We’ve gathered together some love songs for Sebastien, Ymke and Kaila, the heroes of our story collection, The Red Man and Others, and stories to come. We hope you enjoy these songs as much as we do!
Black Tape For A Blue Girl – Remnants of a Deeper Purity
Those eyes quietly tell me of a passion we could share The dance reminds me of a life that we once knew Snares for my hopes snares for my thoughts Snares for my dreams drifting onto oblivion Can you tell me about the intuition I feel Can you tell me about everything I long to understand?
This one is for Sebastien. He doesn’t love easily, or let himself be loved. If his love life can be described in one word, it’s ‘regret’. Sebastien may come across as a happy-go-lucky rogue, but he keeps his true self well hidden. There are but few who can peel away his protective layers to see that deeper purity. Once, he met a woman he instantly fell for, who reached out and touched the good inside of him. She set him on the path that ultimately led to Kaila and then Ymke. Our story, Another Soul For The Bone Fire, is currently ‘doing the rounds,’ and we hope you’ll soon get the chance to read it!
Jocelyn Pook (with Parvin Cox) – Upon This Rock
ای شاه، درویشت منم، درویش دل ریشت منم بیگانه و خویشت منم، دارم هوای عاشقی
Oh King, I am your dervish, your fragile Dervish
I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.
These are the words of the 10th century Persian sufi Abu Saeed Abu al-Khair, and I imagine that the music could be like the music of Kaila’s childhood. She is a woman of strong passions, yet as they say: the candle that burns twice as bright burns twice as fast. Since she left her home beyond the mountains she’s lived by sword and by fortune, never really settling and going from one adventure, one war, one heist, to another. She’s known pleasure, joy, and laughter aplenty, yet only since meeting Ymke does she allow herself to experience a deeper and lasting happiness. We imagine her confessing to Ymke, in the depth of night, when souls lay bare: “I am your dervish, your fragile devish. I am both a stranger and I am myself. I am in love.”
The Dreamside – Paroles Dans La Nuit
Ta voix me cherche dans l’ombre, Le lit est dans la chambre, dans la nuit. – Où? Écoute le craquement des bambous. La neige tombe sur les branches – dans la nuit; Demain la terre sera blanche et froide.
Your voice seeks me in the shadows, The bed is in the bedroom, in the night – Or? Hear the creaking of the bamboo canes. The snow falls on the branches, in the night; Tomorrow, the earth will be white and cold.
This is from a poem by the northern Dutch writer J.J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936). He was a restless and somewhat difficult man, whose travels brought him to China and whose poems and books have expressionistic and romantic influences. Whereas Kaila’s love is one of a full conviction and certainty, Kayla is well aware of the fragility of love. She fears that one morning she’ll wake up and beside her the bed is cold.
Marlene Bakker – Waarkhanden
Waarkhanden dij t laand plougen, En mie goud grootbrocht hebben. Ik rie deur dreug plattelaand, Terwiel de wind der deurhìn roast, En ik aan die denk, hou of wie hier ooit woond hebben.
Dwirrels vegen t stof op in wolken, Terwiel de wind aal meer hoelt om die. Mien laiverd, kinst nait zain dat ik terugkommen bin? Terug noar die.
Worn hands which plough the land, And brought me up well. I ride through the dry, flat land, While the wind rushes over it, And I think of you, how we once lived here.
Gusts sweep the dust up in clouds, While the wind cries out for you. My darling, can’t you see I’ve come back? Back to you.
Ymke always dreamt of a life beyond the clay and the cold northern winds of where she grew up. Though she definitely got what she wanted, she never forgot the farm, and her father who lived there in exile. Will she ever go back?
If you loved this music, and what it tells about our characters, we’d love you to get further acquainted with Sebastien, Kaila and Ymke in The Red Man and Others. You can find it for Kindle on Amazon UK and Amazon US. If you think it’d make a nice Valentine’s Day present for someone, you can find instructions on this page.
