Thursday, June 30, 2011

I Hit It With My Axe - Part III - My Axe, Your Sword, His Bow and Her Staff

Greetings, Bold Adventurers!

Well, after the events detailed in Part II, I just had to let some friends in on this amazing, new Dungeons & Dragons game that I'd discovered.  I needed to find someone who was appropriately nerdy and open-minded; someone who I felt comfortable broaching the subject with.  After all, D&D was starting to carry some pretty heavy societal baggage around then.  It was even getting lumped in with Satanism and Heavy Metal music, which I was also heavily into.  Er, Metal, that is, not Satanism.  Honest!  Stop looking at me that way! 

The first person I selected to baptize into my unholy order, gaming circle, was my buddy Glen.  Glen was the dude who'd reintroduced me to the joys of Marvel Comics.  It's because of his patient and wise tutelage that the recent movie release of Thor carried with it a modicum of adult appeal.   

One day while we were perusing the latest issue of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (looking for new images to trace for our own "original" stable of superheroes), I finally worked up the courage to ask Glen if he wanted to try playing D&D with me.  I did this so sheepishly I might as well have handed him a gold- filigree invitation to a circle jerk.

"So it's like, what?  A board game?" he asked, lingering on a fetching sketch of the obscure Irish Marvel heroine Shamrock (natch!).

"No, no,"  I said.  "It's better then that.  You create a fantasy character like a fighter, a sorcerer or a thief and the Dungeon Master (that's me) guides you though a series of adventures where you fight monsters, explore dungeons, avoid traps and solve riddles."

"Uh huh," he replied, sounding supremely skeptical as he flipped the page to She-Hulk.

"Yeah, and there's no board because all the action takes place in the player's mind," I said, sounding ethereal, fanning my fingers and looking up into the buzzing florescent heavens of our Elementary School classroom.

Instantly I realized, that by quoting directly from the game box, I'd made a major tactical error.  To Glen, I probably sounded like 70's-era hippie stoner magician Doug Henning.  I'm sure the Jazz Hands certainly didn't help. 

I spent the next few days doing D&D damage control, launching into a P.R.blitz that would make the advertising juggernaut for the Transformers sequel look like ads for your local dinner theater's production of "Glee Club Dropouts".  I loaned Glen the issue of Starlog magazine containing the article that first inspired me to check out the game.  I also brought the Basic Set Player's Manual in to school and showed him some of the completed character sheets.

Eventually something clicked with him and he became unabashedly intrigued.  I probably have Larry Elmore's spectacular art to thank, since it had certainly cast a spell on me a few weeks prior.

"Yeah, okay," he reneged.  "I'll try it but I wanna play a fighter."

"Yeah, great!"  I enthused, knowing that the naturally tough and easy-to-play warrior class was a natural  choice for a beginner.

I invited him over to my place the following Saturday and spent the rest of the week designing my first dungeon.  By the time I was finished, my home-brew catacombs were rife with traps, riddles and vile undead (the living-challenged being my favorite monsters at the time).  I set up a table in my basement (Long live the stereotype!), laid out some snackage, and then went to hide my copious notes and graph-paper dungeon schematics behind a rudimentary screen so Glen couldn't see them.

But, crap...I hadn't bothered to buy an actually official cardboard screen!  What to use?
I ended up just using the biggest hardcover book I could find in the house: National Geographic's Romance of the Sea, a coffee table book that could actually double as a coffee table.  I split that sucker open, balanced it precariously agape, and hid my top-secret documentation just behind it.  Excepting that errant pages of the massive tome would slowly infiltrate my personal space and it threatened to collapse every four minutes, the thing worked so well that I ended up using it for years after.

The first few hours that day were spent hammering Glen's character (christened "Valain") into shape.  I was pretty generous with the character's initial statistics, reasoning that adventurers are made of sterner stuff then just the average Medieval turnip-farmer.  
To stress just how dangerous this crypt was, I made it very difficult for Glen's character to persuade any NPC's (that Non-player characters, BTW) to accompany him on this inaugural delve.  The only person willing (and apparently crazy enough) to venture down there with him was another fighter: a twitchy, shifty character named Saren.  Together the unlikely pair managed to drive into the heart of the dungeon, but just as soon as the duo stumbled upon a mother lode of phat lootz and magical items, Saren promptly went missing on his first watch.

And so did the lion's share of the treasure...

Glen was understandably enraged by this turn of events and I was delighted to have incited such a genuine emotional reaction from him.  Through the framework of this amazing game, my ability to weave a compelling  story and Glen's action-altering decisions, I'd managed to create a completely interactive, emotionally provocative visceral experience.  It was a resounding success!

In fact, Glen's character was so pissed off that he immediately began an obsessively thorough recruitment campaign in his home town and all the nearby hamlets.  His goal: to forge a proper adventuring fellowship to seek out and kill Saren post haste.  He eventually found another fighter who seemed curiously predisposed to a revenge mission: a pint-sized, badger-like, hot-headed soldier-for-hire named Gailen who carried a two-handed sword that was bigger then him.  Initially, Glen was decidedly leery about trusting another stranger, but when his new ally soon proved his mettle in combat, a strong bond began to grow between the two.

Soon Aleara, a geeky (but ultimately smokin' hot) sorceress, was added to the mix.  She also provided a key, previously-absent component to the group...brains.  She was adept at interpreting secret writings, solving riddles and negotiating civilly with people without it ending in inevitable eviscerations.

Then, on a trip to the BIG CITY, Valain caught a wily thief named Demetrius as he was attempting to pick his pocket.  Aware of the thief's legendary reputation, Glen offered the foot-pad a spot in his adventuring group.  With execution or imprisonment being his only choice, Demetrius the Rogue reluctantly agreed.  Cursed by a strong streak of honor, Demetrius turned his ample skills towards the noble cause and saw tremendous success.

Just as the group's final charter membership began to coalesce, Valain's old partner Saren turned up like a bad penny.  He accused Valain of abandoning him in the crypt and claimed to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the missing bling.  During a particularly heated parley, a fracas erupted and Aleara ended up using her 'splody burn magic on Saren's face.

Needless to say that it would be awhile before my old foil would be seen in public again

Next time on "I Hit It With My Axe": a new player player character ushers in my own personal Golden Age of D&D!            

