Poetics of Parting

The short short story below was submitted for the latest Writer’s Digest Short Short Story competition. It didn’t win anything (boo!) but that means I’m free to post it here for you (yay!):

Poetics of Parting

Shaping a working is an act of poetry—if poetry were also to use strict self-discipline and mathematic precision. Maybe you’d argue that it does; I’d reply by saying that you have no experience with the arcane and therefore cannot make a reasonable comparison.

I shook uncontrollably. Only moments before, I’d killed a man for the first time, the thin blade of my dueling sword sliding sickeningly into him, his eyes wide in shock and sudden fear, the crimson blossom of his spent lifesblood quickly dying his white shirt.

Where I come from, we don’t duel to the death, or even to first blood; we duel to maneuver our opponent into a position from which he cannot easily escape, demonstrating both prowess and restraint, bravery coupled with a recklessness that risks injury to self for the chance to outwit another. Here in Ealthe, life is cheap and only blood will settle a dispute of ever-ephemeral honor.

In my haughtiness, I’d thought that my skill at arms would allow me to embarrass Ridley without harm to either of us. Once blows were struck, only then did I understand my old tutor’s meaning when he told me to beware those with great anger and little skill. Ridley’s broad, clumsy swings might have been easy to counter if he hadn’t so overexerted himself in his rage. I wanted to wait for him to tire before moving to the offensive, but the shear fury of his attacks would have overwhelmed me before he relented, and I could do nothing but strike to kill if I was to survive. A fool I am, sometimes.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t blame him. He’d caught me red-handed with his red-headed paramour, loud as we were in an otherwise quiet and forgotten corner of the college grounds. How he had come upon that spot in the first place, I didn’t know. Not that it mattered.

I hadn’t cared that Ridley and Synne had been known lovers for some time. I hadn’t cared that she intended to use me only as revenge against Ridley for some perceived sleight; the untowardness of it all made it somehow the sweeter. I hadn’t cared that the university might expel me for dueling, or that Ealthen law forbade such violence. We’d had swords close at hand, and the heady rush so common to both sex and fighting makes it easy for one to lead to the other.

I did care once I’d killed him, though. He had been my friend at the university, a gifted scholar and sure to become a talented magus one day. My own recklessness had destroyed all of that.

At the time, though, I’d had no time for mourning or I’d soon have been mourning my own passing. Some of Ridley’s friends had been with him, you see, and when hot words became cold steel they had quickly decided the hero and the villain. The villain’s victory had upset their sensibilities; before Ridley had even fallen to the ground and died they had readied their own weapons or sorceries against me.

Had Synne not intervened—why she did, I’ll never know—I might have been responsible for even more death. Not by my own hand, of course, but had one of our fellow scholars killed by sorcery, death would have been the only penalty permissible under the law.

She had intervened, though, thrown up a barrier against which their initial assaults crashed without effect, sparks springing to life at random and rain beginning to fall from a clear blue sky in a small radius around us, manifesting Flux bleeding away from the Power summoned by those present.

Though the strain of such a sorcery on Synne must have been immense, I did not linger to see to her. Like a rabbit who knows the dogs have smelled him, I bolted. Immediately, my new attackers gave chase.

I am not a runner. I do not find pleasure in it as some, nor am I very good at it. But I am agile enough, and I weaved carefully ably through the afternoon crowds on Asterfaen’s streets, jinking and suddenly changing direction to prevent my pursuers from overtaking me by sheer speed. I’d spent many a night looking for trouble in the city proper, so I knew the streets well. My companions, better students than I, had not and did not.

Even so, the tension of pursuit and the fear of what might happen if caught shrink perception and thought into a narrow tunnel, one through which I could not adequately view the mental cartography of the city I had crafted over time. Thus it was that I took a wrong turn, moving left at a crossroads when I should’ve gone right, and soon found myself facing an old stone wall at the end of Boggart Close. I had gained enough distance from my pursuers that they had stopped at my last turn to determine where I had passed; their arguing voices carried down the street like a herald of their impending arrival.

I looked back down the alley to determine if I might be able to fight my way out—this thought was quickly discarded when I realized that, somewhere along the way, I’d dropped my sword. Empty handed, I turned back to the wall. I’m even less a climber than a runner, and the passage of time had worn the wall’s stones too smooth to find any purchase.

