Archive for the ‘Fiction’ category

Ordning and Old Magic Excerpt #1

November 13th, 2010

Here’s a relatively short scene from my National Novel Writing Month project in progress, Ordning and Old Magic. This was about 1/3 of a day’s writing, and it’s pretty much as typed out—I did look through it to fix a few typos, but that’s about it. This is a fantasy novel concerning the antics of a young warrior named Beowulf, his almost paramour Freya, and their friend Thirl. Along with agriculture, anti-empire rebels, the fading of magic from the world, and water rights.

***

Beowulf equipped himself for a night journey with sword and axe, dagger, and another dagger tucked in his boot for good measure. He wrapped himself in a sturdy cloak with a hood he could draw low over his face so he could travel with less notice. He found the fourth room behind the tavern, which served a stew that smelled none too good and small beer. No wonder this Maldin travels to sup and drink in an alehouse less conveniently located than this one. The door to the room was locked and the window was dark.

He had a long wait in the cool autumn evening, passing the time by mentally moving through the weapon forms Riven had taught him.

“My best student was a fighter named Carnic,” the old man had told him once. “He practiced constantly in his mind, even when his body was tired. He thought of new combinations for attack in defense in the abstract then put them to use the next day. Soon, no one wanted to face him, even with wooden staves.”

“You don’t mean Carnic the Conqueror?” Beowulf had asked wonderingly. Had the one-eyed swordmaster taught that great a man?

“He got that name later,” Riven said. He had seemed irritable about it, so Beowulf had not questioned him further. But slowly, he had tried to emulate Carnic’s practice, and now he had advanced to the point where he could envisage entire battles in his mind, working through scenarios where he was attacked by multiple men with different weapons. But he kept one eye on the stairs while doing so.

His combat reverie was interrupted by a creak on the stairs several hours after sunset. A bulky man wrapped in a dark cloak hove into view as Beowulf faded around the corner. He waited until the man fumbled with a heavy iron key, cursing as the simple lock refused to turn. Finally, it raspingly opened and the cloaked man pushed the door inward. Beowulf waited until the man was halfway through the door and then sprang forward, shoving him inside with his dagger against his back. A dagger was better than his sword for close-up work like this.

Maldin extended his arms carefully with his back to Beowulf. “Who sent you?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“We have a common friend who gave you Ordning coin. I want conversation with you, nothing more. Turn around so we can talk man to man.”

Maldin’s face was surprisingly handsome, although bearing the marks of debauchery. Too little exercise and too much food and ale had expanded his body, but his visage showed the hallmarks of the good-looking youth he must have once been. He stared at Beowulf sullenly.

“I hear you’ve been getting money from the spiders. What are doing for them?”

“You heard wrong.”

“I gave you a chance to talk. You should take advantage of the opportunity.”

“Get stuffed.” Maldin’s lip curled.

Beowulf crashed his fist into the knife man’s nose, blood spraying from the impact. Quicker than he expected from a big man with his body going to rot, Maldin’s hand went to his belt for one of the knives he had strapped under his jerkin. Beowulf had noted the bulge, however, and was ready for him. With the butt of the dagger in his left hand, he smashed the back of Maldin’s wrist. The larger man released his hold on the knife he was drawing and howled in pain. He put his left hand first on his hurt wrist then on his bleeding nose.

“That’s just a taste so you know I’m not a lad who can be trifled with,” Beowulf said. “I’m not interested in killing you. I will if I have to, but I’m more interested in the generals than the foot soldiers.”

“Whud do ‘oo want to know?” Maldin said through the blood running down from his cupped hand.

“That’s more like it,” Beowulf said approvingly, keeping a careful eye on him. For all he knew, the knife man was ambidextrous and might let fly with a dagger with his still intact left hand. “What are the spiders up to?”

“I don’ know, havump dun nuffin’myet.”

“Speak clearly, man!”

Maldin took his hand from his nose, inspecting the blood on it. Beowulf had figured him right. Most knife men liked to let their blades do their fighting for them rather than their fists. Maldin was probably unused to having his face pounded, especially by a youthful opponent fifty pounds lighter than he.

“I haven’t done anything for them yet. Just took a retainer for future services.”

“They’re so flush with cash they can pay you do nothing?”

Maldin shrugged. “Dunno. But I ain’t done nothing against you and your lot.”

“But you were paid with the expectation that you would.”

“Maybe so.”

“Who paid you?”

“Can’t say.”

Beowulf flexed his knuckles. “That was just a love tap I gave you before. There’s plenty more places on your face I can hurt. And it’s the last intact part of your body from the look of you.”

Maldin bent his head in submission. “All right, all right, but you have to keep this secret. If they know I squealed, they’ll kill me.”

“If you don’t squeal, I’ll kill you now, so pick your poison.”