EPIC SNAP  Glen, all smiles before I had to tell him that his character had been robbed completely blind...

EPIC Another decent D&D doc:

FAIL  Gawd, this movie was an insult to all things D&D.  If I recall correctly, Jeremy Irons's "performance" won the "Jack Palance Memorial Scenery Chewing Award" for 2000.  Eeeeesssshhh!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Kill Your Darlings

Aloha, Audacious Alphabetorical Art-o-philes!    

When William Faulkner wrote “You must kill your darlings” he wasn't referring to what your neighbors are thinking when your pack of Pomeranians start the act of collective barkening at 2 am in the morning.  He was referring to the nigh-heartless attitude towards editing that all good writers must learn to embrace whilst writing in flagrente as well as post prose coitus.

After my patron saint for the arts moved on to another division in the company I soon lost my dedicated weekly writing day.  In spite of this jarring leg sweep I'd seen enough progress on the book during this time to ensure that this was only the briefest of setbacks.  My momentum now was juggernaut-esque and I dedicated every free moment to completing the first draft.

When this was accomplished I wasn't quite sure what to do with my Frankenstinian creation.  I read back through it once and made some superficial corrections and improvement.  I showed it to a couple of  people.  And then...nothing.

It went to fallow for a long time until I discovered the aforementioned Stephen King memoir On Writing.  After voraciously devouring that book, I discovered to my giddy thrill that I was already practicing quite a bit of what King suggested neophyte writers do.  I also uncovered some truly fantastic tips that made the process of Darling-euthanasia fairly painless.     

Here's a list of his biggest Do's and Don't and my own personal take on whether not I was already a practitioner, if I adopted his advice or chose to avoid the suggestion like the plague.  Ready?  Okay, here we go!
  1. Write What You Know and Tell The Truth  This is some solid advice right here.  I followed it in the sense that I was already quite familiar with Greek and Shakespearean tragedy as well as Medieval history.  Granted,  I didn't know a lot about the aristocracy of Italian city-states in the Middle Ages, but I researched what I needed and since my book is historic fantasy, I fudged the rest.  I was also pretty comfortable (as most of us would be) writing about familial dynamics.  King goes on to make an encouraging point: just because you've spent your entire life as a chartered accountant doesn't mean that you shouldn't write a sci-fi novel.  Just consider the possibility of writing about chartered accountancy...IN SPACE!!!  After all, most readers are looking for "echoes of their own lives and experiences" while reading a book.  I thinks this goes to great lengths to explain why I tend to fly though contemporary novels and often drag ass when reading the average fantasy book.  It's usually because so many works of fantasy don't really bother to include anything relevant to the life a modern-day person. 
  2. Adjectives and adverbs suck.  Amen, brotha!  Writing something like:  "Adele had petulant eyebrows" not only sounds gut-bustingly awful it's also shamelessly lazy.  If Adele is supposed to be petulant, show her being petulant in behavior not on her forehead.  
  3. Beware of Crappy Metaphors and Similes  I was initially quite guilty of this and I think a lot of budding writers suffer through an unfortunate bout of this as well.  In order to prove that they're "lee-jit-uh-mit" writers, a lot of folks will do the literary equivalent of jumping up and down, waving semaphore flags and screaming: "Hey!  Lookit me!  I'm a writer!  I've got style!  Look at how clever I am!"  Well, I hate to break it to you, Beulah May, but when you write stuff like "Bob fought like a jackal" (or worse: "Bob fought like a deranged jackal") you actually look like a schmuck.  Go sit down...James Joyce hates you now.          
  4. Speed Doesn't Kill, Bad Dialogue Does  This could be the hardest thing for inexperienced writers to do properly and it's often virtually impossible to improve.  It's also, as it should be, a literary deal-breaker. Your either gonna be able to write good dialogue right now or you can't.  The main reason for crappy dialogue is often the writer's own social inexperience and ineptitude.  If you haven't been around a lot of different people in your lifetime and were weaned on network television, your characters are likely gonna sound like a bunch of maladjusted shut-ins.  Or, even worse, they'll all sound the same.  King makes the observation that even a descriptive genius like H.P.Lovecraft was wretched with dialogue.  As soon as he stopped cataloging the thirty-third tentacle on the unspeakable horror approaching the narrator and that character had to actually verbalize something, fuggedaboutit.  Speech by rural characters or characters of race were particularly wince-inducing.  Frankly, Lovecraft makes George Lucas look like Aaron Sorkin.  Now, although I grew up a somewhat shy and sheltered kid, my self-induced tenure in university residence and then immersion in two massive call centers soon allowed me to develop a good ear for realistic, naturally-flowing dialogue.  Even when I decided to make my characters sound contemporary to appeal to modern-day readers, I still had to ensure that they  actually sounded like real human beings communicating naturally with one another.  In fact, if I'd stuck with a "Middle English" mode of speech it would have been easier to pull of since most people wouldn't have had a clue what they were saying to one another.  But that kinda defeats the purpose, doesn't it?  One bit of good news: if you follow King's advice to "write a lot and read a lot", eventually your dialogue-writing capabilities should improve. 
  5. Be Conscious of Showy Literary Gimmicks  This sort of dovetails with Point # 3, but in a way it's worse because it usually eats up a ton of unnecessary space.  Once again, you usually see this coming from a rookie novelist who's trying too hard to impress people by trotting out the literary lug nuts in his or her stylistic toolbox.  Even the Mighty King has been guilty of this one as anyone who's ever read Carrie can testify.  King's first published novel is chock-a-block with showy newspaper clippings and diary entries.  Frankly, the time spent on such gimmicky things would have been w-a-a-a-a-a-y better spent on developing the main character in the book's "here and now".  Mercifully I'd manged to steer completely clear of anything like this in my own book.  The closest I came was in Chapter Forty when I had the Rogues speak only in dialogue to one another to see if readers could discern who was saying what to whom.  It was a simple, Hemmingway-like experiment to see if I'd done my job as a writer to make each character's voice sound unique and identifiable.  Best part about it: it actually decreased the book's page count, not increased it.
  6. Symbolism ISN'T One of Those Gimmicks  In fact, it's an awesome tool to help re-enforce your theme, increase repeat reader appeal and give your audience some unconscious tasty bits for their brains to gnaw on.  In my book I took my dedication to symbolism  The number three features prominently in the book and it ties into the Triple Sword sigil and the 'Strength, Wisdom, Courage' mantra that no less then three major powers are all vying for.  I could go on but I've already said too much...
  7. Two Drafts and a Polish Should Do...Not!  I actually went a wee bit further.  Actually, I went a lot further.  I read through it, made any glaringly obvious corrections, followed the procedure laid out in Step # 12, made corrections and revisions based on their feedback, and then did something totally nuts.  I re-read every passage of the book, out loud, four times in quick succession.  The neighbors probably thought I'd gone loopy, but by the time I was done, any wonky descriptions, tinny bits of dialogue and gratuitous adverbage had been exorcised.  Basically, I wanted to eliminate any passages that might cause me to trip up if I ever had the privilege of reading the book in public.  Remember: Your Darlings.   Kill 'em with impunity.  
  8. Finish First Draft Before Waving It Around  In retrospect, the dude at the Nova Scotia Writer's Federation actually gave me some solid advice here.  Make sure the first draft of your book is completed to your personal satisfaction before letting anyone else paw all over it.  This will ensure that, at the very least, it's free from undue influence and the oft-corrupting powers of committee decision.  No matter what you say about it initially at least it's still the product of one clarion voice. 
  9. Give It A Six-Week Burial  After that first draft is done, put it away for at least six weeks.  Go work on something else.  Clear your head.  Forget about THE BEAST in the desk drawer.  King maintains that time and distance will allow you to tackle the book with fresh eyes and make the Darling-related executions far less painful.  Lord know I followed this advice but I think I did six years instead of six weeks. Yeah, don't do that, BTW.
  10. Editorial Book-Keeping  When you sit down to do your first edit, make sure you're equipped with a pen and separate pad of paper.  Record page number, line reference and the desired or suggested correction.  Personally, I didn't do this for my own first edit, I just made changes right in the manuscript. Having said that, one of my trusted volunteer readers/guinea pigs adopted this fastidious strategy all by herself and, bless her heart, it turned out to be ludicrously helpful.
  11. "Plot Hole!  'Roit Ahead!"  Be on the lookout for plot holes so gapingly big you can drive a Mack Truck through 'em.  Someone once said that "if there's a gun that's described over the mantelpiece in Chapter One is has to be fired by the end of the book".  'Nuff said.
  12. "*PSSST!*  Wanna See My Captain's Log?  Show your beloved tome to two or three trusted friends. These people should represent your ideal reader but also stand in as fair and constructive critics.  Hell, I even subjected my three test subjects to a friggin' survey!  King suggests that this process be fairly democratic and I mostly concur with him.  Now, I don't believe that your readers should dictate major elements of your story, but if you hear the same concerns over and over again you seriously need to look at changes.  For example: if one reader loved the way a character was miraculously redeemed at the end of the book and another hated it, consider it a draw.  However, if everyone surveyed thought that it was completely improbable, you may want to do a few revisions.  One major caveat: if in doubt, make sure that your novel doesn't become the equivalent of a "choose-your-own-adventure" book.  Too many good movies are homogenized and subsequently ruined this way.  If you decide to alter your original ending just make it's not because someone said: "Well I just wanted it to be happier" or "I wanted the hero to end up with the girl".  Frankly, most people are unhealthily enamored with convention.  If they want something that white-bread, encourage them to watch reruns of  7'th Heaven.
  13. "Get Along, Little Plotty, Get along!"  Have your test readers really pay attention to the book's pacing.  Again, this is very important if your book is loosely plotted since the danger of meandering is considerably higher.  As I've previously detailed, before sitting down to write I'd always jot down a one-sentence description of what I wanted to see happen in the next chapter in order to drive the story onward.  I think this tactic kept me pretty well on course based on the feedback I've received thus far.
  14. Second Draft Is The First Draft Minus 10%  Again, this is more appropriate for authors who write without plotting.  This is not to say that I didn't mercilessly cut, hack, chop, jettison, raze and demolish Kaiju-style anything that failed to serve the plot.  Remember, don't be afraid to push your Darlings down the steps and then kick them in the sternum a few times to make sure you've properly killed them.
  15. Flashbacks are Boring  King follows this up with the following truism: what will happen is always more important then what has happened.  If you don't believe me, just have a look at those crappy Star Wars prequels.  As King puts it ever so delicately: everyone has a history, unfortunately, most of it isn't very interesting.  In my book, there were a few times in which I had to resort to a super-brief flashback for the sake of story economy but it didn't happen very often.  I'm a big proponent of the old writing adage:  show, don't tell.        
I'm tellin' ya, fellow fledgling writers...this is some Grade-A solid advice right here.  Seek out On Writing.  Read it.  Embrace it.  Become one with it.         