Only one option remained to me, it seemed. I closed my eyes and began to draw upon the Power. As I said, my hands were shaking uncontrollably as the shock of the past moments caught up to me, so I performed the gestures and hand-symbols only with great difficulty. Words spilled softly from my mouth, in a halting mumble at first as I fought to center myself and assemble the thoughts and mental images I would need to form the Power into a working.

As I prepared, the Power enveloped me, a comforting embrace at first that quickly became an oppressive force, as if I’d swum too deep into the sea. I focused my consciousness and intent on the stony barrier, stringing sentences of commanding words together.

The words and the gestures bear no power to shape a working in and of themselves; they are only aids to the practitioner, attempts to focus his mind. A working is shaped through sequences of thoughts and imaginative images formed in the mind’s eye—this is why it is poetry and not natural philosophy. A wrong mental impression inserted into the process could unravel the whole working. What we call “the Power” is the raw stuff of Creation, unadulterated possibility itself, and such a thing is dangerous to unleash into the Avar uncontrolled. Even the small amounts that bleed from well controlled workings as Flux can be dangerous if allowed to accumulate.

After a moment, the gestures and words took effect, all else fading away to leave me with the working. I struggled to shape the Power into my desired form. I formed first an image of a grand stone, a rocky outcropping, the clouds flying past at high speed until time and wind and water reduced the stone to dirt. Next, I imagined the stones of the wall being laid upon one another, mortar slapped haphazardly between them; this image I then reversed, the wall being taken apart and the mortar scraped away as each stone leapt away from the others. The thought of a breaking chain followed, the snapping links shattering into tiny shards propelled away by an invisible force.

Even as I formed the images, I could feel the Power struggling against me, writhing against the bonds I had placed on it, seeking its own freedom. Given the nature of my working, this proved especially distracting; I could feel other thoughts and ideas lurking at the edge of my consciousness, threatening to intrude and destroy the meanings I had so carefully developed in my mind. No longer did I speak softly; my words now were yelled as the Power swirled into shape. I could hear the footfalls of my pursuers quickening behind me.

Just as the proximity of my assailants’ steps shattered my concentration, the working took effect, the stone wall softening into a thick mud. I forced my way through without hesitation, unable to see as the muck clung to my face and body. As soon as I reckoned that I had passed entirely beyond the wall, I let the working collapse, mud become stone once again. The mud that clung to me dropped away as pebbles, and I could hear the clank of a sword against stone as heavy rock enveloped a weapon that had been swung at me as I fled.

A doorway opened and closed, both literally and metaphorically. That seemed fitting, as I knew that my footsteps must now carry me away from Asterfaen and the university, never to return.

Collections

Putnam nearly jumped out of his chair as the door burst open, the bubbling elixirs and preparations in the alembics and retorts arrayed before him sloshing and spilling onto the table, some harmless but others hissing and spitting in their upset. He fumbled to stand, twisting the high-backed chair behind him awkwardly and almost falling over it, catching himself on the ornate backrest and hauling himself to his feet with some effort.

In the doorway stood a silhouetted figure, hulking and garbed with malice, idly grinding underfoot one of the splinters from the broken door frame. “Putnam,” he growled.

“Who—Who are you?”

The intruder stepped forward into the light, casually throwing the open door back toward its frame; it bounced off of the remnants of the door jamb but settled in a mostly-closed position, open only a crack. As the light of the everlamps illuminated the man’s face, Putnam gasped, “Taelainë’s balls!”

“Taelainë doesn’t have balls, old man.” He was Blooded of the Rukhosi, easily seven feet tall as he raised himself to full height upon entering, clothed in pure muscle, enlarged incisors peeking from his lower jaw, giving him something of an underbite.

“No…no, of course she doesn’t. You’re one of Berem’s men, yes?” Putnam attempted a smile as he spoke, but his face resembled more of a Temple grotesque with its mouth lopsidedly open in a look of confusion.

“That’s Blind-Eye to you. You’re two weeks late on your payments. We take our debts very seriously in the Sisters.”

