Story: “Portents”

Okay, here’s the story. Let me know if you like it.

Portents

“It is a sight to behold, My Liege,” Basil said. “A trophy well worthy of you.”

“Indeed,” Lord Arak said, his eyes surveying the small village of Hyd. It was far from impressive, but at least the bridge would give him easy access to the lands beyond. Still, something kept him from giving the order to attack. What was it?

Was it the wall? No. A low earth wall like that was child’s play for his trenching machine. It would plow through it in moments, and his men would follow in its wake.

Was it the villagers? They hid behind that wall like mice scurrying away from the sun. A rusty spear or dented helm poked at the sky here and there, but they wouldn’t last long under the force of his army’s swords. Those swords were forged from the strongest iron that could be wrought, and as sharp as the wizard could make them. From what he had seen so far, they were no match for his army. It was the largest army every raised: over three hundred well-armed, well-trained, experienced soldiers. It had cost him several fortunes to amass that army, but they had paid for themselves a dozen times over as village after village fell at their hands. This village would fall, too, once he gave the order. So why didn’t he?

A bare head poked out of its hole, and the image of a wolf spider leaping upon its prey filled his mind. It was a disturbing image, one that left him unsettled and uncertain. Were there more men lurking in the shadows than he had seen? Was he leading his men into a trap?

His brow furrowed, and his tongue slowly scraped the back of his teeth. He had squashed many wolf spiders in his time, both with his foot and his army. Even if every dwelling in the village held a dozen armed men, his army would defeat them. There would be casualties, of course, but there always were, but his men would prevail in the end, and the village and its treasures would be his.

His lips tightened as a ghost finger tickled the small of his back and crept slowly up his spine? It was not the first time he had had felt that touch, and it had cost him dearly before he had learned to trust it. Now….

“My Liege,” Drake prompted, “the men are in position.”

Lord Arak nodded, but he could not bring himself to give the order. There was something….

“Bring the soothsayer,” he abruptly ordered, turning on his heel and briskly striding to his tent. As he walked, he absorbed the sharp stench of sweat mixed with the sweet taste of oil, he let the lilting clink of the muffled joints in his armor smother the soft murmur of his soldiers. They were eager to act, and his uncertainty was beginning to settle on them. He couldn’t have that: an army that wavers was an army ripe for defeat.

Why am I hesitating?

The thought drummed through his ears unanswered until the soothsayer arrived. The soothsayer had wandered into his camp not long after he had begun his campaign, and the old man’s advice had ensured several victories. What he said now….

The soothsayer’s gnarled knuckles wrapped around his crooked staff like the talons of a falcon clutching its prey. His face, pale and wrinkled and draped with stringy white hair, lay hidden in the deep shadows of his robe’s hood. Not even those keen ice-blue eyes broke through that darkness, but he knew the old man was watching him. He stopped a few feet away, bowed slightly as if he wished to claim equal status but knew better than to do so, and his voice—raspy from age but firm with wisdom—whispered from the shadowed cowl. “My Liege?”

“Cast the stones, Soothsayer,” Lord Arak ordered. “Tell me of this battle.”

“My Liege,” the soothsayer answered, bowing once more. His hand slid into his sleeve like a snake recoiling to strike, and the ghostly fingers tightened their grip around the bones between his shoulders.

An ill omen comes. The thought came unbidden to him, but once made, he knew its truth with such certainty that he sucked in a sharp breath. His shoulders shuddered as if a burden had suddenly departed, and he fixed his eyes on the old man’s hand. The soothsayer held the stones loosely in his palm as he whispered the familiar incantation. A shimmering, fog-like gray-blue aura encircled each of the seven stones as the old man clenched his fist around them. His voice grew stronger as he beseeched the gods for knowledge of the upcoming battle, and his head tilted backward until the hood of his robe fell upon his shoulders. The long, straw-like white hair fanned out, and his ice-blue eyes rolled backward until only the whites showed. His nostrils flared as he sucked in a sharp breath and exhaled it past his few remaining teeth. A moment later, he tossed the stones in the air.

Lord Arak watched the stones tumbling through the air, their colors shifting from the gray-blue to—

He sucked in an aborted breath as the ill-fated red-black stones settled on the bare ground.

The irises of the soothsayer’s eyes slowly returned as he eased his head forward, pausing oh-so-briefly to gaze upon Lord Arak before hovering over the ill-fated stones. A bony finger straightened as he pointed at one of the stones and softly said, “The stones foretell betrayal, My Liege.”

