost. On a bad lockpicking test: “You manage to pick the lock, but the time it takes you to do so means that you’re exposed for too long—a guard notices you just as you slip through the door.” If you look, this idea, this reluctance to mechanically codify the theory of roleplaying into hard rules is at the heart of the OSR—you’ll see many OSR players say something like “Yeah, that’s the way we’ve always done it. That’s why 3rd, 4th and 5th edition move in the wrong direction—too many rules and not enough flexibility for the players and GM.”

To add to this, Apocalypse World reverses this pattern with the difficulty of tasks. In “traditional” games, like D&D, there are rules to modify the probability of success by shifting the target number for a skill roll—a mechanical effect for the narrative difficulty of a task. In Apocalypse World (and derivative games), the GM is supposed to narrate the outcome of the roll based on the narrative difficulty of the task without ever changing the percentage chance of success. The GM simply determines that a success means less for a difficult action than it would for an easier one, or, conversely, that failure means more for a difficult action than for an easier one.

It’s in this reversal, I think, that we find something we can latch onto in this discussion. Either approach (with either “fail forward” or difficulty) works; even though there’s something that intuitively bothers me about static difficulty numbers, I have to admit that I don’t think either me or my players notice it when running a game. At the same time, I’m wholeheartedly unwilling to admit that system doesn’t matter; it most certainly does, and this discussion is probably, more than anything, my argument for that fact.

That’s because the choice of mechanics you include in an RPG ruleset tells players and GMs what’s important about the game and establishes that ever-intangible “feel” of a system. This goes well beyond, “a game about pirates without any ship rules has a problem,” though the scope of the rules you include in the ruleset and the areas you leave to GM interpretation is part of the same equation.

Let’s look at editions of D&D, for instance. Early editions of Dungeons and Dragons were, in many ways, closer to Dungeon World than later ones. Admittedly, with only that one attempt at pre-3rd edition D&D I’m relying on “scholarly understanding” instead of experience, but the whole “rulings not rules” idea that we hear about—particularly from the OSR diehards (no aspersions cast)—is based in the idea that the rules provided a framework to support the narrative, allowing for creative problem-solving. As D&D “matured,” the agglutination of rules brought about a focus on knowing the ruleset to exploit it and on complex character-planning (mechanically) rather than the creative and explorative wonder of the early game. 5th edition has attempted to go back toward the beginning, but with competitors like 13th Age, 7th Sea, Dungeon World, the entire OSR, Shadows of the Demon Lord, Barbarians of Lemuria and even more “universal games” like Fate and Cortex Plus, I’m not sure that there’s any going back—for me, at least.

Of course, there will always be a place for players who want massive libraries of rules like Pathfinder has constructed (aspersions cast this time). I’ll admit that I enjoy reading Pathfinder rulebooks because they are full of interesting ideas shoved into rules, but I’m sure that, if I’d ever run Pathfinder, I ignore 95% of the rules, probably throwing out some of the baby with the bathwater (not my best analogy). So, what’s the point?

But I’ve diverged from point here, rambling again about rules-heaviness rather than design choices (this, I fear, is representative of many of the gaming theory discussions I’ve seen lately—they’re about how “crunchy” a system should be overall—or how much it should cater to each aspect of GNS theory—rather than what the point of this or that particular rule is).

Again, this allows me to circle back to 7th Sea and PbtA. These are systems that know what they want to be and the mechanics push the game to fit the niche the designer(s) had in mind. Agree with those design choices or not, I have to have a lot of respect for that. The static difficulty system in Apocalypse World tells players and GM that consequences and results are more important than difficulties—we’re telling collective stories that are exciting and fast-paced rather than attempting to simulate a fantasy world in excessive detail. This merges well with the PbtA position that the GM should be playing “to find out what happens” as much as the players are—if the GM doesn’t have influence over difficulty numbers, the GM has less narrative control for railroading players and is therefore freer to play “to find out.” Here, the rules influence the style of the game.

Similarly, the (new) 7th Sea system, with its generating and spending Raises for narrative effects (whether in scenes of action or drama) supports the narrative feel of the game. Having been watching the BBC Musketeers (why so much leather?) at the same time as reading 7th Sea, I can’t but conclude that the RPG does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the show, which itself is of course drawing upon the tide of swashbuckling adventure in the works of Dumas and others. The rules support the game the designer wants you to play. I cannot wait to run a 7th Sea game. One question remains for me, though: could the new 7th Sea rules just as effectively run a game in the style of Black Sails? I think so, but I’m not quite sure.

Not to rag too much on D&D, but the major problem I have with that game—the conglomerate of my distaste for Vancian magic, classes, levels, etc.—is that the rules become the setting of Dungeons and Dragons, rather than the setting influencing the rules. We can talk about gamer nostalgia or market demand as causes of these things, and I’ll concede there’s some truth to that, but in the end I’m just of the opinion that a good RPG ruleset facilitates the underlying (and overarching—it’s that important) narrative rather than forcing a narrative to conform.

To make clear that this is not about the “rules heaviness” of D&D (whatever your position on that might be), let me look at a “crunchier” game that accomplishes something similar to 7th Sea and PbtA: The One Ring.

Having run a small set of adventures in The One Ring, I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of the rules in evoking the feel of Tolkien’s world rather than adding Tolkienesque elements to a setting that’s really higher fantasy. The Journey rules in TOR are probably the best I’ve ever seen—a brilliant mix of zooming in and out of the narrative to make journeys important and exciting rather than tedious or the entire focus of the game. As I’ve said before, I think the aspect of journeying in the wilderness is vastly underrated in both roleplaying games and the fantasy genre as a whole.

Additionally, the battle mechanics for TOR require players to work as a team—an archer can’t be an archer without front-line fighters to protect him; the positioning of player characters, while abstract enough to not require tokens, minis or a map, still has a tangible tactical influence on a fight (since the difficulty to hit or be hit is determined by position within the party). This is not the careless, reckless heroics of other games (7th Sea and Dungeon World perhaps included), this evokes the sense of a dangerous world where people survive through teamwork and fellowship.

Here’s the insight I glean from the long thinking-out-loud above: those concepts that are core to the principles of design adopted for a roleplaying game probably ought to be hard-wired into the mechanics themselves. At the same time, some concepts—fail forward, for instance—are just good advice for how GMs run their games. Do they need to be incorporated into the rules? No. Does it say something specific about the game when they are? Absolutely.

If, like me, you’d really like to create a marketable RPG, whether independent of or in conjunction with a setting you intend to write fiction in, I’d suggest you start with these questions: “What is this game about? What is it trying to be? How should it make players and GM feel?”

The answers to those questions may help answer what kinds of rules your game needs, how they should work, and—most important—why they work the way they do. This sense of purpose is the only way I know of to cut through the analysis paralysis of the infinite possibilities of game design and to avoid simply stealing concepts that worked for other games.

Expeditions in the Western Wilderness

The first of the two novels I’m currently working on—and the one I think I’ll write first, as it is in its nature the narratively simpler of the two (though I wouldn’t call it narratively simple)—is about an expedition into the Wilderness of the West in Avar Narn (I’m going to ask you in advance to forgive the seeming randomness of some of my capitalization—I blame this on too much time studying texts written before orthography, punctuation and capitalization were standardized). I thought I’d share some information about the background of the novel to see if anyone would like to offer feedback.

These notes are tentative and potentially subject to change.

The Background

Long ago, the Aenyr people came to the known world from the West (legend says from an island). The Aenyr were powerful thaumaturges and magi; this power made their dominance over the peoples of the Avar all but assured. They founded great cities of wondrous artifice and thaumaturgical genius, but their ascendency was built on the backs of enslaved humans. The Aenyr Empire expanded as far as the Altaenin island in the Central Sea before internal conflict and abuse of their sorcerous powers caused civil war, rebellion and eventually collapse. The Aenyr retreated from the Avar for over a thousand years. Though they have returned in small numbers more recently, they are no longer the masters of thaumaturgy they once were, no longer interested in dominating the Avar (at least most of them are not), and they have forgotten most if not all of the secret knowledges they had once discovered.

When the Aenyr abandoned the Avar (a story for another time), they left their magnificent cities to rot and crumble. Farther east, many of the current great cities (each of the Seven Sisters, like Ilessa, for instance) are built upon the ruins and remains of those ancient dwellings. In the West, though, these cities—some of the greatest built by the Aenyr—were abandoned fully by civilized folk.

But there is much coin to be made in the realm of thaumaturgical advancements and Artificial devices (those powered by arcane energies). While some research to innovate on their own, the Artificer Houses, the universities, and those looking to make a name for themselves (or just put coin in their pouches) look to these forgotten places to rediscover secrets of the past—to monetize them.

Elderyn

From the town of Elderyn, venture companies form to search the Wilderness of the West for ancient ruins to be looted for their knowledge (and gold).

The town started small but has grown to great proportions to harbor the trade that spawned it. Once merely a last stop before the Wild, now Elderyn caters to the every need of venturers and expeditions. Tradesmen and craftsman make the weapons and tools for surviving the Wild; brothels and taverns provide respite from the weariness of travel and adventure for those who return successful.

At the edge of the Western Wild, Elderyn is beyond the reach of the lordlings who rule elsewhere. A Governor rules Elderyn, one elected by a combination of the town’s landowners, “registered” members of venture companies and expedition patrons. The Governor’s primary role is providing some rule of law for the business of expeditions bound for Aenyr ruins—a buffer against the might of the Artificer Houses, cheats and swindlers. Of course, the Governor himself is amenable to the occasional bribe, and skullduggery remains the status quo except for the vilest of offenses. Petty crimes—minor thievery, murder and the like—are handled by popular justice.

Venture Companies

The men and women of venture companies are no shining heroes—they are a desperate lot who find themselves unfit—by history or by inclination—for life in civilization. They are cutthroats, murderers and oddballs willing or forced by circumstance to risk their lives for gold and glory. Mercenaries, thugs, thieves and assassins, many came to Elderyn to avoid their deserved justice.

And these are just the type of people that sponsors of expeditions west want in their employ—rough men and women who have few qualms about doing what it takes to return from the Wild with something to show for themselves.

The typical arrangement between an expedition patron and a venture company is a contractual one—the Governor’s foremost role is to enforce these contracts once written. The customary arrangement is that the patron is entitled to all discoveries of written goods and Artifice, for which the company will be compensated at a rate determined by a neutral appraiser. Valuable objects that are not significant vehicles of lost knowledge are loot kept by the company—after they are studied and logged by the group’s scholars.

Venture companies are no small affair. A company needs wilderness scouts and trackers; barber-surgeons to tend to the inevitable injury and disease; scholars and scribes to understand and document any finds; cartographers to preserve the way for the company’s future expeditions; thaumaturges to protect the company and assist in finding valuable ruins; handlers for the expedition’s pack animals, etc.

To somewhat reduce the number of people required for an expedition (and thus increase each company member’s share), there is an “everyone works, everyone fights” mentality. No one in the company is dedicated to only one task, no one is exempt from the heavy labor required in the field, and no one may refuse to fight when necessary.

Some expected occupations among the company are lacking. No company brings a member on to be a cook, though a venturer who can prepare tasty meals rarely lacks for employment. Unlike mercenary companies, which venture companies superficially resemble, no camp followers are brought on expedition. Company members are expected to satisfy such needs “catch as catch can,” though such issues are not infrequently the causes of jealousies and fights between company members.

The average size of the venture company is sixty souls.

A venture company is perhaps one of the most egalitarian organizations in the Avar. Members are judged on merit, not on gender or appearance—remember that they’re all outcasts together. Women are as valuable as men if they pull their own weight. As important, venture companies are democratic—they elect their captain and vote on major decisions. Only when the company is in crisis or under direct threat is the rule of the captain absolute and infallible.

Despite the possibility of new elections at any time the company is not threatened, most captains maintain their positions solidly, resting on the reputation of past successes and trust built in the crucible of conflict.

The Great Game

Thaumaturgical know-how and the secrets of Artifice are perhaps the most valuable commodities in the Avar at present, so it should be no surprise that those involved in expeditions to discover lost secrets in Aenyr ruins are willing to resort to unsavory ends to increase their profit margins.

In the Wild, the only rule of law is the steel you bring with you; armed and violent conflicts between rival venture companies are not uncommon when one has made a discovery. Some companies—under patronage or not—attempt to make their fortune by following other companies and poaching their finds by force. If discovered, such companies face harsh retribution from the Governor and the security forces of Elderyn (undoubtedly supplemented by angry fellow venturers). Few, though, leave witnesses to their crimes.

Espionage also is a constant threat. A company’s maps and experience are its prized possessions in securing patronage for ventures West, and rare is the company wealthy (or foresighted) enough to be able to fund its own expedition. Both the theft of company secrets and espionage are punished in almost unthinkable ways. Yet, the lure of gold still outweighs such deterrents for some.

As might be suspected, the Artificer Houses are the most to be feared when it comes to poaching and espionage. Though they can fund the best equipped and supplied venture companies, they are always looking for ways to maximize profits while minimizing costs, and any opportunity to limit knowledge of Artifice to their own makers has a value of its own. Their airships allow them to send men into the Wild to steal another company’s find with alacrity, though the ancient wards of Aenyr cities make them impossible to spot from the air and the limitations of such craft make them unfit to deliver whole expeditions into the great wilderness, they are useful for suddenly overtaking an unwary venture company that’s made a find—the House men delivered by airship may then appropriate the slain company’s equipment to bring back their treasures to Elderyn.

What does it all mean? 

The idea for a novel based in this commerce is manifold. Some of these ideas arose out of the worldbuilding for Avar Narn itself—the commerce in Artifice is fundamental to many of the setting’s inherent conflicts.