You'll thanks me later.

EPIC  The invaluable tome in question:
King's On Writing (On Writing by Stephen King (Mass Market Paperback - July 1, 2002))
HILARIOUSLY EPIC:  Comedian Patton Oswalt illustrates what will happen is always more important then what has happened in the only way he can.  WARNING: not suitable to work.  Like, at all.      

FAIL  Bad dialogue is everywhere.  Do your best not to contribute to it's proliferation!,,20174698_20399906,00.html

Thursday, June 16, 2011


And a Fine Mahok To You, Hallowed Reader!

Before I start prattling on about the editing of my book, I wanted to discuss something that, technically, should have been covered in my previous entry about the challenges that writers face.  It's a biggie, so I thought it deserved it's own separate mention.  It's a big, hairy bugbear that stands directly in your path like a bully and pushes you down on your well-intentioned ass.

That challenge is TIME.

For most creative types who work a full time job, time is most assuredly not on your side.  There's the time you allocate getting ready for work, there the time you burn getting to work, there's the time you spend actually at work, and then there's the time you waste getting back home.  Add in various other errands, chores, and responsibilities and it's little wonder why aspiring writers don't just say f#@% it, fire up the ole' X-Box and then spaz out in a virtual world where they actually feel like they're accomplishing something.

And perish forbid if you've got kids to take care of.  Maybe one day when I'm independently wealthy as a self-employed writer I'll consider replication but until then I'm gonna avoid parenthood like the movie Zookeeper.   

