Thursday, January 19, 2017

As you might imagine, this weather hasn't exactly been good for business.

But you know what? We're all right.

There was a time when this would have really hurt. But experience and liquidity have made it a non-event, in some ways. I figured out years ago a baseline daily average that we needed. Hopefully, that baseline would hold during even the worst events.

Well, that's what seems to have happened. Though business is down, it is still above that baseline. More importantly, the weather in mid-December was enough warning to be careful, and I kept my orders in line.

Therefore, the drop in business seems to have left us exactly where we'd be if business and orders were normal.

Big sigh of relief.

Linda and I have some big news in a couple of weeks. Sorry to vaguebook it, but it's good news.
Toad King, Chapter 5.  Moving right along, though I have no idea where I'm going.


5.) The Hermit Principality


Marna follows me, three steps behind as always, leading the pack mule we’d taken to calling, Will—short for willful. When I stop to wait for Marna to catch up, she stops as well. I’ve given up trying to get her to join me at my side.
We feel the rumble and flow of the Carnet River beneath our feet as we cross the border. Dark forests cover the land, so thick and impassable that only the broad frozen surface of the river provides entry into the Eighth Principality. The river zigzags down from the mountains and progress is slow, as if to warn us it is not too late to turn back.
There are no tracks in the snow. No one has followed this path for a long time, for either ingress or egress.
Perhaps I alone among living creatures remember when the river flowed freely. Even then, this place was malevolent and dark. Did the land turn dark because of the Princes who ruled it, or did the Princes turn dark because of the land they ruled?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter, for they are equally malevolent now.
The last Prince of the Eighth Principality I remember was Pertem, who was twisted and bent in body and soul. His son, Sertem, apparently was equally deformed.
The current Prince, who few outsiders have seen, is Tertem.
Princes are chosen among the nobility, but rarely do they continue in one family for three generations. Only the first letter on the ubiquitous memorials need be changed for successive regimes, which must be helpful.
The first of the many monuments is at the top of the pass, two swords crossing far overhead, teetering as if designed to drop on the first person brave or stupid enough to pass beneath.
For the first time since leaving the Second Principality, Marna hesitates to follow me. She stops, looking up at the wavering swords and then at me, as if to ascertain if I’m crazy. I give her no reassurance, for it is best if she turns around now. Even the high plains of the Seventh Principality are better than where we were going.
I’d insisted on taking the serving girl with me. Prince Gaarl was so happy I accepted his assignment that he gladly let her go. I tried to leave her in the Third Principality, whose Prince Semel is generous and kind, but she wouldn’t have it. Though I slipped away in the middle of the night, I wasn’t far along the road before I realized she was following me.
She speaks rarely. She cooks the meals and fetches water and does whatever she can to make me comfortable. Marna has never known any other life, but kindness has been rare, and because of my kindness, she clings to me like a creeper.
“Prince Semel will still accept you into his household,” I prompt. “Or you can wait here.”
She doesn’t look at me but scurries to my side, not looking up at the blades. I sigh.
I never tell others what to do. That is, in fact, the first of all the Toad King’s Imperatives: Neither lead nor follow. I do as I wish, and expect others to do the same. It troubles me that this woman feels obligated to me.
She tried to crawl into my bed the first night on the trail. Gently removing her, I shook my head firmly, but she tried again the next night.
I won’t deny the temptation was there; for when I am in human form, I am human all the way. Sensing that Marna was trying to show gratitude in the only way she knew how, I gently rebuffed her. She sleeps nightly across the campfires from me. When I look her way, she seems to always be staring at me with glittering eyes, which makes me uncomfortable, because such looks usually signal either love or hate, and I ask for neither.
Now, as she shivers beside me, I put a comforting arm around her shoulders. She immediately leans into me, fitting quite nicely under my arms, and it feels good. 
“You are free, Marna,” I say again. “I’m a wealthy man. I will give you what you need to start over.”
To my surprise, she answers this time. “You are the Toad King. My father told me you would come.”
“Your father?”
“He traveled with you for a time,” Marna says. “He says you are a God.”
“No one travels with me, Marna,” I say. “And if they did, they would know I am anything but a God.”
“My father never lied. He was a weak man, but he always told me the truth. He used to say, ‘The truth is all I can give you.’”
I fall silent, because it isn’t altogether true that I’m always alone. Some jobs required extra manpower. I’ve also been known to take on particularly talented thieves as apprentices, though I am certain that her father couldn’t have been one of them.
“What was his name?” I ask doubtfully.
“Mamus,” she says.
“Mamus…” I’m positive I’ve never heard the name. She stares at me intently, and for some reason I don’t want to dishearten her. “Perhaps…that name seems familiar.”