But I’ve also always wanted to write a more modern take on the classic fantasy quest. Here, hard and desperate men and women are cogs in a machine of commerce—not valiant heroes saving the world. Though there is much wonder in the Wild, the life of an adventurer is more commonly one of suffering, labor and boredom punctuated by moments of terror. At its heart, I just love fantasy fiction that is gritty and “realistic.”

Don’t mistake my stated goals here for pure cynicism. Classic fantasy quests are morally instructive tales—look to the Grail Quest, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. But I believe that both moral instruction and fantasy that are more mature are able to provide morality and ethics in a more complicated world—one of pragmatism and expedience, ambiguity in righteousness, competing needs. A world in some ways more like our own. I think that the novel (still without a working title) based on these ideas has a chance of doing just that. We shall see.

Is liberal theology the future of Christianity? Should it be?

If you read my blog, you know that I stand firmly on the side of liberal/progressive theology. I have a deep conviction that a liberal interpretation of faith and scripture gets us closer to properly understanding Christ than available alternatives—and I believe that it leads to not only a stronger, more resilient faith but also a better world. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

But I also try to maintain some humility and avoid the arrogance of assuming that the interpretations that I favor are automatically superior to others with which I am confronted. At the very least, we ought to be aware of and to understand differing interpretations as a check to our own. We ought also to understand alternative theologies to better understand and live with the people who hold them. As important, though, we need to be constantly challenged in our theology to refine and affirm it—this cannot be done only with echo-chambers of like-minded individuals.

And so, in a microcosm of this tension I try to maintain, this combined confidence and skepticism, I write this post on some of my thoughts about the future of Christianity.

Watching the struggles of my own denomination (the United Methodist Church) with conflicts between liberal and conservative theologies, I wonder whether the Christian Church—as a whole—can sustain itself on conservative theology. I have written, sometimes admittedly harshly, in other posts about the ways in which I believe conservative (to be fair, ultra-conservative) theology hurts the witness of the Gospel.

Recent events within the UMC—the election of Rev. Karen Oliveto to Bishop of the Western Conference, for instance, make it seem increasingly likely that there will be a split between the conservative and liberal elements of the UMC. The actions of the Wesleyan Covenant Association seem to underline the preparation for this split and its inevitability.

I believe that one of the greatest testaments to the love of Jesus Christ would be for the United Methodist Church to remain unified, living and worshipping together despite differences in what should be considered ancillary theological matters (I detect no differences in doctrine on the creedal values and statements). However, I am increasingly convinced that a split is coming.

There is a cynical part of me that believes that this is a good thing, which leads us to the crux of this post: I wonder if a conservative daughter organization of the UMC, and really any church adamant about conservative theology, can survive. I have a growing suspicion that conservative churches will wither and die.

I would like to say that this would prove that liberal theology is a superior interpretation of our faith than conservative, but this does not logically follow. The reason that I believe that conservative churches will continue to see their numbers fall in the coming years until they become unsustainable is that liberal theology has a much better chance of converting the ever-increasing population of unchurched young people. Conservative theology butts heads with many of the social values of younger generations, and I believe that this is ultimately irreconcilable.

But, to reiterate, that liberal theology might be more attractive to future generations (to the extent that any theology is, and that’s a significant question) does not make it correct theology. The Crusades were popular among Christians but certainly un-Christian.

So, here’s the dilemma I have—I really want to say that this perceived (and, mind you, totally unscientific) belief that liberal theology has higher chances of bringing new people into the Church is emblematic of C.S. Lewis’ “natural law,” that it is a subtle but God-breathed recognition of the conscience for the better morality. Wanting does not make it so, and there’s a grave danger of arrogance and the same dismissal of the other side of the argument that I often point out in conservative’s use of the phrase “authority of Scripture.” Hypocrisy is not a look anyone can pull off, myself included.

I think that all sides of the conservative/liberal theological split would agree that theology should never be adapted to become more attractive to potential converts. It should only be adapted when the newer theology seems to be correct for its own sake, without reference to the opinions of others. Unfortunately, I doubt whether we humans can separate those things from one another, and—even if I ultimately deny the claim—it is a question that ought to be considered, wrestled with and fully addressed when conservatives accuse liberals of altering theology to suit what makes them happy. Then again, the liberals might fairly accuse the conservatives of altering theology to suit what makes them feel safe. Ultimately, this just means that humans ought to carefully consider their own motives when reaching theological conclusions.

Despite my skepticism, which I believe should be maintained for a healthy theology (and a healthily low level of arrogance), I do believe that liberal theology is right and that it is a good thing—I refuse to speculate about the movement of the Spirit in matters such as this, for that would be to presume far too much—that what I believe is the better theology resonates more with younger generations. For me, this means a hope that the dwindling of avowed Christians may be reversed and, in the process, create a Church that is more faithful to Christ.

At the same time, it would be problematic at the least for conservative interpretations to die out. This is not a fair comparison, so please do not take it as such, but consider Arianism. The early church had to actually wrestle with and confront this heterodoxy; now we take its inaccuracy for granted. Conservative interpretation is infinitely more supportable than any established heterodoxy (though I find it ultimately insupportable). If we lose faithful, good-hearted people of conservative theology—of whom I’m sure there are many—we lose a “loyal opposition” that forces us to carefully evaluate and defend our own theology. No theology should be taken for granted.

Neither should we seek to maintain conservative theologians as strawmen or zoological exhibits—we must remember that, at least on some issues, their interpretations may be right. Most important, we must remember that our faith has many mysteries that may be unable to resolve, and thus we ought to be willing and ready to live in harmony with those Christians with whom we disagree on certain theological matters.

Because of my convictions, I sincerely hope that liberal Christian theologies will prevail over conservative ones, and that this will cause a revival and re-expansion of our faith. At the same time, I hope that we maintain a diversity of theologies that can challenge us and further refine our understanding of the person and nature of Jesus Christ.

As a final caveat, I have to admit that I cannot be sure that the conservative factions within Christianity will die off—many seem to be doing quite well, and some very conservative factions, such as the Mennonites, have endured for quite some time in the face of competing theologies (albeit in small pockets).

Novel Planning: Sketching Characters

In a recent post, I mentioned that I’m working on outlining two novels, currently. I thought I’d share a bit about my process so that it can be borrowed by others for those who find something useful in my ramblings.

As a minor aside, I’m using Scrivener for the majority of my serious planning and Outliner Pro (on IPad) for my rougher outlining. I regularly carry at least one moleskine journal with me for ideas, and I’ve been toying with the idea of supplementing with mindmap software. More on resources and tools at another time.

Right now, I want to focus on my process for character design. Once I get the inspiration for the core idea of a character, I want to let it germinate for a while, half-formed, sponging up an additional agglutinate of ideas until I’m ready to start carving off the unnecessary or nonsensical–I’m become a big believer that you can spare a lot of heartache and writer’s block by first being creative without judgment to generate ideas and then critically and mercilessly organizing, revising and cutting. At this stage, though, I’m still looking for big ideas and not too concerned about the details.

The next step I take–mostly out of impatience–is to write something with the character in it. Doesn’t necessarily have to be great writing or something that’s directly usable later, but putting a character into a scene and seeing what they do, at least for an intuitive thinker like me, seems to go a long way to developing the character. I often find quirks, habits, and personality aspects while doing this if nothing else, but you’re also likely to create more ideas that contribute to the character’s background, appearance and motivations as well. For me, this project often turns into a work of it’s own–“The Siege of Uthcaire” started as way to sketch out the character of Tirasi–she and some of her companions while be a part of the ensemble cast I’m working with in one of my in-development novels.

I’m a very visual person, so after I’ve let my imagination run wild and unchecked for a while, I like to find one or more pictures that represent as much of the character as possible–or at least significant aspects. Writing coaches and what not will often tell you to cast your characters with movie stars or people you know to make it easier to describe them. I guess I’m doing this in reverse–I envision what the character looks like, find someone that captures that look and then use that to discover additional details about the character’s appearance. Let’s use Tirasi as an example again: her folder in my Scrivener file has a small collection of collected pictures in it. Foremost is a photo of Charlize Theron from Fury Road, not because I’ve “cast” her as Charlize Theron, but because the image I’ve used conveys a lot to me about the feel of the character–the martial cropped haircut, the anger and violence of which she’s capable, the dust and scrapes of adventure. Next to this photo are several pictures of female fantasy warriors (all in proper armor without “boob plates” mind you–I’m proud of that!).

(As an aside, collecting inspirational photographs for writing projects is a great way to procrastinate, or to at least do something remotely helpful to your writing while watching Netflix. As a further aside, Google searches and Pinterest are fine for collecting your personal “concept art,” but you can’t beat DeviantArt.com for the sheer talent and variety of artwork in any genre or medium.)

Of course, if you have the skill, you can always draw, paint, sketch, digitally produce or whatever your own inspirational works for your stories. Bonus points if you can, and damn am I jealous.

With some pictures to look to to fight back against writer’s block, now it’s time to do the heavy lifting. Now I go to write about the character, as much description as possible. I tend to write in paragraph form, but there’s no reason you can’t use bullet points, phrases, sentence fragments, questions and single words–this exercise is for your eyes only (or maybe to sell in a “making of” book once you’re famous).

While collecting my ideas about the character, I start with five general categories: History; Personality; Quirks and Mannerisms; Relationships and Goals, Desires and Motivations. In Scrivener, each subject has its own file, but this is just my personal preference. Additional categories may crop up as necessary–particularly if you need to include more in-depth write-ups for specific events in the character’s life, ideas for events in the current story you’re building with them or other notes you want to stand out or be quickly available to you.

I’m finding a helpful dialectic between outlining the story (I’m still working in broad strokes, mind you) and building character backgrounds–sometimes the plot determines that I have a need for a specific type of character; others I have a character idea that pushes the plot in a different direction. The downside to be aware of working from both angles is that you’ll occasionally have to go back and make adjustments to both plot and characters to accommodate new developments. I find this an easier way to go about building the novel–when I get stuck on one aspect, I jump to the other. As important, working from both angles bakes in plausibility and complexity from an early stage.

Some authors assert that you should be intimately familiar with all of your characters before you start to outline. I’m still very much the amateur, but I prefer to take some advice from the Apocalypse World roleplaying game–“Look at every character through crosshairs.” I think I’ll be fine to have my characters more or less set in their identities before I start the actual writing, but I prefer to maintain a little more flexibility until I’m more sure exactly where I’m coming from and where I’m going in the arc of the story. I’m enough of a time-waster as it is; the last thing I want is to become intimately familiar with a character I later decide would never walk into this story in the first place. Not the end of the world if that happens, I suppose: there’ll always be more stories, and recycling is good for the planet.

Anyway, that’s my current process from a high level: (1) Create a character concept; (2) write a sketch or story with the character; (3) find some visual influences; (4) develop character notes; (5) put the character in a plot and write.

 

The Aenyr Language

What follows is some of the work I’ve done (plus notes) on the language of the Aenyr people.

As a preparatory note, I’ll be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for description of phonemes but will later shift to other symbols (with a guide) to depict how I intend to write the language within stories in Avar Narn. The language will have its own alphabet, but currently does not.

I’ve been using a combination of Mark Rosenfelder’s The Language Construction Kit and my own linguistic research to inform the choices made below. I highly recommend the book. I have a few similar ones on my shelf, but his is the one I usually start and end with.

A little bit of introduction–the language of the Aenyr is an ancient one, seldom used in the Avar except in remaining place names and its influence on subsequent languages (such as the Altaenin tongue). As I post more about the history of the Avar and of the Aenyr people, you’ll see this fleshed out.

To begin, I needed to decide on the sound of the language. I found the following quotation on the Wikipedia page for “cellar-door”: “it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables with vowel nuclei–the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.”

I used the quotation as something of a guide in selecting phonemes for the Aenyr language. Following Tolkien, I first looked at Welsh and Finnish, but I also looked to Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian and a few other Earth languages in the process.

First, I satisfied the guidepost of the above-written quote by adding the liquids: /r/, /l/, /ɹ/, /ʎ/ and the nasals: /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɳ/ (the latter two being influenced by Sanskrit). I added in the other consonants mostly based on some of the words that I already had that I’d decided came from the Aenyr language. The same with the vowels.

Aenyri Phonography

Here’s where, for me at least, things got interesting. I had made a decision (mostly for ease of vocabulary building) to use the agglutinative aspect of Finnish (suffixes may be added to a noun core by standardized rules to create a number of other nouns). I had also decided long ago the meaning of “Avar Narn,” Aenyr words approximating the “the world reborn.”

So, it was time to engage in a little reverse engineering–I needed to make those words mean what I wanted them to mean, and this provided the start of the language.

Before I get too far into this, a note on (current) pronunciation. Here is a little chart of my current pronunciation notes for vowels:

Aenyr Vowel Sounds

Our starting place, with some pronunciation guidance: Ävär Närn.

I took “är” as the core word and made “Äv-“, “n-” and “-n” prefixes and suffixes in agglutinative style.

To get where I needed to go, I decided that “är” means “to be born, to come into being.”

“Äv-“, then, became a prefix to create a noun from a verb, specifically a noun meaning “the place where [verb] happens.” This gives us “Ävär” = “birthplace.”

“n-” then became a prefix for a verb equivalent to English “re-“, while “-n” became a suffix to form a past participle/adjective, making “Närn” = “reborn, resurrected.”

