Thursday, April 19, 2018

MOREGONE, a blog story, 23.)


23.) Hands tied, we were led to a large shed on the other side of the poppy fields, which hadn’t been visible from Carsan. It was crudely built and the slats were loosely fitted. The most work had been done on the roof, which looked sturdy. There were long benches down the middle of the open interior, where the extracted sap of the poppies was being refined.
The sun was falling below the horizon, but it was still possible to see.
As soon as I was pushed to the dirt floor, my back to the wall, Carter and Martin stood over me, discussing our fate. Those who’d sat at my table were separated from the rest of my crew, who where at the other end of the shed. Marston, Favory, and Tomber were tossed down beside me. 
It was clear that our captors didn’t care if we overheard. It was probably meant to intimidate. As far as they were concerned I was a coward, who’d given up at the first sign of a fight.
Maybe I was a coward, but there was no way we would have won that battle, and even if by some miracle we’d came out on top, many of us wouldn’t have survived.
“What do we do with them?” Martin asked.
“Put them to work, of course,” Carter said.
“I don’t think these people are like the natives. Look at Evard—he looks like he wants to roast us over that spit.”
“We’ll give them some of the product,” Carter said, shrugging. “That’ll tame them.”
“We do that and they’ll be useless. Have you tried this stuff? It’s got half our own people addicted. I’m ready to send them back over the mountains.”
“They work or they starve. What else are we going to do… kill them?”
Martin didn’t answer. As the truth began to sink in, a third man burst into the shed. He nearly ran to where Martin and Carter were standing.
“Look at this!” he shouted. His hands were trembling as he opened them. With the light slanting through the slates, I saw flashes of red and green. “There are two bags full of this stuff!”
Carter knelt down beside me, grabbed me by the neck and wrenched. “Where did you get these?”
“You can have them,” I said. “Just let us go.”
“Oh, we’ll keep them all right. But there have to be more where these came from.”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t going to let them find Inhut, nor did I want them anywhere near the Thirteen Principalities. Moregone was a mystery to them, but these men hadn’t quite figured out yet just how far they were from their normal world.
“We are going to find out,” Martin said, his voice calm and measured. “There are twenty-three of you. I don’t think it will take long before one of you gives it up. So why don’t you just save us the time.”
It was Marston who answered. “Even if we tell you, you’ll never enter.”
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. The Goddess of the Gate was between them and the Thirteen Principalities and she would never let them pass. But that wouldn’t keep them from trying. “Let me think about it. Let me talk it over with my people.”
“You’ll tell us now,” Martin said.
“Let him think on it,” Carter said. “Too late to do anything today anyway. Giving you a chance, Evard. Don’t blow it.”
They left us alone with the guards. No one said anything. Darkness descended and even the flickering light of the campfires faded. Despite the discomfort of the ropes around my wrists and ankles, I fell asleep.
A sharp tug on my leg woke me. Something was crawling toward me. I almost cried out, but the shadow somehow looked familiar.
“Seed?” I whispered.
He opened his mouth in a smile, and his jagged teeth seemed to absorb all the available moonlight. He bent down over my hands and started chewing at the bindings. I realized my legs were already free.
Seed made short work of the ropes. 
“Come with me,” he whispered.
I sat up, looked around for the guards. If they were in the shed, they were sleeping. Everything was quiet. Seed tugged on my hands insistently.
From beside me, Marston whispered, “What about me? What about the rest of us?”
Seed shook his head—I wasn’t sure how I knew this, for it was too dark to make out individual movements. I’d have to trust him, especially since my knife had been taken and if my own trusses were any indication, it would be difficult to untie anyone else quickly.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “Lay low.”
I crawled after Seed, who scrambled on all fours, yet didn’t make a sound. I bumped into a sleeping body, and froze, waiting for whoever it was to wake up. The figure didn’t move. I nudged him again and realized it was one of the guards and he would never move again.
Seed pried one of the planks from the side of the shed and slipped out. I squeezed through after him with a bit more difficulty as he waited impatiently.
We were on the opposite side of the shed. The overgrown crabapple orchards were only a few dozen feet away. As we scurried across the gap, I saw a dark figure lying prone on the ground. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or unconscious, but either way, I knew that we’d pay the price in the morning.
I wondered why I was putting so much faith in Seed. This entire mission had seemed preordained, its members selected by someone other than me, the events guided by some higher power. I’d never put much stock in the Mirror God, who seemed to be mostly absent in the day-to-day lives of the citizens of the Thirteen Principalities. Absent, that is, until the God decided to erase everyone’s memories to start again.
The orchard was dark, and I stumbled several times on fallen branches. Seed finally took my hand, guiding me. By the time we emerged into a clearing, dawn was stirring, bathing everything in a ghostly light.
At the center of the clearing was a small crabapple tree, not much more than a seedling. Its top branches were bent, weighed down by a pair of large crabapples.
Seed stood before the tree reverently. He reached out and plucked one of the two apples. He handed it to me. It felt twice as big as a normal crabapple and was bright green.
“Eat it,” Seed said. “Stem and seed.”
I didn’t hesitate but bit into the fruit.
I expected it to be tart, even sour. But instead the sweet flavor burst upon my tongue, coated my mouth, and as I swallowed, it soothed my throat and filled my belly. I closed my eyes and groaned in pleasure.
The memories came. Not like they had in the Cave of Waterfalls, fuzzy and overwhelming, but fresh and clear. These memories were true, clear-eyed, without any of the intervening rationalizations or mythologizing. Everything I had ever known, in both lifetimes, filled my mind.
But one long-ago memory stood out.
I’d recently come to Moregone for the first time. I liked its backwardness, the stalwart ignorance of its people. They didn’t know who I was and didn’t care. I stayed for a time, learning to love all the ways that artichokes and crabapples could be served. Even then I was a merchant, looking for ways to make money.
So one day as I wandered through the well organized orchards I saw a clearing where a single apple tree stood apart from the others. It didn’t appear to be anything special; little more than a sapling.
I was leaving the next morning. I came back with a shovel and dug up the sapling with as much of the roots as I could, and loaded it into a burlap bag. When I drove away that afternoon, the tree was in the back of my wagon, unnoticed by any of the inhabitants.
I never thought much of it, frankly. It was a convenient size and appeared healthy. I thought it would make a good beginning to my own orchard.
Seed looked up at me as the truth washed over me, his eyes sad.
 “I’m sorry, Seed,” I gasped. “I didn’t know.”
I had taken the Beginning Tree, from which all the other trees came. Without the Beginning Tree, the orchards had slowly dwindled, become sickly. Each year the harvest had been less, and I had been oblivious to it all. Without it, without the connection to the Mirror God, to the land of its origins, the people of Moregone began to forget.
It had taken years before a new Father Tree sprouted, and by the time it did, none of the Moregoneians noticed or cared.
“Go to your people,” Seed said. “They’ll be waking soon.”
“Who are you?” I asked the boy. “What are you?”
He didn’t answer but reached out and plucked the second of the apples. He brought it to his mouth, then hesitated. He didn’t look like a boy anymore, but a wizened old man, shrunken. How had I not seen that?
He opened his mouth again, which suddenly seemed wider than his face, and swallowed the apple whole. He munched it once, twice, and then it was gone.
“Go, Evard the Just,” he commanded, pointing with a long finger. “Your people need you.”
From beyond the trees I heard shouts, both of anger and fear.
I turned and ran. As I reached the edge of the clearing, I looked back. Seed stood taller than the sapling, and even in that brief glance, he appeared to grow another few inches.
Screams rose from the village and, shaking my head, I plunged into the orchard.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