She shakes her head adamantly, giving me a disappointed frown.  “He told you his name was Mermer,” she says.
Again, the name means nothing, but this time I don’t try to dissemble. “He may have thought I was a God, Marna, but I assure you I am not.”
“Then what are you?” she asks.
It has been ages since I asked myself that.
“I don’t know,” I answer.
She nods, as if I’ve confirmed her claim.
We continue our journey into the darkness below. Most travelers take the Sehorn Pass, a hundred miles out of the way, which passes directly from the Seventh Principality to the Ninth Principality. All that emerges from the realm of Prince Tertem are rumors and warnings.
A few years before, Prince Hallis of the militant Fourth Principality had led an army into the Hermit Principality. No one ever returned. Even Gaarl was intimidated, thus necessitating my hiring. Perhaps one man, known for his slyness, could do what an army couldn’t.
One man and one woman.
We continue to follow the river. As we turn onto another switchback, there is smoke on the horizon. Perched on the edge of the banks is a small hamlet, little more than a few hovels, crudely built of raw logs and branches.
As we approach, the people we’d spied from afar working in the central square disappear. We knock on doors, but no one answers. It troubles me more than I’m willing to admit. We are cold and hungry. We’ve brought only enough supplies to get us this far, but Will the mule is loaded with trade goods.
Not much good to us now, trade goods are worthless if there is no one to trade with.
I ponder whether to wait them out, but sense that these people have more fortitude—or fear—than we do. We continue on down the river.
Surely, a bigger town is ahead. Not everyone can avoid us.
I see the first tracks in the snow, but they aren’t human. They look like bear tracks, but are huge, and they have several extra claws.
Prince Gaarl’s warnings come back to me.
He was jubilant at first that I agreed to his task, but as he continued to drink, he appeared to feel he needed to warn me of the dangers.
“It is said that the Eighth Principality doesn’t hunt the monsters of the Abyss, as is their duty, but subdue them and turn them into Thralls.”
The big man shivered at the thought. Though it is not officially part of the Covenant, all of the Princes Who Keep the Watch see it as their duty to protect their realms from the monstrosities that come from below.
I move to the center of the river, so that I can see what’s coming our way, but we reach a narrow canyon surrounded by trees so tall and thick there is no other path.
The creature comes bounding toward us at what appears at first a leisurely pace, but as it gets closer and closer, it accelerates until it appears to be flying. It looks like something like a bear, but with six legs, a long whipping tail, and a snout that is crocodilian.
I look to the trees. I can jump that far, I’m sure.
This was the real reason I’d wanted to leave Marna behind. I could sacrifice Will the mule, who was balking more and more the deeper we travel into wilderness, but I couldn’t leave the poor girl behind.
I draw my sword, which is really not much more than a big knife. I rely on my dexterity and power, not my weapons. Most often, I run for my life.
Transforming halfway, I leap to meet the creature in midair, plunge my knife into its chest.
It has no apparent effect. The jaws snap near my head, and the huge body comes down on top of me, and we land on the ice. The air whooshes from my chest. I drop the knife and gasp for breath. All teeth and claws, the monster rears over me, and I know I’m done.
Blood splatters onto my face, and I hear a strange high-pitched scream. The monster turns in circles trying to reach something on its back.
I manage to get to my hands and knees, and the knife is in my hand again, and I force myself to my feet. Something furry and fast is riding the bear creature. All I can see is a flurry of motion, long claws and fangs, but the new monster appears to be small. Too small for the bear to reach it.
Blood flies from both sides as the new creature’s claws whirl again and again. The bear doesn’t even seem to notice me as I rush it, plunging my knife into its chest. I’m covered with blood, whether the bear’s, the new attackers, or mine I’m not sure.
Fur and then guts drench me, and the monster’s back legs fail, and it slams to the ice. Then the middle legs sprawl, and blood spews into the air. The bear holds itself up on its front legs and roars pain and defiance.
The buzz of motion on the bear’s back never ceases, and the bear appears to almost shrink, its motion growing more and more lethargic, as if it is settling for a winter’s hibernation.
The long snout slams into the ice, almost cracking it, and the monster rolls slowly, belly up. The whirlwind on its back leaps off, landing near me.
I grasp my knife, for I still can’t get a good look at the creature. It is moving so fast, it appears to be a blur.
As the bear breathes its last, my ally finally stops moving long enough to get a look at it. It is covered with red fur, about half my size, with long arms and legs, which appear to be mostly claws. Its mouth takes up half of its round head, and consists of fangs, still dripping blood.
It isn’t until I see her eyes that I realize who it is.
Marna transforms in front of me, naked, covered in blood. She staggers. I reach to catch her, and say,
“Why didn’t you tell me your father was Wolf!”
She looks offended. “He never liked that name,” she says.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Toad King, Chapter 4. A flashback chapter in present tense. Is that even allowed?