The knife man tried to breathe through his nose to calm himself, but choked on the blood, which was just beginning to slow. He drew a shuddering breath through his mouth, coughing on some blood and then swallowing it. “It’s the bag man who paid me. His name’s Gask. Flinder Gask.”

“Gask. Got it.” Beowulf gave Maldin a long look. It would be safer to kill him to keep him from telling tales. It would send a clear message to other thugs that they should think twice about opposing Beowulf, too.

But he could not bear to slaughter a man over whom he had the advantage. He thought about giving Maldin a chance to go for his knives so he could kill him in battle. But that would be cruel, like trapping animals just so they could be hunted, as some of the nobles did for sport.

“You were in a bar fight and got your nose bloodied. You never saw me and we never had this little chat. It’s better for both of us that way. Understand?”

Maldin nodded slowly, as if unsure Beowulf was not softening him up before cutting his jugular.

“If I ever find out you’ve done differently, I’ll come for you again. And there will be no pleasant chitchat, just blood to satisfy my sword. It doesn’t like to go long without feeding, so it’s hoping you didn’t listen well to my words.”

With a final glare, Beowulf turned and left the room, slamming the door closed behind him. A year ago, he might have felt trepidation confronting such a one as Maldin. Now, it was no more than a job, one that gave little satisfaction. It’s the root of the weed I want to pull, not the tendrils.

Beowulf went straight home and went to bed, nodding to the guard at the entrance to the Copper Dragon as he passed.

Nano Wreflections

November 19th, 2009

We have passed the halfway point of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, or nanowrimo as the kids call it. I’ve crossed the 50,000 word threshold on my current project (a sequel to my first novel, which is currently out in the hands of test readers), which means I’ve kept my daily production around 3,000 words. That was my goal, as that’s about the fastest I can write consistently while still keeping my first draft to an acceptable level of quality.

The November schedule forced me to move up my starting point for the book, but it still worked within my original plan, and even got me thinking I could finish book #2 by the end of this year—which would make two books finished this year (one in first draft and the other ready for a second round of revisions before going out to agents).

Following are the things I loved about nano and some things that didn’t work as well for me. If you’re doing nano and haven’t friended me, please do so at the username above (worldblee)—I’d love to see your progress!

The good

  • The competitive spirit helped keep me on track: 3K words every weekday and 2K every weekend day. Measurable goals help keep me from slacking off, even if I don’t feel well or am having trouble with a scene.
  • I exercised my ‘write ahead’ strategy whenever I got stuck, picking up the narrative thread past any troublesome spots and then coming to back to fill in the gaps later. I find it easier to write through a tough patch when the action before and after is completely filled in—it becomes more of a transition exercise in that case.
  • Making new friends and keeping track of everyone else’s progress—it feels good to have a group of similarly motivated writers working on their projects on the same schedule.

The not-as-good

  • Word count goals are self-reinforcing. They don’t measure quality, story progress, or anything other than the number of words you cranked out. There is little incentive to rein in description, back story, etc. This means that within the 54,000 words I’ve written thus far are little darlings that will have to be cut later.
  • The timing of November 1 came up before I was as far along in plotting as I would have liked. I had the main story beats worked out and certain sections pretty well worked out, but others just had loose notes about the outcome of the chapter—so that meant making up a lot on the fly. I prefer to separate plotting from writing as much as possible, and I wasn’t always able to do that.
  • I probably would have been better served to delay my start for a few days while working on the chapter notes in more detail.

Excerpt

I’m always curious as to what others are writing in their daily word counts. So here is a scene to show what my rough drafts look like. This was one day’s writing. Open, kimono!

Beowulf and Riven led them at as fast of a pace as they dared in the growing dark. In the space of a half hour, they reached sloping grassland that marked the end of the hills, pushing their horses to a trot. They could not risk a light for fear of alerting their pursuers, but the sky was still faintly luminous and the ground was even.

As the darkness became more absolute, the moon not being scheduled to rise for hours yet, they slowed their pace. Beowulf noticed the faintest of glows to the west. “Do you think they got ahead of us?” he asked Riven.

The old soldier shook his head. “Even riding hard, I don’t think they could have gotten that far ahead. And if they did, why they raise a light to alert us? No, it must be a village.”

“It is hard to tell in the dark, but I feel I know these lands,” Freya said.

Beowulf thought back to the story of her childhood she had told him. “You were born not far from here, right?” he said.

“We could be close.”

As they grew closer, the glow separated into a number of small lights. It was not the light of a city, or even a town, it was the humble gleam of open fires. These villagers must cling to the old ways, as Freya had told Beowulf. It made Woden seem like a modern city by comparison, which took some doing.

Riven looked to Born. “It’s as good as place as any to stop for the night. Perhaps we can barter for a meal and place to rest out of the wet for the horses and us.”