I say that not to be miserable, but because it's the way it should be.  It's been my experience that people who hesitate to have kids (and actually ponder the ramifications of parenthood) are the one who actually  should be having kids.  As I've stated clearly right here, as far as I'm concerned, as soon as you start spurting out mini-me's you're livin' for someone else from there on in.  IMHO, your feeble, bulls#!^ self-concern should be as dead as acid wash jeans.

Now, mercifully, around the time I began the book in earnest I also became convinced that T.V. was a vast, time-sucking wasteland.  Like Steven King says, if you've got the time to watch crap like Sarah Palin's Alaska then you've got time to write. 

Indeed both of us are in complete agreement when he records in his memoir On Writing that in order to be a good scribe you have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot.

Although my idiot box was collecting a lot of dust at the time, I wasn't really reading as much as I should have. This is a character flaw in me that I struggle with to this day.  I either blow through a book in a few days (usually anything contemporary and written by Irvine Welsh, Chuck Palahniuk or Douglas Coupland) or it takes forever (witness my recent experience with Pillars of the Earth) or I just abandon the damned thing because I'm bored with it.

Okay, let's all swear this right now, Determined Readers: "I hereby do solemnly pledge that I shall emancipate myself from the Plasma/LCD teat and read at least four books a year.  We'll DYB, DYB, DYB, DYB and we'll DOB DOB, DOB.  Hey, nonny, nonny, etc, etc."

After all, according to Unca Steve: "A day without a book is like a day without sunshine", and let me tell ya, folks, us poor Vitamin-D/Spring-deprived slobs on the East Coast here really know what it's like to be livin' without sunshine lately.  I swear to God I'm developing Rickets.        

Although I was slack with the reading, I tried to write whenever I could.  Between calls at work.  When I was left alone at a coffee shop.  After being abandoned by my wife in a mall and turning up at the Lost n' Found looking dazed and frightened.  If I was left home alone for a time.  Any moment of peace I had I'd endeavor to compose a spot o' prose.

Trouble was, these moments were fleeting.  The opportunities weren't consistent enough and huge stretches of semi-abandonment threatened to occur.  As a result, the process began to drag.  Things got worse after the whole Sears debacle.  In September 2000 I started a new full-time job with a major American office supply vendor.  I don't want to give away their name but it rhymes with an ancient southern Italian city close to Mount Vesuvius.  Called Naples.

The fixed nature of the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, forty-three hour a week job dove-tailed very nicely with my wife's schedule, but now I didn't have any randomly scheduled middle-of-the-week days off when I could work on my book.  As my life became more regimented by this new job my opportunities to spend time at home working on the book began to fall by the wayside.  Despair and desperation began to set in and I secretly feared that it would never be finished.    

Before I started this new gig I spoke to people working there to see if they could give me the inside scoop on what managers were good to work for and which ones were Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs.  I'd used this same tactic in university to find out which Intro Philosophy profs would force you to mathematically chart arguments and which ones would play audio tapes of Monty Python skits.  

My future co-workers/moles put in a good word for me and said in no uncertain terms that the team I wanted to be on was Linda Shaughnessy's.  As soon as met her I instantly knew why.  Linda was possessed of a warm disposition, a creative soul and a genuine desire to keep her people as happy as possible in such a challenging environment.

As such, a year or so later when we were in the middle of my performance review we somehow got on the topic of art.  I may have mentioned my Dad's paintings at the time and I was impressed to learn that she also liked to paint.  Then, of course, came the inevitable question:

"So, do you have any artistic talent yourself?" she quizzed.

After I got over the initial shock of her not asking: 'So, what do you paint?' I spilled the beans about my book.  Right off the bat, Linda was inordinately sympathetic to my plight.  A few days later, after I brought my MONSTER IN A BOX in to show a few people, she took me into her office and told me:

'Look, if I get you some extra time every week, do you think you can finish it?' she asked.

'Yes!', I shouted, throwing her for a loop.  'You're darned tootin' I can!'

I could scarcely conceive that this gracious lady was going to bat for me over what a lesser manager would likely make fun of.  I was even more shell-shocked next week when she took me aside and said:

'Look, David, I managed to get your shift adjusted.  From here on in you'll only work Monday to Thursday.  You'll have Fridays off to work on your book.'

I was so happy I think I cartwheeled out of her office.  Knowing what she'd likely gone through to procure this privilege for me, I vowed then and there not to squander my rare opportunity.

That Friday I used my newly borrowed time to attack the nigh-dormant manuscript.  The consistent effort of that day and many that followed really helped the book's narrative flow take off.

I can say in all confidence that my book would never have been completed without this woman's charitable intervention and for that I will be eternally grateful.  Needless to say, when it came time to design the paperback's Dedication Page, I made sure Linda's name was included:

For Linda Shaughnessy for understanding the importance of creative needs over business needs.

The DeathQuest Saga: Brother's Keeper (Volume 1)

EPIC  To get a jump on our minimum "Four Books A Year" pledge, here are four contemporary books that I positively flew through:

TrainspottingGeneration X: Tales for an Accelerated CultureThe BeachFight Club: A Novel

FAIL  What the eff is Rosario Awesome doing in this cinematic turd?!?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Chapter the One

Hello, Voracious Readers!

I was AFK for the past eight days so I didn't get a chance to write anything new.  Since I don't think that's fair to those of you who check this space every week I wanted to offer up something to (A) tide you over 'til next week and (B) dovetail nicely with the "On Writing" series I'm currently smack-dab in the middle of right now.

So, I humbly present for your consideration, the first chapter of my novel...

