SFF Saturday Snippets

This page is a compilation of the snippets I’ve posted for Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday, for various works in progress.

Old Wounds

This compilation of snippets is from a short story called Old Wounds.

crossed_swordsSorne heard her apprentice’s footsteps creaking the floorboards as he crossed the shop toward her closed door. His pace was halting, as if he weren’t sure he should be intruding. She set down her pliers and rod, least she mar the delicate gold of the coronet before her. Dilan was better than this. Her instructions had been very clear—no interruptions. She had a commission to finish by tomorrow and she was never late. She’d no plans to ruin that part of her reputation now, even if it meant a sleepless night.

Dilan rapped on her door. “Master Sorne?” His voice carried far too much fear in it.

Oh damn. She pulled off her jeweler’s loop and picked up her sword. “Yes?”  She used her best ill-tempered voice.

“There’s a gentleman here to see you.”

Only one? She slipped her sword free from its scabbard. “Send him away. I’m busy.”

All of the coin for the shop, the precious metals, the gems, she kept in a safe at the back of her workroom. She only displayed the ironwork in the front and a very few inexpensive jewelry pieces in a case. For the bulk of the wealth the shop held, the robbers would have to enter this room.

They must be incredibly stupid thieves. Everyone knew who she had been. Even with her lame leg, she could still best all but three people in a fight, and those who could defeat her had no need to steal gold.

The floor squeaked in the main part of the shop, but not close enough to have been Dilan. Someone spoke, too low and soft for Sorne to decipher the words.

Dilan cleared his throat. “He says its urgent.”

“Is it the King?”

“No.”

“The Rivvis?”

“No.”

“Then tell him to go take a piss.”

There was a pause, then a new voice sounded in the shop. “I don’t think that would be wise, Mistress Sorne.”

Her non-sword hand curled into a fist. “Master Sorne.”

Dilan spoke. “Master, he’s got one of those flint things.”

Flintlock. Damn the humans for inventing them and damn her fellow Elasi for perfecting them. It could be a pistol or a long gun—either way, her sword would be useless. She set it down and palmed a throwing knife before unbolting and opening the workshop door.

The firearm, it turned out, was a pistol and a stranger had it pressed up against the back of Dilan’s head. Her apprentice’s eyes were wide and his face ashen and he trembled as the man holding the gun backed him away from the door—away from her.

“Don’t move,” he said.

She did not know the dark-haired man. His voice held traces of a coastal accent, his bearing sure, and the hand holding the pistol fine and steady. He had money; his fingers were not those of a laborer. She held her place—and her tongue.

“Now move to your right and place the knife on the counter.”

He also had a brain.  Careful to keep her movements slow and her hands visible, she laid the palmed blade on the table. At the end of the stranger’s pistol Dilan stood silently, but his whole body shook like a new leaf in a spring breeze.

“And any other blades you have on you, if you’d please.”

Damn. Sorne added the knife from her belt and boot to the counter. “That’s all,” she said.

“His life depends on your honesty, Mistress.”

“Master,” she said. “And I’m lame, not blind.” She kept her hands where the man could see them. “How much do you want?”

He jerked his head up and had the gall to look insulted. “I’m not here for your money. I want to speak to you.”

She pushed down her growing anger, but not before some of it slipped out. “Courtesy calls for making an appointment, sirrah. Not placing a gun to the head of my apprentice.”

Dilan turned paler, quite a feat, given the deep bronze of his complexion. The young man would faint or pass out soon, she expected.

The man’s face hardened. “I don’t have time for appointments.”

“Neither do I,” she said.

Silence, but for Dilan’s gasps for air. She sighed. “What do you want, then?”

“I need to break into the Palace—”

“No.”

The stranger parted his lips in shock, then pressed the gun harder into Dilan’s skull. “I don’t think you understand what I’m willing to do…”

Dilan closed his eyes. He knew, of course.

“She won’t betray the King. Not for my life, not for her own.” Dilan opened his eyes and met Sorne’s gaze. “You could bathe the streets red with the blood of the town’s residents, and it wouldn’t sway her.” He’d gained some of his color back.

The kid had a spine after all. If they survived this, she’d work with him on building that up. “Dilan has the right of it.”

The stranger pulled back the pistol slightly. “They have my daughter.”

“And you have someone’s son.”