Gargarin sniffed the air. “It will rain again tonight. A dry spot would be good.”

They slowed to a walk as they entered the outskirts of the village, looking about cautiously.

An old woman, bent over and with a cloudy mass of gray hair, watched them ride into the village. The houses were glorified huts, crafted from rough wood, some even with bits of leaves and thin branches left on. Cookfires were set before the door, perhaps to keep the bugs out and perhaps because doing so did not necessitate a fire hole in the roof that would let the rain in.

“We do not often see travelers such as yourselves,” she said. Her voice was gritty, like rough pebbles, and her accent was strange. Yet it felt somehow familiar to Beowulf. I know someone who speaks so.

Born started to reply, but Freya overrode him. “We travel in peace,” she said, her voice formal. “Seeking hearth and home for the night, as we would share with you in turn.”

That’s where I heard that accent. Freya’s voice has smoothed somewhat since I’ve known here, but when she first spoke it had that air.

The old woman bowed her head. “You know our ways.”

“I was raised in a village much like this,” Freya said.

“You’ve risen far, then,” the woman said. “To wear such trappings and ride a fine horse.”

“One can never leave her beginnings behind,” Freya said. “No matter how far she travels, they are always with her.”

The woman nodded her head slowly. “Which village do you come from?”

“I do not know the name. I left when I was very young.”

Beowulf looked more closely at the woman. She was not as old as she first appeared. Life must have used her hard. Maybe stooping over a cooking fire had aged her skin prematurely.

“I had a daughter once,” the woman said. “But I had to give her up, and after that I had no more. I could not go through the pain of losing a child again.”

“What was the name of your daughter?”

“Freya.”

A tremor passed through Freya. Then she mastered herself. “That is an unusual name. But it must be common, living close to the Great Forest as you do.”

“It is rare. A name given only to those who have special talents. But the auguries of her birth turned out to be false. My daughter never spoke or showed any signs of having a gift. So she was sacrificed to the forest to let the trees decide. I don’t know how the tree spirits judged her, but in my heart I hope they took her in and unlocked her gifts.”

“What would you say if your daughter came back to you?”

The old woman looked at her. “In truth, I would say she was lucky to get away. There is little here to soften a hard life. If she has found a way to leave her roots behind, she should realize it can be a gift to become your own person, free to choose who you are.”

“I do not believe that is so,” Freya said softly. “If you loved her once, you would love her still.”

“Love? It is a luxury for those richer than me.”

“It costs nothing to care. My mother had little, yet I swear she loved me.”

“Perhaps she was a better woman than me.” The woman paused and then changed topics. “But what brings you and your party to our doorstep?” Other villagers had spilled out from their huts, looking at the strangers with curiosity. They wore simple clothes of linen and wool, in drab colors and varying states of repair. Beowulf watched them back, he and his gelding both breathing clouds of steam into the cold night air.

“As I said, we seek shelter for the night. For our horses and ourselves.”

“What do you offer in return?”

“We can offer coin, if that’s what you want,” Born said. “Or the blessing of Od from one of his stormcrows.”

Greshawk raised his head from Beowulf’s saddle, where he had been riding, tucked between the saddle and Beowulf’s thighs. “I’m not sure they want Od’s blessing,” he said.

The woman looked at the black bird and spit on the ground. “He has that right,” she said. “The All Father abandoned his wife when he left the world. We live close enough to the trees to know this and have no love for him.”

Surprisingly, Greshawk did not seek to rebut her.

“A silver coin then?” Born asked. “Do you have a barn where the horses can stay?”

Beowulf raised an eyebrow. A silver coin was probably more than the woman saw in a year, if any coin crossed her palm at all. Maybe Born believes she is Freya’s mother.

“There is a lean-to that will keep the rain off. And hay. There is enough soup in the pot to feed you, if you wish.”

Riven dismounted and Beowulf followed suit. “Point me to the lean-to, good woman,” Riven said. “Some soup would please me, and the sooner we get the horses settled the sooner we can taste your fare.”

She directed them to a bark-roofed shelter, set on poles on one side and trees on the other. Beowulf and Riven led the horses to drink from a trough, unsaddled and rubbed them down, and set a pile of hay in front of them.

“You think we’re safe to rest here?” Beowulf asked.

Riven shrugged. “We’ll take watches either way. But I see no goods for Norkassel here. I don’t think we have to worry about these folk selling us out. If the soldiers arrive, we have a better chance of slipping away into the night before they find us than we would if we camped alone.”

“But we might be able to make the forest tonight if we kept pushing.”

“The horses need a rest. And we don’t know for certain how far the forest is—could be five miles or it could be five leagues. Let’s enjoy a hot meal and we’ll leave before first light.”