4.) Monsters from the Abyss

The Abyss spews up monsters from time to time. Within a few days, I see them myself. Blind and tentacled creatures, feeling their way across the landscape; blobs that roll, leaving slimy, sticky trails; spiky monsters that stab and slice across the rocks. Things that skitter and things that float, things that fly and things that jump. All manner of beasts emerge from the depths to enter the Thirteen Principalities and wander until they are hunted and destroyed, the foundation of nightmares and fairy tales.
But none of the monsters speak, as far as I can tell. None of them approach the Keep. None of them claim to be messengers of the Mirror God.
This alone is enough to give the Prince Gaarl of the Thirteenth Principality pause. He lets me enter the Keep.
For a day or two I am left in the outer chamber where the mist sprays and the cold wind blows. I shiver in the corner, uncertain if I am where I should be. Why would the Mirror God send me to such misery? How could he let me forget why I was sent?
“Why are you here?” Prince Gaarl asks each morning.
“I don’t remember,” I answer.
Though I don’t complain, I shiver and shake so woefully that he finally takes pity on me, and brings me all the way into the warmth of the castle.
The Thirteenth Prince Who Keeps the Watch has no subjects, other than a few goatherds and holy men who live and pray on the scrubby highlands, and yet he is the richest of all Princes, for all other Princes pay him tribute. The Thirteenth Prince will be the first to meet the Mirror God when He emerges from the Abyss. If the Thirteenth Prince recites the Mirror God’s Covenants properly, the Mirror God will return to his slumber, satisfied.
The Keep is small but comfortable. The room I am given is that of Gaarl’s son, who is off visiting and studying in the First Principality. It is the most opulent chamber in the Keep, for along with sending supplies and tools, as is required by the Covenants, the other Twelve Princes compete with each other to be the most generous. Gems and books and art, silks and tapestries, the finest of luxuries arrive at the Thirteen Principality with every Triad, as the Servants of the Watchers arrive laden with new riches, their pilgrimage complete.
None of it means anything to Prince Gaarl, who is the most disciplined and ascetic of men. He denies himself all pleasures, his chambers are stark and cold. Day and night, he can be found studying in the high towers, for he is determined to be worthy of the Mirror God, though the lives of many a Prince of the Thirteenth Principality pass without the God appearing at all.
The unwanted riches flow downward, filling the lower chambers of the Keep, enough wealth to keep most Principalities prosperous and wealthy, tossed randomly into dank chambers, neglected and ignored.
Gaarl doesn’t care if his son roots around in the dungeons, taking what he likes. After a few weeks, I feel as if young Camme is a friend, based on what he has chosen to appoint his rooms. Knick-knacks mostly, while gems and coins pile up down below, Camme saves most of the books and artwork, and there isn’t an inch of wall space or floor space that isn’t filled with some magnificent painting or sculpture.
Though I don’t remember my past, I’m certain that nothing like these works of art exist where I come from, and I am enamored. I read the books and gaze upon the paintings and run my hands across the surfaces of the sculptures.
The room suits me, though I’m certain that I’ve never experienced such luxury before. A desire grows in me to continue to live this way, no matter what it takes. I’m sure the Mirror God understands my covetousness, otherwise why would He send me?
The gems and coins also awaken my acquisitiveness, piled upon the stone floors of the dungeons, glittering in the torchlight. Though I know I will leave someday soon, it is my desire to take them with me—the gold and silver, rubies and sapphires, diamonds and pearls, every shiny, precious object. The Prince won’t miss them, I tell myself.
Every few days I’m called to Gaarl’s presence. “Do you remember your charge?” he asks.
And sadly, each time, I answer, “I am sorry, Your Highness, I do not.”
It is strange that I don’t see the sculpture at first. It is, after all, the only work of art in the Prince’s chamber. It stands in the corner, in the dark, but today the sun is shining, unusual in and of itself, and the light catches the twirling mirrors and I am mesmerized.
Prince Gaarl notices my attention. “You like it?” he says, sounding unusually enthusiastic. He goes to the corner and carefully lifts the sculpture at the base, and brings it into the full sunlight, setting it down gingerly. The thirteen mirrors are sent spinning by the transport, and click against each other as they sway.
Each mirror is a different size and shape, and as I direct my focus on the top one, the largest, the words come unbidden to my mind, “They who are last, shall also be first.”
“My son found this in the lowest chamber, buried under bolts of decayed silk. At first I didn’t pay much attention to it, but when Camme cleaned it and polished the mirrors, I realized what a holy object it is. I do believe that I could face the Mirror God with this sculpture in my hand without saying a word, and all the Oaths would be fulfilled.”
One by one, the mirrors catch my eye, and the Oaths flash through my mind.
“They who forget, shall also remember.”
“They who are scorned, shall also be honored.”
“They who are cursed, shall also be blessed.”
All Thirteen Oaths, spinning through my mind, over and over again, until I stagger and close my eyes.
By the time I open my eyes again, the Prince has placed the sculpture back into the darkened corner and he is looking at me distrustfully.
“If you cannot remember why you were sent,” he says. “You must leave. This is a holy place, and I must prepare for the coming of the Mirror God. I don’t have time to waste on you.”
I don’t say how senseless I think this is, for the Thirteenth Prince is here for one purpose only; to recite the Thirteen Oaths. I was certain that Gaarl could repeat them backward and forward and upside down, juggling while standing on his head and playing a game of chess.
“I think…I think I’m beginning to remember,” I say, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice. “The Mirror God sent me to do something important, I know that.”
“Yes, well…so you say. I have no reason to believe you.”
“A little while longer,” I say. “I know I am meant to find something and bring it back. I’m sure it will come to me.”
“Why the Mirror God would send a toad to do his bidding, I don’t understand,” Gaarl says. Then he visibly draws upon his righteousness and stands straight. “But it is not for me to question. I will give you one more month.”
“Thank you, my Prince. I’m sure that the Mirror God will remember your kindness when the time comes.”
I bow, as best I can in my toad body, and leave the room.
I’d been planning to leave of my own accord, for it was becoming clear to me that the memory of why I was sent could not be retrieved by effort alone. I suspected it would come to me in the course of doing something else.
I had intended to take with me as much of the riches of the Keep as I could carry. I doubted the Prince would even care.
But now, I know I am leaving all that wealth behind so that I can take a single object. I close my eyes, and the mirrors spin dazzlingly, and the Oaths fill my mind and I feel the presence of the Mirror God.
Leave Gaarl to his Oaths. He doesn’t need the Mirror God sculpture, but I’m certain I do.
I must have it, and I am going to take it.
Where did this come from?