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes, and adding some more, yielded the following list:

n-           “to do again”, “re-”                                                                   När = “to be reborn”
-n            to create past participle/adjective from infinitive           Ärn = “born”
-tälё       “an agent, one who does [verb]”                                          Ärtälё = lit. “birther,
mother”
Närtälё = “necromancer”,
“resurrectionist”
-ёnyn     creates adjective from verb                                                  Ärёnyn = “fertile, arable,                                                                                                                      productive”
-vё         creates noun meaning a master of the verb                       Ärvё = “midwife” or
“matron”
-tön        “without, lacking”                                                                    Ärtön = “unborn,
inanimate”
Ärtälёtön = “motherless”,
“orphan”
-ys         an instrument or tool used with the verb                          Ärys = “birthing chair”
-yr         a (general) collection or group                                              Aenyr = “the Aen people”
Äryr = “the born, the
living”
Ärtälyr = “mothers
(general/abstract)”
-ёn        to pluralize a noun                                                                  Ärtälёn = “(the) mothers”

That’s a lot of mileage from two original words! There’s a lot to be continued here (declension of nouns, verb conjugation, grammar, regular/irregular words, etc.) and I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes that will have to be corrected, but I feel like it’s a good start.

Here’s one particular issue I’m trying to wrap my head around: I’ve already used some words with vowel clusters in them (“Aenyr”, for one) where the vowels elide together (that should have a long “a” sound at the beginning) and others (“Ellembaё”) where the vowels are pronounced separately. Not sure what I’m going to do here, but there are a few possibilities: it may be that the orthography of the language solves the problem (when written in its own script the “Ae” is a single letter corresponding to the “(aɪ)” phoneme) or it may be that I have to go back and start respelling that word to fit in with a coherent pronunciation scheme for readers.

I don’t intend to go so far as to create complete working languages–I have neither time nor skill for that. Instead, the languages of Avar Narn will be used to create names for places, people and things with consistency and immersion.
 

 

A Minor Update

The ideal I’ve set for this blog is a minimum of one post a week. Unfortunately, reality seems to indicate lulls combined with bursts of posts rather than a regular and predictable publishing schedule. The past two weeks have been one of those lulls, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse of what I’m working on right now so that you know that I’m not just being lazy and I have goals set to keep me from being a lazy writer.

Here’s what I’ve been working on in the background:

Writing
(1) A short story (“The Cost of Doing Business”) and novella (Shadowgraphy). Both are finished first drafts but need extensive edits and rewriting before I’m ready to share them.
(2) Large-scale editing of the Avar Narn setting. I’m going back and making significant revisions to the world’s history and legendarium, conlangs and other aspects of setting. This, I hope, will put the setting where I want it to be for the long-term. I’ve posted some small things related to this process (my post on modern mythopoeia, for instance) and I imagine that there will be some additional posts on this front soon–mostly to vent my frustrations (constructed languages are difficult and its easy to get analysis paralysis and decide you’ve spent two hours on ultimately fruitless pursuits). I also intend some posts expounding on the Avar Narn setting, eventually to become a setting bible or wiki, I hope.
(3) I’m beginning to outline not one, but two novels:
(A) The first will be the first of a series (I’m currently going to call it the Coin War series)
(B) The second is a standalone novel–the Avarian version of the classic fantasy quest. Many of the characters from the “Siege of Uthcaire” are involved and I’m focused on a more “realistic” version of the lives of fantasy adventurers–less “embrace the wonder” and more “embrace the suck.”
(4) As I often do–particularly when setting building–I’ve been kicking around rules for an Avar Narn Roleplaying Game. I’ve made several attempts at this in the past (none resulting in much I’m happy with), but I’m looking at options for this, so there will likely be some posts as I hash out ideas.
(5) I’ve currently got two theology posts half-written. Will likely complete them soon.
(6) Returning to a rewrite of my first theological book (Children of God: Finding our Place in Creation) is on the horizon, but not yet underway.

Reading
I’m currently (slowly and sporadically) reading The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’ll review it when I’ve finished.

Research
(1) I’ve recently finished reading K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and have started her Outlining Your Novel. I’ll review both together when I finish the latter.
(2) I’m halfway through a (30+ hour) Great Course called “Great Mythologies of the World.” I’ll have a review/some thoughts about this when I’ve finished.

I hope that this gives you something to look forward to in the near future. I’d like to say that I’m working as fast as I can, but that just doesn’t feel true. I’ll try to work faster.

The Siege of Uthcaire

Tirasi stared down at the miniature walled town on the table, hands resting as they often did on the sword and the warhammer suspended from her belt, face dour. I watched as she searched, not the maps or crude tokens marking units and positions, but the battlefield itself, her mind stretching over all that she had surveyed as the siege had begun. On the other side of the collection of intelligence, charts and equipment ledgers paced Lord Doraen, awaiting some answer from the woman.

I stood silently in a corner of the tent, nestled between two of Doraen’s servants. Together, we had become part of the furniture.

The tent flap opened and in blew the screams of men and the deep bellow of intermittent cannon fire. Along with that gust of life and death entered a soldier; he doffed his sallet in respect and inclined his head to Doraen.

“M’lord; ma’am—“ the soldier began.

“Do not ‘ma’am’ me; I kill people for a living,” Tirasi spat back, her Altaenin accent slightly coloring the Ealthebad words. I could not see her eyes as she turned to face the man, but I knew her expression well: hard, but not aggressive, sure and unchangeable as mathematics and just as disheartening.

The soldier’s eyes widened briefly. He was a boy, perhaps eighteen, hastily thrown into armor when Lord Doraen mustered his troops. His sword hung loosely at his side, the scabbard’s metal chape scratched with the evidence of bouncing along the ground as he walked. His cuirass already showed signs of rust; the journey to Uthcaire had been mostly in the rain. Even now, a light drizzle could be heard during lulls in the shouting and shooting.

The boy continued to stand dumbfounded in the presence of a mercenary captain of the Seven Sisters. His eyes moved across Tirasi, from her blackened demi-plate to the stubble of close-shorn hair atop her head and the scars on her face. He might have thought of the Aenyr as he looked upon her, her visage at once beautiful and terrifying. I had thought that when I first saw her.

“Well, what is it?” Doraen asked, ceasing only momentarily from his pacing.

“M’lord, our scouts ‘ave returned. House Meradhvor’s coming to relieve Uthcaire. Lord Koradh leads them, sir, and they’re ‘bout a day’s ride out and as many as four thousand souls.”

Doraen slammed his gauntleted fist on the table, the model of Uthcaire bouncing and the unit markers toppling from their positions. He looked to Tirasi, anger in his brow but fear concealed within the corners of his eyes. “So, mercenary. I hired you to advise. Advise,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal of the soldier as he spoke.

“Abandon the siege and fall back to favorable terrain on which to meet Koradh’s forces. Meradhvor is an Artificer House; they will bring mechanica with their soldiers, perhaps even an airship.”

“We have mechanica.”

“You have two drudges, one clipper and one siegeman which had to be carried here in a wagon because you lack sufficient power for it. Do you know who does not lack power? Meradhvor. Abandon the siege.”

“I will not.”

“You’ll be outnumbered and beset on both sides. If you break Uthcaire, you’ll have to massacre its defenders to have any surety of position. Do you want that reputation?”

“That was already my intent, Tirasi. Uthcaire has violated its charter by building a standing army. A violation of the charter means the town is mine by right.”

Something welled up within me, and I had to fight to keep it down. Uthcaire’s “standing army” consisted of about two-hundred men raised only when an influx of bandits and predatory creatures had made the countryside too dangerous for travelers and merchants.

“Let us say that you do take Uthcaire and slaughter its defenders to a man,” Tirasi began, “Meradhvor is still set against you, and we have been unable to breach the Uthcaire wall these past days because the local guild of thaumaturgy has devoted itself to the town’s defense. These are not enemies it is wise to have. Even if you win this battle, can you win the war?”

“You think me a fool? I’ve a compact in place with the other lords. All of them want to see the Artificer Houses put in their place. If we take back the chartered towns and cities, the Houses will be forced to deal with us on better terms. We’ll control the venture companies and the Houses will have to go through us to get any recovered Artifice.”

Understanding washed over me, and I clenched my fists. This siege had never been about charters and feudal rights. I knew now that Doraen could not be convinced to abandon the siege. He saw his very livelihood at stake, and better to gamble it on one glorious endeavor than to watch it be consumed by the passage of time. I hoped that Tirasi had realized this, too.

She had. “Fine, but I am ending my contract after the siege is complete. I have no desire to remain in a conflict with the Houses. That you can do on your own.”

“You can’t walk away from your contract!” Doraen growled, again pounding his fist on the table, bouncing the figurines farther from where they had fallen.

“Nyssë,” Tirasi said, snapping me from my reverie.

I searched momentarily her purpose. When I thought I’d discovered it, I began, “Contract clause twenty-three: ‘If the scope of conflict changes unexpectedly or new parties are added to the conflict, Captain may give one day’s notice of withdrawal from the Contract and shall be entitled to compensation for all services performed thereunder. If an engagement is imminent or exigent circumstances exist, the notice period shall be abated and shall begin to run only at the cessation of an immediate threat.’”

Doraen glowered at me, and I tried to fade into the canvas of the tent wall. Still looking at me rather than my captain, he said, “We’ll talk about that after. In the meantime, advise on how to proceed.”

Tirasi unsheathed her dagger, its bare blade glinting in the flicker of the torchlight that illumined the table. With the dagger’s tip, she traced an irregular semi-circle around the siegeworks, adroitly navigating around the figurines that had fallen in the path of her line. “We build another line of defense here, facing outward. Motte-and-bailey style. We will shift the majority of your soldiers to the outer defense.”

“You really think that’ll work?”

“The tactic is described in military memoirs from the Ealthen Empire and has been used to great effect. It is the best option under the circumstances. You have two repeating ballistae—they are of little use against the town’s walls compared to the cannons, but they will prove helpful against troops advancing in the open. I will lead my company to break the siege, supported by a few units of your troops—”

“So that you get the best plunder.”

“Naturally. Nyssë.”

“Contract clause twenty-eight: ‘When—“

“Okay, okay,” Doraen muttered waving me off as he had the reporting soldier. “Continue,” he said, turning to Tirasi.

My captain moved her dagger along the map, crossing over intervening terrain and figurines without attention, until it arrived at a forested area outside of the defensive line she had earlier traced. “You will withdraw your bodyguard and cavalry to here. No fires, no signals, no unnecessary talking. If you are discovered you will be enveloped and overrun. However, from this position, you will have the opportunity to withdraw if things go poorly for us. Otherwise, once Meradhvor commits its forces to the attack of our defenses, your cavalry will attack them from the rear, specifically pushing toward Koradh and his thaumaturges—the last thing we need is a large-scale thaumaturgical attack. You have an elderly court thaumaturge and two journeymen newly minted from university. They will not stand against hardened House war-thaumaturges.”

“It will take some time to arrange our attack. What if thaumaturges attack before then?”

“Nyssë.” Tirasi stated, as if my name itself were answer enough.

I stepped forward, timidity in my stomach but confidence in my voice, for this was my area of expertise. “The town’s thaumaturges have been maintaining their protection against our cannons for days now. They’ll lack the resolve and focus for any significant attack. House thaumaturges are indeed another matter, my lord. They should be considered additional artillery: they will require time and preparation before they unleash their attack, but it will be devastating if completed.

“It is unlikely we shall see such a thing in the vanguard. Meradhvor battle doctrine advises sending in the mechanica first and resorting to thaumaturgy only once mechanica has failed. To use both at once risks too much flux, and that can be as disastrous for them as for us.”

Doraen turned back to Tirasi, his face expectant.

“Koradh is cautious, Doraen,” she said. “I do not think that he will break with standard doctrine.”

“And what happens after our charge? We’ll be stuck in and the horses will be no good.”

Tirasi looked back to the map, focusing upon it, seeing the men and women arrayed in battle colors moving across it in scale, visualizing the battle as she spoke. “In the chaos that follows an attack to the rearguard, our outer defenders will sally forth to meet the Meradhvor soldiers in the field. We will be an advancing anvil and you shall be the hammer.”

His face relaxing, Doraen turned away as he spoke, indicating the conclusion of the conference. “Very good, Tirasi. I will summon my commanders and give them their orders.”

With the slightest nod of the head, Tirasi excused herself. I quickly curtsied and followed. We pushed our way past the tent flap and into an unexpected calm. No screams of dying men, no thundering cannons, no clamor of battle; only the acrid, hellish perfume of gunpowder and the heavy artificial fog that accompanied it, clinging to the earth like a desperate lover. A lull had come in the siege while everyone attempted to catch his breath. And not choke on the fumes.

Doraen’s command tent lay outside the range of the town’s defenses. Tirasi knew the layout of the siegeworks intimately; she navigated them without the need for sight through the smoke of battle. Despite her armor, my captain stepped lightly on the muddy fields while the foul quagmire stuck to my boots until I had balls of wet avar for boots.

Before long, we came to the encampment of the company, distinguished by the black of the tents, the lack of Doraen’s livery, and the symbol of the red skull on the black banners. As usual, the men and women of the company had a relaxed air about them despite the conditions. Some threw tattered playing cards on an overturned barrel, laughing and jostling one another as money changed hands from round to round. Malten, a large Rukh and one of Tirasi’s sergeants, harassed the newest recruits as they cleaned harquebus locks, polished barrels, measured matchcord and filled powder horns. Despite my youth and inexperience in battle, my status as the company’s only thaumaturge spared me such abuse.

Only six months before, I had graduated from thaumaturgical studies at the University of Ilessa. The day after completing my studies I had signed on with the Company, fully cognizant that thaumaturges not subject to the Conclave and willing to serve in a mercenary outfit were few and far between and that Tirasi would not—could not—turn me away.

I had enjoyed participation in the privy meetings of the officers, as Tirasi had made me her adjutant in addition to my other duties. This gave me insight into the personalities of the Company leaders beyond the stern demeanors they wore for the newer soldiers, simultaneously an honest attempt to prepare them for the stress of war and Company hazing ritual.