-Your Humble Host


“Tell us more about the Frostfire Wars, Justinian!” Valarius cried.
The sage winced at the boy’s request.  He could read no more small print today, his fading eyesight and the late evening angle of the sun were all conspiring against him.  Worse, an ominous feeling crept up on him midway through today’s lecture and it continued to dog him.  His two pupils seemed unusually interested in the history of Heldmark.  Logic dictated that his fears were unfounded and he smiled in spite of himself.  Their enthusiasm to learn tempted Justinian to continue, but he discounted this as sheer folly. 
‘Best not to press my luck,’ he thought.
“Let him go, Val!” whispered Tyrian as he punched his older brother in the small of the back.  “The old wind-bag’s finally stopped chattering, be thankful.”
Valarius twisted around and silenced Tyrian with a dirty look.
“I’m sorry, Justinian,” Valarius said, sounding exasperated.  “Please go on.”
The aged tutor locked sights with the curly-haired, grinning whelp sitting at the far end of the table. 
‘Rude, arrogant little snit,’ he thought then made a conscious effort to say something different.
“No, my boy.  For once, your brother is right,” the historian said, making sure to smile back at Tyrian, who began to stew.
Justinian got to his feet, taking off his tiny spectacles and depositing them in one of a dozen pockets in his robe.  He gestured towards the window, its intricate stained glass shutters thrown wide to the world.
“It’s much too nice a day  to be imprisoned indoors listening to the dry tales of a doddering old man,” sighed Justinian.
He turned away from his two students to stare out the window in despair.  Tyrian rolled his eyes as Valarius pleaded with him to help console their tutor.  After getting only ridicule in return, Valarius took up his textbook and approached Justinian, who was now convulsed in a fit of weeping.
“Hey, come on, Justin,” Valarius said, rattled by the old man’s breakdown.  “Please don’t cry.  We really enjoy your stories, don’t we Tyrian?”
Valarius waved at his brother, trying to coax him into saying something.  Tyrian responded by kicking his feet up on the desk, making gagging noises and giggling under his breath.  It took some time for him to regain any semblance of composure.
“Oh, certainly,” said Tyrian as he mimed a sober face.  “Truly spellbinding.”
“See?” Valarius offered.
Critical seconds past.
Justinian sighed like a bad stage actor, his back still turned away.
“No, my boy.  I know the truth.  You and your brother find me to be a bore.  I can go longer!
Valarius was about to protest as he reached out towards his tutor.  Justinian whirled around in a flash and bellowed, causing his young pupil to flail back a few paces.  Tyrian was equally struck, falling backwards in his chair, a mass of limbs and curses.
“Besides, my time is up for the day!” shouted the old sage as he whirled about the room, snatching up his belongings like a crazed raven.
He jumped over the prostrate form of Tyrian and paused by the doorway.
“I’ll see you both tomorrow, same time and place,” he said, grinning mischievously.  When he continued it was in a deep voice.  “Don’t be late, children.  I’ll be waiting!”
He fluttered out of the room and was gone.
For several moments, Valarius and Tyrian remained fixed in place, listening to Justinian’s cackles reverberating down the hall.  Finally Tyrian was able to assemble what was left of his wits and stand up.  Valarius went over to help him, but Tyrian just glared at his brother’s offer.
“I tell you, sometimes I think they got mixed up and sent the court fool to teach us!” Tyrian said as he adjusted his tunic.  “We should tell Syrach that the old bastard’s mind is finally shot.”
“Well, if you think so,” Valarius said as he made a move towards the door.  Tyrian  lashed out and grabbed the taller, slimmer boy by the arm.
“No, you idiot, I was just kidding!” Tyrian said, making his brother wince.  “That’s all I need.  He’d probably blame me for driving him over the edge.”
To punctuate the point, Tyrian gave Valarius a firm shake.
“Now,” he said, “If I read that sun right, the knights are still on the field.  If we hurry, we should be able to catch the last few tilts...”
Tyrian was through the door before he realized that Valarius wasn’t behind him.  He was about to protest when the older boy cut him off.
“You go.  I’m just going to stay here and read a bit more.”
The stocky boy remained there for a moment, roasting his brother with his best ‘disgusted’ face.  He stalked back over and seized him by the shoulders.  Each time Valarius tried to look away, Tyrian shook him to get his attention.
“Val, how many times do I hafta tell you these things?  You’re playing right into Syrach’s hands.  I know you better than that; you’ve got less interest in this than I do!”
Tyrian snatched the textbook out of his brother’s hand and waved it in front of his face.  It’s sole function exhausted, Tyrian threw it onto the table where it landed with a bang and slid a few feet.
Valarius had to admit that his younger brother was right.  Their father was constantly pushing them towards their books, in fact, he was almost fanatical about it.  The last time Syrach found out that they’d gone to watch the knights, he’d punished them both.  And what was their punishment?  More reading, of course.
But something about today’s lesson really interested him.  Even Tyrian seemed relatively subdued during Justinian’s lecture, though he would never admit it.  Today everything the old tutor said was important.  It stirred up a passion within Valarius that he didn’t even know existed.  This alone was frightening.
Tyrian was looking at him with concern, waiting for a sign of agreement. 
“Not today,” the older boy said. 
What else could he say?  Did he actually think it would be possible to explain this to Tyrian?  If his brother shared any of these thoughts with him, he was hiding it well.
Tyrian pushed Valarius away and fired off a look of frustration.  He sighed, turned on his heel and stomped out of the room, all the while muttering about his brother’s state of helplessness.
Valarius had plenty of experience ignoring his brother’s tirades and this was no exception.  As soon as Tyrian turned his back, Valarius returned to his place at the big, dark oak desk.  He retrieved the tome and began to re-read the day’s lesson.
The poor lighting and small print caused his eyes to ache and his head to throb, but he couldn’t stop.  Valarius remained transfixed as he re-read the account of how an ancient tribe from Bresden crossed the Shadowridge Mountains during the First Age to tame a land unrivalled in its cruelty.  How their god Njorl, the High Father, led his chosen people, born from his own blood spilled during the mythical War of Creation, to this frozen land.  About King William’s attempt to subjugate them during the Frostfire Wars and the obliteration of the Cathold Fleet during the nearly twenty years of conflict that followed.
Valarius shook his head, overwhelmed not just by the stories, but his affinity for them.  He shut the cover of the book and turned to look out the window to try and imagine this far-away land.  A stirring of interest welled up within him, and the young student had nothing to compare it to.  It was exhilarating, to be sure, but something else.  Something reflected in the eyes of his younger brother.
That hadn’t been a look of concern on Tyrian’s face, it was fear.  Valarius felt frightened too, but he had no idea why.