MOREGONE, a blog story, 22.)


22.) It is a tradition with the force of law in the Thirteen Principalities that one does not bring a weapon when invited to a meal. Nevertheless, I took aside Favory, Tomber, Marston, and Toug and told them to secrete a knife on their persons.
Toug grinned and removed his meat cleaver from his pack mule. “I don’t go anywhere without my tool.”
Tomber took his sword and sheath and shoved it down the leg of his pants. His legs were so long, he only had to limp a little. Farvory wore a long dress and gave me a wink. And Marston, well, he always wore his long knife no matter where he went.
I wore a coat, with my knife tucked into my belt at the back.
Viccare stood behind Favory, so quiet that you wouldn’t know he was there. From somewhere, he’d produced a blue cloak again. He apparently thought he was a Blue Pilgrim once more. I gave him a questioning look.
“I have no need of the weapon. What I possess, I give freely.”
I stared into Viccare’s weather beaten face, so different from the callow young man I’d first met. There was fervor in his eyes that made me uncomfortable.
“They who are weak, shall also be strong,” he added.
Favory rolled her eyes, but put her arm around him protectively. He didn’t shrug her off. Apparently, he’d forgiven her—or she’d forgiven him—I wasn’t sure which was the more likely.
All my people owned weapons of course; knives, staffs, bows, and a few old battered swords handed down through the families. Since whatever bands of brigands we were likely to confront on a expedition were not any better armed, our caravan was left alone. I’d learned the hard way that any party of less than a dozen was vulnerable, under twenty-five might be attack by surprise, but over about thirty armed caravaners and most ill-doers thought better of attacking.
But I saw no way to warn the rest of my people without the secret getting out, so they went to meal dressed in their finest, excited to be in civilization again, even if merely a rude village, and they went as guests, unarmed.
I immediately had second thoughts upon reaching the village center. There were at least twenty of the foreigners, all of them men, and all of them rough looking. They were openingly carrying swords and bows. I caught Marston eyeing the bows, for they were like nothing he’d have ever seen—nothing he’d have ever dreamed of, made of materials he wouldn’t recognize, more powerful than any bow made of natural materials.
But I’d still bet on Marston in an archery contest; especially if my life depended on that bet.
I was angry with myself. We weren’t in the Thirteen Principalities, or rather, Moregone seemed to have forgotten—these strangers neither knew nor cared about our traditions.
A large boar was roasting on a spit at the center of the square and crude tables were set up around it, some just planks of wood set at varying levels of support. Toug immediately broke off from the rest of us and approached the cooks pouring seasonings over the meat. He pulled out his cleaver and the two men backed away; Toug was a menacing sight at the best of times.
Whatever Toug said to them seem to placate them.
Carter was at the biggest table and motioned me and my immediate circle over.
As we took our seats, I noticed that none of the Moregonians would look us newcomers in the eye. In fact, only a few were sitting down—most were moving about slowly, occupied in the tasks of preparing and serving the meals.
A loud clatter, followed by an angry shout, came from one of the homes surrounding the square. A woman came flying out of the doorway, landing in the dirt and rolling. One of the Outsiders came out and stood over her yelling, his fist clenched.
It was as if the entire village of Moregoneians tensed at that moment, most of them staring at the ground, picking up the pace of their chores.
They’re slaves. None of the Outsiders are doing anything but standing around or sitting and talking.
Tomber gave me a long look from across the table that told me he was thinking the same thing.
It all added up. The neglect to the village, the downcast demeanor of the Moregoneians, the need for the poppy fields to be harvested.
Four more of Carter’s companions came over and sat at our table. As our meal was served, our talk was stilted at first, and it was clear that both sides were holding back, both feeling out the other. The pork slices began showing up, cut cleanly by Toug’s cleaver, his special ministrations obvious from the taste.
Carter whistled and gave me a look. “Is this the fat guy’s cooking?”
I nodded. “Toug is renowned throughout the principalities.”
Carter gave one of his men across from him a strange look and nodded slightly. Something was decided, and though I wasn’t sure what, it made me nervous. As the meal progressed and wine was consumed, the tension relaxed; though both the Outsiders and the caravaners spoke mostly to their own kind.
I tried to bridge the gap. “How did you find Moregone?”
“Prospecting,” Carter said, “in the most inhospitable place on earth. Could only get to it with lamas, which then died on me. None of my stuff would work, so I stumbled around the deep gorges of the mountains,” he waved vaguely toward the Shield Mountains. “I was on my last legs when I found a narrow crevice and found my way here. The people nursed me back to health. As soon as I recovered, I went back for help. Damned if I could find this place again. It took me years. Finally stumbled on it, but the path seemed completely different. This time I made sure I marked the path.”
I nodded. As the Thirteen Principalities forgot Moregone, a breach was made to the outside world. Moregone was in-between. While decades appeared to have passed since I’d been here, it had been the opposite for the Outsiders—from their perspective, little time had passed. It made me wonder just how much had changed in the world I’d come from since I’d left.
Perhaps, if I returned, it would be as if I was never gone.
“Took me years to bring my people,” Carter continued, “but when I returned, it was as if nothing had happened here. Took me some time to figure out how to make use of the land and labor available, but then I realized that if I couldn’t find this place then neither could the authorities. This land grows the best opium poppies I’ve ever seen. The potency is off the scales.”
