Posts Tagged ‘Work-in-progress’

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.

Retreat to Go Forward

December 28th, 2009

I finished Sword, Staff, and Chalice on Yuletide Eve, which was a nice present. Starting with a plot that was fairly solid but had some gray areas in it, I wrote 120,000 words in under two months, which is a good pace for me. The first draft has been described as a ‘page turner’ by its intrepid first reader (I haven’t even re-read the book myself yet), which is something no one said about Beowulf Stormbringer.

When I was midway through book one, Scott Sigler gave me some good advice, namely that my first book would suck. I resisted that wisdom at the time, but after learning how to do it properly, I can now say that story-wise book one is too internal, linear, and simple. Things come too easily to young Beowulf, and as a result, he has more conflict in his own mind than he does with the world. Not ideal for sword and sorcery… My task right now is to discover my events that complicate and enrich his path toward discovering his own strength and the sword that is a two-edged, um, sword for him.

It is for this reason many people wiser than I have argued that starting your novel-writing career with a series is idiotic—you have to sell the series on the basis of the first book, and guess which one is likely the weakest? However, even if I had gotten that sage advice before starting, I might still have started the way I did. It’s been a wonderful learning experience, and I believe I can finish a strong three book series. Writing a standalone second book might get me to market faster, but speed is not my goal. I don’t want to be published until I’m have something that is fun, satisfying, and just a little edifying, I am ready to maintain a pace of two books a year, and I already have one or two sequels or new projects nearly complete to follow it up.

At the same time as I work on the plot to book one, I want to push ahead with book three (just starting to flesh out the plot now), and I have at least three other projects I am itching to start. That means more living very simply (which as long as I have a roof over my head and enough to eat is actually fine with me), working hard, and writing 3,000 words per day when I’m writing rather than plotting, researching, or editing. All of which I’m really looking forward to.

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.

Today’s Beowulf Snippet

August 13th, 2009

Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote yesterday for Beowulf Stormcrow, the book I’m trying to finish. I like throwing in the little ‘extra’ stories in the narrative, and this is one of ‘em:

***

They talked of small matters after that: the court fashions of Encaras, how horses in Nallen were being purchased and taken south, that the spring silt from the Sennel had been rich and the growing season was plentiful this summer. Eventually the talk slowed as the sky grew dark and the stars glistened high above the table’s flickering candle lanterns. Beowulf, who had only drunk watered wine, grew restless. He had tried to take an interest in the conversation about the Five Cities and had succeeded for a while. But that time had passed and he hungered for more exciting discussion. Where is the singing or saga-telling? Should I play my pipe to liven up the evening?

“Pardon, Born,” he said. “But is this how feasts end in your lands—with no music or stories shared?”

Born roused himself from the contemplation of the night sky. Charlyss leaned her head against his shoulder and he sought not to disturb her comfort. “Do you have skald talents you wish to share with your southern neighbors?”

“I am no skald, but I have some skill with the pipe. Perhaps I could relate a short saga if no one minds.”

“By all means,” said Jaspir. “Enliven our reverie with a bloodthirsty tale from the cold north.”

“They are not all bloody tales,” Beowulf said as he stood up to fetch his goat horn pipe.

When he returned he started the tale he had selected while he walked back and forth. It was the saga of the warrior woman Astrid who had left her husband Wardfris at home while she sailed her battle ship to sea in search of adventure. It was a simple tale, one that might be chanted and sung to introduce a greater saga such as the one of Od’s creation of the world or the ancient hero Olin (namesake to the current Skarlish ruler) who slew three giants in succession on a single day to win a prize of glittering gold from the dragon Ermsiggil whose lashing tail set the waves of the world in motion.

Astrid sailed far and wide, fighting all and overcoming every opponent she faced. Her ship grew heavy with treasure and she sang and danced with her crew, faces flushed with the glow of mead as they savored their triumphs. But when at last she returned home she found that her love had been killed in a raid on her village. Heartbroken, she took her ship into dark waters to seek Wardfris and sails there still, searching for her lost love. You can hear her cry in the sound of the waves crashing against the shore: WARD frissssss, WARD frissssss.

That was the simple story Beowulf had learned as a child and he knew the words of the four stanzas nearly by heart. The rest he could improvise. He was not reckoned a great singer among the Skarlish by any stretch, but his modest skills were amplified by the quiet night air and the absence of other diversions. He liked the lines about fighting best but he could feel the sorrow of Astrid as she searched the dark seas for her sweetheart.

He played the melody on his pipe then chanted the first stanza before singing the refrain:

I would search the dark seas

For my love, Wardfris

I would die a thousand deaths

In return for one lost kiss

The sea calls Wardfris

The sea calls Wardfris

By the second refrain, Charlyss joined in, and then Born and Jaspir too. Beowulf’s own rough voice was complemented by Charlyss’s sweet alto. Together they drew out Wardfrisss, deep and crashing on the first syllable and long and hissing on the second until it sounded like the sea itself sang beyond the trees that lined the clearing in front of Born’s house.

When Beowulf finished, the others applauded, and Born with them—but Beowulf noted that his eyes measured him carefully. There was more to Born than he realized at first. The man could be calm, yes, but he could also speak with power. And there was something in his gaze that suggested he saw further than other men and women.

He mentioned this to Thirl as they prepared to sleep. “How else could a man direct the activities of an insurgent force from a remote location such as this?” Thirl said. “And with no natural authority to boot—no generalship, government office, nothing. If Born could not lead we would not be gathered at his farm.”

“I reckon you’re right.”

Heartbroken,