For this reason, I knew that Malten had two selves. When at drill or—as we were now—at war, he was hard, his muscled physique accentuated by his laconic style of speech, readiness to dole out criticism to his charges, and reluctance to give praise that made those in his command so willing to strive for it. Away from the men, however, a different man came forward: a lover of poetry, a great jokester, a philosopher amused by his own cynicism but unwilling to let it go.

Malten’s appearance hid his second self well. He towered over the human men and women, at least a head taller, face angular, nose aquiline as if an arrow pointing to his pronounced canines—the lower of which protruded just slightly over his upper lip, ears pointed, long grey-white hair and beard a mane to frame and accentuate the leathery hue of his flesh. Together, he had the demeanor of perpetual snarler, the man who wished to speak often with deeds and rarely with words.

Just as Tirasi’s foot crossed the invisible barrier between the Company camp and the rest of the siegeworks, her soldiers jumped to attention, saluting with the combination of practiced discipline and graceful nonchalance earned only by hardened veterans. She waived them to ease.

“Shovels and shoulders, axes and asses. We’re building a trench and a wall. Malten, get Doraen’s officers to round up infantry to assist. Nyssë, gather the engineers and requisition the Lord’s mechanica for the heavy labor. Bring water and leave your armor; we’ve got a day and a night to build an outer defense. Make ready the harquebuses. We’ll work in shifts and those resting will stand watch.”

Months of drill outside of campaign season obviated the need for additional commands. The mercenaries collected the necessary gear and formed up around their corporals. Within minutes, they were on our way to the site of the would-be barricades, having stripped down to the bare necessities of clothing, wrapped their legs as additional—though futile—protection against the mud, and gathered weapons and tools. The digging of a ditch and the felling of nearby trees commenced in short order.

I was delayed by nearly an hour as I waded through the muddy sludge that had become our home in search of Doraen’s engineers, followed by twenty minutes of bartering that earned me only a single drudge.

The mechanicum and its handler followed me to where I found that Tirasi, too, had removed her armor and stripped down to her breeches and shirt to dig with the soldiers. She tossed me a loaded harquebus and an ammunition pouch, ordering me to keep watch while she worked. I took my position on the small ridge of packed avar that slowly grew on the inside border of the ditch, a quantifiable measure of progress. Up and down the line on either side of me stood those of my brethren awaiting their own turn to work.

As the drudge stepped into the shallow ditch alongside my captain, some of the men began to sing a bawdy marching song, timing the action of digging with the lyrical rhythm. The whirring and thud of the mechanicum’s digging nearly drowned out their voices; Tirasi and I soon gave up on trying to join in.

The drudge beside her was built for hard labor, not for war. The first of its kind had been employed in the loading and unloading of ships, speeding the process over the usage of muscle, ropes and pulleys. The machine stood over six feet high, broad and squat in proportions and covered with shaped metal plates crudely approximating the human body. Under this whirred the cables, winches, pulleys and other Artifice that made the thing move.

Occasionally, a small blast of warm air would jettison from the mechanicum’s arm servos, conveniently buffeting Tirasi about the face. She glared at the device’s sculpted visage, possibly searching for some intelligence within the glow from the faceplate’s eyeslits that might recognize her consternation. Whatever animated the mechanicum focused only on the movements of the shovel and stood oblivious to all else around it.

I tried on several occasions to take Tirasi’s place and work a while, but she would not allow it, telling me that she needed me fresh for as long as possible. So, I provided what conversation I could, which mostly meant telling Tirasi about my youth in the Seven Sisters—she remained reticent about her own. All the while I cradled Tirasi’s harquebus in my arms, shifting it nervously from side to side but trying to maintain an illusion of nonchalance. Thaumaturgical or not, illusion has never been my strong suit.

A few hours after the digging began, Doraen and his horsemen galloped by—or rather over and between—jumping the trench between diggers and throwing soft mud indiscriminately. The air displaced by a horse passing only inches from my side disheveled my hair and caused me to wince. The riders moved swiftly toward the forest, where other soldiers were cutting logs for the barricade. Closer to the town walls, the cannons resumed firing, the leaden projectiles still crashing themselves against thaumaturgical abjurations, unable to touch the ring of stone that defended the city.

“How long until their thaumaturges break?” Tirasi asked.

“Depends on how many there are and the shifts that they’re working. They’re generating Flux faster than they can dissipate it, so it’s only a matter of time before they make a mistake in the working or the Flux itself gets them. They’re desperate to be using so much thaumaturgy at once.”

As if on cue, a sound like ice breaking could be heard even over the din of the cannons. A surge of hoarfrost rushed from the town walls and covered the ground.  The dirt, which had softened under the recent rains, now took on a light but definitive crunch when the shovel hit. This lasted for only a moment before the ice melted, adding just enough moisture to the trench that puddles collected in its nadir. Tirasi could hear groans from her soldiers as they fought with the mud, suction now fighting against each pull of earth. The singing had stopped as the work dragged on. Tirasi looked up, expecting an answer from me.

“Flux.” I said, “They won’t be able to hold their thaumaturgical protections in place much longer. This is why Doraen should have brought more than an elderly crone of a court advisor and a couple of babes; he should have hired a dozen thaumaturges and he’d be able to do something about this defense.”

“He hired us. He couldn’t afford both and he made a decision. And it was not so long ago that you yourself were in your infancy, so to speak.” I blushed slightly at this, scanning the horizon watchfully to avoid meeting Tirasi’s gaze. I had joined during a long stint between contracts for the company and this siege would be my trial by fire. I remained as yet untested, possessed of a mercenary’s bravado but not having earned it.

I called the first alarm. “Captain,” I expelled suddenly, my body suddenly coming alive with the tingling of nerves. I raised my hand to point toward the horizon, where, just between the rain clouds and the tree tops, an airship gracefully floated, its blue and strangely-shaped sails being drawn up as it descended.

Meradhvor must have taken Doraen’s attack quite seriously to have sent an airship. We knew that the enemy would not risk the ship’s loss by bringing it within the range of cannons or gonnes. This meant only one thing: the delivery of troops for an early attack.

Tirasi pulled herself out of the ditch—by now waist deep—and climbed the mound and half-built barricade to join me where I stood. With a quick command, she summoned Malten and the other sergeants. She sent the officers to take those who had been working the ditch back to the camp to don armor and gather weapons while those who had been resting and watching now occupied what defensive positions there were.

The ditch remained shallower and thinner than it should be, and large gaps perforated the defensive structures. The repeating ballistae had been moved to makeshift redoubts in the line, but it would not be enough.

My captain waived for me to follow her and we made our way down the muddy line of the trench to where Doraen’s own soldiers had been working. There we encountered Craith, one of Doraen’s lieutenants, and Tirasi hailed her.

The dour woman approached slowly and deliberately, never taking her gaze off Tirasi as she did. A soldier in the stereotypical sense, Craith was purpose and determination, fire and fury without subtlety or finesse; she made no effort to conceal her displeasure at having to treat with mercenaries.

The fighting men and women around them continued to work in the ditch, hardly looking up. They had made greater progress than in Tirasi’s section of the line, but the men had been working in their kit and neared the point of collapse. They would be of little help in the fight to come.

Doraen’s lieutenant spoke first, as if in hopes of heading off a conversation altogether. “Captain. I have seen the airship and I’ve spoken with the other officers. We’ll be ready by the time they arrive.”

“With all respect, lieutenant, I need your men to stop working. Your men will need rest if they are to be of any use to us.”

Craith’s frown filled the entire opening of her barbute. “Very well, Captain.” She turned slightly, what light that pierced the clouds above glancing off her polished cuirass, and passed some signals to her sergeants down the line. Shouts and insults pulled the men out of the ditch; some only made it far enough to sit on the cusp of the trench before loosening armor straps and searching for waterskins. When the orders had died down, only the occasional percussion of artillery fire punctuated the silence of men exhausted.

Tirasi turned momentarily in the direction of the cannons before locking eyes once again with Craith. “I unfortunately do not share your optimism, Lieutenant. If Meradhvor has dedicated an airship to their campaign here, we must assume that they have spared no expense in the other aspects of Koradh’s force. We should expect that we will not have an easy time of it when his advance party arrives. I need you to have some of Doraen’s cannons repositioned so that we may use them against our attackers.”

“I cannot do that, Captain,” the lieutenant replied. Was there the hint of a curl at the edge of her mouth, a satisfaction at defying Tirasi’s request?

“Why not?”

“My lord’s orders, ma’am. We are not to delay or interfere with the bombardment of Uthcaire under any circumstances.”

“That airship has a limited cargo capacity. They could have dropped no more than a hundred men, and an infantry assault of that size could not hope to succeed against us.”

“You argue against your own request, Captain.”

Tirasi now felt a wave of anger wash over her. Anger at the foreseen result of this argument, anger at the shortsightedness of Doraen’s officer. “I do not,” she said slowly, deliberately. The words fell like hammer on anvil, and Craith struggled not to reveal her surprise at the aggressiveness of the tone. Apparently, the lieutenant did not often have her pronouncements questioned.

She continued. “Koradh is a fine commander. He will not commit his troops to certain death except in the direst of circumstances, and not for the slight benefit a small infantry assault would buy him as the rest of his force advances. Therefore, it stands to reason that he has not sent his infantry. He has sent artillery. A few cannons battering us in the hours before his arrival will put him in far better stead than a handful of infantry. If we can answer in kind, we may be able to turn back his assault.”

“The cannons remain where they are,” Craith said bluntly.

“Then our best option is to send a force to meet them before they arrive and unlimber their artillery. May I borrow some of your soldiers?” The tone of Tirasi’s voice had changed; this had been a true request given in the manner of someone without the authority to simply command. I had never heard her speak in such a way before. It made no difference; the tactic had come too late.

“We have our orders,” the lieutenant stated to no one in particular. She had already turned away from Tirasi and toward her men. “My lord has given us his command and we will not disobey.” There would be no further discussion.

We made our way back to our camp hurriedly. “What’s that about?” I asked as we slogged through the mud.

“This is not the Sisters, Nyssë. Mercenaries are not held in high regard in the Tatters. The people here believe there is only honor in obeying the bonds of an oppressive nobility; they miss the importance of choosing to serve.” Clearly, my captain had seen this behavior before.

“But why did Doraen not tell his forces to heed your commands?”

“Because he thinks his blood makes him smarter than he is. Even he does not fully trust us because he pays us for our service. He struggles to hold on to a dying tradition of right and prowess by birth, even as it slips through his clutching fingers. Have you not seen that that is the reason that he sends his own men to die and condemns the people of Uthcaire?”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. Tirasi had no use for my commentary on the matter. For all my studies at the university, I could add nothing to Tirasi’s understanding she had not already gleaned from experience. A recitation of the schema of the brightest of scholars on recent changes in the societies and economies of the Avar had no place here in the mud and blood of battle, where the reality of such things actually mattered. Anyway, it was not long before we arrived back at the camp.

The soldiers left off their tasks and gathered before Tirasi, ready to receive their orders.

“House Meradhvor has sent four-thousand men against us, due to arrive tomorrow. Our defenses are half-built, and an airship arrives for a first assault. We are outnumbered and unready. But what is our motto?”

“The Dead do not fear!” came the response.

“In their wisdom, Doraen’s officers will not reposition the cannons to resist an outward attack. This means we must assault the newly-arrived ourselves. We will bring none of Doraen’s men with us, for those who love their lives will lose them. But as for us, brothers and sisters—”

“The Dead do not fear!”

The Company of the Valorous Dead was a small company by most standards, with about three-hundred souls. Upon taking command, Tirasi had cultivated her outfit as a band of well-trained, well-experienced and well-equipped soldiers best suited to special actions, raids, skirmishes and deployments of extreme tactical significance. She had served in large companies destined for the meat-grinder of large battle, where soldiers were disposable commodities and the whole affair a simple business transaction in which ledger spaces tracked lives against coin. She would have none of it.

Half of her soldiers stood arrayed before us, and my captain looked to her corporals. “Fisella, swords and shields. Emdir and Eldo: Halberds. Asham and Rellen: gonnes, sword and buckler. Gather your kit and form up. Nyssë, on me.”

I checked the short blade at my side, traded the harquebus for staff and wand and other sundry tools of my practice, and fell into step with my captain, as did the others. Tirasi left Malten in command of the half of the Company that remained behind the lines, needing no orders to guide him. She trusted him, and that was enough.

 

*          *          *

We passed over the defensive line, between the stakes that had been erected and through the half-dug ditch. Once we hit open ground between the barricades and the forest, we broke into a run rather than a march, entering the cover of the tress as quickly as possible.

Our soldiers swept through the forest deliberately in loosely-spaced squads, moving fast enough to make good time but carefully enough to keep as quiet as possible. The Company had trained well in maneuvers of this sort and even I found myself well prepared—armor burnished, oiled and muffled, my waterskin full, and anything that might bang or clatter wrapped in spare rags. Communication came through hand signals passed up and down the line.

In the early spring, stealth in a wooded area becomes far easier. The crunch of dead and dry leaves has faded away and only the hazards of twigs and branches blown down by the wind remain. Still, the precarious movement proved taxing as the we traversed miles of forest to close with the enemy.

House Meradhvor’s forces moved without concern for silence; they could not have managed stealth if they had intended to. Drudges pulled sakers, demi-culverin and gunpowder wagons, their clanking apprising the Company of mechanica in the field well before they could be seen. Two heavier Clippers and nearly one hundred soldiers accompanied the guns.

Tirasi signaled us to array ourselves for ambush. The gunners readied weapons, waiting until receiving the signal to light their matchcord, lest the tell-tale glow give them away.