It bothered me that he thought so little of my opinion that he told me of these things. I could almost see the challenge in his eyes.
The last of the servings was apple pie, which melted upon the tongue.
“Apple pie again?” one of the Outsiders complained.
“It’s the last of our sugar,” Carter said. “So you’d best enjoy it.”
“It’s too bad we can’t get any machines to work,” an Outsider said to the man next to him. He wasn’t bothering to lower his voice. “Martin got a generator working for about five seconds this morning, so maybe that’s changing.”
“Yeah, I’d feel a lot better with a few guns,” the other mans said. There aren’t enough of us to watch them all the time. If they should ever decide to band together—well, I wouldn’t bet on our chances. Knives against knives, bows against bows—numbers tell. But a nice rifle would even the odds.”
I couldn’t help it—I turned and gave them a look.
Someone slapped me on the back, and I looked over my shoulder in shock. It was the man they called Martin, who I’d judge to be second-in-command.
“Did you see that, Carter? This fella seems to understand what we’re saying.”
“Does he now?” Carter turned in his seat to look me up and down. “What do you know about machines, Evard? Or guns?”
I shrugged as if I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Castle Bernan in the Fifth Principality has a clockwork knight who rides a clockwork horse,” I ventured. “I’ve heard it described as a “machine.”
“Bullshit,” Carter said.
For the third time in my life, I heard Marston laugh. The gravel sound was threatening somehow, and all five of the Outsiders at our table glanced at him. I wasn’t even sure if Marston had ever heard the expression, but he sensed it was disrespectful. He pulled out his long knife. “I’ve had enough of your bullying ways. Why are the villagers not sitting with us?”
As one, the rest of us caravaners rose from our table, drawing our weapons.
Belatedly, I realized how inadequate my plans had been. While my nearest companions had weapons, none of my other people did. If we fought, the others would suffer.
From out of nearby houses, more Outsiders emerged, swords and bows in hand.  I’d underestimated how many of them there were. There were at least as many as were of my party, twenty-five or more, though this was nowhere near the number of villagers.
The inhabitants of Moregone had never been in a war, not so much as a skirmish as far as I knew. They held to the old democratic ways, voting on changes. Violence was almost unheard of, what little there was sparked by the hard cider they made from their main crop.
I’m not sure what would have happened then—or that I could have stopped the fighting even if I wanted, but at that moment, I heard a loud, quavering voice from behind me. I turned in surprise to see Viccare standing on top of the table, declaiming as if he was in school.
They who are first, shall also be last.
 They who are stern, shall also be kind.
 They who are cursed, shall also be blessed.”
By the third stanza his voice grew strong. Everyone stood frozen. It was clear the Outsiders didn’t know what to make of it.
“They who are mistrusted, shall also be believed.
 They who are foolish, shall also be wise.”
It was clear that the Blue Pilgrim—for that was what he was—planned on reciting all thirteen of the Oaths of the Covenant. I glanced at Carter, who had a frown on his face, but didn’t look like he was planning to do anything yet.
“They who hate, shall also love.
 They who are innocent, shall also see the truth.”
 They who are weak, shall also be strong.”
The villagers stirred at the words, gathering together, staring at the pilgrim as if remembering the Covenant for the first time in a long time. This was why the Mirror God had sent Viccare, I realized. The villagers were being called back, their memories restored.
“They who are low, shall also be high.
 They who are scorned, shall also be honored.
The villagers began to look around them. Some were reaching for the blunt knives on the table, others were fashioning clubs. Viccare’s voice was rising to a triumphant shout.
They who are far, shall also be near!
 They who forget, shall also remember!”
I looked around at the tableau as if I could see the coming fight—the villagers looking suddenly resolute, my own people starting to realize they were in a fight—and no matter how the possibilities played out, I couldn’t see us winning, even with the help of the villagers.
“They who are last, shall also be…”
Viccare voice stopped suddenly. For a few seconds it was eerily quiet. I turned to see a red flower blooming from Viccare’s blue robe, him staring down, his voice trying to find air. A large knife protruded from the center of the red bloom.
Martin’s chair was kicked back, his arm still extended. “Shut your mouth.”
Viccare gasped his last words, which were only audible because of the absolute silence.
“The Covenant is fulfilled.”
His legs went out from under him. He folded, almost neatly, landing lengthwise along the table as if it was his coffin, and stopped moving.
Favory jumped up, threw her body over his. Her movement disguised her drawing of a long sharp knife from under her dress. Tomber also stood, fumbling with his trousers, trying to extract his sword.
But surrounding us were Outsiders, their arrows nocked and bowstrings already drawn.
I put both of my hands up, palms out, to signal to my people. “Lay down your weapons,” I shouted into the shocked vacuum. It was probably the only time I would have have a chance to stop the carnage. Whatever happened from here on, I knew that we could not win this battle.
Even my own people resisted for a moment, then one by one, they threw down their makeshift weapons. Then, shoulders slumping, tears flowing down their faces, the villagers joined them.
I turned to Carter, who only now did I realize had a knife just inches from my throat.
“We surrender.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

MOREGONE, a blog story, 21.)