When they sat to eat on logs pulled up before the fire, the children gathered around them, quiet and wide-eyed. They evidently did not see many strangers. The soup was at least hot, with greasy chunks of lamb amidst root vegetables Beowulf did not recognize by sight or taste. They were pale and chewy, and they filled the belly. Better than what we’d have gotten if we stopped on our own, anyway.

After he finished his bowl and mopped up the broth with a crust of brown bread, Beowulf got out his goat hornpipe and played a melody for the children. Thirl got out the hand drum he’d kept from their spell of minstrelsy with Darl in the Sveldtlands, and together they played one of the songs Darl had taught them when they’d backed Freya’s dancing.

Beowulf looked at Freya, asking with his eyes if she wanted to dance. She shook her head, her face sad. She had been very quiet since her conversation with the woman. Even quieter than usual. Beowulf finished the song. The children wanted more, but he shook them off. Gargarin had wandered away, always more comfortable in the wild than in the presence of strangers. The wolf was not shy but she was no one’s pet. She preferred to hunt for her own meals rather than eat human food. This left Freya with no one to talk to.

He wandered in Freya’s direction but Riven intercepted him. “Can you take first watch, boy? I’ll take the second, and Gargarin will probably turn up in time for the final watch.”

“I was going to talk to Freya.”

“You’ll have time tomorrow. Besides, looks like she’d rather have some quiet time to herself.”

How do you know, old man? But he relented. “All right. I’ll take first watch.”

Freya glanced in Beowulf’s direction. “I will sit with you for a while,” she said.

His heart rose at that. Even if she only wants comfort, it will be good to have someone to talk to. “Company would be welcome,” he said.

She walked with him as they moved east of the village. There was a tree there that would keep off the worst of the rain, if it came again. And it gave them a view of anyone approaching from north or east. They sat with their backs against the tree. Beowulf arranged his cloak over their legs and Freya snuggled against him to share their warmth.

He said nothing for a time. Voices still came from the village behind them, chiefly Riven’s as he befriended the men of the village and sought to learn if they had any spirits to drink. But it was quieting down and he could hear the wind still blowing from the east. Stronger yet, he could feel it on his face, cold and presaging more rain. It made Freya’s warmth against him doubly cherished. He had to admit, though, that he would have appreciated her presence even if the night were sweaty hot. Probably because she’s the only girl I’ve been around since I left Woden. Save for Gargarin.

That thought made him smile and Freya looked at him quizzically. She did not smile in return and he saw again the hurt in her eyes. He was unsure what to say, feeling out of step with her.

“What does it feel like coming here?” That was all he could think to say.

“It makes me . . . remember things.”

“But not happy memories.”

She turned against him and he felt her warm tears on his throat. Her body shook and she put one arm around his far shoulder. Beowulf froze. If this were a fight, I’d know what to do. Then slowly, as if trying not to frighten a wild animal, he put his left arm around her body, feeling her strength as well as her softness. Her left hand was under his cloak, not far from his hand, and he found it with his other hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

For once, he was wise enough to say anything. He felt an overwhelming rush of emotions and sensations, which helped silence his tongue. Her breath against his chest, dampness from her tears seeping into his tunic below his neck, his heart beating against her chin. His eyes grew moist too, but not wholly in sadness.

In empathy because she had chosen to share her sorrow with him. He had thought her a skinny, wild girl when he first saw her. Yet I never felt this way with Sjani. Beowulf did not want the embrace to end, even though the position was uncomfortable to hold. He was afraid that if he moved it would spoil the moment.

But she slowly gathered herself, releasing her arm from his shoulder and drawing away. He released his arm as well. I do not want to hold on to her if she does not want to be held. But that was a lie. Beowulf still wanted to hold her.

Freya took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I am sorry. I did not mean to cry.”

“I did not mean to cry after my first battle. But I did. And you were the one who gave me comfort.” He realized he had never thanked her for that, or even spoken of it.

She gave him the tiniest of smiles, a half-hearted effort that gave her mouth a sad, crooked expression.

Beowulf finally asked the question that was on his mind. “Was she truly your mother?”

“I do not think so. There are many women with similar stories. When times are hard, daughters are given to the forest.”

“But she said her daughter was prophesied to have gifts,” Beowulf prodded. “Like you.”

“It doesn’t matter. You heard what she said. She has no love for her daughter, save for a dim hope the forest took her and she still lives.”

“Perhaps I did not hear her right,” he said. “But that was not how I read her words.”

She abruptly straightened her leg, throwing off his cloak and kicking his foot in the process. “You’re so wise I’m sure you hear better than me, what with the spirit of Od inside you.”

Beowulf gritted his teeth, willing himself not to respond in kind. “You know as well as I people don’t always say what they mean. I think she hoped you were her daughter, but was too afraid you were not, or that you’d reject her.”

“Why would I reject her?”