One of the Meradhvor corporals had a keen eye, but not keen enough. He yelled “Ambush!” just before the first volley of harquebus fire slammed into their ranks. Many forces would have fallen into disarray at such an attack, but the Artificer Guilds trained their soldiers from youth. There were no further shouts, no sounds of panic, just the mechanical response of soldiers closing ranks and going about the tasks which had been long-drilled into them. They casually stepped aside the bodies of fallen brothers-in-arms without attention.

As the Company’s gunners reloaded for another salvo, we were struck by incoming fire. Not the loud and smoke-belching retort of more firearms but the quiet, fearsome twang of crossbow strings. This twang, however, came in too-rapid succession for the number of men wielding the weapons. Repeater crossbows, self-loading through the mysteries of Artifice. Their thin, sharp bolts could penetrate even plate at such a close range, and the volume of projectiles easily outmatched the barrage we had given.

Our gunners had taken some cover amongst the trees in preparation for the ambush, but their truest defense had been the artificial fog disbursed by angry gonnes, though even this proved of little use against the sheer mass of incoming fire. Early in the fight we had already taken severe casualties.

Outmatched though we might have been, we would not be routed by such a show of force; my brothers- and sisters-in-arms had encountered Guild forces before, knew the power of the repeater crossbow and had drilled their response.

After the first exchange of fire, the battlefield came alive with noise. Shouts of orders, the screams of the wounded, and the rumbling and hissing of the mechanica became a world unto itself, an easy place to lose oneself. Tirasi glanced regularly to me, keeping close watch as I wrestled with a fear for which I had not been—could not have been—adequately prepared.

My captain yelled a single word in the Company’s battle-tongue. Only the officers knew the secret language, so they in turn issued their squad commands in Altaenin.

Fisella ordered her soldiers to close ranks; they formed a shield wall and began a slow advance. Tirasi and I fell in close behind them. The soldiers parted just enough to pass around trees like a river moving gracefully around rocks. They had locked step, the squad becoming a single entity, now massive and dreadful.

By now the surviving gunners had unleashed their second volley, searching out where they could the men who had sent their brothers and sisters to an early—but not unexpected—grave. Between receiving this fire and exhausting the last of their quarrels before needing to reload themselves, the House infantry left an opening.

We exploited that opening immediately. The soldiers in front of me broke into a charge, barreling full force into the enemy line. I tried to remain at pace with them, colliding into Tirasi’s back as the lines impacted the enemy and stopped. She turned to me, her face as I had never seen it before, fierce and predatory, eyes glazed over with battle-fury, possessed of a violent spirit. “Stay behind me,” she said, her voice terse and gravelly. I did as I was told.

Guildsmen armed for the press of close combat stepped forward from the mass of crossbowman to meet the charge, and now the battle began in earnest.

I clutched my staff in one hand and drew my short sword, to no avail. Tirasi or Fisella had assigned several of the company soldiers to defend me in close formation; there was naught I could do but watch. I had seen Tirasi spar with others before, saw her practice with blade and other steel, but I had never seen her in true violence. She lost herself to her training and experience, ceasing for a time to be my captain and becoming a living weapon.

She directed her strikes, feinting high so that a swordsman raised his shield to cover his face and reversing to strike him in the now-exposed calf. Her dagger followed as the man dropped his guard, its hardened point missing his heart but puncturing the thin breastplate and sliding between the ribs into his right lung. With the recovery of the strike, the man’s breath became ragged; he dropped his armaments and collapsed.

She slid her right foot back and to the left, pivoting herself out of the line of attack of an assaulting spearman. By now, the first crush of the lines had devolved into a mass skirmish, with foes alternately having room for grand swings or being pressed too close for anything but daggerwork.

The spear’s initial thrust narrowly missed my captain, striking again with a serpent’s speed. Tirasi moved backwards, passing her front leg behind the other in each movement to alternate her forward hand, the rotation of her body adding power to her warding strikes. The spearman followed, coveting the boast of felling the enemy’s leader. He failed to measure his distance to the enemy as he closed with her.

After avoiding three more strikes, my captain reversed her motion, moving forward as she parried instead of backward. This put her too close to the spearman for him to recover his weapon and thrust again. He had time just enough to realize his mistake before he died, looking down to the sword in his neck and the dagger pushed against his spear.

My protectors had pushed me backwards and away from the fray. My hand twitched with the anticipating of swinging the blade I had spent so much time learning to use—not well, perhaps, but passably. Yet I remained thankful that my first experience of battle allowed me to do what I do best: to learn.

In an instant of respite, Tirasi surveyed the field as I surveyed her. The battle had become a large arrangement of individual melees, an ad-hoc tournament where the survivors of each duel sought one another out to fight the next round.

Something caught my eye and snapped me from my thoughts, the battlefield coming back into focus in a rush of sound and color. The hulking thing, too large to be a single soldier, reflected what light penetrated the green canopy above us, clanking and grunting as it moved, gaining momentum, shapes of the rebounding light changing more rapidly as it approached. A House clipper, the true Artifice of war in all its dread glory, charging straight for Tirasi.

There was a shout: “Captain!” The voice came from without, not within, but was nevertheless my own. Tirasi had time enough only to brace herself against the imminent blow.

The strike lifted her off her feet, throwing her into the air and against a nearby tree. She slumped to the ground, unmoving, and I feared her dead. I pushed against my protectors, raising my sword, but a strong and steady arm held me back with little effort. Then I remembered that I am a thaumaturge; my will is a weapon.

But thaumaturgy would not suffice in a situation such as this, when there is no time to carefully weave a working. I resigned myself to base sorcery, drawing power through myself and shaping the working in my mind’s eye. My choices were limited: I could not see the pulleys and wires animating the mechanicum to snap them and nothing too complex could be safely achieved with a sorcery.

I selected a working I had told myself I would never use. It seemed, well…trite. A spear of lightning shot from my fingers, forking into the mechanicum’s head and legs, branching from both in search of other nearby objects to which it could attach itself. If the experience were unpleasant for the clipper—and who knows what they experience—it was little better for me. I could feel the lightning coursing through my body before exiting my fingertips, doing no damage to me but leaving an upsetting tingling in my bones that lasted well beyond the working itself. Perhaps once was enough for that trick.

In an instant, the lightning disappeared again, its afterglow stinging the eyes of anyone who had been unfortunate enough to be looking anywhere between me and the clipper. The mechanicum stuttered momentarily, little bubbles of briefly-molten metal forming in the plates struck by the sorcerous attack, smoke wafting from its oversized frame. Enough to get its attention, perhaps enough to slow it some, but far too little to take it out of the fight. With a malicious glow from its eye sockets, the machine turned to face me and my defenders.

“Sorry! Sorry!” I yelled, fully expecting us to be thrown about like so many jacks at bowls. My companions closed ranks into a shield wall. But three of our brave halberdiers had partnered to corral the clipper, alternating their thrusts and positions to keep the mechanicum from being able to focus on any one of them.

Behind them, Tirasi began to stir. Her breastplate had been dented into concavity with the blow. She groped for a small knife in her boot, her eyes wild and unfocused as she loomed on the precipice of consciousness. Her fingers pulled the blade lightly from the sheath…and dropped it. Fumbling fingers foraged to find the blade before the clipper renewed its interest in her. Her breaths became ever more ragged, and I feared that she would suffocate while I watched helplessly. Finally, she tore the breastplate free, deep gasps allowing her to step back from the ledge.

My captain looked for her bastard sword, finding it broken from the fall. Her parrying dagger had disappeared. As she hobbled to her feet, she pulled the warhammer from its ring on her belt, reentering the fray at a meager lope, an awkward yawp passing from her lips where a war cry should have been.

The mechanicum had already crushed two of the halberdiers before Tirasi rejoined the fight. The last one standing, an Aen named Ithladen, cloaked and masked per the etiquette of his kind, had resorted to his sword after the clipper had casually snapped the haft of his polearm in two. Ithladen ducked and weaved, feinting and striking tentatively to create an opening for our captain.

Tirasi struck the mechanicum in its calf-plate as she moved past, bowing herself to avoid the backhand strike of the clipper’s attempted retaliation. Her blow had left only a slight dent in the clipper’s plate; though slow, the machine had been armored for thick fighting and—as it had done—could easily outmatch a number of fleshly soldiers.

The clipper awkwardly pivoted toward Tirasi, who struck a blow to the mechanicum’s knee as it repositioned itself. Now Ithladen seized the opening, gripping the blade of his sword with his off-hand, guiding its point between the clipper’s armored plates, just as he might with an armored knight. A gout of blue fire escaped from between the plates as Ithladen’s blade caught between gears and shattered. The mechanicum dragged its left foot as it turned.

Seizing the clipper’s hesitation, Tirasi attempted a blow to its head. She had to jump to reach it, flinching in pain at the exertion. The blow only worsened things; the hammer rang off the clipper’s head with a visible vibration in the weapon’s haft. Tirasi grimaced.

The mechanicum had recovered as she landed and fought to stay balanced. The clipper seized my captain with one hand, lifting her several feet off the ground. Ithladen frustratedly slashed against the clipper’s backplate with the broken remnant of his sword, all the while clutching his left hand to his side to staunch the bleeding where the splintering blade had scratched him.

My sorcery had proved too weak to be of much use, so I fumbled through my mind for some thaumaturgy that might turn the tide. Useless fragments of workings from my early studies bubbled to the surface: a working for the growth of plants, one for the levitation of small objects, one for the abjuration of rain. All the while a voice within me prodded, reminding that I had no time for a thaumaturgical working anyway. My captain would have the life crushed out of her long before I could run through the mental constructs necessary to bring a working into being. In my frustration and fear, I mindlessly seized upon the first full thaumaturgy I could remember and began shouting the incantations that brought structure to my thoughts as I drew and shaped the Power into a tangible thing.

Fortunately, Tirasi’s life was not in my hands; the incantation I’d been reciting belonged to working for the cleaning of kitchen pots. I’d failed the first true test of my battle-mettle, though my companions would be none the wiser for it.

Before I could stop myself from completing the working, there came a bark that overpowered my own voice. I blinked as the clipper’s left arm—thankfully the one not grasping my captain—tore itself from the rest of the machine and flew for a distance before coming to rest on the ground. Ithladen rolled aside with almost-preternatural reflexes.

The clipper dropped Tirasi to the ground as it turned slowly, searching out its assailant. A second cannonball smashed into the machine’s chestplate, driving it back a step before it collapsed, the glow from its eye sockets fading to darkness.

The sight had stopped my mouth when I couldn’t through my own volition. Another sign perhaps that I’d chosen the wrong profession. When I, too scanned for the cannoneers, a wave of relief washed over me. Eldo and some of his soldiers had seized the enemy’s artillery and turned it against them.

I rushed to Tirasi’s side. She moved cautiously, first opening and closing her fingers before trying her limbs. Satisfied she’d not broken her spine, though nursing a few broken ribs, she sat up with a pained exhalation. I extended my hand to her and Tirasi swung her arm in a haphazard arc; she groaned as I hauled her to her feet.

“What happened?” she asked in voice reduced to a ghost of its usual self.

Around us, the sounds of battle had quieted to the soft cries of the slowly dying and a few distant exchanges reaching their end. The men were checking casualties, both theirs and their enemies. Those enemies found alive they finished. They took more time with their own, examining their injuries to determine which could be helped and who had slipped beyond return. Those mortally wounded they comforted as best they could before giving them the dagger of mercy. From the dead of both sides they looted freely.

Fisella, Asham and Eldo approached, each of them battered and beaten. The corporals not

among them lay dead or dying.

“Report,” Tirasi managed in her gravelly whisper.

The three looked at one another and Asham stepped forward. “Captain, the enemy is defeated, with about a dozen surrendering and the rest in the embrace of death. As far as we can tell, there were no thaumaturges among our foes.”

“Koradh would not have risked them here,” Tirasi interjected. “Continue.”

“We’ve sustained heavy losses, perhaps as many as one half of our contingent.”

“Any good news?”

“Yes, Captain. We’ve destroyed two clippers and captured the enemy’s cannons. Four of them. The Meradhvor drudges do not seem to differentiate between our men and theirs; they’re obeying our commands.”

In the distance, Doraen’s cannons again roared to life. Now, artillery from the city answered the barks of besieging gonnes with retorts of their own.

“The city’s thaumaturges have fallen,” I commented.

“Let us return to the siege, then,” Tirasi managed, holding a hand to her chest. “Kill those who surrendered; we do not have the resources to guard them. Do it mercifully, for they have fought bravely. Get our soldiers rallied up and ready to move.”

A few moments passed before the looters could be pulled away from their hunt and mustered. We lacked time to reorder our squads, so ragged bands of men and women, uneven in ranks, made their way back to the siegeworks. The drudges and cannons, loosely attended by those who had captured them, lagged slightly behind.

Despite our minor victory, morale was flagging. We’d lost many brothers- and sisters-in-arms in the past few hours, without time to properly attend to the rites of the dead, much less to honor them in true warrior fashion. How long would it take us to recover from these losses? How many campaign seasons? I knew not, and wondered how the defeat of Meradhvor’s advance forces would influence the future of the siege.

Beside me, Tirasi drew in a deep breath, grimacing, and burst forth in a marching song. The corporals joined in by the second line, and we had all lent our voices by the fourth. We sang:

 

Lift your swords and march to war,

            Matters not if rich or poor,

            Join your brethren in the field.

            Meet your foe and meet your fear,

            Come to where Death draweth near,

            Seek to die before ye yield!

            See the sunlight on helms dance,

            Behold glittr’ing of the lance,

            Steel without and steel within.

            Hear the call of trumpets loud,

            Earn the price of bearing proud,

            Bleed with us, your newfound kin.

           

            Trade your blood for gold and fame,

            Lose your life but gain a Name.

            Fight ye on through hurt and pain,

            Fight ye on through sun or rain.

            Bellow ye with the cannons’ roar;

            This it is to go to war!