Castle Syrach was the finest in all of Galadria.  Its corridors were crafted from the finest ivory stones from the Talos Archipelago and the walls were cloaked in tapestries which illustrated the nation’s turbulent history.  Down the central hall strode Valarius, on long legs that belied his age.  Up the stairwell he leapt, past the triple swords hung in honour of the Three Houses, and towards the chambers of Justinian.  He found the old fellow pouring over his lesson plan next to a mountain of books.  He was so absorbed that he failed to notice the approach of his student.
“Justinian!” Valarius panted, trying to regain his wind.  “I was hoping you might be able to answer some questions I have about today’s lesson.”
The sage felt his body go numb as he suspected that his worst fears were being realized.  His first impulse was to pay the boy no heed, but he quickly realized that this was a mistake.  Valarius was unaccustomed to being ignored and he had little tolerance for it.
“Justin, you stopped your lecture early today, and I want to know why!” he shouted, refusing to be dismissed.
The elderly tutor removed his spectacles and massaged his brow.  When he turned, Valarius was shocked by his countenance.  His eyes were awash with pity, fear and regret.  It unnerved the young man terribly.
“Justin, tell me, what is it?” Valarius whispered, afraid of the answer but driven by curiosity.
“You know something about all of this, something not in the text,” he pressed, waving the tome in front of his tutor’s nose.  “And if you value your future here, you’ll tell me what you know.”
The court scholar swivelled in his seat and stared at the boy.  He put a hand around his wrist.
“You have an active imagination, Valarius.  My words today have been like a spark in a tinderbox.”
Justinian managed to recover his smile.  He paused for a moment then turned back to his work.
“It’s all quite natural,” he continued.
“Natural?  What’s natural?  What are you talking about?” Valarius shouted.
Justinian began to show signs of exasperation, his voice was burdened by it as he spoke.
“You remind me of myself when I was your age.  Just like you I was somewhat sheltered and restless as a child.  I loved reading stories in history books; they let my imagination run free, but still kept me safe.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, but this is something different,” Valarius replied.  “There’s something about today’s lesson, it all seems so...”
The young nobleman searched for the right words, but gave up in frustration.
“I don’t know how to explain it.  I’m so confused.”
“Relax, my boy,” Justinian said, pained to see his pupil in such turmoil.  “It’s not worth getting worked up about.  You’ve just discovered something of great interest to you, that’s all.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Valarius flinched as the sage took hold of his other wrist and held him with a firm grip from both hand and eye.
“Just remember one thing.  Don’t get so wrapped up that you lose touch with the here and now.  Your father will have none of that.”
The young man was about to protest when Justinian jerked him closer, looking frantic.
“Just let it rest, son, it’s not worth obsessing over!  Promise me you won’t torment yourself over this?  Promise me you’ll forget about it?”
Unsettled by his tutor’s pleas, Valarius never felt more confused in his life.  He’d expected Justinian to have all the answers and to share them willingly.  Instead, the old man’s strange words and odd demeanour were conspiring to make him very uncomfortable.  Valarius tore away from his teacher and dashed off.
Justinian made a lunge for him and shouted his name, but to no avail.  The boy was gone.  The old scholar cursed himself and the trouble his arrogance had unleashed.  Calmly, he stood up and began to pack his belongings away in a trunk in anticipation of what was to come.


“I know why Justinian left.”
Tyrian eyed his brother with suspicion. 
They’d just finished their first class with the new tutor, a nervous, dull young man named Belesarius.  Though he hated to admit it, Tyrian already missed Justinian.  He missed the verbal sparring matches, the old man’s energy, and the presence of his own interest.  Today the topic was mathematics.  There’d been no mention of either Heldmark or the Frostfire Wars.  It was all so drab.
Tyrian would freely admit to one thing: no matter how dull the subject matter, Justinian’s sense of humour could always make it tolerable.  Now he was gone, and Tyrian was surprised by his own feelings of loss and regret.
His reaction to Justin’s departure was mild, however, compared to his brother’s.  Valarius acted strangely throughout the class, keeping silent and moping as if the old fellow perished in his arms last week.  A reaction was to be expected, but this was the first time his brother uttered a sound since the class began.
“Did you hear what I said?” Valarius pursued.
Tyrian was sceptical, given his brother’s conspiracy-minded reputation.  Besides, he had his own theories.
“Of course I know what happened!” Tyrian said with disgust.
He stopped in mid-stride, slammed himself into a nearby wall, and slid down it.  He sat there on the floor as chamberlains and stewards swished by in their ornate robes, ever silent but unable to keep their eyes off the two children of royalty.
“I drove him over the edge, didn’t I?  I guess it was only a matter of time.  I wonder if he killed himself?”
“No, of course not!” Valarius scolded.  “It’s got nothing to do with you!  Justinian had to leave; father dismissed him and told him never to come back!”
“That’s ridiculous!  Why would Syrach do that?  Justin was a much better teacher than that pasty, knock-kneed toad!”
Valarius smiled and Tyrian felt his face turn red.
“What?  So I liked the crazy old coot, big deal.”
Tyrian couldn’t tolerate his brother’s look of triumph and had to distract him.
“So?  What’s your big news?” he growled. 
“You remember Justinian’s lecture about Heldmark?”   
“Of course I do, you dolt!  I was there, remember?  Besides, I found it kind of...interesting.
“You found it...what?” Valarius pounced.
Tyrian kicked himself for admitting this, but it was the truth.
“I said I thought it was interesting.  There, I said it.  Satisfied?”
“Yes, very,” Valarius said, sounding absent.  He turned away and tore off down the hall. 
Tyrian had seen that look in his brother’s eye countless times before, and since it usually preceded something terrible happening, a sinking feeling was instantly upon him.  The younger boy got to his feet, dusted himself off and fell into hot pursuit.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Tyrian shouted as he leapt into a jog.
Valarius was in a world within himself.   He raced into the main tower stairwell and took the steps two at a time.  Tyrian cursed his brother’s long legs, a gift they didn’t share.
“Val, if you don’t stop and tell me what’s going on, I swear, I’ll kill you tonight in your sleep!  I mean it!”
Instead of answering, the elder brother increased his pace up the spiral staircase.  Tyrian was beginning to get dizzy.
“If you’re gonna tell Syrach about this, you know what’ll happen!  I’ll end up beheaded.  You don’t want that on your conscience, do you?”
Still nothing.
Tyrian swore and then lost control of himself.  He surged forward and tackled Valarius, taking his spindly legs out from underneath him.  The two boys crashed to the steps, rolled down a few flights and came to rest in a heap in front of a doorway.  They wrestled amidst a chorus of grunts, threats and insults before Tyrian gained the upper hand and prepared to pummel some sense back into his older brother’s hide.
It was then that a shadow from the doorway slid over the two struggling youngsters on the floor.  Both boys quickly called a psychic truce and looked up to see their father towering over them, hands on his hips, glaring down in a most disconcerting fashion.
Tyrian was the first to find his voice.
Ahem.  Why, hello, father!  How are you today?”
The silence that followed would have been punishment enough. 