21.) I took the lead this time, alongside Marston. When Favory saw what I was doing, she jostled her way to the front. I had a sense of urgency—not danger so much as time was passing and with it our chances of finding the truth.
As I crossed the natural bridge, Tomber emerged from the waterfall, drenched, his long hair dripping. He looked surprised to see us.
“How did you get here so fast?”
“You’ve been gone for over a day,” I said.
“But I…” he looked back into the cave, as if the answer lay there.
“What did you find?” I asked, as he trailed off.
“There is an exit on the other side. As soon as I saw a crabapple tree, I returned.” Again he looked back into veil of the waterfall as if confused. “I was only inside for a few minutes.”
More memory tricks.
But whether from whatever afflicted Moregone, or from the Mirror God, or the Goddess of the Gate was impossible to tell. No doubt they were all linked. I saw no choice be to go forward if Moregone was near.
The cave behind the waterfall was wide and low, mostly natural though it was clear that tools had shaped parts of it. We had no lanterns, so within a short time, we were in the dark.
“I don’t like this,” Marston muttered. “We’re likely to walk right into a crevasse.”
I drew my sword and poked it ahead of me, hoping it would give me at least a small warning. But the path was smooth and straight, as if it had been designed for traveling blind, which was reassuring.
I’m not sure how long we’d been walking, all of us silent. The huffing of the mules, the squeaking of leather harnesses, footsteps upon stone, that all we could hear. At least we’d be able to hear someone coming, or so I thought.
A flash of light seemed to burst behind my eyeslids. It was as if a flashlight had been directed into my eyes.
Flashlight…I knew what that was. I knew it was artificial, what would seem magic in the Thirteen Principalities but was coming from where I came. Another flash of light struck me, and I remembered my childhood home—a huge house, almost like a palace, with gables and balconies and wide windows. I’m young, looking outside, as a carriage approaches—and the carriage isn’t drawn by animals but propels itself.
A loud boom sounded in my ears, the sound of a gunshot, of a backfire, of machine parts. I stopped dead in my tracks. It was clear no one else had heard it.
“What’s wrong?” Marston asked.
“Don’t you feel that?”
“I feel a small breeze coming toward us, which is reassuring,” Marston said, sounding puzzled. I realized that my voice had been tight, alarmed.
Favory said, “I feel homesick. Let’s turn around, Evard. Let Moregone remain lost…who cares?”
“We cannot go back,” Viccare’s voice floated through the air like a ghost. “The Mirror God wills it.”
Memories of two worlds assailed me, equally familiar, equally fresh. It was as if I stepped outside myself—no, as if there were two of me standing side by side. I was paralyzed by the contradictions, not sure which body to animate, but finally I took a step and my legs merged, another step and we were joined at the waist, another step and I was one again.
The memories of both worlds were still there, but not all at once, not in full force. I could access them as I willed.
As we continued on, I thought of both of my pasts—and one thing became clear to me. Despite the miracles and inventions of my first life, I far preferred my life in the Thirteen Principalities. Despite the quarrels between realms, nothing rose to the harshness of that first world, the wholesale slaughter of life; vegetable, animal, and most of all, human. Destruction on a grand scale, such that would horrify even the martial inhabitants of the First Principality, who felt it was their destiny to rule over us all. I understood suddenly why there was a Goddess of the Gates, that such a world should not enter. I understood why the Mirror God wiped our memories clean, so that we could start new, and never become so corrupted that life would have so little meaning.
I was a fool to want to return. I had to save Moregone from such a fate.
I sheathed my sword and strode forward with confident steps. Favory and Marston hurried to catch up.
In the distance was a dim light that grew wider if not brighter as we approached. The exit to the tunnel was blocked by a thick tangle of brush and trees. Marston used his sword to cut away at the branches, opening enough space for me to join him with my own blade.
The gap between the cliff and the undergrowth was just wide enough to use as a path. It wasn’t until we traveled some distance down this gap that I realized that the forest was made up of crabapples trees. The apples looked dried and shriveled. I plucked one and cut it open. A huge worm squirmed into the decayed fruit.
I threw it to the ground in disgust.
The last time I’d seen this orchard it was spacious and ordered and healthy. Now it appeared that no one had pruned the branches or collected the fruit in years.
How long had I been gone? One problem with a long life is that time passes ever faster, so that what seems like months can become years and what seems like years can become decades. It may well have been a number of years since I’d returned, but whatever had happened here must have started not long after the last time I left.
I couldn’t imagine the Moregoneians letting this happen to their prized trees. I began to fear for their well being as well.
I stood aside as the caravan passed, waiting for Toug to emerge. The last mule out of the tunnel carried the crabapple crate. I went over to it, knocked on its side.
The wood fell away and Seed scrambled out. “Are we there?” he asked, eagerly.
“I think so…” I began.
The boy cried out at the sight of the trees and almost leapt away. He stopped himself and solemnly untied the sleeves of the coat I’d given him and handed it back to me. With that, he jumped from the back of the mule to the nearest branch. Then he froze. He looked back at me in alarm, as if he only then noticed how sickly the branches drooped. His head swiveled from me to the trees and back again.
“Go!” I said, giving him permission. He jumped away and disappeared.
We came out of the gap between the cliff and the forest onto a trampled meadow that led down to a creek. I stared at the water for a few moments, trying to make sense of it. There was only one waterway in the south of Moregone: the Soral River. It was hard to believe that this little trickle of water running down the middle of a wide gulley with crumbling banks could be that wide and raucous watercourse. Trees hung dry and broken over the bare sands.
The caravan filled the meadow with no room to spare, certainly not enough room to spread out our camp. I decided to keep going, anxious to see my old friends. When I looked back toward the cliff I recognized the tall pillar of rock standing away from the mountain: Dragontooth.
Which meant the village of Carsan was less than a mile away.
We continued on down the eroded banks of the Soral River. Within a few hundred yards a ditch was dug across our path, drawing what little water remained in the river channel. A crude bridge was built across the breach, little more than planks laid upon the two banks. It was strong enough to hold one mule and one person at a time, so it took us much of the afternoon before we all got across.
Lights began to flicker on the horizon.
“Should I check it out?” Tomber asked.
As he spoke, a figure broke away from the trees to our right, running away from us. It looked like a child, barefoot despite the chill. For a moment I thought it was Seed, but he wasn’t brown enough and other than his feet, he was fully clothed.
“We should keep going,” Marston said. “Don’t let them get the chance to organize.”
“These are peaceful people,” I said. “They have no weapons, except to hunt.”
Marston gave me a skeptical look. “Maybe they aren’t the same. Maybe they’ve forgotten.”
“Either way, there is no benefit to waiting,” I said. “Keep moving but stay on guard.