Santa Got Caught In The Elevator.

It's 1960 and I'm 8 years old.
I want a BB gun for Christmas,
just like in that show.


On the back,
of every comic,
my parents don't approve
but Santa...will...deliver.

Sirens on
my way to school,
The snow up to my waist
for Santa's sleigh.

Firetrucks surround
the Pilot Butte Inn,
the only elevator in town.

Santa broke the elevator,
I hear them say,
the school bells chime
but I linger and stay.

I wander through the
hoses, the scrambling
cursing firemen.
Christmas is coming.

Santa has my BB gun,
and he's too fat,
He broken the elevator,
trapped like a rat.

They bring him out,
with an oxygen mask,
His beard askew
A man in a fat suit.

My friend Bill doesn't
believe, nor my sister Sue,
And in that moment
the North Pole fades.

I say goodbye
to the BB gun
and the X-ray glasses too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Toad King, Chapter 3. Starting to figure out the McGuffins.

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Chapter 3


Prince Mordrial looms over me, his bulk nearly filling the jail cell. I feel hemmed in. Though tight spaces are often a part of my job, the Prince is overwhelming. His magnificence is impossible to comprehend in a single glance, especially with my toadish eyes, one to each side of my head.
The Prince seems to feel it too. “Perhaps we’d be more confortable talking in the Misty Owl,” he says, and turns to leave without another word.
I breathe a sigh of relief. The cell is empty for the moment, the door wide open. I take the opportunity to change back into Horense, my human form. It is best, I’ve learned, not to let humans see me the Toad King, if possible. It takes away from the intrigue--though in this case, having been bound and dragged through the streets, I’m not sure much mystery remained.
I step out of the cell, nude. I still have the wide back, the overly large head, but as ugly as my face and body are, they are at least human. My nakedness appears to alarm the guards, who hasten to gather enough clothing to cover me. As one man approaches with a garment, I notice he’s limping. There’s a rash around his ankle.
I steal his purse. I don the shirt, and then turn with the purse in my palm. “Did you lose this?” I ask innocently.
The guards react as one, reaching for their own pockets to check. I know I have just added to my legend.
The pants are too big, the shirt too small, the boots pinch and the hat falls over my ears--but I immediately feel better.
The guards drop away, one by one, as I approach the inn. Alone, I enter to find Mordrial sitting at large table near the fireplace. From somewhere, a throne-like chair has been found for him to sit on. I sit across from him, feeling like a child at an adult table. The heat of the fire is welcome, and I realize I’ve been shivering ever since I transformed.
Mordrial is drinking ale from a giant tankard, though it is still early in the morning. He slams it onto the table and I wince. Every movement and every word from the Prince seems exclamatory.
He says, “I’m so glad I was near enough to Barton’s Wink to get here before you escaped,” and winks at me with surprising subtlety at the same moment he says the word. “I know my men could never have held you for long.”
I nod, straight-faced. If the Prince chooses to believe such a thing, so much the better. I wonder if I’ve discovered a worthy new Imperative--#45: Never deny powers given freely by the enemy.
“I’ve had my men on high alert ever since you were sighted leaving the Third Principality…though to be honest, I never thought they’d catch you.” The Prince tilted his head curiously, his beard and hair swaying to one side.
Again I nod. Damned if I was going to give an explanation.
“It was the river, wasn’t it?” the Prince guesses, knowingly. “Toads don’t like water, I’m told.”
When I don’t answer, he chooses to take it as agreement.
Better he believe that, I think, than that it was my own stupidity, my own flouting of the Imperatives.
I ask bluntly, “What is it you want from me, Your Highness?” Royalty does not impress me. I’ve seen many a Prince come and go in my long lifetime, good ones and bad ones, wise ones and foolish ones, small ones and big ones, though admittedly, none bigger than Mordrial. The Thirteen Princes have been my prime targets over the years, for they have too much and rarely appreciate what they have.