Today the mailman brought a box with our copies of The Wild Hunt: Stories of the Chase, the Air And Nothingness Press anthology in which we have a story, With One Eye, Bright As A Star. It’s a story we’re proud of, and we’re enormously happy that it found a home in such a nice collection! It’s difficult to convey in photographs what a nice feel the cover has, how neatly it lies in the hand, the bookish smell of it (even after a lengthy transatlantic journey…). This is not just a collection of words and stories, it’s a book as an object in itself!
You can get a little taste of our story, set in the grim and cold northern Netherlands, with our story trailer…
Air and Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress, and limited editions. Head over to their catalog to order your own copy of The Wild Hunt, or any of their other publications!
Author Lee Brontide created this great meme for Twitter, which lets you talk about your main character’s goals, wishes and dreams, and we decided to make it the basis for a blog post. We’re answering here mainly for Ymke, one of the protagonists of the stories in TheRed Man and Others, but also for the stories’ other heroes, Kaila and Sebastien, as the mood strikes us.
1. Do they like to have clear goals and plans? Ymke spent her early life just surviving and going with the flow, but since her experience with Alsigt, the Red Man, crystallised her need to escape, she’s always had some quiet personal goal in mind. She’s always learning something new, often illicitly.
2. Do they wish on stars? Ymke wishes on stars when she thinks Kaila’s not looking. Kaila pretends not to have noticed. Sebastien has a hidden sentimental streak, so we actually wouldn’t rule it out.
3. Any hidden talents? Forgery is the very definition of a hidden talent!
4. Their idea of having “made it”: For Ymke, it’s independence. She knows the world can be a cruel place for disabled people, that sometimes your nearest neighbours are also your biggest threat, and that there will be times when her body lets her down. She’s had to make peace with that, and part of how she’s done that is to find ways to earn her keep. Having grown up feeling tethered to a father who was living in exile and in fear, she wants to go places and be with people out of choice rather than because she has no other option economically. Our ambition for Ymke has always been for her life, even in an analogue of medieval Europe, to reflect the conflicts and ambitions and need for justice of real disabled people in the 21st century.
5. Do they believe in destiny? If you’d ask her, Ymke would hesitate. On one hand, she feels strongly that we make our own luck. On the other, some events and circumstances in life seem to have a very strong gravitational pull. The writer in her respects their symmetry. Was the Red Man meant to end up on her farm? Was he meant to leave again? What would their lives have been otherwise? Ymke tries to make her own luck, and Kaila and Sebastien definitely do, but all three of them also get swept up in the whims of destiny. To borrow a phrase (with thanks to Bernard Cornwell), Wyrd bið ful āræd – Fate is inexorable.
6. Are they sentimental? As above, Sebastien is surprisingly so. There is much about his early life that you don’t know yet (some of it we don’t even know yet!), but through all the turmoil, he has kept with him a small artefact of his childhood. There is also in Sebastien an urge to rescue people. Ymke would deny that she is sentimental or nostalgic. She still has her mother’s book, though, and sometimes she looks through it and remembers teaching Alsigt to read; remembers her father teaching her to read years earlier. Life on the road has made her travel light and focus on what’s next, but for all the places she’s lived in, and as suddenly as she’s sometimes had to leave them, she remembers the people of those places, and some of them she thinks on fondly, and wonders about, years later. And speaking of books: in many ways Kaila is a closed book. There’s much that she’d like to forget, and some things she’ll only tell late at night, when she’s had a few cups of wine.
7. Are they ambitious? Yes, sometimes fiercely and not necessarily always wisely, and we’re really looking forward to being able to share with you a story about that. Sebastien absolutely is ambitious. He wants the best that life has to offer, and he’ll get it. Will it be straightforward? Of course not. It’s Sebastien! We didn’t realise what we were doing, but in writing Ymke this year for one particular Red Man sequel, we accidentally caught ambition ourselves: it turned from a short story into a novella. Then another draft we’re working on did exactly the same, inching towards the 40K mark now. Oops.