 

                        Gather’d up for stories grand,

                        Take this earth and make your stand,

                        Live forever in mighty tales!

                        Leave lover and home behind,

                        Embrace Death, mistress unkind,

                        Cross the Sea whereon she sails.

                        If dawn fails to break ‘pon thee,

                        You’ll lie under old ash tree,

                        With no marker for your grave.

                        But if you live glory follows,

                        Leave others to their sorrows,

                        And join the ranks of the brave!

 

Trade your blood for gold and fame,

            Lose your life but gain a Name.

            Fight ye on through hurt and pain,

            Fight ye on through sun or rain.

            Bellow ye with the cannons’ roar;

            This it is to go to war!

 

Before the song could end, some of us added the spur of another verse formed in times forgotten, likely in the stupor of celebratory drinking:

 

See the foes a-gathered round,

            Time to put them in the ground!

 

Tirasi’s singing voice did not charm even at the peak of health, but she growled on just the same. After the first song, Ithladen began another, an ancient and beautiful song of the Aenyr, sad and hopeful and moving all the while. It fit our mood perfectly, though few of us understood the words.

As we neared the siegeworks, the culverins and sakers swallowed up our songs. Joined by those who had stayed behind, we formed teams to pull the cannons, the ball and the powder into positions across the half-formed trench we’d had dug. The ground remained soft and muddy from the rain and much time and many expletives were expended before we could form the artillery pieces into a battery. Even then, the crews needed time to check the weapons, arrange the ammunition, make the first adjustments to aim and otherwise ready to fire.

Many of the men and women of the Company had been trained to crew artillery, but none could boast that she was a master artillerist. The teams proved capable but slow, and the purchase of time had grown costly with the town’s few demi-culverin unleashing a steady rain of grapeshotte in response to Doraen’s siege guns.

The shotte fell upon some of us, dropping those who were not killed immediately to their knees. I rushed forward, raising my staff high to expand my zone of influence, already drawing Power as I moved, my right hand forming spastic hand signs, mumbling spilling from my lips as I formed the progression of thoughts and mental structures to shape the sorcery. The Power for the working coursed through my mind and body, tugging at the fabric of my being, gently at first but more insistent as I continued to draw upon it. My muscles twitched; my mind pulsed. The very potentiality of the Power became tangible, its unpredictability reminding me that if I lost control over it, it could become anything.

A shimmering shield sprang to life in a sphere encompassing me and as many of the cannon crews as I could manage. An irony, perhaps; the thaumaturges defending the town had used the same sort of sorcery for so many days. We immediately became an even more splendid target for the enemy artillerists, and soon the heavy splatter of loose shotte against the shield became a heavy hail, a torrent, a deluge.

Some of the shotte began to penetrate the shield, slowed enough on its way through to patter harmlessly off the ground or the soldiers within. I leaned into the working, moving my foot forward into a fighting stance, my incantations became ever louder, drowning out the sound of the cannons and coming from somewhere outside me. My vision narrowed and darkened, reduced to a narrow tunnel through which I could only dimly view the battlefield before me.

As the iron rain continued, sweat gathered on my forehead, in my armpits and at the top of my buttocks, soon joined by a trickle of blood from my nose, staining the clothing under my armor and forming rivulets on my breastplate.

I heard a voice, tiny and distant, at the edge of my fading consciousness. Tirasi. She ordered the artillerists to move faster. The quickened pace proved costly: I could vaguely hear the shouted curses of the soldiers as they stopped to retrace their steps to ensure that they hadn’t missed a vital part of the loading and readying procedure.

The air became thick about me, heavy with the smell of ozone as some of the Power bled off from the working, manifesting Flux. Short bursts of lightning stretched from empty places in the air to the ground, the crack of accompanying thunder deafening. Clods of avar began to float above the ground, some of them even reaching eye level and passing into my limited field of vision, little gatherings of grass and mud that might have been picturesque in different circumstances.

Another distant voice, Malten’s, yelling to the crews, “Get back you fools! Powder is explosive!” As if they had not realized, the men suddenly backed away. My knees began to buckle under me and what little vision remained retreated to a pinpoint. I fell backward, caught by pairs of hands that dragged me to the relative safety of the nearby earthworks. As my vision slowly returned, I watched shotte fly through the area my shield had recently protected, felling several of the retreating soldiers. My heart sank for it, but the still-crackling miniature thunderstorm distracted me. How much Power had I drawn?

An arc of white-hot energy reached out from empty sky and danced along the cannon battery, delicately alighting on each. The pieces fired in quick succession, rolling back on their trunions and vomiting fire and death. They had not yet been aimed and sent the balls pell-mell against the town wall, gouging rough craters out of the stone but accomplishing little else.

I was left leaning against the side of the ditch where most of the Company had taken cover, Ithladen delicately setting me down after carrying me the last stretch of the way to safety. I remained in a daze, left only to observe my companion’s continued efforts.

Asham and his reassembled squad arose from the trench behind the cannons where most of the Company had taken cover. Those under his command leveled their harquebuses and fired a volley toward the top of the wall. As they ducked back down to reload, Fisella’s squad, now armed with gonnes, took their place and fired a second volley. In well-drilled time, Eldo’s squad took its place on the line and fired its own shotte at the town’s defenders.

One of the newer recruits, a young man still without a beard, crawled down the trench toward Tirasi and Malten. “We c-can’t t-take the city,” he blubbered, tears forming at the corners of his eyes and running down his dirty face. His sallet had come loose and drifted to the back of his head, more a bonnet than a helm.

Malten seized the recruit, driving his fingers under the top of the man’s breastplate and pulling him close by the straps. When they were nearly nose-to-nose and the soldier could see the crags and scars in his sergeant’s battle-worn face, Malten spoke to him. “Do you remember the words you spoke when you first joined?”

“Wh-what?” the recruit responded.

“The words, recruit, do you remember them?”

“Y-yes.”

“Say them.”

“I-I-I…” he began.

“Say them!”

“I, Ethem of Ansyr, do hereby pronounce myself dead to the world. Today I join the

Company of the Valorous Dead; I acknowledge my life forfeit in service to those who hold our contract. Should I complete my term of service, I may one day return to the world of the living, but I know that that day may never come, and so I shall live as one already dead. Being dead, fear cannot touch me. Cowardice shall not hold me. Injury cannot delay me. Blood shall not trouble me. Being dead, I have already crossed the most fearful threshold in existence; I shall not be moved.”

“Good,” Malten said, his deep voice carrying something of both approval and taunt within it. “Now, does it matter whether we win?”

“N-no.”

“Good. Why?”

“B-Because soldiers fight…. The fighting is the important part…Nothing can take the fight from us.”

“Good. The fight is who we are. And because of that, we may lose the field, but we are never defeated.”

The boy nodded, the sallet sliding back and forth with movement of his head and the chinstrap tugging on his throat.

“Then get on that cannon and let’s bring down that wall!”

Still visibly trembling, Ethem pulled the helm upright on his head, and stood to join the artillery crews. As he stood, the sallet again fell into bonnet position.

Ethem reached up to his chinstrap, but before he could right the helm, the ball of an harquebus struck him in the face. A loud metallic ping sounded from where the projectile exited his skull and dented the inside of the sallet.

Malten laughed, a riotous laugh better suited to a night of heavy drinking than the battlefield. Nevertheless, Tirasi found herself smiling, too. There was nothing for it; they could laugh at the young man’s misfortune and move on or they could give into fear themselves.

“Bad Wyrgeas on that one,” Malten said as he looked to Tirasi, still chuckling. His face suddenly turned serious and he bellowed again to the troops. “This is not a one-sided argument! Get those cannons firing and we make our clever retort!”

With the fire of the Company’s harquebuses forcing the town’s defenders to take cover, the artillery crews returned to the cannons. Uthcaire continued to exchange fire with its besiegers for another bloody hour of attrition and contested will. Our soldiers continued to fall, but death had become an occasional visitor rather than constant companion. Between Doraen’s own cannons and the added punch of those seized from House Meradhvor, Uthcaire could only buy itself time; it could not resist indefinitely.

Thus, surprise took none in the Company when—buffeted by extended barrage—a section of the town’s stone wall began to collapse. The destruction was anti-climactic; rather than crumbling into dust, the stones began to roll off the wall, pouring dirt from the earthworks between stone encasements like a torn sack. Some time ago, the citizens of Uthcaire had fortified their walls against modern artillery by building a second stone wall behind the first and packing the center with dirt. This conflict had been a long time coming.

The erupting avalanche of sandy earth created an improvised ramp by which the besiegers could now reach the top of the wall. A final volley of fire burst from the walls before the gonnes of both sides fell silent.

Tirasi and Malten stood up simultaneously from their positions of cover, and the soldiers they led followed in kind. I watched Tirasi try to shake dizziness from her head as she stood, attempting to hide the affliction from her men. She looked to her sergeant. “Ready the men for assault, but do not charge in just yet; let us give Doraen’s men the glory of the forlorn hope.”

Malten called the squad to order while Tirasi made her way down the line. She half-sprinted, half-hobbled over the craters and debris of the ravaged siegeworks in the search of Doraen’s officers. I had recovered enough to stagger after her, the others in the Company too busy attending more immediate matters to stop me.

She found Craith, still huddled with her men behind pavises and makeshift fortifications. Wild-eyed, she removed her barbute and threw it at Doraen’s lieutenant, disturbing the silence that had fallen over the soldiers with the clang of metal on metal as one helm struck another.

Craith had been crouched on her haunches; the unexpected blow rolled her to her side. As she struggled to right herself and return to her feet, Tirasi grabbed her by her shoulder-straps and hauled her to standing. Without averting her gaze from the officer, Tirasi barked, “Stand up, all of you,” the gravelly harshness of her voice lending the command the smoldering heat of a coal just beginning to glow.

The lieutenant’s face turned hard; her hand slid to the rondel on her belt. Before she could pull it, my captain brought the muzzle of a wheelock pistol to Craith’s chin. If she looked down her nose, she could see into the barrel.

“No.” Tirasi said quietly. Craith’s hand moved away from the dagger’s hilt.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Craith asked, somewhere between fury and incredulity.

“What are you doing, lieutenant? The wall has fallen and you are cowering behind barrels and sacks like a game of seekers. My men have been bleeding and dying, fighting to bring down that wall, and you—“

“We’ve been doing the same thing. Look around, Captain.” The lieutenant pushed her words through clenched teeth.

They had been fighting and dying—the cannons still distorted the air with escaping heat and soldiers in Doraen’s colors littered the ground, some caught by shotte from the walls but more laid low by wooden shrapnel from the defensive works. Farther afield, Doraen’s soldiers had similarly hesitated, unsure of what to do now that the defenses had fallen. We could faintly hear the cries of sergeants berating their men to ready themselves for a fight.

“It is not enough,” she spoke softly. “I have lost far too many good men because you refused to aid me. I will not give you a chance to do the same again.” But as she spoke, she looked to Craith’s soldiers and let the pistol’s barrel fall to her side, still maintaining a hold on the lieutenant with her left hand.

My captain gathered herself and attempted to speak with grace and authority, but her voice came as the sharp rasp of a sword leaving the scabbard, the harsh clatter of armor on the march.

“You men have left your homes to fight for your lord, and many of your brothers now lie in the mud. War is not the heroic endeavor you thought it would be, and you are afraid that the worst is yet to come because you do not know what awaits inside those walls once you scale them.

“I understand that. That fear is not a bad thing—it will keep you alive. But do not let it be a roar that causes you to tremble and cling to the earth. Make of it a whisper that guides without ruling. Gather yourselves and take up your arms. Your foe is more afraid than you, and with good cause.

“They have less experience than you. Their weapons are the tools and implements they have at hand, not the fine steel your lord has given you. They are outnumbered two to one, those who know how to fight ten to one.

“Now is the time for pillage and plunder, the time for recompense for what you have suffered. The town is yours. Let us go and take it!”

Fewer than half the words were Tirasi’s own. Most were lines from plays we had seen during the winter while she courted employers. A monologue from a history performed by a traveling troupe whose lord’s name I had forgotten provided the fodder for her rallying speech.

Their artifice showing through, the words fell short. The soldiers stared at her blankly, as if they struggled to find the reason for the sound of her voice. They’d undoubtedly noticed her lack of a breastplate and thought her mad. Her appearance had likely only reinforced the idea of her they had by reputation anyway. Tirasi’s shoulders fell, exhausted and resigned.

Craith had placed a hand on Tirasi’s back. Not in resistance or anticipation of attack, but in support. Where Tirasi had gripped the lieutenant’s shoulder, she now found herself leaning against it.

The lieutenant pulled Tirasi close. “Our mercenary sister is correct. The treachery of Uthcaire’s citizens has called us from our homes to prove our vows to our lord. We have marched in rain and mud, fought in smoke and tumult, died in bands and droves to show our loyalty. And the One looks down upon us with favor in our righteousness; They smile upon us and grant us a path to victory. Look,” she said, pointing to the breach, “there lies our path. Follow me into it, and let us show these turncoats the wrathful vengeance of the virtuous!”

Tirasi threw a sidelong glance at Craith, an expression of respect passing across her face. The soldiers stood in response to their lieutenant’s words, raising their weapons and voices as a unit. Craith drew her own sword and pointed it to the broken wall, a war cry rising from deep within her.

As Craith began to move, Tirasi pushed her lightly on the shoulder, signaling to her to lead the attack on her own and to leave the mercenary captain behind. Without looking back, Craith took the message. The soldiers fell into rough ranks, neither sprinting nor walking as they navigated the rough craters to the breach.

