On Monday I promised you two excerpts from proposed fantasy novels, to let you, my readers, tell me which you'd prefer to read first. The first excerpt went up yesterday. Here's today's. It's one I published some years ago on this blog, albeit in a less polished format. I've worked on it since then, to smooth it out and make it better.
This novel will be set in a late Middle Ages/early Renaissance type society, with more formal social structures, a more organized army, and more of the trappings of civilization, including duels, social classes and stratification, and so on. (Not that the first wouldn't have some of that too, but because it's set in an earlier time frame, historically speaking, it would have less of them.) It would involve sword-and-sorcery elements, but swords in a more formal military scenario, and sorcery in a more organized setting in society.
Here goes. I'll have more to say after you've read 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. Some were heading for 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. “This is a training raid for them, after all. You only have to drink water mixed with horse piss a couple of times before you start to think there must be a better way.”
“Yes.” The older man took a waterskin from behind his saddle and knelt to fill it as his horse lifted its head from the water. “In days gone by they’d have learned that from their fathers, but our people grow soft. Too many prefer to leave it to others to do the hard work of raiding, 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 and it does!” 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 to you within an hour.”
The younger man frowned. “Yabun, you’re our chieftain and I don’t question your authority, but why are you worried? We struck the breeder yesterday, killed everyone, took all their horses and got away clean. It’ll have taken this long just for passersby to find the remains and get word to their Army. We’ve got to be far ahead of any pursuit. 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. Don’t forget, we only have half a dozen experienced raiders, including you and I. The rest are novices.”
“Yes, but why wait for the scouts yourself? You’re too important for that. Let me assign someone else.”
The older man frowned in irritation as he looked at his deputy. “Haven’t you listened to me at all? Everyone has to do his share of the dirty work and routine, boring tasks. I’m not a Khan or tribal prince who has servants to do everything for him. 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, particularly when dealing with so many who are new to this.”
His subordinate heaved a sigh. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I know I’m right! Things like that matter, Perun. Don’t forget it when your time comes to lead a raid. Now, gather the others and be on your way.”
“As you command. You don’t want someone with you?”
“No. The rearguard is no place for a novice, and without the scouts and I, you’ll have only three experienced men. You need them all.”
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 had led more than a dozen successful raids, but even he still 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 nested brass cylinders to focus it, and looked more closely, trying to see through the trees masking the trail. 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, bent forward 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 bay horse, a long bundle wrapped in Kunduz’ black-and-white striped blanket slung over its saddle. The scouts must have 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 for so useful an instrument. 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 looping the reins over the branch of a bush. 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!” he called. “What happened, man?” He peered into the shadows, shading his eyes against the bright sunlight.
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 a moment. With iron will and a hoarse, wrenching 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.
“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… if he can.”
“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 worked my way around behind them, waited until they left their hiding-place, then shot them both before they could charge me or turn to run. I 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.
“It stood to reason that if you’d set scouts to watch your back trail before, you’d do so again. This ford is an obvious place for it. I planned to draw you out of concealment to help what you thought was your wounded comrade. I tethered my horse off the trail a mile back, 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 knew blood was draining out of the punctured organs and blood vessels in his abdomen, taking his life with it. He stumbled to his knees, half-sitting, leaning to one side, supporting himself 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. Rage and frustration rose like smoke inside him, threatening to choke him. So close to the border… so close – and now this! What did I do to deserve such a death, at the hands of a mere stripling? Did I fail to propitiate the Gods sufficiently? Truly they must be laughing at me now!
“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 could not penetrate through the icy cold freezing him to the marrow. He saw the young man draw a hunter’s skinning knife from his belt and start towards him. He wanted to shout, scream aloud, beg for time to die like a man instead of being butchered like a hog… but no sound came.
* * *
Iolyn wiped the blood from the blade of his knife on his victim’s shirt, and slid it into its sheath. He unbuckled the dead man’s belt, removing it with the scabbarded scimitar and curved dagger, then checked his clothes. Their pockets contained nothing of interest, but around his neck against his skin was a strangely shaped amulet on a beaded cord, similar to those worn on leather thongs by both of the scouts he’d killed earlier. He hefted it in his hand for a moment, considering, then slipped it into his pocket, adding to it a stone ring from a pocket in the man’s belt. The scouts had carried them too. He’d never seen them before, but had heard that Makin archers used them to draw and release the bowstring with greater control than fingers alone could give.
He left the belt next to his victim, and walked towards the horse. It snorted, trying to rear and break free as he approached. He adopted the sing-song, lilting, gentle tone taught to him by his father and the trainers and grooms at the farm. “Easy now, horse… I won’t hurt you… I’m not going to harm you… I’m your new master now… relax, my friend, we’re going to do just fine together.”
The horse stood trembling, allowing him to reach it. He bent, took a deep breath and blew long and gently into its nose as it sniffed at him. He reached up carefully, allowing it to see his hand, and ran his palm down its nose as he continued to blow into its nostrils. Slowly the animal calmed, allowing him to examine it more closely as he petted it. It was midnight black in color, tough and wiry, better muscled than many light cavalry horses he’d seen. Da may want this one as a stud, he thought to himself, then had to blink back moisture as he remembered anew that his father was dead, along with his mother and sister. He’d taken the time to be sure of that before galloping after the raiders on his mission of vengeance.