*  *  *

It was the same village…and it was different. There were the same two main streets, with houses on one side, businesses on the other, the same farmhouses dotting the outer perimeter. But everything looked old and rundown, unlike the vibrant sturdy village I remembered.
The few people who were on the streets hurried inside at our approach.
Closest to us, at a bend in the now dry river, was a large building with a caved in roof and broken walls.
My vacation home—looking as if it had been abandoned a hundred years ago.
I walked up the broken path to the door, which was ajar on its hinges. The inside looked filled with leaves and dirt. There was a pile of rocks to one side, where once had stood a tall birch tree. A carved sign lay on the ground next to it and I realized that the jumble had once been a cairn of some kind.
“Home of the Eternal Wanderer,” the sign read.
“They know who you are?” Favory said, beside me. “Or maybe I should say—they knew who you were, because whatever esteem they once had for you seems to have fallen on hard times.”
I turned to her in surprise. “How did you know…?”
She smiled. “That you are the Eternal Wanderer? It wasn’t hard to figure out. You appear eternal and you certainly wander enough.”
“Who else knows?”
“Just about everyone, I’d say. Of course, anyone who would be impressed by such a thing has only to meet you to realize you’re just like anyone else.”
Marston had moved up on my other side. “You’d think someone as old as you are, Evard the Just, would be a little smarter and savvier than the rest of us, but…”
 “…you’re just as foolish and short-sighted as any,” Tomber finished the thought.
I was stunned. Here I’d thought I was being clever, moving around so much that no one would ever discover my identity.
“Don’t listen to them.” The thin high voice of Toug made me jump. “We follow you, Evard the Just, because you are a constant surprise and yet forever reliable. We count on you to be fair, but also to lead us places none of us would think to go.”
Viccare looked dumbstruck. “Are you a creature of the Abyss?”
I laughed. “I’m as human as you are.” Unlike most of the mythical creatures of the Thirteen Principalities, for instance the Toad King, I had not emerged from the bottomless pit at the edge of the Thirteenth Principalites.
The young pilgrim didn’t look convinced.
I looked around, spreading my arms. “I’m not at all sure where…or rather when…I’ve led you to this time. This is Moregone, but older somehow…drained of life.”
“Forgotten by time,” Favory mused.
I thought she was probably right. I’d always wondered if time ran the same in the Thirteen Principalities as it did in the outside world. Moregone was apparently outside this time stream, and it had fallen on hard times.
“What’s that?” Tomber said.
We turned in the direction he was staring. Far in the distance, probably visible more to Tomber than the rest of us, was a field of wavering red. It took a few seconds for my eyes to distinguish the individual flowers.
The irrigation ditch led toward the field of flowers, which unlike the pastures, the trees, or the village itself, looked healthy and vibrant.
“Those look like poppies,” Toug said. “Not common in the Thirteen Principalities. The seeds are a delicacy.”
A few hours before and the name of the flower wouldn’t have meant anything, but now the knowledge I possessed of my former life came to the fore. It sent a chill down my spine, because I knew that poppies weren’t just grown for their seeds.
The Flower of Forgetfulness, I’d heard it called.
“Someone approaches,” Tomber said.
From the nearest house an old man hobbled our way. He appeared to be reluctant, as if others had sent him. He stopped well short of our party.
“What do you want?” His voice was high and quavering. “Who are you?”
I started to answer, looked into his eyes and fell silent. I recognized him…though that seemed impossible. I took in the angle of his chin, the widow’s peak, the hunched shoulders. It was the almost purple color of his eyes that gave him away.
The last time I’d seen Hiemhol, he’d been but a boy, the son of the mayor.
He must have recognized me at the same moment, because he staggered, as if he’d been pushed, almost losing his footing.
“Evard?” he said in a faint voice.
“What’s happened here Hiemhol?”
He straightened up. His eyes had been clouded, fearful, but now they cleared. “Eternal Wanderer. You must leave. Before…”
As we were talking, a man had emerged from the same house that Hiemhol had come from. This man was tall and strong—almost as tall as Tomber, but thicker. His clothing probably seemed strange to my companions, but I recognized jeans and a button down machine-made shirt. He wore a cowboy hat.
“Do you know these people, Hiemhol?”
“No, sir,” the old man stammered. “I was just telling them they weren’t welcome.”
“Now is that any way to be?” The man turned toward me and stuck out his hand. “I’m Carter. We’re a little low on the victuals, but we have enough for one meal. Then in the morning you can be on your way.” He motioned to the open area outside the village’s border. The ground was churned up and I realized that this was where the artichoke fields had been. “You can camp out here.”
“Thank you,” I said. “We were just on our way to the Twelfth Principality.”
It was a test--and Carter failed it. He couldn’t hide his confusion. Wherever he was from, it wasn’t from the Thirteen Principalities. Then he smiled his false smile, as if he suddenly remembered something someone had told him.
“Come on down to the village square at dark…we’ll have some tables set up,” Carter said.
Hiemhol gave me a last beseeching look, then John put his arm around the old man and led him away.
I turned to my companions.
It was clear from the look in their eyes that I didn’t need to warn them of our danger.

Monday, April 16, 2018

MOREGONE, a blog story, 20.)