“Betrayal!” Lord Arak harshly spat at the stones. “Who?!” he snapped, the uneasy feeling congealing into something tangible, into something he could direct at someone. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword as he waited for the soothsayer to answer.

The soothsayer studied the stones for several seconds before slowly shaking his head. “They do not say, My Liege. They speak only of a betrayal on the horizon. Whether it be in this battle or the next, I cannot tell. I only know that if you do battle with this village, the betrayal will come.”

“If I do battle with it?” he repeated. “And if I don’t?”

The soothsayer’s hand gathered up the stones, their red-black glow shifting to gray-blue shimmer that squeezed out between his fingers. He tossed them lightly in the air, but when they landed, the red-black aura had returned. “The betrayal will but be forestalled,” he answered. “It will happen during the next battle or the one thereafter.”

A traitor, Lord Arak thought. Who can it be? His mind whirled. He couldn’t believe his men could betray him. They were loyal to him. They trusted him. They had followed him into battle time and again, and he had led them to victory after victory. He had rewarded them handsomely for their efforts, and they had praised him in return. They had no reason to betray him.

Who can it be?

He was still discarding one possibility after another when the soothsayer softly interrupted his thoughts. “My Liege?”

He looked sharply at the soothsayer and prompted, “Yes?”

“The betrayal is not a certainty,” the soothsayer answered. “There is a way to avoid it.”

Lord Arak’s eyes narrowed. “You know the one who will betray me?” he demanded, the first sharp tickling of the ghost’s fingers returning. “Tell me who it is!”

The soothsayer shook his head. “I cannot, My Liege,” he answered. “Knowing who will betray you will but hasten the betrayal; it will not prevent it.”

“You know the scoundrel’s name!” Lord Arak growled, moving swiftly forward to take hold of the old man’s bony shoulders, barely noticing the crunch of the stones beneath his feet. “Tell me!” he ordered, giving the old man a violent shake.

The soothsayer winced, and then rasped out his answer, “My Liege, if you insist upon continuing this ceaseless war, the betrayal will come. The only way to avoid it is to end this war today. If there are no more battles, there can be no betrayal.”

“Ha!” Lord Arak barked. “I cannot—I will not—do that!” What will my men do without war? Idleness will drive them to it, whether I send them into battle or not. Without me holding the reins—

The old man gulped, and a sigh shuddered through him. His body grew still, and his placid blue eyes looked into Lord Arak’s with such sad compassion that he released him. “I am sorry, My Liege,” the soothsayer told him, “it is the only way.”

Before Lord Arak could respond, a sudden, deep pain erupted in his chest, just below his ribcage. He reflexively stumbled backward, and his hand fell upon the haft of the dagger that had somehow punctured his armor. He looked down, and his eyes widened. My own dagger!

“Yes, My Liege,” the soothsayer sadly whispered. “I am your betrayer.”

Lord Arak dropped to his knees. “Why?” he managed to whisper.

“The stones,” the soothsayer softly said, moving closer but still staying just out of reach.

Lord Arak forced in another breath, trying desperately to fight back the blackness closing in around him. His eyes fixed on the soothsayer as he gasped, “What?”

“I cast them long ago,” the soothsayer told him as Lord Arak collapsed on his side. “They brought me to you. They told me you would wage endless war, and sorrow would follow in your wake. They told me a time would come when your destruction could be stopped, when I could stop you. That time is now.”

Lord Arak blinked for the last time, and as his eyelids slowly settled into place, the soothsayer leaned down to whisper in his ear, “You should have listened to me, My Liege. You had enough. Hyd—”

Enough? Lord Arak thought. There’s…

“—is—”

never…

“—my—”

enou…

“—home.”

 

© 2018, all rights reserved.

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Poem #4: “Discourteous”

I’m still sorting through things as I clean and rearrange my apartment, and one of the boxes contained printouts of some stories I wrote about 30 years ago. I’m going to go through them this weekend or next week to see if any are worth retyping or publishing. I also proofread my poetry collection, but I haven’t quite taken the next step of publishing it. I’m not sure why I haven’t, either, but every time I think about formatting it for the different e-book retailers, I get deflated and shy away from doing it. It’s a bit strange; I’m cleaning far more than I generally do and writing far less. Usually, I detest cleaning (which is why I generally don’t make messes). I have written a few poems, though, and three of them (brevettes) were published by Whispers as part of the January Activity. “Discourteous” is one of the others I’ve written this year.