We made our way back to our own troops as Craith’s assault began. The hale and uninjured had formed ranks; at their master’s arrival Malten signaled them to a determined march to the wall. Unlike the return from their forested skirmish, they raised no voices in song as they marched, nor even to speak. They worked together in silence, their ranks orderly and precise, their determination palpable in the quietude that surrounded them.

Again, we joined the rear of the formation. Despite her silent protestations, Malten succeeded in keeping Tirasi behind her men. Still lacking a cuirass, too beaten and exhausted to put up a real fight, her presence in the front rank would only prove a liability to herself and to her brothers-in-arms.

Tirasi silently observed the onslaught, giving occasional hand signals to be sent down the lines to the corporals. Even this lasted only a short time before the combatants became too scattered for any semblance of organized command. From then on, Tirasi could only observe.

The front ranks scaled the breach and crossed into the town’s interior, where the fighting remained desperate, spread throughout streets and passageways splayed outward from the wound in the settlement’s defenses. The defenders had prepared ambushes, holing up in homes and business buildings to launch sudden volleys of harquebus fire into their attackers at close range. Others had formed gangs armed with hammers, axes, sickles and any other tool that could be turned to war, rushing groups of the assaulting soldiers as they struggled to navigate a tangled web of unfamiliar alleys and sidestreets.

We watched as the men and women of the Company began the brutal task of kicking in doors, hacking and stabbing at any who resisted them and quietly warning any unresisting townsfolk to remain in their homes on penalty of death. As we slowly followed in the macabre wake of the forward soldiers, I could not help but take in sights and sensations that would never leave me, and I once again doubted that I was strong enough to live the life of adventure I had chosen for myself.

A woman, crazed with grief, turned an alleyway and charged headlong for us, the mad townswoman’s only weapon a stub of a knife useful only in the kitchen. Tirasi shot the woman down without emotion or sound other than the impassioned cry of her pistol. Not much farther, we crossed into an alley littered with dead soldiers liveried in Doraen’s colors. Bullet holes in the bodies and the walls of adjacent buildings told the entire story in a single image. Craith lay among them, her pale face now twisted in surprise and agony.

We left Doraen’s officers to round up the town’s survivors. Tirasi allowed the Company’s troops a short bout of looting while she and her officers selected a command center within the town’s walls.

We settled on the local thaumaturgical guildhouse, both for the spoils of war it would offer and its strategic value. Inside, the Company’s officers found themselves forced to pay homage to the dead; the bodies of the town’s thaumaturges lay in the midst of a large ritual space hastily prepared in the house’s great hall. Eight in all, they had each sustained their protective working over the town until all had died, sacrificing themselves for the hope of holding out until help arrived. Tirasi ordered that the bodies be shown the utmost respect and that, once time permitted, they be given their last rites with full honors.

But at present, time did not permit, and as soon as the space had been repurposed, Tirasi commanded her officers to gather the Company to prepare for Koradh’s impending assault. They formed teams, commandeered Doraen’s troops, and went about the arduous task of relocating their cannons and supplies to the interior of the town wall.

The important pieces of materiel recovered, the soldiers hastily broke down the defenses in the earthworks outside of the town and brought what handiwork they could salvage to construct a barricade over the collapsed portion of the wall. Then began the long vigil for the arrival of Koradh’s forces, when the erstwhile attackers would themselves become desperate defenders.

Gathered together on the town walls, clustered around artillery batteries and behind crenellations and stoneworks, our Company now numbered less than one hundred souls able to fight, with over half killed in the fighting and many others under the care of Company medics in the buildings near the guildhouse, too grievously hurt to continue fighting that day or perhaps any other.

The night passed roughly; we took shifts on the watch and struggled for some modicum of sleep amongst the rustling of those awake and several false alarms. Only when the morning broke and light again pierced the clouds did Koradh’s army array themselves at the edge of the forest, outside of cannon range.

Even at that distance, we could see the colorful House banners fluttering in the wind. That same wind carried distant voices to us from the far side of the field, audible but too indistinct to make out. We readied ourselves, lighting matchcord and loading the artillery pieces, but Tirasi raised both her hands in sign to cease. We set aside our tasks and watched the enemy.

A light flashed in the House battleline and Tirasi called for her spyglass. After a long look, she passed it to me. When I brought it to my eye, I could make out Koradh immediately, identifiable by the extravagance of his dress and armor. He stared back at me through his own device.

The House general’s armor could not but captivate. Bulkier and thicker than even tournament plate, it resembled a miniature clipper or siegeman as much as harness; it, too, was festooned with wires and cables as if a marionette. Runic inscriptions inlaid in gold accented the blackened armor, and I thought that I could make out a faint glow from the symbols. From beneath Koradh’s green silk cloak bulged a protrusion from the backplate that gave the general a hunchbacked appearance. Without seeing beneath the cloak, I knew what would be found there—the Artifice that powered the armor, that allowed Koradh to move faster than a normal man in armor heavier than any man should be able to move in, that gave him the strength of a mechanicum unburdened by its low intelligence.

Koradh’s army indeed appeared to number four-thousand, and I could identify heavy artillery, thaumaturges and other specialists within his ranks. Fortunately, most of our own force remained hidden by the wall itself; Koradh would be forced to rely upon any intelligence he had received to guess at numbers.

The general turned to speak with a fat balding man, arrayed not in the vestments of war but those of court. The man held a leather-bound book in one hand and a quill in the other; he leaned forward to show Koradh the pages of the tome. I tried to read the man’s lips as he spoke to the general, but he spoke in a tongue I could not understand.

Koradh only looked at the pages in the book and nodded, stoic and stonefaced. When the fat man had finished speaking, Koradh again held the spyglass to his left eye to survey the enemy. His mouth moved as he swept the eyepiece across the town wall, as if he were calculating or reading to himself. Beside him, his soldiers stood in perfect discipline.

Tirasi quietly gave the order for the cannon to be made ready. Her expression told me that she expected this to be the end of us. A lump came to my throat and my hands sweated. She was right, of course. Against the House Meradhvor army arrayed against us, the only questions would be how long the fighting would take and how many we could take with us. Even Doraen’s hidden cavalry would do little against such a well-arrayed and -equipped force.

My stomach turned, and I wondered why I had come here in the first place, why I’d been so foolhardy as to think that I could be a mercenary and adventurer. I’d only wanted to avoid a settled life. This was my reward: death at the hands of some cold blade or some arcane working, the ball of an harquebus or the unfeeling arms of some mechanicum. It took all that I had just to stand there on that wall; everything within me told me to run and my legs twitched with the impulse.

As those around me wearily readied their weapons, battered and bruised and exhausted from yesterday’s exertions and a sleepless night just as I was, I remained frozen, fighting with all that I had to remain still. It was a losing battle, and I could feel the fear washing over me in waves, warming me with its intensity, drowning out my thoughts until I was entirely submerged.

Just at the point when I could no longer keep myself still, a shout from the Meradhvor lines shook me from my reverie. As one, the House soldiers turned in place and began to march away. Nervous laughter spilled from my mouth as the waves of terror swept away.

Within minutes, the army had abandoned the field and left us standing on the walls with nothing to do but watch, dumbfounded. Malten busied himself keeping the soldiers alert and ready lest the withdrawal prove a ruse, but the time revealed no turnabout, no hidden plot or scheme, no clever tactic.

Finally, Doraen and his cavalry trotted triumphantly out of the forest in loose groupings, nonchalantly making their way to the Uthcaire gates, their voices in song traveling before them.

“Bastards,” Malten spat. “They have a picnic while we’re in the mud and blood and then they come out of their hiding place like they’ve won the battle by themselves.”

“So we’ve won, then?” I smiled. He frowned in response and I could feel the elation drain from my face. When he gave no answer, I looked expectantly to Tirasi. She pointed behind me. In a square not too far from the wall where we stood, our brethren lit fires, stacking the bodies of our fallen in neat rows, splashes rising from the blood-covered streets as the corpses hit the ground, the stench of death and despair reaching us even where we stood. Too far to make faces, the posture and movements of the living nevertheless betrayed their brokenness as they stripped equipment and baubles from the bodies, the stacks growing higher.

“No.” Tirasi said behind me, her voice a ghost only half heard. “Doraen has won. We have lost.”

 

Texas Annual Conference 2017

Last week, I attended the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church as a lay delegate. K was also a delegate; more eager than I, she referred to the several days of the conference as our “Meetings Vacation.” She’s not wrong.

I had started to write a review of my experiences from the conference closer to the event, but I decided to let matters stew for a little while before committing thoughts to (digital) paper. I’m not sure time has helped much, so take these thoughts as what they are—observations that may not accurately reflect realities.

Here’re my comments:

Bishop Scott Jones, A Good Guy

When it was first announced that Bishop Jones would be the new bishop of the Texas Annual Conference, I braced for impact. You may remember a previous post about my first time to hear him speak as bishop. Conference provided greater opportunity to get to know the man and I must say that my opinion of him is favorably changed.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that Bishop Jones and I have quite different theological positions. In his opening address, he (being a scholar of Weslayan and church history), referred to Kenneth Wyatt’s painting “Offer Them Christ,” depicting Wesley sending Thomas Coke to America (with the painting’s title referring to Wesley’s supposed charge to Coke). Bishop Jones pointed out that the scene depicted by Wyatt never actually occurred, but that it nevertheless carries some power and truth with it. As a writer of fiction, I very much agree.

I am led to believe (and this admittedly could be wrong because it comes from my own surmising and third-hand commentary) that Bishop Jones leans toward a more conservative and literalist interpretation of scripture. If this is true, I wonder how our bishop can apply a non-literalist hermeneutic to the painting but not to the interpretation of scripture.

At the end of the day, however, this criticism doesn’t matter, even if it is correct. What I saw in Bishop Jones was a man of deep faith, strong leadership skills, a commitment to the Gospel, a true desire to do good in the world and a sense of reasonableness and compassion. I am led to question my suppositions about him because his comments (both in the opening address and at the Under-35 dinner at which he briefly spoke) lead me to believe that his past actions regarding disciplinary actions against clergy performing same-sex marriage ceremonies were not governed by his theology but by a rigorous commitment to the discipline of the church as represented in the Book of Discipline. Again, I may disagree with his approach to the church discipline, but I do admire that his commitment carries a certain fairness and predictability with it that may not be found in my own thoughts about the importance of the Book of Discipline.

I think that Bishop Jones will be able to accomplish many great things in our conference and I admire his expressed desire to seek greater diversity in the church (even if it is not as extensive as the diversity I’d argue for). He seems like someone with whom it would be great to spend some time and from whom much can be learned. What the United Methodist Church needs more than anything else to prevent a split is people who can be in fellowship and communion with those Christians with whom they do not theologically agree (on matters other than the Creedal core, of course). Bishop Jones seems just such a person. Given his adherence to church order, I really believe that, if General Conference changed to Book of Discipline to favor full inclusion regardless of gender (there is much work toward gender equality between men and women, but not nearly enough for those who are transgendered, genderfluid or elsewhere on the spectrum) and sexual preference, Bishop Jones would support the modified discipline whether he agreed with it or not because of his commitment to the polity.

Overall, I was forced to reconsider my expectations of the man and to realize that in more ways than not he is a great asset to our conference and to Christianity itself. I wish it did not take me so long to realize something that—according to my own values and beliefs—I should have been open to from the very beginning.

The Resistance (to Progress)

This was the feeling I got most from the laity at conference this year. This does not apply across the board, and I hope that my conclusions were caused by a small number of vocal individuals or congregations rather than a true representation of the conference as a whole.

Our theme, as I’ve alluded to, was diversity and the need for the church to grow more diverse in ways that are authentic. What surprised me was the resistance to diversity that was voiced among laity.

The laity session of the conference involved a panel of clergy and experts in diversity and the diversification of congregations. The core question posed was, “If your congregation doesn’t look something like your community in terms of demographics, is your church failing to advance its missional purpose in some way?” The panel members were clear that the answer is not automatically “Yes”—there are commuter churches and a number of other types of situations that may cause a church not to match demographic percentages in the community. In fact, the panel members were also clear that seeking diversity just to make numbers match up isn’t very realistic and is usually not the right reason to pursue diversity. When it comes down to it, it’s about ministering to the people around you, not about looking good on pie charts.

Nevertheless, there should be a call to congregations to step outside their comfort zones and to seek congregants of cultures other than the dominant one in that church. We should not be neglecting people because of a different skin color or culture—we ought to be learning how to respectfully navigate (navigation being something more achievable than true understanding) those cultures to reach the people of them.

The questions to the panel seemed to seek assurance for the asker that there were good ways or reasons to avoid the call to diversity. The first question asked about which ethnicity statistically tithes the most—the clear subtext being: “Well, the white people bring the most money to the church, so shouldn’t we be focusing on them?” I don’t know whether that’s statistically true (and I really don’t want to know the answer), and I could write a whole post (or more!) on the theological problems with such an approach. Fortunately, the audience itself responded in resistance to the approach suggested by the asker. Unfortunately, this did not stop other individuals from asking questions that revealed equal amounts of intolerance or resistance to diversity.

If you’re not aware, the 2016 General Conference passed some changes to the church’s constitution. According to the legislative procedures established by the Book of Discipline, constitutional changes passed by the General Conference must then be passed by a majority of the delegates across the Annual Conferences to be enacted.

One of the constitutional changes (summarized here) involved changes to use gender non-specific language to talk about God as a whole, partially for theological reasons but most assuredly to make an effort to combat complementarianism and theologies that assign a lesser place to women because of their femininity (K and I have been watching The Handmaid’s Tale lately, which has reinforced my support for this amendment).

As one young clergyperson paraphrased after the discussion and voting on that and the other four amendments: “Five people got up to speak about how God has a penis.”

The arguments went like this:

(1) Jesus was a man. Because God incarnated as a man, it’s true that God is masculine (or for the softer argument: “it’s confusing to talk about God as non-gendered”).