“Call me Mordrial, please!” the Prince exclaims. “Or I shall be forced to call you, ‘Your Majesty,’ as is proper for a King!”
I incline my head. It is indeed a new Imperative. Never deny powers—or titles-- given freely by the enemy.
I’m amazed. Years go by without a new Imperative coming along, and here they are tumbling out, one on top of another.
If I survive.
Despite my apparent freedom, I have no doubt the inn and the town are surrounded by the Prince’s Guard. As we speak, there are scuffling sounds from the balconies above us. We are not as alone as we appear. Whatever it is that Mordrial requests, he isn’t going to take no for an answer.
“Very well, Mordrial, what do you want?”
The Prince takes a long draught and swipes his mouth. “I’m told, my dear Toad King, that you always keep your word…though the agreement must be carefully made, for if there is a loophole, you will find it.”
“Yes,” I say. “It is best to keep the agreement short and simple.”
What I don’t say out loud is that this is one of my earliest Imperatives: #14: A promise made under coercion is a promise broken.
The door swings open from the kitchen and a server emerges. At first she appears to be a child, she is so tiny, but as she approaches I realize she is a young woman. She balances two large serving trays, one on each hand. She successfully reaches the table and lays two laden plates before us; eggs and bacon, waffles and cereal, all freshly cooked.
As the woman lays the plate before the Prince, he turns his head to look at her. She winces, and it looks like it takes all her willpower for her not to dodge away as he lays a giant hand on her. His palm covers her arm from wrist to elbow.
“Thank you, Marna,” he says.
She won’t look him in the eye, and it is only then that I see the bruises about her cheek and neck. She looks terrified, and I try not to wince as I imagine the tiny woman with the giant. She nearly runs out of the room.
I decide then and there; whatever Prince Mordrial wants from me, he won’t get.
“I need something returned to me,” the Prince says.
“I don’t work for others,” I say.
He ignores me. “It is an object of little value, though I will pay you handsomely for it.”
“Nevertheless,” I say.
 “I’m afraid I must insist,” the Prince says, growing still. The stillness is more threatening than his earlier liveliness. His hand drifts to the pommel of his sword. My hand clutches a fork. A fork in the eye is almost as good as a sword thrust.
 I’m not concerned by his size; the bigger the man, the bigger the target.
“You do as I ask,” Mordrial said. “Unless you wish to remain here forever.”
I shrug. “As you say, it won’t be long before I escape.”
Mordrial’s face turns red. “True enough, which is why I won’t try to hold you. Right now, a dozen crossbows are aimed at your chest, Toad King. I doubt you can escape that!”
I ready myself to spring for the rafters. My thighs thicken and I’m thankful for the overly baggy pants. Distance is safety, even the swiftest bolt takes time to arrive. I’m certain I can escape.
“Please, Toad King,” the Prince senses my intentions. “Hear me out.”
I don’t know why, but I hesitate. If Mordrial orders his men to fire now, I’m dead. But whatever it is he wants from me, he must want it badly.
The Prince rushes his words, lowering his voice as if he doesn’t want anyone to but me to hear what he says.
“It is a statue of the Mirror God,” Mordrial says. “A cunningly constructed mobile, with each of the Thirteen Covenants represented by a different shaped mirror. I have my heart set on it, though it was made by a forgotten artisan long ago and has little value.”
Though I have worn a human body for a long time, it is still a kind of concealment, one I manipulate as needed. I have complete control over my reactions. Yet as the Prince describes the object he wishes me to steal, I can’t help but show my shock.
Though I emerged from the Abyss long ago with the impulse to steal, it wasn’t until I stole my first object that I became a thief.
I dream of it every night and attempt to forget it everyday.
I try to sound calm “We have an agreement, Prince Mordrial. Now…”
I stand and look him in the face. “Tell me where it is.”



Monday, January 16, 2017

Who is the Toad King? Chapter 2.

Where does he come from and why?

Do I find this all out before I write, or do I write and find this all out?

Uh, the latter.