There it was, the waver. In his face and in his arm, telling her that he did not want to be here. “She’s three,” he said.

Fire and ash. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t do either, then. “Put down the gun and tell me. Perhaps there’s another way out of this.”

The man did not move for several long moments, then he lowered his arm. “I have no other hope.”

Sorne moved with care. The gun, while not aimed at Dilan’s head, was still cocked. One slip of his finger and the damn thing would go off. “Please put that down.”

The man looked at the weapon, then placed it on a nearby counter, its muzzle pointing toward the wall. Tension eased between Sorne’s shoulder blades and she lowered her arms. “Dilan, get out of here, but don’t tell anyone what has happened.”

“Master?”

She snorted. “If he’s being watched and you tattle, what do you think happens to the girl?”

“I’ll go out the back.” A moment later, Dilan was gone.

Sorne ran fingers through her hair, not surprised to find her skull damp with sweat. She leaned against the counter where she’d lain her blades. “Now, tell me your name.”

“Ambrose Terrin.” He brushed his hand over his face. “Is there somewhere we can sit? I—” He swayed.

Figured, now that his excitement and determination had worn off. “In back.” She nodded over her shoulder. “Let me turn the sign and I’ll join you.”

She walked past him, picking up the gun as she went. It took a moment to disarm the thing. Rumor had it even the Palace guard trained to use them now. Good to know all the weapons, though a part of her balked at that thought. But it wasn’t her place any more.

She flipped the sign and locked her door. When she joined Ambrose in the workroom, she handed the flintlock back to him and took a seat in her worktable chair.

He took the weapon, but looked at it as if it were a dead fish. He’d perched himself onto a stool near the table.

“You’ll need it later, I expect,” she said.

His face twisted at that. “I’m not built for this kind of thing.” But he pocketed the pistol anyway.

His earlier actions belied that statement. Desperate men and desperate actions. “Tell me what happened.”

“I made the wrong deal with the wrong person.”

He shifted on the stool. “I’m not sure why you’re helping me and not killing me.”

Sorne leaned back in her chair. “Your daughter is three. How would killing you help her?”

He chewed on that for a moment. “I’m a trader, from Farlon Harbor. I generally acquire and transport quarried stone—marble and the like—for building projects.”

That explained his costal accent. “By land and sea?”

He nodded. “I also move other items, including delicate or expensive cargo.”

Ah. “You lost someone’s shipment.”

“I don’t lose shipments,” Ambrose said, each word sharper than the last. “It was stolen, probably by the bastard who hired me. I should have said no. Had I been smart—” He ran a hand through his hair.

“The cargo?”

“Gems, mostly lower-grade garnets, but also some very large uncut emeralds, and one sapphire the size of an egg that was to go to the capital.”

To Estefe. A sapphire that large should only go to one person, but the way this was playing out… “It was not sent to the King.”

“No, nor to any jeweler I knew.” He held up a hand to forestall her comment. “I’ve sent shipments of jewels to the City before; I know the names of the best. No, this was to a gentleman named Moroloch.”

Sorne nearly reached for the hilt of her sword. “Moroloch is no gentleman.”

“I know that now,” Ambrose said. “When the shipment disappeared, they broke into my home in the dark of the night, bound both me and my wife and took our girl.” His hands shook and anger turned his face darker. “I couldn’t do a damned thing.”

“They wanted you impotent.”

He jerked his head up. “Well, they succeeded. By the time Moroloch came, well into the light of the next day, I was—not myself. He offered me a way to get my child back. He didn’t care about the garnets or the emeralds, just the sapphire.”

Note: The image is a drawing of two crossed swords from “Athletic Sports for Boys” which I downloaded from The Open Clip Art Library.

Herald

herald

This  compilation of snippets from a work in progress called Herald (at the moment). Eventually, the project will be a fantasy loosely based on the Hundred Years War, but it’s in the very early draft stages.

Whispers of names filled the air and tinged the sky gray in the afternoon sun. Denis de Mont combed the battlefield, his voice, his magic, adding to the haze above. He counted the dead. Set down a record of those whose names mattered.

Those who mattered. The prince’s words twisted like a blade in Denis’s heart. Their honored dead. Counts and barons. Landed nobles. Knights. Those names found their way to the Soleil d’Or Herald’s tent and twined themselves into ink and onto the pages of the Record of the Dead, written in the hand of the one who spoke their name.

