In my copious spare time, I've been working on a novel in the heroic fantasy genre. I'm trying very hard to avoid the things I dislike in some so-called 'sword-and-sorcery' books and films. In many cases they're completely nonsensical, far beyond the 'suspension of disbelief' that readers or viewers are supposed to invoke. (For example, anyone trying to wield in actual combat a full-size steel 'fantasy sword' such as that portrayed in the film 'Conan The Barbarian' would find it utterly impossible! It would be far too heavy and bulky to be usable. Similarly, scenes such as those in the 'Lord Of The Rings' film trilogy where an arrow strike punches someone backwards, or knocks them off their feet or blows them out of the saddle, are simply ridiculous. An arrow strike is nowhere near that powerful, as any bowhunter will attest.) The 'sorcery' is also over the top, flagrantly in-your-face, far beyond any of the claimed attributes of magicians and sorcerers of old.
Instead, I'm trying to write a heroic fantasy rooted in real military history, with believable characters, weapons, tactics, societies, action scenes and primitive-religion-based 'sorcery'. It may or may not work . . . I just don't know. However, I think if I can get it right, it may be a worthwhile addition to my books, and might form the basis of a new series for those who are more into fantasy or sword-and-sorcery genres than science fiction (although my SF writing will continue, of course). I've written several rough drafts over the years, none of which satisfied me, but all of which improved compared to their predecessors. With luck, the current effort may go all the way to publication next year.
Here's an excerpt from the current project. I'd be grateful to hear your opinion of it.
The ford was a bustle of horses and men, some crossing the stream, others spreading out along both banks, finding an open spot to let the horses drink and refill their waterskins. The tall man's face wrinkled with annoyance as he watched those on their first raid. They were using water already muddied and staled by animals upstream of them.“They'll learn,” his companion said tolerantly, guessing from his expression what was on the other's mind. “You only have to drink water mixed with horse piss a couple of times to work out that there has to be a better way.”“Yes.” The older man took a waterskin from behind his saddle and knelt to fill it as his horse straightened, its appetite sated for now. “In days gone by they'd have learned that from their fathers, but our people grow soft. Too few ride the raiding trail nowadays. Too many prefer to leave it to others to do the hard work while they ape the soft ways of merchants and farmers.”“If the Gods smile upon the young na-Khan, that may change before long.”“Then let us pray most devoutly that they do!” He rose, slinging the now-full skin over the saddle, and glanced up at the mid-morning sun. “Take them on slowly. Don't wind the horses – they've had a hard run, and we'll want them as fresh as possible in case we have to get past a patrol. I'll ride to the top of that rise, and watch our back trail from the cover of the trees until Hicta and Kundoz get here. We should catch up with you within an hour.”The younger man frowned. “Yabun, you are our leader and I don't question your authority, but why are you worried? We've never raided in this area before, so no-one was expecting trouble. We struck the breeder yesterday, killed everyone, took all their horses and got away clean. It will have taken them this long just to get word to their Army and send a patrol to the farm. We've got to be far ahead of any pursuit. We've kept to the hills, where there's hardly anyone to see us, and we killed both the hunters we came across, to stop them reporting our route. We'll be safe across the border by this afternoon. I don't see that there's anything to fear.”“That's what worries me. Things are going too well. When you've raided as often as I have, you become suspicious of good fortune. The Gods aren't usually so generous. They're mischievous, devious and tricky, just waiting for someone to get over-confident so they can teach him not to be so foolish. That's why I've had scouts watching our back trail to see if anyone's following. All it will take is for someone to signal our position using smoke or a mirror. If one of their border patrols sees it, they'll try to block our passage. We can evade them, even fight our way through a small patrol, but not with all the captured horses. We'd lose a lot of them.”“Yes, but why wait for the scouts yourself? You're too important for that. Let me assign someone else.”“Haven't I taught you to lead by example? We're a clan, part of a tribe. Everyone does his share of the dirty work and routine, boring tasks, otherwise some will resent him. Don't forget, I'm not just a war chieftain. I must lead our clan in war and peace, at home and on the raiding trail. I have to set the example I want them to follow.”His subordinate heaved a sigh. “I suppose you're right.”“I know I'm right! The little things matter, Perun. Don't forget that when your time comes to lead a raid. Now, gather the others and be on your way.”“As you command.”As Perun issued orders, he silently decided to send back a couple of men to check on Yabun if their chieftain hadn't reappeared within an hour. He was skilled and experienced, but even he might make a mistake.