Chapter 2


I’m dragged through the streets—or rather, street, for it is a one street town. Dawn is breaking, bright and cold. People are emerging from their homes, and they point and shout, bringing the rest of the population out to see the spectacle.
“The Toad King!” I hear, more than once, and it is strangely gratifying to hear the awe in their voices. I’ve worked hard for my mystique, earned or not.
King? I am King of nothing but my own legend. I’ve even heard the word “god” mentioned, for it is true that my lifespan is many times that of mortal man. But my powers are limited, and in truth, mostly derived from the experience I’ve gained from my longevity.
Most often I am a humble merchant who goes by the name of Horense. I can look human, if an ugly human. Ugly is a good disguise, for no one gazes upon me for long.
I am drying out, and soon I will be able to turn back into my human form. But I’m shy. I don’t transform when people can see me.
I’m dragged on my back, my warts bouncing along the cobblestones, the sky jumping when I can no longer hold my head up, which is already difficult in my toad form. I see the wavering faces of the Misty Owl Inn’s residents leaning out their windows as we pass.
And then we stop.
I see now that there is a sign above the small building next to the inn: “The Prince’s Guard.”
That explains the unusually large and effective constabulary. I’ve stumbled onto one of the new outposts that Prince Mordial is establishing in the Second Principality. Apparently they have expanded since I last passed through this region.
The Toad King’s Imperative #6: Always scout your target. 
Something splats against my face, and before I can stop myself my long tongue extrudes to lick it. It is something vegetable, something rotten. I hear gasps, and then I am pelted by more garbage, and I close my eyes and try not to hate.
I’m just a thief. I don’t deserve such contempt. A man…a toad…has to find a way to live in this world, and when you are as ugly as I am, it isn’t easy. Besides, most of these humans don’t appreciate the beautiful things I take, they see them as mere symbols of station, of money, of decoration.
Precious things, I give them respect and honor. Most often, I add them to my collection, selling only the flawed, the damaged, the over-rated. When I find a human who appreciates the finer things, I leave gifts, and though I have never left a note, it somehow has became part of my legend.
Gifts from the Toad King.  If you receive such a blessing, it is your duty to take care of it.
I am lifted over the threshold, carried to my jail cell, tossed onto the wet floor. The door clangs shut and I am alone.
They’ve left me tied, but I make short work of it. As a toad, my body is as pliable as a child’s toy. As I stand, a mist sprays down on me, and I look up to see a hole in the ceiling, the eyes of one of my guards. I hear a bucket being dropped, and then I am truly left alone.
They don’t want me to transform, for whatever reason.
I feel…naked. I feel like a monster. So strange, for I was a toad long before I was human; and for most of my existence, for that matter. The moisture is unpleasant, as human or toad, and I shiver.
The room is bare, with a platform carved into the wall. I pulled myself up onto it, for a toad hops only when he must. We prefer walking. My gait feels awkward to me, but I feel the strength returning to my limbs. I’m recovering, though I don’t know whether it matters. The opening in the ceiling is too small even for me.
I once had a weasel as a pet. He was always escaping, taking some shiny trinket with him. The little bastard could squeeze through the smallest hole.
That weasel was always surprised when I followed it, for I was bigger than him. But a toad has no ribcage, the bones are in the arms and legs, and when I squeeze my limbs together, there are few places I can’t get into or out of. A handy talent for a thief, one I discovered early on when I was new to this world and still finding my way and thievery was the only path open to me.
But if I am honest with myself (if no one else), I emerged from the Abyss with the impulse to steal. The shinier and more precious the object, the better. I don’t know why.
That is the mystery.
Why am I here among the humans?
I fall asleep with that question every night.

***

I dream, awakening on the edge of a cliff. The spray rising from the Abyss is a never-ending rain and I choke, a stream of water running down my wide throat. I don’t know where I am—and even more disturbing, I don’t remember how I got here.
My name is Horense, I remember that, but little else. I was sent here, of that I am certain. I was sent to…to steal something. Something my people need to survive.
I was sent to steal…what?
My mind is blank.
I manage to turn over without tumbling into the mists below. Above me is a narrow bridge, which doesn’t look strong enough to withstand the passage of anyone or anything. But I see a strange Being walking confidently across the narrow span, the creature slender, almost delicate looking, with two legs and two arms, a small round head.
Comparing my own body—two legs and two arms, but not much else is similar. I have a broad back, and I crouch on my belly. A long tongue comes out of my mouth and I explore my head—my wide mouth and bulbous eyes, narrow slits between. I shiver and sense that this wetness is not natural for my kind.
I walk to the edge of the bridge, clumsy compared to the creature I saw pass. I cross the bridge, carefully, but it is stronger than it looks. It is made of a material I have never seen before, the surface slick from the humidity.
Halfway across I glimpse a square structure perched on the opposite edge of the Abyss.  The slender Being who crossed the bridge before me is climbing stairs to an opening at the base.
Slowly, dimly, I start to remember things.
The building is called a Keep, and it is the home of the Thirteenth Prince. The Prince is a human, a creature who lives in the clouds. I was sent here.
I remember these simple facts, as if they were taught to me—but the why and how of it is still a mystery.
My legs awkwardly negotiate the steps to the opening. The door is closed. I push against the barrier, but it doesn’t budge.
Feeling los,t I turn and gaze upon my surroundings. Above the Keep is a red hill, covered in cinders, and beyond it a mountain that disappears into a higher layer of mists. The heights are covered in white, and I shiver at the memory of snow, though I’m certain I have never experienced it.
How can I have a memory of something that never happened?
My legs kick out in frustration, slamming against the door. It is as if I’ve hit a drum, for the echoing thunder of my strikes seems to shake the mountain. The door flies open and the Prince looks down at me in disgust.
“What do you want, monster?” he demands. “Go back to the Abyss. You don’t belong here.”
He begins to close the door and I nearly let him. But a dim memory comes to me, and it feels important.
“The Mirror God sent me,” I say.
I stare up into the Prince’s surprised expression as a thick mist drifts in, drenching us both.