8. Are they gracious winners? We wish we could tell you why that’s funny, with regard to one of our characters in particular, in one of the novellas we’re working on. We will say that Ymke is capable of being gracious and conciliatory in both victory and defeat. Sometimes, victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin, though.
9. Do they regret much? Ymke regrets blood spilled on her behalf, even though it’s the reason she’s alive. She regrets that it took the events in The Red Man for her to get out of the rut that was her life. She doesn’t regret the business with Father Folkhert, as dangerous as it got in the end. She meant well. She always means well. It’s just that things have a way of getting out of hand. Especially with Kaila and Sebastien around.
10. Do they keep their dreams secret? For a long time, Ymke was not accustomed to letting herself dream, and when she began to, her father was quick to clip her wings. So, she’s learned to nurture dreams quietly. And some dreams require a little skullduggery to make them happen, of course…
11. Are they prone to envy? Yes. This came as a surprise to Ymke. Living largely apart from others until her mid-teens means she didn’t realise just how much she had been missing out on, until she’d been out in the world a while. Sometimes it takes seeing other people – who are leading more ordinary lives – progress through life stages that were very different for you to fully realise what your life might have been. Encountering the sheltered city sons and daughters of her friends in middle age was strangely bitter for Ymke.
12. What skill are they most proud of? For Ymke, it’s cultivating people, in more than one sense of the word. She’s good at encouraging people and bringing out their potential. She’s also adept at making herself part of a place, so that she is valued and receives support that doesn’t feel like charity; like many disabled people, Ymke has a complicated relationship with that. And, when she has to, she can lie convincingly. These are achievements not taken for granted by someone who came from such an isolated upbringing.
13. What milestones do they care about? The irreversible ones, like “I can’t make it up these stairs any more,” which will inevitably come. When something changes in her body, Ymke waits it out through four seasons, in the hope that it is temporary and contextual. If it proves permanent, her way of life has to change – maybe a little, maybe a lot. Progressive disability is fun that way.
14. Do they procrastinate? No. There’s no procrastinating on a farm. The animals need fed and the seasons move on, so things need doing. This is how Ymke was brought up, and this is what she’s carried with her.
15. Are they good under pressure? All three of them are. They’ve had to be.
16. Do they daydream? Ymke certainly does. She certainly did on the farm, and she still did when the places she visited and the people she met far surpassed those of her imagination.
17. Do they believe in signs or omens? Ymke’s rational adult side is rather at war with the fearful, superstitious side that was cultivated in her childhood. She’ll very quietly feel a certain way about things that have enough symbolic weight. Sebastien, though he’s wise to the tricks of cold reading and the stacked deck of cards, also has seen enough to keep some room for the “What if?…”
18. Do other people believe in them? They believe in each other, though that is sometimes very considerably tested. In The Return of the Uncomplaining Child a great many people believe in Sebastien, and they worked very hard at that. None believe as much as Father Folkhert did: more than they could have hoped.
19. Would they rather be over- or underestimated? It changes. When our trio are up to chicanery, it serves them to be underestimated. Ymke chafed against her father’s underestimation of her in her early life, yet like many women, there have been times when her survival has depended on people underestimating her. She’s learned to leverage that. In the story we’re working on now she feels extremely frustrated and overlooked, though, and she’s coping with it in an unusual way.
20. How do they celebrate their successes? Depends on the nature of the success. Sometimes a quiet night together in front of a good fire is enough. Sometimes it requires a substantial quantity of drink. If they’ve made themselves rich, however temporarily, they’ll share some of it with someone who needs it more.
21. Are they good at accepting help? Sebastien does, though he may be less happy with the assumption of a debt owed. Ymke, only when she can convince herself she’s giving out at least twice as much support as she’s taking. Kaila may accept, but not ask for help.
22. How do they cope with failure? Ruthless self examination, in Ymke’s case; rants to well-chosen confidantes. And ultimately, by finding something to fix, which may take many forms. Sebastien brushes himself off, and turns the page. Kaila will be sore until she feels she’s restored the balance. This is not always the sensible course.