“I have…no—no doubt.” Putnam stuttered. He took a deep breath and steadied himself, brushing the crumbs of his last meal from the front of his robes. “But perhaps we can come to some arrangement. Some collateral?”

“You’re a second-rate alchemist at best, Putnam. Otherwise you’d have turned some lead into gold or somesuch instead of taking a loan from Blind-Eye. What do you have to offer?”

Putnam looked past the kneebreaker then, caught in a personal reverie. “You are correct, of course. Even at university, my poorest performances were alchemical.” Shaking his head as if to clear it of old memories, he turned his gaze to the Rukhosi-Blooded thug. “Still, I’m so close to the end of my experiments! And, as you said, alchemy is the least of my talents. I’m an accomplished shaper. A sword! Yes, how about that? An enchanted sword. Seems enough to by me a week, at least.”

“I have a sword,” the man told him, his left hand fingering the grip of the weapon at his hip—a longsword to most men, but Putnam had no doubt that the man could wield it effectively in a single hand if he desired.

“Yes, but what about a sword you don’t have to sharpen? One that will not break? There are many effective enchantments to be placed on a weapon.”

“Have you ever used a sword, alchemist?”

“I’ve had the good fortune that it’s never been necessary.”

“Then you have no business making swords. Your thaumaturgy means little in a fight—it is the balance of the weapon, the way it feels and plays in your hand that matters. It’s not easy to find one that fits, and not much makes it worth getting used to a new one if you don’t have to.”

“Perhaps your sword, then? I could enchant it and you’d not need to acquaint yourself with a new weapon. If you’d just hand it over…”

The enforcer smiled. “Clever, old man.” He raised his hands, opening them with palms toward Putnam so their massive size became evident. “But don’t you think that, even if you had my sword—a weapon you’ve admitted to never having used—I couldn’t easily beat you to death with my bare hands?”

Putnam’s shoulders fell. “Yes,” he said, almost a whisper, the reluctant apology of a child who only regrets being caught. Then, he lifted his head with realization and actually smiled. “But you haven’t said ‘no’ outright, have you?”

The large man shrugged. “It doesn’t hurt to listen. Actually goes a long way in my line of work, believe it or not.”

“Then what might you want?”

When the enforcer looked to his shoes, Putnam knew he’d found an in with the man. “It’s about a woman, isn’t it?” The large man’s fierce visage as he raised his eyes from his footwear confirmed the alchemist’s suspicions. “You want a love potion, then? A simple matter, really.”

“Is it, now?” The growling voice dripped with suspicion. Clearly, the thug had never become accustomed to being vulnerable, which Putnam mused might very well be the cause of his amorous failings. “I am no fool, nor do I wish to steal affection through guile.”

But coin is another matter, now, isn’t it? Putnam thought to himself. “What then?” he asked.

“It’s…how I look.” The enforcer admitted.

“I am no back-alley fleshcrafter!”

“Putnam, I came here to take some fingers. If you’re going to buy yourself some time, you might consider being what I want you to be.”

The alchemist looked back at the man, a hardness in his eyes. “It is a left-handed practice.”

“But it is something that you could do, is it not?”

“If I wanted to be hunted by the Vigil.”

“Come now, you know that the Vigil holds no authority here. Besides, they’d have to find you first. I already have.” The Rukhosi-Blooded thug cracked his knuckles for emphasis, the sound almost echoing within Putnam’s apartment laboratory.

“You want to look more like the rest of us? Fine. Come back tomorrow and—”

“No. Tonight or not at all.”

“You’ll need a sacrifice.”

“What, like a person?”

“God, no! Well, I mean, yes, that would work, but there’s no need to be so macabre. Something of great personal value to you will suffice. A longtime keepsake, something you acquired at great cost, a symbol of your greatest achievements, something with meaning.”

“Why?”

“We don’t have time for the explanation. I apprenticed under a magus and then spent years at university trying to understand, and even the scholars and professors have only theories and conjectures, though they call them Laws.”

“What if I don’t have anything like that?”

Putnam frowned. “Flesh for flesh then. A finger or two should do.”

The enforcer glared, apparently not a fan of irony. “I need my fingers.”

“Toes?”

“Balance.”

“Ears? Nose?”