***

I awake in the jail, a second bucket of water splashing over me. I gasp, nearly fall from the platform shaking myself. There is mocking laughter from above.
In with the water is a small codwinkle, flopping upon the floor, barely a mouthful. My guess it is an accident, swept up from the river, not an intended meal. My tongue lashes out, curls around the slippery fish, and whips back into my mouth. I consume it in seconds.
I feel vaguely ashamed—and then ashamed of my shame, for I must remember I am a toad who pretends to be a man, not the other way around. With that, I realize that I’ve been hiding from myself, hiding from these humans, even as I’m now exposed. I jump to the floor and wait for the hole in the ceiling to open again.
I’m patient, for I’m not human. “Monster,” the Thirteenth Prince, Gaarl had called me. “Spawn of the Abyss.” Curses at first, but later the names had been almost affectionate.
Very well. That’s who I will be.
I hear footsteps above, the hole begin to open. I leap, my tongue targets the opening sliver of dark above, and the tip grabs the arm of my tormentor. As he withdraws in alarm, I’m pulled off my feet. I twist my sticky tongue and hear a cry of pain.
Satisfied, I let go, and drop to the floor. The next bucket spray of water never comes. I hear voices arguing, but no one wants to open the trapdoor again.
I’m the Toad King! Who knows what I’m capable of!
Later, I’m almost dry, until I’m certain I can transform if I wish, but I decide to remain in the form of the Toad King, not Horense the thief. I decide to be proud of who I am.
The main door to my prison begins to open. I position my broad toes against the wall and prepare to leap over the heads of my jailers. I am unlikely to go far before an arrow catches me, but better to die fighting than to be slaughtered like livestock, waiting for the blow to fall.
The doorway is filled by the shadow of man so large he ducks to get through the threshold. On top of his vast bulk, he wears furs and armor, which make him look bigger still. His red beard and hair are wild, his grin wide. Despite all the distraction of his appearance, it is his green eyes that holds my attention, glaring at me as if he knows what I’m planning.
“Stay, my slimy friend,” Prince Mordial says, his voice booming as if trying to burst the walls. “I have a proposition that you’ll like.”





Sunday, January 15, 2017

As an experiment, I wrote the first chapter of The Toad King in first person, present tense.

I immediately realized that I couldn't have flashbacks. I had to go from A to Z, stopping at each letter of the alphabet along the way. It also became immediately clear to me that it is a much more immediate and active form.  I will need to stay in the Toad King's POV all the way through if I do this.

It feels slightly strange. I've never written this way before.

When I finished, I went ahead and did a second version in third person, past tense.

Both work, I think.

However both Dave Cline and Linda really liked the first version, so I present it here, wondering what everyone else thinks. I think I'll probably go ahead and finish the novella in this form. If nothing else, it's a great exercise, and gets me thinking about form.


Please tell me what you think!