23. Smallest thing they’re proud of: For Ymke, it’s her stitching. For Sebastien it’s his moral compass. Kaila’s got this tattoo, you see…
24. Do they do New Year’s resolutions? Yes, very much so, in Ymke’s case. Sebastien will have many, Kaila none. At least none she’ll share with others.
25. Do they keep them? Ymke usually does.. She’s determined that way, and she sets realistic goals. Sebastien’s resolutions are broken as easy as hastily made promises. Kaila’s resolutions are not made at the start of a year, and may not be resolved within the year.
If you enjoyed this look into the minds and lives of Ymke, Kaila and Sebastien, we’d like – nay, we implore – you to seek out the collection The Red Man and Others on Amazon UK or US. We’ll meanwhile work on their further adventures!
Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly.
Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film, and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.”
Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods.
Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity.
Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves.
A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms.
After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”
Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences.
And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”
However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again.
That’s not Couch to 5 K; it’s the word count of the story of which I’ve just finished the first draft. It’s twice as long as anything we’ve done before, and we’re going outside our usual routine with it too. Normally, we’d discuss a story idea, then I’ll do an outline, after which Angeline does the first draft. I take over and complete the draft, including any bits in all-caps which haven’t been figured out yet. This time, I did the full first draft, while Angeline is concentrating on another story.
She did read the story while I wrote, gave feedback, spotted continuity errors and plot holes, and helped tease out the story’s themes. Her draft will further sharpen the characters’ voices, sharpen the prose and do anything else that make a story ‘work’. Then we’ll hand it to and fro a few more times, and the end result will be that the story isn’t mine; it’s ours. The characters, definitely, are from us both. It’s another story with Sebastien, Ymke and -most of all- Kaila. Both of us have similar ideas of who each of them are, and even where we’d ‘fan cast’ a different celeb in our heads for Ymke, they were remarkably similar in appearance.
At last year’s WorldCon in Dublin, Diane Duane and Peter Morwood described how they were asked to write an opening scene for the Nibelungen film they were working on, “like Conan’s forging or the sword”. What they came up with was two rods of iron, heated, twisted together and hammered until it becomes one bar of strong steel. We like to think our writing is like that; and if the two bars have slightly different properties; well, the visible textures give the resulting sword extra beauty, right?
“Are you a plotter or a pantser?” is the question often asked amongst writers. We’re definitely plotters, yet that still leaves a lot of room for discovery. Going in, you know what happens, but what remains to learn is why it happens and how it affects the characters. This one definitely affects Kaila greatly, though without the story in front of you it’s of course of no use to go into details. The story incorporates three flash fics I wrote last year during October, using Inktober prompts, but sets them in a bigger context, finding more meaning for them. One of the story’s characters, in a ‘this happened before’ arc, is Kaila’s mentor. This at first gave us the notion that the story was about women: there’d be the maiden, the mother and the crone. However, at 19K words, Angeline having had her first thorough read-through of the thing without framing narrative, we mulled it over and figured that the story really is about family. As we’ve described Kaila, Sebastien and Ymke as found family, the family you choose instead of the ties that come with blood, this was just as well, and it was easy to write towards it.
It’s not going to be bogged down in philosophy though. At least, that’s the idea. The working title is The Wolves of Scorr. It’s actually a title from the Dutch Eric de Noorman comicbook cycle (one of my favourite comics – this year I bought the complete, deluxe, set!). It’s mostly set in the mountains, so I got to do research with the excellent Tresspassers on the Roof of the World, about the early Western explorers in Tibet and the race to Llhasa, and the primary sources mentioned in it, like Dr. Susie C. Rijnhart’s With The Tibetans In Tent And Temple. We also made use of the 1956 documentary Seven Years in Tibet(not to be confused with the Brad Pitt vehicle). Kaila’s mentor is from a region vaguely synonymous to Eastern Europe so we borrowed bits of Ukrainian, Scythian and Latvian (Baltic) folklore and myth. Stumbling upon a cache of cradle songs around the Baltic primal mother figure Mara, Google translate helped me putting together some decidedly dark songs for our character to sing.