“Defeats the purpose, don’t you think?”

“Umm, yes, well…”

“Blood?”

Putnam smiled faintly. “Yes, that will do, but you’ll need a bit of it.”

The thug pulled a wicked dagger from his belt, blade curved and serrated. “Why not yours?” He growled.

“That would work, um, yes, but then I wouldn’t have the wherewithal to perform the working.” Putnam wrung his hands.

“Fine,” the man said, moving the blade over his forearm.

“Wait!” Putnam objected. “Not yet, you fool!” The alchemist sorted through the multifarious miscellany that cluttered a nearby set of shelves, returning with an empty wide-mouthed bottle and a small vial filled with ochre fluid. “You’ll bleed into this,” the magus said, setting the bottle at the man’s feet. Indicating the ochre liquid, he continued, “When you get the signal from me that you’ve bled enough, you’ll put this on the wound to close it.”

Without additional words, Putnam began to sketch out a rough set of circles and symbols in chalk on the wooden floor surrounding the large man. The designs complete, he started to shuffle through the apartment on seemingly-random errands—collecting a book and opening it upon a nearby lectern, burning some fragrant herb in a small bowl he set at the edge of the circle, mumbling to himself as he gathered a short wand and a clay talisman.

When Putnam looked ready to begin, the man warned him. “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to kill you.”

The enforcer was met by a look of silent confidence on the magus’s face. “There will be no need for that.”

The alchemist began, the words becoming a frenetic rhythm of unfamiliar sounds, the air becoming heavy with the weight of possibility. With a motion, Putnam signaled to the man. He gritted his teeth, incisors sinking into his upper lip, and drew the blade across his left forearm, crimson trickling neatly into the waiting bottle at his feet.

He bled for what seemed a long time, his vision beginning to close in to a tunnel shape, sounds the sound of Putnam’s voice beginning to distort slightly. Just as he turned the dagger in his hand to use it on his quarry, Putnam signaled to use the elixir. The thug pulled the vial from where he’d stuck it in his belt, tore the cork away and poured the contents onto the cut in his arm.

The wound did not begin to knit itself closed as the enforcer had expected. The flow of blood from the severed veins instead increased in volume. He moved the dagger back to his good hand and began to move toward the alchemist, wrath burning hot in his eyes. He stopped when he came to the interior edge of the circles drawn on the floor and found that he could not leave the circumscribed space. Passionate wrath turned to cold anger at being outwitted, turned to panic and desperation. On the outside of the circle, Putnam smiled as he continued to intone the words that held the arcane cage in place.

When Blind Eye’s agent had finally collapsed into a pool of his own blood, Putnam let the working collapse. Stepping delicately over the body and attempting to avoid tracking bloody footprints through the apartment, he gathered his research notes and most important books and placed them delicately into a leather satchel. He gathered his staff and his broad-brimmed traveling hat before going to the drawers in a humble study desk in the corner of the apartment’s single room. Sliding the drawer open, he pulled out a heavy linen bag about the size of his fist, tied at the top and clinking with coin. Stuffing this into his bag, he sidestepped the body once more and swung open the broken door.

A moment later he had exited the tenement building and walked under a starlit sky, both Nyrynë  and Iamor visible overhead. He whistled to himself softly as he made his way toward Ilessa’s western gate, only a short jaunt from the The Scraps, the beggar’s quarter where he’d set up his humble laboratory only a few weeks before.

He tipped his hat at the night watch as they passed, smiling.

Single Sitting Stories

Hopefully by now you’ve seen the two pieces of my own humble attempts at fiction posted to the blog recently, the short short story “Kenning” and the longer “Rites of Passage.”

Since finishing the longer piece, I’ve decided to turn my hand to more short short stories (1500 words and under). Writer’s Digest is holding a competition for stories of that length and I’ve decided to focus my efforts on that before taking up a different writing task.

I’ll likely post the stories that I write but don’t submit for the competition to the blog, so–provided you enjoy reading my writing–there should be more to look out for relatively soon.

Having completed the first of the pieces of several I’ll chose from for my ultimate submission, I’ve got to say that I wish that I’d started writing short short stories much sooner. I highly recommend them.