“Because she cast you out. And now your station seems so much better than hers, riding into town in fancy clothes. Why would someone who escaped here want to come back?”

“Is your Woden so grand in comparison?”

“I’m not saying what I think. I’m saying what she might think.”

“Oh.”

There was a long pause.

“Would it be wrong if we helped the plants of the village to show her our powers?” she said, slipping into the third person she still sometimes employed, especially when she thought of her kinship with the sentient trees of the Great Forest.

“I suppose not.”

“There should be fall crops in the gardens north of the village.” She looked down, oddly shy. “Would you like to come and watch?”

“I should keep watch. But I guess I can see from there,” he said, finishing in a rush. Don’t trip on your heels as you follow her like a pup. “If you want.”

Beowulf made a show of looking out at the horizon and then they walked together. He felt awkward, the change in context having stripped away the intimacy he’d felt earlier. She just needed a shoulder to cry on. Don’t fool yourself.

The growing fields were largely bare, the harvest—which looked to have been meager—having been gathered. There were some spindly apple and pear trees and rows of leafy plants Beowulf assumed were the tops of the root vegetables they’d eaten in the soup. “Not much to work with,” he said.

Freya looked intently at the earth. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

She was focused on her examination, so Beowulf turned to his watch duties, looking out into the night for any interlopers. When he was convinced nothing stirred, he watched her again. Freya had her hands on the little trees, stroking the branches and whispering to herself. She moved from tree to tree, her face radiant and alive. Growing things are what she truly loves.

She finished with the trees and crouched by the vegetables, running her fingertips over their tops as she moved down the row. This took a few minutes, during which he once again stood guard. Then she walked over the empty ground where wheat, rye, carrots, potatoes, and other crops had been harvested. He watched her finish.

Then she came back to him, her eyes alight. “It is finished,” she said. “I had a good talk with them.”

“Where they shirking their duty?”

“It’s not like that. They needed encouragement and help gathering themselves to grow stronger.”

“What about the bare ground?”

“It only looks bare on the surface. There are seeds there, waiting for spring. I wanted to make sure they and the ground were ready to do their best when the time was right.”

“If you’re done, I should get back to my watch.”

“Do you want me to stay with you?”

Yes. “No, you should rest. I’m sure the trees will have much for you to do when we reach the forest. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then.”

“Sleep well.”

He watched her go then returned to his post. Nothing interesting happened, other than the usual nighttime sounds, until Riven came to relieve him sometime around midnight. His blanket had been unrolled by Thirl and Freya, and he took to it with pleasure.

It had been a busy day.

(c) Copyright 2009 by David C. Lee. All rights reserved.

Beowulf Stormbringer Excerpt: Chapter Four

August 17th, 2009

This excerpt is from my novel-in-progress, the working title for which is Beowulf Stormbringer. In the following chapter, young Beowulf has left his home in Woden behind, stowing away on a double-hulled dragonship to seek his missing father. As he practices perfectly good stowaway skills, he is visited by an unearthly stormcrow, who warns him the ship is in danger of foundering in a coming storm unless it changes course….

It was still morning, but getting toward noon. Beowulf strapped his satchel across his shoulder and took Thunderhead in his hands. He wasn’t sure why, and when he remembered how Selig had made fun of him the last time he carried it seemed like a bad idea. But he still did it. With his free hand, he pushed the top of the cask open and stood up.

It was the first time he’d seen the open sea in daylight. It was a powerful sight. The sky stretched further than his arms could encompass, deep azure unbroken by any land. Surely, sky and sea were both free here, unbound by the strictures of mountains and earth, joining at the distant horizons that embraced the Farling as they rocked her from side to side. The waves curled and fell away, slapping at the sides of the ship like careless hands.

Beowulf took this all in an instant. Then a crewman saw him. “Stowaway!” he yelled. “It’s Norwulf’s boy.”

The men crowded round, jocular with the diversion the spectacle brought. Selig strode through them, and they parted for him. With hands on hips, he brought himself up before Beowulf and looked down upon him.

“You,” he hissed. He struck Beowulf across the face with his open hand. Beowulf was knocked to his knees, and Thunderhead clattered against the bottom of the hull.

“I have done nothing!” Beowulf cried. Maybe he knows I was the one who struck down Osselig. He tried to struggle to his feet. Selig shoved him back down.

“Kneel, boy,” he said. “Beg forgiveness that I don’t throw you into the ocean right now. How dare you put my ship in danger?”

“I’m not putting Farling in danger,” Beowulf said. “I have a warning . . . .”

But Selig was in no mood to listen as his anger heated. He smacked his fist into his palm and strode back and forth. “You endanger our mission by eating stores and getting in the way in battle. And what about Greta? You should be home taking care of her, miserable whelp!”

“I have a warning from the . . . .”