Now that the horse was standing quietly, he examined its saddle. It was light, clearly designed to put the least possible strain on the animal while it covered the ground as far and as fast as possible. Its horn held a full waterskin and a coil of rope, supple and strong, made of what looked like hair with strands of five different colors. He frowned as he remembered the ropes he’d captured from the other two scouts. One had two colors in its strands, the other three. Was there some significance to that?
From the other side of the horn was slung a short horse bow, looking very similar to his own weapon which was designed for use in the cramped confines of a thick forest. He wondered for a moment why this man had been carrying only one bow, whereas the two scouts he’d killed earlier had had two apiece, one smaller, like this one, the other bigger and heavier, clearly designed for longer-range shooting. They’d carried up to sixty arrows apiece, too, in two quivers on each saddle, whereas this raider had only one quiver. He’d also worn a scimitar, while the scouts had not; but they’d carried two or three light throwing spears each, which he had not. His curved dagger was sheathed at his belt, whereas the scouts’ knives had been attached to the underside of their left forearms. Iolyn was struck with a sudden thought. Did their daggers’ leather sheaths also serve as bracers, protecting their forearms from the impact of a bowstring? He’d have to experiment and find out.
He turned to the saddlebags. The right one contained a familiar, fat, heavy red leather drawstring purse filled with gold staters. He recognized it at once. His father had returned from the annual horse fair at Druma just the previous week, boasting that he’d made good money there thanks to the increased Army demand for remounts. The purse must had been stolen from the strongbox in his office. A blue purse next to it, equally familiar, held silver and bronze staters. They may have killed my family, destroyed the farm and stolen the herd, but at least I’ve recovered this much of my patrimony, he told himself… but he took no pleasure in the thought. The pain of loss was still too raw.
He rifled swiftly through the rest of the saddlebag’s contents, a few personal possessions and a change of clothing, then turned to the other. It held a bag of marching rations, dried fruit, nuts and seeds; a few sticks of dried meat; and a small bag half-filled with oats mixed with little dark cubes of what looked and tasted like dried meat. He frowned. Presumably the oats were there to feed to the horse, to give it extra energy; but why the meat? Horses weren’t carnivores. He shrugged, making a mental note to ask those who might know more, and took the farseer from its leather tube. It puzzled him for a moment until he realized what it must be. Such instruments were rare and very expensive. He’d heard of them, but never seen one before. He put it away until he could study it more carefully.
He untied the horse, led it over to the other two he’d ridden to the ford, and fastened a lead rope to the saddle of the bay. Recovering the belt and its weapons, he tied them into the black horse’s bedroll where they would ride securely. Mounting the dun horse, he turned its head towards the ford: but before he could cross, a wild shout came from high up the trail on the far hillside. He didn’t understand the words, but guessed the speaker had seen him and the body of the man he’d killed, lying in plain sight at the ford. Another voice responded, and hooves clattered down the rocky path, drawing rapidly nearer.
He knew he couldn’t stand and fight openly and alone against an unknown number of raiders, even though they were probably only a small rearguard party. He whirled the horse and headed back the way he’d come. If I can get off the trail on a rocky section that won’t show my tracks, they’ll go on up the path after me. I’ll recover my own horse, then head deeper into the forest. I don’t think they can spare the time to hunt for me. They must know soldiers will be looking for them.
Even so, he realized with a pang, their pursuit would delay him long enough that he wouldn’t be able to warn the border patrols with a smoke or mirror signal. He’d made three of the raiders pay – including their leader, if his last victim’s words had been true – but the rest of them would literally get away with murder… this time.
As he galloped up the forest track, Iolyn made a silent, solemn promise. I’m going to do my best to see to it that a lot more raiders die in future. Ma, Da and Alis will need a fitting escort across the River of Death, and it’s my duty – my right – to provide it.
Well, there it is. I hope you enjoyed it.
I'm trying to decide which of the two novels I should write first. The one I excerpted yesterday is more complete - I've already written about 40-45% of it. The novel excerpted above is about 25-30% complete. I fully intend to write both - it's just a question of which should take priority. (Also, of course, I could complete the first one faster than the second, since it's that much further along. That factor appeals to me, I must admit.)
I see the first novel - yesterday's excerpt - as more of a stand-alone book, although it has potential to grow into a trilogy or series if there's demand for that. (I simply haven't scripted that out yet, but I can do so if necessary.) The second book - today's excerpt - is planned as at least a trilogy, possibly more. However, I know that some readers prefer stand-alone novels to a series of books, so I'm wary of writing all my novels as part of a series. Again, I'd like your feedback on that issue.
So, readers, I'll hand this over to you. Which of these two novels would you like to see first? That's the one I'll write in 2017 (along with some other books, as previously discussed). Please let us know in Comments.