A story of 1500 words or less can be written in a single sitting. Yes, this might be a somewhat long sitting depending on your own writing/editing speed, but that’s not a bad thing. Writing a self-contained story in a single go offers many advantages.

First, it forces you to push through. If you’ve determined in advance that you’re not getting up until the story’s finished, you can work on your writing discipline in manageable but meaningful chunks. Discipline is one of the most important attributes of a successful writer (maybe the most important–the lack of such discipline I’ve had until relatively recently certainly prevented me from improving and enjoying my writing to this extent earlier in my life).

Like most skills, you have to work your way up. Over a decade ago, at the end of my college career, I wrote my first novel. No, you can’t see it; I’m embarrassed to even think about it, it’s so poorly written. But one major difficulty I had with it was sitting for long periods to focus on writing–combined with disappointment about my perceived lack of progress.

Writing a short short story gives you a small place to start to build the perseverance necessary to writing longer works over multiple sessions.

Successfully completing a story is a big confidence-builder, too. One of the difficulties of establishing good habits and a sustainable mindset in the pursuit of any complex art is that you have to maintain the focus and will to keep going over periods of time. It’s in some ways the ultimate test of delayed-gratification, exacerbated by the neurosis that most (if not all) creative-types have about the value and worth of their creations.

As important, stories of about 1500 words are a very good length for having a complete (albeit condensed) narrative to practice with, allowing you to experiment with and develop different writing and editing skills more quickly. We don’t all need to write a Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses to learn valuable techniques from imitating and playing with those styles. Further, if–like I used to be (and probably still am, though hopefully to a lesser extent)–it’s sometimes hard to get to the editing phase at all, shorter works can help with that.

In undertaking this endeavor myself, I’m discovering things about the art of writing and the structuring of narratives at microcosmic levels that will nevertheless pertain to and inform future longer works I write. Try it out!

Kenning

(So I’ve been promising for some time that I’d post some short stories set in Avar Narn on the blog. Well, I’ve been slow in the writing and even slower in the editing of those more “official” stories and they’re still likely a short ways off. So, in the meantime, I’ve decided to publish the short short story below, written rough and mostly to shake the dust off, edited only slightly, and on the lighter/sillier side of things. )

“Tardarse? Why do they call him that?” Hrogar asked.

Ranald grinned. “We took on Vix when he was just a lad. His parents had fallen on hard times and we got him cheap—mother needed to keep her forge going or some shite like that. Anyway, he’d done what growing up he’d done learning to pound steel, so he had a fair bit of muscle on his scrawny frame. The boys and I figured we needed a porter and someone to tend the campsite, polish the armor, do all the shite we’d grown tired of, yeah?

“He’d been with us about a year; must’ve been about fifteen or so, and he’d fallen in just fine with the Ravens. So there we were in the west of Eldane, just about to set out on an expedition for one of the Houses toward some place o’ death and fortune; I forget which.

“It was uncharacteristically hot for the start of the campaigning season, so we hadn’t made it too far trekking that day, loaded down with our baggage train as we were. Exhaustion fell on us all and we stumbled about like shamblers as we made camp. No one talks about what shite adventuring is, a lot of discomfort and boredom punctuated by sudden terror.

“In the small hours of the morning, a facking orcene wanders into the camp, stirred I guess by the warm night air and its own hunger. Filthy facker it was, skin grey and scabrous, hair matted and mottled, coated in a layer of shite and mud, fungus growing in the creases of its gluttonous form like it had been some boulder sitting in one of valleys of the hill-country. Half again as tall as a man, and its dark eyes flashed with hatred for all things civilized and human, hungry to destroy, defile and devour.

“Apparently Marten, who’d been supposed to be on watch at that time, had fallen asleep at his post. Only embers glowed in the fire pit we’d dug and we awoke to the sounds of the monster ripping apart one of our horses with its bare hands. It’s hard to think with the screams of a dying horse filling your ears, but me and the boys have been through worse shite than that and, groggy as we were, it weren’t long before we were unsheathing swords and yelling to each other in our battle-tongue, preparing a concerted counter-attack.