Discourteous

Darkness before me,
behind me, to the left,
and to the right.

My car climbs the hill
like a snail on tranquilizers
trudging along, heedless
of the slimy trail it
leaves behind.

A dim funnel of light
spreads out before me
like a luminescent shadow
stretching into the night sky.

It fans out, forming
a diffuse canopy, and I
hit the dimmer switch
and wait for him
to do the same.

The pool of light
blossoms into a pair
of brilliant, piercing
haloes that stare me
down as if we are
playing chicken.

I squint into the
blinding glare and
flash the brights.

I shield my eyes and
flash them again.

He is close, now,
so close I could see
the whites of his eyes,
but my vision has been
consumed by those
blazing orbs.

He passes, and I am
thrust back into darkness.

I feel the vibration
from the rumble of my
tires skirting the edge of
the shoulder, and I ease
my car back onto the road.

My eyes adjust
just in time to see
a funnel of light
piercing the sky
above the next hill.

I cringe.

© 2018, all rights reserved.

Poem #1: “Humanity”

So far, I have been keeping to the schedule of doing writing related activities for at least an hour a day, but there hasn’t been much actual writing. Mainly, I’ve been organizing and revising the poetry I wrote last year into this year’s collection. I have it ready for a final go-through and have the cover, so I plan to publish it as an e-book this weekend. I’ll update the other books I’ve published to include it in the list of the books I’ve written, which will take quite a bit of time despite being a simple addition of one title. If I decide to make Aftermath book 5 of the Angus the Mage Series instead of the first book of the Aftermath series, I will likely do it then to save time. It will delay the publication, though, since the cover for Aftermath and some of the other books will have to be changed.

Anyway, “Humanity” is the only poem I’ve written this year; it was inspired by “The Mice,” an episode of The Outer Limits (the original series, not the remake).

Humanity

the most
invasive
species

© 2018, all rights reserved.

Poem #54: “Avocation”

It has been an unproductive year for my writing. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by other things (mainly Slotomania), and let my mood control my writing (particularly the disappointment arising from the low sales for Aftermath, a general apathy toward writing, and my emotional response to a few of life’s obstacles). I did not come close to satisfying my writing goals for fiction, and even poetry has been far more of a chore than it has been in the past. I still need to write about 40 poems to reach my goal of averaging 5 poems per week, and that seems unlikely at this point even though I have written some of late. “Avocation” is one of them, and it will help you to understand why I need to step back and reevaluate how and why I write. That’s my New Year’s resolution: to reevaluate my writing and minimize the impact of the external factors that impeded my writing this year. I need to reclaim the attitude toward writing that I have had in the past. Specifically:

  • I need to avoid letting my book sales influence my writing. This is difficult, since I can’t afford to lose money on my writing again, like I did last year.
  • I need to avoid letting my teaching schedule undermine my writing; it should liberate it. I taught one less class this year than in past years, and it should have given me more time to write. But I didn’t use that time for writing like I would have done in the past few years. (The loss of income further compounded the issue, since the revenue from my books did not offset it.)
  • I need to play less Slotomania. This is, perhaps, the most significant obstacle, since a lot of my writing time has been taken up by this addictive pursuit.
  • I need to write what I want to write, not what I feel obligated to do, so no more promises. My readers may need to adjust to this, since what I should do is: 1) change Aftermath (book 1 of Aftermath) to book 5 of my Angus the Mage Series; 2) treat I Will Be King as a separate series or a long stand-alone novel; and 3) postpone or abandon writing The Dwarf Wars and Symptata’s Curse. However, I have made a commitment to do these books as the Aftermath series, and I am very reluctant to change that. It’s not the only mistake I’ve made, but it is a major one.
  • I need to be more disciplined about my writing by creating a schedule and keeping to it. This will be a challenge, since I’ve developed some bad habits this year that I need to break in order to do it, and my attitude toward writing is a hindrance at the moment.

To accomplish this general goal, I am resolving to do writing related activities (jotting down ideas, outlining, writing first drafts, revisions, proofreading, etc.) for at least one hour each day in 2018. Hopefully, I’ll make it to the Fall semester before this resolution crumbles…. I also intend to read for at least an hour a day, which should help reinvigorate my desire to write. What I won’t be doing is making a commitment to write poetry. It doesn’t sell, the quality declines when I force myself to do it, and it is impacted by my mood far more than my fiction is. So, I’m only going to write poetry when I feel like it, instead of imposing a quota.