20.) As soon as the entire caravan was safely past the scree slope of the cliff, I called a halt and gathered my leadership crew around me.
“Where are we?” Marston asked. “Is this Moregone?”
We were on a mountain meadow, surrounded by large trees, with very little underbrush. Below us were low foothills and beyond a narrow valley with a river meandering through it. I didn’t recognize anything.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Then what is this place?” Tomber asked. “I don’t remember any of this being on the maps.”
I grunted. “Maps near the Shield Mountains are useless. The terrain appears to shift every time I visit.”
“How is that possible?” Favory said. “How can mountains and rivers change?”
“When you lived as long as I have, everything changes, even the land itself. But I don’t know if that is what’s happening. Maybe its location hasn’t changed but our memory of where it is has.”
“That would seem even more worrisome somehow,” Tomber muttered.
“I would have said the same thing before we set out on this journey, but we are discovering is what is real and what is imagined; what is firm in our memories and what are illusions. It has probably always been this way, but we simply notice it this time because our objective.”
To my surprise, Toug spoke up. I was always surprised how high pitched his voice was; but that didn’t affect the gravity of his words. “My memory doesn’t change just because the Mirror God wills it. I know what I know.”
I turned to him, ready to explain how unreliable our recollections were, especially here at the edge of the forgotten land, but the look in his face was stubborn.
He continued, “I have been here before. This is part of the Tenth Principality. That is the River Mortall. By the authority of Prince Selonos, no one is allowed to live here. It is to be kept pristine in perpetuity. In the summer his royal court comes here to camp.”
I didn’t think Toug had that many words in him. I didn’t ask him how he knew—Toug’s services were in demand throughout the principalities. There wasn’t a prince who wouldn’t hire him; he could live where and how he wished, and often explored in pursuit of new dishes, new plants and animals. Such curiosity was why I was able to secure his services in the first place.
“Which direction is Moregone?” Marston asked.
“I never inquired,” Toug said.
Marston waved the answer off irritably. “Then where is the Tenth Principality?”
Toug pointed downriver.
As one, we turned in the opposite direction. The top of a high plateau was barely visible on the horizon, with a thick mist covering the lower reaches. There were still several hours of daylight and I was anxious to be underway, but my crew was already sprawled about the meadow, prostrate from nervous exhaustion. Besides, we weren’t going anywhere until we found and buried our companions.
Instead I gave the orders to set camp. I pulled Tomber aside. “Scout ahead. Follow the river.”
He nodded. “I’ll be back by morning.”
I camped at the base of a large tree. It was of a kind I’d never seen before, with needles a foot long and tiny cones. The bark had an almost bluish tinge. The branches started far up the trunk, and were thick and wide, giving a roundish appearance to the evergreen. Lying near the campfire to drive away the last of the mountain chill, I closed my eyes.
It was dark when my eyes popped open, a small snap still echoing from out of my sleep. Two eyes stared down at me from the trunk of the tree. When Seed saw that I was awake, he scurried the rest of the way down and came to my side.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“Moregone is hidden from me,” he said, shivering. I took my extra coat out of my pack and draped it over his shoulders. He stood and tied the sleeves around his neck, like a cloak. The hem reached the ground. He sat down next to me again.
I put out my arm and pulled him close in a hug. Again a paternal feeling overcame me. There was something…just at the edge of memory, like I’d seen the boy before. But as I tried to capture the thought, it slid away and I was suddenly just as certain that Seed and I had never met. He seemed too young for me to have forgotten him in any case.
“As it is to all of us,” I answered. “Sometimes when I first awaken I can’t remember why I’m on the road at all.”
“But I never forgot my home. Not until the Goddess…” He spoke her name with a hiss.
“The Goddess?”
“She visited me. She took me in her arms and--it was as if everything I ever understood faded away.”
I reached into my pockets where I’d secreted some of Seed’s crabapples—just in case. I proffered him one.
He took it and started munching absently, as if it had no effect. “Her magic is strong.”
I tried to hide my alarm at that. I patted him on the head. “I will remember for both of us, Seed. Our journey is nearly at an end. We wouldn’t have gotten here without you.”
He finished eating the apple and lay down at my side. Even though I wanted to sleep on the comfort of my blankets, I didn’t dare to disturb the boy. I fell asleep, his head on my chest.
When I awoke, Seed was gone. I looked up into the tree hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Our conversation of the night before seemed like a dream.
I fully expected Tomber to be waiting by my fireside. The early hours passed and I gave orders to break camp.
As I rolled up my sleeping blankets, Favory walked over. I looked at up her, amazed as always how refreshed and clean she looked. She left her red stallion behind at Inhut, but still managed to snagged the comeliest mule in the caravan, whose name was Handsome.
“Going in the direction your scout disappeared seems a bad idea,” she said.
“What choice do we have?”
“Send Marston,” she said. “Or wait longer.”
She was right, of course, but whatever lay ahead we were going to have to face sometime, no matter what Tomber or any other scout reported.
She shook her head even though I hadn’t said anything aloud. “The Tenth Principality is downriver. Let’s return home. What does it matter if we find Moregone? The Goddess’s gems have made this a profitable expedition.”
Again, I couldn’t argue. I was curious about Moregone, but even if we found it, we couldn’t very well load it up and bring it back. The land would be forgotten just as quickly with or without us finding it, or so the Goddess had implied. There might be a shortage of crabapples and artichokes in the Thirteen—or Twelve—Principalities for a time, but that didn’t seem like much of a tragedy.
I hesitated at the thought—which seemed to speak to my comfort not my ambitions. I could almost feel the Goddess’s touch.
“And what about Tomber?” I asked.
Favory started, and I realized that she hadn’t even considered it.
“We came to find Moregone and Moregone we will find,” I said.
Favory looked as though she wanted to argue, saw the look on my face, and walked away. I’d left the two mules with the Goddess’s gems in the custody of one of the carpenters, Samle, who’d proven to be trustworthy in the past. I looked around for him, caught him loading the mules, straining under the weight.
I’d keep an eye on Favory, but I thought that as avaricious as she was, her curiosity was even greater.
The trail along the river was easy enough to follow. As we approached the base of the plateau, the mists didn’t dissipate no matter how hot the morning sun. Instead, we were soaked in a humidity that was as damp as a thick fog. The roar of the waterfall could be heard for miles before we reached the base.
The cliffs under the falling water wrapped in a horseshoe around us. There was no way forward and the only way back was by the way we’d come.
There was a lake at the base of the falls, and by habit, the muleteers led their charges to the banks to drink.
“Here!” someone shouted. “Tracks!”
The footsteps were deep and impossibly long. They could only belong to Tomber. They led around the muddy banks to the base of the cliff, and then…under the waterfall. Upon closer examination there was rocky shelf that appeared to have been shaped flat by hand.
There was no doubt where Tomber had gone…but why hadn’t he returned?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Transferring five books to Crossroad Press!