“So I take a peek out of the flap of my tent, and sure enough, there’s the facking thing starting to come into the camp proper, dragging Marten by the foot. Now he’s screaming along with the damned horse and it’s getting harder to hear me mates as we form a strategy. I see our patron look out of his tent. As soon as he sees the orcene he starts facking screaming, too, like he were a little girl and you’d just ripped his dolly from his hands.

“Course, this gets the beast’s attention and it wheels around, leaving Marten and moving towards the patron. I’m just about to call the boys to attack when out facking rushes Vix from his tent, naked as the day he was born, screaming at the top of his lungs. I guess he’d taken his clothes off to sleep in the heat, but he looked like one of the wild folk on a raid into a mountain village, on the warpath to rape and pillage.

“The only thing he’s got in his hands is a wooden practice sword we’d been training him with. Bravest, stupidest thing I ever saw. So now Vix is charging the orcene and it turns to face him with a look of shock and confusion. He brings the waster down on the beast’s knee, breaking the wooden weapon and sending splinters everywhere. I hear some of the boys start laughing, and can’t help but do the same—it’s the strangest thing, this naked boy screaming like some blood-crazed berserker, the monster yelling back in sheer disbelief and the sword-stick still coming up and down like an ax, like Vix is trying to chop down the tree of the monster’s leg. Only it’s not really that funny, because we’re about to watch this boy die.

“The orcene raises its hands to smash Vix, and I’m sure I’m about to watch the boy’s head explode like a jar of jam. But Vix takes the opening and facking swings the fragment of the wooden sword in a rising strike at the creature’s groin. There’s a sickening splunch as the stick connects with the beast’s stones. As one, the men of the Company grunted in sympathy; enemies though we were, no man wishes such a wound on another.

“Like he’s some facking dancer in a mummery, Vix rolls between the thing’s legs before it brings its hands down to its wounded manhood. Now it’s screaming louder than the horses or any of us, doubled over and clutching at itself as you or I would do in its place.

“And Vix, this look of grim determination on his face, like he’s never facking heard of that thing called fear, walks his way back around to the front of the beast while it’s distracted and proceeds to stab the facker in the face with the stub of the wooden sword, spraying blood and ichor across him as he destroys the thing’s eyes.

“The orcene’s unsure whether to protect its manhood or its face, and I swear the thing’s sobbing to itself. Now it’s the one who’s scared, and Vix is going about his business like he’s facking saddling the horses, taking his time and—ask the boys—humming to himself. He walks over to me tent and picks up a spear I’d leaned against a nearby tree. He’s still buck naked, mind you, and he looks up at me, surprised to see a human face. The shock of the recognition drains the calm from him and he starts to shake as his nerves take hold.

“‘Finish it, boy,’ I tell him.

“Still shaking, he readies the spear in both hands and charges the orcene, jumping at the last moment and bearing the spear in a downward arc that pierces the monster’s neck, driving the facker onto its back and pinning it to the Avar. There’s a fountain of blood spews up from the wound and covers the boy, and now he really looks like one of the wild folk all painted up on a raid from the mountains.

“The boys and I come out of the tents hooting and clapping and carrying on like we’d just seen a show in an Altaenin brothel. Apparently, this scares Vix and he lets out a shrill scream as he turns to see us. This scares him after he’s brutally and efficiently skewered a monster that by rights could have given us all a good fight. Now he’s trying to cover his manhood with his hands, like he’s some virginal maid we’ve come upon bathing. He’s got this stupid look on his face like he’s done something wrong and he’s about to get whipped for it.

“Marten wraps an old cloak around him and hands him a mug of ale. ‘Faaaaaack. Stupidest thing I ever saw,’ Marten’s telling him, ‘that thing could’ve smashed you to bits. What in the Abyss drove you to such a thing?’

“‘I—I thought you was all dead,’ Vix stutters. ‘I’s angry is all, I guess.’

“‘Tardarse,’ Greygan says, smiling. ‘But better stupid than good, I ‘spose.’

“And it stuck. We all called him Tardarse from that point on, and he was one of us. Not some porter or servant boy we brought along to ease the hardship of travel, but a man of the Company. A Raven. It wasn’t the last stupidly brave thing I’ve seen him do and survive, neither. There’s good Wyrgeas on that one. Got to be, as much trouble as he gets himself into and finds a way out again.”