So, what we have is 25.000 words of framing narrative, a few flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, an attempt to make the narratives distinct, and still quite a bit of work to do. As in the other stories set in what we lazily call Wheelworld, there are swords, and there is sorcery. We’re again not quite sure though whether Sword & Sorcery is the right label for this thing. While our adventurous trio is avoiding capture and being tied down, perhaps it’s for the best not to strive for the label too eagerly.
Today we received the proof of our story for the upcoming Air & Nothingness Press collection The Wild Hunt, which contains our tale With One Eye, Bright As A Star. This is something we’re enormously proud of!
Air & Nothingness Press publishes poetry and translations in letterpress and handmade limited editions. In an age of POD they publish collector’s items, books which are beautiful and nicely produced as objects. We already loved the cover of their previous collection, Upon a Once Time, and find the one for The Wild Hunt absolutely stunning! In French folded covers, it samples art by Franz von Stuck, and combines it with daring typography. We are very much looking forward to its appearance, so we can share it and our story with you!
We’re especially proud of this story appearing in the collection, as it’s one of the more personal stories we’ve written. Sure, it has a supernatural angle (how could it not!), but the boy at the centre of this particular Wild Hunt could have been me, in the distant past. It is set in the landscape where I grew up, where stories of the Wild Hunt are indeed part of our folklore. The boy’s grandfather meanwhile is a lot like the one I knew, with elements of my other grandfather, who died before I was born; he’d been in the Royal Dutch Cavalry before he settled back in the village where he was born (and I too) and became a farm hand. I never knew him, but have often imagined what he was like.
As we’re nearing Hallowe’en, which certainly is Angeline’s favourite festival, we decided to celebrate The Red Man and Others‘ first (and a bit) birthday in style!
We’ve reduced the price of the eBook to £1.99 / $2.99 for the rest of the month, and you get a chance to win an original piece of The Red Man and Others art!
Of course we’re always happy with sales of our book (it’s a good incentive to keep writing the adventures of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien), but what makes us extra happy is to hear what you think of it. We’ve already been lucky to have received kind words from some notable names in the field, but we’d also like to see your review on Goodreads and/or Amazon!
So, at 6pm GMT on 31st October, we’ll gather the reviews from Goodreads and Amazon (UK and US), and throw them in the hat. The winner whose name we draw gets to choose one of these pieces! Both are A3 size, done in ink and (the Kaila and Ymke painting) acrylics.
To make it fair on those who have supported us since the book was published, we’ll also include their names!
And, if you love our stories, why not give our ebook to someone else as a present? Click here for details – it comes with a certificate containing a mini-fic!
Sebastien, not-quite-hero of The Red Man and Others takes centre stage in the story we’ve just finished. It’s not quite Fantasy, and yet it is. The Future In A Boy’s Hand, we called it.
“Come closer and sit down, Sebastien; I won’t bite.” She nodded at a small stool, which Sebastien dutifully perched upon.
“Let me have a look at that hand of yours. Put it on the table. There’s a dear.” She smiled again, and with a rattling of beads and shells she drew herself closer to the light. Her blanket slid to the floor as she propped herself up on small, silken, pillows. She was near-naked, Sebastien saw, aside from an abundance of jewellery, and a scaly tail where her legs should be.
“Yes, I’m Sigrid, the Lake Monster: half woman, half fish. Hasn’t your mother taught you not to stare?” She had Sebastien’s swollen hand in hers, and he was very conscious of her thumbnail moving lightly over the inside of his wrist. She looked at him with those big, dark eyes, and Sebastien felt as if he were drowning in them.
“No,” she said softly, before he could answer. “I don’t think you have a mother, do you?” She gazed into his eyes, and found the confirmation in them. She cleared her throat and asked what had happened, then listened attentively.