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The Toad King

The tiny hamlet is called Barton’s Wink, though I never learn why. It is a brief stop on my way to a job I’ve been planning for months. Nestled between steep cliffs, with a river running through the middle, I stumble across it as twilight descends. The First Principality is only a day’s journey away, but I decide on an impulse to stop for the night and review my plans.
The Misty Owl Inn stands at the center of the hamlet’s one street. The other diners look up curiously as I enter, but are quick to return to their meals.
So…strangers are unusual but not extraordinary.
 I am content with that. I try not to be noticed, though it can be difficult. I’m short and stocky, with a broad head and protruding eyes. I am told I am exceedingly ugly. My clothing probably stands out the most, for it is of the highest quality. Which again, is unusual but not extraordinary.
It is by sheer fortune that I sit at a table next to the burgermeister and his wife. I glance at them--and resist a double take.
Surely not. It isn’t possible.
It isn’t until I’m served a bowl of stew and a  tankard of ale that I dare take a second look. There on the woman’s jowly neck is a sapphire as blue as a sparkling brook on a summer’s day. Everything else fades away. The jewel glows in the room as if it is the only object in existence. I am enamored, and I want it.
I’m certain it is a Dimmer’s Sapphire, though what a lowly merchant’s wife is doing with such a valuable gem is a mystery. In the lower Principalities, such a sapphire would be quickly removed, along with the woman’s head.
I forced myself to eat my meal at the same maddeningly dawdling pace as the burgermeister and his wife. When they get up to leave, I follow. They apparently have a room on the top floor. They climb so slowly and painfully; I’m forced to pass them by. I find a window at the end of the corridor. I sneak out onto the roof.
The lantern in their room goes out a short time later, and I’m thankful, for the night has turned cold and blustery. I jigger the window open and slip inside.
The light from the half moon waxes and wanes with the passing clouds, but it takes only a moment after swooping up the sapphire to realize something is wrong with it. There is a deep inclusion in the gem, a dark flaw noticeable only from the front, which was invisible from my table.
I’m disgusted. It is indeed a Dimmer’s Sapphire, and it is worth more than the merchant, more than the inn, more than all of Barton’s Wink, but it is not of the quality I would normally stoop to steal.
I take the gem anyway, for I’m offended by the merchant’s ignorance. I turn to leave.
“Babba, are you awake?”
I freeze. The merchant’s whisper has awoken his wife. To my horror, they reach for each other. They quickly become alarmingly amorous.
I’m only a few feet away, but when I choose not to be seen, I can blend into the darkness so that I am nearly invisible. Not that the suddenly enthusiastic couple is paying any attention to anything but themselves. I desperately avert my eyes but their grunts and groans can’t be avoided.
It takes forever, and I find myself urging the old man on. I have time to rue my impulsive robbery. I have broken Rule #22 of the Toad King’s Imperative: Never attempt a job without planning first.
The lovers finally, blessedly, fall asleep to accompanying snores. I turn away, relieved--so relieved that I am careless. I step out onto the roof and the window slams down on my trailing leg.
I cry out so loudly that I’m certain I’ve awakened not only the good burgermeister and wife but most of the other residents of the inn as well. I have never been one to endure pain stoically.
I hurry toward the window I left open at the end of the hallway, but I am only halfway there before shouts fill the air.
Behind me, the window opens and the burgermeister yells, “Thief!”
The cry is instantly answered by calls from the street below. Uniformed men spill out of the building next to the inn, looking up at me and pointing.
I reverse course and head across the rooftops, leaping across the gap to the next building. I look back, knowing that the constables can’t follow across such a wide breach, certain I will quickly lose them.
But I underestimate them. The constabulary of Barton’s Wink is unusually energetic. Instead of merely yelling impotently from the street below, they rashly follow me onto the rooftops. From somewhere, a ladder is produced and laid across the gap.
The constables begin to scramble across. I consider upending the ladder, sending them tumbling down onto the sharp cobblestones. Instead, I turn and run.
I’m a thief, not a murderer.
It is dismaying. The stolen trinkets are hardly worth this unseemly effort, on my part or theirs. The first beads of moisture sprout from the large pores on my back. I try never to sweat, because my odor is unendurable even to me. I bath everyday, sometimes more than once. Most of my ill-gotten gains are spent on clean clothing, a price I am willing to pay to live among humans.
In my homeland, the odor might attract a mate. I shudder at the thought and nearly lose my footing.
I bound across the rooftops in giant leaps, barely landing before jumping to the next eave. Despite the danger, I am thrilled by the chase, though I am the one being chased.
How long since has it been since I took such chances?
I leap across one roof after another. It seems that each gap is wider than the next, and as I leap across one particularly wide opening, my body transforms instinctively. My legs double in size, splitting the seams of my pants. I’d thought the job so easy that I hadn’t even bothered to change into my black-hooded work clothes.
Jewels tumble out of my pockets. In midair, I snatch the flawed Dimmer’s Sapphire and let the others fall. I leap an impossible distance, and I am filled with joy at the movement, for it has been a long time since I took my natural form. My clothing hangs from my body in shreds.
It isn’t until I land on the last roof that I realize I have nowhere left to leap. The street ends, the last building is on the edge of the swift flowing river. Even in the uncertain moonlight I can tell from the sparking eddies that the current is swift.
How long has it been since I made so many mistakes? I have broken yet another of my Imperatives: #12: Always plan your escape.
I can’t swim. I avoid water for any purpose other than drinking and bathing.
The trees on the other side of the river grow to the very banks, the tall shadows reaching across the water to where I stand. By now I have completely transformed into the Toad King. My hind legs fold on each other, thighs huge and powerful.
I spring without thinking.
Most of the way across I’m certain I will make it. The trees loom, the lower branches tantalizingly close. I reach out for them…
…and land in water so frigid my breath freezes. I push with my arms and legs, but to little effect. I sink.
I hold my breath, but it is useless. The moonlight dims to black.
I am strangely calm, now that the end has finally come. I am even a little bemused. Through the lifetimes of many mortal men, the Thirteen Princes have tried to catch the Toad King, have sent their bravest and strongest and smartest, have sent armies sweeping the land, and yet, it is the bumbling (if strangely spirited) constables of this smallest of hamlets, who end up stopping me.
 Something strikes my outstretched leg and I reach out blindly, feeling a rope slipping by. I catch it and yank. The rope reverses course and I am pulled upward. Too late. My breath is gone and I gulp, choking on the frigid waters. Strength leaves my arms, and I let go and let the current carry me away.
Something sharp catches at my legs and I am dragged by hook into the light, which is extraordinarily bright, even though a half moon is still the only illumination. I cough, and pain ratchets through my body, and I spill water from my wide mouth onto the muddy banks.
I sprawl naked and exposed in my natural form. My warty back, my broad round head and bulging eyes. My mouth looks as if it is grinning, a characteristic I take with me into human form.  I’m brown, like the dirt, and normally I am dry.
I cannot transform when I am wet.
Ropes are tied around my legs and arms, but I am still too exhausted to resist. 
“Why didn’t he swim away?” one of the constables asks.
“I’m the Toad King, not the Frog King!” I bellow in frustration. “Learn your Bestiary, you witless cretin!”
The constable throws a third rope around my bellowing throat and pulls it tight, until all that emerges is a squeak. The pain is such that I retreat into the lattice of my mind, ascending the dusty stairs to the cracked leather book on my desk.
I open up the imaginary book and write my new Imperative, “# 44: Never taunt your jailers."