I am debating not publishing 2017: A Year of Poetry, which I haven’t even begun to organize or format. Instead, I am thinking about expanding my thematic collections to include the poems I’ve written since I published them, and then publishing the results as second editions. (I probably won’t do it, though; it’s a lot of work for something that isn’t going to sell.)

Avocation

I loved to write, to feel the surge
of inspiration and the thrill of finding
the perfect word or phrase.
Ideas sprang fully formed
or half-baked with regularity,
and I was driven
.            —yes, driven
.                              to develop them.
I loved the feel of the keyboard,
the sound of keys rebounding,
and the undo button.
.                  And revision!
What better way to spend the day
than by making a story better?
I loved the characters, spoke
to them, felt what they felt,
saw what they saw—even the
villains—especially the villains.
I loved the plot’s twists
and turns, and letting it take
me where it wanted to go.
Yes. I loved all that
.           really loved it—
.                                      until…
When did it happen?
When did writing change
from a joyous exploration
to a dreadful chore?
When did it become an onus?
Was it before or after
the onset of this depression?
Cause or effect?
Cause and effect?
And how do I rekindle
that lost love?

© 2017, all rights reserved.

Poem #23: “Lost in Love”

Lost in Love

I love you.
What does it mean?
Three little words.
I, I understand,
and you, too. We
use them quite frequently.
I want this.
You want that.
I want you—
that one, I understand,
and the other one, too:
You want me.
But what is that
pesky little word
that falls so often
between you and I,
pulling us so
close together?
What is this
love?

© 2017, all rights reserved.

Poems Published on Whispers….

Four of my haiku were recently published on Whispers…. as Poetry Moments. They may be my last poems published there, since the editor is having health issues that have led her to close for submissions. She’s publishing the poems she’s already accepted, and that will give her time to decide what to do, but it sounds like she’s probably going to end the publication.

Poem #9: “Tomorrrow…”

Okay, I’m finally feeling better (or, at least, back to about the usual level of sinus problems that I experience this time of year), and I wrote a scene for I Will Be King on Tuesday and plan to do some more writing today. I’m not sure what I’ll do, yet, but I need to get something done. Last month was a complete bust on writing, since I was ill for more than half of it and had grading sandwiched around the illness. I’ll have midterm grades reported next week, and there’s not a lot I need to do for my classes before then. The week after is Spring break, and aside from getting my taxes done, I should have a lot of time for writing that week. It will also be about the time I start walking again, and that might help me get back into my writing routine. (I’m reluctant to walk right now, since this is the time of year my allergies act up [fluctuating between freezing and thawing], and I don’t want to have another sinus infection like the last one.)

It’s taking me awhile to get used to the new keyboard, but I’m getting there. I might go back to my writing roots by doing some scenes by hand until I’m used to the arrow keys, backspace, and delete buttons. They are placed differently on this keyboard than my old computer’s, and I keep hitting the number lock, shift key, the zero on the number keypad, the alt key (instead of ctrl key), and missing the up and down arrows altogether (they are half-sized keys below the shift key). I still have to look for the delete key to avoid hitting other keys that I don’t want to hit by mistake. All of these are problems, since I use the backspace, delete, and arrows extensively when I write a first draft, and it’s slowing me down A LOT. At least with a handwritten first draft, I can just cross things off, write in the margins, number inserts and write them on another page, draw arrows, etc., and then when I type it, I can make the revisions without needing to use those keys near as much. I know this sounds like I’m whining (and I am, in part), but there is an important reason for why this is a significant obstacle: the more time I spend looking for keys, making mistakes, etc. the more it slows me up and distracts me from my writing and the more difficult it is to get into the flow of writing and (more importantly) to maintain that flow. When I wrote the scene I mentioned, I kept losing my train of thought instead of running with it because I had to keep looking for the keys to move the cursor around and delete words. That’s why I might write by hand for awhile, even though I need to get comfortable using this keyboard.

My poem [old maple] has been published by Whispers…, and the print version of 2016: A Year of Poetry is available through CreateSpace today (for $7.99) and through Amazon early next week. That should bring you up to date on my writing situation for now. Hopefully, my health will continue to improve and I’ll have something more positive to report next week. In the meantime, “Tomorrow…” is an apt poem to post, since it could be a metaphor for my writing at the moment. However, for those of you who know me well, you’ll realize it isn’t a metaphor at all….

Tomorrow…

The sink is full
of dirty dishes.

One clean plate
sits in the cupboard.

One more day to
procrastinate.

© 2017, all rights reserved.