To many an architect, the Main Audience Chamber of Governor Syrach was the greatest spectacle in all of Galadria.  The ivory stone tiles glistened in the sunlight that poured through the arched windows behind the dais.  Colourful mosaics covered the walls, depicting the long and proud lineage that gave Syrach his inherited wealth.  Before the triple spires of marble was the ornate throne where one man of three ruled a nation.  Plush looking cushions softened the chair’s hard appearance.  Galadrian runes made claim to the owner’s wealth while the ample gemstones that studded its surface confirmed it.  Indeed, a craftsman would regard this hall as nothing short of spectacular.
But for the two children shuffling before their father’s coiled wrath, this place was akin to the lowest pits of the Abyss.
Syrach sat back in his Seat of Office, his glaring face supported by a fist.  The Band of Station he wore rested heavily upon him, and his long dark hair had bleached under years of its weight.  Vibrant eyes, mirroring the inner well of strength that had allowed him to remain Senior Governor in Galadria’s plutocracy, were now turned upon his two sons.  They burned away at the blueprints for deception that his children were trying to draft in an effort to save themselves.
Shipping costs, new trade routes, distribution problems, renegade governors...all things that occupied Syrach in passing, but these two young men were ever paramount in his thoughts.  Recent events only served to realize Syrach’s worst fears.  Had Justinian loosed a wild animal that could never be caged again?  It had to be, or Syrach knew that his children were in danger of venturing down a path of self-destruction.
The governor told himself to remain calm.  Signs of visible distress would only fuel their suspicions.
“So,” he began.  “Perhaps you gentlemen would care to explain why you were attempting to kill one another in the stairwell just now?”
Tyrian felt perspiration beading on his face as he expected to swing from the gallows at any moment.  Although their father was addressing both of them, Tyrian knew better.  Syrach was talking to him exclusively.  He’d lived through far too many inquisitions like this to think anything different.  Because of his inability to speak effectively in his own defence, Tyrian often found himself blamed for everything from petty theft to crop drought.  It wasn’t that Syrach was a cruel man, he was just weak.  Tyrian knew he was easy pickings before his father’s pinpoint logic.
But this time things would be different.  This time he would defend his innocence.  He would be vindicated.
He would blame his brother for everything.
“Father, Valarius has gone insane!  He drove Justinian away and just then he tried to kill me and not only that, I think he had something to do with that broken Talosian urn you were talking about last...”
“Ah, yes, father?”
Syrach needed to gauge the extent of the damage quickly, and he had little patience for this right now.
“You won’t help your cause by telling lies,” Syrach said.
He sat forward to his full height and began to smooth his moustache in a gesture his two children had come to associate with barely-checked anger.  He turned towards his elder, more reliable son and addressed him.
“Valarius, what’s going on here?”
Upon hearing his name, Valarius dislodged the stunned gaze he’d levelled at his little brother.  He knew that once again Tyrian’s voice had been dismissed.  Too many lies had reduced his words to the value of dirt.  But Valarius had little time to consider his brother’s plight.  He turned his mind to the business at hand, but it took several moments to rally his thoughts and prepare for battle.
“Father, why did Justinian leave?”
Syrach flinched, taken aback by his son’s candour.  The words were enough to puncture through his innards like a rapier-length icicle.  He gave a deep, wavering breath and hoped that his discomfort wasn’t half as obvious as he assumed it to be.
“He didn’t say,” Syrach replied, hoping a strong bluff would provide a good smokescreen.
Valarius studied his father, now convinced that his imagination was not deluding him after all.  He felt somewhat relieved that Tyrian had been silenced, since it insured that his accusation would not be dismissed in favour of the usual tirade.  Encouraged, he continued. 
“Why was Justinian forbidden to talk about Heldmark, father?”
Syrach knew where his son was going with this and knew that it had to be stopped quickly.  Just how to do this was another issue.  Pressed for some sort of reaction, he found himself shouting.
“Valarius, Justinian came to me himself last week and asked to leave because...”
Because?  Because, why?  Syrach found himself silent and desperate.  What could he say to put this issue to rest once and for all?   The answer came to him as he spied Tyrian edging towards the exit.  Before he could consider the repercussions, he lashed out at this last hope like a cornered badger. 
“Because your brother chose to torment him and misbehave during every one of his lectures!”
“That’s a lie!” Valarius shouted, then jumped in reaction to his own words echoing around the chamber.
By now, Tyrian was standing at the doors, blank-faced, with a finger pointed at his own chest.  Too many things were piling up at once.  The option to run away was very attractive, but before he could follow through, Cassandra entered the room.
Syrach was about to fly into his eldest son for his impudence when his wife came in.  The last thing he wanted now was for Cassandra to stumble upon this little disaster.  Her appearance obliterated what was left of his morale.  If Syrach thought himself a guardian for his children, then his wife was their champion and crusader.  Indeed, the knowledge of recent events would probably strike her dead.
Regrettably, this wasn’t much of an exaggeration.  Cassandra was a beautiful but sickly woman.  Her father, Baron Ulfius, was constantly frustrated by his inability to help his beloved daughter, despite all of his wealth.  And now Syrach could relate.
He would never forget the day his eyes first fell upon her.  He was with his father Letho at the time, both men part of the delegation that orchestrated the now-famous trade agreement between Cathold and Galadria.  Syrach thought her angelic at a glance, despite her illness.  Pale, statuesque, but sweet and shy, he was instantly smitten.  Both parents fostered their children’s attraction to one another and their wedding, which followed only three weeks later, was touted as symbolic of the pact of commerce that brought them together and united two nations as well.  Of course, the young newlyweds were quick to dismiss such notions as silly.
Their devotion to one another gave Cassandra a renewed will to live and Syrach the confidence to inherit an empire.  But the rigors of ruler ship and parenthood were beginning to take a toll on Cassandra of late.  Her childhood symptoms had returned recently: her appetite had dwindled, she slept almost constantly and she complained of chronic headaches.  Syrach knew now how Ulfius must have felt.  The finest physicians that money could buy were all dumbfounded by Cassandra’s malaise.