The others, those conscripted to die as fodder for the archers and horses? Their names mattered not, only their number. Their bodies would be turned, nameless, into the sodden earth unless a love one claimed their body and asked a pursuivant to speak the name of the dead. Weeks of marching and the sea stood between these dead and their families. There would be no such requests.

A necessary shame, the prince had said. Too many souls to name before the sun touched the horizon, before their ghosts rose and voiced their anguish.

Despite the order, the names Denis knew, he voiced. All pursuivants on the field did likewise, for they did not answer to the prince but to Soleil d’Or Herald.

Denis knelt over another body. So many men, so much blood, and for what? To reclaim land given honorably to a foreign king one hundred years before? He turned the dead man over. The coat beneath the layers of gore and mud lacked heraldry and the clothes were not Revenan–an enemy soldier. This man was neither worthy by the prince’s count, nor one of their own.

The blood of the tiny Angth army should have coated this field–their nobles dead in the mud, feeding blood to the earth. Instead, unnamed Revenan dead would scream their names at the gods tonight.

Heart-sore, Denis climbed to his feet. There were other dead to count, others to name.

“I know his name.”

Fear slammed into Denis, chilling his skin even more. He knew that voice, though the man who possessed those tones should not have been walking the field of the dead.

Denis should have heard his–their–approach, for the man who spoke was never alone. He bowed to the King of Angth and to the two men who trailed their sovereign like wraiths.

“I know his name,” the king said again. “Will you not speak it?”

The Red King they called him, though his hair shone like gold and his eyes were as blue as the sky above the haze of dead names. Denis turned away and regarded death on the ground. “Surely one of your own pursuivants must name him, Sire.”

“Must they?”

Fear inched toward terror. Denis had left the golden mask, the tabard, and the white rod of his office behind and donned the clothes of an ordinary pursuivant to walk the field without show, just another man doing his duty for king and country. Hidden by anonymity.

Only two from all those who walked the field could set the names of an enemy to rest–The Rampant Dragon Herald of Angth and the Soleil d’Or Herald of Revena. Only they could record names in each other’s book and in war, both could be held for ransom.

This king had never seen the Soleil d’Or Herald unmasked, yet he knew Denis.

The furrows above the king’s brow deepened, as did his voice. “Herald.”

Denis’s ransom was too high for his prince to pay. He’d be dead by morning. Denis de Mont, Soleil d’Or Herald, straightened to his full height. “I will speak his name, Sire, if you wish it.”

“I wish it.” The king stepped closer to the body, closer to Denis. “He was Robert Smith of Hunting.”

No title. Denis knelt once more before the dead man, this time he reached through aether to touch the Rampant Dragon Herald’s book. A peal like that of a bell rang through Denis’s mind and the book opened its pages to him. He striped off his glove, touched the icy hard flesh of the dead, and spoke in Angth. “Robert Smith of Hunting, killed on the fields of Varlane this ninth day of Setun’s month, be remembered.”

The man’s body shimmered as his name leaped into the sky and joined the others, leaving a trail of silver to dim the afternoon’s light as the letters journeyed toward the enemy camp.

Before the king could see him teeter, Denis placed his gloved hand on the ground to steady himself. “Gods’ speed to you.” Once he felt stable again, he pulled his glove back on.

“How many have you called this day?” The Red king closed the last of the distance between them, his boot mere inches from Denis’s knees.

Exhaustion carved away care. Denis stood despite his proximity to the king. Steel rasped against hard leather as the blades of the king’s escort cleared their scabbards.

Denis ignored the naked blades. “Too many names.” He looked across the field. “And not enough.” Blinking back the sudden moisture, he kept his gaze on the battlefield. “Grant me leave to continue, Sire. There aren’t enough of us, I fear, to finish before sunset.”

“I’ve set my Herald to the task. The Duke of Anjay follows to name those William does not know.”

The Duke of Anjay had been taken captive as well. He, out of all of those taken, would know the names of the ignoble dead. Denis turned, too quickly, for the guard’s blades came flashing toward him. Denis’s heart leapt to his throat.

Only the Red King’s raised hand stopped the swords from touching Denis.