* * *
Yabun was growing impatient by the time he spotted two horses making their way down the far slope towards the ford. “At last!” he snorted to himself. “They've taken their time. They should have been here long ago!”He raised his farseer, adjusted the sliding telescopic elements to focus it, and looked more closely. His face creased in a mixture of anger and concern as he realized that only the front rider was sitting in his saddle. He was walking his horse slowly, doubled over his saddle-horn, clearly in great pain. Yabun couldn't see his face beneath the brim of his hat, but from his dun horse and his familiar dull brown cloak, folded loosely around him, he recognized Hicta. He was leading a black horse, its saddle carrying a long bundle wrapped in Kunduz' black-and-white striped blanket. All the signs pointed to the scouts having hit big trouble somewhere on their back trail.Yabun closed the farseer, slid it into its tubular leather case and put it back in his saddlebag, thanking the Gods yet again that he owned so useful an instrument. It was one of his most prized possessions, taken from an enemy's body after a fierce skirmish five years ago. Swinging into the saddle, he spurred his black horse down the hill towards the ford. Its banks still showed the tracks of almost a hundred horses and a score of riders, but the water had long since cleared.Splashing across the ford, Yabun swung down from his saddle, casually tying the reins to a bush. No-one in his right mind left his mount to its own devices when he knew fight or flight might be necessary at any moment. The horse could stray or run without its rider, as many a raider had discovered to his terminal cost. He turned towards the path where it emerged from the heavily wooded hillside. He could hear hoofbeats approaching slowly, and saw a movement in the gloom beneath the trees.“Hicta! It's Yabun! What happened, man?” he called.In answer a flicker of light and dark flashed across the space between them. Yabun doubled over as an arrow spiked deep into his lower abdomen. The screaming agony of the strike froze him in his tracks for an instant. With iron will and a hoarse grunt of pain he forced himself erect, reaching for the hilt of the scimitar at his left side; but a second arrow struck home, driving in just below his sternum. He staggered back, hands rising to clutch at its shaft. He'd killed enough men, and seen enough injuries, to know at once that he'd been mortally wounded.The brown-cloaked figure stepped into the clearing. It wasn't Hicta, even though he wore the scout's cloak, now thrown back. His face was young, hardly adult yet, topped with brown hair, and his body was lithe and strong. His left hand held a finely made recurve bow with compound limbs, right hand reaching into a quiver on his belt for another arrow. He fitted it to the bowstring, eyes glowing with anger as they focused on the wounded man. Fleetingly Yabun realized it was a hunting arrow, head set upright to slice between the ribs of animals walking on four legs. A war arrow's head was horizontal, to pass between the ribs of an upright man. This hunting arrow implied that his killer was neither warrior nor soldier.“Who … who are you?” Yabun asked falteringly in the enemy's tongue as he struggled to keep his balance.“What's that to you?” The young man's voice was harsh, bitter.“A man should … know who killed him.”“I'm Iolyn, son of Eldric the horse breeder, whom you murdered yesterday.”“What did … you do to my scouts?”“They grew careless, and didn't hide themselves well enough as they watched your back trail. I got behind them before they left their position to rejoin you. I shot the first one, then the second before he could charge me or turn to run, and finished them off with my knife – as I will you, in a moment.” He took the arrow from the bowstring and returned it to his quiver. It was obvious to both of them that he wouldn't need it.“And … this?”“It stood to reason that if you'd set scouts to watch your back trail before, you'd do so again. This ford was an obvious place to station one or two more, so I planned to draw you out of concealment to help what you thought were your wounded comrades. I tethered my horse a mile away in a clearing, then put on one of your scouts' cloaks to hide my bow and rode his horse as if I was hurt. The bundle across the other saddle is both of their bedrolls, wrapped in a blanket to look like a body.”Yabun felt a wave of dizziness surge over him. He stumbled to his knees, half-sitting, leaning to one side, supporting his failing body with his left arm as he looked up. “Know, then … you have killed Yabun, noyan of the Tanit clan of the Kaladi tribe. I … I led this raid. Many have tried to kill me … and failed. You have … done what no warrior … could ever do in a fair fight.”“My father taught me that war is never fair. Besides, a murderer deserves no fairness.”“Not a murderer! I … I am a raider, as my people have been … for aeons. How … did you … survive? I … thought we … killed everyone … at the farm.” Yabun felt his breath growing shorter, saw the light growing darker, and felt cold creeping up his limbs towards his chest. He knew it would not be long now; but suddenly, urgently, he needed to know how he had come to his death.“I was hunting. I saw the smoke as your men set fire to our buildings, and made it back to the farm in time to see your rearguard disappear into the hills. I sent my man to warn the Army, then followed you.”“You … have avenged your father in my blood, then.”“But not enough. Your men still live.”“They are almost … a score … and you … are … alone …”Yabun could no longer remain upright. He sank onto his side, trying to support his weight on his elbow, but even that was too much for him now. He tried to speak, but the words would not come through the icy cold freezing him to the marrow. He saw the young man draw a hunter's skinning knife from his belt, and wanted to shout, scream aloud, beg to be allowed to die like a man instead of be butchered like a hog … but the darkness loomed over him like a wave, and crashed down upon him.
Well, there you are. What did you think of that 'teaser' segment? Did it interest you? Did it hold your attention? Would you like to read more of the story? Please let me know in 'Comments'.