“Who’s taking the goats to pasture? Who’s mending the fences? Who’s carrying the wood? You are the most irresponsible cur I’ve ever set eyes on.”

“I bring . . . .”

“If any boy was to board our ship it would be my Osselig; at least he does what he’s told and can swing a sword so you don’t have to waste a man to protect his milk sop backside!”

“I’ve only come to warn you a storm is coming!” Beowulf yelled.

“What nonsense is this?” asked Selig.

“A terrible storm is coming. The stormcrow says you must turn back or the ship will founder.”

“Listen to me, boy, and stop making wild stories. You can’t lie your way out of trouble.”

“It’s no lie,” Beowulf insisted. “I saw the rune on the dragon prow lit up with danger.”

Volssigil shuffled forward uncomfortably. “The old tales do tell of stormcrows, Selig,” he ventured. “Perhaps we should listen to the boy.”

Selig snorted. He strode forward and pointed at the Lookfar eye on the dragonhead. No trace of light came from it, not even a reflection from the sun. It was still and dark. “Look, there’s nothing there.”

“It was glowing last night,” Beowulf said. He tried to keep his voice level, but some sulkiness crept in. “I saw it glowing red,” he repeated lamely.

“And was this before or after some stormcrow came to you and spoke in Od’s voice?” Selig said with mock seriousness.

“I’m not telling tales. I know what I saw. Greshawk said the ship was in danger if you didn’t turn back.”

“Fa, ships are always in danger. Rocks, storms, and other ships all bring danger. There’s nothing in the words of a stowaway rat. Or a sea crow.”

“You must turn your course back,” Beowulf cried. “It was a stormcrow and he came to give fair warning. Ignore his words at your peril.”

Selig’s face darkened. “Do you threaten now?” he sneered.

“‘A deadly storm lies in your path. Turn east to shelter by the shore or face death,’ that’s the message he gave. You must believe me,” Beowulf said.

The men shifted uncomfortably, and some of them made the sign to avert ill luck. “Maybe we should listen to the boy,” one of them said, a heavily bearded man named Argan who had once survived a shipwreck by riding the broken mast to shore.

“Maybe Od warns him because his father was lost,” said another.”

“Nonsense!” roared Selig. “I’ll not have his fool’s words halt our mission. What did we come for? We came for riches! For wealth and goods Woden needs. This is no pleasure voyage. And are we men or young lasses who quiver at the mention of death?” He glared at the men assembled before him. Some looked away, but others were shamed by his accusation. They turned with anger toward Beowulf.

“Selig is right,” they cried. “The boy seeks to turn our course away from Angledun for his own ends.”

Selig crossed his arms against his chest. “What shall we do with this false prophet, men?”

“Bind him to the mast,” Selig’s lieutenant Olrok said. He had close-set, cold eyes that looked upon Beowulf without mercy.

“Yes, and let him face forward so he can see that the sea roads open before us,” said another man at Olrok’s side who had an ugly scar across his throat. Beowulf couldn’t recall the scarred man’s name.

“He can watch ahead and let us know if any storms come,” said a third man. Volssigil and Argan said nothing, although their faces were troubled.

Two of Olrok’s men grabbed Beowulf by his arms and led him to the mast. They yanked his hands behind him around the rough wood of the mast and tied them securely with strong rope.

They fastened a blue cloak about his shoulders and made mock of him, asking him how it felt to be a full man of the crew. He refused to be baited and his silence eventually turned them back to their tasks.

The triangular sail billowed before him as he swayed from side to side with the waves. He tried to catch Volssigil’s eye, but Volssigil kept assiduously busy coiling rope until it was his turn to go aft to man the rudder. With aught else to do, Beowulf looked at the waters before the ship. The sail blocked his view somewhat, but by crouching down and ducking his head he could see the horizon clearly. He strained to see clouds darkening the sky to make Selig heed him, but all was calm.

Hours passed. Beowulf mused that while he was as confined as he’d been in his barrel, at least he could feel fresh air and look about him. He told himself he’d done all he could to convince Selig, but in his heart he knew he had failed. Given a message that surely came from the gods, he couldn’t even convince a village leader of its truth.

When Volssigil’s turn at the steer board was done, he brought Beowulf a horn of water. He said nothing but his hand was gentle on Beowulf’s shoulder as he lifted the container for him to drink from. After his brief visit, Beowulf felt somewhat better.

As the afternoon progressed, he felt the breeze freshen. The undulating waves grew white edges and slapped against the hull with more urgency. The horizon took on a gray tinge, and then scudding clouds began to darken the sky.

Some of the men glanced Beowulf’s way. He wondered if there was a touch of fear in their gaze. He watched them curiously, but no one would meet his gaze straight on. As the wind blew his hair back from his face, a slight shiver ran through him and goose bumps rose on his arms. Is this what it is like to be touched by the gods?