If anyone has considered reading my self-published books for free on Amazon Prime, now's your last chance.

I'm going to be moving Blood of the Succubus, Gargoyle Dreams, Freedy Filkins, Faerie Punk, and I Live Among You to Crossroad Press.

I've always felt these books were just as good as any of my publisher books, but my previous three publishers always seemed overwhelmed, so I put them out myself.

Crossroad is not only willing, but eager to publish them, which is pretty cool. I like all these books and I'm hoping more people will find them.

You can imagine how much I'd appreciate it.

Anyway, if you've ever had the urge, here's where you can go.

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00NB4S3G0

MOREGONE, a blog story, 19.)


19.) The winds swirled around us. In the distance I saw a hawk approach, flying rapidly toward me as if it was about to smash into the cliff. At the last second, the raptor glided. It shot straight upward, levitating in the updraft. The same upward flow made the footing even less steady for those of us without wings.
Ironically, the laden mules handled the task better than the humans. They plodded step by step, as if the cliffs did not exist. As I reached the curve in the mountain that would take me past a view of the tunnel above, I saw Toug emerge and I wondered if the big man would even fit on the path. But Toug stepped out without hesitation, looking sure-footed, guiding his five mules. I spied the square outline of Seed’s crate against the hornizon, then stepped around the last curve and out of sight.
The sky cleared, but instead of reassuring, it made things worse. Now, instead of clouds swirling not far below, we could see all the way into the bottom of the valley. It seemed to grow colder, as well, despite the bright sun. The white snows reflected the light back into our faces, and dazzled our eyes, until everything took on a bright halo. I turned my face away from the sun, stared at the path, and my vision slowly cleared.
I heard a yell from above, a shout of defiance, and heard rather than saw someone tumble down the cliffs, striking an outcropping with a loud thud, silencing that last utterance of disbelief. This time the caravan didn’t stop to reflect, but kept moving, as if to deny the danger.
I estimated we were halfway down before I heard another scream. I glanced back, saw two figures this time descending into the clear cold air, their arms waving as if trying to fly. They became dots, still descending, disappearing.
I couldn’t help myself—I calculated how much money I wouldn’t have to pay, and then despised myself for thinking it. I’d yet to complete a caravan without losing someone, and I’d hardened my heart to the thought, and yet when it happened, it always shook me. I retreated into math, into the logistics, as if people I knew hadn’t just died.
I didn’t know who had fallen, their descent was too swift and chaotic to make out features, but I would know them, for I knew everyone I’d hired, and was friendly with most.
The snow and ice on the path was starting to melt, but this only made the footing even more treacherous. Stay vigilant, I thought. Then I said it aloud: “Stay vigilant.” The woman behind me was named Jona, one of the first muleteers I’d hired. She muttered, “Stay vigilant,” her eyes on the path.
Moments later, I saw her foot slip, her hands scrabble against the rocks. I reached out for her, but she was already past. She let go the reins of her mule, which froze in place and let out a strange sound. Jona didn’t scream, she dropped away and was gone.
Had I distracted her? I wondered.
As if in answer, Delane, the next muleteer in line said aloud, “Stay vigilant,” and then the next person repeated it, and the words kept being repeated down the line until I couldn’t hear them anymore.
I took the reins of Jona’s mule and kept going.
I believe that would have been the worst of it if we’d been left alone.
“What’s that?” Delane said, behind me.
I looked out, saw six large birds flying rapidly toward us.
Then I realized they weren’t birds.
There were six griffins in the drift, probably a family. Each adult the weight and bulk of two men. In the Fourth Principality, they actually rode the creatures, though the captive version, raised in safety and well fed, were larger. The griffin’s wings and head, when viewed from the front looked like an eagle, but as they drew closer, the body and tail of a lion became more apparent.
Griffins didn’t usually attack men, who could fight back, but we must have seemed like easy prey stretched out across the mountain, unable to move freely.  I reached across my shoulder for the sword strapped to my back, but had difficulty drawing the blade. I almost tipped over. Instead, I reached for the knife on my belt.
By the time I looked up again, the drift was almost upon me, the talons on their front legs extended. They were coming straight at me, ignoring the rest of the caravan. I didn’t have time to think about the implications of this, but spread my feet and leaned against the cliff to make myself as sturdy as possible.
I tried to ignore the fierce look in the lead griffin’s eyes, the strange whooping sound it emitted, and focused on the talons.
The creature suddenly went upward, caught by the draft, and for a moment I was confused. Then I saw the arrow sticking out of its neck. I glance down to the front of the line, saw Marston precariously leaning over the path, held in place by Tomber’s long arms. He was reaching to the quiver on his back, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to loose another arrow before the other griffins were upon me.
The griffin aimed for my eyes, its long, sharp talons extended. I slashed blindly with my knife, felt the blade connect. Something dropped away as I heard the screech of the griffin, which flew one side, blood dripping from its amputated leg. But the next griffin was upon me in a flash, before I could even raise my knife.
The talons dug into my chest and I felt myself lifted, my feet dragging against the stone path. Then there was nothing under my feet. The three remaining griffins surrounded me, reaching out with their sharp beaks.
I cut at the talons gripping my chest, and suddenly I was free.
I flew into the sky for a moment, as if defying gravity, and then I dropped.
One truth I have learned in my long life: No one believes they will die. They know they will die, but they don’t believe they will die. And I believed less than most mortal men, for I’d lived a dangerous and seemingly eternal life and I saw no reason that wouldn’t continue forever.
It seemed like I dropped for long hours, though it couldn’t have been for more than a few seconds. I supposed I’d always thought I’d be calm in my last moments, reflective. Or alternatively, I’d be terrified, gibbering.
Instead my mind was a confusion, as if I couldn’t settle on a thought, as if all the unresolved things of my life besieged me, nagging me for leaving them unfinished. Floating through the air, incomplete.
The ground rose up to greet me and I had the strange sensation that I was rising to greet the ground. I saw wings out of the corner of my eyes. My confusion was replaced by anger that the griffin wouldn’t leave me in peace in my last moments.
I still had my knife in hand. Better yet, I was free to draw my sword. I reached back…
Talons grabbed me by shoulders, digging in but not quite penetrating my skin. I hung from my clothing. At first we rose, and I wondered if I was to be carried to their nest, to be consumed by their young.
I managed to free my sword and began to swing the blade, but at the last second the creature above me screeched, and it was so different a cry from what I heard before that I took a closer look.
Instead of the tawny fur of a lion, the body of my captor consisted of scales. A huff of smoke reached my nostrils, as the dragon breathed short bursts of fire with each flap of its batlike wings, as though carrying a full-grown man was barely within its capabilities.
It was a dragon, not full grown, but twice as large as the griffins and far larger than any wyvern I’d ever seen. As far as I knew, there was only one dragon in all the Thirteen Principalities.
Shatterspawn had apparently quadrupled in size in the few days he’d been gone. His  wings seemed to have tripled in length. The dragon caught the updraft and we swooped upward, until we floated over the path. Below was the unmistakable rotund body of Toug, who was holding out his hands.
He grabbed my arm as Shatterspawn dropped me. I landed on the path, was dragged the rest of the way from the edge. I clutched the earth, drained of all my strength and a wave of gratitude and joy so strong that I felt as though I was still floating washed through my body.
Shatterspawn flew away, his flight now elegant without his human cargo. The griffins were in flight, five specks against the morning sun. Shatterspawn pursued them.
I turned on my back and looked up into Toug’s concerned eyes.
“Couldn’t you at least have had your pet land me on the ground?”
He laughed. “My pet? To be honest with you, Evard, I wasn’t sure Shatterspawn didn’t consider you an easy meal!”
I got to my knees. For some reason the path now looked as broad as the Prince’s Road. I knew that I wouldn’t stumble, I wouldn’t slip, that soon I’d be on the ground and my charmed life would continue.
At least until the next time I was thrown into confusion.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book sales momentum.