(2) God created men and women separate from one another; a man cannot be a woman no matter how hard he tries (and vice versa).

(3) This change is an attempt allow changing societal ideologies to creep into theology.

Number 2 ignores modern science, the experiences of non-gender-conforming persons (also created by God) and, most important, the point and focus of this amendment. Number 3 is just another way of saying “there’s no interpretation to be done in Scripture (there’s only the truth of the literalist way I read it).”

Number 1, however, moved me to go to the microphone to speak in favor of the amendment and to respond. If you have nothing else to do, you can go watch the video of the conference online (Business Session 2, I think) and see my extemporaneous argument. It goes like this: according to orthodox doctrine, Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human. It is therefore foolish to try to extrapolate information about the divine aspect of Jesus by reference to the human aspect—our intellects simply cannot resolve this; it is a mystery of faith. Besides, reference to Jesus (or the Father, for that matter) as an argument for the gender of God comes dangerously close to the heresy of modalism—specifically, “sometimes God manifests as man, but sometimes God could manifest as a woman.” Such a response creates problems in trinitarian doctrine that make my head spin. The short answer, though, is that the trinitarian God is complete and therefore must in some way that we cannot truly parse out contain the entire spectrum of gender.

As important, it is incumbent upon us as the faithful to ensure that the interpretation of Scripture is not twisted to promote violence against or a lesser status for women (or anyone else for that matter). I think that many of us American Methodists forget that our denomination is worldwide and that there are places Methodism where gender inequality is still very much an issue (not to mention that we tend to brush under the rug those places it persists within our own minds and institutions).

The Good Apart from the Bad and Ugly

I’ve spent most of this post complaining about the conference, so I do want to point out a few wonderful things about my experience of it:

(1) Getting to spend time with young clergy was uplifting and inspiring.

(2) We heard some great presentations. At the Reconciling Ministries lunch we heard Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth speak about being a gay, black man in the Methodist Church. His description of times when his blackness prevented getting to issues of sexuality and his gayness prevented getting to issues of race opened my eyes. The presentation on cultural intelligence by Rev. Dr. Maria A. Dixon Hall (Senior Advisor to the Provost at SMU) is nothing short of amazing. You can watch it on YouTube starting at around the 1:30:00 mark here.

(3) One of the panelists in the laity session stated that he believes that house churches will be a big part of the future of Christianity. I’ve been thinking this for a while myself, and validation from an expert is always good for the ego.

(4) Our conference appears to be innovative and vibrant and there are many laypersons and clergy who are proclaiming the Gospel in new and powerful ways.

(5) I got to see K in her element (the intersection of church and meetings) and hit the realization that she’ll be commissioned as a deacon at Conference next year. Time flies! I also got to meet several of her classmates from Perkins seminary.

(6) The affirmation of the social justice values of Christianity (and particularly the Methodist interpretation thereof) is comforting in times where politicians want to use hate and fear to hold power, leaving the world less fair and just all around.

(7) I made new friends in the Conference that I hope to have deep relationships with—it’s always fun to meet young clergy who are nerds like me!

I could go on, but seven being the metaphorical number of completion, that seems like a good stopping point.

RPG Review: Apocalypse World, 2nd Edition (and Description of Play)

I’ve known about the “World” games for quite some time; I’ve had a digital copy of Dungeon World wasting away in a forgotten corner of my iPad for years. But it wasn’t until this past week that I really gave the system the attention it deserved.

I had picked up Dungeon World not to run it, but because I’d heard that it was a “must know” for aspiring game designers. I’m constantly toying with ideas for RPG systems, and while I’ve never completed a ruleset I’d be proud to publish, I’m getting a little closer each time I think. So, with the idea that I had some things to learn from the illustrious Vincent Baker, I decided to take another look.

I purchased and began to read the second edition of Apocalypse World, the game that started it all, so to speak. Having read (but never played) Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, I knew going in that there was a powerful mind engaged in building profound storytelling games behind the work.

In the past, I’d only really skimmed Dungeon World, and it seemed too fast and loose for my tastes. Then again, I grew up playing Shadowrun, d20 and World of Darkness games and reading and re-reading the Rolemaster books, so my definition of fast and loose was itself pretty fast and loose.

In reading Apocalypse World, I was surprised to find a system that was deceptively tight, with rules determined to incessantly advance the story at all costs. Even more than Fate, one of my favorite systems over the past few years, this game is designed from the ground up to play out fiction-first games that put the characters at the heart of the narrative and keep them there. The examples of action—which I found to be believable portrayals of the rules in effect—reminded me constantly of a well-written and run television show—say Deadwood or Game of Thrones. The cast of characters is connected to the setting in ways that inevitably draw them into conflict, which is, of course, the essence of plot.

I don’t mean to say that Apocalypse World is a perfect system; there’s not such a thing. But AW does fit a certain playstyle very well, a playstyle that resonates with me. I like reading roleplaying games—they’re often great sources for both mechanics to adapt to other systems and setting ideas to explore in games or writing. But there are few that, upon a first read, make me want to go out and play the game as soon as possible. AW is one of those systems.

As a word of minor warning: if you’re not familiar, AW has some narrative space dedicated to sex, particularly the way sex influences relationships between characters and drives plot. Each character class gets or gives certain bonuses for having sex with other characters (with an explicit focus on these relationships developing between player characters). I fully appreciate the power of sex in the human psyche (and therefore as a motivating or driving force within fiction) and don’t consider myself prudish by any means, but the prospect of weaving a subject so fraught with sticky wickets into a tabletop game with my friends is daunting and doesn’t appeal. In the one game I’ve run so far, I’ve tried to take a middle ground in establishing that there are some sexual/romantic relationships between PCs and NPCs to get some plot mileage out of these connections but leaving the prurient details (well, most of the details, really) to remain in the background.

I give the warning above because some players and readers might be turned off (no pun intended, I suppose) by this content in the game. If that’s the case, and who could blame someone if it is, my recommendation is to ignore all the “sex stuff” and run the game without incorporating the rules dedicated to that aspect of the game. As is typical of any narrative or roleplaying game that addresses mature subjects, it’s best for the group to decide where the boundaries of those subjects lie by adapting the boundary established by the most sensitive player to the subject. This is just good teamwork, and a good roleplaying experience requires teamwork.

Which leads me to one of my favorite aspects of this system—it is collaborative between the gamemaster (called the Master of Ceremonies or MC) and the players in a truly effective way. The MC asks questions to be answered by the players and incorporates those into the story. This takes some of the improvisational and preparatory burden off of the MC (though an MC not comfortable with generating story on the fly should approach this game with caution) and gives the players some real skin in the game, with characters who have established ties to the setting influenced if not created by their own ideas and storytelling interests.

You can find plenty of reviews that detail how the rules play, so I’m going to skip that and talk more about the “feel” of the game.

I very quickly suckered some friends into trying the system out, so we set up a time yesterday to meet, make characters and start playing. Here’s how it went:

The game strongly discourages significant work on the MC’s part to “plan” game sessions and sets things up so that the MC is also “playing to find out what happens.” The prep I did was as follows: First, I created a few basic setting details—the game takes place in the Greater Houston area and the Apocalypse that happened about fifty years ago: (1) had nothing to do with nuclear annihilation and (2) involved massive sea level rise, making parts of downtown Houston look akin to Venice and completely submerging Galveston and some parts east of the downtown area (I looked at several map projections for climate change and sea level rise to get a feel for this). That said, I didn’t fully define the reasons behind or events of the Apocalypse—I’ll play to find out the details as they get created, just like the players. Second, I created a list of apocalyptic-sounding names to use for characters (the rulebook advises that the MC should “name every NPC” and make them feel like real living people). I printed the rules references and the playbooks for characters. I created an “Apocalypse World” playlist in iTunes with some movie soundtracks, a mix of hard rock, blues, Tom Waits, Nine Inch Nails and other seemingly-appropriate artists. I watched about two-thirds of The Book of Eli and about a third of Doomsday to collect ideas for—as the game puts it—“barfing forth apocalyptica.”

My players arrived around 11:00 to make characters. I’d set them during the week to thinking about the different playbooks/classes and what they might want to play. The choose The Angel (a medic-type), The Chopper (a biker-gang leader, think Clay Morrow or Jax from Sons of Anarchy), The Hardholder (the leader of a community, this reminds me somewhat of characters in Jericho but even more of Al Swearingen in Deadwood), The Brainer (a psychic with mind-control and mind-reading powers) and The Maestro D’ (the owner of a bar or entertainment establishment, the closest thing I can think of offhand, unfortunately, is Peter Baelish and his brothel in Game of Thrones).

There are a few things for each character to define and describe in that character’s playbook—The Chopper makes some decisions about the edges and flaws his gang has, The Hardholder defines some of the advantages of and threats to the hardhold, etc. I followed up on this by asking pointed questions and letting the players answer however they wished. For instance, we determined that the Chopper had once had someone betray the gang, the one rule they cannot abide being broken. But instead of killing the underling to make an example of him, The Chopper beat him badly and banished him. Instant villain—the banished character, who we named Ajax, has recently returned with a small army at his heels to get revenge.

We established that the hardhold is a rusted-out tanker ship washed fairly far inland by a tsunami, with Lita’s (the Maestro D’s bar) in the lowest deck and the upper decks providing the habitations, workspaces and other necessaries of the hardhold. This followed with the creation of some nearby settlements with whom the Hold (as the hardhold was quickly named) had tenuous relationships—a pseudo-feudal community producing much of the areas fuel and ammunition and a matriarchal society of slavers. Further questions established some history and relationships between the characters.

And away we went. Since the players had determined that the Hold had a bustling market for trade, that gave me a starting place—an injured caravaner arrived to explain how she and her fellows had been ambushed and robbed on a western road toward the Hold, territory The Hardholder was responsible for protecting. While The Maestro D’ stayed back to manage the hold (well, mostly her bar), the other characters road out in force, taking The Chopper’s entire gang, half to the Hardholder’s guards and several armored vehicles. They too were ambushed, though they fared much better than the caravan—only one of The Chopper’s men was injured by sniper-fire before the crew was able to eliminate the hostiles—too well, as explosive rounds left little to investigate about the nature and origin of the attackers except for a cryptic tattoo found on a remaining arm.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to point something out. This fight ran fast and smooth, with the characters making tactical decisions based on what they’d tactically do rather than looking to their character sheets for permission. There was the aforementioned enemy sniper, RPGs (that’s the other kind—rocket-propelled grenades), dragging the wounded to cover, exchanging fire from a mounted gun, near misses against the characters and more, with the whole thing taking less than five minutes.

Combat in AW (or any “World” game, as far as I know) doesn’t use initiative, with the MC just bouncing back and forth between players as narratively appropriate. Since the players roll all the dice, the MC only has to initiate a “move” and have the players roll to respond when the NPCs are doing something more than reacting to PC actions.

As an aside, I noticed that this is how combat was run in the “not-Pathfinder” game depicted in the show Harmon Quest—in a half-hour episode, quick combat is essential! Like D&D, it takes players who are either willing to do something non-traditional or unfamiliar enough with the system not to notice to pull something like this off, but I think it’s much preferred to the “classic” tactical combat of D&D or games like Shadowrun.

I have to admit that, when running RPGs, I sometimes find ways to shy away from fights because of rules that make them play out laboriously, slowly and without much excitement. AW does RPG fights right—the rules push the narrative of the fight but remain effectively in the background while allowing for narrative details to immerse the players and add nuance to the fight that just aren’t well captured in simulationist mechanics.

The players had determined that the ship had a functioning radio suite, one that was used both for communication with other settlements and for entertaining radio broadcasts. When the players had eliminated one “lead” to advance the plot I simply offered another—they began to pick up a new broadcast on the ship radios, one that sounded very much like a religious cult.

Once they’d returned to the Hold, I pushed more MC moves to advance things—an assassination attempt on the Hardholder, sabotaging of the ship’s power generation, the leaders of the other holds disclaiming responsibility, hard deals to track down the new cult—only to find out that it was a splinter sect and not the cult proper responsible for the attacks, etc.

It’s a general RPG axiom to never “split the party.” AW often encourages just this, and the Maestro D’ was working contacts in the Hold while the Chopper and his men went patrolling for other ambushers and the Hardholder, the Angel and the Brainer went on a diplomatic mission to secure help from the matriarchal hardhold. Because the action of the game carries forward pretty naturally, presents new twists and ideas to the story and allows the MC to not get bogged down in the resolution of events, there was no perceived difficulty at jumping back and forth between various scenes and characters. Unlike many games I’ve run, where players zone out when not actively involved in a scene, the players listened intently to the other player’s actions and scenes, wanting like the rest of us to find out what happens next.

The system is not fast and loose; it supports rather than controls a quick-pace of narrative and action. Just as with writing traditional fiction, pacing is important in roleplaying games and the narrative demands should control pacing more than mechanics—particularly overly-complex ones.

In all, not counting a pizza break, we played for a total of five hours. I haven’t played a single roleplaying session that long since I was in college, and never with so little preparation beforehand.

I loved Apocalypse World—mainly for the usefulness of the rules and the collaborative approach to plot and setting. In all honesty, I could probably take or leave the apocalyptic setting itself. Fortunately, there are tons of “hacks” for AW (Dungeon World, tremulus, Urban Shadows, Uncharted Worlds, just to name a few) and hacking one’s on setting or version of AW seems pretty easy to do. I certainly haven’t tested the system to its limits and breaking points yet (all systems have them), but I feel like even a single session of the game has greatly improved both my GMing chops and my game design toolbox. I highly recommend it for casual gamers, dyed-in-the-wool narrativists (though I don’t buy too hard in GNS theory) and would-be game designers; there’s a lot to sort through here in a tight and somewhat condensed ruleset.