Spray began to splash over the gunwales as Farling heeled over in the wind. The daughter hull alternated digging down into the sea and lifting completely out of the water as Farling rocked back and forth. Selig shouted at the crew to shorten the sail and lash tight the extra gear. The cooking pot was taken down from its jury-rigged tripod and overturned on the deck so it wouldn’t fill with water. The same, however, couldn’t be done for the ship. Beowulf now recognized the full import of Greshawk’s words. As the waves grew in size, their tips came dangerously close to washing over the side. Not having a deck, Farling would take salt water into her hold if they grew higher, waterlogging the proud dragonship.

The sky was now black with clouds and the first drops of rain began to fall. Lightning flashed in the distance and the ocean skin grew luminescent. The ship skittered sideways into the wind. The steersman shouted to Selig and he rushed aft. The ship could not hold her course and from windblown scraps of their conversation, Beowulf gathered they tried to take a heading to reckon a course after the weather had passed.

The sail was completely furled down as Farling hove to. Her prow raised high in the air then careened sickeningly down. The rain was heavy now, streaming down Beowulf’s face until he could no longer see clearly. Selig stalked up and down, wrapped in a sealskin cloak. He set the men to bailing. Some used pots and pans and others broke open the greased chests where helmets were stored and used them to throw water back over the side.

But more water washed aboard than returned to the sea. The keening wind buffeted against the side of the ship and ripped away some of the shields on the daughter hull’s leeward side. Loose ropes whipped in the wind, threatening to tangle the workers straddling the rowing benches. The men grew fearful. They were not a hardened crew. With the disappearance of Norwulf’s ship Woden had lost many of its seasoned warriors. Most of the crew were young men, strong and hale but untested. Others were veterans like Volssigil and Argan, experienced men but past their prime and ready to settle by a fire at day’s end. Still, Selig lashed them with his strong voice, seeking to bully them into courage. Olrok prowled beside him, his fists ready to strike any man slow to do his duty.

For a time, it seemed it would work. As Beowulf watched, the crew regained its steadiness. The wind tore Selig’s commands away, but the men worked together with hand signals and eye contact. Loose lines were tied down. The majority of the men formed a brigade for bailing under Olrok’s direction. And it seemed the powerful wind was abating somewhat.

But if the storm was calming it was only to muster its full force in a new attack. Just as the water level started to recede from the bailing and Greshawk’s warning began to seem an exaggeration, the wind rose suddenly, shrieking with an unearthly howl that threatened to sweep away all before it. It sang in the rigging and drove the seas before it. If Beowulf’s hands had been free, he would have clapped them over his ears to shut it out. Some of the crew did the same, but Selig’s glare made them resume their tasks with alacrity.

The waves crashed all the way across Farling now, carrying away anything not tied down. The men were knee-deep in water. Beowulf saw a strange sight as the Farling sank in a trough. Hills grew from the sea, green and phosphorescent. They rose as high as the mast, then higher, and crashed down. The ship was like a twig in a turbulent river, bobbing up and down with no control over its destiny. We are in the hands of Aegir. And his touch is not gentle.

As the ship rose up and plunged down with a speed that made his stomach rise and fall in sympathy, Beowulf watched the waves moving all around them. It reminded him of days when he would walk his goats across the lofty stone bridge to the hilly grasslands. When it was warm, he would lie in the high grass that grew around the bones of the ancient structures. The wind would blow in from the sea and ripple the grass in long waves as the stalks bent gracefully before it. From his horizontal perspective, he would look up at the grassy waves in the hills and feel a swaying motion inside as if the ground were rolling beneath him.

These memories of home comforted him. They helped solidify his place on the ship. If his hands were tied, they were tied to a mast of stout Skarlish oak. The mighty waves were no more terrifying than those that broke against the shores of Woden. The island withstood those waves without trembling, and so would he.

But no sooner did he reach within himself for strength than his reverie was interrupted by shouting. “Sorcery!” the men cried.

“The witch boy has done this to us,” bellowed Olrok.

“Cast him overboard to appease Aegir,” seconded the man with the scar. Grinig was his name, Beowulf suddenly remembered. He was a bondsman of Selig’s and wore a bronze band on his neck to signify this. It seemed ridiculous to recall such things at a time when his life was being threatened, but it seemed all about him slowed. He noted droplets of spray emerging from the tips of the waves, the mucus mixed with water dripping from Grinig’s nose, the fear in the men’s eyes, the way Selig stood aside as if waiting to see how the scene would play out before interceding. No help would come from Selig’s quarter. He would let the men do what they wanted, and when time came to explain to Greta and the other villagers, he would calmly explain he had been unable to stop the men. And besides, if the boy didn’t directly command the storm he was surely bad luck to Farling, and by extension, the entire village. Selig would explain that while he regretted the actions of the crew (though one could not blame them for their fear) he was not at fault. He would discipline Olrok and make him pay his share of the spoils to Greta as restitution.