Ice winds strike a flint-edged sea And splinter flakes that scatter like birds Trees turn to gold and die As does all born of the sun – Origin unknown
This is the opening epigram of “The Masters”, the first book in Ricardo Pinto‘s “Stone Dance of the Chameleon” series. I picked it because it works beautifully as a short poem, but also because of the feeling of foreboding it creates and how fitting that makes it as the opening of a story about a decadent society teetering on the edge of collapse. As a writer I think a lot about first and last lines, and how to make them work. As a reader, there’s a very good chance that the right first or last line will live in my memory for decades. ABA
“Hear, people of Valusia,” he exclaimed, upheld by the wild beast vitality which was his, fired from within by a strength which was more than physical. “I stand here – the king. I am wounded almost unto death, but I have survived mass wounds.
“Hear you! I am weary of this business! I am no king but a slave! I am hemmed in by laws, laws, laws! I cannot punish malefactor nor reward my friends because of laws – custom – tradition! By Valka, I will be king in fact as well as in name!
“Here stand the two who have saved my life! Henceforward they are free to marry, to do as they like!”
Seno and Ala rushed into each others’ arms with a glad cry.
“But the law!” screamed Tu.
“I am the law!” roared Kull, swinging his axe; it flashed downard and the stone tablet flew into a hundred pieces. The people clenched their hands in horror, waiting dumbly for the sky to fall.
Kull reeled back, eyes blazing. The room whirled to his dizzy gaze.
“I am king, state and law!” he roared, and seizing the wand-like sceptre which lay near, he broke it in two and flung it from him. “This shall be my sceptre!” The red axe was brandished aloft, splashing the pallid nobles with drops of blood. Kull gripped the slender crown with his left hand and placed his back against the wall. Only that support kept him from falling but in his arms was still the strength of lions.
“I am either king or corpse!” he roared, his corded muscles bulging, his terrible eyes blazing. “If you like not my kingship – come and take this crown!”
The corded left arm held out the crown, the right gripping the menacing axe above it.
“By this axe I rule! This is my sceptre! I have struggled and sweated to be the puppet king you wished me to be – to king it your way. Now I use mine own way! If you will not fight, you shall obey! Laws that are just shall stand; laws that have outlived their times I shall shatter as I shattered that one! I am king!”
Slowly the pale faced noblemen and frightened women knelt, bowing in fear and reverence to the blood stained giant who towered above them with his eyes ablaze.
“I am king!”
This is the closing paragraph from Robert E. Howard‘s King Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”. It’s not from the best book or best story I’ve ever read – which that is depends on when you ask me. Neither is this from the best story Howard ever wrote. Yet, this is the fragment I’d like to share for World Book Day. I was in my early twenties when I got hold of the paperback with this story. It was a period in my life in which I went through a lot of personal growth; I had to decide for myself whether I was going to be king or corpse, and so I smashed some old tablets and adopted a double-bladed axe to rule by. RvS
Culhwch shook his head. ‘They want a Christian King, Arthur.’
‘They’ll have Mordred next year,’ Arthur said.
‘Is he a Christian?’ Culhwch asked.
‘If he’s anything,’ I said.
‘But he’s not who they want,’ Culhwch said darkly.
‘Then who is?’ Arthur asked, intrigued at last by his cousin’s warnings.
Culhwch hesitated, then shrugged. ‘Lancelot.’
‘Lancelot!’ Arthur sounded amused. ‘Don’t they know he keeps his pagan temples open?’
‘They don’t know anything about him,’ Culhwch said, ‘but they don’t need to. They think of him the same way that people thought about you in the last years of Uther’s life. They think of him as their deliverer.’
‘Deliverer from what?’ I asked scornfully.
‘Us Pagans, of course,’ Culhwch said. ‘They insist Lancelot is the Christian King who’ll lead them all to heaven. And do you know why? Because of that sea eagle on his shield. It’s got a fish in its claws, remember? And the fish is a Christian symbol.’ He spat in disgust.
‘They don’t know anything about him,’ he said again, ‘but they see that fish and think it’s a sign from their God.’
‘A fish?’ Arthur plainly didn’t believe Culhwch.
‘A fish,’ Culhwch insisted.