One of the first things I did when getting published was to research the sales momentum on books. What really jumped out was that most books have a peak selling period of between three and six months. Most often about four months, beginning to drop off on the fifth month.

Ideally, then, you'd want a new book to come out every fifth or sixth month to keep the momentum going.

One thing I'd learned by owning a comic shop was--if you have a good title and you are consistent about it coming out, the comic will do well. If you delay, the book will suffer, sometimes fatally.

For "Led to the Slaughter," I was very aggressive in promoting--at least, aggressive for me. I pointblank asked people to buy it. That seemed to work. It was my first book, I was pretty proud of it, and people were supportive. It got excellent reviews.
 
There's a graph I can access through Amazon that shows the sales history on my books.

If I go back to the beginning, when my first two Virginia Reed books were published, along with The Vampire Evolution Trilogy, the squiggly line is high and tight. Good sales, strong momentum.

Right up to the moment when the third Virginia Reed book was due to be published. Unfortunately, my publisher procrastinated for months, almost a year.

The graph line noticeably starts to fray. Becomes not quite so high, not quite so thick.

Looking back on it , I should have self-published something at that moment, but the publisher kept reassuring me that the next book was coming out soon and I didn't want to step on it. Eventually, he did publish an ebook version, but never did get the paperback out.

A year or so later, "Tuskers I" comes out from a different publisher, and again the graph is high and tight for about a year as "Tuskers II" comes out right on time. Again, I was somewhat aggressive, and people were supportive. Audio buys Tuskers and puts out a version.

Then this second publisher announces they are going for national distribution and Tuskers III will be delayed for at least a year.

This time, I do self-publish some of my finished work, but without a publisher, it's harder for me to promote. The graph frays again, starting to become loopy.

So I turn to a third publisher for "Snaked." Again, I am ready to be more promotional than usual, because this publisher really seemed to have things on the ball. Then he too announces he's going for national distribution. The book takes quite a while to come out.

The book is published... and nothing. Two months later the publisher decides he doesn't want to publish "creature" books anymore.

And the graph frizzes out.

Meanwhile, I keep writing. Meanwhile, I do believe my later books are as good or better, but I'm not willing to be aggressive on my self-published stuff.

For instance, as an experiment, I merely announce that I've published "Faerie Punk." Sales are non-existent.

Meanwhile I sold a ghostwritten book under the name of a best-selling author, which hasn't come out yet, and I'm not sure if it is ever coming out, but if it does, I'll be extremely interested in seeing how it sells. My hope was that this would turn into a regular gig, that I'd have a big publisher doing the promotional work. But it's like my first career with the bigger publishers, they take forever to answer if they bother to answer at all--what I used to call "sending my books into the void."

I'm still in the thick of writing, still feel like I'm getting better, but I'm just over here doing my thing and not paying much attention to anything else.

So I decided to just write.

I'm still in that mode, pretty much.

I have three new publishers, all of whom seem solid. The graph is starting to look better again since my books are coming out again on a regular basis, but pretty clearly I lost the momentum three times in a row.

But you know what?

I did my part.