Olrok and his henchmen moved toward Beowulf, but Volssigil was there first. He stood behind Beowulf and to his side. “Let us not act in haste,” he said. Though he spoke quietly, his words slowed the men’s advance. Beowulf felt a tugging at his hands under the blue cloak, pulling them back further behind him. What is Volssigil doing? Then the rope suddenly slackened and he understood. Volssigil had cut his bonds and his hands were now free if he needed to move or defend himself. He kept his hands where they were so as not to reveal his newfound freedom, rubbing them against each other behind the mast to restore circulation.

“This boy is kin-close to me,” Volssigil continued. “He is Norwulf’s son, who has felt the sea-loss as much or more as any man aboard. He is no sorcerer, just a boy trying to seek his way to manhood.”

“Explain why he rises in our midst like a spirit and predicts a storm that will kill us, and then a fearsome storm comes as if at his command?” Olrok demanded.

“Coincidence, surely,” said Volssigil. “If the boy was warned somehow by the gods, all he did was try to pass on the warning to us. Which we chose to ignore,” he added pointedly.

“Your master is dead, yet you protect his son at the cost of all the men on board. Have you no loyalty to Selig?”

“I am loyal to Woden,” Volssigil said. “If I thought killing the boy would save us all then I would do so.”

But the men were not swayed by his words. Beowulf could see the fear and hate in their eyes. Hard times make for hard choices was a Skarlish proverb, for in the northern lands harsh decisions sometimes had to be made. He could not truly fault their logic. Their voyage had been calm until he had predicted ruin, and when danger followed his prediction, it was natural to associate him with its origin. And Greta said storm clouds followed him, so who was to say his presence had not caused the storm?

On the wildly pitching ship, calm came over him. “Peace, Volssigil,” he said. His voice seemed to come from far away. He let the rope fall from his hands as he stretched them out to his sides, in appeal to the men or to the gods, he knew not which. The cloak fell at his feet to heighten the effect. “There is only one way to find if I have brought this storm upon us. Put me into the sea and see if it abates.”

As the rope slipped from his hands, Olrok and his cohorts fell back. “Sorcery,” came the cry again, only this time whispered rather than shouted. “See how he shakes the ropes from him with his magic.”

“Put him over the side!” said one man.

“Save us!” said another.

Beowulf stepped forward, ready to enter the ocean. The men shrank back, for no one wanted to touch him now. He was unsure why he was volunteering to sacrifice himself, or if it would help save the ship.

Volssigil grasped at him to stop his progress, and Selig opened his mouth to say something. But Beowulf never knew what it was, for at that moment the steersman cried, “‘Ware the wave!”

All turned their eyes steerboard to where the steersman pointed. A mighty wave rose above all else in the ocean. Other waves had been tall, fearsome things as high as the mast. This wave was the mother to them all. It was as if a great mountain gathered itself from the sea to strike at the ship. Its peak towered three times as tall as the mast, capped with white swirls of foam. The shriek of the wind was lost in the great rumbling, sucking sound of the wave’s passage.

Flotsam churned along its slopes, appearing and disappearing as the wave rolled toward them. A sail slid down one side, and skeleton spars of old ships poked out. That is surely to be our fate. The wave would eat their ship and leave a skeleton behind.

Selig shouted at the helmsman, but the man was already pushing the steering oar as far over as it would go. The men who had been bailing dropped their buckets and helmets and sought to run out their oars to pull away from the wave.

But it was far too late for that. Beowulf watched in horrified fascination as the liquid mountain rolled toward them. He was heedless of Volssigil at his side, but Volssigil grasped the mast in one strong arm and with the other drew Beowulf close. Farling listed to her port side as she was caught up in the base of the wave. Perhaps it would have been better to keep their heading straight for the wave to take it head-on, but it was natural to flee from its path.

Then the wave hit. A mighty shudder ran through Farling from stem to stern and there was an awful cracking sound. Beowulf noticed Thunderhead had been laid aside on the cargo deck in front of him. He couldn’t let it get swept overboard. He strained against Volssigil to try to reach it. Stretched as far as he could go, it was just beyond his grasp. He pushed his foot against the mast and suddenly he was free. He closed his hand around Thunderhead’s haft just as the wall of green water hit him and swept him from the deck.

As he fell backward and tumbled overboard, the last thing he saw was Volssigil’s face, pale with horror as his hands reached futilely toward him. “It’s not your fault,” he tried to say, but the water overwhelmed him and he choked as the sea engulfed him. That a good man would blame himself for a death that was Beowulf’s own responsibility was one more thing to regret.

Copyright © 2009 by David C. Lee. All rights reserved.