Perhaps he could do little for his wife’s frail constitution, but he could spare her grief whenever possible.  That meant putting an end to this threat quickly and quietly.
“I could hear shouting from my room,” Cassandra said, appraising the situation with a veteran’s eye.  “What’s going on here?”
“Nothing, my dear,” Syrach chuckled as he stood up and walked over to her, his Robes of Station sweeping the floor behind him.   “How are you feeling?”
Cassandra tousled her short, blonde hair and eyed her husband warily.  His evasiveness was so obvious it was almost amusing.
“What’s happening?” she repeated.
“Father’s a liar,” blurted Tyrian.
A vicious look fired over Cassandra’s shoulder made Tyrian regret his impulses.  He cowered by the door like a frightened puppy. 
Cassandra looked at each of them in turn, her gaze finally resting upon her husband.
“Syrach, please tell me what in Llelewyn’s name is going on before I lose my patience.”
The Governor swallowed nervously.  Whenever Cassandra swore it was a sure sign that she meant business
“Nothing, my dear,” Syrach said, putting his arm around his wife and steering her away from anxious eyes.  “The children are just concerned as to why Justinian left so suddenly...”
“Justinian left?  When?  Why?
“As I was just telling Valarius, the old fellow came to me last Venerdis and told me he was leaving.  He said something about the behaviour of the...children.”
Cassandra pulled away so she could turn and look at her two sons
“Syrach, why didn’t you tell me?”
Sensing light ahead, he cut her off by embracing and kissing her.  The gambit worked and she was lost in stunned silence. 
“My dear,” he pressed, “I tried to spare you any concern.  You’ve been so ill these past few days, I thought it best to tell you later.  Please forgive me.”
Cassandra analyzed her husband’s words, his tone of voice, his disarming smile.  She concluded that there was something going on just beneath the surface.  She’d always liked Justinian, he was a skilled instructor who genuinely seemed fond of the children, including  Tyrian, despite what her youngest son said to the contrary.  Most importantly, though, the man was a paragon of patience, which is why she agreed to hire him in the first place.  His departure, just when the boys were beginning to mature, made no sense to her.
Nevertheless, her concerns were unfounded.  If Syrach could read her mind, he would admonish her for being so paranoid.  Indeed, he would be well within his rights to feel insulted.  She wished she could feel guilty about this, but given her husband’s often imperious approach to raising the children, it was hard to summon any sympathy for him.
What aggravated her much more was the way Syrach chose to shelter her again like some fragile doll.  She hated that; it reminded her of the smothering level of protection lavished upon her as a child.  Cassandra always suspected that Syrach had taken her father’s threats to heart but seeing this in practice was distressing.  If the thought wasn’t so considerate, she would have cause to be angry with him. The tide of irritation ebbed away under the auspices of her husband’s charming, lopsided grin.
For Syrach, Cassandra’s smile was the most comforting sight he’d seen all day.  He recognized it for what it was, the sort of look a mother gives to a child that has barely escaped punishment.  But he had no time to dwell on it, not when the end to the crisis was within reach.
Finally a united front, both parents turned to face their children,.  To their displeasure, if not surprise, Tyrian had dashed off during the interlude of distraction.  Syrach felt a pang of regret.  Once again he’d lashed out at Tyrian without consideration.  He could only wonder what his youngest was thinking right now.
His eldest son was concerning him as well.  The look of determination in his eyes was unnerving.  Any remnant of suspicion had to be rooted out, it had to be broken.
“So, Valarius, there you have it.  Now, I know you’ll miss Justinian, but his decision was for the best.  He was getting old and his patience for children was wearing thin.  He’ll be much happier now.  Do you understand?”
The silence that followed was disturbing.  Syrach was sure that Cassandra would react to it, but before that could happen, Valarius spoke up.
“Yes,” his voice cracked, but he smiled for the first time.  “Yes, I understand.”
Cassandra broke away from her husband and walked over to her son.  She crouched down beside him to offer comfort.
“It was only a matter of time, love.  I know how much you liked Justinian.  We all did.”
“It’s alright,” Valarius reaffirmed, his shy smile growing brighter.
Cassandra felt the love for her son rush over her, bringing warmth.  She straightened his hair and kissed his cheek, all the while matching his smile.
“Come on, let’s go find your brother,” Cassandra laughed and stood up.  “I’m sure he’ll be happy to know that he’s not in as much trouble as he thinks.”
Syrach felt disoriented, but content that the crises had been averted.  He left the room in a flourish, the question of Tyrian’s state still nagging at him.  He made sure to flash a token smile at his wife as he moved past her and fled from the room.
Cassandra’s puzzled expression turned to one of concern when she realized that Valarius wasn’t behind her.  She turned at the doorway and saw that he hadn’t moved.  He stood in a very adult-looking stance, arms behind his back, feet set firmly in place.  He seemed to be contemplating something on the wall behind the throne.
“Valarius, aren’t you coming with us?”
“Yes.  I’ll be there in a minute.  I just want to be alone right now.”
Cassandra frowned.  Her son had slipped into one of his melancholy moods again, and she knew that there was little she could do about it.  Given enough solitude, he would return to his usual cheerful self, but Cassandra wondered how someone so young could be so burdened by thought.  Perhaps it was the curse of all intelligent children.
“Alright, Valarius.  We’ll be downstairs.  Don’t stay in here too long, alright?”
Cassandra waited for some acknowledgment, but none came.  She smiled grimly and then left to find her other son.


Valarius couldn’t recall a time when he felt so alone.  He knew for a fact that his father was lying to him about Justinian, but something else frightened him even more.  He knew that Syrach held the key to an entire vault of secrets, secrets that had the potential to fester under a dirty dressing of lies.  The forces that kept this key out of reach were great and terrifying.  What dark powers could make a father lie to his own son?  Syrach felt like a stranger to him now.
The young man continued to study the only thing preventing him from falling to the floor in fit of tears.  Hanging from the center column behind the throne was the crimson banner.  In the center field of white were the Triple Swords, each representing one of the three Houses of Galadria: the Darian, Syrach, Madrigal merchant alliance.  It was also said that each sword represented that which was needed to survive and prosper in life.
Strength, Wisdom, and Courage.
After today, Valarius knew that this banner was all he had left to hold onto.

The DeathQuest Saga: Brother's Keeper (Volume 1)