“Do have a care. I need you alive and unharmed.” A faint smile parted the king’s lips, then disappeared.

Denis stepped back, more from the threat laced into the king’s statement than from the naked steel hovering nearby. “Sire, my value to the Prince is slight–”

“If your Prince does not see your worth, then he’s more a fool than I thought.”

The blunt statement silenced Denis and dried his already dusty mouth.

“I have enough of your court for ransom.” He flicked a hand out toward the remainder of the field. “Finish your duty to your King, herald, then bring me the count. I would know both Our pains.”

He could only bow at that. “I thank you, Sire, for your leave.”

“I have no desire to hear the screams of the dead.” The Red King strode away. “Come, I’ll give you the names of our fallen, for you are half-way across the field.”

A more careful scan of the land confirmed the king’s words. Hope, a slim thread of it, lay at the back of Denis’s throat like the smell of warmth on a winter’s day. Denis followed the proud back of the Red King, knelt by the next body, touched flesh with flesh, spoke the dead’s name, and moved on.

The Revenan dead still outnumbered the others despite their being closer to the Angth side of the field, but the Red King’s people became more frequent. Many of the Angth were common and unknown to Denis, but their king knew every one of them. Denis touched their skin and spoke their names into the Dragon Herald’s book.

All the more deep was Denis’s shame when they reached a Revenan man he couldn’t name. This time, Denis had to place both of his hands on the ground to steady his shaking body. “I don’t know him,” he whispered to the earth.

“Then we move on,” the king said.

Denis shook his head, just enough to indicate his defiance. Rough hands gripped Denis’s arm and yanked him upward.

“On your feet.” A gruff voice, unlike the King’s. One of his guards, then.

“Soft, William. Let him be.”

The guard released Denis and he sank back down to the sodden earth, his joints creaking like a bag of bones and his heart lodged at the back of his throat. The sky had taken on the colors of fire. Not much time left until nightfall and so many names he did not know.

Another touch, this one softer and on the crown of his head. “Search the body, Denis,” the king said. “Perhaps there’s a trinket or something that might help name him.”

The dead man was cold and stiff, but his pocket yielded a folded piece of paper–a letter from a sweetheart–and a single name. Gervais. Denis prayed it would be enough to name his soul.

“Gervais of Revena, be remembered.” The body shimmered and the soul rose, sluggishly, in the light of the setting sun.

Gods above, thank you. Denis made to rise, but pitched sideways onto the ground instead. The earth smelled of blood and rain and for a moment, he thought it might be better to remain where he was, but others needed him more than he needed rest. Dennis struggled partway out of the mud and was lifted the rest of the way upright.

He turned to thank the King’s guardsman, only to find it was the King that held him steady.

“Can you continue?”

“Yes.” But when the King released him, Denis’s legs wavered. The King’s grip around his arm tightened.

“Now is not the time for heroic lies,” the King said. “Mitchell, help me.”

Between the King and his guard, Denis managed the walk to the next body. And the next and the one after that. But after he set the soul free, an eerie hush fell over the battlefield–Sunset.

Denis shivered as the wailing started, soft at first, then rising, rising until the sound was a din that bore down on the soul. Then it receded until it was only a whisper of agony that underlaid every other noise on the field.

Now the task would shift to the priests, to exorcise the unnamed dead from the land.

It always hurt, this failure. In war, there were simply too many dead.

Strong arms lifted him to standing and the Red King’s voice rang in his ear. “Time to return to your people, Denis. Mitchell will see you back. Eat and rest and see to your ablutions, for I will be calling on the Soleil d’Or, ere the night ends.”

“Sire.” Denis’s reply was a brittle thing that broke and shattered in the night air.

The King left him with Mitchell, who helped him back across the a battlefield hushed with the low cries of the dead. Before they reached the Revenan camp, he pulled Mitchell to a stop. “I can walk the rest of the way unaided.”

He’d be damned if he’d let the Prince think him weak.

Note: The image is a drawing of a herald from The Medford Mail Tribune, Sunday Dec 19, 1909, which I downloaded from The Open Clip Art Library.

22 Comments

22 thoughts on “SFF Saturday Snippets

  1. Pingback: Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday « Ann Laurel Kopchik

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  22. Pingback: Science Fiction Fantasy Saturday: Old Wounds #21 | Ann Laurel Kopchik

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